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.

(Personal) Goodbye, February

Myth 150The last time I spoke to my mother on the phone, she sounded lonely. But in typical Mom fashion, mostly she complained about the people with her at the in-patient rehab center. The white woman who had roomed with her was a racist. The nurses checking in on her were stealing her clothes. She just wanted to be by herself.

Her hearing isn’t good and the phone in her room is even worse, so most of my questions — half-hearted attempts at small talk — were answered with “Huh?” and “What did you say?” over and over again. I repeated myself louder and louder, until I was screaming at the phone enough to feel angry and anxious. After about ten minutes of that I opted for a different tack — soft and gentle noises of acknowledgement. “Mm-hmm,” I said. “OK.”

Mom has been in and out of hospitals and rehab centers for nearly a year at this point. This latest run was a particularly hard one. She had been invited to stay with her sister, my aunt, while we worked out arrangements with Baltimore City to get an elder-care nurse to check in on both of them. That lasted about three days before she was back in the hospital with an infection. Two weeks later, she was released to a rehab facility. Three days after that, back in the hospital with a more severe infection that had reached her blood.

Through it all she’s been at turns gravely ill, terribly uncooperative, and demanding in the way that only very old people can manage. My aunt (the title you give to any family member who is also an older woman) has quickly realized what a handful my Mom is, so she’s been pretty hands off about all of this even though she said she would take care of her. I can’t blame her. Mom IS a handful. Most of the trouble she gets into is the kind she creates for herself and expects other people to get her out of.

Her most recent stay in rehab is scheduled to end in three days. Neither of my aunts are all that interested in taking her back, but there’s nowhere else for her to go. According to her social worker, she’s too independent for a nursing home and too poor for assisted living. At least she realizes she can’t go home now. The last time I asked her where she wanted to go it never came up in the conversation. But there was a weary resignation in her voice as she fumbled for an answer; she can’t think of any place she’d rather be.

I’ve been telling anyone who would listen for months now what a rotten year I’ve had. My sister died of a drug overdose last April, I say. I had to organize the funeral while trying to find a place for my invalid mother. I had to try to get my sister’s youngest children out of foster care even though I couldn’t take them. I had to confront all the stuff in my past that never got closure.

But after answering my mother’s pleas to call her anytime, day or night, with promises that I would, it hit me that she’s had an even more awful year. I lost my sister, but she lost her daughter. And before she could even grieve properly she was ripped out of her house and away from her neighbors and support. She was forced to rely on help from someone she really didn’t like all that much. Her life has been an endless procession of strange places and overworked health-care workers, a litany of pain in her back, her hips, her stomach, her heart. When the physical pain isn’t too bad, the grief rushes in to take up a shift. There are so many people she lost: her husband, her first son, her daughter, her grandchildren, and me.

Sometimes when the sun goes down the stress chases away her awareness. She can’t eat, she can’t sleep, she can’t do anything but wonder where she is and why she’s there. She gets mean. She refuses to take anything but medicine for the pain. She never gets enough of it.

I know if I were in my mom’s situation, I would want to die. I couldn’t take knowing that all the chances I’ve ever had in life have been taken, and this is where they’ve lead me. I don’t think I could handle the regret and the bewilderment, the ache of a failing body on top of the ache of loss. I think of her every day in some room that smells like industrial cleaners and is probably way too cold, waiting for a familiar face to make her feel better. It breaks my heart.

But I can’t let go of all the choices she’s made, all the things she’s said and done to push me away and ultimately cut me adrift. I can’t forget all the terrible things she said and did to my sister as she struggled with mental illness and addiction. I can’t rally a scattered family around someone they decided they didn’t want anything to do with years ago, or navigate a labyrinth of bureaucracy from across the country.

And I can’t write stories while trying to sort through this tangle of anger and guilt and frustration. I can’t write blogs about politics or geek culture. I can barely get it together enough to stay out of trouble at my day job. It’s hard. I don’t know what to do. In three days Mom could be wheeled out in front of a building to wait for a new home that doesn’t exist yet. It feels like a massive failure for her to be this close to that.

The next time I talk to my mother on the phone, I hope I can shout good news at her. I hope we can find a place for her to settle down, work through that grief and pain. I sincerely hope this is the bottom.

God, it’s been a hard year.


Posted by on March 6, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection


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(Friday Fiction) Br’ers #3: High Afternoon

Writing 150“So does like, seeing a hawk scare you now?” Jeremy pointed to the silhouette of a bird coasting in lazy circles above the trees. It made two loops before perching at the very top of a pine that must have been in Mr. Atherton’s yard for generations now.

