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#RPGaDay 5: Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?

There can really be no contest here.  It has been and likely always will be this version of the Player’s Handbook for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

We have a dark and ominous room dominated by an enormous demonic statue with bejeweled eyes.  We’ve got player characters attempting to pry one of the gems out of the statue, and who knows what will happen if they succeed?  A slain monster lays in the middle ground, and a group of players discuss their next move in the foreground. We see wizards, fighters, and thieves.

Dungeons & Dragons covers these days are beautiful works of art, and they depict epic action against towering and horrible monsters.  The scale of everything, the coolness factor, is so much more than it was back in the olden days of yore.  Even still,  no piece of art captures the spirit of being a murder hobo better than this.  We’ve got dead monsters, looting, and planning what to kill and loot next.  That’s the core loop of D&D game play for me.  It’s not deep and it’s not especially elegant.  But it’s the core of what the game was to me in my youth, and this artwork captures that better than anything else for me.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.

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#RPGaDay 4: Which RPG have you played the most since August 2016?

Actually, honestly played?  Well, almost nothing.  This is something I would really like to change.

I had a campaign going of Monte Cook’s Numenera for a couple of months in 2015, but this game fell apart in the usual ways.  Players stopped committing to showing up.  Schedules got the in way.  Lives were re-prioritized. I was really disappointed, but there was no use in trying to keep it going. I let it die off, and I’ve been unable to organize a game since, despite trying a number of times.  I’ve had people tentatively commit, and then back out.  Perhaps I’m not a very good game master, or I’m a difficult person to play with.  Or perhaps it’s just the way people schedule their times these days.

P.S.: I really enjoyed Numenera quite a bit, and I hope I get to play it again some day.

As I push 40, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find people with similar interests who want to commit the kind of regular time it takes to developing a good campaign.  I find playing any less than twice a month results in a disjointed experience. The ideal time frame is once a week, but even I find that difficult, and that’s with a relatively flexible schedule.  I rarely try to schedule anything consistently anymore due to people’s lives being what they are.

For years now, I’ve found it far easier to get together temporary and ephemeral groups of people together to play board games; I can’t be the only one having this trouble, either.  When I was younger, board games were a much smaller hobby, but these days, they are probably the fastest growing section of tabletop gaming (citation needed).  I own dozens of board games that have seen consistent play, and probably nearly as many RPG books that are in mint condition because they’ve only been paged through once or twice.

If there’s one thing I really want to change in 2018, it’s that I want to develop a group of people who are as passionate about playing role-playing games as I am.  I want to find a regular group willing to set aside a chunk of their lives to experience a good, exciting story with a few other people who are equally committed.  If I’m being honest, it feels about as likely to happen as discovering a unicorn grazing in my back yard, but I’m not going to let that deter me.

The other way this is changing is that I’m starting a new company on the side of my usual business involved in developing really elaborate, tabletop D&D experiences.  Basically, an organization aimed at running professional games, with top-tier tools and resources, and dedicated to providing support materials so others can do the same.  If that goes well, i’ll be getting my fill of regular D&D games in the latter part of 2017 and into 2018 and beyond.  I don’t want to talk about that idea too much yet, but you can be sure you’ll read more about it here as our plans develop.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.

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Gaming

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#RPGaDay 3: How do you find out about new RPGs?

Today’s entry is going to be short, because the answer to this one is fairly simple.  I only find out about new games in one of several ways:

  • I see the game on the shelf at one of my friendly local gaming store (we currently appear to have 3 in my town alone, and a really nice one over in Olathe as well. We had four, but sadly my store of choice went out of business, so now I’m a free agent, but slowly settling in at a new store).
  • One of my friends who still keeps up with the hobby posts about the game on social media
  • The game is tied to a creator that I follow closely (Simon Stålenhag’s Tales from the Loop RPG being a recent example of this)

Social media so thoroughly dominates my mental landscape as far as how I encounter new things that I’m frankly a little worried that I’m missing out on great things I would really love.  But let’s be honest; I don’t have time to play a lot of games, so discovering brand new ones is not high on my list of priorities.

