Monthly Archives: July 2017

Code Talker, by Joseph Bruchac

Code Talker

  • Genre
    • Fiction, Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Military Fiction
  • Plot Summary
    • Ned Begay, veteran of WWII, tells his grandchildren stories from his days as a Navajo code talker with the Marines. 
  • Character Empathy
    • Ned tends to view people through the lens of culture first, and then sketch them out as individuals, but this doesn’t result in stereotyping or simplifying. Instead, Ned has an eye for the complexities of culture; how it influences people for good and ill, how it can share knowledge but also limit perspective. Through his eyes, you see his love for his own Navajo culture, his affinity for other marginalized groups, and his ability to see the difference between an oppressive culture and the individuals who make it up. He’s able to do the latter without minimizing the crimes or neglecting the victims.
    • At the beginning of the story I thought of Ned as a mere neutral storyteller, but by the end I was intensely attached to him. He sees the worst of humanity and reports on it accurately, but he is also determined to look for the best in humankind. He’s one of those characters that my brain won’t let me treat as a fictional character. He’s real, dammit! He’s real!
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s understated, in a good way. On the surface, it’s the voice of an old man, pragmatic rather than poetic, recounting the facts as best he’s able to for the sake of his family’s history. Beneath, it’s full of love, sympathy and insight. It never beats you over the head with its points, nor does it bandy about with false complexity. It is simply authentic.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The research is incredible, both the military history and the portrayal of the Navajos. Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian, was especially determined to get the latter especially right, and sought out as many Navajo code talkers to interview as he could find. I’ve looked at a few different reviews, both from Navajo perspectives and non-native history geeks. Everybody says it is dead on accurate; I’ve yet to find someone mention a single error. This book will probably teach you more than most non-fiction books. 
    • The bantering friendships between him and his fellow Marines. So many warm happy feels! Also, although he mentions that people die, he doesn’t usually torture you with in depth gory deaths of individuals you love, so that’s a nice change. It doesn’t feel cheap; more like Ned just didn’t want to spend time dwelling on the sad parts. These were his friends, and he doesn’t want to remember them dead. He just wants to pass on the happy memories.
  • Content Warnings
    • Obviously there’s violence, though he tends to skim over it. As I said, it seems to be that, as a narrator, Ned doesn’t want to dwell on the bad. The most intense description actually isn’t of the war at all, but his time in boarding school, when his mouth was scrubbed with soap for speaking Navajo. 
    • Racism against the protagonist and other Navajos, running the gamut from intentionally harmful programs like the boarding schools to unintentional microaggressions like the ubiquitous nickname “Chief.”
  • Quotes
    • “Never think that war is a good thing, grandchildren. Though it may be necessary at times to defend our people, war is a sickness that must be cured. War is a time out of balance. When it is truly over, we must work to restore peace and sacred harmony once again.”
    • “Strong words outlast the paper they are written upon. ”
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Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Let This Mind Be In You

At the end of every episode, an artificially bubbly woman named Chris sums up the events, declares the Official Moral and explains why it’s totally Biblical, even if the connections to the verses quoted are rather tenuous. I don’t often talk about Chris’s summaries because they rarely add anything. When I do mention her, it’s usually because the episode left a tiny window of think-for-yourself complexity open, and she stepped in to slam it shut. And that’s Chris in a nutshell; her only role is to make the official moral transparently clear, which is redundant when the episode properly illustrated it and reductive when not.

Galaxy Quest

I should add, this was my opinion long before I was an atheist. Little Christian me thought she was annoying, everyone I knew thought she was annoying, and I’ve even had current right-wing Christian AIO fans read these reviews and criticize everything but my feelings on Chris.

But honestly, seeing how Chris summarizes the moral is key to understanding a problem with AIO; they are so desperate to invoke Biblical authority that they sometimes undercut their own points.

This episode opens with Whit announcing that he is leaving for a conference, and Connie and Eugene are going to be running Whit’s End for a weekend on their own. Connie in particular is nervous about being on her own, but Whit reassures her that he has left a note with instructions, as well as contact information if they have any questions. His final piece of advice is to just do their best to do what he would do.

The next morning, Connie comes in wearing a grandpa sweater. She’s decided it will help her get into that Mr. Whitaker mentality, thereby establishing that, for the duration of the episode, she will be dumb enough to confuse role models with method acting. She finds Eugene puzzling over two sets of paint cans. They were delivered by a man who knew Whit wanted them but couldn’t remember whether he had ordered light blue or ivory. He doesn’t call Whit for clarification because plot. Anyway, Eugene recalls that Whit said something about wanting to paint the Bible room, and deduces that Whit would prefer ivory. He resolves to get the job done before Whit returns, as a surprise.

