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(Personal) Moving Forward, Looking Back

sankofaThe picture on the right is a sankofa bird, a symbol from the Akan art culture of West Africa. Sankofa is a word that comes from the Twi language, and it roughly means “Go back and get what was left behind.” The sankofa bird has been a big symbol for a long time in Africa and among the African diaspora, and it stresses the importance of remembering your past in order to ensure a better future. I came across it researching Afrofuturism, and I think I first heard about it in the This American Life episode highlighting the movement. The idea, of course, is that even while we step into the future we keep an eye on the people and events that have shaped us.

Afrofuturism is an idea that exemplifies this attitude: we go back to retrieve the things we might have lost along the way, the things that are worth preserving, in order to take the best of ourselves into the future with us. No matter what we think about the past — that it’s irrelevant, or that it doesn’t define us — it’s as much a part of us as our self-determination and our idealized selves. We can’t escape it, no matter how much we try, but we can learn from it and take those lessons with us to build a better future.

Personally, this means going back to pick up all those things I dropped when I fled Baltimore: the black part of my identity; the trauma and complicated feelings I have around my family; the fact that there are so many people still trapped in poverty and hopelessness in our inner cities; addressing the problematic attitudes that alienate so many LGBQTIA brothers and sisters. It’s important to hold all of this with me as I forge ahead with my writing and my life. They’re a part of who I am, and I can’t hope to make an honest future without them.

Culturally, it’s so important for us to recognize and accept our history. The United States has abandoned the lessons of our history — and knowledge itself, it feels like — because acting on those lessons means hard work, discomfort, and acknowledging truths about ourselves that can be really difficult to admit. None of us are as altruistic as we’d like to think. We can be selfish, mean, willfully blind. But not taking an honest look at the worst within us will always lead us to justifications for some truly monstrous shit: take a look at the political rhetoric burning through our population right now and tell me I’m wrong.

Our past is called our roots for a reason: our experience, culture and traditions ground us firmly in the world and give us something to hold on to when the wind kicks up and storms are lashing us. We obviously don’t have to keep every little thing from our pasts, but I think we’ve swung too far in our desire to look forward. We’ve lost something valuable, and it’s time to look back and retrieve it.

 

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(Writing) A Future With Me In It

Myth 150It’s getting harder for me to look at the news these days without feeling like I’m staring into the void of our own self-destruction. The current US administration seems obsessed with assuaging the bruised ego of the President, making the lives of the poor and working class as difficult as possible, and letting the rich and powerful get away with whatever they want. It’s times like these where I need an escape more than ever, and science-fiction/fantasy provides a wonderful avenue for that — up to a point. It’s also getting harder for me to ignore that most characters in science-fiction and fantasy stories don’t look like me or even share a lot of my same experiences. That’s why I need to read and write Afrofuturism stories more than ever; I want to have characters like me going on adventures, and I want to imagine a future where people like me can thrive — but most importantly, I want to be comfortable in my own skin and tell stories from my particular perspective.

There aren’t a lot of characters of color in modern science-fiction and fantasy, even though there are a lot more than there were. The biggest thing going in the genre right now is arguably Blade Runner 2049, the incredible sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal cyberpunk masterpiece. While it’s wonderful to be sure, you see more Asian writing on the screen than actual Asian characters; there are only a few black characters who are never seen beyond a single scene; and Hispanic characters are limited to a cameo appearance or two. Like so many movies in the space today, people of color are used to fill out crowd scenes and give the appearance of diversity, but the characters you spend the most time with are overwhelmingly white — with a few exceptions. American Gods and The Expanse, I’m looking at you.

