I recently ran across the fascinating ‘Gatekeeping’ subreddit . Gatekeepers are individuals (in this case, ones usually creating image macros or commenting on the internet) who are wedded to the notion that -if you fail to meet such and such criteria- you can not claim an identity, a problem, hardship, or so on. Even if you’re not familiar with the term, you’re familiar with the trope. Here’s some telling examples:

Real men can change their own car tires.

If you were actually a Prince fan, you could name songs beyond Purple Rain.

Real americans oppose Obamacare.

You don’t know what tired truly is until you have children.

Some choice words that typify this behavior is ‘real’ ‘actual’ ‘can’t claim’ or ‘don’t know.’

Once pointed out, I can only assume that this is an incredibly basic human behavior (at least in our culture but it feels more universal than that) because now I’ve started seeing it everywhere. I relate this phenomenon back to some of my thoughts about ‘identity maintenance’ – at best, it seems like a lot of this is based on people wanting to ensure the parts of their identity ‘mean’ something and will be recognized (and possibly rewarded) as having worth derived from a price paid or other special qualities. At worst, this sort of behavior is yet another way humans are cruel to one another; a way we resist recognizing someone else’s humanity.

The first problem is in setting standards is that for most things there is a complicated, contradictory tangle of ‘standards’ for any aspect of our identity that will -inevitably- change drastically over time (both in a personal and social level). But there are other issues.

People in closed groups are welcome to establish terms that denote something with specific standards attached. For instance, if a martial arts school wants to set a standard that ‘to be a black belt means you can break a brick with a punch’ then they are welcome to set that standard and enforce it (ie, it would be a lie to claim to be black belt in that school if you hadn’t reached that benchmark). Likewise, if your church conceives of marriage as a ceremonial rite between a man and a woman, you’re welcome to claim that the marriages of those outside your congregation aren’t recognized by your church. But most of us do not spend much time in closed groups like these; we’re mostly part of big, fluid, evolving groups (many of which we never opted into but were lumped into as an accident of the particularities of our birth). These groups (our city, our state, our country, our families, all the designations we’re given, etc.) can and should work to make themselves more inclusive and accommodating. The hassle comes in where closed groups don’t realize that they are idiosyncratic, when they try to claim semantic privileges that are bigger than them; like a group of weight lifters deciding what it means to be a ‘real man’ based on how much you bench or a small group of video game players deciding what being a ‘true gamer’ or a clade of geeks setting a standard of what being a ‘true fan’ means and so on. This is both due to the fact that people confuse their ingroup with society as well as the fact that they often don’t see the outgroup as truly ‘real’… not truly people.

If we start a club we get to set standards for what club membership means and craft endless subdivisions of identity therefrom with all manner of ranks, titles, and forfeits. For issues like our gender, our government, our society writ large; for these terms and claims multiple individuals and groups can and do claim; none of us wholly ‘own’ the concepts and identities herein and the instinct to lay claim to such terms – to play ‘gatekeeper’ always leads to ill ends. Definitions of words matter, but definitions always stretch, always change, and -ultimately- I think so much posturing, so much frustration and argument comes from people not understanding a definition or concept nearly as much as they think they do and papering over this gulf of understanding with bluster.

On a personal level, I think I deal with issues of gatekeeping most strenuously around the concept of manhood. I so despise the concept of ‘real man.’ It’s hard; sometimes people I care about try to compliment me on my strength, or my facial hair, or my fathering by talking about how I’m a real man and I need to do a better job refuting that. On a societal level, the best working definition I have, is to be a man simply means that you see yourself as a man. On a personal level, I have a set of standards, expectations, and responsibilities I set for myself related to considering myself a man; though this is a personal definition which I don’t expect or even want others to abide by… hell, I’m not even sure I could or would want to communicate these, as most of the personal conceits I have around manhood were inherited notions fraught with problematic threads that I’m working to disentangle so I can keep what’s worthy and discard everything that doesn’t serve me.

To understand that identity is not this pristine, platonic form descending down from on high but rather something that you can, that you must co-create (or suffer from someone using the framing of identity to serve their ends rather than yours) is disorienting, difficult, but oh so worth pursuing.

For myself, when I feel that gatekeeper instinct rising in my gut I try to temper it with the knowledge that for most things, I’m not the arbiter, I’m not the decider. If people claim to feel something, I believe them. When people claim an identity, I accept that. And -when in doubt or all things being equal- I’ll try to work a little harder to enlarge my groups, invite more people to participate/play inside my walled garden rather than use my faculty with language to express why they don’t, can’t possibly belong.

Be More Materialistic

This is the essay version of a recent Toastmasters speech. Hat tip to David at Rapitude whose piece We are not Materialistic Enough Inspired this speech/essay.


To be ‘Materialistic’ means ‘excessively concerned with material possessions, money-oriented’ and I’m not advocating that you, or anyone should be ‘excessively concerned’ with anything. But, in common usage, we mainly say ‘materialistic’ to describe people who aren’t sufficiently concerned with material possessions but who instead are interested in status and image and the appearance of wealth (and who are often quite unconsciously so). To illustrate, let me tell you a story about my daughter.

