Friday, April 27, 2018

Narrow Sorrows

Weary scars and hard-earned wrinkles
Furrows of a life lived, living still
Deep canals for the blood, sweat
And sweet tears
While demons wrestle behind hollow eyes
For the honor of being the first to beat down
Upon brows hung hollow and dark 
From sleepless nights
We can dance among the maze of stone memorials
Shouldering burdens of grand grief
With the stoic look of stone gargoyles
Worn and watchful, perched atop walls
Weathering the storms and slings and arrows

It is not the crushing weight of mountains
But the tiny kisses of a thousand loving monsters
A curtain of small despairs and gentle regrets
Worrying at the base of your skull 
Like a dog with an old bone
Splintering the tough exterior 
Which has withstand the broken gods of old hopes
Feasting upon the sweet marrow of looking forward
Life running in rivulets
Through the canyons and valleys
Dug from young flesh by old wounds

How do we navigate such narrow sorrows?
With no roadmap to the sunlit meadows of the mind
Where we had once longed to dance
Or rest in the shade of towering promise
Branches spread above us to ward off the harsh lights
How do we separate yesterday from tomorrow
Without the dam breaking
Or forgetting the sweet ache of the black memories we carried?

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Dungeons & Dragons: The Alignment Problem

So, as you can guess from the title of this piece, I am a pretty avid player of dungeons and dragons, and have been since before I was able to read. I'm involved enough in the game to strong opinions about many things that I've seen as the game has evolved. I've had the luxury of playing from the box set (an older sibling's - I'm not THAT old) through to the current 5th edition. I fondly remember THAC0, and the hit tables before that. I remember 1e combat tables, and saves versus death, and have seen the game go from realistic magical fantasy to epic comic book style heroic fantasy. I have feelings on those issues too, and maybe I'll address them in a later blog, but for now I want to talk about a very divisive issue in the game of DnD: alignment.

So, for those of you who are new, DnD alignments are broken down by two factors: good v. evil, and law v. chaos. This gives us a block of 9 possible alignments which that game uses as a guide for morality, a sort of gross simplification of behavioral guidelines and personality. There are 9 because it is possible to be "neutral" in regards to one OR BOTH of those factors. Now, this system is in place, of course, for what I see are a few reasons. Firstly, it sort of tells you how heroic and what SORT of heroic your character is. It also helps flesh out a personality and has game play impacts which have lessened somewhat in later editions. The 9 alignments each have some base concepts attached, which I will touch in in brief (and likely you may disagree), and are as follows:

-Lawful Good(LG): The rule of law (or a personal code) are important, as well as the overall well-being of people. Typically remains within the confines of the law, or some code (religious, organizational, etc.) and adheres to what we would generally consider heroic principles of mercy, fairness, justice, etc. The rules exist for your own good, so follow them.

-Neutral Good(NG): Do good by people, but with little regard to law or chaos. Simply, whatever gives the greater good, and feel free to skirt the rules (or limit freedoms) if that is what would make people the most happy with the least harm. Most people would fall close to this alignment, I think. The rules exist, but can be limiting. 

-Chaotic Good(CG): Do good for people, but with the absolute most freedom available. The rules exist, but they are secondary to personal agency, and thus, so long as no undue harm is being done, the rules are merely shackles. 

-Lawful Neutral(LN): The rules exist to be followed. Good or bad, that's what rules are for. Adherence to the word of the rule/ law/ code is as important as the outcome. No allegiance to good or evil, these people are aligned entirely with order and structure.

-Neutral(N): No turning towards good, or evil; law or chaos. This alignment is often considered as two cases: either profound apathy, or a sense of balance. I disagree with this characterization, because this alignment is someone who perhaps has tempered responses to cases of good and evil, or order versus chaos. Neutrality may mean detachment. It may mean taking every situation at a case-by-case basis and aligning your decisions with either the best personal outcome, or an overall more appealing outcome, good or bad. The rules exist, but life isn't about rules.

-Chaotic Neutral(CN): Personal freedom, regardless of what it takes. Often portrayed as anarchists or wildcard characters, the treatment of this alignment in that way is a disservice to the idea that personal freedom is simply the most important, and these people will do what they will because they elevate their own freedoms (and the idea of freedom for all) to a level where they will actively work against anything that limits them. The rules exist, but they are a prison.

-Lawful Evil(LE): The rules exist to elevate the strong above the week. Red tape used to benefit some and oppress others, wrapped in nicely in structure. The rules are there to give the strong power. Structured, well-ordered evil designed to benefit the individual, or perhaps the organization. 

-Neutral Evil(NE): Evil with no regard for the rules. Often seen as a sort of selfish evil, where everything is entirely focused on the individual, I feel that idea is the easiest to portray, but the furthest from what the actual meaning would be. Where as Neutral Good is about creating the most good regardless of the law or chaos, Neutral Evil should be about the opposite: creating the most evil without regards for law or chaos. While the idea would seem vindictive, it is often treated by the games as simply self-serving. The rules or lack thereof only matter for which gives me the most benefit.