We never get to read a portal fantasy where the protagonist pulled into a strange new world is a person of color, or how their race and background experience would influence their reaction to such an incredible event. We don’t often get to see people of color doing their thing in some far-off future, especially in stories where we extrapolate the history of their culture into that distant imagining. When people of color are stripped out of these stories by casting directors, the pushback against the outcry revolves around not making everything about race; whenever people of color are added to these retellings, people often complain by posing the hypothetical question of taking one of “our” characters to illustrate how silly that is. “When do we get a movie with a white Black Panther?” “I can’t relate to Rue as much now that you made her black.” Boosting our visibility is always decried as political correctness run amok; erasing us from a possible future or an imaginary past is never a big deal, though.

The #OwnVoices movement has been in full swing for a little while now, at least, and we’re starting to see stories told about people of color, queer and transgender people, people with disabilities, and all kinds of other minorities, written by members of those groups themselves. The space is changing, and these stories are getting recognition for introducing us to different ways of thinking and being — not only in different times and places, but right here and now. That’s tremendously exciting to me, and I want to be a part of that. I want to read and promote stories that center on non-white experiences; I want to write stories with non-white, LGBQTIA protagonists, or characters with disabilities. I want to promote worlds in my fiction that has a place at the table for all of these people, that present the world not as we wish it to be, but as it IS — a diverse and wonderful place filled with folks from different backgrounds. Poor, inner-city black geeks deserve to go to Narnia too.

We also deserve to go into space. We deserve to have the lands of our ancestors share in future advancements, have their economies explode in ways they never thought possible, reach the stars and explore the galaxy on their own terms. There are so many futures written where black people are all gone, or alluded to as poor sods worse off than the protagonist for some reason. There are so many books where Africa has been left out of the unified government taking humanity into its next phase as a multi-planet species, or where African scientists are simply along for the ride as exceptional examples of a culture that still hasn’t ‘caught up’ to the rest of the world. Even those stories that feature Africa as a technological power — like Black Panther, for instance — finds ways to skirt around spotlighting the culture and history of the continent, or the astonishing variety of civilizations that flourished before being stamped out or forever changed by European colonialism. One of the only SFF movies I can think of set in Africa, District 9, used aliens as a metaphor for the actual treatment of people of color in South Africa and refugees of color all around the world.

There aren’t many stories that spotlight African culture without exploiting the problems or historical bloodshed that has taken place on the continent. Where are the stories that feature a healthy, confident African diaspora honoring their culture and traditions while also embracing the future? Does every story that centers on blackness have to be about slavery, rape, poverty, or war? Where are the hopeful stories about what Africa could be? About what her many children all around the globe could aspire to?

We desperately need these stories. All around us, there are these markers that point to how little progress we’ve made overcoming the historical disadvantages forced upon our ancestors. The natural resources of Africa are being plundered to increase the wealth of foreign corporations; the many African-descended people who live elsewhere around the world are forced to suffer continued institutional racism that others refuse to even acknowledge; in America, so many of us live and die in hopeless poverty, unable to believe in the possibility of getting a fair shake. We need to be able to envision a world where that’s true if we hope to make it so. Stories give us that power, a signpost to work towards. We have to conjure hope for the people who have none.

This deeply matters to me, personally. I grew up in inner-city Baltimore as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I never felt accepted by the culture I was raised in. At school, my religion and my geekiness made me an easy target for the students who fit in more easily to the black experience; at the Kingdom Hall, my family situation and lack of social skills made it impossible for me to be accepted by my peer group. I grew up thinking that my own culture was hostile and dangerous, that there was nothing there for me, that my only choice was to leave and never look back.

Now I see that’s not true. There are a ton of black geeks out there with varying experiences and relationships with black American culture. It’s been a revelation to me, the idea that I could be myself — a gay black Buddhist furry — and still embrace my culture and background at the same time. Now that I know it’s possible, I can’t stop until I make it real.

