Journal Archives - May, 2003
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In case you missed it, today -- May 1 -- was Loyalty Day.
You think I'm kidding, don't you? Click the link.
What's the most galling is that this isn't America Day, or Patriot Day, or Freedom Day, or even Iraqi Liberation Day. It's Loyalty Day. Loyal, adj.: 1. Unswerving in allegiance. 2. Faithful in allegiance to one's lawful sovereign or government. In other words, undissenting. Following.
Freedom Day sounds like a great idea to me. America Day, in practice, would be indistinguishable from what we currently celebrate on July 4 already. Patriot Day would have been shameless, but tolerable; we can be patriotic by trying to uphold the principles that make this country great. But Loyalty Day?
Roll that on the tongue. "I am loyal to the United States government." (Who else does one pledge loyalty to when declaring their loyalty to the U.S.? And who wrote the resolution and signed it into law?) How does it sound? How do you like it? Does the government always, unswervingly, speak for you? (Does it today under Bush? Did it four years ago under Clinton?)
Remember when they used to call government employees "public servants"? Remember when government "for the people" meant something? I happen to like living in America, but this is on outrage: A holiday celebrating that we, the people, are loyal to the state. This is not American. This is the sort of holiday name you'd expect to see in China, Cuba, or North Korea.
But if you don't like it, suffer in silence. Remember, today's Loyalty Day. You've got a duty to let the government make your decisions for you. They're leaders. You're loyal.
UPDATE: I am informed this is not new. Well, that doesn't change my opinion; "loyalty" is an atrocious semantic choice in 2003, and it was an atrocious semantic choice in 1993. (It does make me feel slightly better, though, that Bush didn't simply invent it. Although subsequent research suggests that it was passed in 1958, so it's likely a memento of the Cold War, which is just as bad.) The difference between "patriotism" and "loyalty" is the difference between "My country, right or wrong" and "My country, right." (The full quote, incidentally, is by Sen. Carl Schurz, in 1899: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right." [Emphasis mine.] Which is precisely why it's such a patriotic statement of American principles.)
"It's been a pain sometimes, but the game's still worth playing," a friend said recently, reflecting on life on the occasion of a birthday.
Which comparison gave me pause, for a completely tangential and pointless reason: When I play games, I'm a shameless min-maxer.
This is a term used by role-players to refer (often derisively) to a class of gamers who very carefully study the rules -- and patiently, cleverly, or shamelessly play so as to build the strongest possible characters within those rules. A min-maxer is the one who multiclasses as a thief/ranger because thieves' skill bonuses and rangers' multiple attacks stack together like they were made for each other. A min-maxer is the one who will spend an hour defending and letting his characters get hit by the boss because they're building up experience multipliers that will gain them ten levels when the fight's over. A min-maxer is the one who sits down, does some math, and realizes you can make an infinite amount of money quickly by pretending to be a merchant if you've collected all the Wholesale Guild cards. A min-maxer is the one whose first-level lizardman monk single-handedly takes out the owlbear that was supposed to be a challenge for the entire party of five third-level characters (true story; after which the GM crippled the rule I was exploiting, and I don't blame him).
This, by itself, isn't news -- I've admitted as much in the past. But back to the analogy of life as a game: There, oddly enough, I seem to act differently.
A case could be made, I suppose, that a min-maxer takes their lot and makes the best of it -- that it's defined by aggressively playing the rules you're given, rather than by any objective definition of physical-world "success." But, conversely, a min-maxed character practically can't help but succeed, unless brought down by hubris -- and is unrepentant in using the rules to their advantage. In certain spiritual contexts, these apply, but from a "life" perspective, that's an awfully strange definition of the "succcess" min-maxers crave. And to take a specific example, I just honestly don't care much about making money (as long as I have enough to pay rent and take a hiking trip once in a while). With money of such prime importance in our culture, this goes against the grain of the min-maxer, whose goal is to build their character up so strongly that one can walk through life without serious challenge.
