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On Questions for the Group, Part the Second

Hi everyone, here I am with another question. I could use some advice.

This question is about misogyny and how to counteract it and whether in this instance I should even attempt to wage the war. If you don’t want to have that conversation right now, I’d recommend not reading onward.

Short version: I quit gaming at my local gaming store because of a sexist jerk who hung out there on the same nights as I did. The guy has not yet gone full-bore MRA in my presence, but he has made categorical comments about “what women want,” he has referred to women gaming at the table with him as “the girl” (and, yes, has not spoken to them directly most of the time, either), and he has generally given off a creepy vibe that I’m not sure how to gauge because I simply am not preconditioned to gauge for creepy guys. He has been unpleasant and odious in other aspects as well, so it’s not like he was all giggles and unicorn poop before I discovered the neckbeard lurking beneath his mild-mannered exterior; but that comment, coupled with another guy I was playing with telling me girlfriend was “a bitch” for not wanting to be around second-hand vapors from his e-cigarette, made me decide I wanted to stop going to a place where those two play games regularly and where I cannot readily keep them from playing games with me. (There are behavioral expectations of people who play in the open gaming space, and while being a sexist jerk seems like a violation, I also cannot be sure that the store would side with me on that one.)

As an ally, I’m ashamed of myself for not having done more to call these two out on their behavior. And a part of me feels like, if I’m letting myself stop having a good time somewhere because these two are being jerks, I am doing it wrong – they are undoubtedly affecting the comfort of women in the room, and other men, too, and it is possible that they have the potential to not be another poisoned M&M in the bowl if someone calls them out on it (it’s not like gamer culture is doing them any favors in that regard). But I also am not sure it entirely makes sense for me to make myself deal with them in the name of wanting a chance to call them out. Yes, I want to battle injustice, but I don’t want to make myself completely miserable in the process.

I’ve also considered going the route of talking to the store about it; but the incident was a while ago, and the person in question (isn’t this always the way) also has pretty good standing in the social dynamics of that gaming store, and I am a regular but not as regular as he is, which makes me worry that at this point, at best it’s my word vs. his and we get into a contest of status, and at worst I actively damage my own standing and the store is hostile on the other nights of the week as well.

What should I do? is my question. Should I start going there again, and confront my anxiety about dealing with this guy and his cohort, and maybe, just maybe, strike a blow for social justice by calling them out on their jokes? Should I continue to stay away, and retain my spoons, but also deprive myself of getting to go and game at my favorite gaming store? What is best for me? What is best for society?

I think I know my answer, but a. I wanted to share my story (particularly to my friends who may wonder why we stopped going to the gaming store), and b. I wanted to solicit some feedback. This is one of those things that seems minor, but could also be a pebble in an avalanche, and I’m not sure where to tread.

The dark comedy here is that I’m sure this question is a seven-percent solution of the exact kinds of questions the women in my life have to ask themselves whenever they go anywhere. I only hope that I’m able to answer it in a way that’s satisfactory for everybody, and that having to struggle with it is something I can keep in mind going forward. Maybe it’ll help me empathize a little more; and maybe that by itself could make the difference.

So, there. There’s my question. Answer away.

On Questions for the Group, Part the First

Hi everybody!

I’ll do a KublaCon recap post tomorrow, when I’m sure I’ve properly managed my post-con decompression and have fully reset my sleep schedule (writing when deprived is very hard for me). For now, I have two questions of two very different flavors, and I thought I would elicit responses from my intelligent, capable, and overall excellent blog readers – it’s easier for me to link to on all my social media sites than it is for me to craft a whole series of tweets about the subject matter.

Question 1 is a science question, posed out of a desire for accuracy in my portrayal. I ask that players in my Wild Talents game not read it; it doesn’t contain plot particulars but you may spoil yourself a little. I think meteorology is the area of expertise here, but it’s possible a physicist or anyone with a good scientific background may be able to answer it, and I trust direct answers more than Google.

