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(Friday Fiction) Mr. Roovum Goes to Washington

Fandom 150Hurley was not expecting to be greeted by the sight of a giant Kangaroo in a tailored three-piece suit when he opened the door to the roof of his newspaper’s headquarters, but here he was. The Raccoon had rushed back from lunch when he first felt the tremors rocking the street, and by the time he had gotten back to the office and checked to make sure everyone was OK he knew something really strange had to be going on. The building was fine, if slightly messy, and his receptionist had the stare of someone who had seen far too much in a very short amount of time.

“Your two o’clock is here,” was all she said, and directed him to the roof with his interview packet.

Now, even with the final piece of the puzzle looming over him, he found he had significant trouble making sense of the situation. This…giant…should have been impossible for a number of reasons. Besides the usual laws of physics, he was positive he would have heard about an Animal like this existing well before now. There’s no way you could keep something like this hidden, not from people like him — it was his business to uncover anything that would be of interest to his readers, the larger than life, the better.

And if this didn’t fit the description, nothing would.

“Good afternoon,” the Kangaroo said as he bent down. The sky above Hurley was replaced by an overwhelmingly large, smiling muzzle with sharp but friendly brown eyes staring right down at him. “You are Mr. Coor, yes? It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

A hand big enough to flatten a car lowered down, one finger extended. The digit alone was roughly as thick as his chest, capped with a claw as long as his leg.

“I…uh….” Hurley said, clutching the interview packet a little tighter. He took a step or two back away from the finger, unsure what he was meant to do with it. “I’m sorry, who are you?”

A shadow passed over those immense brown eyes. The Kangaroo lifted his hand and laced it with his other one, crossing them over his buttoned-down vest. “I’m sorry; your receptionist told me that you’d be expecting me. I am Roovumbidgee, here to apply for the advice columnist position. We’ve been corresponding.”

Hurley’s mental filing system plucked the name from memory in moments. Roovumbidgee was not a name you forgot in a hurry. He felt a flush rise in his cheeks when he realized he was holding the giant’s resume in his hands, along with printed copies of the emails they’d exchanged and several sample columns the Kangaroo had written. Even then, his brain refused to accept it. There was no way the curious, enthusiastic, endearingly eccentric Animal he had been talking to for the past three weeks was this…monster.

Giants were supposed to be dim, selfish brutes, weren’t they? All muscle and no brains, dressed in nothing but a filthy loincloth and sandals, carrying a tree for a club, chasing little people who had stolen their riches. Hurley didn’t consider himself an expert in the matter at all, but he was fairly certain all the giants he had met in fairy tales were primitive, barely sapient beings — not learned Animals who looked like they were dressing up for an Agatha Christie murder mystery party.

“Oh! Uh…yes, of course!” Hurley realized he had been staring dumbly for far too long to have possibly been considered polite. “I’m sorry, it’s just…when you told me you were a taller gentlebeing, I hadn’t realized you were, uh, making an understatement.”

Roovumbidgee’s chuckle rumbled the building. “I apologize for not being forthright with you. It’s been my experience that most prospective employers assume I’m lying or delusional when I tell them the truth.”

“But they figure it out pretty quickly during the on-site interview, right?”

“I wouldn’t know. This is the first one I’ve been invited to.”

Hurley had too many questions racing through his head and no idea which one would be the least offensive, so he pressed on. “Well, let’s make sure it’s a good one.”

He managed to take his eyes off the Kangaroo for long enough to put on his glasses and open the interview packet. “Now, Mister…uhm….is Roovumbidgee your first name or your last name?”

“It’s my only name, Mr. Coor. Like Prince. Or Madonna.”

“I, uh, see. So would you prefer Mr. Roovum?”

Roovumbidgee lifted a brow. “Is that what you prefer?”

“Just whatever would make you most comfortable.” Hurley felt himself flush again, though he wasn’t entirely sure why.

“Roovum is just fine, then.” There was a localized earthquake as the Kangaroo shifted his weight, leaning back on a tail that must have been as long as a couple of city busses.

“All right then. Roovum.” Hurley stared up at the giant, measuring his back against the taller office building across the street. He had to be over 100 feet tall. How in the world could he fit on a city street like that? Where was he going to put him if he hired him? How could he even pay him? “I have to say, I’m quite impressed with your writing.”

“Thank you.” The Kangaroo was obviously pleased.

“I’m just not sure about your idea for a column. Mighty Manners has a nice ring to it, but I don’t think we have a large-enough audience for the subject. Er…if you’ll forgive the choice of words.” Hurley’s tail lashed behind him as he leaned back against the door. He was starting to get a stitch in his neck.

“There is nothing to forgive. It’s a quite clever turn of phrase.” Roovum smiled, his tree-thick fingers drumming along the fabric of his jacket. “And I believe you shall find that I already have an established audience.”

“What’s that?”

The giant shrugged. “I have a fairly large readership already, Mr. Coor. My column is syndicated across several thousand different outlets on hundreds of worlds in…eight realms, by my last count. Or rather, it was until my relationship with my former editor ended rather suddenly.”

Hurley swallowed hard to keep down the question he wanted to ask. “And you’re looking for a new home newspaper for your syndicated column.”

“Yes.”

“So in a way you’re interviewing me.” Hurley’s tail thumped against the brickwork.

Roovumbidgee smiled. “I suppose that’s true, yes.”

Hurley chuckled. “Well, how am I doing so far?”

“Quite well. I think we could have a long and fruitful partnership.”

