My History with Religion

(Reposted from the old blog, 2010)

I wasn’t born an atheist. Or at least, there is no recorded evidence of a pre-one-year-old me screaming “There is no God!!11” with a Timothy Dalton spit.

In my childhood, I was influenced by my great-grandmother, who was a fundamentalist to the point of absurdity. (My grandmother is more of a liberal Christian, and my parents are basically non-religious but not strong atheists like me—more like “meh, maybe God, maybe not”.) I was baptized in really early childhood, early enough that I have a very vague recollection of the event. I remember there being a church where we went by car, inscriptions on donation boxes in a Church Slavonic font, and a crowd of people crossing before a priest, including myself. I crossed with my left hand at first, being left-handed, before being told that it’s “wrong”—followed by my immediate question why.

I’ve been a questioner ever since my childhood, as long as I remember, to the point that my grandma affectionately nicknamed me “Why-er”. I guess it left an imprint on my early religious experience. I questioned what exactly made holy water different from regular water, and how exactly it was made “holy”. (Reading about the ritual involving River Jordan did little to clarify matters in regard to a backwater church on the outskirts of Novosibirsk.) I was given a cross to wear on my neck by my great-grandmother, and I was bought a prayer book. I used to read adaptations of the New Testament back then, more out of curiosity than anything.

And yes, I actually prayed as a child. Silently, though. The prayer book was preceded by short instructions, which began with, “Imagine yourself standing in front of the all-seeing God.” And that was just what I did, because my logic told me, “If God is all-seeing, surely he would notice my praying even without spoken words?” And so I began mentally reading from the book, In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen…—but it was all in my head, because I thought that praying aloud at home would be just weird.

Then, however, came kindergarten, and I started reading popular science books—and questioning. I saw contradictions between the Book of Genesis and the Big Bang, I couldn’t bring myself to literally believe in the miracles Jesus was described to perform, and was quick to seek plausible explanations for them as illusionist tricks or something. And with my habit to chew things back then, I chewed my cross regularly until first its paint came off, and then eventually I bit its strap off. My great-grandmother gave me another one, and I bit it too, but not quite so seriously. I just wore a partially-chewn cross on my neck. It wasn’t some kind of protest, I actually believed back then—but I was a five-to-six-year-old kid and felt the urge to engage my teeth…

Eventually I just abandoned faith altogether. I didn’t know it was called atheism, I just poked Christian beliefs with self-invented logical arguments (which I later discovered were common atheist arguments—among them were the cosmological argument and the argument from many religions) until I arrived to the conclusion that there would be no sense in there being a God, and ultimately this concept is not needed to describe the world around me, nor did I need an external source of morality, which I could just derive from common sense. My cross ended up hanging on my desk lamp for years, until I finally threw it away during a routine cleanup of my room.

So, when I look back at my early years, I can’t help but wonder: could I be called a Christian when I prayed and wore a cross? Probably not; I was always a closet atheist. True believers don’t question, they just believe. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that; it’s their path, I just chose a different one.

2012 in Review: To Remember Everything

To my shame, I’ve really got lazy in writing these blog posts. Partially because, perhaps, it’s difficult for me to see the point and imagine my audience — other than future me, of course.

Back in the day, moving to DW was a clean break from my past. My primary target audience, for any post I wrote in my old blog, was my future self. It gave me material for introspection and tracing changes in my personality over the years — which are shocking to me, still. While most of my core beliefs are still intact, many of my former beliefs and actions make me uncomfortable.

Now, perhaps, it is time to give my past a rest. Not “burn the evidence” — this is not my intent, especially not in this day and age, when caches remember everything. But close that chapter in my life.

The journey from Matvey to Maia, which started in late 2008 and continues to this day, has been slow and often rocky. 2009 was marked by apathy and depression, stemming from unemployment and the need to hide everything from everyone. After that, things have been consistently getting better. 2010 saw me getting my second and current job, 2011 a home of my own, away from my parents, though that year was scarred by two failed relationships; and 2012 may just have been the best year of my life so far.

