Who Am I? (Part 2: Honor and Integrity)

I should put more disclaimers in my blog posts. Or at least I should remind myself of the completely expected and known events which may conspire to prevent me from updating. The whole last post was about getting to work, and I actually did that! I just ran out of time to write about it!

Between having a house-guest for a week (an awesome week, but not much time in it to spend writing), and a renewal of work on the current novel to prepare it to be queried (it’s almost ready!), plus the unexpected-except-we-all-saw-it-coming blow up of stuff at work, I’ve not been idle. I don’t feel like I’m in the same rut I was that needed to be broken. I’ve just been a different kind of busy.

(And, of course, there’s no forgetting or mitigating the impact of the absolute shitslide that has happened lately in the world of politics. All other things being equal, that by itself would probably have been enough to knock me and most others off their center of balance for a while.)

(Also, the number of people in government these days who would be improved if they had the scruples of a fecal fungus is astonishing. VOTING FUCKING MATTERS, FOLKS.)

Anyway.

Back to what this series is supposed to be about. That which defines who I think I am.

There’s an exchange in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time which happens quite close to the end. It’s been distilled this way (so I don’t have to type up the whole scene):

“In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet… There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter… And each line has to end with a rigid pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet… But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants…”

“You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?”

“Yes. You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”

It’s true of our lives in the sense that we are born into human, mortal bodies, grow up, have to eat and sleep and breathe oxygen, and we eventually die. But it’s also true beyond the corporeal. Life gives a person an option — what that person chooses defines who they are. Some people live their lives not in the form of a sonnet with its rules and demands upon form, but in a free-flowing verse. And in some ways, I do that, too; we’ll come back to that when I talk about Defiance.

But the form of my sonnet is Honor. And the proof of it is in my integrity.

The difference between honor and integrity is this — honor is the precepts you choose to live by; integrity is how well you actually follow them. So you can have a sense of honor, but not act on it. You can speak about behaving with honor, but utterly fail to do so. For me, my integrity is how I prove my Honor as well as my other pillars. If I give up on Kindness but keep up with Loyalty, then my integrity is still in question.

When I call one of my pillars Honor, one of the things I mean is the certainty of my word.

If I tell you I will take you to the grocery store, I will. If there are mitigating circumstances, we might need to adjust when I take you, or how. But if I have given you my word that I will do it, then come hell or high water or the end of the world, I’ll get it done. People say “my word is my bond” — I don’t know how many really mean it, but I sure as hell do.

This gets complicated when I’ve given a promise I no longer want to keep. If I told you I would take you to the grocery store and then we had a big fight and I don’t want to see your face, it sure makes keeping that word tough. But my Honor demands that I do it anyway. It does not, however, demand that I remind you of that promise. If you decide, given our fight, that you’d rather I not be the person to take you to the store, that’s your choice which you are free to make — and it absolves me of having to keep my promise. But if you come back and say, “I hate your guts, but you said you’d do X, so I’m calling in my marker,” my only Honorable answer can be, “Okay.”

Another piece of Honor is, basically, “doing the right thing.”

But that “right thing?” That is based entirely upon my own perspective.

So, for example, keeping a promise is always a right thing — unless that promise invites something unhealthy or dangerous. Even if I made a promise in years past to maintain a relationship with someone but that relationship turned toxic and damaging, then I don’t hold that said promise is valid. Because I have to do what is best for me as well as others. Promises made are mostly about other people — I promise to look out for you, I promise to help with hauling a heavy thing, I promise to listen when you need to talk, I promise to come to your party. But if me keeping the promise to haul the heavy thing happens to coincide with me having a broken arm, I’m not doing it. I can advise you, remind you to lift with your legs, find you someone to take my place, etc, but I’m not actually going to do myself that much harm. Because I have other promises I have to keep, and I can’t let that one promise force me to break fifteen others.

Sometimes doing the right thing is simple, though. See someone drop their wallet in the store? Give it back, untouched. Spot a turtle trying to cross a street? Pull over and help (without getting hit by traffic or bitten for my trouble). Find out your neighbor who sometimes watches your dog and mows your lawn is a bank robber? Call the police.

(That last one is fake, obviously.)

But there’s another angle of Honor which is entirely mine, caught up in how I see the world and how I see myself, and it goes like this:

When my promises are met, when I have enough for my needs and the needs of those who depend upon me — whatever is left over belongs to someone else.

That’s true of money, food, but also emotional energy and time. When we’re doing okay for money and Sarah and I are not stressed, we donate what we can where we can. When we have extra vegetables from the garden, we give them to whoever wants or needs them. And when I have the mental fortitude, the spoons, to do more than just take care of myself and Sarah and all the people in my immediate orbit who might need it, then I reach out and take care of others. That’s a huge portion of why I got involved in CONvergence Operations in the first place — I had a love of the convention and energy to spare, and I wanted to put that energy where it could do the most good for others.

I really don’t categorize this under Kindness. I categorize it under Honor. Because my sense of Honor demands that I do all I can, whenever I can, within healthy limits, to improve the world around me. Honor demands I take care of my family and friends, that I be able and willing to offer assistance or hugs or a spare room when someone is in need. It demands that I don’t just sit back and think “Ha, I got mine; good luck getting yours!” Honor demands I stand up and I lift others up with me, even if only by giving them some tomatoes.

Because the promise I must keep above all, the one I made to myself, is that I will do my best, always, to return all the luck and circumstance this world has given me with the hard work to try to give that same luck and circumstance to others.

