The Guru Trap

The Guru Trap is worse than the Dark Side. It is easy, seductive, and life-affirming. One can easily make all sorts of regrettable decisions without ever realizing it.

Let me supply a quote from the “Illuminatus!” trilogy by Shea and Wilson:

“That’s right,” Hagbard agreed. “I wanted to see if you’d trust your own senses or the word of a Natural-Born Leader and Guru like me. You trusted your own senses, and you pass. My put-ons are not just jokes, friend. The hardest thing for a man with dominance genes and piratical heredity like me is to avoid becoming a goddam authority figure. I need all the feedback and information I can get—from men, women, children, gorillas, dolphins, computers, any conscious entity—but nobody contradicts an Authority, you know. Communication is possible only between equals: that’s the first theorem of social cybernetics—and the whole basis of anarchism—and I have to keep knocking down people’s dependence on me or I’ll become a fucking Big Daddy and won’t get accurate communication anymore. If […] all the governments, corporations, universities and armies of the world understood that simple principle, they’d occasionally find out what’s actually going on and stop screwing up every project they start. I am Freeman Hagbard Celine and I am not anybody’s bloody leader. As soon as you fully understand that I’m your equal, and that my shit stinks just like yours, and that I need a lay every few days or I get grouchy and make dumb decisions, and that there is One more trustworthy than all the Buddhas and sages but you have to find him for yourself, then you’ll begin to understand what the [Discordians are] all about.”

“A man is the sum of his memories, you know.”

In 2004, I left my hometown of Roanoke, VA behind to take a great IT job and build a new life for myself. The old life was pleasant but not really going much of anywhere. I don’t like stagnation, I don’t like living in a rut; if my near-fatal car accident over a decade before had tought me something, it’s that one ought to be doing *something* with one’s limited time on the Earth.

Well, in 2015 I left Hampton Roads, VA to take a great IT job and try to build a new life for myself. In the nine jobs and six living spaces in between, I sure hadn’t managed much stability, but I had certainly been doing something. Life had thrown at me more life-threatening physical illnesses, new loves, new friends and stronger bonds with older ones, a life-threatening mental illness; but most importantly, over a decade more of self-knowledge.

I’ve missed a lot of opportunities in the last eleven years, but I’ve also made some amazing things happen, and I understand myself better than I ever have. This self-knowledge (and let’s face it, some prescribed medication) makes the challenges of life a touch easier to take and gives me the chance to be a better person. It’s hard-won knowledge, though. I have the scars.

Yesterday I finished cleaning out the spare bedroom I’d slept in for four years before finding work here in North Carolina. With Maya’s help and a lot of elbow grease, I removed the last traces of my presence. It was like I’d never been there. In fact, now every place I’ve ever lived can make the same claim; besides the apartment I rent now, no living space says “Michael was here” in any meaningful fashion. I don’t like that; it’s unsettling.

But, if nothing else, it brings to sharp relief that it’s futile to look back. Keep moving forward, keep trying to do something with your days, keep working to improve and keep showing people you love them. That’s the biggest lesson taught to me by the last forty-six years.

The Fallout of a Podcast

managlitch-city320-ep013

Managlitch City Underground Episode Thirteen is done and out on the Interwebz, and this seemed like a good place to talk about making the podcast itself. I use a fairly nice microphone plus Audacity and GarageBand to record the show. The baseline is just me in character rambling about the weirdness that is life in Managlitch, but to keep it interesting I have guest stars every couple of episodes: usually friends I know can act and that have recording equipment. Technically it’s working out well. I don’t think it sounds 100% professional, but luckily for me it doesn’t have to – MGCU is a pirate radio station, and isn’t always going to have perfect sound.

I grab my sound effects from public domain and creative commons sites that don’t require pay or attribution. My favorite source so far is actual Mercury space mission chatter used as ambient noise in Episode Three. I stumbled into the perfect theme tune by accident when my friend Tom Monaghan posted one of his latest musical compositions; he wouldn’t even let me pay him to use it.

Those are the technical details, but I’m here to talk about the writing. Deep dark secrets of the creative process will be revealed here, so turn away if you don’t want to know what’s behind the curtain. Still with me? Good.

