Real Talk 17/09/18: Viva

Life has been a bit hectic so I’m going to keep this one a bit short. On the bright side, all the things going on in my life right now translates to lots of interesting Real Talk down the road!

Un Día Más

Over the weekend I took my girlfriend to see Les Misérables in honor of our 22 month anniversary (yes, we’re one of those insufferable couples who celebrate every month). We saw it in the Teatro Telcel here in Mexico City, which is a beautiful building in Polanco, a beautiful part of town.

I can understand Spanish pretty well, but it can be tricky to make it out when it’s being sung dramatically. The fact that I wasn’t able to understand many of the words, and was only faintly familiar with the story going in, only proved how amazing the performance was. Even with my hazy understanding of what was going on, I laughed and cried and became deeply invested in the characters. The book got moved right to the top of my to-read list, and I want to see the film now, too, although the English soundtrack has been ruined for me.

Apparently I’m not alone in my esteem of the Mexican cast. After a little research, it seems they’re considered equal to the Broadway production by critics. The country is certainly facing problems right now, but I’m glad to see the arts are still flourishing here.

Tunnel Vision

Part of the reason my life is so crazy is because I’m trying to do so much. It’s my own fault I decided to try and write this blog seven days a week, on top of a five hour podcast each week. To keep up with these projects while balancing them with the projects which actually make me money, I’ve had to hunker down and spend all of my time being productive. For the next little while, I’m doing my best to abstain from any entertainment–video games, TV, etc.–except for what I’m consuming for the sake of the blog and podcast.

It might seem a bit dull short-term, and you might say I need to take on less and give myself some time to enjoy life. I see it as an investment. Maybe my life will be a bit boring short-term, but if everything I’m working on now pans out, I should be setting myself up for a much more fun life in the future.

Viva México

Mexican Independence Day is the 16th of September, though it’s celebrated by and large on the evening of the 15th. I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on some of the things I love about my adopted country.

There are the surface level things, of course. The food is without compare. If you haven’t been to Mexico and therefore haven’t tasted actual Mexican food, the trip is worth it for that alone. Tacos al pastor, a dish with Lebanese origins, tops the list, but also see chilaquiles, chiles en nogada, esquites, molletes, enchiladas suizas, mole poblano, tacos gobernador, chapulines, and countless others. Then there’s the music, from ranchera to reggaeton, and the weather.

More than all that, I love the culture. Everyone is different, of course, but the majority of people are relaxed and friendly. Even in Mexico City, one of the biggest cities in the world, the atmosphere is calmer than you would find in most cities in the States or Canada. Family, community, hard work, and honesty seem to be held in high regard here, and the people are only stronger for the problems their country faces.

Finally, I love Mexican art. There’s something unique about the Mexican perspective that I can’t put my finger on. It’s subtle, but Mexican art deals differently with love, death, family, history, music–everything. Nobody writes like Octavio Paz or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Nobody makes movies like del Toro or Cuarón or Iñárritu. Nobody paints like Diego Rivera or Frida Kahlo, though perhaps that’s for the best.

There remains no doubt in my mind that moving here was the best decision I ever made.

The Witchtide Project: Taking Shape

After two weeks working on the deities and geography of the world of Witchtide, both are still very much a work in progress. I think the time and effort is worth it, though. In figuring out these details, I’m actually shaping the entire campaign. They say geography is destiny, and putting some careful thought into how the world is laid out now will make it simple to generate natural storylines later on. Same goes for the gods of the world. A mythology is the distilled essence of a people, presenting their worldview and core values in the form of characters and narratives.

Shaping the World

As seen in the rough map above, there are three major continents, each home to various kingdoms and worlds. There’s also some major islands, which essentially have their own “seafarer’s culture”. Cultural elements from all over the world can be seen on the islands, and yet, each island’s culture is unique.

Mbakulu is the cradle of civilization. Mammalian civilization, at least. Myths differ on who arose first and from what, but it’s accepted that all humans, orcs, elves, dwarves, and gnomes can trace their lineage back to the heart of Mbakulu. Today, that heartland is dominated by the great kingdoms of the orcs, lending credence to the theory they were the first race from which all others evolved. To the south is the human empire of Zola, surrounded by smaller human and orc territories. Two dark elf empires rule the western coast of Mbakulu: Aq’i and Nya’yed. In creating these cultures, I’m pulling elements from west and central Africa, along with Egypt and Iran.

