On “Stories Matter.”

So, I say this a lot: stories matter. I said it in my post about superheroes (you know, the only one I did, ever), but I also say it all the time on Twitter. What I mean by that is that what I said back in that post: the stories a culture tells itself affect that culture, sometimes in broad ways and sometimes in subtle ones. That includes the way different parts of that culture are represented in the stories of that culture, but it also includes which character traits we decide to lionize and which we decide to vilify, what we consider to be a “happy ending” and what we consider to be “just desserts.”

This is a topic near and dear to my heart, but it’s also one I often have trouble conveying to people, particularly people who are resistant to shifts in representation and tone in the media they prefer to digest, whether that’s about black mothers who are also pirates or about transexual superheroes or about whatever. An argument I hear a lot is that stories don’t actually matter that much, that we shouldn’t take this stuff so seriously, that this or that medium is “just for fun” and should not be construed as having social impact.

I want to combat this idea, which is why I want to collate as large a list as possible of links about why stories matter. Of course, I am just one man, and a man with a full-time job and an anxiety disorder, so I only have so many spoons to devote to hunting these links down. But the magic of the twenty-first century is that crowdsourcing is easier than ever.

So, I am asking all of you, my loyal readers, to point me to any resource you find that is evidence for, or a study of, why and how stories matter. Scholarly links, tumblr posts, other movements like this one (the #ComicsEmpower hashtag comes to mind), anything you find that bolsters the argument and provides data for those interested in the subject, please forward it on to me. I’ll be setting up a page on my happy little website for just that data. And hopefully some day, posting those links helps one of us make a point or changes a mind. But for now, I just love reading about why stories matter.

So please, fire away.

On Excuse Me?

I am trying to write fewer bellicose and/or lachrymose posts, but, then I saw this today, and I was reminded that some of it is the world’s fault.

This here is Very Important Comics Creator, Erik Larsen, speaking out against “practical” womens’ outfits, and implying that they somehow diminish how attractive the female characters are, and that most people prefer them the other way.

I don’t even know where to start peeling this onion of stupid. Fortunately, three major players in comics right now were there to tell him just how stupid he was being, and I want to first and foremost focus everyone’s attention on Gail Simone’s really excellent discussion that is far more than Larsen deserved. If you’re going to read that or read my blog post, read that.

For those who are still here, let’s make sure we are clear on exactly why what Larsen said is not at all innocent and particularly heinous. Larsen has:

  • implied a one-dimensional axis of attractiveness that requires (we presume) a more revealing outfit. (Presumably he is suggesting one of the classic Carol Danvers “Ms. Marvel” outfits shown here, as opposed to the most recent one she wears as “Captain Marvel”)
  • implied that sexy is more important than practical in female superheroes’ outfits via his assertion that “practical” is different than “attractive” and that practical is somehow bad or undesirable.
  • downplayed and vilified those fans who like more practical outfits, which includes not only feminist readers interested in outfits that are less objectifying (note I did not say not objectifying; these are still superhero comics), or readers who do not feel being sexy is the main point of female characters (or even something characters in comics need to be doing for us as readers), but readers who find something sexy that is different than what Erik Larsen finds sexy.
  • dismissed any amount of progress away from classic comic portrayals of characters as the work of a vocal minority, which even if we are very nice and assume he didn’t just mean “women” does imply that disagreeing with Erik Larsen means you can’t possibly have any kind of popular opinion.

So, in other words, Erik Larsen is a Gator. He’s not as vitriolic or criminal as GroperGarb members tend to actually be, but he is touting essentially the same idea about comics that they are about games: that women are a vocal minority who are fucking it up for everyone else, that any amount of change is a sin, and that there is only one right way to Comics and anyone who Comicses differently should be called out for the damage they are doing to the hobby. I would be inclined to be as incredibly magnanimous as Simone has been here and say that Larsen probably just put his foot in it, but given his involvement with the somewhat infamously sexist Image Comics titles of the 90s*, I do not have it in me to forgive right now.

