Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services: My New Fantasy Podcast

Kalila Stormfire-Compressed

“Today’s date is October fourth. The moon is in Pisces–Eldritch get down, she’s not going to bite you–moon is waxing gibbous. Sun is in Libra. Client name is, well. I guess technically the client name is Nala. Client…sponsor? Is Clarence Twinner. Age is forty three, he’s a Gemini and an extraverted intuitive. His patron is Cernunnos. Um. Hmm. I guess I should do both. For posterity. Okay. Nala is four, also a Gemini and does not have an alignment I can judge because well, she was–is–is. A dog. I hope, at least. In any case, she’s a dog now and should stay that way through the night if I did everything right.” – Kalila Stormfire, Case 1: Transformation

Glamour spell gone wrong? Astral projection got you untethered? Want to know why your angry dead rich father is haunting you? Consider Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services.

After a controversial fallout with her coven, Kalila Stormfire must juggle complex clients and an anonymous critic hellbent on besmirching her new business. The decaying urban block where Kal operates appreciates her affordable experience in a broad range of supernatural ailments and remedies. Still, Kal is not sure if her talent is enough to stop whoever has been posting bad reviews and persuading customers to cancel appointments.

If you like stories about minority witches in modern-day working class neighborhoods, meddling love goddesses, and morally ambiguous spellcraft…this is the tale for you.

The 13-episode fantasy podcast will be released bimonthly starting February 2018. Stay tuned on Tumblr, Twitter, and Patreon about teaser episodes, updates, production notes, sneak peeks, and perhaps a page out of Kal’s grimoire. Who knows? You might need a spell or two in the meantime.

Storms and Shadows: A post-election 2016 reflection

I went to a funeral today.

Aside from the politics, the rhetoric, and the media bloodbath—life went on outside of those parameters. Life still ended, too.

My coworker’s father passed away last week. I am lucky to have a job where my coworkers feel comfortable enough to ask us for support in such vulnerable times.

I must admit; I struggled hard this morning. The dark clouds and the rain mirrored the despair in my heart. I had an unholy rage burning a hole inside of me. I wanted to burn everything down and at the same time hide in a corner and never come out again into a world which hates me and everything I love. I wanted to cry and to scream and to annihilate anyone who contributed to the source of my pain.

It was hard to put aside my own grief and fear and anger to be there—mentally and emotionally—for my colleague. I had lashed out at my family. I was snappish, irritable, and sarcastic to some of my other colleagues who brought up what happened last night. I did not have the energy to hold back and be polite.

So, sitting silently in the pew waiting for the service to begin, I stewed. I teared up. I hated myself and I especially hated the world. But I tried to keep it at bay. I did a little bit of shadow work, a little bit of conversation with that part of me that was “acting out”. Now I am aware that the piece was the part which most identifies with Hillary Clinton. The rejection was just too much for me. In my vulnerability I allowed myself to be taken over by the shadow of the Scorned Woman. The Nasty Woman. All those parts of myself I was forced to reject for being too angry, too emotional, too power-hungry, too aggressive, and too manipulative. Too…Hillary Clinton-esque.

I got my answer about what specifically was acting out, but I did not know what to do. I did everything I could in silence; grounding, asking the Goddess to hold some of my pain, promising to keep talking to my shadow if she would just give me peace during the funeral. It was hard and it was not really working. The persona still snuck up and kept stealing my concentration with gnashing teeth and screeching vengeance. I did not want to break down and make a scene.

Then the service began. And it began with a rousing song performed by the gospel choir.

Oh, did I forget to tell you? This service was in a historically black church. Part of me was shocked into some kind of mental re-wiring. And the first conscious thought I had, unencumbered by my shadow, was about the Black community in America.

They know they are going to survive this, I realized as I watched in awe as the cloud of grief hanging over me and probably hanging over everyone was lifted as if by a fresh breeze. They are unsurprised, but undaunted. They’ve survived so much worse.

The mark of good liturgy, I think, is when you are taken through a path with sure hands. When my thoughts drifted to darker musings, the preacher told me to read the obituary or to sing along to the music. I could connect with the story which was unfolding before my eyes. The story of a man—practically a stranger–who lived a hardworking life and who had a message of hope in his passing.

The preacher told us this man kept getting lost on his way to Sunday bible study because the church is huge. But he never gave up. He made sure to find that place of hope and learning, of soul growth. He had the determination to create a bedrock of faith to hold him when he needed it most.

The preacher spoke to the grief and the struggles faced by the immediate death of a loved one, but he also named the trials everyone in the room were facing. He named the uncertainty of the world outside of the chapel. He acknowledged we did not leave our fears and our struggles at the door. He named it, and he told us stories about finding the places which give us hope. He reminded us to be unwavering in our determination to move forward and to find support.

This morning I woke up with the death of America in my eyes. No hope of redemption, just survival.

