Prince and this thing called life

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

The famous opening lines of “Let’s Go Crazy” feel prescient now. But of course they would have been no matter what. Prince wrote the song knowing he would die, because it’s a song about the awareness that all of us will die.

I can’t think of anyone else who treats life and death and joy and sorrow as all part of each other in quite the way that Prince did. Mortality drives “Let’s Go Crazy”. Yet the song doesn’t start from death; it starts from the struggle that is life. Yes, it’s an uplifting song, a song about making the most of life, but Prince is very clear: life is hard, painful, exhausting. Just in order to “get through” it, we try to gather together, but still “in this life you’re on your own”. From this perspective, perhaps death is not so bad. Taking on the burden of life forever – “that’s a mighty long time” – sounds exhausting. What a relief that “there’s something else: the afterworld”. When we sing and dance to this song, we’re not defying or denying death, we’re accepting it as the reason to party. Hard life may be, but it is also short. The things we can do, the pleasures we can experience in this life may not be possible in the afterworld, so … what the hell! Why not dance?

I find this joy tempered with morbidity incredibly moving. Don’t get me wrong, I love lots of unambiguously happy music. But I can’t listen to a song whose emotional notes are entirely positive when I need to be reminded of the beauty in the world. When I’m depressed, simple fun can’t reach me. Claims that “everything’ll be all right” lie so far outside of my worldview that I can’t see them as anything but hollow lies. What I need at those times is art that acknowledges pain and still speaks of pleasure.

In some ways I think I ought to hate “Let’s Go Crazy”. In other contexts, I tend to experience “crazy” as a slur against the mentally ill – a minor one, certainly, more like “bitch” than “cunt”, but a slur nonetheless. I have a particular fear of involuntary institutionalization, which the chorus treats like a joke (“before they put us in the truck”). Certainly, some of my pleasure in the song must come from the fact that I’ve known it for a long time; I wasn’t thinking of “crazy” as a word that held me up for ridicule when I was a kid, so the song may have gotten grandfathered in to my tastes, as it were. But it’s not just a tune I like to listen to whose lyrics make me cringe. “Let’s Go Crazy” speaks to me.

Prince has often been described as an icon for outcasts, a figure who proved by his existence and success that it could be wonderful to be strange. There’s something to this idea, but it can make him sound like the human version of the toothless “be yourself” moral so common in children’s media. That moral coexists comfortably with the exclusion and shaming of the “selves” of people of color, queer people, trans people, disabled people, and all the other peoples in this world who are not just unusual but marginalized.

“Let’s Be Crazy” shows that, if we want to celebrate Prince as a leader for the weird, then we must recognize that “weird” means “sick” and “crazy” and “wrong”; it means, at least in this song, and for me, “disabled” and “mentally ill”. Celebrating life, as Prince exhorts us to, can be dangerous. Living our lives as the people we truly are can get us attacked, institutionalized, killed, depending on the forms of oppression we suffer. As a white woman, I know I will never be able to understand much of the pain in Prince’s music; my marginalizations are not interchangeable with Blackness. I can, however, hear in “Let’s Go Crazy” a voice that deeply understood what it is to have a mind that is unacceptable to the world, a mind that attacks itself, a mind that seeks death. That voice asks me if I will let myself be broken down, and I am filled with the strength to say: no.

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Human flaws and disability: NOT the same thing

Earlier today, SF Signal put up a sickeningly ableist post by Amy Sterling Casil, which you can see at this link, courtesy of Rose Fox (obviously, trigger warning for ableism, especially against autistic people). The fact that SF Signal’s already taken the post down and I have to show it to you as a screenshot should give a sense of how they’re reacting to the outrage of disabled SFF fans – they’re desperately trying to cover their tracks. (ETA: SF Signal has now published an apology. I don’t stand by the previous sentence anymore, as they evidently aren’t attempting to hide the fact that they posted this thing.) The whole situation is an embarrassment to the SFF community. Jim C. Hines has a great post about it here. This paragraph from Hines’s post spoke to me:

“Everyone has limits and flaws, yes. That doesn’t mean everyone is disabled. Claiming otherwise dilutes both the terminology and our efforts to make the world more accessible to those with disabilities. Who needs accessibility policies if we’re all disabled?”