I guess one reason for this might be that I'm sort of a purist. I don't like conflict; I'm acutely aware that for someone to be a winner there has to be an opponent who lost. (Heck, I can't even play chess any more. It's too immediate an example of that. I hate winning at chess, because there's no way to phrase your victory that doesn't come across as "I am intellectually superior"; and I don't want to play to lose.) So when I min-max in role-playing games, I'm indulging my need for conquest in a harmless way. I can be proud of abusing the rules in AD&D in a way that I would abhor in real life. Defeating an owlbear singlehandedly is the (legal) harmless fantasy equivalent of laundering $100,000 in drug profits; there's a certain amount of pride to be taken in being sharp enough to successfully accomplish it, but it's not the sort of thing you wake up in the morning and say, "Gee, I think I'll go do that today," and it's impossible to do with any amount of empathy. (In the AD&D case, as in real life, for one's fellow players.)
And, frankly, money does seem like a stupid definition of success. I just can't get worked up enough about it to devote my time to its gain. I just wish I could explain why I was so determined to engage in the equally arbitrary and even more pointless task of collecting one of every card in the Final Fantasy VIII card game sub-game; or dodging 200 consecutive lightning bolts in FFX; etc.
It could be that I value mastery over success, like many proud geeks. (Which is a bigger accomplishment -- winning a computer RPG, or getting all your charaters up to level 99 in it?) And with that the case, even mastery of trivial things seems like a better metric for a life well spent than any amount of expensive tchotchkes to show for it. After all, buying a million toys only demonstrates one finely honed skill -- the skill of making money. But taking on a million challenges demonstrates as many skills as one cares to improve.
It's kind of disheartening knowing that, at the tender age of 25, I am behind the times.
I recently bought a digital recorder to carry around with me; it has already proven invaluable in helping me organize my thoughts while driving to and from work, keeping me from losing all the important ideas that drift through my mind in those down times. Since I've been carrying it in my shirt pocket during the work day, I've also had occasion to take a note or two while in the office. Not often, though, because I'm pretty self-conscious about it.
Case in point: Last night, well after I'd clocked out, I was reading through a friend's Livejournal. They made an entry I wanted to privately respond to when I got home, and I knew I'd be formulating my response in the car, so my immediate thought was to speak some of the relevant quotes from the post into my shiny new voice recorder, so I'd be able to play them back in the car to keep myself focused.
The newspaper office was nearly empty; just myself and Andy, the sports editor. So I conquered my self-consciousness and read aloud the quotes I wanted to preserve.
After the first, I leaned off to the side, looking past our monitors to Andy at his adjacent desk. "Don't mind me," I said, trying to defuse my breaking of the late-night silence. "Just taking some notes."
Andy shrugged. "Ever since cell phones were invented, I don't look twice at anyone talking to themselves."
Now, as it turns out, I don't own a cell phone; I've never had enough need for one to outweigh the perceived disadvantages of (A) cost and (B) feeling like I would then be on call 24-7 to whoever I gave my number out to. But they're so ubiquitous these days, so embedded in our culture, that his remark should have been nothing special. Heck, I can name five co-workers with cell phones just off the top of my head.
But it hadn't even occurred to me before he brought it up. I was treating talking into empty air like it was something aberrant. I'm only a quarter century old, and already at least one piece of common technology has left me in its wake.
My parents have cell phones. You'd think I'd be hip to the idea.
Now, of course, I'm starting to get mischevious thoughts. Maybe I could find a friend with a broken cell phone, beg it off of them, and carry it around with me. Then I could unfold the phone as a prop, and talk with Thea in public, verbalizing my end of the conversation -- and nobody would think twice about it (except of course when the subject matter strayed into weird areas). Performance art, in a twisted sort of way.