This little pagan is not afraid to take wisdom and comfort from other faiths when invited. I came back with a different sort of belief. This is the America I believe in:

I believe in an America the slaveholding, short-sighted founding fathers could not dare dream.

I believe in an America not currently enshrined in constitutions, laws, buildings, and institutions. I do not believe in the America born out of oppression, genocide, and poverty.

I believe in the America tended by the black community like the one I sat with today. I believe in an America which resides in the generative connections of true community. I believe in an America where leaders open the way for us through compassion and hope.

I believe in the America imagined by the water protectors in Standing Rock and carried in the bones of their ancestors.

I believe in the America my fellow activists, stewards, healers, and artists are creating with the tools they’ve gained from hope, hardship, and a faith that we can do better.

I believe in an America which has never existed, not really. I believe in an America which can only exist when the current nation is washed away in a united, conscious effort. When the pillars of white supremacy, misogyny, and unhindered destruction of the earth are uprooted and destroyed once and for all.

In the past year, I have had reoccurring dreams of a storm just on the horizon. I have dreamed about running from the storm and hiding from it. Well, the storm is here. My shadow is still here. My pain is still here. But I feel like, in this pit, I’ve been thrown a rope. I am thankful for the preacher and the church which gave comfort to someone I care about as well as myself. I am thankful for the people who have given me tools to return to my work without floundering in fear, anger, and grief.

Let us mourn and rage and fight, but let us also throw each other ropes. Let us remember we are here because of those who survived. And we must survive, too. We must not only survive, but we must love and play and work towards a better world. We must weather the storm. We must remain vigilant in the face of shadows. We must learn from our mistakes and we must never, never let each other lose hope.

Work Blog: Content Strategy, Landing Pages, Accessibility, and More

I have neglected my personal blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been blogging. Check out some of my work with the Web Development Group. As a digital strategist, I work with client projects and help provide content on our own site. Here are a few of my recent posts:



4 Ways to Amp Up Your Company’s Web Presence With Social Media

Companies rely on building and sustaining relationships. If you are in the DC-metro area or similar urban centers, these relationships are particularly important. Whether you rely on government contracts, donors, or private clients for your business, a good web presence can help facilitate those crucial relationships. You don’t need to be fluent in the language of the digital age, but all industries can benefit from a social media strategy.

What if you are a Reston-based security consultant without a social media strategy? You are surrounded by major security and international industries, and you want to be competitive in the chaotic DMV swamp. Or what if you are a small non-profit in Rosslyn seeking the fickle attention of donors and local stakeholders?

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The Battle Between Content Strategy and SEO

We could have titled this blog “Clickbait: The Bane of Everyone’s Existence”. We know that regularly feeding the blind beast (Google) is a touted marketing tool, and a necessary evil. And there are two main ideologies behind the practice: Content Strategy and SEO. So which way is the right way? Let’s dig a little deeper…

When it comes to SEO, the theory is simple: want more people to see your stuff? Make more stuff. Tailor your content to optimize visibility with keywords and tons of pages. Those who subscribe to the ideals of SEO will research exactly what Google likes, and deliver it in bulk, ensuring high visibility and a top search engine rankings. “Search engine optimization will make your organization successful. SEO should be your focus when building your web presence; content comes later.”

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Web Accessibility and Web Development

When you sit down to work with a client’s website, do you make sure that every image, embedded media, plug-in, etc. that conveys content has equivalent alternative text?

How about synchronized captions in videos? Or do you let YouTube handle that?

People with disabilities are often an invisible minority. Despite the provisions in the American Disabilities Act, people with disabilities are still dealing with the fact that many public and private organizations do not consider their needs in general…let alone when designing a website.

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How To Convince Your Team to Adopt a Mobile Strategy

Has your organization balked at the pricetag for a full, mobile-responsive redesign? How about the daunting dual workload involved in separately managing a mobile site (mSite or m-dot) and a desktop site? Does your leadership wave off the importance of mobile due to low mobile traffic? Does the thought of creating a mobile strategy seem like just another buzz-phrase?

These excuses are just that. Excuses. Your customer is on mobile whether you are catering to them right now or if you are completely ignoring them. You need a mobile-friendly website if you depend on your web content to promote your brand, connect with clients, or sell your products. If you want to seek out long term success, you need to have a mobile strategy in place.

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How to Create Landing Pages for High Conversion Rates








Okay, maybe we jumped the shark on that last one. But there are a lot of magic formulas out there telling you how your website can achieve more conversions. Not all of so-called “best practices” are necessarily backed up by evidence.

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My Time in Cambodia

The beef lok lak (meaning diced) is served with white jasmine rice, the beef flavored with local black pepper, accompanied by a tang of unexpected sweetness from the lemongrass and sugarcane in the sauce. Rice is, obviously, a staple in this region. My first visit to Asia was not in more developed (read: tourist-friendly) Japan, Korea, China, or even India. No, my first visit was to Cambodia, a nation nestled between Thailand and Vietnam. A number of our hosts frequently questioned if we were in Cambodia only as part of a trip to Thailand. I answered no with a smile. No, Cambodia was reserved as an experience in its own regard.