Looking back, I can now, with certainty, name the event that dragged me out of my apartment and onto the streets: the sham “elections” of December 2011 and the political fallout that followed. The explosion of political activity from ordinary citizens that followed was unprecedented by Russian standards, and I, too, without prompting, got engaged in the rallies. I felt I had no moral right to stand aside anymore.

Inspired, I decided to get engaged in political activity relevant specifically to me — and thus, I applied as a volunteer to the Russian LGBT Network, something that, in hindsight, I should have done at least a year before that. A reply followed soon; I was invited to the local LGBT social club, Pulsar, for a two-day brainstorming seminar on political activities in 2012. This was the turning point. It changed everything.

For the first visit, I didn’t really have any women’s clothes to wear to speak of, other than T-shirts, so I showed up in a women’s T-shirt and men’s jeans. It was a relief for me, nevertheless, to be able to call myself Maia in a company of like-minded people and feel accepted as a girl, even without passing. For the second visit, the following day, I bought a dress, which made me feel less awkward — and more appropriate.

After that, weekly visits to the club every Sunday became a routine, although a highly welcome one; usually I spent the week waiting for Sunday, when I could go downtown and meet my LGBT friends in a safe space, that basement insulated from the homophobic streets. It was just a social club, where politics only occasionally intruded, usually in discussions of news about new stupid homophobic laws.

It felt good.

I made new friends — replacing those I lost years ago. Some of the revelations were surprising: it turned out that two transwomen from the club lived very close to me on the outskirts of the city, far away from the club, and they were a couple! I did more for my new life in mere months than I did in three preceding years, assembling a wardrobe, skills, connections, advice — though the others were puzzled by my habit of changing clothes when arriving and leaving. At that point, I thought, I couldn’t risk being detected. What if someone who knew my parents would see me on the street? What would they think?

Even more than that, I was afraid of being recognized as trans by passers-by. It took me a while to overcome that worry.

There is a definite pattern here. For the first half of the year, I have been breaking myself — deliberately moving myself outside my zone of comfort and adjusting to this new, unfamiliar life, and overcoming self-doubt. As a friend of mine said: “What really gives you away is your nervous search for things that give you away.”

This turned out to be more right than I thought. The secret to passing was, banal as it sounds, that there was no secret.

Sure, fellow transpeople recognized me — but that was because they knew where to look. Otherwise, once I started going en femme in public — first cautiously and in a few select environments, then openly — I learned that “normal”, ordinary people have no reason to suspect anything in the first place. What surprised me were times when I was called “girl” by passers-by when not actively trying to pass — for example, when I wasn’t perfectly shaved, or wasn’t wearing a padded bra to hide my flat chest. The most awkward experiences have been the looks on the faces of shopkeepers and security guards when I handed them my male identity documents. “Whose are these? What? Yours?!”

So much for those depressed “I’ll never pass!” fears from three to four years ago.

I re-established my contacts with the local Linux User Group, which I previously avoided out of reluctance to come to them in male capacity. I discovered, together with my new friends, many interesting places in the city center, while I previously was reluctant to show myself in public. Gone were the days when I hadn’t cared about my body, to the point of not washing for weeks.

Yet it has all come at the cost of having to lie to my family, and I still do. Even though we no longer live together, they live close by and are suspicious of my every step. During summer, it got especially unbearable. Every time I headed downtown, I had to wear men’s clothes when walking out of home and bring a bag with women’s clothes to change into once I arrived — all out of fear of being recognized in my neighborhood.

The culmination to these efforts came in August, when, after several delays, I went on a trip to the country of my dreams — the Netherlands. Both to see the country itself, and to see someone dear to me. It was the first time in my life when I traveled somewhere alone, without my family, and my first trip to Europe. It felt relieving and empowering. I took off male clothes immediately after checking into the hotel and almost never put them back on before arriving back in the airport for departure.