Later that day, Jack and Lucy come in, disappointed to find the Bible room is closed for painting. Lucy had mentioned the time Jacob wrestled an angel and won, and Jack doesn’t believe that’s actually in the Bible. They could only think of two ways to resolve this debate; go find Whit, or go to a special room Bible themed room for answers. It’s not like either of them have an actual book to look it up in.

Okay, what’s really going on is that they love Whit’s stories, and they now have an excuse to ask him for one. And who can blame them? He has all the advantages of background music and individualized voice actors for all his characters. Anyway, in the spirit of running the store just like Whit would, Connie decides to give the story a go.

Spoiler alert; she’s not a naturally gifted storyteller. As she starts and restarts the story about six times, Jack and Lucy mumble their apologies and bolt.

A bit later, Connie is called into the Bible room by another kid, who ignored the wet paint signs because she just couldn’t resist all the Bible themed activities. Specifically, she wanted to play with the Talking Mirror. That’s the one that, if you say a Bible verse to it, it will answer with chapter and verse, and vice versa. And it can also… yeah, no, that’s all it can do. What irresistable fun.

The mirror is acting up, repeating “For God so loved the world that he gave-” over and over again in increasingly creepy voices. Connie tries to turn it off, but it only starts talking faster, louder, and creepier. Naturally, she gets spooked, starts hitting anything that might possibly stop it, and finally it does shut off. Because she broke it.

That evening she finds Jimmy Barclay moping. Connie gets him to open up about what’s wrong. A kid at school falsely accused him of stealing a ruler, and the two of them ended up fighting and getting sent to the principal’s office. He really doesn’t want to tell his Dad, and he wishes Whit was around to advise him. Connie says she doesn’t think he has to tell his parents. He’s sorry, and he’s already been punished once. He hardly needs to get in trouble a second time, especially over something that wasn’t really his fault. This cheers Jimmy up immensely, and he heads home.

The next morning, Mr. Barclay comes by to have a talk with Connie. And to be honest, he handles the situation perfectly. He tells Connie that he values her as a family friend, and he knows she didn’t mean to give bad advice, but he and Jimmy are going through a rough time. Jimmy is going through some pre-adolescent changes, and it’s very important to Mr. Barclay that, even at this stage, Jimmy remains able to talk about things he’s going through, even if he’s afraid he might get into trouble. Somebody close to the family advising Jimmy to keep secrets? Really not helping.

There’s some times when I think AIO doesn’t handle parent/child relationships well, or mentor/mentee boundaries, but this isn’t one of those cases. It isn’t spelled out, but you get a strong sense that Mr. Barclay gets that the relationship goes both ways; that he has to be fair in his judgment for Jimmy to trust him. What we see of him in other episodes reinforces that. They also did a really good job picking a conflict where Connie could be clearly in the wrong, but you can also kind of see her logic. I have nothing snarky to say about this whole bit.

Anyway, now that Connie’s failures have fulfilled the rule of three, she goes to Eugene in a state of absolute misery. She thinks she has let Whit down by failing to step in and be him. Eugene points out that Whit didn’t want her to be him, but be like him. She’s a different person, so of course she can never handle things exactly he would, but only apply a sort of Whit-ish-ness to her regular behaviors. This is sort of vague, but it does help her. She ditches the sweater and gets back to work.

When Whit returns, he’s a bit puzzled. See, he left them a note. Remember the note? Yeah, apparently it contained both instructions on how to shut down the mirror if it started acting up, and mention that they might get a delivery of blue and ivory paint… both of which would be used for the shed out back.

Seriously. They forgot the note. The clearly written, placed in plain sight, right fucking there list. Because this is a Metaphor for Christians forgetting to read the Bible or something.

Sigh.

And now Chris’s summary begins. Now, she already talked for the first two minutes at the beginning of this. There was a skit with a professional impersonator who is actually pretty bad at imitating people, and it seemed to be setting up something. The actual episode was pretty short; there’s only 22 minutes to this episode, and Chris is going to take another two and a half to make her point. Hopefully, given that the whole episode has bent over to set up this talk, and that Chris’s parts are taking up roughly a fifth of the episode, I’d expect they have something really good in store.

After explicitly saying that Connie’s story is a parable, and giving several examples of parables in the Bible, Chris finally gets to the Official Moral.

“You see, a parable is simply a lesson wrapped up in a story. Whether Connie realized it or not, her adventure today was a parable about imitating Jesus.”

Okay, like most of AIO’s audience, I learned words like “parable” at approximately childbirth. There’s certain words that are key to an uber-Christian upbringing; parable, grace, lamb, heaven, hell, blood, sin… but I digress.

