Thursday, June 16, 2016

Character Creation

I'm going to start this story with a quote from an old post:

"We liked to joke that every life lesson was like gaining a level in a video game, and the goal was to get as high-level as possible so we could go on epic quests to go slay the metaphorical dragons of life. And like in a video game, our senses of style evolved (we called our favorite outfits our 'avatars') because they reflected the amount of confidence we had in ourselves."

I wish so badly that I could send this picture to me from ten years ago.

I've been using the "life is like a role-playing game" analogy for years now. It's so good!

For those not in the know, Wikipedia describes role-playing games as "a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting or through a process of structured decision-making or character development". Put as simply as possible, role-playing games (RPGs) are games, usually set in a fantasy world, in which players create characters and then pretend to be them as they go off on adventures.

RPGs were my preferred form of escapism growing up:
  • My earliest memories of reading came from watching my brother play The Bard's Tale on the Commodore 64 when I was in the first grade.
  • I skipped a day in high school because of Final Fantasy 6 - I got to a certain point in the game where I was far more invested in the outcome of the imaginary world than I was in getting good grades.
  • 15-year-old me once forged my father's name on a permission slip to go play in a Live-Action RPG where people spent their weekends pretending to be in a fantasy world.  My parents - to whom I lied and said it was just a normal campground - came to visit me.  Some of the RPers, assuming they were in the game, started to interact with them.  My parents, completely put off by this, found me and dragged me out of there crying.  It may have been one of the more embarrassing moments of my life.
  • In the earliest days of the internet, I used to hang out in a chat room on the Prodigy service known as the "Para-Dice Inn".  It was a unique game - there wasn't any combat or rules or anything like that, it was just a place where we could pretend to be characters and interact with each other as them.
  • When I was 21-22 years old and starting to really question my gender identity, I got sucked into a game called DragonRealms.  It was the first time I ever got to experience playing as a female character.  It was great; if anything, it became a problem when I realized that I liked the fake life I had made online far more than my actual real life.
Regaining lost HP/MP.
While RPGs were a huge part of my past, they became something that I phased out of my life once I transitioned.  Once I underwent the process of becoming my idealized self in real life, the idea of just pretending to do it lost a little bit of its appeal.

Somewhere along the line, I decided to just start treating real-life like it's a role-playing game.

Chapter 1:  Name

It's time for me to make a confession: my legal name isn't actually "Shelly Moonbeam".

It's actually "Shelly Moonbeam-Hatter".  ;X
That name started out entirely as a joke.  A few years ago, I signed up to play a forums-based online version of the TV show "Survivor".  That's not a joke - I am a gigantic fan of the TV show and have never missed an episode, so when I saw a chance to experience playing I jumped at it.  I wasn't sure that I necessarily wanted a bunch of internet strangers to have my real name or e-mail address so I decided to make a throwaway account for the purposes of that game.  I was trying to come up with an email address that would make me look like a non-threatening Survivor player, so I figured it would be both smart and funny to pick a name that sounded as over-the-top like a hippie stoner chick as I possibly could.

Three things happened that I didn't anticipate:
  • The Survivor game introduced me to an online community of people who play similar games (mostly Mafia), and I wanted to stay in contact with the friends I met through the Survivor game, so I continued using that e-mail account.  
  • Some of my roommates at Eleanor saw the name "Shelly Moonbeam" on my computer screen and thought it was hilarious, and slowly but surely it started to catch on around my social circle.
  • I realized that I rather liked leaving a starting impression of people on me as an over-the-top hippie stoner chick.  Unlike my former label ("transgender"), I got to pick this one.  
When it comes to new adventures I'm always willing to get my feet wet.
The new nickname came at an appropriate time.  It was the first time in my life that I was figuring out who I want to be now that all transgender-related issues were more or less resolved.  Sure, "Shelly Moonbeam" paints a certain picture of who I am when people here it, but I like that picture.  I love that there are two distinct impressions the name Shelly Moonbeam can leave on someone.  Am I really so much of a dumb hippie that I don't get how over-the-top that name sounds, or am I actually self-aware enough to have chosen it having thought about how it would be portrayed?

Shelly Moonbeam became the name of my idealized self, just like the character I would create in an RPG. This blog, at its essence, is the story of how I no longer feel the need to differentiate between her and myself.

Chapter 2:  Experience Points

For years I thought that I would never be able to overcome the fear of coming out of the closet.  No way. Even ignoring how much internalized shame I had at the time over what I was, the logistics alone of telling every single person I knew that I wanted to transition made the task seem impossible.  I used to cite my largest fear as "rejection", and I simply wasn't ready to handle opening myself up to it on such a large scale.

Drinking out of a kiddie folding chair back in 2011 after an all-night party.  We wore costumes but weren't role-playing.
So what did I do to get over that?  I gained levels.

I figured out which people in my life were most likely to be cool with the news, and I told them first.  When I came out to my close friends, I oftentimes couldn't even say the word "transgender" because I was too embarrassed by it.  In each case I could clearly imagine the looks on my friends' faces as they curled up in disgust and made fun of me for it, and in each case nothing like that happened.

It's obvious in retrospect - my closest friends care more about me as a person than they do what gender I identify as.  At the time, I didn't have that sense of confidence.  But with each person I came out to, I got a little bit better at it, and I started to approach those conversations with more of an idea of what to say.  By the time I told my family, I had given the "I identify as a woman and want to take steps to correct" speech a half dozen times, and had a lot more of an idea of what I needed to convey.

The fact that I needed to come out to essentially everyone I know ended up doing me a lot of good.  Not only did I start to feel very comfortable talking openly about my gender identity, I started to build up a network of people that I knew would support me if and when I ever needed it.  Eventually I got to the point where coming out doesn't phase me in the slightest - these days I try not to talk about my gender identity unless it's relevant to a conversation, but I'll never shy away from talking about it if it is.