It was a medium-sized hotel in the center of The Hague, right next to the Centraal Station. The Hague was, in many ways, the opposite of the stereotypes about Amsterdam (and the real Amsterdam, as I found out after visiting it): quiet, clean, almost idyllic with its parks and forests, often right next to busy city streets. The more time I spent there, the more fond I grew of this small, yet proud country.

The last two days of my vacation were spent in Cologne, around Gamescom in the city center, staying in a hotel in a suburb. In comparison to the Netherlands, Germany didn’t have such an effect, though it may be because I visited it second. It felt too ordinary, too familiar — like Russia, but better; what Russia should have been.

My companion went to Gamescom — the very reason of our arrival there — while I quickly realized that I had nothing to do there. Not really being a gamer, and unable to socialize there, I wandered aimlessly for about an hour, depressed, before walking out. I settled for seeing the city itself instead before it was my time to leave the next morning, specifically the Cathedral and a boat trip along the Rhine.

I didn’t want to go back to Russia.

I really didn’t.

My stay in Europe was the high point of the whole year. I would have stayed there forever, if I could. The trip only confirmed the preconceptions I heard before leaving: that I had more in common with the European mindset than Russian, that Russia did everything backwards, mindlessly borrowing pieces of European culture in letter only, without understanding the spirit, the history and reason behind them.

I don’t really hate Russia, but I don’t consider myself Russian anymore. And after coming back, I sank back into apathy, even submerging myself in WoW and isolating myself from the life outside. Only in the last month I recovered somewhat, partially thanks to my friends from the club.

I enter 2013 with mixed thoughts.

On one hand, I feel more alive and confident in myself than I ever was in my whole life.

On the other hand, I’m full of doubt in everything else. Doubt in my ability to successfully complete my transition, to fully embrace my new identity, legally. Doubt in my ability to completely break away from my parents. To find a new life outside Russia, as it is falling down its pit of insanity, before life here gets completely unbearable for everyone with a shred of rational thought.

Can I do that? I don’t know. These things ahead of me lie so far outside my comfort zone I don’t even know where to begin, or in what order to approach them. And this is how I enter the new year: with fear, uncertainty and doubt… but also hope. If not for the country (I almost don’t care about it anymore), then at least for myself…

SWTOR

Just watched the intro cinematic… and while it’s entertaining to see Definitely Not Bastila, Definitely Not Bao-Dur, Definitely Not Han Solo (now with an Indiana Jones hat!), Definitely Not Revan, Definitely Not T3-M4, Definitely Not the Millennium Falcon and Definitely Not Imperial Star Destroyers, the sheer sense of deja vu overwhelms me…

Maybe I’m just too old to take Star Wars seriously anymore.

Stranger Than Fiction

So, yesterday on the way back from the club, I had to take a taxi. It was almost 22:00 and the only public transport remaining that went from downtown to my outskirts did so in a very roundabout way. And I was hurrying home.

I had no cash with me, only my Visa card, and the trade center with the nearest and apparently only ATM around was closed. So I promised the taxi driver that I would hand him the money when I get home, or from an ATM on the way.

So he drove me off the main road, onto a dark, bumpy path to a gloomy factory, saying there was an ATM there. I was scared, of course. It was late evening, it was dark, and there I am sitting in a taxi, being driven who knows where. I mentioned my fears to the driver, and he realized the implications and apologized for making me uncomfortable. There was indeed an ATM near an entrance there, with ISO standard grumpy Soviet-style clerks around. I got some money off my card, paid the driver, and we drove back, with me recovering from my initial fear.

He was a forty-something guy, and really seemed humble and well-meaning. I felt mostly comfortable there, but there were just a few things that raised my eyebrow.

When we were about to enter the main road again, he laid his hand on mine, saying I emanated some kind of positive aura that made him warm. Then after a few minutes of random small talk (which taxi drivers are often prone to), he asked for my name.

Wait, what? Why is he asking this? I noticed he’s never used any gendered language so far. Is he confused about me? Is that his roundabout way of finding out? Which name should I tell him? Does he see what my makeup is hiding? Crap, how does he read me by default, anyway? My coat and trousers probably register as masculine, but it’s dark and we’re driving without lighting… Gah… I wish I knew…

.
.
.
“Maia.”

