Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Evolution is My Religion

In my experience, many religious people don't understand how atheists find any purpose or meaning in life. Without God, they ask, what's the point? Every atheist will have a different answer to this question, and even I could come up with several answers that ring true to me, but lately my answer is this: Evolution is my religion. My purpose is the preservation of the human race. My meaning is derived from knowing I have a place in this grand venture.

Stripped to the barest roots, you could say I served my evolutionary purpose by reproducing--three times, in fact. Beyond that, I have a responsibility to ensure my offspring survive to adulthood and have the means to survive after I'm no longer caring for them. So is that it? The purpose of life is to make babies and raise them? While many--myself included--find fulfillment in parenting, it doesn't make sense to me for that to be the be-all, end-all. Do people who have no children, by choice or by circumstance, serve no purpose? I simply can't believe that.


The key lies in the one thing that separates human beings from every other species that we know of--our intelligence. The most amazing thing evolution has ever achieved is producing a species intelligent enough to overcome the physical limitations of evolution. Sure, fur might keep some animals warm during the winter, but having the brains to start a fire or build a house or develop the technology for central heating is much more adaptable, capable of solving many more problems than just being cold. We've evolved to the point now that we are no longer limited by the survival of the fittest; we have the means to keep all of our species alive, including the weakest. This is actually an evolutionary advantage, because the traits that are valuable to our species' survival today may not be the same traits we need to survive tomorrow. Diversity is strength.

So on a macro scale, we contribute to the survival of the species through advancements in science and technology. On a micro scale, each of us has a purpose, even if we aren't Einsteins or Newtons. The thing about intelligence is that with it comes self-awareness. We are smart enough not only to survive, but to ask whether we want to survive. The only way the human race will continue surviving is if we have motivation to do so. In short, it's our job to make life worth living. I can do this for others by finding ways to make their lives happier, more meaningful. It's equally important that I find ways to make my own life happier and more meaningful.

Evolution's dictates, then, are (1) be happy, and (2) help other people be happy. Maybe you've come to a similar conclusion via religion, but for me it comes down to doing what my genes programmed me to do. That is my purpose. That is my meaning. Evolution is all the religion I need.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Dora the Explorer vs. Donald the Trump

The children's picture book Dora Saves the Enchanted Forest, published in 2011, is the book America needs in 2017. In this book, Dora the Explorer and her monkey Boots, known for their skill at climbing tall mountains and counting in Spanish, confront Owl, a cruel despot who is clearly a prophetic metaphor for President Donald Trump.


At the start of the book, the Enchanted Forest is a land of seemingly limitless freedoms--honeybees sing, puppies try to fly, and oak trees play hide-and-seek--obviously a metaphor representing our own land of the free, America. The Enchanted Forest is ruled over by King Unicornio, who we can tell is Latino because of his name, and we can tell he's gay because he's a unicorn. This will be important later. 


King Unicornio is deposed by Owl, who's clearly a jerk. With a complicated plan involving a wall that our Latino hero has to pay for, Owl takes power.


Once in power, Owl immediately starts throwing crazy laws around and banning specific groups from the Enchanted Forest: scarecrows, crows, elves, and fairies are all unwelcome in Owl's Enchanted Forest.


Thankfully Dora, who is also Latina, sneaks in despite Owl's travel bans. She then hires some illegal immigrants--the elves--to fix Owl's wall so King Unicornio can worry about more important concerns.


Now free, King Unicornio reclaims the kingdom and proclaims the Enchanted Forest is for everyone! He also forces Owl to stop being a jerk and do some community service for his crimes.


So what can we learn from this prophetic book? Clearly, if we're going to rid America of our own cruel despot, Donald Trump, we're going to need our own King Unicornio. But who could fill this role? Who will be our gay Latino hero?


Save us, Ricky Martin!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ben's Search for Meaning

Last week I lay in bed in our vacation rental in Hawaii, my head resting on my husband's chest, and my brain broke. "Does not compute," it said. "This much happiness is not possible." Being in the middle of a week-and-a-half-long vacation with our children in a beautiful place where I have many happy childhood memories certainly contributed to my bliss overload, but the truth is I have felt the same thing on several occasions in the past couple of years, often when I wake up next to him in our bed at home or while snuggling on the couch, watching TV. My brain simply doesn't know what to do with the fact that I am married to a man I'm intellectually, emotionally, physically, and sexually attracted to, and that we have a really good life together.

