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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.

(Review) Miles Morales, Vol. 1: Straight Out of Brooklyn

Reading 150The runaway success of last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse raised the profile of Miles Morales in a big way. Created by Brian Michael Bendis in 2011, Miles became the second Spider-Man of an alternate Marvel universe after a cataclysm took the life of that reality’s Peter Parker. It’s been an eventful eight years for Miles. He was a controversial figure during his debut, but has won over fans with amazing stories. He made his way over to the “main” Marvel continuity in 2015 after a “Crisis on Infinite Earths”-type situation that destroyed — then drastically reconfigured — the multiverse, and since then he’s been a key figure of the emerging ‘young superhero’ community. When Into the Spider-Verse dropped, Marvel thought it might be a good idea to give Miles a fresh look with a new ongoing title and a new creative team. Thus, Miles Morales: Spider-Man was born.

For his fourth(?!) solo series, Marvel brought in Hugo Award-winning writer Saladin Ahmed and Javier Garron. While it can be a bit of a risk to bring an unproven talent to a new title, here it’s an absolute genius call. Ahmed clearly loves Miles Morales and, even better, knows how to write stories that speak to his multi-racial experience while also being an incredibly fun superhero book. Unlike Bendis, who often came across like he had a ‘dad’s’ understanding of what kids are like these days, Ahmed’s writing feels relatable enough to play in middle America while also providing an authentic window into the life of a 15-year-old New Yorker. If you’re looking to jump in to Miles’ further adventures after Into the Spider-Verse, the first collection of his solo series — Straight Out of Brooklyn — is an excellent way to do it.

Miles Air

Ahmed has a natural talent for comics pacing, quickly establishing Miles’ status quo. He’s a student at a boarding school called Brooklyn Visions, where he shares a dorm with best friend Ganke Lee (who knows his secret identity) and a poet named Judge (who doesn’t). His parents both know about his after-school job, though it appears secrets run in the family — his father, who Miles thought was a cop, revealed himself to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, while his uncle Aaron was unmasked at the super-villain Iron Spider. He’s holding down his grades as best he can, but being Spider-Man doesn’t give him much chance to sleep, so his schoolwork is suffering. But he’s sweet on fellow student Barbara, so things aren’t all bad.

Of course, things won’t remain quite so manageable for long. Barbara’s little cousin, visiting from California, has gone missing! While tracking strange, uniformed people committing crimes, he runs into the Rhino — a gamma-irradiated member of Peter Parker’s rogues gallery whose attempts to go straight often fall apart. The Rhino is tracking the daughter of an estranged girlfriend who also went missing; after the initial obligatory dust-up, the two form an uneasy alliance. Even though he’s just a supporting character for the first arc, Rhino is fully-drawn: it bothers him that people make assumptions about him based on his enormous size, and there’s a weary resignation beneath the ‘frienemy’ banter he shares with Miles. Even Eduardo, the cousin who serves as the macguffin for the story, is allowed to have problems completely unrelated to what’s happening. His father was deported, and his mother is drowning in a sea of bureaucracy trying to gain citizenship for her family.

The first arc is just three issues long, enough to get us grounded in Miles’ world and acquaint us with how he handles the frequent conflicts he has to deal with. So much of his character is revealed through how he interacts with other people in his orbit — whether it’s calming down the hot-tempered Rhino or reflecting on how being around Captain America affects him. Miles is determined, laser-focused, principled, but with the swagger of a Brooklyn teenager. It’s the same heroic template that’s been fueling Peter Parker’s stories for decades, but expressed through someone with a different culture and background. If nothing else, it carries the central idea of Into the Spider-Verse — that Spider-Man has become so iconic he can work as an archetype as well as a character — and proves it through practice. The next two stories are brisk — a stand-alone issue further complicates Miles’ world by making Barbara certain he’s keeping something from her, and a two-part story introducing an intriguing anti-hero ends on a nice cliffhanger that bookends the collection really well. Ahmed knows how to work with momentum here, and it’s impressive the way he juggles the personal and professional crises thrown towards Miles. They connect and complicate each other in interesting ways, constantly throwing our hero off-guard.

