jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-11-21 09:04 am

Deep Breath and Dive In

I had a bit of a meltdown about work on Friday; anxiety got the better of me and I just got drained. On Saturday, I still didn't really have anything left and on Sunday I managed to get some schoolwork done, but there's still more to do.

It's clear that I'm going to be under more stress moving forward. The social climate in America has changed to the point where I'm going to see things that stress me out on a regular basis, and it's only a matter of time before the results of that climactic shift will be made personal. As my company prepares to move away from our current product to the next-generation model, customers and coworkers alike are going to have to absorb a lot of change in a short amount of time. And as my education continues and I get out of the basic '101' classes, college will require more time and mental energy if I want to maintain the best GPA possible.

So it's more important than ever for me to practice self-care, time management skills and priority setting. I'm not going to be of any use to anyone burned out, so I'm going to have to get a lot better about stress management and resiliency than I am. I'm going to have to make it a point to do what I can, when I can. And I'm going to need to bundle in time to relax and decompress on top of everything.

Some things are just going to have to be let go. I think that means accepting that my Pathfinder game is going to be on hiatus for the forseeable future, and focusing my writing efforts on schoolwork first, Patreon second, and submissions third. As much as I want to get out there and make my voice heard, there's only so much time and energy I can spare. Making sure that I'm directing both towards the things that matter most is essential.

I'll also probably pull back a bit socially as I try to get my house in order -- mentally, emotionally, professionally and personally. So if I go a little quiet in the near future, please don't take it personally; I'm just going through it right now and reserving what little energy I've got towards the things that need it most.

I think that's it for now. I'll be working on short stories and blog entries this week, with the hope that I can restart the Jackalope Serial Company and The Writing Desk in December. Fingers crossed. 
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-11-15 09:37 am

Writing Journal: A Game of Inches

I'm not sure if I've talked about this yet, but I've decided to cut out added sugar from my diet. This means staying away from candy, pastries, baked goods, almost anything sweet. If I have a sweet tooth that needs to be satisfied, fruit is what I have to work with.

I decided to do this after watching a YouTube video about what sugar does to your body; it mentions how it messes with your hormones to make you more stressed, retain fat (especially belly fat, which is a problem for me) more easily and really can become an addiction. I recognize that I display addictive behavior when it comes to sugar; I'll plant little stashes wherever I tend to hang out, so that candy is always within easy reach of me when I need a boost. When I get stressed or sad, a cookie or pastry is one of the first things I reach for. Worst of all, I tend to hide just how much sugar I eat from My Husband, The Dragon, because I know he'll disapprove. He knows it's a problem, and he's been trying to get me to change for some time -- I've had fasts before, like the Year Without Candy or my Whole30 experience. But every time I end those fasts, my sugar consumption creeps up again until it becomes a problem. While I'm definitely eating less sugar overall than I used to, it's clear that I can't really modulate my desire for it. If I indulge, it tends to lead to...more indulgence.

As you might expect, cutting out sugar has been a big adjustment. I've gotten headaches and my energy levels are a little wonky -- but that might be due to stress from any number of things, now that I'm thinking about it. But I can tell that my body is craving it because I had my first "candy dream" last night. That's exactly what happened during the Whole 30 and the candy fast before that. It wasn't anything particularly interesting; just me sneaking Tootsie Rolls while hanging out with friends. But it's a good signpost on where I am with the sugar fast. It'll be maybe another week before I'm reasonably "clear" of the dependence, and I think I'll break my fast on Thanksgiving with ONE dessert only.

I didn't manage to work on either of my short stories yesterday; my attention was focused entirely on the two English essays that are due today. I'm pretty happy with my revision of Critique #1, but the new essay will need a bit of polish before I feel it's ready. Depending on how quickly I'm able to wrap that up, there MIGHT be time to work on the werewolf story before my English class this evening. I'll do whatever I can to make that happen.

For now, though, there's a lot of work to get through before I head off for two hours to volunteer at the Second Harvest Food Bank this afternoon. My employer is wonderful enough to give us 16 hours of volunteer time-off a year, and it organizes a few opportunities around this time to spend them. I'm really glad that they've afforded me an easy chance to help out my community, and I'd be disappointed in myself if I didn't take it. That squeezes me for time pretty much everywhere else, though, so it's time to grind it out as much as I can. 
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-11-14 11:10 am

Writing Journal: Recovering

I'm not going to lie; the election last week really knocked the wind out of my sails. I cried hard on Tuesday and broke down several times on Wednesday. Since then, I've been all up in my feelings trying to process them. I've gone from anger to sadness to panic to optimism to gratitude to depression to worry to panic to...you get the idea. In a lot of ways, this feels like grief. I'm grieving the loss of the good faith I had in my fellow Americans, that they were better than this. It's hard to face the truth that so many voters responded to a message of hatred, fear and racism and thought: Yes, that's what I want for the country.

I've fallen behind on just about everything: diet, exercise, writing, schoolwork, job-training skills. One by one, I've been picking them up, dusting them off, and trying my best to move forward with them. I do this even though I have no idea how bad things will get, even though I live in a country that is demonstrably different from the one that I hoped it to be.

I still have a lot to say. Not only about Trump, but about all of the forces that have brought him into being: fear, distrust of anything different, racism, homophobia, misogyny, toxic masculinity, xenophobia, a terriible lack of compassion and a resistance to reality in favor of whatever brings us the most comfort. And now, because I know that the conversation is shifting, I feel like I need to speak up on these things with a fervor and urgency I hadn't been able to muster before. I need to speak up on behalf of the imaginary country I still believe America could be, on behalf of all of my friends, family and fellow minorities who will struggle hard through what's coming. This is not OK. This is not normal. We might not be better than this, but we could be.

Starting the clock back from zero today. For English, I have an essay response critique due tomorrow, as well as an edited draft of a previous critique. I'll need to work on that this evening to make sure I'm in good shape for class tomorrow. My first critique was an essay about the movie "Green Room," a horror movie that caught me by total surprise (and feels especially timely now). That'll be the one I edit, trying to bring things into a more recognizable shape. One benefit of the class is it's really forced me to pay attention to the overall structure of an essay and think about how every bit of it, from word choice, to sentences, to paragraphs, contributes to the whole. Every word has a job to do. You really have to be careful to make sure it's doing it's best work possible.

For short story writing tonight, I'll prioritize a short story I'm hoping I can put up on my Patreon next week. The idea is to write ahead as much as possible, so I'll knock out this first draft, let it sit for a day or two, and then polish it up and post it. We'll see if I can dash off a quick first draft now, though.

The werewolf story is coming along fairly nicely, though I've had to make peace with the fact that it's not going to be the story I want it to be in the first draft. I'm going to miss the mark, but that's OK -- get it out, see what we've got to work with, and shape it so it flies a bit truer. That's all I can do.
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-11-07 08:11 am

Writing Journal #5: Clocks

Word count: 2,210.

The weekend was a wash; I got writing done on Sunday, but didn't get enough to feel comfortable with on Saturday. The clock restarts today, where I vow that I will write at least 30 minutes every day from now until the end of November.

That isn't the only project I'll be starting today. After watching a video and doing a little bit of reading on sugar and what it does to the body, I thought now would probably be a good time to try and quit the addiction. Make no mistake; I'm addicted to sugar, and it's gotten to the point where I'm slipping back into old terrible habits like making sure there is candy around me always, so that I'm never without an opportunity for that quick, sweet hit of glucose. I think that this addiction to sugar has been behind the general, low-level agitation I've felt constantly, the inability to lose weight, the crashes in mood and energy in the evenings. I know that it's going to suck trying to get myself out of that hole, but hopefully I'll be better for it rolling into December.

I'm also going to try to walk two miles every day to get myself used to, you know, being active -- and I'm recommitting myself to daily meditation practice. Between the walking, writing, meditation and diet, I'm hoping that I'll be able to start the holidays on the best foot possible and have decent momentum going into the new year. :)

Tonight, after writing, it's pretty much all schoolwork. I have a paper to write, essays to annotate and an email to write to my professor telling her I'll need to miss class tomorrow. There's no way I would be able to concentrate knowing the fate of the free world was being decided, likely right then.

I hope all of you have a wonderful Monday. See you tomorrow. :)
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-11-04 09:13 am

Writing Journal #4: Setbacks

Word Count: 1,712.

I didn't write at all yesterday. So the promise to do it every day has already failed, and I'll have to start the counter over from 0. New goal: write every day from November 4th to December 4th.

So what happened? I just didn't make the best use of my time, to be honest. Work was very difficult yesterday, and I just had to get out of the office by the time lunchtime rolled around. As soon as I got back, I was scheduled for a conference call that a customer neglected to tell me they had cancelled. Traffic home was bad enough that it took me nearly two hours (4:00 - 5:45 PM) to get from the office to the burrow, which meant that I didn't have enough time to handle my Social Psychology midterm, outline my English paper AND get writing done. I chose to work on the first two, then cleaned up the kitchen, made dinner, and settled in for our traditional Disney movie with My Husband, The Dragon and My Best Friend, The Rat.