“Like the apostle Paul wrote in First Corinthians Eleven One, ‘Be imitators of me, just as I also imitate Christ.’ But imitating Jesus isn’t pretending to be him. It’s just like Connie learned today. Being Whit and being like Whit are two different things.”

This also seems fairly basic. But maybe you have some more particular applications?

“She wore a sweater like his and tried to talk like he did and even tried to fix things like he did. And she wound up making a mess. Whit didn’t mean to try to be him. He just wanted her to do the things he wanted her to do.”

Yes, I know. I was there. I heard the entire episode. What does that actually correspond to, in religious terms?

“Sometimes we make the same mistake when we read in the Bible to be like Jesus. We think we’re supposed to be identical copies of Jesus, and when we fail, we get discouraged.”

What do you mean by identical? Do you mean “as good and kind as?” Or “a carpenter’s son born of a virgin and crucified at 33?” Because one of those things you absolutely should aim to do, and the other one is literally impossible. Is there a third option I’m missing?

“But guess what? God didn’t make us to be identical copies of Jesus, or anyone else. He made us to be unique with different talents and personalities. And we are!”

Wait, first it sounded like this was going to be about being flawed, but now it sounds like it’s about being an individual. Could you clarify?

“In Philippians Chapter two verse five, it says, to have this mind in yourselves, which is like Christ Jesus. Or, have an attitude like Jesus did.”

Ok, still pretty vague, as everyone has their own idea of what Jesus’ attitude was and it tends to correspond pretty closely to their political beliefs.

“We can’t be Jesus, but we can be like Jesus, as we let God work through us and change us. Imitating Jesus is a lifelong process that happens as we study his word, the Bible. Kind of the same as the letter Whit left for Connie and Eugene.”

Again, I heard the episode.

“We also become more like Jesus through talking to him through prayer, just like Whit told Connie to call him if she had any questions.”

And you still have yet to explain what being “like Jesus” actually means. That is, beyond “not being him,” which I already had covered.

“And we can be like Jesus when we obey him, by doing the things he has taught us to do. In fact, there isn’t anything greater in this life for us to do than to learn to be like Jesus.”

Well, I’m glad we’ve got that established. Still don’t have the faintest idea what you think being like Jesus means, or why you think kids are genuinely confused about the difference between being something and being like something. But hey, at least you kept talking about this for two minutes and thirty seconds (seriously, I timed it).

Final ratings

Best Part: Mr. Barclay’s handling of the situation with Jimmy. He’s honestly a lovely character. I can’t wait for some of the Barclay family centric episodes. 

Worst Part: Given that I spent half this article ranting about it, I think it’s got to go to Chris’ neverending summary. 

Story Rating: This is another case where there’s the bones of a good story, but the execution is horribly shoddy. C-

Moral Rating: What even is the moral here? You know, if I was assigned to write a persuasive essay where I failed to even make it clear what I was arguing for, I would probably get a failing grade. So on that rationale, I’m actually going to give this an F. 

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

  • Genre
    • Memoir, Autobiography
  • Summary
    • Frederick Douglass describes his resistance and ultimate escape from slavery in Maryland. 
  • Information
    • In a preface by William Lloyd Garrison, an influential abolitionist of the time, he talks about claims, commonly touted by slavery advocates, of well-treated slaves and bans on excessive punishment. Frederick Douglass, even as a slave, grew up with relative luck. Everyone agreed that Maryland was far less brutal than the deep south, and furthermore he typically got to work as a skilled laborer, rather than grueling field work. Even so, he saw enough violence and brutalities to shock anyone. On top of that, he lays out for his readers the dynamics of psychological abuse, and the ways that even the supposed “kindness” of nicer owners were ultimately just tools to dehumanize. Today, we still hear the same arguments, used to justify white supremacy as “white heritage” and other such nonsense. This book destroyed white supremacist bullshit back then, and it still does today.
    • Plus, the man’s life was fascinating. The way he not only survived but constantly improved himself, in the face of a world where his basic humanity was attacked daily, is incredible. He learned to read despite the fact that it would get him beaten or even killed, just because he wanted to, which pretty much makes him the patron saint of badass bookworms.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • I think most people would, without knowing better, assume this book is historically significant, but old, dull, stuffy, and ultimately not worth reading unless you’re an actual historian or taking a class. If you’ve thought that, let me tell you, you are completely wrong. Frederick Douglass was the furthest thing from stuffy. His prose hits this perfect balance of crisp and straightforward but expressive and moving, and despite how time and language have marched on he is still remarkably readable. It’s a short book, but there is so much in it, you will probably find yourself reading more than you intended to every time you pick it up. In other words, this book isn’t just going to enlighten you about an essential part of our history that we’re still embarrassingly bad at talking about; you will actually like reading it. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The part where he recalls how he taught himself how to read. I don’t want to spoil it but basically he figured out how to trick snotty white boys into teaching him the alphabet and it’s hilarious. 
    • When he goes on rants, it is a fucking joy to read. He comes up with the most devastatingly constructed and beautifully cutting ways to say “fuck you.”
  • Content Warnings
    • I mean, it’s the life of a slave. If you think he’s not going to describe beatings and gaslighting and people being murdered while they beg for their lives, well, you’re probably exactly the kind of person who needs to read this book. 
  • Quotes
    • “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”
    • “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will… Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get.”