Aaron watched it with lazy amusement. From anyone else, the question would have knocked him on his heels — but from his best friend, it was a silly thought he could treat lightly. He held it for a moment, laughing silently, before batting it back.

No more than it scares you to see Aku, he signed. Aku was another Br’er in the neighborhood — a Lion — who they studiously avoided even before the Change happened. He had a crew, was the first kid on his block to have a car, wore the freshest clothes that no one who lived in a house like his could afford. It was an open secret that he was probably dealing; or at least, he had been. He also liked jacking the neighborhood kids for fun, though now there was a new viciousness in the exchange that rattled folks even more. It was only a matter of time, folks knew, before something was going to happen. Nobody wanted to be the one it happened to.

Jeremy sucked his teeth and rolled his eyes, then took a long drag of the joint he had just lit. “Shit, man, just because he’s some big muscle-cat don’t mean nothing. He still better not step to me.”

Sure, Jan, Aaron signed. He grinned when Jeremy pushed his shoulder and handed him the joint.

They were sitting in Jeremy’s backyard, half a block up the street from Aaron’s house. Technically, it was the parents’ backyard, but Jer’s mom was working a second shift at the hospital and his dad was going to be late working on a Mercedes that needed some engine work. Neither of them would be home until the buzz had peaked and began to fade.

It was a little plot, long and narrow and covered with grass that was just a little too long. A solid chain-link fence separated them from identical plots on either side and the thin alley at the far end. A sagging border of chicken wire marked the struggling garden of Jeremy’s mom; the corn, tomatoes and okra shoots that had peeked out of the ground were already threatening to turn yellow. The sun was low in the sky, not quite ready to set but heading that way. It illuminated the peeling white paint of the house behind them, and the bare metal patio furniture they sat in.

Aaron rolled the thin joint in his fingers, considering it. He had been told by his doctor not to take any drugs without their recommendation — his new physiology might react to things he had taken all his life in ways they couldn’t predict. They had to have known he had THC in his system when he was admitted, though, and it hadn’t done anything too terrible. He brought it to his lips and inhaled.

The smell of the burning grounds overwhelmed his senses for a few seconds, burning the scent of earth and grass, paint and rust out of his nostrils. His eyes watered immediately, and his throat seized in revolt; he could only hold the smoke for two beats before he collapsed into a fit of coughing and sneezing. One ear swiveled as he heard Jeremy crack up next to him, taking the joint back as he doubled over.

“Hey yo, it’s like you never smoked before! Damn! I know it ain’t been that long.” Jeremy smoked, then laughed, then fell into a coughing fit. “This is dry as shit though.”

They coughed together for several moments, the whooping sound echoing off the shed in Mr. Atherton’s backyard across the alley. The whole neighborhood probably knew what they were doing back there, which only worried Aaron a little, and even less once the pot kicked in.

So you’ve been saving that thing for me this whole time, huh? He lifted his whiskers in the approximation of a grin. Jeremy was the first person to figure out what the expression meant.

“Shit, smokes like it, don’t it?” He offered it back to Aaron, who waved it away. One hit was enough; he’d see how he felt with that. “But nah, I got this from Freddie over on Park Heights. He said it was some good shit, all the way from California…or maybe Colorado…but I’m not with it. Burns too much.”

Yes, it’s a lot. Aaron felt the way the fur moved on his arms as he signed. It was distracting how cool it felt. But I like the feeling.

Jeremy grinned wide at him. “Man, me too. It’s just old, I guess.”

They both sank into the chair, arms dangling over the sides nearly to the grass. Aaron could almost feel the tension seeping from his fingertips into the ground. He took a deep breath, aware of the way his chest lifted, of the warm, smoky air sucked through his nostrils, the feel of his breath on the back of strange teeth.

He tapped Jeremy’s shoulder to get his attention, then signed Thanks for this. I really needed it.

“No doubt, no doubt,” Jeremy said, stretching out his legs. His flip-flops left a trail of flattened grass behind them. “When I saw you at Starbucks, you looked like one of those little bunnies in the pet store, ears all flat, whiskers all shaking. I knew immediately, like, I need to get this fool high as fuck on the quick.”

Aaron snorted and doubled over. He was seized by an impulse to whip his ears back and forth, or to get up and kick out his legs. It happened whenever he laughed now, and he didn’t know what to do with it. His fur ruffled, and he shook his head; his ears whipped, the sounds of the city distorting and muting in weird ways as they did. He wasn’t sure he was ever going to get used to it.

