Tactical Fatalism

(Content notes: This post will cover some bleak stuff. Donald Trump, political apathy, plausible apocalyptic scenarios, existential dread, religious belief or the lack thereof, etc. It’s also got an Undertale spoiler. If that’s likely to bum you out beyond your spare cope, might best pass this on by.)

This strange and dramatic election season, combined with my spending a bit more time on social media sites than usual, has prompted me to think hard about my voting decisions. In particular, conversations with a friend of mine, who’s a diehard Bernie Sanders fan of the “Never Hillary” persuasion, have made me ponder justifications for choices that had previously been reflexive.

Back in my days of unflinching Catholicism, I obediently followed the Church’s voting recommendations: vote for whoever would protect the rights of the unborn. A single-issue voter, you’d call it. At first, I took this to mean supporting the head-of-the-pack Republican of the moment. Later, grappling with the fact that Republicans had a love of unjust war, I went with a third-party protest vote like “Average Joe” Schriner. Even then, I knew that such a vote would not put the tiny underdog in the White House–but it felt good to cast a vote whose target compromised as few of my values as possible.

Today, not only have I discarded the narrow “pro-life” agenda, but I’ve come to accept the inevitability, and to some extent value, of tactical voting. I’ve made my peace with choosing the lesser of evils, in other words. I would have loved to see Bernie Sanders attain the Presidency, but given how clear it is that’s not going to happen, I am quite content to support Hillary Clinton instead.

You fool! cry the Sandernauts; By capitulating, you shore up a corrupt and unjust system! If we consent to support a candidate who is merely less horrible than the alternative, we will never see a truly great candidate succeed. And if we are to right the course of the United States and the world, we need a truly great President! Turn back, and cast your vote for the best choice, even if you know it will fail–it will pave the way for the future!

Well. Here’s where it gets bleak.

I’m convinced we don’t even have time to play the long game.

Humanity has always been on a clock. All things are finite. It was only ever a question of how long we had, and what our doom would look like once it materialized. Over the last few centuries, we have chosen our apocalypse, and like Robert Frost, we have held with those who favor fire. Or, at least, slow cooking. I mean, of course, global warming.

There is too much momentum to the problem of greenhouse-gas-driven worldwide temperature increase for us to stop it. For that we would have needed to change course, dramatically, long before I was born. We can perhaps hope to slow the process unto the second or third derivative*, but no more. I may not believe in the worst-case projections that posit the collapse of human civilization within fifteen years; but I would be not at all surprised if at least some members of my generation live to see it happen.

Even if we elected the grandest unicorn ever to grace the political stage; even if, evidence to the contrary aside, that unicorn is Bernie Sanders; the magic horn would not erase countless billions of tons of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. We are fucked no matter whom we put in charge of the United States executive branch.

I do admire the optimists. There is something beautiful about Papyrus, having refused to raise a hand against a genocidal player, saying with his dying words that he still believes in them. It’s one reason I still hold out hope that religious truth might exist, despite lacking the conviction to call myself a believer: I want to think we all have a second chance. For all that it’s hopeless, I support efforts to buy a little more time for Earth via green power, emissions reduction, etc. etc. Confronted with the dying of the light, I am pro-rage.

But for now, I cannot stomach choosing a path of short-term harm for long-term idealism, because I don’t think there’s much “long term” left for it to take fruition in. We may have only a few decades; I want my friends to be able to live with a little less hate, a little more freedom, a little more happiness in that period. I thus cannot cast my one vote, my infinitesimal scrap of democratic power, in such a way that would empower the likes of Donald Trump. Maybe Clinton won’t do as much as Sanders would to slow our inexorable descent into apocalypse, but that’s OK. She will, at least, not plunge us into an immediate maelstrom of xenophobic hatred, and that’s good enough for my conscience.


* That is to say, we can’t stop the world from getting hotter; but we may be able to help it get hotter slower or, failing that, reduce the acceleration of its getting hotter. I credit my older brother, a math professor, for my even having retained this concept from high school calculus.

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Might as Well be a Drug

A while back, I wrote about how the relative ease with which I traversed the education system led to a lifelong habit of procrastination. Suffice to say, the bad habit’s not yet kicked.

