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Everybody needs a sherpa

I’ve always been comfortable around guys; for many periods of my life, I’ve been more comfortable with guys than other women. Part of this was about common interests. From preschool to high school, if I wanted to hang out with other people who loved Star Wars and sci-fi/fantasy and punk rock and hobby games, that pretty much left me with male companions. For instance, I was the only female among 23 males in the high school Strategy & Tactics Gaming Club. It wasn’t until I got to college that I met other women who liked the same things I did, but even still, I felt more at home around men. They were less maintenance, less complicated, and to a girl with Asperger’s (though I didn’t know it then), the big surface emotions of my male friends were far easier to navigate, and less fraught with booby-trapped layers of meaning, than my interactions with the majority of the females I knew.

It’s not that hard to get into those male social groups. You prove you can give as good as you can get on crass humor and double (or, in the case of high school guys, single) entendres. You show that you can avoid overt emotional displays that make them uncomfortable, but also that you can be a silently commiserating soundingboard on those occasions (read: breakups) that demanded support and solidarity.

I was so successful at this that I sat, one female in a car with six other males, through a one-hour conversation about all the mysteries of the fairer sex. Only ten minutes from home–after a pee break on the side of the country road, in which I clearly did not participate, for heaven’s sake–did someone pipe up, in a tone of dawning discovery, “Hey! Jess is a girl! We can ask Jess!” I didn’t know whether to be insulted that this feature of my identity had been so thoroughly forgotten, or flattered that I’d assimilated into their group so seamlessly. The sudden and emphatic arrival of the Boob Fairy around my junior year of high school was the only thing that disturbed my status, but even that came to be regarded as a sort of personal quirk, as if I’d shaved my head without warning–a change, to be sure, but superficial and easily ignored once the novelty had passed. So I’ve got a very thick skin when it comes to matters of sexism and creepiness. Part of that also came as defense in the wake of my sexual assault and abusive relationship–if every expression of sexism has the capacity to personally wound, how would any person ever recover from overt damage?

Obviously, though, because I’m an attentive, intelligent, enlightened woman, I perceive sexism in my environment, as it’s expressed both individually and institutionally. There’s been a great deal of discussion about this lately, especially in the context of the Internet. Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown collected comments from fellow female bloggers, made by men, attacking them specifically and often violently as women when they didn’t agree with their arguments; in many cases, the initial argument had absolutely nothing to do with gender. A Twitterstorm blew up around similar attacks on women who play multi-user video games. The basic pattern is this, for those of you who haven’t followed these discussions: Woman says X. Man disagrees with X. Man does not say, “I disagree with X because of Y.” Man instead says, “You’re a stupid whore for thinking X. I hope someone rapes you to death.” Woman decides to shut up instead of writing about Z. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see sexism in this.

A secondary pattern has emerged when lots of my fellow smart, sensitive friends of both genders discuss the ways in which the enviroment for women is not the same as men. People of earlier generations thought they were being enlightened and anti-racist by saying, “I don’t see race” or “There are no black or white people; we’re all our own individual shades of human.” This is no longer acceptable, because duh, of course we see race, and racism is real, and pretending it’s not relevant doesn’t fix anything. Similarly, some men, when confronted with something which screams SEXISM to women, say well-meaning but unhelpful things like “No, no, it’s not sexism, it’s this other thing,” or (even more maddeningly) “You say those behaviors make you feel scared/threatened/objectified? No, you actually feel this other thing.” As if my lady parts somehow impaired my feelings.

Here’s the thing: If someone feels a particular way in response to something, that’s how they feel. That feeling is valid, and they really are feeling it, even if it’s completely incomprehensible to you how they could feel that way. You can try to explain how you see that something differently, but it is Highly Inadvisable to tell someone that they are feeling it wrong, especially if you are not a member of the class that is particularly singled out or threatened by that thing. So if a person of color says something feels racist to them, or a woman says something feels sexist to them, the correct answer is, “I’m sad to hear that you’re so upset by that” or “I can tell it really bothers you.” In fact, this is just a general Rule of Thumb in life–people feel how they feel, and nobody knows better than they do what those feelings are.

