He Lived Long, and Prospered

I was at the annual Rainforest Writers Retreat, writing in the lounge this morning, when K.C. Ball walked in and announced that Leonard Nimoy had passed away.

I was probably about 7 years old when I first saw a Star Trek movie. I remember my Aunt was a big science fiction fan, and she thought I would love it, so one evening while she was over, the family watched Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. In retrospect, perhaps it wasn’t the strongest introduction to the world of sci-fi that I could have had, but it worked. I can’t remember whether I enjoyed the movie or not, but it definitely planted a seed.

That movie was my introduction to Star Trek, and by extension, science fiction and the world of geekdom. So when I’d heard that Leonard Nimoy passed away, it hit me harder than I expected. I thought about my life, and all the other lives he’d helped to change. Particularly for those of us who didn’t always mesh well with the rest of humanity—because we were shy, or socially awkward, or saw the world differently than our peers—Spock was kind of a reassurance that there was a place for us.

More than any other crew member, Spock adhered to his personal values– and even if he occasionally (rarely) went astray, he recovered. In a way, he was also the conscience of the Star Trek crew—when the rest of the crew were overwhelmed by emotion, or anger, or pain, Spock was there, reminding them of what was logical, of their purpose, of their identity and goals. He kept them grounded amidst the messy business of day-to-day life, and occasionally, interstellar enemies.

Spock was also eminently quotable, distilling tough, complicated subjects down to simple truths that got to the core of the matter—a talent shared by Leonard Nimoy.

Perhaps that’s one reason his death is such a powerful emotional driver—there are so many lines that tug at our heartstrings as we remember him. Even Leonard Nimoy’s final tweet was appropriate for the situation:

When I get home from Rainforest, the first thing on my agenda is watching Star Trek II, so I can have a good cry.

spock

Dear Fellow Men, Your Masculinity is Not Under Attack.

I want to address something that I occasionally hear from men across the political and cultural spectrum: the belief that masculinity itself is under attack from modern feminism. Specifically, it suggests that the current wave of feminism is devaluing traditional “masculine” attributes like strength, and assertiveness. Even among people I know who support feminism (or think they do) there is often an undercurrent of fear that while ostensibly critiquing certain aspects of culture, feminism is actually attacking men– or if not actually all individual men, then the idea of masculinity.

This fear is reinforced by terminology like “toxic masculinity” (see, feminists do think masculinity is toxic!) or “patriarchy”, as if feminists believe there’s some secret cabal of men controlling the world. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of these terms– but the misinterpretations provide ready-made strawmen to knock down, which I suspect is why they continue to persist.

That said, I do think that feminism has major ramifications for masculinity that we, as men– particularly us regular ol’, cis heterosexual men– will have to come to terms with. But these ramifications are positive; it’s just that they represent a change.

That change is not about devaluing masculinity, but about expanding what the term means. It’s about giving men and boys the freedom to express their strength and masculinity in ways beyond the chest-thumping stereotypes– and giving them the tools to do that.

For a long time, masculinity and femininity were defined as opposites to each other– yin and yang. The feminine was delicate and beautiful, the masculine was rough and strong. Gender roles, too, were clearly defined; women took care of the family and raised the kids, men went out and made a living. The domains of industry, politics, media, business– they were all, with rare exceptions, a man’s world.

Over the past century, feminism has largely changed that. Women have broken through ceiling after ceiling, and enormously expanded their role in society. A woman is no longer just the delicate flower to be protected and provided for by her man, she is the strong, independent controller of her own destiny.

In that sense, feminism has allowed femininity to incorporate some of the positive aspects of masculinity. Which means it’s no longer enough to define the masculine by what the feminine isn’t– rather, masculinity needs its own positive definition, not defined in opposition to the feminine but by the values that we as a society want men to strive for.

This, I think, is where we run into problems. Boys are still taught to be manly, but “manly” doesn’t just mean being strong enough to pursue what you want (a good thing)– too often, it means a lack of empathy for others, because empathy and caring are seen as feminine attributes, and therefore not important (or even negative) for boys. This is largely an unconscious process– fathers raise their boys how they were raised themselves; and media and culture continue to be saturated with role models and protagonists who emphasize the more traditional aspects of masculinity while devaluing the feminine. “Good guy” men are often womanizers (James Bond, anyone?) who save the day through strength and violence. I’m not saying there isn’t a role for the action hero– just that they’re oversaturated in modern media. Most of us don’t grow up to be superspies (unfortunately).