-Chaotic Evil(CE): Evil, in a wild way. No rules exist for this alignment. Only liberty and evil. These individuals are often characterized as criminally insane, or murderous lunatics. I think that this idea shows a sincere lack of creative power on the part of the player or DM who adheres to that stereotype. Chaotic evil may be self-serving. They may be murderous, or vindictive. Or they may just be extremely selfish and resent any attempts to control or hamper them and their decisions. The rules exist to be broken, and may the best person survive the break. 

Now, please, these are entirely basic primers, based on my perspective and understanding, and I'm not here to argue really about what each alignment means. No, really. That's not the alignment issue I want to talk about. It has been done to death. The issue here is: why do we have alignment, and do we need it? Neither of these questions have an easy answer, but we're going to tackle some of my thoughts.

So, why do we have alignment? Initially, it was a sort of easy moral compass. It helped control some powers of certain classes, and served as a limiting factor to others. (LG paladins, lawful monks, neutral druids, etc.) This has sort of fallen out of favor with the new ideas in alter editions of not adhering to tropes and also simplifying things. That is a tangent for another day, but essentially if your alignment changed drastically through magic or some circumstance or behavior, you could lose powers or abilities. It also creates certain roleplay elements for the game. I think it is a good way for a DM or player to really have a foundation for their character's behavior. even with its flaws and obsolescence in current editions. The aspect of DnD alignment existing that is most overlooked though, is literally contained within many of the worlds themselves.

See, we, as people, know that morality is highly variable and highly subjective. We adhere to a living, evolving view of morality that shifts as our society and culture shift. We have things that try to create sorts of moral order, and which may even claim to give rise to morality (you can see my views on religion in earlier posts) but overall it is very much clear that right and wrong are products of the time and place we find ourselves in. Let us look at some of the major DnD settings: Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, etc. Then let us look at the rules as written for divine casters (clerics, paladins, etc.). In these worlds, and often in these games, we have definitive proof of the existence of deities, to the point of interacting directly with the deity or an agent. This was even clearly outlined in early editions of DnD, that cleric spells were given directly by the deity at higher levels, and the cleric spell requests could be vetoed by their god. The existence of divine casters creates a sort of concrete idea of objective morality. If you look at how pantheons are described, you can very easily see that most worlds and games of DnD exist in a place where good and evil are very clearly delineated, and good and evil acts are legitimately black and white. 3e DnD tried to tackle this with the Book of Exalted Deeds, but you didn't need that to see that in a world where there are literally omnipotent representations of moral virtues which directly control things, that the little subjectivity in morality in these worlds makes no sense. These worlds exist with a perfect dichotomy of right and wrong, and an evil act for good reasons is still an evil act (and will shift your alignment), full stop.

That idea gets entirely overlooked every time alignment is brought up. It isn't enough that the system is sort of weird, but any grey areas or moral dilemmas that the game (via the GM( tries to bring up, are rendered entirely moot by the existence of this clear dichotomy. If you know which act is good, and which act is evil, your LG paladin better do the good one, or they risk becoming NG (or worse) and losing their paladin abilities. It is a glaring weakness in the entire system that there are no real ways to address it (though I can think of a few involving a lot of work unifying magic use as arcane or as a sort of universal law.) But that is the worst part of alignment: if you have gods that are that involved in the world, then you have completely objective morality, and therefore alignment is absolutely an important factor in your character. On the other hand, if you want to run a game where moral questions lurk in the gray areas that we're all used to in the real world, then it makes very little sense for divine casters to gain their magic directly from a god. In the second case, which is the most common case, gamers must simply suspend their disbelief and not look at that problem too long, or at all. In many cases, alignment s sort of used as a general guideline or personal inclination anyway and is hardly ever treated with any sort of seriousness. In older editions of the game, the warning that a certain action could move your alignment a step away from where it was was something that could be very sobering to a player, whereas now I feel that DMs don't even really care about alignment at all, because it has no practical mechanical purpose, outside of detecting good/evil. (You know, like with angels and demons which are living embodiments of these concrete moral ideals that literally don't exist in the real world.)

Do you see my gripe with alignment? Most arguments over it could be solved by understanding that good and evil, law and chaos, in these worlds, are concrete, objective ideals which exist. That isn't how people, or the world we know work... but that is how that world is set up, where good and evil are clearly black and white (and so are law and chaos.... yikes, what a nightmare) and have very real, very legitimate in world impacts. You can argue that alignment is obsolete, and I would agree, so long as you don't dig too deeply into why it would exist in the first place. I personally find it to be one of the more annoying parts of the game, and I survived THAC0. But two people with bad arguments, arguing over something, won't ever reach any conclusion because they're both missing the big picture. I have a lot of gripes with how players approach alignment. A lot. I hate players using evil alignments as an excuse to not participate in the game with the rest of the group. If the party is all evil, it is often hard to find a decent motivation for them. If only a few members of the party are evil, it tends to create the same problem, with the added bonus of the players being selfish enough to always ask "But why would my character do this?"

