Samsara

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. – Theodore Parker, by way of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m not sure I believe this anymore. It’s a common refrain among my fellow UUs after the events of this year, a reminder that, like love, justice takes time and justice takes work. But I don’t know if there is any inherent moral arc of the universe. God is inscrutable, possessing something beyond our conception of consciousness and morality, so how can we know if our conception of justice fits?

The Just World hypothesis is, after all, a fallacy. It’s one I’ve fallen prey to so many times before. Things will work out if you put in the effort. No one can get away with so much without some sort of retribution. What goes around, comes around.

It doesn’t, at least not in puny human timescales.

In Buddhist metaphysics, we inhabit the world of samsara, the vicious cycle of dissatisfaction and pain. Without heroic and skillful effort, that cycle rolls on and on.

Justice isn’t God’s responsibility, but ours. It’s a mortal endeavor. Justice takes time, and justice takes work. The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice because we bend it ourselves.

I gained faith this year, but lost much of my optimism. Optimism is no longer an outlook I can rely on, but a deliberate practice, a stone wall built against the oncoming tides of samsara.

Earlier this evening, I wrote a letter on a holiday card to a friend. A member of my graduating class, I’ve recently become reacquainted with this person, and I realized how much it meant to me. That, and a few other small, personal achievements, are what I want to remember this year for. I hope I’ll judge 2017 on the merits of what little I can do to bend that arc towards justice.

NaNoWriMo 2016: A Post-Mortem

Final count: 17,746 words. I may not have “won” NaNoWriMo this year, but in a larger sense, I accomplished exactly what I wanted.

My draft of Altars and Acolytes, aka Oh, How I Wish Stories Wrote Themselves, is done. Still needs work, but the story’s coherent, it follows an outline, and successive edits won’t be nearly the slog that this draft was. I wrote maybe 13K to get to the end. My plan of throwing out everything and writing the third act from scratch actually worked.

The 4K I wrote following that has been split up a few ways. I’ve written 2K for a short story entitled “Juicers,” which is about bicycle generators. (No, really.) I’ve thrown in a blog post or two into that count, as well as a poem.

Given the, shall we say, calamitous events of this month, it’s a small miracle that anyone wrote anything at all. Yet writing reminded me that I still have value, that my voice deserves to be heard, and that making art can be a way forward.

Now, hopefully next year I can start something new for a change. Ad astra per aspira.

NaNoWriMo 2016 Half-Time Report

As of this morning, I’m just shy of 10,000 words written for Altars and Acolytes, aka Please Just Let Me Finish Writing You: The Erik Gern Story. In any other NaNoWriMo, this would be not-so-great progress, but for this book, it’s been amazing.

The strategy of throwing out my last act and rewriting it from scratch has paid off. The chapters have been substantially easier to write with a strong outline, as I’ve been able to finish about one per day. I still get the luxury of minor course corrections, such as changing the milieu of a scene from Point A to Point B, without worrying if it’s going to slow me down too much.

A downside is that, while I’m getting words down, it’s a bit sloppier than the earlier portion of the draft. I was on a “Revise A, Write B; Revise B, Write C” schedule before, which allowed me to clean up the previous day’s words before putting new ones down (as well as letting me retroactively fix some continuity issues as I go along). I don’t have that luxury now, since my goal is to just finish these chapters, so once they’re down I’ll have to go back and do some cleanup.

I expect to be done by Thanksgiving, assuming I finish one chapter a day until then. I’ll likely tap out below 20K words for this NaNoWriMo, but they’ll have been hard-fought.

On Bullies and Cynics

I’ve been bullied at all stages of my life. In elementary school, one boy set his sights on me after I ended a phone call early to watch Deep Space Nine. He teased me endlessly. The advice of my stepfather was to punch him. So I did.

He punched back. I didn’t know what to do.

I fell into a bad crowd in high school for a month or two: teenagers who decided to play on my naive, socialized nature. I was almost literally rescued by the theater crowd.

At FSU, I was the subject of some nasty slander.

When I worked at Target about ten years ago, one of my supervisors picked me out for not being “cheerful enough.”

At my last job one awful manager, after hearing of my plans to attend graduate school, sent a company-wide email saying how I’d fail at everything if I left the company.

Donald Trump is a bully. He’s also a racist, a sexist, and a xenophobe, but his core personality is that of a bully. Bullies tend to think alike: they fear everything, and the only response they know is to dominate and violate. In the schoolyard, children are either a bully, are being bullied, or stand behind the bully and hope they’re not next.