Nobody would argue that some of these situations are clearly sexist.  I’ve had entire conversations in which I felt like I, too, should be looking at my breasts. But the saddest thing about this whole sexism debate is that, often within geek/nerd culture, there’s a fundamental disconnect between a man’s intention and a woman’s reception. Things that men do to express their admiration for women frequently make those women feel creeped out, the exact opposite reaction the men are trying to elicit. I’ve known guys who lavished extravagant compliments, frequently couched in quasi-faux-RenFaire-style language and great flourishing gestures, on women who are painfully embarrassed at being singled out for such attention. Those women seek to put as much distance between themselves and that attention as possible, and contrary to the man’s intention, they feel objectified–they feel that all that flowery language and dramatic attention would be directed at any woman, by virtue of being a woman. The objectified gaze is not the same thing as the public gaze. Sure, this sounds very Women’s Studies 101, but it’s true nonetheless. There’s a world of difference between being looked at and admired for a striking, elaborate costume or a particularly smart/funny/insightful comment, and being stared at like a piece of meat.

But sexism is so much more than this, and it’s so complicated, even women argue about this stuff. And frankly, a lot of it is gut reaction. Anyone would feel threatened if someone says, “I hope someone stabs you to death.” You get a cold ball in the pit of your stomach and a hot rush up the back of the neck. You feel queasy, your vision blurs, the space around you seems to shift unexpectedly. You need to run. This is primal stuff–flashes of neurochemicals deep in your amygdala and hippocampus–pure lizard brain, fight-freeze-or-flee response. It’s your danger sense. It can save your life.

But it doesn’t only get triggered by death threats. Those same chemicals kick in when someone’s creeping on you, and you can’t always explain it. I’ve never been explicitly threatened with sexual violence at a gaming convention, but I’ve been creeped on. The time that sticks out most vividly had no sexual overtones at all. The guy started with the extravagant attention that I described earlier, despite the presence of my husband at the table and a two month old baby in my arms. He made persistent decisions that forced our characters into proximity, and he “roleplayed” that with physical proximity that violated all acceptable boundaries among strangers. This man was so close and so loud and so intrusive, he actually startled my son awake; the baby wouldn’t stop crying until I left the room entirely. I shook badly, and worked to swallow my nausea as my husband and friends tried to comfort me. My reaction was as violent as the one that followed a too-close brush with stranger rape years earlier.

I can’t explain this, but if someone tried to convince me I shouldn’t have felt threatened or completely creeped out because I wasn’t in actual danger, or that the root of that interaction wasn’t sexist, I may slap that person. My feelings were very real, and therefore very valid. I have an unexpectedly strong sensory memory of that event even now, almost ten years later. And, really, do you want to train women to turn off that response? Do you want women to stop listening to those early, physically rooted danger senses that tell them something is not quite right? It happens, you know–women are taught to mistrust those feelings. It’s called gaslighting, from the unforgettable Ingrid Bergman/Charles Boyer movie Gaslight. When women stop listening to their danger sense–that creeped-out feeling–it makes it easier to manipulate and abuse them.

So please, don’t tell anyone who says they’re feeling singled out, discriminated against, or creeped out that they’re not entitled to feel that way. Racism and sexism are real, and they have undeniable histories (and current realities) of violence. If someone tells you that what you’re doing is creepy, just stop. If you don’t understand why that behavior registers as creepy, ask others. If they say, “If you can’t tell, I can’t help you,” keep asking until someone explains it in a way you can understand.

This stuff is as complicated as human nature, and everyone needs a guide, women just as much as men. If you want to understand, surround yourself with sherpas–folks who have seen the terrain before, know where the pitfalls and footholds are, and can explain the culture you’re exploring. Don’t have someone you feel you can ask? Ask me. Gods know, I wish I’d had the knowledge I have now, back when my high school friends asked me for the secrets of the feminine mind. They could’ve really used a good sherpa.