Image result for unexpected error

My mom did not have a happy life. She had a difficult childhood in which she felt she was expected to raise her younger siblings, she left her first husband because he beat her, her second husband left her, she raised seven children largely on her own, she worked hard as a waitress to support us, after finally getting a college degree and a good job she suffered through health problems that forced her into early retirement, and then she passed away after a painful battle with pancreatic cancer. Despite her seemingly constant challenges, though, she often smiled and laughed. Growing up, I learned from her that life sucks but you can choose to be happy anyway. One of her favorite books was Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, which is about (among other things) how Frankl found ways to remain positive even while imprisoned in an Auschwitz concentration camp.

The coping skills my mom taught me proved incredibly valuable as I struggled through a pretty difficult childhood myself. We were poor, my dad lived an ocean away and I had no meaningful relationship with him, my mom constantly fought with my older sisters and I was often called on to mediate, I was bullied for being white, and I was gay in a religious environment that taught me being gay wasn't even a valid option. Looking back on it now with a bit of objectivity, I feel like I had a pretty crappy childhood. Yet, as I said above, I have many happy memories of that childhood. Of course part of this is that there were genuinely good times mixed in with the bad times, but it's also thanks to the positive thinking philosophy my mom taught me. If Viktor Frankl could be happy in a concentration camp, after all, surely I could be happy through my relatively minor struggles.

The thing my mom didn't teach me, because I'm not sure she really believed it, is that sometimes life can be really good. Sometimes you can just be happy without trying. The problem with believing that life will always be horrible, that it's all about the trials and tribulations, is that you're less likely to work toward making your life happier than it is. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can't change, by all means, but don't forget the part about the courage to change the things I can. As a child, there wasn't a whole lot about my circumstances I could change, so learning to have a positive attitude regardless of my circumstances was a necessary survival skill. As an adult, I have a lot more control, but it's taken me years to learn to exercise that control rather than just accept whatever circumstances life hands me.

Given my mom's experience with marriage, it's no surprise that I was cynical when it comes to finding happiness in a romantic relationship. You're never going to find someone that you're perfectly compatible with in every way--intellectually, emotionally, physically, sexually--so you might as well just pick someone you get along with well enough and choose to be happy. There's some truth to this, because there really is no such thing as a perfect relationship, but I went to an extreme when I allowed religious influence to make me devalue the physical and sexual aspects completely, marrying someone I connected with emotionally and intellectually, but who wasn't even the gender I'm attracted to. I later came to realize that yes, I am capable of choosing to be happy in fundamentally unhappy circumstances, but that's no reason not to change my circumstances when I can. I still had a lot of my mom's cynicism about relationships, though, so honestly I'm lucky to have married someone who makes me as happy as my husband does. My requirements were basically someone I could get along with and who I was attracted to (I added a second requirement to the one I'd had the first time), so as the years progress and we get to know each other better, I'm delighted by each new way I discover that he is customized to specifications I didn't dare hope for. Life will never be perfect, but it turns out it can be pretty darn wonderful.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Invasion of the Imposters

Yesterday as my husband and I rode around in a tour bus, playing the role of tourists in a place I spent half my life, I realized there is a term for the relationship I’ve always had with Hawaii: imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is typically used in other contexts to describe successful people who secretly fear their success was not rightfully earned, and if they are not careful they will be exposed as a fraud. I didn’t do anything special to earn my status as a resident of Hawaii—I was just born here, and lived here for the first eighteen years of my life, when I had no say about where I live—but then neither did anyone else from Hawaii. Yet whenever I’m here, or whenever I talk about being from here with anyone who knows Hawaii, I’m constantly worried about being exposed as a fraud, that I’m not truly local like everyone else.