It’s not a terminal condition, to put it crudely. I have a job, and I get things done. But every minute I spend wandering YouTube or TV Tropes is a minute of a finite life pissed away. And while I’m not likely to go to the extreme of never indulging in these largely useless pastimes, the balance in my day is pretty badly skewed at present. It’s too much, and often at inappropriate times when I’m clearly putting off more important matters. Something’s gotta change, and that something is me.

Cue Zen Habits, a book whose Kickstarter I chipped in on last year and which has provided me with a great framework for bumping up my sporadic writing to a daily practice. Most of the book is dedicated to the formation of new good habits, but there is a chapter and an accompanying worksheet for helping quit a bad habit. So I’m putting that to use, in similar fashion to how I used public accountability, a Zen Habits tip, to goad myself into finishing last year’s NaNoWriMo. (Maybe I can come up with a similar stinger of a punishment for failure, eh?)

The goal starts this Saturday, Feb 22, with a super-easy target: 25 minutes a day of effort in which I indulge no digital distractions. Succeed with that, and I’ll add on another 25, and another 25, and so on until I have my work day full of wall-to-wall productivity. I’ve sketched out a whole plan beyond that according to the above worksheet, but that I’m sharing only with my accountability compadres on Habitica. For you folks in the blogosphere, I will instead post updates to Twitter.

Wish me luck and keep me honest!

Sexy Fictions

As most regular readers of this blog would know by now, I won the National Novel Writing Month this year, putting 50,000 words into a rough draft between the start and end of the month. What you don’t know, though (because this is the first I’ve told anyone), is that some 2000 words of that was smut.

Aside from some by any standard quite embarrassing cybersex back in high school and college, it’s the first I’ve ever created something sexually explicit. No doubt that’s in part due to that Catholic upbringing I wrote about earlier. And I certainly don’t make any claim that it’d be worth reading, given the WriMo ethos of quantity over quality added to the intrinsic silliness of most smut and most first efforts. But I certainly found it exciting, and a little liberating!

Much has been made of the USian double standard when it comes to violence vs. sex, in entertainment. It is far easier to find a TV show that will depict a disembowelment or a decapitation than one that will show a penis. I find that particularly strange, given that sexuality is a significant part of most adult lives, and certainly a much healthier thing in itself than beating the crap out of people tends to be. I often feel the lack of it, when reading or watching things that otherwise portray a wide variety of human needs and experiences.

It’s not that simply finding something titillating is difficult. “The Internet is for porn,” as the song goes, and it takes mere seconds to have the ‘net deliver on that purpose. But the sort of mass-produced stuff that’s easiest to find is soulless and formulaic, quick to deliver a sexual buzz, but entirely bereft of anything deeper. I want it all, I suppose: sexy action that means something due to how it’s situated in a larger narrative. Not just actors, but characters; not just foreplay, penetration, and climax, but character arcs and relationships that, as relationships do, sometimes lead to the bedroom.

I’ve looked for the kind of meaningfully situated sexytimes fiction in various places, to varying degrees of success. I’ve played a few eroge, but it’s difficult to find one whose gameplay doesn’t feel trashy and misogynistic, the player building up points until they can add characters to a portfolio of sexual conquests. This Salon article about a plot-driven porn flick had me hopeful, but the film fails horrifically in the respects the creators boast about; it’s a bunch of conventional pornographic scenes interspersed with badly acted arguments about monogamy, hardly a plot worth following. There’s a whole Web site dedicated to modifying games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to have sexual content, but from what little I can tell before I need to leave in revulsion (there’s a lot of love for… nonconsensual stuff there), it’s as vapid as the rest, adding nudity and erotic animations without any character or plot context.

The closest I’ve come to satisfying this odd craving has been in genre fiction that happens to have great sex scenes. N.K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Broken Kingdoms, for instance, have some really well written encounters between their characters that fit perfectly within the greater stories of those relationships. The Saga graphic novels feature some pretty steamy images with their main characters. But it’s difficult to specifically seek those things out, because books are rarely reviewed with this focus in mind.

Which brought me to this point with the WriMo novel. In my outline (I find I’m most successful if I have things mapped out to at least the chapter level, if not scene by scene, before diving in), I had a spot carved out for an amorous encounter between the protagonist and a chief rival. When I got there, I skipped over it. I told myself it was because the relationship between the characters had developed a little differently than I’d planned, and it no longer made sense for them to hook up. Of course, that was my comfort zone speaking.

