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(Personal) What I Brought Back From Europe

In August and September, work sent me one of their headquarters officers in Belgium for training on the product we support as part of an effort to foster more collaboration between the Support teams in Europe and the US. I was there for two weeks, with a “gap weekend” in Paris visiting a dear friend teaching there. It was my first time out of the country, and I had just enough time there to get a small taste of how life was different there and gain a few lessons about how I’m living here, day to day. Basically, spending a couple of weeks working in Europe taught me a lot about the pace of life here, how we relate to people, and how simplicity really can be a better way of life. Here are five broad lessons I’ve brought back with me from Belgium and France.

Culture shock is real.

If you’ve never experienced a culture different from your own, it’s not something you can ever be prepared for — especially if you’re spending a significant amount of time in said culture. There were so many things, both big and small, that shook me out of my comfort zone constantly. Belgium is a country with three distinct cultures and languages — French, German, Dutch — and they’re used to speaking multiple languages to get by. For someone like me who only speaks English on a regular basis, that lingual fluidity was much more difficult. The cuisine was different, of course; Italian dishes, beef and potatoes were the order of the day with very little seasoning. Mealtimes were a social event, where the expectation was that significant time would be carved out to eat and speak at leisure. Even the small interactions were different. People were less open but more friendly, stores were a lot smaller and more personal, coffee culture is way more geared towards espresso, and the volume of life is much quieter — even in Paris.

There are so many things we take for granted as universal to the human experience when it really isn’t. Beyond cultivating different personalities, cultures can also work from pretty different foundations about life’s purpose or an individual’s responsibility to society. And those foundations can sit beneath structures that are similar on the face, but baffling to navigate through. I know I’m not a worldly rabbit, but I try hard to recognize and accept those differences when I come across them. Even still, two weeks of that kind of discomfort was much more exhausting than I had anticipated.

Discomfort is a good thing.

The two weeks I spent in Belgium and Paris were almost constantly uncomfortable. Right up front I fought through jet lag, and after that was the harder, steadier work of navigating culture shock. There was the more familiar discomfort of building relationships with a small circle of coworkers who came over with me. There was penetrating a very different office culture and learning a complicated piece of software on top of that. There weren’t a lot of familiar comforts to be found; everything was new and required active engagement.

That wasn’t a bad thing, though. After making peace with the reality of the situation, I learned that constant engagement could be fulfilling and fruitful all on its own. That discomfort meant I was being tested, and learning how to move forward through that taught me a large amount in a relatively short time. Rest is important, of course; so is taking time to sink into comfort. But I think we’ve prized comfort far too much. Difficult things will cause discomfort, because building the skills we need to do them demands a lot of effort. We have to gauge whether or not this discomfort will lead to empowering us later, and not all hard situations are worth pushing through. But I think we’re too afraid of being uncomfortable in general. We treat it as an enemy instead of a sign that we’re doing something that changes us, makes us better.

Understanding people is hard work, but totally worth it.

The trainer in Belgium was a fairly difficult man to get along with, and it made training a lot more difficult. Beyond the culture and corporate clash, there was the fact that he didn’t have a personality well-suited to being in a room full of people all day explaining things and answering questions from a wide variety of students with different learning speeds and methods. After six or seven hours of this, we were set free on the city and had to muddle our way through conversations in English, Dutch and French. The whole time, I looked for non-verbal cues that might give me insight into conversational tone that might not be obvious from language alone.

In so many situations, it’s not just important to know what someone is saying — it’s also important to know what they *mean*. That means active listening, paying attention to not just the words but the context in which they’re being said, all the non-verbal cues that accompany them, the personal and interpersonal foundation the conversation is building on. Communication is not just the words we use, but the intent behind them and the skill of expressing that intent consciously. While sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, it’s also important to ask and accept why someone is saying something to us in the manner they’re saying it. Then, we have a better chance of knowing the best way to respond.

Slowing down and shutting up is something everyone should do on a regular basis.

I think the thing that impressed me most about my time in Europe is how the expectation is to slow down and focus on what you’re doing is baked into the culture. On our way back from the office, or while we were roaming around hunting for dinner, we’d see so many people sitting in front of shops and enjoying a beer in silent company. Television shows were so much more low-key in a way that’s difficult to describe, but things were designed to draw attention to what was happening — not diffuse it amongst a whole lot of sound bites. Focus and contemplation are encouraged; constant activity is not.

Taking a minute to shut up and think about the things we do and say is something that’s sorely needed. I think in American culture there’s a need to “join the conversation” regardless of whether it’s helpful or necessary to do so. We’re encouraged to be productive, to do great things, to admire those who are doing a billion things at once. While there are definite drawbacks to slowing down and focusing more intently on one thing, the benefits are obvious. We experience fewer things, but we experience them more deeply. That’s not a bad thing.

News should be designed to empower and inform, not agitate.

