Mountain; High Enough

Several years ago, I climbed a mountain.

It was a (relatively) small one, on Mount Desert Island in Maine. One of the ones in Acadia National Park.

If you’ve never been to Acadia, it’s a prime example of northern forest. Beautiful and quiet, interspersing a cathedral atmosphere with trees reaching towards a distant sun with sweeping views of rocky coastline. You can stand at the boundaries between earth and water and sky, imagining yourself battered by wind and waves like something out of Hemingway or Melville.

This was in another era of my life. In the time of a bad relationship, in the time of fewer tools for dealing with my broken brain. I had camped the night before for the first time in about 10 years and the tent had been battered by rain. I was exhausted. I was not okay. Nevertheless, I climbed. I was unused to serious hiking. I was creaky and slow and self-conscious about being so.

Nevertheless, I reached the top.

It was a deeply emotionally trying day for both me and the ex. The path was steep and I was in deep freak-out mode and it was too misty to see any views from the thousand-and-some foot elevation at the top.

And it wasn’t till later till after sleep and food and a return to my hemmed in urban life that I realized how absurd it was that I’d been feeling bad about having reached the top of a mountain more slowly than someone else.

* * *

When I was young I repeatedly read a book by Richard Bach (of Jonathan Livingston Seagull fame) called Illusions. It was full of a very seventies brand of philosophy which many still turn to – visualizing what you want as a way of instantiating it. More or less the same brand of philosophy that The Secret espouses, as I understand it. Doesn’t work, of course. Visualizing without planning and working does fuckall.

I absorbed it though, at far too tender an age.

There are lines I can still remember. Bach’s amended golden rule “Do unto others as you truly feel like doing unto others,” is one that has some value in some contexts. The pithier one, the one that stuck with me harder is “Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they’re yours.”

What toxic bullshit.

* * *

If you had told me at 10 or 15 or 20 or even 30 that accepting one’s limitations is one of the most freeing things that could ever happen I would have been deeply skeptical.

The fact is limitations are not the same as rules or circumstances. If there’s one most helpful thing I’ve learned from therapy and from all the self-examination and self-reconstruction that came with it, learning yourself and the way you work can free you up to bust through your circumstances and harmful boundaries.

It is much easier to change your environment to help you work better than it is to change yourself to suit the environment.

Accepting this can help you to function with maximum return on investment.

I don’t mean you don’t try new things or learn new things, but there are plenty of habits whose roots are so tangled with other things in your past or your brain chemistry that digging them up is absolutely not worth it and will probably be unsuccesful. There is no reason why you can’t change your living circumstances or your practices of daily self-maintenance instead of roto-tilling your brain.

This all goes double with physical limitations, I think. You can learn new skills, you can grow, but we all have physical limitations and they’re not the same as everyone else. All the positive thinking in the world is not going to help someone who can’t stand and take steps to go up a flight of stairs. Nor will all the positive thinking in the world make doing so hurt less for someone who experiences chronic pain.

We accept a lot of our limitations without thinking too hard about it. We wear coats in the wintertime. We have houses to keep the rain off. We have cars and planes instead of pushing ourselves to learn to run faster or to fly.

I currently work serving students with disabilities — we have this mindset as a culture that certain kinds of help count as not getting help. A lot of people look at an accomodation as an unfair advantage. They’re not seeing that learning is learning regardless of how it happens. A car is an accomodation for people who can’t run sixty miles an hour. A grocery cart is an accomodation for people who can’t carry fifty pounds of oddly-shaped items. A coat is an accomodation for people who can’t keep their body temperature up sufficiently when the temperature gets to a certain point.

As a culture, we’ve agreed that these kinds of help count as nonhelp. And anything beyond them counts as help. Or “extra” help.

We’re focusing on tasks rather than the goals.

To accept your limitations is to free yourself to focus on the goals instead of the tasks. Is the goal to remember your keys? Is it easier to berate yourself about remembering where you put them down or to install a special hook right inside the door and leave them there.

Is the goal to remember your meds? Is it easier to tell yourself to just remember and then remember that you took them or are there systems and helps you can put in place that will take that mental load away from you? (daily pill organizers, alarms on your phone, a sign on your fridge, etc.)

Is your goal to get up and get to work in the morning? What will make that easy on you? How can you make that happen without punishing yourself or squishing yourself into the same shape box you think everyone else is in?

These are the kinds of questions I ask myself. And when I figure out something that will make my life easier, I do it, regardless of how weird it’ll seem to other people (who even has to know) or how contrary it is to what I was taught growing up.

