In Rememberance

First off, thanks to everyone who responded, in public and private, to my previous post. Clearly it hit a chord with folks– a somewhat scary and disturbing chord, perhaps, but a chord nonetheless. I hope it didn’t come off like I was trying to excuse or justify the killer’s actions, or even his feelings. There’s a difference between being able to understand how feelings might arise, and agreeing with or trying to justify them. My goal was to articulate a toxic culture– one that desperately needs to change– because of its potential to give rise to very hateful people.

But if you want to comment on that line of thought further, please do so on the previous post, or if you wish, feel free to contact me privately via any method in the Contact tab above. I’m writing this post because I want to focus on another aspect of the tragedy– and indeed, of all mass shootings, that bothers me a lot.

This was inspired by this Tumblr post and this WSJ article. The short version is that one of the motivations for mass killers is they want to be famous. They want to be remembered. They want society to recoil in horror from them, and they want their name to live in infamy. In doing so, they become far more famous and well-known than if they hadn’t killed anyone.

Well, fuck that noise. You’ll notice that in my posts and tweets, I haven’t mentioned the name of the killer, or linked directly to his words, one goddamn time, and I’m going to keep it that way. The mass shooters in places like Isla Vista, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine, etc. don’t deserve to be remembered. They deserve to fade into the cesspool of history with hundreds of other faceless monsters and mass murderers. And in time they will– I just don’t think it happens fast enough.

I don’t want to remember the killers, but I do want to remember the victims. These people– who were very much like us, with families and loved ones and dreams and stories to tell and goals and hopes and aspirations far better and nobler than “mass murder”– these are the people that deserve to be memorialized and remembered. We should remember their names, then we should do what we can to ensure that the list of victims does not get any longer.

I hate that I can easily remember the name of the Sandy Hook shooter, but can barely remember the name of one victim, no matter how hard I try to remind myself, because the shooter’s name was repeated ad nauseum but the victims’ names blurred into a long list. There’s no too much that can be done about that now, particularly the latter part.

But here’s my challenge: I’ve listed the names of victims from some of the most well-known mass shootings in modern American history; ones in which you may know the killer’s names, but probably not the victims’. Pick just a few of these names, and try to commit them to memory. Try and make those one or two names be what you remember when you think of those tragedies– not the perpetrators, but the victims. Remember the victims. There’s a lot of them, but if each of us can remember a few, maybe the names and identities of the victims might outlast the killers in our individual and collective memories.

In each case, I’ve linked to a source with more information on each victim, if you’d like to read about their stories. I encourage you to do so– it will help you remember the names that you pick.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of shootings. It simply can’t be. But if there’s one you’d like to add to the list, if can add a link in the comments to a compilation of information of the victims, I will add it.

Isla Vista, California
May 23, 2014

Katherine Breann Cooper

Cheng Yuan Hong

George Chen

Weihan Wang

Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez

Veronika Elizabeth Weiss

 

Newtown, Connecticut
December 14, 2012

Charlotte Bacon

Daniel Barden

Rachel D’Avino

Olivia Engel

Josephine Gay

Dylan Hockley

Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung

Madeleine F. Hsu

Catherine V. Hubbard

Chase Kowalski

Nancy Lanza

Jesse Lewis

Ana Marquez-Greene

James Mattioli

Grace McDonnell

Anne Marie Murphy

Emilie Parker

Jack Pinto

Noah Pozner

Caroline Previdi

Jessica Rekos

Avielle Richman

Lauren Rousseau

Mary Sherlach

Victoria Soto

Benjamin Wheeler

Allison N. Wyatt

 

Oak Creek, Wisconsin
August 5, 2012

Suveg Singh Khattra

Satwant Singh Kaleka

Ranjit Singh

Sita Singh

Paramjit Kaur

Prakash Singh

 

Aurora, Colorado
July 20, 2012

Jonathan Blunk

Alexander J. Boik

Jesse Childress

Gordon Cowden

Jessica Ghawi

John Larimer

Matt McQuinn

Micayla Medek

Veronica Moser-Sullivan

Alex Sullivan

Alexander C. Teves

Rebecca Wingo

 

