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Category Archives: Better Living Through Stories

A Worker’s Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Iceman, Vol. 1: Thawing Out (Review)

Reading 150If you’re one of the original five X-Men and your name isn’t Jean Grey or Scott Summers, chances are you’ve got a bum deal. Angel is mostly known for having his wings torn off and replaced by cybernetic ones as one of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen. Beast was arguably most popular during his stint with the Avengers team in the 70s and 80s before rejoining his old team and curing the Legacy Virus in the 90s. Iceman, however, doesn’t even have an iconic storyline or fan-favorite supervillain to boost his street cred. Mostly, he’s just known for…well, being a member of the Original Five.

Writers have spent years looking for ways to make Bobby Drake more distinctive. He was classified as an Omega Level mutant sometime ago, but unlike others with the classification (like, say, Jean or fellow X-Man Storm) he’s not one of the first names you think of when an extinction-level threat rears up. Several writers have put work in justifying Iceman’s designation, but nothing’s really stuck in the popular consciousness. More recently Iceman made headlines when a past version of himself was outed as gay by Jean, which raised all kinds of questions. How could he have been gay for this long without any inkling from anyone else (including readers)? Especially when he’s had a bit of a reputation for his love life?

During one of their many recent X-Men relaunches, Iceman was one of the two Original Five X-Men to get a solo series. (The other — of course — was the time-displaced Jean Grey.) The first five issues debuted back in 2017, and I have to admit I gave it a pass at the time. It wasn’t a great time to be an X-fan, and the constant upheavals in the status quo with subsequent relaunches didn’t give me much faith that this title would last. Sure enough, it was cancelled after 11 issues, renewed months later, then cancelled again after six more issues. In this particular age of Marvel, 17 issues is a decent run — but what about the story that was told in that space? The first collection of Iceman, Thawing Out, establishes the “new normal” for Bobby Drake as he tries to figure himself out and live up to his Omega-level potential.

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He’s smiling because he’s finally figured an ice-based gay pun

If I had to describe the first five issues of Iceman in one word, it would be “accessible”. Writer Sina Grace has the unenviable task of making sense of Bobby’s controversial status quo while also providing readers with a compelling reason to see him as a potential ‘leading man’. Iceman has never felt like a big deal; for the ongoing to work, the first arc really needs to establish him as someone capable of anchoring stories as well as Spider-Man or Captain America. However, Bobby’s recent embrace of his sexuality means that he might need to seem like the “same old Iceman” so he doesn’t further alienate a vocal contingent of the comics fandom. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and for various reasons it feels like Grace and the editorial team made a series of choices that put the title into a place that doesn’t appeal to anyone who might be willing to give it a shot.

In the first arc, Iceman struggles to come out to his parents as gay — which makes sense, since they still haven’t fully accepted him as a mutant. The whole affair is complicated by an appearance from the Purifiers and a dust-up with Juggernaut, but when the dust settles there’s at least hope that the cold war between Bobby and his parents can thaw given time. Grace wisely echoes audience sentiment — “Who IS Iceman, really?” — within Drake himself, who states from the jump that his legacy isn’t very strong and he doesn’t have a well-defined self-image. By bundling the audience questions into the narrative, Grace acknowledges the challenge directly while offering an implicit promise we’ll get an answer through Bobby’s journey of self-discovery.

And we get an idea of why it’s so difficult for Bobby to reconcile what makes him different through his parents. It’s clear that his parents’ inability to accept him for who he is makes it hard for him to accept himself; he’s torn between who he feels he is and who his parents want him to be. Anyone who’s spent some time being closeted in their family can relate to this. The tension that comes with weighing your desire to be a part of your family against the need to be true to yourself is so hard to reconcile. But it also feels like Bobby should have pulled the trigger on a decision about this by now. He’s been living this way for years at this point, and he’s been his own man for long enough to decide for himself who he is.

