jakebe: (Writing)

It was my first day back in school after the mugging, and people were treating me surprisingly well. I guess word had spread about what happened, which was cool, but what was most interesting was how the story changed based on who told it. The teachers talked about how I nearly got away by telling a story about this little Br'er Rabbit figure I had, which is true -- I made it up on the spot because I didn't know what else to do, and all that fear and anger and desperation just came out of me in this huge rush. It felt great. It made me dizzy, and sick, like I was high af. I couldn't remember what the story was if I wanted to.


If you talk to my classmates, though, they'll tell you how I started "acting crazy" after the first punch was thrown, speaking in tongues and all that. I was pointing to things that weren't there, and having conversations with myself, and got in a fight with thin air. The people who attacked me were so confused that they were about to run off until I clocked one of them real good upside the ear. Then they jumped up and beat me down.


That's true, too, but I don't like to talk about it.


I'm adopted, and my mother was institutionalized for being a paranoid schizophrenic. When I was in the hospital, there were a lot of doctors who told me that I "had taken a pretty good blow to the head" and to let them know if I started seeing things that weren't there. I couldn't tell them that my room was filled with balloons of all sizes and shapes, that somehow managed to change color right in front of my eyes. I couldn't tell them that these had been brought to me by a bunch of creatures that couldn't exist -- rats in waistcoats, or CPR dummies that told me where all the good drugs were, or an elephant that liked to be the size that would be most disorienting for you. I knew where that road lead, and that was one I wasn't going to take.


So I pretended everything was fine, and I got pretty good at living a double life. In one of them, I was the victim of a violent crime recuperating from a possible concussion. In the other, I was this storyteller that every imaginary friend in the hospital would come to for advice or jokes they could take back to kids in other wings. I have no idea where these stories came from; it was like there was some doorway inside of me I could access now, and it all came spilling out. I really liked that feeling, and that disturbed me. I knew that I was getting whatever my mother had, and it was only a matter of time before things went bad.


I really did think that would be my first day back in school. There was so much going on I could barely keep it together. I saw a dragon on the roof, casually muttering to itself how these "insects couldn't appreciate" the value of its own personal "hoard of knowledge". I think it might have been the mascot for our football team. I saw trees gossiping to each other about who did what and when. There was a tiny bus that my mother nearly ran over, taking rats and squirrels right up to the building. The sky was made of rainbows, a feverish ripple of color that never stayed the same thing. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, but it was also terrifying.


My aunt thought that I was nervous about being back in school after my whole "incident", and I was fine with letting her believe that. The walk from the car to the front door was the longest walk of my life.


How do you tell someone that your mind is broken forever? I knew, deep down, that whatever this was wasn't going away. If I sat down and closed my eyes and told myself that none of it was real, the colors would fade and all of this madness would get harder to see. But it made me feel sick. I was pushing that door of stories further and further away every time I did that, and there was some different part of me that fought against that hard. When the visions came back, they were more intense than ever.


So I was sitting in homeroom, trying to ignore the squirrel seated next to me in a little desk, chattering away about how excited she was to learn about American history from the tree out in the quad. The other students either came up to me to ask if I was all right, or snickered at me for being crazy. I was just getting calmed down when Mr. Foster walked into the room.


Mr. Foster is one of those guys that everybody in your neighborhood knows. He's been at Highland Park High School forever and taught Social Studies to an entire generation of people around the block. He lived alone, and hung out with a bunch of people way younger than he was, and he had this thing about swords. We started calling him "Ghost Dog" a few years ago, and the name just stuck. He was a tall dude with an Afro and a 70s moustache. He wore a trenchcoat like he was Shaft, even in the summer. He was an awesome guy, but he was easy to make fun of.


At least, until now. He ducked under the doorway and pushed himself into the room. At first, he looked like he always did, but then there was this weird snap, like electricity popping. Then he was eight feet tall and blue, with these little horns and ridges coming out of his forehead. The coffee mug in his hand was this this hammer as big around as my chest. His trenchcoat was this steel suit of armor that shined like lavender when the light hit it.


I startled, and Mr. Foster looked at me. He sputtered, and then stared. He flickered a couple of times, back and forth between the old teacher and this monster dude. But then he stayed there. A rat on his desk asked him who the new kid was, and Mr. Foster flicked his hand like he heard it.


When all of the imaginary rodents at the edges of the room piped up with a "Good morning, Mr. Foster!" and he grunted in acknowledgement, I knew that he was seeing and hearing the same things I was. And I have no idea how that's true.


But if I was crazy, then so was he. We shared the same visions. And if he could somehow live his life outside of an insanitarium then he had to teach me how.
jakebe: (Buddhism)

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

So for a little while now I've wanted to go over the "spokes" in the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path -- more for my own benefit than any pretense of instruction. One of the things that I'd like to get more serious about is my understanding of Buddhist ideas and how they relate to mindset, action and life. Going back to the basics is a great way to do this; making sure your foundation is sound helps you to be sure as you can that your belief structure is well-constructed.


Last week, I talked about the two spokes in the Wisdom or Prajna group: Right View and Right Intention. Right View is an accurate understanding of reality and how it works, though there's also the understanding that this will need to be adjusted as we gain knowledge and experience. Right Intention is the decision to act upon that view to be harmless at worst, and harmonious and helpful at best. It is making the commitment to be the best person we can be, and to pursue improvement not only for ourselves but for everyone we come into contact with.


Now that we have our best understanding of the universe and our best intentions towards goodness, we move to the next group of the path: the Sila group, or the "moral virtues". These are how we manifest our understanding and sharpen our focus towards being as helpful and compassionate as possible. These three virtues are Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood.


Right Speech is a very important one for me. The idea is to refrain from four kinds of speech that are damaging and uncompassionate: we are meant to abstain from lying; from divisive speech; from abusive speech; and from idle chatter. At least for the layperson, telling the truth while doing our best to connect and uplift people is the best thing we can do. Idle chatter can be...just talking for the sake of talking, speech that offers no benefit or takes attention without giving anything in return. It can also be gossip that bonds us to one person by distancing another -- especially when they're not there.


I'll be honest right now: I'm terrible with right speech very often. I have a hard time being honest with people -- mostly because I learned how to be secretive at a very early age and being open and vulnerable is very scary to me. I can be gossipy and uncharitable towards folks who have habits or attitudes I find annoying and harmful. When I'm stressed, I am often impatient and snappy towards people who turn to me for help. And as much as it pains me to say it, I am not nearly as good as I'd like to be with comforting people who turn to me with their problems.


I don't like these things about myself, of course. Focusing on Right Speech is a great way to unlearn these bad habits and inclinations, then replace them with alternatives that foster a sense of compassion and connection. I believe that ultimately, what we say has a powerful effect on the people around us; it fosters a sense of emotion that tends to develop unattended because we're not talking about it directly. If we look for and speak negatively, we begin to think along the same track and encourage others to do the same in order to communicate with us. Others might think that in order to connect with us, it would be easier to complain or share outrage. We might only look for the things that upset us, because those are the things we speak most about.


On the other hand, speaking up more about the things we love and make us excited can generate a sense of openness, contentment and positivity. If we focus on the things that make us happy and share them with others, it invites them to do the same. If we look for the best in people and compliment them when we find it, it lifts them up and encourages them to do the same. Speech is a powerful thing, and being aware of how we use it can enable us to use its power towards our best aims.


It can be difficult to remember this in the immediacy of conversation, especially at first. If we're among friends who tend towards being divisive or abusive, then it's really difficult to turn that around or find ways to abstain from that and still be a part of the conversation. But I think the difficulty of it is precisely the reason it's worth doing; it's far too easy to let ourselves be negative and distancing, especially online and in this political climate. It's hard to change a thing for the better, but it must always start with ourselves first. We must make the commitment to strive for compassion and connection any way we can, and how we communicate with each other is one of the most fundamental ways we can do that.


Online, almost all we have is our speech. Armed with our understanding of the situation and our intention to improve it, speech is a very powerful tool that we can use to achieve that. When we speak up to each other in person and online, we can ask ourselves whether what we're saying is truthful, helpful and worthwhile. At the very least, we can resolve to remain quiet if we catch ourselves lying, tearing someone down, or talking just for the sake of it. By choosing not to take action, we learn how to pay more attention to our impulses, and we also learn that we don't have to act on the first impulse that arises; it will subside, and often a better one will take its place.


These changes won't happen all at once. But the more we pay attention to our choices when we speak, the more we'll be able to make better choices more quickly. Personally, I'll be doing my best to be more honest and open to others, and to connect with someone where they are to the best of my ability. Where helpful, I will discourage abusive, divisive and dishonest speech and attempt to redirect the conversation towards something more positive. And perhaps most importantly, I'll try not to be an annoying and sanctimonious asshole about it when I do.


Now, my friends, what are the particular challenges you face with your speech? What has worked for you in trying to be better with it? Or do you have a different view about speech entirely?
jakebe: (Buddhism)

Right Intention is the second spoke on the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path, and it makes up the concept of Prajna in Buddhism together with Right View. These two spokes form the foundation of Buddhist thought; once you have an accurate understanding of reality and have decided that you're going to try your best to do what's right according to that understanding, you're ready to move on to acting on what you understand.

Right Intention has also been called "Right Resolve," because it represents that step where you've gained this knowledge and resolve to act on it and incorporate it into our daily lives. We take what we've learned about ourselves, other people and everything else and aspire to use those lessons to make ourselves better. It's a commitment to align your life to principles you've adopted. But, as you grow in wisdom and knowledge, it's often necessary to review your views and adjust your behavior accordingly. This is a lifelong process; refinements will always happen.

This has been a huge part of the practice for me, because making sure I have the right intention essentially forces me to be mindful of my words and actions -- especially with matters of great importance. When I stepped into the social justice sphere two years ago, I wanted to make absolutely sure that I knew what my intentions were whenever I engaged with someone who didn't agree with me. Was I trying to understand them better so we could seek commonality? Was I trying to persuade them towards my point of view? Was I trying to make them feel bad about themselves or look bad in front of other people? Figuring out my intentions helps me to frame my argument towards that purpose. And knowing that people are essentially afraid, all the time, and that fear puts you in a space you feel you need to defend at all costs, a lot of the work I try to do is addressing that underlying fear inherent in uncompassionate ideas and behavior.

