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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.

Building A Better Buddhist in 2019

Buddhism 150If there is one thing in 2019 we are sorely in need of, it’s more compassion and empathy. I know this has been the rallying cry of many different corners of our society for a while now — some have even weaponized the idea of civility as a means of shutting down dissent. But look at where we are these days. On the right, people are trying to justify breaking up families of migrants and abusing children in the name of national security; creating hardship for thousands of government workers so we can spend billions on a wall that no one wants; and indulging in a culture of bigotry against any minority you’d care to name. On the left, we’re engaging in the usual infighting between groups that have problematic perspectives; alienating well-meaning but ignorant people who just need guidance; and rejoicing in the suffering of people we’ve deemed truly deserving. Our social discourse has become so consistently, exhaustingly hateful that it’s hard to see any chance of reconciliation.

I understand why this is so, and I don’t want to give the impression I’m drawing a false equivalence here. What the current administration is doing, aided by the Republican Party and its base, is reprehensible and in no way the same thing as some of the worst tendencies of the left. But it feels like we in the liberal sphere have focused so much on hating the perpetrators of these atrocities that there’s no more room for us to feel compassion for its victims. The anger we feel is indeed fuel for the sustained fight we’ve engaged in for the past two years, but more and more it feels like this has come at a cost.

This year, one of the main things I wanted to focus on is being a better Buddhist — but what does that mean? Well, my particular Zen is one that prioritizes comfort and connection. I prize these things because I know how difficult it can be to change, and in order for people to make the adjustments we ask of them they need to feel comfort and support while doing so. Most of us flinch away when someone brings up one of our negative qualities, and the instinct to get defensive is so deeply rooted it can be impossible to deny it. So many of us can’t distinguish between a criticism of certain behaviors and a criticism of who we are as people; our self-identity is so deeply tied to our habits and beliefs we think of them as one and the same.

It takes empathy to translate that tendency in ourselves towards other people, to imagine how we would feel in someone else’s situation. If, for example, someone roasted us on Twitter for something we’ve said and any apology we could make just makes the situation worse, wouldn’t it be hard for us to resist the urge to defend ourselves? Maybe we’d double down on the behavior we think isn’t a problem. Maybe we’d call the whole affair silly and insubstantial. Maybe we’d chalk up the “drama” to “haters” who have nothing better to do than bring others down. Social media has been little more than an ideological battleground for years; in order for effective dialogue to happen, we have to shift our paradigm away from war and towards something else.

That is admittedly not easy. I know I still have this knot in my stomach when thinking about people I know who have voted for Trump, and I get intensely frustrated with people who don’t understand why issues like Black Lives Matter are so important to me. I haven’t been able to engage with many people about the news of the day because it genuinely makes me too upset and angry. Over the past two years, I’ve noticed my social circle get smaller and my general mood become more withdrawn and suspicious. I don’t want to be that person.

So it’s time to open myself more, and encourage others to do the same. This doesn’t mean engaging with people you know are acting in bad faith, or wasting your time with people who aren’t ready to entertain the idea that change might be needed on their part. But I think we could do a better job of filtering between the hostile and the merely ignorant, and I think it’s worth the time and effort it takes to educate our allies towards nuances they may have a blind spot towards. If we truly believe that our values are the right ones, then finding better ways to explain them or convince others to prioritize them is one of the best things we can do to help them spread.

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach is one of the books that really made me take a good, long look at my behavior and a fundamental flaw in my perspective that caused the less desirable aspects of it. There are so many things that I can’t tolerate within myself, and that self-judgement closes emotional doors that would better serve me if they were open. Learning to accept people and situations as they are can help us become less angry, see things more clearly, and affect change more efficiently.

This not only requires empathy, but also mindfulness. Meditation is a bit more than just learning to be still in the present moment; it trains us to watch the pattern of our own thoughts and recognize when a particular framework doesn’t serve us as well as it used to. Armed with this self-knowledge, we can catch ourselves doing, saying, or even thinking things that solidify division and allows us to take a beat to find some other way of dealing with people that might get us closer to the world we want to live in. Acceptance of bad behavior isn’t excusing it: it’s putting it into perspective so that we can address it holistically, in a way that is more likely to stop it.

I know a lot of us are tired of having to moderate our emotions or check ourselves in order to make progress with contentious situations. A lot of us know that it isn’t fair to have the burden of being the better person consistently fall to us. It’s draining, and in a just world it wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately that’s just not the world we live in. We have to do what we can, when we can, to build that just world. Sometimes that means accepting an unjust situation while working to make it better.