He glanced over at Jeremy when the feeling passed. His friend was watching him, but if he was concerned about it he didn’t let on. For some weird reason, Aaron appreciated that. This…this was the most normal he felt in a long time. It was the first thing since being back that felt like it hadn’t changed.

“But for real though, you’re welcome. I can’t even imagine how weird this is for you. You know I got you if you need anything, right?” Jeremy puffed, exhaled, and passed to Aaron.

Yeah, I know. Aaron grinned as he took the joint and placed it in his muzzle. Just like I got you if you need someone to beat up Aku for you.

Jeremy laughed, “Man, sit your rabbit ass down before that dude straight up eats you. I know he’s gone through all his mama’s cat food by now.”

Aaron grunted in laughter and shook his ears again. It felt good.

It felt good.

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Posted by on March 2, 2018 in Furries, Thursday Prompt, Writing


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(Buddhism) We’re All Mad Here

Buddhism 150I’ve been thinking a lot about anger over the past month and a half. Ever since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO way back in 2014 I’ve been increasingly political with my online presence — and the candidacy and ultimate inauguration of Donald Trump has pushed that side of my digital identity much more to the forefront. Politics, and the anger it generates, has crept into every aspect of my existence here. Largely, this has been due to social media and the breakneck speed with which outrageous news is being circulated there. There have been entire days spent tweeting and retweeting about the latest controversy in the furry fandom, in sci-fi and fantasy publishing, in Washington; agreeing with or challenging comments from folks about them; trying to find just the right point to make that might win hearts and minds. But now, four years later, I’ve hit outrage exhaustion: what’s left in its wake is a weary, frightened resignation. This can’t continue the way it has. We need to seriously think about how our current Internet culture is encouraging, even normalizing, constant and unreasoning anger.

First, let me say that we have a lot to be angry about. The police brutality we’ve seen through Brown and a parade of other victims hasn’t abated. The Trump Administration has been openly corrupt, incompetent, and vicious in its attacks on marginalized populations of just about every stripe — and it’s been largely aided by the Republican Party. Our ability to solve problems with even bipartisan support has become impossible. Meanwhile, authoritarianism, xenophobia, anti-social and anti-environment behavior has spread through the United States and the rest of the world in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible even back four years ago. There are far too many people who think we’re going in the right direction — or, at least, that there aren’t actually any problems with what’s going down right now.

This is an incredibly scary time, and it can be incredibly frustrating to see just how many things are going wrong and how few people care. In light of what’s happening to our country and the world, I think anger is a completely acceptable response. We’re right to be angry. But we’re not doing the right things with our anger, and that’s the problem.

One of the best things I learned from my group class for Anxiety Disorder is thinking about emotions like the lights on your dashboard. We don’t chastise our cars for telling us that our oil is low, that we need a new battery, or that we need gas. Those alerts are telling us that we need to attend to something in order to keep our cars running smoothly. Emotions are the same way; they’re our mind’s way of telling us that something within us needs attending to. In my case, the ‘anxiety’ dashboard light is way too sensitive but that’s another story. If we shift our thinking about our emotions to this framework, categorizing them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ no longer makes sense. They’re simply calls for action.

Anger, in particular, can be a very difficult emotion to allow mostly because it’s so immediate and powerful. It drives us to do things at the moment we later regret, and I’m no different. Last year alone I can immediately think of three or four different occasions where my anger got the better of me and caused a difficult situation to become that much worse. When this happens again and again, we begin to mistrust that emotion. We see it as a problem, as something that we must ignore or excise in order to be healthy. But that’s just as damaging as flying off the handle.

It is important to allow yourself to be angry. It is important to understand that anger, like any other emotion, is a call to pay attention to something inside yourself. Exactly what that is might be different from person to person, but for me it’s a sign that one of my values has been offended or, as Tara Brach so wonderfully put it, a deep need is not being met. When we feel ourselves getting angry, if we sit with the feeling and follow it towards its source, we can learn surprising things about what we value and what we need. Once we’ve made that discovery, we can frame our reaction around that instead of making sure whoever angered us is ‘punished’. That impulse to punish is what happens when our desire to make the world a better place is carried through thoughtlessly.

I know that I have a problem with anger; it flares up fast but dies just as quickly. Over time, I’ve learned to wait out the emotion without taking action through it. Most of the time, whatever angered me won’t seem like such a big deal once I’ve calmed down. These past few years, though, I’ve been getting angry over things that are very much a big deal. These offenses to my values aren’t easy to get over, and when there are new offenses every day — sometimes multiple times in one day — it feels impossible to take a step back and calm down. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr all seem to be designed for stoking that anger, keeping the coals hot, because we pay attention to the things that anger us. Algorithms designed to keep us on websites for longer have hijacked our focus and severely eroded our ability to deal with anger constructively.