Mångata is a crossroads of civilization, settled by dwarves, gnomes, and humans from Mbakulu as well as dragonborn tracing their lineage to Nkte’ul. Along the southern coast are human kingdoms such as Cantile and Baluaer, taking inspiration from Latin countries like Spain, France, and Italy. The north is home to gnomes and dwarves, whose lands I haven’t thought about yet, but will draw liberally from Germanic and Scandinavian culture. Scattered in between are the Slavic flavored lands of the dragonborn.

At last we have Nikte’ul, the main setting of the campaign. The broad strokes of the other two continents are important for adding flavor and context, but we’ll probably be spending most of our time here. Nikte’ul is the birthplace of reptilian races like lizardfolk and kobolds, as well as the avian kenku and aarakocra. Though they are strictly native to the continent, a subrace of elves also migrated to Nikte’ul sometime before recorded history, and are equally entrenched in the land. All of these cultures pull from Mesoamerican peoples like the Olmecs, Nahuatl, Maya, Inka, and Shuar. More recently, enterprising humans, dwarves, dark elves, and orcs have arrived from the other continents in search of land and treasure.

Shaping the Heavens

I’ve been doing a ton of research in the process of creating the world’s religions, and still have a long way to go in terms of fleshing out the details. I am happy with the distinctive world views I’ve created so far, though.

The Edroze, the dominant pantheon of Mbakulu, would be revered by most orcs and humans. The pantheon, at it’s core, is a tale of a primitive god adventuring in a cruel and frightening world. In his travels he encounters hostile forces embodied by Death, Death’s wife, and his daughters. First he flees from them, then makes war with them, learns to coexist with them, and ultimately marries the two daughters, creating the final four gods, his sons. Different cultures have elaborated on the tale to create complex mythologies, but the core story remains the same.

Many similarities can be seen between the Edroze and the Ka’alsa, the dark elf pantheon. As befits dark elf society, however, the positions of the deities have been inverted, so that the feminine forces associated with Death are the primary objects of worship.

Moving over to Mångata we have the Dwiztosc, a pantheon with deep roots in druidic nature worship. The humans, dwarves, and gnomes of this land see the world as shaped by two opposing forces–one male, one female–and divide nature into three elements: air, water, and soil. I took inspiration for this pantheon primarily from Slavic mythologies, but also from the early Indo-European mythologies that would become the Greek and Norse religions as we know them today. While they all worship the same entities, the different human, dwarven, and gnomish kingdoms each have unique mythologies, each leaning more Greek, Norse, or Slavic.

The Siyayushchiye, worshiped by the reptilian peoples of Mångata, include some of the same entities worshiped as part of the Dwiztosc. The main difference is that each of the Siyayushchiye are depicted as dragons, and each associated with a specific type of dragon. Although I’m trying not to include any of the typical gods of Dungeons and Dragons, I made an exception for Bahamut and Tiamat, whom I am partial to.

Now is probably a good time to mention that I’m eschewing the whole concept of alignments. I’ll talk about that more in the future, but Bahamut is not necessarily good, nor Tiamat evil. Dark elves and orcs aren’t inherently evil, either, though the moral code of a specific dark elf or orc culture might conflict with those of a specific human or dwarf culture. Then again, the mores of one dark elf society would probably conflict with another dark elf society. The idea that your race defines your morality seems inherently problematic to me.

Finally, the Tahual are the predominant pantheon of Nikte’ul. They are a loose pantheon of deities from all the cultures of the continent, making it a little more difficult to identify any unifying themes in the mythology–with two major exceptions. The worship of entities depicted as snakes is universal to the cultures of Nikte’ul, even in regions that are not home to snakes. In addition, they all incorporate the motif of sacrifice–often the sacrifice of sentient beings in order to appease the gods.

Shaping the Shapers

Very much a work in progress, but here’s a list of the deities I’ve created so far, with their associated portfolios and domains.