This year I will try very hard not to get caught in that sense of outrage and despair. It’s not who I want to be. In order to build equanimity, I have to be mindful of my own tendency to dig in my heels and consciously soften my reaction when I feel it happening. I have to push myself to feel empathy and compassion towards the people who want to deny me and the people like me our basic dignity as human beings. If I don’t, then we will continue to resist one another and that disconnection will only deepen. Fighting the awful things that are happening in our world requires firmness and the willingness to say ‘no’, but it’s important to resist from a place of mindfulness and love. It’s so much harder, but I feel it’s the only way to really win out.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2019 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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I Resolve to Suck This Year

Writing 150Being a writer with an anxiety disorder is a hell of a thing. Writing is already a really difficult endeavor; those of us who can’t imagine doing anything else with our lives likely have a pantheon of influences and beloved authors that have shown us just how powerful the written word can be. But our own works frequently fall short of that brilliance. It can be almost impossible to get the words out the way they appear in our heads. Add to that the process of editing your own work for flaws, accepting critiques at every stage of the process, and submitting your work for judgement by editors and audiences, and…it’s a minor miracle most writers ever leave the bed in the mornings.

But when your brain is wired for MAXIMUM SENSITIVITY TO DANGER, coping with the worries that come with being a writer can feel literally impossible. I’ve struggled with this all my life, and it’s the biggest reason I’m so bad at finishing stories and pushing them out there. If I’m completely honest with myself, I have to realize just how much it matters what other people think of the words I write. There’s the garden-variety vanity, sure, but there’s also a sense of responsibility to deliver on the promise of my intentions. If I want my writing to be a comfort to others who feel alone and invisible, then I have to work extra hard to make sure they feel seen and understood. That can’t happen with my current level of craft, and I know it. So I noodle around with ideas, realize that I don’t have the chops to execute them, panic about my own suckiness, and shut down.

Of course, I already know the answer to this dilemma. In order to be a good writer, you have to be a bad one first. You have to let yourself be derivative and hackneyed; you have to populate non-sensical worlds with flat characters. By doing your best and still falling short of the mark, you learn perspective on how to shape things a little better the next time; most importantly, you train yourself to let a story go out into the world even though you’ll never feel it’s ready.

Tell that to my anxiety-riddled brain, though. Every story must be perfect in its first draft or it’s worthless. Rough drafts are simply failed stories. Published work is a desperate cry for approval, not anything to be proud of. Putting out work now will destroy any audience I might have who were somehow duped into thinking I could string sentences together. I’ll never be published. I’ll never get better. I don’t have whatever it is that makes a great writer. I’ll never be able to do what I want with my work.

All of this, in my head, crowding out my thoughts whenever I sit down.

While it would be really nice to just not care what other people think and fall into the writing, I’m not sure my brain works that way. Still, if I’m going to be a writer I have to find a way to make peace with the part of myself that screams “DANGER!” whenever I sit down at my desk. I’m hoping that by standing up and making a formal declaration about my intention to be a bad writer, I can deal with that fear.

So here goes: 2019 is the year where I will be a terrible writer. I’m going to write bad stories with disappointingly written characters, and I’m going to publish them here and elsewhere. But you know what? I’ll learn from each failure and, hopefully, by the end of the year, I’ll have a few stories that aren’t so bad.

Writing is a profession where there’s no way around it; you learn by doing. This year I’ll focus on the action and try not to worry so much about the results. There will be a lot this year that I’ll be embarrassed by later, and that’s fine. Even folks like Vonnegut, Bradbury and Due have works they’d rather not talk about floating out there. What makes me think I’m any better than that?

I know I’m not, and there’s a freedom in allowing yourself to think small. 2019 is the year of the small victory; consistent days of writing, constant output, incremental improvement. Eventually, I truly hope, through the work I’ll figure out how to beat my anxiety around it. Wish me luck.

 

A Letter Of Intent

Self Improvement 1502018 was a challenging year for a whole lot of different reasons. The biggest, of course, is the challenge of watching our society continue to fracture and become more acidic under the “guiding hand” of the Trump Administration. The frequent attacks — from all quarters — against people of color, QUILTBAG individuals and allies, religious and cultural minorities has been exhausting. Over the past two years, the persistent stress of making it through America today has made me angry, colder, more withdrawn. It’s been difficult watching myself let fear and anger take over my actions, and I don’t like the person I’ve become. That’s why this year I want to renew my focus here and elsewhere. I want to use stories to spread peace and compassion through this blog by sharing my experiences coping with mental health, writing, and social justice; sharing thoughts and lessons about being a better writer and reader; and deconstructing the stories I read and watch to discuss their impact on me and the wider world.

