23 December 2014

What We the People talk about when we talk about Police Reform

Welcome back Dear Readers, and a happy [Solstice Holiday] to you all.  

In case you haven't read the op-ed "Blue Lives Matter" featured in the Atlantic yesterday.  Do yourself a favor and read it.  Ta-Nehisi Coates is a skilled wordsmith and handles the underlying issues that dog police reform and racial reconciliation with incredible compassion for the victims and for Police Officers.  In a time when people are shouting on both sides that such a view is impossible, Coates reveals why compassion for victims and police is inseparable.  

A lot of what Coates discusses reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad just a few weeks ago.  "My dad told me to be careful about making laws – any law.  Because as soon as you pass a law, you've told someone with a gun to go enforce that law.  If you're not comfortable with the real possibility that someone might be killed for that law, then maybe it's not such a good law."  

And that premise is what Coates calls out: police are in fact public servants.  They are bound to the will of the majority, and it is their burden to enforce all the laws that our representatives pass at the behest of their constituents (that's us).  Police brutality and other abuses of power happen as an outcropping of the beliefs that we as a majority have put into law.  I've known several officers – all good, honorable men and women – and there are laws that they are bound to enforce which they completely disagree with.  Police officers aren't free to enforce according to their consciences, but according to the conscience we created through legislation.  

So what we need to accept when we call for "Police Reform" what we're really calling for is a hard look in the mirror.  We need to change ourselves and our laws, and if we can do that, then the servants of that law will change.  If they don't, then we can say that the police need reform.

As always, thanks for reading.  

08 December 2014

Throne of the Crescent Moon in the Rearview Mirror

Hello, readers!  How are you beautiful people doing today?  

I just finished reading Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, and it's wonderful. Though the book is definitely written to be YA friendly, the characters are dynamic, driven by multiple motivations, and every bit as devastatingly flawed and hopelessly heroic as we humans are. Whether it's the good Doctor Adoulla struggling to balance his job (ghul-hunting) with the home life he wishes he had, or the dashing lioness Zamia Banu Laith Badawi fighting to discover what it means to be the last of her tribe and its Protector, the characters are inspiring, frustrating, and complex.  Also, despite the YA 

Ahmed's work is set in a distinctly Middle Eastern setting, not unlike Medina (with some extra magic thrown in). Then he peopled it with zealots, traitors, thieves, and prostitutes – there are some bad guys, too. Superbly written with just a touch of exoticism, this is a must read.

If you've already read it, or you have book suggestions, please let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading.  

15 October 2014

Depression Quest – A Review

Welcome back, readers!

Lately there's been a lot of discussion about #GamerGate and their espoused views on women developers and characters.  Gawker actually has a pretty solid article on it, focused around the current GG focal point of Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn.

Given that many of the criticisms I encountered were couched in "but it was a crappy game" language, I decided to play the game myself.  By the way, Depression Quest is free on Steam, if you'd be so inclined to play it yourself.  It's a pretty short game on a per-playthrough basis which is a blessing, because as a person who has struggled with depression for pretty much my entire life, I can say that even a few hours in the head of a seriously depressed individual is utterly exhausting, but before I give you my full take on the game, allow me to enumerate the main complaints against it (which you can see in the Gawker article and also on the Steam Community comments).

1) "This isn't even a game"
2) "Depression isn't like this."
3) "Woman developer – ack outrage"

Let's be contrarian together and tackle that list in reverse order.  "Woman developer - ack outrage"... This is ridiculous as an argument against the game – or any game for that matter.  Does the game have failings? Yes.  But those failings have to do with expectations versus what was delivered, and absolutely nothing to the gender/sex of the writer.

Tackling the 2nd comment is a bit more difficult, because parts of the cohort that argues this are actually sufferers from depression themselves.  The fact is that, yes, depression really is like this – where options are cut off to you, where you spiral out of control in negative feedback loops, where you can't get out of bed somedays, where you are literally stuck with only a few options and sometimes those options really suck.  But not everyone's experience with depression is the same, so part of that complaint that Depression isn't as shown, is true.  The HEART of depression which is shown openly and viciously and painfully in this game is actually honest and very useful.  If you or someone you know suffers from depression or knows someone who does, I have 2 bits of advice for you: 1) Therapy.  Seriously.  Therapy is the single best tool you can arm yourself with in order to survive depression.  2) Get yourself and those around you resources in order to understand depression.  Depression Quest is a great, interactive tool.  Andrew Solomon's TED Talk is brilliant and helpful.  Dr. David Burns's Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy is a great book on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

That brings us to the 1st complaint, that Depression Quest isn't a game.  This argument is understandable, because the vehicle for the game is so much different than most other games.  There's not a lot of interaction, there is a lot of reading, and there's very definite lack of images.  So, yeah, that is different.  The writing is exceptional, the options that are crossed out are every bit as important as the options you do have access to, and like actual depression, the game doesn't really "end" in the traditional sense.  There's no triumphal march, no victory trumpets, just a general feeling that you've made the best decisions you could given what you felt, and that you've survived.

In my opinion, it's a game worth playing.  There were a lot of risks taken in the minimalism of the game, and not all of them paid off, but that the designers took risks is great.  The writing is solid.  The story is super depressing, and that will frustrate people, but it's still a worthwhile playthrough.

As always, thanks for reading.

