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Author Archives: Jakebe

About Jakebe

Jakebe is a cyber-rabbit who makes his burrow within the analog space of Silicon Valley, CA. He enjoys telling stories, talking about stories and exploring aspects of the human condition through stories.

Difursity Review: Come So Far, But So Far to Go

The social justice reckoning in our little corner of the Internet has been inspiring to see. Furries have listened to and amplified the voices of its BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) population, and we can speak up about our unique experience in the fandom more than ever. But the cultural divide we’re trying to bridge has proven to be both deeper and more nebulous than any of us realized. It’s a process that contains many unseen pitfalls, and even the most well-meaning of us are bound to stumble now and again. All of us, even me, have our blind spots. 

Difursity: Stories By Furs of Color is an anthology that aimed to challenge the monolithic whiteness of publishing by starting in our own space. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Thurston Howl’s Bound Tales imprint brought us five stories told from an outsider’s perspective…mostly. Four are intriguing tales from writers in the Asian diaspora, representing Singapore, Laos, and Vietnam. The fifth is an opportunity to learn how to discuss these pitfalls we’re bound to run into as we seek to better understand each other.

My favorite story in the anthology is “Vietnamized” by Allison Thai. Mindy is an Indochinese Tiger taking the big step of introducing her African Elephant boyfriend, Ugo, to her traditional Vietnamese parents. Their initial, strong disapproval sets off a chain of events that leads Mindy to lose her grasp of the English language entirely. The shock of the tragedy, and the long period of adjustment to her new life, brings Ugo and the family of Tigers together through connecting with Mindy’s native tongue. 

The situation is a bit far-fetched, but Thai grounds the story with strong characters and a compelling narrative. As someone in a mixed-race relationship, I sympathized strongly with Mindy and Ugo — it’s never easy to navigate through the difficult terrain of introducing someone into a wholly different and sometimes insular culture. Mindy’s nervousness about her family’s reaction to Ugo felt real to me, because I’ve seen my husband wrestle with those same emotions. When you love your family and want them to share your life, it’s very hard to deal with intolerant views. The complicated, intertwined feeling of love, anger, and disappointment can be torture to go through, and Thai illuminates that quite well. 

The story also does a great job of blending its furriness into its setting. Thai peppers her narrative with small details that point to the lived reality of animal-people — Ugo twisting his trunk with nerves, or Mindy’s display of affection by stroking his tusks, or Mindy’s father unsheathing his claws to count the reasons her boyfriend is a bad match. It’s another small but important step of grounding the world, which makes Mindy’s improbable turn much easier to buy.

AlSong’s “Rekindling” is another solid effort. Charlie, a Laotian Small-Clawed Otter, comes back to his small hometown from his Seattle university for spring break. There, he tries to reconnect with a few important aspects of his history — the language and culture of his family, and the few friendships he made in high school before leaving. I love that AlSong balances the frequently opposed identities that are nonetheless important for him to keep — his identity as a Laotian-American, and his identity as a cis gay male. While Charlie struggles with leaving one identity to incorporate the other, his friend Ford struggles with following the path to a larger world and more opportunity. There are also nice furry touches here, like the indoor pool of the Vongphachanh’s apartment being the place where the family gathers to eat papaya salad and watch Thai soap operas. Overall, it’s a nice encapsulation of the second-generation experience for an immigrant family, and how tricky it can be to hold onto your traditions while embracing the opportunity of a cosmopolitan future. 

MikasiWolf’s pair of stories, “In Better Times” and “Where Souls Go”, are a bit less successful. The first features a concept that could work, but falls down in its presentation. The cadence of the prose is a bit too repetitive, and the images conjured are too general to have much impact; it would have been better served by punchier prose that pointed more towards the specific details of the world he was building. “Where Souls Go” lands better, but the characterization could have been stronger and I would have liked to see Little Biscuit learn the lesson he did more actively; most of the story is a fairly static conversation with his dying grandmother, so we’re told a lot more than we’re shown. I couldn’t connect to Little Biscuit or the souls he was meant to help because they don’t really interact and influence each other. Both stories could have used cleaner prose to focus their points. 

Then there’s “No Substitutes Allowed” by Laurie Hall, which is — and there’s no easy way to say this — a racist story. It casts the Big Bad Wolf of Little Red Riding Hood fame as a jive-talking woodland creature who has an arrangement with Granny to break bread and keep the peace. It’s written in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) by a white author from New England. The word “uppity” is used in the first paragraph and three times in a short three pages. 

There’s a lot wrong with this, but first, let me say that I don’t believe the author was malicious in her intent at all. The patois she uses evokes the Br’er Rabbit tales and Disney’s problematic Song of the South. I read the story as an affectionate homage to the unique speech of southern Black Americans. But the use of the language is not something you should do carelessly, and that’s been done here. 

AAVE is an aspect of the Black American experience that has frequently been hard to reconcile. It’s so ubiquitous, especially on the Internet, that it’s frequently adopted in wider circles, and there’s no clear consensus on the unspoken rules for what’s acceptable and what’s not. Most of the time, problematic speech is a “know it when I see it” kind of thing. What makes it so difficult to use if you’re not a Black American is understanding the context in which the language developed. When it’s used to evoke a set of stories inextricably linked to a time in American history we still haven’t fully coped with, like the antebellum South, it’s incredibly important to understand the effect that will have on an audience. 

The particulars of AAVE require a knowledge of its history and/or the lived experience of its culture to understand. That’s why it’s so easy to stumble over a false note or cause offense; a word that might seem innocuous on its surface can be loaded with meaning invisible to those outside of the culture. AAVE has also been weaponized by racists to paint us as stupid, uneducated, and mentally inferior. People who aren’t Black are always going to draw side-eye when trying to use it, because it’s something that connects us to our shared cultural experience and a painful history we’re still feeling the effects of. When the dominant culture comes in to treat such a fundamental part of our identity as a costume, or a writing exercise, it feels belittling. It’s a flattening of our culture that shows a lack of understanding, not only of the language itself, but of the shared trauma from which it was birthed. 

The word “uppity” points directly to that trauma. It has a long, established history of racist connotations, and it’s incredibly uncomfortable to see that word coming from a white writer who, for all intents and purposes, is pretending to be Black while telling this story. What’s worse, seeing this in an anthology nominally written by furs of color as the only story speaking to the Black experience is disheartening. It sits there, third in a group of other stories that offers needed insight into the lives of the Asian diasporas, as an example of how even well-meaning attempts to bridge our cultural divide can instead highlight how far apart we really are. 