It is not easy dealing with mental health issues under our current political environment, and I hope being more open about my particular struggles will encourage more of us to discuss them openly and without judgement. My depression, anxiety, and ADHD all combine to express in fairly specific ways through my experience, but one aspect of this expression I share with many others is the feeling of isolation, of being invisible. We see this all the time on social media; those of us in bad spaces crying out to the dark and hoping that someone understands what we need. What makes these times so hard is not having a clear idea of what it is we actually do need; sometimes it takes sitting down and examining our thoughts to figure that out. I hope that being open about my process will help someone else as they untangle theirs.

This is especially true when it comes to my writing. The anxiety that’s been bundled up in my craft has prevented me from being productive for far too long, and I want to devote a huge chunk of my focus this year to learning how to deal with that. I realize I’m still in that space where I’ve thought a lot about stories and I know what well-told ones look and sound like; but I haven’t practiced nearly enough to polish them to the point they shine. Learning to let go of my perfectionism and anxiety is as necessary as it is hard. Learning to become a better writer means working harder but caring less about the result. Figuring out how to do that will be a big topic for me this year.

Of course, my writing has been and will continue to be political — social justice will be at the top of my mind because how could it not be? I’ll be writing a lot about that here, too; putting down my thoughts about the state of the union helps me not only figure out what I think and why, but it provides an underserved perspective that needs more light on it. I’m under no illusions that what I think is correct or even that interesting. But I’m in a unique place not only in the furry and sci-fi/fantasy communities, but also the Afro-Futurist and African diaspora. I know I have angles on things that most of us might not see. I hope that by talking about things as I see them, I can encourage others to pay more attention to different perspectives.

I’m hoping that my perspective will be challenged, and that I can use those challenges to temper my beliefs or discard them if they don’t hold up to scrutiny. I’m also hoping that these discussions will help me figure out my own writing process. I’m still figuring out the best way to actually produce stories that I’m proud of, and in order for me to do that I’ll need to write about experiments and insights that have worked (or not worked) well. Since writing is such a subjective and personal practice, what works for me might not work for others; what hasn’t worked for other people might be just the thing I need. I want The Writing Desk to be a place where we can compare notes and encouragement, to share ideas that might leads us all a little further down the path.

The most important way to improve writing, besides talking about it at length, is reading a LOT. One of my major goals for 2019 is to read at least 25 books; I’ve spent far too long away from being an avid reader, and I think that’s seriously hurt my ability to write but also be engaged in the world around me. It’s way too easy to become insular and inert as we age, and reading the perspectives and stories of other people is an excellent way to remind ourselves to be a bit more mentally spry. I sincerely believe that art is dialogue, a continuing conversations artists have with society, other works, and their own audience. Being a part of that dialogue is necessary in order to be a well-rounded artist.

So I’ll be doing my best to write specific reviews more often here — not just of books and short stories, but of movies, seasons of TV shows, comic books and the like. Making these reviews a more regular practice helps to train me towards thinking critically about stories as well as thinking more clearly about what sorts of impact I want a story to have. If I know what I find most important in the stories I fall into, then I have a stronger guiding principle towards my own writing. Reviewing reveals as much about the reviewer as it does the work, as often as not, and I’m curious about what my reviews would reveal about me.

Eventually, I want to start talking about popular culture in general — the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, and what can be gleaned about our society by looking deeply into that. If art is a conversation, then it pays to look at what our conversations tend to be about. What does it mean if, say, fantasies have fallen out of fashion, or if werewolves are the hot new monster? How does our celebration of the latest “It Person” reflect on us? How does the tone and content of our condemnation reveal our collective values? To be honest, overthinking pop culture is one of my favorite things, and I’m hoping that by putting a personal focus on how I relate to it I can begin developing the vocabulary to really dive into that.

This year, I want The Writing Desk to be a place where people go to find perspectives they haven’t encountered before. I want this to be a community of good friends having interesting conversations about what we love and what it means to love the things we do. I want to frame genre fiction and pop culture through a Buddhist lens to show how universal it is to center compassion and mindfulness. I want this to be a mechanism through which I know myself, and come to be known by others. If you’re along for the ride, welcome. I’m really looking forward to our conversations, all year long.

