Tag Archives: self-analysis

Red Shoelaces

I was born in 1974 in a poor city in northern Ohio. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to regale you with my whole life story. But circumstance and environment shape perspective, so I ask for your indulgence). My developmental years fall in the 1980s and early 1990s. It featured concerns (and the eventual decline) of nuclear fear, the Cold War, and the twin god-emperors of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. I was angry and attracted to rebellion, but I was a hearing impaired, socially awkward nerd without access to nightclubs or musical friends. As a result, I wasn’t shaped by one musical movement, so I sampled from anything I could find. I listened to heavy metal and hardcore hip-hop before finding inspiration from bootleg punk cassettes. The rough lyrics and basic chords tunneled through my thick hearing and seared my heart.

When I went to college and got access to real subcultures, I dyed my hair sea-foam green in time for punk to evolve away from me. All my friends wore black, Victorian clothes, which appealed to my secret love of the literature but made me feel awkward and ugly. I grew to love Vampire: The Masquerade and became part of a massive live-action game on the campus of the University of Akron. But even then, the Brujah and the Anarchs spoke to me, the last gasp of old-school punk in a growing crowd of pale and sexy people.

As I embraced my outdated aesthetic, I clung to Vampire‘s self-applied model of Gothic-Punk, and saw punk all around me. Again, I lived in Ohio, which did not have a thriving underground scene (or at least, not one I was invited to), but the media I consumed filled the void. Judge Dredd comics and Doctor Who episodes smuggled from friends in the UK. Hellblazer comics bought when I could afford them. Games of Cyberpunk and Kult played when we could find time. I sought out anything that felt punk to me.

And that’s when I met my first neo-Nazi, around 1994. And he terrified me. I remember swastikas tattooed all over his head, and the red shoelaces on his boots. In fact, he’s the one who explained the red shoelaces to me. It was a badge of pride, which became a warning as I refused to speak out against my friends of the “mongrel races.” If I ever saw anyone with red shoelaces, he explained, that person would hurt me as a traitor to my race. He told me to reconsider.

I was scared and angry, and in my head, I wanted to punch him back, punch him first, do something to get him to stop saying such horrible things. What I did was shake my head, refusing his bile, and then I hurried away. My whole body shook uncontrollably as I called the police and babbled incoherently before hanging up. I stayed to clubs and houses that firmly excluded neo-Nazis, and a few times I was the person who acted as lookout while my friends threw the punches I never had the nerve to throw.

After that, I had bigger concerns: I flunked out of college and looked for a job to pay for rent in a barely furnished house. But I let my hair grow out, ditched my leather jacket, and steered clear of people with red shoelaces in their boots. All my punk trappings became a costume for my character, not a part of me anymore, because I betrayed them. I had my first chance to throw a punch against tyranny, and I had failed.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Over the years I’ve reincorporated bits of my old punk persona back into my life. As I gain more experience and access things on the Internet I never saw before, I’ve come to understand what I was actually chasing. I became an archaeologist of my youth, uncovering the connections and threads that got lost in fear and awkward Midwestern understanding. I discovered that while I had used the word “punk” as a hammer for every nail of “thing that spoke to me,” I wasn’t entirely off-base. If I had closer contacts to groups like the straight edge movement or antifa punks, I probably would have had a clearer path, and a better outlet for the anger and terror of my youth. When I got a chance to work on Vampire, I channeled that old-school punk voice because I felt it was lost under the polished, darkly erotic surface. I dropped “punk” as an exclusive term in describing myself, and instead made it part of my personal gestalt.

In recent months, I’ve been reminded of those formative years again. It felt like a second chance for me to reclaim discarded punk mantle and vindicate my past self-treachery. Neo-nazis weren’t something from World War II; they were a terror from my past, an evil I could slay now that I was older and wiser. Surely, I could finally punch a Nazi.

I learned that an alt-right rally was scheduled to take place less than an hour from my house, and I was filled with an old, familiar terror. I found myself glancing at a stranger’s boots once, checking his shoelaces.  I didn’t know what to do, and social media shouted about punching Nazis and not punching Nazis. I never had much of a punk scene in my life, so I went back to the scene I had constructed for myself: the TV shows and comics and books that influenced me.