It’s very important to take a beat when we find ourselves getting angry, if only to ask ourselves a few basic questions. Why does this make me so angry? Who benefits from my anger? What can I do to really address what’s causing this response? Tara Brach calls this “the u-turn”, a necessary and conscious choice to direct our attention inwards instead of outwards, to sit with our anger and learn what it’s asking us to attend to. Sometimes, before we can even do that, we have to forgive ourselves for being angry, or give ourselves permission, or just reckon with the unpleasant physical and mental sensations that come with it. Either way, none of that happens without taking a pause.

This can be very difficult on social media. Twitter moves so fast, and often taking a moment to consider our responses can mean that the conversation moves on without us. But this isn’t a bad thing; that can teach us that not every exchange or idea needs our input. Sometimes, it’s better for everyone involved to let the moment go.

Once we understand the mechanisms that trigger our anger, we can do better about expressing that anger in a way that fosters connection and collaboration. Tara Brach believes that anger, at its source, is about us — what we need, what we care about, how we express ourselves. I agree with that, but up to a point. While there are so many things in the world that should not be, we also have greater control over our personal experience than we think. Anger might be a completely justified response to an external stimulus, but how we handle our anger can be brought under our control. It’s not easy, and it’s not always possible to know the best way to express it, but with time, effort, practice and patience we can get better at it.

This has all been brought up through a few different things. One, Tara Brach’s wonderful talk on “Anger: Responding, Not Reacting“; two, an episode of the “Where There’s Smoke” podcast that explores how social media has become a Skinner box for impulsive, expressive rage. I highly encourage you to take a listen to both of these whenever you have a chance — and let me know what you think. How can we express our anger more productively? How can we change our behavior on social media to tackle the things we find most important without contributing to the ‘noise’ of outrage culture?


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(Fiction Friday) Br’ers #2: The Stranger Comes Home

Writing 150After the carefully neutralized scents and sterilized surface of the government facility he had been staying in, coming home was almost overwhelming to Aaron. The van he drove in from stank of metal and fast food and countless agents who had been there before him, and even with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning roaring from the dashboard he could catch the changing smells of the city outside. He stared at Cold Spring Lane as it grew winding and treacherous; the van’s suspension was tested by the inescapable potholes.

Familiar territory looked strange after nearly half a year away from it. Or maybe his way of seeing things had grown stranger; he could keep one eye on the side streets the van was turning down while keeping another eye on the interior at the same time. He watched the people on the sidewalk stop what they were doing — leaning against walls, or chatting with friends, or pushing shopping carts down the block — to stare as he passed. The van was supposed to be somewhat inconspicuous, but in this neighborhood a shined-up black van with tinted windows and antennae bobbing on the roof was sure to attract attention. He imagined word spreading through the neighborhood as he got closer to home, tried to see if lights turned on inside the houses as he went by. Surely, people would know something was going down by now.

He blinked and looked away from the window. He took a deep breath. He focused on the sound of the van’s engine, the scents inside the car, the feel of his fur against the soft cloth seats. The case worker said that he would likely have different thoughts now, instincts looking for a reason to be. No one was sure just how much inside Br’ers had changed, but the consensus was that undergoing such a drastic physical transformation had to have seriously rewired the brain in ways that might never be understood. Since almost none of them had stepped foot inside a psychiatrist’s office before then, there was no telling what conditions had been with them before the change and what had developed after.

To Aaron, that sense of wariness was familiar. He always had one eye on an escape route, and that hadn’t changed now that he was a giant bipedal rabbit. He just got better at finding the angles and accounting for small details. Even though he had never felt more anxious, or maybe more aware of his own anxiety, he felt better equipped to deal with it. It wasn’t a problem; it was smart.

“We’re here,” the driver said. The van rolled to a stop, and Aaron instinctively looked at the house they were in front of. It was a semi-detached home with a chainlink fence around it, long but narrow with a tiny porch crammed with old, rusting furniture. The grass in the little plot of a yard was wild, but there were islands of dark, rich earth bordered by thick white stones. Tiny flowers struggled to remain upright there, splashes of yellow and pink and white that stood out against the flaking whitewash on the walls, the cracked concrete of the walkway, the dirty grey paint of the stairs.