07 October 2014

For the Planners

Welcome back, Readers,

I realized the other day that I have shown much love to the pantsers, the plungers, the "I only write an outline after I've written the paper" sort of writers.  In short, I've shown love to writers who – like myself – loathed the assignment of writing an outline to hand in for approval before handing in a paper.  For writers like us, we've heard our whole lives that "Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance."  And that mantra is still true, but what proper planning looks like is different for each person.  So our proper preparation for those outlines was to write an entire essay, then back-draft that outline.  Thankfully, none of my outlines were ever rejected, but I did have friends who's outlines were rejected, and they had to write an additional essay to hand in a new outline.  That's miserable, but for some of us it's the only way.  Ian Flemming used this method, so it can't be all bad.

HOWEVER, I want to share some love with the Planners, the Masterminds, those writers who can create a beautiful outline fully formed from their heads, like Dianne from the forehead of Jupiter.  Dear Planners, I salute you.  I salute your ability to hammer your ideas into a cutting narrative in the space of a few bullet points and arrows.  You're in the grand company of John Grisham.

Then there's a third class of writer, too.  There are those who, like Hemingway, must write their words each day, then comb over them relentlessly – again, again – until those words sing.  Then, comforted in the song of those words, the writer can continue telling more story.  This seems an agonizing process, but then we all suffer in different ways for the sake of craft.

For this third group of writers, you can still participate in NaNoWriMo, and you can even win, but it may be hard.  Rest assured that when you finish, you'll have a much more manageable draft than most of the rest of us.  If you want proof of your ability to win, look no further than Ted Boone and his essay featured in Writer's Digest.

Readers, I look forward to seeing you all, regardless of process, at NaNoWriMo.

02 October 2014

Writing Fast. Gearing up for NaNoWriMo


"I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written, except to the foot of the last page to see where I have got to. If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel? How could you have used "terrible" six times on one page? And so forth. If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain. By following my formula, you write 2,000 words a day and you aren't disgusted with them until the book is finished, which will be in about six weeks."  – Ian Fleming

 Well, Readers, it's most definitely October, and that means in one month hundreds of thousands of writers around the globe will be busily working their ways towards as many as tens of billions of words through the smashing success that is NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month.  As those brave souls galvanize themselves this month by hoarding coffee, candies, and typing-friendly snacks, let us pause to consider something:
1) You (yes, you sitting in that chair right now) could be one of those brave souls.

2) Probably you've already expressed a desire to share some story that you've got burning deep inside of you, so NaNoWriMo can be the catalyst to let that fiery tale into the realms of reality. (Sign up is free!)

3) There's no penalty for failure if you don't meet the 50,000 word finish line at the end of November (I should know, as I've not crossed that finish line a single time).

4) No matter how many words you write or don't write at the end of that month, those words that you did write are more than all those poor souls who say, "I've got a novel in me, but I just never find the time."  By participating in NaNoWriMo, you didn't find the time.  You MADE it.

5) Some of the best stories have been written in incredibly short amounts of time.

(Excerpted from James Scott Bell's The Art of War for Writers)

  • William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 AM, then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word. (You're not Faulkner, by the way).
  • Ernest Hemingway wrote what some consider his best novel, The Sun Also Rises, also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris in 1925.
  • In on stunning stretch (1953-1954) John D. MacDonald produced seven novels of high quality. Over the course of the decade, he wrote many more superb books, including the classic The End of the Night, which some mention in the same breath as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Also Cry Hard, Cry Fast which was the basis for the title of this [chapter].
    So prolific was MacDonald that he was needled by a fellow writer who, over martinis, sniffed that John should slow down, ignore "paperback drivel," and get to "a real novel." MacDonald sniffed back that in 30 days* he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in the magazines, selected by a book club, and turned into a movie.  The other writer laughed and bet him $50 that [MacDonald] couldn't  pull it off.
    MacDonald went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear. Twice. 
Bell goes on to detail several other writers and their triumphant sprints to finished novels, but the point is that you can be a writer.  Writers write.  That's it.  Period.  

Jack London started writing with zero skill – barely able to put sentences together.  But he wrote.  A lot.  At first he wrote almost eighteen hours a day.  He filled a trunk with rejection letters.  When he died at the age of forty, he was the single highest paid and most prolific writer of the era.  If you're reading this blog, odds are that you're already a better writer than Jack London started off as.  Daily texting, status updates, and constant streams of reading materials across hundreds and thousands of authorial voices means that you've got a SERIOUS head-start on Jack London.  (Plus, he's dead, so he can't get any better and that means you can beat him!) 

So, if you want to write, then write.  

NaNoWriMo can help in a lot of ways – get you plugged into a community of other perspiring authors, give you the nudge to get back to your story, send you free pep-talks from authors like Brandon Sanderson and Neil Gaiman and Diana Wynne Jones.  

As always, Thanks for reading.  

30 September 2014

The 3 Rules of Storytelling, a review

Hello, Readers!

Thanks for coming back.  Today we're going to talk about the three rules of dramatic writing and storytelling.  You'll probably remember the rules from all of those delicious craft books we've read together, like John Gardner's The Art of Fiction or James N. Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel volumes I & II or Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing and many others.  But in case you've forgotten the rules, here they are:

The Rules of Dramatic Writing
1) Conflict
2) Conflict
3) More Conflict

Conflict is what drives our stories, what reveals our characters, and what leads to the revelations of the underlying ideals put to question in our stories.  Conflict, in other words, proves premise.