When I was twelve, I moved across town and transferred to a new middle school. On one of my first days, a teacher was talking about an upcoming field trip and explaining that we could either bring lunch from home or order a bento box. Because I was haole—white—she assumed I had moved not from another part of the island but from the mainland, so she paused, singled me out, and started to explain, “Ben, a bento box is a plate lunch in a to-go box, with—” Embarrassed to have all the other kids thinking I was from the mainland, I stopped her and reminded her that I had just moved from Hawaii Kai, so of course I knew what a bento box is. She laughed, apologized, and moved on.

The truth is, before that conversation I didn’t know what a bento box was. My ignorance probably came from a combination of two things: although I was born in Hawaii, my family had come from the mainland just a year before I was born, so our home wasn’t as saturated with local idioms, food, and culture as homes of families who’d been in Hawaii going back several generations; and we were poor, so it would have been pretty rare for us to go to a restaurant and buy a bento box rather than just packing peanut butter sandwiches in a paper bag. Whatever the case, I didn’t know it, and I felt like I should, and if people found out I didn’t then they’d know I was a fake local, just like they assumed from the moment they saw my pasty white skin.

Growing up white in Hawaii, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider. Everyone is hyper-conscious of race, whether it’s simply used as a descriptor (“You know that one Tongan guy, the really big one?”) or in jokes based on racial stereotypes (“You’re so stingy, why you gotta be so Chinese?”). Adults may mean it harmlessly, and they typically do, but children have a tendency to be cruel. In 10th grade P.E. class, one day a boy who was just a couple shades darker than me asked, “Why are you so white?” I joked, “Same reason you are,” and he immediately body-slammed me, knocking me to the ground. Later, he attacked me again in the locker room. In history class we’d learn about the atrocities committed by Europeans and Americans against the Hawaiian people—not to mention atrocities committed against Native Americans and Africans—and I felt all eyes in the room on me, blaming me for things done hundreds of years before I was born. Toward the end of high school, my friends nicknamed me Slappy White and White-White Boy, and I embraced it because I was tired of feeling like there was something wrong with me because of the color of my skin, and joking about it was the best way for me to own it.

A flip side of my imposter syndrome here is that I feel like a fraud talking about my childhood as if I were a victim of racism, when in fact I’m part of one of the most privileged classes in America, as a cisgender white man. There’s truth to this, because apart from a couple of bullies my life was never in danger, I had no barriers blocking me from education or career (being poor actually helped because it qualified me for Pell grants and scholarships), and changing my minority status was a simple matter of moving to any one of the other forty-nine states, which I did immediately after high school. But my experiences, mild as they may be in comparison to harsher ones, did have a psychological effect on me that extends beyond my feeling like a fake local in Hawaii. At work, I constantly fear my colleagues will figure out I don’t really know what I’m doing, or that I don’t work as hard as everyone else, or that I don’t really deserve my position. When friends make a joke I don’t get or a reference to current events that I’m unaware of, my immediate reaction is to laugh or smile and nod instead of asking them to explain.


At the end of the day, everyone has things they know and things they don’t know, regardless of where they grew up or how smart they are. I don’t need to pretend I know the way to that one beach all the locals know, or that I like poi, or that I talk Pidgin (I don’t). I am who I am, and that includes both my knowledge and my ignorance. If you’ll allow that of me, then I’ll return the favor. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Everyone's a Little Bit Sadist Sometimes: An Argument for Moderation (Most of the Time)

Last night I was chatting with a neighbor about politics, as one does, and we were lamenting the radical polarization of politics, also as one does. "What does it say about us,"  I asked, "that we keep electing these politicians who are so incapable of compromising with the other side?" And it's not just compromise; our politicians are incapable of having rational conversations with their opposites. If you look at political discourse on social media, it's not terribly surprising that these are the people we elect. We as a human race seem to take pleasure in ridiculing those we disagree with. Like, if I can just get one more jab in, you'll finally see how superior my point of view is--and therefore how superior I am. We all know how fruitless this effort is, but we engage anyway.