Afterwards, I *could* have sat down to write but at that point I was just too exhausted and didn't have it in me. But that was the decision point failure, my friends. I should have pushed myself harder to stay up and grind out those five hundred words -- even if they were no good, terrible words, making the decision to write even when I didn't feel like it would have put one more brick into the Tower of Words that I'm trying to build as a habit.

Today, I need to focus on making better choices when I come to those decision points. Do I dive into this hard case that's making me so anxious, or do I procrastinate by checking Facebook one more time? Do I spend my five-minute break shutting off my brain with a YouTube video, or can I use that time to practive mindfulness meditation? Same effect, though one builds better habits. We make choices about how we spend our time every moment. Choices become habits, and habits become routine, and routines become nature. I want to be a writer, by nature. And that starts with the choices I make. 
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-11-03 09:12 am

Writing Journal #3: Nerves

Word Count: 1,712.

As always, the thing that's stopping me from writing most is fear. I'm worried that even my most basic story ideas are beyond my technical reach, and that when I start putting stuff out there people will realize that I'm essentially a fraud. I worry that I'm nowhere near as good as I would like to be, and that I don't even have the potential to get there. I worry that when I finish a short story, it will be incontrovertible proof that there's a fundamental piece I'm missing that means I will never be able to be a writer.

Typing that out makes me realize just how intimately tied the act of writing is to my anxiety. All of my worst fears, all of the biggest catastrophes for my self-image, they're all tied up in this. I want to be a good writer, almost more than anything -- but I'm too afraid of what happens when I actually write. What if my story is stupid and derivative -- or worse, somehow offensive? What if my attempts to write about my experience and background comes off as trying to capitalize on the stereotypical image of the poor, emotionally-starved black man? What if I've cut myself off from my background too much to be able to tap into it authentically? What happens when I try to reconnect with it -- is it too late?

It's hard to navigate a path through these anxieties or channel them in a way that ends up with a finished work on the page. But I keep trying because I honestly don't know how to stop. I love writing, and I can't imagine not doing it. But I can't continue to leave a trail of half-finished stories or wasted ideas in my wake. Something has to change, and since I can't stop I have to figure out how to make this work.

I keep reminding myself of the advice given by Ira Glass -- that most of us who are starting out with any creative field get into it because we love it, and we have some idea of what makes it good. But we're just not able to pull off that really great stuff yet. It's difficult to be smart enough to deconstruct a story, but not yet practiced enough to put the pieces together in a way the seams don't show. But that's where I am.

I have to reset my expectations of success for now. I won't be able to create a seamless story right now -- my command of the craft just isn't that good. But what I can do is do my best to make the stitching straight and true, to make sure the story doesn't tear apart under the slightest pressure, or to turn the obvious stitching into a feature, to make it artful and incorporate it into the design. I think that's my way out of this fear-based paralysis. I hope so, anyway.

Tonight, I'll want to have finished the first scene for my urban werewolf story and have taken my Social Psychology "midterm". That would be good.
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-11-02 09:13 am

Writing Jounal #2: Curveballs

Word Count: 498.

Yesterday was English day; for my "Clear Thinking in Writing" class, I have to read and annotate a chapter of the textbook and several chapters of To Kill A Mockingbird at least. There are frequently additional essays to be read or written. What's interesting is I keep hearing how that's a reasonably light load for an English class, and that may be true. But with everything else, it sure does feel like a lot!

I happened to mention my intent to pursue a degree in Psychology, and that uncovered three psych professionals in the class! One of them is a psychiatric nurse in an institution, and she says it's mostly difficult because she's on her feet all day; the people are fine as long as you take the time to understand them. One of them, however, is a counselor to combat veterans at the VA hospital in Palo Alto. We hit it off almost immediately, and he was brimming with enthusiasm for his job and full of some really great advice. He strongly encouraged me to pursue a career in counseling instead of outreach like I had planned and talked about his experiences. He was *quite* persuasive, so now I'll have to look into how to gear my college career towards that to see how good of a fit it is.

Anyway, it turns out the final draft of a paper was due last night and I *completely* spaced on it. My professor was nice enough to let me turn it in late, but there'll be a few points off for every day I delay. I'm fairly confident I can knock it out this evening, but it's still one of those things I'm kicking myself about. I think I can make up the penalty on the essay with extra points and by acing the class presentation and final exam, but damnit! I should be more on the ball.

In addition to that emergency final draft, there's the usual annotations, *another* essay and one of three "midterms" for my Social Psychology class all due. It's going to be a bit of a job getting to all of that, but I'll just have to push my nose to the grindstone and work it out.

The first "meeting" with Lettie Mae and Devon -- the two characters in my short story -- went pretty well. I think the exposition is a little long, especially for the length I'm going for, but I won't really know that until I'm done with the first draft. Still, the pre-writing I've done ahead of time really helped me out here; there were surprises, but they didn't throw me. They were just parts of the character that I hadn't explored yet. Lettie Mae in particular feels consistent, grounded. I really enjoy spending time with her.

Today I'll be working on the final draft of my English essay, coming up with a thesis for my next one, and trying to have 1,000 words done for this short story. Get to it, let's do it!
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-11-01 08:05 am

Writing Journal #1: Jakebe Lope and the Writer's Block

I'm trying to shake off a pretty long writing slump today. Following the collapse of my Patreon serial and signing up for classes again, I just haven't had the time or extra energy to put pen to paper so to speak. One of my classes is English, which means that there's a ton of reading and writing as I learn the building blocks of argumentative writing and how to structure non-fiction essays using these basic tools. I'm learning an awful lot about what makes for an engaging read, and I'm totally grateful for that -- I'm looking forward to carrying that knowledge into the rest of my writing.

And that starts today. I admit that I'm nervous; I'm working on my short story for Fiyah magazine, about an inner-city grandmother who has to travel around Baltimore buying ingredients for a tea that will take the edge off her grandson's lycanthropic transformation. I've had these characters in my head for a while now, and I think I know them -- but it's been my experience that you really don't discover who they are until you write them in a story. So in a lot of ways, it feels like I'm meeting these people for the first time after, I don't know, talking with them through letters up until this point. There's the thrill of anticipation, and the deep worry that first impressions will not go well. We'll just have to see!

I won't be joining folks for NaNoWriMo this year, but I have made a pact with My Husband, The Dragon to write every day this month -- and encourage him to do the same. I'm tired of noodling around with stories and never finishing them. It's time to knuckle down, be dedicated, be disciplined. And I know I've said this so many times before, so I won't say any more. The proof is in the pudding, it's time to do the work.

Tomorrow I'll check in with my word count for the previous day and any loose thoughts rattling around in my head about the process. Until then!
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-10-18 08:29 am

Knock On Wood

Don't look now, but I think I might finally be catching up to my workload.

At the day job, we actually hired three people in rapid succession -- it'll be a while before they're actually able to take cases, but it's good to know that we'll be back up to a full staff by December. It also means I'm not the newbie anymore, which is a bit of a weird feeling. But I'll get used to it. :) The caseload is also starting to come down by some miracle, but that might be the calm before the holiday storm. Either way, it's giving us a bit of a breather to get ready for the blitz that is to come.

My English class is probably the biggest demand on my time. Each week, I have to annotate one chapter of our "Elements of Argument" textbook and 3 - 8 chapters of To Kill A Mockingbird. We must also write academic journal entries on a regular basis, and 1000-word essays roughly every two weeks. The writing actually isn't that bad, but I'm a slow reader and stopping to make notes or catch my thoughts makes it even slower. We're having our midterm today and the first batch of journal entries were submitted last week, so all I had to do this week was a 1000-word essay. I'm looking forward to getting a head start on my annotations for next week, at the very least.

My Psychology class is the most fascinating. It's online, so every week we have to read a chapter of our textbook, go over an online module that features several videos, and then watch a 30-60 minute video. After that, we summarize what we've seen and offer our own personal thoughts, incorporating everything we've learned from the text and the module -- and in order to get full credit, we have to interact with the summaries of our classmates. I've learned so much about how people interact in groups, and the English class is really helping me to organize my thoughts better. It's...undeniably awesome.

Between the day job and schoolwork, my blog, Pathfinder game, Patreon serial and all other writing has fallen off. Now that I'm starting to get the hang of this, though, I'm looking forward to getting back to a few other things. Writing comes first -- I have a really wonderful set of ideas for my Pathfinder game, but they'll have to wait until I can organize them. Right now, I'd like to actually have a few finished short stories under my belt.

