3D-rendered donut and glass mug of coffee

These last few weeks, I’ve been learning how to use Blender–free, open-source 3D modeling software–with the help of Andrew Price’s incredibly helpful series of tutorial videos. This was my final image from the first run through the tutorial.

Learning Blender seemed like a fun endeavor for the tail end of 2020, especially since I’ve sorta neglected my artistic skills for a while. Plus, it would be really cool if I got good enough at modeling and scene design that I could create new artwork for Project NISEI!

My next challenge is taking what I learned here and modeling a pint of beer. I’ll share it when I get it figured out!


Heads up: This post discusses death and COVID-19.

How would you feel if you woke up to news that Salt Lake City was lost?

Every single person within the city dead. When the sun rises in the desert, no one stirs from the suburbs. There is no banter at the coffeeshop, no sleepy commuters on the bus. No students cross its college campuses. No worshipers stir near the massive temple. The streets are silent but for the wind.

It is a city of the dead.

Or imagine Salem, Oregon, destroyed. Just an hour south of Portland, it’s the state’s capital and second-largest city. The streetlights might flick on automatically, but our tiny downtown shows no signs of life. No heart beats to pump blood to a hand to flick on a neon “OPEN” sign. The cherry-lined State Capitol State Park is empty. The state fairgrounds, which only so recently sheltered evacuees from the local wildfires, now hosts nothing but empty exhibition halls and livestock pens. No one tends the fields. No boat pierces the Willamette River.

Or imagine devastation in southeastern Washington State, where I went to college. Not only is the town of Walla Walla gutted, so too is the Tri-Cities, an hour away. What would it do to your heart to see an entire region’s population dead? Thousands of people, never going to breathe again, never going to laugh or dance or sing or work or hold hands and watch the sun set.

Little Rock, Arkansas.

Vancouver, Washington.

Pomona, California.

Savannah, Georgia.

Waco, Texas.

Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Any one of these cities–imagine it dead.

As I write this, the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus resource center reports that 199,299 U.S. Americans have died to the disease. If it were a city, it would be the 120th most populous city in the country. 200,567 people live in Salt Lake City; this city of the dead will overpass it within the next two days.

How would you feel if an entire major US city were wiped off the map… and the federal government did little more than wring its hands? Worse, the president even knew it was coming, and downplayed the threat? How would you feel if several senators used their insider knowledge to make millions off of these American deaths? If the president welcomed the deaths as an excuse to avoid “disgusting people”? How would you feel if the federal government looked at the impending catastrophe and insisted it was not its responsibility to prevent American deaths?

How would you feel if the city were 50,000 people? 100,000? How big could the necropolis grow before you would feel it in your heart? Before you would allow yourself to believe that this was wrong?

Every day, the city of the dead grows, and our country’s leaders do nothing.

Thanks to my friend Teddy for the metaphor.

It’s high school, and I believe copyright is ridiculous.

My dad has introduced me to Project Gutenberg, an ever-growing library of books in the public domain, and I am spellbound. Contained within its creaky website are thousands of books that are owned by nobody. Or maybe everybody. After all, I could download one and do whatever I wanted with it. I could republish The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, only with the protagonist’s name changed to something patently absurd like “Benedict Cumberbatch”, and I would be utterly free of consequences, because I own those stories now as much as anyone else. They are free to be remixed, reworked. They belong to none of us, and all of us.

Continue reading

Ian Danskin of Innuendo Studios has this great new video about the right’s fixation on cuckoldry and what “cuck” as an insult means, through the lens of their fixation upon polyamory. In it is also a deeply relatable segment about how being a polyamorous man often gives lots of opportunity to “win” by toxic masculinity’s standards… but that’s not something he (or I) are really interested in.

I can’t do it justice; it’s just real good. Here, watch:

bowl being poured with yellow liquid

Heads up: Y’all, this ain’t professional mental health advice, it’s about my personal observations and what’s worked for me. I’m not your therapist1and if I am, then hi, let’s chat about this in session. If you want professional help tailored to your own situation, it’s best to get yourself a counselor!