I have been UNBELIEVABLY lucky in my life. Unlucky, too, but lucky where it counts. I was born to privilege, both in the color of my skin and in my society/financial reality. I never went hungry, never worried about if the house would have heat in winter. I never wanted for the necessities, and rarely for the luxuries. I was also gifted by no merit of my own with a brain that largely works for me in the world, a body which largely functions without accommodation, and a spark that doesn’t drown in any flood — see Defiance for that, too. I was lucky enough to find love, lasting and surpassing, that holds me up no matter how far down I fall. I have been lucky enough to be loved not just by Sarah, but by friends who are family, remarkable, phenomenal people who are a gift just to be around. I am lucky enough to live in a state with reasonable governance (not perfect, but nothing like other places), to have a job which supports Sarah and I.

I worked for a lot of these things, but people can work their whole lives and still never achieve as much as had come to me before I was 30 years old. Effort does not always lead to results, no matter what the American Dream says. There are people who work four times as hard as I do and have far less. And that is not my fault or theirs. That is the luck of my circumstances. I had nothing to do with how I was born and that those opportunities led to even more. I had nothing to do with the fact that I encountered Sarah who is my perfect match. Those things just happened to me.

My Honor demands, unequivocally, that I repay that luck with whatever excess I receive to give to others. When I have more than I need (and I define that need very, very narrowly), it’s not mine anymore. I don’t even want it.

Honor demands that I do my very, very best in this highly imperfect and unkind world, because I have it easy in a way others do not. And to not give back, to not share what I have received unearned, is a kind of selfishness that, to me, could never be “doing the right thing.”

That’s what my Honor really means to me.

If I have given you my word, I will not break it, save if it endangers other people or other promises which supersede it.

If I have the opportunity to do the honest or brave or ethical thing, or to do the easy or lazy or apathetic thing, I do the honest thing, the brave thing, the ethical thing.

If I have the ability, I lend my weight to lifting up the world as high as I can make it go.

I’m not perfect, I screw it up sometimes, I miss something that tells me I should have gone left when I went right, I run out of energy, my obligations conflict, and sometimes life just shits on the best-laid plans. I can’t help any of that. There will always be days when I’m too heartsick, too lost in the demons of my own brain chemistry to do even the easy right things, when all I can do is breathe in and out all day long and maybe put one foot in front of the other. And that’s okay. I have not failed in living up to my Honor just because today I failed at everything else.

I have learned the hard way that the very first step to Honor, to integrity, to living at all, is accepting that everything, even my best intentions, are going to run into walls sometimes. Limitations, be they mine, circumstance, whatever — they’re not failure. They’re part of the living system of being human. They say “nobody’s perfect,” and it’s true. Nobody is. And no intentions to weed the garden or finish a project can stand up against an unexpected hurricane, real or figurative.

When Honor is doing the right thing, but the right thing can’t be done, then Kindness is forgiving and letting it go.

But that’s a few weeks from now.

Next week (assuming no more weirdness time-suck stuff) — Loyalty.

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Who Am I? (Part 1: The Framework)

I’ve been doing a lot of introspection lately. I self-examine my life rather frequently, but it’s been more noticeable of late. Part of this is that, for the past week, I’ve been slowly converting one of our spare bedrooms into a proper office for me — and this is the first bit of writing I’m doing in that new office space. What a way to celebrate 100 entries on the blog!

What was a spare bedroom with blue walls the EXACT shade a 10-year-old cisgender boy would love has become instead my workspace. I repainted the walls a pale grey which shades to a slight lavender in certain lights. I moved my rarely-used desk in and put the bed in the other room (we call it the Chancery; it’s where Sarah does her music). I built a giant shelf to fill with bins to store the stuff that used to be haphazardly spread between these two rooms, and I purged a lot of stuff that just didn’t need to be kept anymore. There’s a bit of work left to do — the only art hanging up here right now is my diploma mainly because I wanted to get it and its finicky frame out of the way — and I’m still considering and reconsidering the exact configuration of my desk. But, for the most part, what was the spare room (called “Spare Oom” as often as not) is now my office.

This has the advantage of allowing me to work from home without being at my dining room table, which is a nice change of pace. It also gives me a place to focus for work, for writing, and for CVG stuff. I’ve only been in here 3 hours as of this entry, but the psychological difference is palpable. I’m focused in a room in a way I wasn’t in our open-floor-plan downstairs. I feel like I’m up and away from the world with a window that looks out on trees and rooftops instead of down to the driveway and every car and dog-walker going by. I’m aware of the door I can shut if I need isolation or a break from nosy cats. And this space, like only one other in the house, is truly mine — defined at every particular by me and my wants and needs, from the colors to the layout to whether or not to move the light around. I painted every inch of it myself, alone (although I had help with the liberal use of painter’s tape), and I would have built the shelf thing myself, too, except it would have been IMPOSSIBLE because Ikea doesn’t do anything simple.

Anyway.

Setting up the office required me to do some very focused thinking about myself. For example, I learned that I need to be able to stretch my legs out sometimes — so I piled a few pieces of old cardboard behind the desk to prevent me from getting footprints on my wall as well as giving me a place to rest them. I’ve always known I don’t work well jammed into a corner; I need to be able to see out, to stare at something other than a wall. So my desk faces the window. I know I need to put a giant cork board on the wall behind me where I can hang the million rotating things that all seem critical in the moment but I won’t need or want permanently displayed after some unknown period of weeks or months or years.

This also marks a re-dedication on my part to something I’ve lost over the past couple of years. Existential (political) dread and anxiety have slashed my writing amount to half or less than what it used to be. The stories come to me just as rapidly — I have, at current count, 45 good and usable ideas for everything from short oneshots to full novel series, fanfic and original — but the ability to press them into existence has been lacking. I don’t have to worry about posting next year because of the project I did manage to complete, but the word counts are still low. I’m a month and a week or so from the end of my writing year, and I know I’m looking at an uphill trek to finish something else before November. I’m going to try, of course, but it won’t come easily.

However, if it was always easy, it wouldn’t be worth the doing.