Cambodia is a country with huge green expanses and a population decimated by a too-recent bloody past. A past that still sullied the most benign facts of life in the nation. Even the rice served alongside nearly every meal also served as a reminder, a symbol of the less than innocent rice paddies that were a common sight out our bus windows.

I find myself ordering this dish repeatedly during the nine days of my travel.

A constitutional monarchy, Cambodia hosts a population of 15 million people, most of them Theravada Buddhists. The country’s economy relies primarily on agriculture and textiles, but it’s one of the fastest growing economies in the world at an average of 7% GDP growth per year.

My partner, Danny, and I made the decision to travel to Cambodia after he suggested that we “go somewhere”. Both third-culture kids with plenty of international travel in our repertoire (him a Kenyan immigrant and me a Cuban-Canadian-American military brat), we were pretty comfortable with the idea of going to a foreign country at the drop of a hat. He wanted to go to Peru, to see Machu Picchu. To which I boycotted because I had lived and recently traveled to Latin America. An ode to my privilege, I was desperate to go somewhere new new.

So the decision was made where all good decisions are made: in a DC bar crowded over cocktails and the Google Flights map on his Android, looking for reasonable flight prices to different continents.

The famous Angkor Wat temple was the initial draw. However, a decent Priceline quote didn’t hurt, either. It was during the end of the wet season which was also the down season for tourism. The flight was booked, and the rest was planned out over the course of a couple weeks. Most of my Cambodia-trip-planning entailed:

  • reading Cambodia travel blogs
  • perusing HostelWorld.com
  • watching Khmer language videos on YouTube
  • worrying about the problematic aspects of being a Western tourist
  • writing a blog post about the problematic aspects of being a Western tourist
  • researching how not to be a problematic Western tourist
  • buying my first decent backpacking backpack (your average black Nike pack I used for a week in the UK didn’t seem like it would cut it)
  • praying that Mercury Retrograde would be merciful this time ‘round
  • putting the Offspring of a Military Dad’s Constant Vigilance Checklist to good use (i.e. printing a billion copies of our passports)
  • reassuring said Military Dad (and Mom) that the Checklist was being utilized

Overall, it did not really hit me until the two of us were in the car with our big ol’ backpacks in the trunk. This would be the furthest I’ve traveled from my native United States. My heartbeat ticked up a notch.Continue reading “My Time in Cambodia”

Selected Poetry by Lisette Alvarez

I recently (finally) returned to the stage after a 5-year hiatus. This hiatus was caused by a variety of factors–mostly surrounding a bad relationship in undergrad and pressure to find a more “lucrative” career path than acting. For five years, I continually psyched myself out of auditioning for anything…big or small. I thought writing, quietly, was enough. I didn’t even realize how much pain I was carrying until I blew up at a loved one when they suggested that they give up their art. I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone putting themselves in my position.

And then my mentor (shown at the far right in the picture below) challenged me to get up onstage again. I took her up on that challenge. It was time. This past Sunday I attended an open mic and performed spoken word poetry for the first time. While it was only a five-minute performance, walking onto that stage and stepping in front of that mic was like coming home.

I happened to be called up as the final act of the night, closing out a number of other talented artists. I received applause and praise afterwards by friends and strangers alike. It was like a dream.

x (Support network–I’m the second from the left)

I’m bummed I didn’t ask anyone to record the performance, but I think I’ll have another chance for another night. Here are the pieces I performed:

My Marriage to Silence (Five Years)
How can you describe
A five year marriage to silence?
It is a lot like this, actually
Except I am not here
I am there
Quiet, passive, just observing
With a tongue caught
On gates of my own making
Silence against my shoulder
Breathing along my spine
That this stage is not mine
That I am mistaking this mic
As something that I deserve
Silence slid a ring around my finger
A ring around my neck
Silence told me that a happy marriage requires active listening
Silence told me that these reams of tears and words don’t require an audience
Silence told me I have nothing worth saying anyway
Five years.
Silence? Happy anniversary.
I want a fucking divorce.

Deer Paths
His shoulders bear the mark of my palms
My fingers pull lines down her spine
Flesh calling to flesh, only echoes
Dreams, Jungian jungles of perception and need
The hidden sanctum of unrestrained desire
Their mouths drawing roads of love up my thighs
There are deer paths in the park on the Mall
Certain places where the grass is worn away to sand
Strange creatures, these deer
They build monuments to gods and men
Seeking separation from their hooves and horns
But I see the imprint of the wild
The whispers of animals trampling uniform lines in the dirt
I see the paths shared, crossing and merging
into the sweat and hair of our skin
We forget what we are
And what we desire
That his shoulders and her spine
Are the landscapes of my wandering
And they remain on my thighs
The earth does not forget
Our bodies to not forget
We, deer, our movements traceable
On skin and land
In dreams and grass

The Quickening Season

A meditation, if you will, on the cycle of the new season and the spiral of development it provides.