Edroze

  • Kabua-Mbosano, exploration, discovery (War)
  • Ilotho, sun, wealth, law (Light)
  • Arenyankha, sky, moon, wisdom (Knowledge)
  • Lahnkonto, rain, health, luck (Life)
  • Ehin, darkness, mysticism, messages (Trickery)
  • Uku, forests, thunder, death (Death)
  • Tsetse, birds, lightning, fire (Tempest)
  • Togefa, mourning, disease, blood (Grave)
  • Khunzel, the hunt (Nature)

Ka’alsa

  • Telmet, chaos, oceans, wonder, dragons, the sublime (Nature)
  • Sahir, magic, knowledge, history (Knowledge)
  • Sam’il, sun, sky, floods, storms (Tempest)
  • Haqora, love, fertility, protection (Life)
  • Sekhnare, war, the hunt, beauty (War)
  • Sha’at, truth, justice, law (Light)
  • E’te, creation, art, stability, crafts, earth (Life)
  • Mar, desert, secrets, the unknown (Trickery)
  • Q’ir, death, rebirth, balance (Grave)
  • Iten, change, vengeance, revolution (Death)
  • Sin, writing, wisdom, moon (Knowledge)
  • Kayr, beer, celebration, gardens (Nature)

Dwiztosc

  • Ballobar: sun, men, music (Light)
  • Chertes: moon, women, the hunt (Death)
  • Sovenicar: judgment, fate, wisdom (Knowledge)
  • Dreva: life, harvest, fertility (Life)
  • Ogneyr: fire, sacrifice, war (War)
  • Agasz: trickery, invention, writing (Trickery)
  • Zvor: sky, air, thunder (Tempest)
  • Ruen: earth, water, nature (Nature)
  • Svade: underworld, soil, death (Grave)

Siyayushchiye

  • Bahamut: sky (Light)
  • Tiamat: sea (Nature)
  • Zolto: gold, writing (Knowledge)
  • Serebryn: silver, luck (Trickery)
  • Ronza: bronze, trade (Knowledge)
  • Latuun: brass, crafts (Light)
  • Meadh: copper, harvest (Life)
  • Kasnyr: red, war (War)
  • Sinai: blue, travel (Tempest)
  • Zelna: green, nature (Nature)
  • Belyn: white, hunt (Death)
  • Chyra: black, death (Grave)

Tahual

  • Miqlectli, goddess of death and rebirth (Grave)
  • Toltlamet, god of art and the hunt (Death)
  • Atzinachtli, goddess of the moon and fertility (Life)
  • Tlahuicatl, god of the sun and corn (Light)
  • Coacpac, god of the wilderness and medicine (Knowledge)
  • Iltepetl, god of storms and agave (Tempest)
  • Xocoyotl, god of trickery and travel (Trickery)
  • Tletatl, goddess of love and war (War)
  • Xelquetzli, goddess of ships and outcasts (Nature)

Living the Creed: Assassin Training

First off: I’m aware there’s something inherently douchey about shirtless post-workout mirror selfies. This, however, is for science. As I design and refine video game based workouts, I will also practice what I preach and test them out on myself. Currently, my physique would be best described as scrawny: not a lot of fat, but not a lot of muscle, either. The goal of assassin training is not to bulk up, but to add definition.

Regardless of your opinion of the Assassin’s Creed franchise overall (I think it’s fairly middling), two things about the games are great: their historical fidelity and how cool it is to play a character who can do crazy parkour stuff. Yesterday I dug a little more into the real historical context of the story. Today I’ll talk about some real-life assassin training.

Designing the Workout

My goal here is to create something very basic inspired by the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed. It would be really cool to do crazy freerunning shenanigans like the assassins in the game, but this won’t get you there. Instead, I want to make something the average gamer could do to start developing the attributes of an assassin.

I’m by no means a fitness expert and won’t claim what I come up with is the best workout for anybody. For me, it’s about aesthetic. It’s totally irrational, but I’m more excited about going to the gym and more likely to stick to it long-term if I couch it in aesthetically pleasing terms like “assassin training”.

What makes an assassin? Speed is the first thing that comes to mind. They rely on swift strikes and retreats to overcome brute strength. That’s probably why they appeal to me. As an ectomorph, trying to outmuscle anyone is a losing battle.

Not that strength isn’t important. An assassin would have to be incredibly strong, but it’s a different kind of strength than we usually think of. Speed is in fact a factor of strength: striking someone swiftly with a hidden blade is tricep strength applied in an explosive burst.

There’s an interesting dichotomy in the strengths an assassin needs, actually. Explosive strength is key in battle, as their fighting style relies on both precise strikes to end the fight quickly and quick dodges to avoid damage.

