Category Archives: Rant

Your Daily Rage: Just About Everything For Months Now And Charlottesville In Particular

By the time I can try to get enough words together to say anything substantial, accurate, and well-reasoned about any current event, it’s always too late. It’s old news. There’s something else posing a more immediate problem. So I never quite get the chance to make sense of anything, or to say anything that might be remotely valuable. (Not that I actually have the skills, knowledge, or experience to say anything valuable about most news, anyway; even if I try, can it really be anything more than virtue signaling?) But the problem seems endemic: In the time it takes anyone to assemble substantial and accurate and well-reasoned words in response to any statement or event, uncountable volleys of insubstantial, inaccurate, insensible, reactionary bullshit can make the rounds. So it feels like the news is an overwhelming deluge of thoughtless, meaningless, heartless, spineless, reckless bullshit.

Particularly lately.

This weekend – yes, always, but more overtly this weekend – white supremacist bullshit is in the news. White guys gathering to advocate some “ideal” future where only white guys have power and influence. A future where everyone else gets to exist only at the white guys’ magnanimous indulgence, and only within the parameters the white guys have set. Because these white guys want a future that protects their children and their culture – by making sure that other children and other cultures hold no power in it.

You know, a future that’s a lot like a lot of the past.

I don’t know that there’s any thoughtful, meaningful thing that could be said to these people that would “change their minds.” It’s not a rational argument in the first place; they’re operating on irrational fear. And that’s hard as hell to stop. The very nature of fear means it’s seen as a self-protection system: they think they’re trying to protect themselves from annihilation. And nobody can overcome that fear for them. Nobody can make them cultivate empathy or insight. It’s something they’d have to work toward – but they’re not going to try. The very nature of their fear means that they’re not going to try – no more than someone would try to walk off a cliff. Nevermind that there’s not actually a cliff there at all, nevermind that they’re deluded, nevermind that they’re not just making life awful for other people but also for their own precious selves. Between fear, selfishness, and pride, they’re not even going to try.

Any pushback they get reinforces their sense of isolation and me-against-the-world, back-against-the-cliff-edge fear. If they’re ostracized, it’s not as if they suffer silently in sober contemplation. They can find other people who share their beliefs, and they can all end up reinforcing each other. They’ll form social bonds with those guys, instead, and apply their toxic heroism to them. Those will be the people they’re trying to defend, and theirs will be the methods used to defend them.

(Yeah, I think the idea of toxic masculinity is a big factor, too; the most ‘valid’ way for men to express the strength of their emotions or convictions seems to be in terms of how much they’ll hurt other people – or how willing they are to sacrifice themselves – in defending those ideals.)

So what can even be done? All these “alt-right” assholes didn’t just appear out of nowhere. They’re not video game bad guy Nazis who spawned offscreen. They didn’t congeal in some cesspit and slither into a polo and khakis. They weren’t born with it; they became it. They’re people, and they may be people we know. Something in their lives and in their minds made white supremacy seem like a valid stance to them, and how the hell does that happen? And how the hell do we change that? Is that even possible? (I sure as hell don’t know; I’m no historian, I’m no sociologist, and I don’t really have any experience to bring to bear; I’m just venting.) Are they just going to always be there, on the extreme end of the bell curve, no matter what?

Maybe there’s only so much we can do, but ignoring it doesn’t do anything.

I mean, sure, it’d be peachy if we could just dismiss white supremacists as being stupid, sniveling, superstitious whiners whose ideals and endeavors don’t pose a threat to anyone, and who are going to just fade into nonexistence in another generation or two. If you’re not an obvious target to them, as is often the situation if you’re a white guy yourself, then that might seem like a good option. After all, they’re not trying to subjugate YOU.

Obviously, if you DO challenge them, they’re not going to change their minds in some wonderful sudden epiphany. Maybe they’ll decide you’re a “race traitor” and part of the “problem” after all. Maybe they become a threat to you.

But, the thing is, when bigots are NOT challenged by their fellow white guys, it helps them keep thinking that they’re some sort of brave defenders of “whiteness,” whatever their arbitrary bullshit definition of that may be.

When you don’t call them out, they’re probably going to keep thinking that you’d appreciate what they’re doing for you.

This is especially true if you have a higher social or political standing than they do.

AHEM.

So, yeah. Call out white supremacist and bigoted bullshit. Listen to the marginalized and the oppressed. And take care of each other out there.

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Ha Ha, Only Serious

I’ve lost track of how many election-related posts I’ve started, stalled, and scrapped.  I try to say something significant, interesting, or relevant, but what can even be said?  What can even be done?  Every time I think I’ve given some tidy summation of the absurdity, something even more implausible happens.  But there’s only days to go before the elections, so no matter how incoherent a thesis I may have, no matter how sprawling and meandering my thoughts may be, this is – hopefully – my last chance to get any of them out there, so I might as well dump them all, stream-of-conscious, and have done with it.  Goodness knows it’s not like my observations have any significance, so I’m not even sure why I’ve tried to make anything clear or conclusive this whole time.  It’s not as if reality itself makes sense anymore, after all.

This lack of sense is, really, the core of it all.  Things that seemed like jokes at first have become ha-ha-only-serious. Donald Trump is running for president? Haha, he’ll drop out in a week.  Haha, okay, a month.  Haha, can you believe he said Mexico is “sending their rapists?”  He’s done for sure, now!  A few months and an official nomination later, haha, can you believe he joked about how his wealth and fame can even let him get away with sexual abuse?  He’s done for sure, now!

Repeat ad nauseam, ad absurdum.

Donald Trump says ridiculous things.  He calls for violence against protesters, he insults women based on their appearance as if that’s relevant to their abilities, he has advocated barring all Muslims from entering the United States.

But he’s just being funny, right? It’s hyperbole.  Trump doesn’t actually want anybody to attack anybody for protesting, and he doesn’t really think that our history of violently attacking protesters was better – that people should be punched in the face and sent out on stretchers. Right?  He just said so as a joke.

 

But here’s the thing.  If he’s serious, then that’s an unforgivable call to violence, and if he’s joking, that’s unforgivably devoid of empathy or awareness.