When I got to the end of the subplot involving these two characters, though, I found that I was only a couple thousand words shy of the 50,000-word target for the month. I wasn’t likely to get very far with something entirely new; I had plenty more in the outline, but I would barely have scratched the surface of the next major arc before running out of space and/or time. So I looked back at that passed-over interlude, and thought, what the hell. Be the change you want to see in the world, right?

It was fun, in any case, though it’s probably for the best that no one else will likely ever read it! Now that I’ve done such a thing once, maybe it’ll be easier to psych myself up to doing it again. Practice makes perfect?

Fiction Blog!

As many of you know, I’m taking another stab at the National Novel Writing Month, my first since my second win seven years ago. I used to publish my fiction writing on a shared LiveJournal, but in keeping with my overall move away from that platform, I’m starting up a new blog to dump my fiction writings into: the Shattered Mirrors to this blog’s Twisted ones.

I don’t promise that NaNoWriMo stuff, focused as it is on vomiting forth words of no particular quality, will be at all readable or entertaining. I’ll make a second announcement here when I change over from WriMo work to more polished publication.

Dogism

I wasn’t much of a dog person until I met my wife. I’m not the SabreDog, you know! Since becoming the owner of two lovely canines, though, I have endeavored to be a good dog-parent to the best of my abilities. I’ve learned basic training techniques, picked up quite a bit of knowledge about doggie health and nutrition, and can answer “what kind of dog is that?” regarding our breeds to at least the level of detail you’d find in a casual breed reference book. And I always, always clean up after my dogs when we’re out walking—I endeavor to leave places better than I found them, grabbing up cigarette butts or other trash while I’m at it.

But there’s a street in my neighborhood with several residents who are weirdly twitchy about dog poop. Twice I have had people shout at me to pick up after my dog, when there wasn’t anything to pick up; I’m guessing they saw our Menchi peeing and mistook her squat for something more substantial. And this past weekend, when I was in the very process of picking up after Watson, an older gent stopped his truck in the middle of the street to ask me why I couldn’t just walk my dogs in their own yard. Annoyed and nonplussed, I responded, “So they can get some exercise.” Which is self-evident to anyone who owns a non-sedentary dog in an urban setting, of course. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a dog park within walking distance of your house or apartment, it is unavoidable that your dogs eliminate in some public or private space not your own. Unless, of course, you are willing to sacrifice your dogs’ well-being for the sake of the local dogphobes’ sensibilities. Which is why city ordinances don’t forbid dogs pooping outside their home turf, they simply require that you clean up after them.

That wasn’t enough for truck guy, though. He pulled in down the street (I think he was doing some work on a sidewalk?), such that I ended up passing him again on my way back home. He called out at me again, requesting “a civil word,” which I declined. He proceeded to berate me from across the street, urging me to consider where I got the “entitlement” to take my dogs to do their business outside of my own property.

I didn’t say anything else at that point, but I felt the deepest anger I have in a very long time. Not even the rancorous Internet dramas I’ve occasionally (to my discredit) gotten into over the last couple of years rank up there.

I’m sure a more resilient soul would have shaken their head and thought little more of it, but the incident stuck with me for days afterward. Do I give in to the unpleasantness and avoid that street? Or stand firm, refusing to be bullied when I’ve done nothing wrong? I had a new source of nervousness whenever a vehicle passed me and the dogs: would it be another heckler, unable to mind their own business?

It makes me shudder to think, then, of what that’s like for folks facing deeper bigotry than dog-hate. Someone walking on the “wrong” street while a woman, or black, or trans, faces not just random censure for their law-abiding behavior, but challenges to their right to be there at all, or to so much as exist. As unpleasant as the situation was, I had no reason to fear for my life from this random crank; if I were marginalized in one of those ways, that could be a very real concern.

Self-righteousness never makes the world around it better. What then to do in the face of it? I don’t even know.

All That Sex I Could’ve Had

As might be common for folks who grew up Roman Catholic, my relationship with sexuality was rather twisted, for much of my life. I was preoccupied with obedience to Church teachings, likely more than most of my peers; the Church was preoccupied with teaching me how to approach sex, likely more than most other moral topics. And that approach was little more than “Just Don’t Do It,” at least until such time as you’re married to your lifelong partner (who, for me, would have to be a woman). The virtue of chastity as the Church defined it meant no masturbation, no pornography, no physical intimacy beyond the most platonic of hugs and hand-holds. So I became a horrible sort of chastity crusader, to the point where premarital hanky-panky on others’ parts filled me with righteous rage.