Focus on what you want to do — focus on goals and behaviors instead of tasks and external milestones. Stifle your inner Calvanist that says that how hard you work is more important than what you get done. It could get you farther than you think.

It’s an engineering problem. This is the load your materials can carry. How can you use them to build a strong bridge that will let people cross it? How can you use it to keep the rain off or make yourself safe? It’s what you have. You cannot trade it or buy something new. How can you use it effectively?

Give yourself credit for whatever mountains you’ve climbed, no matter how slowly. And give credit to other people even if their mountains or the way they reach their elevations aren’t the same as yours.

Ass Over Teakettle

There’s only one good thing about falling dramatically down onto a sidewalk and making a very undignified noise and having your glasses fly off and spilling your coffee after only getting one sip…and that is getting to use the phrase “ass over teakettle”.

I went ass over teakettle last week. Scraped and bruised the living fuck out of one knee and generally felt stupid and had several days of deep muscular soreness.


There’s something deeply humanizing about spraining your dignity. I don’t mean to go out of my way to sell any benefits of being human, mind you. It can be the worst. But a dose of humility every now and again is probably good for most of us.

I mean. It’s complicated, right? Like – entitlement is often considered a bad thing. And it is in excess, absolutely. In my opinion an out-of-control sense of entitlement is at the root of a lot of societal problems. But there is such a thing as too little entitlement. You can fail to feel entitled to an opinion (even a knowledge-based one) or to feel entitled to the basic things you need to keep your body healthy, or even to the space that you take up in the world.

It’s a balance thing, right? Too much entitlement equals egotistical asshole. Too little equals low self-esteem or something worse – depression, lack of sense of self, possibly a buy in to any cultural narratives that tell you that you’re lesser, that humanity itself doesn’t establish your worth.

So: a balance thing. You can have too much, but you can also have too little. And I think it’s always difficult to understand or to believe that the amount of entitlement you have may be wrong. We pick up these ideas at a level below the conscious one and bringing them to light and unlearning them is a job of work.

So it’s humanizing to have moments of humility. It’s at least as human to have some sense of entitlement.

Humility visits itself upon me easily and frequently. Entitlement not so much. It’s difficult for me to believe that it’s okay for me to promulgate my opinions, even for stuff I think deep and long about.

I bring all this up mainly because this is the particular dog that has eaten my homework for the past week or so. I may always be thinking about culture but it can be difficult for me to believe there’s any particular value in adding my voice to the throng of folks who talk about this every day — that there is value in my perspective and in the way I express it.

This is a slice of how exhausting it is to have a brain that doesn’t feed you the right chemicals. That, too, is a very human thing, I know. Also (like many human things) a fucking frustrating or even enraging one.

Mentally, I went ass over teakettle before I did physically. And a bruised psyche is harder to allow to heal than a bruised knee. First, you need to accept that it is bruised. Because part of the way depression perpetuates itself is by convincing you that it is the only one who’s telling you the awful truth of your worthlessness. The bruise, it will tell you, is supposed to be there. You’re supposed to hurt. You’ve earned it. You deserve it. And you deserve to experience it in silence.

So how do you get past it? I do not know, dear reader. I’ll let you know if I ever figure out how to leave it behind for good. In the meantime, I must assume that I’ll be back this way again. I know it’s tedious to hear about (but not, as Douglas Adams once said, nearly as tedious as it is to undergo). Thanks for sticking with me. More stuff on actual culture is coming up.

There is a saying among motorcyclists about riders who have been hit by cars:

“Saying ‘I didn’t see them’ is not a defense. It’s an admission of guilt.”

Motorcyclists hit by cars fare very badly. Cars hit by motorcycles generally come through just fine. Cars are deadly to other things on the roads, sometimes, in part because car drivers are unused to keeping an eye out for bicyclists, motorcyclists, and even pedestrians in some places. But not being used to looking out for something so different on the roads is not actually an excuse for running into it.

The driver is still making choices and cultivating awareness (or lack thereof) that led to someone else getting hurt.

The societal systems through which we interact are kind of like that, too. There are laws to try to ensure that we share the road, but conventions often leave a substantial sub-set of humanity out of the calculus of safety.

We can help to change that through the choices we make and the awareness that we cultivate. There has been a lot of talk lately about the importance of diversity for minority folks (particularly kids). To see oneself reflected in media is to feel that one can achieve things beyond one’s immediate context.