You can’t expect the bullied to stand up for themselves, because bullies punch back. Everyone has to stand against the bully. That’s the only way to win: not with appeasement, not by ignoring the bully. Every kid who used to stand behind the bully now has to stand up to him.


I knew a fellow student in my elementary gifted class whom I’ll call Alan. Alan had nothing but contempt for me. Even the way I walked was a subject of criticism: my strides were too short and too quick. I adjusted my stride and cadence, but he found something else to criticize.

The deeply cynical have no self-esteem, so they must find fault in everyone else.

I’ve heard the following a lot lately: you didn’t support the right candidate in the primary; you weren’t vocal enough in supporting the right candidate in the general; your politics aren’t pure enough; you’re not acting through your opposition the right way; you didn’t speak out enough.

Discerning between someone who has genuine criticism — do these certain things better next time — and the deeply cynical — you will never measure up to my standards — can be hard. Look for something concrete and achievable that’s being suggested. Donate to these causes; use this sheet to de-escalate a hate crime; don’t normalize this behavior. But if the criticism is open-ended or impossibly high, don’t bother seeking their approval.

Nor is it in the specific context of this election. When I was applying for jobs over a year ago, I had a phone interview for a PHP developer position. The interviewer was looking for any excuse to get rid of me; despite answering their questions to the best of my ability, they ultimately dismissed me as “not being experienced enough.” They never wanted me for the position; they just wanted the head-hunter who recruited me to go away.

Just remember: if you’ll never be good enough for someone, screw ’em.

Suffering

This very moment is the intersection of art, faith, and identity.

(CW: suicidal thoughts)

I was devastated by yesterday’s news. I stayed up into the small hours of the morning reading election results. I then dragged myself to work on three hours of sleep, putting on as brave a face as I could (messaging friends with “are you okay?” when I wasn’t at all). Then, after someone replied to one of my Facebook posts with “Oh, now you found your voice!” — as if I hadn’t been telling everyone I know that this result would be a disaster for our country — I lost my resolve.

I was moments away from stepping into traffic, in front of a box truck, before I came to my senses.

You do really stupid shit when you’re tired (like I was), or drunk, or in grief. I know better. I know my life is worth living. It has inherent worth, if the first UU principle is taken at face value. Even when the future looks as awful as it can right now, it’s still worth living.

Life contains suffering. That’s the first Noble Truth of Buddhism. But life isn’t just suffering, and our suffering, like everything else, doesn’t last forever. Our job is to ease and prevent suffering as much as possible, in others as well in ourselves. We all have our different talents for making that happen.

Me? I write. That’s what I’m good at, writing. Fiction, blog posts, witticisms like Hawkeye’s arrows. Far from the best (some readers would put that less delicately), but still good at it.

So, to my (now former) friend who asked where my voice went: it’s still here. I’m still writing.

NaNoWriMo 2016: Yes, We’re Doing This

It was Stephen King, in his mandatory book On Writing, that described his writing desk at two stages of his life. Early on, his desk was gigantic, “T-rex sized” as he puts it, in the middle of his writing space. But later, he got a smaller desk, placed it to the side, and filled his room with other things.

Perhaps the best thing that could have happened to my writing was walking away from it. After my output slumped in June, I decided to break from anything that wasn’t paying me (basically, everything but The Daily WTF) and focus on everything else in my life. I had to get rid of the T-rex desk in my own life to get some things in order, but coming back, I realize that writing never left me. It’s always there, no matter how long I break from it. The trick is, as King discovered, not letting writing run your life, but to live as broad a life as possible and still be able to write.

So, this year’s NaNoWriMo is an extension of last year’s. Altars and Acolytes, the most recent title of what’s been called A Buried Stone Gate, The Coral Gate, and (dubiously) That F***ing Novel, will finally see its most recent draft done.

See, Altars was an easy first draft but an immensely difficult revision. Writing it through several years ago, I went on flights of fancy, creating darlings left-and-right. Stream of consciousness? Check. Style changes? Check. Way too many POV characters? Check. Too long for my genre (YA Fantasy)? Check. Italicized thoughts? Dune has more, but just barely.

I did one revision shortly after finishing the rough draft, but upon reading it later, it was clear that the story wasn’t working. Everything needed streamlining, the tension was as slack as a wet noodle, and I had converted to avoiding italicized thought narration. (Sorry, Frank Herbert.) Plus, there were character changes I could make to strengthen the narrative, but they would require a lot of revision.

