An Old Clay Jar

There is an old jar of clay that, for various reason throughout the years, has come to be mostly filled with toxins. It wasn’t always so – the jar was originally meant to contain good and wholesome things. But bitter things got mixed in, and they gradually grew and mingled with and eventually overwhelmed the wholesome things.

For awhile, the jar was able to contain the poisonous soup swirling around inside it. It kept its lid on. It refrained from shaking itself, making sure it never spilled or sloshed its contents. On the outside it was able to appear as a nice, sturdy, well-made jar of clay. But eventually the jar became full enough that the poison inside began to push harder and harder against the lid of the jar. So the jar allowed its lid to come off, hoping to release the pressure and hoping that perhaps someone would know how to safely scoop out the poisons or render them harmless. But things went wrong. The jar didn’t know how to handle its poison safely, so it mostly let it spill and slosh out. The poison kept sloshing around over the top of the jar, getting on things, harming them. Spreading its toxicity around. Others had lots of ideas about how the jar could empty itself of poison, but they didn’t seem to work. So eventually the jar tried the only thing it knew to try – it shoved its lid back on as tightly as possible and it tried to keep still and quiet and contained.

But eventually the poison started causing cracks in the jar, and the poison would slip out of the cracks and spill all over things yet again. So the jar tried to repair itself by patching the cracks as they appeared. Sometimes it would work for awhile but the pressure kept thwarting all the jar’s efforts to contain itself. And soon enough, the jar was no longer able to appear nice and sturdy on the outside because that takes effort, and every bit of energy the jar had was being used to hold itself together and try not to spill its poisons on others.

Soon enough, others began to look at the jar and comment on its state of being. Some would say, “there’s a brittle, cracked, and unstable jar, and it looks like it’s full of poison. We should stay away from it.” Others said, “yeah, i used to think it was a pretty nice jar, but now it’s all cracked and leaky and I’m not hanging around to watch it finally shatter.” A couple of others remarked, “if only the jar would let God fix it, everything would be hunky-dory.” And some people even said, “that jar’s not really nearly as cracked and leaky as it wants us to think it is. It just needs to buck up and hold itself together like it used to. But it wants attention, so it’s going around trying to get us all to feel sorry for it.”

And yet here is the jar. And the jar has been around long enough, and tried enough repairs, and listened to enough advice – to know that the poison, and the pressure, and the cracks, and the brittleness, and the fear of shattering and spilling its toxins all over everything is real enough. Or at least it feels real enough to the jar.

The jar doesn’t want to shatter. The jar doesn’t want to be filled with poison, and it sure as hell doesn’t want to spill its poisons all over others. But the jar doesn’t know how to heal, it only knows how to patch.

I’m getting low on patches.

Sunday Mickery: Guts Over Fear

Content Advisory: A couple of F-bombs visible to the naked eye, plus some ideas that might not sit well with asshats who are trying to keep other people down.

For the past few days I’ve been mulling over lots of navel-gazey stuff and during some down-time I made this image. Once again, Eminem reaches out and grabs me.

all these words are Eminem's, and no infringement on rights is intended.

All these words are copyright Eminem, Sia Furler, et al. No infringement on rights is intended.

No Longer Riding on the Merry-Go-Rou-Hound

lennon-wheels

I really love to watch ’em roll

Yesterday I read something where an interviewer asked Yoko Ono what she thought John Lennon would make of social media if he were still alive today. She said, if I recall, that he’d probably like using it, because he used to write letters to air his opinions on things, and that’s a lot of what happens on social media.

Then, earlier today Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” played on my playlist, and it reminded me that, although he was still making music and being a fairly vocal activist in his final years, for the most part he’d gotten off the merry-go-round of Big Music and Pop/Rock Stardom and all that stuff. And he was pretty much cool with it.

The mental mashup of those two ideas has been sitting with me a lot today, and then on top of that I’ve spent lunchtime reading some recent tabletop rpg stuff I’ve gotten my hands on, and I also listened to a podcast awhile ago while I worked, all the while checking on Facebook and G+ every so often to see if anything interesting was going on, and – to be totally honest – checking to see if people had commented on things I’ve recently shared or posted.

I have a small but reliable handful of folks who usually engage with me on G+, and a different but equally small handful of folks who will engage with me on Facebook. Generally, written responses don’t come my way outside those small – and cherished – handfuls of friends. Sometimes there’s a voice in my head that tempts me to be sad or whiny about that. But when I really think about it, I’m pretty happy with where I am – close enough to the merry-go-round to observe and comment upon its whirly-twirly spinning, but not actually riding on it. And not TRYING to get back on, either.