I think that’s one of the reasons why this first arc doesn’t quite work — it feels like it’s speaking to a dilemma we’ve gotten past as a society. Folks who don’t accept LGBQTIA people aren’t likely to be swayed by this story, and the folks who are LGBQTIA don’t quite see themselves in Bobby’s situation. Those still closeted under their parents’ roof don’t have a team of superheroes to lean on, no superpowers to save themselves (or their family) from bigots, no external threats to unite their family. The resolution with Bobby’s parents feels at once too small a win to celebrate but at the same time too easily achieved — he hasn’t really learned to address the flaws keeping him from a resolution, and his parents haven’t really budged from their vague disapproval or dealt with the reasons they have such trouble accepting their son.

Iceman’s core conflict doesn’t drill down into the specifics that would make the story more compelling and Bobby Drake a superhero worth rooting for. We still don’t quite understand why Bobby decided that he didn’t want to be both gay AND a mutant, especially since Northstar is around; we don’t understand how being forced to confront his sexuality is connected to living up to the potential of his mutant powers. Instead, we’re left with the idea that the process of accepting himself has begun and that’s satisfying in its own way.

Sina Grace has spoken out on his Tumblr about his experience writing Iceman, and it is not pretty. According to him, he had little support on the title itself and with the cultural fallout that comes with being a lightning rod in the industry. While paying lip service to the potential to tell diverse stories, Marvel apparently asked him to keep things relatively beige to help its slight chances at being a hit. More assertively gay stories were dismissed, and the arrival of a trans superhero named Shade was not given any publicity. I could easily see Grace being hamstrung from telling the kind of story he wanted by a nervous editorial group, which is a shame.

Because Iceman really does feel like a half-measure on Marvel’s part, telling a difficult story with a series of mis-steps designed to reduce offense instead of speaking truth. It simultaneously acknowledges the hard truths of being gay while diminishing how hard they can be to cope with; it still thinks that featuring a gay character is enough to be progressive. The fact of the matter is they were going to take heat from the same corners of the comics world no matter “how gay” they made the title; it would have been better to take a big swing than the sacrifice bunt they ended up with.

Still, there’s enough to recommend Iceman as a title — especially if you’re a fan of the X-Man himself. It’s just too bad it’s yet another example of a Bobby Drake story that fails to live up to its potential. It’s decent enough, but not nearly what could have been.

 

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We Need To Talk

Politics 150The season five finale of Steven Universe felt like a perfect encapsulation of what makes the show so great — it made a case for its themes and worldview while acknowledging just how difficult it can be holding to those views. Steven, and the family of Crystal Gems he’s built, have often struggled to navigate the labyrinthine paths of healing and reconciliation with humans, gems, and monsters they’ve come across but they have never stopped trying to walk that path. Steven Universe can be surprisingly dark for a children’s show, but that makes its messages land with that much more weight. The writers know how hard it is to have empathy for everyone you meet, even the enemies who want nothing less than your eradication. Fighting, the shows says, is necessary sometimes to protect yourself and the people you love. But you should never, ever lose sight of your true goal: to change the minds of the people you disagree with, to find a way towards peaceful resolution.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, Steven Universe is an animated show about the titular half-human, half-alien boy as he comes of age in an idyllic beachside town. His father is a washed-out rocker who now owns a car wash, and has ceded the bulk of Steven’s education to three genderless (but female-presenting) aliens named the Crystal Gems. His mother, Rose Quartz, was the leader of an uprising against a tyrannical galactic empire ruled by the Diamonds, mysterious but incredibly powerful beings who have set very rigid roles for everyone under them and seek to colonize other worlds to keep their empire perfect.

Over the past five seasons, Steven has matured considerably. He has dealt with problems with his human friends; helped repair the trauma endured by the Gems (his caretakers and Rose Quartz’s lieutenants during the uprising); eased tensions between oblivious, panicky townsfolk and the aloof aliens that share the town with him; and learned just how difficult it is to be who you truly are in a world that is constantly seeking to mold you into a category it feels more comfortable with. As I’ve taken this journey with him, I’ve found myself trying harder to understand where people are coming from and work with them from that perspective. It’s not easy — these days it feels impossible — but it’s also necessary. Steven Universe has given me, and hopefully a lot of the children who watch it religiously, a blueprint for emotional maturity that I’m not sure we can get from too many other places.

