Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"The Moment" or "Being Young and on Fire"

Over the weekend, Chelsea and I headed to NerdCon: Stories. NerdCon was (and will continue to be) a convention for Storytellers. It was organized by Hank and John Green, the Vlogbrothers who are famous for... vlogging (also about a million other things including writing best-selling YA novels and running massive annual charity events and writing Harry Potter-themed punk rock songs) and Patrick Rothfuss who wrote "The Name of the Wind" which is one of the biggest and biggest-selling fantasy novels ever. I went to NerdCon because the guest list was loaded with people whose work I admire from best-selling authors to vloggers to comedic musicians to podcasters. I thought I might have fun (I did) and I thought I might learn some things to make my own work (writing, podcasting, performing, humaning) better (I did.)

So the big closing event for NerdCon was a performance of "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" by some of New York's  Neo-Futurists (they started in Chicago and there's a group San Francisco too), all of whom have also been involved in various ways with the podcast "Welcome to Night Vale." If you've never seen TMLMtBGB, it's a 60 minute performance in which the actors attempt to perform 30 small plays. The energy of the show is frenetic, the pieces are often raw, and emotional, or absurdist, and funny or... about a hundred different other things depending on when you see it. It's a great show, and if you get the chance, you should check it out.

This is a show that's normally performed in small to medium theaters to relatively intimate audiences. At NerdCon, I'd say there were probably around 1500-2000 people in the crowd. And that crowd loved the show. Like, full on, standing-ovation loved the show. My guess from looking around is that a huge chunk of the audience were teens and twenty-somethings involved in the arts, and that for a lot of them, this was "the moment."

Here's how the moment works. You're a youngish person and you have a vague notion that you want to do something artsy with your life. Maybe you'll get an English degree and become a teacher who does poetry jams on the weekend. Maybe you'll get a communications degree and become a copywriter who also does small community productions of Shakespeare. You know you want some art in your life but you don't know exactly what.

The moment is when you see something that crystallizes in your mind exactly what it is you want to do with your life. You see something that inspires you so much, that seems so amazing, that you think you're seeing a real life magic trick. Days after you see it, you can't stop thinking about it, and eventually, you become SO obsessed with that magic trick that you just HAVE to learn how to do it yourself. You drop all of your other possibly practical plans and you set yourself along the path to become a magician.

What I'm saying is, I think a lot of those kids are going to move to New York or Chicago to try to learn to do what the Neo-Futurists did in Minneapolis last Saturday night.

It was sort of neat to be a now 33 year old in that auditorium watching these teens and twenty somethings having their moment and remembering my own (seeing Carl and the Passions do an incredible Harold at the old ImprovOlympic back in 2003) and remembering what that felt like. It's exhilarating. It feels like your mind is on fire in the best way possible. If I could bottle that feeling and sell it, I'd be a billionaire.

It's also weird to sort of juxtapose that feeling with how I feel now watching a show like that. Because I did have my "moment" and I did walk down that path to become a performer. When I see a really, really good show now, I enjoy it in a different way. I get how the magic trick works now, so my feeling is less one of wonder and more one of enjoying good craftsmanship. Oh, look how they did that. That's smart. I wouldn't have thought to do that. That's good. I would do this slightly differently. I know a guy who does that exact thing. I've never seen someone do x so well!, etc. etc.Young artists are inspired by great work. Older artists deconstruct it in their heads. They are two different, but equally good ways to enjoy a thing.

There are times when I miss being that young, and having that feeling. I sort of have to remind myself that in addition to those feelings of clarity and purpose I was also depressed and anxious all of the time. I have to remember that my life now is so, so much better than it was then. It's more stable. I'm more capable. I'm happier.

But every once in awhile, when I can see someone having that moment? God, I miss it like crazy.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Words as Weapons

The other day, I got into an argument with some people on a comments thread.

Which... my bad. I ignored the golden rule of the internet.

"Don't read the comments." -Golden Rule of the Internet

The problem is I sort of can't stop thinking about this argument because it was about words.

See, I'm sort of obsessed with words. I have to be. I'm a writer, and a reader, and an actor, and a podcaster, and all of those things involve words.