“Mmm, I think so.” Hurley snapped his interview packet closed and held out a hand. Roovumbidgee lowered his finger, and they shook.

“I…won’t be able to pay you much.” The Raccoon said sheepishly.

“I understand. I won’t ask for much. Just access to your newsroom and reporters for their perspective.”

“I think I can do that. Will you need an office?” Hurley wasn’t sure he wanted the answer to that.

“That is very kind of you to offer, but no, that won’t be necessary. A coffee shop nearby has graciously offered their roof for my typewriter.” Roovumbidgee’s nose twitched, and Hurley had him immediately pegged as a caffeine addict. Gods help that coffee shop.

“Oh, well, let us know what your office hours are and I’ll send my guys down there for coffee or something. They’ll, uh, they’ll certainly want to meet you.” Hurley’s ears flicked as he rubbed the back of his head. He was already planning the staff meeting he’d need to have about this.

“And I look forward to meeting them. I can’t thank you enough for this opportunity, Mr. Coor. I’ll do my best to make sure it’s of benefit to you.”

Hurley looked up at the towering marsupial in his stuffy three-piece suit, wedged in a two-lane side street between buildings he could effortlessly bring down. He was sure this would be the strangest hire he’d ever make.

“Oh, I assure you, you already have.”

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2018 in Furries, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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(Politics) Your Light is All You Have

Politics 150The world is on fire and nothing is okay. At a time when climate change is chugging along exactly as scientists said it would, when we’re running out of fresh water and the crude, polluting oil we’ve built our entire society around, the world is caught up in a wave of xenophobia, authoritarianism and weaponized resentment. Instead of looking at our planet and wondering how we can live on it more sustainably, or looking at each other and rolling up our sleeves to figure out how we can take better care of each other, we’re rolling back protections for the last bits of unspoiled land and taking increasingly drastic measures to make sure no one else can ever take what we have. The Internet — a platform that could lead us to come together as one people and stand up for each other — is a hornet’s nest of outrage-memes, rhetorical back-alley brawls, tribal cheering and jeering. It is getting increasingly hard to look anywhere without cringing at the sight of what it’s become.

The current frame of the unending debate between Right and Left in the United States is “civility”. A few representatives of the Trump administration have been challenged in public, or refused service in restaurants, and now conservative pundits (aided by the media) are wondering what happened to our civil discourse. These are the same people who assassinate the characters of unarmed black people who’ve been killed by the police; who have targeted Democratic leadership with misogynist and racist rhetoric for a generation; who have tacitly or directly approved the coarsening of our political discourse by courting racists, “men’s rights” activists, Tea Partiers, Christian supremacists, and all manner of people who have refused to offer almost anyone the basics of respect and decency. When they went low, we went high — and lost 33 Governor’s mansions, 31 state legislatures, the House of Representatives, the US Senate, the Supreme Court, the White House.

Republicans have taken control of the American government on just about every conceivable level by being shameless and unrepentant about taking power and fixing the system — through gerrymandering, voting restrictions, blatant lying, and the consistent corrosion of the people’s faith in our institutions. Their grip on American politics is anything but civil, and it rightly makes those of us on the Left angry when, after a decade of increasingly-blatant racist backlash against our first Black American President, they’re suddenly worried about the tone of protest in the air.

As angry as I am, as disgusted as I am at their blatant hypocrisy and social manipulation, I have to admit that I’m worried too. As I watch the feeds of my friends, fellow activists, and fellow minorities, I see the tone subtly but steadily changing. Words like “fear” and “hate” are becoming more prominent. Where before we were angry at the abuses of the administration and the feeble justifications for them by complicit parties, now it feels we’re just angry. At everything. And in a time where the news is nothing but the well-catalogued descent of democracy peppered with perspectives of the people who voted for this to happen and finger-wagging about how we need to understand them better, I understand that. The idea that we were building a just and equal society — or that we’re even capable of it — feels faint and fragile and hopelessly naive now. The belief that we could overcome our problems if we just worked harder and smarter feels ignorant and dumb. For so many of us, these past two years has been the dissolving of a dream we were glad to be a part of; getting woke is a nightmare.

What’s left but anger when you realize how firmly entrenched, how deeply rooted and mutable, the connection to white privilege is in American life? How can you not be angry when you watch people you know quibble about whether or not to compare Trumpists to Nazis when refugee families are being torn apart and children put in cages? How can you still believe in America when the institutions we’ve built over hundreds of years have been powerless to stop the unchecked stripping of rights and protections for our most vulnerable citizens? Wouldn’t you be furious too if you realized your country had been lying to you for your entire life about what it stood for?

I can’t read the news, not because the suffering of other people makes me uncomfortable, but because I can barely tolerate the heat of the anger I feel. I felt myself flaming out through most of last year, and I’ve tried hard to pull back from letting that rage consume me completely. And I see so many of us losing that battle, letting the light of our kindness and empathy grow red and smoking with the fury of watching an unjust world kill people because they were different, or powerless. We’re afraid of what America is turning into, and angry about what it’s been for far too long, and the space we have for anything besides that fear and fury is dwindling. I get it. I feel it too. But if I let it happen, if I give myself over to it, then the fear and the fury consumes everything I am. There will be nothing left. And that’s just as good to the parties that want me (and people like me) gone as them eliminating me themselves.

The light that gives me the ability to be angry about these things is the same light that can be extinguished by that anger. Anger chokes our ability to be kind, open, and self-aware; fear freezes our perspective. In order to build the kind of society we want, we must be able to imagine it — and that requires seeing past our fear and fury and frustration. We have to imagine the kind of people we would need to be in order for that society to work. We have to work on ourselves in order to become those people. I think that means being aware of our anger and fear, accepting these emotions as just another part of ourselves, of working with them in healthy and helpful ways.