Blacksburg, Virginia
April 16, 2007

Ross A. Alameddine

Christopher James Bishop

Brian R. Bluhm

Ryan Christopher Clark

Austin Michelle Cloyd

Jocelyne Couture-Nowak

Kevin P. Granata

Matthew Gregory Gwaltney

Caitlin Millar Hammaren

Jeremy Michael Herbstritt

Rachael Elizabeth Hill

Emily Jane Hilscher

Jarrett Lee Lane

Matthew Joseph La Porte

Henry J. Lee

Liviu Librescu

G.V. Loganathan

Partahi Mamora Halomoan Lumbantoruan

Lauren Ashley McCain

Daniel Patrick O’Neil

Juan Ramon Ortiz-Ortiz

Minal Hiralal Panchal

Daniel Alejandro Perez Cueva

Erin Nicole Peterson

Michael Steven Pohle, Jr.

Julia Kathleen Pryde

Mary Karen Read

Reema Joseph Samaha

Waleed Mohamed Shaalan

Leslie Geraldine Sherman

Maxine Shelly Turner

Nicole Regina White

 

Jefferson County, Colorado
April 20, 1999

Cassie Bernall

Steve Curnow

Corey DePooter

Kelly Fleming

Matt Kechter

Daniel Mauser

Daniel Rohrbaugh

Dave Saunders

Rachel Scott

Isaiah Shoel

John Tomlin

Lauren Townsend

Kyle Velasquez

The Isla Vista Shootings, and Thoughts From a Former 22-Year-Old Virgin

There’s been a lot of debate in the wake of the latest mass shooting in Isla Vista, California. Prior to going on his rampage, the shooter posted a video on Youtube explaining his motivations. I won’t link it; it’s easy enough to find if you want. But to sum it up, the guy spends seven minutes whining about how he’s a 22 year old virgin. He complains that girls have ignored him– the perfect gentlemen– while throwing themselves at undeserving brutes instead, and therefore girls (and the guys luckier than him) deserve to die.

It’s the sort of rant that would sound self-absored, cliche and trite (indeed, it is all three of those things) except that was he armed, psychopathic, and actually killed people. But perhaps what’s most shocking about it is how well I can relate to the emotions he expressed. And I suspect a lot of men are in the same boat. The vast majority of us don’t kill people, thankfully– but it’s worth taking a look at some of the common aspects of our culture that clearly had an influence on this guy.

Like the killer, I was also a virgin when I was 22. A lot of people are– probably more than you realize, because society and culture have taught us that a man who is a virgin at age 22 is not much of a man. Throughout our formative years, men are taught by popular media and culture to link their self-worth to how many times they’ve slept with someone. In almost any book or movie with a strong male protagonist, winning the girl is almost as important as accomplishing the objective.

In this situation, girls cease to be people and become objects to be won… not just in stories, but in real life. And if you’re a guy who can’t “win” a girl, well, then you’re emasculated. It’s particularly bad for geeks, because comic books, video games, and even reading and academic pursuits are often insultingly referred to as being “for people who can’t get laid.” Even people within the comic book industry regularly insult their audience with remarks like “How many people in the audience have heard of Martian Manhunter? Now, how many people that raised their hands have ever been laid?”

For anyone in the audience who’s heard of Martian Manhunter and hasn’t been laid, it’s a brutally emasculating insult, making them feel bad about both their hobby and their love life. In reality, not only are the two unconnected, they have no reason to feel bad about either one.

Growing up, I received a lot of messages about what it meant to be “manly.” Real men are strong enough to overcome their problems on their own. Real men don’t cry, and they don’t show weakness. Real men don’t let other people disrespect them. Real men are always dominant and confident, and they always know what to do. And as stated before, real men win the girl.

For those men who don’t fit the “real man” mold– who have self-esteem issues, or are physically weak, or shy, depressed, or have any range of mental health problems– seeking help from other people makes you feel worse, because now you’re even less of a man. Even admitting the problem exists can be emasculating.

This whole classic male attitude is super-toxic when it comes to dealing with women. If you’re a man who’s been taught that (1)you shouldn’t tolerate being disrespected, and (2)your self-worth should be measured by your sexual conquests, then it stands to reason that if a woman refuses your sexual advances, she’s disrespecting you. She’s making you less of a man.

