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Wednesday 31 August 2016

3 of 7 - Strong In The Real Way

(The third of seven blogs this week! This isn't so bad! Famous last words!)

WARNING: Below this point, there will be a LOT of spoilers, if you aren't caught up with Steven Universe - at the very least to the episode Mindful Education, Season 4, Episode 4.

Here's a nice picture of Garnet to provide some space between warning and spoilers.

Okay so. I REALLY like Steven Universe. To the point that Steven was my first (albeit lazy) cosplay ever, which I wore at this year's Nine Worlds.

I even had the cheeseburger backpack.

I love this show for a lot of reasons. It is smart. It is sharp. It is funny, without being cruel. It is understated in the epic scope of the overarching plot. You don't even know there really IS one until late in Season 1.

The music is wonderful - both the incidentals and the songs the characters themselves break into with just enough infrequency that it feels like a treat every time. As I understand it most of the cast were chosen in part due to their singing ability, and Estelle - voice of Garnet - does a killer job at bringing life to her as a character, both verbally and chorally.

I love the characters; I love the parts of me that I see in some of them. I love that they are whole. Even if someone seems like a stereotype at first, you get to know them in the ten-minute snippets of life in Beach City. Even characters that seem throwaway and background gain a life of their own, which teaches you a valuable lesson - even people in the background have a story and a history.

Which brings me onto what I love the most about Steven Universe: the lessons.

It teaches us things. It teaches us important, valuable things, that I think everyone should know. It teaches us about love, of all sorts. It teaches us about insecurity and how it is okay to feel it, but to not let it hold us back. It teaches us about strength, and weakness, and moments of each. It teaches us about consent, and about respect, and about devotion and obsession - and the fine line between the two.

I don't know a lot of people who have watched the show who haven't felt their heart break at least once while watching it. In order to do so, you'd have to be a robot with no capacity for empathy.

Listen to Pearl singing about Rose - about how she can't believe that Rose would pick the human over her, and now she's gone, and why can't she just...move on? Who hasn't been there? Who hasn't met someone that turned their entire world upside down, like Ruby and Sapphire? Who hasn't seen someone going the wrong way about something and silently pleaded for them to realise, like Pearl in the song this blog is titled after? Who hasn't fucked up so monumentally that you would do literally ANYTHING to make it better, like Amethyst?

The songs add so much to the show. They sum it up in so many ways. Even the seemingly throwaway songs - Connie and Steven's jam song, or the snippets of the song Rose Quartz sings at the end of each episodes - gain meaning, gain traction.

It is the most recent song, however, that I find myself thinking about the most; a song about thoughts, about being hung up on them, about being afraid of even thinking them because they hurt. It's a song that poignantly, pointedly and accurately deals with anxiety - with things we have done wrong in the past and how we deal with them.

It's called Here Comes A Thought, and unsurprisingly, Garnet is singing it to Stevonnie. Because of course their relationship / fusion is a scary thing, and of course Garnet has been through the same thing more than any of the others. It makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

Steven Universe. A comforting cartoon for people living in a flawed world. But that's okay - if every pork chop was perfect...

...we wouldn't have hot dogs.

Tuesday 30 August 2016

2 of 7 - The Left Leg Phenomenon

(Day 2 of the one-blog-a-day fun fest!)

In the IDW Transformers comics, there is an Autobot named Ambulon.

He's the one tending to the wounded chap.

We run into him in a storyline centred around the morality of medicine and medical study. It turns out that he was once a Decepticon, who defected to the Autobots when the experiment he was part of went awry. As his name kind of implies, he's a doctor.

Except - and here is where the IDW series demonstrates some of its pure genius - that's not why he was called Ambulon. He was called Ambulon, from the latin Ambulate - to walk.

He was part of a Decepticon experiment to create a combiner, and he was a leg. Not a leg and a car. Just a leg.

When I got to that part of the comic I burst out laughing, like aloud. I couldn't help myself. The entire thing about combiners in the IDW series - it's a big plot point, so it actually has some weight, but - Ambulon? Because he's a leg!? Amazing!

...but then that got me to thinking.

Warning. It gets nerdier from here.

Later that day we were watching Voltron,, the new series. It's really good, it bears mention. True to the original in all the best ways but updated for the now, with great character design and animation. We were talking about the characterisation, and I opined that my favourite was - and always will be - Hunk. The strong left foot.

Other combiners were brought up, and I started to notice a pattern:

I always like the left foot.