 

(Fundraising) Foxtrotting for Parkinson’s

Self Improvement 150Parkinson’s Disease sucks. There’s just no escaping it. Like most neurodegenerative diseases, it can strike anyone as they age and there is no cure for it — just treatments that can help alleviate symptoms or slow the progression of the disease. While researchers have noticed a few differences in the brain scans of Parkinson’s patients, exactly what’s happening to cause the disease and why it happens is largely a mystery. The puzzling affliction gradually degrades the neurons responsible for movement in about five million people worldwide, and there will be 60,000 new cases diagnosed in the United States alone. As the population ages, it’s possible we’ll see that number rise year over year.

I know that 2018 has been…a lot. As a society we have lurched from disaster to disaster, leaving a huge trail of needy people in our wake. It seems like every day there’s a new Gofundme so someone can pay for much-needed medicine, or a Kickstarter for a passion project someone wants to get off the ground. There are Patreons popping up all the time, regular calls to donate to a political organization or candidate, the steady need of relief organizations like Doctors Without Borders or UNICEF. Over the holidays (and this close to the US midterm elections), that din is going to rise to a fever pitch. So many of us are barely able to keep up with our own finances. I try not to ask for donations unless it’s a cause I believe in because I know how much we’re being asked to support our communities. But I’m going to ask for donations now; help me raise money for the Bay Area Foxtrot for Parkinson’s Disease.

In the early morning on October 14th, I’ll be shivering at Coyote Point Park in San Mateo with a host of other folks for a 5K walk/run. Thankfully a whole lot of my coworkers will have my back; as a company, we’re hoping to raise $1,500 this year. My personal goal is a mere $100 — but it’s cool knowing that every cent will be going towards funding better treatments and research for a cure to Parkinson’s. The Michael J. Fox Foundation has done some pretty amazing work, and my company has been doing its part to advance research and awareness of this disease.

The Foundation has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into research for restoring some function to the neurons that have been damaged by Parkinson’s; research for definitive biomarkers that will allow doctors to detect the disease with greater speed and accuracy; finding better treatments for symptoms suffered by patients; and organizing tools that help coordinate the efforts of the scientific community. This has translated to a deeper understanding of how Parkinson’s develops, developing new treatments to improve quality of life for patients, and making the R&D process way more efficient. But there’s still a lot to do, and that’s where we come in.

I get to run a 5K with my coworkers, and you can cheer me on by donating here: https://foxtrot.michaeljfox.org/bayarea/davcowan. Any little bit you can spare will help my team reach our fundraising goal and help the Foundation push that much harder for research, treatment, and eventually a cure. If you can’t donate right now, I totally understand. You can still help! Spread the word, point others to my fundraiser page, and if you’re local — come out to Coyote Point Park and join us for the Foxtrot!

At any rate, thanks a whole lot for anything you can do. Even if you’re not donating to this particular cause, anything you’re doing to make the world a better place is appreciated — from helping a friend in need to donating your time, money or passion to another cause that helps to ease the suffering in the world. Do what you can; even a drop in the ocean contributes to the power of the waves that comes to shore.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2018 in Buddhism

 

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(Personal) Thoughts From a 38 Year Old

Today is my birthday. It is also the anniversary of the first time atomic weapons were ever used in war, when Hiroshima was bombed on this date in 1945. I’m fascinated by this face, and I like to tell people whenever I talk about my birthday. I used to think I did this because it was an extension of My Brand (™) — self-deprecating comments, weird and unrelatable humor, random uncomfortable facts that no one quite knows what to do with. But over the years, as I keep thinking about Hiroshima and what happened to hundreds of thousands of people decades before I was born, I learned that this is just one of the ways I keep myself in proper perspective. I am celebrating myself on a day that reminds so many of unfathomable pain.

I want to talk (again) about compassion. Recently I’ve been reciting a version of the Bodhisattva Vow every morning as a demonstration to my commitment to my most important virtue:

However innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.
However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.
However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.
However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.

Learning to be a compassionate and kind person is my life’s work. I have vowed to dedicate every moment of my life, every action I take, towards spreading compassion and kindness however I can. Of course, I’m just some guy. I have my own damage and my own limitations that makes this challenging work. I may never achieve the kind of radical, all-radiating compassion that I want to inhabit. There are still people who tie me up in emotional knots whenever I think about them, and when my heart turns towards them it still hardens instinctively.

But that’s OK. I know that this is a learned response to intense pain I’ve endured in the past. In order to understand these difficult people and accept them, I must also accept and understand the pain that lives within me. When I feel myself becoming angry and unbending, I know now that’s a signal flare from the many scars I bear, calling me to tend to it. In order to properly heal it, I must learn to hold my pain with patience and love. When I can do this, I can see into the pain of others more easily through THEIR actions, and learn to hold theirs with the same patience, the same love.

