Thrillin’ Heroics

It’s probably no shock to anyone who knows me that I like heroes. Big damn heroes, in fact. Larger than life, and I vastly prefer the true-blue, good-as-can-be type over the grim and gritty type. Don’t get me wrong; I can enjoy reading Punisher comics, and Dirty Harry can be a fun thing to watch. But overall, I prefer heroes that have more in common with Superman and Captain America than I do with Frank Castle.

This goes doubly so for my playing characters in games, either video games or tabletop RPGs. I like to play games where I am given a moral choice – and I will almost always take the heroic, Lawful Good, Upper Left Blue option, because that’s just how I feel most comfortable. I’ve tried to play games where I am the bad guy, or just a jerk; in the original Knights of the Old Republic, for example, you didn’t have to play a good-guy, Light Side Jedi – you could go full on Force Lightning, maniacal laughter Sith. But when I tried doing that… it just felt wrong. I felt like I had done something bad by choosing that path, even though I know it’s just a fictional game and it isn’t actually me choosing to do those things. But I can’t play Grand Theft Auto games for that reason – it makes me feel really uncomfortable to commit all those crimes, even on fictional people in a fictional city. Even in the Mass Effect series, where your choices are less good and evil and more good cop, bad cop, I overwhelmingly prefer to go the good cop route.

Maybe it’s just something about the things I had ingrained in me while I was growing up; maybe latching on to characters like Sturm Brightblade, Druss the Legend, Captain America, Superman, and other fictional character cited as paragons of virtue permanently altered the way I see things to make me feel bad about doing bad things even to fictional people. I don’t know, and I don’t know that it is really possible to find out. And it isn’t to say that I don’t like other characters – my favorite movie is, after all, The Crow (the original with Brandon Lee, not any of the sequels), though even he has a pretty strong moral center. I’m perfectly capable of playing, say, a bounty hunter living on the edge in a Star Wars game – my main character in the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO is a bounty hunter, in fact, though he’s as Light Side as I can make him. That makes sense, at least to me, because the Star Wars universe has a very strange kind of moral outlook, especially along the Jedi/Sith angle, which I have talked about before.

But generally, when given a chance in a fantasy RPG, I’ll pick something pretty strongly good. My general preference is the paladin class, which is sort of a holy warrior; it’s gone through a lot of variations over the years of D&D history, including a period with a strictly enforced moral code that often led to DMs intentionally luring players into situations where any choice they made was the wrong one (known as a Kobayashi Maru test for those of you Star Trek fans reading). It also tends to lead to some players choosing, by playing a character who should be a paragon of virtue, to be instead a character who follows the letter of the law, not the spirit, and generally makes the game unenjoyable for other players. I kind of hate both of those, because I see the paladin as a holy warrior, yes, with a very strong code of morals, often put in place by his or her fictional deity. But I also see the paladin as someone who is not there to force others to adhere to his code of conduct; he is not a recruiter, but someone who chose, or was chosen, for his path. He should be an example of the best his deities followers can be, even if this might get him in trouble – though hopefully not too often with the other members of the party.

See, I know I have a strong sense of what I consider good and evil. And on some points, there are objective cases where those are inflexible, barring edge cases brought up for purposes of Devil’s advocacy – murder, rape, slavery, those are things I feel pretty safe in labeling as evil across the board. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, helping the less fortunate, loving those around you, protecting those weaker than you, are all examples of things I feel relatively safe in calling good. But in between there is a big spectrum, and things have to be evaluated objectively a lot of the time. Thievery is bad, yes, but if I steal to feed my family when I have no other options but to starve – am I doing evil? I think a lot of what we see in morality is evaluating things and actions through our own moral compasses. What is good for me is not always good for you. While I feel uncomfortable doing bad things in video games, I have no problem watching other people play the same games and do bad things. While I want to have a society that is more on the side of good, I also realize that morality isn’t always a black and white, binary idea.