That means learning how to absorb my personal history and accept what happened, putting it in the context of the societal pressures that drive that behavior, and teasing out the lessons that I can take from that to improve myself — but also talk about how black American culture can be improved. We limit ourselves by adopting the limited historical perspective of the past; we dishonor our own values by denying our brothers and sisters the right to self-determination; we keep ourselves down by continuing to dismiss and demean those who think and believe differently. We are so much more than what we have been; we could be so much more than what we are now. Wild, imaginative, authentic stories could show us how.

Afro-futurism is more than a genre to me; it’s a lifeline. It feels like the thing I’ve been moving towards all my life, the thing that will give me hope at a time where that’s been so hard to come by. It’s a framework I can use to understand my past and imagine my future; it’s what I need to have a complete sense of myself. It’s a beautiful, complicated, contradictory thing. That suits me perfectly.

 

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(Gaming) Meet Bunkin Johnson, the Devoted Squire

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Last Friday I wrote up one of my characters for the Changeling 20th Anniversary Edition — Sergei Kolov, the Silent Knight. Now, meet his Devoted Squire Bunkin Johnson! I’ve had these two in my head for a very long time now; I had a vague idea for a Changeling-based TV show called “Sleepwalkers”, where faeries were running around as normal people except for folks who had “the sight”. They’ve gone through many different iterations, and I’m happy that they get to come full-circle to the setting they were always meant to be in.

Bunkin Johnson is (of course) a rabbit pooka with a whip-crack wit and a keen desire to give himself over to a cause that’s bigger than him. He finally finds it in Sergei — as his eyes, ears and mouth if necessary. They’ve thankfully relaxed the rules on pooka lies in C20, but I imagine that Bunkin’s lies are still fairly frequent, serving the purpose of advancing Sergei’s agenda and reputation. Also, they serve to deflect attention away from him; he works best when no one’s looking.

BUNKIN JOHNSON, THE DEVOTED SQUIRE

Background
Even though Carver Johnson comes from a family of Baltimore natives, the half-black/half-Irish student has never felt at home in the city. His father — a police administrator — couldn’t reconcile the fact that his son was interested in his office for all the wrong reasons even from a young age, so he left the bulk of the rearing to Carver’s mom, a veterinarian whose work often came home with her. Animals were one of the only things that young Carver could focus on, so his parents assumed he would follow in his mother’s footsteps someday. It was a mild shock when he chose to go to Baltimore City College for high school instead of its science/engineering focused rival, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

Carver’s love of words rivaled his love of animals, though, and he quickly became one of the most popular “nerds” in school. He was the class clown the teachers couldn’t get angry enough to punish, the geek that somehow avoided beatdowns by the jocks. As easily as he navigated the treacherous landscape of high school, however, he still felt something was missing. He found what he had been looking for all his life the night he saw the Silent Knight rescue one of his teachers from a couple of thugs.

He thought he went crazy when he noticed the huge stranger grow horns and lupine fangs, or saw that his teacher had pointed ears and two eyebrows. His sense of hearing and smell grew sharper; colors popped way too brightly; voices cheered on one side or the other from the shadows. When the overly-pierced monsters were finally dispatched, Carver ran up to the stranger and begged to be his squire. He had no idea why; it just felt like destiny.

Nine months later, Carver has learned much about his own pooka nature and the world of the fae. He sees himself as the voice for the voiceless knight, making sure Sergei’s needs are attended to. His parents are quite suspicious of this newfound passion for helping the homeless, but they chalk it up as just another phase their strange son is going through. Hopefully, eventually, he’ll settle down and be a vet.

Mortal Seeming
Carver is one of those kids who looks reasonably put together; his fade is fresh, his edges are lined up, and his clothes are bright and well-kept. He presents a really nice silhouette. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s something in his expression and demeanor that gives him an air of awkward discomfort, like he’s just waiting for something frightening to happen. His eyes are spaced notably wide apart, his nose looks like it wants to lead right towards his lips, and two large incisors are prominent due to an overbite. His cleanliness looks fussy; he will never be calm or still.