In a session this week, I came up with the analogy of the “Shame-Regret Vinaigrette.”

Shame and regret are two pretty miserable emotions. They tend to travel together, especially among people who are not used to making mistakes (hi) or feeling bad at things (also hi). Preeminent-researcher-on-shame and omnipresent-self-help-darling Brené Brown2Maybe it’s just the circles I run in, but I feel like I’m always half a sentence away from someone excitedly bringing up Brené Brown. Is this a counselor thing? A Millennial thing? Is this bisexual culture? has described shame as being the feeling that we are “flawed and therefore unworthy of love“. It’s not a helpful feeling, it’s just kicking ourselves when we’re already down.

Regret (alongside its cousin guilt), however, is adaptive. Regret is action-oriented. It highlights a decision we made that we would now do differently, and in doing so, it helps us understand our values. For a long time, I was horribly ashamed of who I was in high school–I looked back on those years with deep revulsion and a belief that I deserved to be rejected and scorned for it. Over time, however, that has shifted to regret over how I acted. It’s still not a comfortable feeling, but thinking that way allows me to see what matters to me today and identify the ways I’ve grown and am continuing to grow.

It’s helpful, therefore, to be able to separate shame from regret.

But therein lies the rub3“Therein lies the vinaigrette” was voted too convoluted a pun and the writer has been chastised for his hubris.. The more shame and regret are agitated, the more they emulsify and intermingle, and the harder it is to pull them apart. It used to be that when I thought about my high school years, I got hit with a horrible pang of shame, and I would immediately react. Mentally, I shoved that thought as far away as possible. Sometimes, the discomfort would seep into my muscles, and I’d try to shake the thought out of my head–literally, I’d shake my head like I was clearing a bad dream. My mouth would make weird “gack ack ack” noises.

And that would seem to work… for a moment. So long as I didn’t look at the thought again, I could avoid that shame. But the next time I was reminded of it, bam!, there it was again. Ugh! Gross! Push it away further!

This year, as I’ve done more mindfulness meditation, I’ve become familiar with how engaging with a thought–whether to dwell on it or to counter it–keeps that thought alive. Even when I was trying to push my shame-filled thoughts away, I was still engaging with them, still treating them like Important Business. Whether I dwelt on them or ran from them, I was still reacting to them, and in doing so, I was shaking up the Shame-Regret Vinaigrette.

If you want to get to the helpful, productive regret, then, one way to do it is to disengage. I began mindfully observing my thoughts and feelings, but resisting the urge to run with them. I noticed what my shame felt like, but tried to “ride the wave” of discomfort instead of seeking an immediate solution. As I did, it was like I stopped agitating the jar. Shame and regret started separating. I could see the difference between “I’m a horrible person for how I acted,” and “Today, I absolutely would not act the way I did in high school.”

One of those was helpful, so I began focusing on that and letting go of the rest.

The Shame-Regret Vinaigrette, therefore, is ultimately about acknowledging your feelings without engaging with them. It’s about giving yourself space to observe without agitating the jar… and letting the unhelpful stuff naturally filter out.

“…okay, but why would you want to let the oil filter out of a vinaigrette?”


Six tarot cards in a spread

The baking summer heat is relenting just a little today. I slept in, and once I was up, hopped on my bike for a casual ride around Salem. The sunshine, the breeze on my arms and face, the feeling of my legs pumping beneath me–it was a welcome reminder that I’m alive.

When I got home, I sat down at my kitchen table, took a few deep breaths… and did my first focused tarot reading, using the “Keep Calm (While Gravely Fucking Concerned)” spread by Evvie Marin of Interrobang Tarot.

Six tarot cards in a spread

This is probably where people who’ve known me a long time just did a spit take. Sorry about your monitors, y’all.

See, in high school and college, I latched onto my identity as an atheist and skeptic. I roundly rejected anything with even a whiff of the mystical, esoteric, or religious, including, as you’d expect, tarot. My dad–a man with whom I ungraciously associated all manner of nonscientific, woo-y philosophy–occasionally would consult the I Ching, and it lodged irritation in my mind like a raspberry seed between my teeth. Why do you need such mystical bullshit?, I wondered. Your sticks aren’t going to tell you the future!