People might think that’s a whole different kind of work from social justice, but it’s not. It means fixing ourselves as much as fixing the world around us, because anything that’s not right within us will not be right with the world. If we want to live in a world where we’ve dealt with our worst impulses, we’re going to have to deal with our worst impulses. The things we do based on anger and fear are often just those things. If we find those emotions guiding our actions with fewer checks from other influences, we have to stop and consider if that’s what we want.

I am not saying that it’s wrong to be angry, or that we shouldn’t be afraid. Those are both completely normal reactions to what’s happening right now. But we do have to think about where anger and fear leads us, what kind of people we are when we’re nothing but anger and fear. We have to think about how we get from here to some place better, and how we’re going to light the way. If we’ve been immolated by our rage, all that’s left is smoke and ash. We still need our values to guide us. We really do.

I’ve been trying very hard to think about what I’m fighting for — not just the things I’m confronted with and fighting against. What do I want? What do I believe? Why do I believe my values are the right ones? And does the form of my protest align with the answers I come up with?

I want to be civil not because I give a shit what those hypocrites think, but because civility is something I value. I want to believe that my principles can be tested against the crucible of reality, and that they’re strong enough to endure. I want to be the kind of person that still believes we can overcome these problems if we work harder and smarter, if we’re clear about the sacrifices that need to be made and the compromises we cannot allow. I know that the United States isn’t the land of the free or the home of the brave — that’s a lie we’ve been sold to allow the cowardly and the greedy to do what they want. But I also know that it can be, and that if it’s going to be each and every one of us must be free from our anger and fear.

Reminding ourselves and our brothers and sisters to be positive, to hold fast to the values we hold dear, is a necessary component of our protest. So please, think about what the world could be like, and think about what you can do to get us a little bit closer to that, and do it. Lift up your allies as much as you tear down the institutions that have failed us all this time. Tend to your light. Keep the light of your fellows safe. Let in a little sunshine so that we don’t choke on the smoke of our collective anger. Find something — anything — to smile about. Remind yourself why this world is worth saving, why YOU’RE worth saving.

Our voices can be loud and firm without rancor. We don’t have to put up with injustice, but we do have to live with ourselves in a more just world. Saving the world, and the United States, is not just about reshaping society. It’s about preserving ourselves and our sanity so we can keep doing the work that needs to be done.

Let’s hold the things we love in our hearts while we’re out on the streets protesting the effects of Trump in ways both large and small. As long as we do, we save a little space for the goodness we’re working so hard to preserve.

 

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(Personal) A Writer’s Journal: June 2018

Self Improvement 150June was a terrible month for writing, but it turned out to be a great month for collecting experiences that would be good for writing later. At the beginning of the month I was spending my last day in Paris recovering from several days of non-stop record-setting walking around; at the end of it, I’ll be ending my third week at a brand-new job and collecting my first paycheck. This month I’ve done several things I’ve never done before, and it’s been wonderful sinking into the novelty. At the same time, I have to admit that it’s been really hard to incorporate all of these new experiences into the increasingly elaborate lattice of my self-concept.

My husband (the Dragon) and I started the month in Paris, where we were lazing about with one of our best friends in the world. He put us up while we were in town and had gamely agreed to be our guide while we were there. We had spent the past few days visiting the Louvre Museum, Notre Dame, and the university where he worked where a party had been thrown in his honor to celebrate his election to a new position that would take him across the country. It was a wonderful whirlwind, but by that time my legs were in open rebellion while my Fitbit was celebrating my consistent string of 20,000-step days.

That evening, we were on the train to London, where we would spend the next few days closing out our European trip. We took a riverboat tour of the Thames; visited Westminster Abbey; climbed the stairs of the Monument to the Great Fire of London; visited All Hallows-By-The-Tower; toured the Tower of London; saw works of art at the Tate Museum; and went to a LOT of pubs that served surprisingly weak beer and ales. But when all was said and done, I left Great Britain in love with the country. There was a surprising comfort with its history that felt somewhat lacking in France.

In Paris, almost all of the historical monuments were well-preserved and beautiful. The Luxembourg Gardens were carefully manicured, and the Louvre Museum kept its most prized artistic possessions behind a wide barrier. While the beauty is undeniable, the distance created from the history right in front of us made us feel unworthy of it; it created a strange longing to bridge the gulf between our own imperfect, chaotic, shallow times and the focused beauty that was capable only in centuries before. It felt like we were visiting the house of a relative with plastic on all the couches, where we could only see the good china behind glass and drank Kool-Aid in cheap cups.

London felt much more at home with its own history. Ancient rooms that housed the head of monastic orders were still in use in the present-day; alleys that existed in the times of Queen Victoria (or even ancient Rome) were marked by modern street signs. The fact that you could walk almost anywhere in the city and find doors, rooms, entire structures still in use after hundreds of years in London meant that you could feel a much more direct connection to the history of the city — the tragedy of the Great Fire wasn’t just that so much of history had been consumed forever; it was that so many of us visiting the city would never get to see it or use it.

Great Britain was a surprisingly relaxed country to visit, and I appreciated the cozy atmosphere that greeted me almost everywhere I went. Paris, on the other hand, is astonishingly pretty — but so much of it feels curiously distant, even when you’re walking down wide avenues marked by the obvious presence of the homeless and desperate. Paris feels like a place you’re desperate to belong to, but London feels like a place where you can always belong.