Here’s the hypothetical situation: someone has released a (wholly fictional) aerosolized chemical somewhere in the United States. This chemical reacts with certain trace particles in the air in a particular, replicable way, and does not in any way dissipate or decay, meaning it will eventually react with the entire atmosphere. If I release this chemical in, say, Boston, how long would it take for the chemical to travel across the rest of the planet, assuming no abnormal weather patterns or human manipulation of its rate of travel? It seems like the answer is a couple of weeks, but I want to be sure I have that right.

Thanks; the next question is…shall we say hairier.

On Progress and Strife, 8/29/13

Another day, another off-color, rusty, vertiginous dollar.

I will avoid uncorking a rant, but Day Job is not going well. Not “about to be fired” not going well, or even “in trouble” not going well, but, I am definitely not happy with where things are at in terms of my ability to grasp the subject matter I am tackling. I started today with the plan to try to be better, healthier, more focused, and so far, that’s holding, but being more focused is just showing me that there are real, serious problems with this material that I’m not sure I’m qualified to fix. (For those playing along at home, I work with engineering texts, and do not have an engineering degree. Not being able to comprehend some concepts is expected, and at times considered a selling point.)

On that subject, I’m going to start adding exercise counts to my word counts. I used to walk to and from the train every weekday, plus take 30 minutes of walk on the Wii Fit. I liked that. Doing it now is a bit challenging due to home being a great deal more than a 20 minute walk away; but I have my eye on spending this overtime pay on a bike, which will really help, especially since there’s this awesome suburban maze next to our house I’ve never gotten to explore before. In the meantime, I’m setting, mmm, 20 crunches and 8 sets of 5 reps each of some light weight exercises as a daily goal. I’m also going to try to put in 30 minutes of walking either on the Wii Fit or out in the world. That last is flexible for now, but I want to be doing *something* every day again. Then once I have the bike there can be biking. Sonya and I have also discussed tennis as a possible thing for ourselves to do (as there is a tennis court within a reasonable walking distance of our house). I want this bag of bones to be…a bit less like a bag, damn it.

Speaking of improvements – word counts. I’m now having no trouble breaching 300 words on non-DWM projects, which is a big breakthrough for me. Some projects I just struggle with and can’t seem to eke out more than 100 words on in a day before my brain hurts and I need to walk away and drink some water and feel like I just finished a particularly intense wrestling match. Part of me wants to say that this is a good barometer for when a project is the right project for me; but another part of me says writers write even when writing sucks. Even when it really does feel like a job. Otherwise you’re a hobbyist. So maybe next I’ll try for a project that taxes me a bit. Well…when the projects at work are less taxing.

In other news, I am simply blown away by the mad, gibbering genius that is Joe Hill. I am three volumes deep in his comic book series, Locke & Key, and cannot recommended it enough. I read Heart-Shaped Box a while back and thought it was highly enjoyable. And now I’m reading his short story collection, 20th Century Ghost, and that is blowing me away. For the first time in a while now, I find myself on the train, startled, looking up from my book, worrying that I missed my stop. Pick this guy up. Don’t put this guy down.

That’s all the blag that’s fit to blog this week, I’m afraid. This weekend promises to be hectic, but also enjoyable. I hope yours is more of the latter and less of the former.

On Privilege

Yep, it’s that time again.

Disclaimer: This is one of my rare, but wordy, political posts. There are views that I do not consider to be “political” because I consider them to be rights, and I will never apologize for them. You have been warned.

Some of you may be thinking, “but we’ve had our privilege discussion, haven’t we?” Some of you may be wondering why yet another white man feels the need to decry racism. Some of you may just be wondering what the heck I’m talking about. Well, in order, the responses to your thoughts are: the discussion doesn’t end until privilege is a thing of the past; this particular white man is keenly aware that Florida just rendered two obviously racist verdicts; and well, this is what I’m talking about.