One of the many things I love about the show is the nature of its dialogue and how it presents its worldview. Steven Universe is not a preachy show, though it does wear its themes proudly on its sleeve. The Crystal Gems are a wholly diverse expression of femininity: there’s uptight, proper Pearl; tomboy-trickster Amethyst; mysterious, self-possessed Garnet. The culture of the Gems gives us an entire society of women with a kaleidoscope of personalities, body types, and stories without diminishing Steven or any of the other men populating Beach City. Personal and cultural disagreements between characters are handled promptly and discreetly; people talk and listen, truly absorbing someone else’s point of view while advocating their own. Most of the time, everyone involved realizes something they could do better, and commit themselves to doing it.

These days it’s really easy to paint people we disagree as inhuman monsters. On the right, any attempt to square injustices or correct harmful attitudes is met with “SJW” or “NPC”. Folks like us are viewed as hordes of weak-willed communists who won’t rest until white men are left with nothing. On the left, most who question the prevailing wisdom of social justice are branded quickly as bigots, Nazis, or hopelessly clueless and dismissed or attacked accordingly. The division has become so white-hot that any attempt to establish a dialogue is frequently met with derision from both sides. The time, it seems, for discussion is over; all that’s left is the fighting.

And I get it: our reality is far more complex and difficult than the world of Steven Universe. People of color, people of different gender expression and sexual preferences, even the economically disadvantaged — we’ve all been treated so badly for so long despite peaceful resistance, civil disobedience, voluntary separation, assimilation and integration, and so many other coping mechanisms that steadfast, unyielding resistance feels like the only option left to us. If we look to our history, especially in the United States, we see that often the only way to affect change is to disrupt the comfort of the status quo enough that there’s no choice. Eventually, things reach a tipping point where what’s come before cannot continue.

But it does, only in a different way. The underlying illness of anti-social, bigoted, racist, xenophobic thinking doesn’t go away. It merely finds a new way to express itself. Colonialism gives way to capitalist exploitation. Slavery gives way to segregation and institutionalized oppression. While one system is eventually recognized as cruel and inhumane, it is merely replaced by another one that is better on paper but not in spirit. The reason we have Nazis and white supremacists on our streets again is that they never actually went away — they simply changed the way they operate so that they can hide in plain sight. If we turn this tide back, society will change, sure. But we’ll have to keep fighting, and another layer of lingering, generational resentment will form the soil where a new crop of bigots can flourish.

Like Steven, we’re in a time where we have to fight in order to protect ourselves and the people we love from the forces that seek to eradicate us just for being different, for being ourselves and not the rigidly-defined roles society has set out for us. We cannot tolerate the callous disregard of another person’s dignity, right to life, or right to happiness. But we also have to remember that our ultimate goal is something else entirely: the end of a need for fighting. And we can’t do that without changing minds. That cannot be done through violence or total defeat. It has to be done through understanding the motivations behind these attitudes and behaviors, honoring the same impulses within us, and finding a way to shift perspectives so those impulses are put towards a more common good.

We’ll still need to live together after the fighting is done. The more either side uses these scorched earth tactics, the more difficult that will be to do. I’m not naive enough to think that we can just talk our way out of this current flashpoint, but I am hopeful enough to believe that more talking can ease the fighting and build a better foundation for whatever peace can be found here. If we are to take up the mantle of the social justice warrior, we have to have a better sense of what being a warrior means. We’re not seeking the end of our enemies; we are seeking the end of enmity. Part of that work is finding a way to purge ourselves of the hostilities we harbor, even to the people (and yes, they are still people) who have done and said horrific things. That is not an easy thing to do. It might take us our entire lives. But if we don’t want to end up right back here in 50 or 60 years repeating this cycle, it’s what we must do. Anything less is a kind of social insanity, repeating the mistakes of our history with the full expectation that things will turn out different this time.