The plane back was long but fun; Ryan and I watched Game Night, Early Man, and Downsizing; I watched Peter Rabbit on my own. We learned about the stark difference between international customs at Heathrow and San Jose International the hard way, and then we collapsed at the Burrow, recuperating as best we could.

I started a new day job that next Monday. I’m working in roughly the same position — customer service — but in a very different space. Before I was working mainly with other businesses, but here I’m dealing directly with consumers. It’s a bit of an adjustment, speaking to laymen who don’t have at least a passing knowledge of the space we’re in, and I have to admit that it’s been surprisingly difficult to make it. We make assumptions about basic competence and comprehension that are just not true, and just when we think we have a handle on how little people understand about the things they sign up for we’re surprised at how deep that ignorance goes on a regular basis.

Still, it’s been an incredible experience. The company I work for is riding the wave of cutting-edge technology, and it’s been illuminating to learn about the considerations that come into play when no one has a playbook for the kinds of situations that come up. The questions that are raised by what we do are uncomfortable to contemplate, and it would be easy to feel bad about what we were doing if we didn’t have such transparency from the executives to make it clear that they genuinely care about doing the right thing. It’s so weird to me to belong to a company that I feel excited about joining, or to believe in the work we’re doing. I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, but that’s not the worst thing. Maybe one day I’ll look back at these heady first days with a kind of disappointed bewilderment, but for now I’m really enjoying the experience.

Between being out of town, adjusting to my return, and rebuilding a daily routine from scratch, writing has been almost non-existent. However, I feel like I’m getting a better hang of how my days will go from here on out, which allows me to plan a lot better. This next month is about rebuilding a healthier routine that allows me to write, read, and exercise on a regular basis.

Currently I’m reading two books: Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach and Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. Radical Acceptance is a book about learning how to embrace the present experience using both Buddhist spirituality and Western psychology. Steppenwolf is a novel about an older gentleman at war with himself learning to accept the aspirational, civilized part of himself as well as the vulgar, bestial nature that resides within all of us. Hesse has a wonderful way of distilling heady, esoteric philosophical struggle into everyday experience, and Steppenwolf even throws a furry-ish frame on it by having the main character refer to himself as a shabby old “wolf of the steppes”.

Both books are actually invitations to reflect on the constructs I use to filter my experience and examine whether or not they’re actually useful to me. What good does it really do me to think of myself as a fae-rabbit? Would I be better served with the realization that these constructs build a sense of separation between aspects of myself that would work better unified? How far do we take the dismantling of concepts as reasonable people? Can we simultaneously hold the concept of self as illusion while using it all the time with other people?

I have no answers here, but both of these books have given me a lot to think about. I’m grateful for that, the experience of loosening my perspective at a time where so many people seem to be resolutely fixed in theirs. I mean, I get it, and I don’t want to insinuate that it’s wrong to draw a line in the sand at this time. I absolutely have, and I won’t tolerate the crossing of it. At the same time, it’s important to hold in our heads the reality that it’s not people who are committing these abuses and atrocities, it’s people — and they could very well be you or me if not for the accident of our birth.

It’s really hard to hold that knowledge within us, to recognize that we have the same capacity for evil that the people working and supporting the current US Administration do. We don’t want to admit that to ourselves because it causes us pain, but the cure for that pain is within the pain itself (to quote Rumi). Recognizing the capacity for our own monstrous behavior gives us better insight into how the fears of others curdle into (at the very least) a tolerance for fascist rhetoric, and that can give us a better perspective to fight it from. When we’re asked to understand the Trump voter, I think it’s important to know we’re not being asked to excuse them; we’re being asked to frame our arguments in terms they’re more likely to understand.

This is a time where idealists on all sides of the political spectrum are speaking the loudest. The pragmatists, who try to deal with the world as it is instead of forcing the world into the shape we feel it should be, tend to villified as centrists or complacent. I think this is because most pragmatists have a terrible way with words; their valid points are shouted down by superior rhetoric, and that’s that.

So it goes, I suppose. Right now, the work for me is fighting against the worst of the administration in power while trying to realize I have the thing I’m fighting against within me. I know that my country needs to be changed, but the fight to do it shouldn’t change me, make me harder and more brittle. So it’s just as important that I figure out what my principles are and how I can best stick to them as it is to reject the principles that allow others to justify separating migrant families at the border, or to discriminate against others based on religious grounds. If we’re not fighting for something specific and known, we’re fighting for nothing at all.

All in all, June has been a fantastic month. I’ve learned a lot about myself and the world, and while it’s taking me some time to come to terms with everything that’s happened I feel nothing but gratitude for the work ahead of me.

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2018 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

(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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(Travel) A Jackalope in France and England

Myth 150My Husband, The Dragon and I got back to the United States last Wednesday afternoon, and it’s taken us a minute to catch up to things after two weeks out of the country. We’re still not entirely done; news moves fast these days, and laundry piles up faster still. We really wanted to take it easy over the few days we had between vacation and work, and I’d like to think we did a good job! But that only means that the news cycles have moved on without us; we’re still in shock and disbelief over the things that happened a week or two ago. So I’m declaring a kind of “news bankruptcy” for now, and I’ll jump in again when I feel able.