I believe that intention matters, and if you have really thought about your intentions then you'll naturally follow that up with careful and considered language and action. It's one of the reasons why careless, reckless behavior drives me so crazy. It points right back -- to me, at least -- to an ignorance of your true intentions or worse, willful disregard for the effects of your behavior on other people. In a world where all we have are our words (especially the Internet), choosing them carefully is one of the most fundamental things we can do to make our communities better and more harmonious.

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. One of my favorite sutras is the Metta Sutra, a Theravedan text that's often chanted by monks. (At least, so I hear.) It's one of those things that I use to bring my focus back to my intention with all interactions. When I get overwhelmed and anxious, I can often lash out at people who are asking for my attention. I get really whingy about all the things that I have to do when I feel like it's too much; and I can always tell when I've lost perspective when I start in on a rant and people just go glassy-eyed.

So, here's the Metta Sutra. Just reading it over, I'm again struck by how wonderful it is. It really is one of those things I've tried very hard to work towards:

This is to be done by one skilled in aims

who wants to break through to the state of peace:

Be capable, upright, & straightforward,

easy to instruct, gentle, & not conceited,

content & easy to support,

with few duties, living lightly,

with peaceful faculties, masterful,

modest, & no greed for supporters.



Do not do the slightest thing

that the wise would later censure.



Think: Happy, at rest,

may all beings be happy at heart.

Whatever beings there may be,

weak or strong, without exception,

long, large,

middling, short,

subtle, blatant,

seen & unseen,

near & far,

born & seeking birth:

May all beings be happy at heart.



Let no one deceive another

or despise anyone anywhere,

or through anger or irritation

wish for another to suffer.



As a mother would risk her life

to protect her child, her only child,

even so should one cultivate a limitless heart

with regard to all beings.

With good will for the entire cosmos,

cultivate a limitless heart:

Above, below, & all around,

unobstructed, without enmity or hate.

Whether standing, walking,

sitting, or lying down,

as long as one is alert,

one should be resolved on this mindfulness.

This is called a sublime abiding

here & now.



Not taken with views,

but virtuous & consummate in vision,

having subdued desire for sensual pleasures,

one never again

will lie in the womb.

jakebe: (Buddhism)

I'm sure I've done this before -- I may have even claimed that I would be running through the entire Noble Eightfold Path until I got distracted by something or discouraged into thinking that I had no business speaking up about this or that no one cared. But I think it's important to get my current understanding of these steps down on paper; mostly I would just like to be able to refer to this in a couple of years to figure out what where I was and how I've built upon (or changed) my understanding. So this is mostly just...me talking to myself, but feel free to jump in and offer your perspective at any point!


The Noble Eightfold Path is basically the Fourth Noble Truth -- the truth of the path that leads to awakening. The Four Noble Truths themselves form the basis of Buddhist thought -- the truth that suffering in life is inevitable; the truth that this suffering is caused by attachment, or grasping after the good while shutting out the bad; the truth that there is a way out of this suffering; and finally, the truth that the way out is through the Noble Eightfold Path.


The first step on the path is that of "Right View". What I find fascinating about this is that while it may be the first step, it's also just one in a continuum. The Buddhist wheel is a symbol of the path and the reality that the last step leads you right back into the first. As our concentration and meditation on reality improves, we find that we must make refinements in our view to compensate. With our foundation strengthened, we then go about the work of sharpening the path we walk.


So what is "Right View" anyway? It's an accurate understanding of reality and our place within it -- realizing who we are, how the universe works (including the recognition of all of the stuff we don't know about it) and the "useful fictions" we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives. In many ways, I recognize that using Rabbit as a totem for working with fear is one of those and that really it's simply a framework I like to use to make myself more comfortable with the work itself. I also recognize that in order to truly work with fear, I will eventually need to confront my need for that fiction. This doesn't necessarily mean getting rid of the paradigm -- I can still have my preferences, even if I'm not attached to them -- but it does mean understanding and embracing the inherent emptiness of it.


Right now, the world feels like a pretty hostile place. On a personal level, I'm someone who's had a pretty hard life and even though I've been lucky enough to get to a pretty good place there are still so many things I struggle with -- intimacy, confidence, concentration, to name a few. And looking at the state of our country and the world, there are so many terrible things that we're running out of time to address. The effects of climate change are happening right now, even though we've been warning ourselves for at least 50 years about it. Our political climate has become so toxic that reconciliation feels impossible, right at the point where we need to come together in order to take decisive and drastic action. There is a strong current of anti-intellectualism and the willful abandonment of empathy running through us at the moment, not just here in the United States but in many countries of the developed world. As resources become more scarce and our climate becomes more unstable, the concerns about refugees and displaced populations will become even more dire and important. And so far, our reaction has been to cling to the things we have all the more tightly and turn out those in need. Facing our own oblivion, we're regressing back towards our worst impulses as a species.


For someone as fearful and anxious as I am, it's a very difficult time. But what Right Understanding offers is a chance to set aside my fear and despair to look deeper into the forces that drives our behavior. If I can better understand myself, I can better understand people -- because we are often guided by the same basic impulses, expressed in very different ways.


Understanding the nature and cause of suffering -- its universality, and the fact that so often we inflict it on ourselves -- allows me to see a commonality with even the people who have a very different, difficult view to digest. I understand that many of these people are afraid, just as I am, and that they cling to a situation that was good for them but must now change. Nothing is permanent; everything changes. Our time as the dominant society in the world, a capitalist country that is entirely dependent on oil, is coming to an end. In order to adapt, we must stop grasping the way it was as a society. We must have a clear vision of what is actually happening, first and foremost, if we want to have any chance of doing something about it.


I know how difficult this is for me. I love my apartment, and my job, and my set of friends. I'm very attached to them. Losing any of them would cause me great pain, and it would be very difficult to accept the loss. Asking the same of millions of other people, who have their own reasons for clinging so tightly, is not easy. But it's also necessary.


Right now, my view is that life is an inherently impermanent state of being. What my life looks like now is not what it will look like a year from now. It's already changed drastically from what it has been, multiple times. I've left elementary school, middle school, high school, college. I've changed jobs and ended relationships. I've moved to entirely different cities. And while these upheavals have required time to resettle, I've always been able to do so. Sooner or later, my life will change again. Eventually, I will need to face the biggest change of all -- my life's end. Facing that with grace and dignity means loosening my grip of it, and accepting what this means.


Fear is a direct block of that work. Fear makes us want to hold on tighter, to never let go of what we have, to force ourselves to make sure everything is exactly the same. And it's also understandable. The unknown is scary. Change can be terrifying. Especially when we've got things just the way we want them. But even the best of times end, and that doesn't mean what comes next is going to be worse than before. It's just different.


The fear of change has been occupying my thoughts a lot lately. So Right Understanding for me has been directed towards unpacking that. Being able to identify the ways in which I'm afraid can help me better recognize fear in others. Being able to loosen my fearful grip on reality can help me to be compassionate with others who are still unable to do so for whatever reason. Even when they make me angry, exasperated, fearful or anxious, I can still see them for who they really are -- people, like me, who are simply afraid. They may express that fear in unacceptable ways -- through bigotry or hatred or selfish behavior -- and while I can condemn those expressions of fear I can still have sympathy and compassion for that underlying cause.


That's very important to me. And I do get it wrong a lot. But it's the ideal I strive for. People like Trump and his supporters aren't monsters, even though they're frequently doing monstrous things. They're just people who are facing down big changes on a societal level and too terrified to loosen their grip on the status quo. Understanding that, sympathizing with that, and sharing the ways in which we too struggle with it might be the best thing we can do to reconnect with them and move forward together.
jakebe: (Self-Improvement)

This Saturday, at something like 2:16 AM local time, I will have completed my 36th trip around the sun! I'm not necessarily planning anything intense for my birthday; in the morning, I'll take my dear rabbit Puckles for his annual check-up with the vet, and in the evening I'll share dinner with a few of my closest friends. Between those two things, I'll probably write some, get in a bit of exercise, and spend some time with my wonderful husband. I'm looking forward to the day, and already I'm really, really grateful for the people that will be a part of it.


We all tend to get philosophical and introspective around our birthdays, and I'm no exception. It's been about two years since I've been dealing with my anxiety disorder and ADHD in earnest, and so much in my life has changed since then. Next month, it will have been eight years since Ryan and I got married -- and I can't tell you how lucky I feel and grateful I am to have him be the Constant in my life. Later this month, it will have been ten years since I moved to California to be with him, a seismic shift in my life that's laid the foundation for everything that's come since.


Over the past several years, a lot has loosened within me. In dealing with my fear and anxiety, I've come to face long-held difficulties with sexual expression, the culture of my background, my family and attitudes about a lot of things. I've expanded my social circle to include more women, more people of color, more people with various gender and sexual expressions, more people along the political spectrum. It's been wonderful, disorienting, fascinating and overwhelming. And, oddly enough, it's proven to me just how transient everything is. The idea of self as a permanent identity, distinct and separate from everyone and everything else, truly is an illusion. I am a nebulous, porous collection of influences that responds to my environment by remolding myself to whatever allows me to flourish within it. The person I am today is not the person I was a year ago, or two years ago, or eight years ago, or even ten years ago. That was a different me. A different life.


What's fascinating to me about this is not necessarily the fact that nothing remains static in this world -- it's that so much of the trouble I and everyone else gets into is built on our resistance against this. The concept of self is a very useful fiction, but loosening our ideas about it -- allowing ourselves to change and adapt, to become different according to the influences that surround us -- will reframe our perception about who we are and who other people are. We spend so much time wondering if people can change, but of course they can. They do. All the time. Whether they want to or not.


Next year, when I write about my 37th birthday, things will be undoubtedly different. We'll have a new President, and we'll be talking about different things in the new and pop culture. Hopefully, I'll have written a novel-length story through my Patreon serial and several other short stories elsewhere. I'll hopefully have cooked in more, saved more money, lost some weight, gained a little muscle and a lot of wisdom. I'll be calmer, more patient, and more confident. I'll be able to think and express myself more clearly. And I'll be better able to express love and affection physically, in words, and through every small and grand gesture I can think of throughout the day.


I sincerely hope that the world will be a more loving and understanding place -- if not, I at least hope that I'll be a more loving and understanding person. For now, that starts with my birthday and making sure that all of my friends and chosen family know how much I adore and appreciate them.