I see three options, if he or his supporters ever walk back a derogatory or violent statement by saying it was a joke:

1) Trump knows exactly what historical horrors he’s evoking when he “jokes” about inciting violence against protesters or “jokes” groping the genitals of unconsenting women, and he’s making these comments to demonstrate just how little he cares about anybody who’d stand in opposition to him.  A similar “joke” would be going up to a woman whose son was just stillborn and telling her all the dead baby jokes he can think of. “What, it’s just a joke! I’m not saying YOUR dead baby, or that there should be dead babies, I love babies! YOU’RE a baby! If you weren’t so sensitive, maybe, I’m just sayin’, maybe your baby wouldn’t have died, how about that? Personal responsibility.”

2) Trump has almost no sociopolitical or historical insight, and he’s making one of those babbling toddler jokes that prove he doesn’t understand how jokes work, or how language works, or how logic works. “Why… why is… why did the dinosaur… eat… eat a shoe? Because he wanted to be race cars! Hahahaha!” His supporters, like a toddler’s parents, see everything this half-formed mind produces as brilliant, unique, innovative, and proof that the child is a genius who’s going to grow up to be president someday.

3) It’s some kind of elaborate metajoke where the real joke is on whomever laughs. It’s “No soap, radio” on the national stage.

 

I could probably go into a whole exploratory tangent that tried to figure out how ethics intersect with humor.  From Mel Brooks’ quote that “Tragedy is when I stub my toe; comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die” to the old saw that “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” there’s an understanding that comedy often involves something Wrong or Terrible happening, usually to somebody other than you.  There’s been tension, or risk, or sheer juxtaposition, and laughter serves to acknowledge that something unexpected and juxtaposed just happened, but to also acknowledge (or assert?) that everything’s safe.  There’s a good reason America’s Funniest Home Videos always had the canned audience laughter – without it, even with the goofy sound effects and the stupid voiceovers, there would’ve been uncertainty, discomfort, or even fear.

How soon is “too soon?” What things are too serious and important to joke about?  What responsibility does the teller of a joke have for the feelings it evokes in people?  Can they take credit for the mirth but wave off the people who are infuriated, insulted, or hurt?  What responsibility does the listener of a joke have for the feelings that arise in them, or that they choose to express?  These things vary intensely, depending on content, context, culture, and the individuals in question.

He doesn’t have to be a stuffy, humorless, serious politician, because he’s Not A Politician. And because he’s Not A Politician, he doesn’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else has.  That very refusal to follow convention becomes a selling point. If you don’t like the status quo, you’re more likely to favor anyone who flouts it.

 

The trickster figure is important in almost every culture.  It’s necessary to have someone who shakes the halls of power, who points out that the Emperor has no clothes, who reminds everyone that social conventions are largely constructed things with only the clout we’ve collectively agreed to give them, and that the more stiff and serious an institution tries to be, the more absurd it becomes. A trickster’s power comes from being able to confuse, stymie, and subvert. It’s the power of liquefaction, like an earthquake turning solid ground to mud.

But can the trickster still serve that purpose if the he attains power?  Can he – or would he – still shake the halls of power if he was living in them?  Would he point out his own lack of clothes?  Would he allow the defiance of conventions to continue?  Or, on ascension, would those very same acts of rebellion become strictly forbidden?  After all, he’s The Person Who Can Change Things, and he’s in the place of power, and he’s Making America Great Again. No further mockery, satire, protest, or complaint would be necessary.

A trickster’s influence comes from being able to do the unexpected, the unpredictable, and even the unthinkable. But a leader’s influence often comes from the opposite.  Because what followers want most often is for today to be more or less like yesterday.  Hopefully better, but generally the same.  Isn’t that what people are asking for when they say “Make America Great Again?” They’ve seen stagnant wages, outsourcing, corruption, and abuse, they’ve seen a lot of Todays that are a lot worse than the Yesterdays they remember, and they just want a stable world again.  They miss being able to have a 40-year career in the same company, with a living wage, cost of living increases every year or two, decent benefits, and a retirement plan. Instead, loyal employees are being coerced into early retirement so that some know-nothing graduate can do their job as an unpaid intern. If they’re lucky, they can come back as “independent contractors” for wages that may or may not make up for the outrageous self-employment taxes. Is this something that a trickster could secure, though?

When someone’s entire public persona seems to rely on saying whatever’s attention-getting at the time, on being prepared to dismiss everything as a joke, on being prepared to rescind every deal, to renege on every promise, to deny every fact – can they actually lead?  Can they be followed?

 

Does it even matter if they deny facts, though?

My concern is that facts don’t matter anymore.  I wish they did, but even if someone is shown objective and factual evidence that their belief is wrong, they only believe it even more fiercely. Forget any attempts to argue that Trump’s polemics show him to be a demagogue, a proto-fascist, a narcissist, a sex offender, a misogynist, a bigot, a tax cheat, a potential nuclear bomber / war criminal, or anything else one might hypothetically suggest, based on the man’s own statements: he, and Pence, and his supporters, would all gladly reply NOT that Trump was misunderstood, but that he had never actually said the thing he was recorded saying. Even if I were trying to explain things as some expert in political science, it wouldn’t help, because that’s not how this game is being played. To paraphrase something I’ve read in various forms, trying to counter this campaign rationally is like trying to play chess with a pigeon: no matter how good you are and how well you play, the pigeon is just going to knock down the pieces at random, take a crap on the board, and strut about as if it’s won.

So that’s it. Nobody can be convinced, no minds can be changed, truth squidges out from beneath the boottreads of Truthiness, and I might as well fight absurdity with absurdity:

 
Donald Trump is a tulpa. An egregore. An entity willed into existence by force of the American peoples’ beliefs. A corporeal thoughtform of the American Fever Dream.

 

Is it any less ridiculous than some other presumably-joking allegations?  Like the one that says he was paid by Hillary Clinton to throw the election (though, ala The Producers, it’s backfiring?)  Or the one that says he’s illiterate? Or the one that says he’s Andy Kaufman in disguise?  Does it even matter anymore? This all began with Truthiness, so why not take it all the way and assert, even more fully, that the reality of the situation is, and only is, what people have believed it into being.