Hope For Endangered Species And Their World, by Jane Goodall

Hope for Endangered Species

  • Genre
    • Nonfiction, Conservation, Zoology, Ecology
  • Summary
    • Jane Goodall, together with her fellow activists Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson, investigate success stories of animal species brought back from the brink of extinction.
  • Information
    • These stories are more than just warm, fuzzy and inspiring. They reveal crucial information about the real challenges of environmentalism. It’s easy to rail against human greed and destruction. It’s harder to get into the nitty gritty of what animals can adapt to and what they can’t, about the particular behaviors and needs of diverse species, about the specific links in every ecosystem, and the things we are still learning about rare, endangered species. Every chapter will teach you something you didn’t even realize was an issue, and all the creative ways people have found to overcome it. It’s brilliant and fascinating.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • If you’ve read any of Jane Goodall’s writing, you already know exactly what to expect, and don’t need any further convincing. For the rest of you; this book is full of love. You can feel Jane Goodall’s gentle affection for animals in every sentence. It’s also got a clear, almost homespun clarity to it. You feel like you’re a kid sitting down to tea with your coolest aunt; the one with all the stories, who seems to know everything, and who talks to you in a way that makes you feel more grown-up than you are.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • I think any activist, whether environmental or not, will find this book not only inspiring, but empowering. We struggle with overwhelming obstacles, whatever we fight for, and there are too few narratives that talk honestly about them. We gloss over the mistakes, the failed experiments and the setbacks. As a result, actual activism becomes far too unappealing, and it becomes easier to talk about doing than actually move. This book will show you how, even when there seems to be no hope, the battle can still be won. It shows you how small actions really can add up to bigger changes. It reminds you that it’s worthwhile to fight.
    • Each chapter is a complete story, which can be read independently of the others. I love that in non-fiction. You can go, “okay, wallabies are adorable and all, but I’m dying to know how the california condors made it! Like, they were down to single digits so how the hell do you come back from that???” And voila, you can skip straight to that part. Maybe that’s just my personal impatience talking, but there you go.
    • Beautiful animal pictures! There are both black and white photos, and glossy color plates, and every one is just stunning.
    • If you go for the audiobook, Jane Goodall reads it herself, and she has the most delightfully soothing voice.
  • Content Warnings
    • N/A
  • Quotes
    • “It was close to midnight when Brent called out: ‘There’s one!’ And I saw the eyes of a small animal shining brilliant emerald green as they reflected his spotlight. As we drove closer, I made out the ferret’s head as she looked at us, listening to the engines. She did not vanish as we cautiously drove closer. And when she did duck down, she could not resist popping up for another look before disappearing. When we eventually went over to peek down the burrow, there was her little face, peeking back at us, not at all afraid.” 

 

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The Other Woman

This is the conclusion of the mental health series, and I’ll give both my final ratings for this episode, and my ratings for the topic as a whole.

A bit of background for this episode; at one point in the series, Tom Reilly becomes mayor of Odyssey. He has been a city councilman for a while, but wasn’t interested in seeking a higher office until some circumstances forced his hand. Bart Rathbone, recurring villain, ran against him and lost, which had something to do with the fact that he is a greedy, selfish pathological liar and, frankly, hilariously incompetent. And if I was writing this a couple years ago I’d make some comment about how it was implausible that Bart would even be taken seriously as a candidate, but obviously I can’t do that now… is it 2020 yet?

Anyway, this episode opens with Tom announcing that he is still considering whether or not to run for re-election, and he indicates that he is leaning towards not. This excites Bart, who thinks he might have a chance to be elected this time around, so long as he’s fighting some lesser opponent. He urges his family to think of ways to discourage Tom from running, which leads his wife and son to follow Tom around town.

They catch him going to Hillingdale Haven, which seems to be a kind of hotel or club, and get pictures of him wandering the grounds, romantically entwined with a woman. This raises the question of Tom’s wife. She hasn’t been around for years, but as far as anybody knows she isn’t dead and they aren’t divorced. Bart’s son insists he has seen her once, and this woman isn’t her; she is blonde, and Tom’s wife definitely wasn’t.

