Writing About (my) Rape

NOTE: I’ll be talking about my own rape, in specific but not intimate detail; warning for if that is a trigger subject for you.

An artist friend who was putting together a collaborative art show on rape culture asked me to contribute. I said I would try to write something, maybe a spoken word piece, but then never did.

I simply couldn’t do it.

It is, in fact, easier to write about rape in a blog post, where there is pretense of distance and objectivity, even in first person. I can say, “I was raped” and then move on clinically to the aftermath, the social constructs of rape culture, and where my experience fits into my sexual awakening over the years.

But to write emotionally about it, to reflect on that experience by tapping into my reactions and self-perception…no, I could not do that. That surprised me, although I wonder at the fact I was surprised.

My rape was rather low-key, and although all rape is about power and not sex, it was a situation where I felt I had “put myself” in the way of sex. It was not quite a date rape. I was crashing with a friend for a few days, and he decided that since we had dated once for a couple of weeks in the past, having sex was on the menu. I said no, we went to bed separately, and then he showed up in my bed later that night. I felt obligated – he was putting me up when I needed a place to stay, after all.

I did not go to his bed. I never said “yes”, in fact I explicitly said “no” when he asked. But did not I shove him out of bed either. I did not enjoy myself; we did not talk about it afterwards. He thanked me and went back to bed. I went to sleep.

The result of this uncomfortable violation was that I did not know I had been raped. It took me years of reading about rape, rape culture, and rape victims to realize that I had, in fact, actually been raped. For those not familiar with how rape is marginalized in our society, that probably makes me sound like an idiot. In fact, I kind of felt like an idiot when the realization hit me, for a lot of reasons; an idiot for not realizing it sooner, mostly.

I felt more like I had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, which if you read between the lines on that translates to “it was my fault.” Part of me still feels that way, despite arguing with myself about it for years now. I felt violated and disappointed, but not like a victim, if that makes sense? “I was standing on the beach and the wave knocked me down” is more how I viewed it at the time.

The wave, in this case, being a fully self-aware, sober man who had the choice to just stay the hell out of my bed as I had requested but instead, as it were, knocked me down.

I was not traumatized by the event as some rape victims are, and it is hard for me to weigh my rather plebian experience against those who have been physically beaten and/or restrained. So, I did not think that it would be difficult to write how I feel about my rape.

I was wrong.

There is no emotional breakdown or breakthrough for me to illuminate here, just dawning awareness. I couldn’t force myself to write on the subject, and as most of you know, forcing myself to write is pretty much my stock in trade. I do it every day. But in this one instance, that failed, and I stalled. That, I think, was the weirdest part for me.

I wondered if perhaps I have nothing to say on the subject on the emotional level. It happened a long time ago, and while it took years to understand that I was raped, there has never been much of an emotional pitch to that turmoil – surprise, more than anything. “I was raped? Really? Well…yeah, I was, wasn’t I? No wonder I hated it so much, no wonder I stopped being close friends with him.”

Even if, to this day, we are “Facebook friends.”

Such, I suppose, is rape culture. It puts the burden of the rape on the victim, and then convinces us that nothing untoward ever happened, and let’s our rapist think they did nothing wrong.

I’m sure I feel something about that, but I’m not sure what.

All hope abandon…

I posted a link to an article that really resonated with a lot of people I know. It talks about the confusion of not having a set, clear path in front you, and how we often shape our lives by the decisions we’ve made in the past rather than our expectations for the future. It resonated with me too, which is why I posted it, but it also pulled at another issue I’ve wrestled with a lot in life: hope.

The article I’m talking about, When Way Closes is a short meditation on the frustrations of feeling like our lives are out of control, directionless, and pointless.

That’s a real condition; the thought “I have nothing to live for” hit me hard right before my major psychological breakdown in 2008. It was not a plea for death but rather a simple reckoning: there was no reason for me to get out of bed in the morning. Oh sure having a job and paying bills, yes, those responsibilities kept me going to that job I truly loathed. But personal reasons? Goals? Hope? Zip nada none. I was living mostly for the express purpose of staying alive. There was nothing ahead of me to live for.

Which was the result of both the choices I made and didn’t make. Either way, doors were closed and I moved on, forever trying to make things “better” in a way that did not involve any kind of personal risk, self-discovery, or lifestyle change. Oh, the irony.

I put all my bets on hopes I had for the future, but I did not want to do the work necessary to deal with my demons and my fears. The result was that I slowly pushed myself into a full breakdown that took a year and half to pull out from.

While I can say “I put myself there, I have no one to blame but myself,” I think it is also accurate to say, “I did the best I could with the resources I had at the time.” Both statements are equally true.

I always tried for better, and cornering myself into a nervous breakdown was definitely not done on purpose. I desperately grasped at ideas to improve my life, work, and career over and over. I made plans and I had goals and I worked my ass off. I ended up making poor choices and I misdirected myself plenty of times but it was always with the best of intentions. My strategies were flawless…except for the fact that they were also wrong.

So, “way closed behind me” and things changed whether I wanted them to or not.

The article talks about how, when we are confused about the future, we should look to our past. Doing that (post-breakdown, after-therapy) I realized that a lot of my bad choices were protective, keeping me out of environments/jobs that would have been psychologically horrific for me, despite the fact that I pinned all my hopes on those careers working out. Hind sight, ammirite???

I would craft plans based on hopes I had about results, then derail myself out of fear and insecurity and be confused about why that happened. I failed to realize that the plans were, themselves, flawed. Wash, cycle, repeat. Repeat and repeat, because hope is merely high-octane desperation.