Not all people feel that way. The whole “it isn’t worth it if it isn’t difficult” thing gets rolled eyes, and I very much understand that. It’s not a mentality that is for everyone. And even for those who believe it, like me, find it deeply fatiguing sometimes. If literally everything you cherished had to come to you the hard way, would you really manage to build up the energy to cherish so much? If relationships, achievements, insights, if every one of them was earned only by sweat and blood, if nothing was a break — wouldn’t you break?

I wouldn’t dare speak for others, but for me — the answer is no.

I’ve mentioned before, I think, that I hold myself to 6 pillars, 6 values that I have chosen will define me. They’re not “rules” because rules change and flow and need to be outright broken sometimes (or a lot). They’re the attributes that help me define who I want to be as a person. They’re the solid stones I set as my own foundation. I think most people have some — but for me it was helpful to codify them, to put them in words, to give them names and shapes. Because then I have a framework for myself, a standard to hold to when other things make life harder.

When life gets harder, that’s when you find out who you really are — because that is when you will make the self-defining choices.

I base my choices on these six pillars:

  • Honor
  • Loyalty
  • Courage
  • Kindness
  • Endurance
  • Defiance

(There are two unspoken ones which I don’t typically name, but there’s no denying them — joy and love. They’re not choices I make; they simply are. I have taught myself honor, have changed how I understand loyalty, and have honed my courage. But joy and love, they burst into my spirit with no urging, and I can’t take 2 steps without tripping over them.)

I’ve meant for a long time to go into them in detail on this blog since they’re such a fundamental part of who I am, and I think that will be my writing project for the next few weeks. Because setting up this office has had the effect of really making me think about how I define myself, how I want and need to be. Just as I needed to choose a color that I would find energizing, not over-stimulating, I needed to rediscover those anchor-points in my heart where there is no give. The truths without which I cease to be.

I would still be me if I decided I was bored of hockey or college football. I would still be me if I no longer watched my cartoons and anime. But I would not be me if I gave up on kindness, if I acted without honor, if I lost my glee at practicing defiance. I would be someone else — and that someone else might not like this room, this life, this self that I have built from the ground up for myself.

With this new room and my re-dedication to writing, to focusing creatively, to being the person I have chosen to be, I’m going to warm back up into the process by taking time to dive into each of these pillars of myself, one a week. I’m going to baptize this room not in water (or paint) but by the practice of defining and centering myself. I’m going to end this writing year of 2018 by using the change in my surroundings to force a change in behavior, so that 2019 is more successful and I get some more work done.

And maybe, if I set my mind on it correctly, if I can focus my energy less into fear and more into action, I can do more than just write. Maybe I can query and publish a book. Maybe I can find a better balance in myself of work, social life, CVG, choir, writing, sleep…all the things that, right now, feel like they’re out of balance. I cannot change the causes of existential dread in the world, but I can change myself. I can give myself more room to be the person I choose to be, to create the art that feeds my soul. I can give myself every advantage so that when the world comes and calls who I think I am into question again, I am better situated to answer.

There’s nothing easy about looking into the void and coming up with something other than despair. There’s nothing easy about standing up when it’s sure to get you knocked down again. There’s nothing easy about creating when the well seems to run dry. There’s nothing easy about any of it.

But it’s all worth doing. And if I am the person I pretend to be, the person I want to be, the person I choose to be, then I will find a way. Endurance is right there in the six pillars. Sometimes Endurance means getting by, staying afloat, managing the unmanageable no matter how graceless.

This time? I’m leaning less on Endurance and more on that sixth pillar. Defiance.

Because in the end, even the void can’t stamp out my will. It doesn’t matter if I shout back into the void, or spit in it, or shine a light, or laugh into it, or swear curses about weasel shits into it. As long as I do SOMETHING. As long as I pull or push in obstinate, sometimes gleeful, opposition.

I hit a downswing, not just in terms of depression, but in everything. I got out of balance. I lost focus. I failed to write. Why and how aren’t what matters. Blame and fault are actively not useful. This is where I am at. This is the reality I have in front of me.

Maybe that’s why now was the time to make this office, why it burned in me for the last week. Because now is the time I can look at that reality head on and choose another way. Now is when I can lean back on my pillars, decided and innate, and push off again.

I have painted the walls. I have hauled the furniture. I have chosen how to adorn the space. I have set it up for work, for focus, to bring out the best in me.

It’s time to get to work.

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Taking a break

Today is my 99th blog. Next week I’ll reflect and have some feelings on #100.

In the meantime, I’m taking a break; I have a long week ahead and tonight is the season end for American Ninja Warrior — which is basically amazing people doing ridiculous stunts on obstacles.

So here. I give unto you this video of Jamie Rahn running the level 1 course of the championship last week, losing a shoe on the 2nd obstacle. Because why not?

I’ll write you a proper blog next week, ‘kay?

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College Football and Relaxation

This weekend began the great tradition in our house that is College Football.

To start with — it’s Sarah’s fault. No, really, it is. She was born an Ohio State fan, I think. Her first words might have been “buckeye” and “Brutus.” She breathes and bleeds OSU football.

For me, I didn’t care about football at all until I met her. I was always a hockey girl (see previous entries about my poor Buffalo Sabres). But befriending Sarah meant either watching games with her on Saturdays, or not seeing her at all. So I started watching. And just…got absorbed. That was more than 15 years ago. Now, we have a whole ritual devoted to the watching of college football.

First, there is special food. Every week we do something different, either fancy cheese or popcorn or pizza or donuts or whatever we feel like.

Second, Saturdays during college football season are sacrosanct. Only for a few very specific people or causes will we rouse ourselves from our couch of blankets, pillows, snacks, and stats. Where we started just watching the Ohio State game, now we watch them all, from 11am until 1-2am, and also the Friday night before. The OSU game is the centerpiece, of course, not to be missed on pain of much sorrow, but we like the other games, too. We have certain teams we always cheer for, and some we always boo. When in doubt, we cheer for underdogs, the more under, the better.