They take pictures and bring them to a tabloid. The editor is thrilled, especially when they tell him where the photos were taken. Hillingdale isn’t any kind of resort. It’s a mental hospital.

Naturally, when the story breaks, it comes out that Tom isn’t cheating at all. Tom’s wife, Agnes, has a passion for hair dye, and every couple of months she’s trying out a new color. Her mental illness is, of course, the reason why nobody has seen her, especially while Tom was on the campaign trail. It’s also the reason why Tom has finally decided not to run for a second term. He’s tired of the scrutiny of mayoral life, and the job has kept him away from her far too often. He’s done with it. This announcement does not give the Rathbones the joy they expected. Instead, Bart, for once, feels ashamed of himself.

This episode, as you surely notice, is the only one that explicitly mentions mental health. In all others, I rely on either cases where someone is showing the symptoms of a mental illness, which is not named as such, or someone is going through a short-term reaction to a stressful event; the kind of reaction that is not a mental illness in context, but in which handling the situation is still a mental health question, if that distinction makes sense.

You also probably notice that this episode has almost nothing to do with Agnes. She’s a plot device used to create a false scandal; any innocuous explanation could substitute. I’ve almost left her out of my summary entirely.

But this episode does discuss mental health, albeit in something of a footnote. After Tom’s announcement, Whit and Eugene talk a bit more about Agnes’ condition. What puzzles Eugene is that he has never heard about her. He understands why her mental illness wasn’t public knowledge, but he has never heard it brought up in church (Eugene is a Christian at this point in the series). Whit explains that, when praying didn’t improve her condition, people stopped being comfortable with the discussion.

“At first they prayed for her healing, but she just didn’t get any better. It was awkward. Eventually people stopped asking Tom about it, and Tom stopped mentioning it.”

This is something I’ve wanted to see from AIO for a while: an admission that prayer and faith don’t always work. Every Christian knows about somebody who wasn’t healed by prayer, who wasn’t spared suffering because of their faith. It’s typically not talked about, because it raises questions they are uncomfortable with. And Whit, surprisingly, admits it. When Eugene asks for his thoughts on the answer to those questions, this is the best Whit can do.

“I think there are a lot of Christians who have a hard time dealing with things like unanswered prayer. We want God to heal in our timetable, and problems like mental illness make it even messier for us. We like happy endings. We want these people to get better and get on with their lives, like good Christians… Christians who can’t cope are like poor advertising. They’re embarrassing to us. It raises questions we find hard to answer, like where is God when we become mentally ill?”

Here’s where we get a bit iffier. He’s admitting that stigma exists, but he isn’t really discouraging it. He isn’t exactly encouraging it either; clearly he’s sympathetic towards Agnes and doesn’t seem to think the problem is with her faith, yet he falls into stigmatizing language anyway. He doesn’t say “Christians who have a medical condition,” but rather “Christians who can’t cope.” The phrase “get better and get on with their lives, like good Christians,” casts a complimentary image of people who don’t get better because they’re not good Christians. Even if he’s not supporting this image in all cases, he is indirectly indicating that those who suffer mental health problems are at least sometimes at fault.

When Eugene asks, Whit tries to answer his own question.

“It leaves us where we’ve always been, stuck with the frailty of our humanness. Dependent on the power of God’s will, and obliged to keep praying hard for the Mrs. Reillys of the world, and the Tom Reillys who help them.”

I want to like that answer, because it is doing something rare in AIO canon. Whit isn’t conjuring up some theologically contorted answer. He’s just saying, a bit indirectly, that he doesn’t know. I feel like I’ve been waiting for that since starting this project. And, honestly, I really like to reward people who have the guts to admit that. It’s not easy for anybody, but I think that so many situations would improve if we were all just a little more honest about the limits of our own understanding.

That said, there’s a couple things that stop me from giving full credit. The first is that he doesn’t say “help people like Tom and Agnes” or “work to destigmatize their situation so they don’t have to hide like this.” He just says “pray.” To be fair, I know many religious people who would take it as a given that if you pray and then fail to also do what you can, you might as well not have prayed. But I also have known many religious people who, having prayed, feel they’ve done enough and can move on with clear conscience. And most importantly, it makes the real takeaway of this episode feel less like, “accept that some people have mental health problems that don’t go away on our time table” and more like “accept that, and for goodness sake don’t let it cause you to question the power of prayer!”

I’d have liked it if they had tried to deal with this problem, rather than just point it out and then pat themselves on the back for noticing it.

Final ratings (for the episode)

Best Part: While her appearance is incredibly brief, the interaction between Agnes and Tom is sweet. They tease each other in an obviously still in love way. Also, I do love that what you see of Agnes isn’t her being stereotypically “crazy,” but rather you get a conversation fairly typical of any old married couple, with a few key lines that reveal her conditions. 