When I started, I knew very little about the City or the people in it. I knew I wanted to write about a world where weird happened every day and people just adapted, as humans are wont to do. MGCU became a pirate radio broadcast because I could make that a one-man show and have the technical excuses mentioned above. But above all, I wanted it to become a real place, a place that made a certain kind of sense and held together. There are lots of fantasy cities out there which don’t work too well once you look past the immediate narrative. Those worlds would quickly break down if you took them seriously at all, and sometimes that’s fine, because that’s not the point of the setting. I wanted to try something different.

To my great surprise and pleasure, the setting and the plot grew and developed around the characters and crazy events as I wrote them. I found that I had to make more and more assumptions to keep the wheels of Managlitch turning, and that was wonderful because these assumptions gave me new things to write about. I believe I owe a debt to the writing style of Douglas Adams, who had a habit of assuming that all his paragraphs would eventually fit together somehow and didn’t fret too much about it. I don’t say I’m doing it as well as he did, but he was an inspiration.

Then, in the middle of a script, I realized what I wanted the story of Managlitch to really be about. Or rather, I discovered what I’d unconsciously wanted it to be about all the time, because the seeds are there from the very first episode. In a way, it’s a little sad, because what I’ve learned about the plot and characters means those characters are going to have to suffer more than I’d expected them to when I originally dreamed them up. I hate to do it to them, but now that I really know the story I’m telling, there’s no way around it.

I’m having these thoughts because “Fallout” was the first script I wrote really knowing what was in store. A friend who knows some of Managlitch’s secrets says that it’s pretty clear in this one that some of Glenn SevenFiftyFive’s remaining innocence (and he wasn’t especially innocent as it was) has been taken from him. That’s because the writer’s lost some of his as well, and it’s reflected in the speeches the characters make. Frankly, it’s made this episode a little hard to finish. But if I’m going to write about a real world, with real characters – even a world as weird as Managlitch – then the training wheels come off at some point.

I’m sticking with it, of course. I know I have some loyal fans, and even I don’t know exactly how many things in the story are going to turn out. The only way for everyone to find out is for me to write it, and I still need to say those things I’m going to say. This project has been an incredible learning experience for me, and I do mean a positive one. I’ve been a writer for almost forty years now; it’s well past time I started to grow as one.

The Old Dungeon

The past blasted me a couple of times this weekend. The charity site Bundle of Holding offered the old Traveller RPG books from 1981 as PDF for a giveaway price (through July 9th), and I discovered that D&D Classics will sell me the First Edition Dungeons and Dragons books in a similar downloadable form, cheaper than they’ve ever been. With the PDF reader on my iPad, I could browse them easily, even use them to run a game or two were I so inclined; I’ve done this with Shadowrun and Paranoia PDFs.

Both offers are incredibly tempting. I spent uncounted hours of my puberty reading these game books, immersing myself in their world, and running adventures in my head when I couldn’t play with my friends. Did a lot of the latter, to be honest: I went a long stretch without friends who were interested in a regular game, and frankly most of us were abysmal gamesters. We followed rules slavishly or bent them nine ways from Sunday without thinking for a second about game balance, or storytelling. We didn’t spend any time building a game world to inhabit, either. Adventures were disconnected episodes which occurred in a void. Despite all that, I had a lot of fun and kept many golden memories.

So, these old books tempt me to come back and relive those happy novice days. Unfortunately, I’m not 13 any more. I’ve spent a lot of experience points, bought off some disadvantages, and picked up some new ones. The dungeons of my youth are now familiar places, stripped of their wonder and danger in favor of familiarity. I find my modern players less interested in poring over carefully-constructed maps of hyperspace jump routes in favor of simply asking, “According to the ship’s computer, where’s the closest system with a fuel depot we can safely use?” and I can’t blame them. Hell, I don’t even know anyone who cares about D&D these days, with Pathfinder still going strong.

So I’ll be saving money on this nostalgic offer for now. I have to admit, though: “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks” would still make a great Deadlands or Shadowrun adventure with some adjustments to fit the new setting.

Sudden Change of State

By the time April rolled around, I was pretty worried about several things. My savings were depleting and I hadn’t found a new job. Mom was in a rehab center in North Carolina 4 hours away from me because of her latest mini-stroke, and getting to see my girlfriend only every other weekend was becoming intolerable. In desperation, I answered an ad for a job that was… less than satisfactory, but it would pay a few bucks.