Third, there’s a whole set of superstitions Sarah has to which we both hold. Neither of us is allowed to wear the colors of the team playing OSU for the day, no matter what. Nobody is allowed to watch the games with us if they have proven to be unlucky in the past (and Sarah decides when someone whose presence ’caused’ a game to go poorly gets to come back; sometimes the prohibition lasts for years). The OSU flag must be hung proudly on our house before kickoff. We must have a Twitter feed open to read all the commentary and jokes from the OSU community. Sarah will pick a lucky beverage and drink only that during every OSU game for the season. I am allowed to choose one blanket and can’t switch later — unless that blanket is the color of the opposing team and then I’m allowed a substitute for just that game.

It’s hard to explain what those Saturdays are like, though. We sit on the couch under our blankets and our cats, surrounded by our snacks. We flip between games, sometimes 3 or more depending on what’s on and what’s good. We snark at the announcers, track when horribly one-sided games go off the rails and the play-callers have to swap to talking about grass or the local diner where they had dinner because the game is too awful to mention. We don’t look at email. We don’t answer phones. We don’t leave the house. We just nestle down into this zone where we are alone and we are in our element and it doesn’t matter if I’m not wearing pants as long as I’m wearing the right shirt, and it doesn’t matter who had what kind of week because it’s college football Saturday and that is our respite. It’s like a tiny vacation every Saturday for 10 weeks.

And it began this past weekend.

And ye gods did I need it.

I’m not always good at spotting the signs of becoming overwhelmed in myself, especially early, because powering through stuff is what I do. I don’t always notice that I’m stressed, or that the stress is lasting for more than a day at a time.

But when I start to slide down the slope from ‘stress’ to ‘burnout,’ then I tend to notice.

So I took this weekend of football, with an extra day off, and I just…reminded myself to breathe. I meditated. I slept whenever I felt like it and didn’t when I didn’t want to. I ate whatever I wanted and didn’t bother with thinking about calories or health benefits. I read whatever made me giggle. When there was no college football, Sarah joined me as we continued our marathon of NCIS:LA. Or movies. We watched several movies; it’s hard to count them up because we flipped between them and football or science shows. So we watched parts of lots of movies and just a few all the way through.

I ALSO managed to hurt myself on Friday doing the daily workout with Sarah, so I was a lot less mobile than usual. Funny thing — going from doing zero squats with weights to forty squats with weights, plus 60 ab/quad exercises, plus the usual, means the thighs were NOT HAPPY. There was much hobbling around and making of sad sounds when going up stairs.

And in the end, I don’t think I remember many specific moments or particular plays in various games or even really good lines and snark and jokes we invented. I don’t think I can point to one thing and say that this moment or that moment fixed things.

But I let myself rest, did what I call letting “my soul sleep.” I let the world go away for a while, and I let myself not think about it for a while. I turned off the sharpest functions of my brain, let my heart have a break. Like putting your personality into sleep mode, maybe — it was there, but in the background.

And it helped.

And OSU won, which also helped.

(Sarah is actually less cranky when the team loses than I am. I’m a terrible loser.)

So now I find myself facing the oncoming fall with much more clarity, much more ease in my chest and much less tension in my lungs. And for the next 9 weeks, I’ll have that moment for one day again, every Saturday that Sarah and I settle in for our college football day. It’s not productive use of time in the traditional sense, but it sure as hell allows me to be more productive afterwards.

And given how fall works? I’m gonna need it. Choir starts up again this week, and the planning for CVG 2019 will ramp up all over again before the end of the month, so we get CONvergence and football and choir all at the same time. The summer break, such as it was, is ending.

In the pagan calendar, the fall equinox is the celebration of Mabon — the harvest. The idea is to appreciate all the work that has come before, to set aside that which you have stored up all summer for the coming winter months, to be thankful for all that has carried you this far. It’s kinda pagan Thanksgiving, if you will.

For me, the coming of autumn is the close of the year and the start of a new one. Not a school year, but the choir year, the CONvergence year. And the end of October will be the close of my writing year as well. This is the golden season of endings and beginnings, when all the hard work of before is starting to pay off and plans are being made for the winter to come.

So it’s a perfect time for a weekly escape, to recharge, reflect, and take the time to set my feet firmly before I take the next steps.

15 years ago, I never would have believed that I could get so much out of watching college football with Sarah. I could easily believe I’d still be doing it, because she would be, and where Sarah goes I’ll always be. But I would have believed I’d be there for her, not getting anything from it myself.

I’m delighted to have been wrong.

Welcome to September, all.

And, just because it’s my blog, dammit, and I can do this:

O — H!

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For Good

(Fair warning — this song always makes me cry. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe I’ll have it figured out by the time I quit writing about it.)

Someday I’m going to write about “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, but not today. Today I want to talk about one of the songs that gets a little overlooked compared to everything else that happens in that particular musical. “Defying Gravity” is a masterpiece of raw spirit and courage and unrestrained freedom. And it earths into a home in my heart because defiance is a huge part of who I am.

But I still want to talk about “For Good.”

You don’t have to know anything about Wicked or where this song fits in the show. It’s enough just to hear it.

I had some alone time this weekend, which, as being alone usually does, led to some introspection. Also noisy singing. But mainly the former.

I looked around and started tracking all the tiny things that led me to where I am today. All the choices, big and small. Certainly attending Carleton College did a lot to push me here — without that, I probably wouldn’t be in Minnesota, probably wouldn’t know any of the people who fill my life up today. But I got to Carleton by a hundred thousand choices that came first, everything from what I thought I was going choose as a major to emerging from high school as something as a loner and being ready to walk away from everything and start over. I can look and see specific decisions that had leading consequences, but I can also see the small buildup of personality that forged a path just as well.