First I wanted to take a minute to thank the staff of Confuzzled for being so amazing. Ryan and I had a wonderful time, and I was incredibly impressed by just how smoothly the con ran for the most part. The convention clearly has a great rapport with the hotel, which enables them to do a lot of really cool stuff with the space. Kitting out one of the rooms with beanbag chairs for the more interactive and crowd-oriented panels is a stroke of genius, and I think the tabletop RPG room was well-designed and really fun. Setting aside con space for newbies and “quiet groups” is also wonderful. The gender-neutral bathrooms were great to see and well-used without a hint of trouble throughout the con. Confuzzled is a great example of putting its attendees first. It was awesome.

I played in two tabletop RPGs there: a D&D5e module and Honey Heist, a Fiasco-style game where you’re playing a group of bears who intend to pull off an impressive theft during Honeycon 2015. It is just as ridiculous and hilarious as it sounds. Our group was able to get the motherlode of ultra-dense mega-honey AND take over the venue at the same time, so I’m quite happy with how things turned out. In D&D, I played a Goliath cleric named Harcourt Weatherby (Thanks, Jeeves!) who managed to piss off a were-tiger into climbing an enormous tower.

The weekend was a tremendously good time, filled with great conversations and beer. I even got to see a few friends from Arkansas that I never would have expected to catch up with in England! Now that I’m back and settling into life again, I’ll definitely have to reach out to them. There’s always the danger, especially with me, of just falling off the radar as life takes over and I’d like to do a lot less of that if at all possible.

After Confuzzled, we visited Paris and London in order to be proper tourists. The deep, rich history of both cities were a source of fascination with us, and we really wanted to visit a lot of the places that made each city what it is. I wasn’t expecting to see this difference between how each city interacts with its history, but that’s a side benefit of travel, let’s say.

Paris is a beautiful city that reminds me a lot of San Francisco — at least, the modern parts of it do. There are cafes and shops almost everywhere, for just about anything you could think of, with apartments above them for folks to squeeze into. Pockets of history dot the city, far enough away that they’re a good walk from each other but close enough to encourage you to walk it anyway. The language barrier, at least for me, was fairly strong — we had to rely on our guide most of the time to navigate situations (and thanks so much for that necessary and exhausting work, friendly guide!). It could be isolating at times; there was the constant feeling of disapproval for speaking poor, broken French but that could just be my brain being an asshole about it.

We went to so many places: Notre Dame, The Louvre Museum, Palais de Luxembourg, the Church of Saint-Sulpice, the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, the Arenes de Lutece. They were all great — I cried in Notre Dame (again) when a service started and the voice of the featured singer filled the space. It was unexpected, and completely magical. My favorite day was Louvre day, though — SO MANY GREAT PIECES beyond the Mona Lisa and the fact that the space itself was a huge part of Parisian history was really cool.

As much as I love Paris, I have to say that its approach to history (at least to this relatively ignorant American) makes it feel alienating. Everywhere you go, it feels like you’re meant to enjoy history and beauty at a distance, like you’re at your auntie’s house with plastic covering all the furniture and delicate ceramic figurines that you are not to touch under any circumstances. It’s really pretty, but mostly you just walk around to look at it. There’s a distance there, a reverence for the glory days of France that doesn’t include us here and now. With the exception of the Arenes de Lutece, there aren’t many places you can go in Paris that allows you to interact directly with its past, or that the history of the city is baked into the fabric of daily life. It can feel like that Paris is two cities, really — the historical romanticized Paris, and the one where everyone lives.

London felt different. History is all over the city as well, preserved and available, but it’s included in the foundation of the city as its grown. You could be walking down the street and spot an alley that dates back to the 16th century, or worship at a community church that’s been around in some form or another since antiquity. Even the big churches, like Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral, have regular services open to the faithful public. (To be fair, Notre Dame offers public services too.) So much of the ancient parts of London are part of active businesses and organizations, still in use today. It makes the history of the city so much more lively, direct, and connective; when you’re there, it’s cool to know you’re on a road or using a door that has been in use for hundreds of years.

In London we went to the Tower of London, Greenwich Observatory, a river-boat of the Thames, the Tate Museum, Westminster Abbey, and we visited Geoff Ryman, one of Ryan’s Clarion instructors and a passionate advocate for science fiction and fantasy from the African continent. He turned me on to SO MANY writers and resources to connect with the speculative fiction scene there, and the clear knowledge, affection and appreciation he had for the authors and their work there meant so much to me — the only time I cried in London was in this dude’s living room, which he was kind enough not to say anything about. But seeing someone who’s gained so much fame and authority in the space work so humbly to lift up the writers of Africa (and the diaspora in general) is amazing, and I appreciated it so much.

If you’re interested in learning more about African sci-fi/fantasy, I highly recommend his series of articles in issue 18 of the Manchester Review here or the African Speculative Fiction Society website here. The Nommo Awards is a tremendous resource offering a yearly short-list of the best in speculative fiction that comes from the continent.

It was an amazing trip, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have gone. You learn so much about yourself, your culture, and your place in the world through travel like this; connecting with other people who have entirely different backgrounds and frames of reference really helps you to shake loose things you thought were fundamental. It feels much more possible to change ourselves and the communities we’re in for the better, just because we see how different people have set their priorities. Travel keeps me from calcifying, from seeing only one way of doing things — I can’t wait to do it more.

For now, though, it’s time to come back and build on this experience. I’m looking forward to doing that.