After all, look at how involved he was in the WWF, back in the day.  It’s not so hard to imagine that Donald Trump is still a larger-than-life character, one that he’s completely committed to portraying, never breaking kayfabe in public.  That’s a fun argument, but why not go even farther and claim that this character isn’t even HIS character, that there IS no “real Donald Trump” behind the facade, and that the reason Donald Trump seems like an living caricature of The Sleazy Fat Cat Billionaire is because that’s precisely what he is.  He’s not an actual person, he’s a psychically-generated avatar of Big Business, of The Rich, of Success, of Capitalism, of Materialism.  His focus on gaudy opulence is glamour in both the conventional and the occult senses of the term.

However, those who’ve believed him into being – a group that includes both his adherents and his opponents – do not, as a whole, know enough about business, politics, wealth, or success to know what to imagine in the first place, so there are all sorts of little flaws in the model.

 

First of all, there’s the name. It’s a little on the nose, wouldn’t you say?  “Trump,” in English, derives from “triumph,” and is most used in reference to card games where a card of a certain suit can, regardless of the broader rules, automatically outrank all others.  In other words, a trump card doesn’t just have artificially- and arbitrarily-increased importance and success, it has a certain inbuilt privilege, a silver spoon in its mouth.  Fitting for an entity that believes he should win because he is A Winner, and because everyone else is a loser, because nobody else is him.

However, “trump” has another meaning of “to fabricate, devise, or deceive,” as in “trumped-up allegations.”  That meaning derives more from the Old French tromper, meaning “to blow a trumpet.” As the Online Etymology Dictionary explains, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen would blow horns to try to attract attention – and to attract a new mark to scam.  Given the entity’s self-absorption, history of duplicitous business practices, and accusations of outright fraud (as in Trump University,) both these connotations are apt, as well.

As for Donald, the Online Etymology Dictionary indicates that it ultimately comes from the Proto-Celtic *Dubno-valos – meaning “world-mighty, ruler of the world.”  I mean, come on now.  A self-important, bloviating huckster who’s focused on winning, and is trying to become the leader of the free world, is actually named “World-Ruler, Fabricated, Triumphant, Deceitful, and Loud?”  Even Dickens and Rowling are more subtle about the names of their characters!

 

And look at the ego.  You can’t NOT look at the ego, because there’s nothing else to him.  Armchair psychiatrists love to point out the failures of empathy and the signs of narcissism. He focuses on his will and his will alone, asserting that he and he alone can fulfill the public’s wishes and “Make America Great Again,” despite a complete lack of experience and understanding.  He doesn’t thank, he doesn’t regret, he doesn’t mourn, he doesn’t apologize. He can’t truly understand or feel empathy for any other perspective but his own, because he’s been created a He simply wants whatever he wants and pursues it, regardless of anyone else’s needs, regardless of what anything means.

How can someone so self-centered be seen as someone who’d faithfully serve an entire country?   This might seem baffling, but if he’s perceived instead AS a manifested force of will, then there’s no conflict at all.  His is the will of the people, because HE is the will of the people.  They wished him into being, and into relevance, and he will stay relevant for as long as that belief-in-his-relevance is sustained.

Look, too, at the time a veteran gave him his Purple Heart, and Trump responded with “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.” That statement strongly implies that he wanted the award for its prestige alone, since that award is only granted to people who’ve been injured or killed in action, circumstances which inherently entail bravery, effort, and sacrifice.  In short, he wanted to get the Purple Heart, not to earn the Purple Heart, and so long as he has one, he appears to see the difference as immaterial.  Why?  Because he, being the American Fever Dream, IS getting-without-earning, being-without-meaning.  He cannot be otherwise, and he knows he is the most important, valuable, and flawless entity that exists, so he therefore can’t care about – or even conceive of – a meaningful difference between Getting and Earning.

 

And then there’s the complete lack of clear plans or policies.  The people who’ve created him don’t know what a good policy would be, so neither does he.  But people know what they want to feel.  They want to feel safe, they want to feel exceptional, they want to feel powerful, they want to feel free.  So all Trump needs to do is make noises that perpetuate those feelings, and it keeps the feedback loop going. There doesn’t need to be any truth, any possibility, any reality to the things he says or promises – it just needs to be believed. No matter how unbelievable it seems, it just needs to be enough to resonate, because belief alone is what sustains his pseudo-existence. There may never have been so shameless a demagogue.  But, when it is what The American People want to hear, clearly it is reflective of democracy.

 

Why does Trump speak so poorly, with such mangled sentence structures and such elementary words?  Because that’s the vocabulary level of the people who’ve believed him into being, and because sometimes his mishmash of programming causes him to emit a disjointed string of stock phrases that his believers like to hear.

 

Other more obvious flaws are in the ill-shaped physical form that’s been manifested for him. Trump wears suits, because businessmen wear suits.  But his suits are just as baggy as any suit an average guy wears off the rack, because the average American doesn’t know enough about good tailoring to imagine it any better.

This also explains the hair: there’s just enough conflict between whether he should be the stereotypical balding boss or the suavely-coiffed playboy to create a strange middle-ground: Uncanny Valley transplants and a combover with more architectural innovation than any of his buildings.

As for the tan, the collective consciousness still associates paleness with sickness – but recognizes that genuine tanning only happens if someone spends a lot of time in the sun (which is unlikely for a businessman like Trump, who is imagined as either working very hard in NYC boardrooms.)  Therefore, to maintain that veneer of youth and accomplishment and vigor, he’s been manifested with an overdone spray tan and/or fell-asleep-on-the-tanning-bed look, replete with pale goggle-spots around the eyes.

 

Why, if Donald Trump is an egregore, has he appeared to age, then? Two interlocking reasons.  The first is that he’s a product of his time – the same 80s-era Yuppie zeitgeist that spawned the ideas of Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman, the one fueled by Robin Leach and Reaganomics, Madonna and Miami Vice, Dynasty and Dallas.   The second is because his current power relies on the idea that today’s world isn’t similar enough to the world of the 80s anymore – but that it could be or should be.  Time needs to have passed, and it needs to have passed for Trump, too. He has to be advocating a return of the 80s, not asserting that nothing has changed.

Furthermore, although he’s meant to seem larger-than-life, Trump also needs to appear “real.”  He has to epitomize the American Dream of ascending to wealth and success through hard work and determination – despite that he did no such thing, started off with “a small loan of a million dollars” from his father, and would’ve been more successful if he’d invested all his money and done nothing than if he’d gone through with all his ultimately-failed business ventures.