There are tons of ways to create conflict externally, but for the conflict to really matter, it has to reach into the heart of your protagonist and wrench her from her life of dog-walking and competition shark-training and take her into the seedy underworld of manta-ray racing (manta-racing).  That means that the conflict has to resonate with the protagonist's internal conflicts as well.

If you're unsure what that's going to look like, here's a great article by Steven James, author of National bestsellers The Bishop and The Knight. In his article, James discusses how to really draw in the reader and to flesh out one's characters, the key is to give the protagonist conflicting ideals.  If your character is a pacifist that also thirsts for justice, what happens when a drunk driver kills his wife but escapes justice because of a technicality?

I bet you want to know, don't you?  I do.  Take your characters and put them in the same situation.

Show us your masterpiece.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. If you aren't already signed up for the phenomenal(ly free) Writer's Digest weekly newsletter, you can sign up for it here

23 September 2014

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, in the Rearview.

Hello, Readers!

Thanks again for dropping in.  Lately, I've been doing a lot of posts about social justice, particularly addressing Rape Culture issues, but today, I wanted to share a book that has been incredibly freeing to me personally: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  In case you don't know who Susan Cain is, here's an awesome TED Talk about why Introverts are still awesome.  

 In case you're reading my blog and you happen to be an extrovert, let me assure you that Quiet in no way insults or demeans extroversion, and as I'll get into, it even has some tips on how to be even better at what you're already exceptional at.  

A species in which everyone was General Patton would not succeed, any more than would a race in which everyone was Vincent van Gogh. I prefer to think that the planet needs athletes, philosophers, sex symbols, painters, scientists; it needs the warmhearted, the hardhearted, the coldhearted, and the weakhearted. It needs those who can devote their lives to studying how many droplets of water are secreted by the salivary glands of dogs under which circumstances, and it needs those who can capture the passing impression of cherry blossoms in a fourteen-syllable poem or devote twenty-five pages to the dissection of a small boy's feelings as he lies in bed in the dark waiting for his mother to kiss him goodnight... Indeed the presence of outstanding strengths presupposes that energy needed in other areas has been channeled away from them.
Allen Shawn 

Susan Cain opens Quiet with the above quote, then prefaces each chapter with a quote of its own which encapsulates the chapter's contents quite nicely.  As we read through Quiet, Cain first lays out the definitions of each word that she'll be using, so that even a Psychology lay-person (like myself) can understand exactly what she means. Then as Quiet continues, Cain builds on these definitions to create a rich nuance that respects and validates both introverts and extroverts.  
Quiet walks us through the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in the US, then examines what we as a whole culture have lost because we have favored one type of presentation and personality over another type.  In fact, Quiet is a master balancing act that argues for diversity and collaboration as a means of achieving greater success for both personality types.  Which is of course why Cain opens with the quote from Allen Shawn.  We are interdependent.  Where one person might be strong, another might be weak.  Steve Wozniak wouldn't have been the huge success he was without the strong presentation and branding skills of Steve Jobs.  Moses wouldn't have been able to convince Israel to leave Egypt without the extroversion of Aaron.  And so on.  Cain doesn't argue for supremacy but for peace and mutual appreciation.  
One of Cain's chapters, entitled "When Collaboration kills Creativity," evaluates the rise of what she terms "New Groupthink" (watch the video for more information on that).  We all remember what it was like being forced to collaborate either in school (starting as early as Kindergarten in some cases) or in work (especially with the rise of totally "open" office designs).  Some people don't contribute very much, some not at all, and some dominate the process regardless of ability, because we as a society have taught that speaking convincingly is more important than having any real ideas.  The studies that Cain uses to address this topic of New Groupthink and forced collaboration actually show that all people perform worse under forced collaboration than when they work alone.  However, if each member of a group works independently on a project and then come together, the groups do dramatically better than any one member working alone.  Cain's research doesn't condemn collaboration, but it calls into question how we collaborate.  
Throughout Quiet, Cain validates introverts and encourages us (even extroverts) to be true to our natures.  One of the incredibly useful things that Cain points out is that introverts and extroverts require different levels of stimulation in order to be focused.  If you study better with the TV on or music blaring, then you're probably an extrovert.  If you focus better with minimal outside stimulus, then you're probably an introvert.  
Armed with that knowledge, I started looking through my daily journals and noting which days I got the most writing done, and I noticed, overwhelmingly, that the days when I didn't listen to music were the days when I not only got more writing done, but the writing I did was better and required less editing later on.  Granted, some days, I'll still want to listen to music, but now that I know what the ideal level of outside stimulus is (close to zero), I can create (and already have created) more effective work habits.  

In conclusion, I cannot recommend this book highly enough for both introverts and extroverts.  1 in 3 people are introverted in the US, so that means that you do know some introverts.  Quiet will help extroverts to respect the quiet strengths of introverts, while remaining true to their own natures.  For those of us who are introverts, Quiet is a breath of fresh air, a real call for us to be true to ourselves, to love our needs for solitude, to recognize that we are awe-inspiring just the way we are.  

Thanks for reading. Get out there and embrace your excellence.  

22 September 2014

Jokes: Change the Conversation

Hello, Readers!