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2018 in Furries, Self-Reflection

 

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(Mental Health) How to Help Others

Myth 150When I look back on the person I was in college — during the worst period of my depression — I am honestly amazed that I still have so many friends who knew me back then. I spent most of my time in the computer lab talking to folks online, and barely had enough energy to eat, sleep or bathe. Everything I talked about centered around how awful life was, how insurmountable my problems were, how much of a failure I had been. When folks were kind enough to apologize when they offended my hypersensitive emotions, they were treated to small passive-aggressive jabs instead of gratitude. It was awful. I was awful. And it makes me so grateful that there were people who stuck with me through all of it.

I try to take that knowledge with me whenever I’m dealing with someone in the throes of depression or anxiety, because I know how much it helped to have people who never gave up on me even when I wasn’t capable of showing my appreciation at the time. They made one of the worst times of my life a little more bearable, and I know now that it was at considerable expense on their part. The energy and patience required to deal with me when I was in my worst depressions are more than I could ever expect from anyone, even close friends. But those people who spent it on me are people I would do anything for now.

There is no shortage of people in geek spaces suffering from depression, anxiety, or another mental illness; supporting us can be very difficult, especially if you can only do so online. It can feel so inadequate to put encouraging words on a screen when someone tells you that they just want to die, and it’s really hard to be sure you understand what they’re going through when they bring up a problem. And, quite honestly, it’s a rough deal to spend so much time and energy consoling someone when you’re online to gain some measure of relief from the world yourself — especially if it feels like all of that time and energy is being sucked into an emotional void with no measurable improvement. Still, most of us are good people who don’t want to see our friends and fellow fans suffer, so we do what we can to ease the misery where we can.

With that in mind, what can we do to make sure we’re helping friends who are having a hard time coping with mental illness? There are a few things I can recommend from my personal experience on either side of that conversation, combined with suggestions from professionals and mental health advocates. I can’t guarantee that your friend will be cured if you follow this advice, of course, or that it will even result in a marked improvement. I do think that they will help you understand what your friend might be going through and offer the best assistance you can.

Listen actively. It takes work to be a good listener. Most of us only practice what I call “surface listening”, where we pick up the generalities of what’s being said while planning the next thing we’re going to say. Deep listening, the kind where you not only hear what’s being said but work to understand the intent behind what’s being said, is both more rare and more difficult. However, for those of us stuck in a bad headspace, it can mean a lot for someone to understand what we don’t have the vocabulary or insight to say.

When I’m in a bad depression, it’s hard to open up about what I really feel. Sometimes I don’t even know what that is, so I end up talking around the problem or trying to get to the precise feeling from different angles. It can be frustrating to have this strong emotion roiling inside of you without the means to express it, only to have a conversation that leads you further away from it with someone else.

I know this sounds like depressed people might expect you to be a mind-reader, which isn’t fair. But you don’t have to be — sometimes, all it takes is really listening to what someone is saying to understand what they mean. Active listening is difficult, and like any skill it takes practice to get good at it, but it reaps dividends not just for helping a depressed friend but for pretty much any other conversation you could have.

Offer support, not solutions. This is a bad habit of mine that I’m constantly trying to curb, but when someone comes to me with a problem my brain immediately kicks over into “solution mode” where I try to attack the problem with the person who brought it to my attention. This often just causes that person to be frustrated and frequently dismiss my suggestions for one reason or another. This frustrates me because I’m too deep into “solution mode” to get what’s happening there. If this person didn’t want my help solving their problem, why did they even come to me in the first place?

The kicker here is that I’ve been on the other side of this conversation, and I know how frustrating it is to bring a problem to someone only to have them immediately go into a list of solution suggestions. It’s so strange to me that it’s so easy to be disappointed in someone for doing the same thing I do all the time when the roles are reversed; if nothing else, it’s proof that we’re just not the rational creatures we think we are.

This might not be true all the time, but for a significant portion of the cases I bring a problem to someone I’m just looking for a safe space to vent — especially in the grips of a depression. It’s comforting to have someone else offer support and understanding, to acknowledge a problem you’re having as difficult to deal with. Sometimes, it helps to know that someone cares about you and that they’re on your side.

Know your boundaries. Having a friend with a mental illness lean on you heavily for emotional support can be exhausting. It’s all right to acknowledge that. Sometimes, we just don’t have it within us to be the outlet for someone going through a tough time — while that can be a difficult realization if you feel partially responsible for someone’s well-being, it’s also important to recognize when you’re getting burned out and unable to cope with the workload.

Having a firm handle on what you can and can’t handle is important for your own emotional well-being, and when you’re getting close to your limit you have to step back to preserve your own peace of mind. It’s noble to want to be right there in the thick of things with your friend, but compromising your own emotional health for the sake of someone else doesn’t solve their problem; it only creates more to be dealt with. If you need to take some time to recharge, tell your friend as kindly and compassionately as possible, and let them know that you’ll be available some time later.

If possible, it might help to find a support group online or in person to join. This can help you learn how to cope with caring for someone better, and that you’re not alone. There might be other resources you can share with your friend or a common support network, as well.

Encourage treatment. Most of us with friends who are dealing with a mental illness aren’t equipped to handle helping them on our own. Part of knowing our own boundaries is knowing when we’re in over our heads and professional help is needed; we wouldn’t offer a diagnosis or treatment for someone with a mysterious pain in their chest, so we shouldn’t do that for mental illness either.

Recommending a visit to the psychiatrist can be a tricky subject. Even if someone has health insurance, there’s no guarantee that mental health services are easily available. Besides the resistance to seeking treatment to begin with, there might be legitimate social, logistical or financial barriers to getting the care they need. Those of us in a bad spiral might see going to a therapist as a defeat, or be reluctant about sharing intimate and painful details of our lives with a stranger. Sometimes, though, it’s the best option we have for getting help.