This election season has been a nightmare. Trump has essentially been the logical extreme for the Republican party's policies of the past 20 years; their attacks on immigration, disregard for anyone who doesn't fit a very narrow idea of what it is to be "American", their misogyny and aggressive ignorance of scientific, political and economic facts have been coming to this for a while now. The fact that the GOP-dominated congress has refused to work with a Democratic President for the last eight years, and that so many Republican-controlled state legislatures have been ushering in very concerning bills promoting voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, aggressive repeal of rights for minorities and LGBQT individuals while simultaneously painting themselves as victims under seige by a Godless but powerful coalition of degenerates and a liberally-biased media is directly responsible for the tone of this campaign. A lot of Republican leaders can pretend all they want that Trump is an aberration, a phenomenon they never saw coming. But when you stoke hatred and an almost pathological distrust of authority and expertise for an entire generation, this is where that leads.

And even though I am staunchly liberal and a die-hard Hillary supporter, I'm not going to pretend she doesn't have flaws. She has molded herself into a consummate politician, and that comes with all of the flaws inherent in our current political system. I'm very concerned by her foreign policy, especially with a resurgent and aggressive Russia and China making noises; there are indications that she flouts the rules she doesn't agree with, even ones that are there for good reason; I'm not entirely sure her relationship to Wall St. is going to allow her to make significant, much-needed economic reform; and her relationship with minorities (especially black people) has been spotty at best. BUT she is tremendously qualified to lead the system as it is today. She is a very hard worker, she is intelligent, determined, and I genuinely believe that for the most part she has her heart in the right place. Hillary genuinely wants to do what's best for this country and the people in it. She is a public servant.

People are rightfully angry about the way our government has worked for the past several years. There are very real problems that need immediate action. Our dependence on fossil fuels must end for a number of reasons, the two biggest being that peak oil is a real thing that we've probably already past and that climate change is also a real thing that we'll have to deal with for hundreds of years to come. However, we can mitigate the damage we've already done and prevent complete collapse if we act now -- and that is just not possible in our current political environment. So many Americans feel as if what economic recovery we've had has left them behind, and that's true for the most part. The gap between the richest and the rest of us has been steadily widening while the fact that we almost had an economic collapse perpetrated by those very same richest 1% has largely been swept under the rug. And our politicians are responsible for that.

But then, so are we. We have not held our representatives accountable enough for not actually representing our interests. We have chosen to follow the flashiest but most shallow news; the fact that Trump's previous attacks on women, Mexicans, black people, disabled people, political opponents and the press haven't sunk his numbers but a sexual scandal has is extremely telling about our priorities as a country. And I do not say this to diminish the very real impact of his sexual assault. That is a terrible thing and we should rightfully be outraged about it. But why haven't we drawn the line at violence against protestors at his rallies? Why haven't we deemed unacceptable his repeated threatening of the freedom of press, political opponents, and legal citizens because they're the "wrong" race and religion? I know that so many of us have been saying that his behavior is unacceptable all along, but why is it only now reached critical mass? Where was this narrative a year ago?

I'm exhausted by this. I'm tired of the unchecked anger, the lashing out against reason, the demonization of our better virtues. Once this election is over, the real work begins. We have to rebuild and strengthen the fabric of our society to undue the damage that has been done. That will take swallowing a few tough pills. We share this country with the people who have supported Trump for the past year and a half. We will have to rebuild *with* them. We have to learn how to be better people than we are, every one of us. And we will have to listen to the concerns of people who hold different values than we do. That doesn't mean we have to tolerate intolerance, or allow the stripping of our rights. But it does mean that we have to take worries about government corruption and overreach seriously; we have to stop thinking of the rural poor as inbred yokels and treat them with the same compassion and respect we give our urban poor; we have to start seeing conservatives as people instead of monsters if we want to actually move past this and get to work leading our country and the world past our immense challenges. But I don't know if we can do that. And that's the scariest part to me -- not the election, but what comes after it.

Here are the things that I'd love to do today:

1. Read the next chapter of my "Elements of Argument" text.
2. Tell the "bar story" for my Fiyah mag short story; this is basically summarizing the story like I'm telling it to friends at a bar. It helps me to organize my thoughts and focus on the best/more interesting parts.
3. Brainstorm and outline a short serial for my Patreon.

Here are the things that I'm grateful for today:

1. My husband. You'll be seeing him a lot here. :) He is so important to me, and he is stretching himself towards some scary and important things. I'm tremendously proud of him.
2. The Dharma. These days, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path have provided me with tremendous comfort. I'm not perfect by any stretch, but I'm learning how to be calm under pressure and to be kinder in difficulty.
3. Harper Lee. She wrote a tremendous novel that has withstood the test of time, and the story of Atticus Finch reminds us that compassion and virtue are possible even in a community that has huge, troublesome blind spots.
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-10-14 09:06 am

The Suck Fairy

We watched Disney's Brother Bear yesterday! When the movie came out, it was one of those stories I was absolutely obsessed with -- I think I saw it like, four or five times in theatres. There are some movies that put me right back into a childhood head-space, where my imagination would take off with all these ideas of how fun it would be to live in that story, and Brother Bear was one of them. I thought it would be super-awesome to know that spirits exist, that they were looking out for you, and every once in a while they had the power to turn you into a super-cool animal dude.

The movie...isn't as good as I remembered it being. While the story is still really cool and also YAY BEARS!!! there were a lot of things that I've since developed a pretty low tolerance for. The bodily-function humor (pee and poo jokes) was just...so obvious and lazy that it was more annoying than inoffensive; Koda does the cute kid thing that just makes my teeth itch, and every time you start to like him he does something to remind you that he's kind of obnoxious; and my God, Phil Collins was a poor choice for this soundtrack.

So it's a little saddening to know that this movie has been visited by The Suck Fairy since the last time I saw it. It was OK, but more of a 3-star movie than the 4-star one I remember it being.

After that, we watched episode 6 of Outcast, which is this fascinating show that I have no idea what they're doing with. If you haven't heard about it, let me pitch you: Kyle is a troubled man with a fairly intense past, and as he's called to deal with the demonic possession of a young boy in a small West Virginia town all of the secrets and memories he's been running away from up until now come rushing back to demand his attention. Over the course of the first five episodes, we piece together what's happened to Kyle and get the sense of the story's scope. Now that we're getting into the back half of the first season, we see how things are shaping up to play out.

The show also has Brent Spiner in a truly different role, so if that piques your interest then you're good. :)

Anyway, Outcast has this superficial resemblance to Preacher -- another religious/supernatural show set in a small Southern town, but what's interesting is how they're two sides of the same coin. It feels like both of them owe a pretty large debt to Twin Peaks, but whereas Preacher gets there by way of Guy Ritchie -- leaning on action, humor and style -- Outcast aims to be a straight-up horror-drama. The characters are being put into increasingly untenable situations, and even the folks in town who are put in opposition to Kyle and his ally Rev. Anderson are sympathetic. Nobody really understands what they're dealing with, but they know it is bad.

Yesterday, here were the things on my to-do list:

+ Finish character and setting sketches for FIYAH short story; draft an outline.
- Read chapter 7 of my Social Psychology textbook.
- Draft an outline for my "Reader Response" essay for English class.

Work was a bit more intense than I had anticipated, and a long lunch meant staying later. Instead of using the time between the end of work and our weekly Disney Film Festival to study, I got in a three-mile run and took a shower, then got started on dinner. Still, I did manage to get some more pre-writing done for my short story, and I'm really getting into the characters. I could see myself telling a few more short stories with them.

Today, here's what I would like to do:

1. Get current on my budget log, and plan budget for next two weeks.
2. Reach chapter 7 of my Social Psychology textbook.
3. Draft an outline for my "Reader Response" essay for English class.

Here are a few of the things I'm grateful for:

1. New coworkers! I learned that we hired three new tech support folks this week, and they'll be getting started soon. Such a relief!
2. Ashwaghanda! This is an herbal supplement Ryen learned about; I've been taking it for about a month now, and my anxiety is so much better.
3. Rain! It's due to be a rainy day/weekend here in the Bay area, and we certainly could use it. Looking forward to cozy days indoors.

Today, I'll do my best to be mindful on the present thing I'm working on, and trying to see it through to completion. Especially when I get overwhelmed, I tend to leave things half-finished, and it's important to make sure that I finish what I start. This is a truly basic lesson to be learning at 36, but better late than never, right?
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-10-13 10:13 am

Hangover

Oh my goodness, is it really the birthday of [livejournal.com profile] the_gneech?? Happy birthday dude!!

I really appreciate the kind words from everyone yesterday. It made sharing my experience a lot less frightening. I guess what I wanted people to be left with is the fact that even if coming out turns out to be a worst-case scenario, it is something that you can recover from and thrive in spite of. It feels weird to think of myself this way, but I have vast reserves of patience and dedication; I can survive a lot of terrible stuff, because I've survived a lot of terrible stuff before.

Yesterday was a bit of a scratch; I really couldn't focus enough to get anything going. After a certain point, I just had to realize I wasn't going to be all that productive and make peace with that. I *did* do some pre-writing for a short story I'd like to submit to FIYAH, a new zine that features speculative fiction stories from people of color. I am so down with that you have no idea. :D They're taking submissions for their January 2017 issue, the theme of which is "spilling tea". I've been noodling around with an idea for a few weeks that I think is ready to go -- I just need to make sure I understand the characters and the sequence of events before actually getting into it.