While I was in Belgium Hurricane Harvey was flooding Houston; not long after that, Hurricane Irma destroyed Barbuda and many other Caribbean islands; then, Hurricane Maria caused a tremendous humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico. I watched a lot of news on these events in Belgium, Texas and California, and the difference between BBC and CNN is incredibly striking. The BBC is more of a traditional newscast, reporting on major events, giving facts (without immediate ‘analysis’ or ‘conjecture’), even offering insight on what could be done about the situation to help. Watching the news on CNN, the breathless commentary constantly running about the day’s events struck me as incredibly unnecessary and unhelpful.

I think it’s time for us to step back and think about what we want out of the news, as a society. So much of our news cycle these days is designed to agitate us, to make us afraid or angry, because we’ve said through our feedback that these are the stories that gain the most traction. Even nominally ‘neutral’ outlets are full of crawling chirons underneath split screens or constantly-updated sidebars spitting shallow bits of information faster than we can properly absorb them. It doesn’t allow us to focus on what we find important; it just keeps throwing things at us to keep our distracted attention.

Being immersed in a slower culture that prizes focus and being present has helped a lot to recontextualize aspects of American culture that I think contribute to a lot of the fear and anger this country has been gripped by. One of our biggest problems, I think, is the constant fight and fragmentation of our attention; we’re bombarded by advertisements, calls to action, demands for focus or emotional investment almost all the time. I think we as Americans should discourage this kind of attentive pollution and treat our focus as a precious, limited resource. We pride ourselves on more of everything — bigger portions, more productivity, more wealth. But for the time being, I think less is more; eliminating distractions to focus on what’s most important is what I need.

 

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(Personal) Accountability Report, January 2017

Self Improvement 150At the beginning of last month, I made three resolutions: I wanted to meditate and write every day, and I wanted to avoid added sugars if at all possible. Well, the first month of the year has come and gone, so I thought I’d take a look back on the last 31 days to see how I did. I realize that it’s really hard to be actually perfect with these things, especially just starting out — it takes a while to build a practice into a habit and obstacles are going to come up. Still, all things considered, I think I did pretty well for myself.

I didn’t meditate every day in January. I missed one day during Further Confusion 2017 because I got distracted with Twitter, and I missed another day near the end of the month for much the same reason — I go to open the meditation app on my phone and ended up getting sucked into something else. The smartphone is a life-changing invention that gives us the power to do so much in our lives whenever we need to, but it also offers an endless tide of distraction. When I’m just waking up, without coffee or medication, I’m especially susceptible to that.

This month, I’ll renew my intention to meditate every day this month. I think the best way to avoid potential distraction is perhaps to put my phone in airplane mode before I go to bed; that way, when I get up it’s easier for me to use my meditation app than it is to turn off airplane mode and dive into Twitter or games. I realize this likely won’t be a permanent solution, but hopefully it will buy me enough time to get into that perfect habit territory. Even still, missing two days out of 31 isn’t bad, and I’ve definitely been a lot more even emotionally through regular meditation.

I didn’t write every day in January. I mean, I sort of did — between my History of Rock and Roll class, The Writing Desk and other things there were plenty of things to work on. However, when I made that resolution I specifically meant a fiction project that I wanted to release through the Jackalope Serial Company, submit to a publication or post online, or play through with friends. Making sure I’m regular with my Patreon is my top priority here; people have had my back since the beginning of last year, and I want to make sure I’m holding up my end of the bargain. Once I’m on a more stable footing there, I can move on to other short stories, serials or role-playing game stuff.

I’m renewing my intention to write every day this month, with the specific stipulation that it will be writing for Jackalope Serial Company stories. That means finishing up “Gift Exchange” (my January serial) in the next day or two, editing/rewriting “Stable Love (the February serial) after that, and working on the serial for March and April. The goal is to be at least two weeks ahead on serial posts so I can have a nice buffer for those weeks when work or school gets to be too heavy. Since I’m prioritizing the JSC, I may not be able to keep up my three times a week schedule for The Writing Desk. I’ll try my hardest, though. Maybe writing posts on the weekend for the next week is the best move here.

I avoided added sugars this month, with a few exceptions. Alcoholic drinks are a bit of a gray area, there — mixed drinks tend to use simple syrup (which is basically just sugar dissolved in water) or really sweet fruit juices, and I had one or two of those. During the Australian Open final, I did have a mug of hot chocolate because how could you say no to that? Overall I’ve severely limited my sugar intake, and my palate has shifted because of that. While sugar definitely makes fireworks go off in my brain, it takes a lot less to reach satiety. Still, it’s not a habit I’m interested in falling back into.

This month, I resolve to count my calories every day and exercise at least three times a week. My routine of choice involves a lot of running, but I’ll need to supplement that with stretches and body-weight exercises. I’m WAY too stiff in general, and it would be nice to work more on my core and arms. The calorie counting app I use is MyFitnessPal, so if you use it too feel free to add me as a friend! My name is “JakebeRabbit”.