So, v3 was what I started on last year, and I soon found that writing around existing scenes wasn’t the fastest way to make a new draft. I continued on after November, despite moving to a new apartment, getting hospitalized for heart trouble (just a vasospasm, not a heart attack, but damn did it scare me!), and acclimating to my new job. I took a break when my output whittled down to next to nothing every day, and since I was ramping up work in my church, my headspace wasn’t focused on writing at all for several months.

On Thursday, as my friends were three days into NaNoWriMo, I lamented not having a project to work on. I was considering starting from scratch, but I had no fresh ideas. My friend DM Bonanno suggested that, since we both have novels that need finishing, that we work on them simultaneously for NaNoWriMo.

While I didn’t take a totally “scorched earth” policy, I did decide that the halting progress of revisions on Altars could be sped up if I did something drastic: tossing out my existing third act. I had already stripped out unnecessary and obsolete scenes, but the rest depended so much on deleted characters and plot developments that stitching them together would take forever. So, taking a page from 2K to 10K, I made a new, detailed outline of my third act, tinkered with it over a couple days until it was just right, and put it into action.

And the words came back in a tidal wave.

I want Altars and Acolytes done. I mean, it still won’t be after this draft — it needs a thorough low-level pass and a polish — but I haven’t had a coherent draft of this story in literally years. It’s a story I love with characters that are writing themselves at this point. I just needed to clear away the debris of past drafts to let them.

Flexitarian Me, or My Complicated Relationship with Vegetarianism

It was the morning of New Year’s Day 2001. I was riding with my mother through a McDonald’s drive-thru, and she asked what I wanted. “Hash browns,” I replied. I was (and am) a fan of all manner of chicken biscuit sandwiches, but I was on a mission that morning. I had been listening to Moby’s latest CD, and discovered, upon reading the liner notes, that he was a vegan. I decided that, while going vegan would be too much too soon, a vegetarian lifestyle was something I could live with. Never again would I consume the dead flesh of animals.

My first stint as a vegetarian lasted about 2 years. I was more accurately a pescetarian, sneaking in some fish every now and then, but otherwise I either found meat substitutes or figured out vegetarian dishes on my own. My parents had an awesome time trying to make couscous and lentils. But eating vegetarian at a community college in rural Tennessee had some challenges. After months of nagging from my friends (including one incident when a grown man waved chicken tenders in front of my face), I started eating meat again.

My meat consumption was still dramatically lower following the “chicken tender” incident. It helped that some friends (none of whom attended the same community college I did) were also vegetarian to varying degrees. I attended a small liberal arts college near Asheville, NC with a cafe that specialized in vegetarian dishes, so it was easy to find consistently delicious food that also happened to be vegetarian.

I never seriously reconsidered going vegetarian again until 2012, following a breakup. My ex’s diet was 50% bacon and 50% beef, and I wanted as clean a break as possible from that entire relationship. I think I made it to 2013 before abandoning total vegetarianism again. Since then, I’ve vacillated between being a lacto-ovo-vegetarian and a pescetarian. Now I’ve settled into “no mammals” flexitarianism, for reasons explained below. Also, some heart trouble earlier this year gave me cause for alarm, and red meat (along with added sugar) has a substantial correlation with heart disease. All the more reason.


I’ve had an interest in the ethics of food since my Moby-listening days in high school. Back then, most peers were ardent carnists, not interested at all in the well-being of livestock. “Cows and chickens are dumb, awful animals,” I heard frequently. “And steak is delicious.” While I’m sure many friends of mine had worked on rural farms and knew how unpleasant those animals could be, there is certainly some ex-post-facto justification for eating meat. Chicken tenders are delicious, so it must be okay to kill chickens for food, and everyone knows they’re aggressive and loud and poop everywhere.

While I don’t believe that most animals have the same internal, complex lives that humans do (with notable exceptions, such as whales), most feel pain. If we must cause animals to suffer, it should only be for our own survival (i.e. sustenance) or to prevent some ecological catastrophe (e.g. hunting deer to prevent overpopulation). And speaking of ecological catastrophe: cattle, in particular, are a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, one reason why I avoid beef in particular.

Ironically, one reason I used to cite for going vegetarian (to lose weight) has been counter-productive. Personal experience has taught me that my body needs more protein to feel satiated, as my issues with fatigue and hunger on my last vegetarian stint were likely due to this. I would need to consume much more bean and nut mass to meet those needs, and while that would be a more ethical solution, I’ve found it more personally sustainable to eat poultry and fish for additional protein.