It's been a weekend. I've gotten some errands done, and I'm feeling pretty good (went swimming today, actually, and sat in the sun for a while; I can't take such things for granted). Plus I got to catch up on some magic work -- visited Cipher again, which I haven't done in an embarrasingly long time.
My desire to actually write anything interesting, though, is at a pretty deep low. Rather than subject you all to a rant about it, I'm going to gracefully change the subject.
To wit: Apparently I'm not alone in my website design aesthetic.
Hmmm. I've been working on a few minor updates to the site's look and feel (the new journal format being one, with a few more side projects upcoming). Maybe giving pages a slightly more astronomical feel would also be worth the time.
I walked in to work this afternoon to find a 21-inch monitor waiting for me. (... Bear with me; there's a deeper point.)
I had, up until then, been working on an old, decrepit 17-incher. The previous monitor was, to put it bluntly, barely serviceable. With the brightness and contrast turned up to their maximum, the screen's whites were a pathetic gray. This didn't have much effect on text editing -- especially since I tend to keep my monitor at home dim to reduce eyestrain, and thus am used to it -- but image selection and manipulation were pointlessly difficult. Items shaded at a 60 percent grey screen (i.e., this color: TEST) were literally indistinguishable from black. Photographs taken in any but the most optimal light conditions were dark blobs.
It wasn't bad enough to keep me from doing my job -- for over six months, in fact. But there was definitely an annoyance factor, and pretty much everyone in the office was mystified as to how I could work with such a worthless POS.
I probably could have had the monitor replaced at any time if I had felt it was hampering me in my job duties. But, truth be told, I never bothered. As mentioned, text editing -- the vast majority of my duties -- was unaffected, and I found various workarounds to ease the bad monitor's impact in other areas. In fact, I specifically passed up an opportunity to get a new monitor early in my employment -- I'm a frugal sort, and when the yearly office equipment ordering binge came along, I turned in a truncated wish list of only those items that I felt would make a marked difference. (The monitor not being among them. I got a keyboard tray, optical mouse with scroll wheel, and stapler, all of which I lacked at my desk and all of which have been of profound utility.)
Oddly enough, the upgrade wasn't even a response to the office's perception that I needed a better monitor. It was part of a larger package -- meant to accompany a brand spanking new 2 gHz computer, also aimed at my desk.
Now, while I might have been seen as suffering from a monitor deficiency, the computer upgrade came as an utter surprise. (I did get advance notice of the purchase, but not enough advance notice to actually have any say in the decision.) I don't recall being consulted at any time as to what my needs actually were, and if I had, I would have answered that I didn't have any problems with my current system that a small RAM upgrade wouldn't have solved. In fact, I'm probably the one person in the newsroom who has the least trouble with their computer, because I'm (A) an efficiency freak with (B) an uncommonly technical background for a journalist who (C) until recently was working on a 200 mHz machine at home and thus doesn't tend to notice processor slowdown until it gets egregious. The machines we all use are adequate for their tasks (P3 200s, I think -- more than sufficient for Word 97 and Quark Xpress 4). I save more time every day by knowing Quark's stable of keyboard shortcuts than any processor upgrade could give me.
So if I had been asked whether I wanted a new computer, my response would have been, "No; give it to someone else who's been making noise about their needs." But the decision was made over my head that since I'm the Page Designer, I need a machine with better capabilities than the dilapidated word-processing boxes everyone else deals with. I'm not going to complain about this, because as a general rule having more power than you need is better than having less. But it's still a little uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable because I'm the only one in the office getting an upgrade. My old machine is going to one of the recently hired summer interns, and everyone else gets to keep struggling along with their old PCs. While there was enough money around to make the capital investment in a new computer, it is a small office, and further upgrades are probably going to come in a likewise piecemeal fashion, and only when unavoidable.
I've already been on the receiving end of a bit of grumbling about this. It's not going to become an office politics issue, because this place has a camaraderie that I haven't felt since college; and even when I heard their disappointment, it was clearly not directed at me but at the fact that their own needs could have used some addressing. But it's still awkward, not least because I find myself agreeing with their assessment.
