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Monday, June 19, 2017

Ms. Marvel and Howie's Optimism Club

Marvel Comics

"Have I talked about this already?" I ask myself, as I start to write each one of these posts. "Almost certainly," I say, again, to myself. Yes, it's almost certainly out loud, and also yes, I know that this is not normal. I go through this ritual every time before cracking my knuckles and writing it anyway. Last week I read a book that was essentially a compilation of blog posts, and I found myself enjoying it a lot. It turns out books are still the best way to deliver words to eyeballs. I'm as surprised to discover that as anyone.

I've never sat down and read a blog for three hours. I generally, when trying to catch up, will read back maybe three posts and then start skipping around based on topics that interest me. I wonder if someday I'll try to put these all in a book form that one could hold in one's hands and turn the pages and read this journey from start to whenever I decide is the finish. If that's the case, there are going to be some repeating themes.

Take last week's post, for example. I know that I've talked about that before, the thing about me rooting for civilization to survive because of a couple of reasons. The first one is the biggest, which is that I depend on a handful of pharmaceuticals to survive. The second is less, like, crucial, but also so important: I want there to still be cool stuff. I like cool stuff! I'm a sucker for good graphics in a video game. I love lightweight camping gear. I think the new Voltron toys look frickin rad. I know that sounds super bougie and I'm driving the capitalist machine or whatever but your boy likes a die-cast lion that can be joined with other lions to create a super weapon. SUE. ME.

Wikimedia Commons
By the Power of Grayskull, Thundercats GOOOOO
It's an interesting kind of optimism that drives the heart of Howie's Book Club, and again, this may not be new to some of you. If you're reading this in book form maybe you're like oh the optimism thing again, OK. Hopefully I add a new wrinkle or two to this philosophy I'm kind of building, or at least you're into the cosplay up there. If you're new here, let's rap.

First tenet of Howie's Optimism Club (HOC): uninformed optimism isn't an ethos; it's a landslide waiting to happen.

Here's a thing that happens more than you may think. A county hires eggheads who go out and measure soils and water and, I don't know, rocks or whatever. Then they submit a report that says, "hey FYI if we build houses here maybe people will die? I'm like 41% confident." That report goes to a group of county commissioners who also happen to be the biggest landowners in their county and they see that report as flawed in the sense that if it isn't flawed they are going to lose a lot of money. So they thank the eggheads and zone the land for development anyway.

Folks looking to build a new house see that suddenly a new neighborhood is popping up and say, "Man, that sure looks like a great place to live. I'm sure there isn't a good reason for why it hasn't been developed yet and I'm certainly not going to look into it. I trust our county commissioners mainly because I have no idea who they are." Then it's like a hassle when your mortgage company is like "isn't that a flood zone?" and you're like "OK eggheads like you know more about dirt than the guy who owns the car dealership. Like, grow up."

Then this happens.

When you build your entire outlook on life on a foundation of willful ignorance you're investing in a bedroom full of rubble, is what this dragged out metaphor is saying. You can only turn a blind eye to the hillside of the world's ills for so long before the 100-foot tree of injustice crashes into the back window of the beautiful home that is your sheltered existence, riding in on a sea of the mud of corruption.

This is hard. Listen, I read the same headlines you do (maybe more based on the conversations I often have), and I also read the whole article. These articles are sometimes so terrible. On Sunday, while I was eating steak with my dad followed with an official Father's Day S'more Fat Boy brand ice cream novelty, a 17-year old Muslim girl was beaten to death with an aluminum baseball bat. She was walking to IHOP with her friends. Late last month while I was meeting with someone about a project I'm working on for my job, police and volunteers were swarming Provo canyon looking for the body of a 4-year old child who was swept into the river during a Memorial Day party. Two adults, including the little girls' mother, drowned trying to rescue her. Just 8 hours ago it was reported that three women suicide bombers killed 12 people outside of a mosque in Nigeria. And I just can't get this senseless tragedy out of my head.

You guys I spend time with those articles. I let myself grieve. I think about that little girl's family, the ones who watched her get swept away, the mother who didn't even think before jumping in after her. The people who will mourn the brilliant little ball of life that is every 4-year-old girl every year. They will wonder what she would have become. They'll torture themselves about it. I spend time in that moment and make sure I feel it. Then I go home and hug my little girls so hard.

That paragraph up there, the one with all the hyperlinks, is the hillside. And it's looming. And let's say you didn't sign up for any of this. You're not the blissfully ignorant homeowner who didn't reach out to the county office for some info on the place where they'd be raising their children. Most people don't. But it's where you're living now anyway. You inherited this situation from past generations of people -- some of whom were doing their best and many of whom were not -- and you'll be darned if you let that landslide take you over.

Here's the second tenet of HOC. You can't fix everything, but if everyone works on a little bit of it together you can.

This is some real hippy nonsense that I'm still convinced is fundamentally true. Let's look at domestic violence, because of that awful last example and because I have a lot more experience with it than other crimes in Utah due to volunteering. So, in Utah 32.8% of women will experience domestic violence in one or more forms during their life (that's higher, by the way, than the national average of 28% - discuss). That's one in three. But Howie, that's awful. How am I supposed to be optimistic about that? I know it's awful. Stick with me here.