An attitude might develop that if you’re a worthy man, an alpha male, so to speak, that women should be throwing themselves at you. You may begin to feel entitled to sex– whether you’re getting it or not– because to admit that you’re not entitled to sex would be to doubt your manliness, and real men are confident. Real men definitely don’t doubt themselves.

Men’s need to boost their self-esteem by getting laid is so pervasive that an entire industry of “pickup artists” has risen up, teaching men supposedly surefire tricks to sexual conquest. In this game, women are nothing more than prizes, objects to be won, to be manipulated however is necessary in order to score the ultimate prize of sex.

And for men who are self-absorbed, or just shy, or for any reason not so lucky in the world of love, it becomes easy to rationalize, to seek out causes other than yourself as to why that’s the case. That’s where the old “women don’t go for nice guys” fallacy comes in. Or “women only sleep with jerks.” Rather than engage in self-examination (which is not manly), many men blame women– or other men– for having poor judgment, or being stupid. It’s not my fault, they just have poor taste.

I did this myself on occasion in my twenties. My lack of a love life depressed me, so as a shortcut to avoid depression, I would just think, “Eh, well, women don’t go for nice guys.” I was smart enough, generally, to know that it wasn’t true– sometimes I would blame women for not paying attention to the shy, quiet guys who are actually awesome– but that’s just as much of a copout as “women don’t go for nice guys.”

Watching the killer’s video, it’s easy for me to see how all of this played into the killer’s thought processes. After being fed a toxic diet of how men should behave and act, he decided to prove his alpha maleness by asserting his dominance in an incredibly visible, violent way… by taking the lives of other people. If you want to prove your dominance over others, it’s hard to do it any more thoroughly than by killing them.

As far as my own story, I eventually realized that as much as I felt unlucky in love, the fact was, I’d barely ever been rejected. Almost every dating relationship I had, had been broken off by me, usually through neglect. The problem wasn’t other people; the problem was me. It was two-fold: (1)I was scared of relationships, because it meant being emotionally vulnerable to someone else (men shouldn’t be emotionally vulnerable, and I wasn’t confident enough to risk it); and (2)I just wasn’t putting myself in a position to grow and meet new people. I hung out with the same people every weekend, and I rarely tried doing new things.

I solved number 2 by moving to Seattle. And by solving number 2, I solved number 1. It’s hard to get any more emotionally vulnerable than moving to a new city and surrounding yourself with new people; I sought support and friendship as a side effect of moving, and within three months, I was in a sexual relationship.

In retrospect, I suspect I was also just a late bloomer. Almost every sexual and relationship-type milestone you can think of– first kiss, first girlfriend, etc.– I did about ten years after what society would consider “normal.” Except for Senior Prom in high school, I didn’t even ask a girl out on my own initiative until I was 24. But because I’d been conditioned by society to feel bad for not being sexually active, I got deeply depressed as a result of just being myself. It’s a clinical depression I still fight to this day, despite having long since lost my virginity, and currently being in a happy, six month long (so far) relationship with a wonderful woman.

Overall, I’m happy with how things worked out. While I regret some of those missed opportunities in my twenties, I know that it doesn’t make a bad person, or any less of a man, or indeed, any less of a human being. Being a good person is independent of how many people you sleep with. And I know, for 100% beyond any shadow of a doubt, that if I have to choose being a kind and considerate person, or trying to sleep with as many as people as possible… well, I will never for a single moment regret being a kind and considerate person.

The day I felt most like a man was not the day I lost my virginity. The day I felt most like a man was the day I realized that being a man means ignoring bullshit cultural standards about what it means to be a man. That I can seek help for my depression and not feel bad about it. That I can be a good, kind, and emotionally available person without doubting my masculinity. That I should worry less about whether other people “disrespect” me and more about how I treat other people. That empathy is something to be proud of, not shy away from.

As a man, I want to be brave enough to put others’ needs before my own. I want to support my loved ones and my friends, to help those around me succeed, even if there is no immediate obvious benefit to myself.

I aim to make the world a better place. I am strong enough to be the change I want to see in the world, and in the end, that is the only definition of manliness I give a shit about.