The flowers were new. Aaron wondered if his mother needed a project to distract her from what had happened, if this was her way of burning off her anxiety. Whenever she was dealt a blow, something would get fixed or upgraded. Home improvements were signs that she wasn’t handling something well.

Aaron noticed his heart beating faster as he got out of the car. The agent — dressed down in khakis and a polo shirt that did nothing to hide the military precision with which he picked up the luggage — walked through the gate and up to the porch like it was his house. It took Aaron several deep breaths to get up the nerve just to follow.

He had no idea how his family would receive him. The case worker said that it would be an adjustment for everybody, that it was bound to be awkward for a few days while everyone adjusted to the new normal. But the case worker had no idea what she was talking about. There was no adjusting to this. It was never going to be normal.

“Well, here we are,” the agent said as Aaron joined him on the porch. He watched the white man look around the porch, scanning lightly over the trash bags next to the broken rocking chair, the empty beer bottles on the old patio table, the food dish on the floor with ancient nuggets of dried out cat food. The man’s scent changed slightly, and the corners of his mouth turned down. Then he rang the doorbell.

The front door opened immediately; Aaron’s mom must have been standing right there. She stared at him with wide eyes, then looked at the agent. She looked shockingly small and frail; had she always been that short? That thin?

“Ma’am, I’ve brought your son home.” The agent clasped his hands behind his back as he jumped right in. “Aaron has been cleared for release to the general population, but if you have any trouble at all please call the number in your information packet.”

“O…OK,” was all she said. She remained frozen to the spot.

The agent simply nodded, then turned to Aaron. “Good luck, son.”

Thank you, Aaron signed. He lifted his whiskers in a close approximation of a smile, then watched as the agent briskly walked away, got into his car, and drove away. He turned to his mother and his heart skipped a beat when he saw the way she stared at him.

They stood like that for what felt like forever. She must be wondering if she should let him in, Aaron thought. He was wondering if he should stay. Whatever this place was, it wasn’t home any more.

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Posted by on February 9, 2018 in Furries, Thursday Prompt, Writing


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(Review) The Cloverfield Paradox

Entertainment 150It’s weird to realize that Cloverfield is ten years old this year, mostly because there are still so many questions I want to be answered. Where did Clover (the nickname given to the kaiju) really come from? What was the deal with those parasites, and why did they cause people to explode? Was the brief moment of capturing another guy filming on the Brooklyn Bridge really a seed planted for a possible sequel? What happened after the bombing in New York???

So when Netflix aired a trailer during the Super Bowl promising we would get some answers in a surprise sequel they’d make available right after the game, something short-circuited in my brain. I’m not going to lie, JJ Abrams’ brand of viral “mystery box” marketing is made for pop-culture obsessives like me, and this worked like a charm. I even made my poor, long-suffering husband leave our Super Bowl party early so we could go straight home and watch The Cloverfield Paradox. The chance to be in on the ground floor of this genre “event” was just too good to pass up, but I probably should have.

The Cloverfield Paradox was, for the longest time, a different movie entirely called The God Particle. The basic premise was the same — above a near-future Earth desperate to solve its energy crisis, scientists aboard a space station turn on an enormous particle accelerator and cause the planet below to simply disappear. It’s a killer hook, and when I heard that it would possibly be the third film in the anthology of films the Cloverfield franchise would eventually become I thought it would be a good fit. Unfortunately, Abrams and company decided to make The God Particle and the previous Cloverfield film part of a connected meta-story and this is where it goes wrong.

It’s impossible to talk about the film without talking about the marketing behind it. The original Cloverfield had a masterful marketing campaign, shrouding just about everything in the movie in mystery while teasing tiny droplets of information and connections through obscure websites and weird videos posted online. While it wasn’t the very first movie to build mystique through the internet (I’m looking at you, The Blair Witch Project), it was one of the biggest to do so and kind of formed the template for the modern Abrams hype machine. With The Cloverfield Paradox, announcing the film during the Super Bowl and making it available right afterward tapped into that same feeling of mystery and excitement while updating it for an audience that had gotten several surprise album drops over the last few years. This was the first time a movie studio surprise-dropped a sequel, though, and it could have been one of those things that signaled a fundamental shift in how films are released. The gambit only works, though, is the movie is good.

I’m sorry to say The Cloverfield Paradox is not good. By shoehorning The God Particle into this universe the writers took an intriguing premise and stuffed it with bad pseudo-science that insults the intelligence of its audience, moments of weird for the sake of being weird, and head-scratching moments that frustrate more than they surprise. Worse yet, The Cloverfield Paradox takes the shine off the mystery-box model and reveals how hollow that hype machine can be. Perhaps worst of all, it wastes the talents of an amazing, diverse cast including Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Chris O’Dowd and Zhang Ziyi.