Mostly, this cycle kept going because I thought as long as my path was clear and my goals concrete, I would not fail. Crashing and burning due to self-sabotage was never accounted for, even if I knew that was exactly what was going on at some level, even if I claimed bad luck or other people or the whimsy of fate. If only I could get it right! Yet, when I finally turned to look at how “way had closed” behind me, each time it was clear as day: blinded by hope, I would stumble onto a plan to improve my life, only to defeat myself out of self-defense, then sink into despair because my hopes had been dashed.

In reading Andre Come-Sponville’s book “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” I was reminded of one of the great lessons of Buddhism: suffering is born out of desire.

Not, as we tend to define the word these days, desire in and of itself as a sexual or material craving. The desire meant here is far more along the lines of “hope” – we hope for what we do not have, and then fall into despair when we don’t get it or we get a corrupted version of our dreams. Suffering does not arise because human emotions are bad and we should dissociate from them, but from the hope we rest those emotions on.

Where things careen off the tracks, I think, is where hope lives.

While I’ve never been a big proponent of “follow your bliss” – I’m far too much a type A personality for that nonsense – I know that doing so is part of the secret of “finding way” (as the Quakers call it). But what are we to hope for if no part of our path is clear? What do we work towards?

The phrase that pulled at me from Comte-Sponville’s book was: “If we want only what we do not have, we cannot have what we want.” It’s a bit like a riddle but it’s also accurate. For example, those who are filthy rich tend to crave more and more money, no matter how much they already have. They are obsessed with hope, which feeds their greed. They will never have what they want, and in the end, turn craven in their desperation.

We tend to think that if we don’t have high hopes and a high-resolution path for our goals, then we are doomed to fail. I think far more often, putting our hope into exacting plans means that when things (inevitably) fail to go to plan, we end up completely disordered. Yet, maybe those plans were not actually well suited to our true goals. Maybe we suffer because of hope, not failure.

When way closes behind us, it does point us in the direction we were meant to go, but we still can’t get anywhere if we let the fog of hope cloud both our vision and our understanding of our past. It’s not about thinking, “well, the turn to the left is a closed door, therefore I must go right” but rather, “why is that door closed? How I can keep doors like it open? Should I?”

It’s not to say we should not have goals or plans, but perhaps we would be better served by looking at our future with the mindset of, yes, “follow your bliss.” That we should look at how “way has closed” behind us not as failure (the result of hope) but as lessons we created for our future selves. Or as Comte-Sponville also wrote: “The wise act, while the foolish hope and tremble.”

Basing all our plans on hope for what we don’t have is a recipe for disaster. Likewise, failing to plan is planning to fail. The point where these two ideas converge is where we look at how “way has closed” and understand our true motivations, wants, and needs.

 

Sunday Six-ish! WoHH (3/15/15)

WoHH coverOooo! More Wolves of Harmony Heights! I love this particular scene, from Chapter 6, where Liz Hart and her friend/lover Brandon Chase confront the out-of-town stranger Hardey Gochenour when she finds him hanging out at 2am in the morning at a diner with her son and his friends, who are all supposed to be grounded already. Not suspicious at all, Hardey! Of course, there is a lot going on that none of the men in her life are not actually telling her….

Brandon walked up to the table. “Man, I thought we talked about this.”

Hardey leaned back casually while the kids all cowered. “We did, but I think we took different things away from that conversation.”

Brandon glowered. “I thought you weren’t this stupid.”

“You know what the situation is,” Hardey said, tipping his head towards Augie.

“Well you know what? I don’t!” Liz pushed Brandon aside. “There is nothing sketchy at all about your meeting up late at night with a group of teens, is it? You are so fucking lucky I’m not calling the cops!” Liz rose in fury, and the few other people in the diner stared at them.

Your body is not a carburetor

Recently a friend of mine posted about a lot of weight she had lost and her improved health/bloodwork after starting a new way of eating (or WOE, for short). It doesn’t matter which WOE she used, here – Weight Watchers, Mediterranean, the Zone, Atkins, LCHF, whatever, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that she improved her health and lost some weight doing it.

What made this post stand out for me is that a friend of hers immediately jumped in to give all sorts of weight loss advice that was neither asked for nor needed, under the guise of being supportive. When her advice was routinely rebutted by my friend, who kept saying over and over, “thanks but I tried that, it did not work for me” the woman got hostile and defensive and, in the end, rude.

And here’s the worst part: the advice that was being given was in and of itself damaging. More so, it was based on the idea that all fat people are stupid.

It amazes me how often that assumption is made. One time, I was walking down the street talking to a friend. Kind of out of the blue, she said, “Have you thought about losing weight? It would be so much better for your health; it’s really important.”

I stopped dead and stared at her in utter disbelief.

Not because she was wrong (debatable), but because she felt compelled to tell me that. I’m 45 years old, and thanks to modern processed foods and my mother’s twisted obsession with body fat, I’ve been overweight pretty consistently since I was about 10 years old. That’s 35+ years of mostly being fat, and only being thin a few times under the duress of disordered eating and obsessive exercising.

Now, at what point does she think I missed the message “fat is bad”? Was I out the day the memo was passed around? Did I skip that lesson? Did I somehow, miraculously, live for 35+ fucking years in a society that is obsessed with body image issues and that has a deep seated hatred of anyone who is more than 10 pounds overweight and NOT figure out for myself that my life would be better if I were thinner?