Classwork continues. My English mid-term is coming up next week, and I'll want to review for that. It shouldn't be TOO hard, but right now I'm rocking a perfect score in that class that I'd love to continue if at all possible. Since there aren't any of the "regular" assignments due this week (only a 1,000-word essay), I'm going to see if I can get ahead a little bit on those. In Social Psychology, it's all the usual business -- chapter of text, forum discussion, watching an online video, and seeing which horrible psychological experiments/surveys I should subject myself to for class credit. :)

So today, here are the three things I'd like to do:

1. Finish character and setting sketches for FIYAH short story; draft an outline.
2. Read chapter 7 of my Social Psychology textbook.
3. Draft an outline for my "Reader Response" essay for English class.

Here are three things I'm grateful for today:

1. Coffee! It really was the kick in the tail I needed this morning.
2. My husband! Ryan came back on Tuesday night, and my life feels complete again.
3. My friends! You folks have been so incredibly supportive through the worst of times. I'm so incredibly lucky to have such wonderful people looking out for me.

Here's my mindfulness focus today:

1. My physical body. Notice signs of stress or agitation in the body, and when they arise, gently observe them, then let them go with several slow breaths.
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-10-12 09:58 am

A Few Bad Memories

Happy birthday to [livejournal.com profile] weremoose!

Yesterday was National Coming Out Day, and I shared my story on Twitter -- well, as much as 140 characters at a time would allow. I thought I'd spend a little more time on it here, maybe cross-post to Facebook. Here goes.

I've known I was gay ever since I was capable of being sexually attracted to anyone. While I have been in love with women before -- in that young, first-crush kind of way -- I've only ever really been attracted to men. However, growing up as one of Jehovah's Witnesses, I thought that I would never be able to act on that attraction and romantic love simply wouldn't be for me. Through middle school and most of high school, I had planned to be the JW equivalent of a missionary -- someone who lived at a special place at Witness headquarters called Bethel, who would travel around and try to turn people towards Christianity as Jehovah's Witnesses see it. It wasn't until the end of high school and my first, disastrous stint at college that I had begun to see other options for myself. Once I was out of the influence of my family and congregation, I could see that there was nothing wrong with being gay -- that I could be happy in a same-sex relationship, and it wasn't immoral to think that.

There was a big problem in college, though -- I was in one of the worst depressions I have ever been in. I couldn't function well enough to go to class, let alone do schoolwork, and I had to withdraw from classes for an entire semester. I knew that I couldn't continue on this way, so I went to a therapist for counseling while trying anti-depressants to get myself back on an even keel.

I talked about my sexuality and background with my therapist, and after working through a number of things we talked about the possibility of coming out to my mother. I agreed that it was probably something that I needed to do. That evening, I get a call in my dorm room from my therapist. "I have your mother on the other line," he said, "and I've told her everything."

She said she figured out something like that, and that was OK. I didn't realize just how big a breach of confidentiality this was until much later; mostly, I was relieved that my mother seemed to accept me. That Thanksgiving, when I went home, I went to hug and kiss her, but she stepped back. "Don't kiss me. I don't know where your lips have been."

That holiday was spent with a phone, calling every member of my family to tell them I was gay. My mother insisted. Most people said "Yeah, we knew, and it's OK." My mother said "It's a good thing we aren't closer; if we were and you told me you were gay, I would have hated you."

I didn't spend Christmas vacation with her; instead, I travelled across the country to Grand Coulee, WA to spend it with a close friend of mine at the time. When I came back home that summer, my mother told me that I probably shouldn't come back when I left for college in the fall. A week later, another few friends came by and I packed up everything I could fit in their car to live out the rest of the summer with them. This was in 1998, and I haven't seen my family since.

What my mother said and did after I came out is not something I will ever forget or forgive. After some time, we've gotten to the point where we talk on the phone several times a year. But she still doesn't even know that I've been happily married to a wonderful man for eight years, and she'll never meet my husband. At this point, she's very old and her mind is fading; she says she doesn't remember saying anything remotely like that to me, so we can't talk about it. I can't get closure. This will always be an open wound for me.

I was outed by someone else before I was ready to do it, and the consequences that followed were...terrible. For a while, I was homeless. It was only through the kindness and generosity of several friends that I made it out of that. I dropped out of college, and to this day I'm paying back student loans for basically nothing. Severing ties with my family cut the last link I had to my background and culture, and that's taken decades to repair. I'm in a good place right now, but the summer of 1998 was the worst time of my life.

That's what coming out was like for me. It went about as bad as it could possibly go, but you know what? I survived it, and things got better. Now I have a loving husband, a good job, a wonderful support network and a strong sense of myself and my capabilities. I still have scars, and they'll never go away; but I can deal with that too. Coming out is a very important step in claiming who you are. But it's important to understand that we all become ourselves at our own paces, and that pace can be dictated by so many things. Be respectful of other people's experience, and trust that they know what's best for themselves. Be encouraging, be supportive, and help them in any way you can.

Here's to everyone who knows who they are, and to that process of self-discovery.
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-10-11 07:50 am
Entry tags:

Tap On The Wrist

There's a lot to do today, so I'm going to jump right into it!

Yesterday, these were my to-do items:

To Do:
+ Finish reading and annotating my English assignment.
- Read chapter 6 of my Social Psychology text and participate in that discussion.
+ Run 3 miles out on the street.

Two out of three ain't bad, and I got about halfway through chapter 6 of my Social Psychology textbook, so yesterday was a pretty good success. Today:

To Do:
1. Finish reading chapter 6 of Social Psychology; participate in the forum discussion.
2. Write 500 words of a short story.
3. Send commission information to artist via email.

This is going to be a bit of a lighter day; I've got work and class right after that, so there's only so much time.

Gratitude:
1. I'm grateful for coffee, without which this morning would be much more difficult.
2. I'm grateful for little mysteries; a greeting card I bought yesterday has completely disappeared and it's kept me occupied for hours.
3. I'm grateful for FairfaxFawkes, a Twitter friend who drew a doodle for me to cheer me up. It totally worked. :)

Mindfulness:
1. I will be mindful of my speech today; I'll do my best not to vent or complain -- especially when I'm overwhelmed.
2. I will be mindful of my thoughts, curiously handling misanthropic or denigrating thoughts before letting them go.
3. I will be mindful of how I spend my time. There is a big "in" stack, and it will take efficiency to work it down.

My mother called me yesterday with the usual avalanche of news. She's finally come around to looking at assisted living facilities or senior-citizen apartments, which is a tremendous relief. But between her inability to maintain a proper diet, losing her dentures, paying her bills and continued troubles with her grandson, there's a lot to worry about. And man, I'm so good at worrying.
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-10-10 10:43 am

A Little Off The Cuff

I know I've talked about this a little bit, but this is my first semester back in college. Here in CA we have this great program that lets us take 60 credits of underclassman work at a community college, with the guarantee that there's an Associate's Degree at the end of it and all of those credits will transfer to any state university as long as we meet the other criteria for acceptance. Right now I'm enrolled half-time at Mission College; the plan is to take two courses during the Fall and Spring semesters, and one course in Winter and Summer. Some time in 2018, I'll have an Associate's Degree with the intent to transfer to San Jose State University so I can get my Bachelor's in Psychology.

I'm very excited about the opportunity. At the same time, I realize that working a demanding full-time job while going to school half-time is no joke; I'm really going to have to step up my game with both in order to make sure I excel at both endeavors. This means getting better with time management, and taking a hard look at hobbies and other extraneous activities in order to prioritize the things that mean the most. In addition to the effort made to keep on top of work training and classwork, I'll need to spend a significant amount of energy trimming the fat off of my time. That's a lot harder than I anticipated. But isn't that always the case?

Anyway, I haven't had much time for writing, which I deeply regret. I'm trying to make my way back towards that, because I at least would like to keep the Patreon going through my school career. I'm also learning how to write better and more clearly, and it would be lovely to put those skills to use over at The Writing Desk. When I've managed to juggle my work, class and writing commitments, I would love to use that blog for the occasional polished non-fiction essay regarding the writing process, mental health, and politics.

I've always wanted for this LiveJournal to be a bit more than a repository for The Writing Desk essays. I miss having a place to put more unstructured thoughts on a more regular basis; an online diary that I can use to work through a few things. LiveJournal has been amazing for that in the past, and I'd love to take that up again. So here goes. I'd like to write here every day, with at least a listing of my three goals for the day; the three things I'm most grateful for; and three ways I will practice mindfulness. If there is time, I'll also try to be more attentive with my friends' feed. Fostering a community is a wonderful thing, and if I can contribute to that here, so much the better.

To Do:
1. Finish reading and annotating my English assignment.
2. Read chapter 6 of my Social Psychology text and participate in that discussion.
3. Run 3 miles out on the street.