While the author should be aware of the problematic nature of the story, its inclusion in Difursity is an editorial failure. I don’t know what the editorial process was like, and I certainly understand the difficulty of making sure an author is from the background they’re representing in their fiction, but the author’s bio links to her Facebook page. There’s no indication that Hall is a furry there (or at her Amazon page), or that she’s BIPOC. That should have given the editors pause in itself, but the fact the story was written in digital blackface should have been disqualifying right on its own. 

I hope the editors take greater care with their story selection for the upcoming second anthology, and at the very least employ sensitivity readers or cultural consultants for stories written by authors outside of the culture highlighted. 

Overall, Difursity is a welcome effort at expanding the idea of what furry fiction can be. However, it’s also a misstep that shows we still have work to do when it comes to responsible representation. There are resources available for Writing The Other that I strongly encourage all authors use to check their blind spots, and I encourage editors to be mindful of welcoming other voices into the slush pile. It may make putting together the next anthology a more difficult, slower process; but very few things worth doing are easy. 

I sincerely hope that this experience is one we can learn from and use to be better. I’m rooting for the success of this initiative.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

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Kwanzaa 2020: Ujamaa

Habari gani, fam?

Today is one of my absolute favorite days of Kwanzaa, where we celebrate the virtue of Ujamaa, or Cooperative Economics. The creativity, drive, and passion of our community is unparalleled, and it’s always exciting to shine a light on the people we can support with our money, word of mouth, and even constructive criticism. The conversation that’s come in the wake of George Floyd has allowed us to amplify Black-owned shops and services like never before; from African-inspired face masks to technology companies, we have enormous opportunities to support one another in our endeavors.

I’m a part of the furry community as well, and there are so many furries of color out there doing amazing work. There are writers, artists, gamers, streamers, builders, voice artists, and more! It’s wonderful to be part of a community finding its voice, and being able to support each other as we grow into our full potential!

If you’d like to promote a business, service, Patreon, or Ko-fi here, please do so in the messages! I’ll do my best to give you a shout-out on Twitter under @jakebe or @serialjackalope; whichever is most appropriate.

If you have a little cash left over from Christmas, consider supporting one of these businesses! You get something awesome AND you get to support the work of Black American creators. It’s a win-win!

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2020 in Furries, Pop Culture

 

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Kwanzaa 2020: Ujima

Habari gani, fam?

2020 has made me keenly aware of my place within my community, and how important my relationships are to me. When George Floyd was murdered by police officers and the collective frustration of millions of Americans bubbled over into street protests, it meant a lot that folks checked in on me because that was honestly the one time this year I came close to breaking. When others struggled I tried my best to be there for them however I could — and I had to think of new ways of supporting the people and causes I cared about. Being unable to be physically present with a lot of people made me realize how much I had been taking for granted. I’m walking into next year with gratitude for my support network at top of mind. 

That’s why this year, Ujima, or Collective Work and Responsibility, feels different. Even though we all went through some pretty heavy stuff, when I look back over 2020 I remember most the ways we became more sensitive to the pain of others and treated one another with more compassion. Maybe it was the fact that our common enemy was a virus, something that transcended borders and most other kinds of division, but most of the time it felt like I was interacting with people who knew we were in the same boat. 

As a culture, we’re far more aware of each others’ problems than we were before. As a cis black man, it was a process for me to learn what women, trans and non-binary folk, other people of color, and people with disabilities have to deal with in this country. There is so much suffering caused by the way our society decides who gets the privilege of being seen as a whole person and who doesn’t. Even though the harm it does takes many forms, the root cause of the problem is the same thing: the curious lack of empathy that allows us to feel a connection to others despite our differences. It can take something like a pandemic to get us to see past that, but it also makes it easier to fight the problem no matter what form it takes. The lack of empathy is the problem; how do we solve it?

Personally, I think we expand our criteria for who gets our empathy, and who we fight for when we see they’re being pushed to the fringes of the community. We can’t leave behind our trans brothers and sisters just because it’s harder for the dominant culture to accept them (or it’s harder for our community to accept them); we fight for them the same way we would fight for anyone else in our family. The problems of Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Americans with disabilities and mental health issues, American women, QUILTBAG Americans and others are our problems, too — lack of empathy isn’t confined to one specific group or a distinct difference. If we don’t clear it away, it corrodes our connection to other people until we have only the most narrow definitions of who’s within our group. 

I know the fights we’re already engaging in are exhausting. This year has aged me seven for everything that’s happened! And there are so many different fronts that need looking after; it can be easy to feel stretched really thin caring about everything all at once. Enacting this virtue certainly isn’t easy, and I think what it looks like for each of us will be unique to our situation. But, as this year has shown us, we’re all in this together — and we can’t lift ourselves up without lifting up everyone else within our community.

That might mean some difficult self-reflection, checking our own biases and blind spots. It’s uncomfortable for me to think about my less-advanced thoughts on trans people, and I’m glad I’ve gained a better understanding. I have to continually check myself for the deeply-ingrained biases I’ve absorbed about women, and that doesn’t feel great. It’s work to unlearn the bigotry we hold, and it’s almost never pleasant when we learn about it (it’s even worse when it’s pointed out by someone else). But we owe it to each other to do this work. We can’t demand empathy for ourselves and deny that same empathy to others who are different in ways we don’t readily understand. Again, their oppression is our oppression. We can’t be free of it until they are.

This requires introspection, a sense of perspective, and a heart willing to embrace that which it doesn’t always understand. It also requires a measure of trust in the humanity of others; even if it’s not readily visible, or expressed in ways we don’t appreciate, it’s there. We’ve spent a lot of time this year drawing lines in the sand about what’s acceptable and what’s not, and much of that has been long overdue. But let’s not forget our collective responsibility to nurture the best in ourselves and others. That work is valuable, too.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2020 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa 2020: Kujichagulia

Habari gani, fam?

Today we focus on the principle of kujichagulia, or self-determination. Any people that have struggled to throw off the legacy of slavery and institutional racism fundamentally struggle for the right to determine who they are themselves, instead of accepting the role the dominant culture pushes on them. As Black Americans, we deal with these false narratives all the time because we live in a country that has not been able to properly reckon with its own racism. We’re not human beings to many people; we’re an inscrutable other prone to behaviors that are impossible to understand. We’re not fathers, mothers, sons, or daughters. We’re felons, welfare recipients, gang members, hoodrats. Our individuality is stripped from us every time one of us is pulled over because we “fit the description”, every time someone mispronounces our names, every time our accomplishments are overshadowed by our political reality.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

The basic power to define ourselves is under assault every day for black Americans. The dominant culture wants to put us in a box that absolves them of facing history one way or another. Our own culture demands us to be the perfect defiance of that narrative, tells us that there’s only one way to forge our own path. Within these twin pressures bearing down on us, it’s vital to remember that we get to say who we are — no one else. The power of self-determination can only be used, though, if we bear the responsibility of behaving in accordance with what we’ve named ourselves. These labels often only have the power of the will behind it. 