We live in a time that feels like two sides are marshalling their forces for the total war that allowed up to 145,000 lives being lost through the most destructive act in military history. As we entrench our positions and collect our troops, we begin to think of the other side as abstractions, as extensions of their ideals instead of grasping, complicated human beings just like us. We call them The Enemy, The GOP, The Administration — we call their supporters fascists and racists and white supremacists. Make no mistake, these labels fit; I’m not saying that we shouldn’t call them what they are, now more than ever.

But at the same time it’s important to remember that they are more than these labels, just as we are so much more than what they call us. If we lose sight of their humanity, if we make them less real, we are priming ourselves towards inhumane actions. We are whetting our appetite to inflict more suffering, not eliminate it. That is a dangerous road. While dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima ultimately lead to the end of World War II, it also dramatically increased the suffering of millions directly, billions of us over time and space. We have lived in the shadow of that action ever since, and to this day we fear the time when just one of those weapons will be used again. If it happens, the world will again change into something we cannot recognize.

I think about the many articles these days that ask us to listen to the Trump voter or the white supremacist, or offers the reason for their destructive, hateful actions as mere economic anxiety. The reason so many Americans are falling into the trap of fascism is much the same that so many Germans did — a deep frustration about their inability to feel safe and secure with their families, and the mistaken perception that this is because of some foreign interest taking resources from a system that enables it. In order to break the spell these people are under, we must first understand the very human motivations that enable them to do such monstrous things. If we can do that, we can respond to it with the patience and love that we use to hold our own pain.

This is a very difficult thing to ask of people, especially when we’re afraid of what these people are willing to do (and have done) in order to claim a bit of happiness for themselves. So many of us have been through so much, and we have given our understanding and compassion so often and it’s meant nothing. Many of us are tired, sick, terrified. How can we be asked to be vulnerable enough to feel the pain of our enemies when they are also posing an immediate and existential threat to us and the communities we’ve worked so hard to build. I understand why there are so many people who reject out of hand the notion to keep extending compassion to those who have weaponized our principles to silence our protest and haze the issue. But I also feel that the only way to keep the proper perspective — to keep seeing these people as people — is to treat them as such. I’ve fallen into the trap of dehumanizing Trump supporters, and it’s made it so much more difficult to be the person I want to be because of it. I just can’t do it anymore.

That being said, I wouldn’t think about telling anyone else to try to be compassionate towards someone who wants to render them second-class citizens, strip away their basic human rights, who are completely fine with separating families and putting children in cages. We are rightfully shocked and angry about the abuses that continue to pile up under this regime, and I believe that the comparisons to 1930s Germany are apt. This is a very dangerous time, and we are facing very dangerous people who are dedicated to eradicating anyone who doesn’t fit their idea of what America should be. We can’t let that happen. We can’t allow these people to extinguish the hope of a compassionate society because we’re too worried about how much it diminishes us.

But we can fight in ways that allow us to uphold our own principles. What I would tell other people is to try to be as kind as you can. Kindness is in such short supply these days, and that, I believe, is the root of our problems as a society. If you can only be kind to your family, friends, and allies — focus on being as kind to them as you can. Fight the enemy, but be mindful that the fight doesn’t blind you to the necessity of compassion. The more you understand the people around you, the more you can tend to the needs expressed by their actions. All of us just want to be happy, and to feel safe. Some of us think this is a zero-sum game, that they can’t be happy or safe with us in the world, but we know better. The more compassion we share, the safer and happier the world becomes.

All we can do is the best we can do. I’m still finding the best way to walk my path, but I have traveled down the road of “righteous” hate and I didn’t like the places it lead me to. I can’t tolerate bigotry or willful ignorance, and I don’t think I can forget the things people have done to bring us to the state we’re in. But I can’t hate them anymore. I want them to feel happy. I want them to feel safe. I want them to be free from suffering. Because I believe that’s how all of us get out of this alive. That’s the future we work for. That’s the world we build.

I am so grateful that I’ve made it to 38 years old today. My heart is so heavy for the victims and descendants of the Hiroshima bombing. I worry about my country, gripped in the fear of the future and trapped in its trance. I vow to attend all of these feelings, to meet them with kindness. I vow to extend this same kindness to all of you, as much as I’m able.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2018 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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(Friday Fiction) Alvin’s Anomaly

Writing 150I really just wanted to write an urban werebear origin story, OK?