Worst Part: I suppose I’m most frustrated by the description of Agnes’ actual diagnosis. They describe it as a “deep depression” but then she mostly shows symptoms of mild dementia? I mean, it’s possible to have both, but this feels less like an attempt to add nuance and complexity to her symptoms and more like they were lazy. 

Story Rating: There’s a lot wrong here. First of all, the tone is horribly inconsistent. All the Rathbones are decidedly buffoonish villains, so naturally an episode with all three will be joke heavy. The scenes of them bickering as they try to follow Tom are pretty funny, but when Agnes Reilly’s mental health problems are revealed, the tone shifts awkwardly.

Then there’s the lack of clear stakes. The main thing at stake seems to be whether or not Tom will run for mayor. It’s hard to root for this when he is so clearly ambivalent to start out. We also know he has main character plot armor. If the writers really wanted him to run again, he would shrug this controversy right off. I suppose we are expected to feel that, since Tom is second only to Whit in his perfectness, we should just want him to be the Eternal Mayor For Life and be devastated at any course that doesn’t keep him in charge forever. 

…. yeah, for failing to put together the events in any compelling or aesthetically satisfying way, this gets a D.

Moral Rating: As I said, I’m not sure if the message is supposed to be “love and support the mentally ill and their caregivers,” which is good, but poorly executed, and I’d give a C+, or “don’t let the mentally ill good Christians out there shake your faith,” which I’d give a D for screwed up priorities, or just “don’t make assumptions and try to smear people with gossip,” which is solid, well illustrated even though the story itself is bleh, and I’d normally give it an A. I’ll split the difference: B-

Ratings for the Mental Health Topic

Best Episode: Letting Go

Worst Episode: Nothing to Fear

Good Things They Said: Support people who are struggling, accept that bad things will happen but face them anyway. Sometimes people of faith still have mental health problems. These all should be common sense, but unfortunately even misconceptions this basic are endemic to both religious and secular communities.

Bad Things They Said: Religion fixes all the things, most mental health problems are spiritual, and people who lack religion can’t cope with death or traumatic life events. All of these are not only inaccurate, but for Christians with mental health issues they can actively make their problems worse.

Things They Failed to Address: Actual, accurate descriptions of mental illnesses and disabilities, the role of conventional medicine. I don’t think this show has to be a PSA on mental health, but I do think that, if you’re going to broach the issue, you should research it as best you can. Furthermore, while conventional medicine is still in trial and error mode when it comes to mental health, it has also healed or at least alleviated the condition of many, many people. I’m not even going to say that this show, created for and by Christians, shouldn’t have promoted religion as a potential source of healing. I’m saying that an episode that, for example, promotes therapists and psychiatrists as a tool God provides for us would have been great.

Overall Rating: The bad messages are emphasized far more than the good ones, and sometimes directly oppose them. The things they fail to address are key to the topic as a whole. Because of this, I think the bad really outweighs the good here. D- 

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

  • Genre
    • Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy
  • Plot Summary
    • Yeine Darr, the mixed race daughter of a banished princess, is summoned to the imperial capital to be named as one of three competing heirs. This summons is not what it seems, and she is pulled into a web of intrigue that involves not only the royal family, but the gods themselves.
  • Character Empathy
    • It’s similar to most SF. The protagonist is likable but mostly serves as someone you can disappear into, rather than a person you come to know, while the secondary characters are more individual and colorful. That’s not my favorite style, but it does make for effective storytelling. 
    • It is heavy with profoundly evil villains, but it earns them in a way many books do not. Most stories with scary, despicable antagonists just let the reader accept that evil is simply a part of that character’s nature. Explaining where evil comes from is usually treated as an excuse for it. This book is unflinching. You understand exactly what created the evil, and comprehending it makes it no less horrifying.
    • The heroes tend to be complicated rather than straightforwardly virtuous. They are wedged into situations where, no matter now much they want to be good, the most they can do is try hard to be less awful.
    • My favorite characters were the gods. I have a weak spot for characters who are easy to care for and relate to, yet are clearly not human.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Intense. The revelations pile up fast, and at the same time the book keeps you asking certain key, agonizing questions until the very end. I listened to this on CD in my car, and I could not wait to get on the road and hear the next disc. And listen, people, I hate driving. I really, really hate it. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Makes a brutal and effective attack on imperialism that you rarely see in epic fantasy. I love the genre, but it does come from a very imperialistic heritage. Modern works tend to either ignore or find a way to excuse their particular characters for engaging in it. It’s cool to see an author actively embrace it as a source of conflict. I wish more writers would do this. 
    • The magical history of the gods is like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else. It raises interesting questions about not only power and justice, but love, family, healing and destruction.
    • The main setting, in the city of Sky, is beautiful, weird, creepy, and a perfect spot for this story. I’m more of a character reader than a setting reader, but this place still grabbed my attention.
  • Content Warnings
    • Most of the attacks the gods and royals make on each other are emotionally manipulative, rather than physical, but there are some gory fights and also a scene of creepy body horror magic.
    • Sexual abuse and threats of it. Usually the actual abuse is offscreen, and the threats are right there. I don’t know whether that made it harder or easier to get through; your mileage may vary.
  • Quotes
    • “In a child’s eyes, a mother is a goddess. She can be glorious or terrible, benevolent or filled with wrath, but she commands love either way. I am convinced that this is the greatest power in the universe.”
    • “We can never be gods, after all–but we can become something less than human with frightening ease.”
    • “But love like that doesn’t just disappear, does it? No matter how powerful the hate, there is always a little love left, underneath.
      Yes. Horrible, isn’t it?”