Here's to the interconnected set of influence that make up who I am. May they fit together harmoniously, and may they encourage harmony wherever their influence takes them.
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full quote, by the way, is this:



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's make sure she gets the chance.

jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)

(Continuing my little snippets of fiction imagining Beast settling in at the Jean Grey School, because the news from Marvel coming out of Comic-Con sounded really really bad for our merry band of mutants. While the X-Men line has...maybe seven titles out right now, many of them will be taking a hiatus once Civil War II is over. Then we'll get the ominously-titled Death of X, which then spins right into Inhumans vs. X-Men. The promotional material tips the scales pretty heavily against the X-Men, though this could all be a swerve seeded by Marvel to get X-fans riled up. It's working.

The worst part, of course, is that Beast doesn't actually feature in ANY of the promos. He's working with the Inhumans right now to find a cure for the Terrigen Mists, but it looks like that won't lead anywhere. He doesn't show up in any of the Death of X variants, Inhumans vs. X-Men, or any of the X-Men OR Inhuman titles for the rest of the year.

Someone has to write about Dr. McCoy. Might as well be me, right?)

Henry mumbled to himself as he squeezed beneath one of the computer panels of his shiny new basement laboratory. Something about the electronics just wasn't flowing right, and while he had narrowed it down to the tremendous and chaotic bundle of wires beneath the main monitor, that still left literally hundreds of tiny insulated cables that had to be checked by hand. It would have been a chore for anyone, but with thick and brutish paws like his the work went twice as slowly as it should have. Not for the first time, Dr. McCoy regretted relying on Shi'ar tech so heavily. It allowed him to do so much, but it was an absolute nightmare to troubleshoot.

He held a dozen or so of these impossibly thin wires, feeling them roll through the leathery pads of his fingertips. He used his other paw to adjust his glasses, squinting in the dim light to see the colors of each one. He felt the wrench he was holding brush against the fur above his brow, and was certain that there was now a thin sheen of synthetic oil sinking into it. Another mutter under his breath, this one just quiet enough for him to hear. He was going to take a long, hot bath after this, drying time be damned.

It was hard work, of course, building the tools that would go on to build the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning -- but then, he knew it would be. That was part of what drew him to seek out the position in the first place. It had been far too long since he had been able to put his considerable talents to use for a cause he believed in unreservedly, and now he had his chance. He had a hand -- paw -- in rebuilding Xavier's dream from the ground up, in shepherding a new generation of young mutants towards the ideal that one day human and mutantkind could live in peace. That thought was what propelled him through countless long nights, several hours of poring over manuals of alien technology and navigating his own physical difficulties with performing fine detail work. Most of the time, it was enough. Today, though…

The fur on the back of his neck stood up. There was someone in the lab.

He bumped his head and broad back under the console as he tried to slip out, rubbing the back of his head with a grumble. He tilted his nose up, sniffing the air -- nothing but metal, coolant, the lubricant he was rubbing into his fur again…

He tossed the wrench down with a frustrated "Bah!" and looked around the lab, his goggles glinting as they caught the much brighter fluorescents beaming from the high ceiling. There was no movement, just the chaos of his dream lab being put together. Still, something didn't feel right…

He felt a breeze ruffle the whiskers on his right side, and his ear flicked as he heard the barest whisper of fabric rubbing against fabric. Someone was behind him. He turned his head slightly in that direction and caught the scent he was looking for.

He leaped before the arm had even lifted, flipping a twisted somersault in the air to land on his feet (and one hand) while facing the spot he had been just a few seconds ago. Henry snarled instinctively, ears flattened, mane lifted; it embarrassed him to show his teeth that way, so he followed up quickly with witty banter.

"I don't know who you are…" He looked up then, and saw Katherine Pryde phasing into sight, eyes wide and clearly startled.

"Well," he said, "Kitty Pryde, as I live and breathe…" Henry straightened, grateful for his fur for once. As uncomfortable as it was, it did a wonderful job of hiding it when he blushed. He threw out his arms and rushed into a hug before she had a chance to recover.

Beast felt her stiffen for a split-second before she relaxed, letting her arms drop around his neck. His heart skipped a beat when she laughed; he spun her around and gave her the briefest squeeze before setting her down. For a moment, it was just like old times. All was right with the world.

"Hey, Hank!" She bounced on her feet as she landed, pushing a lock of her hair behind an ear. "Logan told me you were down here, so I thought I'd surprise you...probably wasn't the best idea."

Henry smiled, but not too wide. He knew how off-putting his fangs could be. "Ahhh, my dearest Kitty, a thousand apologies! It's...been an eventful few months. I'm afraid my fight reflexes have gotten a bit too good."

"You don't have to explain that to me!" She smiled back. "When you live the life we do, you learn to hate surprises." She turned around, looking at the enormous space that was only now just taking shape. "Look at all this, though! I'm impressed! You've really outdone yourself."

Beast took her hand in his when she turned around, unable to keep himself from smiling wider. "Ahh, you're too kind! It's easy to do something impressive when you have access to alien technology and unlimited resources. Would you like for me to give you a tour?"

"I'd like nothing better." Kitty squeezed one of his fingers and stepped to the side, letting him lead her. "I thought I recognized Shi'ar tech in this place. It has this really distinct feeling when you phase through it."

Hank's eyebrows lifted. "So that's why I haven't been able to get the main monitor working. I knew the design would be quite touchy, but I figured it wouldn't be so bad once I had safely ensconced them behind the safety paneling."

"Oh, no! I didn't think you had turned anything on. I'm so sorry Henry...here, I'm not doing anything this afternoon, why don't we order in a pizza and I'll help you fix it?"

Henry paused as he walked along with Shadowcat, clapping his other massive paw over her hand. He looked into her eyes, his whiskers practically bristling with contentment. He had his doubts about the Jean Grey School -- it was quite a risk, after all -- but this was the first moment he was certain he had made the right decision.

"Nothing would make me happier. Let me show you the Warbird Fusion Reactor, and then I'll tell you about this marvelous place I've found. They'll even take custom toppings! I had an extra-large steak tartare pizza that was just delightful."

Kitty laughed, "Oh Hank, that sounds awful!"

"My dear, don't knock it until you've tried it." Beast smiled, then lead Pryde through a narrow passage and behind a panel that hadn't been affixed to the wall yet. This place would be really something, once it all came together.

jakebe: (Gaming)

The first game I ever ran was a Changeling: the Dreaming campaign way back in high school. My players were an eshu, satyr, redcap and sluagh, and somewhere in there I ended up crossing things over with The X-Files because I was young and didn't know any better. Do you remember those metal spikes they killed people with by stabbing it into the back of their necks? It was cold iron given to government agents to snuff out faeries. Yeah. I know.


I've run sporadically since then -- mostly Dungeons and Dragons in its various incarnations or Pathfinder. This latest campaign was an old idea that I dusted off and spruced up, thinking that I would finally get to tell it right this time. I quickly discovered, though, that Pathfinder can be just as crunchy with numbers as D&D, thank you, and that if you don't really understand the system home-brew rules will seriously fuck you up.


My players are a bunch of wonderful people -- they're smart, creative, passionate and fun. I'm not ashamed to admit that there is a huge amount of performance anxiety around running something for them. I want to do something that makes one friend feel like a bad ass, gives another friend the chance to explore psychological terrain he finds interesting, provide another friend with the political drama he's discovering an affinity for, and let another friend find an ingenious way out of a difficult situation. All while keeping a whole set of rules and story beats in my head, improvising characters and plot details on the fly, and struggling to keep track of what has happened, what needs to happen, and what CAN'T happen. Running a tabletop RPG is really difficult you guys, especially if you have good players.


I'm also not ashamed to admit that I often let that anxiety get the best of me. I've snapped at players once or twice for trying to tweak their characters to maximum benefit when really, that's just how they find enjoyment in the game. I've taken feedback badly, and let constructive criticism blow my perception of how poorly things were going out of proportion. I take storytelling very seriously, and perfectionist tendencies, chronic anxiety and an unfocused, disorganized ADHD brain is quite possibly the worst mix of traits to tell an improvised and collaborative story with people who are in all likelihood way smarter than you.


Now that I'm diving back into the pool, I'm trying to ease off the idea of telling a perfect story. I've learned a great deal about the way the story delivery mechanism influences what works best, and with tabletop RPGs I've found it works best to keep things a bit simpler. We've trained ourselves to think medieval fantasy has to have these sprawling, complicated worlds with rich societies and a gigantic number of characters, but when you're getting together with a bunch of friends for six hours once a month there is no way people can hold these little plot and story seeds in their heads. Dense, sprawling mythologies work well in stories that are a bit more permanent -- TV shows, novels, even movies. But I've found they work less well when you're basically sitting around a campfire.


The direct approach tends to work better. The immediacy of creating the story around the table lends itself to scenes and situations that grab your emotions by the throat. The games that are most memorable and fun are the ones where you have a bad guy you clearly hate, a tough struggle that you barely make it through, and a reason for triumph that's personal and reaffirming. The patience required to lay down a complicated story, brick by brick, is better spent parsing how characters can grow, change and excel within the confines of the system and the world you've built. Making sure your story is clear enough that your players know the next thing they need to do and why they need to do it goes a long way towards making sure they can get invested in what's going on. Shadowy figures and mysterious conspiracies work for a few games, but at some point there needs to be clear progress and a strong sense of momentum pulling the characters from scene to scene.


So what I've focused on with this latest attempt at verbal storytelling is crafting scenes that make for fun jumping-off points for the characters while having hooks that appeal to my players or at least their characters. It's been fun taking the metaplot, distilling it down to a series of actions, and then breaking up those actions into progressable goals from scene to scene. It makes the skeleton of the story strong but flexible, capable of carrying us all along but bending to suit the needs of the people around the table.


I'm so nervous about running this weekend, but really excited as well. I can't wait to put what I've learned to use and see how I've progressed as a storyteller. Wish me luck for this Saturday, folks!
jakebe: (Writing)
This summer I've been trying to focus more on my writing -- after all, I'm a writer, and that's what I do. The trouble is I lead a pretty full life as it is. I have a day job that's fairly intensive, so I need to spend my work hours actually, you know, working. My commute is pretty long, and while I can definitely fill the time with podcasts (and I do) that takes a bit more time away from my passion. I'm married, and I love my husband, which means I want to spend as much time with him as I can. And I have friends that I love to spend time with too! There's exercise, and cooking, and making sure the burrow isn't an absolute mess, and spending time with our rabbit Puckles, and reading, and general adult responsibilities, and...you get the point.