So, let's talk about "woman" jokes.  We've all heard them.  Some of us might have even told these jokes in our more naive/foolish years (I'm guilty of this).   (Side note: if you're still telling derogatory jokes, please stop).  And we probably have friends/acquaintances that still tell some of these jokes.  Here are some ways to shut these common jokes down and change the conversation.

The next time some person comes up and says, "Oh, I heard this great joke.  Okay, ready?  So what do you tell a woman with 2 black eyes?"
Interrupt before they can answer with this, "Hey, I have serious concerns that you might be in an abusive relationship, and here are some resources if you'd like help."  (Resources Here)

Insistent Person: "Fine, you don't like that one, how about this: why can't women drive?  Because there's no room for a highway between the kitchen and the bedroom!"
You: "Oh, I get it, this joke says that women only exist to create food and have penes stuck inside of them.  Is your masculinity really that fragile?"

Increasingly agitated person: "Hey now, we all know that  9 out of 10 participants enjoy gang rape."
You: "Multiple assailant rape happens every day, even here, even in this town, and for you to make light of the suffering of others is callous and disgusting."

Dear Readers, you are empowered, you are enlightened, you are activists.  When someone says something, speak up.  Turn that feeling of revulsion in the pit of your stomachs into an Act of Revolution.

It's time.

17 September 2014

Guest Post: Personal Security Case Study

Thanks for returning, Readers.  
It's entirely possible that you're tired of reading my pacifist, pinko-commie opinions on Rape Culture, so today we've got a guest post by Jenn (my sister-in-law) and Clayton (identical-twin brother) Hensley.  Jenn Hensley is a mother and a brown belt in Karate and a survivalist (ask her for Zombie-proofing tips).  Clayton Hensley is a US Infantry veteran and currently a student in Creative Content creation. Together they wrote this lovely fictionalized case study.  Enjoy! 

Personal Security Case Study: John Doe vs. Chris Day
By Clayton and Jenn Hensley

In this case study, we will examine a common scenario in modern shootings. To be clear, this scenario does not come from one specific case, and the names of the individuals involved in the scenario do not come from any open cases. This scenario is designed to share common elements of domestic shootings, but any resemblance to a specific open case is coincidental.

    Our John Doe in this scenario is a 35 year old white male who works a white collar job, is divorced, and has two children. The assailant, Chris Day, is a 33 year old single, white male who works at the same company as our John Doe.
    Sunday afternoon, Chris’s house, Suburbs of Dallas, Texas. John and Chris were settling down to watch the Cowboys game on television, they had been talking about work and planning their schedules for the next week. John left his kids with their mother for the weekend, so he was intent on just hanging out. Chris and John work at the same company, in the same department and had been friends since their days at UT-Dallas, thirteen years ago.
    By half-time, John was visibly intoxicated, while Chris has been pacing himself, after all, they had to work tomorrow. Chris got up and was about ten feet away from the couch when John hollered for another beer. Chris pulled his gun from his concealed holster, turned around, and leveled it at John. John stared in wide eyed horror as his friend of thirteen years shot him three times in the chest.
    Police responded to the scene of the crime arrested Chris and took John to the hospital, where he was expected to survive. A judge set Chris’ bail at two thousand, which was paid for by Chris himself, who returned to work within the week.
    Investigators collected evidence at the scene of the crime, then waited for John to wake up after his surgery.
    Following John shaking off the anesthesia, he was put to the question concerning the event. The investigator asked John if he had told Chris “No, don’t shoot me.” He responded that he had been too shocked and more than a little drunk, and wasn’t sure he had said anything. Investigators pressed further, “If you hadn’t wanted to be shot, you would have said ‘no, don’t shoot me.’ Did you want to be shot?”
    John responded that, of course, he hadn’t wanted to be shot, “What the hell is your problem?”
In their report, the investigators listed John as complicit with the event since he hadn’t said “No.”
Finishing their notes on that set of questions, the investigators asked why he didn’t rip the gun away from Chris or fight back and defend himself. John responded that “he was drunk and shocked.” The investigators let him know that if he really didn’t want to be shot, his adrenaline would have kicked in and made it possible for him to stand up, close the ten foot gap, and knock the gun out of Chris’ hand with plenty of time to spare before Chris could pull the trigger. “If you were really in danger, your adrenaline would have counteracted the alcohol in your system and helped you to move so quickly that Chris couldn’t have shot you. Adrenaline is so powerful, when you need it,” they continued, “that it automatically corrects any power imbalance.” In the report, the investigators note that John’s over-reactive temper flared up and he cursed at the officers.
    The investigators opened a new line of questioning, “John, you obviously made some terrible decisions that day, it looks like this was pretty much inevitable with the lifestyle you lead. I need you to answer this next set of questions honestly, can you do that for me?” John nodded, mutely. “Alright, I want to know why you didn’t check to see if Chris was armed when you entered his house.”
    Well,” John states, “because I trusted him. We’d been friends for thirteen years, and I didn’t have any clue that he wanted to shoot me. Why would I? We were pals. Hell, he was there for me when Jane left.”
    “Ah, classic mistake, trusting someone you know.” The investigators jotted down a few notes, “This will make it harder to prosecute, since you have a friendly connection to him. Are you sure that you’re interpreting the events correctly? Did you ask him to shoot you?”
    “What? No! Why would I want someone to shoot me?” John flew into a rage, tearing some of his fresh stitching and spewing more angry curses at the investigators.
    “Sir, you need to calm down. We just want to get to the truth of the matter, get the details right. It’s just that, by your account, that it certainly seems like you were hoping to be shot. You didn’t take even rudimentary precautions. Case in point, the outfit you were wearing, why would you go around in dangerous times like this without wearing at least a Kevlar reinforced undershirt? People who don’t want to get shot wear body armor. Someone wearing a polo shirt and short pants is pretty much asking to be shot.”
    Upon review of evidence and the investigator’s notes, the DA found that there was no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Chris Day, who was exonerated of all charges. John Doe was deemed to have let his emotions run away with him. He was reprimanded for his treatment of the officers and warned to stop falsely accusing people of attempted murder. Not only could false accusations hurt Chris’s reputation, but it could lead to John being charged with defamation of character and slander.
Two weeks later, John returned to work in the same department as Chris. Chris would periodically walk past John’s desk, point an invisible gun, pull the trigger, and smile.
   We notice several things in this scenario. First, just because you’re asking for a beer, even Coor Lite “The Silve Bullet”, doesn’t mean you want actual bullets lodged into your chest. Second, $2,000 is a pretty low figure for the bail of someone picked up for assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder. Third, we see that the investigators seemed more intent on blaming John as complicit in his own shooting, rather than actually figuring out what happened so that they could build a case against the shooter.
    Obviously, what happened to John was terrible and the way it was handled by the authorities and the courts made the psychological trauma much, much worse for John. To top that off, Chris walked away without even a slap on the wrist.
    This kind of injustice doesn’t happen. The traumatic methodology used by the investigators and the unwillingness of the courts to pursue any kind of legal action against the perpetrator is so over the top, that it’s obviously satire.
    Except that it’s not. This is the kind of reasoning that is applied against the victims of sexual violence, this is the way many sexual assault cases are handled by investigators (and worse, by family and friends). We don’t treat physical violence so callously and ineptly here in the US, so why do we approach sexual violence this way? Authorities investigating the crime, along with the friends and family of the victim often respond with this exact line of reasoning as pursued by the investigators in the case of John vs. Chris. Further, our courts and judges treat the perpetrators of sexual violence exactly the same way that Chris was treated in the above scenario.