I did promise something deeper at the beginning of the post, so let me briefly sum up here. I'm in the office for a (relatively speaking) short period of time; long enough to notice that my hardware is deficient, but not particularly troubled by its idiosyncracies. I'm handed an unexpected gift of an upgrade, one that certainly is a step in the right direction but which isn't necessary by any means. It's sort of a mixed blessing, in that its uniqueness and fanciness attract the attention of those around me, who may resent the fact it came to me while they're stuck with what they've got.
And it occurs to me: Man, what a metaphor for draconity that would make.
On close examination, it's really three or four metaphors rolled into one; and while the majority of the statements summarized above have been true for me, they have largely been true at different points in my life and for different facets of my exploration of my identity. So it's not a very cohesive metaphor. But the image of the "unasked upgrade" sticks with me.
More and more that's how I'm coming to view my identity. It's unquestionably a positive thing; being a dragon makes me a more whole person, gives me grounding and a sense of self, suggests at my place in the grand scheme of things, and helps keep me open to the truly wondrous things about this world. But it is a gift, and it all just fell into place so snugly that I can't help but ask the unanswerable question of whether some astral force pushed it into my life. (A possibility which life events suggest with more force than I can write off and ignore.)
A gift which has, yes, come with its prices. I always had the choice to deny it, cling to my old system, let the miracle pass on to someone who may have put better use to it. By making that choice to accept the magic it's brought me, I also chose to take up the mantle of an unpopular social stance, that of the fringe spiritual believer. In the world in which I've lived, that's never been a significant problem for me -- but I can think of other circumstances (offices) in which it might have. And I've seen other would-be therianthropes grab for the low-hanging fruit only to have any value they might have gained from it be brutally squashed by the collision of their choices with social circumstance.
Like the monitor and the computer, draconity has also been a package deal with another element of my life: the realization and exploration of magic. And like the monitor and the computer, the former fixes a deficiency, with immediate and obvious consequences -- but the latter touches on far deeper, more subtle needs. The relationships I have with Thea, Glineth, and the rest are meaning more and more to me as time goes on, and the shape which I consider my spirit to most closely resemble ... well, there's only so much to say about it. Like a monitor to a computer, with draconity and magic it's becoming obvious that the former is really nothing more than an accessory to the latter, and it's the latter that really is what's making things happen.
Which doesn't make draconity irrelevant -- far from it! It's the window through which I interface with the important stuff, and I could no more discard it than I could try to surf the Internet with a teletype line printer. It's just become one of those things I'm increasingly taking for granted while I try to dig ever deeper into other topics. The broader concepts of spirituality, the limits of applied willpower, the relevance of magic to present-day life, how much Rome spent salting Carthage's fields, whatever.
Of course, like computer upgrades, the rule applies to magic, too: Once you've made that step up, and gotten used to the capabilities of the bigger system, it's nigh-impossible to go back to what you used to have.
Back when I first stepped into the paws of the Advice Dragon, I was expecting it to be a one-shot thing, a lighthearted clearing out of my mailbox. But as it turns out, I've gotten at least enough response to revisit the column. I wonder if this is one of those things, like Knights of the Dinner Table, that's going to build up enough outside momentum to take on a life of its own? I suppose we shall see. Meanwhile ...:
* * *
Dear Advice Dragon,
Dear Advice Dragon,
Dear Readers: Do you have a question for the Advice Dragon? Drop him a line!
First, the request: Does anyone out there know if there exists a technical term for "partly bipedal," and if so, what it is? I refer to (possibly hypothetical or extinct) creatures that stand generally quadrupedal, and may walk that way, but shift to their hind legs for speed while running? Or, more generally, any transitional form between the two. Half an hour of Web surfing has gotten me interested in further research on the issue, but convinced me that I don't know where to start.