Garron’s art is a wonderful complement to Ahmed’s art, dense and lively. The composition is a controlled chaos; figures from one panel bleed out into the next, connecting the disparate parts of Miles’ life in a way that confirms how impossible it is to keep his two lives separate. There’s a great blend of expression panels that ground the characters emotionally, mid-range panels that carry conversation and exposition, and huge splash panels that sell super-powered action. But what’s most impressive is how Garron manages to give each character small touches that provide a sense of consistency. Rhino, for instance, is always looming in every panel he’s in; wherever he walks, he stands in small craters of broken cement or floor. Judge’s body language screams bravado and a devil-may-care attitude; Ganke has a geek’s body language; almost everyone is depicted in a pose that speaks directly to who they are.

Even Miles’ different spider-powers are shown in novel ways, from the ever-reliable ‘Spidey-sense’ to his Venom Sting, to the invisibility that comes in handy for scouting and stealth. Both author and artist are in sync, and it shows. The world they’ve created is crowded and chaotic, but always interesting — much like New York. It’s a fruitful pairing that I hope is given enough time to deepen and mature.

Miles Morales: Straight Out of Brooklyn is a great first collection for anyone looking to continue this Spider-Man’s adventures post-Spider Verse. While it’s anyone’s guess how long the title will last given the whims of Marvel and its endless appetite for new #1s, this is a story that’s worth investing in. Spider-Man has been given a 21st-century update that allows him to keep being your friendly neighborhood superhero, and we even get to visit neighborhoods that feel a bit closer to the ones we live in today.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2019 in Comic Books, Reading, Reviews

 

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A Few Thoughts As I Turn 39

Self Improvement 150This time last year, I had just begun a new job that felt like a new chapter in my life. I had spent nearly ten years at a company that invested a lot in me and gave me an opportunity I’ll always be grateful for, but after a merger had brought about too much change and tanked morale, I thought it would be best to move on. The new job was at a company I was genuinely excited to be a part of — enough that I didn’t mind a pay cut to get my foot in the door. I was optimistic about my ability to grow, and the future of my career.

Now, as I turn 39 years old…let’s say I’m in a very different place. That opportunity didn’t work out, but I learned a lot in what turned out to be a tumultuous year. Now I’m between jobs, looking for my next chance to apply all I’ve learned. I’m less optimistic about the future, but not because I no longer think I can change. I don’t think the world can.

Our leadership is encouraging the worst aspects of our society, and it’s a genie that won’t be put back in its bottle any time soon. Over the course of decades, we have learned to be scornful and distrustful of expertise, become immunized to factual evidence that defy our beliefs, allowed ourselves to be distracted by the constant shouting to assign blame or argue the minutiae of our arguments while the world burns around us. The world has become not smaller but more interconnected, and the intricate nature of those connections require stability to function well. Our relationships to each other, from the personal to the political, have frayed and grown shallow. Because it’s so easy to cut ties with one another, I don’t think many of us even see the value in making deeper bonds. We would rather sit alone in ideological purity than come together to exist as a supportive spectrum.

Meanwhile, dissatisfaction and a sense of entitlement has lead to increasingly brazen attacks on those of us without the institutional power to protect ourselves — people of color and of alternate sexuality, poor people, people with disabilities, people of different faiths. Our government is branding the effort to fight this rising tide of bigotry as terrorism, a literally Orwellian abuse of power that we’ve forgotten about because something worse happens the next day. And the next. And the day after that.

And on top of that, the effects of climate change are happening way faster than anyone thought but our government has hamstrung the ability to fight it, study it, or even discuss it. The rest of the world is moving on without us, even though it might be too late to mitigate the most disastrous effects. The people who would champion a better, greener world are marginalized by their own party in order to preserve what small power they have on the national stage. The party in power has subverted democracy to the point that they only have to cater to a shrinking minority of the population to remain in power, poisoning the system of checks and balances in the service of their own greed.