So my favorite heroes are the ones who won’t turn towards doing the morally grey or the generally evil when things get tough. Arguments about the needs of the many overriding the needs of the few always make me uncomfortable – in a recent video game, I had a companion in my group who ran a small mercenary company, all of whom I’d met before and thought were decent people. There was one mission where my companion – who was an emissary from a powerful civilization who would be a great help to me in my fight against evil – had to make a choice: aid his civilization and let his friends die, or aid his friends and alienate his people. He turned to me for help making the choice, and, feeling that at the time I needed his people’s help, I told him to let his friends die. And that really bothered me afterwards. Was the help I got from his civilization worth the price he and I both paid in allowing people we cared about to die? Would Captain America, or Superman, or Sturm – or Michael from the Dresden Files, or Paksenarrion from The Deed of Paksenarrion have made the same decision?

I don’t know, because none of them are real. But I do know that those are the people I will most often look to for direction on morality and heroism, because they are the ones whose strong sense of morality – and generally being good people – I value. I’m a Christian, yes, and I also value the ideals of Jesus and what he tried to do and teach in his lifetime. And I think that, in some ways, they are all following the same path morally. I can’t imagine Jesus looking at any of those characters – especially Michael, since he is Christian himself – and thinking they are bad examples to follow. So while Frank castle can be fun to watch, he’s never going to be someone I look to for guidance in any form. Well, unless I’m looking for a good machine gun.


Personality Quirks

When you’ve been in treatment for mental health, by necessity you spend a lot of time thinking about who you are, why you are that way, and what defines you. You do this because if you can’t at least start to figure out some of the answers to these questions, then treatment will either never quite work, or it will be a much harder road than it has to be. So a certain amount of looking inward is necessary, and sometimes this involves finding out unpleasant things about yourself. This isn’t fun, obviously; nobody likes finding out that they have bad qualities, even though we probably all suspect that we have them. But one of the best things about doing this is that when you find out the negative qualities about yourself, you can work to change them – or you can change your perspective and find out that, much like Obi-Wan told Luke his father was dead, these things are only negative from a certain point of view.

I have depression. Technically, it is major clinical depression, and I’ve had it for about 15 years. A couple of years back I would have said I suffer from it, but I’m pretty well managed on that front most of the time these days. It’s not going to go away, and it will likely always be lurking in the back of my mind; that negative, self-hating, self-destructive voice, or urge, or impulse will always be there in the back of my mind to some degree. And while it has been very painful to deal with – two suicide attempts, three hospitalizations, 6 months of intensive inpatient treatment, and more medications, ECT, and other attempts to treat it than I can really keep track of – it has also brought me to a place in my life where I want to use what I have learned in my own struggles to try and help other people who might be going through the same thing. I have a more negative, cynical outlook on things than a lot of people, but I’ve also learned that even someone like me – who used to be relentlessly negative – can become optimistic and hopeful about life, and find ways to deal with the difficulties I’ve been through that make me a stronger person.

For me, I have known I’ve been a nerd, or a geek, or whatever you want to call it, for a long time. My favorite books are fantasy books. I love Star Wars and Star Trek. I read all sorts of comic books, and I own every Marvel movie (well, the ones since Iron Man); I also have a Captain America costume. I play RPGs, and have for over 20 years now. I love video games. I keep fictional codes of conduct folded up in my wallet. I wear glasses. If I had a pocket protector, it couldn’t be more obvious. And a lot of people find, or have found, this to be a problem. But I’m comfortable in my geekiness. The things I enjoy are the things I have passion for. That’s not to say I only have passion for nerdy things – I am trying to get into social work, after all – but that I don’t feel the need to hide my interests. And being a geek has made my life better in a lot of ways. Because of my interest in video games, I’m relatively tech-savvy – well, for a liberal arts major, anyway. I can’t tell you why a computer works, but I’m pretty handy with one, and I was the one who helped get my parents onto Facebook (which may not have been the greatest idea, but I digress). Fantasy helped to inform my moral framework; I grew up reading about knights and chivalry and honor; my favorite character from my early fantasy reading was Sturm Brightblade, from the Dragonlance Chronicles, who tried to live up to the high standards of the knightly order he believed in. There are a lot of cool things I know, and have done, that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t a nerd.

I’m an introvert. This doesn’t mean I hide from people but that I tend to try to choose the people I spend my time around carefully. I don’t have a lot of interest in small talk; this can lead to some awkward pauses in conversation as I look for a way to get to a (for me) more interesting, generally more meaningful subject besides polite niceties, but it means that when I ask questions, I’m genuinely interested, and I want to know the answers. While I’m often silent during conversations among multiple people, when I contribute it’s because I feel like I have something important to say, and if I’m listening, it’s probably not because I’m just being polite – it’s because I want to hear what is being said. I want to know more about the people I get to know than just how their day is, or was. I become uncomfortable around larger groups, but this is largely because it makes it very difficult for me to try to connect on a meaningful level with lots of background noise.