If you feel your friend needs to see a mental health specialist, see if there’s a low-cost or no-cost resource available and what (if anything) would need to be done in order to take advantage of it. If they’re in a position where they can see a specialist with relative ease, talk with them about their reluctance to do so and see if that can be worked through. While treatment for a mental illness can be a long process that requires patience and trust, it’s worth sticking with. Helping a friend seek the help they need might be the best thing we can do to support them.

Discourage abuse. One big hazard of being emotional support for someone is the very real possibility of being subjected to abusive or manipulative behavior. I’ve known a number of people who feel that their mental illness is a valid excuse for treating the people around them poorly, and far too often the people in their support network enable that behavior by letting it slide. It breaks my heart to see this. No one deserves to be verbally or emotionally abused, and mental illness is no excuse for being an asshole. Letting this go unaddressed hurts everyone involved.

If a friend is engaging in inappropriate or manipulative behavior, it’s our duty as their support to let them know they’re crossing a line — especially if it’s with us. It can be very difficult to do so in a compassionate way, and it may take some delicate handling to do so, but it’s worth it every time. It helps to make sure the behavior is addressed as separate from the individual (“you did a bad thing,” not “you’re being a bad person” for example) so the person doesn’t internalize the action to the point that it’s a part of their identity. And it might help to remember that the behavior needs to be addressed in order to truly help your friend; keeping the goal of the conversation in mind might work to keep it from derailing.

Most importantly, it makes sure that you maintain your equanimity as that friend’s support. Some of us have a tendency to make other people see the world in the same skewed ways we do when we’re depressed. Sometimes we’re driven to these actions by the irrational fear that controlling someone else’s behavior or lowering their self-esteem is the only way we can keep them associating with us. Making sure it’s known that behavior won’t be tolerated AND that the relationship is one built on positive shared values (and not fear or control) provides a clear counter-narrative to that internal monologue, and might help that friend come around a bit sooner than they would otherwise.

Even then, if the abusive behavior continues or a line is crossed that makes the relationship untenable, it’s important to establish your boundary and make it clear there are consequences for those actions. If that means ending the relationship, as difficult as that is, then the relationship must end. Supporting someone else should not come at the cost of your own emotional health. Only give what you’re willing to part with, and make sure your loving relationship with yourself remains intact.

I hope these suggestions help, and offer some small insight into the difficulties of emotional support. I’d also like to take this time to thank all the people who’ve helped me through the worst times of my life, from the bottom of my heart. I wouldn’t be where I am without your continued faith and support, even when I really didn’t deserve it. Thank you Ryan, Kyle, Odis, Brian, Matt, Mat, Cy, Sherri, Crystal, Virginia, Joe, Kaycee, and so, so many others. I think about all of you all the time, and I appreciate all you’ve done.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Mental Health) How to Help Yourself

Myth 150If I could have readers leave the Desk at the end of the month with only one new piece of information, it’s that mental illnesses are actual, physical ailments in the brain. While the way we think and perceive has something to do with how the illnesses are expressed, the fact remains that most conditions come down to processes in the brain working in ways that cause significant suffering. For folks like me, these ailments are going to stick around for a while; that means one of the best things we can do for ourselves is develop coping mechanisms and routines that help us have as few bad days as possible. Now that I’ve talked at length about the conditions I have, I’d like to talk about a few of the things I’ve learned to do that help me most.

Before that, though, I do want to make a few disclaimers. First of all I’m not a licensed professional and none of the advice you find here should be taken as gospel; feel free to discard any or all of this if your psychiatrist or psychologist tells you different. Second, this shouldn’t be viewed as the equivalent of professional help. If you have (or think you have) a mental illness, the best course of action is seeking professional treatment if at all possible. Finally, taking these steps won’t guarantee that you’ll never have issues with your mental illness. I still have bad days and I still fall into depressive episodes myself. Hopefully, though, these can help shallow out the emotional valleys and make it easier to recover from them.

THE BORING STUFF

Sleep. Sleep has been the most important thing for me to get under control for my mental health. Back in college during my worst periods I had functionally no schedule for sleep; I would instead spend as much time as possible in my dorm’s computer labs seeking out some kind of human connection to make myself feel better. But the lack of consistent sleep made it so hard to regulate my emotions, pay attention in class, or absorb the day-to-day stresses that come with a full courseload.

While the exact function of sleep is not entirely understood, we do know that a number of important “brain maintenance” processes happen during rest. For those of us who have problems with brain function, a consistent sleep schedule is one of the easiest ways we can help our brain manage what it can. Our internal clocks are different, and for those of us working jobs with variable schedules or have some other function that doesn’t let us adopt a stable routine, it might not be possible to set a consistent bedtime for, say 10 PM – 6 AM. Do what you can, but do something; seven or eight hours of sleep a night are a must before just about anything else.

Diet. Again, I know that this is some loaded advice. There are so many folks who are simply unable to eat well because they can’t afford or find fresh produce, don’t have the time or will to cook for themselves, or have other legitimate reasons preventing them from making big changes to their diet. I get it; I’m not going to ask you to go vegan or only buy organic. But small changes to your diet that recenter focus on nutrients that help your body function better can be made. A good rule of thumb is the classic quote from food writer Michael Pollan: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.”