Out of combat, they’re all about endurance. Well, mostly about endurance. Leaping between buildings or running up a wall also relies on explosive strength. These feats are impressive, but perhaps more important is the ability to keep running or to hold a position for long periods of time. The games skip over this because it would not be engaging gameplay, but in real life, soldiers wouldn’t give up the search after twenty seconds and assassination targets don’t always present themselves in the right place at the right time. An assassin may well find himself hanging from a windowsill or crouching on a rooftop for extended periods, patiently ignoring the burn in his muscles until it is time to act.

To sum up, assassin training should focus on explosive bursts of strength plus endurance conditioning.

The Split

For the reasons specified above, I think each workout should contain both strength and endurance training. At the most basic level, one exercise for each. The workouts will be broken up by muscle group. Each day should focus on one part of the body, incorporating one exercise for explosive strength and one for endurance.

On top of that, you should do some kind of  core every day. You probably don’t notice how often you use your core, but it’s aptly named: your core muscles are used for basically everything. Hiking takes core. Jumping takes core. Punching, if you’re doing it right, takes core. Increase your core strength and you increase your ability to do just about everything.

  • Chest + triceps: strength, endurance,  core
  • Back + biceps: strength, endurance, core
  • Lower body: strength, endurance,  core
  • Shoulders + traps: strength, endurance, core

If you’re comfortable in the gym already, you can probably stop reading right here and build your own workout based on that formula. Regardless of what anyone tells you, any specific workout is just an arbitrary collection of exercises they like to do. As long as your working the same muscles, the outcome is roughly the same (except at the highest levels such as Olympic competition where every fraction of a percent matters–but if that’s where you’re at, why are you reading this, anyway?).

As for my specific routine, my goal is to choose exercises that are easy for beginners and rely mostly on body weight. This isn’t some crossfit purist idea about how free exercises are inherently superior to machines. I don’t think there’s anything to that. Again, it’s about aesthetic. Assassins in 12th-century Jerusalem wouldn’t have access to modern gym equipment, so doing free exercises helps me maintain the immersion. That said, I do have a weird love for the lateral pull-down machine, so I break my own rule when it comes to that.

A nice bonus is if you are a complete beginner and don’t know if you want to commit to a gym membership yet, you might be able to complete the workout without one. The main things you’ll need are something to serve as a pull-up bar which you are absolutely sure can bear your weight and a box or other platform you can jump up onto. Playgrounds have both of these things in spades, but if you don’t have kids to bring with you, I’d probably only use that option at times you’re sure it’ll be abandoned (and school playgrounds are off-limits all the time forever).

Let’s Train

The practical application of the chest and triceps is pushing things. This includes striking with a fist or a knife, which is just pushing really hard and fast. As the name suggests, the push-up is one of the simplest and most effective workouts for building this kind of strength. For most exercises, I just stick to eight sets to failure. Do as many push-ups as you can, then rest, then do that seven more times. As you get stronger and can do more push-ups, your workout automatically gets more difficult, without you having to track a bunch of different numbers. Just remember how many reps you did last time and try to do more this time. For endurance, hold a plank until failure four times, then roll over and do four sets of sit-ups or crunches to failure, and you’re done!

Your back and biceps are key for hanging from a ledge or pulling you up over one. Mimic this activity with a pull-up bar, again performing eight sets to failure. As I mentioned earlier, I’m also partial to the lateral pull-down machine, so if you’re not a purist you can try that instead. For endurance, pull yourself up (or pull the lateral bar down) and just hold yourself there as long as you can, for four sets. Since you’re already on the bar, knock out your core with four sets of hanging leg raises.

If you get bored easy, you might want to mix it up for your shoulders and traps workout. For convenience, though, you can just repeat what you did for back and biceps with a different grip. Work your back and biceps by pulling yourself up with your palms facing you in a narrower grip, and work your shoulders and traps by pulling yourself up with palms facing out in a wide grip. Doesn’t sound like it would make much difference, but try it yourself and see. Again, get your money’s worth out of the bar and do hanging leg raises for core.

Now for everyone’s favorite: leg day. The main workout will be eight sets to failure of box jumps. Put a box or other elevated platform in front of you. Jump on it, then hop back off. You can very easily hurt yourself with this if you’re not careful, so start with a lower height than you think you can manage. For endurance–and fair warning, you will hate me for this–do an air squat so your thighs are parallel with the floor. Hold it there until you just can’t take the burn any longer, then do that three more time. Then collapse to the sweet, merciful ground, take a moment to writhe in agony, and knock out four sets of crunches.