“Name or pseudonym? You… took a long time answering that…”

“Well, it’s because no taxi driver has ever asked me my name before, so I was wondering why you did…”

Our random small talk continued, about just about anything really – he said he didn’t like driving in silence. From that point on he used feminine language when referring to me. And when we were close to my home, suddenly he asked, out of the blue:

“Maia, perhaps we could stop here for five or ten minutes to talk?”

What?! What’s on his mind, anyway?

“Well, we’ve talked for the whole road, haven’t we?”

“But…”

“I’d rather just go home. I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

He didn’t insist, nor did he seem angry or upset, so he just fetched me to my house. “Come again!” he said as I exited the taxi. I dropped a glove, and he called my attention to it, calling me Nastya.

“I’m not Nastya.”

“Oh, sorry… Maia.”

Seriously…

What. The. Heck. If someone else told me such a story, I’d think they made it up…

One

”I wasn’t expecting Ammon to clap us on the back and say “Great job kid, now let’s go home,” but it’d be better than what we got. As it is, all our work, all our effort invested into NWN2 as a game is undone in seconds because Obsidian wanted a ‘tragic’ ending. It is tragic, mind, but only for the player.”

~ Let’s Play Neverwinter Nights 2, by Lt. Danger

How do you end a game? Especially one as ambitious as Mass Effect 3?

BioWare had a tremendous task ahead of it. It had to tie up the loose ends from the first two games, resolve its own Reaper invasion plot, and account for a multitude of variables, including providing alternate plot branches for main characters who could be alive or dead based on your past choices. The writers even admitted that they shot themselves in the foot with some ideas, like the idea of a suicide mission in part 2 of a trilogy.

Overall, I’d say they did… adequately. It’s linear, railroaded, the writing is uneven – some of it brilliant, some of it corny, and some of it plain tired and uninspired, as if they gathered every idea they had and threw them all into a blender – and most of your past choices amount to little more than some numbers and tweaked lines here and there, but your decisions do matter overall and you get the power to shape the fate of the galaxy.

ME3 is a decent game, better than I expected based on marketing material and previews. I’m sure Yahtzee will do a better job at picking it apart than I can, and mainstream critics are already gushing out compliments left and right, like they tend to do with games of such calibre, focusing on its good sides, which I have trouble describing – despite their abundance – because I usually focus on the negative. But the part of almost any game that interests me most is the story, so let me say some words about that, in particular.

Is ME3’s story good? Yes. It’s a competently written three-act story, with a clear beginning, middle, and climax. You could even say it has an end. With some reservations that I’ll stop on later.

But even discounting the ending, ME1 still had overall better writing. Even despite all the cheese, being essentially a rehash of Knights of the Old Republic, despite everyone living in a world of boring copy-pasted grey boxes, it had a sense of “realness”, verisimilitude, relevance, an extrapolation of our own world into the future, that the other two games failed to replicate.

* * *

Mass Effect has been, at its worst, a somewhat more verisimilar Star Wars clone. At its best, it has been a solid SF setting with a well-thought-out, interesting background and plenty of untapped potential. Each game had its share of good writing and bad writing, as it is common with BioWare games. But in the chain of ME1 -> ME2 -> ME3, we can see the proportion of plausible elements gradually diminish and the outrageous elements, inserted only for the Rule of Cool (and for the sake of flashy trailers), take over.

Perhaps it is inevitable that given enough time, any game franchise that sells itself on visuals is going to pile on more and more ridiculous over-the-top stuff, simply because publishers need copies to sell – and for that, they need engaging, action-packed trailers, logic be damned.

I can forgive such elements as a Cerberus cyber-ninja, curvaceous robot girl squadmate or Shepard lines ripped out of your average generic war movie, because mainstream games need a mandatory amount of cheese to sell themselves to their target audience. And I went into ME3 with low expectations to begin with, so I was pleasantly surprised a few times. Which, if anything, makes the ending even more bitter to swallow.