I’m loyal, to an absurd degree. To paraphrase West Side Story (one of the few lines I know, since I’ve never seen it), when I’m your friend, I’m your friend all the way. If I consider someone my friend, there is very little I won’t do for them. I tend to have a pretty strong moral center, but for the right people, I am willing to toss that right out the window if I need to, in order to help a friend. With this loyalty tends to come a kind of awkward phase where I’m not sure if I’m going to let you in, and that can be weird; also, some people can find that degree of loyalty strange or discomforting. I’m working on trying to maintain some more casual relationships, because I can be pretty heavily impacted by things that go on with my close friends – witness my current situation – but if you’re on the short list, then if I can do something to help you, or if you want to know something about me, all you have to do is ask.

I’m struggling with my faith. I was an atheist – though most people weren’t really aware of it – for over a decade, and I really only started coming back to faith about a year ago. I don’t belong to a faith-based community, and I don’t attend a church; it’s not that I’m opposed to doing so, I just haven’t felt the urge or the need. But being new to faith again, I have a lot of niggling questions on my mind, and…well, I’m a nerd. I’ve also spent a lot of time in grad school, with critical thinking being drilled into me, and I don’t always know where the line is that others are comfortable with discussing faith. This means sometimes I can ask uncomfortable questions or make statements that are unintentionally insulting. Generally, when I talk about faith, I am talking about mine and mine alone; I don’t see a reason why my views on religion, faith, or spirituality should impact anyone else’s, but sometimes I wander into territory where my statements, thoughts, or questions are unwelcome or hurtful. I’m almost certainly not trying to do so – when I want to be insulting, there won’t be any doubt about it – but struggling with my own faith means I have to cover some pretty weird ground.

I am not the luckiest guy with relationships. I’m 35, as of writing this. I’m straight (just to make sure we’re on the same page here), I’ve never had a girlfriend, I’ve been on a grand total of one date, and yet somehow I have had my heart broken twice. I’m a little gun-shy, understandably. I can’t read signs from women very well, if at all, and while I have female friends, if someone is trying to send me subtle signals conveying interest, I am likely totally oblivious. This hasn’t had the greatest effect on my self-confidence, as you might imagine, but it’s also given me the time to look at what’s gone wrong and try to figure out what I really want in a relationship. Mostly, I think this just means that if (hopefully when) I ever do find myself in a relationship, it’s going to be kind of a weird start, because I’m very hesitant to ask someone out and get rejected – which, in a culture that tends to rely on the male asking the female out, is problematic. But once I find the right person, that won’t matter.

And – I think this will be the last one, but I might think of more to add later – I’m pretty liberal, and relatively solidly entrenched in that position. This doesn’t mean I think conservatives are idiots, by any means, though I am certainly not fond of the on-screen personalities of Fox News. It just means that I lean pretty heavily liberal on basically any political issue. And yes, this can lead to a lot of ‘us vs. them’ tribalism, because while the Democrats in the US, as a political party, might not be super liberal (I’d use the governments of Scandinavian countries as a benchmark here), they’re the closest we have. I’m not always thrilled with the people they put forward, but they’re still likely to get my vote. I’m aware that I hold some pretty strong opinions on these things – the constant attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) bother me a lot, because with out it, I wouldn’t have medical insurance, for example, and while I’m not opposed to some other plan, the people who keep trying to repeal the one I have now don’t seem to have thought that far ahead yet. So at times I can get pretty stuck in my thoughts. But I am open to informed, well-reasoned discussion, and sometimes it can even change my mind, as long as everyone involved is willing to at least consider the positions of others. It’s a work in progress, and I will likely never get over my dislike of certain public, political personalities, but I know that we can’t expect any kind of reasoned compromise from our officials if we can’t manage it ourselves.