This is obviously a very simple workout. If you’re just starting out, though, the best workout you can do is literally anything, so don’t over complicate it.

If you are ready for the next level, the first thing I would add is conditioning in the form of burpees and the like, as well as running, both jogging and sprinting.

Living the Creed: The Third Crusade

One thing Assassin’s Creed definitely gets right is history. Some of the later games do focus on better-known events, but what I love about the first one is that it takes place during events that most people know nothing about. Even if you do know a little about the crusades, chances are everything you know comes from the Western perspective.

Now that I think of it, I don’t know how the game got as big as it did in 2004, considering they made the Muslims the good guys and the White Christians the antagonists. I retroactively salute the design team on a risky move that definitely paid off.

After playing a bit, I decided to educate myself about the context in which I’m doing all my assassin shenanigans.

War for the Holy Land

You probably already know that the crusades were about Jerusalem. If you keep up with world events even vaguely, you know people are still fighting over the Holy Land to this day, so learning about the crusades may actually inform us about modern events.

Staying as neutral as I can, I will say the idea of Jerusalem is inherently tricky. It is the single most sacred place on earth for three different religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Each religion stipulates that it is more or less sacrilege for one of the other religions to control it–not to mention certain sects within each of those religions wouldn’t be able to tolerate another sect owning it. Its going to be difficult to get to a place where there isn’t some sort of conflict over Jerusalem, although I could see a future where the conflict is political rather than violent.

Assassin’s Creed takes place in the middle of the Third Crusade. The previous two crusades had more or less been failures; in fact, all the crusades were failures. While the Christians hadn’t conquered Jerusalem in either of the previous ventures, they had won the right for Christian pilgrims to enter the city peacefully.

Then Saladin conquered the city. I’m extremely interested in doing more research on Saladin and the events he was involved in. I’ve never seen any of this stuff covered in a Western history, but at first glance these events seem to have about the same impact as the founding of the Roman Empire.

For now, just know that Saladin was the greatest conqueror of the Islamic world, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and, in 1187, the conqueror of Jerusalem.

Absurdist Histories

If you don’t like history, it’s probably because you haven’t yet discovered how absurd it all is. Seriously. We like to romanticize events, but when seen objectively, history is a series stupid mistakes, bizarre coincidences, hilarious mistakes, and powerful men acting like children.

The Third Crusade exemplifies everything I love about history. Let’s start with the main characters, who could quite easily fill out the cast of a sitcom. First you have Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, who you might recognized from your favorite adaptation of Robin Hood. He’s usually portrayed as brave, chivalrous, pious, regal, and generous. The real Richard was definitely brave. He was also very interested in having a reputation for those other things, which was why he jumped at the chance to throw a crusade.

Next up is Philip II of France. In fantasy setting, titles are always so cut and dry: there’s a kind, and then a bunch of nobles who do what he says. At that time, France still had dominion over England, making Richard a vassal to Philip. On the other hand, almost all of France had come under the dominion of the British throne, so pretty much all the important nobles in both countries were Richard’s vassals and practically he was probably more powerful than Philip. If the Third Crusade was an office comedy, Philip is the serious and hardworking boss responsible for the company’s success, but nobody really likes him because he holds them to such high standards. Richard is the manager who insists that every day is casual Friday. He’s great at getting everyone fired up about ambitious new ideas and projects but he never follows through on any of them. Philip desperately wants to fire him, but knows if he did, Richard would start his own company and the rest of the staff would go with him.

Then there’s Frederick Barbarossa of Germany. Over seventy years old, the Holy Roman Emperor is still in his prime and doesn’t mess around. He’s the old guy who’s been working here forever and knows how to fix any problem, but he’s never asked for a promotion or any recognition. All he cares about is doing a good job and putting in the work.

A Comedy of Battles

No-nonsense Barbarossa set out for the Holy Land in 1989 with the unstoppable legions of Germany and Italy. They marched through the Byzantine Empire and all through Asia Minor, easily crushing anyone who stood in their way. Their glorious campaign lasted until 1190, when the army reached a dangerous gorge. The officers insisted on going around it rather than risk heavy losses. To prove it was safe, Barbarossa charged into the gorge himself. He was promptly swept away and drowned, and the world’s greatest army broke up and went home.