To my friends from those days whom I subjected to one rant or another on the topic: you have my sympathy and regret!

Surprising no one, I found these strictures difficult to obey, despite how fervently I believed in their value. Failures sent me into little spirals of shame. That was trouble enough when the “sin” was mine alone, like perusing some vault of erotica or other, but the impact on my romantic partners had to have been far worse. Whatever intimacy we engaged in beyond the previously-described chaste touches, I would revel in it in the moment, then backpedal with guilt later. I established boundaries, then broke them, then reestablished them, in a terrible cycle. (I can only claim the meager credit that I didn’t lash out at these women for “tempting” me or something, which I understand is not uncommon in some Christian circles. I assumed all the pointless blame, which is problematic enough.) I can only imagine how horrifically frustrating that must have been, from my partners’ perspectives.

To my girlfriends from those days, then: you, too, have my sympathy and regret. It was ultimately for the best that we parted ways, but I treated you badly, and for that I am sorry.

When eventually I fell away from the Church, the realization that I no longer had need to abide by those restrictions came in a slow and surreal awakening. Here I was, the door of adult sexuality open to me as it had been for years, but barely knowing what to expect should I choose to walk through. When I began dating again, I wrote a letter to my new girlfriend warning her of and apologizing in advance for my hangups in sexuality and my relative inexperience. We did all right, thankfully: we got married a little over a year ago, and continue to get along fine, in all respects!

I do wonder sometimes what my maturation would have been like, absent those dubious burnt-in lessons–if, perhaps, I’d grown up under the Liberal Catholic Church instead of the Roman one. A different set of awkward memories and little regrets, no doubt, but probably a healthier path overall. As I continue my search for abiding truths to fill the role that religion once served for me, the matter of sexual morality becomes a crucial criterion. Only those philosophies with a greater emphasis on concepts like consent, tolerance, joy, and exploration than shame and repression make the cut.

Money Matters

There’s a hard truth I need to face: I am not good with money.

I did fine when I was on my own. I paid off my student loans and the car I had at the time; I started paying into a 401(k); I kept my bills modest. But whatever modicum of financial literacy I had that kept me going back then, it has not proven sufficient to the task of supporting not only myself, but a house, significant other, and pets. The 401(k) is gone; the wife’s much heftier student loans stare us down over the arm’s length of deferment; the fraction of my monthly income not consumed by bills has become a sad sliver.

The stigma of that has held me back. Mention “credit card debt” in passing on social media or in the company of successful people, and observe how quickly words like “irresponsible,” “stupid,” and “greedy” come up. It makes it hard to admit struggle, even to oneself, because that way lies the dissolution of one’s self-image as responsible, intelligent, and content.

At one layer of cynicism, it’s clear how the systems in place encourage slow-burning disaster. The declining purchase power of the dollar has made grocery trips more and more expensive despite little change in actual buying habits. The promises of prosperity from colleges, politicians, and futurists encourage optimism despite evidence for the opposite. Why bother teaching us how to stay cashflow-positive when we’re all little Zuckerbergs, each and every one on the verge of winning the American Dream lottery as reward for how smart we are? You need that house to live how you deserve, that game console to stay current with the cultural conversation. Lenders congratulate us on our payment history and raise our limits, providing more rope to hang ourselves with, and suggest zero-interest balance transfers to “get out of debt faster” when in fact it’s all a shell game to distract us from how we’re digging deeper. After all, it’s not exactly to a realtor’s benefit to say, “You know, this mortgage payment could be 30-50% higher in a few years, and that’s not even counting maintenance or improvements. Can your income handle that?”

At the next layer of cynicism, I call all that a social critic’s excuse list, when the real problems are my irresponsibility, stupidity, and greed.

I’m still privileged beyond question. While I’m one of those on the shrinking iceberg of the United States’ middle class, I’m still there, with a roof over my head and a cushy mid-five-figure job and a credit score that even now manages to hover above average. My constant low-grade anxiety about debt and its impact on my future in no way compares to the kind of daily struggle that people of fewer means must contend with.

But I still have to figure out what the hell to do about it, before it’s too late.

I recently made a pledge to write daily, and to tackle this year’s NaNoWriMo. But maybe the imminent death of my savings account should be a call to action to pursue better habits of a financial nature instead, for my own sake and that of my family.