Gratitude:
1. I'm grateful for my anti-depressants and ADHD medication; I would not have a prayer of doing any of this without them.
2. I'm so, so grateful for my husband and the fact that I will get to hug him tomorrow night.
3. I'm grateful for my Clear Thinking in Writing class, which is providing me the tools I need to sharpen my writing.

Mindfulness:
1. I will be mindful of my anxiety and take quick steps to calm down when I notice it arising.
2. I will be mindful of my focus, and gently bring myself back to my work when I've strayed.
3. I will be mindful of my word, and make sure I mean the things I say and follow through on the agreements I've made.
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)
2016-09-16 01:00 pm

(Friday Fiction) Changeling: The Talk

I don't know if I've ever really SEEN the McDonald's at Walbrook Junction before. I've walked past it all the time, and it's always been the same place since I was a kid. The outside is the same fake stucco that covers the entire crumbling strip mall, and the inside is this big, open space that is way cleaner than it should be for the neighborhood but still choked with the smell of a generation's worth of fryer grease and industrial cleaners. The tile is old, the walls are peeling but scrubbed clean, and the chairs are so worn you wouldn't know foam was in the seat. I had always thought it was a dump, like everything there, even if the owner gave a shit about it being clean.


That was until I went in there with Mr. Foster. When he picked me up at my house, it was in a car that was twice the size I had remembered it being. The dashboard was covered with weird knobs and words in another language, but he drove it just fine. We cruised through my neighborhood, and it was like I was seeing everything for the first time. The trees were bigger and greener. The abandoned house looked like it was alive, sitting back from the street with its mouth wide open like it wanted to eat you. There were rats and cockroaches playing double-dutch on the sidewalk.


Walbrook Junction looked mostly normal, except for that McDonald's. It was a castle with -- I shit you not -- an actual moat around it and banners flying and everything. When Mr. Foster walked up to it, a drawbridge just appeared. When he opened the door, one of the old mascots -- the bird with the yarn hair -- curtseyed and greeted him like he was a visiting noble. "Good afternoon, Sir Baobab," is what I think she said.


Everybody seemed to know him. He walked up to the counter and the worker there stared up at him. Mr. Foster is a tall dude, but...he was really tall here. His Afro scrunched against the ceiling, and you could hear the horns coming out of his forehead scraping against it. His skin was unnaturally black but kinda brown, like molasses. And his hair was white with little flecks of black in it. That's not how Mr. Foster looked before. And I had known him for like, five years now.


He ordered two quarter pounders with cheese, two Big Macs, a 20 piece Chicken McNuggets, and the biggest Coke they had. I got a double cheeseburger and a McChicken, then some fries and a milkshake. I don't know why, but it felt like I had to keep up with him. The way everybody was acting around him, it made me want to live up to something.


We got our food, and he wasn't charged for it. He told the cashier where we were going to sit (at a table in the corner) and he said "I'll make sure you aren't disturbed." Before we sat down, he took a lima bean out of his pocket and put it on the chair. It sprouted immediately, and a new chair made of vines formed over it, sized up for him. He caught me staring, but he just pointed at me to sit down.


Mr. Foster tore up his food immediately. I couldn't stop looking around. There was a five-foot squirrel dude mopping the floor and wiping down tables. Every once in a while, a rat walking on its hind legs would walk up to him and he would chitter at it or something, and then it would go off and pick up trash or put balls back in the ball pit.


I've been seeing shit like this ever since I got mugged. It's still straight-up crazy to me, but with Mr. Foster it was the first time it felt like it was a kind of crazy I could live with.


"What do you want to do with your life?" When he spoke, he demanded you listen. He had that kind of voice.


"Uhm, what?" I was distracted by the squirrel-dude, and caught off guard by the question. What did that have to do with anything?


Mr. Foster leaned in and rounded his shoulders. There was a table between us, but I still felt trapped. "I said, what do you want to do with your life?"


I stared at him for a long minute. My mind went blank. Was I supposed to know what I wanted to do with my life when I was just in high school? Wasn't that what college was for? I reached for anything I could think of, the first thing that came to mind.


"I want to cut hair." I felt so stupid right after I said it. Mr. Foster lifted his eyebrows, but otherwise he didn't react.


"Why?"


I shrugged. "It's cool to just be able to talk to people all day while doing something nice for them."


Mr. Foster nodded. "You know how to cut hair?"


Oh shit, I didn't even think of that! I shook my head quickly. "Naw, but I can learn. It looks like something I can get pretty good at."


"Yeah, you think so, huh?" Now he seemed amused. But not in a way that made me feel bad. "You just need some clippers and a YouTube video, right?"


"Maybe a head to practice on or something, I don't know." I returned his smile without knowing why. None of this made sense. Weren't we supposed to be talking about the fact that all kinds of impossible shit was happening all around us right now? That we were in a McDonald's that suddenly looked like a castle? That he was some giant unnaturally-colored dude that seemed to pull a lot of respect here? Why were we talking about hair all of a sudden?


"Listen, I got a few friends who could use a haircut." He shifted in his seat, and the whole thing groaned, vines and all. "I'm going to bring a clipper set over to school tomorrow. It's yours. And in two weeks' time, you're going to come to my house and cut hair. That's how you're gonna pay me back. Deal?"


"Uhm. Deal." I glanced at a small group of rats that seemed to be arguing about a mess on the floor. They were squeaking at each other in these high voices that made it hard to make out what they were saying. "But shouldn't we be---?"


Mr. Foster put up a big hand to stop me from talking. "You'll get to talk all you want in a couple of weeks. But if you have questions, you write them down one at a time on this."


He made a motion like he was sliding something to me across the table. It didn't look like anything at first, but when I looked down there was a piece of paper there. It was thick, like a page out of an expensive journal or something, colored yellow-brown with all kinds of spots in it. It looked awesome. Too good to write on, even. I gathered it up and slipped it in my backpack, not really sure what to say. "Thanks."


"You're welcome. You write the question, and I'll see it. I'll write a response, and you'll see it on that slip of paper."


"How?"


"Magic, that's how." The look on his face let me know he was giving me a big secret. "It's like untraceable email, right?"


"Yeah, I guess." I still felt weird about all of this, but kind of comfortable. "But what if my parents find it or my sister starts snooping in my room?"


Mr. Foster shook his head. "They won't see it. Only folks like you and me can. If you want to know what I mean by that, that's your first question."


He got up all of a sudden, and it looked like he was going to smash right through the ceiling. But he didn't. "I've got to go, but I want you to know two things. First, you're not crazy. You're special. Second, if you ever feel like you're in danger or this is too much to handle, you come here and ask a cashier to get me. I'll come as soon as I can, OK?"


I nodded. I didn't really like it, but I nodded.


"Good." Mr. Foster grabbed my shoulder when I stood up and squeezed it. "You're a good kid, Marvin. It's going to be OK." He stared at me with those weird blue eyes of his until I believed it.


And then he drove me home.
jakebe: (Entertainment)
2016-09-12 01:00 pm

(Reviews) A Pixar-Disney Sandwich

At this point in the Disney animated canon, Walt Disney Studios is coming to the end of their Renaissance while a young upstart CGI studio named Pixar is on the rise. The House of Mouse put a lot of their effort into adapting a really tricky Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp-adventure, while the boys in Emeryville continued to push their engines with really impressive lighting and texture effects for a story about an outsider ant and their very first sequel. What results is a trio of stories that have epic action but very personal stakes. They prove that you don't need an apocalypse to provide a reason for the audience to be invested in what happens to your characters.

A Bug's Life (1998)
Pixar's second feature-length movie is about Flik, a young dreamer of an ant who just wants to help his colony gather enough food for the winter. In addition to tending to their needs, the colony is also under a tremendous strain providing an offering to a gang of huge, violent grasshoppers. When one of Flik's inventions accidentally sets the colony back weeks, he's exiled. Determined to find a way to drive off the grasshoppers, he recruits a group of hapless circus insects to fight them. Secrets and misunderstandings pile up until the whole operation collapses -- or does it? This is a children's movie, so you know how these things go.

A Bug's Life is surprisingly charming; even though it's one of the lesser efforts in Pixar's stable, I think that speaks to the overall quality of the studio more than any fault of this film. Flik is kind of vanilla as a protagonist, but his earnestness wins you over at some point and you find yourself rooting for the little guy. Hopper the grasshopper is an uncomplicated villain; just a jerk and a bully who uses superior size to get his way. In this context, it works -- this is a basic story that's told well, and that's all it tries to be.

The secondary characters flesh out the world with just enough personality to make them fun and relatable. I have a soft spot for Slim, the extremely-tall but erudite walking stick played by David Hyde Pierce but you're almost bound to come away with a favorite of your own. The voice cast is populated with sitcom actors who know their way around busy scenes -- the dialogue purrs with precision timing and expert delivery.