I’m not currently calling for a boycott of Larsen, but I am trying to make sure I boost the signal here that he has said stuff like this, and to make sure my readers get an opportunity to understand exactly how much words matter, and how much stories matter. And also to make sure you all know how awesome Gail Simone, Jamie McKelvie, and Stephen Wacker are so you can decide if maybe you want to check out their work. Wicked + the Divine and Captain Marvel (which is not Wacker’s book, but, since he helped with the costume design I wanted to mention it) both come with my personal seal of approval already, and this makes me feel even better about spending our money on those things. I think after this I might also check out The Movement; Simone deserves a little more of my support.

Also, I want to call attention to what Simone said: “When I am done making comics, I hope it is very clear that I wanted to be on the side that was for INCLUDING people, not excluding them.” Those are the words that I want to resonate for her, and for me when I’m done making art, and for every other artist out there. That what we — the feminists, the activists, the allies — are doing is not excluding; what we are doing is including. It only looks like excluding to people like Larsen because they have not yet opened their eyes to just how magically multifarious humanity actually is. They’re Blue Meanies, unable to figure out that turning everything blue and shutting out music because they dislike it has caused them to miss out on…life.

And that’s why I don’t feel the need to boycott Larsen. Frankly, I think living like that is the worst punishment of all.

Edited to Add: Oh, hey, Larsen is doubling down! Never mind, boo this man and do not buy his silly little funnybooks.

*And also given the fact I am not a woman working in the same industry as him and am therefore not as (rightfully) concerned with avoiding damage to my brand (please note it was two men who had to do the actual calling out here). NOTE: I am not saying Simone was at all cowardly; I am saying Simone is in a position where she cannot talk as stridently to Larsen as he perhaps deserved without significant backlash. Wacker and McKelvie are men and so will suffer less professional damage than she is likely to for saying the same things. That’s me, pointing out how unfair the world is.

On Impostor Syndrome

10:18. Restate my assumptions.

I’ve had a very bad week for impostor syndrome. Not worse than any other bad week for impostor syndrome I have had in the past; but on par with some of the worse weeks. We’re somewhere near the place where I think writing is a waste of time because I am so bad at it; I would be happier if I didn’t try to write anymore; I should give up and accept I will never be as good as the awesome writers I am reading. Most of the thoughts revolve around those three key tenets. This is pretty typical for my impostor syndrome, really; it starts as a tickle of doubt about my skills, grows from there into direct comparisons to writing I am impressed with, and ends up in me calculating exactly how many more video games I could complete if I wasn’t writing. (The answer is a lot, for those who are curious.)

I’m not writing this down to weave a sob-story for you, but more to harness a period of lucidity into some insight on what my impostor syndrome feels like, what common triggers are, and what I can do to fight out of those common triggers. So this is going to go from a little introspective to a lot introspective. Those who are not interested in taking a look at my thought processes…probably shouldn’t have been reading this blog in the first place? But, still. You have been warned this will be a richer mixture than most.

There are clear warning signs that impostor syndrome is coming. Typically, the first clue is me having to ask my wife, directly, if I suck at this writing thing. I may also direct that question to my beta-readers. Or just tweet that I am feeling down. Usually this means the wave has just started to crest on the horizon; after that, I’ll generally find myself reading or viewing an amazing piece of narrative craftsmanship/wordsmithing, and immediately after the first thought that it’s amazing will come a thought along the lines of “I will never write anything as [sad/funny/creative/poignant/sexy/whatever] as that.” That’s when I know my brain cells should be evacuating the beach.

But what do I do about it? How do I try to minimize it happening? And, if trying to minimize it does not prevent it — it’s a thought, after all, and so can openly be controlled so much — what do I do when the wave does come crashing down.

Well, that’s kind of where this post came from. This week, it has become increasingly obvious to me that there are also situations and behaviors that are likely to result in a bout of impostor syndrome. Call then increased risk factors, I guess. (Talking about impostor syndrome like it’s a viral infection is probably the best way I can categorize it, in terms of my own approach to it. An infection is something you can work to prevent, and something that, once you have it, everyone agrees it’s best if you treat it and try to let it heal itself.)