RPGs use this type of system a lot.  Whenever you defeat a monster, you gain what are called "Experience Points" (XP), which are in turn used to strengthen your character.  If you run into something tough, like a dragon, you might not be able to defeat it because you don't have enough XP.  When this happens, the solution is to find easier things, like goblins, that you can defeat and to go after those instead.  Eventually you gain enough experience to kill the dragon, and eventually you get to the point where the dragon doesn't even inspire fear anymore.

If you've asked for advice from me within the last few years, I've probably referred to goblins and dragons at one point or another.  It's my shorthand way to say "break up daunting tasks into smaller ones, and you'll grow better at what you're doing along the way".

Chapter 3:  Quests

The thing about XP, though, is that the amount that you need in order to improve starts to scale up.  Once you get to the point where you can easily slay a dragon, going after goblins just doesn't cut it.  No one ever stays in the same place in an RPG - the goal is to constantly find new adventures to go on.

I drew this, which says "I am bored with my life here", days before we made the decision to leave Boston.  
I am of the belief that if you're not constantly trying to expand your horizons / challenge yourself, life can start to grow boring and unfulfilling.  When I left Boston, I had a pretty good thing going, and yet I felt like I had to leave it primarily because I couldn't find anything new and interesting to do there anymore.  What good is becoming ones' idealized self if there are no longer any quests to go on?

When I look at my life through an objective eye, I can split my life up into different eras based on my primary struggle at the time.  From transitioning to socializing to dating to figuring out my purpose in life - quests are the process by which we experience new things, learn new lessons, and undergo personal growth:

  • Are you shy?  Why not go somewhere interesting and force yourself to talk to people?  Eventually you'll realize that most people also go into new interactions wanting to make friends, and that it doesn't matter if you find the occasional person who doesn't.
  • Are you lonely?  Go on dates.  Don't worry if some of the dates are bad - they make interesting stories and don't really matter once they're over.  Have you gone on lots of unsuccessful dates with no end in sight? Focus on improving yourself / your life and eventually you'll become someone that other people will want to date.
  • Is there something about you that you don't want people to find out?  Own that shit!  Be open and honest with other people and you'll probably find that your fears were unfounded.  Never let anyone's opinion of you hold more weight than your opinion of yourself.
  • Are you ultimately dissatisfied with your place in life?  Take conscious steps to improve it.  You're the only person you can count on 100% of the time, so you need to make sure that you're proud of the decisions you make.

One day you're shy, the next day you're dressing up like a wizard at Mohegan Sun Casino just for laughs.
I know that some of those things might come off as hokey, but they're all based on mistakes that I've made in the past and lessons I've learned as a result.  And I'm not trying to paint myself as better than anyone else and acknowledge that in many ways I've lived an easier life than most.

That's the fun part about both RPGs and real-life:  we're all unique.

Chapter 4: Avatar

Kayla and I did a whole lot of partying in the years that we lived together.  At that point in my life, I was switching between two whole wardrobes:  a normal set of clothes that I would wear to work, and a set of "festival clothes" that I would save for going out.  In keeping the two sets of outfits separate, I realized something - despite the fact that I wore work clothes five days a week, I had much more fun picking out party clothes.

When I wore normal clothes, I kept things pretty safe.  I shopped at Kohl's and Macy's and Marshall's and stores like that, and basically did my best to fit in with other women at my job.  Meh.

When I wore concert clothes, I went all-out.  Colorful ponchos, silk scarves, tye-dye shirts, patchwork pants, and velour clothes in every color.  I hated shopping for work clothes and loved shopping for festival clothes - this grew inconvenient given that I only went to a handful of shows a year while working five days a week.  It was frustrating and expensive to find new cool outfits that I wanted to wear, given that I had so few opportunities to wear them.

Sage and Warrior, 2012
One day, I had a similar revelation regarding my wardrobe that I had when I decided to quit DragonRealms. What was the point of dressing like my idealized self if I could only do it two days a week?  Was that really good enough?

I thought about it and made a decision - I got rid of all my clothes, except for all of my most favorite stuff.  I stopped worrying about fitting in altogether, focusing only on "what types of clothing do I like wearing the most?".  I stopped worrying about whether or not I looked "professional", put my hair in dreadlocks, and focused on dressing the way I would if I could wear whatever I wanted.

I don't typically wear denim, but if I did it would look like this.
It feels like a natural progression.  The more my life grew towards that of my idealized self, the more my clothing choices reflected the type of person I want my fashion to convey.

Chapter 5: Backstory

Who is Shelly Moonbeam?

I'd like to see her as a magical being, someone who uses her magic to solve problems and help her fellow adventures succeed.  A goofy trickster with a way with words, who loves being mischievous but would never be malicious.  A pacifist who prefers diplomacy to conflict.  A dancer always in search of music to move her body to.  An empathetic being who holds the bond between trust and communication to a high regard and seeks to understand it as best she can.

She grew up and found herself in the city of Boston, where she and her closest friend Kayla spent years adventuring together.  Through thick and thin the two supported each other as they gained levels together grew into their idealized selves.  They no longer live in the same city, but each rest well knowing the other is no more than a few hours away.

She fell in love with a rogue Mad Hatter who whisked her off into the woods, and together the two are on a quest to bring magic to the rest of the world - but that's a story for another time. ;)
My only objection to role-playing games is that it's far more rewarding to just actually live life like the character you'd create.

I'm not under any delusions that I'm some mythical character from a fantasy world.  I'm just a goofy hippie who does her best to make decisions that make her happy.  The only difference between who I am now and who I was when I played RPGs is that I'm making those choices for real this time.

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