I had someone I was going to link to for a definition of privilege, but apparently they are getting all kinds of sass for their efforts, so I won’t attempt to defer to their authority. So here’s what privilege means when we talk about “privilege” in the context of feminist, anti-racist, or otherwise socially progressive contexts. “Privilege” refers to the advantages a person has in a variety of interpersonal relationships, especially those that involve just treatment under the law, their treatment in social situations, and their access to and experiences with money, job opportunities, and other services. The most classic example is male privilege – the simple fact that in every culture I can think of on this planet, men have advantages women simply don’t, from tending to get paid more for the same job, to not having to size up every potential date as a potential rapist, to not being discouraged on a cultural level from speaking out, acting out, or doing whatever they want with their lives.

Some of you are saying that men have problems, too. I’ll get to that in just two shakes.

Because here’s the next thing about privilege: there is a decent chance you have some.

Are you male? See my above points. Are you white? You are less likely to go to prison. Do you make more than $60 a month before any government aid? You are doing better than 1.5 million households across America. Are you straight? You can get married in every state in the Union, as opposed to less than twenty.

These are facts, or as close to facts as anything ever gets. Race, income, and a whole variety of other factors play into how easy or hard your life is. It’s a sad fact, but it’s there.

Now, I have already heard the counterargument that is no doubt boiling up. “Men rarely get the kids in divorce settlements” or “women can’t be drafted” are popular ones when discussing gender privilege. The idea in all cases it to suggest that bad things happen to the (supposedly, they say) privileged as well as the unprivileged. Alright. That’s all well and good. But a) often those bad things are the result of the strife caused to the underprivileged or a consequence of the social constructs in place that grant you privilege (e.g., the idea that men are “breadwinners” and won’t have time to raise kids), and b) no-one is saying nothing bad ever happens to you. That is not what it means to say you have privilege. What it means is that we are asking you to understand that your experiences are not the only possible set of experiences.

It’s not just about race or gender or sexual orientation, though those things are big, obvious areas of inequality that we need to fix. It’s about asking you to see that you have privilege, and moreover, asking that you see that people around you do not have the privileges you do. It is about asking you not to be blind to privilege.

Here’s an example of what I mean. About a year ago, I was talking with a friend about a game we play regularly that has a lot of players, and a verbal component that is a major factor in your ability to participate. With me so far? Someone, a smallish person with a soft voice, complained about the propensity of players to yell as loud as they can, because then the soft-voiced person cannot be heard. The response of the friend? “So? Yell louder.”

Do you see the problem there? Short of a megaphone, the small, soft-voiced person is not going to be able to yell as loud as, say, me, who is large and has a very deep voice (and often has to be asked to speak more quietly when just conversing). If yelling is not necessary to the game, why are we justifying yelling? Doesn’t that seem ridiculous?

OK. You’re with me. Great. So then, if someone says “I am at a higher risk of being murdered,” do you say “So? Move out of the United States.”? If someone says “It is harder for me to get a well-paying job and will tend to be paid less than a different type of person,” do you say “So? Work harder.”? You begin to see the problem with the argument.

Now, the next step: You’ve admitted, OK, some people have it worse than others. I might be a person who has it better. But if I am…so what? What do I do with that knowledge? Are you trying to make me feel guilty?

No. God, no. What I am trying to make you do is acknowledge it exists, and try to change it where you can. You have privilege; your voice has value that the underprivileged might not be able to manage. So use it for good. Vote for things that make the world more equal and against things that do the opposite. Challenge the “jokingly” racist and sexist behavior of your friends. Accept that our culture has a problematic relationship with gender, violence, religion, sexuality, and basically everything else, and accept that we are all getting screwed by that and it needs to change. Admit that media you enjoy consuming, that the subculture you are a part of, is problematic, and listen to the arguments of those who do. Accept rather than reject, defend rather than attack. Be a force for good, positive change.

There’s one last argument I have to address here, now. The “why are we still talking about this?” people. The people who are tired of feminist buzzwords, or B.S. about race in our post-racial world, or who think they can’t do anything about rape statistics. We are still talking about this because it is still a problem. Because people still get raped. Because two people can have completely different opportunities available to them due to nothing more than the color of their skin. Because equal rights – and the right to live a happy, fulfilling life is definitely a damn right – is still an idea, not a reality; and until that changes, I will keep bugging everybody about privilege, if only so I know who I have no interest in associating with.