I've said all of this before, and if you're a writer who isn't making a living at it chances are you have the same devil on your back too. It's not easy, but the struggle makes success that much sweeter. Or so I've been lead to understand.

Despite the difficulty, I feel like I've been doing better with writing these days. That means sacrificing time spent doing other things while also learning to become more efficient with the time I do have, but even that's a good thing. The fact that there's such limited time to do everything that I want to do means that I really have to sit down and determine my priorities. Once that's done, I really have to make sure I know how I'm going to focus on them. And then, I painstakingly develop the skills necessary to actually execute on them. Little by little, day by day, I'm growing up.

The blog and the Patreon are top priorities, of course -- I've committed myself to a certain amount of output for each one, and I must set aside time to make sure I hit those goals. That's still a work in progress. I had to let the blog drop last week to concentrate on work, the Patreon and a few other things, and I'm still behind. It'll take some dedicated time and focus to catch up, but I think I can do it.

This weekend, I'll be running my Pathfinder game for the first time in a long while. If you've ever run a tabletop role-playing game, you know how daunting the prep work can be. I went into the whole affair relatively unprepared for the kind of story I wanted to tell, and paid the price for it. When Ryan went to Japan earlier in the year, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to step back, get some knowledge about how to properly run Pathfinder, and actually tinker with the game so that balance and story issues are hammered out.

I'm still not 100% there, but I'm pretty close. I've used the race creation rules in the Advanced Race Guide to retool my homebrew races so they're not quite so overpowered and I've made sure that my PCs were mostly up-to-date with their sheets. It was a good chance to revisit their power sets and really understand what they're good at. I've also taken notes on the players and my understanding of what they want out of their games, tinkering with how I tell the story to include more of that. Mostly, I wanted to re-dedicate myself to making the game fun for people. My anxiety about running got in the way of that in this really big way, so even though I'm trying to be more careful and focused I also want to be more relaxed. Not every experiment will work, but being adaptable is one of the most important traits you can have as a game master.

Beyond the blog, the Patreon and Pathfinder, there are a number of projects I'll need to tackle before September rolls around. There are two story commissions that I need to complete and publish -- one needs an editing pass while the other still needs the first draft. A third short story will need to be written for a zine that I'm lucky enough to be a part of, so I'll need to jump on that. And a short story for a Changeling: the Dreaming anthology needs to be pitched; I've finally locked on to an idea for it, so I'll be putting together the submission for that very soon.

At the end of August, I'll be headed back to college. I've enrolled part-time in a local community college with an aim to get an Associate's Degree that transfers to a four-year university. I haven't decided if I'll try to get a Bachelor's in English or Psychology, but either way I'm tremendously excited. School's no joke, of course, so I'll need to get even better at squeezing every drop out of productivity time that I can.

I'm juggling a lot right now. It's important that I'm smart about how I spend my time but also self-aware enough to know when I'm being overwhelmed. Stress management is just as important as being productive, and for someone like me -- prone to avoidance behaviors when my anxiety kicks into high gear -- it's imperative that I take the time and space necessary to remain grounded and focused.

That will mean having to say no to a lot more things, just for the sake of preserving my sanity. A cup that's completely full will not retain anything, of course; and the whole point of most of this stuff is to learn and grow as a writer and human being. Having the space to hold what I'm already working with is a necessary part of that process.

I might be a little harder to reach online and sparse in my usual hangouts for a while. I want to get better about setting expectations about my available time and energy, so this is part of that.

Things are busy right now, and they'll be getting busier. I might be able to dip my toe into the waters of the Internet when I've gotten my time figured out, but for now, the limited time and attention has to be devoted to other things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even though sales figures for The Totally Awesome Hulk aren't stellar, they're solid enough that I'm not really worried about the series being cancelled. With Cho taking part in Marvel's big summer event -- Civil War II -- and being promoted as part of the Champions (a sort of "Young Avengers" who have different ideas about superheroics), it's clear he's not going anywhere soon. It'll be interesting to see what Pak and Cho have in store for Amadeus after the dust settles from the latest superhero dust-up. For now, though, his solo series is a solid spin on the traditional Hulk tale, and a worthy update for a new generation.
jakebe: (Mythology)
One of the earliest memories I have about my mental illness is breaking down in the middle of lunch in sixth or seventh grade. Things were not going well for me. I was a shy and awkward kid who loved reading fantasy books. I was really sensitive, so I didn't hold up to bullying very well. And I had gotten into trouble enough that in addition to homework and everything else, I had to write a sentence "I will not...something something something." 1000 times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the new podcasts I've picked up recently is Fear The Boot, this great gaming podcast that talks about aspects of role-playing in tabletop games, MMORPGs and other things. It's really a bunch of gamers who get along really well shooting the shit and offering their perspective on games both modern and...historical? They recently had this deep dive into one of the first D&D boxes that one of them found at a yard sale, and it was really interesting.


Their most recent set of podcasts talk about RPGs and mental health, and they're amazing. I'm all about talking openly about mental health issues in geek spaces, and it makes me so happy that other people are relating the experiences and perspectives that have shaped them. The gang talks about depression, anxiety and PTSD, offering perspectives that hadn't occurred to me before. One of the biggest things I took away revolves around talking to people who don't quite understand the irrationality of these things: if there were a legitimate cause for my depression or anxiety, it wouldn't be a disorder -- it would be a rational response to the things that are happening to me. The thing that makes depression and anxiety disorders is the outsized response they force us to make.


Since learning about my anxiety disorder last year, I've been trying to pay more attention to the anxiety responses within myself. They typically manifest as avoidant behavior; when I sit down to confront something that makes me anxious, my brain develops a Teflon coating that makes the task slide off until I focus on something else. This can happen with difficult issues at work, interpersonal communications (it's a big reason I'm so bad at email), or projects and hobbies I've given myself deadlines for.


This is especially bad with things that need to be done by a certain time. I get anxious about them, procrastinate, and feel guilty about not being productive. When I try to work on them again, I'm *more* anxious because I know that I've failed to work on it before and the deadline is even closer, so I can't take the pressure and procrastinate some more. I miss deadline after deadline, because the worry that I won't be able to perform this task perfectly freezes me until I just...don't do it.


I really hate that this prevents me from doing what I want to do, or being as present as I'd like to be with the folks that I know -- especially in difficult situations. I can be paralyzed by the desire to say the right thing or do the right thing; when it really matters what I say or do, the worry of doing the wrong thing is so strong. A lot of the time, it's irrationally strong; during normal things, where the consequences for mistakes aren't so bad, I still can't figure out how to move forward.


This feels like the result of a few things in childhood -- the fact that I was considered gifted when I was a kid and the expectation was to excel; the time when I misspelled a word during a spelling bee and my mother stopped coming to any of those competitions because "I always lose when she's there"; the stress of going to a really tough high school without learning how to work hard on anything I didn't get right the first time. When anything less than perfect is viewed as a disappointment through most of your primary education, you tend to develop a bit of a complex around these things.


I don't want to make this another "My mother didn't love me enough and it fucked me up" kind of posts, but...it's true. I know that this is a really common narrative in geek circles, and everyone navigates their way through and past it in different ways. But for me, the fact that I had no one who I felt loved me no matter what I did made it very difficult for me to accept myself for who I was. And when it comes to anything I do -- whether it's fixing a customer's problem or finding just the right order of words -- anything less than perfection is a disappointment, and disappointment can lead to abandonment and rejection. If I don't do things perfectly, I cannot be a person worthy of love. So it's better to do nothing than to make mistakes.


Of course this isn't healthy or productive, but the behavior has been ingrained within me beyond a rational point. Uncovering that rock to see what's there, then doing the difficult work of cleaning out the toxic self-talk, is one of those things that takes time and persistent effort. It also tends to happen in stages; cleaning it out might only enable you to see there's more there, more deeply ingrained, stuff that will be even harder to scrub out.


I am a fundamentally anxious person. I care about getting things right. While that's a reasonable impulse, the fear of getting things wrong is not. It's time to start working on that, which means leaning in to the things that make me uncomfortable, making mistakes and learning how to recover from them. I know that my husband loves me no matter what; I know that I have friends who support me no matter what; I know that no matter what, I am someone worthy of love and life. But there is some scared little child deep within me that believes none of these things, and it will take a lot of coaxing to change his mind.


I'll talk about more of my progress here occasionally, as part of that work. If you have issues with anxiety, performance or other mental issues, please consider this a safe space to share your experience and perspective. I welcome you. Let's work through this together.
jakebe: (Politics)

Today is the 240th anniversary of the birth of our nation. The Declaration of Independence was signed (at least apocryphally) on this date long, long ago. It stated that as a nation, "we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."


This is such a powerful and simple statement. Every single one of us, no matter who we are or what we do for a living, is equal to the other. We all have the same basic rights; we should all be allowed to live freely and be happy as best we're able, as long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of someone else to do the same thing. That is the ideal that should be the North Star for every action our country takes, the opportunity to make sure anyone in the country -- or the world -- has these rights.


As with anything, our country is imperfect -- because it's operated by imperfect people. We allow our fears and desires, our greed and jealousies, our worst instincts to determine what we do more often than not. This happens especially when we get together in crowds. It feels like we've been taught to believe that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a zero-sum game. If someone else is allowed to do what makes them happy -- even if it doesn't harm or restrict me -- then it means that I don't get to be.


The ideal of personal freedom is a great one, and it's what makes this country such a beacon of hope around the world when it strives for that ideal. But that ideal requires significant responsibility to be achieved; in order to make sure that there is a level playing field for everyone out there, we must take care to protect the vulnerable from the powerful. Our government must make sure that those of us without money or influence has a chance to exercise our rights just as well as the richest multi-billionaire. And in order to make sure our government can do that, we the people must furnish the government with the people and tools necessary to achieve that goal.


Because our country is full of people from all races, backgrounds, religions and philosophies, just exactly what that means will be different for everyone -- and that's OK. There is nothing wrong with different interpretations of what the government should and should not do. Sometimes, the will of the people will carry that in a conservative direction; what we have (or what the founders intended) works well and there isn't much that should be changed. Other times, the people will call for a more progressive direction; times have changed, and our relationship with life and liberty and happiness has shifted accordingly. The government also needs to change in order to reflect this.