I grappled with a number of personal issues near the end of this past year, mostly dealing with aspirations around my career. I had not accomplished my simple (though in retrospect clearly daunting) goal, which was to gain a full-time job after graduating with my Master’s degree. I shifted perspective from what I thought I should be to what I actually wanted. I turned down a job in another city–for a variety of reasons–and had to go through the harrowing process of accepting what I really wanted from my life. I had to reevaluate my values, my desires, and my abilities. I had to consider why I was so anxious about my financial outlook and whether it was even objectively necessary. I had to accept that I was not harming the people in my life who had offered financial support, that I was not taking advantage of them or disappointing them. I had to accept that I did not–in fact–deserve to struggle.

I had to consider where I was receiving the most positive feedback and attention. When you are grappling with self esteem issues and impostor syndrome, it is difficult to take compliments and tally them to get a clear view of yourself and your strengths.

I was very angry for a while at myself for my perceived failures and at our society for its obstacles that very likely kept me from the success I was seeing in my peers. I had to accept that my ability to get a job I was qualified for and wanted was dependent on other flawed people. People in a society that preferred workers with a more white name, more male, with more “hard” skills.

I have tried, in vain, to try to fit myself to a standard more palatable to mainstream employers. But what I found when I allowed myself a certain level of audacity and sincerity, was that the right people took notice. Whether it was asking for a higher than average salary, or applying to jobs that I had no “formal” training or experience (journalism), or sending a writing sample of more personal and honest nature, I was suddenly getting actual feedback. Not, perhaps, solid job offers…but feedback where there had been none in my former and more formal NGO, government, and security route.

When I began to accept my strengths, when I allowed myself the audacity to release my restricted creative self in job applications, when I finally accepted certain realities of my financial situation, something interesting happened.

In November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month. I wrote my first novel, which was an eye-opening process to say the least. I surprised myself at my own competence, energy, and discipline to write 150 pages in 30 days.

I finished a novel, and almost immediately my father offered to pay me to write his memoir–something family, friends, colleagues, and others had been clamoring for for nearly 20 years.

All of these things in the past few months have collected and percolated to make a peculiar (and not entirely focused) picture. I have found myself, unexpectedly, facing a long-suppressed desire of turning writing into a career. It frightens me because I comprehend just how much work and luck that entails.

It electrifies me because I have realized how capable I am to do that work.

I have a regular spiritual practice that encourages me to be aware of the cycles of the seasons. Winter and the end of the year is often a time of rest, reflection, itemizing of resources and finishing up certain projects or goals. I have been careful to incorporate this philosophy into my life this winter. I have made sure to hold off on starting new projects or commitments through the winter and into January.

The beginning of February marks what some call the “quickening”, when saps starts to flow again in trees. It signifies a stirring, a time when things haven’t started to bud or bloom yet but are beginning to shift and prepare. As February 1st came and went, I am readying myself for (and implementing) certain commitments and activities for the new year. New habits to be formed that are complimented by the timing, new plans to be implemented, new job searches. I am grateful for the relative rest I have gifted myself in December and January. That reprieve was necessary for me to accumulate energy, perspective, focus, and resources for the new year.

I am still anxious about the future, my potential to continue to fail at my objectives. I am still anxious about my financial situation. I am still frustrated at my current job, with it’s shifting schedule and lack of challenging work. I still bristle at being under someone else’s authority and being financially dependent on others. I had a tattoo done almost two weeks ago and it itches–the old skin peeling away and new skin growing and healing in its place. I suppose it’s a decent enough metaphor for feeling too tight in my own skin, too constrained in my environment.  

But I also think I am at the point in my life where that is normal and expected. I have decided to buy a car this summer, after five years without one since a major accident. I have been driving with Zipcar, but owning one will be different. I feel like I am ready to take a little more control over my life, a little more freedom and responsibility that goes with it. A car is probably another good metaphor. I have the resources, and support, to take that step further into adulthood.

Some people wish that the rest and vacation that winter symbolizes would last forever–the perfect escape. Others hate it, despise the slowing of their bodies and minds in reaction to the colder weather. They want it to be over as soon as possible. I try to accept the middling way, grateful where I am allowed to rest and yet I am not satisfied to be resting all the time. There is a point where restlessness can be a good indicator of readiness.

I am feeling the stirrings of restlessness. I am ready.

Approaching the Event Horizon

On July 17th, 2014, I was at work by 7AM scanning live news feeds to send to global alert lists. I had been at this job for about a year and a half, and had seen my fair share of major breaking news–from the war in Gaza to the Boston bombing manhunt. At around 9AM, I see a short 2-line feed from the Russian outlet Itar-Tass (now just Tass) that eyewitnesses saw rebels in Ukraine bring down a “military transport plane…on the outskirts of the town of Torez”.  A separatist leader would affirm this in a post on the Russian social media site VKontakte, but I did not see this (I don’t speak/read Russian for one) until larger outlets started to pick up the story.