Through their environment– both family and wider society in general– boys are taught to be self-reliant. This is a good thing, but it sometimes means they avoid seeking help they may need, whether for bullying, or depression, or simple loneliness, confusion, and self-doubt– the sorts of things that almost everyone encounters in considerable quantity growing up. Self-reliance is a good quality to teach, but we need to give boys the tools to face their problems without stigmatizing the act of seeking help. Seeking help from others is a vital tool with which to confront and overcome actual problems in adult life– whether you’re a strong person or not. Moreover, if boys are taught to look down on those who seek help, they may also avoid helping people themselves, particularly other males.

This video is a trailer for a longer documentary, but I think it does a good job of identifying the pitfalls of how we teach young boys about masculinity:

“Toxic masculinity” arises when it shuns positive values that are seen as traditionally feminine–compassion, empathy, constructive listening and discussion. Instead, boys place a priority on maintaining their illusion of strength– not just to the outside world, but to themselves. And if they feel trapped by their problems, they may lash out instead of seeking help.

There are other examples, too. Men are expected to lose their virginity as soon as possible; if they don’t, it’s seen as a slight on their manhood. “Virgin” is an emasculating insult, applied far and wide– especially in the world of geek culture. A man not strong enough to get laid? What kind of man is that?

In the wake of the Isla Vista shootings last year, I wrote a long blog post about the shooter’s motivations, and how scarily well I could understand them. The man is often portrayed simply as a boy who was mentally ill, and while that may be the case, he also posted a long rant blaming women and society for his problems. This is a particularly brutal example of that toxic masculinity I described above, which discourages things like self-reflection, or getting help, and stigmatizes anything seen as weak, from self-doubt to virginity. We see motivations like these all too often, not just in murders but domestic violence cases and sexual assault as well.

Luckily, the vast majority of boys and girls grow up to be fairly well-adjusted people. But my ultimate goal, and one generally shared by feminism as a whole, is that people should not be judged or made to feel inferior based on how well they follow some culturally constructed gender norm. Masculinity and femininity are ultimately things that people have to define for themselves, as part of the process of determining their own identity. And they deserve to be accepted by society and their family however they choose to define those terms.

ironside_quote_small2A key point here is that if someone wants to define their feminity or masculinity within “traditional” norms, that should be fine, too. If a Mom wants to quit her career and stay at home to raise her children, then that’s perfectly fine– it’s her decision. I want to see a society and a culture with room for both the stay-at-home Mom and the Mom who starts her own software company. I want there to be room for the stay-at-home Dad and the driven engineer who goes to work while his wife raises the kids– or the bachelor who never marries at all. I want people to have room to use the freedom so neatly summed up here by Michael Ironside– Starship Troopers is fiction, but that quote rings true even in our world.

I’ve heard it countered that to take such a wide-ranging view of masculine and feminine norms is to disregard biology; that as men and women, we have certain biological tendencies, and women are attracted to strong men– hence to downplay strength and aggressiveness in masculinity is to disregard certain base, monkey brain level tendencies.

But the goal here is not to criticize strength as an attribute, but rather to criticize the way it’s portrayed in our culture. Being an asshole and running roughshod over someone else, physically or emotionally, takes strength, but it’s a negative (toxic) strength. It takes more strength to achieve your goals (whether they be career, family, or romance-oriented) in a way that respects the people around you, as opposed to putting your own needs first and only helping others when it’s convenient or benefits you.

In other words, strength should be valued not just for how much you can apply to a given situation, but for how you control and direct that strength. tumblr_lw4ciws0Vn1qc1u27o1_500How we educate and raise young boys should reflect that, and I think media and entertainment that teaches those lessons should be encouraged. We put too much emphasize on the power; not enough on the responsibility that comes with it. (Thanks, Uncle Ben.)

Even if we do accept that different genders have certain biological tendencies, the idea that this norm should enjoy some privileged place in society at the expense of folks who don’t fit the norm, is silly. To argue otherwise is to put yourself on the same side of people who argue against gay marriage because they claim to support the “traditional family.” Heterosexual families will always be the norm, but to privilege that norm by denying rights to everyone else is to blatantly ignore the fact that there are plenty of non-traditional families out there that are every bit as healthy and loving as the traditional folks, and just because they’re in the minority, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve support.