No, I did not. I got it, I got that message loud and clear. No one who has even an ounce of body fat on them has missed that message.

The problem is that we, as a culture, have been told so hard and so long that losing weight is easy, therefore being fat is a choice; that it is a decision we make at some point and is something we have complete control over. We’re taught “calories in/calories out” as if the complex biological system known as the human body is as simplistic as a carburetor engine, and we’ve been taught “eat less/exercise more” under a diametrically opposite belief that the less fuel you give an engine, the more it burns.

Well, you can’t have it both ways, and you also can’t reduce the incredibly complex human metabolism to the first law of thermodynamics. I mean, I get it: I wish it were that easy too. But it’s really, really not. While it is possible to eat less, exercise more, and lose weight, it is not successful. Successful is something that improves your health and has long-lasting effects. Successful is something that leaves people feeling good about themselves, at a healthy weight, and not hungry all the time. Successful is something that applies to a method that does not have a 95% failure rate, as traditional low-calorie diets do. (Ask any scientist or even an undergraduate student: any experiment with a 95% failure rate is, to put it kindly, a fucking failure.)

I get into arguments with friends about this not because they know what they are talking about but because it is such a closely held belief that no one wants to let it go. It sounds so EASY, of course it must work!

But if it did, I assure you, obesity would not be an epidemic. I would not be fat, that’s for sure. I would have not only lost weight but kept it off during one of the dozens attempts I made at the “eat less, exercise more” diets I’ve tried over the last 30 years. I’m not lazy and I have crazy mad willpower and even right now, overweight and out of shape, chances are damn good that I eat much more healthfully and probably much less than you do.

But the myth holds. My friend who asked if I had ever thought about losing weight was thin and had been thin her whole life, yet felt compelled to say what she said because she really believed that somehow, I’m just so lazy and inefficient and, possibly, stupidly ignorant that it’s never occurred to me to try and lose weight. To her, losing weight should be easy (eat less! Exercise more!) so if I have not lost weight, then it’s obviously because I’ve never really, honestly tried. Like, maybe it just never occurred to me? For fuck’s sake.

Here’s the thing, though: eating less than what your body decides it needs is not a magic bullet for getting healthy. In fact, it is a very practical, sure-fire bullet for ruining your health. Here’s what I mean:

The myth is that if you don’t eat enough, your body will go to its reserves (fat) to give you energy.

This is true.

But first, it will do a bunch of other things, because the human body does not want to tap those reserves. They are emergency stores, for lack of a better term, not a candy bar you break out during a long afternoon when you skip lunch. This should surprise no one, but obviously needs to be said: the body will go to extremes to NOT eat itself.

First, the body will tell you it is hungry. Then, when you don’t eat or you don’t eat enough, it will tell you it is still hungry. And then it will remind you that hey, you’re hungry. Look at the time! You’re hungry! Still! Hungry! HUNGRY! HUNGRY HUNGRY HUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRY FOR FUCKS SAKE EAT SOMETHING YOU FUCKING MORON!!!!!

Then when you STILL don’t eat, the body does not magically start eating itself. The body abhors cannibalism, and it will do anything to avoid it. So it turns down the metabolism; slows everything down so you don’t use as much energy. This is efficient. This is exactly what the body was designed to do.

Now you are HUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRY and also lethargic.

According to traditional diet advice, this is now the perfect time to go for a run!

If the insanity of this hasn’t struck you yet, then you aren’t paying attention.

Eventually, if you stay hungry for long enough and force your metabolism to spike using intense exercise, your body will finally, unwillingly, regretfully start eating itself. It will start with the fat stores, then move to the muscles, then to the organs. The key to success in this war is to stop pushing so hard at that magic point in between fat and muscles. But how? Your body is in deficit and eating itself. It has no concept of balance, here: either you are eating enough to live on, or you’re not. If you’re not, then the body assumes “ffs still starving? Fine!” and just keeps eating itself.

You hit that magic number on the scale and finally! You can sleep in and not go for that long run every morning! You can up your caloric intake from 1200 to 1400! Time for those extra two ounces of cheese! Woo!

Your body sees this mild concession as the end of the battle, but not the war. It’s cautious; it doesn’t trust that it won’t happen again, so it lowers the baseline metabolism to keep energy stores safe. It ramps up the hunger signals, reactivating cravings that might have been pushed to the side by deprivation.

And within six months to a year, you’re back where you started (or, more likely, even heavier than when you started), with friends telling you that you should really lose weight because it would be healthier for you. Because, clearly, you just have no willpower.

Here is what no one wants to admit: being fat is not a condition with universal causes, and there is no universal solution. Current research is starting to completely reframe the issue of obesity. Traditionally, being overweight was the problem, and “eat less/exercise more!” the solution. What is being explored these days is that obesity is actually a symptom. Overeating isn’t a disease, and under-eating isn’t the cure.  Obesity happens because of other factors, and those factors can be as individual as people.

Some people gain weight because they overeat due to depression or in response to issues like domestic violence; some people have thyroid problems; some people have physical or psychological addictions to sugar or other foods; some people have food intolerances; some people have insulin problems stemming from genetics and/or bad habits; some people have to take meds for other health reasons which have side effects like hunger and weight gain; and yes, there are even a few very rare individuals who don’t give a flying fuck and overeat because they want to.