I started from first principles, and I discovered all the things I ham-fistededly collated as part of the same movement had two things in common. They all had a sense of humor and a lingering sense that everything would work out in the end. The anger and violence (both physical and social) was there, but they could be directed to a purpose. The Doctor didn’t use violence, but he still stood up against fascists, angrily pointing out how ludicrous they were. John Constantine was an asshole, but he was an asshole that used his brain. As I move outside the punk sphere, most of my heroes used intelligence and conversation as much or more than violence: Sherlock Holmes, the Fantastic Four, Captain Kirk, Ford Prefect, and so on. While I had obsessed over the trappings, I had missed the result that not everyone who fought racists and fascism used a fist and a broken bottle. Some people rebelled through a loud scream, an angry satire, or a damning put-down, and not all conversation is about conciliation. In the end, I would never be Sid Vicious, but I could be Tom Baker’s Doctor. (Or, to steal the language of Vampire, I wasn’t a Potence Brujah, but I could be a Presence Brujah.)

My life is now based around words. They’re my weapons, my shield, my livelihood, and my obsession. Sometimes I tell my own stories, and sometimes I help others tell stories to each other, but this is who I am and what I do. Just because my hands shake from fear and adrenaline doesn’t mean I won’t stand up against what I think is wrong. Some days my words are careful and considered, and others they’re a jumbled mess of passion and anger. I know now that I didn’t fail when I refused to punch that neo-Nazi; I had succeeded when I refused to bow to his hateful rhetoric. I didn’t punch someone in the face, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t stand and fight. And now I know that not everyone with red shoelaces is going to hurt me.

It’s okay to like things that I hate

I am continually surprised that I have to defend things I don’t like to people that do, or vice versa.

Here’s an example. A lot of my friends are really interested in the Dystopia Rising LARP. I’m sure it’s really awesome, but for a variety of reasons, I’m just not interested in it. I want people to enjoy their enthusiasm of new things, even if I occasionally need to mute email threads or posts on my social media feeds just so it stops popping up. And yet, once in a while I’ll get someone new who doesn’t realize I’m not interested, and I have to politely inform them.

This is where it gets awkward, because sometimes, people want to know why. And conceptually, I understand it — perhaps if there’s some misunderstanding I hold as to why I don’t like the game, it can be addressed. People want to share something they enjoy with people they like, and really enthusiastic fans want to remove barriers from people who could be fans. I understand all of these motivations, and I respect them, but sometimes it feels like I need to justify why I dislike something. I end up needing to articulate exactly why I hate it, and if that reason is not somehow sufficient, I am not “giving it a fair chance.”

Let’s try a different example. Something that will shock no one is that I like Elementary, but once in a while I’ll run into a rabid fan of BBC Sherlock who feels the need to explain in vitriolic terms why they hate the show. Again, aside from the irritating tendency to thread crap, if people want to hate something, feel free. But once in a while, I get put on the spot to justify liking the show, implying that somehow I cannot possibly like Sherlock if I like Elementary. (And let’s face it: I like Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. If liking bad Holmes media is a crime, consider me guilty.)

For a while, I chalked a lot of this up to misplaced enthusiasm. It’s natural to share things we like and find people who hate the things we hate, and the simple mantra of “we don’t have to like the same things” seemed sufficient. But over the years, my stance on this has gotten muddier. Let’s take, for example, Orson Scott Card. He is an influential science-fiction writer who has “highly polarizing viewpoints” (which is a nice way of saying he’s a bigot). Without getting into the various debates on Card himself, the result has been a lot of very conflicted people who sincerely liked Ender’s Game but feel uncomfortable supporting Card in any way because of those opinions. The same thing happened when it was discovered that Jack Kirby wasn’t getting anything from The Avengers or that buying Chick-Fil-A made you hate gay people. These days, something you like could send a message you don’t intend, and people end up justifying their position more or not even talking about things they like.