Naturally, I am at the highest risk for it after a rejection letter; and sometimes, beta-reader feedback can trigger the same thing. That doesn’t seem particularly odd — of course being told you have something to improve can spark a small flame of doubt! — but it’s worth saying because sometimes what’s prosaic to one person is arcane to another. And bviously, neither of these is a negotiable part of my writing experience, unless I suddenly become a cash-cow writer (and God, doesn’t that sound like the best possible nightmare?), so the best I can do there is try to remember the feelings these situations can enkindle and act accordingly.

But, there are other things that cause me trouble. They all go under roughly the same heading: putting myself in writing situations that will lead to writing being very difficult, or that put pressure on me to do something besides write. From least to most terrible, the ones I have identified are:

  1. writing with social media active (i.e., I don’t have to open a new tab or pick up a device to look at Facebook)
  2. writing when I have a time-sensitive problem or opportunity to address (e.g., I need to get a bill in the mail by 5pm)
  3. writing something on a self-imposed, specific schedule (e.g., every Friday)
  4. writing when I have a hard time limit on my time (e.g., on coffee breaks)
  5. writing while intoxicated
  6. writing while tired

All of these can be addressed, but all of these can also be a challenge to address. Well, not all; #1 is pretty easy for me to fix. (Though I am of course writing this with Twitter and Facebook open on either side of it. Yeugh.) #5 is also easy to avoid; it’s not like I get paid to be drunk. #6 can be handled with some lifestyle and habit changes, as can #3 (you’ve already seen that with my decision to excise mandated Friday blog posts). #4, though…dear God, #4.

I realized this week that I have not been making enough time in my schedule for writing. My current schedule has been that I get Friday and Saturday off, and write Sunday through Thursday. I have a minimum word count, doubled if I am on a deadline, doubled again for editing vs. writing new prose. I have a whole schedule worked out of what projects I am working on, with backup projects for days that a given literary pursuit or narrative voice is just too much for me to handle for whatever reason. The last two parts work great; the Sunday-Thursday schedule is not working so well, and for a very weird reason: more of my social life takes place on weeknights than weekends these days.

My friend’s Legend of the Five Rings game is on Mondays. My Wild Talents campaign is on whatever Tuesdays my players are available. Another pair of friends meet sort-of-weekly-ish on Wednesdays to try out a variety of games. Our only constant, standing engagement on weekends is an anime/Marvel Cinematic Universe night with one of our friends. All of the above of are of course not weekly in any sense, and all of the above can also tolerate having to skip a week or two when people have had bad days at work or kids are sick or what-have-you. But what this means is, my weeknights are very much not free most of the time, and my weekends tend to be busy with stuff that it is much easier to move around in my daily schedule. I need to catch up on grown-up stuff, but it’s OK if I do the dishes late at night, or if we run errands first thing in the morning. I can also find time for writing on weekends even when we have plans with friends — noon-time tabletop game? I can get up early and write, or write after I get home. WWE pay-per-view in the evening, possibly necessitating I be up late? Lunch and prose at the same time! God, even just writing that is filling me with joy.

I think the Friday-Saturday days off is an OK default, for weeks where I do not have significant weeknight obligations and so can write in the evenings; and in particular, having Friday off is a good idea most of the time, because five straight days of work can be draining and having a day where all I do is finish my day job and come home to rest can be valuable for my sanity. But for weeks like this upcoming one, where I may be out with friends for four of the seven nights available to me, I should really be considering the need to write on Saturday. Really, I am overjoyed at the thought of writing on Saturday, which is all the sign I need that I should be making it a default. I really think that this schedule — as rigid as the Progress Update schedule, in its way — was a byproduct of a different time in my life, when weekends tended to be the absolute busiest times and we were getting stuff done on weeknights. That is not this time, and the rush to get writing done on weekdays. during coffee breaks and such, is affecting both my day job focus and my writing focus, and increasing my bouts of impostor syndrome.