It took another year for Philip to land at Acre, and he was well ahead of Richard, who had stopped in Sicily to gamble, party, and visit whores. It wasn’t until the summer of 1191 when all the forces left in the crusade had made it to the Middle East. Leopold of Austria, a minor player leading a fragment of Barbarossa’s original army, also joined Richard and Philip in Acre.

Before much of anything happened, Richard managed to aggravate Philip so much that Philip took his army back to France and began conspiring with Richard’s brother John to overthrow him and take control of England. The remaining crusaders did manage to conquer Acre, and Richard proudly planted his flag on the battlefield. Leopold tried to plant his own banner next to it, but Richard tore it down, so Leopold left, too. Saladin had barely lifted a finger and was now facing roughly a quarter of the original force which had marched against him.

Still, Richard scored some impressive victories and Saladin agreed to a treaty. The leaders found they liked each other and immediately struck up a bromance for the ages. As a result, they worked out a treaty which benefited them both: Richard got to declare victory for all the world to see, and other than that, nothing changed. If you take Richard’s ego out of the equation, the Third Crusade accomplished absolutely nothing.

Satisfied with his glory, Richard set sail for England. Along the way, he was captured by a vengeful Leopold of Austria. He rots in a cell for the next two years while Philip and John consolidate their power in England.

So keep all that in mind as the story of Assassin’s Creed unfolds. It might be hard to buy in to the conceit that the world has been ruled by some Knights Templar-Illuminati hybrid for thousands of years, but after learning what really happened, I think that’s the least ridiculous part of the story.

Low Fantasy Adventure: From Sea to Shining Sea

A hiccup in studying the effects of nature vs. nurture is the fact that most children are raised by their parents. Am I inclined to move around a lot because I share genes with parents who were inclined to move around a lot? Or is it because I was moved around a lot by my parents during my developmental years?

I was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but I have no memory of living there because my first big move occurred when I was two years old.

California Dreaming

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I lived in California until I was nine. My city, Santa Cruz, is fairly renowned among surfers, but outside of that subculture I don’t think most people have heard of it. It’s near San Francisco, and from what I can remember, it’s basically a smaller version of San Francisco.

Hippie central, basically.

I was homeschooled, or technically “alternative schooled”. Enough families homeschooled their kids in that city “alternative education centers” cropped up to service them. I know the name evokes some sort of Communist internment camp, but basically it was a way homeschooled students could still have the experience of going to school one or two days a week. The academic curriculum was still left up to the parents, while the “classes” featured such subjects as gardening, painting, and African drumming.

Since you don’t have any frame of reference, you assume whatever experience you have is normal when you’re a kid. I had heard tale of the mythical “public schoolers” who had to go to school every day, but I assumed the atmosphere was similar, and that they were taught a curriculum similar to what my mom taught me at home–including studying Latin beginning in second grade.

I won’t speculate on the merits of homeschooling versus public schooling or raising kids in an unstructured hippie culture versus a stricter academic culture. The best thing to come out of my unusual childhood was the fact that it was unusual. Like everyone else, I grew up with certain assumptions about what is normal and how things should be done. Unlike most people, I was lucky enough to have my model of reality shattered so early.

Lucky? I think so. Sure, it was painful and disorienting, but most people either have a much more painful experience when their reality is shattered later in life, or worse, get so wrapped up in their reality that they never learn to see beyond it.

Pretend I’m Not Here

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I must have been about eight or nine when my parents casually dropped it on me and my siblings that we were about to move to another country, permanently. That should have sent me reeling, but at that age it’s hard to visualize something you’ve never experienced. I knew a big change was coming, but couldn’t process the implications, so I pretty much carried on like normal until the big day came.

Our ultimate destination was Terrace, British Columbia, which is in the province right on top of Washington. We could have driven north in three or four days. Instead we decided to stop in New York first. The cross-country drive from Santa Cruz to Schenectady took seven days, in a minivan packed with a six-person family plus all our earthly possession.

Getting to see the myriad environments, both physical and cultural, that make up the United States was eye-opening, although we didn’t make many stops for sightseeing. The first day we made a detour to the Grand Canyon, and then we spent a day with an uncle in New Mexico. Other than that, I got a crash course in which kinds of crops, trees, mountains, or deserts can be seen on either side of the highway in any given state.