That’s not to say these things are all of my personality – just the stuff that has come to me over the last couple days that seemed worth putting out there. They can be negative, positive, or not even necessarily either, depending on how you look at it. To some of you these are no surprise, and I’m sure many of you have lists like this that would probably have at least some surprises – to me or to other people who are close to you. I hope this makes sense, and that maybe people will take a look inwards to try to find out more about themselves. But if not, and if you think that I am just rambling on nonsensically here (which is entirely possible, this one’s for you:

pancake bunny

Gratitude Challenge on Temporary Hiatus

I know I haven’t updated in the last few days – 5 or 6, really. But there’s been a lot of uncool stuff happening in my life lately – a friend moving away, even if it is for the best for her; another friend coming back into my life, only to suddenly turn around and walk right back out again; and a third friend feeling suicidal, and having to watch that and know how bad it is while also knowing there’s basically nothing I can do to help. I’m feeling angry, sad, afraid, hurt, and frustrated, all of which adds up to not really feeling up to finishing a challenge on gratitude right now – for the time being, I just can’t see out to gratitude, and while I know it will pass, or I hope it will, but it means I can’t finish off this round of the gratitude challenge yet. I’m not going to call it a failure, just a delay, and hopefully I can get back on track to finish or restart it relatively soon. Until then, I hope everyone else is alright.

Gratitude Challenge, Days 14-16

Yes, this is being posted Saturday morning. No, it wasn’t written then. No, it doesn’t count Saturday. With that out of the way, let’s get to it, shall we? These Gratitude things won’t write themselves.

Once again, taking the things I am grateful for 9 at a time. One, good book recommendations – someone I like on a forum I read recommended a book called Did God Kill Jesus?, by Tony Jones, and so far it’s been a pretty good read; a little out of my normal reading subject matter, but good to know. Two, nail clippers. After drawing blood while scratching my face too vigorously, these things really come in handy. I have no interest in being creepy-nail-guy. 3, mushrooms. They go in omelets. They go on pizza. They can be a good side dish, and some of them can serve as the tiny edible bowls for a spinach and cheese combo. How did I not like these things for so long? Four, mugs. I have discovered the easiest way ever to make an omelet, and it involved using a mug – and a friend tells me they can also be used as brownie-making receptacles. Modern society is great. Five, people who speak their minds. Sometimes what they say can be painful or blunt, but a lot of times it is stuff that needs to be said. Six, Candy Crush: Soda Saga. I hurt my back the other day, and when at home, it’s easy to play this on my tablet without having to move anything that causes too much pain. Also, it’s amusing, if not terribly complex. Seven, Easter. it’s great for both candy and for thinking about theological matters, and I keep finding things that make me look at previously-held religious beliefs in a whole new light. 8, Cadbury Eggs – the finest Easter candy known to man. And I will fight you in an Easter candy-eating contest to prove I’m right. And nine, heating pads. The one I have has really helped to alleviate at least some of the pain from my aforementioned back injury.

Because of said injury, my exercise has been limited to either my activity at work or the bare minimum I can manage at home without intense pain. So, not as much as I’d like, but it does give me some extra time to focus on meditation and mindfulness, though sometimes trying to do so through intense pain when I move the wrong way is an adventure in thinking.

As for a good, positive moment over the last couple days, how about one from work? I know I don’t say a lot about work, and that is often because I either don’t have much that would contribute anything or I don’t want to be overly specific and get myself in trouble. But the other day, just as I was about to leave for the day, I walked into the breakroom and into a conversation about strange (both good and bad) customers people had provided customer service to over the last few days. Now, since I work in the stockroom these days, I didn’t have much to contribute – all my customer stories are of the mind-meltingly angry variety, like the lady who questioned my knowledge of reading (despite my having two degrees in English, and most of a PhD) because I didn’t know about her favorite True Crime author. But it was fun to just joke around with co-workers and listen to the stories they had; some were frustrating, some were funny, and all of them are really just one of those things you won’t ever really understand unless you work a job in retail or customer service. I don’t know that I would have ever guessed that the staff at my local bookstore sits around talking about memorable customers like that, and it makes me especially aware of how I act in retail establishments these days, because I know how frustrating some customer things can be. But just being able to joke around with my fellow booksellers, even for a couple minutes, and even though I no longer spend much time on the sales floor, put a smile on my face as I left work.