There was a time when BioWare endings had a simple dichotomy about them. As Yahtzee puts it: “In the good ending, you’re a virtuous flower child with love and a smile for all the shiny-coated beasts of God’s kingdom, and in the bad ending you’re some kind of hybrid of Hitler and Skeletor whose very piss is pure liquid malevolence.” I would be deluded to think that those were good times. Rose-colored nostalgia glasses are not in my arsenal, and have never been. The studio has matured, and so did their endgame choices. I welcome that.

You could have a “light side” ending, a “dark side” ending, and a middle ground ending. This is ME1.

You could have several morally ambiguous choices, some more repugnant and some almost happy – almost. Black, grey and light grey, if you will. This is Dragon Age: Origins.

You could make a scale based on your success, with one shining, golden ending you have to work for, and some less satisfying endings. This is ME2, and previously, Obsidian Entertainment used it in Mask of the Betrayer, the (much superior) expansion pack to Neverwinter Nights 2.

And finally, you can do the kind of ending that renders the entire buildup to it pointless and moot.

[continued…]

Money Effect 3

Looked at the leaked endings.

Roland, I guess this is the part where I say “I told you so”.

Edit: The truth is, I’m bitter. It even taints ME1 and ME2 in hindsight and makes the whole trilogy feel like a shaggy dog story.

My BioWare PCS

I played these games more than once, but these particular playthroughs I regard as “my personal canon”. The way the events “really” happened in my imagination.

KOTOR

Light side Soldier/Jedi Sentinel
No romance
Spared Juhani
Spared the Progenitor
Killed Uthar, spared Yuthura
Redeemed Bastila
Destroyed the Star Forge

KOTOR II

Light side Jedi Guardian/Jedi Watchman
Sided with Ithorians
Defended Khoonda from Azkul
Sided with Talia, Vaklu in prison
Left Tobin behind to set off charges
Malachor V destroyed

Abigail Shepard (Mass Effect)

Earthborn Sole Survivor Vanguard
Saved the Feros colonists and Shiala
Left Anoleis in charge
Saved Ashley on Virmire
Spared Wrex
Romanced Liara
Saved the old Council, put Anderson as human councilor

Mass Effect 2:

Reignited romance with Liara
Spared Harkin and Sidonis
Killed Morinth
Got Miranda to talk to Oriana
Turned Jacob’s father over to the Alliance
Proved Tali’s innocence, her father not implicated
Saved Joram Talid
Spared Maelon, downloaded genophage cure research
Spared Aresh
Rewrote the geth heretics
Destroyed the Collector Base, entire squad survived

Lyna Mahariel (Dragon Age)

Dalish Warrior
Cured the mabari dog
Recruited Leliana, Sten, Oghren and Zevran
Romanced Leliana
Left Flemeth alive, lied to Morrigan
Lifted the werewolf curse, left Lanaya as Keeper
Saved the Circle
Cured Connor
Recovered the Urn, cured Eamon, Jowan executed
Killed Branka, destroyed the Anvil, made Bhelen king
Made Alistair king, Anora imprisoned
Convinced Alistair to do the ritual

Awakening:

Spared Nathaniel
Recruited Anders, Oghren, Velanna, Sigrun, and Justice
Sided with the Amaranthine guards
Defended Amaranthine personally; Vigil’s Keep saved
Sided with the Architect

Liscara Hawke (Dragon Age II)

Sword and Shield Warrior
Made Aveline captain
Romanced Merrill
Recruited Fenris but ignored his questline
Lost Bethany to the Circle, later reunited with her
Isabela ran away with the relic
Killed the Arishok
Sided with Orsino
Spared Anders
Supported by the whole party against Meredith

Edit 14.02: Just realized KOTOR II isn’t actually a BioWare game. %) Epic facepalm.

Phone

Rooted my HTC Wildfire S, installed CyanogenMod 7.

It’s neat. I don’t think I’ll go to the stock HTC ROM again. It’s so bloated in comparison.

Screenshot Screenshot