 

The phone rang quietly, but with a tone that split the silence of the bedroom sharply. A dark brown hand shot from beneath the covers, fumbling on the nightstand until fingers closed around the small silicon rectangle. They both disappeared back beneath the blankets, where a muffled voice mumbled. “Hello?”

“Is this Alvin Washington?” The voice on the other end was far too awake. There was a hint of urgent agitation that tugged the brain closer to consciousness.

Alvin flopped the covers over his chest with his free hand and sighed, glancing at the alarm clock. 10:45 AM. “Yeah,” he said, resigning himself to wakefulness. “It’s Alvin. Who’s this?”

“I’m calling from the lab at Kaiser Permanente. Uh, your results are ready and I wanted to go over a few things with you.”

Alvin blinked. Usually, lab results were dropped by email. If someone was calling, that meant something was wrong. He felt the tingle in his fingers and the dull throbbing in his head as adrenaline shot into his bloodstream. “Uh….OK. Yeah. What’s going on?”

“Well…uh…” the voice on the other end hesitated. “We got some really strange readings and…I know this is highly unusual…but I wanted to call you directly and ask some questions.”

Alvin scooted up in bed and tried to ignore the almost dizzying thumping of his brain inside his skull. “Yeah? Strange how?”

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

“Are you there?”

“Yes. Yes, I’m here, sorry. I’m trying to…figure out how to say this.”

“Just say what you got to say, dude. Don’t just call somebody up and freak ’em out about their lab tests.” Alvin huffed, gracelessly kicking the covers down towards the foot of the bed. Now that he was awake, it felt way too hot.

“You’re right. Sorry. Uh, I guess it’s best to just rip the Band-Aid off. We found levels of iron and cholesterol in your blood that would indicate a life-threatening issue. Frankly, there’s no way you should be up and walking around.”

“Huh,” was all Alvin could manage. He knew something was wrong with him, but what he was being told didn’t make much sense. Ever since coming back from the field trip, his body felt like it was going haywire. His skin itched. His blood boiled. His bones froze. He was hungry all the time, and he ate until he was sick. It was hard to keep anything down. His head ached; sometimes it was a dull throb, but other times it felt like his skull was coming apart and his teeth were loose in their sockets. For two weeks, he had been laid up in bed, sleeping until the sun went down, stumbling to the store for food, devouring whatever he bought, smoking pot to dull the ache in his head and his joints until he could sleep again. It wasn’t any way to live.

His cousin took him to the emergency room two…no, three days ago now. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him, but they thought he might have contracted something from the nasty-looking wound he had gotten on the camping trip. A bear had gotten into the food and he tried to scare it off by banging two pots together. Instead, it charged. He leapt out of the way, but got tagged by a claw that ripped him open from forearm to elbow. It took 35 stitches to close. It still itched like hell.

“It’s not the only weird thing,” the voice on the other end continued. “We were very concerned about your bloodwork, considering how you presented to the emergency room and given the fact you were the victim of an animal attack. Uh…bear, was it?”

“Yeah,” Alvin said. He was having trouble focusing on the conversation. “So just tell me what all this means.”

“Can you confirm that the blood we received was yours and yours alone?”

Alvin squinted in confusion. What kind of question was that? “Uh…yeah? I was in the hospital, the nurse took like, eight vials of blood from my arm. If there was a mix-up it had to be you.”

“No, I mean…I…look, what I saw didn’t make any sense, so I…sort of took a sample and showed it to a couple of…specialists I know.” The voice on the other end got quiet, like he was whispering.

“O…K…” Alvin wasn’t sure where this was going any more.

“They found the blood had a mixture of human and bear DNA. I mean, not like, some cells were human and some cells were bear. Like, the DNA we took from the blood had genetic markers found in both species. At the same time.”

“What the fuck?”

“I know, it…that shouldn’t be possible. I’d like to see you.”

“Who the fuck is this?” Alvin had had enough. He looked at the number on the phone; it wasn’t one he recognized. “You have to be fucking with me. Did Shum put you up to this?”

“I don’t know who Shum is, sir. Listen…you can just meet me at the lab tomorrow, right? Just look for the tech with the brown and black lab pin. We can meet my friend at the cafeteria.”

Alvin sighed. “Look, dude, I just want to find out what’s wrong with me so I can get better. I’m not interested in…whatever this is.”

“This is about what’s wrong with you. I swear, I wouldn’t be talking to you like this if I didn’t think it was the best way to get to the bottom of it. Will you meet me?”