I was on it for a while, in my small way, as a podcaster and as a wannabe-game-designer. I made some noise, I had some fun, I expressed myself to varying degrees of success, and got exposed to a whole bunch of new ideas, concepts, perspectives, and people. I was privileged and lucky. Most of the people were awesome and I still cherish them. Many of the ideas and perspectives were eye-opening and life-expanding. And many of the game-concepts opened up a whole new way of playing that I now value so much that I can’t imagine life as a tabletop roleplayer without them. Meanwhile, there were very few downsides. I said plenty of stupid things, not to mention some inadvertent and ignorantly sexist things, participated in cultural appropriation and stereotyping, and other stuff that I now wish I could have unsaid and unwrote. But very few people ever called me out on my crap, and when they did, it was almost always with patience and integrity. I only ever got involved in one fairly significant shitstorm as a podcaster, and only one other separate incident as a wannabe-game-designer.

Each of those shitstorm incidents came just before I got off of the merry-go-round, but I can’t say that either of them “drove” me to step off. More than anything else, the tangled web of my mental health and a stint in partial-hospitalization that grew out of that web was what prompted my exit from the whirling wheel of rpg-podcaster-indie-designer-microfame.

A few years have passed, I’m better, I’m stronger, I’m wiser, I think. But even though I admit that the bug still buzzes around my ears, and I still think about both podcasting and finishing my game design ideas all the time, the bottom line is, I doubt I’ll EVER be strong enough to jump back on the merry-go-round. If I did, I’m pretty sure I’d quit again, the moment someone pointed out I’d made a mistake and said, wrote, or did something problematic. And I would. I’m a straight, mostly-cis White dude in North America. Of course I’m going to write, or say, or do something problematic.

So yeah, among many other lesser reasons and lame excuses for not jumping back in and sharing my full potential – and I DO believe I have the ability and potential – I’m pretty much scared of screwing up – not on the idea or talent front, but on the problematic accidentally offensive socially progressive front.

So, here I stay. Watching the wheels, using social media to occasionally toss out a witty bon-mot or rant, or, on my better days, giving big, loud shouts of support and thumbs-ups to the folks on the merry-go-round who do stuff that I think is cool, or brave, or meaningful.

But I doubt I’ll ever step back on. I’m don’t think I’ve got the guts.

Seven Ways I Was Schooled This Week

soms-signI learned a few things – or at least reminded of some things I should already have known – this past week. Here’s my account of those lessons. Maybe some of you will get some sense of feeling like you’re not alone in your struggles with schools, and society, and being unique and special, and boxes.

I should also point out that my wife, Leah, got to #6 and #7 LONG before I did, and for that I love her madly.

1. A school is an institutional system, and like any other institutional system, it is designed to maintain and preserve its own equilibrium above all other considerations. Don’t get me wrong – there are people at my son’s school who have gone to great lengths – in some cases above and beyond the call – to help my son, as an individual, thrive and feel safe. I also believe that practically every employee at the school would take a bullet for my kid (and any other kid) if some asshat were to walk in will ill intent and a deadly weapon. And I admire them for that. But in the far more common day-to-day aspects of educating, a school will do whatever it can to maintain a standardized box into which every kid must fit, because they’re convinced that’s the only way that order can be maintained, and also the only way that they think they can do the most good for the most children with the limited time and resources the school has.

2. In the mind of an educator, there can only be one story. There are no “sides”. There is only what the teacher says happened, and any attempt to look more deeply into that amounts to an outright accusation that the teacher is lying. It is very difficult to try to bring any context into a situation under these conditions. You can say that you believe the teacher is honestly giving an account of what happened from her perspective, but that you also believe your child has given an honest account of what happened from HIS perspective, even if the accounts differ in some important details. But to a teacher, that’s an accusation. Because in order to keep the system’s status quo in place, in order to keep things within the box, a child can’t have a perspective, at least not one that has any weight. There is only the teacher’s perspective. Anything else amounts to total chaos.

2.a. Due Process? Ha! Yeah, right. Your property – property in possession of your child that is being used as part of his Individual Education Plan (IEP) – can be confiscated and kept by the school for an extended period based solely on a teacher’s suspicion that the property is being used at an inappropriate time. And because the teacher’s authority MUST be kept sacred under all circumstances, no extenuating circumstances will be considered, and no argument that the weight of the consequence might be too burdensome given the circumstances will be considered.