There are a few other things I’d like to do this month — read more regularly, be more disciplined with my budget and to-do list, finally get my act together with activism and volunteer work. But meditation, writing, and diet accountability will be my main focus. What about all of you lovely folks? How have you been doing with your New Year’s Resolutions so far? What changes will you make to stick to your goals?

 

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(Personal) The Semester That Was: Fall 2016

Reading 150Earlier this year — with some encouragement from My Husband, The Dragon — I decided to go back to school to pursue a degree in Psychology. I’ve gotten to a very good place with my mental health, but there are so many people who grew up the way I did without access to mental health services or education, who suffer in silence and ignorance about their issues. The goal with my degree is to do something to address these gaps in coverage and tailor treatments that speak to the particular manifestations of mental illness in communities of color. No one exists in a vacuum, after all — depression, anxiety, and social issues intersect to present unique challenges to people of color.

This first semester back in school was definitely an adjustment. I’m working a full-time job in the tech sector, which means that I’m generally putting in a few more than forty hours a week not including the commute, which adds roughly eight hours. Making time to read assignments, write essays and/or participate in online forum discussions was a process that I had to learn. Time management is more important than ever, and over the course of the semester I learned that it wasn’t so much the quantity of time I put in, but the quality.

Anyway, the plan is to go to Mission College for three more semesters with additional classes during the Winter and Summer sessions until Fall 2018, where I should complete my Associate’s Degree and be eligible for transfer to any California state university. Obviously, my target is San Jose State; they have a pretty good Psychology department and I should be able to get very good rates on my tuition. I’ll need 60 credits to complete the program, and with the credits from this semester and all other classes from my previous transcript I should have about 30 or so.

This semester I took two classes, Clear Thinking in Writing and Social Psychology. I would absolutely love to have one English or Psychology class a semester, but I don’t think it’ll work out that way, alas! Both of these classes were ones that I enjoyed quite a bit, even with the work. Clear Thinking in Writing really helped me to refine and organize my thoughts for my Social Psychology class, and I was able to use concepts from my Social Psychology class to strengthen arguments I wrote in Clear Thinking. I loved the synergy I lucked into this semester!

For Clear Thinking in Writing, we learned the basic elements of argumentation for three different debate models — Aristotilean, Rogerian, and Toulmin. Aristotle relied on three kinds of support — logos, or logical reasoning; pathos, or emotional appeals; and ethos, or reputation and expertise — to bolster his arguments. Rogers works well when you’re trying to find a common ground and some compromise between two opposing viewpoints; the benefit of using this model is learning how to understand an argument objectively and writing it out succinctly, without bias. Toulmin is the main model we used to understand the framework of a persuasive essay; the claim is essentially your thesis, or whatever it is you’re trying to prove, and you make your claim by providing support for it. All of your support, of course, is held up by underlying warrants that are understood and agreed upon by the writer and their audience. For example, if I claim that black lives matter, the warrant beneath that is that there is some disparity in the general perception of how black lives are treated when weighed against, say, white lives.

This class was a TON of reading and writing, which is to be expected for an English class I suppose. Our professor was relatively new, and she focused heavily on making sure we stuck to a basic, repeatable structure for our essays. I chafed just a little under the restriction, but it was quite useful to learn how arguments are templated and write to that style. My typical writing style is “exploratory”, to be charitable. I often don’t find the topic sentence of my paragraph until I’ve written it — so my my paragraphs tend to end with a sentence that crystallizes what’s come before it into a coherent thought, that I then use to springboard into the next paragraph.

However, that’s not a great way to write a coherent, well-structured argument. By opening your paragraph with your topic sentence, you make sure that you’ve signalled to your reader what your paragraph will cover and anchor it towards the service of your thesis. Every sentence after it must build support for the topic sentence, which in turn supports your claim. Organizing your writing from the top down gives every sentence a job to do and encourages your essays to be leaner and more efficient. And in this day and age, making sure your writing is crisp and lean is an invaluable skill to have!

In Social Psychology, I learned how the presence of other people affect the way we think, which in turn affects how we perceive and interact with the world around us. I shouldn’t have been so surprised to discover how much our environment and relationship with others affects our individual psychology, but I was! The class illuminated influences I never even considered and introduced implications that I had never connected. We underestimate how much we are influenced by our social situations, and simply knowing that has changed the way I think about my actions. We have far more power to change our environment than we believed, but the nature of that change is more complicated than we would expect.

Social Psych was my first online class, which was another adjustment. Sessions were usually reading a chapter or two of the textbook, watching a documentary video about the subject of the week, and then participating in a forum discussion about it. We also had three major tests over the course of the semester and signed up for various experiments in the Stanford Research Program. Stanford has a legendary experimental psychology program, and it was really interesting to participate in various lab experiments in some small way.