Minutes later, AFP breaks that the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 had disappeared over the rebel-held region of Donetsk.

Warning bells. I did a quick Google Maps search and confirmed that Torez is in the same area that the flight had disappeared. It doesn’t take a huge leap in logic to realize, “Oh shit, the rebels mistook a passenger plane for a military plane and shot it down.”

It made sense. Just days before, they had shot down a Ukraine military plane. They had been purposefully targeting Ukraine military, why wouldn’t they enthusiastically proclaim another victory?

What followed was a flurry of reports, some contradicting, and many accusations from both sides. The confirmation of the deaths of hundreds on the flight was met with horror and condemnation. The rebels (and Russia) quickly turned the tables and pointed towards Ukraine. The rebels’/separatists’ Twitter and other social media accounts were quickly deleted, but a few people were able to screenshot their boasting before the true nature of the crash came to light.

Even now, nearly a year later, there are still doubts about who exactly was responsible. This is largely due to the murky nature of media in Ukraine and Russia in the midst of this civil war.

But I know what I saw, when I saw it. And what I saw was perhaps as close to the truth as possible despite being thousands of miles away from the event.

While working in news/media analysis, I have had the opportunity to examine the phenomenon of “breaking news”, as well as the issue of news narratives. In my particular position, I am continuously watching worldwide news break not just on one outlet, but on many global, regional, and local news outlets. This varied juxtaposition of media is unique in the global digital age. Not only are we given the diversity of views–a kaleidoscope of analysis and perspectives–we are fed these views almost instantaneously.

The “Event Horizon”–the moment an event occurs–has been brought closer to the (global) public. The internet has brought civil protests, bombings, and elections to our instant attention, in a live play-by-play format. We can get Google Alerts sent straight to our phones. We have our pick of outlets for breaking news: Twitter, CNN, Facebook, Xinhua, Al-Jazeera, AFP. Hell, I’m sure some of us still get info from late night cable.

The interesting part of all of this is how clearly our modern media shows how the truth of an event takes a certain shape the minutes, hours, days, weeks after it happens.

Most police, lawyers, and psychologists will tell you that witnesses are not reliable. You ask five people what happened, you get 8 different answers. It is difficult to reconstruct the narrative of an event perfectly, even with the help of visual evidence. This is why the Michael Brown murder was so telling, in all of its stages. You had people posting video and pictures moments after it happened. People hyped up on fear and adrenaline talking with reporters as soon as they could get a hold of their email or Twitter.

You have people telling stories all the way up to the witness stand, when enough time had passed that they could choose to seamlessly fit one of many conflicting narratives.

The marvel of crowdsourced news, as well as the amalgamation of official news outlets, has influenced the Truth of events. They also expose their own biases when propped against each other. Xinhua is great at reporting events almost as soon as they happen–the China-held station, however, is very reluctant to share news about the political unrest in Hong Kong like Western media. Associated Press and Agence France-Presse keep their reporting as simple and fact-based as they can, and yet AP reported a picture of a black New Orleans resident “looting” after Hurricane Katrina while AFP reported a white resident “finding” food from a grocery store.

Even today, at the Navy Yard in DC where there was a feared “active shooter”, outlets reported that there were possibly two suspects, a white male and a black male (8:26 timestamp). Later, the whole thing turned out to be a false alarm. Still, the false-positive, even to such detail, in a high-adrenaline story is unavoidable.

These sources are the witnesses; not necessarily 100% reliable, but necessary nonetheless. We need formal outlets, with trained reporters established in the region and reporting on a wide variety of interests. We also need citizen reporters to fill in the gaps, especially in areas of government-controlled or corporate-monopolized media. From the diversity of narratives and motives, we might begin to decipher the shards of that time bubble so very close to the heart of the event. By understanding the source of the news, we might also unravel the threads of conscious and unconscious narratives.

Violating the Prime Directive

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

This oft-used quote is great for a soundbite, and cushy for those who laud multiculturalism and globalization as the end-all for violence and division. And, in many ways, there is a lot of truth to be derived from this concept. It’s easy to believe that the best way to expand your perspective and become one with the rest of the human race is to travel. It makes sense, right? Even I encourage anyone I come across to travel to a new country if they have the opportunity, to explore places and cultures and languages outside one’s own. Rolling stone gathers no moss and all that. But, let’s be honest.

This quote definitely comes from a Western-centric white dude.

Now, the ability to travel and transverse boundaries has very real consequences. Some of them are amazing, such as the exchange of scientific and medical knowledge. Some of them aren’t so great, like facilitating the spread of disease and imperialism. Unfortunately, in ourEat, Pray, Love culture here in the West, we have undermined the varied purposes and consequences of travel to only focus on the positive, especially as it pertains to “individual growth”. We think that we can only become less prejudiced if we are forced to navigate another culture. We don’t consider the fact that, maybe, the problem is with our culture.