If you have a news site that you would recommend I use to keep up with the field, drop a recommendation to me in the comments, or… well, social media works too.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.

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Gaming

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#RPGaDay 2: What is an RPG you would like to see published?

One of the problems I have as an adult with a job and a family is that there are too many games and not enough time to play them all.  I own stacks of RPG sourcebooks and systems that I have never played, and probably never will, unless I live long enough to end up in a retirement home with a bunch of grognards with too much time on their hands.  That’s about the only form of retirement that appeals to me, actually.  A return to my childhood, where I spent nearly every day with a group of close friends having adventures without ever leaving the couch.   I figure that would be a good way to wrap up my life, if I manage to live that long.   Someone should start planning the themed retirement home for old gamers right now.

Anyway, I’m very reluctant to suggest new games when I have such an embarrassment of riches, because likely anything that I would like to see published would go unplayed along with the rest of the games that I have.  That said, I’ve always wanted to see a game setting, for really any system, based on the New Cobrazon and Bas Lag setting by China Miéville.

Perdido Street StationInstrumental to me getting back into science fiction literature post-college was reading Perdido Street Station, along with some short stories by Charlie Stross in Asimov’s.   One thing about games is that they’re usually somewhat derivative of the cutting edge work going on in literature, which is not something I say as disparagement.  I think that trend is changing as more talent is attracted to working in games, given that it’s still a decent way to make a living, where all but a slim few barely earn minimum wage writing prose these days.  But for most of my life, where innovation of setting and world-building is concerned, prose fiction has led the way.   Miéville’s work for me was like an atom bomb of creative world-building.

That’s not to say it wasn’t inspired by things that came before.  Miéville has been open about how much of his work was inspired by reading the monster manuals of various roleplaying games.  Relatedly, he also explains that he never really played RPGs, which breaks my heart.  It’s long been a dream of mine to some day have China at my game table with a few other people who never got to know the joys of playing in their youth.  I imagine he’s received better offers than mine, though.

Anyway, Perdido Street Station describes a wild, bizzare, thriving city that made me want to explore it. I wanted to go off the page as written and poke around in the dark alleys and tunnels.  New Crobuzon would be a fertile place for adventure and intrigue.  The various characters are already practically archetypes for good character classes and races to build further, interesting player characters.   And later books like The Scar only served to deepen and broaden the world as all good RPG source material does.

From what I understand, work has been underway for 6 or 7 years on a game set in this world, but nothing has come out yet.  Maybe it’s better that way; it can live in that perfect and ephemeral state of idea, rather than as an imperfect execution.  It might just be too good an idea, and I would always be disappointed with any execution.  Things that I spend so much time pining for can rarely live up such unfair expectations.  But if it ever does hit the store shelves, I’ll happily buy it and add it to my pile of unplayed game reference books.  I’ve got a space for it picked out on my shelf.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.

Map image by JenJenRobot via DeviantArt.

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#RPGaDay 1: What published RPG do you wish you were playing right now?

If I could be playing any role-playing game right this very second, it would have to be Shadowrun, chummer.

If you’ve never heard of Shadowrun, allow me to summarize.  If William Gibson and J.R.R. Tolkien stayed up all night doing blow and riffing on each other’s work, they might have come up with Shadowrun.  In this game, set originally in the far off future of 2050 (ha!),  magic has returned to a cyberpunk future.  We have the usual themes of megacorporations ruling the world, and of crushing poverty in the cracks, but add to that dwarves, elves, trolls, and and orcs, among many other new “goblinized” races that have sprung back into being with the return of dragons, shamanistic magic, and good old fashioned wizardry.   Native Americans have taken back much of North America, and what we think of the U.S. has shrunk considerably, with one major seat of power being Seattle, which is home to several of the giant megacorporations.