For me, I think the choice to be myself, unapologetically, unremittingly, has been the most decisive and defining choice of my life.

Which isn’t to say I haven’t chosen wrongly at as many junctures as I’ve chosen well. I’ve made more mistakes than I dare count. I’ve thought I was following my heart when really I was giving in to fear. I’ve thought I was picking the noble path when really it was the lazy way of least effort. It’s all well and good to want to live a life of integrity and courage, and it’s something else entirely to do it.

There’s a line from Jayne Eyre that I often think rings quite true:

“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”

They say that you become what you pretend to be. I think it’s more complicated than that; you can pretend to be a hero, but still choose cowardice if you’re not careful. Principles, as Jane says, are for the most difficult times — that is when you prove if your principles are set in stone or not. It’s easy to want to be brave, or generous, or selfless — it’s much harder to do that when literally everything inside you would rather not.

I’ve definitely failed at least as many times as the next person — but the times I have succeeded, the times when I’ve lived the life of integrity I want for myself, are some of my greatest triumphs.

But for as much as those choices came from me, they also came from so many, many people around me. And without them, without the presence of so many in my heart and my past and my present, I wouldn’t be looking at the world from the same place anymore.

As the song says, “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

The base inside myself changes for lots of reasons, from learning, from experience, from pain, from success — and from what I have gained from a hundred people passing through. Some came and left, some tore their way in and left a gaping hole on the way out, and some would not remember me or their impact upon me (but it happened to me regardless).

My whole life has been rewritten by the people who came and cast stones and songs into my spirit.

Without being bullied as a child, would I have spent so much time reading? So much time dreaming? So much time understanding the quiet voice inside myself? Without the friends that I had in and out through the years, would I have learned to be a friend when it really mattered? Without the random encounters, the unexpected moments of kindness or pain, would I have understood compassion without agenda?

I owe so many debts to people whose names I don’t even know. The group of my peers, four or five men and women of color who sat me down and explained my privilege to me, when they didn’t have to, when I was just another clueless, well-meaning white kid with blinders. The woman who came up to me after my first solo when I was 8 years old and told me never to stop singing, no matter who listened. The first fans who left me comments on my stories before I had the courage to reply to them and turn fans into friends.

And the network expands from there — the people who changed Sarah and set her feet on a path that led to me. The people who were kind to the family I have now, the encounters and chance moments that gave strength and joy to those I love. The ripples analogy is overdone, but accurate nonetheless. There are quantum ripples, flashes of fate and randomness and human agency that redefine a life, or a moment. And every one of those ended with me sitting in this moment in this life.

It is a debt to life that nobody can repay, isn’t it? It’s an accident that we’re born at all and that we become who we are. The good things that come after that are blessings.

At this moment in time, there’s only a handful of people who read this blog, and I can name you all, I think. So this is a luxury, one I can enjoy here in my quiet corner —

Thank you. Thank you for stepping into my life and changing me for good.

Great or small, profound or simple, whatever the impact you had on me, I can never go back to who I was before you appeared. And I could never want to go back, not having seen the view from here.

I do believe I have been changed for the better because I knew you.

And to anyone out there who never finds this blog, whatever we were to each other, I still put this into the internet void for you, too, just in case. Because if you gave my life a push, the least I can do is leave you a wish of my own. I believe that we can put good into the wheel of the universe even if there’s no empirical evidence for it. That what we give to the turn of space and time and eternity and destiny comes from us, even if no one ever sees it, or knows it is there. Love and kindness and good wishes and healing energy and a tiny quantum nudge all play into what we leave behind in the balance of life.

To everyone who had a part to play in helping me find my way —

May a skybird leave you a seed that brings you joy and peace. Thank you for changing me for good.

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Candles Enough…a documentary?

Not really. But a friend did put together a video about Sarah and I and our band and how our music came to be. I think it sums it up nicely, even if it also makes me cringe to watch myself. But that’s not new.

(Also. Maia hates the guitar. Count the seconds between when Sarah makes to play and how fast she runs!)

This is the first track on our channel from CONvergence 2018, called “The Wheel.” I’m of mixed feelings. On the one hand, I wrote the song and I like the lyrics, and it was nice to debut it at the convention in front of so many friends. On the other, I was never particularly happy with all aspects of the harmony we invented. I have trouble being able to tell where the line is between “intentionally discordant” and “actually sounds wrong.”

There will be more at some point. But it’s a better start than last year, that’s for sure!

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Serving the King

There’s a show my wife and I watch in reruns now that it’s been over a few years called “The Closer.” We loved it on its first run, as well as the spin-off “Major Crimes” that carried the story after the departure of the lead character. This weekend, they were running the second season finale, which has in it a speech made by a character who is former CIA and is now a deputy chief of police. From the first time I heard it, it rang false to me in a way I couldn’t quite identify. But this weekend, I finally was able to wrap my head around where I disagree.

Here’s the quote:

I remember once hearing a speech about what it meant to be on officer of the CIA, and the man who gave this speech talked about the struggle to control civilization and how we’re always fighting the same fight and he used the Dark Ages as an example. And he talked about how on one side you had the pragmatic king who was greedy and power hungry and basically took advantage of people whenever he could. And on the other side you had the idealistic church, forcing everyone to follow the same rules, have the same beliefs and all that. Neither the king or the church was ever completely right or wrong, both sides ended up doing terrible things to get what they wanted. Really terrible things. But the point of the story was this: that this struggle from the Dark Ages had been going on forever, and the church and the king might take on different forms and philosophies, but they would always fight each other, pragmatist and idealist, and that most times you’re better off standing on the sidelines and letting them duke it out. But every once in a while one side or the other decides it might be better to just blow up the whole world just to get its own way, and when that happens you can’t stand on the sidelines anymore. You have to pick a team. And so for tonight, anyway, we’re serving the king.