As the heat of that identity has smoldered down into gently glowing coals, however, I’ve come to develop a more integrative appreciation of the “mystical”, in a way that younger Spencer would have found incomprehensible. As it turns out, I can draw tarot cards and reflect upon them without ever believing they’re endowed with any form of supernatural power. They’re symbols, nothing more and nothing less; distributed by chance, sparking the meaning-making part of my brain. Brains are very good at making meaning, and sometimes a little bit of novel stimulus goes a long way.

And, at the same time, there’s something beyond the strictly empirical explanation. Again, not anything supernatural, but something emotional. Something felt, not thought. After all, even with my meager coding knowledge, I could probably rig up a JavaScript program that randomly produces the names of any number of tarot cards. Click a button, get cards. Done. But that’s not the point, is it? Part of the point is to slow down, to handle a beautiful artifact, to tickle the senses, to enrich one’s life for a moment. I picked this deck of cards, the Prisma Visions deck by James R. Eads, for my first tarot deck because the artwork just draws me in. The cards are sturdy and a delight to hold. The edges are gilded with silver foil, so the deck shimmers and shines from every angle.

white and gray stone on brown wooden table
Photo by Alina Vilchenko on Pexels.com

Or take crystals. They’re minerals. They’re formed by fully comprehensible physical processes. There’s nothing supernatural about a chunk of quartz… but there can be something special about it. After all, we don’t encounter crystals on the regular. They have qualities we don’t tend to experience–translucence, vivid colors, geometric shapes. If humans were cave-dwelling sentient gemstones, if in place of trees, we had crystal spires, then maybe crystals would be mundane. But we aren’t, and they aren’t, so they feel different.

These things don’t have to be supernatural to be magical.

And all of that magic comes from us. A deck of cards is magical in part because the human brain is hilariously bad at comprehending statistics and probability. Tarot is magical because of our ability to reflect and make meaning. A crystal is magical because it’s so unlike the things we encounter regularly. The sparks of “magic” that I see are, ultimately, reflections of our human existence.

creativity magic paper text
Well, that seems apt. Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Earlier this year, I joined a group dedicated to reviving the Humanist Year project, a resource I discovered right when I was starting grad school. The idea of A Humanist Year, like Sunday Assembly, and like this “secular humanist magic”, is that, in contrast to what I thought in high school and college, there can be a place for these “mystical” values and practices in a secular humanist life. Ritual, for instance, can be used to help us mark chapters of our lives. Gathering together can help us process human existence and build a sense of community. Magic can help us find meaning, beauty, or unexpected joy. These have traditionally been the domain of religion and the supernatural, but they need not be.

Besides, meaning, community, flexibility and groundedness–all of those seem like important values for the moment we live in.

I’m so happy to be able to explore and engage with this in a way that doesn’t require me to compromise what I believe about the universe, but instead sits comfortably alongside the rest of my worldview. That’s pretty damn cool. Magical, even.

As for the reading? Well, in a nutshell, it prompted me to reflect that:

  1. The world is changing and there’s no going back. The only way out is through.
  2. To stay cool and collected, I can lean into my loving heart. Now is the time for me to love stronger and strengthen my ties with others.
  3. How to pass the time? Focus on the mundane parts of everyday life. I can keep the house in order. It’s not sexy, but it’s good discipline.
  4. We are at a tipping point between future outcomes. The forces of fascism and hegemony hold a lot of power and are attempting to bend truth to their ends. I need to trust my gut; I know this is wrong, but they will continue to try to convince us otherwise.
  5. Fighting back for me right now looks like putting more resources into things like my little homegrown social network–building community and branching off in ways that serve me and my people more. It’s work, but it will be worth it.
  6. Finally, I can channel my fear into being a safe haven and a rock, taking advantage of my fortunate position. I can shelter others so they can recover and grow. How lucky I am that even my day job allows me to do this.

That’s pretty cool. And now that I’ve written all this, it’s time to do some housework. The cards told me to. 😜

Further reading