I generally believe that it’s okay to like problematic things. You aren’t required to defend something that you had no hand in creating simply because you like it. Neither are you required to defend hating something that everyone around you loves if it bothers you, upsets you, or simply bores you. Let’s face it — there’s so much cool stuff in the world to experience, and life’s too short to spend arguing about which bits of it are more awesome than other bits of it. Certainly, let’s spend some time talking about problematic bits and how those bits impact larger culture so we can all make it better — popular culture as a spark for social dialog is important and useful. However, let’s stop trying to force people to like something they don’t, or make them feel bad for enjoying something you hate. Because if you don’t like Doctor Who, we can still be friends, and maybe we’ll bond over a mutual love of The Transformers instead.

Detox Complete

Yesterday I had my first beer in five weeks.

In March, I was struggling with some lingering mental baggage. Since my uncle’s death last year, I’ve had an increasingly weird relationship with alcohol: primarily, that part of me felt like I shouldn’t be okay with it, but I still was. I haven’t overindulged in over a year, and the couple of times someone tried to pressure me into doing so I reacted… poorly. A few conversations caused me to realize what was bothering me — in a family of alcoholics, how could I honestly say I wasn’t one?

So I took five weeks off. I didn’t tell anyone, because I didn’t want people to react differently around me — this is about learning something about myself. I made it long enough to cover a convention and a LARP (usually times when I drink), as well as a couple of work milestones (which are often celebrated with alcohol).

The result? Aside from a couple of idle moments when I thought “A beer might be nice,” I barely noticed the time. In fact, originally I was only going to do it for four weeks, but I extended it to five half-way through because I wanted to see if I could. Yesterday, I had one beer while I was playing video games.

It may seem ludicrous, but this was something I needed to know. I had to prove to myself that when I say alcohol is a part of my life and I consume it in moderation, that I really meant that and wasn’t trying to fool myself. There are also health benefits (I actually got the idea from some coworkers who often take a month off from alcohol to cleanse their systems), and that tied into my decision, but really this was more for my mental health.

A Garbage Bag of Bottles

Bag of Bottles

I wrote a draft of this blog post last weekend, while sitting in an apartment in Lakewood, Ohio — the apartment my mom and my Uncle Tim rented. It was a beautiful two floor house with each floor divided into a separate living unit. The layout was surprisingly similar to the one Michelle and I had when we first moved to St. Louis nearly nine years ago. The place felt comfortable, and it felt natural to throw my coat over a chair and sit at the table to write, just like I did when I was starting as a freelance writer.

It was also the apartment my uncle’s corpse was found in, surrounded by empty vodka bottles, the carpet black with his own bloody vomit.

As Mom’s boyfriend, Bill, drove us back to his house from the plane, she told me what had happened. Uncle Tim had come home drunk again. “It’s like he’s two different people,” she said, “and I can’t stand the one that drinks.” She left to spend a few days with Bill, afraid of what she would say or do if she stayed and watched him drink again. By the time she came back, he was dead, face down on his bed. All of the empty bottles of alcohol around him filled a garbage bag by themselves.

Her voice was sad and a little shaken, but mostly she sounded resigned. This is an old story with our family. Uncle Tim once tried to commit suicide with pills while drunk. My Uncle Mike succeeded — the same Uncle Mike who encouraged me when I was very young to make art and follow my dreams. The same Uncle Mike who walked in on his father, my grandfather, after he had drunk himself to death. As my mom tells it, Grandpa picked up a bottle right after Grandma’s funeral, and proceeded to drink for the next two years until he was dead.

Bill’s a nice guy — I really like him, and I think he’s good for my mom. I haven’t seen my mom in years, and as we talked we fell back into old, comfortable rhythms. I’ve missed her, and she’s missed me. But she suggested quietly that I could stay at the apartment if I wanted, and I agreed. I needed some time alone, time to think things through, time to sweep my metaphorical bottles into a garbage bag.

Since I found out what happened last week, I’ve mostly just felt numb. I haven’t seen Uncle Tim in the flesh for 20 years, since I took a train with my mom to visit him in Colorado in 1992. He’s not a total stranger to me, but I have trouble calling his face to mind. I can’t say I feel a loss for something I barely had in my life. But I do remember all the phone calls from my mom over the past few years, all of the frustration and hurt and confusion of watching him drink himself to death. All of the lies about missed bills, all of the failed jobs, all of the fights with bosses and crushed fenders and empty bottles.