I agree that you can see a lot of Western political history as a constant struggle between government rule and religious influence. Going back a long way before the Dark Ages, that was the struggle for control, authority, and power. Far wiser people than I can distill European history into the constant cycle of politicking between church and state. And those echoes exist today, ported into the US by the exact same forces. When you’re dealing with the US, it isn’t all one religious camp and one US government camp — the argument and the conflict is fractured and, if anything, the worse for it. But it’s there.

The struggle for civilization in many ways can be summed up by the struggle for power and control, either by the beliefs which live in the minds of the people, or the laws which govern their lives.

The problem, as I see it, with this particular analogy is the idea that the king represents pragmatism while the church represents idealism. Truly, they’re two sides of the same thing. Both are authorities warring for control, and both will do what they need to do to win. In that way, they’re equally pragmatic, just fighting from different ends of the equation.

But there’s no real representation of idealism here, because both sides are operating under the same underlying assumption — that the ends justify the means.

Pragmatism and idealism are opposites, but they just can’t be neatly aligned to church and state. Not in a historical context and not in a hypothetical one. In the end, both sides of church and state are looking for the same thing — power, control, influence, and the ability to command the present and rewrite the future to their dictates. And because of that, they will both, as the character says, do “really terrible things” because that end state of power and influence is worth the sacrifices made along the way.

But are they? Are they really?

In college, I was a political science and international relations major with an unofficial minor (called a concentration) in political philosophy. I’ve always appreciated thinking about systems and people, whether it’s the set of cultural biases that inform interpersonal relationships or the broader worldviews that impact diplomatic (or lack thereof) negotiations. To the uninitiated, political science sometimes sounds and feels like reducing human action and emotion and intent to a series of predictable equations. That’s the part of it I always hated. But there’s truth to it, if you look at it in a more nuanced way. It’s not saying “You’re X, Y, and Z, so you vote ABC.” It’s tracking the minute intersections of people and where they touch the world. Like a spider in a web, it’s knowing which strand to pull that sets you free and which one gets you eaten.

When you get to talking about the underlying philosophies of rule, however, you run into the “hawk” and “dove” divide — mostly for the context of war, but it applies to other things as well. Basically, would you rather commit X in order to attempt to assure Y, or is the act of X too reprehensible to make Y worthwhile? Hawks are those who would prefer to go to war to ensure national security, or to weaken an enemy, or whatever is needed. Doves agree that national security is important, and the enemy is a problem, but argue that to go to war does more harm than it is worth. The hawk argument is a pragmatic one; the dove argument is an idealist one.

I wrote my senior thesis on the morality of espionage as a tool of nations, looking at the historical and philosophical reasons for espionage and comparing them to the real-world experiences of various retired spies, heads of the CIA, etc. (It was a lot of reading.) And what I found was an almost universal answer across my sources —

Philosophically, historically, pragmatically, the agreement was entirely on the side of espionage as not just being valuable, but being necessary in protecting the state from harmful acts or threats by other nations or organizations. But the people themselves writing about their lives, their jobs, their sacrifices — every single one of them found the practice of espionage to be morally and ethically wrong. They did it anyway, because it was necessary. But they could not say that it was “good” that they had done so. Even when the results literally saved thousands of lives or kept a nation from falling.

These people, these brave, dedicated people had sacrificed everything — their families, their wellbeing, their chances as a normal life — to serve the pragmatic king. And they were not sorry for doing so. But they still could not believe that the ends inherently justify the means.

They ended their service as pragmatists in action, and idealists at heart.

As a person, that’s a bit where I’ve ended, too. I’ve been a pure pragmatist, focused on making sure things turn out okay regardless of the cost, and you know what? It’s poisonous. For me, I have no pride in the things I did thinking that way, even if they ended up just fine. Because I can’t see the happy ending — only the careless harm I could have done along the way.

And yet I still cannot let myself be a pure idealist. The ends may not justify the means, but sometimes if you don’t fight for the ends you want, you get a result that you can’t live with, either. Sometimes to get what you need, what you can’t live without, you have to do something you wouldn’t otherwise do given any choice at all — because sometimes the world doesn’t give us choices. And then we have to live with whichever path we took.

There aren’t nearly enough examples in history of someone who found a way to get to the ends they needed without employing means that cheapened the victory. Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr is the quickest example I can think of. And even that isn’t simple at all. Nonviolence as a philosophy to force change is certainly more ethically sound than violence, but the change MLK won didn’t only come through nonviolence. It also came through politicking, through the actions of others who weren’t totally nonviolent, through concessions and bartering — and there’s a strong argument to be made that it hasn’t even entirely worked. We don’t live in a post-racist society. Hell, we live in a VERY racist society.

But recent protest movements are making the point that the means DO matter, not just the ends. If we are rightly protesting police violence on people of color, committing violence not only is unethical, but inflames the violence and it cycles back tenfold on the people we are trying to protect. On the other hand, simply standing on the side of the road with a sign may be utterly unoffensive, but without giving at least a little offense, how could it create change? It’s the point made regularly about the correctly maligned “thoughts and prayers” — if thoughts and prayers could change the world, it would have been changed long ago.

Control of civilization is always up in the air, and you can divide by state versus church, but you can also divide it by autocratic powers and the decentralized populace. The autocratic powers almost always act pragmatically, even when there are doves in seats of power, because ultimately, they have a responsibility to preserve their power and continue to expand it — otherwise, they fail to exist. The people, on the other hand, have a choice. They can riot, fight back, support violent insurrection, or they can vote, protest quietly, and go home at the end of the day no matter the results. And every possible shade and nuance in between.

For me, I wish I could live in a world where anyone who wanted to be a pure idealist could. Where people could embrace true pacifism, true integrity, and never be forced to choose between making war or being obliterated. I wish I could live in a world where it was safe to choose the path of doing the right and ethical and moral thing even if it wasn’t going to work because the result wouldn’t be all that bad.