I’ve seen claims like Casil’s before, that imply or outright state that everyday limitations are identical to disabling conditions. The special, stomach-turning twist in Casil’s essay is that rather than rooting that nonsense in evident hatred of the disabled, she drapes it in supposed empathy and care for us. Typically, someone who pretends there’s no difference between abled and disabled people is trying to say that the disabled are faking, as a prelude to arguing that the services that keep us alive should be cut or even that we should be publicly shamed for existing and taking up space. Casil is essentially saying the same thing here – “no one really needs special care more than anyone else” is the necessary corollary to the central point of her essay. The fact that she manages to pretend that this violent lie stems from her empathy and even her maternal love makes it far more dangerous. I can actually imagine an abled person who cares about me reading an article like this and thinking it somehow enhances my dignity, and that horrifies me.

Casil has immersed herself fully in a flawed understanding of disability that I tend to think of as the “character balance” fallacy. In a tabletop RPG, character types are generally written to be balanced, so that each player will have a fun and interesting experience. A swordfighter might be better at up-close combat but vulnerable to magical attacks, for example, while a mage might have the ability to shoot long-distance firebolts but be unable to wear much armor. Ideally, characters have equal advantages and disadvantages. Some games even have systems where you can “buy” advantages with disadvantages. Want more points to spend on more impressive spells? Find something that will make your character’s life more difficult, and maybe you can make that work.

That’s fine for a game. But human lives don’t work like that. We, the disabled, do not receive special bonuses to make up for our suffering. Some of us do find meaning or community in our disabled experiences, but these positive aspects of disability do not somehow add up with the negative to make zero. It can be incredibly hard to accept this, hence the cliche “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”. I personally constantly find myself wishing I had Daredevil-esque superpowers to make up for the “normal” abilities I lack or struggle with. But I don’t. And I know that I don’t. Only someone who does not live with the reality of disability firsthand could imagine that every single disabled person’s life is somehow enhanced by their disability, and that therefore disability is the same thing as character complexity.

It’s sad and painful to accept the realities of human suffering. It’s comforting to imagine that God never really allows anyone to experience disability, only struggle through which we grow as people. When abled people write these unthinking reactions to disabled people’s lives as though they are fact, they are heard and believed. That has to stop. I cannot accept the silencing, suffering, and death of people like me just so Amy Sterling Casil can pretend everything is okay.

Nethack and anxiety

I don’t like video games, or games in general. That’s mostly because I’m an anxious sore loser: my mind and body have intense, unpleasant reactions to failure, and failure is a necessary part of almost any game. Most games make loss especially inevitable when you’re starting out, before you’ve learned how not to fail, and that’s the point when I throw a fit and give up. I just can’t do it! I’ll never be any good at this! After a lot of that, I learned to stop starting out at all.

Except all of that is a lie, because there’s one video game I’ve been playing for as long as I was physically able to use a computer, a game notorious for a really difficult play experience completely stuffed with failure. It’s called Nethack.

According to Wikipedia, Nethack (technically “NetHack”, but that’s not how I think of it) was originally released in 1987. It has ASCII graphics, because there wasn’t really another option for a home computer game at the time. It’s ultimately a descendant of an earlier game called Rogue, which makes Nethack one of the elder statesmen of the game genre called “roguelikes”. The basic premise is that you play an adventurer, a wizard or barbarian, for example, exploring a dungeon full of monsters and loot in search of the legendary Amulet of Yendor. Levels are procedurally-generated, meaning each floor of the dungeon is created anew for each new game, though certain structural features are always the same. Death is extremely easy for your fragile character, even at high levels, and permanent, meaning you have to start again from the beginning with a new character. Winning the game, while hardly impossible, is rare enough that doing so accounts a player a special status. To win Nethack is, in the game reality, to become a demigod, so the Nethack community refers to winning as “ascension”.