I’m exhausted being angry all of the time. There are still people I can’t talk to because I know they’re not speaking in good faith; when you know someone is manipulating communication for their own ends, there’s no solid foundation with which to build a relationship. There’s simply no way to trust them. I just have to disengage and hope that they can find their way through some other means. But I try very hard not to write someone off if I can help it. No one is too far gone that they can’t come around. No one is irredeemable. I have to believe this, because I would want someone else to believe this of me. We all want to be accepted, forgiven, embraced. Think about what it would take for a Trump (or Hillary) voter to mend your relationship; use this as your North Star. Even though we might get lost in the fog of war for a time, trust that it’s still there. Always move towards it. Never lose sight of it. It may take an impossibly long time to get there, but any step we can take is a good one.

 

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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.

 

(Geekery) Serving Our Stories, Ourselves

Myth 150We don’t live in times where self-reflection is encouraged often enough. I mean, I understand why it feels so hard to take a moment to check in with ourselves and make adjustments where needed; making sure we’re living up to our own values feels awfully self-indulgent when so many people around us feel as if they’re under an existential threat to their existence. But even now, with the world on fire, it’s more important than ever to examine the narrative we’ve given ourselves to see if it’s helping us or holding us back.

I was blown away several days ago by Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix stand-up special, Nanette. Like most Americans, this is my first real exposure to the veteran Tasmanian comic — and if she’s serious about following through on her decision to give up comedy, that’s a shame. The first 15-20 minutes reads like a retrospective of the material she’s known for, gentle and self-effacing reflections about the pain of growing up lesbian in small-town Australia. But then she declares that she might need to quit comedy and the set becomes something else entirely — a deconstruction of her career and the failings of comedy (and society) to heal the trauma endured by the marginalized.

One of Gadsby’s central arguments in Nanette is that repeating the story of her traumatic experiences in her routine has encouraged her to focus on the wrong parts of it so she can’t take the lessons from them she needs to. Worse still, when she shares her story that way the impact of them only serves to cement the shame and humiliation she’s internalized from being told that she was “wrong” at a very early age. What she shares with her audience stops at the punchline, which is only there to release the tension that’s built by talking about disapproval from her family and neighbors for being gay, or the confrontation she has with a gay-bashing man late at night. While the diffusion of that tension is fuel for her comedy, it also forces her to focus on the parts of the story that denies the closure she needs to make peace with her past.

So she gives us the full context of her stories and forces us to sit with the full weight of the tension she’s been dealing with her entire life. This is what it’s like for those of us on the margins of society, she says. All that pain and anger and confusion swirls inside of us with no outlet beyond the one we make for ourselves, and even then we have to diminish it, round off the sharp edges, and sweeten it up to make it palatable for mainstream audiences. Those of us in the minority build a life swallowing our own shame and anger in order to prioritize the comfort of those who’ve never had to experience it. Her refusal to do that any more, even in the space of a single stand-up special, forces us to reconsider the way we tell our own stories and the effect that decision has on us.

Taking ownership of our own story is one of the most powerful things we can do. In Nanette, during one particularly fiery invective, Gadsby says “There is NOTHING stronger than a woman who’s been torn apart and put herself back together again.” The latest pod of episodes for Steven Universe season 5 is an amazing example of how empowering it is to recontextualize the story of your past. By focusing on the parts of the story that gives you the most strength, you free yourself to choose what you pack in your own personal baggage.

After the latest revelation — that Rose Quartz and Pink Diamond are actually the same being, and that Pink’s shattering was staged so that the Earth could be free from the rule of the Diamonds — the Crystal Gems struggle to reconcile with the fact that everything they thought they knew about fundamental parts of their history is a lie. Rose, their leader in the revolution, is actually the “tyrant” they were fighting against the whole time. Garnet, the fusion of Ruby and Sapphire, takes it especially hard — Sapphire runs off devastated, saying that her relationship to Ruby was built on a lie this whole time.