I’m in a society that doesn’t look kindly on the middle-aged, no matter how kind or thoughtful. I’m struggling to land an opportunity to sacrifice my time and energy for a company that demands loyalty and sacrifice from me, but refuses to offer its loyalty in return. I’m stuck in a system that tallies a list of traits it considers undesirable and diminishes my options based on how many I hit. At this point, it’s a lot.

Given the way I perceive the world as it is, it’s strange to me that I feel happier than I’ve ever been. Even though I no longer have faith in the world, I have more than enough faith in myself and the people around me. I know who I am, and I know who supports me. I know my worth. I know my flaws. And I know how to work towards being the best version of myself at long last. Best of all, I know all the things I cannot control, and have learned how to let go of my desire to control them. All I can do is the best I can. I have to accept whatever happens beyond that.

It’s a scary and uncertain world, but I’ve never been more certain of my purpose in it. This year, I’m resolving to work on deepening my connections with people, becoming a more reliable person, and doing my best to become more openly and unapologetically myself. That’s really the best gift I can give myself at this point. Hopefully, it at least makes my small sphere of influence a better place.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2019 in Self-Reflection

 

The Anxious Person’s Guide to Political Discourse

Politics 150Personal confrontations among friends are a special kind of hell. No matter how much you brace for the conflict, or how hard you try to keep calm, eventually the anxiety takes hold and restraint goes out the window. It’s such an awful experience most of us will do anything to avoid it. Unfortunately, in today’s political landscape, avoiding conflict is increasingly impossible.

After the 2016 election, I found myself struggling to interact with a lot of online friends I had known for a long time. As Trump’s particular brand of bigotry took hold in the US government and we were assaulted with increasingly brazen, cruel policies, a lot of the people I thought were in my corner stepped back and tried to downplay their apathy — or even tacit approval. As 2017 rolled on, I found myself in surprise confrontations that still stress me out to remember. I still struggle with being able to speak openly about my values because I fear the inevitable conflicts they will lead to.

However, near the end of Trump’s first term, as the damage to our social values continues to deepen, I feel it’s more important than ever to be vocal about how unacceptable this is. We have to talk about the bigotry spilling unchecked into our streets and on our computers, and stand up against the violence it has inspired in emboldened right-wing extremists, white supremacists, and Christian fundamentalists. But in order to do this we have to be mindful about our engagement, and that means understanding how our anxiety expresses so we can work with the often counterproductive instinctive actions we take.

As someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, my trigger for the fight-or-flight reflex is much more sensitive — think of it like your car’s low tire pressure going off if it’s anywhere close to the minimum PSI. Mildly stressful situations feel like stomach-churning ordeals; real intense confrontations are simply overwhelming. Everyone who has GAD may have a different experience, but for me even a roll of the eyes or a terse response can be enough to make my heartbeat quicken with worry. The lizard brain takes over and provides you with two options: fight or flee.

In social justice discussions, ‘fight’ can look like arguing with someone online well past the point of productive discourse, or ruminating on an exchange so much it ruins your day, or even lashing out at friends and allies because agreement wasn’t swift or complete enough. ‘Flight’ can look like being silent in the face of unacceptable behavior, or avoiding any news because it’s just too upsetting. Sometimes, it can even mean withdrawing from social contact altogether. The behavior varies, but can often be distilled down to one or the other. I’ve learned that whatever your instinct, the best way to break the reflex and become more mindful is to do the opposite. Engage instead of withdrawing, or hang back instead of going all in.

If, like me, you’re conflict-avoidant in the extreme, sometimes that means you have to stop looking for the exits and stand your ground. I know, I know — it’s stressful just thinking about it. But it really does help to think about different ways you can engage an issue according to the amount of conflict you can handle. There’s absolutely no shame in bypassing direct engagement to find a way to fight back that works for you.

Indirect engagement can be as simple as thinking about the messages you spread on social media, and whose voice you decide to boost. We live in an age where the most enraging take spreads the fastest and farthest; making the choice to be more considerate with what you say online is a wonderful way to push back against that trend. Are the people or organizations we’re sharing and retweeting honest and direct about what’s happening? Do they offer ways to channel anger into action? Are we engaging in discussions in an open and constructive manner? Do we try to keep our focus on solutions, understanding, or finding common ground? If we look through our social media feed and find that the things we retweet frequently make us feel angry or despairing, choosing to change the word we spread can be a subtle but effective way of fighting back against our coarsening discourse.