Choosing Your Influences

A few years ago, when I was a baby SJW, some people recommended Laci Green’s videos to me. I liked what she was saying, but something made me uneasy. I was still finding myself and recovering from my fundamentalist homeschooled background, and all the toxic messages that came with that. I was learning that one of the most damaging things from my childhood was how I felt that disagreeing made me stupid and evil. There was no space to be uninformed, still processing the evidence, or still comparing points of view. My choices were to either accept instantly or be utterly wrong, not just intellectually, but also morally.

Some segments of the social justice community were, frankly, triggering, because they shared that mentality. I don’t use that word to mean “unsettled” or “offended,” which is how many people (mis) use it. I mean it in it’s proper, medical sense; bringing back thoughts, habits or behaviors that interfere with the healing process, or cause symptoms of a mental illness. Laci Green was highly triggering, because even though she was saying things that I agreed with wholeheartedly, she was saying them in ways that made me feel that to continue examining these ideas would made me stupid and evil. At this time, those ideas were new to me, and I was afraid of simply accepting the first thing that came along, no matter how much sense it made. So, despite liking what she was saying, I decided not to follow her.

Even though I had no idea what would happen, I must admit to feeling a big smug, given recent events.*

I bring that up because it was a decision that lead to a habit of carefully choosing who I let influence me. That habit, more than any other, has protected me from activist burnout. I do have finite mental space, and some voices are exhausting, demoralizing, and, yes, triggering. It took some trial and error to work out who actually helped me and who didn’t, but in the end I ended up with a few simple guidelines that have served me fairly well.

First Guideline: Look for People Who Blend Positives and Negatives

Constant angry ranting can be tempting, because anger is contagious, and what do you want from your social network more than a highly shared post?. But it’s a toxic mental diet. It ultimately drains your energy, makes you cynical, and encourages you to spend most of your time putting other people down without adding anything constructive.

That said, I’m not sure nonstop positivity is great either. There are too many problems out there. There is pain and damage and systemic oppression that needs to be addressed. There’s a fine line between positivity and complacency, and an even finer line between complacency and complicity.

When an activist can post something about a systemic problem, and something else praising a solution or celebrating a moment of progress, that tells me they are able to see the world for what it is; a broken place that is still worth fighting for. A world full of people beautiful and precious despite their flaws. It reminds me that social justice is an ongoing, self-experimenting process. It makes me less afraid to take part in that experimentation, even knowing I might fail or prove ignorant. It gives me a hope that is grounded, not ephemeral, and it cultivates patience for a long fight still ahead.

Second Guideline: Look for People Who Evolve

I can’t say it enough; nobody’s perfect, and the people with the most problems are usually the ones most convinced they have nothing to learn.

In the social justice community, we have a bad habit of treating every problematic misstatement as a reason to ditch someone completely, but there are two problems with that. First, sometimes people make honest mistakes, which, given time, they will correct. Second, sometimes it’s not the other person who is wrong, but us. I’ve had times when I thought somebody was deeply misinformed or misguided, but in fact I was missing something. If I had dismissed them offhand, instead of looking closer, I would have missed out on a chance to grow.

This isn’t an easy road for anyone. Nobody has all the experiences needed to understand every point of view. Some of the problems ahead still don’t have clear solutions. If you’re following somebody who hasn’t seemed to change at all, that person is either stagnant or dishonest.

What I look for now is evidence that a person is constantly self-evaluating and re-evaluating. I can never expect to find a person without flaws, but I can expect to follow people who are constantly going through a process of reducing them, and I can hope that practice rubs off on me as well.

