November 19, 2006

Web comics as guardians of tolerance

I have spent the last month reading the entire archive for Something Positive.

There are a lot of famous (and infamous!) web comics. In the past I have linked to time-honored favorites with long running storylines such as Sluggy Freelance and GPF. For a short while I also had a link to Eversummer Eve, which remains one of the best drawn and most beautifully rendered comics in cyberspace. Sadly, Denise moved her archive to a "paid members only" webservice, leaving the rest of us out in the cold.

Once upon a time there was a comic known as Acid Reflux. For reasons still largely undefined, the two people creating it simply stopped updating and cyberspace lost one of its truly visionary comics. "Acid Reflux" remains my favorite among all the web comics I have encountered in over a decade of wandering through cyberspace. Its loss was a devastating blow to the artform and the community.

Something Positive, however, is the comic that has inspired today's entry. It ranges from grotesque to geeky and the main character is one of the most depressing folks you will ever encounter, but when the sum total of the comic is weighed and measured it is handsdown one of the most honest comics currently available. The writer has a jade eye and a sense of humor blacker than a tomb, but that is also what sets the comic head and shoulders above its peers.

I enjoy a comic that challenges itself and its readers to more closely evaluate their perception of reality. Most of the comics I maintain links to have that theme in common. Almost all of them deal with the personal and social issues we all encounter as we go through life while no two of them offer the same solutions to the problems we face. At the same time, not a single one deals with reinforcing traditional social roles. I guess in my old age the anarchist in me is begging to be allowed free rein.

You see, I have absolutely no quarrel with people seeking the freedom to live their lives as they choose, provided their preferred lifestyle does not condemn, damage, or destroy the chosen lifestyles of the people around them! With almost no exception, the writers and artists of the web comics I enjoy are using their skill and talent to communicate the same idea or something similar.

As always, it is the exception that makes the rule necessary. Our entire modern legal system is an attempt to put the ideas of fairness and tolerance into practice, but everyone knows how imperfect the modern legal system is. Where I grew up, for example, people believed it was only natural to respect the rights of other people to make their own choices, but at the same time, my hometown was also quite small which meant there were not many alternative lifestyles for any one individual to choose between.

After I left home the population of my hometown doubled inside a couple years. In conjunction with this sudden burst in population there came an explosion of illegal narcotics, race-related crimes, and bold condemnations of "social parasites" by the local newspaper editor. It was shocking to return home a few years later and hear stories of race riots in the local park where "hundreds of people" were arrested. When I later learned the real number of arrests was closer to forty, it still didn't lessen the impact of the event itself. The local park is so small that having forty people stopping in for picnics and barbeques would mean some of those picnics would have to be tailgate parties in the parking lot. I cannot imagine a "riot" taking place there!

Right from the day of her creation back in 1776, intolerance was the number one social blight in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Here we are, 300 years later, and not only is the same problem still widespread, in some ways it is worse than ever.

Please, whoever you are out there reading this, do yourself a favor and befriend someone you hate. Make an effort to look at life from their point of view. Consider for a time the very real possibility that what you feel such contempt for is not the person in question, but for what that person reveals about you. The person you hate, the monster you fear, the enemy you long to destroy does not live in the world around you. They live inside you, and that is the real reason you are so desperate to destroy them.

If you have no choice but confrontation and conflict then at least make an effort to respect the reality of their existence and their native birthright to oppose everything you stand for. It is always possible that the real problem is you!

November 13, 2006

Honestly speaking

Truth be told, I'm stupid. I don't mean "stupid" in the sense of sometimes making a mistake and saying the wrong thing, habitually showing up late for appointments, or something similar. I mean it in the way we use it when someone does something that gets us so angry we see red. I'm stupid in the way that destroys relationships, causes pastors to burn with righteous anger, and frequently gets me fired from jobs. There's a reason, you know, that people like me infuriate the rest of you so often. It's called, "hypocrisy".