But I really don’t.

I live in this world.

So, yeah, I vote, and I protest, and I donate money to causes and organizations that champion what I believe in. But when it comes down to the ends and the means, if the ends is truly an end to human decency, to human rights, to equality, justice, liberty — then, I’ll do what I have to.

If, going back to the original analogy, one side decides to blow up the whole world, or deny the dignity of a class of people, I’ll throw idealism out the window just like the subjects of my senior thesis did. Because as much as my idealism means to me, personally, it can never be as important as the actual life and safety of another human being.

I can be an idealist — right up until the world demands I be a pragmatist in order to defend and support others. Because in one very particular way, the ends DO justify the means.

If it means creating a better world for others, then to hell with what I have to give up of my pretty philosophies. I’d rather live in the world and never be comfortable with the choices I made if the world that came out of them is better than this one.

That’s the only king I could ever find worth serving.

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Post-CVG and the Zero-Sum Fallacy

Well, I warned you I’d be gone for a while. I didn’t think it would be a whole month, but I also can’t say I’m totally surprised. CVG takes a lot out of me, and it took me about the first week or 10 days after we’d packed up the convention before I was really even comfortable using language again. After what should be 4 days but really ends up being 6 or 7 of intense interpersonal stuff, that part of me just needs time to recover.

It’s so worth it, though. It’s worth it for every single person who gets to come join our community and feel safe in their skin. It’s worth it for every single person who gets to put the world away and just exist in a bubble of nerd-dom. It’s worth it for every single person who had a bad experience and whom I can help so that their convention isn’t a total loss. It’s worth it for every single member of my team who are goddamn heroes night and day, giving up time, energy, sleep, and fun just to preserve the safety and fun and welcome of everyone else.

Also, our HarmCon set went great! A friend is pulling video together for us and she will break it up by song so it can all go on YouTube at some point. She also cut us a tiny documentary thing about who we are and what we do and why we sing. When that goes live, I’ll link to it as well.

Unfortunately, I once AGAIN failed to get pictures of me running around in my full gear, with dragons on my shoulder and hip, a beautiful bandolier with my hip pouches, etc. I stink at getting pictures of myself at CVG. Oh well.

The dragons were a hit, though.

Speaking of dragons, more generally, I’m trying hard to help with the editing of one of my current novels so it can go out for query. Honestly, not a clue how it will go. If nobody wants to rep the book, I haven’t decided if I want to self-publish as an ebook or just leave it in a drawer. I’ve got one in a drawer already, actually, and every now and again I look back at it and wonder. That one never got queried, however — I’m not sure there’s any way to sell it as is, and I’m not sure how to fix it. It’s okay, but it’s not what I wanted it to be.

Recent events outside of me have reminded me about writing and how some people view it as a zero-sum game. If Author A gets a book repped, or sold, or does well as a self-pub, then they think that takes something away from Author B. Wiser people than me have pointed out, repeatedly, that such is not the case. Just because someone gets a book sold, or gets a good review, or sells a bunch of copies, doesn’t mean anyone else trying to sell gets hurt. It doesn’t mean anyone else’s book is inherently better or worse.

And on a more micro scale, this is also true of any individual book. Right now, I’ve got lots and lots of novels posted as fanfic online, and 2 completed original novels. Neither of my original novels are any better or worse because I have published fanfic, and the fact that one of the novels exists in a currently-unpunishable state doesn’t mean the other one is doomed. And when I write the next one (and I have a KICKASS idea for a YA 3-book series in my head), its fate also won’t be defined by the fate of what came before.

A friend and I were talking last night about writing, and about how we’ve both moved from the idea of selling books as a sole source of income to selling books in order to share stories. We’d both be thrilled if we sold novels and could earn a living from that so we could focus on writing more of the time — but it’s not what drives us anymore. Some money from writing would be amazing, but it’s just no longer my goal. My goal is to make sure there are stories in the world for people who want them.

It’s like seeing a void in the world, a hole, a place where there is something missing, and filling it. That’s how I got started writing fanfic in the first place, actually. I wanted to read stories that didn’t exist, so I made them exist. Now I see stories I wish had existed when I needed them — so I’m writing them. It’s not about being famous or being a bestseller or making a million dollars and selling movie rights. All of that would be fine, but it isn’t the point.

The point is that stories need to exist for when others go searching for them, and I’m determined to make sure they’re out there.

Which is why writing and publishing can never be a zero-sum game. Because if someone writes a story and someone else needs that story and they come together — yay! Benefit for both. None of that hurts me. None of that impedes me.

And if one of my stories is not what anyone needs, but the next one is, then also yay.

Stories teach us about people we don’t know; the best stories also listen to what we need to understand about ourselves. I learned more about the human race from reading about aliens than I ever did from Dickens or Shakespeare. I learned more about myself by reading about characters who were both like me but also really, really not at all like me. If I had read nothing but white male protagonists, I wouldn’t have learned how to intersect my own perspective with a different one. If I had read nothing but science fiction, I wouldn’t have learned to see the themes of alienness and outsiderness in the regular world.

My favorite authors in the world all wrote books I never enjoyed. That’s to be expected. They wrote the story that needed writing, but it wasn’t one I personally needed. And that’s the way it should be — because someone else out there found that particular story to be life-changing.

So maybe I will figure out how to clean up that first novel of mine and put it out there. It might not go any farther than this blog, or AO3, but maybe that’s worth doing. It isn’t the story I need, and I’m not yet quite sure it’s the story I even wanted to tell. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right story for someone out there.

(Which would be a far more compelling argument if I had more than 4 people reading this blog, but oh well.)

But first I’m going to focus on the novel that has a shot at publication. Because then it has a better shot of reaching the people who might need a story about neuro-atpyical and otherwise-atypical heroes. Then it has a better shot of finding its way to the person who is looking for it without ever knowing it’s what they are missing.