Fae Mien
As a fae, Bunkin looks much more calm and collected. His brown eyes are huge and dark, taking in his surroundings with calm alertness. His long ears are often pointed in different directions, though it’s unclear how much he can actually hear. For all intents and purposes, he comes across as a tall, self-possessed bipedal rabbit in “simple” Victorian clothing. He prefers his feet to be bare, covered with tailored spats at most, with a messenger bag slung over one shoulder and across his chest. His companion, a tiny cockroach in a top hat, can frequently be found on the other.

Vital Statistics
Court: Seelie
Legacies: Squire/Beast
Seeming: Wilder (16)
House: Commoner

Physical: Strength 2, Dexterity 3, Stamina 2
Social: Charisma 4, Manipulation 3, Appearance 3
Mental: Perception 2, Intelligence 3, Wits 3

Talents: Alertness 1, Athletics 1, Empathy 2, Expression 3, Intimidation 1, Kenning 2, Subterfuge 2
Skills: Animal Ken 1, Etiquette 1, Performance (oratory) 2, Stealth 1
Knowledges: Academics 3, Computer 3, Enigmas 2, Investigation 1, Law 1, Politics 1, Science 1, Technology 1

Arts: Chicanery 1, Legerdemain 1, Metamorphosis 1
Realms: Actor 2, Fae 2, Nature 1, Scene 1
Backgrounds: Companion 2, Contacts 1, Dreamers 1, Resources 1

Tempers: Glamour 5, Willpower 4, Banality 3
Merits: Acute Hearing 1, Good Listener 1, Loyal Heart 2
Flaws: Echoes 2

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2017 in RPGs, Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

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(Gaming) Meet Sergei Kolov, the Silent Knight

Gaming 150A friend pointed me towards Changeling: the Dreaming in high school when he was trying to sell me on the Vampire: the Masquerade game he was building. If you’ve got basic knowledge about the World of Darkness, you’ll have some idea about how fundamentally incompatible the two games are — the Kindred are active agents of Banality, the force of disbelief that’s severing mankind’s tie to the Dreaming, after all. Even still, we made my first pooka character and that was that. I fell in love, and for several years Changeling was my jam.

Now the 20th Anniversary Edition of Changeling: the Dreaming is out and of COURSE I helped fund the Kickstarter campaign at the highest level. As part of the sweet stash of goodies, I will (hopefully) have two(!) character concepts drawn by one of the game artists for the new edition. I’m incredibly excited.

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As soon as I knew I could get two characters (thanks to my wonderful and generous husband), I knew exactly who I’d submit — Sergei Kolov, the Troll Knight and his loyal Pooka Squire Bunkin Johnson. When I run a chronicle — and you’d better believe I will — these two will be fairly prominent players in the Duchy of the Blue Crab (that’s the faerie name for Baltimore City).

I thought I’d do a quick write-up on Sergei and Bunkin, then post them here. If you’re thinking about writing a Changeling game or story, feel free to use them as you wish. I’m just really happy to be able to play in the world of the Kithain again!

SERGEI KOLOV, THE SILENT KNIGHT

Background
Sergei Kolov was born William Jackson Covington, the oldest son of a farming family scratching together their existence in rural North Carolina. He came into the world oversized and grew bigger from there; by the time he was 13 he was nearly six feet tall and his reputation as a gentle giant had been cemented. Bill’s father told him being meek wasn’t just what God wanted him to do — it was also the way he would have to survive in the world. No matter what he was like on the inside, people we see him as a big black man and be afraid. Bill took this to heart. He said only what he had to, when he had to, and he only made use of his God-given strength to defend people who couldn’t defend themselves. And there were a lot of those.