The knowledge I’ve gained in Social Psychology, while not all-encompassing, has definitely illuminated previously puzzling behavior for me and allows me to react more compassionately to actions I might have found unacceptable just six months ago. For example, we really don’t do well with uncertainty, so in situations that may or may not be an emergency we will tend to look to others for cues on how to respond without even realizing it. Because other people are just as in the dark as we are, they freeze as well, hoping for someone to respond in a way they can emulate. And when no one responds, we end up thinking that a potentially serious situation might not be that serious after all. People have been observed to sit in a room with smoke billowing out of a vent for these reasons, or take much longer to help someone in distress. Our ability to filter out our environment develops as a defensive mechanism against sensory overload, but it can also cause us to miss someone in dire need of help. So, if someone is having a health crisis or being attacked in a city and no one helps, it isn’t necessarily because people are bastards. Well, not necessarily. It’s because most of us are just trying not to be overwhelmed by everything around us, we are uncertain what’s happening in an emergency situation, and the people around us are as well — so no one does anything.

In both of these courses, knowledge becomes power to direct my actions more efficiently and with greater understanding. It’s exciting to know the basics about how people tend to think in groups, and how to make a case for influencing people within those groups. By being aware of societal pressures, how they affect our mental and emotional processes, and the best ways to tweak those processes, it’s possible to write to the undiscovered root of a problem. That’s almost like magic to me!

Now that my classes are over for the semester, it’s time to look to a little bit of rest and relaxation before a four-week Winter session. In January, I will be learning about the history of rock and roll music, which should be tremendously rad. My education continues, and I’m one semester closer towards an Associate’s Degree.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2016 in Uncategorized, Writing

 

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(Buddhism) Right Action

Buddhism 150For my own spiritual practice, I’m writing about each “spoke” on the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path for a while. Reviewing what I know and think about each step of the path helps me clarify my understanding, expose any misunderstandings, and allows me to take a snapshot of where I am in my Buddhist practice. Sometime later, I can come back to this series of posts to see how my understanding of these aspects has changed over time.

Right now, we’re in the second of three groups within the path: Sila, or moral virtues. Right Speech is the abstaining from divisive, abusive, untruthful and idle speech, striving for honest, open, compassionate, helpful and relevant speech instead. What we say is a subtle but powerful way to create our karma; it can either foster hatred and fear, or happiness and connection.

Now, we look at Right Action. For the most part, Right Action covers the abstaining of killing, stealing and committing sexual misconduct. It can also be extended to mean any action we take and whether or not it contributes to connecting us with the world around us, clarifying our senses, or spreading compassion towards our fellow beings.

Right Action is one of those subjects that can be very controversial, especially when we parse what it means to “kill”, to “steal”, or engage in “sexual misconduct”. I’m not an authority on this by any means, but I’ll share what I think it means here and how my understanding of it affects my engagement with it.

Killing, for me, is the intentional act of ending the life of someone else at its most basic definition. However, it’s really difficult to refrain from that entirely. We slap at mosquitoes and other insects on our own almost instinctively, and we don’t necessarily alter our paths when we see beetles or flies crawling on the sidewalks. When insects or rodents invade our homes, we often lay down traps or poison for them to discourage them. Is this a wrong action? It depends on who you ask, and what your intentions are.

Again, stopping to think about our intentions can help us to review our instinctive impulses and learn that we don’t have to act on them. Those impulses fade, and are often replaced by better ones. Do we really need to kill insects that are on or near us? Why is it necessary? Thinking about this before you’re placed in a situation where it’s us or them can help us to check that initial behavior and make a more informed decision on what gets us closer to behaving consistently with our beliefs. If we decide that insects are fair game, that’s all well and good; but we must be aware of our views and intentions to see whether or not our actions are consistent with them.

However, killing doesn’t just mean ending someone’s life. It could also mean making their lives more difficult through harmful or ignorant action; destroying a significant emotional, social or spiritual aspect of our fellow beings; revising their history to something that untrue through lies, deception or hiding. Physical death isn’t the only one we should consider.

Stealing is the taking of something (or someone) without it being offered, either by force, stealth, fraud or deceit. Taking someone’s TV out of their house obviously applies here, but so does misrepresenting ourselves in order to gain someone’s trust for nefarious purposes. If we loosen our view of what constitutes a possession, then we see all the ways we could (and might) steal without even realizing it. If our intentions are to follow the path, then we must understand as well as possible how this aspect of it might be applied — or how it doesn’t apply.

Sexual misconduct, of course, means different things depending on your intentions. For monks, this part of the path is where they lay down their vow of celibacy. For laypersons like us, it means doing our best to understand and respect the boundaries of any sexual situation in which we find ourselves. Consent is the most basic aspect of this — is our partner willing to engage in sex with us at this time? Are they in a position to make a conscious and informed decision? Are there other factors beyond their consent that may lead to harm or divisiveness?

These questions can only be answered as each situation arises, and it’s very important that we know the answers clearly before engaging. If there is any doubt, refrain until that doubt is removed. Even if we’re in the throes of our lust, there is no “point of no return”. If doubt arises at any point, then the expectation (at least in my view) is to abstain until that doubt is removed. Learning to be mindful — even in highly emotional or sensual situations — is one of the best ways we can avoid ever being in a situation where we’re “unable to stop”. And if we can’t trust ourselves to be mindful and respectful in a certain situation, we shouldn’t be in that situation at all if we can help it.