...the answer, is because you agreed to the social contract, and if you're not willing to put yourself into the game, you're not playing DnD, you're smugly trying to direct a game about others into a game entirely about you. This also ignores the edgelord players who want to play evil characters like it's a videogame and they just made a save after entering the town so that they can live out all of their twisted "2edgy4me" fantasies. It isn't good for the game that most people use alignment as an excuse rather than a tool or guideline. We get it, your CE character murders and tortures people. Your CN character is wacky and random. The LG paladin is a stick in the mud who won't let you torture prisoners (which makes perfect sense, so get off his back) and so on. Don't use alignment as an excuse to derail the game. Don't ruin the enjoyment of the game for everyone else because you can't be bothered to just go play a videogame. Not all DnD campaigns have to be about heroes, but I guarantee that absolutely none of them are about the individual player. 

Anyway, after that tangent, I guess I should wrap up by restating. Alignment is flawed because the concepts it hinges upon are absolutely alien compared to the reality in which we live. It has no mechanical purpose in the current game, and even though in the worlds the game presents it would make sense to have, it really has nothing to offer to the game anymore. It has no power. Arguing about the grey areas, or about what each separate alignment entails in futile work because it's hard for people to conceptualize that these questions are about a world so vastly different than ours. Alignment makes sense in the world, but not for the game, and the game is what is important.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Fantasy Genre and Technological Advancement

I am an avid reader of the science fiction and fantasy genres. I am heavily invested in fantasy worlds, both home grown and borrowed. I write a little bit of fantasy here and there, mostly because I enjoy it, and I read a lot of it. Always have. In turn, many years of playing tabletop RPGs have introduced me to my own world building. I know Greyhawk, Krynn, Westeros, Middle Earth, Eberron, Faerun. I know the worlds of the Sword of Truth and the magical post-apocalypse of the Shannara series. I've designed my fair share of unique kingdoms and worlds for games and writing and, more honestly, because I get bored and like to tell myself cool stories in my head.

So there is something that has always sort of bugged me about a lot of fantasy worlds: why is technological advancement so stagnant?

No, really. In some worlds the question is addressed, or at least within the context of the world we see that it isn't universally the case. The Shannara series, for example, is our world after a devastating event which fractions humanity and destroys most of civilization, leading to evolutionary divergence and mutation of humans, as well as the rediscovery of magic. We see that the druid order is basically a group of scientists rediscovering old knowledge and combining it with sorcery. We see technology exists still (despite how messed up the timeline is, but that's another talk) and in the books we see the references go from mere suggestion (describing ruined skyscrapers. The hilt of the Sword of Shannara being described as essentially the hand of the statue of liberty) to the mesh of robot and monster we see later. We also eventually see working airships and stuff. There are technological advancements. 

Let's compare this to a LOT of other fantasy setting where the technology has basically remained in stagnation for centuries or even millenia. Seriously, a lot of fantasy hinges on the idea that the world has barely changed for hundreds or thousands of years. Heroes wield the exact same technology for thousands of years with no real suggestion of modification. They hit a point around that of the middle ages, and then everything stops. We see perhaps the emergence of an era where artisans and specialists are developing their craft. But even with the breadth of cultures to choose from, they're never really more advanced than what life was like on earth a few hundred years ago. 

I know what you're thinking: it's absolutely silly to take a genre that is based on the principle of being fantastical and erasing suspension of disbelief. After all, decade long summers and magic which directly violates the laws of physics are staples of the genre. Worlds which contain literal gods as embodiments of certain paradigms and can alter the nature of reality are sort of exempt from common sense explanations of major phenomena. I mean, in a world where gods exist as paragons of certain traits and morality is quite literally objective means the world is already entirely different from ours, since right and wrong have no shades of grey in these proposed reality. The nuances of character in these worlds seem sort of... forced, when you realize that virtue is spelled out. The pontifications on moral gray areas by a character like Drizzt are sort of empty when you consider that there is a literal clear definition of right or wrong by all powerful beings. The rest tries to relate these concerns in a way that seems disconnected from the context of the world.

Anyway, back on track. Why does technology stagnate in fantasy worlds? I have a few theories, and we're gonna chat about those.

1: Magic.

To me, this is the biggest crutch and worst offender when it comes to why technology doesn't move forward. In fantasy, magic is used to replace technology as a crutch. That's it. It accomplishes everything technology does, but with a sense of whimsy and fantasy. Who needs planes when you can just make yourself fly? Or teleport? Who needs tanks and guns when you can conjure destructive elemental forces and bend reality itself to your will to crush your enemies?

Well, it maybe isn't that simple. You have to examine how much magic is in your world, I think that would be the biggest driver of a technological arms race. If magic is extremely prolific and common, it would replace technology and you'd see more stagnant technologies where what we'd expect is entirely replaced by people with magical training. The world of the Darksword is a prime example of this, and in this world we see that people born without magic are exiled, and so they develop metallurgy and science and engineering. In worlds where magic is common, but not universal, one would imagine a sort of arms race. After all, technology would have to develop enough to ease some of the burden of the common man who can't perform or afford to hire out magical effects. I think this middle ground is more common in fantasy, and so the technology should show some advancement. In low magic worlds (Westeros comes to mind) we see long stretches of stagnation in the absence of magic, or at least strong magic. So what leads to that stagnation? 