And when impostor syndrome does hit — and inevitably, it will hit sometimes, no matter what I do — what should I do about it?

Well, self-care, I guess. Work on writing that is “easier” for me, or that is just for me (for the time being), so I can avoid trying to feel so critical about it. Do writing exercises so I feel like I am working on improving myself. Drink lots of water. Eat my favorite salads. Drink a mango Gatorade. Play some Sentinels of the Multiverse. Read some Unbeatable Squirrel-Girl or Saga. Do things I love that do not take energy and refresh me and inspire me to write again. And if it really comes down to it…I guess take a few days off, and wait for the fire to rise in me again. Because it always does. That inexorable fact is the thing that always keeps me coming back to writing — I can tell from the way I react that regardless of profession success, writing and getting better at writing are things I absolutely need to do.

I had some thoughts about my quest for my writing voice, and my need to unleash my id a bit more in places; but those can go in a separate post, when I have not already written 1500 words and when I am feeling more focused on those concepts. For now, I think I have made some good changes, and gotten together a good list of problematic situations and behaviors. So, this coming week, I am going to let myself have some time off during the week itself — not every day, but a day or two; and then when the weekend comes, I can reap my word count in earnest. I may also give myself Friday off, but we will have to see. Putting things in stone is clearly not the best idea for me.

I hope reading through all this was helpful to someone; and I look forward to blogging at you again very, very soon.

On Stagnation, Entropy, and Other Change-Related Things

This post is in response to this other post, by my friend Leslie. She has a huge brain full of important thoughts, and you should be reading her posts and everything else that goes up on Black Nerd Problems. In my neverending commitment to progress, I am trying to make sure I boost the range of under-privileged voices, so I would really appreciate it if you would read the entirety of her post first. This is crafted assuming you have done so.

OK, we good?


(Full disclosure: We do actually know each other IRL and spend time in each others’ company in a friendly capacity. Take note, ye hoary trolls of the Intertron.)

So, first off: I 100% agree with her.

This is a pet peeve we both share; that a community that is explicitly supposed to be about celebrating creativity and inclusion and being weird is so very, very committed to keeping things how they always were.

More particularly, it bothers me that nerds claim to be outcasts, to be the “weird” people, to be against the exclusionary behaviors of the “jocks” or whatever the popular group du jour is, but that the type of “weird” nerd culture is so committed to preserving is a “weird” that is actually a very specific subset of traits and behaviors, that were enshrined in days of old and have not been allowed to change since.

This already erupted, albeit briefly, on a Facebook thread, so I will say it here: no, nerds are not the only people who are afraid of change. No, nerds are not the only people to behave in an exclusionary manner. But we are focusing on them because a. they are a culture that claims to be about embracing that which is fringe and different, but which on the whole does anything but, and b. because that is the topic that is at hand right now. This is not a witch-hunt nor is it a rejection of the idea anyone else ever excluded somebody. Capice?

Nerds are exclusionary about a great many things, and they react poorly to change in general, and they actually have a tendency to pigeonhole certain pursuits as “not nerdy.” You can see this in the “Edition Wars” that crop up whenever a new edition of a roleplaying game comes out (look up arguments about Third, Fourth, or Fifth Edition D&D, or the condemnation of the switch from the Old World of Darkness to the New), or at your board game night, when your group will not play Eurogames or “Ameritrash,” or when someone wants to play Munchkin or Fluxx and people roll their eyes (this happens to my wife on a regular basis).

They also have a tendency to declare media “ruined forever” whenever there is a major shift in their franchise of choice. And there are unfortunate implications, and just outright unfortunate statements, that come up whenever this happens in reaction to media with increased diversity: stories focused on people of color, or women, or LGBT people. And especially stories where those underrepresented parts of humanity replace a white/male/straight version of a character. Like, say, when someone made Marvel’s Thor a woman, or when someone decided to do a new Ghostbusters movie with an all-female cast. There’s even backlash about having non-white characters in fantasy novels at all, saying that somehow it is “not fantasy” if there are non-white people in the story. Yes, really.