The animation may not have aged wonderfully, but when you look back on the improvements made over Toy Story you can't help but be impressed. The world of A Bug's Life is well-rendered; sunlight filters through grass and leaves in these wonderful ways, and the sense of scale suffuses every scene and new location in imaginative touches that just subtle enough that you don't consciously notice them. I think the most impressive thing about A Bug's Life is the attention to detail. Even with relatively pedestrian fare like this, Pixar didn't sleepwalk through the worldbuilding process. It's this devotion to concept that's made them one of the most-celebrated animation studios in history, and it's evident even here.

Tarzan (1999)
Did you know that at the time of its release, Tarzan was the most expensive animated film ever? It cost $130 million to make, and looking at the finished product you can see where the money most likely went. The title character is -- according to Wikipedia -- the first animated Disney character to display working muscles accurately. He does this while running, leaping and sliding through a three-dimensional environment that feels like a mixture of labyrinth and roller coaster. The movement and physicality on display is a genuine surprise. Tarzan has some of the most impressive action sequences I've seen in a Disney film, and I never thought I would say that.

The movie is a loose adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' pulp novel, removing the racism in the text and changing the third act so that Tarzan doesn't go to England. He didn't need to. His meeting of Jane, the charmingly eccentric but adaptable explorer, leads him to address his humanity in a way he never had before. Meanwhile, Clayton the guide serves as a memorable villain; the hunter of Tarzan's gorilla tribe, he forces the makeshift family to heal their fractures in a way they never would have managed otherwise. Tarzan's navigation through the tension between his wild upbringing and "civilized" nature becomes a thoroughly engaging arc. When he comes into his own as leader and protector, it's a thrill.

But the real selling point is the animation. It's shockingly under-appreciated in its ambition and scope; as Tarzan moves through the environment, it's hard to tell what's more impressive -- the gorgeous background as it flies by, or the pitch-perfect physicality he displays. The jungle is lush and deep, almost a character in its own right. When you step back to consider how firmly integrated the characters are in their environment, you have to wonder how in the world they managed to animate a world that looks like so much more than a hand-drawn foreground character moving over a painted cel background. It's the most three-dimensional traditionally animated world I've ever seen.

The care that was used to animate Tarzan is evident in every move he makes. He carries himself like his primate brethren, even though the proportions are all wrong. Far from making him look deformed, his posture and movement is supremely functional; he looks just like a human who has been raised by apes would look, all sinew and grace. It's a strange mixture of brutish, wild strength and a dancer's poise that shouldn't work but totally does.

Tarzan's friends -- the female gorilla Turk and the nervous elephant Tantor -- are fine. Rosie O'Donnell and Wayne Knight work well together, but more often than not I feel they're distractions rather than enhancements. Maybe I'm less tolerant of comic relief characters in my old age.

Still, if you haven't seen Tarzan in a while, it's definitely worth a second look. The animation is truly a work of art, and the Phil Collins soundtrack isn't as bad as I remembered.

Toy Story 2 (1999)
After the success of A Bug's Life, Pixar returned to Woody and Buzz for Toy Story 2. While sequels are usually at best interesting failures, this one cemented the studio's status as a major player in animation and remains one of the most well-regarded movies of all time -- and for good reason.

After Woody is broken right before Andy was meant to take him to summer camp, he is accidentally sold to a collector looking for the crown jewel of a complete -- and incredibly rare -- Woody's Round-Up toy set. Facing the inevitability of abandonment as Andy grow up, Woody at first relishes his newfound superstar status. Meanwhile, the rest of the toys in Andy's room mount a desperate rescue operation to get Woody back before Andy gets home.

Toy Story 2 expands and deepens the theme and premise of its predecessor in an organic but surprising way. A toy's entire purpose in life is to bring joy to the child that owns it, but eventually the kid will grow up and become interested in other things. That's just a part of growing up. Where does that leave the toy, though? It's a relatively ageless thing, and for it nothing has changed. That bond can't simply be erased. When a seemingly permanent love suddenly becomes unrequited, the effects are devastating. How do we deal with the grief of impermanence? How do we balance our personal needs with the needs of friends and fellows?

It's surprisingly adult talk for a children's movie to have, and while Toy Story 2 is funnier and more inventive than the original it's also a series of body blows emotionally speaking. Jessie -- a spunky cowgirl who's been trapped in storage waiting for Woody to complete their collection -- has a backstory that chokes me up just thinking about it. "When She Loved Me" is a song so full of ache and longing it's impossible not to be touched.

Both Jessie and Stinky Pete are unable to deal with their isolation and the frustration of their unfulfilled purpose. Even as it causes them to lash out in these troubling ways, it's understandable. You can't help but feel sympathy for them. And ultimately, the movie seems to say that we must each find our own way to deal with these very real and difficult realities of life. What works for one may not work for everyone, and it only compounds our trouble if we try to force others to follow the same solution.

Alternately, respecting and helping one another with those struggles is the best way to deal with our own. The bonds we form doing this allows us to bear the burden of life; it doesn't make it any easier, but it does make it worthwhile. It's a bittersweet lesson, but a welcome one. I think it's one of the first children's movies I've seen to address such an existential problem in a manner that doesn't feel facile or condescending. And that's nothing short of amazing.

jakebe: (Buddhism)
2016-09-07 01:00 pm

(Buddhism) Right Concentration

You know how there are certain people who, when you meet them, make you feel like you're the only person in the world for as long as they're talking to you? The full weight of their attention is startling at first, because it's not something we're used to. In these busy times, there are always distractions trying to tear us away from where we are. If we're at a party, there are snatches of interesting conversation; if we're on the street, there's no end to visual stimuli. Even in relatively quiet surroundings, we often have to battle with someone's inner thoughts or phone for their attention.


So it's noticeable when it's clear someone is paying attention solely to us -- to what we say, how we say it, and all of the non-verbal cues we give both consciously and subconsciously. That level of focus can make us feel important, even confident. And then we notice that the next person this same fellow meets gets that same treatment.


When this happens to me, I feel confused, maybe even a little slighted. People can't actually work that way, right? Focusing on one individual at a time, one conversation at a time, being fully present in the moment they're in before letting that go and moving on. What gives?


It took me a long time to realize that cultivated concentration looks just like that. Being able to focus squarely on the one thing we're doing while we're doing it, giving it our total effort and full being, is one of the best things we can do as Buddhists. It is the practice of Right Concentration.


Mindfulness and concentration are closely connected, but I think it's good to view them as a broad searchlight (mindfulness) and a narrow spotlight (concentration). While mindfulness allows us to take in the many different aspects of a situation and come to an understanding with it to determine the best response, concentration is what allows us to commit to that response wholly and fully.


A lot of what we see as stereotypical monastic life feels like it's geared towards this purpose. Monks simplify their lives in order to learn how to live each moment with total concentration. When they are meditating, they meditate; when they're cooking, they cook; when they're gardening, they garden. The act of losing one's self in the absorption of their activity has always been tremendously appealing to me, and I think this is why.


You see this a lot even outside of a Buddhist context. My favorite conversations with people are when they "step out of their own way" and become a conduit for the wonder and excitement that their favorite hobby or life's work brings to them. You see them get so lost in the work that there's almost no ego at all; just someone performing this activity. It's a kind of rapture, this state, where you've drawn in to the pursuit of the perfect sentence, or musical phrase, or brushstroke. It's so difficult to get to, but it's a wonderful place to be.

Right Concentration posits that this state can be expanded beyond a rapturous creation of art and carried with us into everyday life. In fact, the very idea of total concentration and complete absorption is actually nothing special. It can be reached when you're shopping for your groceries, washing the dishes, putting the children to bed, or lounging by the pool. You can do it in conversation, or solitude, in passive observation or active participation. The most important thing is to allow yourself the chance to concentrate on the task in front of you.


That is, of course, much easier said than done. It's difficult to perform one task with a single-minded focus in this day and age. It'd be much easier if we were monks in a temple, with no distractions. But that is not the world we live in. There are countless things vying for our attention every waking moment, and part of our practice is to understand and accept this, then move forward with clear concentration anyway.


This is why our time on the meditation bench is so important. It allows us to simply be with what is present -- whether it's a pain in our legs or a troubling memory we can't shake. By accepting what is present, we learn how to shift our perspectives so that what arises is not suddenly our entire world, but just a temporary piece of our experience. It will be with us for a while, and then it will fall away.


With mindfulness, we can determine whether or not what arises should have our attention. If so, our views and intention will direct our speech and action to work towards the most harmonious outcome. And our concentration will allow us to continue that work whole-heartedly, without ego, clear and faithful in our work.


The steps on the Noble Eightfold Path aren't linear. Right View does not necessarily lead straight into Right Intention, so forth and so on until we reach Right Concentration and into Right View again. Sometimes we will need to focus on one aspect or group above the others, or sometimes we'll need to take things step by step in order to steady our footing. But overall, the Noble Eightfold Path is one of those things that can't helped but be worked all at once, with one aspect helping us to move forward in every other. Wisdom, ethical conduct and mental training go hand in hand; it's really difficult to focus on one without the effects of your study filtering through everything else.