And if someone else sells a million books in the meantime, then yay. Because that’s a million people better for having one more story in their lives.

Zero-sum should never be a part of the arts. Not when we can all thrive better and stronger when we make room for each other.

But then, that’s kinda how I think the world should work, too.

One thing at a time, I guess.

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HarmCon! And not quite a year late!

So, thanks to a friend with strong Google-fu, and some free software, I was actually able to get our video from HarmCon in 2017 into shape for YouTube! Truly, better late than never. Right?

Right?

We were joined on many of the songs by our friend and fellow nerd Dave Stagner, who always finds a way to make our music a hundred times better. The set list for this particular show turned out to be a mix of 3 covers, 2 of our original songs, and 8 parodies. We got a lot of laughs and commentary on the parodies, though you have to listen closely to get it all. I’m listing the songs for you here, in case you want to know:

Warrior (by the Wyrd Sisters, joined by Marina Krinsky)
Secure Yourself (by the Indigo Girls)
Phoenix Rise
Fearless (by Kat Perkins)
Sunfire/Breathless
Parody of Babylon 5 based on “Angles from Montgomery” = Aliens from Babylon
Parody of Stargate: SG1 based on: “Brown-Eyed Girl” = Brown-Eyed Goa’uld
Parody of ET based on “All By Myself” = All By My Kite
Parody of The Fifth Element based on “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” = Hit it With My Four Stones
Parody of Transformers based on “Hand in My Pocket” = Hand In Its Socket
Parody of Signs based on “The Water Is Wide” = Water, Water Everywhere and OMG It Burns
Parody of Star Trek based on “Take Me Home, Country Roads” = Insert Noun Here
Parody of Toy Story based on “Man of Constant Sorrow” = Toy of Constant Sorrow

We’re finalizing this year’s set now, to be performed a week from Friday. And now that I have new and exciting technology, I’m hoping it’s easier to get the video up sooner.

I was chatting back and forth with some of the CVG folks on Slack and a point came up about how hard it is to be creative with all the awful that’s going on in the world. What I said was this —

The shit part just leaks into everything though, doesn’t it? I’m working on my set for HarmCon and I keep looking at our songs and thinking “can we really laugh about gaming and Star Wars when insert-horrific-reality-here is going on?” And I have to keep telling myself that yes, we can and we must laugh. We can’t keep fighting for humanity, for dignity, for equality, for justice, for compassion, if we lose track of ourselves. You can’t beat back the dark without a light, and sometimes that light isn’t righteous anger, but the relief of taking one day off.

It was true last year in the summer of 2017 and it’s certainly true now. CONvergence in general has been something for me to look forward to, something for me to give time and energy and positivity when even the brightest day seemed dark. And it is silly to sing about gaming stories (we have some outrageous ones in the set and nerd jokes), but it’s also necessary. Just as it’s necessary to stop and breathe and rest between the waves of a struggle.

Not by accident, I think, this year’s set is more heavily weighted towards “our” stuff, and fewer parodies. At least for now. In a week, it might have grown a few more parodies. They’re sneaky like that.

Anyway.

Sarah and I named Candles Enough for the idea that between us, we have enough light to get us through dark times. Sometimes, that light is giggling. Sometimes it’s steady courage. Sometimes it’s just pure silliness. Sometimes it’s tried and tested in fire. But that’s who we are. That’s what we do. And this year, as much as we all need to laugh, we also need to be that boost of hope and truth. So “Jagged” is back this year, and so is “Trial by Fire” — along with new stuff written more recently.

If we can be that one candle in the dark for someone who needs it, then it’s all been worth it.

I think there’s only 4 or 5 people who ever consistently read this blog, and half of you will be at CVG this year. We can’t wait to show you what happens when you put out an open call for people’s ridiculous, silly stories. But for those of you who aren’t (yet) part of the CVG family, here’s a sample of what you’re missing.

It’s a MILLIONTH of what is good about CVG, of course. This is just our tiny, musical corner of it.

(P.S. You will NOT hear from me for at least 2 weeks. Next week and the week after will be my time to dive completely and totally, heart and soul and body and lack-of-sleep, into CONvergence. I’ll try to emerge with stories. Join us vicariously on Twitter, though. #CVG2018 is a good way to experience the fun from afar!)

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Rolling blackouts ahead, and wisdom from a Minnesotan native

So…yeah, things are really busy.  I have something like 5 evenings of meetings in a row this week, and more next week.  And then it will be CONvergence!

The blog might go a little fallow in the meantime.  Not that, you know, it makes a HUGE difference given my, uh, small but mighty readership.  I’m better about Twitter these days because I can put stuff on it from my phone.

But I’m here.  And I’ll be here afterwards, too.  Possibly with the whole story of why this year is trying so hard to break our community and how, exactly, we’re keeping that from happening.

If you do happen to be in the MN area the weekend after the 4th of July, come come hang out with us at HarmCon on Friday, 11am at CONvergence.  Hopefully we’ll record it this year, too, but no promises on when I put the stuff on YouTube. We do have several new songs, though. Including one crowd-sourced parody.

Not even kidding.

Also, crowd-sourcing is a FANTASTIC way to get hilarious gaming stories.  Just sayin’.

So if I drop off the map again, I’m sorry in advance.  I’ll be back, though. In my own time and my own way, probably, but without fail.

In the meantime, I hope your summer is treating you as well as can be expected.  The world is tough for a lot of us right now. For a lot of different reasons.

So take your lesson from this week’s viral adventure.

Make like the MPR Raccoon.

Keep climbing and never give up.  Rest when you have to, and know that it’s okay to be scared.  We’re all afraid of the fall.

But we were born for this climb.  Every one of us.

No matter what specifically your climb is, you can do this.

Climb on, my friends.  Climb on.

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