Recently, however, the tension between conservatism and progressivism has grown to the point that the fabric of our country is tearing apart. Our bases have grown further apart and worse, more intractable. Instead of recognizing that our colleagues across the aisle simply want what's best for our country and have different ideas of what that means, we've taken to calling them our enemy. To conservatives, I'm part of an invading horde who wants nothing less than to tear down America and replace it with a godless socialist paradise that looks more like Soviet Russia than anything. And to progressives like me, conservatives are heartless racists who only want to make sure America is white and stupid and loaded with guns. Neither of these images are true. But we buy them when the people we admire in our camps perpetuate them.


The truth is we need each other. Progressives need conservatives to remind them of traditions in our country that still work; to encourage more efficient and smarter ways for the government to work; to take practical considerations into account for policy. And conservatives need progressives to remind them of ways the world is changing; that their experience isn't universal, and others have a different kind of struggle achieving the American dream; to dream about radical ways in which our country might be better than we or the Founding Fathers ever imagined. In a healthy society, we forgive each other's flaws, recognize each other's strengths and respect each other's perspectives.


I want my country to be one in which I can disagree with a conservative friend or colleague and respect them, knowing that the feeling is reciprocated. I want to be certain that my government recognizes my basic human rights, and that my perspective and experience is understood and woven into the fabric of America as a whole. I want my friends to know that I respect their traditions -- no matter what they are -- and that we can have conversations about the things we believe without demonizing those beliefs or the people who hold them. I want a country that recognizes how interdependent we are, and how we're better for those entanglements. I want people to listen when they're told they're being exclusive or prejudicial. And I want people to listen to the people who want the same lives they've always had, and why these changes are upsetting to them. We can't understand each other without entering into a dialogue, and that dialogue requires we both speak clearly, respectfully, and listen just as well.


Today, I really want to recognize my interdependence on the people I disagree with, but respect. You make this country great, and I appreciate your contribution to my life and my world.
jakebe: (Writing)

I've had superheroes on the brain for a while now, and there are a number of reasons for this. However, Beast of the X-Men is someone I just can't get out of my head -- also for a number of reasons. Ever since All-New Marvel Now!, when Brian Michael Bendis took over as the guiding hand of the X-Books, Hank has been in worse shape than usual. He pretty much broke the multiverse going back in time to get the original X-Men; he underwent another mutation that turned him into a cross between an ape and an elf; his future self was brainwashed by the son(?) of Charles Xavier into becoming one of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and subsequently died; he succumbed to the power of the Black Vortex, becoming an all-powerful nemesis; and finally he threw a hissy fit when the other X-Men confronted him about his hypocritical, out-of-character actions, leaving the Jean Grey School before Secret Wars hit.


I firmly believe that in better hands Hank can be a really fascinating and fun superhero. But to be honest, he hasn't been written well in a long time and the current X-Universe being what it is, it's unlikely he'll be better served any time soon.


I keep thinking that it would be neat to allow the status quo of the X-Men to settle for one god-damned minute in order for characters to evolve and grow in ways other superheroes get to do in the Marvel universe. The period after the Schism -- where Cyclops and Wolverine split mutantkind in two with their differing ideologies -- is a great one to go back to for that. Here, we see the older generation stepping into roles of mentorship and command. New mutants dealing with their own evolution in the unending battle for acceptance are coming up, learning the lessons of the previous set and adapting them to their own time. It's a rich setting, and one that suits Beast perfectly.


So here's a conversation between Wolverine and Beast, who is signing up for a position at the Jean Grey School of Higher Learning.



Hank McCoy slipped between the trees with a feline grace that somehow enhanced the bulk that looked to be at odds with it. His boots -- modified to fit his new digitigrade stance -- whispered along the undergrowth of the forest, leaving only the lightest of tracks on a path he scented more than he saw.


It figured that Logan would want to meet him out here. A quick scan of the area told him there was a cabin somewhere in this wilderness, though most people would have a devil of a time finding it. He had to leave his car behind a couple miles ago, slinging a backpack over one broad and furry shoulder to walk the rest of the way.


It wasn't a bad day for it. The sun shone through a thick canopy of leaves, small pockets of light reaching the ground ahead of him. A gentle breeze carried the scents of the forest to him; trees struggling to procreate in the springtime, birds and animals that remained out of sight but which were present just the same, the slight but noticeable trace of Wolverine leading him forward. It was even cool enough that he didn't feel overheated as he moved. Since his latest mutation, his fur had gotten thicker, enough to shift the range of temperatures he was comfortable with. It had been a long adjustment, and he was only now becoming comfortable in his own body again.


Which is why he had no hesitation dropping to all fours (though he looked around, as if to check for anyone watching him) to speed up his pace; it was nice to take a stroll in nature, but he wanted to be prompt for his meeting. Logan might not care about punctuality, but he certainly did.


Hank had only recently taken to exploring the new, bestial attitudes that flitted across his ever-thinking brain. Since becoming a bouncing blue cast member of the musical Cats, he had difficulty accepting his new-found fondness for raw meat, or the powerful instinct to chase or pounce others. It disturbed him, not just because they were present, but because sometimes they were so strong. The Cassandra Nova business hit him where he lived there, and it was a long way back to being unafraid of himself. He had hoped getting back to what he did best -- being the chief scientist for the X-Men -- would complete the healing of that trauma and allow him a chance to feel like himself again at long last.


But first, he would have to convince Logan to take him on.


He loped between the trees quickly now, his paw-like hands churning up leaves and dirt as he galloped along. Wolverine's scent became stronger now, along with the smell of coffee, alcohol, cigars and burning wood. He paused for a moment, then pivoted towards the northeast. Another few minutes, and dense wood gave way to a small clearing with a modest cabin squatting right in the center of it. He scanned the area with sharp and slitted eyes. The birds were at ease here, and he spotted a squirrel or two darting between the safety of two tree trunks. A lazy plume of smoke rose from the cabin's stone chimney, and another one rose from the porch. Logan was there, wearing simple jeans, a flannel shirt and boots. He was chewing his cigar like it was his breakfast. The mutant stared right at him as he stood and stepped out of the trees.


"Hank," he said, as if he had been waiting this whole time.


"Logan," Beast said, clapping the dust off of his hands as he cleared the small distance between himself and the new headmaster of the Jean Grey School. "It's so nice of you to invite me to your summer home."


Wolverine shook Beast's hand without smiling. Hank wasn't offended; it was a weak joke. "I just figured you'd want to meet somewhere private. Those SWORD guys still after you?"


Beast waved him off. "Heavens, no. That was sorted a little while ago, thank the stars. Dr. Henry McCoy has a spotless record once more."


Wolverine simply grunted, turning to sit on one of the chairs next to the cabin's door. "Have a seat. Can I get you something? A beer?"


Hank glanced at the chair; it was solid wood, but a bit too narrow for his hips. He chose to lean against one of the porch posts instead. "No, thank you. It's a bit early for me to indulge. I did bring you something, though."


He slung his backpack off his shoulder and opened the zipper with a claw. "I know it's customary to bring a token of esteem in these situations; most would have gone with a fruit basket of some sort, but I figured you'd appreciate this more."


Wolverine eyed the bottle of whiskey, staring at the label once it was handed to him. "Single malt, huh? Not bad." He wasted no time twisting the top off and taking a long swig.


Beast glanced at him, then looked out over the clearing. "Yes, a small batch distillery from Cork that I thought you'd like. I thought the apple notes were quite a nice distinction."


His ear flicked as he heard the bottle upend once more, a full tumbler of the stuff disappearing down Wolverine's throat in the span of a few seconds.


"Mmm, it's all right." Logan sat the bottle down on the porch, then exhaled. "Now that you've broken the ice, want to get this over with?"


Hank grinned. "Certainly. Though I have to admit I was surprised you wanted to interview me for the position. We've worked well together before, and we seem to be of the same mind on what we want for these children."


"We are. But I need to know where your head's at. You left the X-Men, Hank. You went out to space with your girlfriend and only reached out to me when you found out I was rebuilding the school."


Hank furrowed a brow. Was Logan upset about his defection? Or something else? It was hard to get a read on him; his scent was mostly covered by burning tobacco and the stinging alcohol he had drained a half-bottle of in under a minute. "If you're worried about my commitment, then you certainly don't need to be. I believe I've proven myself to be quite dedicated to causes I believe in."


"True. But you've also had a hell of a time of it in the past six months. This school is going to be a target for a lot of people...maybe some of our own'll be gunning for us or our kids. You sure you're ready for that?" Wolverine kept his voice even, calm, but there was something about that question…


"I've been fighting to protect the innocent for over a decade now, Logan. It's my life's work." He turned towards the mutant, arms folded. "And you've provided me with the opportunity to continue it."


"So why didn't you open the school yourself? Why wait for someone else?"


Beast blinked. "I...didn't think I could do it on my own."


"Who said you would have been?" Wolverine stretched out, leaning back in his chair.


"Call it an educated guess. I am many things, Logan, but a leader of man and mutant I am not. I've never been comfortable convincing others that my choices are the ones that need to be followed. I don't have the knack for it that you or Scott or Ororo do…"


"You think I want to be a leader, Hank?" This time, Wolverine smiled. "I'm stepping up to this because somebody's got to. You'd think that one of Charles' students would want to be the ones to take on his legacy…"


"But Scott is becoming increasingly militant, and Jean is no longer with us. Warren....good heavens, who knows what's happened to Warren. And Bobby is...well, Bobby has his own issues." Beast shook his head. "As much as it pains me to say it, none of us are capable of doing that at the moment. But you are. Let me help you."


Wolverine stared at him for a long time. "Of course you're going to help me." He stood and stepped forward, offering Hank a hand. "Welcome to the Jean Grey School, Dr. McCoy. She's going to need you."


Beast beamed, showing the full measure of his fangs before he could help himself. "Thank you. Now, shall we talk about compensation?"


Wolverine grunted; it's what passed for a laugh most of the time. "Free room and board, provided you design the school and lead the building of it."


Beast blinked. "You mean the mansion isn't rebuilt? How...far have you gotten in this process?"


Wolverine slumped back into his chair and picked up the bottle of whiskey. "So far, I've hired on a Vice-Principal to help rebuild Charles' dream from the ground up. Not a bad start."