Alvin considered this. He would be at the medical center regardless, so if he decided that whatever this was didn’t smell right he could always find a supervisor to talk to instead. “Yeah, all right. Tomorrow. What time?”

“2:30. Please come alone, and don’t tell anyone about this. Not even your doctor.”

The line went dead before Alvin could say anything else. He looked at his phone in bewilderment. Trying to think through this headache was like wading through molasses.

He got out of bed, slow and grunting. He’d figure all of this out tomorrow. For now, he wanted to see what was in his fridge.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2018 in Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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(Politics) For The Culture

Politics 150The culture wars have been raging for a little while now, on all kinds of different fronts in so many different ways. We’re fighting about the idea of “white culture”, the cultural appropriation of Native Americans and black Americans, how to clearly and succinctly define what’s offensive about one thing while another thing is given a pass. The very idea of “culture” is such a nebulous concept that it’s hard for us in the US — the great melting pot country — to think about it in a way that conversations about culture make sense. I wanted to talk for a minute about culture as I see it, and why the flashpoints of the culture war matter.

So just what is culture, anyway? If we’re going to debate about it, we have to make sure we’re working from the same definition. Here’s one that I like: culture is “the (collected) customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group”. It feels simple, yet all-encompassing, and points to just why it’s so difficult to talk about culture as a concrete idea. When something can be used to talk about the entire breadth of an entire group, it can be hard to pull back enough to see it all clearly. Most of the time, we’re debating something we can’t get an objective perspective on because we’re way too close to it.

A specific culture is easier to identify when the nation, people, or social group that claims it is relatively homogenous or well-established. That’s why we have a fairly good image of, say, Japanese or Irish culture and we’re less comfortable on, say, African cultures or various minority cultures within the United States. Africa is a vast continent home to hundreds of different groups that have existed for varying lengths of time, in different environments, with different pressures exerting influence to determine the rate of cultural shift. Minority cultures in America are made up of patches consisting of the most distinctive bits of home and the things in our host country that exert the most powerful influence. The closeness of so many other cultures means there’s a lot of bleedthrough; black American culture has been influenced by Asian-American culture and vice versa. In such a dynamic, constantly shifting environment, without the anchor of a widely-known history or a stable social niche, minority cultures can feel fleeting and ephemeral. But they are very solid and very real.

Let’s talk about black American culture, because it’s the minority culture I’m most familiar with. My culture stretches back to the days of slavery in colonial America; the constant pressure of racism has been one of its most consistent influences. As a Black American, so many things about me are political: the music I like, the people I date, the places I live, the jobs I strive for and ultimately land. But it goes so much deeper than that. My skin, my lips, my name, my hair — my whole body — is political. That influence from the “dominant culture” — the American culture of US exceptionalism, self-made men, chain stores and cowboys — has shaped my culture in ways both subtle and explicit.

So much of black American culture is rooted in a response to the pain of our history and the ongoing mistreatment we endure from the institutions that are supposed to look out for us. Hairstyles like Afros, dreadlocks, and braids that center our natural texture are an attempt to reclaim our self-esteem after centuries of being told we’ll never achieve an American standard of beauty. Our music — blues, hip-hop, rap, and rock — are expressions of the tension we hold within us and feel steady through our lives every day. Our dances can be linked through the decades all the way back to the celebrations and rituals of our ancestors, the meanings of which have been forgotten but the movement of which we have retained. Despite being ripped from our home and forcibly separated from our culture, our ancestors found ways to hold on to what mattered to them and express them in new ways.

Black Americans aren’t the only minorities who’ve done this. Native Americans are fiercely protective of their culture after being systematically dismantled by European settlers and ultimately perverted by descendants who want to identify with something “exotic” but also “real”. Asian-Americans balance the traditional beliefs of their native cultures against the pressures of American society to blend in properly. Latinx Americans bring their own history, experiences, preferences and relationships from Central and South America. I realize that these are all hopeless simplifications of these cultures, and that’s precisely why it’s so hard to have these conversations. To properly understand another culture, you have to understand so much about where it came from; not just the people within the culture, but their history, art, values, philosophy, and interactions with others. Just understanding the context of one aspect of it (like hair) could take much more study than the average person would be willing to put up with.