Things took a turn during Bill’s first year of high school. He quickly gained a reputation as a defender of geeks and underclassmen, but that kind of guardianship wouldn’t be tolerated for very long. One day before Christmas break, he was jumped by six upperclassmen and beaten into a coma. He woke up over a fortnight later, on New Year’s Day — unable to speak, but healthy for the most part. His parents knew, however, that something had changed; Bill’s eyes would dart to thin air frequently, and…odd things would happen around him from time to time. The Covingtons didn’t mind too much when their son told them he was going to move out after graduation; there was something off about him in a way that made his superstitious family uneasy.

He left home when he graduated high school to make his fortune in Baltimore, and he’s been penniless ever since. For the past two years, however, he’s made a name for himself in the Duchy of the Blue Crab through countless heroic deeds; the “Silent Knight” has earned the goodwill of Charm City’s commoners and the attention of the ruling Court. For now, he’s content to accept the charity of the local fae but has refused a more official position within anyone’s freehold — noble, or commoner.

Mortal Seeming
In his mortal guise, Sergei is an enormous black man standing well over 6 feet tall with 300+ pounds of hard-earned muscle. Even in the hardened streets of Baltimore, he cuts an imposing figure. Almost everything about his demeanor is meant to soften that image: he favors loose and functional clothing, almost constantly walks with a bend in his back, and only looks directly at someone when he’s smiling. He’s as well-kept as a homeless man can be, with a small mane of dreadlocked hair and a thick (but somehow groomed) beard.

Fae Mien
As a fae, Sergei is truly towering — he gains more than two feet in height and an even more Herculean build. His skin is shaded more slate than blue, but his eyes are as clear and bright as a cloudless sky. His bearing is more confident and self-possessed, his gaze steadier. His clothes are still loose and functional, but well cared-for. It’s impossible to miss the large broadsword at his hip and the table-sized wooden shield slung across his back; despite the amount of space he takes up (a lot), he never seems to bump into things with them.

Vital Statistics
Court: Seelie
Legacies: Saint/Fatalist
House: Commoner
Seeming: Wilder (19)

Physical: Strength 4, Dexterity 2, Stamina 4
Social: Charisma 3, Manipulation 1, Appearance 2
Mental: Perception 4, Intelligence 2, Wits 2

Talents: Alertness 3, Brawl 3, Empathy 2, Intimidation 1, Kenning 2, Leadership 1, Streetwise 2
Skills: Drive 1, Etiquette 2, Firearms 1, Melee 3, Stealth 1, Survival 2
Knowledges: Academics 1, Enigmas 1, Gremayre 1, Law 1, Medicine 1

Arts: Dragon’s Ire 1, Primal 2, Wayfare 1
Realms: Actor 2, Fae 1, Prop 2, Time 1
Backgrounds: Chimera (items) 3, Contacts 2, Treasures 1

Tempers: Glamour 5, Banality 3, Willpower 5, Nightmare 0
Merits: Languages (ASL, Russian) 2; Reputation 2
Flaws: Mute 4

Chimerical Items
Broadsword (Str+Melee/6; dmg. Str+3 or +4 if two-handed, lethal) – 2
Wooden Shield (Armor Rating 2; diff. Increase +2; Dex -1) – 1

Treasures
“The Listening Horn” – This is an old-fashioned brass horn, intended as a crude hearing aid. However, anyone who puts the horn to their ear and invests a point of Glamour into it can read “between the lines” of what their target is saying. This duplicates the effects of the Naming 1 cantrip.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2017 in RPGs, Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

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(Personal) What I Brought Back From Texas

Myth 150After two weeks in Belgium, I flew to Dallas, TX for the final week of my training. It was a pretty wild swing from one place to the other — Belgium is almost stereotypically European, with tons of small stores, few chains, narrow streets and close spaces; Texas, on the other hand, is wide and flat and full of box stores. I’d like to say it was just the thrill of being back in somewhat more familiar settings, but Dallas felt wonderful while I was there, and I learned a few things as I visited friends and re-adjusted to American portions. Texas felt like an extension of the discomfort I felt leaving the bubble of California, a place not as shockingly different as Europe but strange enough that it didn’t feel like home either. One of the things I love about the US is how enormous and varied it is; you can learn so much by going into these environments with openness and acceptance.