It seems so weird to me, and actually enraging, in fact, that, in a culture that has a well-known problem with excluding people, to the point of not excluding toxic and dangerous people, we are so quick to exclude people who do not conform to far less harmful behaviors. And while it’s bad that we try to say someone is or is not a “real nerd” or “real gamer” or whatever based on the weirdest judgments, and that we treat all change as something to shun, it is worse that we are also often being racist and sexist in the process.

Now, the most common defense I hear when these arguments are called out is that race/gender is not the issue. It’s about the change. This argument takes a great many forms. And I would like to go over the most common ones right now, because I want to discuss the ways in which the argument looks problematic, and in which it is possible the argument is a result of problematic cultural programming.

So, without further ado:

Argument #1: The “We’re Past All That”

But there are established female/PoC/LGBT characters in this franchise already; why did we have to add another one/replace a white/male/straight character with one of those?

Why is it a bad thing if there are more now? Why do the majority of characters have to be white, and why can’t non-white characters adopt some of the mantles previously held by white guys? Why does Captain America always have to be white? Why can’t Thor, who has previously been turned into a frog and also had his hammer wielded by an alien horse-man, also be a woman? Why can’t women bust ghosts? We are not erasing the fact that character was white/male/straight before. Why is it a problem for that to change? This goes double if you were also complaining that they have run out of stories to tell with the character in question.

Argument #2: The Appeal to Tradition

This character/franchise is a classic, and to change it is to undermine the original.

Why does having a new version diminish the old one? We’ve done a million spins on Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth and the Ring Cycle, and no-one (well, no sane person) is arguing we have ruined Shakespeare. What is it about Ghostbusters that makes it immune to the same kind of cultural adaptation?

Argument #3: The Capitalism Shield

This change is just about boosting sales and getting ally cookies from the “PC patrol”

So? Comics and movies have done far stupider things than add a black person to boost sales. Also, if adding a black person reliably boosted sales, wouldn’t everything just be black people, all the time?

Or is what you’re saying that they are trying to expand their market to include people who are not represented in the old version? If that’s the case, why does their buy-in have to preclude your own or vice-versa? Why does reading about people who are not you insult or offend you?

Argument #4: The Fascism Parallel

This change is just about the “PC patrol” forcing us to adhere to their views.

We’re actually not asking you to conform to any view; we are asking you to be willing to read about people who are not like you. That’s not really a “view” so much as “a natural byproduct of a global community, and of everyone getting an equal chance to write about/read about/see people who are both like them and different.” See Item #3.

(Also, eat me, Hypothetical Interlocutor; “politically correct” is only a bad word to bad people.)

Now, I did my best to not be inflammatory up there, and knowing myself, I probably failed. So please, if you are still feeling vehement about not wanting the new version of Cap, or the Ghostbusters, or DuckTales, or whatever…please take a deep breath, understand that I am not mad at you, and ask yourself this series of questions:

Is it really about liking the old version better? Are you sure it is not because you have been taught that media becoming more inclusive must necessarily come at the expense of inclusivity toward the people who are represented by the old version? Are you sure it is not because of some other belief you have been raised with, unquestioned, that you may not feel is correct once you do examine it? I have those too, believe me, and it’s a struggle to parse them all out and stop letting them control you. You are not a bad person for all that; you are a person. I just want to help you see what might be going on that is fueling your reaction.

And if, after all that, your argument is that it changed, and now it sucks, and race or gender or orientation don’t enter into it…why is change at all bad? Why does something changing undermine your ability to enjoy what came before? Why can’t you just go back and read/watch that other version that you like better, and let other people read the new thing? Or, perhaps even more important, why can’t the new thing be given a chance to be good just because it is new? As Leslie wisely said, if we took that attitude all the time, we’d still be living in caves.

So this is me saying — nerds are supposed to be about inclusivity. Maybe we should consider actually behaving that way.

Now excuse me, I am going to go read about the new Thor and Captain America while I play Fluxx.