Dec 3, 2011 - Psychology, Uncategorized    1 Comment

Straight On ‘Til Morning: Reverb Broads 2011 #3

Art by Roy Best

Reverb Broads 2011, December 3:

How did you become more of a grown-up this year? Or did you pull a Peter Pan and stubbornly remain childlike? (courtesy of Bethany at http://bethanyactually.com/)

I did two pretty adult things this year, though no one who knows me would ever respond in a lightning round with the word “grown-up.” The first may not seem like much to all you gorgeous fellow wage slaves out there, but I’ve actually held down a real, non-academic job for the last 12 months.

I’ve been doing that since I was 15, you scoff? No big deal, you say?

Perhaps it is no big deal. Perhaps you think I’m a spoiled ivory tower wimp who’s never done an honest day’s work in her life. I think you’d be less likely to say that if you’d ever graded 75 blue book essay exams in 36 hours, or written a 2.5 hour multimedia-enhanced lecture in an afternoon, while bouncing a baby basket with your foot.

Academia, with a side of substitute teaching in two school districts, has been all I could manage in the years of fibromyalgia plus non-school-age children minus child care subsidies. I’m not complaining — teaching has allowed me to be there more for my boys (all three of them) than I ever dreamed I’d be able to. And, simply put, teaching is my vocation, in the old, spiritual-calling sense of the word.

But I really, deeply, truly adore the job I have at Atlas Games these days, and both my responsibilities and my hours have expanded since I started last November. I started out just handling customer service requests from the website, and managing the packing and shipping of orders to our distributors. I still have these duties, and I enjoy them, but I’ve been entrusted with the first pass of edits on our RPGs, and I’ve done art direction for the last two books, both of which really make the most of that part of my skill set.

All this is made both possible by my fabulous bosses, John and Michelle Nephew. I respect the hell out of both of them for their many talents, but more than that, they’re good people and good friends. They let me keep flexible hours, so I can be Connor and Griffin’s Mom (my other job title) and do fun things like chaperoning field trips, and so I can take it easier on the days when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weakweakweak. I’m bemused to find myself in the same industry as my Darling Husband, but I couldn’t be happier in a non-teaching job than I am right now.

The second grown-up thing I’ve done this year is starting to take care of myself. I’m still not any good at putting myself first, but all the fabulous coaching from the excellent folks at Fairview Pain Management Center has taught me many reasons and many ways to look after myself better than I have in the past. So now, when I recognize that I’m on sensory overload, I don’t hesitate to just step out for a few minutes. I take mini-breaks, even if only for five mindful breaths, throughout the day, which helps me better evaluate the messages my body is sending. I’ve adjusted the way I do my jobs as worker, wife, and mother to incorporate body mechanics that keep me able to work longer and smarter. And at the end of this year, I’m managing my pain with 25-50% less medication, the least I’ve been on in almost nine years.

So that’s how I’ve matured this year. Everything else? Peter Pan all the way, baby.

Nov 29, 2011 - Uncategorized    10 Comments

Gamerography, vol. 2: Trapped In Amber

On my nineteenth birthday, I made my first character on AmberMUSH. My then-boyfriend had been playing for a little while, maybe a month, and since he was suddenly spending all his spare time in the campus computer labs, and I wanted to spend time with him, I figured I might as well be doing something interesting while I was in the computer lab too.

I had no idea the changes this character, and the game I was entering, would have on my life.

AmberMUSH was based on the Chronicles of Amber series by fantasy author Roger Zelazny. They revolved around the travels of Prince Corwin (and later, his son Merlin) and the political machinations of his siblings as they fought to control the throne of Amber, a realm that represented the purest expression of Order in the universe. Between Amber and its opposite, Chaos, lay infinite reflections called shadows. Only those who carried the blood of Amber or Chaos could navigate or manipulate reality among those shadows. It’s the perfect setting for a roleplaying game because virtually anything is possible, and interpersonal relationships are the heart of the action.

Now for the ancient history. MU*s (MUDs, MOOs, MUSHes, etc.) were text-based platforms for real-time interaction among multiple participants, all logged in to a common database. No pictures, no avatars — all words, and nothing but. Players coded elaborate chains of connected “rooms,” in which only the inhabitants at any given moment could see. If you wanted something better than a raw Telnet connection, you needed a UNIX account so you could compile TinyFugue (other MUD clients would come along, but to the best of my knowledge, TF was the first of its kind). As a humanities student at my university, I had to ask my Computer Science major friends for coaching on how to ask for that UNIX account without admitting it was for gaming.