Now I never did well in math. I took each algebra class in college twice (ok, one of them three times) before I passed with the required C or higher. The best I ever did was calculus, which I often told people that I basically aced. When I finally looked at my transcript I got a B-. I did get an A in statistics, though. Anyway all of that is to say that this is not a hard equation if even I can figure it out. Here it is: for every woman who experiences abuse there are two who are not, and therefore in a position to help.

That's not even counting the dudes! Statistics for male abuse are notoriously difficult to gather, because men are much less likely to report. Compensating for this, it's estimated that the rate of male abuse is 1 in 7. That leaves a lot of guys who are in the perfect spot to help women who are being hurt by looking out for them, finding ways to help financially or contributing time and resources.

Now. Obviously the easiest way to stop domestic abuse is to stop being abusers. Doy. There's a very good way to help with this, guys! Last year going into this has been the year of "locker room talk," in which men who often spend time in internet forums shouting "not all men" at the top of their lungs when women complain about bad behavior all rallied around the phrase "locker room talk" by saying that all men do it. Let's start by not doing that anymore. If you're in a locker room (or its equivalent) and a friend says something like, "I want to sell the house but my wife doesn't because she likes the neighborhood too much; but I preside so it's my decision," you say "bruh" (because you're in a locker room or its equivalent), "bruh that's mad gross."

If the wife or girlfriend of your good friend confides in you that he hurts her, or humiliates her, or isolates her from her family, or touches and forces her without permission or expressly against her permission here's what you DO NOT say, either to her or yourself, is this: "he's a good guy who I have known since elementary school and I know he wouldn't do that." I know that's your tendency! It makes sense unless you know the statistics. If one in three women experience abuse, then somebody is doing the abusing. Guess what? It's someone you know. It's someone we all know. He fooled that girl into marrying him. You think he can't fool you?

Don't run out and like, shoot him or whatever. Just listen. Say, "I believe you." Recognize how scary it is to tell someone about what's going on. Get to the bottom of that sh.

THIS IS HOW WE FIX THE LANDSLIDE, YOU GUYS. We stare straight at it. We collect some data. We ask experts. Then we all take our tools and whatever strength we have and we get to work. No single one of us is going to get it done, but a bunch of us will. It doesn't even have to be all of us or even half of us or even a third of us, but it does need to be a lot.

Here's what you'll start to find: you'll start to find out that when you are doing your little job on your little patch of the hillside you're not as scared of it anymore. I mean it's huge. It's just massive, this hillside. Just the Nigeria part is nuts compared to the little patch your working on. But you do your part and you look around and see other people doing their part and it feels kinda doable.

Maybe it isn't doable. That's something I think about a lot. It may be true. It's possible that at some point in the hopefully distant future (300 years seems about right), I'm on my deathbed and I say to my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren that helping others was for suckers and I didn't save the world. But if the worst case scenario is that while on the entire scale of the human race I didn't do much, but on a handful of days I made things a little better for someone who was suffering or scared or confused, that doesn't seem like that bad of a deal.

I keep calling this Howie's Optimism Club, but really it's Kamala Khan's.

Marvel Comics
Kamala Khan is also known as Ms. Marvel, and that's her origin up there. I could get into the Inhumans and what they mean and how they're different from the X-Men and blah blah blah but as deeply interesting as that stuff is to me (and I could go on for ages about this), it's unnecessary. Here's what you need to know: Kamala is Pakistani, the daughter of immigrants but born in the United States. She's Muslim. Her parents are very devout, and so is she, but she's also pretty western. Even though she lives in the Marvel Universe, she's also a Marvel Superfan.

She lives in Jersey City, which even if it weren't for Ultron and Dr. Doom and Thanos all being out there still has its host of problems. She gets some super powers and becomes a super hero. Think Spider-man when he was just starting out. Balancing schoolwork and super heroism. Having a crush but not wanting to let people into your life because you're afraid it will endanger them. But the whole time Spider-man is Spider-man he's also white and male. He gets bullied, sure, but he doesn't have to deal with a president who wants to pass a law forbidding anyone of his religion to enter the country, or who seems to view your entire gender as having value based solely on physical traits.

Khan does. She deals with racism and sexism and ignorance and also bullies and also also she's very smart and good at science but is worried about not getting a scholarship. And she sometimes teams up with Wolverine or her hero Captain Marvel. Tony Stark is really sweet to her and I just thought of a part with him that kind of made me tear up.

Here's the thing about Kamala Khan AKA Ms. Marvel. She knows all that stuff is bad. She experiences it every day. And even when it seems like it's too much and even with her powers, there's only so much she can do, she does everything that she can. She loves Jersey City because it's vibrant and filled with immigrants. She loves the United States for the same reasons. And she's happy most of the time. And optimistic most of the time. You guys, I just love her.


This isn't something I get to say often, but Ms. Marvel is great for kids. Boys and girls. It's never preachy, but sneakily teaches about all kinds of stuff besides the great power great responsibility thing. There's a great lesson about consent in there. And about seeing people as complex individuals. Kamala's family is loving but complicated. They fear for their daughter in what seems like a scary and godless world, but they also are so excited to see what she can do.

G. Willow Wilson, the writer, is a Muslim convert. Sama Amanat, Ms. Marvel's creator and Director at Marvel, is a Pakistani-American, just like Khan. I want more of this. More people with unique experiences means more unique stories. I'm so glad that young Muslim girls have Kamala as a role-model, and I'm glad that I do, too.