The Worst Fear

I don’t know how to function with the anxiety I’ve got bottled up inside me. It has been growing ever since the election but this week it has reached a new height (or maybe depth) that I hadn’t known before.

Perhaps I should preface by saying that I was born in India to a Muslim family, emigrated to the US in 1996 and was naturalized in 2001 a few months before 9/11. My family is quite religious, as is most of my extended family. Both my brother and I drifted away from faith, and no longer strictly identify as Muslim. It’s something I still yearn for, I miss the community that comes with faith, and though Judaism underwent a reform movement that gave rise to secularism within the faith, no such alternative exists for Muslims that I’m aware of. Yet, I’d still classify myself as a secular Muslim, if such a thing can be said to exist.

My wife in a American-born citizen, though she did change her last name to mine, and my children – both born here – have Muslim names.

I bring all this up, because I’m afraid of what the current administration is proposing – and I admit that my fear is irrational. As of 1/26/2017, INS and ICE are planning to go after undocumented immigrants for eviction and deportation, regardless of their family situation. That’s not me – I am an American citizen, I have an American passport, I have a Social Security number, I have been married to a citizen for 12 years – but I’m afraid, that after the undocumented immigrants, the next target will be registered Muslims.

When I picture my worst fear, I see myself forced to leave my home and family, whether it’s due to deportation or internment of some sort. I imagine having to say goodbye to my kids, one of whom is too young to even remember me. I can picture him saying “Bye bye Dada” as he does whenever I leave, not realizing that I don’t know when or if I’ll be back.

Of course these fears are irrational, I know that, I live in New York City which is putting up a great deal of resistance to the administration’s efforts to deport even the undocumented let alone naturalized immigrants; but I think irrational fear is the kind that keeps you awake at night, staring at a dark spot in the ceiling, without any certainty for what will come next.

There are documents in Washington with my name and picture from 20 years ago, my fingerprints, that list my country of origin as India and my religion as Muslim. Today, those documents are in the hands of people who seem to be hellbent on making America Christian and White again. I don’t know what sort of actions they’ll take.

Irrational and absurd thoughts enter my mind, like what if I’m deported – what happens to my holdings and properties? Should I see a lawyer about having my name taken off the house deed so that it’s in my wife’s name alone? Should I transfer my 401k and IRA into her name as well, just in case? Put them in trust for the kids? Should I change their name to John and Henry? How can I secure my family from the uncertainty of a future I can’t fathom?

This government has made me afraid, irrationally afraid. And I resent this fear – I don’t want to have to live with uncertainty because of a xenophobic policy. And yet, there’s nothing for me to do but continue on like everything is fine, afraid that any moment will break this normality, so I keep waiting for it to happen, constantly walking with hunched shoulders, ready for the other shoe to drop.

I can’t undo this knot in my stomach, I can’t swallow this lead ball in my throat choking me, and the terror of being separated from my family hangs on me like a burning coat sewn into my skin. And I don’t know what to do about any of it.

2016 Sucks

The level of anxiety and stress I’m experiencing over this election is unbelievable. It hasn’t been a good year for many reasons, mostly to do with health issues throughout the family (except for my older son, thankfully). The election has only added to the miserable cloud raining crap over everything.

In this bleak look back, there’s one bright moment of light, and that was our Irish vacation – it was a lovely country to explore, and I was very sorry to leave when we did. Dublin is a wonderful mixture of the modern and antique, while the countryside retains a primordial and elemental beauty that I haven’t seen since I visited Scotland an age ago.

But I returned to these shores, and plunged headlong into the most banal and mundane problems, each of which deserves its own essay, but age has also made me more private so I sequester those thoughts rather than letting them out to play on a blog, like I once did, many years ago. This privacy is also rather isolating, as I found that airing out gloom is a good way to banish the bats of depression. There’s no solution to this problem, I’m merely acknowledging its existence.

I’m naturally voting for Hillary – and I’m happy to do it. I think she’s liberal, pragmatic and no more or less stained politically than any politician with as much time in the public sector as she has. Reports claim that she’s rather more honest than the median politician, which is good, and the fact that she’s embraced socially progressive politics is hopeful to me. Yes, she’s got a hawkish demeanor, but I think that’s something I’m willing to compromise on, and I’m also able to accept that a country like America sometimes will need to intervene in international incidents. I’m not an isolationist.

All of that said – my biggest issue with this election (like all others) is that it diminishes the actual issues I want to see addressed.