Another way to fight is by donating your time, money, or effort to a worthy cause you feel passionately about. I really like this method because it keeps you focused on working towards solutions and helps you learn about what people are doing all around us to build a better world. Your time is the most precious finite resource you have, so spending time with volunteer work is honestly one of the most important things you can do. Some of us don’t have the time to spare, so money can work just as well in those cases. Donating to organizations like the ACLU, RAICES Texas, or The Nature Conservancy makes sure that there’s enough in the tank for these groups to keep fighting the good fight.

Sometimes, though, direct action is what’s called for — especially if inappropriate language or behavior is directed towards an underprivileged group you’re not a part of. It’s up to me to make sure other men know it’s not OK to be misogynist or transphobic; it sends the message that even people who aren’t personally affected by an issue stand in solidarity with those who are. And as much as I hate confrontation, I take that responsibility seriously. I think we all should. That being said, there are a few things we can do to make the confrontation as productive as possible.

Remember that you’re interacting with a person. This person is making bigoted remarks, and they might even have a history of bigoted behavior, but try to avoid branding this person a bigot (even though they likely are). Empathy matters, even towards people who we feel might not deserve it. Think about how you would want to be confronted if your behavior needed correction? At the very least, respond the way you would want to be responded to in that situation. Concentrate on the action or statement, and be firm in your disapproval of it — but don’t extend that value judgement to the person. This makes it more likely they’ll be put on the defensive, and defensive people harden against criticism. In order to change someone’s behavior, they have to be receptive. Finally, choose your limit for the interaction. If you decide that a line has been crossed and things aren’t productive anymore, simply restate your disapproval with the action and walk away. You get to decide how to interact with others, and you don’t owe them any more of your time or attention than you’re willing to give.

I’m a runner. I avoid confrontation whenever I can because it stresses me out and ruins my ability to engage with people for a long time afterwards. But over the course of these last three years, I’ve had to learn how to push past that anxiety to have difficult conversations with others. I wish I could say that it gets easier, but it doesn’t; we just get better at handling the anxiety and doing what’s right anyway. And even if a particular exchange doesn’t result in any real change, the encouragement and support I’ve received from others really helps. There’s a community of us out there who are appalled at what’s happening in the world, and who want to do whatever we can to make things better. Just knowing you’re not alone, and that by speaking up you’re letting others know you’re with them, is often enough to remove the block and push me forward.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2019 in mental-health, Politics

 

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The Overnight Walk to Prevent Suicide 2019

I’ve attempted suicide twice — once a short time after I was disowned by my mother for being gay, and again after a bad break-up with my first real boyfriend. Both times, I felt completely unmoored after severing fundamental relationships that also disconnected the fragile support networks that came with them. There was no one I could tell about the persistent, gnawing pain that hollowed me out until there was only numbness, which felt even worse.

It got to the point where I didn’t just want to feel nothing; I didn’t even want to be aware of feeling. There was no way to step outside of myself, no way to know that I could eventually feel different. There was only the awful, disintegrating pain and the cold fog beyond it. Oblivion had to be better.

It took a long time to put my life back together again. While I still have a brain that I struggle against constantly, I also have a loving husband, an incredible community of friends, and the great fortune of health insurance that covers mental health services. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful every day for these blessings and the sense of perspective they’ve given me.

But there are so many people like me who aren’t as lucky. People of color have to navigate a hostile country that looks at them with disdain and suspicion. People with mental illnesses have to bear the torture of misfiring synapses with no idea what’s happening — much less how to manage it. LGQBT people of color not only have to deal with the isolation that comes with their race; they also have to face isolation from their communities because of their sexual preference or gender presentation.

Every year over 45,000 Americans commit suicide. Most of them are men, and LGQBT youth are at a much heightened risk. Without access to mental health services or an understanding support network, they’re as disconnected as I felt at my lowest points. Even though I’m doing so much better than I was, I can’t forget about the people who are trapped in cities like Baltimore or small towns like Fayetteville, AR without any tools to cope with their situations. There are so many people out there who wrestle with the idea that oblivion might be better.