Anyone remember the original series of Power Rangers? Left foot was Billy in the blue Triceratops-zord. He was my favourite power ranger! What's not to like about Billy?

Back to the Transformers universe. Devastator's left leg is Mixmaster, who was an unsung hero of the Constructicons - a chemistry genius that mixed his own stuff on demand. He was central to all their key engineering tasks. Predaking's left leg is Headstrong, who is stubborn when pushed, just like me - and just like me, insists that he will get there when he gets there, and woe betide if you rush him.

Menasor's left leg is Wildrider, who is the very essence of the Stunticons - savage and brutal, a psychotic speed freak who is a danger to anything on wheels. Abominus's leftie is Sinnertwin - tell me that name isn't metal as FUCK - and Sinnertwin's jam is dismemberment with his two monster heads. The left leg of the Combaticon team is Brawl. BRAWL. The super-angry damn-near-unstoppable fury tank. BRAWL.

The Autobots get love too. Superion's left leg is Fireflight, a take-no-prisoners arrogant son-of-a-bitch of a jet. Defensor sports Streetwise, who is basically Prowl but with added John McLean. Computron's left leg is Nosecone, who is a drill tank. So is (Decepticon) Liokaiser's - bonus points if you know who THAT is, and who Drillhorn is. Nosecone and Drillhorn are both perfectionist strategists, taking their time to concoct the ideal approach to any situation. No wonder I like them.

Left legs RULE. Even the One Piece crew forms a combiner at one point, and "Black Leg" Sanji is - let's face it - a badass. He's like my fourth favourite member of the crew.

So...who cares if they don't have the edgy panache of the Sixth Team Member (Devastator and Liokaiser nonwithstanding), or the brave badassness of the Red Guy, or the head. Who cares.

The left leg is where it's at, people. The left leg is the strong foot, the stable leg that you lead with when you box, that you plant when delivering a kick or a strike. The left leg is your best friend.

Ambulon - from Ambulate.

Monday 29 August 2016

1 of 7 - Take Our Own Medicine

(This is the first of an attempt to write a blog post a day for an entire week! What am I, a masochist!?)

Most people are absolutely overflowing with good advice, aren't they?

We've all lived lives. We've been in situations that aren't great or ideal. We've dealt with scenarios that test us, that lead to suffering (or joy), and we've learned lessons from them. We're filled with knowledge on how to survive the modern world, and it's advice we should hand out to those that need it.

Like I could probably tell you a few good ways to eat on a budget, or ways to get the most out of a stay in a hotel. Other people I know can give you killer tips on contouring your face or cooking a full roast dinner or refitting an entire BMW engine.

When it comes to personal advice however - on relationships, on doubts, on regrets, on living life - why are we so bad at taking our own advice?

We know we shouldn't do the thing. When others do the thing, we tell them - hey, maybe not do the thing. If someone does the thing in a movie, we laugh. How could they be so dumb as to do the thing? I'd NEVER do the thing.

Then...we do the thing.

But! But it's different for us, isn't it? Different circumstances, because...

And there it is. The excuse. The complexity.

When we look at someone else's life - either by the medium of their telling us or through our own observation - we don't see everything. We see a snapshot, a slice. What seems so obvious to us as we look at their lives is in actual fact not as easy as one would assume, which is what we find when it comes to applying our advice to own situation.

The thing is... sometimes we use those complexities as excuses.

It's HARD to cut certain things or people out of one's life. I know this. Even if we kind of suspect they are bad for us - hell, even if we 100% know objectively they are AWFUL for us - it's hard to drop the hammer forever. That's before we consider any further issues; we're still friends with this person's second cousin, that would be awkward. How am I going to attend all those fun crack house parties if I don't smoke crack any more?

...but here's the thing...we get so used to making those excuses that we end up just letting the situation continue, long after we would actually step in and act on our friend's behalf if they were in the same situation.

It's easier to suffer than it is to watch suffering. Like I know this for a fact. I've seen other people struggling with similar problems to me and it hurts. How often have we said we'd take someone else's suffering if we could? Because we can deal with it, we know we can. We're strong. We can take on the world, even if we hate watching our friends do the same.

Even if our friends hate watching us do the same. To the point that they give us advice. That they urge us to listen. That they tell us that they know it is hard but...

That's the point. It IS hard. We all have to do hard things in our lives. Even if we know it is for our own good, that doesn't make it any easier - nor any less necessary. It just requires a shift of thinking. We start with the baseline of: It is hard so I will find ways to cope with not doing it.