I Had A Horrific Weekend (in a good way)

Last weekend the annual World Horror Convention took place in Portland. It’s a slightly different sort of convention than ones I’ve been to in the past; it’s very small, and it was largely composed of a much different group of people than the sci-fi/fantasy cons in the area. One reason is that it was a very professional con; cosplay was not a thing there, and the focus was almost completely on the professional field of writing. So horror writers and editors came from across the country, while lots of writers who live nearby but don’t write horror stayed home.

I hadn’t realized until now just how distinct a genre horror was from science fiction and fantasy– at least, professionally speaking. There really aren’t any large publishers along the lines of Tor Books or DAW; publishers are small independent operations, and on top of that, there’s a larger focus on short stories. Horror seems to thrive as short fiction, even more so than sci-fi/fantasy.

Some of the differences can be seen in the categories of awards given out at the Bram Stoker Awards Banquet. The Bram Stoker Awards are basically the horror genre’s equivalent of the Nebula Awards, voted on by the members of the Horror Writers’ Association. Categories in the Bram Stoker Awards which are not in the Nebulas or the Hugos include Best Anthology, Best Young Adult Novel, and Best First Novel– all of which I think are superb categories, especially the latter two, which I’d love to see in the equivalent SF&F awards. (In fairness, Best Anthology is a category at the World Fantasy Awards.)

Attending the banquet required the purchase of an $50 extra ticket, but it was well worth it. I took plenty of pictures (even though, as is the norm for convention stage shows, the lighting was terrible, blinding the participants without the benefit of illuminating them for either the audience or the photographers). The food was decent, the wine at the table was free, and the company at the table was excellent.

Most excitingly, though, I had a personal interest in the Best Anthology category, given that my story Someone to Remember is the leadoff story in After Death…, which was edited by Eric J. Guignard and one of five nominees in the category. And much to my pleasure, Eric won! Which I figure means I can claim about 2% of a Bram Stoker Award.

Other highlights of the weekend included a trip with Scott Edelman and several other folks to Pok Pok, a well-known authentic Thai restaurant in Portland. That was quite good, even if the image of Scott with a fish head in his mouth, making the fish head talk, is one that may haunt my dreams for some time. Mostly, though, it was just fun to hang out with friends in Portland, meet some new folks, and celebrate Eric Guignard’s award with him.

Full gallery of photos here.

By the way, if you enjoy the photography I do at conventions or while traveling, please consider giving my Photography Facebook page a “like”, if you haven’t already. I’ll be posting a lot of galleries and photography-specific announcements there. And while I hate to be “that guy” who begs for likes or shares, I haven’t actually mentioned my Facebook page here before, and well, I’m at 99 likes! The obsessive-compulsive in me wants to hit a 3 digit number!

Another Year of Onions and Roses at Norwescon

Last weekend was Norwescon 37, and the fourth I’ve attended since moving to Seattle. Norwescon has become my “home” con, in multiple senses of the word. It’s the largest sci-fi/fantasy con in Seattle focused on literature and writing– which makes it a good home for me as a writer. But it’s also large enough to host a thriving cosplay community, which makes it a good home for me as a photographer. It’s small enough to be friendly and low-pressure, yet big enough to get some energy out of the crowd. Every year I go, the con becomes more enjoyable as I meet more people, make new friends, and feel more a part of the community.

Every year after the con is over, Norwescon solicits feedback from congoers, asking people to submit feedback in the form of “roses” (good things) and “onions” (bad things). So with that in mind, here I go. Some of these are duplicates from previous years, but if they remain prominent in my mind, well, I’m including them again.

Rose: Panels. There were a lot of good panels this time– and some more advanced and creative stuff, alongside the usual Worldbuilding 101 and ZOMG E-Books.

First Page Idol was a panel with some nice audience interaction, where you could anonymously submit your first page and the panel would judge it, which resulted in some interesting feedback. There were also some good science panels– I particularly enjoyed David Levine’s recap of his visit to NASA.

A few of the panels seemed to wander around their subject a bit, never entirely delving into what they were meant to delve into. For my money, anytime a panel can get past the uber-basic introduction that is widely known to anyone with a passing fancy in the subject, into more detailed and interesting stuff, it’s a win for me. This tends to be why I favor panels with narrowly focused and clear-defined topics, especially if they’re dependent on some unique knowledge of the panelists.