In their time apart, both Ruby and Sapphire take the time to absorb this new information and consider what it means for them. Sapphire, in learning the truth about Rose/Pink and how she was inspired to fight the Diamonds because of Garnet’s (then) unheard-of fusion, decides to recommit to her relationship with Ruby. Ruby, on the other hand, decides to make a go of being her own person before realizing that the person she wants to be is the person that chooses Sapphire.

To celebrate their refusion, Ruby, Sapphire and Steven plan a wedding, and it’s the first half of “Reunited” (the season finale?) that serves as a tremendous capstone to their journey. Steven’s song, “Let’s Only Think About Love,” instantly lodged in my brain as a panacea against the panic inspired by the overwhelming litany of problems we have to face in this day and age. Garnet’s decision to focus on the parts of her new story that forges a connection becomes a rallying cry for everyone in Steven’s family to do the same. It’s a beautiful sequence that reminds me of how important it is to celebrate the love we have in our lives. Yes, there’ll be time to fight the evils of the world but we also have to give ourselves room to remind ourselves of what we’re fighting for. We fight for the ability to celebrate our resilience and our diversity and our hard-won joy. We fight for the chance to make sure others don’t have to fight so hard to be happy.

Both Hannah Gadsby and Garnet take stock of their lives and the narratives that have sustained them as a means of figuring out how they relate to themselves and the world around them. Gadsby decides it’s necessary to discard a huge part of her identity in order to move forward, while Garnet decides to remain who she is. Both of them come out of the exercise with a much clearer sense of themselves and their purpose, and watching them go through that painful work is engrossing, angering, exhilarating.

I’ve long been a proponent of setting aside my feelings on a political issue in order to try to meet people where they are; I still believe that the only way you get someone to shift their beliefs is by making sure they’re comfortable enough to be flexible. But at the same time, it’s so important to make sure we express ourselves in a way that asserts and affirms our humanity and our right to exist. It does us no good to perform as the meek and unthreatening minority when all it does is undermine our sense of self-worth; it’s not our lot in life to be the stewards of comfort for those with the privilege to look away from the inherent tension in our lives. Making sure we’ve taken care of our own stories, that we’re telling them in the way that helps us and people like us, allows us to connect in ways that are fundamentally important to our well-being and helps us erase the history of shame we carry with us.

That is worth so much more than the conditional approval of someone too fragile to be comfortable with diverse perspectives and the tension present in anything different. We’re worth so much more than that.

 

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(Politics) Fighting to Save the Things We Love

“That’s how we’re going to win: not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” – Rose Tico, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Gaming 150Last week, the actress who played Rose, Kelly Marie Tran, deleted her Instagram account after months of harassment rooted in racism and misogyny by trolls who hated her inclusion in the Skywalker Saga. Tran became the first Asian-American woman to join the main cast of a Star Wars film (in the ninth film of the franchise); she was the first Asian woman on the cover of Vanity Fair when the magazine did a cover story that also featured costars John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. This woman, who was the first in her family to attend college in America, who is the daughter of immigrants fleeing the Vietnam War, who got to break barriers in a franchise she had been a fan of her entire life — this was how she was accepted into the Star Wars community, with months of racist attacks from people who should have been celebrating her.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Kelly Marie Tran and what happens to the trailblazers who try to take a place at the table of fandom. Leslie Jones — the actress and SNL comedienne who joined Paul Feig’s all-woman Ghostbusters reboot — experienced much the same thing in 2016 after Milo Y. began tweeting to her directly and sharing fake posts supposedly from her account. She, too, was chased off social media for a time.