Really, it is in our best interest to shift to: It is going to be hard but I must do it and so I will find ways to cope with the result.

Let's start taking our own advice, people. Toxicity is profligate in our lives and in the world around us - but we don't have to suffer all of it. Do better for ourselves before we tell others what they should be doing.

Everyone being happier, healthier and more secure is never a bad thing.

Saturday 27 August 2016

Is Truth Beauty? Is Beauty Truth?

Share If You Think They Are Beautiful.

We've seen plenty of this on various social media, right? Someone that mainstream media does not portray as being stereotypically attractive, being declared as brave and beautiful and held up as some kind of champion.

See, here's the problem with that.

A significant percentage of the world's businesses are predicated around insecurity. They feed on it, are made wealthy from it. I've previously asserted that insecurity is central to human psychology, and advertisers know it. The entire beauty industry thrives on people doubting their own appearance...

...and attaching inherent value to it.

Now we all want to look good, right? But look back at that sentence. WHY do we all want to look good? What about "looking good" is important to us? It's how it makes us feel and how others may see us. It's about confidence, feeling good. Looking good correlates to both.


Because we have inherent value attached to beauty, the concept of beauty, aesthetic attractiveness.

You ever see the covers of those magazines that shame celebrities for not looking great, and celebrate other celebrities for looking great? In between every full-page splash of the most ugly possible picture of someone having an off day, there's adverts for skin care cream, weight loss solutions, hair treatments.

(Blogger's Note: I'm not saying that using products is inherently bad. It isn't. I'm not trying to tell you how to live your life. What I am trying to do is to challenge the basis of why we do these things. Why Act 1 makes us feel better and Act 2 makes us feel worse and why Act 3 is even socially acceptable. If it works and it doesn't harm anyone, you do you. It's all good. I'm just poking at society and saying HMM loudly.)

If we attach inherent value to beauty, we attach inherent negative value to ugly - and also to not-beauty, the two of which are entirely different things.

In Bram Stoker's Dracula, Gary Oldman plays Dracula. And he is, in the same movie, both beautiful and ugly.

See? ...but the thing is, in the second picture, he is definitely ugly, right?

But there's no middle ground. He occupies a space of extremes. A space that 99% of human beings simply don't inhabit. (Though most draculas do.)

Our urge to reassure people that they are beautiful when they have doubts is an urge to tell people that they have value even if something or someone else they perceive is more beautiful than they are. We've built an entire language association between beauty and value that is really harmful to the self-image of...well, shit, most of us.

What we need to do is decouple value from beauty. Yes, beauty is nice to look at, but it is NOT the be all and end all. Instead of sharing because we think they are beautiful, let's share because we like them. Let's share because they're fucking human beings too, and they deserve respect, even if they don't fit in with the ridiculous standards of beauty that we have been drip-fed since we've first been capable of looking at a screen or a page.

Perhaps I am somewhat embittered on this topic because I don't see myself as being beautiful. I feel that needs to be aired just to incite some degree of transparency on the topic. But you know what, I don't even care. I wear sloppy shirts and old jeans and tacky sneakers and my glasses are beat up, but it's me. You know what? I have value even if I'm not on the front of Cosmo.

We ALL have value. What we DO with our lives, who we ARE, is so SO much more important than the combination of genetics and external influence that contorts our physiology into a shape that we all recognise as a face.

I'm not a model but I'm a person, and if I had to pick only one - person every time.

Share If You Think They Are People.

Thursday 18 August 2016

Nine Worlds 2016 - Somewhere In Time And Space

For one weekend of August, Novotel London West - just next to Hammersmith Broadway bus and tube station - became Nerdhome.

Nine Worlds Geekfest is my first con. The first time I went was last year, which I blogged about right here. This year I kind of knew what I was doing - and it was awesome.

Less social anxiety this time. Less weirdness. We didn't stay on site - which is a mistake we'll correct next year (already bought the tickets for next year as it stands) - but despite that, all the time spent on site was magnificent.

I went in cosplay for the first time. Not a complicated one. I went as Steven Universe - and the sheer joy I got out of it was something to behold. Every time someone went past and shouted "And STEVEN!" or started a chant of "Cheeseburger Backpack" - every time I ran into someone else cosplaying as one of the Crystal Gems, it was an experience. It was so good. For such a lazy cosplay, because hell it's the stuff I wear to work or around the house, the payoff was fantastic. It's encouraged me to go more complicated next year...I'm thinking a certain Overwatch character, a one-man apocalypse if you will...

