I do not like telling stories about myself. It isn’t that I think people should not tell stories about themselves generally (though memoir is one of my least favorite genres of writing) – if you have a story to tell, more power to you. I just feel like…the stories I have to tell are about other people. Mostly made up people, if you get down to it. Make of that what you will.

I don’t think my life is particularly interesting, and I also have a really bad memory. I don’t remember whole swathes of my life, for reasons I can only guess at and don’t want to get into. Suffice to say, in the rare event that someone tells a story of something they remember me saying or doing, especially years ago, there’s a good chance I’ll have no idea what they’re talking about. They say that people with depression have smaller hippocampuses, and maybe that has something to do with it, I don’t know.

But I listened to Mike Perna’s episode of Bard and Bible a few days ago, and I decided, OK, I’ll tell a few brief Doug stories. These stories are about suicide, so if you don’t want that, now you know to skip this post. (These are not all of my stories about suicide, but they are the ones I’m telling today) I respect your time, so I’ll keep them as brief as I can while still maybe making sense.

First, I’m perpetually the New Guy, and before that, was perpetually the New Kid. I counted, and I’ve moved 24 times in my 37 years of life. No, I’m not a military brat or anything like that. I’ve just moved a lot – with my family as a kid, then as an adolescent, then as an adult.

As the perpetual New (Fat, Nerdy, Short) Kid, I had to sharpen my natural defenses. The key was always humor. After being pretty steadily beaten up and bullied and made fun of up through elementary school, I put together that if I was able to be consistently funny I would generally be safe. Not all the time, but most of the time. Being my dad’s fifth child and my mom’s third child meant lax parenting, so I watched a lot of late-night TV even as a kid. I watched a lot of comedy specials, and as much as I could, I’d absorb them, and then replay them at school with my own spin in order to shield myself with laughter. By Middle School I had a pretty solid repertoire of Robin Williams and Richard Pryor, among others, and was always someone who was trying to be funny. All this to say, Robin Williams in particular saved me from a lot of ass-kickings. Beyond that, he always seemed like an amazing person. He’s a lifelong hero, the kind of rare, wild genius that I feel privileged to have shared the world with.

Next, I’m a teenager and I have a crush on this girl. She and I are really close friends, actually. We hang out a lot; when I sneak out, it is to go hang out with her. She knows I have this boundless teenage love for her, and she does not feel the same way, and we’re both aware of all of that. It was what it was. But I’d take what I could get, so we spent a lot of time together.

One night, I’m dropping her off at home (I had an early birthday and was an early driver among my friends), and she tells me that she’s going to commit suicide. I beg her not to, but she has made up her mind, tells me goodbye, gets out of the car and goes inside. I’m just sobbing in this Chevy Blazer for I don’t know how long. Eventually she comes back out, gets back in, and tells me that she won’t. If I’ll stop crying, and go home and go to sleep, she promises she won’t.

Then she does.

Next, a year or two later, I’m in my dad’s office. It’s very late, and I’m so depressed and upset and angry and sick of the shitshow of being alive that I have taken down the case where he keeps a revolver. Six bullets shine in little shaped holes like board game pieces. (Not a simile I thought of at the time) With shaking hands I open the mechanism that lets the cylinder fall to the side and I start putting a bullet in each chamber. Why more than the one bullet I’d be using? I have no idea. Symmetry, maybe.

I remember the nauseating weight of it in my hand.

I hold the gun, hands still shaking, feeling like I’m going to throw up a clot of darkness out of the pit of my insides; thinking about whether I’ll feel the impact of the bullet to the side of my head, or just feel a hot dry shove and then nothing, or what. Will I go to Hell, or just fall and never hit the bottom?

I would love to say that Jesus came to me then, or that I thought about the people who loved me and how I’d hurt them, or what it would be like for my dad to wake up to a bang and find my brains all over his shelves. I thought of those things, but I had already thought of those things, and yet there I was in that room, in that moment, weighing whether to end everything because that would also end the pain of being. I knew I would hurt people, but I thought they were misguided. They didn’t understand, would be better off without me.

What happened was, I hit bottom. Whatever step there was before the very last step – that’s where I stopped. I felt like I had fallen a long way, but had slammed into a cold concrete floor, and would not fall any further. I would hurt horribly, would be miserable, but I would not fall farther than that. Not now, anyway.

Feeling like I was going to pass out, I put the gun and bullets back exactly as I found them, went back to my room, told no one. I’d continue to fantasize about killing myself for the next fifteen or so years, but never did it. Obviously.

Next, I’m working as a barista in San Anselmo, California, while going to seminary. I’m at Marin Coffee Roasters and in walks Robin Williams. My hero. The shimmering barrier of humor between me and innumerable ass-kickings. The guy who, for all intents and purposes, is the person I want to be. Yes, he suffers from depression, I’ve read all about that and his marriage troubles and his drug abuse and so on – but he does all of these things and is also world-famous for being hilarious and wonderful. Meanwhile, I’m a broke, depressed Seminary student. He did things in the world – I was just a fan. Yeah, I’d trade lives with the guy, no question.