I do have to give props to Abrams for tapping neophyte Nigerian director Julius Onah for the film, and for centering Mbatha-Raw as its leading actor. How many sci-fi movies do you see with a black woman as the main character? Hopefully, a lot more, because she is probably the best thing here. Even with all of the inexplicable craziness decimating the crew around her, Mbatha-Raw’s Ava manages to hold the story and keep it somewhat grounded in real human motivation. Her supporting cast does its best to roll with the twist and turns of the story, but ultimately they’re defeated by a script more concerned with shocking its audience than telling an entertaining or coherent story.

Ava Hamilton is one of a number of scientists aboard the Cloverfield Station when it disappears after a successful particle accelerator test turns out to be…not so successful. Meanwhile, the husband she left behind on Earth has his own disaster to deal with — an unknown event has destroyed much of the city he lives in. The set-up is the best part, and when the first act turns on the terrible thing that unleashes chaos on the station and the planet, it’s easy to get hooked by all of the questions it raises.

Except The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t interested in providing engaging answers here. After the scientists discover they’re in another dimension weird things happen to the crew that can’t be explained by that: Volkov’s eye suddenly goes into business for itself and he talks to himself in a mirror; the ship tries to straight-up eat chief engineer Mundy (O’Dowd); an Amazonian blond is discovered fused with the wiring behind a wall; the station’s gyroscope is found in the last place you’d expect to see it. Almost none of this is explained through the rest of the action, because the scientists are picked off one by one in ways you’ve seen done better in other sci-fi horror movies.

Back on Earth, Ava’s husband Michael (Roger Davies) isn’t faring much better. He’s basically stuck trying to explain this movie’s connection to Cloverfield in one-sided phone conversations, staring into the dark and smoke of his ruined city, or laughing with kids in old videos that Ava watches. We cut to him at weird times, so it’s hard to be really interested in his subplot — we just want to know what the heck is going on with the station. Ultimately he sets up the final stinger in the movie, one last surprise that denies anyone a happy ending. By that time, your disbelief isn’t so much suspended as assaulted and thrown in a ditch. Oh, that happened? Sure, why not?

I really wish The Cloverfield Paradox was a better movie than it turned out to be. The franchise could have been the heir apparent to thoughtful, twisty sci-fi adventure that’s been sorely missing in pop culture for some time now; instead, it looks like Paramount, Bad Robot and Netflix tried to make lemonade out of a botched story that wasn’t good enough to release in theatres. The actors, director, and audience deserved better.

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Posted by on February 7, 2018 in Movies, Reviews


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(Buddhism) Smile, Breathe and Go Slowly

Buddhism 150We’re living in a time where fear is a completely natural and understandable response. It feels like the world is perilously close to the edge of ruin — nuclear tensions between the world superpowers are higher than they’ve been since the Cold War; our governments are doing very little to deal with the environmental problems even as we’re seeing the effects that have long been promised; the fragile network of agreements that form our civilization seem to be breaking down. Many of us are living perilously close to the edge of personal ruin, too. I know personally that if I lose my job and don’t find another one immediately, things would get really bad really fast. I think the tone of our public discourse reflects how much fear has become entrenched in our lives. Anything and everything that makes us feel safe and in control is inviolate, no matter how flawed or dangerous it is. I’ve been swept up in the current myself, fearful of what happens if things get worse, angry that they’ve gotten this bad, ashamed I’m not doing more to fight against it.

This year I wanted to step back and rethink my approach to what’s happening in my personal, professional, and social life. So much of the way I react to things these days is instinctive; if something makes me angry, there isn’t enough of a pause to think about the best way to express that anger, for example. I need to do something different — the way things are right now is just making more anxious, which makes it more likely that I indulge in the mindless, easy behavior that relieves that anxiety, which makes it more likely I’m just transferring my suffering elsewhere instead of really dealing with it. How can I deal with my anxiety more responsibly? I keep coming back around to this idea from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, which has been quoted so often it’s become a bit of a cliche: “Smile, breathe, and go slowly.” What does that mean? What does it look like when it’s applied to how you move through life?