In a lot of cases, our actions will fall into a grey area. One example I really like is dealing with a pet who, for some reason or another, is facing an illness or injury that may lead to death. Is taking them to the vet to be euthanized a violation of the “no killing” part of the Eightfold Path? What about taking office supplies home, or pirating music or movies — does that count at stealing? If we’re in a sexual encounter and we’re not sure if going ahead with it is actual misconduct, what do we do?

It all comes down to our intentions and being honest about what those are. We must have an objective, self-aware knowledge of what’s in our heart at the time and be forthright enough to make our decisions based on that. If we want to end the suffering of our pet, euthanizing them is OK. If we don’t want to pay the vet’s bills or deal with the hassle of caring for them, maybe it’s not. If taking office supplies home helps us to do our job more effectively or makes it easier to help our coworkers, then it should be fine to ask. If we just want free staples and pens, then it’s not. If we’re sure that our sexual encounter will increase happiness, connection and compassion AND we’re sure that informed and conscious consent has been given, it’s OK. If our own pleasure is our primary motivation for moving ahead, we want to reconsider.

For me, the right action is the one that is not entirely selfish; hurting or degrading someone else in order to put myself ahead or make my life easier is not OK. I believe that human beings are innately social creatures, and we’re at our best when we’re working together. Fostering a spirit of community and companionship is my guide for action. Easing the suffering of other people is an impetus to act. Making my environment worse through action or inaction is the thing I need to watch and abstain from.

What do all of you think? Do you agree or disagree? Are there nuances on this that I’ve missed? How do you determine whether an action is right or wrong?

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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(Politics) Feeling the Bern, But I’m Still With Her

Politics 150In 2000, the very first year I was old enough to vote, I turned to Ralph Nader. I was a young voter and fairly liberal, but Al Gore just wasn’t inspiring me. Nader, the Green Party candidate for that year, spoke my language with a passion that I could really get behind. Of course, since I was living in Arkansas at the time and the state would certainly go to Bush, I didn’t feel my vote would tilt the outcome in the election. But, looking back, if 500 Nader voters in Florida had broken for Gore instead, history would be very different.

In 2004, I really loved Howard Dean for the Democratic nominee. For a second there, it looked like we were going to have him ride a populist wave into the contest for the White House. Then it fizzled when he lost an early primary, screamed in this really weird way, and then everyone just thought he was crazy. Still in Arkansas, which held its primary after the contest had all but been decided, I voted for Dennis Kucinich because he was the only candidate in the field that really pushed ideas I had believed in. I wasn’t on board the Kerry train until I saw his acceptance speech at the DNC that summer; I was crushed when he lost handily to W.

In 2008, come on — if you were a liberal person of color, how could you not vote for Barack Obama? Same in 2012. He was my guy, he is my guy, he will always BE my guy.

Now, in 2016, after six years of a Republican congress doing everything it can to block the agenda of the President and refuse to work with him on pretty much anything, we live in a country that is angry about the state of our government but also so worn out trying to work within the system we’re ready to abandon it altogether. The two big anti-establishment forces that dominated the conversation in our major parties made a lot of noise over the past year, to different outcomes — for the Democrats, Bernie Sanders lost the fight to the establishment choice of Hillary Clinton; for the Republicans, Jeb Bush and every last hope of the party lost out to apocalyptic outsider Donald Trump.

I go over my Presidential electoral history to let you know that for pretty much the entire time I’ve been involved in politics, I’ve belonged to the further-left wing of the Democratic Party. I’ve encouraged it to pull further away from the center-right towards actually liberal policies that address the needs of our minorities and most-disadvantaged citizens. I’ve been frustrated with the direction the party has chosen, and I’ve been disillusioned by the choices they’ve made on how to best use their considerable power as the dominant voice in liberal politics.

Which is why Bernie Sanders was such a natural fit for me. He was a “radical” liberal like Kucinich wrapped up in the temperament of a firebrand like Dean. He has Kerry’s vision for the good that government can do for its people, and he’s able to marry a clear, logical vision to a passionately emotional pitch like Obama. In so many ways, he’s the total package. He gets people — especially the young — excited about politics again. And his ideas are some of the most liberal policies I’ve heard voiced on the national stage in a long time.

As this extraordinarily long and contentious primary season wore on, however, I noticed the tone of Sanders supporters shift worryingly. Instead of directing their anger at corporate interests who want to break the backs of the working poor and middle class to line their pockets, they turned it towards their fellow liberals — people who supported Clinton and even Hillary herself. More and more, I saw my camp direct feverish animosity towards their own, using tactics that Republican operatives have honed and refined over a generation to paint Hillary as shrill, as a sell-out, as politically craven, as fundamentally dishonest.