3. Educators will tend to have each other’s backs and defend each other’s actions without question. I don’t know what color the line is for the public education system, but just like the Thin Blue Line philosophy that Law Enforcement has, when faced with pushback from outside the club, teachers and administrators will present a united front and also act personally offended that any mere civilian would question or critique the system. As part of this phenomenon, the people who you’ve been previously able to count on as allies in the struggle to help your child cope and thrive will suddenly start giving curt, one-sentence responses to emails and sit in meetings silently looking down at their laps, as if they’ve been warned to toe the line.

4. There must be some sort of college class for people getting degrees in education that teaches potential teachers and administrators how to act and speak in a way that kinda makes it seem like parents/advocates are being listened to and taken seriously, while at the same time conveying a subtext of “How dare you question us?” that invokes Jack Nicholson’s indignant rant as Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men. Because seriously. How else can you explain their knack for acting like they’re listening and absorbing your concerns while also making it pretty clear they think you’re basically just trying to get your kid special treatment and wasting their time?

5. Our society is set up to make all of the above things seem perfectly reasonable, perfectly acceptable. The school is technically not doing anything wrong by spending its energy to maintain its institutional system. Yes, I’ve colored everything above with my own bias, but taking my frustration and bias out of it, the school is merely following policies and procedures that are intended to be as fair and balanced as possible. Keeping the system functioning in a well-ordered way, maximizing limited resources to benefit the broadest spectrum of students and preparing them for eventual life in The Real World is the point. Preservation of the status quo in that system is essential – or, if change is proven to be necessary, it must happen slowly, incrementally, and in an orderly fashion. From the system’s perspective, working to keep kids inside the box is not a bug, it’s a feature. When you have hundreds of children to deal with, you can only treat them as individuals with specific and unique contexts up to a point. Student with special needs who have Individual Education Plans (IEPs), will be helped as much as they practically can, but overall even kids with special needs have to live and function in The Real World and they need to be taught to fit in and go along.The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. I get it. I accept it, sort of.

6. BUT WAIT! NO, I ACTUALLY DON’T ACCEPT IT! Even if that’s the reality of what the education system has to do – even if that’s the only way the system can responsibly function, even if that’s the system’s Big-Picture job, It isn’t MY job! My job is to do everything I can to enable my child to flourish AS HIMSELF, with his own personality, his uniqueness, and his individuality intact. Yes, there has to be a balance of some kind between individuality and functioning within a society – I get that. As much as a part of me may want to, I can’t say, “Screw the world, my kid is the most special of all special humans and everybody is just gonna have to accept that!” As a parent I need to teach him to respect other humans and negotiate a balance between his needs and theirs, his uniqueness and theirs. And I think to some extent I’ve maybe been confused about where I, myself, should strike that balance. How much should I be telling my child to buck up, grow up, fit in, and get along, versus my desire to encourage him to embrace who he is, not be ashamed of his particular challenges, and proudly exist outside any boxes that he doesn’t want to climb into? Well, I think maybe that’s the biggest lesson of the week …

7. The world and its institutions and systems are set up to put us into a box. Eventually, they will get what they want, because we all end up in a box eventually. But until that final box-putting that we can’t avoid, the world doesn’t get to put me, or my loved ones, or my friends, into boxes. Not without a fight. Not without my strong, informed, attentive resistance. In other words, my biggest lesson of the week is, the school already has the full force of its established institutional system working on its behalf. THEY DON’T NEED ME TO JUMP IN ON THEIR SIDE. They don’t need me to empathize with how tough it is for them, they don’t need my unquestioning cooperation, and they sure as hell don’t need me giving my passive permission to put my kid into their box. Instead, MY KID NEEDS ME TO GO ALL-IN ON HIS SIDE. My child needs an advocate. And no, I don’t need to vilify or demonize the school or its staff or my son’s teachers, because yes, they pretty much ARE just doing what the system requires of them. But that’s the point – they have their system and their policies and their self-assured confidence in the time-tested rightness of their mission. My child, on the other hand, has only his parents. He has my wife, and he has me. And although he has a few allies among the school staff who have gone out of their way to support and encourage him, their influence and ability to act on his behalf will always be curtailed by the policies and procedures of the system. So in the end, the only people that my child has who can be completely and unswervingly on his side in this rigged game are my wife and I. And therefore I need to be that person for my kid, without reservation.

Lessons learned.