Empire State

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Most people don’t know that Upstate New York exists, and those who do usually willfully ignore it. There’s a nonzero chance I’m the only person alive who has been to New York many times, often for months at a stretch, but has never set foot in New York City.

In this instance, my family was taking a six-month vacation over the summer before finishing our emigration to Canada. My grandparents live in the city of Schenectady, but spend their summers in two large, old-fashioned lake houses collectively owned by my extended family. In the middle of a beautiful region known as the Adirondacks on the shores of serene Lake Sacandaga, the houses are a quiet retreat from society and a great place to immerse yourself in nature.

Again, I don’t think my brain was really processing what was happening at the time. Technically I knew I was never going back to where I grew up, was never going to see my friends again, and was facing a future I could scarcely imagine, but none of that had registered yet. Children have a remarkable superpower when it comes to staying in the present moment.

Focusing on the present, my primary goal was finding ways to entertain myself for six months in a place that was several hours from anywhere and where I had no social interaction outside of my family.

I’ve always been innately creative and active, but I think that summer–and similar summers to come–served as an incubator for those latent traits. Maybe I would have developed into the same person without that experience, just at a much slower rate. Maybe not.

In any case, with nothing else to do, I spent those six months running, reading, swimming, writing, and largely just relaxing in an idyllic environment and thinking about stuff. I developed a love for all of those things that carried with me to this day, as well as an appreciation for the vast and life-changing power of cutting yourself off from the world and forcing yourself to be bored from time to time.

 

 

Stained Glass Gazette 09/12/18: Student Mercenaries and Starbucks Frapuccinos in Mexico City

Today’s stories hit close to home for me. They all surround an ongoing conflict at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, or UNAM, Mexico’s largest university. The UNAM campus, CU, is located a few colonias to the south of where I live, a short bus ride away. I’ve been to the campus, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to admire it’s museums, gardens, and towering library adorned with famous Orozco murals. I know people who study here.

First, I’ll explain what’s going on for anyone who hasn’t heard about. The story is all over the news here, of course, and is even reaching U.S. and Canadian outlets. Then I’ll approach it from two other angles I have not seen covered on the news, which came to me from those with firsthand experience.

Porros and Protests

On August 27, a small group of UNAM students gathered to protest the kidnapping and murder of a female student, and moreover, the reluctance of university staff and city officials to do anything about this and similar incidents. Violence is not unheard of on campus, and drug trafficking is rampant. One source tells me you can find pretty much any drug you want in CU, and you don’t have to be especially street smart to do it. It’s an open secret that the dealers have hung out in the same locations for decades.

While the protest was getting under way, a number of buses, travelling from the bordering State of Mexico, rolled up to the area and large groups of fellow students emerged. These students were not here to join the protest. In fact, they fell upon their peers with sticks, stones, knives, explosives, and Molotov cocktails. Fourteen protesters were injured and two were seriously injured to the point of needing emergency surgical attention.

The premeditated and highly organized attack was carried out by a student group at UNAM. Referred to as Porros, the nature of this group is tricky to pin down. They’ve been around since the 30s, and are sanctioned by the university despite a long history of violence and criminal activity. Porros were even involved in the infamous Tlatelolco Massacre, when the government gunned down student protesters who were making Mexico look bad during the Olympics.

The official purpose of the porros is to show university spirit at football matches. They were formed when existing groups–university gangs, the authoritarian government, and devious elements within the UNAM faculty and football teams–found their interests had aligned. Porros are firmly entrenched on campus, and act on behalf of politicians or institutions who pay them to suppress political dissent.

Imagine porros as an extreme version of a frat. Before anyone gets offended, I know there are many innocuous and law-abiding frats. I also know for a fact there are frats who act to cover up sexual assaults committed by their members, commit rampant acts of vandalism, and get involved in serious crimes like theft and trafficking. In some cases, university faculty are aware of foul play but will sweep it under the rug to protect the system unless and until the heat gets out of control.

UNAM reacted by expelling 18 of the alleged attackers. Sadly, this is an improvement over how such an incident would have been handled in the past, but was not nearly enough for this generation of students. A week after the event, another protest met at CU, and this time attendants numbered in the thousands.

Sor Juana’s Support

The massive movement organized by UNAM students sparked solidarity all over Mexico City, and students from a number of universities have staged their own protests. Even the faculty of 41 other institutes got involved–in exactly the wrong way.