I have been reading two travel-logs that excellently frame this problem. The first isWanderlust, a memoir about a young white woman who travels five continents and has various adventures both carnal and travel-related. I enjoyed her frankness at first, and the interesting points of view such as her dealing with sexual harassment in Egypt and Yemen. However, something bugged me about it, and I couldn’t put my finger on it until halfway through the book. She used these adventures (and often developing countries) largely to run away from any responsibility. This was beyond the mostly benign self-help framework ofEat, Pray, Love;  this was deliberate use of globetrotting as escapism. It fed her superiority complex as she watched people “settle down”. It was the entitlement and lack of integrity that bothered me. She low-key exposed her internalized misogyny by repeatedly calling her personality “more man-like” (she frequently cheated and lied to her romantic partners) and derided those without the means to travel or change their situation. She rarely wrote of the locals (particularly the women) in a way that was voyeuristic and pitying. She made attempts to assimilate her behavior while in foreign countries, but she did not stay long enough to explore why this behavior existed or what meaning it had to the people who lived it.

This is the dangerous aspect of our Western desire for globetrotting. Exploitation of developing countries–using tourist resources for “self development” without understanding the often destructive impact of the tourist industry–is only one reason. Leveraging your privilege to run away from financial and community responsibility is another. White Americans, even women, have a particular set of privileges while travelling to different countries. Ease of travel, assurance of consulate and medical protection (how many nations do you think have reliable air-evac procedures for their citizens in nearly every country?), exchange rates, and not to mention language accommodations are few of many. And too few of us recognize those privileges, let alone resist flaunting them.

To be fair, this phenomenon touches upon the white-saviorism of development work as well. There are plenty of young people (including myself) who want to save the world. It’s very difficult not to fall into the savior complex aspect of development.

Look. I’m not here to deter people from their Costa Rican family vacation, or their desire to go away to a yoga retreat in Bali for a month. In fact, I just had my Costa Rican family vacation this summer.

What I do want to talk about is what I find to be central to international travel; it facilitates change.

Adventure Divas is the current travel memoir I am reading. Like the author of Wanderlust, the author of Adventure Divas is a white woman. Unlike the author of Wanderlust, she is a journalist who created a PBS series on women who are forces of change in their communities. She acknowledges her privilege and often confronts it as she continues to chase her own version of wanderlust. Her questions are externally focused as opposed to navel-gazing about her own life’s purpose (though she gives a little space for that, too). What are her interviewee’s motives? What do they want to change? How is their perspective different from those in the West? From men in their communities? Where are these women drawing strength?

The answers are incredibly and refreshingly numerous. She has a fascinating interview with the notoriously media-elusive Assata Shakur. I am just as, if not more, invested in hearing these women’s stories as knowing about her experience linking them together. It is clear that the author has her own motives and “gets something” from this journey. At the same time, she acknowledges that her journey does not exist in a vacuum.

There is a part of the book where she describes travelling with a caravan Tuareg desert traders, and eventually ends up at an oasis where a camel race is taking place. In her own fit of passion, she asks to sign up. The organizer (a blacksmith) resists; no woman has ever taken part in the race based on a 5,000 year tradition. She gives some thought to her role as interfering white Westerner, but the allure of taking part in a 5,000 tradition was too much to pass up. And, in the end, they let her, and she doesn’t finish last! She ends the chapter mentioning a 14-year-old Tuareg girl who said she wanted to take part next year. She writes again about how she may have just started something with perhaps serious consequences, and her mixed feelings about injecting her own ideals of feminist individualism into a culture that should have its own frame of gender development. Who knows? Our Western optimism hopes that she inspired a young girl to change the fate of her entire gender in her culture. But she could very well have simply presented a temporary irritant to a culture with survival to worry about.

This is the key element of travel, and perhaps also of journalism. The “prime directive” is a nice idea–you try not to make too many waves while traveling to strange worlds. However, as seen in pretty much every Star Trek episode (bless you Captain Kirk), this is nearly impossible to follow. In fact, it can be seen as hypocritical. This is why we can moralize about journalists who just photograph starving children, poor baby animals being eaten, and the ravages of war without getting “involved”. It’s interesting that we ascribe such responsibility to journalists to be “involved” should the situation arise, but we assume clean hands when confronted with the suffering in developing countries as we travel. Perhaps it’s the invisible nature of our own privilege as we unknowingly pay for services from exploited workers, our Western cash encouraging the whitewash of local cultures.

In truth, the apolitical nature of travel is a myth. Twain’s quote is right on that point. You cannot travel without impacting yourself or something/someone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. Change isn’t always good. It’s not always bad, and it’s not always one or another. It’s not always big change, either.

Change is simply something different than what once was.

So, by all means, travel. Travel with the motive of wanting a bigger, more holistic perspective of the world and your place in it. But also travel with the knowledge that you have the privilege to do so. Maybe find a way to actually apply that new perspective for the betterment of your community, or other communities. And always, always, always be aware of the nature of your impact on the world.