That’s why I’ll be participating in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk to Stop Suicide in San Francisco on June 8th, 2019. Hundreds of us will be walking across San Francisco that night to raise awareness and money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an organization that educates the public and medical professionals about mood disorders and suicide prevention. Their work is extremely important, offering a way to remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues and showing both therapists and patients how to connect in ways that help those suffering feel less alone.

I know there are a lot of causes passing the hat around these days, for issues as huge as climate change or as personal as helping someone pay for their medical costs. But if you have any funds to spare for a worthy endeavor, please consider this one. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has an 89% rating from Charity Navigator, so this isn’t an outfit that squanders the good will of the people who donate. If you would like to give what you can, please visit my walker’s page here:

https://www.theovernight.org/participant/David-Cowan

Thank you all so much for helping out and spreading the word. I appreciate all of you!

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2019 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(BHM) Slavery in the United States

Myth 150No one needs to tell you that slavery was kind of a big deal in the United States. It’s taught almost every year in American History classes, and at the very least students learn a lot about how it was ended when the Confederacy lost the American Civil War. Even still, while we know a lot about slavery it’s hard to really know it in a way that we understand just how poisonous it’s been for race relations in this country and how its legacy lives on in our politics, laws, culture, entertainment, even our language. Slavery is such a huge part of our history and yet its reality is incomprehensible. Most of us today can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a slave, or a slave owner, or someone fighting against the institution. But in order to understand black history in America, it’s vitally important to understand the foundation on which that history was built.

Hopefully, the best way to properly understand slavery in the United States is by defining its edges — when it started and ended; how far it spread and why; how it worked in practice; how it affected everyone it touched. We can gain a proper perspective of the institution and just how deeply it runs through American culture by these definitions. By knowing what slavery was in America and how it was codified into law through the colonies, we can form a basis through which all kinds of historical events can be tied right back to this practice.

The institution of slavery was one in which human beings from Africa were considered the property of others and forced to provide free labor on farms, in factories, businesses, and houses. While the slave trade in Africa had been going on for some time, slavery as a recognized institution lasted from 1565 all the way to 1865, some two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The 13th Amendment would be ratified in December of that year. During this time, 350,000 Africans were shipped to the United States and sold. This comprised around 3% of the 12,000,000 Africans forced to endure the Middle Passage, but it’s still a whopping number.

Think of it this way: the Middle Passage stole a population equal to the entire country of Belgium and forced it into slavery. Most of these people were sent to Brazil and the Caribbean, but the number of people sent to the United States? That would be equivalent to the current population of New Orleans, LA — or Arlington, TX. From that 350,000 came 4 million slaves in the United States by the year 1850 — or roughly the population of Los Angeles.

Slavery was common practice in the North American colonies even before the formation of the United States and its subsequent rebellion. St. Augustine, Florida was the first permanent settlement in the New World to include African slaves — as early as 1565. While many colonists considered Africans who had converted to Christianity as ‘indentured servants’ and gave these Africans their own land and supplies when the period of servitude had ended, legal distinctions between Africans and Europeans were being made as early as 1640. That year, a Virginia court decided that John Punch, an African indentured servant, would be punished by slavery for attempting to flee his servitude. The two European servants who fled with him were only given an extra year of indenture and an additional three years’ service to the colony. Slavery was legal in every colony right up to 1776, though by that time it was beginning to fall out of favor in the North.

This was because the North’s economy was largely industrial, so skilled labor was the most important thing there. The South, with its largely agrarian economy first dependent on tobacco and staple crops — then cotton with the invention of the cotton gin — depended on physical labor to sow and reap the crops for its cash. Since the sheer manpower needed to tend the fields would make profitability impossible for honestly paid laborers, there was a huge incentive to keep slavery around as much as possible. The Southern economy would not have grown so much, so fast, without its ability to treat people as property; that influx of money brought a lot of political influence and financial capital, which ensured the institution could be calcified in state legislatures, local laws, and business practices. Most Presidents between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln owned slaves, and of the few that didn’t none were elected to a second term. The whole “three-fifths of a person” you hear about in the Constitution was negotiated by James Madison of Virginia, who wanted slaves included in a state’s population by that ratio. Black people in early America were only counted in the political process as a means to tip the balance of representative power towards the Southern states, and they could not exercise that power directly.