As to messages of gratitude, I seem to be continually catching up here. If you’re reading this and it would really help you out to get one (and I know you, obviously), let me know, because odds are I am almost certainly grateful to you for something, but my mind is just on the fritz. I don’t mean to forget anyone, but I do tend to have a poor memory on these matters, so let me know!

Gratitude Challenge, Days 11-13

I thought it would be a couple days until my next post, and I was right. Funny how that works. My friend who was leaving Houston was crashing at my place all weekend, and so taking the chance to spend a little extra time with her before she left took up much of my time. It also made watching her go extremely hard on me; the last couple years have really brought out the big guns when it comes to making me turn on the waterworks, but that’s not what this is about. This is about trying to find something good in all the sadness. So, without further ado, the challenge steps.

So, nine things I’m grateful for. Well, one is just the ability to express my emotions. I still don’t do it well, but I’m slowly learning how to get things out when I need to; that might come in handy sooner or later. Second, Pandora Radio; I’ve listened to a lot of music the last few days, and it often seems to be reading my mind as to what I want or need to hear. Third, the ability to help out my friends when they ask, and to figure out where the line is for how far I can go down that road. Fourth, some of the ridiculous books I unbox at work; seeing some of the titles or topics is good for some laughs, even if I’m just cackling madly to myself. Five, Golem Arcana; it’s a game I picked up after a recommendation from Penny Arcade, and I’m looking forward to the chance to play it. Six, being able to reach out to a friend who I thought was gone, especially now; I’ll accept any help I can get. Seven, knowing that there are so many people who seem to care about me, even without my always knowing or acknowledging it; it’s hearing from someone unexpected that can really brighten a day. Eight, the simple joy of kicking butt in a video game, without having to worry about dying, strategy, or stress – that’s what always made the IDKFA code fun for me. And nine, the fact that I’ve been out of treatment for almost two years, and had a lot of stuff happen to me, and I’m still moving forward with life instead of wallowing in depression.

As I worked today, that was my exercise, but my weekend was somewhat out of whack schedule- and activity-wise, so I didn’t do much on either the exercise or meditation fronts; having a houseguest for three days who has an even stranger sleep schedule than me really threw me off. I’ll be trying to get those back on track, even as I try to process my friend being gone.

As for a positive experience over the last couple days…hmm. Well, Sunday night, my friend and I decided to go out for one last dinner in Houston, to a place she’d been curious about for a while; she’s a pescetarian (eats only fish and vegetables), and so she wanted to try out a salad place called – hold the groans – Extraveganza. It was a nice enough seeming place, though I think we got there just as they were about to start closing up for the night, so things weren’t as well-organized as they could have been. And while I didn’t order a salad – it wouldn’t have been much of one, considering that even with the abundance of veggies they had, they didn’t have most of the ones I like – I did order a flatbread/wrap thing, which turned out pretty well. She got her salad full of things that barely looked like vegetables, let alone food, and we headed back to my place. I don’t think it was as good as she was hoping, but I think she was happy to have tried something new as one of her last things in Houston and I was happy to have been able to do that with her, even if it wasn’t quite my scene. She, along with my other friends in the area, have been partially responsible for my trying a lot of new things over the last two years, and so I wanted to try something new one last time as a going-away gesture. So we came back to my place, we ate, we talked, and then I turned on Netflix and we watched the first couple hilariously bizarre episodes of the Netflix original series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt before she conked out on my couch. I think that’s something that will stick with me for a while.

And so, to my friend: I don’t know if you still read my blog, but the two years I have known you have been two of the strangest and yet most enjoyable of my life. We’ve had a lot of strange conversations, supported each others through some very tough and traumatic moments, and you have been basically everything I could ask for in a friend. I’m grateful to have gotten to know you; a couple of weeks later, and we might never have met. I’m going to miss you stopping by and dragging me to get frozen yogurt, or bringing your dog over to visit so I could wrap him up in a blanket like a tiny canine burrito, and just the times when we would sit, late at night, and talk honestly about all the things that were going through our heads and what we might be able to do about them. I know this move will be great for you, and I have faith that even though you’re no longer in Houston, you’ll still be in touch, and you’ll be able to tell me about how awesome things start going when you get set in California. Good luck, and I hope for nothing but the best for you.

And yes, I was crying as I typed that last part. Don’t judge me. I know I haven’t lost my friend – but my life as it has been for the last two years has just had a major change, and it’s messing with my head.