This reflection still, currently, reflects a lot more white, Western folks than other colors and cultures. It reflects more straight people than queer, more men than women, more cis people than trans folks, more able-bodied folks than disabled folks….

The environment where we still normalize and make default the cis, white, Western, able-bodied, straight man is an environment that doesn’t just cost people who don’t fit in that circle. It affects us all. We miss out when all people aren’t encouraged to reach their full potential. And we miss out personally when we can’t relate to folks who aren’t exactly like ourselves.

It is, for instance, just as important for any random boy to see that a black girl can be a superhero as it is for the black girl herself.

Stories are an important way that we learn to empathize with people who are not like ourselves. They can connect us to people who lived thousands of years ago or people who go to space or people who live on the other side of the planet. They can surely help to connect us to someone with a different skin color or background.

When you find internalized prejudice in yourself (as almost any of us who do any self-examination will), it’s your job to try to de-fang and unseat that prejudice. An easy and pleasant way to do that is to expose yourself to more stories about folks who aren’t just like you.

Prejudice is often defeated person-to-person as an acquaintance with someone in a group disproves what another person thinks they know about that group. But that is a heavy burden to place at the door of folks who already have systemic injustice and everyday life to deal with.

There are plenty of nice ally 101 articles around the web that give solid tips like “research before you ask your acquaintances questions” and “don’t let racist/sexist comments slide – use your privilege to speak up”. This is part of activism 301. Look inside yourself and see what assumptions you’re making. Figure out ways to crowbar those assumptions open and broaden your perspective.

Complex stories can help you to see folks who are different than you as real people with full lives. Stories with heroes that don’t look or love or worship like you can help you to open your mind about the heroic potential in everyone.

Stories can help you to be a better person and a better ally.

Some simple things you can do in this vein include following folks who are different to you on social media. Listen to what they have to say on a daily basis, not just about their identities but about everything.

If the only stories you watch about people of color or queer folks or anyone in any minority category are civil rights period pieces, consider broadening your outlook. Seek out stories that are not about the identity politics of a person but includes their identities as part of a full humanity.

This is not to say that a civil rights story can’t have full, true characters, but there are so many more aspects to minority lives than the struggle for justice.

Make sure your media diet includes stories by minority writers and directors, not just stories written about minorities by white dudes. It might take a little extra effort, but it’ll be richly rewarded. I think you’ll find truth in the words of Alan Yang, co-creator of Netflix’s Master of None, “Thank you to all the straight white guys who dominated movies and TV so hard, and for so long, that stories about anyone else seem kind of fresh and original.”

So let folks who aren’t like you into your imagination and your emotional world. It’s not the only way to unseat your internal prejudice, but it’s a relatively easy and frequently entertaining way to work on making yourself a better person. You choose what you’re exposed to (and what your kids are exposed to).

You choose what you see. Saying you lack exposure is not an excuse for ignorance or prejudice. It is an admission of guilt.

In 2012 I fell into the depths of a really horrible depression.

It was part inhereted mood disorder, part circumstancial, but either way, I was sleepwalking through work, and just not getting out of bed on the weekends. I felt like there was nothing to look forward to. The year was a little up and down, but mostly down, and by January of 2013, it had crystalized into something so firm and heavy, I knew I’d be carrying it for quite a while.

Around the same time, I went to a movie alone for the first time since I was about 20. It used to be something I hated doing. I considered it an alienating experience. But there comes a point when one is alone and an adult that one does things alone or not at all.

By this time I was in a different city in a different state with a very different feel and culture. When I dragged myself to a few movies alone, I found it wasn’t so bad. I can walk to two different little indie theaters from where I’m living and when I got there, sitting alone in the warm dark, waiting for the screen to show me a story and not needing to be doing anything else was the most peace I was able to manage.

I started going to see at least a movie a week. Picking out what to see and when to see it gave me just enough of plan to pivot my days around without being demanding on me emotionally or physically. I couldn’t pause it and wander away or put it down like I could at home if my self-distracting entertainment got at all uncomfortable. I could do it year round, which isn’t true for everything in my area. And due to living in a college town where it’s as easy to find a lecture to go to as it is to find a concert, there are a lot of tiny theaters that show fun, strange or out-of-the-way things. There is a national arthouse chain, a nonprofit theater that shows foreign films and artistic stuff as well as revivals, the aforementioned two local indie theaters that sell the cheapest tickets around (when I started my project, it was $9 for a regular evening ticket or $6 for a matinee), some colleges screen things you can’t see anywehre else, as well as pretty easy access to two or three more traditional big-chain multiplex theaters.