  1. I want someone, anyone, to talk about Global Warming in detail, I want to hear what they want to do about it in concrete steps, I want to hear about carbon extraction from atmosphere, I want to hear about a plan to reduce ocean acidification. Tell me about a massive move to clean grids, scaling back private transport use at least in clustered American urban centers… something. Paying lip service to the existence of Global Warming doesn’t come close to what I need to hear about what I think is the most pressing concern of our time.
  2. Someone needs to step up and talk about minimum living income. Whether its a negative tax rate below a certain threshold or a check that goes out to every citizen – at some point, there needs to be a realization that we’ve moved from a manufacturing industry to a data industry, primarily because of automation. And we’re heading towards a second wave of automation that will put the majority of the world out of work. What’s their plan for when unemployment hits 50%? Clothing, feeding, sheltering and providing medical care for every human being on the planet is within our means. The fact that we don’t do it in the interest of corporate profits is a crime against humanity.
  3. Education needs to become more affordable because the vast majority of people who’re being left behind in this automation are people who have little to no education, people with no options to move on when their blue-collar job vanishes never to return. Part of the Trump wave are these people aggressively ignored by the Democrats or pandered to without any follow-up. Trump is lying to them about bringing back industry – we know that’s a dead end. They clearly want to work – what do you have to offer them?
  4. On a more modest note, adding single-payer to the ACA to cap insurance costs shouldn’t take more than a simple vote. It will force insurance companies to compete beneath the level set by the Federal government while VIP plans can cost whatever they want. If it leads insurance companies to scale back their employees, then so be it – but to allow industry to hold citizens healthcare hostage is disgusting. The boogeyman of “this hurts industry” is smaller than the wraith of extinction hanging over humanity.

Everything else is behind these issues for me. I guess I want a technocrat in power who’s capable of working with science and industry leaders to move aggressively on topical concerns. One of the things I don’t care about is security – I don’t understand the American mindset of fear. Maybe it’s because I lived in India through race-riots, political turmoil, street violence and so forth, but I kind of accept the uncertainty of life as a given – I’m not willing to sacrifice the multi-generational concerns over a guerrilla proxy-war with Russia half-way around the planet. The last two times that happened, it was Vietnam and Afghanistan, and we all know how those turned out.

I don’t hold out any hope of these concerns being answered at the debate tonight, or any point between now and the election, but I hope I can get some sleep once President Hillary Clinton is sworn in. And I’m already hoping for a better 2017 while it’s only mid-October.

Indulgence

When I run games, they become filters for me to experiment and play with themes and ideas that I enjoy most – namely horror tropes and elements of Gothic storytelling and tragedy, all seeped in misty atmosphere. I might even go so far as to say, my games allow me to be decadent in my indulgence of these thematic elements, and I might occasionally go overboard.

So last year, when my gaming group’s resident GM moved across the country to pursue a job at Paizo game company, I volunteered and took up the dice to run a game. The group enjoys playing through the long, connecting stories that Paizo publishes in six volumes called Adventure Paths, and I quite like the books they’ve put out so I’m happy to oblige. We decided on a vote to see which of the dozens of Adventures Paths we’d play next – the epic fantasy of reclaiming the world wound? The war against an underground army ? A classic adventure of Fantasy kingdom building?

Somehow, to everyone’s surprise, the Adventure Path that emerged was the Gothic Horror – a path that sneaked into the list for reasons I don’t even recall. I certainly never suggested it, and I didn’t vote for it either. And yet, it came out on top somehow!

To say the Adventure Path was in my wheelhouse would be an understatement. The whole adventure is set in a Gothic Horror setting, with mist and moors and mountains, an ever-hanging threat from a restless but slumbering undead wizard demi-god, vampires and serial killers in urban centers, werewolves in the woods and haunted old buildings everywhere.

Well, who’m I to say no to the people’s will? I dove in with gusto, running the adventure path more or less as written, but for the occasional flourish of Gothic flair. Everyone has been enjoying the game, and I haven’t had to do much more than play out the story as written. I’ve been quite restrained with my wishes to meddle with the story and to push it even further into horror tropes and themes.

That is, until the players decided to nibble at one stray side-quest that I tossed out to gauge interest. Like travelers in some Hammer Films production from the sixties, the characters arrived at an old inn in the countryside, and descended into a valley to recover some lost children of a failed branch of a once-noble family.

What followed was an utterly self-indulgent tale that ran characters through a barely-disguised Fall of the House of Usher remake. Roderick and Madeline were there, one wounded and failing, the other drained of all vitality, their children under the dark guidance of wraiths.

A valley full of mists where a servant’s corpse swings above a deep, cold pool, crypts beneath the house where generations lie restlessly, a haunted harpsichord, Roderick’s unexplained disappearance, Madeline’s utterly self-destructive depression, a girl unable to stop playing the same music over and over, past the point of exhaustion, a boy who follows new friends down a dark chamber to fall to his death, the youngest daughter, lost in the woods and hiding within a tree-hollow, like some feral animal, afraid of the sun.