There’s a diagnostic for this concept that I actually really like. In order to truly wield the power of self-determination, we must ask ourselves three questions.

Who am I?

We’re starting off with the most basic and difficult questions, right? In order to answer it honestly, we have to spend some time getting to know ourselves: not just the people we want to be, but the people we are right now, flaws and all. We have to have a sense of perspective about ourselves that might be humbling. We’re all the heroes of our own stories, of course, but no hero can be blind to the reality of their situation. 

This year I turned 40 years old. I am not who I thought I would be at this age; nowhere near as successful or driven, nowhere near as much wealth as I thought I’d have. I don’t have the experience or talent I wanted to have cultivated by now. I’m a lot more naive than I thought I’d be, a lot less perceptive, a man frozen by fear far more often than I’d like.

I also know that I am incredibly resilient, and I am persistent towards the goals that really matter to me; it might take me a while, but if I want to do something I’ll eventually figure out a way to get there. I’m kind, and earnest, and care a great deal about doing the right thing well. I’m smart — in my way — and I have a natural aptitude for numbers, details that are easy to overlook, and maybe even social dynamics. I’m devoted to my loves, my friends, my chosen family. 

It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve learned to be comfortable within my own skin, with its limitations and destructive loops and vast, unrealized potential. I know that the worst vices within myself are harder to fight because of where and when I was born, and what my culture has decided me to be. I have decided to accept this burden with as much equanimity as I can muster, hoping that the way I live my life can be a refutation of this grave social injustice. I am as decent a human being as I can be, and I am always striving to be more decent than that. I have chosen to tell you who I am by what I say, what I write, what I do.

Am I really who I say I am?

This is the reality check. How do we know we are who we say we are? It’s recommended that we have and employ a cultural criteria of authenticity, i.e., criteria of what is real and unreal, what is appearance and essence, what is culturally-rooted and foreign.

But what the hell does that mean?

It means that we must have a way other people can decide whether or not we’re being true to ourselves. Others, trusted within our communities, tell us if we’re actually resilient or if we’re just presenting the illusion of resilience. If we determine who we are as a culture, we have to agree what’s a part of it and what’s not; what others can participate in and what they can’t; how to tell someone “of the culture” and someone who’s not. 

Self-determination, by nature, is an act of artifice. We decide how we want to present ourselves to the outside world, but we also have to back it up with action. We construct ourselves through our words, then by the deeds we perform to back up those words. The way we define ourselves is not how we find out who we really are; it’s merely using a common language to form an image others can relate to. This language is built on what we value and how we reflect those values. If there’s a gap between what we value in ourselves (decency) and how we define decency by our actions (being an all-purpose jerk), we mislead others and make it harder to truly know ourselves. 

I love this check because it marries the theoretical (what we say) to the tangible (what we do). Once I’ve defined myself, it makes my choices a lot easier. If I’m, say, roasting someone online, and I think “Is this who I really am?” — I’m likely going to answer “No.” I am not the kind of dude that just roasts people online. If it’s fine for you, great, I’m sure you have your reasons. But that’s not me. 

Am I all that I ought to be?

Now that you’ve taken care of who you are really, you have to take stock of who you want to be. If you’re exactly the person you want to be, keep on rocking! But what’s the next step in living your virtues? How can you make that happen? What would your life look like if you took the things you cared about to the next level?

This is an excellent time of the year to check in on that. If I’m not really who I say I am, I have to reckon with that and change what I’m doing. If I’m not all that I feel I ought to be, I have to take stock of why not and how that can be changed. 

These three questions also force you to think about what’s within your control and what isn’t. Ultimately you can’t control how other people see you, or whether they accept you or not. But if they don’t see you the same way you see yourself, it helps to think about why that’s so. Are you invisible? Or do the effect of your deeds differ from your intentions? 

It also provides you with a way to think about your ideal self with a built-in reality check. You look at where you are and where you want to be, and you think about how to bridge that gap. It may take time — years, decades — but just the progress is enough to make you feel better about yourself. When that happens, it’s easier to shrug off the pressure of being told who you are. Because you know. You’ve thought through it, and you’ve aligned your will and effort into being your best self. No one has your experience being you, except you. And if you’re honest with yourself, you know what’s true and what’s not. 

At least, I hope so! Living with mental illness means living with the fact that my perspective may be distorted heavily, so I need to lean on the people I trust more than most to tell me when I’m not being who I want to be. For some reason, you may be in the same situation. But, at least for me, the more I check in with myself, the more I practice radical self-honesty and self-acceptance, the easier it is for me to just ken when I’m on my track and when I’m not. 

That being said, I know I’m not all that I ought to be. But I’m happy with who I am, even as I take steps to be better. Being able to define myself, and hold myself to that standard, is a big reason why.

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2020 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa 2020: Umoja

Habari gani, fam?

Of all the virtues to celebrate for Kwanzaa this year, Umoja, or Unity, is the trickiest. This year was marked by sudden and surprising disconnection that we’re all still struggling to deal with. The COVID pandemic made travel — even large social gatherings — impossible, and some of us lost loved ones to it without the chance to come together and grieve. The social unrest caused by yet another incident of extrajudicial murder by the police deepened the political divisions between us around the world. Some people I had considered friends before 2016 are still estranged, and it’s hard to imagine a way to feel OK with repairing our relationship. More than ever before, it feels like we live in a world with a third of its people stubbornly fixed in an alternate reality. Any bridges between our perspectives have been burned. 

But this is why Umoja is so important. In a year that has seen us hyperfocused on what’s driving us apart, now is the time to remember what brings us together. We’re all of us capable of deep compassion and terrible cruelty. All of us — even those of us pushing for an authoritarian regime that would mean the death of their fellow Americans — are human beings who want to feel safe, loved, and respected. Even the things we say and do shouldn’t deprive us of our basic humanity, and while there need to be consequences for those of us who have fallen to our worst impulses, anything that would deprive another person of their basic human rights can’t be considered justice. We can’t build a just world on a foundation of revenge and dehumanization.