Privilege exists. And I won’t shut up until it doesn’t.

On Power

This is a hybrid question/rant. Both halves of this hybrid are entirely legitimate; I really do want answers to the question, and I really am annoyed by the thing I’m asking about. If you want to skip my thoughts and just answer, feel free; and if you want to just read me spewing hate-words into the webbertubes, that’s fine, too.

The question, about which I shall rant hereafter: Why does it seem like so many urban fantasy stories insist on main characters with earth-shaking levels of power, interacting with (or being) characters who occupy unique and/or crucial positions within the fantasy subculture or the fabric of reality, fighting battles with world-shattering stakes hanging in the balance?

I understand that it is a good idea (if not mandatory) that there be something unique about your protagonist, either in terms of their nature or in terms of their situation; if they are an un-special person to whom nothing special happens, then there is likely no conflict and therefore no story. However, it seems like urban fantasy writers in particular are copying a narrative template I last saw in the heady Dark Age of comic books: using high power levels and Big Important Words and high-end mythological beings in place of actual diligence and detail, and leaning on weird MacGuffins and strange loopholes to get the main character from one cosmologically important plot point to the next.

Let’s establish some terms, as I used to do in my graduate courses. What do I mean by “high power level,” in a genre where supernatural powers are par for the course? I’m glad you asked, Assumed Reader of Essays! “High power level” refers here to characters (or objects utilized by characters) with powers that are constantly useful, completely reliable, and capable of solving a wide variety of tasks both magical and mundane. Classic “high power” abilities include the ability to easily, even off-handedly, kill the average threats present in the fiction’s universe; resistance to physical and/or magical harm bordering on invincibility; unaided, high-speed travel through space or, God forbid, time;  the ability to raise the dead or undo apparently permanent damage; and the capacity for other significant, permanent alterations to reality. Bonus points if the powers in question can be activated with a second or less of warning (e.g., teleporting across the world with a snap of your fingers) or if they come with some weakness or limitation that does not appear to actually limit their use in any way (e.g., the power causes the user great pain, but not so great that they are reluctant to use it to solve any but the most trivial problems). In short, an “average” power level allows an urban fantasy character some amount of shortcuts around mundane problems; a “high” power level allows an urban fantasy character to ignore mundane problems and barely struggle with all but the most fantastic ones.

I also said some flippant things about Big Important Words, and that should be explained here as well. Fantasy, since the dawn of language, has loved to give characters, places, and things Names with Capital Letters, titles that convey mystery or importance. The Lady of the Lake, the City of Brass, the One Ring. Etc. Urban fantasy follows suit, giving us things like King Rat, the Black Friars, or the Room of Thirteen Doors. Both fantasy and its younger cousin also love made-up words for things: the various demon races in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Sandman Slim come to mind, or kything (admittedly based on an old Scottish word) in the A Wrinkle in Time series. Urban fantasy has a predilection fantasy doesn’t always share, however, for prescribing near- (or beyond-) deific uniqueness to characters, even beyond the whole Chosen One thing that has been popular for quite some time now (like all of it): I’m thinking more of Sandman Slim’s parentage in his novels, or the cosmogonic status of the Endless in The Sandman, or the strange propensity for “edgy” characters in urban fantasy to wind up meeting Jack the Ripper.

But wait, the Assumed Reader says; don’t many works you, Tyler, love feature some of these very things? The Doctor, with his Sontarans and Daleks and his ever-more-potent sonic screwdriver? The aforementioned Dream, he of the alternate dimension where he is god-king and the ability to appear almost anywhere he wants? Mike Carey’s Lucifer? Well…yes. They do have this stuff. But the way they handle it…well…