By the time all was said and done, the players walked away from the house, a fire consuming its rotten timbers, before a crack split the house at last, like a rotten beam sighing with relief to be put out of its misery.

I do feel a little bit guilty for indulging myself so much, but man, did I have fun.

Warrior Princesses in the Realm of Everafter

A few months ago, I mentioned writing for a project that a friend of mine was working on. The project has finally completed, and is raising funds so that it can go to press and see the light of day. While I’m terrible at marketing my own projects, I feel much more motivated to promote a group project where I’m just a part of the whole.

The project is called Warrior Princesses in the Realm of Everafter. It is a setting for role playing games that’s fairly easy to adapt to any game system, but the one we’ve used is Dungeons and Dragons. Here’s a video outlining the setting and giving a few details about the project.

The video uses a (very nicely) edited down version of the opening fiction as narration, and it works to great effect. The art work is gorgeous and has a touch of Victorian whimsy to it. I think it looks almost painterly, which is a refreshing break from the de-rigueur of contemporary fantasy art, with its skulls and blood and dim, monochrome palettes.

Let me talk a bit about the project – we took the female characters from popular western fairy tales – Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel – along with other non-western sources – Pocahontas, Fa Mulan – and wrote the game around them. They are protagonists, with the agency to be the vanguard of change or the champion of their people. You play as one of them in a story of your own telling.

One of my favorite things about this project is that it’s female-focused, multi-cultural content in a genre that tends to speak only to white men. We’re seeing the tide shift toward plurality, and I’m glad to be a part of that movement. All that said, we’ve done our best to be as inclusive as possible, and if we’ve fallen short, we hope to be able to do better next time.

In addition to the writing and art, there is of course the game-setting itself. It includes fully constructed character sheets for the protagonists and antagonists, there are details on the settings with areas of interests and maps, and plot hooks to use in game. The game is ready to go more or less out of the box.

We’re hopeful that our first launch goes well, and we’re able to do a second deck in the setting, with more characters and realms. If this sounds like your sort of thing, we would appreciate your support, and any help you can providing in spreading word of it to other interested parties. Thank you!

Ad Hoc Writing

Generally, I write for myself more than anything else.

Writing is a pleasure, one derived from exploring stories that begin with a single idea. I follow the thread to where it leads, scenes pile up on top of each other and then suddenly, there is a story, all formed and standing up on its own. The remarkable thing is how often problems solve themselves. Often, all that’s necessary is time.

However – while writing for others, this sort of luxury and joy isn’t possible. There are considerations for the other person’s taste and specific desires, there might even be explicit expectations. I’ve talked before about writing spec material, but there is another sort of writing that I quite enjoy. Writing for others, when they need a speech or ceremony.

This weekend, I was lucky enough to be invited to not only write but conduct the wedding fro two dear friends and I worked pretty hard on the ceremony. Performing in front of others isn’t generally an issue for me, and the Bride and Groom were both great sports about everything. But here’s the odd bit – the ceremony as I wrote it, was fairly somber and serious – the sort of decorum one might want to ground such a solemn function.

The rehearsal played out that way, the night before, but during the actual ceremony, as I was reading, the words took on a new tenor, a different rhythm and tone, different words emerged from my mouth than the ones on paper. What came was, generally a bit funner that what I had written down. A couple of jokes improvised themselves on the spot and the ceremony felt a good deal more… I suppose, loose and comfortable rather than stiff and formal.

I wonder if that was me doing an impromptu draft on stage, or if it’s the sort of thing that stage actors talk about, reading the room and then modifying what they’re doing to fit the space they’re in. (Yes, I’m sure some works exist that are designed to discomfort or set an audience uneasy but I had no such pretensions (at least, this time.)) Regardless, I found myself enjoying this version of the ceremony quite a bit more.

So, there was an ad hoc sensibility that came together and – to my delight and surprise – worked in this instance. I find that the times I’ve had to improvise at a crunch moment is when I’m able to suddenly find disparate threads and tie them together. Something it makes a neat bow, and at others, an ugly knot. And that’s the risk – careful, planned and outlined writing will always be at least good if not better than good. Improvised material have a might higher possible peak – and also a far deeper pit to stumble into.

Writing feels so safe at times – well, it certainly doesn’t feel that way when you’re submitting pieces. But ultimately, the embarrassment of a bad piece is distanced through reviews and layers of abstraction. A performance leaves you at the mercy of the people right in front of you. For me, the risk of absolute and public failure elevates whatever small measure of skill I might have. Of course, none of this accounts for the actual reading and performance of a ceremony, and for that, I have no objective ability to judge myself. And considering my posture, voice, diction and lack of dramatic training, that’s probably for the best.