All in all, Norwescon is better than most cons at making interesting panels. In fact, the panels are popular enough that they’re frequently standing room only… the Cascade rooms are often too small for the panels they’re trying to host. I don’t know what the solution is there.

I also saw a lot of demo panels, where the panelists were actually demonstrating something and the audience was usually involved. Those were fun. Weapons and armor demos, horror makeup demos– those were my favorites, without a doubt.

Onion: Registration. Norwescon had (as far as I can tell) basically the same process in place as last year. This meant long lines as people waited to input all their information into a computer (there were about eight computers in the reg area), printed a sheet to take to the cashier, then paid and got their badge. For pre-registered folks with a sheet already printed, they could sometimes skip ahead in the line, but if you weren’t registered, or had pre-registered but didn’t have a sheet, well, then, you were stuck.

There has got to be a better system. These days, Norwescon is the only con I go to that has more than a five-minute wait to register, and from my understanding, there were points on Thursday afternoon when the line was at least an hour long. Maybe I just never see peak times at the other cons? When I was at RadCon, I did see the line back up a bit a few times as I walked by on the first day, but never to an hour long.

One difference between Norwescon and most other cons is that Norwescon prints the names on the badges right at registration, whereas most cons pre-print their badges, or use regular old paper stickers for people’s names. Norwescon’s method results in a slightly nicer badge, but it’s never exactly well executed. This year, the badges were printed well (and you could choose to have ONLY your badge name printed– props for that), but the art design of the badge was such that you could only read the left half of the badge, before the black printing blended into the darkly-colored art on the right side.

Maybe this is a case where something is being Rube Goldberg’d that doesn’t need to be? I mean, in the end, I think most people would be happy with easy registration and a readable badge.

Rose: Room parties. As usual, the room parties were awesome. On Friday night, I particularly enjoyed a party that was hosted by Evil Girlfriend Media, celebrating the launch of an anthology titled Bless Your Mechanical Heart. (Side note: Several friends of mine have stories in this anthology. But favoritism aside, I’ve read a few stories so far and am highly impressed.)

Just like last year, my favorite room party was Master Plan, which is always a blast– the mixology contest on Friday was particularly fun (speaking as a non-contestant, anyway).

Onion: Dealer’s Room. The Dealer’s Room was okay this year, however, it did seem to lack in terms of booksellers. There was only one small bookseller, from what I saw (there were a few writers’ associations and authors with booths, both inside and outside, but only one dealer that appeared to sell more than a handful of books). If an attendee wanted to buy a book by the Guest of Honor, so they could get an autograph (as was the case with a friend of mine), it appears they were S.O.L.

It seems like it would be worthwhile to ensure that there’s a dealer who can sell books by the Guests of Honor and the various writing panelists, so that interested attendees can spend their money… but that didn’t appear to be the case.

Other than that, I had no complaints about the dealer’s room. But I can haz books for sale at my sci-fi con please?

Rose: Photography. I feel like the Saturday evening photo area gets a little bit better organized each year. The layout was slightly changed from last year… the standing area was only behind one row of chairs, instead of two, which meant that the people in the second row weren’t caught in an awkward half-standing crouch, like I was last year.

The photo area is set up like an L-shape, with photographers on both sides of the L looking toward the cosplayer(s) in the middle. I was standing on the short side of the L, while all the photographers giving direction were on the long side of the L… which is okay, although I do have a large number of profile shots because the cosplayer just never turned to face the short side. There are two marks for the cosplayers to stand on, one facing each direction, but they would frequently face the long side from both marks, because that’s where the photographers talking to them were. Tip to cosplayers: for a better chance of seeing good shots, face both directions.

Despite my whining, I did enjoy the photo area– it’s a feature not seen at many other cons– and I stood there for over four hours on Saturday night taking pictures.

Speaking of pictures, you can see the full set on Flickr or on my photography Facebook page.

Thanks again to all the folks who made Norwescon awesome, especially the volunteers who put in a lot of hard work before, during, and after. See you next year!

Camping Our Way Down the Columbia River Gorge

This week, my girlfriend Lisa was on spring break from grad school, so on Sunday we packed up tent, food, and cameras and drove out the Columbia River Gorge to spend a couple days exploring, hiking, and pretty much just seeing what there was to see. Leaving Seattle, we didn’t have any particular agenda, except that we wanted to drive through the Yakima River Canyon on the way down, and we wanted to visit the Goldendale Observatory on the first night.