    What story do we tell ourselves that allows us to use this logic against sexual assault victims? If it's good logic, then why don’t we apply it against victims of shootings?
    What story allows us to sympathize with the victims of other forms of physical violence, yet shun and blame the victims of sexual violence?
    Why is this kind of treatment and handling of atrocity acceptable? Why is it normal, automatic even, for us to blame the victims of sexual assault, even though we don’t blame victims of other forms of violence?

    Finally, what can we do to change the story? Because it's about damn time.  

    Excellent question, Clayton and Jenn!  First and foremost, you can educate yourself about Rape Culture (and other injustices) through resources like White Ribbon which is a group dedicated to empowering boys and men to stop Rape Culture and to stop violence against women and children.  There's MAAM (Men Aligned Against Misogyny, aka, Men Against Assholes and Misogyny) to hear other men's stories on how and why they became Feminists.  
    Then there are lots of other groups, too, both local and international: MenCanStopRape.org, RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network).  DoSomething.org (check out their great article on 7 Myths about Sexual Violence)     

    Finally, TALK.  Talk to everyone you know, learn their stories.  1 in 33 males are victims of rape, 1 out of 5 women are.  1 out of 4 girls are sexually exploited by the time they reach 18, 1 out of 6 boys suffer the same.  You already know some survivors, support them.  

Social Activism is Contagious. Thank You.

Dear Readers,

Probably we've all spent some time on WebMD checking if it's just a cough or maybe it's ebola – Spoiler: it's not ebola.  Besides that good news (If you want that diagnosis in marketing-style, here: "The New You, definitely 100% Ebola free!"), I want to tell you all about something that you have already and is definitely contagious: Social Activism.
You probably don't hear it very often, but I wanted to take a moment not just for reading my blog, but for doing something so much more important: caring.  Thank you for caring and for helping raise awareness on the issues that really matter to you, Thank you for pushing for social change and social justice.  Thank you for wrestling with big issues.

Thank you.

09 September 2014

Street Harassment Litmus Test

Hello, Readers!

As you're all aware, there's an increasing awareness of the current cultural norm of Street Harassment.  To the Classy Women reading this blog, I'm sorry that it exists and it's so prevalent.  In the face of constant unwanted attention, you Ladies are holding it down, keeping your chins up, and being ridiculously awesome. Laud and honor all around.

Men, we need to get real and set a better example.  Stick around.  We're about to learn something together.

Gentlemen (and considerate Ladies who've stuck around), I know that we all have a desire to compliment/extort/praise beauty when we see it.  So let's take a look at what this increasing awareness of and displeasure at Street Harassment is about.

Let's address this in a point (P), counter-point (CP) format.  Then we'll wrap up with how to avoid harassing people on the street.
P1) The conversation about Street Harassment is NOT telling you that appreciating beauty is bad.
CP1) It IS telling you that comments that objectify others (specifically women) as ONLY objects of physical beauty or a pleasant place to stick one's penis is BAD.

P2) The conversation is NOT saying that you cannot compliment women
CP2) The conversation IS saying that shouting at women you don't already know can be uncomfortable and threatening.

P3) The conversation is NOT saying that all men are evil, rape-minded beasts.
CP3) It IS saying that the words we use and when we use them matter.