In Shadowrun, the players take the role of runners, criminal operatives who eek out an existence outside the system.  It’s a game of heists, of moral grays, and I don’t think any game captures the feeling of living in 2017 better for me.  In Shadowrun, everything is coated in a layer of grime, and there’s a strong sense of living in a world that’s the product of vast, uncaring forces that could crush you out of existence at any moment. Still, there is a lingering sense of wonder, and there’s the possibility of hope, of scoring big, of making it out.   Dreaming of a better life is never quite dead in Shadowrun, but it always feels just a little bit out of reach.  Maybe one more run will lead to a better life, but it’s more likely that your corporate masters will betray you, shoot you, and leave you to bleed out in the gutter because you failed to make your DocWagon contract payment this past month.

A lot about the news lately has reminded me of the thrill of playing Shadowrun as a teenager with my best friends, Hans, Jason, and Jared.  The four of us cut a swathe through the cyberpunk Seattle that was epic and exciting.  I think nearly all of us tried our hand at game mastering stories.  Later, in college,  I played in a epic campaign not as a runner, but as a runner turned DocWagon operative charged with heading into gun battles to save dying runners who were paid up on their contracts.   Of course, not all was on the level inside of DocWagon. Conspiracies were discovered, and everything turned to shit in that particularly exciting way that always seemed to happen in a good game of Shadowrun.

A lot of games of Shadowrun played out like this:

  • Players are presented with a job by the GM, hired by some shady NPC or fixer
  • Players research and meticulously plan the job like professional criminals
  • Job goes south in about 30 seconds, but players manage to succeed at their goal

Somehow, this never grew old for me, and even though we knew the plan was never going to go off quite right, it was always exciting to see how things were going to turn.  Shadowrun was a lesson for me in how the desires of the participants don’t always make for the best stories.  Can you imagine how boring Shadowrun would have been if every single job went off without a single hitch?  You might as well get a job as a salaryman, chummer.   At that point, you’re just workin’ for the man.

Shadowrun was never a perfect game, mechanically speaking.  I’ve played something like four or five different editions, and I’ve never felt any of them balanced out very well.  Cybernetically-enhanced reflexes were nearly always a must.  I’m not sure what the current version requires, but back in the day, if you wanted to roll giant fistfuls of dice, playing a street samurai with enhanced reflexes was a sure-fire way to do so.

Me, on the rare occasions that I got to play instead of GMing, I always liked playing shamen.  I’m not a very spiritual person, but the mystical/spiritual world of shamanic magic in Shadowrun always appealed to me in some deep and profound way.  Nature spirits were intriguing, especially urban ones.  The novel series by Robert N. Charrette played heavily in my interest, I suspect.  I am often tempted to re-read these books with an adult writer’s eye, but I worry they would disappoint me.

For me, Shadowrun captures all the excitement of living in today’s upside down world, with none of the risks.  There are many a day where I would happily return to the 1990s and play Shadowrun instead of living in 2017 in the Trump presidency, watching as corporations grow in power with each passing day.  We’re getting all the negative parts of Shadowrun, and none of the good.  Sadly, it seems like a magical awakening isn’t in the cards for us here in the real world.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.

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The Dungeon Tile Project

I haven’t been writing much, lately, although I am deep in revisions on a number of stories from earlier in the year that you should see coming out soon. Instead, I’ve been working on 3D printing, casting, and painting a bunch of dungeon tiles for playing fantasy role-playing games. It’s been very good for me to spend less of my “leisure time” at a computer where I can encounter political news. So, below are a few photos rounding up what we’ve made so far. There are over 300 individual tiles, plus countless doors and other items/props. Only a few of these items have been things that I’ve designed myself — the big demon statue being one of them. Most of the models are items I’ve purchased from various companies — especially Hero’s Hoard. This project has had enormous help from my business partner Elwood Schaad and painter/artist Gabe Dorsey.

I opted to go with the partial wall style tile over the full-wall style you see from companies like Dwarven Forge because in my experience, they’re more playable. Walls much higher than this get in the way of players maneuvering their figures. I wanted something that looks good, and plays well. On Monday, we’ll be playing our first official game on the tiles. I’m really looking forward to seeing how people react to them.