Being in a place like that, with all these resources available will turn you into a movie buff before you know it.

I am lucky. I have gotten to see films from festivals, silent films with live music, classics on the big screen, documentaries I had never heard of, films with discussions with actors, writers and directors. It is an education. And, as T. H. White once said, there’s nothing quite as good for being sad as to learn something.

So an effort that started a way to give myself something to pivot my day around so that I’d get out of bed before noon on Saturdays and actually eat something became a larger quest.

I made rules for myself: movies only count for my once weekly film if they’re new to me and I see them in the theater. I get two weeks off a year for behavior, so the goal is fifty films each year (I’ve always gone past that total, to be honest with you). I will not wait till a friend is available to see something I want to see, because that’s a recipie for missing it. Instead I will go again with a friend unless I really, really hated it.

I don’t go out of my way to see erudite films or educational films, but I don’t avoid them either. I have seen high art a few times, but have also seen plenty of big summer action films that are like friendly huge dogs with more explosions and pectoral muscles.

What this has led me to is a broad and incomplete understanding of the craft of movies and the field of movies as art and entertainment. There is a lot I don’t know. I’ve never studied film per se, and I may never do so. But each and every film I’ve seen, even if I have thoroughly hated it, has taught me something about the way films work or fail to work. There are classics I never particularly want to see, and I adore movies that other folks think are trash. (Never let me corner you to talk about how much I loved “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”.)

Like any medium, it’s full of ideas and traditions and gestalts that many of us absorb without examining them. And each generation thinks they’re inventing it anew, even though they are, as as we are all, standing on the shoulders of giants.

As for me, During the five years I’ve been seeing a movie a week, I’ve been getting better. Not because of the movies, at least not directly. I’ve spent time in therapy and time on meds and time with friends and with soul-searching and journaling and meditation…I’ve brought every tool to bear that I can think of and I’m now way more okay and functional than I was in 2012 or 2013. Which some days is still not very, but I’ll take it.

And, at some point my fifty-movie project became something beyond a tool for me. I love the form. I love going to the theater. I love being able to recommend films that suit each friend’s preferences and avoids the things they don’t like or make them uncomfortable. Mostly, I adore the ability to escape into someone else’s world, whether it’s a real one or fictional. And it’s always going to be part of what carries me forwards, regardless of how I’m doing.

I was born into the age of the geek.

I know many other nerds of my generation will happily tell how they grew up oppressed and marginalized, bullied at school, isolated with few friends. I have some stories like that, too. How I didn’t have many friends in my year and wound up playing Magic: The Gathering and Warcraft with my little brother’s friends. How I ate lunch in teacher’s rooms, or the school library, just to avoid exposure to other students in the cafeteria…

Those experiences may have helped shape my personality, but no one can call us marginalized now. And, even though science fiction and nerdy games have both been around much longer than I have, arguably the turning point between “science fiction is this weird, niche thing for people who read pulps and see b-movies” to “this is now a huge portion of the common cultural currency” is the release of Star Wars in May of 1977. One day after I was born.

Alec Hardison from Leverage saying 'Age of the geek, baby. Stay strong.'

Now I am so spoiled for choice of scifi and fantasy television, movies and books, that I can be truly selective about what I take in.

I mean, I am not selective, by and large. I still like me some b-movie cheese, for sure. But gone are the days of reading everything in the science fiction section of the library just because they only had so many choices (whyyyy did I read all those Xanth books?). Gone are the days where everyone has the same science fiction knowledge as each other. And gone are the days where knowledge about specific things (Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, They Might Be Giants, Gary Gygax) were the cultural shibboleths we used to determine who was in our exclusive club.

I’d like to think that gone are the days when these things are considered exclusive at all. As my youth has passed away (#pretentiousold), I have become less and less interested in shaming people for what they’re into or for what they haven’t been exposed to for whatever reason, and more interested in sharing things that bring me joy and listening to other folks about what brings them joy.

My housemate and I like to joke that all media safewords are repsected in our house. Everybody has corners they don’t want to poke into and that is fine with me. God knows, I have plenty of my own. And I don’t appreciate it when people try to push on my boundaries or mock me for what they are.

So no mocking, here. No expectations. If this is the age of the geek, then I believe there are rooms for all kinds of geeks in it. I just want to share some of the things that I’m enthusiastic about. And I hope you enjoy.