I made it all the way to the interview before they told me it was an overnight shift, which I had specifically insisted against. I’d be a useless zombie to them on that schedule. So I stormed politely out, went back to my borrowed bedroom, and considered my options. And that’s when the idea struck me: I wanted a job in NC close to Mom and Maya anyway. Perhaps I’d get more attention from employers if I claimed on my resume to already be living there…

A few quick changes to my online job seeking accounts, and I kid you not, I had an urgent interview within three days. Two years of searching, and a simple fib dropped a job in my lap in THREE DAYS.

So it’s two months later. I’ve got a solid job that pays decently and has great benefits and perks, I have my own place in Raleigh with Maya, Mom’s doing okay with her cat, and they just delivered the first couch I’ve ever paid for all by myself. As I stood at the sink washing some dinner dishes, the whole thing seemed so unreal… but here I am.

I’m more stressed than I’ve been for a while, especially since I’m still doing the podcast, and in a fit of insanity accepted my first con staff position in around 20 years or so. And I miss my friends and chosen family in Hampton Roads. But there’s so much good stuff in my life, stuff I’ve been striving for for so long, that I think I’ll find the strength to handle it. I’m just still a bit bewildered by the speed of the whole thing.

Life-changing events don’t phone ahead, I guess.

Harassment

Whether it be a fan con or a lifestyle event, from this day forward I will do everything in my power to make sure that every convention with which I am involved has an anti-harassment policy in place, well-publicized, and enforced. For decades, I have been under the impression that my subcultures were better than the everyday rank-and-file, and we didn’t do that crap. Over the last few years, I’ve had this mistaken impression corrected.

Today, someone actually said directly to me, “Cons don’t need anti-harassment policies because the women are always lying anyway.” And that does it. I don’t want my life polluted by these kinds of people, much less the lives of my friends. I can’t fix it myself, but I can be one more drop of water in the inevitable erosion of this mountain of idiocy. So yeah, I’ll be checking.

And I can name two events off the top of my head that have beat me to the punch: Intervention in fandom, and Debauchery in lifestyle. Since day one, neither event has been willing to put up with harassment against gender identity, skin color, or any similar method the greyfaces use to try to split us up. These conventions aren’t the only ones willing to stand up for their attendees, and more are joining the tide. Rising Star, Black Rose, and Virginia’s MarsCon either have or will soon have such policies with the eager support of their staffs.

I hope anyone who reads this is with me. Eventually, we’ll reduce these fucktards to the impotent, whining fraction they should be.

Threads of a Dilemma

Yesterday, I saw a trailer for a Fox Network “comedy” in which a lady wore the Japanese schoolgirl outfit known as a fuku, or seifuku, and I was repulsed by the sight. I have friends who own seifuku costumes. Heck, I own one. Why was I so horrified?

I knew I liked looking at ladies in various unlikely outfits at least as early as my introduction to Dungeons and Dragons. If you look at how they dressed female characters back then, “practical for fighting monsters” is the last concept that would cross your mind. I could only assume that the chainmail bikinis had to include some kind of magical deflector shield to be usable armor. Back then, I found the idea silly, but this was just a game, and it didn’t bother me.

Once I discovered anime, the seeds of doubt took root. I still loved some of the even more-implausible outfits, but seeing the characters move and be voiced by humans changed my perspective. I felt somehow more obliged to believe that someone would really wear this, and that was a bit of a stretch. Japan isn’t the most sexism-progressive country, and I wondered how women felt about being depicted in these costumes designed only to draw in the male gaze.

At fan conventions, I began to find out – or at least to become further confused. There were ladies all over the place wearing these costumes – at least the ones which could physically be hung on a human being’s body. I wanted to look, but was it okay to look? Which emotions were acceptable while I looked? What expression should I maintain to not seem creepy? The whole thing confused the hell out of me. If the costumes were not sexist, then why were there no obvious male equivalents? Why did they seem designed solely to encourage sexual thoughts in the viewer? And if they were sexist, how could these women – many of whom I knew to be intelligent, capable, and unwilling to take crap from anyone – be wearing them, and having such fun doing so?

Now I have an answer. There may be other answers but this idea has cleared up a few things. I’ve been into costuming since I was little, but in recent years I’ve chosen to wear rather more flamboyant outfits, for reasons which could be several blog posts on their own. Now some would call these outfits degrading when worn by any gender, but I stumbled upon a secret: if I’m wearing a costume *because I want to*, it’s not degrading at all. Someone else can try to convince me it is, but that’s my decision to make; and if my costume choice makes me feel appealing, confident, and happy, then people’s negative opinions don’t matter much.