The result is a collection of physical features which are all meant well, and are all intended to be better than the alternatives of age, balding, relative pallor, etc. – but which add up to the exaggerated caricature we see, a form that reflects its believers’ desperate attempts to reconcile reality and desire – a form that reflects the cognitive dissonance that has brought him into being.

 

Why the dissonance?  Why not make him square-jawed and clean-cut?  It’s because he’s meant to reflect the same dissonance we feel as Americans.  We grow up inculcated with the American Dream, and it feels un-American, undemocratic, anti-capitalist, and almost obscene to deny it: to deny that everyone can get everything they want if they work hard, and any failure to have what you want means only a fault in you and your work effort, not in anything systematic.  Nevermind that the system itself has been set up so that only “the right people” succeed in the first place, so that underdog stories are rare, and so that – once again – things stay mostly the same for as many people as possible.

Unfortunately, whether it’s because of greed, ambition, an erosion of protections, public apathy and cynicism, or the sheer fact that there won’t be any consequences and there’s no need to put up the pretenses anymore, income inequality is worsening and the very wealthiest people are becoming exponentially more wealthy than everyone else put together.  Perhaps, even though these same sorts of issues preceded the Great Depression, that doesn’t matter now – because “the right people” weren’t affected by the first Great Depression, so why should this generation’s elite care if there’s another one?  Have they ever not made their success at the expense of their inferiors? Why should they shy away from doing so more blatantly?  It’s not as if the masses can do anything to change it, anyway.

Besides, thanks to that American Dream, we – to quote that old adage – think of ourselves as temporarily-embarrassed billionaires.  We can be rich and successful, we should be rich and successful, and we WILL be rich and successful – we just need to try harder.  So whenever any initiative would threaten to increase taxes on the people who can most afford it, we rankle, because that could be us someday.  And if we’re getting our well-deserved rewards for being Good Americans, working hard, and achieving the dream, why should we have to give anything up to those “takers?”  They say some of them don’t even pay taxes; how useless is that?

 

Make no mistake, it’s hard for the white, working-class schmos of America.  Jobs are being outsourced, and nobody seems to be up in arms.  It’s suddenly becoming damn near mandatory to send your kids to college, but tuition is skyrocketing and there’s less and less out there to help.   Lobbyists and special interest groups seem to get all the attention, but your industry isn’t big enough or influential enough to sway anyone toward helping you.  Yet it seems like other groups are getting no end of public sympathy and support.

A lot of his supporters see patience, compromise, and diplomacy as weaknesses and hurdles, not as integral parts of any process.  They’ve lived whole lives being told never to give up, never to back down, never to show vulnerability, never to cry. When shit goes bad – and it always does – they don’t have the money or the resources to just buy a new thing.  They’ve got to make do with what they’ve got, use the ingenuity at their disposal, and try to come up with something unconventional that does the trick.  Or they use something they heard at their Granny’s knee, and that she heard from her Granny before her.

And what do they get?  Jokes about uneducated, inbred hillbillies.  Jokes about flyover states. Jokes about outhouses from the same people who advocate for clean water in Bangladesh. Jokes about trailer homes from the same people who advocate for Habitat for Humanity. Jokes about bad teeth and diabetes from the same people who see poor dental care and nutrition as absolute tragedies when they happen to someone on the other side of the planet.  Jokes from the people who are so wealthy, so safe, and so privileged that they can afford to throw away money on feel-good bullshit – everything from kale to quinoa, yoga to pilates, “spirituality” to The Secret – and who act as if they and the world around them are actually better off because of their mindfulness and positivity.

 

So there’s an appeal in the demagogue, in someone like Trump or Sanders who wants radical change. When “The System” itself is corrupt, then playing by the rules of that system can surely only foster further corruption.

But the thing about fascist demagogues is, they don’t care about truth or ethics or legality, just about results.  They don’t care about the rule of law.  The people who want one in office want him there explicitly because he doesn’t care about the rule of law. But instead of a slow and steady change – instead of electing officials at the local level who can affect things close to home, they’d rather have one person knock everything down from the top so it could all be restarted in one great go. Suddenly, decades of experience become a liability. They don’t want a stable status quo, they don’t want business as usual, they don’t want stability, they want things to change, even if it’s for the worse for a while, because that’s what it seems like it would take to make an improvement. They don’t want checks and balances, they want him to make all the decisions, because he’s a winner, everyone else is a loser, and he’ll make America great again.  And he can be as harsh as he wants in the process, because everyone he’s disrespecting and alienating deserves to be disrespected and alienated, because they’re the weird fringes of America – and he’s the only person who’s even paying lip service to Real America, as embodied by the rural blue-collar worker.

We’ve come to accept that politicians are full of bluster and bullshit.  So much so that, when we encounter someone whose lies aren’t just stretches of the truth, or lies by omission, or lies by exaggeration, but are wholesale fabrications – or complete denials of ever having said things, despite video evidence or his own prior statements – he can still be embraced because “at least he’s not a politician.”  So many promises have gone unfulfilled for so long that, now, someone can promise to create national databases tracking religious minorities, or to keep them from entering the country, or can threaten to deport legal citizens – and have this handwaved away because “It’s not like he’d actually do that; he’s just trying to appeal to his base.” He can brag about sexually assaulting women, and have this handwaved away because “It’s not like he’d actually do that; he’s just trying to appeal to his friends.” That roughness and crudeness and lack of experience become virtues. And, furthermore, the sorts of people who maintain racist, sexist, bigoted beliefs get the reassurance that such things really are normal and reasonable.  He can joke about imprisoning someone who, after many thorough investigations, was not found to have broken any laws – but “It’s not like he’d actually do that; he’s just trying to appeal to Republicans.”

 

It’s been a fact forever that politicians lie. They tell lies to get votes. They tell lies to get campaign financing. They tell lies for strategic purposes, because revealing the truth would be much more destabilizing. Diplomacy is just a lie with a doily on it.

But we’re surrounded by so many kinds of lies now. We’ve grown up with mass media, so we’re used to inaccurate representations of reality.  We’re used to reality shows where everything is actually scripted; nobody’s surprised or horrified anymore to learn that they’re fake.

Amid those shows, we’re used to commercials where every product is the best, the greatest, the most important, the most significant. We’re swimming in superlatives.