On Valentine’s Day

I am very excited about Valentine’s Day. Sonya and I have plans to go on a food tour together, something we have not done since the first year of our relationship, and to do it in Monterey, which is lovely and which we love and which is full of restaurants we want to try.

However, I have already gotten the first couple of ads that I know always crop up around Valentine’s Day. The icky ones that tell you how to avoid being alone. The gross ones that tell you what to do to “make a girl yours.” The ones that refer to women as girls, that talk about surefire ways of getting her in bed (it’s always a dude trying to make a play for a lady, isn’t it?). The ones that are for chocolate “Perfect Men,” because they are made of sugar and don’t talk. The ones that are about how women will let you do freaky stuff if you give her a bouquet of flowers or a diamond, and the ones that indicate that the only socially acceptable way to go about Valentine’s Day is to be a cishet couple, probably white, and for the man to pay for everything. Use of royal or noble titles of address for the woman is also required, and you had better have sex that night or clearly your relationship is terrible.

I am a cishet white dude in a heterosexual relationship. I did buy Sonya a gift for Valentine’s Day, and there might be flowers or gourmet chocolates, and we are going out to eat enough times that yes, I will probably pay for food. There may be sexytimes if we are both in the mood physically and mentally for sexytimes. But it is equally likely that Sonya will get me a gift, that Sonya will pay for some of the food, and that we will decide to do precisely whatever the fuck we want in our hotel room because we are adults and we get to execute our relationship the way we fucking want. I probably won’t call her a princess, nor a queen, nor will the expectation be that one of us be pampered any more than the other.

I hate the toxic mess that is gender normativity, and I hate the way Valentine’s Day has all these rote expectations that you must meet for your relationship to be “healthy” or at least “normal” (which ain’t the same here in a country where Fifty Shades of Gray is somehow popular). Seeing all these ads, and worse, seeing people on my social media feeds buying into this stuff as How Valentine’s Day works, is honestly making me dread Valentine’s Day because of the massive social pressure placed on me to perform a specific role on that day, even if it’s a role I am not wholly interested in performing in the first place.

So, let me clear about a thing here:

If you :

  • say something about being a “real man” or a “real woman” because you do x culturally expected thing, or about how something is your due or responsibility because of your genitals;
  • say all men or all women do x thing and that thing is not either a basic biological function;
  • denigrate others for not fulfilling some item on the supposed Valentine’s Day checklist;
  • give anyone grief about not going out with someone on Valentine’s Day, or worse try to claim being single on Valentine’s Day is a personal failing;
  • use pick-up artist or men’s rights activist buzzwords;
  • suggest any route, any, is a dead-sure-fire way to make someone have sex with you;
  • make a rape joke;
  • endorse Fifty Shades of Gray as somehow actually representative of actual BDSM;
  • or retweet or reblog any advertisement containing the above-mentioned attitudes (and are not retweeting or reblogging to help drive views to a work-related link you manage whose message you can’t control),

I will block you for a week and add one dollar to the amount I am donating to an equality- or rape-survival focused charity when I get my next paycheck. At the end of the week you will be reminded I did this and why.

(If you are actually awesome and want me to donate a dollar in your name as a platonic Valentine’s Day present, you can tell me that, too. I won’t block you, though. Especially not if that’s your fetish.)

Let me be clear: you can do precisely whatever you want. If you and yours like playing princess and servant, or have a relationship where one of you pays for everything, or whatever, that is totally fine — for you. What I am saying is, do not make these categorical statements about anyone who is not one of your partners and with whom you do not have an agreement about how shit goes down romance-wise.

Don’t get an annoying, vitriolic message from me. Gender does not have to be concrete and it sure as hell doesn’t have to represent your entire personality, and no-one owes anyone, anywhere, sex for any reason. Don’t let anyone tell you it does, for even one day out of the year.

Hayes out.

Donation Total So Far: $2 ($1 because a friend asked, $1 because seriously if I counted every repost the same person did about 50 Shades of Gray I’d go bankrupt)

On My Week, Featuring Ozzy Osbourne

This has not been a horrible week, and that’s why I want to write about it.