Essentially, this argument boils down to: if magic can do the same thing faster, ostensibly cheaper, and as reliably, but without the resource and logistics requirements, why would technology ever really need to advance beyond a reasonable point? Technology would be, in many ways, inferior to magic, at least until we begin to enter science fiction realms of advancement, so there is really no incentive to push forward. Of course, there may be an arms race in less magical worlds, where one would expect the advancement of technology to meet the ease of magic, because as we all know "progress isn't made by the early risers, it's made by lazy men looking for an easier way to do things." In the Sword of Truth series, we see that magic is slowly dying in the population, but it has real impact on the world itself, even technologically, despite this slow decline taking place over long centuries and the world clearly not suffering from a lack of resources.

2: Lack of resources.

So here we answer the question by looking at what items may be in shortage, limiting the ability to develop technology at a pace equitable to what our reality has. Human (or elven, or dwarven, etc.) curiosity isn't really limited or less than what we have in our world, and we see that a lot of ideas that lead to advancement in our world exist in those worlds. Most fantasy realms have magnifying spyglasses, so they have glass and grinding technology required for primitive microscopy. Many of them mention having fundamental understandings of the underpinnings of celestial movement. Steel smelting exists in many of these worlds, though some may see iron forging as more prevalent. So what is missing? Well, in some worlds, like Krynn, for example, their are shortages of important materials, hence why steel is used as a currency and likely iron weapons dominate. In other worlds, like the world of Athas in the Dark Sun, the world is essentially a desert where all conditions are made more difficult. Still, if we look at our own world as the basis, we see that having some basic curiosity and the simplest of elements we can deduce a lot of information. We can measure the diameter of the earth using shadows. We can create accurate calendars by watching the movement of celestial bodies. We can create lenses to observe the microscopic universe. We can even, in the simplest forms, use basic chemistry and a bit of luck to make very simple gunpowder with the right know-how. I think the resources argument is the least likely to take place outside of very special circumstances, because most fantasy strives to make a point of saying "this world is like ours, but more so" only our world didn't hover 100 years away from the Renaissance and all that came with it for 500 years. Still, one could say that certain elemental factors are missing from these worlds, maybe even literal elements that we have which prevent certain advancements. I take some exception to this because a lot of series seem to know when they should be advancing tech. Primitive gunpowder sometimes makes an appearance, and we have a whole plethora of creative material alternatives such as mithril. This seems like it would be a flimsy cover for the idea of technological stagnation in most cases, as we see rich worlds with everything that lead us to a certain point in our reality. 

3: Knowledge Hoarding

This is actually sort of a theme you see a lot, where knowledge and wisdom that could lead to technological advancement are hoarded and closely guarded secrets maintained by an elite intellectual group who consider their knowledge as literal power. Often, this power is guarded by the very wizards and spellcasters whom the development of technology could replace. Dragonlance takes a sort of cheeky jab at this with the tinker gnomes of Mt. nevermind, who make fantastical rube goldberg machines which rarely work, and if they do, hardly work for their intended purpose. It's a joke in the whole series that the only people actively seeking technological advancement are obsessive, incompetent, and hilariously annoying. It's just a sort of throwaway, but at least they try. However, the knowledge is guarded by endless red tape and bureaucracy, as well as jargon-heavy language and a mistrust of outsiders. Given this, and since, in most settings, becoming a wizard takes years of rigorous study, this resembles something I'm more familiar with: academic science. You study under an expert, learning the ins and outs and intricacies of your field. You gain general knowledge and often pursue an area of technical interest in which you become a specialist, while retaining your general skills. Only instead of becoming a neurophysiologist you're a necromancer, or whatever. Magic, as it exists in most settings, would be a fabulous tool to advance technology and science. It could only help when used in conjunction, unless you live in a world where the two are considered incompatible for some unexplained reason or another (Like the old computer RPG Arcanum). Imagine a world where your work could be double checked and controlled and calibrated not only by machines, but by magic which could guarantee exact replication of your work! In other settings, like that of the Dark Sword or A Song of Ice and Fire, we see that knowledge is either destroyed through fear, or is carefully guarded by the educated so that their education seems like a special power. The idea of the learned as gatekeepers to knowledge is by no means new, and by no means has it disappeared. Where wizards, maesters, and alchemists can devote their time to discovering secrets of history and magic and how their respective worlds function at a level which could be considered to be scientific, they also tend to keep that knowledge to themselves (without even so much as peer review, journal fees, or a paywall!) imparting it only to those with the desire and means to become full time apprentices. The secrecy of this trade would mean that your common man would see very little benefit from any discovery, and without such commercialization, very few people would be able to adopt or adapt any sort of technology Sure, someone else may work it out eventually, but by then it well have been known in these archaic, draconian academic circles for a long while. Technology isn't halted, but the hill to climb is made steeper by the hoarding of knowledge. I would also like to include the loss of hoarded knowledge as a risk factor. Destruction of libraries or institutions of learning, the death of miserly experts with few students, or no students. Any sort of brain drain at all, arising from failed experiments, disgruntled students, vicious competitors, or just old age would all set back advancement in a world where your knowledge would literally die with you. Also, regime-based brain drain, where the fear of intellectuals spearheading dissent is preemptively silenced with violence. If your thinkers and educated people are all killed in order to keep people ignorant, then of course there will be a setback to developing tech. 