In addition, the modern diet is a landmine of addiction and psychological dependence. We are completely addled by sugar, which is in nearly every process food on the market (even processed deli meats; go ahead, check the labels, I’m not lying to you). Sugar itself is totally natural and an important staple of our diet, but not in massive quantities. While it’s addictive, cutting it out completely is impossible and ill advised (that is, fruit is a natural sugar, and fruit is healthy, but if you have a problem with sugar, fruit can be a trigger; it’s a vicious cycle) so people end up on a hamster wheel of deprivation/binging.

At what point does this turn from being an issue of will power to one of physiology?

If you don’t have the answer to that question, and you don’t, then shut up. If you aren’t someone’s nutritionist or doctor, then shut up. Being thin is not a badge of honor or a success; it’s just how your nature/nurture cards played out. If you are naturally thin, I guaran-fucking-tee you that every fat person you know has a much better grasp of nutrition, exercise, and calorie counts than you do. The majority of us have been on the hamster wheel of “Eat less! Exercise more!” at least once if not a dozen times. Every single one of us has tried Weight Watchers, Atkins, the Hollywood diet, supplements, and Slimfast.

Some of us have even starved ourselves into anorexia because that is easier. I’ll give you a moment to wrap your mind around that one.

Got it? Good. Yet over and over, well-meaning idiots tell us that we should think about losing weight, because it would be healthier for us. Our clothes would fit better, you know? Just eat less and exercise more, it’s so easy!

Yes, thank you, we know.

My point here is to ask you to rethink what you assume. If you are thin, don’t assume it is because you have a better grasp of portion control or calorie counts than your fat friend (who, very likely, eats less than you do because their metabolism has been depressed by yo-yo dieting). You really don’t, I’d lay money on that. Don’t assume that the fat people you know are idiots who have never been exposed to diet advice before in their lives (they have…every day…by everyone).  Don’t assume that being fat is a simple problem with a simple solution, because chances are you don’t know a damn thing about the actual reasons why that person is fat in the first place.

Most importantly: Don’t treat obesity as if it is a personal failure of willpower or dedication. When you do that, you are telling people who are overweight that they are lazy, stupid, and lack self-control—yes, that’s exactly what you are implying, even if that’s not what you meant. Claiming you are “just trying to help” (when no one asked you for your help) is an excuse for your rude behavior. Concern trolling is more about feeding your sense of arrogance and superiority than it is about helping people. Period.

Remember, the traditional “Eat less! Exercise more!” paradigm fails 95% of the time. Instead of thinking that 95% of the people involved are pathologically compulsive and lazy, why not accept the fact that the primary assertion of that hypothesis is just fucking wrong.

Sunday Six – WoHH (3/8/15)

So in fandom — or at least, I think that’s where it started? Hard to track this kind of thing down — there is a thing called “Sunday Six”, where authors post six sentences from their WIPs (Works In Progress). It’s a great way to engage readers and keep people interested in work that won’t be available to be read for a while. Given the torturous hell I’m putting everyone through with my writing updates about Wolves of Harmony Heights, I thought it might be fun (cruel? pointless?) to share progress on it, “Sunday Six Style” (although I think it’s actually eight sentences? Euclidean numbers. Not my thing).

Here you go, from chapter two, my main character Liz Hart talking about motherhood with her co-worker, Shawnna Franklin as they are working in the gas station mart that Liz manages:

Shawnna frowned as she broke down the empty boxes. “You know your son is one fine looking boy, right?”

“He’s gorgeous.” Liz nodded.

“No, Liz. That’s you as a mother remembering what he looked like as a loaf of bread in your arms after giving birth. I’m telling you as the mother of an eleven year old girl who thinks Augie is ‘super adorbs’ that your son is going to be a heart-breaker in about another year.”

“I…what?” Liz frantically flipped to the picture albums on her phone. “No.”

#

Writing with nothing to lose

A couple of things recently got me to thinking about how I identify myself as a writer. First, I have many friends who are published authors, ranging from the highest-falutin literary high-brow to proud but low-brow hacks and everything in between, and I adore all of them. What they write has very little impact on how I view them, despite being raised and educated to automatically assign more importance to the “serious” writers of “literary fiction” than the authors of commercial fiction. Yeah, that’s called snobbery, and I don’t like that about myself. My inner elitist, though, is pretty well entrench – and tragically, at the very least, how I do not judge others is definitely how I judge myself.

Second, two articles about writing hit the waves this week, one in response to the other. The first was Mr. MFA’s “Things I can Say about MFA Writing Programs Now that I No Longer Teach in One” which was…unsurprising. His entire slant is towards high-end literary fiction, the kind that wins important awards and will be assigned reading in classrooms decades from now, and his comments reflect his belief that not all people have the talent to write that kind of story. The other, Chuck Wendig’s “An Open Letter to that Ex-MFA Creative Writing Teacher Dude”, was also unsurprising, taking the tack of a commercial fiction author encouraging writers of all stripes to never give up, to keep writing, and to write what they want to write.

Simply put: one perspective is elitist, the other is populist. Never the twain shall meet.

This reflects my issues with writing. Honestly, for the past seven years, I’ve mostly defined myself as a fanfic writer. It’s where the bulk of my creative energies have gone, and I am very proud of (most of) the work I did during that time. But in the hierarchy of “being a writer” it’s the lowest, most shameful and most denigrated rung on the ladder. It’s not even on the ladder, it’s the dirt at the bottom that the ladder rests on…and I could carry that metaphor into some kind of positive affirmation but what I’m talking about here is not my opinion but the mainstream perspective, which is definitely mired in the hierarchic model (fanfic at the bottom, great literary classics at the top).