And yes, I mean we. I know I do it. If you can sincerely say that you don't take pleasure in mocking or arguing with people who are wrong, then my sincere kudos to you. You are more mature than I am. I like to think of myself as a moderate liberal, capable of engaging in productive conversations with people I disagree with, and sometimes I pull that off--the conversation with my right-of-center neighbor last night was quite friendly and I learned about his point of view--but a lot of times I don't. I tend to swing far left and become combative in certain trigger situations. These triggers include my hot-button topics, which for the most part are cases where I perceive people being hurt; especially when those people are part of the LGBTQ community, women, or people of color, all of whom I broadly think of as "my people," even though I can only claim membership in one of those groups (why I don't think of straight white men as my people despite being a white man and having several straight white male friends is a topic for me to explore another day). Other triggers that make me dig into my ideologies and become obstinate are when I'm engaging with an obstinate person from the other end of the spectrum, when I'm engaging with a stranger on social media so I have nothing to lose, when I feel attacked or threatened, when I'm grumpy for unrelated reasons, or when I just have a really good joke that happens to be at the expense of people I disagree with.

My perceived correlation between the political spectrum and niceness. An admittedly oversimplified view.
Generally speaking, I see a correlation between political moderation and niceness, and between political extremism and meanness. This is absolutely true of me: When I'm more moderate, I'm more willing to listen to other people, to speak respectfully and be nice. When my more extreme political views take over, that's when I get belligerent, sadistic, just plain mean. I'm making it sound like I believe the solution to all the world's problems is for everyone to be more moderate, and to a certain extent I believe that, but unfortunately it's not so simple. There are situations where it's not appropriate to be nice. When people are actually being hurt, sometimes the only way to make it stop is to dig your heels in and forcefully say NO. If someone's pointing a gun at my children, I'm not going to worry about hurting his feelings--or his body--as I do whatever it takes to stop him and protect my children. The difficult thing is identifying the threshold for those gray situations between "you're pointing a gun at my children" and "I disagree with your personal beliefs" at which point it becomes appropriate to set aside niceness.

The key, I suppose, is being honest with ourselves about our motivations. If I'm being a jerk just because my ego is threatened, because I'm hangry, or because I'm reverting back to that basic human tendency to take sadistic pleasure in being mean to others, then I'm part of the problem. If I'm being a jerk because it's legitimately the most effective way to stop someone from being hurt, then I will be that jerk. And maybe some problems take both the moderate approach and the more extreme approach. Both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X were fighting the same injustices, but the two fought in very different ways. I believe both were necessary. I'm going to work on being Martin whenever I can, and being Malcolm when I need to.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Constellations

Last night my husband and I watched To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar with some friends. I'd seen it before, but that was more than twenty years ago when I knew next to nothing about drag culture, trans culture, or gay culture, so it was fascinating to watch it again with a new perspective. It's such a great movie with such a great message, but I had a hard time getting past the way they blur the line between being a drag queen and being transgender. The lead characters, played fabulously by Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo, start out by explaining the difference more or less accurately:
Noxeema Jackson: When a straight man puts on a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man's body and has a little operation he is a Transsexual.
Miss Chi-Chi Rodriguez: I know that.
Noxeema Jackson: When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender he is a drag queen.
Vida Boheme: Thank you.
Noxeema Jackson: And when a tired little Latin boy puts on a dress, he is simply a boy in a dress!

But then the movie goes on to get one fundamental thing about drag queens wrong: The three leads are in drag for the entire movie, including while driving cross-country, while getting ready for bed, and while playing basketball. As Ms. Jackson notes above, drag queens are not women; they are gay men who dress as women. They transform into a character for a show or a performance, and then they go back to being a man for their everyday lives. They do not actually identify as women--if they did, they would be transwomen, not drag queens. So the movie got that wrong, but it got so much else right: the way both drag queens and transgender people are treated in our culture, the courage and confidence it takes to be yourself when society tells you that what you are is wrong, and the way that courage and confidence can inspire others to make the world a better place.

I've been thinking lately about how works of fiction are like constellations, and this movie is a great example. When our ancestors looked to the stars in the night sky, they connected those glowing dots to make great bears, heroes, gods, and monsters. The mythological creatures they saw in the sky weren't actually there, of course, and in fact the stars that make up each constellation are typically light years apart, with no real-world relation to each other. That said, if you were to conclude that because constellations are entirely made up, they're useless, you'd be wrong. Arranging the stars in constellations allowed our ancestors to better navigate the seas and to identify patterns in the sky that led to a better understanding of the universe and our place in it. In other words, we took individual truths--the stars themselves--then made up false connections between those truths in order to illuminate other truths.