This is all part of a side venture I’m working on with a partner called the Level Up Guild. LUG is a company that specializes in exactly what the name says – we aim to help people “level up” their gaming experiences. Stay tuned for more information about what that means in more specific terms…

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Gaming, Geek Life

Return Of the Nebula Weekend Conference: Part Three, The Pittsburghening

For the past three years, I’ve been attending the Nebula Awards Conference in a semi-official capacity as SFWA webmaster. Last year, I even gave a talk on author website best practices. This year, I learned I was going a little to late to make it onto programming, but I still have a little official meetings business to attend to, and I had some thoughts that I wanted to note for myself while the memories are still fresh.

It was disconcerting to realize that I’m no longer one of the youngest people in the room at a science fiction-related gathering. A lot’s been said about the graying of fandom, and it’s something I’ve picked up on since my first convention in 2002. This may be true of fandom, but writers run the full gamut of ages. I met writers as young as 25, and as old as… well. I’ll omit the specifics. The future of the writing of science fiction appears to be handing down to younger generations just fine. I still wonder in my darker moments if there will be anyone left reading it who doesn’t also write it.

Each year that I’ve attended, the conference itself has been better and better executed. The team of Steven Silver, Terra LeMay, and Kate Baker really bust their asses to make this a premiere event of the year. Sean Wallace deserves special mention for his work to organize the book room where many attendees could sell their books on commission. Prior to discovering the Nebulas conference, my convention of choice was WorldCon, but thanks to this amazing events team, I’m content to mostly attend the Nebulas each year and not much else. It really is one of the best conventions for my interests and needs. I don’t get to see all my awesome friends there, but I do see many of them. Please, come hang out in 2018. I’m pretty sure I’ll be there.

While I enjoy the weekend’s general activities and hangouts, I don’t usually to attend the actual ceremony. I skip formal events with fancy attire. I’m not comfortable around the well-dressed, especially given my slovenly appearance most of the time. Also, by the end of the conference, my introvert energy reserves run dangerously low. Instead, as is my tradition, I sat in my hotel room and listened to the stream while tweeting with folks. It’s a good way for me to not go home completely drained by all the amazing conversations. In my younger days, I’d run into the red badly and become depressed during the convention, but I know how to watch myself for it now. When I start to feel like everyone hates me and I’m a big dumb nobody, then I retreat to my room. I may well be a big dumb nobody, but I’d rather not feel like one.

Every year, I meet amazing new people that leave me in awe of our community. My memory for names is terrible, to suffice to say, if we talked for more than thirty seconds, you impressed me with your wit and charm. I will say that I felt a bit of awe to spend the time I did, brief as it was, with Grandmaster Jane Yolen. And that was only one of a dozen or more conversations in which I learned something new or felt I shared some of my limited expertise or experience with others (I won’t bore you with poorly recounted details). Not being the youngest person in the room means I seem to have some opinions I like to share with those who are just starting out. I tell a lot of people that if they want to write more short fiction, they should read more short fiction.

There’s so much energy and joy at this thing, regardless, I mostly come home feeling pleasant and buzzed. I lately feel a bit jaded about my prospects as a writer, but meeting with fellow writers who still have the can-do spirit inspires me to work harder in the future. Sometimes, the best thing that you take away from a conference or con is the general feeling of good will towards your peers.

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On Art, Writing, and Storybundles

I have often enjoyed experimenting with small scale magazine ideas. Some of you may remember the Fortean Bureau, my first foray.

When Nick Mamatas came to me with an idea to do a noir crime magazine called the Big Click, I was immediately on board.  We ran for a solid few years and published some amazingly talented authors, but ultimately, the spark died as it sometimes does. Revenue was never there, and we poured a lot of our own time and money into it.  The quality was great, but it just didn’t find a sustaining audience in its life. Perhaps in the afterlife, it will? You can now read nearly everything we published in a single collected volume available as part of the Noir Storybundle that Nick has curated.  There are a ton of great writers in the bundle, multiplied again by our collection.  It’s an awful lot of gritty fun for fifteen bucks.  You can find it here!  I’m very proud of the work we accomplished there, and I think this is a good place to leave things.