I easily fall into the same trap that many, many, many bloggers do — I write when angry, or sad, or when rote tells me I need to write. I realized I was falling into that with my Progress Friday posts, which is why you haven’t seen any in a couple weeks. Well, that and any weekday is basically the worst day for me to be trying to write a blog post and hit my fiction word count in the same day. I’m trying to decide what to do about Progress Fridays (possibly a Facebook update?), but in the meantime, I am blogging when I want to blog.

But, the point of this post is this: I am happy with where I am right now.

Maybe not literally where I am literally right at this moment, which is at my day job desk an hour early because I got asked very late yesterday to attend an 8am meeting; but in general, where my life is at. It’s not perfect, at all, and there are things I need to handle, but this is so much better than what I used to think was better.

Let me explain that through the medium of talking about Ozzy Osbourne.

I did my undergraduate work at UC Santa Cruz, a beautiful, hilly college with its identity stuck between being a sprawling research university and a loose, let-your-hair-down hippie school. I majored in Literature, which may explain why I find myself having to either power through books or find myself taking aeons to read them because I stop every page or so to examine the symbolism. And of course, this is the place where I forged my identity. So of course, I find myself nostalgic for it. Like a lot. It doesn’t hurt that I had many fewer responsibilities at college than I do now, at least in terms of hours I am specifically expected to be spending in specific places. I still have a yen for the level of socialization I got to do in those days.

Nowadays, my day job is a copyediting gig at a wonderful little technical book company that I will not discuss more here, in case I have fans who would try to come find me. And being a copyediting gig, I sometimes need music or podcasts to get myself through the tougher assignments. Or on days like today, through everything. My iPod is a weird beast, a mix of high-tech stuff and old, old music of mine; my access to a CD drive with which to upload albums and money with which to buy MP3s has been highly varied over my adult life, as cloud storage and media delivery has become more and more prevalent, so a large amount of what is on my iPod is stuff I added the last time I owned a desktop computer with an internal CD drive — which is to say, when I was in college and graduate school. KMFDM. Corrosion of Conformity. Portishead. Ministry. Dead Kennedys. Ozzy Osbourne.

Yesterday, on a whim, I decided to accompany my editing work with a little listen to Blizzard of Ozz. It’s a great album, with some great post-Sabbath Ozzy work, though often on the extreme end of either melancholy or angry. I started up the album, and I heard the opening strains of “Perry Mason,” and I got hit straight in the solar plexus with depression. Not a literal depressive episode, but just a total bottoming out of my emotions. Luckily, my first instinct was to pause, and my second instinct was to wonder what the hell just happened.

I first got Blizzard of Ozz around about the time of my nineteenth birthday, which for an October baby meant my sophomore year of college. In my sophomore year, I hit the well-known slump. Bad. I lived in a dorm that was partially below ground, so I got almost no sunlight except during daytime classes, with roommates who blamed me for the mess of another roommate (and let’s be fair, some mess of my own) and hated me on sight. I took a lot of classes that were general-education chaff, stuff I knew I could handle in the sciences and composition department, so I didn’t feel inspired. Even my Creative Writing class left me feeling terrible, because while the Intro course was great, I was rejected from the Intermediate course (and had to then add a new class two weeks late to keep my financial aid) because they refused to accept genre fiction writers.

Academically, I was troubled, and socially and medically I bottomed out bad. I had two unhealthy relationships and a pair of just-as-unhealthy flings. I slept too little and then too much. I ate mostly junk food, and was so out of shape walking to class managed to hurt. I was a flake, unable to keep a lot of my promises because with my low energy levels all I could deal with taking care of was myself. I was so clingy with one of my best friends that we stopped talking to each other for about two weeks. All around me I watched friends’ relationships implode, barely avoided failing a couple classes, got yelled at by one old friend and cried on by another, and in between, I LARPed to try to take the edge off of how miserable real life was. Because that is a healthy way to handle things. I think around now was when I started being so bad with money that I got yelled at basically weekly by my parents. I remember playing credit card roulette at Jeffery’s Diner in downtown Santa Cruz, with me and my other friends all seeing who had the money to pay for post-LARP dinner that week. I still cringe when I see bad money management on TV, and I always think my own money management is bad. I’m grateful I didn’t have a credit card in those days, because I would assuredly be ankle-deep in debt to this day.