Slavery was extended through the South with the Westward Expansion. The original Colonial States wanted to maintain the balance of power they had as more territories became states, so they lobbied hard for Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and other frontier territories to join their side. At the same time, a surplus of slaves in one part of the South necessitated a migration to the Deep South where more labor was needed. From 1815 – 1860, a “second Middle Passage” was devastating the population of slaves. Families were broken up, slaves were sold to horrendous owners, and abuses were commonplace. Even in states where the slave codes — laws governing the relationship between master and slave — forbade the mistreatment of enslaved Africans, the law was rarely enforced. At the same time, men and women alike were whipped one lash for each pound of cotton under quota they were on any given day.

Africans taken from their home and the descendents they bore were not allowed to read or write in most places. They were not allowed to practice their own religion or speak their own languages. They were not allowed to marry, and women were treated as sexual objects just as readily as workers. They were forced to adopt Christian beliefs, which were warped to justify their own enslavement. They were not allowed to own land or property. If they escaped, other states were bound by law to return them to their owners. An entire people were denied personhood for generations, legally according to the highest codes in the land.

Four million black Americans were considered nothing more than property in 1850. They had no legal rights. They couldn’t press charges for abuse. They couldn’t appeal their status. They weren’t allowed to read or write. They weren’t allowed to keep the culture of their ancestors. Their lives were entirely dependent on the whims of their masters. Rebellions were quashed quickly and retaliation claimed the lives of many innocents. Women were beaten, abused, raped. This happened, over the course of three hundred years, to a population equivalent to every man, woman and child currently living in Los Angeles. And it was done so that the people who owned the land worked by these slaves could make more money.

The legacy of slavery has a long shadow. There are six states in the United States with more than 25% of its population comprised of black Americans, and they’re all former slave states — Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, South Carolina, Alabama. Of these six states, four of them are in the top 10 for state imprisonment rates — and imprisoned felons are one of the few classes of people in the US where slave labor is essentially legal. These states also have fairly strict disenfranchisement and voter ID laws, preserving the historical barrier of black citizens from participating in the political process of the states they call home.

This is the foundation of racial relations in the United States. For three hundred years, most black Americans were considered not people, but property. Even the freemen among us were considered inequal in the eyes of the law and could not count on its protection. During that time, we were subjected to systemic cultural erasure, legally-codified abuse, backbreaking labor, disenfranchisement, dehumanization, rape, murder, the dissolution of families, the denial of education and opportunity. And while we’ve come a long way since then, the spectre of this period in our history still haunts us today, in just about every aspect of our lives.

There’s a reason many black Americans are angry and disillusioned with the idea of American exceptionalism. Our history is a direct refutation of the idea everyone has access to the American Dream, that anyone can ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ to achieve anything they want. We have first-hand historical experience telling us this is not so. It’s no surprise to us when a police officer is acquitted for murdering black Americans in cold blood. It’s no surprise that income inequality and government policies disproportionately affect people of color. This is the way it’s always been, since before there was a United States. And even today, there are people who will deny these facts, deflect and dismiss them, instead of sitting with the reality of them.

The descendants of the people who have benefitted from slavery are still reaping the benefits of racist laws, bigoted practices, unfair institutions, generational wealth and access. While they’ve done nothing to build these injustices, their denial of them ensures they’re perpetuated down to this day. Until we can look at the reality of slavery and its long, long legacy, we’ll continue to ignore the pain it causes even now.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2019 in Politics

 

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It’s Black History Month!