The cheeseburger really is a distinctly American food.

Belgians are big on French fries. I had assumed that since cheeseburgers were such a ‘natural’ complement for them they’d have a pretty solid burger game — but I was wrong. The patty is formed as a puck, maybe two inches thick, with the dense and highly-processed consistency of compressed pate. It sits there in a bun too large for it, unseasoned and laying it wait to spread misery to the poor unsuspecting diner who takes a bite of it. I was fooled not once, but twice, by this devilish concoction — though to be fair the second time was at an establishment that had advertised itself as a “burger bar”.

I would never have expected it, but if someone had asked me what I missed most about the United States I would have to go with a good cheeseburger. The very first thing I did with my coworkers once we got through customs in DC was go to a restaurant and order a big, greasy cheeseburger. It was the welcome home meal I needed in the worst way, and I now have a greater appreciation of this humble, ubiquitous, American food.

Texas is much more purple than you think it is.

If you don’t live in Texas, most of what you hear about the state is its politics. This is, after all, the place that gave us Rick Perry and Ted Cruz; it’s been the epicenter of a legislative attack on women’s reproductive rights, LGBQTIA issues, and home to very troubling incidents of police brutality against people of color. This is the state where James Byrd, Jr. was killed being dragged from the back of a car; where Alfred Wright was found mutilated in the woods just three years ago. If you don’t live in Texas, it’s easy to see the state as a theocratic nightmare where people of color could be killed at any moment.

I’m not here to downplay the very real issues Texas has both politically and socially, but we also tend to forget just how many people of color there are in the state, how many activists, artists, political operatives, liberals and fighters who are working hard to change the state from within. Most of the state’s population lives within cities — around 85% in fact — and those cities are liberal and open. I was surprised to find Dallas was so diverse, with a thriving artist, student and geek scene. The city council removed the statue of Robert E. Lee from a prominent park the week I was there; while it shouldn’t have been up there in the first place, the fact that it was so quickly and decisively removed is a sign of progress, however small.

Texas isn’t perfect, but then neither is California. The people there aren’t all gun-crazy yahoos, doomsday preppers or unmitigated racists. It’s easy to start believing the stereotype you’ve been fed over time; now I’ll take less offense when people characterize Californians as health-food-obsessed, neurotic hippies.

There is strength in staying put to fix a hostile home.

A good friend of mine took me to an author event at a brand-new bookstore opening up in Dallas, Interrabang Books. The author was east Texas native Attica Locke, there to promote her new novel Bluebird, Bluebird. I was really taken with Locke almost immediately; her prose is so evocative and distinct, steeped in the history and culture of her ancestral home. She clearly loves where she’s from, but she’s not blind to the fact that there’s a long history of racism inextricably tied to it. That clear-eyed affection informs her work and allows her to open the rich, complicated tapestry of the state.

One of the things that struck me is that there is a clear respect for the people who stay behind to make a hostile territory better instead of leaving for greener pastures, and it’s something I had not thought about before. I left Baltimore when I could because I couldn’t imagine a good life for myself there; it fascinates me that there are people who not only can, but are willing to fight like hell to get from where things are to where they ought to be. It takes strength, resolve, and dedication to community to make that choice, and I honor the people who still claim Texas as their home while working hard to change it for the better at the same time.

It’s also OK to opt out of a situation that causes you stress.

While we were in Dallas, one of my coworkers was chosen to drive the rental car we got for the trip. He was, to put it bluntly, not a good driver. On the drive from the airport to our hotel he got lost multiple times, nearly crashed twice looking at directions on his phone, and even went the wrong way down a turn lane because he couldn’t navigate a construction detour. Even after that, he had a tendency to slam on brakes, look down at his phone way too often, and he didn’t take directions or criticism well. Things came to a head when he recommended we just not complain to him about his driving; after that, another coworker and I decided to take a Lyft to the airport. Our driving colleague was not happy about it, but I still feel it was the right decision.