The rancor with which Bernie’s base treated their centrist allies was a gut-check for me. The vitriol and sexism — both underlying and shockingly blatant — made me reconsider my allegiance and question not only Bernie’s stances, but his ability to actually work from the Oval Office to be effective. After all, a similarly populist wave ushered in the Obama Presidency and look how that’s turned out — he had two years to make the Affordable Care Act happen, lost Congress in his first mid-term, and has not been able to work effectively with them ever since.

How would Bernie handle a rabidly obstinate anti-liberal legislative branch? What could he possibly do to bring a consensus together in order to make the government work again?

These question marks, along with the treatment of Clinton supporters by my fellow Bernie fans, pushed me towards Hillary a few months ago and I’ve been with her ever since.

I totally understand why Bernie inspires such passion and loyalty. He’s built a long career out of fighting for the right thing, even when it would be politically expedient to just go along. His principles aren’t something he’s willing to compromise on, and how many candidates on the left do we have on the national stage that actually have that quality? His entire platform proves that he understands the struggle of the left and the desperation we feel to make actual changes that fix some of our government’s most fundamental problems. He gets us. In a way that very, very few politicians do these days, he gets us.

On the other hand, Hillary feels like she was grown in a lab to fit into the political system we have today. Every bit of her is managed and polished and staged, from her pantsuit to her hair to her cadence to her speeches. She doesn’t do a single thing unless she believes it will help her do the thing that she wants to do. I still remember the bile that Hillary fans spewed on Obama in 2008; who wouldn’t? It was ugly, vulgar, and racist — both subtly and shockingly blatantly. Hillary and Bill haven’t had the best track record in dealing with people of color, and her political career has been blemished with one scandal after another. For better or worse, Hillary is a perfect politician. She is a Washington insider who knows how the game works inside and out, and she’s brilliant enough to play it better than anyone.

For an electorate that’s fed up with politics as usual, this is just the thing that makes her impossible to like. And I get that. But let me try to frame it another way.

Bill Clinton rose onto the national scene as the coolest President we’ve had in a long time. He played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show. He “did not inhale”. He embraced pop culture in ways that we couldn’t even imagine after twelve years of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. He was a dude we could go out and have a beer with. We loved him. His wife, though…

In many ways, Hillary Clinton was a majorly progressive figure on the political scene as well, reflective of the changing reality for professional women in American culture. Unlike Bill, though, she was a lot more vulnerable to attacks from the right for transgressions against traditional values. Remember when she said “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession…which I entered before my husband was in public life.”? She was attacked, not by Republicans — but by Jerry Brown, former and current CA governor. The electorate turned on her almost immediately. Her comment reeked of “smug bitchiness,” and the media’s reporting of it — without the full context of her statement — fanned the flames of that first gender-biased political scandal.

The full quote, by the way, is this:

I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession…which I entered before my husband was in public life. The work that I have done as a professional, a public advocate, has been aimed to assure that women can make the choices, whether it’s full-time career, full-time motherhood or some combination.

Right out of the gate, she was subjected to scrutiny not based on her ability or character, but on our perception of how she should conform to gender roles. Everything that she’s done since then — from her ruthless, aggressive ambition to her distance from the media to her incredibly frozen public image — feels to me a response to that. She doesn’t have time for the image game, and she doesn’t have the tolerance or temperament to thread the needle of what we believe a woman should be. She has to get things done.

She worked extensively on health care issues during her time as First Lady, even though her signature initiative failed at the time. She was instrumental in the creation of the State Children Health Insurance Program; she promoted nationwide immunization for children (something that her biggest liberal rival in this election, Jill Stein, continues to indulge anti-vaccinator sentiment against); she played a leading role in the Adoption and Safe Families Act and the Foster Care Independence Act; she successfully fought for an increase in funding for the study of prostate cancer and childhood asthma at the NIH; she worked to investigate the set of illnesses that eventually came to be known as Gulf War Syndrome; and she created an Office of Violence Against Women at the Dept. of Justice.

She was the first First Lady ever to hold a Senate position, and in that position she helped secure billions for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site; introduced legislation that eased the burden on soldiers in Iraq by increasing the size of the Army (I know, I know, but it’s making the best of a bad situation); advocated for retaining and improving the health benefits of veterans.

As Secretary of State, she helped to repair the damaged reputation of our country around the world, visiting 112 countries and increasing the diplomatic presence of the US in many, many regions. She’s been a tireless advocate for women and children’s rights here and around the world. And, despite her support for Keystone XL, has been an activist for dealing with climate change for a long time.

Of course Hillary isn’t perfect. As I mentioned before, she has a rocky relationship with racial minorities; she’s a little too hawkish with foreign policy; and her track record with LGBQT rights is disappointing. And to me and so many of my friends, that’s a big deal. But there are other ways we can hold her accountable for that.

I’ve voted for a third-party candidate before, and Floridians who made my choice made the difference in the Bush vs. Gore election. Say what you will about voting irregularities and the Supreme Court decision, but the fact remains that less than 300 liberals in one state changed the shape of our nation. And instead of getting the outcome they wanted, they got George W. Bush.