The creator of Kwanzaa himself, Maulana Karenga, has a troubled history. He created the holiday in 1966 to give Black Americans the chance to celebrate themselves and their history instead of imitating the religious and social practices of the dominant culture. Because of him, I have the chance to think about my connection to my people and how it shapes my life, how I can improve myself through this reflection. But he was also arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for assaulting his estranged wife and other women. Like so many others, Karenga has been excluded from the human family — either lionized for his activism in our community, or demonized for the horrific acts he’s been convicted of. Either of these viewpoints deprive him of his basic humanity, his capacity for good and evil. Karenga is the father of Kwanzaa, and he is a domestic abuser. He is also a political prisoner, an enemy of the Black Panthers, a doctor, a “sellout” (he was friends with Ronald Reagan), and much more. He is a mere human like you and me, with all of the potential and contradiction that entails.

This year has reminded me that all of us have been going through it for a long time. Life is not easy for anyone, and sometimes it can be especially hard for those who lack the privilege of being able to bypass structural problems, or for those of us who don’t have a support network. For Black Americans, especially, the trauma of past generations is handed down to us — not only through our history, but from the way our elders see the world and build the virtues they see as necessary for survival. Those of us who are soft and sensitive struggle to be as hard and unyielding as our parents have taught us, have chafed at the mold we’ve been forced into by our families. It can feel like we’re not seen as human beings by the people who are closest to us, and maybe we aren’t. Maybe we’re seen as soldiers, victims, guileless innocents, dangerous, frightened, ignorant, the future Kings and Queens of Black America. And, in turn, maybe we don’t see our elders as people who’ve adapted to a country that has sought to eradicate them in multiple ways all of their lives. We don’t see their hard disapproval as a mask for the fear and panic they feel over our safety. We don’t understand their trauma is an open wound made fresh every time a black body is beaten or broken or disappeared by a hostile state. Maybe our elders see the repetition of their painful history and wonder why we reject the tools they’ve made for our survival. 

But the fact is, we’re all living this same trauma. It’s not as wholly different as we’d like to think it is — the same hard grip of white supremacy squeezes tighter to hold onto control. But it’s also not just the same as before, where we must think of white America as an enemy, or that their hatred makes them less than human, or that we can’t fall into the same hatred while being the victim of it. We think we’re alone, often, with our pain. But if we take a moment to look up, to see things through the eyes of our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, grandparents, uncles, cousins, neighbors — even the strangers we see on the street — we see a whole community of us struggling against the same current of history.

That painful history has all of us in its grip, whether we’re black, white, Native, immigrants, Republican, Democrat, fascist or socialist. We all see ourselves fighting against the worst impulses of our own humanity. We all see ourselves fighting to achieve our potential. I don’t make a claim that Republicans, authoritarians, and fascists are actually good people — but I will say that they are JUST people, like you and me. They, like us, have been driven wild with pain by our shared history. They, like us, just want this deeply-rooted pain to end once and for all. Even though it’s clear they think the only means of achieving their goals is our extinction, and that cannot be allowed, it’s also vital to know they want what we want: what’s best for themselves and those they care about. It’s a fundamental human need that all of us deserve. And we can achieve it together, if we realize that’s the only way we can.

I think this is the impulse behind the endless parade of interviews and think-pieces about the Trump voter. Their actions seem inscrutable and irrational because we’ve forgotten the things that connect us to them. We can’t see how we can share the same basic needs but diverge so wildly in what we do to achieve them. We can’t see ourselves in them. And that’s not their problem — though they have many. That’s ours. It’s something that we’ll need to overcome if we have a hope of fulfilling the promise of our first principle. 

In order to be unified, all of us are going to have to find a way to make peace with our shared history. There have to be consequences to the long-standing, institutional injustices we’ve faced as Black Americans, and the people who have knowingly participated in furthering them need to be brought to justice. But justice isn’t a term that should be taken lightly. Justice, to me, is a way of mending the bonds that have been broken through injustice. It’s finding a way for us to be whole again, as an individual and as a society. How do we find a way back for the people who’ve so badly wronged us, who are even now disconnected from us within the tight grip of white supremacy? How can we build a society in which both the victim and the perpetrator of injustice can feel united in common purpose of benefit to all?

This is a question we’ve struggled with for thousands of years, and it won’t be answered by a weekend blog post. But I think remembering that all of us share our humanity is a good start. The moment we think of the people we disagree with as less than human — as monsters, or animals, or insects, or filth — is the moment we’ve failed this first principle. If we were a human being who had been driven insane by the pain and hatred of past generations, how would we want to be brought back to sanity again? What penance could we pay for the terrible things we’ve done while in its grip? How can we acknowledge the pain we cause and do our best to repair the damage it’s done? Thinking on these questions, and maybe acting on the answers we come up with, is how we honor our ancestors today. This is Umoja.

 

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The 40-Year-Old Version

What can I say about this year that hasn’t already been said better by someone else?

A novel coronavirus has spread across the world like a less-virulent (and less-deadly) Captain Tripps, wreaking havoc on the already tattered social fabric of this country. The President of the United States thinks it either doesn’t exist, will go away on its own, and can be cured by hydroxychloroquine, depending on the day you ask him about it. Under his mismanagement a good 35% of the country think that basic public health practices are some political oppression that must be stopped, and we’re the only country in the world still struggling to bring the rising infection rate under control. Honestly, this reboot of The Stand is simultaneously less believable and more depressing.

Like the rest of us, I thought I would use my time sheltering in place productively. Without the distraction of a commute or a social life, I could finally catch up on all the reading and writing I’ve been wanting to do for years. Now almost six months later I’ve written maybe 2,000 words total and half-read three books or so before diving back into my latest pastime, helplessly doom-scrolling through Twitter so I can keep up with how bad things are and despair that there’s nothing I can do about any of it.

The pandemic isn’t the only thing we’ve been dealing with this year, though that’s been bad enough. There’s also a severe economic recession that the government is using as an excuse to accelerate the increasing wealth gap between the uber-rich and well, the rest of us; there’s the still continuing protests all around the country after yet another string of murders by police officers have claimed the lives of even more Black Americans; there’s the dawning recognition that so many facets of American life, from health care to education to the social safety net to the legal system, are incredibly broken with no will from the people in charge to fix it; there’s the still-looming threat of climate change dangling over the planet like a sword of Damocles.

Oh, and there’s Russia doing incredibly shady shit. White supremacists showing their whole asses in public. Murder hornets. Salmonella in our onions. Kanye running for President. Joe Biden running for President. Ellen’s mean now; always has been. The Australian wildfires. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Brexit. The list goes on.