These are just the most prominent recent examples of a toxic fandom killing the joy of creation and inclusion for people. It’s happened in the fandoms for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Steven Universe, Doctor Who, and Star Trek — all genre staples for an entire generation that gives us messages of acceptance and brotherhood as part of their core tenets. Instead of proving the message of the show in their communities, the people who populate Twitter and Reddit and Tumblr and various message boards have shown time and again that they would rather punish women and people of color for being visible in their fiction than the showrunners and community leaders who have been responsible for some hideous abuses to those of us who are most vulnerable and voiceless.

It’s been a frustrating thing to watch. At precisely the point we should be celebrating the explosion of diversity in the science-fiction and fantasy fandom, we have to watch the folks gaining visibility for us for the first time get harassed out of public spaces from people who feel like only they (and the folks like them) get to own it. These folks will attempt to frame the conversation through disingenuous means and rhetorical tricks, as if the violent, emotional response to inclusion can be couched in “logical debate” and a “reasonable difference in opinion”. I think it’s important to call these reactions what they are: greed, bigotry, and hypocrisy. It’s also important to state — in no uncertain terms — that this kind of hate has no place in a fandom that’s been dedicated from the beginning towards the resistance of a tyrannical, racist power structure deciding who does and doesn’t matter. And it’s important to fight against that hate as much as we can, so we don’t allow it to take root and fester within our fandoms.

But I would argue it’s more important to support and lift up the people who’ve uplifted us within the fandom. It’s more important to let Kelly Marie Tran know that there are many, many more people who support her than it is to give visibility to the people who have worn down her love for Star Wars and its fans. It’s more important to support Leslie Jones and the new Ghostbusters by talking about why we loved it than it is to push back against the fans who can’t deal seeing women taking the helm of a favorite franchise. It’s more important to show up for the creators who are putting themselves out there, willing to be visible and show us something different, who are stepping up to represent us at a time that’s so desperately needed. I think to really turn the tide and save the reputation of our various fandoms, we need to make our love louder than their hate.

This is more than performative action. Focusing on the things we love — and expressing our support for them — changes the tone of the entire conversation. It reminds us daily why we spend so much time and energy in these spaces, keeps us focused on the positive things that fandom has brought into our lives, makes us more resilient against the never-ending tide of negativity that can overwhelm us on the Internet. Keeping the lessons of the stories we love and the attributes of our favorite characters close in our hearts can show us the way towards responding from a more positive place: we can condemn the actions of terrible people from a place of love for what we’re protecting, not hate for the people sullying it. That matters, because it leads us to make better choices in our response. It helps us to internalize the principles these stories mean to instill in us.

A few years ago, superhero movies were so concerned with spectacle that the stories forgot about the people meant to exist within those set-pieces. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed by an alien invasion or scientific accident or mythical end-game, and the camera followed each punch and counter-punch between the hero and the big bad on screen; occasionally, we could see fleeting glances of ducking, panicked citizens fleeing in the background. Once the criticism against this got loud enough, there was a (perhaps slight) course-correction: we saw more scenes of superheroes saving people, making sure the innocent were OK before going off to stop the bad guy. It’s a small detail, but it’s so important. We can’t forget why we fight. We can’t be so absorbed in defeating evil that the innocent people around us fade into the background. We can’t ignore them precisely because they’re supposed to be the most important piece of this puzzle. This is why we’re fighting in the first place.

There is no shortage of people who need to protected these days. There are people of color, LGBQTIA+ people, immigrants, the poor, the homeless, people with disabilities, children in the care of an incompetent and uncaring government. While we should absolutely be protesting the government’s policies that fail these vulnerable populations, we should also be working to help them however we can. It’s not enough to fight this administration to keep from doing harm; we have to help those who are most affected by its callous treatment. What are we doing on that side of the coin? How do we check in to make sure they’re OK?

It might not feel as glamorous or as visible or even as easy as protesting, but it’s absolutely the most important thing to do right now. Support Kelly. Support Leslie. Support one another. That’s how we win without losing ourselves.

 

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