It’s Time to Address “Christian Privilege”

The Huffpo article linked below, from Ryan Bell, is almost two years old but I ran across it today while doing research into the concept of Christian Privilege. Since reading the article in my local newspaper that I shared here a few days ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about the various “Privilege” issues that continue to plague America, and I’m motivated to be more active in doing my part to address them. And I feel strongly that my life experiences, education, and circumstances make me someone who can address and actively pursue how Christian Privilege affects our public life in America. Although my experiences are not entirely parallel to Bell’s, in this article he expresses a lot of things with which I deeply resonate. So I share this article here as a marker – a starting point on my journey to try to stand up and get involved in something I feel is deeply important to our future as American humans.

So, here we go.

Please, Let’s Not Start With the #NotAllChristians Foolishness : a Huffington Post Article by Ryan J. Bell.

 

Obfuscation in the Name of Jesus is Still Pretty Much Lying

Every week in our local newspaper, this guy – and ONLY this guy – gets to fill an entire above-the-fold half of one page with his particular view of Christianity. Nobody else – no other pastors, or theologians, or people of other faiths, or even people of other points of view within Christianity, gets to share this space. This is the man that the editorial folks of the Oldham Era – the county just to the east of Louisville – believe best represents “A Religious Point of View”.

And this week, he took his always Evangelical-Conservative point of view to a whole new level. This week, he boldly and confidently lied in the name of Jesus. If you click on and enlarge the image, you can probably read the whole thing. But I want to especially highlight the part that is pull-quoted at the bottom, where Early asserts that “there is no scientific fact that is inconsistent with the Bible.”

I accept that people ought to be able to express their beliefs. I accept that a county newspaper can have a “Religion” page and allow whomever they choose to write it. I don’t like the fact that in this case it is always a White Evangelical Christian man doing the writing, but I accept the paper’s right to do so.

But a person who spouts blatant and easily-refutable lies in a newspaper article ought to be held to account for it. Even if – no, ESPECIALLY if – it is a lie in the name of God.

earley-article

I Agree with Chuck Wendig: Yes, I Am A Feminist

In September of 2014, author Chuck Wendig wrote a great post about his choice to embrace the label “Feminist”, even though he had been struggling with it because even though he supported the cause, as a white male, he didn’t think he’d earned the right to call himself anything more than an ally.

I found myself nodding and agreeing with his post when I first read it. I want to share a link to it here in solidarity with the idea that yes, I am a Feminist. I’m a cis white guy, and I still screw up and let my male privilege get in the way of my efforts, and I’ll always need to manage that. But I am a Feminist.

#HEFORSHE: YES, I AM A FEMINIST – by Chuck Wendig on his blog, TerribleMinds

The Delightful Dance of Canon & Fandom in Pop Culture

This article from the Mary Sue has some Force Awakens spoilers, sort of.

Fandom vs. Canon: On Queer Representation in The Force Awakens – by Maddie Myers @ The Mary Sue

I found it to be a good exploration into diverse representation in major media. But it also gave me many deep thoughts about who owns and gets to decide truth in our stories and mythologies. That’s an issue close to my heart and to this website’s sphere of topicality.

 

I Am Now a Star Wars Fan!

my-heroes-swtfaOkay, now I’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And I can say this much – other than one thing that irked me so much I’ll have to revise it in my head-canon, I have *never* been a bigger fan of the Stars Wars universe than I am now.

I loved it. I love Rey. I love Finn. I’m in.

Assumptions and That Ass-Making Thing

You know that old saw that says, “If you assume you make an ass out of you and me” right? Tired and lame as that saying may be, it still tends to ring true.

I get caught up in my own assumptions and biases all the time. And I’m often guilty of letting those assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies. This is never more true than when I’m making choices about what roleplaying games I want to play, and which people I want to play them with.

If you’ve been listening to my squawking recently you’re probably aware that I’m trying to commit myself to the idea of becoming a better, more welcoming, more collaborative player. I want to encourage a wider diversity of humans to come to the table to play, I want to help make them feel welcome and safe when they get there, and I want to help them express and enjoy themselves freely once the game has begun. It’s pretty much Decent Human Being 101, but in our current play cultures, basic human decency often gets trumped by lesser considerations.

For most of us hetero white males, those lesser considerations usually involve a set of assumptions and biases born from Privilege and from the traditional view of “Gamer Culture*” cherished by so many.

So in order to grow toward my goals as a player and decent human being, I need to check my assumptions.

Here’s the thing I’m discovering, though – my assumptions seem to follow a different pattern than the Stereotypical Gamer Dude. My assumptions, in fact, are mostly directed at the Stereotypical Gamer Dude.

When I am seeking a group to play with, I want at least one woman in the group. Ideally, there will also be someone who’s skin tone and/or cultural heritage are not like mine. If one or both of these things are not true, then I assume that I’m not going to have as much fun at that table as I want. Now to be clear, I don’t think my desire to have diversity at my table is the problem. But to assume that things are going to be boring and typical just because it’s a table full of white guys? Yeah, that’s a problem.