If we think we’re avoiding entertainment and picking up “real news,” we’re used to sharply-polarized media with a 24/7 news cycle that wrings every last possible plausibility from the most popular, ratings-grabbing story – media that attempts to create stories about outrage and scandal even where none exist. There’s no “fairness doctrine” anymore, so being Fair And Balanced can be the equivalent of having a NASA scientist on to talk about the latest mission, split-screened with a literal flat-earther.

We’re used to a gatekeeperless Internet where anyone can say anything and have equal chance of being heard – which is wonderful, but which helps us forget that not anyone can say anything and have equal chance of being correct.  We’re used to bite-sized bullshit in Facebook posts, we’re used to “Like and share if you agree,” we’re used to emails that say Bill Gates will share his millions if you pass along this email; we’re used to seeing people play along with them because “It can’t hurt.” We’re used to Internet comments full of random insults and invective based on no facts, just boredom and the desire to cause a stir.

We’re used to sarcasm and satire.

And even if you think that media rots your brain and education is more important, we’re used to teaching for the test, even when that doesn’t help anyone retain that knowledge or apply it.  Even science is marred by biases and the replicability crisis.

As long as things can seem to be the case in some measurable way – even if you’re ultimately measuring something else, and poorly – it can be treated as reality.

Informing is not as important anymore as appealing to the pre-existing beliefs and, through obfuscation, manipulation, and outright lies, making them look more like the truth.   And perhaps, on our end as receivers, there’s just so much to parse all the time that we can’t help but fizzle out at some point and begin accepting things at face value. Perhaps, biologically, we just can’t process all the information we take in with as much critical thought as would be necessary to truly understand and to more safely navigate our way in the world.  (Assuming we’re so lucky as to have learned how to think critically about information in the first place.)

For all these reasons and a bunch of others that I’m surely not even thinking of right now, the media landscape has become reality-proof. Giant headlines and chyrons can proclaim certain ideas – while the inevitable retractions, if they come at all, are hidden away.  One person’s complaint can be spun into outrage, creating its own backlash of outrage.  The very idea of “breaking news” has been broken, because that label will get slapped on the most pointless and arbitrary non-events, in the hopes that someone will stop and pay attention, and people paying attention is more important than people actually learning anything.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates all of this better than Fig. 1, a Buzzfeed listicle of absurd breaking news stories.

This is as close as we come to media literacy.

I wonder whether the combination of ratings-driven media, the lack of gatekeepers and the accessibility of alternate sources of information, and the general ethos of postmodernism are all working together to keep people outraged, fearful, confused, and disparate, each with such drastically-different beliefs about reality that communication is impossible. The Overton window might not even explain it anymore: it’s not just moving, it’s undergoing mitosis.  I wonder if there’s not enough consensus left to describe one window with fringed ends, but whether some peoples’ Unthinkables have become others’ Sensibles, whether that’s the legalization of gay marriage or the idea of barring all Muslims from entering the country.

I can’t find anything as clear and solid as a study – and, believe me, I’m aware of the irony in referring to anecdotal “evidence” – but it seems to me that, even as sarcasm and satire grow more prevalent, the average person’s ability to recognize them as such is dwindling. I knew college students who’d never heard the word “parody” before. I saw 50-something adults believe that Stephen Colbert was being sincere on The Colbert Report.  I’ve seen people not only be unable to take a joke, but unable to recognize them as jokes.  And I’ve seen the rise of antihumor, cringe humor, trolling, and other such modes where the humor comes not from what’s said, but from the disappointment, confusion,

So I have an utterly unfounded pet theory that the ability to detect sarcasm and satire might have correlations with political leanings, in that “liberals” might be more willing to perceive additional layers of interpretation in a statement whereas “conservatives” might be more willing to take things at face value.  The downsides of this being that “conservatives” might fail to recognize when something is a joke, sarcasm, a lie, a scam, etc – and that “liberals” might create a whole new unintended meaning through their interpretation and erroneously ascribe that to the author’s intent.  The fringes on both sides have similarities, though – believing in conspiracies based on bad information that they value over “mainstream” news, which they believe cannot be trusted.

 

But the point of this seeming digression is that there is an eroding consensus about reality itself now.  Not just in distinguishing sarcasm from sincerity, satire from assertion, joke from advocation, but even fact from opinion.  This entire election cycle – this entire year – has felt like a coma dream.  I have heard, in full sincerity and from multiple media outlets, outlandish phrases I never thought I would hear.  Phrases like “Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump,” “the late David Bowie,” “Swedish Fish Oreos,” and “World Series Champions the Chicago Cubs.”  And while, yes, I have long loved the idea of subjective reality, and while I believe that we have some ability to influence our perceptions of reality, and while I also believe that there is an extent to which our perception of something as reality can help us behave and believe as if it were reality, and while I ultimately also believe that this sort of subjunctive-case reality helps enable us to, through actual words and deeds, create those conditions in objective reality – a set of beliefs some people sum up as “magic(k added for supplementary potassium,) my worst nightmares are also those where my genuine beliefs and truths, like that the sky is blue, our planet is called Earth, and there are four lights – are treated like insane ramblings and I’m ignored, mocked, or put away.

I’m not arguing here that reality is subjective and that any failure of reality to reflect my subjective preferences is therefore Bad, and people need to learn better.  I’m arguing that, whether you try to explain or understand the world through fact or fantasy, science or religion or magic, myth or metaphor or mechanism, you take on some responsibility.   That the people who say things have some responsibility to avoid misleading others, but the people who perceive things have some responsibility to think critically and avoid being misled, and that it works best if we’re all aware of how constructed our worldviews are and do a little more to keep our assumptions in check.

 

In some small way on Tuesday, Americans get to exert their will on reality.  The voting process has undeniably many problems – the electoral college, first-past-the-post, the fact it’s on a Tuesday, the long lines.  And, yes, one could try to argue that it doesn’t matter, that it’s all decided already – whether you’re a Trump supporter who wants to say it’s all rigged, or a third-party supporter who’s angry Johnson and Stein weren’t in the debates, or a Bernie supporter who thought the primary was fixed, or someone who wants to vote FOR a candidate and can’t support either option, or an apathetic person who thinks everyone’s equally terrible and there’s no point getting involved or speaking out or trying. Who knows, maybe any or all of that is true, and the Secret Masters of the Illuminati have already decided every president through 2032.  Maybe we, the people who vote and argue and participate, are dupes, believing in a false reality.