Really, I think I’m angry at him, at the men in my family, at the steady parade of death that comes one drink at a time. Three of the men in my family were plunged into depression, gripped by a dark mood that prompted them to kill themselves sip by sip. The Sweeney legacy: a garbage bag of bottles.

All that said, I’m generally at peace right now. I know I’m not them, not held in the same grip as they were. For all the darkness surrounding this, I think things will improve from here, for me and my mom. I certainly have the occasional moment when I’m not sure what to feel, when my mind is a little cloudy and I wonder what I’m really feeling. But all in all, I’m just relieved that my mom doesn’t have to go through any of this ever again.

My Addiction

Books
My Addiction

This past week has been pretty stressful. And I’ve talked quite a bit about the impact the past week has had. I’m not going to go into that again.

But since last Wednesday, I’ve been burning through books. Not even engaging or inspiring books, but pure comfort books. A lot of Sherlock Holmes, and a fair bit of some 70s era fantasy. And, for the first time in a while, all physical books.

On Sunday I called my mom. I’ve been trying to call her about once a month or so, and with everything going on I figured it was a good time to check in. She’s doing well, but my uncle isn’t. He’s three days sober again, and it seems like he drinks every time things get stressful in his life.

After that call, I spent several hours reading and writing to finish up my Holmes essays.

There’s a thread running through these points.

The more stressed or depressed I am, the more I go back to the iconic image of sitting on a couch with a mug of tea and reading a good book.1 It’s my coping mechanism, my escape. It is, in many ways, my addiction.

But I struggle with the use of the term. “Addiction” implies some sort of abnormal reliance on something, and from that perspective there’s very little I’m addicted to. I am terrified of and fascinated with addiction. I have seen what it has done to my friends and family, and I don’t ever want to go down that road. I don’t think that will ever happen, but it’s something that I often think about, something that sits in the back of my head. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to a game about blood addicts.

Many writers I know drink and are workaholics. I think this is largely because many writers I know are driven to write. There’s a sense of relief when you write, a purging of the soul. Time and again when I’m upset, I read to calm down, and then I’m compelled to write. In this case, it’s blog posts and ranty, unfocused emails to my other writer friends. It’s a desire to finish up my Holmes essays so that I can point to a part of my life and go “Yes, I have control over that.” It’s finding new ways to harvest this experience and spill it onto the page, spinning straw into gold.

And maybe that’s my addiction, my abnormal escapist activity. No matter what I do, I just can’t stop reading and writing. I’ve just been able to turn my addiction into a career.

  1. Given certain definitions of “good.” Considering some of the crap I enjoy reading from time to time, it might be more accurate to say “a book I enjoy.”

GenCon Level Up

Eddy GenCon 2007That picture was me at GenCon four years ago. I had just finished Mind’s Eye Theatre: The Awakening, and I believe that was a day or two before I sat down to do an interview with Rich Thomas to work full-time for CCP/White Wolf. I remember at the time that it felt weird to have strangers taking pictures of me and wanting to do interviews with me, and I joked about my “nano-celebrity.”

Four years later, and it still seems weird to me, but for very different reasons.

I actually had a talk about where my head was at in 2007 with Genevieve while I was walking around with her this past weekend. Around my late-freelance to early-White Wolf career, I had a mild case of imposter syndrome. My discomfort with my nano-celebrity was primarily due to me not quite believing in my own accomplishments – people were proud of the company or the products, but not with me. It took me a while, but ultimately I started to find my own voice and niche, and the imposter syndrome faded away.

Then I had a couple of years of “internet celebrity.” There were a moderate number of people online who knew me, but I could still walk around a convention and be ignored more than noticed by people I chatted with virtually. Being an introvert certainly didn’t help that. I had come to accept that perhaps I was more outgoing or entertaining or whatever online instead of in reality. I wasn’t upset by it, but it did make things a bit awkward from time to time.