Let me give you a real world example. A friend of mine just forwarded me the following story:

Shay and his father had walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked, "Do you think they'll let me play?" Shay's father knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but the father also understood that if his son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps.
Shay's father approached one of the boys on the field and asked (not expecting much) if Shay could play. The boy looked around for guidance and said, "We're losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we'll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning."
Shay struggled over to the team's bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt. His Father watched with a small tear in his eye and warmth in his heart. The boys saw the father's joy at his son being accepted. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay's team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as his father waved to him from the stands. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay's team scored again. Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was scheduled to be next at bat.
At this juncture, do they let Shay bat and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shay didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball.
However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing that the other team was putting winning aside for this moment in Shay's life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least make contact. The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher.
The game would now be over. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have been the end of the game.
Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the first baseman's head, out of reach of all team mates. Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, "Shay, run to first! Run to first!" Never in his life had Shay ever run that far, but he made it to first base. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled.
Everyone yelled, "Run to second, run to second!" Catching his breath, Shay awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to the base. By the time Shay rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball ... the smallest guy on their team who now had his first chance to be the hero for his team. He could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher's intentions so he, too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman's head. Shay ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home.
All were screaming, "Shay, Shay, Shay, all the Way Shay"
Shay reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, "Run to third! Shay, run to third!"
As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams, and the spectators, were on their feet screaming, "Shay, run home! Run home!" Shay ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand slam and won the game for his team.
"That day", said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, "the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world".
Shay didn't make it to another summer. He died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and making his father so happy, and coming home and seeing his Mother tearfully embrace her little hero of the day!

Beautiful story, isn't it? Too bad not one line of it is true. It is a complete and utter fabrication meant to fill people like me with guilt at our callous behavior toward the rest of you. Well, it doesn't work that way. What it does is make me really, really angry.

I played football in high school. I was not a good player, but I put my heart and soul into the team, showed up for every practice, and spent the vast majority of every season watching from the bench. I still came to practice though, and I still did my best.

One day I was hanging out with some of the other guys on the team, all of them big stars with multiple awards and their fair share of direct mention in the local newspaper. We weren't doing anything important, just hanging out and throwing around a football. Another student happened by, watched for awhile, and asked if he could join in. I told him it would be no problem, but it turned out it was.

You see, the student suffered from some severe learning disabilities. At seventeen he was already a big guy, just shy of six foot and 185 pounds of mostly flab. His left arm was also half the size of his right arm and never hung straight. He had the emotional level, perceptive abilities, and communication level of a ten year-old, maybe eleven. He was everything Shay in the story is, and more. There was one big difference between the two, Shay was suffering from a terminal illness of some kind that the other kids apparently knew about and understood, the guy I knew had been the same his whole life and unless there has been some huge medical advance I am unaware of, is no doubt still the same today.

Like I said, I'm stupid. I treated him with respect, courtesy, and the same level of patience as I treated everyone else. I helped him with his homework, helped when he got lost on our tiny high school campus, cleaned him up when he accidently messed himself in the restroom, and so on. I befriended him when no one else would. So naturally, when he asked to join us in tossing around a football I readily agreed.

The other guys would have none of it, however. They called him names, cussed me out for inviting him to join us, and instantly treated us both like some kind of pariahs. Every single time I tried to invite my friend to join in on some activity everyone else was doing, almost no one agreed to have him along. They didn't want him to come along when we had our senior sneak day. They didn't want him along when we convoyed up to the Russian River for fishing, swimming, and a barbeque. They wouldn't even allow him to tag along if a group of us were going to the local theater to see a movie.

That's the real world. That's the world I grew up in. That's the world that calls me stupid, hates me, treats me like an enemy of some kind, and then turns around and circulates a story about poor little Shay getting coaxed into a fake home run.

Our world is sick. The choices we make every single day of our lives are what make it sick. For everyone like me who befriends a real-world "Shay" and tries to include him or her, there are tens of thousands of you who circulate Shay's story and pretend that shedding a few tears over a short fiction makes you honest. It doesn't. It makes you a hypocrite!

If Shay's little tale really moves you, then do something about it. Befriend that weird guy at school who wears glasses, reads comic books and plays funny games. Invite along that girl who always wears black, scowls at everyone, and carries around books about demonology.

Or not. You could always do the same thing the other smart people do. Forward the story to a couple dozen of your friends and feel like the hero you will never be.