Myth 150I honestly don’t know if Black History Month is a big deal to anyone who doesn’t have to learn about it because it’s a whole section of their American History class. Being educated in a predominantly black city, I was taught about the usual black American luminaries year after year — Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King. But even then, comparing what I learned then to what I know now, it feels like a shallow version of the true history of my forebears. We talked about the Underground Railroad, but we didn’t talk about the conditions that made it necessary, or made Tubman so brave when she kept going back to the South to lead slaves to freedom. We learned about King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, but we never learned about the event surrounding it — a march on Washington to protest the brutal Jim Crow laws that kept black Americans in the South oppressed one hundred years after slavery ended. Today, Black History Month feels more like a feel-good opportunity for companies to flout diversity than anything with meaning or weight.

It’s become increasingly important to me to reconnect with my culture and history, because it’s an indelible part of me. I am a reflection of that history in the eye of everyone who sees me, and if I’m going to be defined by that I should really know the truth of what I represent. I want to know more than the basic bullet points of what’s come before me, the flattened caricatures of the people who have made an impact. I want to dig into the long history of struggle, resilience, and cruelty that ties me to the place I and people like me have been assigned in our society.

So this month I’d like to take up a project of studying the bits of black American history that I’ve always wanted to know more about; the people who have contributed to our history but have been overlooked or mischaracterized; and the concepts that have persisted from our arrival in the United States some three hundred years ago to our fractured, angry time in the present. For me, it’s important not just to learn more about my history; I must also find a way to make sense of it, to connect it to my life today. History is only worth anything if it gives us perspective on our world and gives us the tools to plot a way forward.

The Writing Desk will be given over to this project all month. I’ll study up on the Atlantic slave trade that marked the arrival of our ancestors; the aftermath of the Civil War and how racial oppression was codified by laws and business practices in the South and North of the United States; the civil rights movement of the 60s, the Black Pride movement of the 70s, and all the things that haven’t changed since then. I’ll report back here with the things that I find most interesting, and hopefully provide a different perspective on black history that might make it more interesting for others, too. I’ll do my best to present facts without too much subjective interpretation, but ultimately this is a personal journey for me and I’ll include my personal thoughts as well.

So what’s the deal with Black History Month anyway? It’s a surprisingly recent event with surprisingly old roots. It was first proposed in 1969 by black educators and clubs at Kent State University, and celebrated for the first time one year later. In six years, it was a widespread practice within schools, cultural and community centers, and was recognized on a national level by President Gerald Ford during his speech for the nation’s bicentennial. From there, it was picked up by the United Kingdom in 1987, Canada in 1995, and Ireland in 2014.

It’s a trip that this is so new — only less than 50 years old. The precursor to Black History Month was “Negro History Week”, though, an initiative thought up by black American historian Carter G. Woodson — widely regarded as the “father of Black History”. Negro History Week was meant to be the second week of February, since that happens to fall on the birthdays of Abe Lincoln (the 12th) and escaped slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass (the 14th). From the jump, Woodson wanted to make the week a coordinated teaching of black Americans’ contributions to American history among the nation’s public schools. It was picked up in North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, Baltimore and Washington DC before spreading out from there. Over the decades, it increased in popularity until the trailblazers at Kent State carried it further.

Now, Black History Month is an American institution in our schools and its influence has spread to the rest of the culture. The celebration has been controversial for a while, with people wondering why we don’t include the contribution of black Americans (and Canadians, and Britons) all year ’round. Others wonder why we should even have a month dedicated to the history of one minority culture. I won’t get into those arguments, but I will say that it’s useful, even necessary, for me to dive into my own history. If an artificially-created month is what I need to do so, then I’ll take it.

I’m very excited to learn as much as I can over the next month, and I’m looking forward to our discussion about this overlooked section of American history.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2019 in Politics, Pop Culture, Self-Reflection

 

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What I Learned This Month (January 2019)

Self Improvement 150January is usually dominated by two things for me: stress-testing the routines I’ve developed to fall into better habits, and Further Confusion 2019. The convention this year was actually pretty fun: I enjoyed myself at my panels, met a lot of really awesome people, and rediscovered my love of selling books (I was a relief volunteer at the FurPlanet table). As I get older, I become more aware of the ways in which I can stretch myself and which avenues for experimentation are just not going to work out for me. Parties and dances are for younger, more extroverted animals: give me a few quiet gathering amongst good friends and I’m much happier. The routines I wanted to build for the first month of the year didn’t quite fare as well, and that’s mostly because of the depression that blindsided me early and lingered on until…well, a few days ago.