When we reached the canyon, we found a little place called the Umtanum Recreation Area, where we pulled over for lunch. From the parking lot, there was a bridge over the Yakima River which led to a hiking trail, so after lunch we hiked across the bridge, over some railroad tracks, and into the canyon. There wasn’t much sign of Spring yet, sadly, except for a few flowers, a bumblebee, and some trees that were just beginning to bud.

As we made our way back along the trail, we wondered if the railroad tracks were active, given that they were so easy to access– a few minutes, a freight train rumbled down the line where I’d be standing a few minutes prior. It was an impressive sight, and trains would be a recurring part of our journey: the Columbia River Gorge is an incredibly active freight corridor, with BSNF trains rumbling past several times an hour. On our second night, camped at Beacon Rock State Park, the train tracks were maybe fifty feet away up a cliffside, and the rumbles and whistles of freight trains were a constant companion through the night.

We had planned on staying at Brooks Memorial State Park on the first night, based on some recommendations in Lisa’s guidebook, but upon arrival there we found that the whole park was still closed for winter. It was a bit of a letdown, given that it was 55 degrees and sunny (and also it wasn’t even actually winter any more). But it would be another recurring theme of our journeys– parks and scenic areas closed, mostly due to budget cuts that meant the parks could only afford to stay open during peak season.

So we pushed on, and found a campsite several miles down the road at Maryhill State Park. It was a nice place– our campsite was right on the Columbia River, and we spent a fair amount of time getting pictures of the river and the gorge. There was a truck stop right across the river, which spoiled the scenery a bit– although it did make for some nice night pictures. And in the morning, we were both grateful it was there, as we availed ourselves of the opportunity for a hot breakfast after spending a restless night on the hard, cold, almost gravelly ground of our tentsite.

On the second day, we made our way down the gorge, stopping for a little hike along the Deschutes River, then lunching at a roadside overlook near The Dalles, Washington after our first two choices (both nearby parks) were, once again, closed for the season. In the afternoon, we drove out of the gorge toward Mt. Adams, exploring the area a bit and getting some great views of the mountain.

At one point, in trying to get to the Big Lava Beds from Trout Lake, we found ourselves on a snowy forest road, and eventually had to turn back, leaving the lava beds for another time. We headed back down to the gorge and camped for the night at Beacon Rock State Park– this plan was almost thwarted when the main camping area there was also Closed For Winter, but luckily there was a year-round campsite right on the river that we were able to set up camp in.

We had originally planned on climbing Beacon Rock in the morning, but after two clear and sunny days, we woke up to the sound of rain on the tent. So rather than take a mile-long trail up a slick rock into a windy, misty, sky, we headed down the road a bit to the Bonneville Dam. We got a personal tour from the guide, saw the fish ladder (including the underwater viewing area, which was pretty awesome, although it was only sparsely populated by fish– we’re already making plans to go back during the peak season).

The rest of the day was mostly occupied by getting home, although we did stop briefly at the Mt. St. Helens Visitors Center to see what there was to see (answer: not much, given the weather). There was a neat little mile-long loop over boardwalks through the nearby wetlands, which we did before heading home.

It was a fun trip, although after two nights of hard ground (Lisa didn’t have a sleeping pad, and I’d forgotten mine) interspersed by nearby nighttime trains, we were both ready for a decent night’s sleep. I’m looking forward to going back in the summer, when hopefully more places are open, and we get to see the gorge in full summer foliage.

But we did get some pretty awesome Winter and Spring photos, if I do say so myself. Click Mt. Adams to check out the full set of pics on Flickr.

Insert Default Title Here… Or Better Yet, Don’t

I’d like to share with you a comic strip I saw on Facebook today. It’s worth a chuckle, and I suspect more than a few gamers will relate to it:

We all know analyzing humor supposedly ruins it, right? If that bothers you, I’d suggest you go read something else, because I’m about to spend a thousand words doing just that. More accurately, I’m going to analyze larger issues that the comic unintentionally brings up. If that bothers you– if you’d rather have your quick chuckle and move on, because Internet– you’re welcome to do so. But I hope you’re willing to stick around, because even the most innocuous comic, or story, or TV commercial, can be the springboard for some more interesting thoughts.