And that’s the answer to my dilemma. If anyone wears something that makes them happy to wear, then I’m free to enjoy it. The inverse also holds true: no matter what the garment, if someone’s wearing something they don’t feel good in, something they are forced to wear to cater to another person’s whims, it’s bad. And these can be the exact same outfit, because at the end of the day, it’s just clothing. It has no power besides what we allow.

That’s how a seifuku on Fox turned my stomach. The lady didn’t want to wear the outfit, it was forced on her by someone to make it clear they had no respect at all for her. Hell, the costume was more over-the-top sexualized than you’d ever see at a con – which on its own doesn’t have to be a problem, but here was meant to say, “You are not a person, you are an advertising prop.” Nauseating.

So I’ll go back to looking with a clear conscience; I only hope that the wearer is having ten times as much fun wearing it as I am looking, because that’s how it works for me when I’m dressed up. I still can’t recommend the chainmail bikini for actual monster fighting, though. Dramatic poses only!

Instant Death, No Saving Throw

In 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created Dungeons and Dragons. Sometime around 1978, I acquired a copy, and my leisure time pursuits were changed forever. I owe the both of them a debt of gratitude I can never repay (and a debt of finance as well).

They made one mistake, though, and my gamer friends and I have been dealing with that mistake since then. I don’t know how it got into the game originally; in fact, sometimes I wonder what it was like gaming with them under this philosophy. The attitude is never openly stated in the books, but the early game materials make it clear: the Game Master is the other players’ enemy.

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Why Warhammer 40K Makes Me Unhappy

Today, the social media channels are abuzz with the ongoing story that Games Workshop got the e-book of M.C.A. Hogarth’s “Spots the Space Marine” pulled from Amazon on the dubious grounds that no one else is allowed to use “Space Marine” in an e-book. They may or may not have the law on their side – most folks suspect not – but it remains a dirty, unethical, and ridiculous thing to do either way. It’s costing Hogarth real money, and one notes that they didn’t go after any well-established, well-funded estate or media organization that’s featured space marines in e-books since such were invented. Also, this event exposes flaws in Amazon’s due process which concern many an independent writer.

But that’s my problem with Games Workshop in general. Why am I down on Warhammer 40K specifically? Well, I’m glad you asked that. (Of course you did, don’t you remember?) Let me fire off a few disclaimers right at the beginning: I have never had the chance to actually play the game and would love to give it a try if it could be done without supporting GW. And if you love the game and have been playing for years, this isn’t an attack on you. Having fun? That’s *excellent*.

My tabletop battle experience is primarily through FASA and its descendants. I had seen Battletech materials in my game stores, thought it gauche that they were using Macross and Dougram mech designs, and given it little more thought before getting caught in a blizzard one weekend and giving it a fair try. I fell in love with the game, still play when I can, and even enjoy the click-base version as an entirely different game in the same setting.

But I’d seen lots of 40K stuff in the stores too, all of it illustrated by photos of Games Workshop’s brilliant modelmaking and paintwork. Of course I was curious! And I knew a gamer or two who loved it, though none of them happened to game with me. Finally, I learned enough to discover how many figures a player uses for a basic game, and checked on the price.

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Pictures in Motion

I'm happy to see that my urge to create is growing strong again. While my anxieties are still getting in the way – I start panicking a bit every time I sit in front of the keyboard – I've discovered that music is an excellent self-medication for the problem. Doesn't seem to matter too much what the music is, though the panic will try to trick me into getting playlists "just right" as a way of stalling.

Another technique that's working quite well is to get working on one of my little comedy video productions. The great thing about those is that I can start putting the wheels in motion before the anxiety can kick in, and when the day comes to do the shoot, I've got too much invested, too many people involved, to back down or procrastinate. If only I could afford to do those as often as I want! But they aren't paying for themselves yet, so I need to stick with a day job – and since my last contract ended last year, I need a new one before I can indulge myself that way.

Damn, but working on those shoots makes me feel alive. The more I make, the more I want to do. Not just the slapstick comedy, either; I'm developing a powerful urge to make the Doctor Who fan film I've always wanted, or even an original project. I've had a couple scripts lying around for twenty years, ones that I've just realized would be within my reach… though they'd require some rewriting. They reek a bit of teenage sci-fi fan at the moment.

Must get job. Must make money. 43 isn't too late to start chasing my dreams, but it does mean there's no more time to waste.

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