My own personal view is that whatever little behavioral tendencies we may be born with– be they related to gender, or family history, or something else– are far outweighed by how we’re raised, the environment we grow up in, and the values we hold. To suggest anything less is to deny your responsibility for your own actions, and I don’t buy that at all.  As human beings, we are the one species equipped to engage in self-reflection and set values for ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. And I want everyone to have the freedom to do just that.

And it’s happening. One of the reasons we see a lot more “offense” taken over slights or insults that might have previously gone overlooked is that more people now feel empowered to speak out. People who don’t fit the traditional or majority mold– in terms of race, or sexual orientation, or gender, or beliefs– now feel like they have room to publicly discuss things that bother them, whereas previously they may have stayed silent. This, in turn, has made people on all levels of society more aware of such issues. The current plague of “SJWs” isn’t a backlash against free speech; it’s a result of more people feeling free to exercise their speech. I blogged about this a couple years ago during a SFWA kerfuffle, and I find it still holds true in the current “crisis.”

It’s sadly ironic that when the shoe is on the other foot– for example, when a popular movie like Frozen portrays a situation different from the “default” male hero, conservative commentators immediately complain (even though Kristoff, while not the primary hero, still has a heroic role to play). These people are used to having their own situations, roles, and values portrayed as the norm– in popular media, they don’t often see people not like them, and certainly not on the scale of a Disney mega-movie.

These people are made so uncomfortable by this, they go on TV and complain about it, like a completely over-the-top parody of the “SJWs” and feminists they hate. Are they really not aware that there are large groups of society who almost never get to see someone like themselves as the hero, or have a relationship that reflects their own portrayed? Imagine the fuss if Disney portrayed a gay hero in one of their animated films! The horror!

Not to mention the hypocrisy. When feminists critique a movie that blindly follows the norm, or hews to certain lazy or even offensive stereotypes of the minority, the response is often “shut up and get over it;” “you’re too easily offended;” “it’s just a [movie/game/TV show].” Until a movie comes out in which a female protagonist saves herself through her own actions, and the male characters take on supporting roles… in which case, Freak Out!

When people complain about masculinity being under attack, what they usually mean is that the traditional view of masculinity is losing its privileged place in society– we are seeing more (and better) portrayals of people out there who don’t fit the norm, in one way or another, and are successful at life regardless. These were people who were often invisible to larger society and media, but that has changed. They are finding their voices, and in the end we will all be richer for it.

Alternatively, some people seem to confuse being a strong man with being an asshole. Being a strong and assertive man isn’t being villified– but being an asshole is. More people are willing to call out shitty behavior when they see it, and behavior that might have been seen as okay in the past is now increasingly seen as not okay, largely thanks to previously underpowered groups (like women) who now feel more free to speak out.

Those of us who typically have the power in society, who fit the “norms”– whether we be white, or male, or cis, or heterosexual, or Christian– may increasingly have our own norms challenged, but that doesn’t mean we’re under attack. It just means society is making room for everybody else, too. Us “norm-fitters” will have to give up some privilege, but society will be richer for it, with a larger and wider array of voices to educate us, inform us, and lead us– in classrooms, science labs, companies, in the halls of government. It’s an ongoing process, but it’s one we will all benefit from– even the strongest of men.

2014: The Good, The Bad, and The Crazy

Back at the start of 2014, I had just quit my I.T. job a few weeks prior, with the goal of making enough money by the end of the year that I wouldn’t need to go back to I.T. I had several ideas I wanted to pursue, from photography to writing to hypnotherapy, and entertained high hopes of working on them all. In retrospect, it was a bit naive– I think if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that starting a new business of any sort takes a hell of a lot of work, and that splitting your attention across multiple ventures in this regard is kind of a good way to ensure that none of them get off the ground.

This year has basically turned into a year of photography for me– which is different than I expected (I had hoped it was going to be a year of writing), but I don’t regret it. I’ve enjoyed my photography, and I feel like I’m close to being able to do it professionally– in fact, I am doing it professionally, just not often enough that it makes for a viable career yet.