Since, in most worlds, wizards are treated as a sort of elite class of people, often with good reason, we see that membership is carefully controlled and tightly regulated. A grand example are the wizards of the world of Krynn (at least while it still had magic) and their testing of potential wizards, most of whom studied at a school under the tutelage of a wizard who monitored them and culled the unfit. We see a bit of it in other worlds, too, where wizards are seen as a sort of aristocracy, often because they control powers which are useful or lucrative. This is only an incentive to keep the club exclusive, not to share anything, and since the people doing most of the research into the natural world are the same people who are willing to dedicate their lives to studying, you see that a lot of knowledge just isn't passed on. The paradox of this is that the more magic guards their magical secrets, the more non-magical solutions to problems will be developed. It is only in high and moderately high magic worlds where we should see long periods of technological stagnation without an ensuing arms race. For example, take the idea of warfare in these worlds. Generally, the army which could command or hire the most wizards would essentially win. In a world where magic is ubiquitous, it would seem that you could just have your wizards go at it and hope your foot soldiers can get lucky. The fewer wizards overall, the more power they hold on a battlefield, and the more that the regular soldier or army will want to develop counters or at the very least find equitable means of destruction. War is always a massive catalyst for technological advancement. Once we discovered that airplanes could be used in warfare, it took a decade for us to strap guns to them, and in the next three decades after that we went from wood and canvas prop planes to jet fighters. Or look at the rise of the tank, armored warship, or even just the firearm. These technologies advanced rapidly, and are still evolving rapidly. There is no reason the constant warfare there wouldn't be a similar catalyst for advancement, yet we hardly see that. We don't even see advancements in metallurgy over these large time frames. A sword from a thousand year old hero is essentially the same sword as the guy who goes looking for it had before, only it has magic or something. There is no reasonable modern equivalent to this, because in the last hundred years the advancements have leapfrogged and only grown. 

4: Civilization collapse.

I find this a weak angle as well, but it's a common theme. Heck, just look at our stories of Atlantis. Fantasy is rife with stories of ancient, advanced civilizations which collapse and their secrets are lost due to some grave disaster that seemed to befall them. This could be like the mountain dropped on Ishtar, the Doom of Valyria, the ruin of Myth Drannor, or even just plane old warfare. The end result is this, the place where technology existed no longer exists. Some few secrets may be there, waiting to be uncovered, but mostly nobody knows, and so all that progress is lost. We see this a bit in the Shannara series, again, because the ruins of the old world are still there. Some things survive, and the survivors, who have for so long been focused merely on not dying out, have lost track of how to do anything that isn't directly related to feeding themselves, defending themselves, and not getting eaten by bears. Slowly, technology is beginning to be rebuilt. I find this to be an exception rather than a rule, but we'll talk about it. I mean, it is the one that perhaps makes the most sense, despite being the least used: we had it, shit went south, we LOST it, and now we've got to get back to that point while using the suggestion of our former technological prowess as a guideline. In this way, magic and technology get treated much the same way, which is to say that ancient magic gets lost just as easily as ancient technology, and both get rediscovered. Westeros is pretty good about making this subtle, but it's enough of a staple that fantasy readers should be pretty familiar with it. Here, the stagnation isn't so much a result of lack of considering the problem, but more a problem of the timeline. I bet if you fast forward a thousand years in the Shanarra series, they'd be far more technologically equipped than they are now, and this is a world within laser robot spiders.

I know these reasons aren't great. And I know that there are a lot of historical and anthropological factors to technology development which I'm ignoring or glossing over entirely, because this isn't a scholarly work, it's just for fun. My real take away from all of this, though, is that there is hardly ever reason to believe that without some sort of global trauma, that technology hasn't advanced in the last few hundred or thousand years, depending on your fantasy world of choice. It sounds cool, to have your heroes looking for thousand year old artifacts. In a world where many of the non-human races live for long periods of time, one can also expect that their perception of the passing of time slows their need for rapid advancement, after all, we see how easy it is for humans to fall into the trap of thinking that the things they know are great and the next new thing is just a gimmick, even if it is here to stay. Now imagine if the lifespan of that person was five hundred or a thousand years. A world where they have steel smelting, glass making and grinding, primitive chemistry in the form of alchemy and herbology, there is really no reason for technology to not move forward. Even in fantasy worlds where the two do intersect, the blending never occurs, as it naturally would. Magic and technology are often separated as if they are somehow antithetical. Harry Potter does this, but we'll forgive a mediocre set of children's books from not focusing on the depth of its world building. In most cases, magic and technology would be best friends. Imagine enchanted concrete for building. Knives that never get dull, metal that never tarnishes, and a million other small technological advancements we can't dream of or consider physically possible which could be done with a few gibberish words and some hand (or wand) waving. 