Today I celebrate the 40th anniversary of my birth and I have no idea how to feel about that.

I’m a middle-aged jackalope watching the seemingly solid institutions of democracy crumble around me. I’ve never been more shocked and dismayed at the naked, guiltless selfishness and proud ignorance of my fellow Earthlings. I’ve taken multiple hits to my mental health this year and while I’m surviving, I can’t say I like the person I’ve become.

Living through this year with an anxiety disorder is not fun. Half of the energy I have is devoted to keeping myself upright and coherent; the other half goes to, you know, work and eating and stuff. More evenings than not I’m exhausted by four o’clock in the afternoon and I want something — anything — that will make me feel like I’m not trapped inside a slow-motion apocalypse. I can’t think of being creative; I can barely handle my day job. Making it through a normal day feels like an achievement in and of itself — probably because it is. And while I recognize the need to be gentle with myself, a huge part of me is incredibly disappointed that these times haven’t forged me into something harder and sharper.

It’s very easy for me to become overwhelmed and exhausted. I’m scattered in my relationships with friends, frequently disappearing without notice in the middle of conversations. I fight a constant urge to withdraw into a fugue state, to run out the clock on my days until it’s time to go to sleep. I am tired and scared and sad all the time.

I hate that I can’t be there for my friends, all good people who are also suffering through this shitbox year like I am. I hate that I can’t do something that helps others make sense of what’s happening, or feel less alone, or more hopeful, or even sufficiently distracted. There are so many folks out there rising to these times with passion and clarity, fighting for the future they believe in. Me? I just want the shouting to stop for like, two minutes. Just long enough for me to take a beat and wrap my head around what’s happening.

Earlier this year, Armando Iannucci debuted his follow-up to Veep on HBO, a bizarrely-prescient sci-fi satire called Avenue 5. There’s a scene in a late episode where the panicked passengers on the titular spaceship become convinced they’re actually on a reality show. Against the emphatic pleas of the ship’s crew, a few of them decide to leave the “set” through the airlock. After their departure, more people “leave the show” in similar horrific fashion. Even after seeing what happened, the mob is so convinced of their own beliefs they refuse to accept the evidence right in front of them. Repeatedly. By the end of the season, we leave the Avenue 5 with several crewmembers pressed against a window, screaming helplessly into the void of space. It’s an image I was dismayed to relate to so strongly.

We’re all trapped in this malfunctioning spaceship that even the best of us barely knows how to function, and the people with power think their power trumps expertise or, you know, basic reality. Everyone’s shouting to be heard, and no one’s listening. Anything I could say would just get swept up in this existential scream of the cultural moment.

But scream I must. I’ve got a good bit of air in my lungs, and I have to use it for something. As a birthday present to myself, I’m giving myself permission to do the things that bring me comfort and happiness. I’ll try to be more present with people, or at least tell them when I have to recharge. But I’m not my best self right now, and I ask you all to be patient with me. I have no idea how to fly this spaceship, but I can at least make some small corner of it somewhat more calming and hopeful.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2020 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

The Rabbit and the Police

I am a black man who lived his entire life in the United States, keenly aware of the fact that any encounter with the police could result in my death. It doesn’t matter why they’ve approached me. I could be stopped for a busted tail-light, or someone might be breaking into my house, or I might be at a protest. Any time I have the attention of the police, I might die. Chances are the police officer responsible for my death will not be charged or even disciplined. If my death gets national attention, there’s a strong chance a good number of people would dig through the details of my life for any scrap of evidence they could find that I deserved to die. 

Sometimes I wonder how my character would be assassinated after my death. I know I’m not perfect, and I know someone would find enough to spin a narrative that fit me into a ready-made stereotype. Would it be my mental illness? Would they talk about the fact I like to smoke pot? Or would it be the fact that I write furry erotica for fun and profit? Which details of my life would right-wing media go after to justify my extra-judicial killing by a police officer?

It’s a weird thing to think about, but it’s the world that we live in. I’ve had to watch this play out in the media again and again, and I think about what it must be like for the victim’s family and friends, to know that the person you love has been killed, that their murder was tacitly approved by the state, that the killers will go free and possibly kill again. Then, to see people boil the life of that loved one down to a talking point, to see their name become the representation of an issue that we’ve had to talk about far too often. 

The list of victims of police brutality is too long to count at this point. Black men and women have been killed during traffic stops, reselling cigarettes, carrying a gun they legally owned from the store they bought it, being in their backyard, being in their own home, jogging through their neighborhood. Over the past several years, it has become increasingly evident that there’s nothing black Americans can do that doesn’t carry the possibility of being killed by a police officer. 

It’s an alienating thing to be a part of a culture that lionizes the people you’re sure could end your life at any time and get away with it. All of my life, I’ve been told to call the police in a dangerous situation, that they’re here to help, that they’ll keep the peace. This is a message backed up in almost every movie and TV show ever. In horror movies, entire acts are devoted to trying to get the police involved to stop the killer. In procedurals, police are often the only people willing to balance the scales of justice. The police are noble, and even the bad ones usually have mitigating circumstances that make them more objects of fascination or pity than true bad guys. But that’s never been my experience with police. If I called them, even when I really needed them, there’s a chance they might think of me as the suspect and not the victim. 

The only time I’ve had an encounter with the police, I was 17 and working two jobs at the Towson Town Center. Multiple days a week I would open the mall at one store, and close it at a different store. Most of the money I was making was spent on mall food and public transportation; it took multiple busses, a subway ride, and over an hour each way to get to where I needed to be. Most of my riding was done near midnight, when even the urban center started shutting down. 

I was beaten and robbed at a closed subway station near Lexington Market and went to the nearest police officer immediately, bruised and crying. He gave me a ride home,  annoyed that I had allowed myself to get into this situation in the first place. He asked why I was in such a dangerous place to begin with, and advised I should be smarter or toughen up next time. 

Thinking back on that, it was one of the better outcomes I could have hoped for. A 120-pound snot-nosed crying kid was nowhere near a threat, but the disdain the officer showed me right after being mugged and beaten cemented the dissonance between what I was being told and what I knew: the police were not an ally for me. If I called them when I was in trouble, I could expect to be grilled on how I got myself into that situation. 