I ask partly because I had a dream last night in which I was running through Seattle. As with most of my dreams, it was disjointed and the plot oddly thrown together in that dream-contrived way; I was on a tour bus going thorugh the city, got off at one point, and they left me behind. So I decided to head through the city to the University District and go chill at Elynne's place. I went through a lot of areas (apartment complexes, supermarkets, pretentious storefront shopping districts) that were constructed in a very non-Seattle way, and the skyline (while ostensibly the proper "Seattle skyline" in the dream) was lacking notable landmarks like the Space Needle, which I should have seen from my position in the city's northwest flats (out in Puget Sound in the real world).
The one memorable aspect of the dream, in fact, was when I started jogging -- then leisurely running -- through the city, having decided that that was preferable to waiting around for a bus. Now, I've had dreams before in which I was a dragon but didn't look it -- where I've not fit through doors, and flown, and run on all fours, and yet the "camera" that observes the me-character resolutely refuses to show me as anything other than my current body. In the most vivid example of that type, I actually shifted form inside the dream, from human to dragon -- and my size changed, I dropped to all fours, and still looked no different to the dream-vision.
Said dream-vision is always a camera hovering in a static view about a foot behind and five inches above my left shoulder. I have never had a dream in which I was not the primary character, in my current human body, and only rarely has the view my waking self seen the dream from been anything other than that static view. The only camera shifts that come to mind are when I'm examining books or documents, and it zooms in for a close-up on them. So apparently my dream-self has some sort of obsessive compulsion for this single point of view.
My dream-self also apparently has an obsession with shopping in supermarkets -- and that one I just don't understand. In all but two of my dreams with significant dragon content, I have spent time wandering the aisles of a supermarket in search of nothing in particular.
But bax to the point: Running. In the dream, when I was trotting down Seattle's sidewalks, once I actually reached a jog, I tilted further and further forward ... and by the time I had hit full speed, was completely parallel to the ground, occasionally digging a hand into the sidewalk for purchase or balance. I was running in a quadrupedal stance but with a kinda-bipedal gait. Now, this is the first time I've done any significant running in a dream in a non-human way -- in previous dragon dreams my four-footed runs have been sprints, aimed at quickly building speed prior to a launch into the air for flight. And it was interesting to observe.
The most remarkable thing about this is that it was just kind of there, assumed. There were no other indications of draconity in the dream (well, unless you count going grocery shopping, which I don't think I'm ever going to understand the significance of). It didn't occur to me to fly, or even question whether I could; I wasn't disproportionately sized; nobody treated me abnormally; none of what I was thinking in the dream had anything to do with anything dragon-related. And in fact I didn't even really pay any heed to my style of running in the dream -- it was only after I woke up that I did the double-take.
I haven't been feeling particularly "shifty" in the waking world lately, either. That's a technical term, popular among some segments of the Otherkin/were community, to indicate that one is having trueform urges, feeling phantom limbs strongly, having behavior patterns creep into your habits subconsciously, etc. In fact, I haven't been dealing with draconity a lot lately -- plenty of deep thought on spirituality in general, mostly inspired by Postvixen; plenty of fiction writing in TTU firing up my theri creativity; a baseline (low but tolerable) level of magical work ... but no real dragon activity or engagement.
Essentially, I think my subconscious is trying to remind me of something. That even when my draconity isn't "important" in waking life, it's still there, fundamentally, as a crucial part of who I am that shapes me in subtle ways ... something I couldn't give away, even if I wanted to, without thoroughly training myself out of it.
Or maybe my subconscious is just desperately trying to clue me in that my first change to dragon form will be in a supermarket. There, it's a little early to tell.
Believe it or not, I'm still alive and around. Got completely buried with work during the run-up to BayCon, and couldn't get online all weekend because I was buried with work at the convention as well. Despite this, it was fun, and pleasant, and I was quite social and caught up with people I hadn't seen in a while and even got to go to sleep once or twice.