But fanfic was a natural home for me. Despite being raised in a very elitist environment when it came to literature, I’ve always leaned towards the populist side of writing. My first long stories were Star Wars and Star Trek fanfiction (I was around ten to twelve years old, this was back in the 70s), and my first truly original stories were pretty horrible mary-sue affairs. Adults would cluck about my “talent” and encourage me to “expand my horizons” but I really didn’t want to. I loved spaceships and adventure and romance and horses. (Look, I was twelve. Horses. OKAY?)

The result of this dynamic was an intense feeling of shame for wanting to write “fun stuff”. That stuff doesn’t count, it’s embarrassing, it’s low-brow and a waste of my talent.

When really, a waste of my talent was not writing regularly for over ten years.

Between 1997 and 2007, I mostly did not write (long story, lots of reasons, ref. Grieving Futures). Fanfiction got me writing again because it didn’t count and I had nothing to lose; no one was judging it aside from other fans, because most writers liked to pretend it didn’t exist, and I did it under a pen name anyway. It was a safe place for me to unfurl as a writer and simply write without shame the things I wanted to write. I wrote a lot of smut but also some interesting forays into social issues and relationship exploration as well as murder mysteries. I’m not defending the quality of that output, but I am defending the fact that writing fanfic saved my writing life.

Then, eventually, I was confronted with the idea of writing my own stories, full of characters and world-building I created myself. Some of that was influenced by fanfic practices (fancasting my characters, playlists, etc.) but a lot of it comes from a life of enjoying a rollicking good tale. I want to entertain people, give them characters to embrace and journey with and love dearly.

So I did. Under a pseudonym.

The elitist in me was still ashamed of the idea that people might judge me for writing commercial, popular fiction. There was the idea that I could go one way or the other, and as long as my populist side was safely tucked away under a fake name, I, KimBoo York, might still be able to write the “serious words for serious readers” that the elitist in me demanded.

But here’s the thing, and I think it applies to a lot of goals in life: you can say you want to do something over and over until you are blue in the face, you can make plans to start doing it, you can talk about how you are going to do it…but if you are not actively doing it or trying to make it happen, it really is not as important to you as you claim it to be.

That’s it.

If you want to learn to draw but aren’t drawing, or you want to dance but aren’t dancing, or you want to run a marathon but aren’t even jogging, then no, you actually do not want to do those things. You like the idea of doing them, but you don’t want to do the thing. Not really.

Not to say there aren’t reasons for why you aren’t doing them, but….well, no. There are no reasons, I mean outside of illness, depression, physical pain or life trauma (the eternal exceptions to all rules! RESPECT!). There might be a lot of reasons you are not the lead in a Hollywood movie, but there is no reason you can’t study acting, memorize and practice classic monologues, or even go to auditions just to get a feel for the process. Barring health-related reasons, if you would rather take your precious down time (from work, from parenting, from care-taking, from whatever) and do anything other than the thing you claim you desperately want to do? Then you don’t want to do it.

Here’s what I mean: I want to learn French. I would be so cool to speak and understand French! But I don’t ever actually practice learning the language. Duolingo makes it dead easy, and free, and there really just is no reason I could not spend half my lunch hour learning French. But I don’t. Ipso facto, I’m not as enamored of learning the language as I think I am.

Likewise, “serious words for serious readers” never happens. Oh, it’s true that I’ve tried my hand at writing a few non-genre, literary short stories about real people. I bored myself, okay? BORRRRRING. Hated it. It made writing into a pretentious chore for me.

Last fall, as I saw how little time I was investing in something I claimed was important to me versus how much time I was investing in something I really do love, I realized that the elitist in me was the minority voice. Mr. MFA Dude can have his literary pretensions, I’d rather hang with Wendig and many of my friends on the populist side. My literary heroes are Elizabeth Peters, James White, Arthur Conan Doyle, and all those Star Trek novel tie-ins.

My equivalent of “tossing my hat into the ring” is my paranormal, poly-romantic, adventure story Wolves of Harmony Heights. As most everyone knows by now, WoHH started off as a NaNoWriMo story back in November. I blew past 50k words and kept going. It’s still going. It will probably hit near 150,000 words total (well into the 400 page mark) and I plan to self-publish it.

Yes, self-publish it. Why? For the same reason I started writing fanfiction back in 2007: I have nothing to lose. I’m not writing this story to land a great contract or become famous or rich or popular. I’m writing it as a testament to the stories I love to read and watch and, yes, write. I’m writing it because doing so, as hard and frustrating as it is sometimes, is just plain FUN. I’m writing about werewolves and witches and bad guys and good people and in the end, the fact that doing so is personally rewarding to me is enough. That’s why I’m writing it, that’s why I’m publishing it.  That’s more than enough reason for me.

At long last, I’m admitting and accepting what has really, truly, and always been true: I’m a populist writer. And for the first time, I’m not ashamed of that or trying to hide it away. As they say, haters will hate, and they are welcome to waste their time doing so. Me? I’ve got stories to write.

 

“go”

Henry Rollins meme

The above meme featuring Henry Rollins has been making the rounds lately, and I happen to like it (and Rollins) a lot. So I posted it on facebook.

Reactions ranged from “hell yeah!” to “nope” for a variety of reasons. Valid criticism came in the form of people arguing that down time is also recuperation/recovery time, and as well that people with disabilities or chronic illnesses need to not be going full force all the time as a health issue. Taken at face value, the quote comes across as shaming people who are not 100% busy 110% of the time.