Over the years, I’ve seen dozens of black Americans like me get gunned down, choked out, beaten and abused by the police for any reason, or no reason at all. We’re always told that the officer feared for their lives, or that the subject was resisting, and that necessitated the use of force. But that same logic never seems to apply to say, white terrorists who’ve been caught resisting arrest or murdering innocent people. What that tells me is that the police are afraid of black Americans and that fear allows them to kill us without consequence. But what about me? I’m afraid of the police, but that only means I have something to hide, right? Some defect in my character or some criminal secret that makes me scared. The police are here to help, after all. They only want to keep the peace.

These past few weeks have been traumatic, it’s fair to say. All around the country there are videos of police officers injuring protestors, the media, and innocent people going about their lives. Even here in Silicon Valley, police have used rubber bullets and tear gas excessively. This isn’t a surprise to me or most of your friends who are black and indigenous in America, but it is shocking to see it so naked and open now. Even more shocking to see people who still deny it, who still defend the police. 

It’s also exhausting. I’ve had to live with this reality my whole life. I’ve had to square with the fact that one world exists for most of the people I know and I can’t share in it, because for me the police aren’t for protection. They see me as an annoyance at best and a threat pretty much all the time. I’m not safe in their hands, and it’s not because I’m a criminal, or because I’m hiding something. It’s just because I’m black. 

I’ve been trying to write this for two weeks now, because none of this is easy to say. I really wish I could trust the police, share in the idea that they’re here for my protection. But what I’ve seen these past several years, and especially these past two weeks, tells me that I’ll never be able to. If the police are called, for me it just makes a dangerous and stressful situation even more so. I have to manage my feelings while making sure the officer with the power in the room doesn’t get spooked. Even talking about this, I have to constantly manage my feelings. Am I being too hyperbolic? Too absolutist? Will someone read this and see my fear as something silly or overblown? 

As black people, we’re constantly being told that our experience — and the insight gained from it — isn’t valid. Even when there’s hundreds of pieces of video evidence. And even though I have an amazing set of friends and an awesome support network, I’m not sure I’ll ever feel comfortable talking about the way it really feels to be black in America. But now, especially, it feels necessary. So I’ll try.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2020 in Self-Reflection

 

A Mindful New Year

Buddhism 150Hey, it’s (sort of) the first day of the new decade! Er, depending on who you ask. Judging from the many, MANY “Best of 2010s” articles I’ve read over the past few months, the consensus seems to be that decades begin at Year 0. Since the significance of these markers is completely artificial, that’s a good a sign as any to declare this the official start of the 20s. Between you and me, I’m glad that we’re looking back at the 2010s instead of living them.

It’s been an exhausting few years. There is no shortage of things to fight about, from systemic racism to climate change to our favorite pop-culture obsessions, life online has become a battleground instead of a refuge. Even those of us who use the Internet as an escape of sorts have found ourselves entrenched in the wars of the day. Furries have had to reckon with the rise of the alt-right in our ranks, addressing the constant and unapologetic toxic behavior of a few popular artists, and dealing with the increased visibility of the real-life marginalizations our fellows have to endure. It hasn’t been easy, and we’re still figuring out how to deal with very real issues as a community. So far, though, the work has been promising.

There’s still so much to do, though. In the United States this is a Presidential election year, so the tone of political discourse will grow louder over the coming months until it’s a constant bullhorn in our ears. Whether we believe in it or not, climate change is still pushing our weather into unpredictable and dangerous territory. Vast wealth inequality will likely increase, meaning that a very few people will have outsized influence on our government, businesses, culture, and even our diet. Our problems are so huge and so varied it often feels impossible to know just what we can do about it. The options that seem to be available to us are “go crazy” or “ignore it” as much as possible.

I’ve gone mostly quiet because I don’t know if my voice actually contributes to the solution. This isn’t a bid for compliments or reassurance; I’m not entirely sure anyone can contribute to the solution with the way things are right now. Everyone is shouting for their voices to be heard, but so few of us are actually listening. You can’t have a discussion without that; otherwise, we’re screaming into a raucous and deafening void.

I spent some time with my husband’s family over Christmas, and it was both wonderful and draining. My in-laws are a big clan, with a lot of different personalities carrying personal (and generational) baggage into any conversation. One brother is a Trump voter, but also someone struggling with anxiety and self-image issues. Another has recently defected from the Republican Party after the rise of 45 and his brand of politics. A sister is fairly liberal, but wrestling with the loss of her Christian faith. Even though they’re quite different and building families of their own, their love for each other keeps them in each other’s orbit through the inherent tension of clashing perspectives. It was a reminder of how important it is to accept people as they are, even as you push them to do better.

That’s not a popular message right now. There’s so much anger over where we are as a nation (even as a species), so much frustration that we haven’t solved so many long-standing problems, and it feels like our biggest priority is figuring out who to blame. While I certainly agree with my fellow progressives about where the fault lies, I’m no longer sure it’s productive to keep beating the drum of demanding consequences. I think the best thing we can do is accept the situation we’re in and figure out how to do the best we can from here.

This doesn’t mean that people should not be held responsible for the awful things they’ve done. We should prosecute the people responsible for putting children in cages and breaking up families at the border; they should be held accountable for the deaths suffered under their watch. The current President and his administration should absolutely be put on trial for their corruption and abuse of power. We should continue to call out bigoted speech and behavior in our spaces, and make it clear that won’t be tolerated. We need to continue fighting against the degradation of compassion and empathy in the public square, wherever it appears.

But we also have to focus more on what we’re building with our speech and actions. If we spend all of our time focused on what’s going wrong in the world, we train ourselves only to see these problems. We have to start thinking about what solutions look like, what kind of world we want to build. Instead of highlighting and excoriating toxic behavior, we should start building consensus on the behavior we need to replace it with and embodying the virtues we value instead. Shifting our gaze towards the things we want to love and encourage could have a powerful effect on how we fight against the injustice and corruption plaguing our society.

I’ve spent so much of these past several years being angry, despairing, overwhelmed. I’ve lived it enough to know that I can’t actually help anyone that way. I have to find the things that make me hopeful about the world we live in. I have to spread the things that make us feel less afraid and alone. I won’t ignore the terrible things that happen, but I will change how I respond to them.

Today is the final day of Kwanzaa, and the principle we focus on is that of Faith (Imani). Faith is not a popular idea in the circles I run in. Those of us who have escaped the orbit of fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity have had a poisoned relationship with the idea. But after all this time, I’m re-examining it. Faith, after all, doesn’t mean blind devotion to an unprovable higher power — or even the people who claim to speak for it. It can be a choice, in the absence of evidence, to believe that there are more good people than bad and that we will do right by each other…eventually.