In a fantasy world, technology would still have some level of advancement, a level that we don't see, and it is something that nobody ever addresses, because it sounds good and to think about it in as much detail as I have takes you out of the heart of the story and just makes you sound like a nitpicking jerkface. And sure, I'm totally guilty. I don't enjoy my favorites any less for it. It's just one of those things that's always sort of ruined immersion for me. Now, there could also be another reason that I'm not addressing: the timelines in the world are inaccurate because folks like to exaggerate for dramatic effect and let's be honest, it's a whole lot cooler if the hero needs to find  forgotten cave with a thousand year old magical sword rather than walk down the street to the wizard-blacksmith and have him make you one for a handful of gold and some of that excellent Shire pipe weed. 

The final takeaway is that this consideration is sort of just a fun mental exercise! Next time you read fantasy, look for the timeline mentions, and see how long it has been since there was a huge technological break. For example, in the books for A Song of Ice and Fire, the Stark sword Ice has been in the family for roughly the same time frame as our world has gone from flintlock rifle to modern automatic weapons. Yet, they still use the same exact sword. Heck, the fact that they're still using words of the same design (and inferior quality) should give you a sort of pause and make you ask questions.

Or not. It's just a fantasy, after all!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Racing Thoughts

Rounded edges of space, curving in delicate spirals
Thoughts racing through
As children, joyously exulting in a water park
Where the chaotic tumult of twists and turns
Ends in a raucous cacophony of exuberant laughter
Trying to pin these thoughts in place
Like trying to pin live butterflies
Circling and dancing with colorful jeers above my head
Tangled like kites
Just beyond reach
As they circle in urgent cascades, beating faster than your rhythmic pulse
Timpanic pounding driving your brain to feral static
White noise ripping through concentration
Until my head hangs in exhausted tatters
The tantalizing promise of quiet moments
Glimpsed through the white-noise hurrricane

Clarity does not escape
It is obfuscated
Covered and cowed by the raging maelstrom of mercurial thoughts
While the pressure builds
A dormant supervolcano waiting to burst
Rumbling and steadily growing in pressure
Until even the backs of your eyes
Whimper and recoil
In the light of another's storm
We tame the raging vortex
Letting it hide behind our eyes and teeth
Where haunted looks and haunting words beg release
Into a world whose ignorance is our armor
For the unknown songs screaming through the mindscape
Are not meant to be loosed upon the world
Like so many slings and arrows

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Apathy as (poor) Armor

It is something I think a lot of people who struggle with depression and similar mental health issues deal with, and it is something that, in my experience, is one of the most challenging and hardest things to deal with: apathy.

So of course my experience may not be universal, but the combination of anhedonia, negative thoughts, and mind numbing apathy are the worst experiences of depression. I am not a person who likes things very much. I have very few very strong feelings about things, and maybe some of that (a good part of it?) is just me as me. I'm not overly emotionally expressive, I don't have strong reactions or feelings for most things, but I think that is where the devil is in the details so to speak. You see, there are a lot of problems that arise when your brain prevents you from really giving a shit about things. Sure, my natural negativity makes me come across as a sort of killjoy asshole sometimes. I don't really enjoy things, and the things I do enjoy I don't enjoy much. I can't really do television and movies for this reason. The closest thing to keeping my attention and interest is music, and there are even days when I can't pick up my instrument because I just have no motivation. This absence of motivation bleeds over into important areas of life though. Relationships suffer, because I have a hard time expressing feelings that always feel just a little muted and dull around the edges. Not because I think they're not strong, but because my brain is like some sort of logic roadblock to me caring about things. In a similar fashion, apathy erodes my conscience. Terrible things happen, all the time, and they are things that I can logically recognize as bad things. But my brain sort of just... shrugs. Again, part of this just may naturally be me being shit, and I can see that. The thing is, this sort of apathy is kind of common. It mingles with those feelings of uselessness. People struggling to get out of bed or do even the minimum in self care because they don't see a point. People just thinking that since they don't get any kind of joy or pleasure from things that they won't bother. Hobbies lag and gather dust. Friendships, relationships. You're less a sputtering candle and more like the smoke that just sort of wafts away as the heat dissipates into the air around you. You sort of seek out these dopamine hits of anything that gives you brief joy, but even those gestures feel empty. It's all part and parcel of just feeling like going through the motions without any direction.