My character’s name was Selwyn, and she started as a shameless imitation of Tarma from Mercedes Lackey’s Oathbound books. She was six feet tall, with a long white-blond braid that swung down past her waist, and she carried a long sword. She had a pet lion named Rex that went everywhere with her; I actually went to the trouble of coding Rex as a puppet, reading carefully from the TinyMUD manual.

If I’d coded a flashing neon sign reading “NEWBIE” to float in the air over her head, I couldn’t have made it much clearer that I didn’t know what I was doing.

But I could type about 70 words per minute, and I knew how to spell and punctuate, and that seemed to buy me some grace from the other, more experienced players. I hung out in the Worlds’ End Bar — a saloon that served as a common destination for characters of all types to meet — and waited for Things To Happen.

And among all the things that happened, the most important was when I was got tapped to join TooMUSH, the out-of-character, invitation-only hangout. Imagine the ultimate cool kids’ table, where people commented and snarked on events from the other side of the mirrored glass. I was hanging out with the founders and wizards of AmberMUSH — wizards served as chief coders, editors, and arbitrators for the game — and the best roleplayers on that site, or any other. Too was also the intellectual laboratory for characters and plots of every size and shape, and soon I acquired another character, an odd little girl named Rebekah Aspnes.

But the really good play always involved features, or characters from the books, so that became my next ambition. I settled on a character who’d gone long unplayed, a minor human from the oft-maligned second series by the name of Julia Barnes. Julia was a computer science student at Berkeley who became Merlin’s girlfriend and a sorceress; the application I wrote played on the connection between programming computers and spellcasting. Apparently, the wizards liked it, and I became Julia’s player.

As such, I also controlled a not-insignificant plot device which could confer the ability to walk across shadows to non-Amberites. It’s funny how completely voluntary and utterly frivolous things can become serious responsibilities to young people, and I took control of that feature and her Broken Pattern very seriously, making myself available for regular (and large) chunks of time. But the role came with compensations that more than made up for the “responsibilities.” And the best compensation of all were the hours of scenes with the incredibly gifted writers who had become my friends. Some became internationally bestselling authors. Some went on to write and publish award-winning roleplaying games of their own. And one came to America and married me.

All told, I probably logged somewhere around ten thousand hours on AmberMUSH between 1993 and 1999. So what did I get, to show for it? I got my typing speed up to 100 wpm. I got a (VERY) little coding experience. I got to help write scenes that made me laugh out loud, and sometimes cry, even in the middle of a sterile university computer lab. I got some of the best friends I’ve ever had, folks who’ve stood by me through thick and thin for almost twenty years now. I got to meet the love of my life, and I got to watch other friends find theirs.

I tell people that getting together with my Amber friends is as close to a high school reunion as I ever care to get. I think that feeling is intensified by the fact that we don’t just have memories of shared life experiences — we have common memories of many lives’ experiences. We lived whole existences in the endlessly scrolling lines of text, walking through the pages of the collective novel for which we were all authors. We brought so many characters to life, gave them families and friends and habits and foibles, and sometimes we brought them to death, too. The very best roleplaying games help us live life more fully, more clearly, no matter how fantastic their premises seem. They magnify the themes, amplify the emotions, focus the images that define humanity. They let us practice the important choices, play out the potential consequences, rehearse the reactions before we come to the real crossroads from which there are no retcons.

The more we played this game, the better — the more human —  we became.

Nov 10, 2011 - Uncategorized    9 Comments

We Are…More than Penn State

I am a Penn State graduate; I received my Master’s in History in 1999, and I was awarded honors for that degree. I sought to complete my Ph.D. in the same program, but was one of the people marginalized and ultimately edged out because we did not fit the administration’s vision and mission for the History Department they were interested in building.