But faith without works is dead. Having faith in the goodness of people means we must behave as if people are good — even when they do bad things. There has to be a way back into the light for those who voted for Trump, who have been shameless with their bigotry, who have done awful things. Even if someone has crossed an unforgiveable line for us, they have to be allowed some way to repent and rehabilitate. We can’t keep punishing each other and expect a better society to rise from that. We can’t keep shaming people into being better.

We must show them how by being the people we want them to be. We have to imagine how we would want someone to call us out and how we would want to be forgiven when we mess up, and extend that same kindness to others. We can’t get through our problems by forcing the people who’ve caused them to accept blame, by making sure they’re punished for what they do. It might be necessary for our sense of justice, and I won’t argue with that. But it doesn’t solve the problem, and to me that’s the most pressing priority.

In 2020 I will try my hardest to be the kind of person I think there needs to be more of in the world. I will do my best to be kind, as compassionate as I can be, honest and earnest, loving, joyful, equanimous. I will be firm in denouncing harmful actions, but I will engage the people who take those actions as gently as I can. Anger can be fuel, but we still have to be careful about where it takes us. I want my anger to fuel me towards a better world, and I want people to be mindful of how they’re spending their fuel as well. Let’s learn to sit with our anger, until we’re sure we’re taking a proper stand with it.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2020 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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A Worker’s Prayer

Buddhism 150After a couple of months out of work, it feels really good to be gainfully employed again. To respect the privacy of this secret burrow location, I won’t say exactly where I’m working. But I can say that what I’m doing now adheres to the practice of “Right Livelihood,” which means I’m not making my living by causing or contributing to harm. As I grow older, it’s an increasingly important precept — likely because it’s becoming much more difficult to observe in too many areas of the country. During my time off, I got to think a lot about what I would be willing to do for a paycheck and what I would avoid for as long as possible. But a lot of us don’t really have that luxury. In order to pay the bills, so many of us are forced to do unfulfilling work that doesn’t do anything to make the world a better place. Some of us even have to take jobs that make things worse. That’s because so many of us lack the power to choose the work we find most fulfilling, that calls to our purpose in life or at least lets us help our fellow beings.

There are so many barriers to being able to land a decent, fulfilling job. Just pulling from my background, my family wasn’t in any financial position to send me to a private school and I was exceedingly lucky to be placed in whatever ‘gifted and talented’ programs were available. This gave me opportunities most children my age couldn’t get — like learning Latin, gaining access to extracurricular programs that furthered my studies, even meeting teachers who were lively and dedicated enough to make sure my lessons stuck. In high school I floundered because I had never learned how to study properly or work past frustration. My home life was a shambles, and there was no way to deal with that. I was woefully unprepared for college, and didn’t have the institutional, community, or familial resources that most do to get help. I never got a degree, never developed a network in the workforce, never learned skills that could be applied to different positions. Now I’m a 40 year old black man without college education or any certifications. If it weren’t for the kindness and generosity of my professional network, I would have been in serious trouble. My age, my race, my education, my mental health — all of them are working against me in the job market. I am so, so grateful to have such good friends and colleagues, and I’m mindful that so many people like me don’t have the resources I do.

Having a job that doesn’t fulfill you, or that you believe is harming your community — it wears on you in a way that few other things do. It can poison your self-image and rot you from the inside. Being forced to deal with immoral people without the ability to assert your values is a quiet devastation of the soul. It changes the way you see people, and the way you see the world. In order to survive the experience, most of us either have to adopt the mindset of the colleagues trapped in such a system — the attitude that life is a competition, and we all have to do whatever it takes to make it. This may include backstabbing our coworkers, lying to customers, damaging relationships in order to get ahead, compromising our integrity. We might quell the disturbed voice within us by adopting a new mantra: This is just the cost of doing business.

We are incredibly adaptable creatures, capable of surviving and thriving in any environment. But sometimes, our efforts shouldn’t go towards thriving in a harmful environment — it should go towards removing ourselves from it, or, barring that, changing it. Most of us don’t have the luxury of leaving jobs we don’t like, so transforming it is often our only choice. That is often lonely, exhausting, thankless work. Without some sort of validation or recognition, we can fall to despair. Why even try to change things when we know it’s not going to work? We’re not going to be able to make a company think more about ethical behavior and less about money. Who are we doing this for?

Ourselves. We may not be able to transform the world around us, even with hard work and persistent effort, but we can make sure that the world doesn’t transform us. At the very least, we can take stock of our values and do our best to make sure we’re handling our jobs in a way that aligns with them. That is difficult, I won’t lie. It might require some creativity. But making the effort to transform our relationship with our work is an overlooked act of self-preservation. If we can’t do what we love, we can find a way to do what we have to with love.

In the United States, we’ve largely shifted from an industrial economy to a service economy. A lot of us work for companies that put us in contact with people all day, every day. We encounter others who present themselves angrily, with unyielding expectations and an air of entitlement to treat us as terribly as necessary to make sure those expectations are fulfilled. Sometimes, both of us are trapped in a system neither of us want to be in, forced to protect a company’s profit over true service to our fellow beings. Many customers see us as nothing more than an adversary, an obstacle in the path of the just treatment they deserve.

And despite the names of the systems that trap us, like ‘customer service/success/care’, the systems themselves force us into that adversarial relationship. Often, the customer isn’t given the right information at the right time to understand a company decision. Sometimes, the decision itself is terrible and we’re tasked with justifying it. Sometimes, someone feels cheated and we have to protect the company that pinched their purse. When someone comes to us, the expectation is to deny what’s being asked for and try to make the customer feel good about the experience regardless.

When a customer rails at us, they are bringing that story with them already in progress. It can be incredibly easy to accept the role we’ve been given and become enemies, especially if we feel attacked unfairly or the demands of our job has already drained our self-image. If we feel isolated in our lives, unsupported by our colleagues, and bound to anti-social company practices, our frustration only has one way to go — towards the person attacking us. It can even feel like a karmic righting, denying someone who dares to treat us so poorly.

That’s a spiral I’ve been down, and desperately want to stop. The anger I feel about our current social conundrum or the helpless loneliness I feel doesn’t go away with perpetuating unkindness. Those feelings become fossilized with those actions, and we begin to not only accept the role of enmity we’ve been given but the whole story — our customers are our enemies, and the lot of them are stupid, ignorant, entitled. It’s a horrible story that brings out the worst in me and denies me the chance to change the course of our interaction from combative to collaborative.