So for me, this is what the Path looks like. It'll be interesting to revisit this in a year or two to see what's changed.
jakebe: (Buddhism)
2016-08-30 01:00 pm

(Buddhism) Right Mindfulness

Mindfulness is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought. In order to realize your enlightenment, you must see it just as it is, through direct experience unfiltered by emotion or judgement. What's really interesting to me about this is that it's possible to have these moments where everything seems to click and you have this epiphany about yourself, or the world, or the nature of reality whether or not you're Buddhist. That to me, is the realization; a small taste of enlightenment that arises when you're fully engaged in that moment.


For Buddhists, those moments aren't necessarily goals; they're more signposts that tell us where we are in our practice. Mindfulness is not a state that we achieve and then do no more work with. It is a habit, a way of living, an action that we perform every moment of every day.


So Right Mindfulness is the sustained effort required to take the things we've learned so far and use it to clear away the cobwebs in front of our eyes, so to speak. So much of our daily experience is filtered through the lenses of our emotions, our judgements, our aversions and attachments. When we realize exactly what those are, and how they distort the reality we see them through, we have a better chance of recognizing, accepting, and eventually letting go of them.


Mindfulness is primarily cultivated through meditation -- the act of simply sitting with ourselves and being present with what arises. I think that there is often a misunderstanding about the "goal" of meditation, and I'm pretty sure I haven't done the greatest job of describing it before. But here's what it means to me, and what I get out of it.


Mindfulness meditation is a way of checking in with yourself, noticing the patterns of your own thoughts and feelings. This can often be very difficult -- there are notions and emotions that we don't like to confront for various reasons, after all -- but sitting with them can teach us patience, compassion and empathy that we can then bring out of the meditation space and into the rest of our lives. Eventually, as you become more familiar with the ways you think and feel, you may find yourself detaching from them -- and with that, a newfound ability to examine what arises with interest and tenderness.


That detached, amiable curiosity is a wonderful friend. With it, you can follow difficult emotions down to the root. You can shake loose these very deep emotions that may prevent you from engaging with something fully; that, too, is difficult work. I've often found hypocrisies within myself that make me feel ashamed, uncertain and like an all-around terrible person.


But you keep sitting. You allow these thoughts and feelings to spend time with you; you watch them dissolve after a time. And the more you do it, the longer you sit, the more you realize how ephemeral these emotional states and thoughts are. The pain in your shoulders arises, then fades. The embarrassment of that really stupid thing you said eases into amusement, then acceptance. Your mind begins to exhaust itself of the memories and thoughts and emotions that constantly bombard you. It begins to get easier to return to your breath, to focus on the simple physical act of inhaling and exhaling.


What mindfulness meditation has given me is the ability to see myself as separate from the emotions and sensations that arise within me, and the chance to step back to examine them before acting. Granted, it doesn't always happen that way, but I feel a lot better about how I handle difficult situations in the moment on my better days.


Mindfulness meditation gives us direct experience into the impermanence of our existence. The things we think flit into our brain, and will just as happily flit out again if we don't hold on to them. The emotions that come with them rise as well, and remain with us for a time, but fade again; they just might use a longer timetable. The physical sensation that often accompanies emotion will rise and fade as well, and even though these might feel longest and be the most difficult to sit with, eventually we see that they are impermanent too. Beneath all of these -- thought, emotion, physical sensation -- something separate persists. Our heartbeat. Our breath. It is a constant that we can use to remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of other things, that we are not what we think or feel, that we do not have to follow those things into immediate action.


For someone like me, who has let his emotions get him into trouble so often in the past, this feels wonderful. I still get depressed. I still wrestle with anxiety. I still have tremendous trouble with focus. But the more I meditate, the more mindful I become of the way these states feel and pass; the more mindful I become, the more I am able to see the truth of things beyond the filters of that emotion; the clearer I can see things, the better able I am to recognize what is needed at any given time and respond in turn. Being mindful is how we can move past the things that make us angry to recognize the reason they exist. We can acknowledge our anger, recognize its presence, but allow it to have no bearing on our reaction if it's not needed. Mindfulness isn't denying what arises -- it's quite the opposite. We hold it, give it its proper perspective, and then move on with clear eyes.


So many Zen koans are calls for this mindfulness. "What is Zen?" asked a monk to his teacher while they were shopping. "Three pounds of flax," the master replied. No matter what you're doing -- meditating, chanting, or relieving your bowels -- Zen calls for full, clear engagement with it. Practice doesn't end when we leave the meditation space. Meditation is rehearsal for the rest of our day. Right Mindfulness is the spoke on the wheel of the path that lets us do that.
jakebe: (Buddhism)
2016-08-24 01:00 pm

(Buddhism) Right Effort

So far we've gone through five different spokes on the Noble Eightfold Path, comprising two groups -- Wisdom/Prajna and Moral Virtues/Sila. They are Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Together, they make up the understanding/philosophy and practice/action parts of the path. Now, we head into the third and final group of the Path, spokes six through eight -- the Meditation, or Samadhi group.

Right Effort is the very first step in that process, and to me it feels like sort of a companion step to Right Intention, stretched out from two to three dimensions. Right Intention tells us to make sure that we enter into each situation with a proper understanding of what we want to happen as a result of it -- preferably the compassionate connection with another sapient being, allowing them to go on about their lives in peace and contentment. Right Effort is the mechanism we use to keep making sure we do that; it's the way we sustain our drive towards Right Intention.

Specifically, Right Effort asks us to release these negative impulses that enable us to cling to attachments far too easily (called the Five Hindrances) and cultivate positive impulses that allow us to be more mindful and compassionate (called, appropriately enough, the Five Antidotes). The hindrances are sensual desire; ill will (remember that one?); sloth, torpor or drowsiness; restlessness and worry; and uncertainty or doubt.

Sensual desire is more a manifestation of greed than anything. Whether our craving for sex or doughnuts is at the root of it, this pull to titillate the senses can lead us to a lot of trouble. It's rare that we become satisfied once we've actually attained the object of our craving; a lot of the time, there's that short hit of bliss while we indulge, and very quickly we're already wanting a repeat of that experience. Or maybe it's just me, but man, when I make a candy bar disappear, the taste of it has scarcely left my tongue before I'm thinking about how much another one would be so great.

The antidote to sensual desire is RAIN: Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation and -- eventually -- Non-Identification. It's a nice way to move through the steps of mindfulness, really. Acknowledge the desire without judgment, because it's just a part of the human condition. We aren't any less enlightened people for wanting to have sex or being in possession of a sweet tooth, but we must face that impulse in order to be more mindful of it. Investigate it once we've moved past our judging of it; what is it like, and where does it come from, and what's the underlying desire that drives it? Meditating on our desires, noticing when they arise and turning it over in our heads can be a really helpful tool to become more aware of ourselves and our specific natures. Once we've recognized and investigated it, we can let it go, and this is where the magic happens. We realize that the desire is an impermanent, transient thing, separate from ourselves; we don't have to act on these impulses -- they, like everything else, come, stay with us for a time, and then go.

Ill will is pretty much what it says on the tin -- thoughts of rejection, hatred, bitterness and overall hostility. We all have people we've viewed as enemies at one time or another, people who raise our blood pressure at the mere thought of them. We've wished harm on them; insulted them mentally or verbally; even possibly dehumanized them in some way. This, too, is a part of the human experience. There are always going to be people whose personalities rub us the wrong way, or through some means or another will come to represent everything we believe is wrong about the human race. This is especially true when you're politically active. It can feel like there's an entire world of them out there, actively working to make the world a more terrible place.

The more we give in to this ill will, the easier it becomes to indulge in it. We may find ourselves wishing harm on other people more and more often, for lesser and lesser infractions. Any pattern of thought we regularly engage in becomes easier to recall. So it's important to cultivate an attitude of loving kindness instead. Meditating on loving kindness allows us to restore the humanity of our enemies, to make a genuine attempt to understand them and see how their impulses are also our own. Extending this consideration to people we're diametrically opposed to makes it easy for us to extend it to everyone; strangers become more easily recognizable, and the things that annoy or enrage us are easier to understand. When we get to a place of loving kindness, we can brush aside the things that ruffle us to focus on the true intentions of the people we interact with all the time. We become more open, more accepting, and more forgiving.

Sloth and torpor is ennui, more or less, and this is a tricky one for me to talk about. In my struggle with depression, I've frequently fallen into a torpor of sorts when I'm at my worst. It's an emotional exhaustion that makes it almost impossible to do anything, even if I want to, even when I know I should. That in itself would be agitating, if I could muster the energy to care about it. There are several friends I know who struggle with the same thing, that inability to focus or muster energy of any sort -- and it's through no fault of our own. This is an illness that affects our brain, which in turn affects our ability to rouse just about anything else. The sloth and torpor we speak of as a hindrance is not this kind, this illness outside of our control. It's something else.