At GenCon this past weekend, my perception of my own celebrity was shattered again. A lot of little things contributed to it (including many people actually not glancing down at my tag to catch my name), but four events really drove it home for me:

  • I was informed by a couple different people that another game designer (who I won’t name out of respect) was terrified to meet me because he admired me so much. I’ve since talked to him, and we had a lovely conversation, but I sincerely thought people were fucking with me when they first mentioned it.
  • I was invited to participate in a couple different things not because of my affiliation with White Wolf or because someone knew me personally, but because the kind of work I do and how I do it made the organizers think of me.
  • Two different people telling me at different times that I was trusted and respected in the industry – not in my company, not in my circle of friends, but the industry.
  • One fan actually tracked me down as I was walking around the dealer’s room just to shake my hand.

Now I’m back to feeling a little weird about this. Unlike before, this isn’t because I don’t feel I deserve it – if anything, I’ve come to accept that I have fought very hard to get where I am today, and that I deserve every ounce of recognition I get as a result – but rather that there’s still a part of my brain that’s the shy 15-year-old kid who thinks that there’s a very firm line between fans and creators, and that crossing over that line is something terrifying to attempt. I don’t do things because I want people to love me, but I do them because I love doing them. (The projects, not the people.) This has resulted in a situation where people respect and appreciate my work, which is awesome and exciting, but I still have that lingering knee-jerk reaction of “Really? Someone else besides me finds this cool?”

Plus, despite public perception, I’m still shy. I prefer to accept compliments by saying that the whole team did a great job (which worked most of the time this weekend, until one person flat-out said “But I also really liked the writing in this part – you did that, right?”). I tend to be vague about my body of work partially because I don’t like to brag, and partially because I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve lost count. But at some point, when a group of people fly you out to a different state just to give you an award telling you how much they appreciate your work (like as what happened at I-Con 2011 earlier this year), you have to spend some of that social energy and push the shyness away to graciously accept.

Because, having been a fan myself for so long, I understand the impetus. Some creative people really touch you, and on some level you understand them by being inside their book or game or webcomic or whatever. You need that moment of physicality to make this person you know into something real and not just a phantom. So I’m always happy to take a moment to talk or shake someone’s hand or do an interview or sign a book.

And yet, isn’t even that still deflection? Instead of deflecting the praise to others, aren’t I now deflecting it back to the fan? I can accept the respect and recognition I’ve earned, but I still can’t quite internalize it yet. I think that’s why I feel odd about this… call it “micro-celebrity,” something between a creative professional with a few fans and, say, Wil Wheaton. I feel odd because a part of me still feels like it’s not about me somehow. (And at this point, I can visualize some of my long-time friends rolling their eyes and throwing shit at me, which shows that this is not a new problem.)

Wow. This started off as a post about how awesome GenCon was, and turned into a lengthy rant about how I’m an ungrateful bastard. Aside from my personal foibles, the show was amazing, and I learned many things including how to spell “thwip,” the importance of 5 o’clock, and how to properly hit dudes. As always I did not get a chance to drink and talk with nearly as many people as I would have liked, but I appreciated the time I did get to spend. GenCon is always a great way to recharge my batteries and give me momentum into the next year, but right now I’m just mentally and socially exhausted, and looking forward to curling up with a good book or a video game for a while.

Yanking Out The Wires In The Time Bomb

My mother’s family, the Sweeneys, have been my “main” family for most of my life. Between being told that my grandmother on the Webb side disowned me and generally not feeling a part of any of my step-parents’ families,1 the Sweeneys have always been the family I’ve been around the most, the ones who helped me to accept my Irish heritage (even when I didn’t), and the family that frequently encouraged my creative side.

The Sweeneys are also riddled with chronic depression.

My mom, thank god, seems to have been largely untouched. My aunt ended up addicted to a variety of drugs and ran away from her husband and family. She and my uncles were also alcoholics. One of my uncles has tried repeatedly to commit suicide. The other one succeeded. I have heard legendary stories of my grandmother’s mood swings, even though she was always polite and tender toward me. One of my cousins has been in and out of jail a couple of times, and that’s only what I know from our childhood and young adult life. The “melancholic drunk Irish artist” stereotype isn’t so quaint or amusing when you’re looking at it over the course of your life.

Continue reading Yanking Out The Wires In The Time Bomb

  1. To their credit, the Maruna family did try, but they’ve pretty much cut off ties with us since my step-father died