I’ve talked a bit about it in a previous post from the month, but living with chronic depression is a bit of a balancing act. On one hand, you build coping mechanisms and treatments that make the depressive spells less frequent and less severe, to the point that you start to let your guard down. And on the other hand, there’s a small part of you that knows a depression could happen at any time, triggered by anything — an off-hand comment from a friend, or a particularly bad day at work, or a string of unsatisfying evenings at home.

Not that the triggers are ever really the things that, well, trigger it. The chemical networks inside the brain are so complex and mutable it feels like a global weather pattern inside my head, one that’s prone to fronts that will stall and dump a ton of rain where it’s least needed. Sometimes, conditions become just right for a storm. You get better at watching out for the signs, and the lead time you have to prepare increases, but nothing changes the fact that these storms are a fact of life and when they come there’s nothing you can do but hunker down and wait it out.

And that’s what January felt like, mostly — losing half the month to a storm that developed quickly but lingered once it arrived. I fell into a lot of bad habits during that depressive spell. I woke up and checked the Twitter outrage machine instead of meditating. I kept emotions bottled up thinking that I could deal with them, until I really couldn’t. I didn’t even try to do things that would make the depression less severe; I simply indulged a lot of my worst impulses. I could only tell how bad the depression was once I was out of it, and could actually hold a perspective that included other people. It’s not exactly fun to come back to yourself and find out that you weren’t holding things together nearly as well as you thought.

This month I learned that it’s important to carve out more time and space for self-care even when things are going well. A lot of issues that came up during my depression were lingering for a while, but I set them aside because I thought I could handle them — and I could, as long as the weather held. As soon as it broke, though, my ability to deal with things went straight to hell. So did, unfortunately, my ability to handle disagreements in a measured way. I’ve learned that while there’s value in not sweating the small stuff, for folks like me it’s also important to know there’s no such thing when you’re stuck in a depression.

I’ve also learned that my skewed perspective in depression can make it very easy for me to catastrophize criticism, which makes me hyper-defensive. So much of my anxiety is wrapped up in how I’m perceived by the people whose opinions matter to me — managers at work, friends and colleagues I admire, even you, dear reader. I want to present an image of this deep thinker who is earnest and strives to live his life according to Buddhist principles, but in reality I’m…just as selfish and prone to cognitive biases as the next person. I’ve had this deep and abiding fear since childhood that if anyone ever got to know “the real me” they would hate it and leave, and I suppose that never went away. In a depression, if someone criticizes me, even gently, I hear “I’ve learned something about you that I don’t like so you’d better change it or I’m out.”

This is not, I know, what my friends are saying. I can even understand that to a degree in the throes of depression, but it’s impossible to check that first panicked reaction. The instinct to PRESERVE MY IMAGE overrides any better, rational response. I know that I should care less about what people think, that I should be true to myself, and that part of the Buddhist practice means being as clear and honest as possible. I’m working to dismantle the thought patterns that were built to survive my childhood, and making progress. But when I’m unable to cope, they’re still there, deep down. There’s more work to do.

Through it all, I’ve also thought a lot about writing and what kind of stories I want to put out there. Thinking a lot about Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels, and what makes them so good. How I can incorporate the things I love most about them (his characterization! His world-building! His crackling dialogue!) into my own writing. And also, realizing that it’s kind of essential for me to get ahead of my Patreon serial so I can actually put in some editing work as well.

All of this prepares me for a February of deeper engagement and self-reflection. I think next month I might go a little slower, but work harder to make the things I do that little bit better. I will also need to think about the things I really need to have in order to do the things that matter to me. Mostly, this will involve identifying my favorite means of self-sabotage and working against them whenever possible.

I hope all of you had a great month that taught you a lot about yourselves and the world! What was the best thing you learned since 2019? Let me know!

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2019 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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