I worked with Penn State faculty of staggering intelligence, experience, and expertise. My advisor and Ph.D. committee members helped me acquire my own firm foundation in the history of ancient and medieval Europe and Japan. I collaborated with experts from a variety of disciplines on a curriculum-development program supported by an NEH grant, and I helped organize, and even presented at, the university’s international medieval conference. I’m not going to name-drop, but I’m immensely proud of the people of international and enduring stature with whom I studied.

I taught History, Religious Studies, and English at Penn State, as a Teaching Assistant, Lecturer, and Adjunct Faculty member, for 10 years. I wrote my own courses, from curriculum to annotated primary source compilations, and I earned what I was told were “impossibly high” student evaluation scores every semester. My students were, for the most part, bright and motivated and civic-minded.

All of this is to say that, when I talk about Penn State, I know of which I speak.

The people who say that Penn State football is the local religion are not wrong. In fact, it’s a more apt comparison than they probably realize. The institution is storied and expansive, inextricably associated with the reputation of the school and anyone who has passed through it. Its financial impact is difficult to quantify: there’s no question the program has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, but there’s also no question that the school allocates resources to athletics that can and should be spent on the university’s actual mission of education. As such, Penn State students pay what amount to private school prices for a state school education (mostly conducted by grad students, a topic for another day), because it comes with a winning team.

And while the edifice of Penn State football bears striking resemblance to the Catholic Church, its history and reputation has been largely constructed around a single person, much like today’s evangelical megachurches. Joe Paterno’s record may be the substance of Penn State’s athletic reputation, but his personality is the soul. Penn State doesn’t just claim a winning football program — it claims a moral one, a program that forms young men into admirable athletes and upstanding people.

So the most appropriate comparison to draw for the impact of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case is to the Catholic Church sex abuse case. He contributed to the rise and reputation of the institution, while using the access and authority it conferred to exploit children who reasonably believed that their rights were nothing next to the man who was assaulting them. He used a charitable foundation to situate himself among his targets, and to shield himself from suspicion for being seen in their vicinity. He probably believed that these kids should be grateful for the attention and advantages he was giving them, and that the sex acts he forced them into were a fair exchange for that.

And, of course, he was utterly, criminally, repellently wrong.

But when the superiors who derived their reputations from that same institution were faced with proof that someone had exploited and subverted its authority for personal, immoral gains, their first thought was to protect the institution, not the victims. They surely thought they were being careful at first, wanting to “gather all the facts before acting.” Except that to act would destroy something that so many people depended on for income, security, and self-esteem. So a wish to proceed slowly and carefully slid into defensiveness, then resistance, then cover-up.

And even now, it’s easier for those who still get their sense of worth — after all, the cheer that goes up all over State College is “We Are…Penn State!” — from the institution to question the sincerity and timing of the victims, rather than deal with the hard fact that someone used the faith and pride a community had invested in them to do something unspeakable.

The kids who marched in the streets last night — it wasn’t a riot; the lampposts in Beaver Canyon get torn down for everything from St. Patrick’s Day to a busy night during Arts Fest — might have said they were doing it in support of their beloved JoePa, but it wasn’t really about that. It was about the value of what they’re at Penn State for. Most of them are going to graduate twenty to fifty thousand dollars in debt, much more than they would pay to go to one of the many Commonwealth Campuses across Pennsylvania. Part of what they’re paying for is the experience in State College, and for almost 50 years, that experience depends on having a team to be proud of, and a school that others admire.

It’s their reputation, too, that’s been destroyed, without consent or knowledge. Firing Joe Paterno was the only legitimate action that Penn State could take, but to kids and alumni, that’s an admission of guilt that’s on par with having to admit that the Pope is no longer infallible. And if that can happen, then maybe Penn State can’t offer them the security they thought they were getting.

If boys can be raped in the football complex, can anyone be safe anywhere on campus?

If JoePa would protect his reputation before that of the players whose futures ride on it, can any student count on the faculty and administration to prepare them for the harsh world that awaits them?

If a charity can be used to target and groom victims among the children it’s supposed to be helping, then has the world’s largest student-run philanthropy organization been doing good or harm (and what the hell have they been on their feet for 72 hours for, anyway)?

And if Penn State’s reputation crumbles with its football program, then what is that name on their diploma and résumé going to be worth?

 

 

 

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