Still with me? Good.

On the Facebook thread, someone commented that the comic portrayed tired stereotypes– men with poor impulse control, women mothering their husbands– and expressed a desire that artists do more to quash that particular gender stereotype.

Hmm, my brain went, it’s just a comic, but y’know, she’s not wrong. Even if it sometimes reflects real life, it’s still a stereotype on display. Still, it’s just a comic. Worth a chuckle, a moment’s reflection, and time to move on, right?

I was prepared to let it go at that, get on with my day, when I noticed a reply from the person who posted the comic: “That’s odd, [name redacted]. I didn’t ‘see’ the gender aspect when I read this. Perhaps you’re reading too much into a joke.”

Oh, snap, my brain went. Oh, now it’s on. Because it’s one thing to disagree with someone, and it’s another to dismiss their argument out of hand.

You’re reading too much into it.

It’s just a joke. Lighten up.

Why are people such crybabies? Get a sense of humor.

Any of these responses (all of which were in the thread, at various points) will get my hackles up faster than a shitty call in a Seahawks playoff game. Every single one is just a way of saying, I don’t want to have this discussion, and I don’t want you to have it either. Go away. Occasionally (as in this case) there’s the bonus, not-subtle implication that the person who brought it up is really the sexist one, for pointing it out. Which is, of course, bullshit.

I’ve blogged about this before, but just because you personally didn’t find something offensive, doesn’t mean that other people are wrong for doing so. In this particular case, the commenter hadn’t even taken offense, just pointed out an old stereotype! The reactions I read were far more disturbing than the initial comic. Which is usually how these debates go, and how an innocuous comment ends up turning the Internet upside down.

It’s just a joke offers the suggestion that humor is not worthy of such discussion– that funny things should get a free pass, because hey, it’s just a joke, right? But that’s insulting in its own way– it belittles the incredible power that humor and satire have in this world. It’s just a joke, right? Tell that to Jonathan Swift. Tell that to critics (and fans) of George Carlin, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. It’s just a joke!

Bullshit. Jokes are powerful things, even when they’re not trying to be. As someone who’s written his fair share of humor stories, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But what about this particular comic? It’s just a cheap Facebook laugh, right? Well, yes.. but maybe not, if you view it in the larger context of our culture.

You see, the artist’s intent was just to tell a lighthearted joke, so most other aspects of the comic got set to “default.” The default assumption in our society is that males are more obsessed with games (and more “childish”) than women are, so that’s what got portrayed.

We’re focusing on the “women in gaming” default, because that’s what the comic is about– but it’s the not the only way the comic portrays the standard cultural default. The woman herself is pretty and blonde, the Star Wars obsessed kid is a boy, and the family’s skin color is white. Basically, everything about this comic that isn’t directly relevant to the punchline is just society’s default assumption.

Switching everything to “default,” when it’s not relevant to what you’re trying to do (or the punchline you’re trying to tell), isn’t necessarily a problem. But a lot of people are sensitive to this particular default right now because it’s one that many people are trying to change. Even if it wasn’t the person’s intent, it’s a default that still subtly encourages the dismissal of women gamers, because it’s not “the norm.” Does the comic by itself do that? No. Is this comic strip one tiny, infinitesimal part of a larger culture that does? Yes.

Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with any of those defaults when viewed on their own– they became the defaults partly because they’re very common in our society, but they also became the defaults because the vast, vast, vast majority of people producing media and pulling the strings of the industry were white men with certain norms and expectations. What was their default became our default. Even in media that isn’t intentionally sexist, those defaults pervade.

Another example where this dynamic is even more obvious is TV and print advertising. It’s the default to have women cleaning the house and taking care of the kids, while men drive trucks, play games and drink beer. When an ad breaks the default, it usually makes the news– for example, the recent Cheerios ad that portrayed an interracial couple, or the Coca-Cola ad that sung America the Beautiful in languages besides English. Those things don’t, on the face of it, seem all that controversial (especially the interracial couple… this is 2014!). Yet it was newsworthy, because it wasn’t the norm.