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Great fiction does the same. It doesn't matter whether a story is about drag queens, children competing in brutal survival games, or Amazon princesses; so long as the characters behave like real people would and the fictional world reflects fundamental truths of the real world, we can gain a greater understanding of humanity through those stories. Maybe we're making up the connections between the dots--and maybe sometimes those made-up connections are completely wrong--but if the dots themselves are real then the story will illuminate truth for us just as constellations lit the way for ancient sailors.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Writing With My Own Voice

Lately I have been spending a lot of time sending queries to literary agents, looking for someone to represent my work. This means I've been spending a lot of time reading agents' websites, particularly what they are and aren't interested in reading; it's a waste of time and shows a lack of professionalism to blindly send out queries without doing your homework first to find out whether the agent is interested in the type of book you're trying to sell. A common thread I see among many agents, particularly those who represent young adult literature, is a desire to find #OwnVoices authors, meaning authors who come from a minority class and write books with protagonists from that same minority. Many agents will tell you to put the #OwnVoices hashtag in the subject line of your query email, with the promise that they'll give your query higher priority.

I have conflicting feelings about this trend. On the one hand, I absolutely agree with the motivation behind it: all readers, but especially children, deserve to see themselves represented in literature, both by the characters and the authors. We've had hundreds of years of western literature primarily written by straight, white, cisgender men, and it's vital for the health of our pluralistic society to make room for other voices. On the other hand, I'm a white cisgender man and (a) I also have stories to tell, and (b) many of those stories I want to tell are about people who are different from me. Of the two books I'm trying to sell right now, one is about a Hispanic Mormon girl and the other is about a straight black boy with a speech impediment. The next book I'm anxious to write features a Native American trans lesbian as the protagonist. I struggle with questions of authenticity--I have legitimate fears that Hispanic, black, or Native people will read my books and say, "Who the hell are you to represent my identity?" I include a rather self-conscious line in one of my books where one black teen accuses another of talking as if he were speaking dialog written by a middle-aged white dude, because my usual response to discomfort is making a joke of the thing that makes me uncomfortable. At the same time, I don't want to be boxed into writing characters who are just like me. For me it's important that literature--whether I'm reading it or writing it--is as much a window as it is a mirror.

The real sting comes in the fact that I have a legitimate claim to minority status thanks to my sexual orientation, but I'm not capitalizing on it. As I mentioned last week, although I pretty much always include gay supporting characters, most of my protagonists are straight. Of the eight books I've written so far, only two have gay protagonists. This is partly because of what I was saying above, that writing characters who are different from me is important to me, but also, I think, because when I started most of these books ten to fifteen years ago, I was still in a place where I was figuring out what being gay meant to me. When I tried to write gay characters during that time, I found it extremely difficult because the subject was too raw to me--I didn't have enough distance to gain any perspective.


I'm in a better place now, though, and if writing gay characters will make me more marketable, then that's what I need to do. I'd feel cynical coming to this conclusion if it were really just about marketability, but it really isn't. Writing gay characters is very much in line with my personal mission as a writer, and I'm looking forward to exploring what it's like to be a gay teenager, now that I have some perspective. So I've decided the next book I polish and shop around to agents will feature a gay protagonist. I could polish up one of those two I've already written with gay protagonists, but neither of them is speaking to me at the moment. I could write a brand new book--honestly, I could claim #OwnVoices with the trans lesbian book I've been plotting, especially since her two best friends are a couple of gay Mormon boys--but it's important to me to polish up and sell the books I've already written, so that I don't end up spending my life writing rough drafts and never finishing anything. My husband suggested I just make the protagonist gay in one of the two books I'm shopping around now, and I considered it, but it doesn't feel right for either of those. But that made me think of the next book I was planning to revise, and making that protagonist gay works quite well. He already has a girlfriend and a gay best friend, so I just need to switch their relationships so that it's a boyfriend and a female best friend. And his coming out process will fit quite nicely with the existing themes of the book.

And if, at the end of the day, all those years of gay teenage angst pay off in making me a more marketable author, I won't complain. I deserve something for going through all that.