But maybe we just need to act like democracy itself isn’t broken, and this act itself will *be* democratic.  One that lets us do what we can to keep that main scaffolding in place while we try to make more significant changes at the local level.  Maybe we can try to bring about that change we want in our neighborhoods, help to shape the reality we live in every day, through the people we choose for our Board of Education and our Court of Criminal Appeals.

Even if it does nothing to exert my will on objective reality, I’ll still perform an arbitrary and meaningless ritual by going to vote. Even if it changes nothing but my own perceptions, I’ll value that sense of investment, of participation, of affirmation, regardless of how my state as a whole actually decides or what the electoral college might do thereafter.  Perhaps I might as well stick pins in a voodoo doll, or focus on a sigil, or cross my fingers, or pray.  But I’ll try to fill the circle next to Clinton’s name – and close the circle on a rite to banish Trump back into irrelevancy.

Budweiser and America

 

This looks like it should be some edgy high-schooler’s culturejamming photoshop – but it isn’t, it’s official, and it’s apparently sincere. Budweiser is changing its name to America.

Get ready to enjoy America-battered onion rings, and making late-night America runs before the liquor store closes. You can’t buy America on Sundays, after all.

Remember, you have to be a certain age before you can legally enjoy America. But being allowed to buy America is one of the last milestones of adulthood. That’s how you know you’re not a child anymore: when you can gulp down the cold, bitter contents of America and at least pretend to like it.

But if you spend your young years looking forward to that night when you’ll be able to sit down, an adult among adults, and appreciate America, you may actually be disappointed. People don’t like to admit it, but America is an acquired taste. You especially don’t want to admit it to your loud uncle who likes to get really drunk on America. You really have to take in a lot of America for it to start making you feel much different, though – it’s not as strong as you’d think. Even after just a little America, though, some people start coming up with excuses to act selfishly or irrationally. Like your uncle, who loves America so much that he even sips a few road Americas while he’s driving around in his Mustang. The more America he has, the better he feels about that decision.

Also, there’s a sense in which your masculinity is tied in to how much America you can stomach before you want to throw up. It doesn’t matter if the flavor of it is just not to your liking – America isn’t one of those girly drinks that’s all about tasting nice! Oooh, look at them, all fancy with their sugared rims and their little umbrellas! Sure, so just one of those drinks might actually be more effective than three Americas put together, and it might be sweet instead of bitter, but you can’t even acknowledge those facts as relevant. Or acknowledge those drinks as real drinks! They’re not AMERICA!

You’ve got to buy into this idea of America – this idea of spending a summer afternoon kicking back to watch multimillion-dollar sports teams moving balls around in a stadium your tax dollars helped build – a stadium that reeks of America. Or the idea of coming in after a hard day’s work and having your wife deliver all the goodness of America to you while you watch TV until she’s done with dinner – you earned it! Or the idea of standing around in your party of choice, trying to have fun and relate to people around you, and trying to make sure you look like you’re enjoying America enough. Get a little more America in you, and it’ll come more naturally.

How can you tell if your party is a good one? Just look at how much America it’s used up and thrown away. But you can also look at how many America runs people have made. The people who are the least drunk on America are the ones who have to go get more America for everybody else. The more America they’ve brought to everybody else, though, the less likely those guys are to remember to pay them back. They’ll probably have to buy a lot of the America with their own money, which they know is a little backwards, but everyone else will make good on it, right?

Okaaaay, so what actually happens is that, the more America they bring, the more the drunkest people keep drinking. And those drunk people get angry when someone takes THEIR America. If you want in on America, you need to go get it yourself – nevermind that you have been, all night, but you’re just not being allowed to keep much America for yourself. You’ve got to keep acting like you’re enjoying the party, though. Even though you sorta think a nice sweet cocktail would be nice instead, with a small group of friends – or just a nice cup of tea all by yourself somewhere.

But you know that’s un-American. It’s not what the party’s all about. If nothing else, you still think that you’ll get paid back someday for all that you’ve invested in America. Maybe the drunkest people – who, of course, don’t think they’re that drunk – will finally get SO drunk on America that they fall down. And maybe you and the other runners will be the ones sober enough to roll them into the backyard and keep the party going – maybe a little more mellow of a party, though, with a little less yelling and groping and trying to break things? (Yeah, yeah, you know – they’d just feel like it was THEIR turn to get sloppy drunk and let somebody else do the work, and the same things would happen all over again.)

America can make you a little dizzy, a little nauseous, a little impulsive and thoughtless. But that’s what America’s all about! What’s liberty if not a lack of inhibition? What’s justice if not the sorts of judgments we all agree make sense when we’re thoroughly immersed in America? And it’s for everyone – except for young people, or old people, or people taking certain medications, and we still sorta look at women funny when they want one.

But this is America. Drink up.

 

 

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How To Survive Mercury Retrograde

How To Survive Mercury Retrograde: 1. Stop believing in Astrology.

Via The Credible Hulk on Facebook; image credited to Rainman of Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Memes


Fiction can be a good tool, and a temporary suspension of disbelief is integral to a lot of things: art, magic(k added for supplementary potassium), even basic human interactions – you tell yourself a story about other people being decent and kind, even though they’re probably not.

But part of using a tool is knowing that it’s a tool, and choosing when and how you use it – rather than letting your beliefs about that tool control what you do.

If you want to use the wrench of astrology to tighten your mental lugnuts… whatever. You might want to admit to yourself that it’s a plastic toy wrench, though – and you might also want to ask yourself how convenient it is that your problems just so happen to be fixable by using your favorite plastic toy wrench. Are there other problems that this tool can’t fix, and that you’re ignoring as a result?

The problem comes when someone cannot put down that tool.

They’re not just using a wrench to tighten their own mental nuts and bolts, they’re using it to hammer a nail, to hold a pen, to stir their food, to shake their client’s hand. They’re saying “The moon position means I can’t go to dinner with you.” They’re saying “The cards told me not to take that job.” They’re saying “I prayed on it, and I’m supposed to run for President.” They’re using it for everything – not just internal diagnostics and repair, but for guidance in how to do everything they do with and to everyone and everything else in the world. Tools help you do work, they say, so this is HELPING. But they’re never using any other tool, not even when it’s clearly more suited for the job. When this happens, it’s not a tool anymore, it’s a fetish object – one believed to have supernatural powers, and maybe its own will that the user must obey.