With this Bundle wrapping up the Big Click, I’m moving away from publishing experiments for the foreseeable future.  When I first became interested in electronic magazine publishing, the field was relatively wide open, but today, there seems to be a surplus of online magazines. As a reader, I can’t read a small percentage of the fiction that’s published in any given month, stuff that I’m genuinely interested in.  If I’d succeeded in finding a niche that connected with audiences early on and had a project become self-sustaining financially, that would have been another story.  The market’s matured, and new entrants are going to find it difficult to compete for attention and dollars.  The hard truth that few want to admit is that in fiction publishing, supply far outstrips demand. The thing that keeps many of these smaller magazines afloat is passion and outside money, and that was certainly the case for me and my projects. Alas, my passion for publishing is waning across the board.

Lately, I feel hesitant to even write at all, and haven’t written a word since I completed a novella in March. I feel that with each story I may just be contributing to an ever-growing surplus of content that nobody has time to read.  To pass my time usually spent writing, I’ve taken up drawing and digital sculpture as hobbies (the sculpture part, being a return to something I did in college).  I’m spending my time trying to learn the basics, watching tutorials, and doing exercises. I’ve never been a very good artist, and only a competent designer, but I hope with time I can create things that satisfy me as much as writing a story.  The visual arts have always taunted me. I have even less natural talent there than I ever did as a writer (and that’s really saying something).  I figure with raw determination, I can perhaps become competent before old age sets in.

It may well be that it’s not the pursuits that actually hold my attention, but instead the act of learning them.  I may be a learning addict.  With writing stabilizing at a level of quality just above mediocre, I feel ready to move on, at least for a while.  I doubt I’ll ever give it up entirely, but lately, it holds no spark.  The rest of the way toward writing “success” looks like an enormous, unpleasant grind with little improvement to be found.  But who knows about any of the above?  Maybe some fresh new success will rekindle my energy. A story sale, or a wildly successful Storybundle?  Maybe what I’m really seeking is some sense of a win, any kind of win, to make it all feel worthwhile again. I guess we’ll find out in time.

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Fiction, Personal Life

My Dad’s Books

We recently bought some nearly floor to ceiling IKEA bookshelves which has almost doubled our bookshelf space. This has allowed me to finally process my Dad’s books out of storage and figure out which I will keep and which I’ll try to sell or donate. For those who don’t know, my Dad died of lung cancer at the age of 46 a little more than a decade ago. I inherited my love of science fiction from him.

Lots of memories in these books. We don’t have a childhood home to go back to these days, but looking at these books, I can remember exactly where they used to be on shelves in the two different places we lived before I went to college. I can remember which ones he recommended (Saberhagen, McCaffrey) and which ones he said I shouldn’t bother with. (So many Gor books, and Stranger in a Strange Land, which he thought I wouldn’t understand until I was older. He was right.).

Dad was a bit of a pack rat and never got rid of books. Many of his books (but not as many as I remembered, oddly) were scrounged and missing covers, so I think someone had passed him remaindered books cheap. We bought a lot of stuff at garage sales. In the 90s, he became a SF Book Club subscriber, and there are tons of Anne McCaffrey hard covers; a love for her work was something we had in common. There’s also a surprising amount of Andre Norton and Ursula K. LeGuin (one for every Perry Rhodan and E.E. Smith paperback). A surprising variety of stuff across all subgenres really, even D&D and Shadowrun tie-ins. I think I got him hooked on the Shadowrun stuff when I was in high school.