He was a big bike-rider at the time, and Marin Coffee Roasters was kind of a bike hangout, so he comes in and orders a small mocha. I make him his small mocha, and he says thanks; shares a small smile. I am literally clamping down on all of the things I want to tell him, just boiling up inside of me, because honestly he looks exhausted and I don’t want to impose on the guy. Well, I want to follow him home like a whimpering puppy and hope he takes me in, but the mocha is all I give him.

Last, Robin Williams commits suicide on August 11th, 2014 – three years ago today. Three years later I’m still basically without words. He got to that moment, and bottom for him was just one step farther down than it was for me. He fell past where I stopped, and that was that. The person I desperately wanted to be for years was dead, and I was alive.

And then Prince, and then Chris Cornell, and then Chester Bennington, about whom Mike Perna spoke so eloquently on the Bard and Bible podcast, which set this post in motion.

If you want someone to talk to, I am always available, for this, for anyone, any time. I don’t advertise that, but maybe I should. I have talked to other people who have been in that place, and I have been there, or somewhere like it.

You can also talk to other people who want to help, and who want you to live.

I don’t have a conclusion for this. No summation, no lesson to walk away with. Just what I wrote. Just that and no more.

Core Emotions

Inside Out emotions

I was recently listening to an episode of the Two Pastors Podcast dealing with fear, anxiety, anger and hatred, and it got me thinking. I really enjoyed Inside Out, in part because it very effectively and dramatically incorporated a lot of research on core emotions that I have been learning about for the last few years, particularly based on the work of Paul Ekman. (If you have ever heard of a “micro-expression” then you’ve heard something of Ekman’s work) In brief, Ekman and others have identified five (or maybe six) core emtions based on universal human facial expressions and bodily cues. In the context of Inside Out, there were five core emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy and sadness. To this list Ekman and others might add surprise, but that isn’t an important one for what I want to talk about.

I’ve used ideas around these core emotions, and their healthy expression and function, in situations like pastoral counseling and the spirituality groups I led for the behavioral health program at a hospital in San Francisco. I’ve also used these ideas a lot in my own life, not only trying to increase my EQ but also better understand myself and better manage my own mental illness challenges (depression and anxiety).

I found this really cool matrix based on the Inside Out emotions online that show show these five core emotions can combine to create other emotional experiences. I liked it, but I didn’t think it was quite right, so I made my own:

Anger Disgust Fear Joy Sadness
Anger Rage Hatred Panic Triumph Grief
Disgust Hatred Revulsion Horror Morbid Fascination Loathing
Fear Panic Horror Terror Surprise Despair
Joy Triumph Morbid Fascination Surprise Ecstacy Nostalgia
Sadness Grief Loathing Despair Nostalgia Despondency

One of these that I think I need to explain is the combination of joy and anger, I decided to characterize as triumph. Previously, I had fiero and also righteous anger in that slot: fiero I get from Ekman – he thought there was a particular facial expression for the feeling one experiences in something like a crucial sports victory, and he didn’t think there was a good English word for that feeling, so he used an Italian one. But just imagine the exultant, gritted-teeth, clenched fist emotion someone might exhibit right after they score a goal. This emotion might be distinct from righteous anger, but righteous anger was another example of how I understand a combination of anger and joy. I decided to go with triumph, however, but I’m not as confident about that one as I am with others.

Another key note: of the five core emotions, each has a healthy and necessary function for us, even though we think of most of them as “negative emotions.” In fact, of those listed, the only obviously “positive” one is joy. But one thing I loved about Inside Out is that each of the emotions had their place in one’s health, and a person couldn’t get by without all of them. Just like in real life.

Where one emotion intersects with itself in the matrix, I just listed an extreme form of that emotion, each of which is probably less healthy in its own right. But how these various combinations map to “health” and so on is a whole other discussion.

For now, just check out the matrix and tell me what you think. For me, it was helpful just to write out, if nothing else.

RPG Social Mechanics, Player Agency, and the Fantasy of Free Will

 I was listening to the most recent episode of Happy Jack’s RPG Podcast while walking in to work today, and once again the topic of social mechanics in games came up. Specifically, the conflict between player agency, through their characters, and using social mechanics on other player-characters. On the one hand, if someone creates a socially adept character, you don’t want to make that decision dependent on their own roleplaying skills, or make it a far less valuable choice than creating a character who is adept at magic or combat. (Of course, in almost every RPG ever written, the social stat is still the dump stat). On the other hand, there is a concern about a player’s agency – that if their character loses a social conflict over something important, and has to act against their wishes, then that is a serious problem.

Full disclosure: I don’t think it’s a problem for a player to lose control of their character periodically, and I think it’s odd that we focus on social mechanics in this discussion. I mean, if your D&D character is critically hit by a Dragon and dies, or by a Beholder and is turned to stone, no one complains that they have lost “player agency” or anything of the sort. Those are the rules, the dice were rolled and that’s it. Similarly, if a character is chasing an NPC and the NPC uses a spell to become invisible and escape, no one complains about player agency. The character wanted to catch the NPC, but they couldn’t, because rules.