If you read a lot of fantasy novels (and you should read a lot of fantasy novels), magic systems frequently involve words. "Harry Potter" for instance has magic words like "expecto patronum" or "wingardium leviosa" (which makes this former student of Latin's heart flutter a bit). Ursula LeGuin's "Wizard of Earthsea" has a magic system that works by knowing something or someone's true name. The idea is that everything has a secret name and knowing that name gives you power over that thing.

To me, both of those are pretty cool. We use words to define reality. Naming something, having a word for something, allows us to communicate with each other about that thing and understand said thing better. So it makes sense to apply that principle to magic too. 

Back to words. We have words for lots of things. We have nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, gerunds, prepositions. We have words for colors, animals, plants, buildings, planets, and people.

We use words to describe and define people. You have a name which defines you as an individual. You also have other words that describe groups you belong to like male, female, black, white, Irish, Polynesian, actor, lawyer, etc.

This is where words can get tricky. The words we have for people are very powerful because they form the basis of their identities- how we think of ourselves. I am a white, straight, cisgendered male from Massachusetts who lives in Chicago. I am a writer and a husband and a soon-to-be father. I am strong, smart, creative, kind, and funny.

I use all of those words to give my life structure and myself power. That's what these words are for. This is sort of the... light side of the force when it comes to words. 

However, there's a dark side of the force when it comes to words too. Words can be weaponized. They can be used to insult individuals, to harm them. They can be used to support and enforce institutional oppression. They can be used to stifle dissent.

This is why I got into an internet fight. I was writing about Frank Miller's "All-Star Batman," and I referred to an infamous scene from that comic that I found (and find) objectionable. In talking about said scene I used the term "the r-word" instead of using the word itself. 

It was like I lit the beacons of Minas Tirith and internet trolls answered.

"Ugh, I hate censorship."
"Just say the word."
"It's not offensive if you don't mean it to be. It's the intention that matters."
"Everyone is too sensitive these days! You can't say anything without offending people." 

Most of these comments are pretty dumb. Like, Censorship Guy was clearly of the school of thought that me saying "I don't like it when people use that word" qualifies as censorship as compared to like, actual censorship when books get burned and people get thrown into prison for expressing their opinions. For that guy, censorship is anytime a person uses their own free speech to criticize him or people he likes.

Everyone is Too Sensitive Guy is probably someone who's never been made to feel subhuman over time by a thousand societal slights large and small. That word is offensive. It's meant to offend. That is what the word is for- offending. Sorry, Everyone is Too Sensitive Guy.

Just say the word guy? I don't even know where to start with that guy.

But Intention Guy. Let's talk about Intention Guy, because there are tons of people out there who think like that guy, that meanings of words are... meaningless. It's a seductive argument. 

Let's dismantle it.

Think about when you say a word to a person. There are a few things that make up that word:

1. Your intent (Good job, Intention Guy!)
2. The actual meaning of that word (Sorry, Intention Guy! Word meanings do actually matter.)
3. The context of your immediate situation
4. The broader cultural context.

There are bad words. There are weaponized words. They are words that were created to do harm.  I don't use the r-word because that word is a loaded gun. It was designed to hurt individuals, and also a whole group of people. That whole group of people- people with special needs- are a group that's generally been treated very, very poorly by society. When you say that word (and I have to be honest, when I was younger, and dumber I did use that word- often) you are contributing to the systemic oppression of a whole group of people.

The purpose of a gun is to kill. Guns were created to kill people or animals. That is the meaning of a gun. You can certainly use a gun for other things. Guns can be paperweights, I guess. They can be props or decorations. But their purpose is to kill. If you wave a gun around in a room, even if you have no plans to pull the trigger, or the gun has no ammo in it, it's still an instrument of death. You don't get to say "oh this gun isn't a gun. It's actually a potted plant. That's what I intend it to be." You might still elicit reactions of fear, or anger. Your intent matters, but the meaning of the gun matters too, as well as the broader context of guns as part of our culture.

So if you use the r-word, or a sexist slur or a slur for minorities- even if you have no intention of insulting those groups of people, you're still waving a gun around. You are still hurting people by creating a situation where the oppression of an entire group of people has been woven into language- and woven so deeply that you don't even think about it most of the time. 

I don't use the r-word because I don't want to contribute to a world where some people are treated as second class citizens. I want the language that I use to lift people up, and empower them the way that it's lifted me up and empowered me. I want my words to be tools, and if I'm going to use words as weapons, those weapons will be aimed at destroying oppressive systems and not reinforcing them.