Our choice in November is even more stark. Hillary Clinton, for all of her faults — and yes, I know they’re there — is on our side, fellow liberals. She cares about women, the disadvantaged, and our threatened environment. She believes in the value of science in shaping public policy. And she is willing to listen when presented with new information and evidence, changing her mind where she’s been wrong. Even if you hold to the cynical belief that she only changes her mind when it’s politically safe to do so, you have to understand how and why she developed that behavior. When she speaks her mind, she is punished by being called cruel. When she appears too hard, she’s punished by being called bitchy. When she softens, she’s punished by being called craven and opportunistic. There is almost nothing she can do without being criticized for it. And while a lot of that criticism is legitimate — I have no doubt we’d say the same things about any career politician — the tenor of it is sharper, crueler because she is a woman and not a man.

Those of us who flocked to Bernie because we were frustrated with the shape of our politics may not have pushed our guy into the race for the White House, but we have started a conversation that we now have the chance to continue. Instead of taking our defeat as a sign that the system is hopelessly broken, or that saying Clinton is just as bad as Trump (which is an insane statement I won’t dignify by refuting here), we can instead take a look at what we can still do to help Bernie continue to voice his conscience in 2016 and 2018.

That means electing Clinton, who will be far more likely to work with us and for us than Donald Trump. That means helping Clinton effectively implement liberal policies — and hold her accountable for decisions we disagree with — by electing liberal Representatives and Senators to Congress. And, if you’re actually serious about increasing the legitimacy of third parties, that means researching and supporting those candidates on the state and local levels. We aren’t going to actually make the Green or Libertarian Party a national force until we make them a local, state, and regional force first. Minor parties are going to need to build an organization from the ground up, and installing them in our city councils, mayor’s offices and judges seats will establish a foundation of experience, knowledge and connections that will allow them to do so.

Bernie supporters — I know you’re disappointed. And I know that you’re wary of Clinton. But she is our best chance at continuing the work that Bernie has started here. Stein will not be elected, and your protest vote could be one of the things that gives Trump the presidency. This is a painful truth, but it is the truth: in order to get closer to our goal, we need Clinton to win. She is one of us, and she deserves our support. She’s worked hard for it, she’s earned it, and I trust her to do the right thing.

Let’s make sure she gets the chance.

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2016 in Politics, Uncategorized

 

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(Comic Review) The Totally Awesome Hulk #1-4

Reading 150The Hulk has been one of those characters where it’s been impossible for him to settle down for very long. Every writer has a wild idea with him that they’d like to try out, and that means over the past several years he’s had wildly different status quos. After Greg Pak’s legendary run with Planet Hulk and World War Hulk, Bruce Banner has been imprisoned and replaced as the Hulk by his nemesis, Thunderbolt Ross (Hulk by Jeph Loeb); separated from the Hulk as payment for services rendered to Doctor Doom (Jason Aaron); remerged and used as a “tactical nuke” for the worst case scenarios (Mark Waid); underwent a moral inversion to become the villainous Kluh (AXIS); and finally managed to remain the physical Hulk with Banner’s intellect intact, intent on depowering every gamma-irradiated hero or villain in the Marvel universe.

After Secret Wars destroyed the old Marvel multiverse and replaced it with…something else, it was time for another big status quo shift. As part of Marvel’s ongoing initiative to replace its A-list superheroes with more diverse legacy characters, it was revealed that Amadeus Cho — teen super-genius — would be the new Hulk in the All-New, All-Different Marvel. Better yet, Greg Pak would return to write the series and the character he created, while Frank Cho would be the regular artist. I’m not entirely sure, but this is the first time one of the Big Two publishers have had an Asian superhero written and drawn by Asian creators. It’s kind of a big deal.

So…how is Amadeus Cho doing as the new, totally-awesome Hulk? Not bad! I don’t know an awful lot about Amadeus before now, but he’s considered the eighth (?) smartest person in the world and has been the sidekick of both Banner and the “god” Hercules. Amadeus was convinced that if he had the power of the Hulk, he could remain in control and be the “best Hulk ever”. Under mysterious circumstances that unfold over the course of the first arc, he gets his chance.

TAHCompared to Bruce, Amadeus is remarkably well-adjusted. He’s a happy-go-lucky kid that seems to relish the chance to be a superhero, and with his sister Maddy there to keep him focused and level-headed he might actually have a shot at sticking the landing. What’s clear in this first batch of issues, though, is that he’s got a few blind spots that are going to bite him pretty hard in due time.

His first set of missions sees him finding and capturing giant, powerful monsters before they can wreak havoc in populated centers. This puts him at cross purposes with Lady Hellbender, who wants to collect the monsters for an intergalactic reserve where they can run and play and be monsters to their heart’s content. I think folks would like Hellbender’s civilization, which sees insane power as something to be respected, almost idealized; though Amadeus thinks this is a good idea, Maddy and others think it might not be the best thing.