So, what about the white culture that the alt-right and other supremacist groups claim to care about preserving? Why is that such a bogus claim? Well, it’s because white culture simply doesn’t exist — not in the way it’s meant. Let’s refer back to our definition of culture: the (collected) customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. What specific examples for custom, art, social institution or achievement could be classified as simply ‘white’ and refined no further? What kind of distinctly “white” expression is in danger of being lost? White Americans can trace their lineage back to a host of European cultures, the places that their ancestors emigrated from. There is English culture, Irish culture, German, French, Russian, Scandinavian culture. But “white” culture, everything that’s happened once the United States was formed? That is American culture, and it belongs to everyone who helped form it — from the European immigrants who formed the first government to the native Americans they displaced to the Africans they kidnapped and forced into slavery. American culture belongs to the Asians who were exploited for labor, the Latinx Americans who themselves descended from the messy, violent past of European settlement and native genocide, the Jewish and Pacific Islanders. If America is truly what we say it is, then the culture comprised of so many different groups is part of that — and that means no one group can claim sole ownership of it.

Culture, of course, is not strictly defined by race or nationality. Any social group can have its own culture, provided that the community that creates it is tight-knit enough and lasts long enough to develop a set of attitudes and expressions that can be passed from person to person. Those of us who spend a lot of time on the Internet belong to a culture; those of us who built careers in huge corporations belong to another. There’s comic-book culture, cinephile culture, wine culture, maker culture, gym culture, bibliophile culture. Our hobbies, professions and interests can each own their own specific culture, even though these tend to be fairly loose, obscure and relatively low-key. Most of us move through cultures all the time — the culture of our racial or national background at home, the culture of our professional career at work, various cultures online and in-person. Very few of us embody just one culture because as human beings we contain a multitude of thoughts, emotions and relationships.

So, if culture is so permeable, why is cultural appropriation such a bad thing? I have to admit, it took me a while to figure this one out. But I think I have it. Here’s a thought experiment.

Imagine you worked on something for a very long time that you felt was a direct expression of the deepest, most vulnerable part of you. It could be a novel, or a song, or a dance, or a computer program. Whatever it is, whenever you talk about it you’re shut down by most of your friends. Everyone you know discourages you from making it, telling you that it’s garbage or it doesn’t matter, or that it’s stupid and backwards. Over time, you’re forced to choose again and again — your friends, or your project. You want friends, but you can’t resist the call of what you’re creating. You can’t give up who you are just to be near people who don’t actually like you. So you become more isolated, and angry, and afraid, and that channels into your work too. And, after a long time of bruising work and rejection, your creation is complete, ready to show to the world.

Suddenly, those same people who were clowning you take a look at what you’ve done and decided they like it. So they take bits of it for their own — leaving out the symbolism you painstakingly weaved into each piece of your project. Some aspects of your creation are taken just because they look or sound nice, or because someone else decides they want it to mean something you had never meant. Over time, your work is everywhere, but the meaning behind it and the expression you hoped to put across is absent. The thing that meant so much to you is fragmented and distorted until it’s unrecognizable, subsumed by the people that never wanted you to make it in the first place.

That’s cultural appropriation. It’s taking an expression of someone else’s culture — something that wasn’t meant for someone outside of that culture, with no perspective of its history, meaning or importance — and deciding to use it in a way it was never intended. It’s stripping a deeply meaningful symbol of its meaning and making it a fashion statement.

I think this is why most objections of cultural appropriation come from minority cultures that have been persecuted by a dominant culture. Each culture will have different attitudes about cross-pollination or expressing an aspect of it within a different context, but for those of us with cultures that have been formed by enmity and repression, it’s a little hard to take when the culture of your oppressor decides that something that links you to your people is a fashion statement. The appropriation of a symbol associated with great pain and historical struggle can come across as further insult and belittling for the culture being taken from.

That can be a hard thing to grasp for people who don’t belong to a culture that’s been subjected to that kind of treatment, or where the wounds of history are allowed to heal. For many of us in communities of color, however, that’s simply not the case. History is very much alive through institutional equality and cultural diminishment; the same dominant American culture that dismisses our protests by finding fault in our culture steals the fashion, art, slang and self-expression generated by it.

This is a crude construction of culture, built by a layman so that other laypeople can understand a perspective different from their own. It’s by no means exhaustive or infallibly accurate, but hopefully it helps you understand what we think about when we talk about culture and why we say the things we do in debates and arguments. For those of us who have been marginalized for generations, our culture is a significant means of self-determination. It is a precious thing for us. For others who feel more comfortable with their social status, the pressure to belong or express a culture may not be understandable. I get that. Not everyone is going to take the cultures they belong to seriously, but that doesn’t mean everyone should be so flippant. Respecting the boundaries other people set for their cultural expression would go a long, long way towards building a harmonious relationship with them — and it may be the thing that encourages more open cross-cultural exchange.

 
 

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