For an example of a comic strip that avoids defaults well, I’d point to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, which portrays a wide variety of relationships and people, even when “the default” would be good enough to get the punchline across.

As a writer, I’m not saying you have to studiously avoid the default– I’m saying make your choices deliberately. Don’t create your characters in default mode just because you’re lazy. You’re taught to avoid cliches in your sentences, so why use cliches in your characters and their motivations?

And for those of you who think that this is a lot to pull from a single comic– well, yes it is. But it seems to me a discussion worth having, or at least, a discussion worth not shutting down.

Also, for the record, the comic itself is from direman.com (Yay for attribution– but that’s a whole other blog post.) It’s a long-running comic with a variety of characters, and seems to do a pretty good job of representing women in gaming overall, and does a fair amount of satirizing stereotypes. So perhaps it’s unfair to take this comic out of context– but that is how it was posted on Facebook (not by the artists, I should add). And I think it’s worse to try to shut down a worthy discussion by belittling people who bring it up, or dismissing their larger concerns with it’s just a joke.

Let’s be clear. It’s not just a joke. It’s never just a joke, even if that’s how it was intended. Context –cultural and personal– is everything. And just because someone does see a slight that you’re privileged enough to be able to ignore– please, try to put yourself in their shoes, if only for a moment. Maybe a day will come when we don’t have to talk about defaults, and when stereotypes aren’t so overused as to be worth noting– but until that day comes, don’t be surprised if you see these discussions crop up in places where you might not expect them to. When that happens, remember Wheaton’s Law.

And if you’re a content creator– be it a writer, artist, video producer, or otherwise– remember, don’t be lazy and pick the default, just because you can.

Creative Vibes by Lake Quinault

Yesterday, I got home from four days at the Rainforest Resort Village on Lake Quinault, on the southwest side of the Olympic Mountains. I was there with 36 other writers, surrounded by lots of awesome creative vibes as well as some awesome scenery– the event was the Rainforest Writers Village, and the goal was to retreat to somewhere isolated with other like-minded folks to get some writing done.

For me, it definitely worked. Over the course of those four days, I wrote 22,346 words for a new novel– it’s a steampunk alt-history story, and I’m really pleased with how it went. Being in the Rainforest, able to focus on the writing for long periods of time without worrying about going to the gym or filing taxes or sorting bills or checking the Internet, was a blast– and because I had a plan, with a freshly-outlined novel ready to start, I feel like I was both more productive and more successful than the last time I went to Rainforest Writers, back in 2012. It was the most fun I’d had writing a novel since my first NaNoWriMo, back in 2009– I loved the characters, I loved the scenes, and I felt like I was playfully romping through the prose, like a puppy playing in a field, chasing zeppelins and dragons and intrigue during an alternate version of the Second Opium War.

Needless to say, I’m pretty excited about this project. But that wasn’t the only good thing about Rainforest– I got to hang out with some good friends, several of whom I hadn’t seen since my last Rainforest two years ago. I also felt less socially awkward than I did back in 2012, and had more fun hanging out with new folks and meeting people. Part of the reason is that I feel more a part of the writing community than I did two years ago– and probably part of it is also the antidepressants I’m taking, and the general progress I’ve made with my depression.

But in addition to being more comfortable socially, I was also more comfortable alone– I was more than willing to go back to my room in the Inn, which had a fantastic sitting room facing the lake. There I could sit on the couch, put my feet up on the coffee table and write alone with my laptop, sometimes for an entire afternoon. I probably did two-thirds of my writing in my room, and a third in the public writing area in the Lounge, which was a nice occasional change of pace.

In addition to writing a third of a novel, I also got a lot of great photos of both the people and the scenery– after breaking my own personal record for writing fiction in one day on Thursday (about 7200 words), on Friday I went for a 4-mile hike on what turned out to be our one sunny day, taking pictures of mushrooms and waterfalls, then watching a fantastic sunset over the lake. We were also lucky enough to get some clear nights, with some of the best views of the night sky that I’ve seen in years.

The best part, though, was the people– the group meals, the conversations, the Saturday night party, sharing photos, and bouncing ideas off each other. I’m planning to head back to the Rainforest next year.

Here’s a slideshow of pics from the weekend!