Once Amadeus “proves” his might by defeating Fin Fang Foom, Lady Hellbender then tries to take him as Earth’s ultimate monster. Which, you know, probably doesn’t go very well for anyone involved, right?

What’s interesting about the comic so far is how character-focused it is. Amadeus is a vastly different person than Bruce Banner, so his Hulk is triggered by a different set of emotions. It’s not his anger that you have to watch out for — it’s his youthful inexperience, his arrogance, his irresponsibility. Now that Amadeus has achieved the great power side of the equation, the consequences of not mastering the other side has risen to unacceptable levels. What happens when he makes his first major mistake?

This being a Hulk comic, there’s still plenty of smashing to be had. Frank Cho — he of Liberty Meadows fame — is one of the absolute best superhero artists out there right now, so it’s a thrill to see him taking on this monthly comic. Each character is excellently-designed and wonderfully detailed, and he has a particularly good eye for the feminine figure. He can draw women as powerful, dynamic people while not necessarily pushing them into objectified figures for the male gaze. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and I think he does it well. That might be me unable to spot his excesses in an industry where women-as-sexual-objects are more or less the norm, though.

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Even though sales figures for The Totally Awesome Hulk aren’t stellar, they’re solid enough that I’m not really worried about the series being cancelled. With Cho taking part in Marvel’s big summer event — Civil War II — and being promoted as part of the Champions (a sort of “Young Avengers” who have different ideas about superheroics), it’s clear he’s not going anywhere soon. It’ll be interesting to see what Pak and Cho have in store for Amadeus after the dust settles from the latest superhero dust-up. For now, though, his solo series is a solid spin on the traditional Hulk tale, and a worthy update for a new generation.

 

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2016 in Comic Books, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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(Personal) Cracking Myself Open

Myth 150One of the earliest memories I have about my mental illness is breaking down in the middle of lunch in sixth or seventh grade. Things were not going well for me. I was a shy and awkward kid who loved reading fantasy books. I was really sensitive, so I didn’t hold up to bullying very well. And I had gotten into trouble enough that in addition to homework and everything else, I had to write a sentence “I will not…something something something.” 1000 times.

I was sitting alone, trying to think of what impossible task I should do over lunch and how I could justify putting off the others, when I just needed to put my head down. It didn’t help. Tears welled up and I let them fall. My entire body locked up. All I wanted to do was curl up tighter. Someone found me, stood me up, and asked me if I had eaten anything. Then they marched me up to the lunch line.

It felt like my entire body had fallen asleep. I didn’t have full control over the way I moved, so I just lurched around like Frankenstein’s monster. I couldn’t stop crying. There was no way I could eat, or speak, or open my mouth. When the lunch lady asked if I needed anything, all I could do was sob and shake my head and lurch back to my seat.

To this day I have no idea what to call that episode. A panic attack? A nervous breakdown? Who knows. But it happened again when my sister ran away from home, and again shortly after I dropped out of college and moved to Arkansas.

I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety for my entire life. Most of the memories I have of my childhood are unhappy ones, where something in my brain just snapped and a response rose from within me that I still don’t understand. What’s more, I can remember similar things happening to the people around me; my father’s mind going after his divorce, retreating further into himself; my mother disappearing for hours to sleep off depression; my sister’s mood swings; the strange rumors that dogged certain neighbors. When I was growing up, our understanding of mental illness was little more than being able to identify “crazy” behavior; if someone did something “crazy” once too often, then they were branded. And there wasn’t anything they could do to shake that off.

Even now, knowing what I know about my family history and the struggles that my siblings and I face, I see that for the most part that understanding hasn’t deepened much. My sister is on medication that makes her incoherent or sleepy. My brothers still do things they don’t understand. And, now that she’s reaching the end of her life, my mother is beginning to forget things and become confused.

It’s taken me a long time to come to grips with my mental illness, to accept it and learn how to incorporate it into my self-image. But there are so many black Americans and others in the diaspora who either can’t or won’t for a constellation of reasons. Most of us simply can’t afford treatment for mental health issues, and wouldn’t know where to begin even if we could. There is a stigma, even now, around therapy and medication that makes it difficult to encourage folks to seek out. There is still this narrative that those of us with mental illnesses are just “weak” or “whining” and only need to “get your mind right” to overcome them. We know so little, but we have such strong opinions.

Talking about my personal struggle with these things is still frightening to me, even though I do it so much. But it’s important that I do. Within black circles, and geek circles, and even Buddhist circles, there is so much misinformation about mental illness and what people who deal with them are like. If being open about them can help to dispel that, then that’s what I have to do. For my family, for my friends, and for my community.

If you are dealing with a mental health issue, please know that you’re not alone. There are more of us than you know, willing and able to lend a hand. If at all possible, do what you can to lessen the stigma around these issues — especially in minority groups. There is no shame at all in having a chronic mental illness, or in seeking treatment for it. There is no shame in doing what you need to do in order to be the best person you can.

 

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