It’s OK to choose to leave a situation that is more stress than you feel it’s worth. There will never be a completely stress-free choice in life; everything we do will require discomfort, especially if it’s worth doing. But there are times where we need to give ourselves permission to walk away from something that is bringing us unhappiness and very little else. Choosing what those times are isn’t easy, by a long shot, but it’s important to know that it’s an option. It’s important to look after our own well-being; it allows us to be better than we would have been otherwise.

Take what you need, but only what you need.

The portions in Texas are as oversized as the ones in Belgium are smaller than I’m used to, and it was almost impossible to actually finish a meal whenever I ate out. I think this trip cemented a tendency I had been drifting towards for a while now — simply opting out of the push to eat everything on my plate. It really isn’t necessary, and it gives you a warped sense of what you need to be satisfied. Filling yourself to bursting just to ‘get your money’s worth’ isn’t the best move most of the time; moderation is a much better way to go.

That being said, it’s important to take time and space to give yourself what you need. If you need more food, eat. If you need space to be alone, find your solitude. If you need to plant your foot and demand something, do not be moved. It can be difficult to know what you need and harder still to ask for it, but it’s vital to our own self-care. Respect really does start from within; we have to learn how to respect ourselves before we can respect anything else.

My three week business trip taught me a lot more about myself and how I’ve come to see the world than I thought it would. (And I thought it would teach me a fair bit.) I’m still absorbing these lessons, trying to find a way to shape them in ways that serve best, but I can safely say it was definitely life-changing. I have a clearer sense of self-worth and what I find important; I know more about just how different people and societies can be; and I have a better appreciation of my home and the cultural forces that shape the people here. I know travel is often seen as a luxury, and I see why. It’s expensive, and people tend to talk about it in terms of enjoyment or self-actualization. But in today’s climate it’s imperative to be exposed to different experiences and viewpoints, to accept them and reflect on them. Nothing gives us the opportunity to do that quite like going somewhere we’ve never been.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2017 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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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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(Politics) If Respect Is Mandatory, It’s Not Respect

Politics 150Earlier this week I received this response from a person named Kenny Stiles to my post on why I’m boycotting the NFL this season. Kenny thinks that the league should make all players stand for the National Anthem; not doing so is “the wrong way to protest” and a slap in the face for all military servicepeople. He also advises us to wake up, because this is the USA.

I thought about what Kenny had to say and considered my response carefully. In the end, I was inspired to write this. Thanks for encouraging my muse, dude.

Oh, say can you see,

Hello Kenny, I am a black man, aged 37. I work in tech, and I’ve been married to a wonderful man for nearly nine years. I live in California, but I was born and raised in Baltimore, MD — home of the Colts when I was a kid, and now the two-time Super Bowl Champions, the Baltimore Ravens.

By the dawn’s early light,

This is the city where Freddie Gray died in police custody. None of the six police officers responsible for his care were found guilty of the homicide that the medical examiner ruled as the cause of death. Someone killed him, but it wasn’t any of the six police officers — the only people near him when his life ended.

What so proudly we hailed,

I watched the people in this city — my city — tear it apart because they were angry, grieving, frustrated. Back when the Rams were in St. Louis, they had to deal with the same thing after Trayvon Martin. In Chicago, it was Laquan MacDonald; in New York it was Eric Garner; in Minnesota it was Philando Castile; in Cleveland, it was Tamir Rice, just 12 years old. These are just the names I remember, but there are way too many more.

At the twilight’s last gleaming?

Black folk have been trying to get something done about police brutality for years, but we only started getting attention for it a few years ago. I don’t know if it’s Twitter making it easier for folks to spread the word and get organized, or if it’s the fact that we got black boys and girls being assaulted and killed on tape, but we turned a corner on this. We’re not taking it lying down anymore.