I’ve often thought of this idea as a simple mantra that can draw our attention back to the present moments, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. Meditation, after all, trains us to view our breath as an anchor that ties us to our present experience. Whenever we catch ourselves getting caught up in our thoughts, or running away with some imaginings, we recognize what’s happened, allow the thought to be completed, and return to our breath. Going slowly forces us to pay attention to whatever we’re doing; that pace encourages us to really look at each part of our actions and perform them with care and consideration. Smiling, though, is often the part that I tend to ignore. I feel silly smiling to myself, and a lot of the time I just don’t think it makes that much of a difference, but it does.

One of the big reasons we become anxious and afraid is that we’re having trouble accepting what’s happening around us, or the possibility of what might happen to us in the future. This attachment — the attachment to safety, to certainty, to a knowable and controlled future — causes us great suffering all the time. In order to relieve that suffering, we have to ease the iron grip we have on our expectations that life will work out and that things will be OK. The less we hold on to that desire, the less power that small voice that goes “What if things will not be OK?” has over us. They key to weakening that desire is learning how to accept things as they are, even if they’re not the best they could possibly be.

We tend not to smile when we’re nervous or afraid. But we could, and it might help us to dislodge the pit in our stomachs when we think about a stressful situation. Smiling is a sign that we are content and happy, that things are well just as they are. Taking a moment to smile as you draw your attention to the present moment can serve as a primer, a way to think about what’s happening around you in the best possible light. Very often, especially in my most depressive states, my brain looks for a reason to feel sad and hopeless; if that sort of mechanism lets me attach meaning to those emotional states that arise for no reason, why not happiness as well? Smiling prompts our brain to look for a reason to be happy and content in the present moment, and after a while we actually get better at finding them.

Breathing, of course, takes our attention away from the internal chatter of our brains and places it with our physical experience. In meditation, we train ourselves to focus on the sensation of the breath: the way our stomach or chest rises with the inhale, how it feels for the air to be held within our lungs, what it’s like to push it back out through our nose and mouth. Sometimes, a single breath is all it takes for us to stop the train of our thoughts and check in with how we’re thinking and what effect that has on our mood. I like to think of my breath as a mental ‘door’; it’s a portal that I use to leave one ‘room’ (thought) and enter another.

Going slowly is probably the most difficult thing to do these days. We’re always so busy, dashing from place to place to get things done. Many of us feel like we don’t even have enough time to think about the tasks we’re doing as we’re doing them; we might be loading the dishwasher while thinking about an email we’ll have to write as soon as we’re done, or we might be dreading traffic while we’re standing in line at the store. But going slowly encourages us to really place ourselves with the tasks we’re presently doing. We might notice that the dish we’ve been wiping for the past few minutes is thoroughly clean, or that another checkout line has opened and the cashier has been trying to wave us over. Moving slower, paying more attention, can have the paradoxical effect of letting us do what we’re doing faster — by giving it our focus, we can be more efficient and make fewer mistakes.

I’ve found that placing a higher value on focus instead of productivity has helped me quite a bit with all of the things I’ve been trying to do. I enjoy what I do a lot more, and I’ve noticed that I can put more effort into it, which helps me to improve. I’m definitely not perfect with this, that’s for sure — this last year has taught me that more than anything. But when I remember to, taking a moment to accept my situation, clear my mind, and pay attention to where I am has consistently made my day better for just a little while.

So this week, when I’m on Twitter and see something that gets my blood hot; or when I’m stressing about all of the time-intensive stuff I’ve got to do and what I’ll need to push off in order to get it done; or when I’m well and truly frightened by a news headline or a Presidential tweet, I’ll try to remember to smile, breathe, and go slowly. It doesn’t change anything about the world that’s making me afraid, but it helps me figure out what to do about it with a clearer head.

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Posted by on February 5, 2018 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection, Uncategorized


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(Fiction Friday) Br’ers #1: The Bus

Writing 150Aaron wasn’t prepared for how weird it would feel to be in a t-shirt and shorts while everyone else on the bus was rocking layers, but there was a lot about this he wasn’t prepared for. He wasn’t prepared for the dirt and wet clinging to the fur on his feet even with the sandals, or the feeling of eyes tracking his every movement since he left the house. He couldn’t have known about the way he could hear whispering under his breath everywhere he went. He didn’t realize there would be an overwhelming riot of scents he hadn’t learn to place yet. But it was all happening, right here, right now, and he had no choice but to bear it.

The bus driver, a big woman with grease-slick hair forming a solid line of curls around her neck, nodded to him with wide eyes as he fed his money into the machine. He signed a greeting to her and she watched his clawed fingers slice through the air without understanding him. He twitched his whiskers — the best approximation of a smile he could manage — and moved on. It was best to end interactions quickly to give people time to sit with the shock of seeing him, his social worker said. It wasn’t personal; people just needed time to adapt.