And during all this, during days where I was pretty sure someone had painted a tinfoil glaze over the sky just to make sure the sun couldn’t shine too bright for me, I listened to Blizzard of Ozz. And Corrosion of Conformity (mostly Deliverance), and Faith No More (Angel Dust) and Acid Bath (When the Kite String Pops). And now, whenever I listen to any of those, I become a mess. I tap back into how miserable I was, and how sure I was that there wasn’t a way out.

I don’t say this to get empathy for how much my life sucked. I say this because yesterday, sitting there with “Perry Mason” on pause, I realized, that was the life I was pining for all this time. That was actually how I felt at UC Santa Cruz, and that was actually who I was, when I was still learning to be me.

My life now may not be the most glamorous or the most amazing. But, I’m married to my best friend and one of my all-around favorite people. I have had my writing published, and am working to publish even more. I work at a job that allows me to pay my bills, and save a little, and challenge my brain. I’m running the single best campaign of a tabletop game I have ever run. I get to unabashedly and unashamedly enjoy Sharks hockey, and pro wrestling, and comic books, and Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick and every other amazing author who is now at my fingertips because of modern technology and the amazing media access it gives me. Some mornings are bad, and sometimes my anxiety crashes down on me because I am convinced it is all going away. But most of the time, the large percentage of the time, I’m happy.

I have another memory from my sophomore year. It was spring quarter, the final quarter of the academic year. I had finished up all my gen eds (except two that would have to wait until the next academic year), and I was taking some classes in the major I had just decided I wanted to do — English literature. Among those classes was “Intro to Horror Film,” taught by one of the greatest film/literary theory professors I have ever met, Marsh Leicester, who was taking us from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari all the way up to Aliens, with stops at Halloween and The Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I took the class with Nate, Matt, and Joe, three of my best friends at the time; and after class, in the afternoon when the air was warm with the oncoming summer, we would walk back to our dormitories (or in Matt’s case, the parking lot where he caught the bus back to his apartment), which took us through most of the west end of the UC Santa Cruz campus. We talked about the class, and video games, and the shit-storms we were all going through in our lives; and we found ways to laugh about it.

Twelve years later, Matt, Nate, and I have all stood at each others’ weddings; and Joe was at my wedding with his own fiancee, both ready to hug and congratulate, and soon the two of them should be getting married, too. Trying to be near Nate and Matt was what brought me to Mountain View, which is what brought me into the online dating circle that caused me to meet Sonya, so in an indirect way they helped me meet my wife. I see Matt for games of Wild Talents and whenever else we can fit into each others’ busy schedules, and I have a pseudo-weekly date with Nate and his wife to play whatever roleplaying game we feel like playing that week. Joe comes by for board games and updates me on how his own life is going in his neck of the woods. And we all sometimes reminisce about UCSC, or this or that LARP, or this or that phase of our lives; and we smile, and we move on, and we do the cool stuff adults in their mid-thirties get to do.

And what’s most important to me in that shared history is not that those times were necessarily the best; it’s that without having gone through those times, I would not have known those upstanding men, and gotten to share in their weddings, and gotten to do with them all the things we have done since. And it all started with that awkward pancake breakfast where I met Matt, and with Nate coming over to my house and asking if we wanted to room together at UCSC, and those horrible days in my sophomore year…but those horrible days led to those walks after Intro to Horror Film…and to those weddings…and to today.

So, that’s the way I want to remember UCSC: as a place I walked through on the way to this awesome thing I have now, that I am privileged to call my life.

Letting go of those days being my halcyon days is one of the hardest things for me to do; but I think, just maybe, I’ve finally done it.

Now excuse me, I need to go edit some textbooks and then read about the Avengers traveling through time to stop their ally’s future self. And maybe cry.