OK, let me give you an example of what I mean. A few years back, I read an urban fantasy novel that took place in an Otherworld version of a famous big city, where it’s always the middle of the night and all the monsters and miscreants like to hang out. Alright, so far so good; decent urban fantasy setting. Early on in the book, the main character figures out that someone is trying to kill him for investigating the things he is investigating; assassins from multiple timelines keep suddenly materializing in front of him. Sure, alright; again, a bit weird even for the genre, but go big or go home, I guess. As such, he hires three bodyguards. One I have forgotten entirely, except for the fact he is unkillable; the other is a pair of lovers, a mortal and a succubus, who are damned by definition but are so deeply in love that the good emotion keeps them out of Hell and damnation keeps them out of Heaven, so they, too, are immortal. Uh? The very first place they go to investigate anything, they get attacked by a bunch of wizards in three-piece suits, and the main character just hits the deck while the immortal bodyguards graphically murder all the minor antagonists (I hesitate to call them “bad guys”). Over the course of the book, the main character hangs out with a bartender who is occasionally possessed by an impressively Satanic rendition of Merlin, fights someone wielding a gun that speaks the Word of God backwards to erase its targets from existence, and discovers he is the son of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who has been unleashed into our world now and who becomes the antagonist for the entire series.

So what, you might say? So this: At no point does the main character resolve any conflict himself. Every conflict is presented in the same format: impossibly horrible, powerful, inexorable thing appears; main character tells us how screwed he is; some sort of deux ex machina, occasionally a literal one, steps up and fixes it, perhaps after the main character points out some mystical loophole in the problem that they can exploit, perhaps just via brute force and ignorance. And the characters are so flat they could get a job as a cardboard standee, with each of them having exactly as much personality as is lent to them by the archetype they embody and not a whit more. Even the main character, who is our first-person narrator to boot, is just a Central Casting noir detective with a quasi-tragic, quasi-mystical spin on his backstory that you just know will result in a pity party being thrown in the later books.

It’s the latter point that bothers me, and the point on which Doctor Who and The Sandman deviate from the cavalcade of sins I am mentioning here. These stories have shallow characterization and cliche plots, spiced up only by making everyone a godlike special snowflake and/or making sure the gore quotient is somewhere in the stratosphere. The stakes keep getting bigger, the amount of worlds and realities threatened larger, the consequences ever darker and dire; but these are tautological consequences, consequences that are only dire because we keep being told they’re dire, because the easiest way to make something look like a threat is to have it threaten everything. You don’t have to tell people how serious a threat to the world is, and you don’t have to work to make people worried about it.

And that is why this behavior among urban fantasy writers bothers me. Because it’s lazy. By going big, by going enormous and epic and scary, the writer can skimp on the harder parts of writing – character depth, relatable conflicts, emotionally moving…well…emotions. (Prose fail.) You can pave over your deficiencies by just having something else weird or gory or explosive happen and never have to go back to making your main character anything more than a cynical detective or a bewildered everyman; Chandler’s Law writ large. It’s the literary equivalent of a heavy metal garage band that covers up its lack of musical training by detonating explosives onstage, a loud distraction that will hit your primal side and draw attention away from the noisy deficiencies of the rest of the product.

The thing is, I can get behind that; not every single book needs to move me deeply. But I feel like urban fantasy in particular gets the lion’s share of this, and I don’t quite understand why, especially when there are plenty of examples of high-power characters in high-power settings who nevertheless are complex, conflicted, and interesting – the aforementioned Dream and the Doctor. I’m not quite certain why it is that urban fantasy falls victim to this so thoroughly (and I’ll admit, it’s even possible I’m wrong, and this is a problem across a wide swath of genres); is it just the easy access to godlike characters? What is it about urban fantasy that encourages fulfillment of a college-campus stereotype about speculative fiction? Is this actually an issue for anyone besides me? Am I just not OK with letting magic be…er…magical?

I don’t know, and it bothers me a lot. It’s to the point that I’m almost scared to write an action sequence, lest I be written off as yet more popcorn in a world overflowing with kernels. Luckily, and here is my conclusion, this gives me purpose: to recognize this apparent pitfall, and to avoid it; to keep the power levels of my settings low; to keep my characters deep; and to always remember that even if the rest of the world disagrees with me, the fact that I want to do those things in my stories is reason enough to do it.