I won’t speak for Rollins, who can defend/explain himself just fuckin’ fine (oh he’s so fine). What I want to do, is expand the meaning of what it means to “go”. My friend CarlaM left a comment that I thought captured what I saw in the meme: “It doesn’t mean you gotta GO GO GO all the time. It means be mindful, be aware, CHOOSE when to be on and when to turn off.”

Which comes back around to defining what “go” means. In our society, over-achievement is a valid  lifestyle choice. People who drive themselves into the ground are revered as “hard workers”, “good employees”, “entrepreneurial role models.” Taking down time is seen as a weakness; using free time to goof off as a folly or worse, irresponsible. “Go go go!” is a motivational cheer for people to get their boots on the ground and get marching.

But I like CarlaM’s take on it, which resonated with me a lot. When I talk about spare time or free time, I mean, really, wasted time. A nap is not wasted time, it can be a necessary part of a stressful day, a method of recharging our batteries. Blearily scrolling through pinterest or tumblr in the wee hours, or checking out using drugs such as alcohol, or focusing all of our energy on solving other people’s problems — that’s wasted time. We can call it resting or having fun but it never is. The difference between recuperation/resting and wasting energy is how you feel afterwards: refreshed? Energized? Clear headed? Positive and motivated? Or exhausted, drained, and angry?

Those nights I spent in a depressed mental haze, staying up trolling the ‘net for distractions until I literally fell asleep in my chair….that wasn’t free time. That wasn’t anything that resembled compassion for myself. That wasn’t me being mindful. That was me disrespecting myself because the act of self-care (going to sleep, getting medical assistance, reaching out to friends for help) felt shameful to me. Yes, I did need to “go” but not to work; I needed to go to a safe place in my life and recover.

“Go”, here, is the sense of doing things purposefully for the sake of your LIFE. It means working hard at your job and/or your passion, and committing to your goals; it also means taking a nap, taking your meds, taking time to spend with friends, taking in a movie or taking a day at the beach. We understand that someone who is ill or injured in the hospital might need 20 hours of sleep a day just to get better, but we don’t apply the same principle to other situations where self-care is critical, such as chronic pain/illness, new parenthood, mental illness, or depression.

You could argue that this is all just semantics — down time or free time or wasting time, whatevs! But I disagree, because you cannot change the concept of productivity if your language is constantly denigrating  aspects of self-care that include rest, recovery, and recharging. Fortunately, our language already supports a broader use of the term:
“Go” to sleep.
“Go” take a vacation.
“Go” out with friends.

Of course our culture is also very judgmental. People gage productivity their their own filter of what success means, and not your version of self-care. That’s why this kind of discussion is important. We need to value self-care as a productive activity, in and of itself. The idea of “don’t waste your life!” isn’t ultimately about the job you have or how many hours you work, but how present you are in it as you live it. Somedays that might mean working furiously on an art project, or working overtime at your job in order to make money or get a promotion, or taking a personal day to spend in bed with hot tea and your blankie.

We don’t have down time or free time, we have LIFE time, and no one gets to judge what is important to us but ourselves. Throwing it away randomly, wasting time doing things that wear you down because you are scared or insecure or feel unworthy, that’s wasted time.

Don’t waste yourself. Go for a break, go to a friend’s house for dinner, go write fanfic, go doodle up a dragon, go take a nap, go write that masterpiece, go practice your music, go meditate, go get help.

All you got is LIFE time. Go.

Culture, convention, conformity

My friend KimM and I were bitching talking about our jobs lately when the subject of “professionalism” came up, mainly in regards to appearance and behavior on-the-job. The topic was expanded on by the revelation that the talented actress Mo’Nique has been overlooked for roles because of a perception that she went outside the conventions of Hollywood.

Different cultures have different rules of behavior and everyone knows this, even children. The university or corporate culture mandate of professionalism depends a lot on your job, the institution you work for, and even the part of the country you’re in.

Nonetheless there are universals for Westernized American society: for men, ties are more professional than polo shirts; for women, heels of some kind, even low pumps, are more professional than flats (woe betide your feet).

The tricky part, though, are the other conventions, the unspoken but oft-referred to rules of engagement. In academia, you never publicly criticize your mentor, for instance. You don’t write letters to the editor about how awful your graduate program is, either. There was a young lady in my MLIS program who did just that in an online blog — no doubt, there are those reading this now who know exactly who I am talking about, and this was nearly 4 years ago — and became instantly unemployable. Not in any way she could see, but if you listened to the backchatter of different communities online, it was obvious. I’m sure she found a job eventually, but there is no doubt her career took a critical hit before she even got her degree in hand.

But here’s the thing: She wasn’t actually wrong. 

There were faults with the program and many of us were trying to get them addressed…on the back end. Talks with professors and adjuncts and administration were common; the ALA student chapter was a strong mover and shaker back then and was very involved in those discussions. Nothing that student wrote about publicly was in any way a lie. She was right on the money about our program’s faults and had a right to say so in a public venue.  Doing so was against the convention of academia, even if it was not strictly against the rules, and whether she ever became aware of it or not she paid the price. Maybe she knew what she was doing though, and just didn’t care.