Rise of the Machines and the Question of Human Value

Artificial intelligence incites a primal fear within us. From Terminator to Ex Machina, fictional AI symbolizes the underlying fear of machines usurping humanity from its place on top of the food chain. At the 2015 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires, Argentina, some of the foremost minds–Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk–warned against AI military development. For mostly obvious reasons, we don’t want to find ourselves amidst an AI arms race.

However, this fear also indicates an anxiety of replacement that can be found in more generic technological advancements. What happens when the ingrained Puritan value of hard work is no longer necessary for survival? As machines and computers increasingly replace human jobs while increasing productivity and quality of life, we have to grapple with a very political and existential question:

If machines can make more informed decisions than we can, if they can do the work that has historically made humans “valuable” to our own survival, what does that say about the future of human autonomy?

The reason we are at the top of the food chain is our human ability to adapt, as well as our ability to change our environment to suit us. This has come through by our own authoritarian approach to control ourselves, others, and nature. We have managed to move beyond the fear of immediate survival through “hard work” (blunt force, really).

At least, those at the top of the human form of the food chain have moved beyond that fear.

If a business owner could replace the worker with a machine without a union or a subsidy incentivizing them otherwise, they would in a heartbeat. It’s just good economics. For example, there are programs that can largely do the same job I’m hired to do; analyze and send breaking news reports through identifying key terms. It could probably do it faster and more accurately. The issue is that it is expensive, so the cost-benefit for my company to keep me outweighs my replacement. So far, at least.

So what happens when machines replace humans for jobs? At what point do we feel like we can’t let technology advance to replace us? What parts of that anxiety come from the value placed in “working”?

In bell hooks’ Sisters of the Yam, she talks about the phrase “work makes life sweet”. She deconstructs the consequences of that philosophy, how it can be used to invite guilt to people–particularly the poor–who think they aren’t “working enough”. However, she emphasizes the benefits of work that brings individual pleasure, such as writing or gardening. Her argument suggests that as more people find that they do not have to (or cannot) work menial jobs for survival, the nature or motivation for “working” must change.

There are many consequences of AI and tech replacing humans to ensure our survival and quality of life. But perhaps we can start shaping those consequences by reviewing our relationship with work and productivity. The majority of Americans would agree that everyone should be able to house and feed themselves and their families if they are working full time. The arguments over living wages often skip over a basic assumption–is a human being afforded the right to eat and be housed even if they do not work full time or at all? The reality is that most people in poverty work one or more part-time jobs, because it’s cheaper for the company to hire many part-time workers. The related stress actually diminishes their health and overall wellbeing. We also continue to slash government assistance to those who cannot or do not work. Again, the issue of intrinsic human value–if they are “productive” and work–is tied to survival. Again, what happens when machines take away that intrinsic human value and yet continue to ensure our collective survival?

Some debaters also reference the idea of a basic income, regardless of ability or willingness to work. The “Mincome” experiment in Canada initially showed that most people still want to work regardless of a guaranteed income, but I would be interested to see how much of that desire is the cultural insistence that you must work to have any value. What happens when that cultural value changes? What happens when it is replaced by the idea that you have intrinsic value by virtue of being born?

Perhaps it would have frightening narcissistic consequences. Maybe more people would begin to extend that inborn value to other species or the Earth in general. Or humans would turn towards personal/creative/exploratory endeavors, like music or space travel.

Or the machines will take over.

Either way, it’s a lot to consider.

In-Group Community Policing and Religion


How freaking out about “Shari’a courts” is racist and myopic because the problem is a lot bigger than the Scary Brown People

So certain segments of the media have a hard-on for horrific stories about Muslim communities, especially stories of honor killings. Almost exclusively stories of honor killings. The tension between these communities and the Western society that they live in is well documented. Islamophobia in the West is well documented. However, the fear-mongering over Muslim communities in the United States and elsewhere also turn up the concept of “Shari’a Courts” which, as Fox News and Glenn Beck would have you believe, is a Muslim conspiracy to replace our revered Constitution with some Daesh version of Shari’a Law.

Now, I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert in Islam, or in the motivations of every single one of the 1.5 billion plus Muslims around the world, or the political makeup or aspirations of believers. But I do know that too many Westerners harbor an unhealthy amount of fear towards Muslim communities, for a variety of reasons. I also know that this fear is fed by too many unfounded sources, hypocritical and asymmetrical applications of morals, and a misunderstanding of how people in religious and minority communities think and act. So I am going to take the time to break down these fears and misconceptions in order to place the issue in its context, with the hope that not only will some fears be allayed, other fears will actually be placed in the “reasonable” and “actionable” category.

Because, oddly enough, I am not advocating that misogynistic and/or abusive practices continue on any continent or in even the most discriminated communities simply on the basis of religion or minority class.