I feel lost, a lot. A lot of things I see in the big picture that are awful and my brain doesn't care. Hell, I see things in my own life that I have some sort of power over, and it may seem a lot like laziness to struggle to be able to fix them, but anyone familiar with how mental health can just swallow your life really does sort of get that sometimes your brain isn't seemingly on your side. Sure, it can have things that seem like benefits. I'm always kind of calm about things, because my brain never cares enough to freak out. When I do stress out, it's not really in a noticeable way. It is sort of less stoic and more just... my brain can't be bothered to manage a response. Some days it feels more like the emotional responses are sluggish. I guess the thing is, that I don't have a fix. It was sometimes better on meds, and it fluctuates a little in a way that's annoying, but i don't know any fixes for how to make things really seem important. I really have no real clue, but I also know that I have an obligation to at least fake it. I know that may be a statement that is disagreed with, because "fake it 'til you make it" isn't exactly the best approach to emotional health, but honestly i think we're forced to learn how to fake these sorts of expected emotional conventions. Given the time of year I'm writing this, let me give you an example I personally struggle with. 

I hate everything about the holidays. The fake seeming shift in personality, like this time of year is magically when we are suddenly not all selfish jerks to each other, and we're expected to NOT comment on how superficial and weird it is. What I hate the most, though, is gift giving convention. Not just giving gifts, even though I do hate everything associated with shopping and choosing. I hate getting gifts, because I'm not the type of person with strong expressions. I respond essentially the same to a "good" gift as a bad gift" which is perhaps great for getting "bad" gifts but also that response is typically just... bland. That isn't to say that I don't like it, or am not grateful. My mother once surprised me with a bass for Christmas and I played it every day for about 6 months (despite having 5 other basses there) because it was so great. But I had to learn to make myself express appropriate levels of excitement. I'm not ungrateful, I just really can't do it without having to remind myself and make it a chore. The same way that I have to remind myself that when awful things are happening in the world, I'm expected to have a response of some sort.

This whole thing is even more frustrating when you have people with strong opinions in your life. Now, I have the luxury of not really being a picky eater, or worrying too much about how I dress so long as it is appropriate to the setting. Comfort is always preferable to style, and functionality always trumps form for me. I don't really care about things that don't impact me personally, and even my opinions on most things aren't so strong that I'm willing to take a strong stand on them. Mostly this means letting people be comfortable with their own stupidity (but seriously, vaccinate your kids, stupid) and not being able to summon the appropriate times of indignation or outrage over things. Don't worry, it is just as frustrating for me as it is for you, so we're both suffering when apathy overrides my emotional or passionate responses to things. Really, I feel it, it's just squashed under layers of "who cares?" and my brain always seems to err on the side of "whatever feels the least like giving a crap."

Apathy can be a sort of armor. It can be a comforting cocoon that protects us from pain and suffering and empathy. But the benefits are double edged and not always worthwhile. You lose a lot when your mental health is a roadblock to giving a damn about anything. Students' grades suffer (mine did). Work suffers. Relationships and friendships suffer. Just the way you're viewed by the world can be vastly different, and it can perpetuate itself. I think part of the trick, is, of course, to be willing to fake it when it is necessary. Not because your feelings aren't genuine, but because your expression of them isn't always able to reach the appropriate level. Depression is something you live with, but it isn't always about you. You have to have that sort of awareness, because I'm a firm believer that mental health issues aren't an excuse to ignore self-reflection or be an asshole. If people are willing to tolerate our crappy minds, then we can tolerate putting a face on for them. Sometimes people around us need the morale boost just as much as we do.

That was all that I really had to say, but I wanted to take a moment for a special aside about the holidays and mental health. Some of the issues I have mentioned here, and previously, and certain circumstances can make dealing with your mental health around the holidays difficult. There are a lot of different stressors and things that can make it supremely tough, even compared to the regular day to day struggle with mental health. Please don't overlook self care, and please reach out if you need to. To a friend, a family member, or anything that helps. It's important to not get yourself overwhelmed, or let the holiday season get to you. I know it gets to me and I need a lot of recovery time during and after. It's also easy to get lost in the loneliness and isolation of the season. I know it can be easy to get caught up in yourself and your brain, so please look after yourselves and keep an eye and ear out for your friends, loved ones, and even strangers.

Again, thanks for reading, and of course, please feel free to reach out if you need to!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Book Review: The 10-Step Depression Relief Workbook

So we're going to try something a little new today, at least new for me. I'm going to do a sort of book review of an upcoming work called "The 10-Step Depression Relief Workbook" by Dr. Simon Rego and Sarah Fader. In the interest of disclosure, Sarah and I are friends who have spoken together at some length about issues of mental health and have known each other for what must be at least a few years now. I was honored when she approached me to read through the workbook and maybe give my perspectives on it. I was fortunate enough to get a sneak peak at this book, which will be coming out January 8th, 2018, and I'm going to share my thoughts with you!

Another aside before we jump in. I am not a mental health professional. I've lived with depression, and like to advocate for those who live with the challenges and difficulties facing those with mental health troubles. These words are, of course, my own, and are based on opinions and perspectives you may not exactly share with me. Let's get going!