Likewise, Mo’Nique is also suffering backlash for doing something she had a right to do. She wanted some control over her appearances during a promotional tour, and when she won the Oscar she used the opportunity to make a political statement. One side of this declares that by breaking these conventions, she crippled her career, not only losing out on great acting opportunities but curtailing what could have become a very powerful, influential position for her in Hollywood. The other side, though, is just as valid, in that she was probably very aware that those moments might be the only time in her life she would get a chance to do anything like that. Oscars are not guaranteed, especially not to black women, so it’s reasonable to assume she decided to “take the hit” in exchange for using that one, golden opportunity to try and create positive change in her world.

What may on the surface look “wrong” or like someone is being “a trouble maker” through the lens of the culture whose rules are being broken might simply be someone living by a different standard of rules altogether.

KimM and I, and so many of my friends, are working in environments we don’t feel at home in — for money or convenience, doesn’t matter, we have to make conscious efforts to “fit in.” I’m not saying that’s wrong (and I happen to like my current job a lot, even when I bitch talk about it), but the point is that if we wanted to climb that culture’s ladder badly enough, we would conform far more than we do. For the sake of succeeding within that culture, my librarian colleague would possibly have never written that blog post; Mo’Nique would have humbly accepted her award and tripped off into a slew of acting jobs. That’s the bottom line.

Instead, we sometimes make “outlier” decisions that colleagues and friends far more enmeshed in their chosen (or, perhaps, default) culture do not understand, or do not approve. The people I know, they aren’t sheeple, so I expect a lot of them accept the conformity consciously in exchange for the chance at a tenured position or a move up to middle-management or an opportunity to get their work funded. In that sense it does come back around to “do what feels right”, because if you cannot function in that particular culture at all it will utterly break you (for instance, in my case that would be law enforcement or emergency services).

But I think that’s my point here: it needs to be a conscious decision, and made for reasons that resonate with your truest self, the calling you have or the work you feel you need to do. Ironically, that often puts us on the outside of the cultures we actually need to participate in to achieve the success we are working towards (for whatever value you ascribe to ‘success’). We’re often pressured to conform under the assumption that we are looking for success as defined by that culture.

We’re not.

If we cannot stand there in confidence of what we are standing for (in my case, a full time career as a commercial fiction writer…eventually…), then we’ll keep getting thrown back down to the ground by the sheer force of cultural disapproval. The desire to belong is very strong, the need for approval almost addictive. We can poo-poo all of that but only to our detriment; recognizing and accounting for how strong those forces can be makes the difference between succeeding in our own, unconventional goals or succumbling to a life that would ultimately ruin us.


 

[To make clear, I’m not directing this post to people who happily conform to the culture they belong to because they find that fulfilling; the focus of this post is on people like me, who don’t easily conform to anything to begin with (goodness knows I’ve tried) and have personal goals that stand outside of “convention” in regards to professional careers]

 

Artist co-housing concept

I’ve had different conversations with different friends lately about the idea of artist communes, which kind of makes my skin itch because I’m just not that much of a hippy.

Yet I’ve been enamored for decades now with the “new” concept of cohousing*, which back in the 1980s when I first discovered it was a very, very fringe concept in the U.S. Thirty years later and it’s still on the fringe, but not quite as far out on the edges as it used to be. There are a lot of “intentional communities” in this country and more are being developed every day.

So, when I came across this article, “Circular Hakka Houses Create Self-Sustaining Communities”, featuring traditional “fortresses” (tulou) built by the Chinese Hakka people, I thought it would be a great way to combine old and new principles.

The tulou are huge circular buildings with open courtyards in the middle, and are two to four stories tall. The largest tulou could hold up to 80 families, living in groups within the fortress walls.

My idea was that you build something like this as a cohousing community. The first floor would be work/art space, such as dance studios, fine art (paint,drawing) studios, music rooms, computer labs, recording studios, etc. Because this tulou would not actually need to be a fortress, the outer walls could be mostly glass to let in natural light. The second floor would be split between community resources (group kitchen, entertainment room, childcare services, heavy-duty laundromat, gym, etc.) and larger apartments for larger and/or multi-generational families. The top floor would be mostly smaller apartments for individuals or couples. The courtyard could hold a storage shed for things like bikes and scooters, as well as a child/adult playground (if I can’t play on the swings I don’t want to be a part of your revolution!) and lots of green space for picnics, public performances, and general shenanigans. Depending on the environment/location, the roof could even be used as community space, possibly with a pool/hot tub and “bar” areas or more formal performance spaces.

The way this is designed, all the entrances face internally, so there would be a lot of interaction by default as people go about their day.

Even as a writer, I would love to live in a place like that. I would go down to the computer labs to write – maybe corrals could be “rented” for extended time by individuals – and then go sit outside on the commons to have a snack  while the community choir practices for the winter holidays and kids run around in the playground, and then later make my way up to the entertainment room for the community showing of a popular movie or show that devolves into an argument about Italian cinema before retiring to my own private space for the night.

That just…that sounds heavenly to me.

Meantime, the only real “artists cohousing community” I’ve found is the Louisville Artists Cohousing Community in Colorado, which is still in the formative stages (that is, it doesn’t actually exist yet).

That’s just too bad. I think artist cohousing would be a brilliant idea overall.


* The line between co-housing and commune is a bit squiffy, but general usage seems to be:

  1. Communes are usually ideological in basis (religious, mostly, but also political) and more communal in that nearly everything but personal bedrooms are shared spaces. Think of old-fashioned college dorms.
  2. Cohousing arrangements might have ideological underpinnings (ecology/sustainability is a popular one) but are open to a wider variety to members, and usually features small individual abodes (apartments or cabins or small houses) with larger resources being shared along with centralized community spaces (group kitchens, entertainment/hobby areas, playgrounds, etc.).