So they can’t put down that wrench, they can’t close the circle, they can’t drop character, they can’t stop. No matter how much harder it actually makes their life, they can’t stop, because they have the incontrovertible belief that their life is better than it would have been otherwise.

By all means, use fiction as a tool. Draw some tarot cards and see how you interpret them – and realize that your associations and interpretations will clue you in to your mental state in ways that may have hidden from you if you tried to look more directly. Or cast some yarrow stalks, or read some tea leaves, or flip to a Bible verse, or look at some inkblots, or shake a Magic 8-Ball. The human mind is incredibly skilled at denying things, even to itself, so sometimes you’ve got to play a game to figure out What Am I Thinking And Why?

And sometimes, just to buy yourself a few precious moments of peace of mind, you’ve got to absorb yourself into a narrative in which the world makes sense – whether you do so by sitting in a pew or under a yew. (Or making some stew, feeding a ewe, painting in blue, or wearing J. Crew. You do you.)

But if you can’t stop, can’t change, and can’t adapt, you’re not using the tool anymore.  You’re letting it use you.

When your tool or your system-of-tools or your religion or faith or whatever starts telling you “BE AFRAID! SUFFER! EXPECT THE WORST! DO NOT DENY ME OR ELSE! ACCEPT THIS OR ELSE! DON’T YOU DARE STOP! IT’S BAD LUCK!” — ask yourself what you even have to lose. What do you have to lose by stopping, when it’s your belief itself that’s making you afraid, making you suffer, making you expect (and think you deserve) pain?

Obviously, pain is part of life, and if you only tell yourself the story about how you deserve only good and happy things, and anything that interferes with that is obviously unholy… that’s not a great coping tool, either.  You’re still limiting yourself and telling a distorted story.

A key trait of humanity is our ability to look at the world and imagine it otherwise. It’s why fiction is even possible.  And it’s wonderful and amazing that fiction can inspire us to change things about ourselves and the world around us.  There are many ways to see reality, many possible beliefs, and – even at the risk of existential choice-paralysis – you’re probably better off cultivating the ability to perceive and engage with the world in MORE ways, rather than fewer.

But no matter how well you tell yourself the story, no matter how much it seems to help, no matter how accurate a story it tells… it’s a story.  Nobody else perceives the world quite the same way as you do, so the story that works for you doesn’t work for everyone else, and as you age and as your situation changes, the same narrative probably won’t even keep working for YOU. That doesn’t mean you need to reject everything and become full of bitterness and nihilism, refusing to acknowledge anything as more than electrochemical signals in your brain.  It doesn’t mean you have to become an automaton.  It just means that things just happen, and there’s not necessarily meaning, reason, or sense in any of it.  “Sense” is another story.

So do what works for you – but, if just to make sure it IS what works, if just once in a while… put down the duckie.

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We Interrupt This Broadcast…

I’m still catching up on the 30 Days (ahem) of Songs, yes.  But I learned something this past week that’s thrown off my bloggery something fierce.

Not just the recent arrival of my new niecebeast.  I wish that were my excuse, honestly.  I feel rather bad that I couldn’t think of anything to say about this imminent human that I hadn’t already said about the previous niecebeast.   Surely I should have been able to distill that same curiosity and excitement in a completely different way, befitting the completely different protohuman?  I tried, but there was nothing I was thinking, feeling, wondering, about this new human that I wasn’t thinking, feeling, wondering, and writing down about the last.  The knowns were just as few, the unknowns just as multitudinous.

No, what’s rattled my writerly foundations isn’t the new niece with all her unfurling futures, all the wonder of what she’ll see and do and think and feel and become, the mindboggling ways that her every experience will, in some way, alter her every future experience. That’s her own story.

Rather, it’s a sense of sudden disconnect from my past, from my own story.

You see, I just learned that OpenDiary shut down earlier this year.

OpenDiary is – or was – one of the very first online journaling sites.  How old?  It predated the existence of the word “blog” by a solid year.  I left my first post on September 29th, 2000, and my last, it seems, on January 11, 2009. And apparently the whole works was shuttered on February 7, 2014.

I had no idea until I went to check it out the other day in one of my rare fits of curiosity.  Fits that had come less and less frequently, in time.  What once had been a near-daily haven became a fitful biweekly obligation.  A quarterly attempt.  It became less a path toward introspection and growth, less a way to push my way out of that psychological instar and grow into, let’s face it, just a bigger, weirder, slightly-less-inept sort of caterpillar… and, instead, it was more like sweeping up the past months’ moltings and trying to pin their dry, crackling husks to the page.  They didn’t stay, and they were barely recognizable, but it was important to at least keep trying to put up the facade of writing there.

To hear that OpenDiary is gone, and so long after the fact, is… a little like hearing that the house you lived in as a teenager burnt down to the ground.  But it happened a while ago – there’s no flame left to put out, the ashes have been plowed away, and it’s all been paved over.  Why should you be upset?  You don’t live there anymore.  It’s not like the fire went back in time and made Past You homeless.  In fact, if you’re lucky – and I was – you may have even managed to take out every single personal item you’d left there, perfectly intact. (Yes, OD allowed you to download your entire blog as a .txt file.  Yes, I have it.  I feel like I might have posted at least something after the end of the aughts, but perhaps I misremember.)

But to me, there’s something a little more to it.  OD wasn’t just where I felt “at home” with my journaling – though believe me, it was.  With each adolescent reinvisioning of myself, I’d adopt a new theme.  New background, new font, new colors.  From the ever-so-angsty red on black to a nature-seeking green on black, then finally forgoing the tedious pseudogoth phase in favor of ghostwhite backgrounds with bubbly purple borders, or with a starfield, or… I think I had blue on my sidebar and archive for a while?   Still with a ghostwhite background, though.  One I sampled for this background, as well.  Maybe it was just the habit of writing in such a familiar place for so very long, but it was so hard to write anywhere else.  LiveJournal, Diary-X, Blogger, just plain notecards… none of them felt right.  Even WordPress doesn’t feel quite right, to be honest.