One philosophy I espouse: “perfect is the enemy of good.” Any change for the better is more useful than trying to be perfect all at once. If “Meatless Monday” is the best you can do on a long-term basis, that’s better than going vegan for a week and then eating nothing but bacon for a month after. And if people give you crap, or (heaven forbid) wave chicken tenders in your face, find a new group of friends.

(If you’re curious, my favorite vegetarian dish is Chana Masala on jasmine rice. There are some good recipes online, but I love making it in a slow cooker while I’m at work.)

Just What On Earth Do You DO?

Being multifaceted has some drawbacks. People speak about having exactly one lifelong passion (and jobs sometimes demand this from employees), which doesn’t sit well with me. It’s like the concept of a soul mate, that mythical person that’s perfectly matched to your strengths and weaknesses.

That is to say, it’s equally bollocks.

So what is it that I do?
Continue reading Just What On Earth Do You DO?

Patience: Two Recent Anecdotes

1.

Following a joyful and transformative experience at SUUSI this year, I felt the need to integrate a meditative practice into my lifestyle.

Well, that, and I ate and drank way too much.

Mindful eating is something I’ve never practiced in any seriousness. I’ve always eaten voraciously, practically (and occasionally) inhaling my food. While I’m a snob when it comes to coffee, sushi, and craft soda, most of the time I haven’t cared much about the quality of my food. I’m also an unrepentant grazer.

Sunday morning following SUUSI, holed up in a motel room, I sat down with the worst plate of breakfast buffet food ever. My practice is as follows: I leave my phone locked, turn off the TV (music is fine), and sit. I take one-inch-cubed bites, smelling the food before it enters my mouth. I set my fork down. Then, I count each chew: 1 (chew), 2 (chew), 3 (chew)…

Have you ever tasted something as awful as clammy instant eggs? Mindful eating made the experience so much worse. Some foods turned really, really awful, like some fried mushrooms from Zaxbys.

But the good food tasted better. Chipotle, despite their recent issues with foodborne illness, is still a favorite of mine, and their food benefits from mindful eating. Bland food can taste better, too, given enough time. Best of all, I feel full having eaten less than I would have were I not paying attention.

I do this with soda and other beverages, too. Like some poor man’s sommelier, I smell, sip, swish four times, and swallow. (Coffee tastes amazing like this; other drinks, not quite as much.) The only thing I gulp now is water, but dehydration is more a threat than starvation for me.

I’m not in this for weight loss, although I wouldn’t mind eating less. And the past few days have been hardest, with a congested nose muting my taste sensations. But it’s been interesting to see how food actually tastes.

2.

If mindful eating is the deliberate practice of patience, then my most recent injury has taught me patience or else.

Sometime in the last two weeks (either from a weekend spent in Orlando or that week in Cullowhee, NC hiking, dancing, and walking up one steep hill three times a day), I developed a hairline fracture in one of the bones in my right big toe. I thought I had sprained it until it swelled up like a plum last Friday. I limped into the nearest clinic. The doctor initially diagnosed me with gout, after hearing about the bender I had, but upon seeing the x-ray images he quickly changed his mind. He put me on an anti-inflammatory medication, told me to keep my toe straight, and forbid me from walking or running until it healed.

I currently spend my evenings on the couch, my right foot elevated with a bunch of couch cushions, either reading or watching TV. When I go out, I wrap my toe in an ace bandage (buddy wrapping, I discovered, doesn’t work as well for big toe fractures), wearing my running shoes since they’re the only shoes I own that are sized correctly.

I had planned on running a half-marathon in November, but now I’m laid out for all of August. There’s a two-month window in September and October where I could train, barely enough time, but my training’s slipped this summer (Florida’s not so great a state for running these days). And now I’m wondering what, exactly, caused the stress fracture. If it was just a badly-sized shoe or inadequate support, I could make sure my footwear is more adequate. If it’s my running stride, or something in my physiology that makes me more prone to stress fractures in my feet, that’s not something I can correct for.

For now, I’m reduced to just enough walking for work and social activities until I heal, which should be by September. I intend on using the stationary bike in my exercise room, as long as it doesn’t aggravate my toe, to build my endurance. I’ll try some strength training, too. But a pleasure stroll? Ambling through Ikea? Not the best idea right now.