But then, in a game with a social mechanic, a character gets into an argument with an NPC, and the NPC wins the argument, and suddenly if the character has to behave any differently, that’s a big problem for many players. When I’m a player, I just roll with it, and it doesn’t bother me at all. I come up with a reason my character is convinced, s/he acts against their better judgement, and the game goes on. Maybe later there will be a reckoning and maybe not, but the story moves on. We do things against our better judgment all the time, and one big reason for this is the influence of other people close to us.

As I was thinking about this, I thought about free will. Specifically, what philosophers call libertarian free will, which is not something to do with Ayn Rand, but rather the term for fully free will in contrast to determinism. Basically it says that free will cannot exist in a deterministic universe, and therefore determinism is false.

Inside all of us, I think, is a sense of someone in charge of everything. There is an inner sense that we deliberate and make choices and remember and so on. We think of this inner sense as our true self, or soul, or free will, or mind, etc. Particular with regard to punishment, we have an intuition that people make free choices, and that it is fair to punish them for those choices.

This is in direct contrast to actual research on the topic. There is a lot of research that shows how free will is limited, and may not even exist. Our brains make some decisions before we are even consciously aware of them. Our perceptions are filtered unconsciously. Our memories are re-interpretations rather than recordings of past events, and they change over time. We are primed to see what we expect to see.

And while we have the intuition of a decision-making self, we also all probably have had experiences where we have not been able to choose what we wanted to choose. We’ve consciously, or semi-consciously, made the wrong choice. Maybe it was because of an altered state, or because of the influence of others, or being in the grip of a strong emotion or whatever – but there are choices we are not able to make, even if we theoretically have the capacity to make them.

This should also be true of our characters – they aren’t just sitting back making rational decisions. And I think this should be reflected in play and in the use of social mechanics. Libertarian free will does not seem to be the reality we experience, but I think the fantasy persists in the way we play games. We want total control over our characters even when we do not experience total control of our own lives.

An Update, in Lieu of Content

I’m not sure what to do with this blog right now, but I don’t want it to die, and I thought I’d post a little update on what I’m doing. Parsec is done (at last!) after a very successful Kickstarter campaign, and I’m proud of the end result. I have heard from some groups that are playing it, and I’m glad to hear it, and I hope many more are that I’m not hearing about.

I still find time to listen to podcasts, mostly when I am relaxing and playing Oblivion (I finished Skyrim first and then went backwards to Oblivion). The ones that I’m most excited to find in my feed are:

Aldasaga (Tolkien and Old Norse) is a special kind of awesome, and started relatively recently. The focus of the podcast is the works of JRR Tolkien and how they draw from Norse myth. In short, they draw from Norse myth more than I’d thought, and so far the podcast is fascinating.

Freakanomics is the only way I can tolerate listening to things about economics. I know I should understand it to be a participant in society and so on, but it’s just so…dismal. Freakanomics focuses on the surprising or counter-intuitive aspects of economics, including how the President of the US has almost no impact on the US economy. The topics are presented in a way that is likely to inform and entertain actual human beings.

This American Life is possibly the best podcast, period. It is Ira Glass going through amazing stories that follow a different them for each show. If you want to be moved and amazed, give them an hour and it’s almost guaranteed.

WNYC’s Radiolab is like This American Life’s little brother. Jad and Robert, the hosts, take a theme, but their themes are often related to science, technology and a little bit of philosophy. They approach these topics through stories much the way that TAM does, and like TAM they are consistently excellent.

Writing Excuses is the best podcast on the art, craft and business of writing, period. Each episode is only 15 minutes and they are currently in season 7. If you are a writer, or are interested in writers, then this should be a number one listening priority.

On the other hand, I’m doing a lot of writing, which feels good. Well, I’m doing as much as I can, given that I’m also a stay-at-home dad most days. I have continued to work on Never Pray Again with my Two Friars and a Fool collaborators, though I have taken a break from that. I wrote a ton on it for a few months, and sort of burned myself out until I can see more from Aric and Nick that I can respond to and be inspired by.  I am also collaborating on a number of projects: some supplements for Parsec focusing on Mars and the Asteroid Belt, a Victorian Gothic horror game called Clockwork, and a more-than-an-ebook adventure for bySwarm’s Dark Golden Age setting. Lastly, Reckoning, our horror rpg, is limping along, mostly neglected because of all of these other things going on.

In addition, I always have a few projects on my many back burners. I’ve been working on a poetry portfolio, theoretically as part of a possible Master’s in Fine Arts program application, and I’ve been learning that I am terrible at territory. I also have a few games percolating, including Fivefold Qi and still poking around with Heroes of Karia. I am also trying my hand at some fiction: a long-form story called Dragonblade and two short stories, one about a person who hires assassins to kill himself and the other about a superhero sidekick who turns villain. These are for a thematic anthology on sidekicks, and I may not finish them in time but they still interest me to see through.

Is that a lot of writing? Hell yes. And it’s awesome, and I want to keep writing as much as I can for as long as I can.