There's more to that conversation, obviously, but these are the 3 points that I see/hear talked about most often in defense of Catcalling/Street Harassment.

With those points in mind, let's look at how we can talk to – and even compliment – women whom we don't yet know.
Put yourself in the scene, you're walking down the street, on the way to pick up a coffee from your favorite local stimulant-pusher, and you see someone you want to compliment.  BEFORE approaching this person, run through this checklist:
0) What is the purpose of your compliment?
      Is the compliment aimed at getting the person to pay attention to you OR, is the compliment aimed at reminding the other person of the objective awesomeness?
     If it's the first case, then don't say anything.  If it's the second, then continue down the checklist.

1) Are the words in your head genuinely complimentary?
      A compliment is defined by Merriam-Webster as:
          1. a :  an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration; especially :  an admiring remark          b :  formal and respectful recognition :  honor   
If your words are respectful and praise the esteem of the intended recipient, then continue on.

2) Can these words be viewed as a command or a way of telling someone to be different to suit your own preconceptions?
     Keep in mind that saying something as seemingly innocuous as, "You'd be prettier if you smiled" IS harassment, because it's telling that person (usually a woman) that a) they are not pretty when not smiling and b) they have to behave/posture themselves in a way that suits you.
     Commands are not compliments.  If your boss said, "You'd look better in a suit coat", you wouldn't respond, "Thank You."

3) Does your intended compliment sexualize or objectify the person?
     This may seem hard to break down in the moment, so maybe ask a more direct version, does your intended compliment convey the message, "I want to put my dick into you"?  If it does, then that's harassment and NOT a compliment.  

So there are 3 steps (plus 1 proto-step) on how to avoid being a Street Harasser.  If you'd prefer a more regimented method to avoid being a Street Harasser, StopStreetHarassment.org has this great info-graphic:

Cheers and Thanks for Reading.

25 August 2014

The Dispossessed through the rear-view mirror.

Hello, Readers, and thanks for stopping by.  

I just finished reading Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed. Honestly, I can say that LeGuin's wonderful story has helped to make me a more aware writer and reader which will in turn lead me to be better at both.  With the increasing transparency of our societal problems here in the USA, especially as we mourn and bury Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO., today, this book matters.  The ideas within it matter, because power, no matter where it is held, eventually gets abused.  Always.  No matter how grand or pure the intentions of those who hold or seek power, power gets abused.  There are myriad ways that power is abused, but the reasons for power abuse stem from a systematic truth about power:
Power creates inertia.
And inertia is not resistance to movement; it is resistance to change.  This is what Ursula K. LeGuin communicates through her writing as we follow this picaresque tale of Shevek, a physicist.  LeGuin works through monumental amounts of information on politics and science and being human without dredging into the pedantic.  

Personally, I found it incredibly difficult to get through the first one hundred pages, because of how much was implied by these vibrant characters and the deep contrasts between being one who owns property and one who has all things in common, but once I climbed those 100 pages, the view was incredible.  LeGuin deftly maneuvers and guides the reader around cairns of broken logic, through spindly forests of tired cliches to reveal a truth behind everything we humans have ever heard about any societal structure: fear.  
Fear specifically of change and of therefore losing one's power to keep things the same drives every social structure.  Sadly, wonderfully, LeGuin points out that we as a species fear that which is our greatest single capacity: change, and its vehicle, learning.  

That said, The Dispossessed does have some roughness that may trip up readers new to LeGuin.  Namely, the writing, despite portraying vivid and believable and, yes, likable characters, LeGuin's style in The Dispossessed can seem detached, even clinical at times, but I encourage you as readers and as writers to push through and see that even this style which may be off-putting has a purpose in this masterfully crafted narrative.  

As always, thanks for reading.  
Please share any books that you feel have made you into a better reader and writer below.  Or, if you'd be willing, share how The Dispossessed impacted your thoughts.  

22 July 2014

New Week, New Hope

Greetings, Reader!

Last week I talked a lot about our current border and immigration issues here in the US, and that is important, but you know what else is important?  The Internet!

Not only does the internet allow you to do super awesome things like read this blog or CRASHING THE FCC Website – TWICE – in order to defend Net Neutrality, but the internet also allows you to discover up and coming artists like the inimitably talented Jana Pochop.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of listening to Jana Pochop's newest EP Throats Are Quarries. (Take the 18 minutes to listen to all 5 songs, you'll be glad you did).  Besides featuring songs that have a raw minimalism to them and haunting minor-key vocals, the songs are also immaculately well written.  Pochop pulls out the stops in her poetry.  The use of enjambment in "Adore You," "the spin on the needle, making love-/ly, lovely sounds..." Adds a visceral sense of yearning while the song discusses love and seemingly inevitable loss.

Throats Are Quarries - EP, Jana Pochop
Throats Are Quarries EP Cover, JanaPochop.com
Perhaps my favorite song on Throats Are Quarries is "Deepest Fear."  Jana Pochop writes from a place of extreme vulnerability.  But her vulnerability is her strength and reveals the truth about our shared human existence.  "My deepest fear is that my fears aren't all that deep."  We live in a time of constant inundation about the atrocities across the globe: over 170,000 dead in the Syrian civil war, mass hangings in Iran.  In the face of all of that, how can we even begin to feel that our own lives, our own suffering, our own fears can even matter?  The answer to the question of our individual importance actually lays in the title of the EP itself.  If our Throats Are Quarries, then what we say lasts forever.  Time and circumstance may wear away the edges of our words, may scrape off the author, but in the end, the shape of our words remains.