...the people as always were wonderful. The convention volunteers were courteous and friendly, the fellow guests were as up for the con as I was, and the hotel staff were basically incredible. Last year there were complaints - this year it was nothing but love. They did everything they could to make our lives easier, even going so far as to tell various con-goers that they'd miss us when we were gone.

I desperately hope we are back at that hotel next year.

The cosplays were wonderful. It's hard to pick out favourites but there were four Rose Quartz's that I counted, one Stevonnie, Luci from Wic/Div who trebled down as Jon Constantine and Spike, a good friend showing great form as Scar, Spike AND Loki, several X-Men, at leas tone absolutely KILLER Ghostbuster with the proton pack on form, and...well anyone that went will know what I mean when I say No-Face.

I only went to three organised events - a talk on MST3K which was deftly delivered and truly fascinating, the annual Whedon singalong, and a Steven Universe singalong - but all of them were so, so happy-making. Like, my life was genuinely better each time I stepped into and out of one of those rooms.

It was so good to be surrounded by happy people too. To be around those that wanted to be there, who thought like I did, who could be confident and happy in this space when the rest of the world isn't so welcoming. It's a world that I wish was universal - that I wish existed everywhere, not just in one hotel for one weekend.

...and then we were stuck in tailbacks on the M3 for two hours, know something?

Totally worth it.

I'll see you next year, Nine Worlds. I'll miss you until then. You put a light in my life that simply won't go out.

Thursday 11 August 2016

Not Enough Pokeballs

Anyone else play Pokemon Go?

So much like EVERY Pokemon game, when you first go out into the big wide world, you want to catch everything you see. They're all new and fresh to you - all potential allies in the fight to be the very best.

After a while though - well, lessons are learned. Pokemon that were previously well thought of are now discarded, ran from, not caught at all. Because you've already CAUGHT ninety Rattata. You don't need one more - it won't do you any good. You realise that now. Even if you evolve it into a Ratticate, which was once an exciting prospect, it's not something you need or value any more.

And at first you feel antsy. Like - what if I never find another Rattata? What if that slot on my team never gets filled? ...and then you realise that that is fine. It's not something you need or want. Then you realise that you don't have to deal with them at all. Just pass them by. You don't owe them anything.

Then you find the Pokemon you are fond of, the ones that you like, and the ones that are good for you - and you stick by them. Because you've learned what is good and bad, by this point. You've learned.

And that's how life should work, right? You learn the good and the bad, and you leave the bad behind. You don't have enough Pokeballs or bag space to pick up the stuff you don't need.

Now I was wondering about two different topics for this blog. My work colleague Joe suggested:

Why not both?

...look back on my advice on Pokemon and apply it to toxic people.

I mean think about it. We are packed in with people that are bad for our health from a very early age - you don't pick who you go to school with. But you learn. You learn how to spot bullies, and you avoid them. You learn the kind of people that lie and you think twice before you trust them.

You stop throwing Pokeballs at them, because they're not worth catching.

At least, you should. But I know too many people still tangled up in toxic situations and relationships, who are wasting their Pokeballs on Rattatas.

Life is too short, people.

Save them balls for the Mewtwos.

Sunday 7 August 2016

Fear And Its Fallout

Technically speaking, phobias are anxiety disorders, and I suffer from two quite common examples.

The first (and worst) is arachnophobia. If a spider is over a certain size I can't deal with it rationally. I do my best, but I'm left with my heart in my mouth and sweating like a carrot stick in a raw food clinic. If the thing is big enough then I can't sleep until after it is dealt with, and even then, it will take hours before I can normalise again.

A recent and infamous example was a year or so ago, when a creature henceforth known as the Cataclysm Spider descended from the chimney and brutally attacked four of us while we were watching Pulp Fiction. Everyone in the room saw it before I did, and reacted with understandable alarm; but when I caught sight of it, my body put me in the kitchen before my brain could actually inform me of what was going on. Housemates braver than I had to execute the beast, and probably levelled up a couple times in doing so. We watched the rest of Pulp Fiction to calm down after.

My arachnophobia is entirely informed by my mother. I never had an experience that made me afraid of spiders - I've been afraid of them all my life, probably due to her reactions to them when I was young. Which is a shame, because I find them absolutely fascinating and (horribly) beautiful creatures.

The second is coulrophobia - which is a phobia of clowns, and I react to them in a similar (if less neurotic) fashion to spiders: exterminate. Spiders don't get to live if they come into the house. Neither do clowns. I can't deal with them. Hate them. It's less severe - if I had to pick five minutes in a room with a tarantula or six hours with a clown I'd pick the clown - but fuck don't ever make me choose. I hate clowns. Hate them.