At two and half years of age, my daughter is innocently materialistic. This last Christmas was her third Christmas; her first Christmas was just another swirling cascade of sights and sounds without much context, her second Christmas was dominated by the crinkle joy of pulling wrapping paper apart, but this was perhaps the first Christmas wherein she understood that she was being given things that would be hers.

She would be given a present, a book say, and after opening it she would immediately want Continue reading

Writing is Absurd

As counterpoint to yesterday’s post, I wanted to write about the absurdity of writing.

People claim to write due to a whole litany of reasons that all sound good on paper: truth, art, beauty, to persuade, to improve society, to communicate truth or to transcend this particular moment/make something that lasts. The fact is however, most writing will not be read in a meaningful way, and of that tiny fraction that is read or popular, only a tiny fraction has a chance of being read ten years from now… let alone a hundred. For any of the above stated goals, for any sort of work that is generally considered ‘meaningful,’ a would-be aspiring writer would most likely be better off investing their time they would spend writing into making money, and then using that money to influence society in ways that are meaningful to them/support better artists.

While we dress it up in fancy words (as we dress up *everything* in fancy words) the truth is, most writers write simply because they have the itch to write. At best it is a simple itch, a single story that wants to get out. At worst it is a constant pressure, similar to that or a dairy cow that wants for milking. Writers excrete stacks of words because they need to, and then elevate, glamorize this process, pinning some higher motive beyond absurd cognitive relief after the fact.

These word stacks are never the experience they harken to, and as such are paltry and withered in comparison. Even worse, the word stacks can get in the way of seeing, understanding, taking part of the experience; the sign and symbol replacing the reality and encouraging people to live in a threadbare map rather than the territory.

The vast majority of writing -and hence the writing most writers can reasonably expect to create- is (at best) masturbatory; that is to say, a fun way to spend some time that is not really of interest to most others. And at worst, most writing is solipsistic, trapping writers and cognition in a simplified world of their own without touching or making a mark to the world at large (or drawing attention from it).

Many years ago, I was given the advice that if you can quit writing, you should do so. For better or for worse, I can’ quit; and hence will do my best to own my absurdities, my inadequacies as a writer striving to be the best I can be (while still keeping in mind that this is an often absurd exercise).

Writing is a Sacred Act

As counterpoint to tomorrow’s post about the absurdity of writing, I wanted to post today about how writing is a sacred, vitally important act for me.

When you compare human beings to our closest living relatives -the other great ape species- you notice several interesting and base physical characteristics: we have smaller jaws, we maintain our juvenile features longer, we are able to live and coordinate as part of larger groups, and so on. All of these are hallmarks of domesticated species. And so, one way to understand what a human being is is to consider them as a domesticated great ape.

If you accept this framework, you immediately ask well what domesticated us? We did, or dogs, or wheat are all compelling answers. But I think the most accurate way to consider us is that we were domesticated by story. And just as dogs have been selectively bred to better manipulate us (and we have been bred to better function as part of dog-human teams), so too have we co-developed with stories, our abilities to tell and shape them growing in tandem with their ability to guide and shape us.

To be a writer is to commune, argue, shape, fight, love, remake, and be remade by story. You don’t have to invent any fictional entities to understand that writers & storytellers of all stripes have always been doing the same sort of work; communing with stories to guide their communities and (if they are skillful and good) reshape their social world for the better or (if they are unskilled or bad) lead their people to ruin.

The use of word, the use of story is the prerequisite for everything not determined by biology and it is a fundamental tribute to the success of past writers that the most successful stories have been rendered invisible, are -for most everyone- indistinguishable from our biological imperatives. Long term, the stories we tell about ourselves lead us to heaven or hell, thriving or extinction.

Words are our escape from atemporality, like the ‘words’ of our DNA they allow communion over vast gulfs of time; the chance to preserve something worthy, transcend the limitation of our present moment. As writing/story weaving can be used to help or harm, reveal truth by inducing a sideways glance at it or lie; there is no greater sacred trust: Writing is a sacred act.

Review: Omegaball by Robert Peterson

4/5 Stars


Omegaball is a YA science fiction about rival twin daughters of radically different impairments playing hyper robot football with a backdrop of future VR internet & terrorism. It’s a well crafted story that -though its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp- works more than it doesn’t.

Longer Review

One of the things I most liked about Omegaball is that it is stuffed full of great ideas; from the well visualized future VR internet based on an utterly unique (and story relevant/evocative) interface of ‘jacking in’ to other individuals to a completely plausible future robot sport. Omegaball never suffers from ‘lack of cool.’ While introducing these concepts it manages a nice balance of informing the reader while keeping the plot moving forward.

The characters were well realized, although the depth of the antagonism between the two twin sisters felt unreal, soap-operatic. Likewise, the book suffers most from a few too many layers of plot trying (and failing) to do that Hunger Games trick where the ‘sport’ the players are engaged in ends up having massive socio-political consequences. [Spoiler Warning] Also, in my opinion, it sabotages the natural moment of emotional resolution, the twin sisters playing ball against one another for a pseudo-reconciliation based on both being in mortal danger by the bad guys). Even with the ‘commentary’ levels of narrative the terrorist part of the plot feels stapled on, a graft weakening the main body of the story.

That said, Omegaball is worth your time as a fun young adult romp with cool tech, well realized characters who move past the stereotypes of their impairment, and bitching VR and Robot sport scenes.

Buy a copy of Omegaball