In the end, we matter.

Thanks for reading.

18 July 2014

What's Actually Trending Pt.2: #FearIsBetterThanFacts

Well, ladies and gentlemen,

I have some wonderful – and I do mean wonderful – news for you all in this session of "What's Actually Trending:"  Obama has indeed ruined our border with Mexico.  That's right, I said it.  Obama has ruined our border.  Are you happy yet?  Can you dance with glee?

Great!  Now, I'll explain how our border is ruined.  Did you know that under Stephen Colbert's Great or Greatest President, President G. W. Bush, the yearly average for illegal alien apprehension at our Southern Border from 2000-2008 was just over 1 Million?  Now, as a country that has a total prison population of just over 2 Million as of year end 2012, apprehending 1 Million people a year is HUGE!  So good job securing our borders, President Bush.

Except... there's no guarantee that those people we apprehended intended harm to the US, a claim that backed President Bush's policies on border enforcement.  By contrast, the annual rates of illegal alien apprehension under President Barack Obama have hovered around only half a million. There are many factors to consider why the number dropped so dramatically (weakened American economy, huge increase in spending on border patrol under Obama's administration, improved technology), but the really impressive thing is that the Border Patrol seized almost 3 Million Pounds of narcotics through their efforts in 2013 alone from under 420,000 illegal aliens.  By contrast, in 2006, Border Patrol seized 2.2 Million pounds of narcotics, but they apprehended nearly 1.1 Million illegal aliens.  So either the news of legalization of marijuana dramatically increased black market demand for marijuana and other drugs, or thanks to better training and technology the Border Patrol now is much better at identifying drug mules and stopping them.

The truth is that our borders are safer than they've ever been, but we don't get to arrest as many people crossing the border seeking work.  On the bright-side, not only do we get to arrest a record number of unaccompanied minors (over 10% of all apprehended aliens) as they flee horrendous violence and crushing poverty, but now we might get to ship them right back into those conditions!  And that's a great thing, because the children are the future, and now we've taught them that if they find American Border Patrol agents and turn themselves in seeking refugee status, that we don't care.  Because in America, we do the right thing.  Whether it be a mother and her children trying to escape an abusive relationship, or unaccompanied children making thousand-mile treks to seek relief, we'll put them right back where they belong.

Given that our southern border is safer than ever (except from children who turn themselves over to American authorities), why do I say that Obama has ruined our border?  Because now, facts don't actually support the claims that Obama has weakened our border security!  How frustrating is that?  But don't worry, despite the facts about why these children are coming here, we still have our GOP Vanguards like Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to trot out the old "Obama is weakening America" spiel.

Now, why would we believe our elected representatives to use facts to support arguments?  Because

And that's what's actually trending.

As always, thanks for reading.

14 July 2014

New Series: What's ACTUALLY Trending Pt.1

Hey all, thanks for coming back or thanks for coming to read this for the first time.  Given the huge and never-waning popularity of the microblogging tool Twitter, and also given the beautiful amounts of news and opinions that are instantly at our fingertips, I've decided it's time to start a new series on what trends are ACTUALLY happening.  

This first post relates to what's happening with our current southern border control issues in the USA.  In case you live under a rock, the main thrust of things is this: children from Central and South America have been travelling thousands of miles, alone, in order to plead for asylum within the USA and possibly have a more vibrant future. This could be a story of great hope and compassion on the part of a Global Superpower, except it isn't.
Image Copyright of Matt Comer, Mattcomer.net

Given the shouts and the opinions of many of the anti-immigration protesters, and then the argument that God Himself established our borders thus crossing into a different country is a sin (the same underlying logic that established the Divine Right to Rule of monarchs, so I hope you don't like voting), I think the best article capturing the heart of the issue from a Christian standpoint is this post found on Wonkette, particularly this passage:
As Jesus said, when I was hungry, you screamed in my face and chanted USA, when I was thirsty, you screamed in my face and chanted USA, and when I was a child thousands of miles from her mother or father trying to escape a failed state, you said
“Who’s going to pay for them?” he asked. “What kind of criminality will happen?”
“The Democrats are making it easy for them to come here so they can produce more Democratic voters,” he said
and then you blocked my bus until it was turned around and sent to a different baby jail, because we don’t want yer kind in Murrietta, and NOBAMA better stop luring disease-ridden children to our glorious land with a promise of super-cush prison cells before they are deported.
-- <http://wonkette.com/553398/california-gets-in-on-hot-fun-screaming-at-brown-babies-action#o3yb3EUWzK8tZbZm.99>
So in light of all of this Hypocrisy and the incredibly poor representation of Christ that we American Christians are showing, I propose this new hashtag:

And that's what's ACTUALLY trending.

Thanks for reading.

03 January 2014

Let's Talk Exegesis: Laura Strong's "Mercies in Disguise," Platitudes, and Truth

So there are some songs that can really rub a person the wrong way.  For some people that song is "Ice, Ice, Baby", because Vanilla Ice stole the beginning of Queen's "Under Pressure".  For me, right now, that song is the worship song "Mercies in Disguise" by Laura  Story.  