The hatred of clowns is one that onset later in life - probably thanks to endless horror movies, Stephen King's It (the book), and depression that makes any false happiness sinister and not to be trusted. It's a phobia I can control a lot easier, as a result. It's less firmly embedded in my psyche. Relatively superficial in comparison.

Where am I going with this? Well...

Everyone knows a homophobe. Everyone knows a transphobe. Everyone knows an islamophobe. Either they are just a bit ignorant and chat shit without thinking, or they are properly, like truly, in hate with their chosen demographic.

Morgan Freeman didn't actually say this:

...but I'm sure everyone has seen a picture of him with these words attached to it, circulated around facebook or similar.

Fear is a keyed response. It is something that can be tempered, trained and reduced, but it exists beyond the conscious mind. It is very hard to control true fear. It's te bit of us that kept us safe from predators and hazards back before we had the capacity to actually think about why they were a threat.

Our instincts, however, are not our best selves.

Irrational thoughts and attitudes inform poor decisions. Going off one's gut, without giving a moment's pause to the correctness of our action, or whether or not the deep intrinsic insecurities and anxieties that make us human have influenced our decision - well, that's how really dumb mistakes are made.

We are afraid of things we don't understand. That is human. That is part of the basic insecurity that is indelibly part of our mental heritage. That which we understand is safe. People stay in situations that are objectively toxic because - well, it's the devil we know.

Let's be real though. Even the devil we know is still the devil.

When I moved off the island for the first time, I moved to Bradford to study Law in college. I went from a place that was, let's face it, a little a place chock full of interesting new cultures, languages, races and faces. For the first week I was totally knocked off my perch. I had no idea.

You know what though? I adapted, because I refused to let my fear of that which was unknown to me inform the rest of my life. I stopped being intimidated by people talking languages I didn't understand and religious practices I didn't share, but the first few times I encountered them, that fear was real - because it was unknown to me.

I often hold that it isn't how we feel that defines us; it is what we do with that feeling, how we react to it, and how we deal with it.

Thus I contend that a homophobe is someone that feels an initial urge of anxiety when encountering homosexuality. That's sometimes hard to control. That in itself is fear. What you do with that fear... well, that is the difference between being a person and being an asshole.

This is the difference. If you run into a guy and he introduces you to his husband - you can't stop your initial response. What you CAN do is realise that your response is an anxiety trigger and you aren't obliged to act on it, and that the proper way to deal with the situation is to remember that this couple that scares you are still human beings that haven't actually done anything wrong.

When I see a clown my initial response is fight-or-flight, with an 80% fight bias. I get angry. What do I do? I don't punch the poor bastard in the facepaint, because underneath the facepaint, the poor bastard is a person just like me. Whatever my initial instictive response to that facepaint, it doesn't justify me being an asshole.

In my opinion, we use the words homophobe, transphobe, islamophobe - we use them to indicate something more than just the phobia. That person has felt an instinct and acted on it with hatred or ignorance or a mixture of both. The fear isn't a choice, but their response of abuse and vitriol is.

I think we need to stop using -phobia to describe someone who is a bigot. A phobia is a fear, an anxiety disorder. Choosing to be an asshole is choosing to be an asshole. Phobics suffer - assholes decide to make other people suffer. The language has to change. They're not victims. They are agressors.

As time goes on and the populace as a whole becomes less and less insular and more and more educated, those who practice hate will dig in. They have to, because the general human drift is to defeat hatred - mostly by the hard work of the few. Attitudes do change, over time, as new generations are raised in environments that make the old attitudes of the past unacceptable.

To the assholes in question, I say this:

I understand your fear. I understand why things scare you. I understand that these things are different to that which you know and are comfortable with. I know full well how hard it is to leave that comfort zone.

Try it though. Just for once. Stop giving into that toxic hostility you are so used to. Just for a little while. You'd be amazed how easy life can be, if you just stop being such a prick.

It's so easy to hate. I should know - I hate a lot of things. It's very very easy; but then the easy way isn't always the best way. Everything can be better for everyone, if haters cease hating. Or at least fucking hate something that NEEDS hating - like if you're gonna look down on people who claim benefits, then at least have an equivalent disdain for the six British companies that didn't pay any tax in 2014. They made £30 billion for fuck's sake.

Just think for a while. Just think. Feel - Think - Act. In that order.

You never know. You might even like it.