Let’s start with a broad category of minority communities. Historically, minority communities (be it religious, ethnic/racial, social, or economic) have made a point to live, eat, and work separately from the majority community. This is a natural tendency in humans and other social animals—we prefer to congregate around things and people we know. This is why you see refugee and immigrant communities (from the Irish of the 19th century to Ethiopians of the 21st) cropping up in the same cities and neighborhoods. When you are a new person to a city or country it is much easier to adjust when you are among people who can speak your language and can cook like your mom.

For minorities, this type of homogeneous congregation is also largely due to the legal and social discrimination faced by these minorities in the majority community. Minorities suffer a disproportionate amount of depression and anxiety when they are forced to “assimilate” to majority culture. We see this from black kids in majority white schools to Native kids torn away from their families to LGBTQ+ kids who are forced into gay conversion therapy to our standard “farm boy transplanted into the big city” motif in popular culture. As much as people like to scream at others to assimilate, they are essentially telling those others to strip their identity because said identity is “not good”—something that almost guarantees debilitating mental health issues and compounded trauma.

Considering all of this, it makes sense that these minority communities are distrustful of the majority. Not only do these minority communities distrust the majority community—the schools, businesses, and people who both passively and actively treat them as less than—they distrust the entire majority system they live under. This includes, especially, the judicial and law enforcement system. This is what you are seeing when black communities rarely call the police when a crime happens on their doorstep. This is what you are seeing when two disputing Jewish Orthodox men are more likely to attempt to solve the dispute with their rabbi. This is what you are seeing with the Josh Duggar case, when the family relied on their church to punish their son instead of the police. Communities with “fringe” views or simply a history of discrimination of their identities will obviously prefer to settle disputes within their own communities. Even more likely, calling the police or getting the courts involved simply escalates the issue.

Humans are predictable. You see this in-group policing everywhere, especially in small towns and minority communities that have a historic distrust of formal/secular law enforcement and judicial systems.

Muslim communities in the United States are minority communities, often based in areas where previous Muslim immigrants or refugees congregated. Of course they have community-based policing, they are not stupid. They see how law enforcement treats them, how if any of their group is involved in criminal or terrorist activity and it’s reported the entire community will have the FBI invading their privacy on suspicion of terrorism.

These “Shari’a courts” that people are freaking out about are the same kind of community conflict resolution that your local church provides. For Muslim communities, it is the primary step towards addressing disputes without invoking the fraught relationship between their community and formal law enforcement. This is not to say that community policing—especially religious community policing—is good. It’s not, and I’ll tell you why.

I mentioned the Josh Duggar case. That absolutely was not an isolated incident in the United States Christian community. You also have Warren Jeffs’ tightly controlled and privately policed FLDS compounds where women, men, and children are regularly abused and brainwashed. You have countless women from the “Quiverfull” communities talking about constant emotional and physical abuse in their homes and churches. Unfortunately, there are not enough statistics to cover how much sexual assault cases occur in minority and religious communities because they are often covered up to “save face”, including conservative religious communities like the Evangelical community and the Catholic Church. Other incidents, such as the punishment for parents talking about lack of appropriate schooling in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, also highlight how homogeneous minority policing can be exceedingly problematic.

Again, the reluctance to call the police when a crime occurs—especially gendered crimes like sexual assault and domestic violence—or even taking civil disputes to secular courts is to be expected in conservative religious communities worldwide. Not only are such crimes dealt with internally as to not escalate an already unstable situation, they are downplayed due to vicious misogyny and other conservatism constructed and upheld by both the minority AND majority culture.

Some of the core causes–and problems–of in-group policing include xenophobia and discrimination by those in power. Patriarchal tendencies of conservative communities encourage the silencing of horrific crimes in order to keep law enforcement from damaging community cohesiveness. Violent racism and discrimination by the majority encourage people from minority communities to keep their sanity by staying within the confines of their own communities.

So, sure, the heads of these minority communities may have the motivation to keep the status quo, but the majority population actively incentivize this behavior as well.

When a person fears (with no evidence) the attempted takeover by what is essentially internal Muslim community human resources, I have to be highly skeptical when they do not—at the same time—identify the very real conservative Christian government takeover across the United States. You want to know what religious government takeover looks like? It looks like hundreds of pieces of legislation restricting reproductive rights, condoning violence against LGBTQ+ citizens, and slashing science and whitewashing history from schoolbooks.

Yes, misogynistic and problematic policing occurs in the Muslim community as well, but they do not have nearly the same amount of political and social influence over this country as a whole like Christian communities do.

You can be both concerned about abuse in religious communities and the racism/xenophobia that disproportionately targets minority communities to force reform and assimilation. There are already Muslim activists who are attempting reform of their religion to protect minorities, women, and other discriminated groups, why would you think you have a better perspective on how to “do it right”? If you are in the majority culture, perhaps it would be more effective to find the solutions to how you can make yourcommunity safer, more accepting of others, and more cooperative with different communities.

Assimilation has never been the solution. Especially when you’re advocating assimilation into a majority culture that is actually pretty crappy.