I’ve never ascended, or even gotten close. My dad, however, has. He’s been playing the game since before I was born, so he started playing somewhere in the five-year window between 1987 and 1992. His name is actually in the credits; he’s not part of the dev team, but he did create a font for the game to give it slightly more representative graphics. So of course he taught his tiny daughters to play this weird throwback of a game as soon as our hands could manipulate a keyboard. Nethack has had a clearly staked-out corner of my heart since then.

A few weeks ago, a new edition of Nethack came out. This is the first time that’s happened since 2003, when I was 11 and mostly unaware of what game development was. This time, though, I was incredibly excited. I mean, the fact that anybody is still working on Nethack is itself kind of amazing and heartwarming. My dad and I tweeted at each other about this. I’ve played 3.4.3 (the 2003 edition) on and off since childhood, but now I have a new goal, one I never really realistically considered before. I want to ascend.

I know I can do it. The primary skill that Nethack requires is persistence. After that comes a deep and complicated knowledge of Nethack’s extensive lore, or a willingness to look absolutely everything up in wikis, walkthroughs, and spoilers. (Those two aren’t 100% fungible, as some situations in Nethack may appear innocuous until you’ve suffered “yet another stupid death”; knowing when to stop and double-check your options is something really only experience can teach.) The strange thing, really, is why I never believed I could do this before.

Nethack, and the roguelike genre generally, seems like a horrible game for an anxious mind. Failure is deeply woven into its structure. “YASD”, or “yet another stupid death”, is the cute way Nethack players refer to this. I fell into a hole while wielding a cockatrice. I stepped on a level teleport trap and ended up facing an enemy way too tough for me. I ate tainted meat and died of food poisoning. There are so many ways to die, and the only way to avoid death is to be incredibly cautious. And this, I think, is actually what makes it great for someone with anxiety.

In my daily life, I prefer to react to stressful situations by slowing down, taking my time, taking a moment away from whatever it is to consider my reaction. Obviously, for many stressors, this is mostly to entirely impossible. If I’m getting a sensory overload from the noise and closeness of a crowd of people, I can’t just tab out of that experience to gather myself before moving forward. Even when I can take care, it isn’t always especially useful. I can prepare ahead of time as much as I want for a stressful conversation, taking deep breaths before contacting the person and planning out what I’m going to say, but as soon as something I didn’t expect happens, my cocoon of forethought unravels. Nethack, though, is a challenge that actively rewards stopping in the middle of things to go consult reference materials. The game is turn-based, and time only passes when I make a move. I usually play with at least one tab open to Yet Another Nethack Site or the Nethack wiki. The coping mechanisms that soothe my anxiety are optimal play strategies.

With that said, a minefield of failure – which, honestly, describes this game accurately – ought to be a huge anxiety trigger no matter how much it encourages preparation. Instead, Nethack’s frequent deaths and unpredictability transform via repetition into something almost comforting. I probably got pretty upset the first time, or even the first dozen times, I died in Nethack, but that’s far in the past. I’ve learned over and over and over again that losing at Nethack is really no big deal, and that it’s not hard to get started again and do even better the next time. Sure, I still feel frustrated at particularly irritating deaths – something I could’ve prevented but forgot about, for example. But overall, Nethack has somehow managed to get me to understand, on a bone-deep level, that failure is not a bad thing. (For the specific case of this game, anyway.)

The games I play aren’t new enough or expensive enough or console-based enough or whatever the hell to immediately fit when I think “video games”. And even so, I still doubt that I can ever succeed at them and immediately dismiss the successes I do achieve. It’s a small version of my daily struggle to believe, despite my mental illness, that I can take on challenges and overcome them. Playing a game is a small act of defiance to the lying parts of my mind that want to crush my spirit. It’s a small act of resistance against a culture that constantly tells me that accomplishments don’t matter unless they make money, that the mentally ill are incapable of success, and so many other lies.

Small acts matter. The only way to ascend is to work your way through the dungeon one monster at a time. And a few days ago, I found a wand of wishing and began to assemble my ascension kit.