My girlfriend, Venezia, attends El Claustro de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a relatively small yet prestigious university known for its programs in the fields of literature, science, and culinary studies. The student body is composed of what people would more-or-less-affectionately call chairos. The U.S. equivalent would be someone from Portland sporting a fedora and neck beard, sipping a vegan soy latte and getting stoned out of his mind while explaining how communism is a totally valid system, it just hasn’t been done the right way yet.

Basically, radially liberal, suspicious of authority, and not shy about speaking their mind (often through avant garde mediums such as street art or interpretive dance).

In response to the attacks, Sor Juana was among the schools issuing statements of support for UNAM and its students. The statement, written by faculty, was addressed from faculty and students, igniting fury in the student body. Classmates and friends of my girlfriend are now furiously organizing a march protesting their own school, and the movement has met with overwhelming support from fellow students.

The students of Sor Juana have no problem condemning the violence, of course. In fact, porros are exclusively male and, while they commit violence against everyone, more of it happens to women. Sor Juana is a sanctum for feminists in a city that isn’t always kind to them, so the attack struck a chord.

The issue is that the statement expressed support for the faculty of UNAM, who theoretically stand against this kind of violence. Despite the expulsion of a handful of porros–many of whom are registered with the university in name only and do not attend classes, making expulsion a meaningless punishment–the university has taken no steps to remove porros from campus. Porros are an institutional problem and they depend on UNAM for support. To many students, statements that express solidarity with the institution of UNAM are in fact expressing solidarity with the porros themselves.

To recap the story so far, we have students protesting institutional violence on campus, who are being lumped together and supported with the very people they are protesting in statements made by other universities, which are now being protested by those universities’ other student bodies.

You might want to read that over a few times to make sure you’ve got it. The next wrinkle takes this story to the realm of the surreal.

The Starbucks Angle

While all this is going on, another university, Tecnológico de Monterrey, is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Tec is the Mexican equivalent of an exclusive Ivy League school. In fact, our current-but-not-for-much-longer president graduated from one of its campuses. People feel about Tec students about how you’d expect. Chances are, none of them have specifically done any wrong to you, and many of them are even really smart and probably worked really hard to get in. Despite your best efforts, you still can’t help but vaguely resent them for the fact that they come from rich families and their lives are constantly being made easier by the fact their parents know the right people.

To celebrate their anniversary, the university partnered with Starbucks to launch a brand new beverage in their honor: the sugary blue Starbucks Frapuccino Tec.

UNAM students took note and began lambasting the university and its students on social media, for taking part in such a petty celebration of capitalism and privilege while much more important issues are going on.

I admit it seems like poor timing, although nobody planned for their anniversary to fall on such an unfortunate date. And no, there isn’t more to this story: the UNAM protests and the Tec celebration are in no way connected, and never would have been if a few enterprising students hadn’t decided to stir up controversy.

It is a perfect storm for generating controversy. The Tec celebration isn’t hurting anyone and has nothing to do with what’s going on at UNAM. Still, Starbucks being Starbucks, and Tec being Tec, the whole thing just feels like a case of capitalism and privilege run amok, even if no one can articulate why.

While the initial attacks were unprovoked, some members of the Tec student body were all too happy to clap back, playing right into the worst stereotypes by making fun of UNAM students for their lower class status. The common refrain has been that UNAM students are all too happy to use protests as an excuse to get out of classes and work. They aren’t politically motivated, they’re lazy.

That’s frankly awful, but certain UNAM students are doing their best to one-up their rival rival students in sheer cruelty. Almost exactly one year ago, Mexico City was rocked by a devastating earthquake, and the Tec campus was hit especially hard. Now some UNAM students are making the deaths of fellow students and the destruction of their campus into a joke at Tec’s expense.

The crime that started all this was horrible, and I’m glad people tried to take action. Now, as always seems to happen, we’ve reached the point where things have spiraled out of control. Battle lines are being drawn over petty and unrelated issues. This is no time for nuance, you’re either With Us or Against Us. It’s about proving you belong to a tribe and virtue signalling rather than making a difference.

How did we get to this point and what should we do about it? I couldn’t begin to tell you. Not only do I lack answers, this story lacks an ending. These events are ongoing, and I don’t know what happens next. No one does.