It’s weird; I can’t really say that my Dad had taste you could pin down. He was pretty damned omnivorous when it came to science fiction and fantasy. In the aughts, towards the end, he didn’t read SF/F anymore; he’d decided he was done with that stuff and had moved on to thrillers and mystery. I was sad that for the first time in my life post-college, I had time to read, but we could no longer recommend each other books because of his shifting tastes.  He read everything I wrote, though, and often provided me pretty good feedback on those early stories.  He lived to see my first couple of professional sales, although by that point, I don’t think he read them, so far gone he was.

Really, I think the only books I heard my Dad even slightly disparage were the Gor books, and even then, he thought they were pretty hilarious, just outside my age range at the time. He never outright forbid anything on his shelf from me, except maybe the book he was reading at the time. There were a few times where I tried to steal the latest book club books before he got to them, but never pulled it off.  I wish to this day I had his speed; I don’t know how he did it, but the man managed to read 5-6 books a week. He was also an avid library user for most of my childhood. There was no way we could afford to keep up with his habit, really.

At the bottom of one box, I found a near complete run of 1982 Asimov’s. I think those hit me the hardest. God damn, but I really wish he had lived to see me publish a story in there a few years back. I knew he was proud of me. In fact, the last words he ever said to me were to those effect. But sometimes you kind of feel like you haven’t earned that pride quite yet. Still working on living up to that, every single day.

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Dudes? Feminism is for you, too

First, a caveat. My language below may not be elegant or use the proper scholarly terminology because I’m not formally educated in these subjects, but I have some things to say and I hope I say them well enough to convey my message, which is a simple one. My message here is more specifically for my male peers: gamers, nerds, and geeks.

Over the past few years, I’ve witnessed a lot of guys my generation or younger who believe that feminism is something it isn’t, or have taken some extreme form of it to stand for the whole thing (much like people often confuse radical religion factions to stand for a broader religion). These men (not necessarily full-blown Men’s Rights Activists which I won’t even get into here) believe that feminism has nothing to offer them. Ignoring the fact that you’re kind of a jerk if you can’t support something that doesn’t directly support you, I find this really sad. Most of us don’t conform to the traditional notions of masculinity much at all!

Feminism, I’ve come to learn over the years (perhaps embarrassingly late), has its sights set not just the societal structures responsible for women’s so-called “gender norms” but also the ones responsible for toxic masculinity. When it comes to my male peers, not one of us has escaped harm by toxic masculinity.

Ask any of us to describe what a man should be, and I will bet we’d most often describe gruff, taciturn men who never cry and spend their days drinking beer and fixing cars. Real men don’t have much in the way of feelings you can hurt. They fix things. They certainly don’t play games because they’re too busy doing home repairs or replacing engines in cars. I still have this mental picture.

Me, I don’t conform to that notion in the slightest. I’m a geeky, sensitive nerd who would rather play board games than rebuild a car engine. I barely trust myself with a hammer as I’m more likely to break something with it than I am to fix it. And when I wrote “sensitive” earlier, I felt a strong urge to write “overly” in front of it. That is toxic masculinity in a nutshell.

And do you know why I don’t feel any less than a man? Because feminism has taught me that being a “man” doesn’t mean conforming to any of these things. In general, I don’t feel any need to police what makes a person a man or what doesn’t. Especially not myself. You feel manly? Great. Gender norms are bullshit and I believe you should be who you want and do what you want (provided you’re not hurting anyone). It’s a pretty basic rule that I think most people agree with generally. I don’t know why this particular issue trips people up.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a man for myself lately because it’s entangled with my notions of what it means to be a father. I find myself emulating my own Dad more often than I like. I struggle with how I react, in particular, to my son crying. My bone-deep instinct is to encourage him to stop crying at any cost, to tell him he’s not hurt, etc. But of course he is! When I catch myself doing that, I feel a lot more shame than I ever did for not being able to change the oil in my car or whatever.

I feel like none of my peers really like gender norms much. If you don’t like them, then I believe you need to acknowledge the role that feminism has in attacking all gender norms. You’re more free to be the person you want to be because of the hard work of feminists.  Feminists aren’t working to just make the lives of women better; they’re working to make all lives better, even yours.

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Commentary, Geek Life