A few backdated entries to come as I find the time in the post-con recovery period. In the meantime, I'm straight bax to the grind -- I'm working today through Thursday.
I find myself curiously ambivalent about all the recent attention being given by the media to the national spelling bee.
Let's get one thing straight, first: Increased national coverage of academic events is a good thing. Period. Too much attention is paid to children who excel in sports; not enough attention is paid to children who exercise the one muscle that makes the biggest difference to their adult life. (The brain isn't a muscle, technically. But humor me.) Telling kids that we honor people for their brains is unqualifiedly a step in the right direction, and it should be done, and I applaud it. Nothing I say below should be taken otherwise.
But I find myself fearing that this isn't going to raise people's opinions of intellectualism after all.
I am a college graduate. I am basically a well-read person. I am online for several hours a day, writing fiction and non-fiction and reading others' journals and surfing blogs and engaging in debate. I work at a newspaper. All of which is to say, I think I've got a substantial grasp of English vocabulary -- certainly better than the average American's (the average American reads at something like an eighth-grade level, after all) and probably comparable to that of anyone who isn't a professional grammarian. One caveat -- I don't like the world of academic jargon. (But then again, most people don't, either.)
And what do I see when I read the news stories about the spelling bee? The winning word was "pococurante." Kids dropped out after flubbing "skeuomorph" or "fichu" or "maraboutism." And of course that's what's reported. These things are stated because they're very relevant ("salient: S-A-L-I-E-N-T") details -- they're the spelling bee equivalent of that last-second three-pointer or a defender making a heroic tackle to stop a 90-yard run just short of a touchdown.
But let's face it: I have spent several years of my life as a professional copy editor, being paid good money for my skills as a living dictionary. And I have never even heard any of the above words before.
Does this make me unqualified as a copy editor? Perhaps. But if I can have gone 25 years of my well-educated life without so much as getting close to the words these students were spelling ... what are more average people supposed to think?
Frankly, I'm afraid that focusing so much attention on spelling bees is making academics look unapproachable. I'm not even certain that "pococurante" is even to be found in any dictionary weighing less than 10 pounds. At that point, joining in these whiz kids' fun stops being an attainable aspiration and becomes magic ("thaumaturgy": T-H-A-U-M-A-T-U-R-G-Y). The Nerds(tm) stick their noses in books for a while and then mysteriously recite arcane litanies that make no sense to the mundanes, in patterns that the high priests like.
Contrast this, say, with the competition variously known as "Quiz Bowl," "Academic Decathlon," "Academic Olympics," et. al. When an intellectually apathetic child ("proletariat": P-R-O-L-E-T-A-R-I-A-T) grunts "Huh?" at the term, you can explain, "It's like 'Jeopardy.'" Everyone understand Jeopardy. It's trivia. Real-world questions and reasonable-sounding answers.
I think that if an eighth-grader from Texas won a national competition by knowing the capital of Morocco ("Rabat": R-A-B-A-T), it would seem a whole lot more accessible than knowing how to spell some Brobdingnagian invocation. Everyone might someday grow up and take a vacation to scenic Morocco, and even if you don't, knowing the capital makes you look worldly. But knowing how to spell unashamedly recherché words? It takes effort just to work "recherché" into an essay, and I use it here only to make that point. And that's writing, where you have the leisure to look things up and refine your meanings. People who talk like that scare even me.
As full disclosure, I have to admit that I have never participated in any spelling bees larger than school-wide, and my Science Bowl team made it to the nationals in my junior year of high school. I won an expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., and got to skip school for a long weekend. I'm certain the same is true of the spelling bee participants, and I don't have a problem with ("begrudge": B-E-G-R-U-D-G-E) my tax dollars being spent that way.
I'd just like to see the public face of our celebration of academia be something that regular kids think they can do, too -- instead of having our nerd role models be people with such esoteric skills that our chances of sparking enthusiasm toward intellectualism are essentially nil.
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