Third Guideline: Look for Empathy, Not Consensus

While this criticism has often been misapplied, I think there truly is an echo chamber problem in social justice. Unfortunately, many people seem to think the solution to that is to listen to hatemongers on the far right. I’ve noticed that those who embrace that solution are actually often those who have been least interested in paying attention to inter-community debate. There is so much disagreement among leftists and moderates. Even within small communities, from environmentalism to feminism to LGBTQIA, there are people who see problem A but have no experience of problem B arguing with those are ignorant of A but deeply entrenched in B, and people standing aside, bogged down in problem C, asking “excuse me, excuse me, hello? Anybody hear me?” Then, even when we can all agree that a problem exists, there’s the problem of agreeing on solutions. Clear, straightforward paths are the exceptions, not the rule. Most of the time multiple possible solutions exist, all of which have positives and negatives, all of which have advocates and critics.

It’s dangerously easy, in social justice, to get hooked on one problem you are familiar with, and one solution that appeals to you. But we are all a tiny fraction of the big oppression problem, and while one person’s philosophy might be infuriating because it’s wildly ignorant of your reality, yours might be as infuriating to them for exactly the same reason.

When I’m trying to decide who to engage and argue with, and who to ignore, I find it’s helpful to ignore what they are saying, and instead look at why they are saying it. Sometimes there’s evidence that they are just looking to put others down. There’s no point arguing with someone like that. They don’t really want to listen to you, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re on the far right or only a faint tint bluer or pinker than me. As far as they are concerned, your job is to either puff them up by becoming one of their converts, or puff them up by letting them stomp all over you to the applause of their cheering fans.

Others, however, agree with my basic values, and share my goal of making the world a better place. They just have an idea I disagree with. Those people are worth arguing with, whether the gaps are vast or small, because there is some hope of mutually educating each other.

The only type of philosophy that’s not worth listening to is one that devalues the fundamental worth of a human being. So long as there’s agreement on human value, everything else is just a difference of how we fight for human rights. Don’t engage with people who, with their words or their actions, make a habit of putting other people down. Do engage with people who have different plans to create a world that’s fairer and freer for everybody.

Zeroth Guideline: Trust Yourself

This is the zeroth guide, not the fourth, because it transcends all the others. I didn’t predict what Laci Green would end up doing. In fact, it was only retroactively that I could put any words to it. Even after my vague negative vibe turned into a nameable thing, I never would have anticipated what actually happened. I was just following my gut about what seemed emotionally healthy to me.

Do that thing.

Do challenge yourself. Sometimes you’ll hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, but that also makes you better for hearing it. It’s worth pushing through that discomfort. But when you feel like you’re becoming a person you don’t like, or your mental health is being negatively affected, you don’t need to spell out exactly why you aren’t comfortable. Nor do you need a reason why nobody on earth should listen to that person ever; you aren’t everyone, you’re just you. Listen to the voices that make you a stronger, happier, better informed and ultimately more loving kind of person. Don’t waste time on all the rest.

*For those who haven’t followed it or haven’t heard of Laci Green; She’s a prominent Youtuber who vlogs about feminism, consent culture and sex ed. In the past she’s received a lot of praise, but also been criticized as an example of White Feminism; the problem of mainstream feminism being synonymous with the issues of white women, or erasing issues and perspectives of Black women. Over the past several weeks, she has announced that she started dating an anti-social justice, “alt right” white supremacist Youtuber. She also has been using her various platforms to legitimize voices of white supremacists, anti-feminists and anti-trans activists. Her defense has been that SJWs are too sensitive and PC and won’t engage with the other side, which, given previous criticisms and my original reason for ditching her, is highly ironic.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

  • Genre
    • Fantasy, Coming-of-Age
  • Plot Summary
    • A poor girl named Minli goes on a quest to ask the Old Man of the Moon how to improve her family’s fortune.
  • Character Empathy
    • Both Minli and the companions she meets along the way are fun and likable. They were all characterized in the classic fairy tale way; quickly characterized and simple, prone to either remain unchanged or to change in very archetypal ways. Despite that, they all felt very vivid and lifelike. That’s not easy to pull that off, and it was absolutely wonderful.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • A mixture of charmingly lighthearted and enchantingly beautiful. This is very much a  fairy tale adventure, but Grace Lin spices it with the effortlessly lovely descriptions of places, people, foods and scenes. Reading this book is like walking through a garden; stimulating but peaceful, and good for the soul.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Unlike many hero’s journey stories, where the people at home are abandoned offstage, this book periodically returns to Minli’s parents. They struggle in the aftermath of her disappearance, but ultimately both grow as people. It’s not something I’ve ever seen before, and I loved it. 
    • Tons of stories within stories that ultimately weave together in the most delightfully satisfying way. 
    • Dragons and grumpy old wise men and talking goldfish!
  • Content Warnings
    • None
  • Quotes
    • “If you make happy those that are near, those that are far will come.”