Prepping for NaNoWriMo

Time is flying by so fast, and I just have so much writing to do.

After I finished my last short story and put it aside, I buckled down adn wrapped up my work on that side project I was writing on contract. since then, I’ve been wrestling with what to tackle next. I wanted to continue the momentum with another short project, and maybe tie a neat ribbon around something I’d written before that was executed badly. There are plenty of those stories in my drive.

I eventually settled on an idea that had a tremendous amount of atmospheric dread but didn’t deliver with the plot or characters. Plus, one of the two characters was just kind of there, and the main character was a bit of a bore. As I started working on correcting it, I realized that it would just be easier to rewrite it entirely. I’ve managed to get through about forty percent of the story already, but it’s Halloween and tomorrow is the start of November.

That means either I need to finish writing this sucker tonight (which would entail an exhausting four thousand words, give or take) or put it aside for a month. I certainly don’t want to do the latter, and the former is impractical (especially as I’m wasting about 500 of those potential words on this post.) Which means, I’ll be juggling both throughout the weekend, meeting my 2,000 words a day quota for the book and then getting in at least half as much again on the story.

Oof.

With two kids, Halloween weekend, a friend visiting, and some plans throughout the weekend, it’s going to be tough to keep either of those promises let alone both, but what can you do? 2,000 words a day, every day.

I think I know what I want to write, and the ideas I’ve got rolling about are doable. Also, I’m determined, this time, to write something each time, even if it winds up non-linear. I’m also going to do my absolute best to avoid any revision whatsoever. That always eats up hours of my November, when I go back to re-read something, change a word here, rewrite a phrase there, and suddenly I’ve wasted hours fiddling instead of vomiting words.

That’s basically what NaNo is for me – a month of word-bulimia. I just need to force myself till the words come out. Word counts have never been my problem, brevity isn’t something I generally think about until I’m revising, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve also grown more critical of my writing. At least in fiction, if not in my blogs. When I find myself indulging my own pleasure, I always have to pause and give myself a head-check. Is this essential?

With NaNo, there’s no room for any of that, no time to correct a spelling (even if it just takes a second), no time to apply context, no time for anything close to elegance – there are just brute keystrokes making words.

This year, I’m probably going to avoid even using a word processor. I’ll be with just a flat text editor and a file in DropBox in order to avoid even the smallest distraction of squiggly lines.

I will report back when I can get my head out of the word toilet. Good luck, everybody!

November already?

I always get edgy in November because of NaNoWriMo.

Even though I’ve made a promise to myself not to start any major initiatives for a little while, even though I’m committed to short-fiction for the foreseeable future, even though I don’t really want to start a book right now… November just makes me want to write a novel anyway. I got through about 20,000 words last year around mid-November, but then never quite caught up again. The aborted draft is sitting somewhere, waiting for me to return. This time, an old friend has been poking and asking me to give him another chance.

Years ago, I tried to make a comic unsuccessfully – I’ve always had terrible luck retaining the attention (or interest, I can’t tell which) of any artists. Some day, I’ll be able to just pay someone to draw for me. Until then, I’ll just mutter wistfully about ideas that float by and wave farewell when they round the bend downstream, never to return. Anyway, those early, aborted ideas have been a fertile breeding ground for other ideas that linger long after the comic itself has faded, and this is one of them.

It’s vaguely autobiographical, which makes me leery, but I think I can keep enough distance from it to allow it to be its own thing, and let the character breathe, and be, on his own. It’s the kind of book that I’d love to read, but seldom see on shelves, perhaps because books like these are unmarketable or because, well, maybe it’s a dead genre after the sixties did a thorough job of exploring it (albeit mostly in non-fiction and traditional literature, not in speculative fiction or dark fantasy.)

Regardless, the idea – and maybe even the will – is there, it’s strong, and getting through 50,000 words would give me a solid boost of confidence. Not that I need very many more boosts, I’m on a fairly decent streak right now, but NaNoWriMo is one of those elusive animals that hunters go after every season. I’ve missed a few years since the project initiated more than a decade ago, but most years I toss my hat into the ring. I’ve tried. Many times, often loosing steam or missing too many days of writing, and the closest I got was about 30,000 words.

Maybe the current burst of creative instinct is what I need to get moving on this. Perhaps this is what I’ve been missing in the past. And if I’m entirely honest with myself, it’ll be a way for me to avoid getting sucked back into Warcraft again, with the new expansion coming out. But then, I’m going to have to put a hard stop to most of my other projects. Once again, I find myself marooned on an island of uncertainty. I think I’m leaning at a steep angle toward diving in, but the next couple of weeks might change my mind yet.

If you’re going for it – I wish us all the best of luck! It’s a tough climb, but someone needs to finish it, and it might as well be you and me.