Beast took a deep breath and grabbed the whiskey when it was handed to him. He took a swig himself, straight from the bottle. "Not a bad start at all, my friend."
jakebe: (Entertainment)

Ryan and I are coming up on the back half of the Disney Renaissance, which reminds me a lot of the risks the animation studio took during the "Dark Ages" of the 70s and early 80s. The storytellers in place at the time were concerned with telling different kinds of stories that were a little darker, a little more complicated. The reason the experiment failed in the 70s and 80s while it (largely) succeeded in the late 90s is absolutely the production quality; while they had to cut corners at almost every opportunity with Robin Hood and The Black Cauldron, their previous successes allowed them to do some really amazing stuff with their animation in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan. That, combined with great stories passionately told, mark a string of underappreciated gems from Disney in the late 90s. They are absolutely worth another look if you've been sleeping on them.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
This one is a legitimate surprise. Continuing the maturation of the storytelling that started with Pocahontas, Walt Disney Studios adapted Victor Hugo's classic novel as a G-rated musical adventure. The fact that a movie dealing with the concepts of lust, sin, damnation and religious hypocrisy received a G Rating from the MPAA might be the only proof you need that the ratings board doesn't know what it's doing. Still, this turned out to be one of my favorite Disney animated movies -- it's that good.

Quasimodo is the titular hunchback, a deformed young man whose mother was a gypsy killed by a severe judge named Frollo on the steps of Notre Dame. Caught by a priest as he was about to throw the young child down a well, Frollo agrees to "care for" Quasimodo as penance for killing someone on church grounds. In this case, caring for means locking him away inside the church's bell tower and emotionally manipulating him into fearing the world he so desperately wants to be a part of.

Both Quasimodo and Frollo are legitimately fascinating characters. Quasimodo wants nothing more than to be a part of the world he observes and loves passionately; he adores the people that he sees and wants to be out among them. Frollo, on the other hand, only sees wickedness and sin wherever he looks at the world. They are perfect foils for each other, and perfect examples of the old adage that "you will only see in the world what you see within yourself".

Frollo's mission to hunt down and pretty much eradicate gypsies in Paris runs smack into conflict with his feelings for Esmerelda, a homeless dancer who befriends Quasimodo once he sneaks out during a Festival of Fools. The poor hunchback learns some very hard lessons about the world when he finally gets the chance to be out in it, and for a moment it seems that Frollo was right. But his desire to love and be loved overrides his cynicism, and the sheer power of his yearning is at once inspiring and relatable. Even though he is quite possibly the most unusual-looking hero in the Disney canon, Quasimodo is the one that I've felt the strongest emotional connection with.

And perhaps that's because Frollo is so horrific. His "villain's song" is one of the most intense and disturbing in a Disney movie, wonderfully exposing the warring impulses within him. When he lays himself bare, you sympathize with his fear of falling away from God. You're still horrified by how that fear has curdled within him, turning him into something far worse than an imperfect man. Frollo's fear of his own baser nature makes him cruel and intolerant of imperfections in the people around him. That's frightening because it's so common in our world.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame might be the most nakedly religious of all Disney films as well. The cathedral is such an outsized influence not only in the city at the time, but also in the lives of all its characters; you see how their belief in God is reflected in their actions and desires. Esmerelda's song, "God Help The Outcasts," is a gut-check against the self-involved and materialistic in the Church. In a lot of ways, the movie is not only concerned with the influence of religion in the inner world of its characters, but also how that translates into social action. Hunchback tackled themes of social justice decades before Zootopia came on the scene.

Musically, this might be some of the strongest work for long-time Disney composer Alan Mencken and his writing partner Stephen Schwartz. "The Bells of Notre Dame" is a haunting, tight prologue that serves as a mini-story setting up the board for the film; "Out There" is an amazing "I want" song that establishes Quasimodo as a wonderful hero while also introducing us to Frollo's awful emotional abuse and its effect on his charge; "Hellfire" is nothing short of an epic villain's war with the forces raging within himself. Each song heightens the emotional narrative superbly, planting its character's motivations so that we know exactly why they do the things they do.

The animation is similarly ambitious. Notre Dame is as much a character as anyone else, and watching the characters interact with it reveals their inner thoughts while also allowing us to see how it shapes their external world. Seeing Quasimodo scamper and swing across the rooftops is thrilling; when he does his thing, he's every bit as graceful as Tarzan swinging on the vine. The character design is pitch-perfect as well. Quasimodo is at once grotesque and endearing; Esmerelda is truly bewitching; Frollo is severe and terrible. Even the sidekicks and comic relief are a wonderful mixture of adorable and setting-appropriate. Everything works.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame might just be the most underrated film of the Disney Renaissance. It is an amazing film, even though it doesn't stick just so to its source material. Disney works with themes that it hasn't really delved into before or since, and threads the needle with a sensitive, passionate morality tale that challenges its audience as well as it inspires.

Hercules (1997)
After catching so much heat for being too dark with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney swung the pendulum the other way for 1997's Hercules. This is another risk, especially for the family-friendly studio -- basing a crowd-pleasing comedy on ancient Greek myth? Anyone with a passing familiarity with the source material might have trouble explaining the real legend to their children. They ended up going off-script a bit more than usual here, creating what's essentially a mythological superhero-origin story.

Like Quasimodo, Hercules is an outcast in his society -- but for an entirely different reason. He doesn't know it, but he is a demi-god born to Zeus and Hera; his divinity was (mostly) removed by Hades in order to make sure that the hostile takeover of Olympus went according to plan. However, because he wasn't given every drop of the poison meant to make him mortal, he retained his godly strength. He just doesn't have the wisdom or finesse to wield it properly.

When Hercules learns that he is in fact the son of Zeus, he decides to become a hero in order to prove himself worthy of the gods and admission into Olympus. Of course, being heroic is a lot more than fighting monsters and saving innocents, and the movie pushes him towards learning that lesson.

Compared to the wonderful visuals of The Lion King, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the stylized animation of Hercules is a big departure that doesn't come off all that well. Disney nails the style that it wanted, but there's something missing in the backgrounds and the setting; it doesn't quite come across as iconic or interesting. The Underworld is the most interesting place, visually, and we don't spend so much time there. Most of the time, it feels like we're in the world of the centaurs, fauns and dryads from Fantasia by way of modern recreation of Greek art.

The story is fairly straight-forward; Hercules has to learn how to use his strengths first, then overcome his weaknesses before he can truly claim the title of hero. It's certainly enjoyable, lightened by the gospel-infused Chorus, the cynical and wise Philoctetes and the big goofy Pegasus. Meg serves as the femme fatale here fairly well, but it's a foregone conclusion how her arc will play out.

I think that's the ultimate disappointment with Hercules as a film, really -- most of Disney's films are predictable when you get right down to it, but there's almost always an emotional hook that invests you in the character journey anyway. For just a little while, you allow yourself to forget that good will triumph over evil every time, and you really want the protagonist to succeed while not being sure he will. Or, at least, that he will without paying a fairly high price.

And that's what Hercules is missing. He literally has the King of the Gods on his side; even when the Titans are unleashed in the third act, they don't seem like a legitimate threat. And even though Hercules is a fine and studly hero, there isn't that vulnerability that makes him relatable. You don't root for him because he's an exceptional specimen who just won't fail. Here, he's a Greecian Superman, and it's always hard to write really great stories about the Man of Steel.

Maybe Hercules is simply a victim of proximity. It tells the story of a social outcast who desperately wants to find a place he belongs, but must dig deep within himself to overcome the forces keeping him apart and earn not only acceptance from others, but acceptance of himself. While the battle between Hades and Zeus is fun (and Hades does make for a pretty neat villain), it pales in comparison to the battle between Quasimodo, Frollo and God. Hercules simply hits too many of the notes that Hunchback does, and Hunchback did it better.

Still, this is a pretty good movie -- there's certainly nothing wrong with it. But it doesn't have the same ambition or fire that characterizes the other movies in the Disney Renaissance. It aims to be an enjoyable movie, and while it succeeds that's all it really is.

Mulan (1998)
This movie is gorgeously photographed, plain and simple. The staging of the shots, the environments that the characters move through, the way the action plays out on screen -- it all comes together to produce a visually distinctive movie that calls to mind epic historical war dramas as well as intimate character meditations.

Mulan is the daughter of a revered Chinese war hero; as the only child, she carries the burden of preserving the honor of her family by being the perfect maiden, then wife. Of course she chafes at this; she simply doesn't fit the rigidly-defined role that her society has made for her. When the Huns clamber over the Great Wall and lay waste to villages, the Emperor calls for one man from every family to fight for their homeland. Making sure her wounded father doesn't have to go, Mulan steals his sword and armor to fight in his stead. She's accompanied by Mushu, a tiny dragon fallen from grace as a protector of the family; and Cri-Kee, a "lucky cricket" who serves as Mushu's sidekick.

Mulan's problems are very relatable, especially to those of us who don't fit into the rigid gender roles set out for us by our cultures. She is a woman who doesn't want to be demure and quiet; she's smart, she has opinions and she wants to be active in a place that equates femininity with passivity. What's interesting is how Disney doesn't pass judgement on this cultural expectation; it merely forms the backdrop for her character struggle. Again, I'm impressed by Disney's careful handling of other cultures and translating specific influences or attitudes into something universal.

The story isn't perfect, of course. This was just a couple of years after The Birdcage, and alternate sexualities and gender expressions were still one of those things that were played broad. While masquerading as a man, Mulan indulges in the easiest stereotypes about men vs. women when it really doesn't need to. Once the film establishes its characters, the best humor actually comes from their specific viewpoints. And the movie is filled with rich and interesting secondary characters that you really come to love over time.

But the animation is the real star of the show here. Disney creates a mythic China filtered through the lens of a spaghetti Western, knowing exactly when to pull back to show off the scale of a battlefield or the bright, vivid perfection of a homestead and when to tighten focus on a character's facial expressions. One of my absolute favorite transitions is the one out of the raucous "A Girl Worth Fighting For". It's a wonderful swerve that makes what comes afterward that much more haunting.

The third act is a wonderful set-piece that's both intimate, chaotic and simply great storytelling. The arcs of Mulan, Mushu and Captain Li Shang come to a wonderful conclusion here, and there's just enough room for the denouement to punctuate the way everyone's changed by their experience.

Mulan is a beautiful, compassionate, well-framed film that's only occasionally marred by the broad comedic sensibilities of the 90s. I think it's another one of those overlooked gems that people would really dig if they went back for another look.

jakebe: (Reading)

When Marvel resumed their regular universe in the wake of Secret Wars last November, they released a really great line-up of diverse comics under the "All-New, All-Different Marvel" banner. I wrote a little about the titles I was most interested in here, and it's taken me a little time to get to most of the titles. Still, they're in my pull box and I've been steadily making my way through. So, how are they faring eight months later?