As we get older, we tend to lose interest in our lives and the world in general. Well, at least, I recognize this within myself. I can feel myself calcify, almost -- I'm a creature of comfort, and when I find a comfortable state I just want to wallow in it for as long as I can. It can be very difficult to remain alert and present to the world, or to accept the things that we find challenging. When our days become full of the things we do to maintain our lives, it can be easy to become incurious, to turn away from things we don't know to seek the comfort of the things we do. But when we do that, we expend less energy; we become used to that easy and comfortable life, and find that we have less energy to spare for the things that shake us out of that. Torpor sets in. And before we know it, we find ourselves asleep -- uncritical, unthinking, on auto-pilot.

A beginner's mind is a good antidote for this. When we don't have the context we learn as adults, we have to ask questions about almost everything we come across. Why do we work only five days? Why do we have to work for five days? Why are things as they are? What would it be like if they were different? Why do we sit a certain way while meditating? Is suffering in life really inevitable? Isn't that kind of a downer? By stretching ourselves, remaining curious, learning just a little bit each day, we hold on to precious energy and a curiosity about life that keeps us spry, flexible, and critical.

Restlessness and worry is the other extreme of this continuum. I kind of think of it as "monkey mind". Again, this is a tricky thing for me to talk about. If you're dealing with an anxiety disorder, then the last thing you need is some asshole on the Internet telling you that your anxiety is a spiritual failing -- it absolutely is not. But, there is an aspect of our attention that we can bring about to focus, with time and dedication.

It can be extremely difficult for me to focus on things at times. In the short term, I could be writing this blog entry when all of a sudden something in my brain tells me to see if there's anything cool on YouTube. Then, I'm looking at spooky paranormal countdown videos, professional wrestling interviews, TED talks, cartoons and assorted science education vlogs for an hour. In the long term, I forget about my health or writing goals the moment a giant piece of cake or a fun, relaxed evening turns my head.

Sometimes it's difficult to be still with whatever I'm thinking or feeling. Somewhere along the way, boredom became the worst thing that could possibly happen to me. Or I'll worry about the state of the country; the way our ecology is being pushed to the point of collapse; or my nonexistent relationship with my mother. These thoughts fill me with fear and dread to the point I can become paralyzed and blinded to the way things really are.

Learning to be present and content is the antidote to this. We live in a culture where this is extremely difficult. Advertising is all around us, and it works by telling us that we really lack something in our lives that a certain product fills. Even though we think we've become inoculated against us, in so many ways we've become conditioned to be discontent. We don't have the latest phone, computer, game; we don't have new clothes or furniture; we don't have that cheeseburger we've been craving. I know for me, it's become a matter of habit to just reach out and get something as soon as I want it. The world has made it so easy to do that, why not indulge?

Because, like I've mentioned before, acquiring the thing we want reflexively all too often doesn't satisfy us for very long. For a short time, there's a sense of relief or contentment, but then -- an even newer phone comes out. Or that burger is gone and now we want a milkshake to go with it. There's always going to be something we don't have, but want, and as long as we chase after it reflexively we'll never be satisfied.

We must be still, and cultivate contentment and gratitude about things as they are. Yeah, I really want an Oreo shake right now, but...I had a good dinner and a glass of beer. If I stop and pay attention, I can feel my full belly and that nice little buzz of intoxication. And it feels nice. The desire for a shake, that restlessness, falls away.

Finally, there is doubt. What's interesting about doubt is that it is a very necessary thing to have. We must be critical and questioning of ourselves, our beliefs and our world. (Who says? Good question.) But doubt can also be crippling; we can feel so lost in it, with no idea where to begin, that we throw our hands up and give up on the whole endeavor. With meditation, we can often feel as if we're not doing it right because we're not in the lotus position, beneath a bodhi tree, with the morning star clearly twinkling in our field of vision. We will stop ourselves from stretching, from trying something new, from taking risks, because we doubt our own ability to do it, or the ability of the people around us to forgive mistakes. Doubt all too often leads to fear, and fear leads to paralysis, blindness, stagnation.

Doubt is one of the big ones for me. The antidote for this is preparation and trust; we learn what we can, while we can -- and we trust in our ability to discover the answers we don't yet grasp. With meditation, for example, learning the various traditions will help us understand a common thread that all meditators seek and we learn which ones will suit our own individual preferences as we seek the same thing. And we trust that any mistakes we make can (and will) be discovered and corrected, and that these mistakes are part of the process. It's another way we learn and grow. And I know that it is very much easier said than done, but there you go.

Guarding ourselves against the Five Hindrances, recognizing the form they take within ourselves, and working on the traits that encourage us to be more open, accepting, curious, loving and prepared constitutes Right Effort for me. This is done through meditation, but also carrying the mindfulness cultivated on the meditation bench with me through the rest of my life. It's an ideal I continually strive for, even though I fail. Frequently. But hey, part of the process, right? It isn't Right Perfection, after all.

jakebe: (Buddhism)
2016-08-22 01:00 pm

(Buddhism) Right Livelihood

The fifth spoke on the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path is also the last one in the Moral Virtues (or Sila) group -- Right Livelihood. Together with Right Speech and Right Action, these form the backbone of how our understanding of the principles of Buddhism translate into practice through the rest of our lives. For most of us, especially the lay Buddhists who won't be joining a monastery, Right Livelihood means abstaining from taking work that harms people through cheating or fraud, killing, etc. It can be interpreted as, well, not making money through wrong actions. But it can also mean a lot more than that.


Let's tackle the job thing first. We live in a country where it's absolutely necessary to have a job in order to survive. We can't easily do odd jobs as they come to us, or rely on the goodwill of our community; we must choose a profession and spend significant time with it in order to make enough money to maintain a certain lifestyle. And a lot of the time, those jobs require us to do things that might run into trouble with a strict interpretation of Right Livelihood.


For example, I work for a company that specializes in digital marketing, providing platforms for companies to reach people through email, text and digital advertising. A lot of our customers have very questionable business practices, and there are one or two of them that I am in direct moral and political opposition to. However, the nature of my job means I can't necessarily discriminate between the customers who don't violate my principles and the ones that do; whenever I'm in contact with them, I must treat them all the same. Even if I believe that by helping them, I am in fact helping someone hurt someone else.


It feels like most of us are put into positions like that with our work. It's very difficult to be politically or morally conscious without realizing that there are a number of different ways we all contribute to a system that succeeds, even thrives, on practices that harm other people. In order to step out of that system, we would need to spend a disproportionate amount of time reviewing each company we do business with, what their business practices are, and what (if any) alternatives there may be. In order to be certain that our lives don't contribute to the harming of another living being, I think we'd have to remove ourselves from a capitalist system almost entirely.


So what do we do about that? I honestly don't know. I think, in some way, we have to make peace with the fact that there are certain moral compromises we all make in order to participate in society. At least, we must recognize all the ways in which our lifestyles are problematic. I've lived in poverty and near-poverty right into my late-20s. I've had to rely on the kindness of friends and strangers more times than I can count. Only recently have I been in a position where I feel like I have "enough". And now that I've spent some time here in the middle class, I'm beginning to realize all the ways I've allowed myself to indulge to excess.


I eat too much food, buy too many things and give in to impulses too often. It's very difficult for me to save money because I've always thought that the moment I have it I'll need to spend it on something sooner or later. The idea of holding back is kind of foreign to me; being able to purchase something purely for my own comfort is a novelty that hasn't worn off yet.


Then again, does it ever get old? I think we just get used to a certain level of comfort, then get very reluctant to make sacrifices in order to serve some different purpose -- whether that's being prudent with our finances or satisfying a personal moral obligation. I know that I've fallen into the trap of clinging to my lifestyle more than once; I know how bad being poor sucks from experience, and I'm reluctant to put myself in that position again.


That brings me to another interpretation of Right Livelihood. For many, it means to make a living from begging -- but not accepting everything and not possessing more than is strictly necessary. That could mean maintaining a minimalist home -- one plate, one knife, one fork. That could mean holding on to the things you have as long as they work, not chasing after the latest and greatest version of something. That could mean being more mindful of your impulses, and living comfortably but not excessively. I think the ultimate interpretation you choose is the one that your conscience will bear, and that's different for everyone.


So what does that mean for me? I suppose it means making sure that my lifestyle minimizes the harm it brings to other people. And that means buying less, being content with what I have, and doing whatever I can to address the ways in which harm is unavoidable. That means doing my best to combat climate change and environmental degradation; counteracting the ways in which I may be helping to further the aims of people who wish to perpetuate consumer culture, mindless bigotry or the insidious way advertisers are trying to make it easier and more effective to sell you things; and hopefully, trying to pursue a life in which I can make a living without feeling like I have to compromise my morality.


What I would really love is to be able to live closer to nature, tell stories and be dedicated towards helping people to be better. It may be a long time before I get to do that, and I accept that possibility. I think now it would be best to try and align my lifestyle closer to the one I want, where moderation is a habit painstakingly cultivated and my priorities are straight. I'm not sure that's the case now, so it will take some doing to get it there.