Shortly after I decided to start listening to more worship music, "Mercies in Disguise" became popular on my local Christian station.  Musically the song is fine — worship music is rarely exceptional, but then that's not the point, and in fact, as my friend pointed out, exceptional performance would run contrary to the goal of worship music which is worship of God, not of the artist.  No, my beef with the song is the lyrics.  The idea that our present sufferings are God's mercies in disguise is atrocious and, frankly, libelous.  

Now, Christians are often guilty of doling out meaningless (and harmful) platitudes like "God helps those who help themselves" (not Biblical AND victim-blaming BONUS!), "God only gives you as much as you can handle" (not Biblical, and blatantly horse hockey if you've spent any time with people living in poverty, unless you believe that single mother with a drug problem leftover from her violent boyfriend/pimp to be WAY stronger than you are).  Then we come to "Mercies in Disguise" which asserts that our suffering is actually mercy, that evil is actually good.  Whew!  That's a load of excrement.  

Before I dive into why the belief that our present sufferings are God's "Mercies in Disguise", let's take a look at where this belief stems from.   Romans 8:28 states
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. [NIV]
"And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. " [KJV]
There are two major ways to interpret this text, and the repercussions of each reading are enormous.  Because of the context of this verse (which concerns predestination and the Holy Spirit interceding for us), the most popular reading and interpretation goes something like this: "Since God predestined/called Christians, and for those HE called, HE works for their good, then everything that happens to a Christian is God's Will.  Since God's Will is good, then everything that happens to a Christian is somehow good."  The second interpretation is "God can take the rubble leftover from a bad circumstance and make something good out of it."  

This first interpretation that everything that happens is good (or "everything happens for a reason") works just fine if the worst hardship you've come across is having an empty pint glass in the pub.  Problems arise when one experiences a real hardship, like the death of a loved one – particularly if that death was traumatic or especially tragic.  The "All things that happen are Good" interpretation of Romans 8:28 compounds the pain of great loss by saying that somehow it was God's Will that person die, that somehow it's good that person died.  So now the God that we've been told is gracious and all-loving has dealt a deathblow to your heart, but, no, no, it's good, really.  

The "All things are good" interpretation comes less from Christianity than it does from Positive Thinking/The Law of Attraction/New Thought Principle (the idea that expecting good things makes them happen, Religious Scientism, not really religion, since the belief is in the abilities of humans ultimately, and definitely not really science).

The second interpretation comes from a slightly more complicated exegetical process, but pulling this interpretation from Romans seems more in tone with the rest of Romans.  Consider Romans 5:3-5, we rejoice in our suffering because that breeds perseverance – perseverance is good, but there's no implication that suffering is good because of the result.  In fact, if we look at other verses about God's provision, most notably Luke 11:5-13 in which Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock, and that if we do that, then God will receive, find, and the door will be opened for us, then there is no doubt that God doesn't want evil to befall us.    

Now let's go back to the lyrics of "Mercies in Disguise".  In the final stanza:
Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops / What if Your healing comes through tears / And what if a thousand sleepless nights / Are what it takes to know You're near / What if my greatest disappointmentsOr the aching of this lifeIs the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy / And what if trials of this life / The rain, the storms, the hardest nights / Are Your mercies in disguise
                                                    "Mercies in Disguise" 27-34, Laura Strong, emphasis mine   
Can you imagine telling a mother who just lost her daughter to a drug overdose that her loss and pain was actually a mercy in disguise?   There's no context where that would get a positive result, because "Mercies in Disguise" is a meaningless platitude: "Hey, it could be worse!" "Look on the bright side" "Every cloud has a silver lining".  In moments of extreme emotion, we as humans all too easily cling to these sorts of sayings, but they can't provide real healing or real comfort.  And in this case, wherein we call pain God's "mercy in disguise", there is a very real potential for harm, because if we believe that nothing happens outside of God's control (a topic for another time) then it would be TOTALLY reasonable to be completely PISSED at God for our current circumstances,  because HE wanted these bad things to happen.  

Thankfully, as I mentioned above, there are ample data that God doesn't want evil to befall us.  Jesus says in John 10:10b "I have come that they may have life and have it to the full".  

I'll leave you with one positive from Laura Story's song, "Mercies in Disguise": the line "the aching of this life is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy" comes from good exegesis.  We are on this world but not of it, and there is hope in the future for a new creation and, yes, for Heaven, too.  

Thanks for reading. If you have problems with my interpretations or opinions, please leave a comment; I'd be happy for an open discourse.  

02 January 2014

2014 Here We Come

Guten Rutsch in neues Jahr! (Good slide into the new year!)

I'm fairly certain that all of us are glad to see 2013 out of the way.  Despite the recovering market, improved job prospects, etc., I don't think I've talked to anyone that voted 2013 as their best year so far (except maybe my sister, but she's biased because the year ended with her getting engaged, and even then, there were enough bumps and bruises in 2013 to perhaps dislodged even that bias).

With that: "Hello, 2014!"  And "Hello" to a new year of themes for Thomas Mercurial.  This year, I'm going to be focusing more on essay and personal memoir.  If you think that your life is boring, and you don't have any stories worth telling, then I highly encourage you to read the posts this year.  No matter how mundane your life may seem to you, I guarantee that there are portions of it that are riotously funny and heartrendingly sad — bonus points from a writerly standpoint if you can do both in one story.  Whether something is worth telling or not is all a matter of perspective, and no one has the perspective that you have.

Now let's be like a good whiskey and deliver 2014 a good kick in the teeth.