Not well, I have to say. Red Wolf, Howling Commandos of SHIELD, and Weirdworld have been cancelled already, and a lot of the other fledgeling comics aimed at diversifying their line-up in either character or tone have been consistently soft-sellers for your local comic shop. This doesn't necessarily mean that the diversity initiative is a failure; with a more diverse readership comes way more diverse ways of reading, so while a lot of the audience for these books might not be heading to the LCS to pick them up they might be getting them somewhere else -- digitally through the Marvel or Comixology app, or in graphic novel form through their local bookseller or on Amazon. Still, the Diamond sales figures reported from comic shops is essentially the Nielsen rating that comics titles live or die on, and the big two publishing houses still use that as a key figure of success.

So let me preface this review by saying that if you're a comics fan who has been championing more diversity in superhero stories, it's vitally important to offer feedback to the companies giving it to you in a way they understand. Visit your local comic shop, pre-order the title or buy it off the shelf. A lot of these businesses are locally owned and operated, and they can certainly use the patronage (and the proof that broadening the tent of the superhero story is bringing in new and diverse fans).

MG and DD

One of the titles I was most intrigued by is Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, which wrapped up its first arc last month and released its first graphic novel collection. Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare have been doing some great work here, establishing Lunella Lafayette as a next-generation Peter Parker who just so happens to have a supernatural dinosaur as a best friend. Lunella's story is relatable and engrossing, even when the more ridiculous elements dominate the scenery. It's grounded in street-level concerns, coming off a bit like Netflix's Daredevil -- a look at how the high-minded heroics of the Marvel universe affect the working stiffs who have to deal with the fallout.

Lunella, for example, is a ten-year-old super-genius whose parents simply can't afford to send her to a school worthy of her intellect. Worse, her repeated applications to the prestigious Future Foundation are rejected. So she's stuck at her local elementary school where she fights off crushing boredom and disconnection by working on a problem that's complicated enough to engage her and personal enough to motivate her: finding a way to keep the Terrigen Mists making their way around the globe from turning her into an Inhuman. She knows she has these dormant genes locked up inside of her, and exposure to the Mists will activate them, turning her into a different person. Of course she doesn't want that; she just wants to be a normal girl. So, she tries to hunt down a Kree artifact in the hopes that it will tell her how their experiments worked. Maybe if she gets an explanation, she can reverse-engineer a cure.

Meanwhile, both Devil Dinosaur and a tribe of early hominids called the Killer Folk are displaced through time after a fight; when Lunella finds the artifact that sent them into the modern day, she becomes the Killer Folk's new target.

This is my first exposure to Devil Dinosaur, though I've seen his name pop up here and there in various Marvel cartoons and games. I suspect I'm not alone in this, especially if this particular comic book is meant to draw in readers who would have never gotten into the Marvel universe some other way. I'm intrigued by his back-story, even though I don't think we'll get much explanation of it here; the first arc is all about Lunella making sense of her world and the crazy things she gets caught up in and DD is very much a sidekick. But it feels like his fight against the Killer Folk reaches back across the eons, especially since the inciting incident involves a ritual that the Killer Folk perform a blood sacrifice and the dinosaur's original companion -- Moon Boy -- is *also* an ancient hominid. What's going on here? And how does it tie in with Lunella's life beyond the Kree connection? Maybe that will be answered in future arcs.

MG and DD coverThis one, though, is a lot of fun. We're introduced to Lunella, her family, her school, her neighborhood and problems through these intensely disruptive influences that reshape them quite a bit. We see Lunella's fearlessness as she draws her strength in the face of adversity; how she gets that from a mother willing to do what it takes to protect and provide for her family; and how her work ethic comes from a father who sacrifices his time and attention to make ends meet, but still does his best to be present for a daughter he doesn't really understand. Lunella, on some level, recognizes the good intentions of her parents even while she knows they can't possibly get what she's going through. That tension between love and isolation is well-drawn here; and it informs so many of her decisions. She puts up with the teasing from her classmates, the impatient hostility of her teachers, the dismissive ignorance of the world at large -- not because she thinks she's better than they are, but because she knows how her differences sets her apart from just about everyone. If her own family doesn't understand her, how can she expect anyone else to?

I know that doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but it is. Lunella is a great heroine because she doesn't let this fundamental disconnection get her down. She still believes in the people around her, she still wants to be a part of the world. The first arc of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur establishes that desire while also showing her that she can embrace the full oddity of who she is and how she relates to the world around her. Seeing that is a true joy and ultimately inspiring.

We don't see black heroines who are smart, fearless and devoted to excellence all that often. Most of the time we see them as tough powerhouses who don't take shit from anyone (see: Zoe Washburne, Amanda Waller, Miss America, etc.). And while that's awesome, Lunella is in a class all by herself. She gets by on her brain, and her strength comes from her ability to stick through a tough problem until she finds a solution. She just doesn't give up. That willpower is her birthright, and she's applying it to the problems that we face in the 21st century. Ours is a complex, interconnected and quickly-changing world, and just when you think you've got things down the landscape shifts under your feet. Lunella is simultaneously firmly rooted in who she is and adaptable to whatever the world lays at her doorstep. She's incredible.

The art from Amy Reeder and Natacha Bustos is a big part of this comic's appeal. It's bright and dynamic, capturing the lightness of childhood perfectly blended with the hard edges and long shadows of living in a big, dangerous city. They're able to run the gamut of grounded scenes at the family dinner table, the primary-colored chaos of an elementary school classroom, the neon-and-shadow contrast of a city at night, and the traditional craziness of big superhero action without sacrificing their style; it's consistent and balanced, simple but extraordinarily capable. This book isn't only a pleasure to read, but so many of the panels are a joy to look at as well.

I really love this comic, and I think a lot of you out there will, too. And, as much as I hate to say this, it's important that you find it. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur debuted in November 2015 with nearly 39,000 copies sold; sales figures have since dipped into the 12K range -- beneath Contest of Champions, Star-Lord and Hyperion. It's not quite into "automatic cancellation" territory, but it's close. The most recent issues of Weirdworld and Red Wolf have only pulled 9K and 7K copies, respectively; Marvel's top ongoing comics generally pull around 75K copies.

I'm not going to pretend Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur will ever pull that many numbers, but it's important for us to show Marvel that there's room in their universe for heroes like Lunella Lafayette. Now that the first collection is out, go to your local comic shop and pick it up. If you like it, make it a point to grab individual issues every month. I know that the feedback model is bogus -- digital and bookstore sales absolutely need to be given more weight -- but let's deal with things as they are. Now that Marvel has listened to us and given us diverse and compelling heroes, it's up to us to show our appreciation with our wallets and words.

jakebe: (Entertainment)

Ryan and I are holding a weekly film festival where we watch the entire Disney animated canon in chronological order, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs all the way to Zootopia. Currently, we're up to the latter half of the studio's first Renaissance. Here are my reviews of the latest batch of movies!

The Lion King (1994)
I held a poll on my Twitter account a little earlier this spring about which movie people considered to be the best in the Disney Renaissance, and this one won by a landslide. At first, I thought the results were slightly skewed because so many of my followers are furries, but then I watched this movie again and HOLY CRAP YOU GUYS THIS IS THE BEST MOVIE OF THE DISNEY RENAISSANCE.

Little Simba is the prince of his pride; his father Mufasa and mother Nala serve as King and Queen of the Pridelands. Before his father can teach him everything there is to know about being royalty, Simba is framed for the murder of Mufasa by his scheming uncle Scar and runs away to avoid the punishment. Even though he's embraced a more carefree and irresponsible way of life, destiny comes calling to right the wrongs of his people. Can he heed the call?

Even now, more than 20 years later, the ambition and imagination of this movie is staggering. The opening alone, featuring a newborn Simba being presented to the beasts of the Pridelands for the first time, still gives me goosebumps when I watch it. The prologue sequence makes a statement about the scope and ambition of this movie, and they do their best to deliver with just about every song, every action scene, every introduction of a new character.

I was continually surprised by the musical numbers. Remember the fascist overtones of Scar's "Be Prepared"? I've seen this movie a dozen times, and it almost always shocks me whenever I see it. The playful inventiveness of "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" is enough for me to forgive it for being a relatively weak song; and "Hakuna Matata" is one of those songs that's fun, catchy and sneaks the pivot of Simba's plot from exiled youth to carefree young adult effortlessly.

The movie is exquisitely choreographed and tightly plotted. Scenes move with a Swiss-watch precision, forming a new link in a chain that depends on what's come before. When it's job is done, it's time to move on. The Lion King also bounces between the kid-friendly broad humor of Timon and Puumba and the surprisingly dark scenes with Scar and his hyenas really well. It's ability to juggle so many disparate characters is perhaps its most impressive feat.

This is a prominent gem in the crown that marks Disney as the king of American animation studios. When they're at the top of their game, there's simply no one better.


Pocahontas (1995)
Pocahontas is smack-dab in the middle of the Renaissance; it's the last Disney movie before Pixar burst onto the scene with Toy Story (more on that later), and signals a pivot away from the really traditional fairy-tale adventure that marked the first half of their resurgence. In a lot of ways, it feels like the studio went back to the riskier stuff that didn't work out so well in the 70s and 80s; this time, however, the studio is a lot more confident in its vision and far more proficient at pushing itself to new feats of movie-making.

The reputation of Pocahontas is a curious one; most Disney fans don't talk so much about it, and critics largely sniffed on its release. Fair enough -- when Disney is coming off the run that it had in the last six years, expectations for its next film had to be monstrous.

But with the passage of time, it's easier to see Pocahontas as an ambitious movie in its own way. The story alone is a bit of a hard sell. A young Native American woman is at a crossroads in her life; she's come to the age where she has to stop seeking an adventurous future and accept her place among her people. This means marrying one of her tribe's strongest hunters and upholding the traditions and expectations of her culture. However, when she meets a European who comes to this strange "new world" for riches (and partly to kill any Native Americans who cause trouble), she falls head over heels for him. Their relationship makes both of their positions complicated, especially as the natives and Europeans circle ever closer to war.

The environments and settings are the real stars of this movie; they're simply wonderful, expansive and gorgeous. It really stings when John Smith and his crew -- headed by the villainous Governor Ratcliffe -- cut down the trees to build a fort and dig up the land in the hopes of finding gold. Pocahontas and her tribe are clearly people of the land, and the movie does such a great job of framing her within that context; everywhere she goes, she blends into the trees, the hills, the rivers. By contrast, the Europeans are frequently the focus of their scenes; nature only exists as far as it's useful.