This situation was driven home for me at GenCon a few weeks ago. During one of the Games on Demand slots on Saturday, my new pal Derrick Kapchinsky and I were hoping to get into a Monsterhearts session that Jeromy Hastings was running. Jeromy’s table filled up before our boarding passes were called, but eventually we got into a Monsterhearts game in the overflow room that Trevis Martin was going to run.

And here’s how it went:

So I’m sitting there with Derrick and Trevis and yeah, all three of us are white males. I’m talking about how it is my first-ever game of Monsterhearts, even though I’d played many sessions of other games that used the Apocalypse World engine. We’re chatting about AW, and playing out high-school angsty relationship stuff, when they walk in – two dudes. And in this case I mean Dudes, in that I immediately profile them as typical Dudebros. Two young white geeky-looking guys with most of the stereotypical trappings. They sit at our table, say “hi” in that sort of way that geeky convention-going guys say when they don’t know each other, and then one of them places his large print of a painting of Danaerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones on the empty seat next to him, which happens to be the seat directly opposite me. So I’ve got two young greasy dudes with con-funk sitting next to me and a large painting of the sexified nubile face of the Mother of Dragons staring right at me for the whole session.

And I am making ALL KINDS of assumptions.

Then Trevis asks the guys if they’ve ever played Monsterhearts or any other *World game before, and no, they haven’t. They play D&D, Warhammer, Pathfinder. They’d heard of Dungeon World but never played it, but they wanted to play something and so they chose Monsterhearts because it was available.

And I’m sitting there making A WHOLE SHITLOAD of assumptions.

Trevis, to his credit, explains the themes and basic conceit of Monsterhearts to them, like you’ve gotta do with anyone who doesn’t know what they might be in for, and he asks if they’re cool with that kind of thing. Yep. They’re willing to try it.

Then Trevis explains the X-card concept, and they’re nodding and everything seems fine and dandy, except I’m staring down at the table trying to avoid the languishing gaze of the Danaerys painting and I’m TOTALLY MAKING ASSUMPTIONS.

Next, we’re getting an overview of the scenario Trevis will be facilitating, which is a special thing that Monsterhearts author Avery McDaldno has written for one-shots and conventions. Derrick chooses his character, and there are three left to dole out between me and the two dudes. The three characters are two girls and a guy. I hold back because I’m ASSUMING that those guys probably don’t want to play girl characters, even though one of them will have to, but I want to let them make their choices and then I’ll take the one that remains.

They each choose a girl character.

And of course, I’m sitting there … yeah. ASSUMPTIONS.

Because yeah, two greasy D&D dudes who, by appearances, are barely out of high school themselves, are TOTALLY going to be able to play high-school girls with a sense of authenticity and without pulling out all the shitty stereotypes that most such guys I’d played with often used when playing female characters. Yeah, right.

To be honest, it’s fair to suggest that if I was thinking all this stuff at that point, I should have excused myself from the game. But I wanted to play with Derrick. I wanted to try Monsterhearts. I didn’t want to be a dick, even though I was already being one in my head.

So I stuck around, tried to shut my inner-assumer up, and played.

And my assumptions and I got totally schooled.

The two dudes not only took well to the Monsterhearts rules and the overall thematics, they ended up doing a totally fine job playing female characters with honesty and sincerity. In fact, I’ve got to admit that they both did a much better job authentically playing their characters than the knuckleheaded 40-something who was sitting in my chair did at playing a high-school aged boy. I haven’t felt so personally disconnected from a character in a long time. I couldn’t get a handle on the guy without resorting to my own worn-out stereotypes of what a punk-loner 16-year-old witch who watched his mom eat the mailman for breakfast would act like.

That wasn’t the system, it wasn’t Trevis’ facilitating, it wasn’t the other players. It wasn’t even the painting of Dany. None of that got in my way or hindered my experience. I hindered my own experience. Me and my damn assumptions.

So, although I’ve no doubt that I’ve got a lot of growing to do in the area of being more welcoming and collaborative in playing with women and people of color, it turns out that I’ve ALSO got to get my assumptions and biases in check when it comes to guys who I identify as potential Dudebros, too. My “Mister Enlightened Progressive Story-Player” persona needs to chill the hell out and do some growing, too.

——-

* a term that needs to die. And, if recent events are a good indicator, it IS dying. But not before it screams, yells, wails, and lashes out at everything around it, apparently.