Whose broad stripes and bright stars,

Last season, that protest came to the NFL. Colin Kaepernick started kneeling at the National Anthem during a preseason game and pissed off a ton of people. He also promised to donate a million dollars to charityso far he’s given $700,000 to 24 different places — but nobody talks about that. They talked about ratings going down, and politics not belonging in football, and how Kaep couldn’t get a job this season.

Through the perilous fight,

The owners haven’t said much about it — at least not publicly. Coaches and staff haven’t, either. But they don’t have to; we know what happens to people who don’t stand for the anthem. They get heat. They get told they should shut up and play. They don’t get listened to when they say that people who look like them are dying in the streets because the people supposed to protect us can do what they want and not get in trouble. They get cut for “being a distraction”.

O’er the ramparts we watched,

I’ve heard all kinds of criticism from different corners of the country, people saying that they just want to enjoy the game without politics ruining it. But politics ruin shit for me all the time, including right now. I love this game, and I love my team. I love this city. I even love these United States of America. But this game, this team, this city, this country — I can’t pretend any of ’em have been kind to me, showed me any love back.

Were so gallantly streaming.

It’s not just the police. It’s the way it’s harder for black men to get a job. It’s how black kids don’t get a decent education. It’s how it’s harder for black people to get paid. Or for them to get into leadership positions, even in the NFL. It’s the history of racial inequality and violence in this country in all aspects of our culture.

And the rocket’s red glare,

That history makes it so hard to break out of poverty if you don’t get famous doing something — like rapping, or playing a sport, or being a criminal. When we try to build ourselves up, the USA has a habit of knocking us back down. When we get pushed too far and start pushing back, all of a sudden we’re the ones causing the problem.

The bombs bursting in air,

No matter what we do to protest it isn’t the right way. Non-violent protests are ignored. Disruptive action like blocking traffic just makes people mad. Destroying property gets us called thugs. Taking a knee gets us fired. Going to politicians hasn’t done much for us in a minute — right now Republicans all over the country are doing their damnedest to make it harder or impossible for people of color to vote. Any time our voices are used to call out a problem or lodge dissent, people like you do anything you can to dismiss it, invalidate it, ignore it. It’s clear that this mythical ‘right way to protest’ is actually not protesting at all while bearing all kinds of injustices, just so you wouldn’t have to think about what we’re drawing attention to.

Gave proof through the night,

I want to make sure black children grow up in a country that loves them just as much as I love it, but we’re a long way from that. I want to make sure black men and women get paid fairly for the work they do, that when they see a police officer they doesn’t have to worry about getting shot or beaten. I want my country to admit that it’s been racist for a long, long time and start fixing it.

That our flag was still there.

You say it’s not patriotic to stand for the anthem. You say it’s disrespectful to all the soldiers who died defending my freedom. But isn’t it disrespectful not to say anything when we aren’t living up to the values they died for? Isn’t it disrespectful to pretend that nothing’s wrong, to act like you haven’t been making my whole life political since I was born?

Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave,

This is my country, too. I’m an American same as you. And if you cared about respecting this country you would respect the struggle of my people and the history of that struggle. You wouldn’t suggest that the NFL violate the very First Amendment to the Constitution by forcing its players to stand for a country that doesn’t treat them fairly. You do know what it’s called when an organization — government or otherwise — doesn’t allow its members to dissent, don’t you?

For the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

Kenny, you need to wake up. This is the USA. The people who sacrifice their bodies and youth every Sunday so you can watch a game with your buddies deserve better than you. You who think that we should be forced to honor the state above all, especially when it doesn’t live up to its own values. You, who cares so little for the free expression that our military protects that you would dare suggest silencing an entire group of people because you don’t want to know what they care about. Our country deserves better than you.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2017 in Politics, Pop Culture

 

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