He kept telling himself that, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was absolutely personal. No one around him caused the shock and silence that he did. How could he not take it personally?

There was a row of seats free, so he stepped quickly to snap it up. It was still early and the only people on the bus were those few commuters who had to travel long distances to make it to their offices, students, the homeless who had scrounged enough change to get out of the elements for an hour. All of them, from the young woman with the fresh braids and brand-new Marshall’s outfit to the old man with a patchy beard and patchier smile, stared openly at him. Aaron sat down, took his book out of the small messenger bag slung over one shoulder, and stared back with dark and oversized eyes. His new face was passive, unexpressive, except for the constant twitching of his nose when he was excited. It bobbed quickly now; he had to put effort into slowing it down.

Eventually, enough people caught their fill of him that they returned to their books and phones and companions. Aaron opened his book and stared at it without reading. His ears flicked to snatch bits of conversation out of the air.

“I didn’t know they would look like a straight-up cartoon.”

“Look at all that fur, no wonder he ain’t wearing nothing. Fucker’s gonna fry in the summer.”

“I knew I should have brought my tar baby today.”

“Shut up! You ain’t even right.”

Six months ago, Aaron went to bed as a geeky high-school senior whose biggest point of stress was crossing a field to this very bus stop without getting harassed by the neighborhood kids. He woke up as a six-foot bipedal rabbit the next morning, along with 7 million other people who turned into various animals. No one knew how it happened or why, but it mostly happened to the people in the most run-down parts of big cities or the destitute rural areas. There were a ton of names flying around for the people — people? — this had happened to, depending on where you were. Here, in Baltimore, the name ‘Br’er’ seemed to be the one that stuck.

Aaron had to admit — the Tar Baby crack was pretty funny — but he knew the intention wasn’t to let him in on the joke. So he kept quiet, sat still, and swept his ears back as the bus moved on.

It was no use trying to read. Whenever anyone said anything, his sharp ears would pick it up; whenever someone moved, it would reveal a new smell that he would have to try and catalogue. Was that the warm leather of someone’s coat or a bus seat someone just left? Was that sharp, almost sweet scent the smell of someone’s car keys or their earrings? There was almost a compulsion to find an explanation for each smell, and in a cramped shared space like this there were almost too many to choose from.

He tried to use the purpose of the bus trip as a distraction. The job was simple data entry, and it wouldn’t pay that much, but it would get him out of the house and back into the world. The manager was a church friend of his aunt’s, and she had put in a good word for him. Aaron was fairly sure he would get the job, but he wasn’t sure how long he would keep it. There had been stories on the news about Br’ers who were let go from their positions as soon as they were released from the government facilities where they spent the last few months, and talking heads all over cable news were wondering what kinds of work would be available for walking animals.

“Mascot!” was almost always the joke they ended with, the roundtable all laughing before they moved on to the next topic.

Aaron didn’t know what he wanted to do; he always thought he would go to college and study to become a teacher himself, but now that he couldn’t actually talk he had no idea how viable an option that was. His doctor told him that he might be able to relearn how to speak eventually, but the fact was his mouth and throat weren’t meant for human sounds. Sign language might be his only option.

Whenever he thought about that, a stone dropped into his stomach and it wouldn’t go away for hours. He could hear what everyone else was saying but he would never be able to say anything back, for the rest of his life. How fucked up was that? How was that fair? He never realized how much he depended on his voice until he lost it. Now, too late, he had to find a way to communicate without it or just about anything else he was used to. He was trapped in this body, a mind without a way to express its thoughts, an animal doomed to observe well but remain silent.

He slid back in his chair to relieve the pressure on his tail and sighed out a long breath that whistled between his incisors. That wasn’t helpful thinking, he heard his social worker telling him; he would stay trapped as long as he saw himself that way. The problem was, from where he was sitting, there was no way he could see what freedom looked like.

The bus stopped, and the gasps of a couple passengers encouraged Aaron to open his eyes. Another Br’er stepped onto the bus, this one a fox. Aaron had expected something instinctive to sound an alarm within him, but it didn’t; he was curious, almost happy, to see someone else who might understand what he was going through right now. The fox’s strange, slitted eyes turned right towards him and her whiskers bristled. His own bobbed in response. She looked past the bus driver, past the others staring at her, and walked towards him. He sat up and moved his bag to make sure she knew the seat was open.

She wagged as she walked down the aisle. Then she sat next to him.

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Posted by on February 2, 2018 in Furries, Thursday Prompt, Writing


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