Setting career aspirations aside, I’ve accomplished a lot of things that I’m proud of in their own right. I finished my Journeys in Seattle project over at my photoblog, successfully doing a new photo expedition in the Seattle area every week of 2014. I got involved with Go To Games, and went with them to several conventions both inside and out of Seattle.

And of course, I went to Nepal for a month, and got to visit Hong Kong and Seoul, as well. That was something that hadn’t been on my radar on January 1st; the opportunity arose mid-year and I decided to take advantage of it. I’m really happy that came along; it’s the sort of experience that can to benefit you for the rest of your life, in real but often intangible ways.

In the writing world, I managed to get a new novel written, and am most of the way through the second draft. I want to continue working on that, but I’ve found that writing needs to be something I pursue for fun, not for a career– at least, not now. The fact is, I don’t have any idea which of my various writing projects might translate to commercial success (if any), and so for now I need to pursue my writing without worrying about that– otherwise it’s almost paralyzing, as I wonder how I can most effectively use my time, from a monetary perspective. Should I focus on Project A, or project B? Will drafting project C pan out? The fact is, I don’t know, and don’t have enough information to even make a guess. I need to be able to work on project A or B or C as my creative muse sees fit, and then once I’ve finished a couple projects, then I can see and learn how they pan out from a moneymaking perspective. But needing them to make money is a bad idea, and isn’t beneficial from a creative perspective– I had thought it might be, in terms of being a good motivator, but that hasn’t panned out.

Career consideration aside, though, 2014’s been a good year for me, personally. I find myself in a long-term relationship– which is certainly something I didn’t see coming when I was planning my “break year” eighteen months ago, but is nevertheless a welcome surprise. In addition to going to Nepal, I got to take a backpacking trip to Canada, vacationed on the Oregon coast with my Dad, and went on quite a few hiking and camping trips to places I’d never been before. My depression flared up occasionally, but never cripplingly so, and I feel like I’ve generally gotten better at handling it when it does. Granted, working for myself meant that I could devote energy to myself and take breaks when I needed to… which is a luxury I may not have in the future.

I’ll post another blog in the coming days with my goals for 2015– posting more on this blog (as opposed to my photoblog over at Journeys in Color) will be one of my goals, particularly as it relates to current events and social justice issues.

In the meantime, I hope everyone has a safe and happy New Year! And best wishes to you and yours in the coming year.

Notes from the Edge of Winter

Despite the fact that yellow leaves are still clinging to the tree outside the bathroom window, winter seems to have officially arrived in Seattle, to judge by the dusting of frozen white stuff on the ground outside. I’ve spent a large portion of Thanksgiving weekend curled up inside with a book, after spending Thanksgiving Day itself having a slightly non-traditional dinner of ham_sIMG_5226 with the girlfriend’s family. Her family lives in Poulsbo, which meant we had to get there via the Bainbridge Island ferry, and on the way we were treated to an impressive display of light and shadow among the clouds and shore.

Since then, though, it’s been a quiet weekend. I did open a new prints store for my photography, located at Redbubble, and so far I enjoy the layout and options more than the prints shop over at my primary site, Journeys in Color.

So in the holiday season, if you’re looking for interesting gifts for folks, please consider stopping by either of my prints shops. In addition to prints and posters, I also have phone, tablet and laptop cases for sale; travel and coffee mugs; greeting cards; postage stamps; and more. And feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions.

In addition to prints and merchandise, I’m also running a sale on my photography: 40% off portrait and headshot sessions that are booked before the end of the year. You can buy them for yourself or for someone else, via gift certificates. I recently took some new author photos for writer and editor Jennifer Brozek, and I’m pretty happy the results. (You can see one of the pictures we took on her front page).

I’ve also finished editing the photos from my Asia trip. I’m still deciding what to do with them, but you can see them online here, divided into galleries for each location. Some are also available as prints in the Journeys In Color print store.

Amidst the big photography push, I’ve found it hard to focus on my writing, although I did dust off the steampunk novel that I completed earlier this year and began editing it again, in preparation for sending out some agent queries. The NaNoWriMo work I’d intended to do on my 44,000-word Nepal journal didn’t manifest, again, largely because I’m focused on photography, but I’d still like to turn it into something people might read.