At minimum, I’d recommend eating less salt, sugar and processed foods; drinking fewer sodas and juices (even diet and sugar-free versions); eating more lean meats and whole grains; drinking more water and tea. Most carb-heavy processed foods tend to convert into sugars within our bodies (at least, to my understandings) and the simpler or more processed the carb, the faster that process tends to be. In the United States we’re all about our processed carbs, and breaking away from them can feel like swimming upstream. It’s hard, I know. But if you can have fruits, vegetables and lean meats — have as much of them as possible.

Exercise. Exerting ourselves can often trigger the body into releasing dopamine, endocannibanoids and other chemicals that lift our mood, and the best part about exercise is that there’s a near-limitless variety of things we can do to work ourselves out. There’s weight training, sure; but there’s also running, sports like basketball or soccer, yoga or tai chi, cleaning the house, or walking along a favorite trail. In addition to the benefits of regular exercise, getting outdoors also helps our bodies to make Vitamin D (which helps build our bones and protects against cancer) as well as serotonin (one of those neurotransmitters I’ve been talking about).

Personally, I love running, but the spirit might move you to try something different. I understand how hard it can be to make time for regular exercise — I still struggle with it myself. But taking even ten minutes a day to walk around the block during the day can help lift your mood and give yourself more energy.

Getting more sleep, eating better food, and developing a regular exercise routine are all suggestions that any of us who’ve gotten professional help for our mental illnesses have heard time and time and time again — but there’s a reason for that. Taking care of our most basic needs is incredibly important. Not only does it help our body develop the tools it needs to manage the imbalances in our brain, but it also encourages us to change our relationship with ourselves. I’ve found that making sure I eat, sleep and move well helps me to think of myself as someone worth caring for and also helps to make me more sensitive to those needs. I have a better gauge for when I’m hungry, or really need sleep.

LESS BORING STUFF

Meditation. There are a lot of misconceptions about what meditation is, and that might be because everyone who practices it has a slightly different concept of what it is. In popular culture, meditation is the emptying of mind and communion with everything around you in the present moment; it’s an act of peaceful enlightenment that you have to do perfectly the first time you do it or you just can’t.

I’m here to tell you that meditation is messy and disorganized. I’ve meditated (almost) every day for seven years or so now, and most days are still a struggle against “monkey mind”. Meditation is not the mechanism we use to force ourselves into mindfulness and peace; it’s the mechanism we use to watch and accept our own thoughts as they arise.

When I sit on the meditation bench, I replay past arguments I’ve had with people; I think about the many mistakes I’ve made; depressed and obsessive thoughts pop up all the time. That’s completely fine — that’s what I’m on the bench for. However, so many of us believe that the thoughts or feelings we have are inherently bad and meditation is the way we rid ourselves of these thoughts. That’s not the case: these thoughts and feelings are natural, and it’s OK to accept that we have them. Acceptance of these difficult emotions and the thoughts they’re associated with is the first step we need to take in order to make peace with them.

Meditation as a daily practice allows us to gain better insights into the deeper layers within our thought process. We might notice, for example, that the same kinds of situations trigger a specific memory or regret; or we might notice that there’s a common thread in the things that make us angry or sad. If we accept this, we can then explore these insights with a gentle and compassionate curiosity. Perhaps, in time, we can even resolve the things that cause us suffering.

That definitely takes work, persistence, and faith in the process. But it’s been worth it to me. Due to my meditation practice, I have a much better understanding of when I’m in a depression or particularly rough bit of anxiety; that allows me to handle myself better when I’m in those spaces so I’m not as likely to do something that I’d later regret. That alone makes the depressions easier to deal with.

Making a care packet. One of the things that I like to do for myself when I’m feeling fairly well is making a “care package” for a future version of myself struggling through a bad depression or anxiety day. This can include one package of my favorite candy, a story or novel that I love, a playlist that lets me “lean in” to that feeling of sadness and turn it into a cathartic experience, or a Snuggie, or a really sweet letter or gift from a friend. Your mileage may vary with this, of course, but now that I can somewhat anticipate when I’m hitting a downward spiral I can look into the small things I’ve left myself to feel better and use them.

Of course, the things in your care packet don’t have to be physical objects: it could be permission to cancel a social engagement without feeling guilty, or a day to binge-watch a show in your pajamas. The main idea is to accept that there will be moments where despite your best efforts you hit a rough patch, and to do little things in advance that will help your future self ride out those times. In addition to giving yourself presents, it also helps retrain your brain to treat yourself a bit more kindly and to recognize that these “flare-ups” aren’t your fault. Sometimes they happen, and it’s important to be kind to yourself when they do.

Engage and learn. For most of us with mental illnesses, it can feel like we’re the only people who have this messed up thing where our brains lie to us about how the world works every once in a while. The terrible thoughts, the embarrassing emotions, the situations that are surprisingly common for those of us with deep depressive episodes — all of these can make us feel alienated and broken beyond the possibility of repair. The stigma that surrounds these illnesses can make it hard to open up about them, to share experiences even with other people we know going through the same thing.

That’s why learning as much as we can about our conditions and engaging with others who are also coping with them can be so important. The messed up things we do or think at our worst might be a fairly common experience; or we might, through the course of consoling a fellow sufferer, learn how to be gentler with ourselves dealing with a similar problem. There are a large number of online resources for depression, anxiety, and ADHD — even grouped by location, background, or lifestyle. The Internet is a wonderful gift here, in that it’s given us the capability to share our struggles in ways we’ve never been able to before. It might help knowing more about what you’re going through, and that you’re not the only one going through it.

These are some of the things that have helped me build better coping strategies and resilience against my mental illness. I sincerely hope they help a few of you out there, as well.

 

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