Death match: body dysmorphia vs. visualization

Body dysmorphia is more than “not seeing reality in the mirror”, in fact, it’s a far more holistic disorder than that. I’m not sure I clinically suffer from it, but the symptoms resonate with my experience:

  • Preoccupation with your physical appearance with extreme self-consciousness
  • Frequent examination of yourself in the mirror, or the opposite, avoidance of mirrors altogether
  • Strong belief that you have an abnormality or defect in your appearance that makes you ugly
  • Belief that others take special notice of your appearance in a negative way
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Feeling the need to stay housebound
  • Excessive grooming, such as hair plucking or skin picking, or excessive exercise in an unsuccessful effort to improve the flaw
  • Comparison of your appearance with that of others
  • Reluctance to appear in pictures

Yep, that’s me.

But the interesting point is that I am in a constant state of surprise about my body image. There is a part of me that somehow believes I’m not supposed to look as bad as I believe I do.  I compartmentalize the worst of my assumptions and then operate on the principle that “it’s not that bad if I just don’t look.” Conflicting? Yes. Yes, it is.

But it also leads to situations like I found myself in recently, sobbing while collapsed on the floor of a hotel bathroom.

I do not have full-length mirrors in my apartment. The few mirrors I have are hung only to view myself from the shoulders up. I can catch a glimpse of myself in the reflections of shop windows and such, and I’m not a fashion diva so I don’t need to verify that my ‘look’ is right. I know what I look like and I hate it. Confirmation bias is real, y’all.

Yet, the flip side is that I can brush that awareness aside most of the time. I do go out with friends occasionally; I do show up for work; I allow photos of myself if not doing so would be rude in a social context. I’d rather stay at home where no one can see me but I also understand that is not a healthy thing to do all the time, so the constant hate-loathing is pragmatically pushed into its box in the corner of my mental landscape. Ironically it’s a small box; it just contains a lot of energy.

In that hotel room, though, was a full-length, floor-to-ceiling wall mirror in the bathroom. In it, I accidentally glimpsed myself in all my naked glory and I was horrified. My body appeared as a grotesquerie. There was no way to shuffle quickly out of view, or focus on my shoes or collar line. There I was, all of me, and it was as terrible as I have imagined.

It’s like knowing you did poorly on a test, but not truly grasping the magnitude of just how badly you failed until you get the grade back. Until you see that grade, you can delude yourself into a zone of “it’s bad but I’m okay”, which falls apart when you are presented with the cold hard brutal fact that your GPA just nose-dived.

I live in that zone; the mirror was the red-letter “F” on my body.

Yet, I’m aware this is a mental problem more than a physical issue. I get that. I’ve known it for years. Wishing things better doesn’t work, though (I’d have won the lottery by now, okay?). Yes, I would also like to be in better physical health, sure. I’ve joined the gym, and do morning yoga/stretching routines, and try to keep my food intake rational. That honestly has very little to do with what is going on in my head.

Interestingly, we live in a time when neuroscience is really starting to make inroads into the hows and whys of our brains. Science is pulling things like “meditate for inner peace” and “visualize for better athletic performance” out of the woo-woo realm by understanding how these ephemeral practices actually do affect our brains. Can we think ourselves to a Tiger Woods swing in golf? No, but Tiger Woods could and did. It’s a matter of learning to train our brain to best effect — figuring out how to manifest our inherent and natural strengths and talents in order to optimize our training.

That’s a mouthful, but what it boils down to is quite literally re-configuring the wiring of our brain connections. We can’t out-think cancer or depression, but if we are in a healthy place we can out-think our bad habits and our self-perceptions. We do create our own reality, at least in the sense that how we feel about our lives and how we approach problems is well within our control.

What I’ve realized is that my since body dysmorphia is an internal status of perception, it might be possible to change how I think about myself and, just as important, how I behave, through a serious commitment to the practice of visualization and positive reinforcement of self-acceptance using affirmations.

The difference between this and wishful thinking is that visualization and positive affirmations are about changing myself internally, whereas wishful thinking is dreaming about external changes. That is, it’s the difference between feeling better and hoping for better.

It’s also the difference between actively working for something and passively accepting what comes along. As many times I’ve I’ve dieted, worked out, or punished myself psychologically, it’s generally been with a sense of fatalism, because hoping for better is based on clinging to the idea of an outcome. It is not about true change, which must be internal, and so the “better” that I hope for never happens.

I mean, chances are good at this point that I’m fat for life. There is absolutely no doubt that 30+ years of yo-yo dieting involving losing and gaining 50+ pounds several times over has significantly damaged my metabolism. I’m pre-menopausal. While I’m generally in good health, I have a bad back and reduced lung capacity due to the whooping cough of 2012. I’d not be surprised that 15+ years of suffering grief, PTSD, and poverty has resulted in adrenal fatigue. I might have issues with my thyroid (doctor’s appt. scheduled in March to find out). This isn’t adolescence where I’m hoping puberty makes things right, this is middle age where I have to deal with the damages I have sustained along the way.

So yeah, wishful thinking? My worst enemy.

I’m developing a practice of visualization meditations that focus on being healthy, and teaching my brain that I am safe, strong, and whole. Sometimes it feels silly imagining my “ideal self” and “ideal life” in ways that are realistic as opposed to fantasy. At this point, though, I think it might be the only way I’ll never end up crying on the floor just because of what the mirror shows me.