So that’s my November update. If entries here seem sparse, it’s mostly because I’ve been photoblogging a lot. But my “Journeys Around Seattle” project that I’ve been doing over there will also be wrapping up at the end of the year– which means it’s about time for me to have some end-of-the-year reflections, as I figure out what my agenda will be in 2015. Because to be honest, I’m really not sure at this point– an abundance of ideas, a lack of decisiveness.

I find myself in the midst of Interesting Times. Stay tuned.

Back From Vacation… There’s a Long To-Do List

On Saturday, I returned to Seattle after six weeks in Asia. Doing any sort of trip recap would be difficult, simply because so much happened– I kept a journal during the trip, which I wrote in daily, and the raw document contains 44,137 words. I also took over 4,000 pictures. I’m sorting and processing those, now that I have access to my editing software again, but if you’d like to see some of the photos that I was able to upload as I went, here are some links to Facebook image galleries:

Trekking in Nepal
Hong Kong
24 Hours in Seoul

So much happened that it’s hard to do it any sort of justice in a short recap. But one of the reasons I travel is to try and broaden my perspective, to remind myself that the corner of the world I see and interact with every day is not the entire world. Because if you spend years fully submerged in your own little corner– not just physically but emotionally, mentally, spiritually– sometimes that little corner does start to feel like all there is.

Having spent four years in Seattle without any serious travel, I felt like I was suffering from that a bit, and I think that going to Asia, visiting the “developing world” for the first time, seeing cultures and parts of the world and ways of living with which I was almost totally unfamiliar, gave me a lot to think about it, not just in the short term but over the coming months and years.

So I will probably do a blog post or two on specific topics in the coming months. I also plan to take that 44,000 word travel journal and spend this year’s NaNoWriMo trying to make it into a readable narrative, complete with commentary and throwing some travel tips and advice as well. I do feel like I came back from Asia with a lot to say; now I just have to collect my thoughts.

In the meantime, I also need to get some business wheels churning again, so I’ll post occasionally with news on that front. Now that I’m back, and now that I’ve rested my way back to a normal sleep schedule and mostly shaken off the intestinal issues I brought back from Nepal, it’s time to get to work and see if I can make my creative aspirations start really paying off.

As usual, sometimes the hardest journeys don’t start until after you get home.

Off For Some Trekking

Nepal - Google Maps - Google Chrome_2014-09-15_10-05-01Not the Star Trek variety, that is, but the real life version.

I’m leaving Seattle today, and in two days I’ll arrive in Kathmandu, in the country of Nepal. From there I’ll be spending five weeks in Nepal, exploring and hiking. Most of my time will be spent walking the Annapurna Circuit, although there may be time for a side trek or two as well.

This trip is going to fulfill several firsts for me:

-My first time spending more than two weeks overseas

-My first time on the continent of Asia

-My first time in a non-Western country at all, actually

I’m both excited and nervous– mostly excited, though. Needless to say, I’ll be bringing my camera, and taking lots of photos of Nepal and the Himalayas. I’ll also be trying to keep a travel journal, and I’ll probably be posting here when time and interesting events permit.

When I leave Nepal in a few weeks, I’ll be swinging through Hong Kong and Seoul on my way back to Seattle, just long enough to stop in briefly, pay a visit to my Dad, who will be in Hong Kong on business, and snap a few pics before heading home.

Time for an adventure. I’ll be back in a few weeks, America.

Ten Years Ago Today

On August 12, 2004 I reached the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, after hiking for five months from the southern terminus in Georgia. You can still read the whole of my journal from the trail... I posted it as I went, from whatever public libraries I could find in towns along the way.

At the time, I was mostly just relieved to be done, but since then it’s become an important bedrock of personal strength for me. If I can complete a 2200-mile, five-month hike, I can do a lot of other things, whether it’s travelling to other countries on my own, or moving to the West Coast, or starting a photography business, or dealing with chronic depression.

To this day, I’m a huge believer in challenging yourself, in stepping outside of your comfort zone, in reaching for crazy and far-fetched dreams and goals, even at the risk of embarrassing or expensive failure. Hiking the A.T. may have been the first thing that really taught me that, even if it took me a few more years to recognize the lesson.

tj2016_082304_204100_61091