But, in order for me to do that, I have to change the way I think about…well, everything. I am not an agent of a company. I am a person with the ability to help another person who has come to me for help. I don’t have a list of policies that determine what I can’t do to help our customers; I have a small suite of tools for assisting people who need in the best way I can manage. I am not here to be screamed at by a customer; I am the only one who can hear this person’s frustration with the system we’re both stuck in, and I can offer a way out.

For me, Right Livelihood isn’t just about making sure the company you’re working for does no harm. It’s also about making sure your work doesn’t poison you into spreading harm. Some of us have a lot of work to do if we expect to retain our compassion and equanimity in the face of a difficult situation; it’s best to recognize where we are with that and do our best to proceed accordingly. Sometimes, the way out of the wrong situation is simply changing the way we respond to it. Even if we can’t be in a place that does no harm, we can decide to help as much as we can, in any way we can.

This Labor Day, I pray that all of us finds a way to find contentment with our work, and to keep striving to transform ourselves and our communities to the best possible versions of themselves. Each of us has the power to connect with our fellow beings, to change the hostile narrative we’re trapped in, to encourage an attitude of love and helpfulness. I’ll keep working on that here, now that I’ve been given another chance to.

 

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Friday Fiction: Bookkeeping

Writing 150Changeling: the Dreaming is a tabletop role-playing game where you play one of the Kithain, half-fae/half-human creatures who struggle to keep imagination alive in an increasingly banal, hostile world. I created Carver “Bunkin” Johnson for the game’s recent Twentieth Anniversary Edition, and thought it might be fun to imagine him in his native Baltimore during the near-future where climate change is beginning to flood the decomposing city. You know, for varying values of ‘fun’. 

Carver laid out the contents of his backpack on his bed and considered what would be absolutely necessary to bring along with him. He had to travel light so he could grab as much as he could at the library, and he hated to think about the possibility of leaving a book behind because he brought some useless thing or another. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to get down to the main branch again before it closed; this was his one shot to make sure the most important texts were rescued.

The basement of the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Central Branch was already flooded. He heard that most of the old reference section — ancient encyclopedias and specialized primers on everything from Baltimore’s history to its surviving public records — were damaged beyond repair. Vast sections of the city’s knowledge about itself were lost, now, and chances are they could never be replaced. History would become heresay, whispered down the generations in obscure corners of the city’s families. But the truth…the truth would never be known.

Carver sighed deeply and stroked his long ears to soothe himself. As a Pooka, he had a different relationship with the truth than most. Still, the truth was the template one used to build the more entertaining stories that were his bread and butter. It showed him which parts to exaggerate for effect, which parts to contradict, which parts to move. The truth, after all, often didn’t inspire people to listen to their better angels. Stories did that. But even the best stories needed something true for their foundations; without it, there was nothing to tie flights of fancy to.

The stimulation of the short fur at his eartips made him feel a little better. He opened his eyes and looked at his collection. There was his laptop, his prized possession, far too important to risk being stolen or damaged by water. He set that aside, along with the power cord and mouse. There were four books — a fantasy novel, an anthology of post-apocalyptic short stories, a collection of essays about growing up in the city, and his journal. He kept the essays and journal; he’d need to keep himself entertained on the way there, and you never knew when a drawing or random factoid would come in handy.

Then there were the odder things: three chunks of concrete a bit smaller than his palm; a neon plastic toy that you held in your hand and shook to knock balls at the end of two hinges together; a sheet of molded, transparent plastic roughly five by eight inches; a Crown Royal bag filled with dice and marbles; a plastic sword that looked like it might be a cocktail stirrer for giants. These would be nothing more than trash for most folks, but for Carver they were extremely helpful tools for dealing with the odd runaway dream you sometimes found in the city streets. He kept the concrete, the knocker, the magnifying sheet and the Crown Royal bag — they could be stuffed anywhere in the gaps between books on the way back, if it came to that.

Carver took the rest to an ancient rolltop desk in the corner of his room and squirreled the items away. Then, he turned his back and named every other scrap of furniture in his room out loud. With luck, the desk was protected from anyone who might snoop in his room. It had been a while since Mom had let strangers into the house, but you could never be too careful.

She was in her usual spot on the couch in the living room downstairs. The front door was already open in a vain attempt to cool the place down; a standing fan blew in the cooler air from the covered porch out front, while a box fan ushered out the hot air from the kitchen. That was the theory anyway, but to Carver it just carried the smell of the neighborhood into the house. He wrinkled his nose as he thumped downstairs, his backpack hanging loose from his shoulders. It was only 8 in the morning and the trash in the street smelled like it had been baking for an hour or so. Today would be brutally hot.

“Where you going?” His mother looked at him in the hallway, obviously dressed to go out. “You gonna get me some crabs?”

She was a small but indestructible woman. Her bony limbs and paper-thin skin belied a tireless, patient strength and remarkable resilience — at least physically. Over the years she had gotten more forgetful and confused, unable to keep names and dates straight. Recently, she kept….travelling to other places in her own mind. There was no telling who she thought he was, or where she thought she might be.

Carver smiled at her, swallowing the lump in his throat. The truth was he was losing her, bit by bit. Every day, the fog separating her from reality grew a little more impenetrable. One day, she would disappear entirely behind the glassy expression in her eyes. The story he wove from that truth was that she was preparing to go on a long vacation, and she was taking out the best memories from long-term storage to pack with her. It was his job to help her pick the best ones and fold them well.

“That’s right, Mom,” he said. “Only a few this time, though. We can’t have the whole place stinking like Old Bay and Rolling Rock.”

She laughed, and he broke into a relieved grin. She was with him today. “You know I can eat a dozen of them. Pick me up half a watermelon, too, you hear?”

Carver nodded slowly, revising his mental map to swing by Lexington Market on his way home. “You got it. I’ll be back by this afternoon.”

He watched as she sunk into the couch, her attention stolen by the old movie about a Mormon miracle playing on one of the few channels she could get clear. “You’d better. You know I don’t like being by myself at night.”

Carver did know. The night was when Mom’s brain turned sour, and what feverish nightmares she had stepped out of her head into the shadows. Sometimes, he thought she knew when it would happen. He considered this a warning.

“I won’t. I love you, Mom.”

His ear flicked at her mumbled response, and he stepped out into the day. Carver Johnson was left packed away in his rolltop desk. He was now Bunkin, Savior of Knowledge and Servant of Muninn. He had a job to do, and it would take all of his courage and cleverness to avoid highwaymen, bandits, floods and unhelpful, unpredictable caravans to his destination. He traded one set of worries for another. Life was hard, and living a double life was so much harder.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2019 in Sleepwalkers, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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