My first impression of this book is that it is not at all what I was expecting, and in a good way. I assumed, going in, that it would be a sort of narrative focused on some best practices and some anecdotal evidence. The work admits to being centered on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which is something i am only vaguely experienced with and not academically knowledgeable of. Instead, what you get is a combination of scientific research and support, put into lay terms for consumption by readers with every level of background, peppered with relatable anecdotes relating them to human experiences in a way that make it accessible for a reader, and, more importantly, identifiable. Of equal interest is that it truly is a workbook. Space is provided for a reader to relate what they have read to their own life, a sort of "put it on paper" approach that really gives the reader a sense of participation in the process the books describes. It even gives the reader thought exercise homeworks to establish a sort of accountability to themselves and what they are going through.

Something I see as a strength is relating clinical approaches and definitions to real world issues. However, I feel that at times it may be a sort of distancing factor to some readers. The information is good background, but I thin it sometimes conflicts with the purpose of a workbook. I appreciate background information, but at times it feels like it can't make up its mind on whether to be an academic work or an accessible one, and this can even be reflected sometimes in the language and approach to citations. As someone more used to a more academic style of writing about these sorts of things, i don't think my misgivings necessarily apply to the general public, so I'll just say: be aware that there are parts where your interest may threaten to lag, but the core premise is strong and the information is interesting if not directly helpful. The idea of using this workbook to supplement ongoing CBT strikes me as a good way to stress certain points and bring some level of patient self-accountability to the process, as a way of encouraging practice and maintenance of the skills. I feel a lot of what CBT has to offer is reminding you of things that you are already aware of, but which the depression mindset can blind you to, and this book does a good job of spelling out in simple terms the things you should be remembering. It seems there is a lot more for self-motivation here than for a solo foray into self-care, and that's good! It is entirely the point, I think, that this is a support tool on a journey rather than the main vehicle to reach the destination. The importance of self-reflection is not lost as a major factor for synthesizing a personal response, and this book gives a very concrete avenue for allowing someone dealing with depression and working through CBT to ground themselves in the process. Clinical theory is outlined in practical, useful terms and explained clearly with none of the jargon heavy, overly-verbose pontificating we tend to see in academic writing.

Something which I think could have been done better is integrating the personal anecdotes. I understand that it likely would have increased the overall length of the text and that how they are included is meant to emphasize their importance, but integrating more real world examples before each practical session in order to illustrate the point being made would likely be something to give the reader a more solid idea as to how the problem is approached. A related thing of note, which I thoroughly appreciate is how the major workbook style parts of the book are kept separate, so that a reader could photocopy or otherwise reproduce them if needed, or desired.

Overall, I find this book has the potential to be a great resource for patients and professionals alike, as it takes an established framework and toolbox, and uses the accepted practice and theory to really give the patient a helping hand in establishing or continuing the habits they need to develop. The book isn't a hard read, and the format and flow of information makes sense, so getting through it won't be bad. Obviously, it is designed to be interactive, though you could easily do what I did and read it through before you go back to the exercises to see the layout, though I would recommend using the middle school approach and just working through it one step at a time like you would have in school. The other tips, tricks, and suggestions provided, such as diet advice, are all evidence-based and sort of the icing on the proverbial cake of this book. I definitely look forward to sitting down and working through all of the exercises in time, and would recommend that anyone who finds CBT helpful, or even just conceptually interesting, pick up a copy of this when it comes out!

As my first review, I'm not quite sure how helpful you may have found it, and I'm certainly not sure just how common me reviewing things that aren't terrible movies will be, but it's something I may explore more, especially if anyone found this helpful! As always, thank you for reading.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Cinquain poems! (A cop out post)

Look at that, I found some old cinquain poems with variations, of course. Cinquains are, as you'll be able to tell, based on syllable counts per line. I haven't titled these, so instead I will lead with the type of cinquain they are. They're fairly old, and of course inspired by my dearest friend Jessy, who wrote some with me once upon a time!

My mind is lost
A haze of confusion
Grasping vainly at fleeting thoughts
I fall

Reverse cinquain:
With you
I break down the walls I have built
Shouldering the burden
Trust has been built
For me

Mirror cinquain:
We fell
Like planes and stars
Rushing to completion
Burning reminders of failure
We sang
They watched
Rapt gaze glued to our sweet downfall
Their breath and applause held
Until the end
Of us

Butterfly cinquain:
We danced
Floating on love
Our words met, like lovers
Framing the moment in sweet sounds
I watched
As you killed me with one sweet kiss
Our lips met, like strangers
Passion and fire
We loved

Lanterne cinquain:
A lie
Told to us
By the cynics

Tetractys cinquain:
Small kites
Dancing string
Marring clear skies
We lost ourselves to the colorful lies

Garland Cinquain:
Hope comes
From inside us
A bright, burning fire
Destroying the darkness within
As love
     Death comes
     With silent stride
     To take us from this life
     A brief candle snuffed in the wind
     Life ends
Dreams rise
Deep within us
Giving wings to our thoughts
Driving us on, ever forward
     Love fails
     Without support
     It cannot stand alone
     So we must fight to maintain it
     For us
We fight
Each breath hard won
The passing days worn down
So we push forward, regardless
To live
     Hope comes
     With silent stride
     Giving wings to our thoughts
     So we must fight to maintain it
     To live