What's impressive about Pocahontas is the clear care that the storytellers used to present the native way of life before America had been settled by the Europeans. It would have been really easy for Disney to fall into the noble savage trope, or to give in to the mystic othering of Native Americans. For the most part, though, they keep it grounded; the supernatural touches within the film are mostly low-key. The one botch is the idea of allowing their heroine to learn English simply by listening to her heart or some such thing. It's a narrative shortcut that felt lazy, but at the same time I can't think of a more elegant solution to the problem of getting Pocahontas and John Smith into a dialogue sooner rather than later.

Other than that, the movie mostly sticks the landing. Pocahontas is a wonderful character with a rich inner life; she stands up for herself when she feels disrespected; she sticks her neck out for the the things she believes in. It might not be as loud as The Lion King or as spellbinding as Beauty and the Beast, but Pocahontas is a worthy film that belongs with the rest from this period.


Toy Story (1995)
The cultural impact of this movie is huge -- it almost single-handedly killed traditional animation in movie theatres. That's not something you could fault Pixar for, of course, but man, it really blew the roof off the industry when it dropped this.

Not only is Toy Story the first feature-length animated film rendered entirely in CGI, it's also a surprisingly good tale. While the visuals haven't aged that well in the two decades since the film's release, the strength of the writing, inventive character design and wonderful vocal performance keep the movie from being one of those culturally-important films that really isn't that enjoyable.

Woody is Andy's favorite toy, and that makes him the leader of all the playthings in Andy's room. He runs a tight ship, but he's a benevolent dictator -- as long as his authority is recognized, things go well. That's a good thing; Andy's family is moving to another house very soon, and Woody is in charge of making sure no toy gets left behind.

However, all that gets upended when Andy is gifted a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. Woody is cast aside in that way all kids discard their old toys for the latest and greatest; what's worse, the other toys have taken to Buzz as well. Woody's jealousy sparks a chain of events that finds him and Buzz forced out of Andy's home, desperate to make their way back before he leaves forever. Can they make it?

Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are the voices of Woody and Buzz, respectively; their chemistry carries the entire film. The world of Toy Story is really strange, unlike anything anyone had seen up to that point; hard green Army men move out on reconnaissance missions, able to see through solid plastic binoculars; Mr. Potato Head lives a nightmare existence where his facial features and body parts are just one jostle away from flying off; an Etch-A-Sketch communicates solely by drawing pictures. The setting is incredibly inventive, but it needs its protagonists to ground the action to something relatable. That's what the two stars do here wonderfully.

Even though the animation is showing its age, the cinematography is actually really impressive. The opening credits offer a toy's-eye-view of playtime, and at their scale an ordinary house is this tremendous, varied environment. The next door neighbor's house is practically a world away, and I think it really captures how the world feels to young children. The visual storytelling is subtle but really impressive.

What's scary to think about is that for all of its strengths, this is actually one of the weaker films in Pixar's catalogue. Toy Story 2 and 3 are both streets ahead of this one, even though it's a solid movie that just so happens to feature game-changing animation. When they could have hung their hat on their technology, Pixar stepped up to do so much more. And that's why they've pretty much conquered animation in the years since.

jakebe: (Writing)

The biggest takeaway from my week of Infomagical is the seriously wonderful idea of narrowing my focus to one or two things and working on them until they're done. I have a bad habit of saying yes to everything, of getting excited about so many projects and/or collaborations that it becomes really difficult to keep track of everything -- let alone actually make time for things.

As part of the process of setting my priority, I thought I'd make a quick note of the projects I'm currently actively working on and where they sit on my to-do list. Of course, I'd appreciate any feedback you have to offer on this list. Do one of these projects excite you more than the others? Think I should be working on x instead of y? Let me know.

This is geared towards making sure I actually finish and submit most of these things somewhere -- either to professional print/online publications; here at The Writing Desk; or for free public viewing at Furry Network or SoFurry.

The Cult of Maximus
This is the big one: the first project for the Jackalope Serial Company has been a bumpy one so far, and I've only managed to post thirteen parts in the first 24 weeks of the year. Making sure I make good on my promise to post weekly installments of this story until it's done is my top priority. That means putting more work into plotting out the story, making sure I have a good handle on the settings and really solidifying how the supernatural elements of the world work. More than that, I really want to double back and edit previous chapters to "smarten" them up for posting elsewhere.

By the way, this doubles as a reminder that I have a Patreon for erotic serial stories. They feature M/M content, muscle growth, giants and some violent content. If you're interested, go here to sign up!

The Writing Desk
I definitely want to make sure that this blog is updated at least three times a week, and I've been managing a good pace with that so far. Really, it's just a matter of making sure I have ideas for articles ready to go when there isn't anything more pressing to talk about, and doing my best to keep up with Friday Fiction. That's the feature I'm most excited about here, even if it ends up being my least-read post most weeks. Hopefully, as I get better at flash fiction, that will change.

Short Stories
I would really love to write and submit short stories to all kinds of publications -- there is a booming market for POC voices in science-fiction and fantasy, and I think that I have a unique perspective and voice to contribute to that conversation. Right now, I think writing stories to their completion, workshopping and editing them, then putting up polished work online is my best play -- but there are still places I would love to submit to. For the time being, working through commissions and requests is the priority here. "A Stable Love" is draft-complete, but needs an edit; and the poor fellow who won my short story prize during last year's Write-A-Thon is *still* waiting for even a draft. It's time to get my shit together here.

New Fables
Admittedly, I feel a little guilty about this being so low on the list. If you haven't heard of New Fables, it's a wonderful annual publication that features anthropomorphic characters helping us understand the human condition a little bit better. The last issue was published in 2012, and the process of putting up the next one has been filled with stops and starts. It is *well* past time I get on the stick about doing the necessaries to get this next issue published. After that, the plan for the future of the title needs to be solidified.

Pathfinder
I ran a Pathfinder game for several friends some time ago; due to the fact that I had much less idea what I was doing with the system than I thought I did and the fact that I needed to actually plot ahead a lot more than I did, it's been on hiatus for a little while. However, we're getting the band back together on July 30th; that means I have a ticking clock to revamp characters and plot out the next phase of the story. There's certainly work to do, and it can't be underestimated.

There are, of course, a lot of other projects, but these are the five that I will be working on now. I consider my plate full, and just about everything else will have to wait until I'm done with these.

Keep your fingers crossed for me, folks -- here's to hoping that the focus remains tight until I've got a handle on these projects...

jakebe: (Self-Improvement)

Yesterday's Infomagical challenge was to have a conversation at least seven minutes long with someone about a topic important to you, either over the phone or in person. So...how was it? Was it harder than you thought it would be? Easier? What did you talk about? And did you learn anything from the conversation?

I had planned to chat with my husband about his Dresden Files tabletop role-playing game yesterday, but we ended up talking about Warcraft with my husband and my best friend after seeing the movie. They were both not fans, to put it mildly. Which put me in the position of being the film's sole defender -- and even on a good night's sleep with a bit of hindsight I have to say that it's not as bad as everyone has been saying. I think Duncan Jones worked hard to ground an inherently cartoonish world and mostly succeeded; it wasn't perfect, it might not even be good, but I liked it anyway. If you've ever had a long period where you were a die-hard Warcraft fan, you should see this movie on the big screen. It is made for you, to put yourself as immersively as possible in the world of Azeroth.

One of the things I came away from the conversation with is the idea that disagreement doesn't have to be a personal attack. Even though I think a lot of the criticisms that have been lobbed at the movie (yes, even from my husband and best friend) are a bit unfair, I see where they're coming from. And hey, just because I like -- or even love -- something doesn't mean I can't at least recognize its flaws, or the points where it leaves people cold, right? So yeah, good talk guys. I can't wait to talk movies with you again sometime.

Today is the last day of our Infomagical week. If you joined me for these last five days of challenges, thanks! I hope that you've learned a bit more about how you interact with technology and where your relationship with it can improve. If you've just been reading these posts, thanks to you too! I hope you've gained something from reading about my experience. Or at least found it interesting.

The challenge for today is to take what we've learned about ourselves, how we consume information and that feeling we get when we're chasing our goal and wrap it all up in one wonderful burrito of purpose. (I really want a burrito for lunch, you guys.) Today, we think about the lessons we've learned this past week and figure out how to apply it to the rest of our lives moving forward. What is the one big thing that we want to change in our lives as the result of this experience?

For me, the big lesson is the value of focus and prioritization. I have this tendency to say "yes" to way too much stuff, and even discounting the chronic depression, ADHD and poor time management skills there's simply no way I'll be able to get to everything in a timely fashion. Focusing squarely on single-tasking Monday gave me a window into a world in which I sit down with one project until it is finished, working hard on a single thing to make it the best thing it can be. That felt good! I want more of that in my life.

So, from now on, I'm going to shrink my focus down to the most important things to me. If there isn't time for other things that are distractions anyway, so be it. I'll read less Cracked articles, or spend less time on Facebook. I'll stop reading articles on professional wrestling. (Well, maybe not, but I'll read fewer of them.) What I do with my time and my technology will hopefully push me towards becoming a better and more complete storyteller, someone who knows the value and transformative potential of stories, someone who uses them for a very real and tangible benefit.

The Infomagical podcast for today is definitely worth a listen if you have about 15 minutes; it talks about the value of priority in your life and the cold reality that you must make conscious, difficult choices about where you choose to spend your time and energy. Tech, it's mentioned at one point, makes a wonderful servant but a poor master.

So if you're bouncing from Facebook to Twitter to blog to blog to blog -- stop. That's allowing yourself to be mastered by technology. Instead, make a conscious choice when you sit down at the computer, or take out your phone. Every moment brings a new choice; what is the best one to make? That's something only you can decide, and if you want your tech to be a tool instead of a tyrant, it's worth it to spend some time thinking about your decision.

Here's the full list of blog posts and Infomagical challenges this week. I'm not sure if the page will be up next Monday, but if it is you can sign up to take the challenge here. Thanks so much for following me on this experience.

Day 1: A Magical Day / Zen and the Art of Single-Tasking
Day 2: A Magical Phone / The Minimalist Phone
Day 3: A Magical Brain / You Shall Not Pass, Meme!
Day 4: A Magical Connection / The Art of Conversation
Day 5: A Magical Life / One Priority

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