It’s not as if I didn’t know the site was always in danger of going under.  They’d had two separate hacking incidents, one that resulted in the permanent loss of eleven weeks of entries.  I really wonder how my life might have been different if I’d been able to read back to some of those weeks, in fact – they were about a change in the nature of a relationship, a transition from “dating” to “boyfriend/girlfriend,” a transition that was not as smooth as I later wanted to believe – or as he’d later assert.  Server problems happen, and everyone understands that… but nothing burned worse than to write some long, cathartic journal entry, hit save, and watch it fail, the data lost forever.  To this day, before I save any writing on this blog, a forum, or even a particularly long Facebook post, I still compulsively hit Ctrl+A, Ctrl+C, and prepare to paste it into a text file and submit it again if I have to.

But even though it was fickle, even though it was not the most secure, even though its management was out of touch, even though it was often somewhat gaudy, even after its various “makeovers,” OpenDiary was home.  If just because it was where I wrote nearly ten years of my life.  (Don’t think that I don’t see the parallel with my current online home.)   I put so much of my energy and my time into that, detailing my travails through high school, college, and living on my own, almost up until I moved.  There’s so much ME in there.  Or what was me, anyway.

I’m glad I have the words, still.  Bitterly glad.  It’s not like I want to read it all again – it’s got some of the worst of all adolescent whining, and so much college awkwardness and fretfulness, and there might even be POETRY in there… ye gods.  All the times lately that I sit and think about how much better off my life could be right now if only I’d learned certain lessons earlier, if only I’d made different decisions, if only I hadn’t wasted my time and affection on broken jerks, if only I’d taken different classes, tried talking to more people, stood up for myself… arguably every stupid decision I’ve ever made that has put me where I am now, it’s in there.  Of course I want to reject it, because I have only an uneasy peace with my past.  Still, it is my past.  It’s mine.  I wasn’t much for taking pictures, and I didn’t have many friends, and so I just don’t have that much from my past except for those ceaseless babblings.  Yes, it has the records of me fawning over and pining for people who are now anything from “acquaintance” to “What was his last name again?” to “bludgeon on sight.”

But it also has stories of theatre opening nights, and tales of my first days in college.  My first Rocky Horror.  Graduations from both high school and college.  It has stories of events, once so terribly magical and important, that are now not simply tarnished, but corroded.  It tells the tale of other nights which have only become even more storied and wonderful with the passing of the years. It has descriptions of average days that will someday be marvelously quaint, and descriptions of those rare days filled with small awesomenesses.  It has fanciful reinterpretations of suburban adventures.  It has my full set of introspective adventures into the “Mindscape,” and mock-interviews with the various facets of my personality and identity, in hopes of understanding myself better, reconciling my various drives, and figuring out how to be more like the parts of myself I actually enjoyed.  So much of it is probably so irrelevant now.  A dreadful amount might still teach me a thing or two, if I were bold enough to go back and read.

To truly put the loss in context, I might have to describe my relationship to the Internet itself a little more clearly. I am not a digital native; I remember a time before the Internet, before it was common to even have a home computer.  I remember having email-only Juno service, and eventually a 26k dial-up modem and AOL, back in the fall of 1999.  In fact…. a little research later, and I have an exact date: September 23, 1999.  I spent my nights searching random keywords of things I was interested in, seeing what I could find.  These were the days when you REALLY couldn’t trust what you read on the Internet, because it was probably written by some random schmuck.  Google was only two years old.  Wikipedia didn’t exist.  You weren’t ever supposed to put your real name or your picture on the Internet.  Not that you could see pictures very easily, anyway.  Did I listen to music online?  Sure – I was always looking up MIDI renditions of popular songs.  Some of the people at school talked about Napster and mp3s, whatever those were, though.  Me, I was jsut poking around on MUDs, using Telnet with no local echo – arguably THE greatest boost to my typing skills.  Or I’d talk about books in the AOL chat rooms, try to follow discussions on Usenet, or delve into H2G2, reading and writing and editing.  “Whoa, an encyclopedia of everything, just like the Guide!  What a fun idea!”  I’d wait half an hour for a Flash or Shockwave video to load on Newgrounds or Albino Black Sheep.  I’d marvel at the convincing photoshops in the video for All Your Base.  I’d roll my eyes at this week’s extrapolation of the Hampster Dance.  I’d delve deep into the yellow labyrinth of HyperDiscordia, and boggle at the 3D madness of CabaretDiscordia, and skim the staggering roster of the House of the Kiwi, and trail off into the Church of the SubGenius and Cthulhu Mythos.  I’d follow little blue links until I was learning all about chaos magick and culture jamming and glamourbombing, Temporary Autonomous Zones, the Cacophony Society and Burning Man.  I didn’t even feel like I was, or could be, part of that sort of counterculture – but just knowing it existed seemed to help somehow.  Just that awkward reassurance that it’s not just teenage rebellion – the world really is messed up, and even some adults are still trying to do strange things to reality.

There was so much more I’d wanted to do, though.   To make my own site, to download music or programs, to learn how to make my own MIDI music, to figure out how those animated icons worked.  I maintained a few gloriously tacky cabals on Geocities, granted, but nothing more legitimate than that.  I couldn’t have my own website, couldn’t download anything, couldn’t install anything, couldn’t update anything.  Ever.  Period. My uncle once mentioned The Palace, one of the first graphical chat rooms, where you could have your own avatar, any picture you wanted, and actually stand around in what looked like a room.  I never got to check it out, but that description alone defined”cyberspace” to me for most of my young life – something that wasn’t just a page and some comments, but a sort of place, where you could have an icon that represented yourself, and move it around in relation to other people and things, and write instantly to other people!  All the amazing things of MUDs and chat rooms and graphical video games, all rolled into one!  It sounded so futuristic at the time.  Such a relatively short time has passed, and it’s already so quaint that it’s hard to even explain how or why it could hold such fascination.  Still, just the idea of The Palace fostered my future fascination with MMOs, virtual worlds, and other digital social tangents – and my general desire for interaction with the Internet and its wealth of ideas, coupled with my incredible lack of agency in the real world, made such constructs all the more compelling.

I had a modest Buddy List, most of them friends from school, acquaintances, or relatives… but a few were Internet Friends, people I had met through the chat rooms or Usenet or whathaveyou.  Shocking it may have seemed, but they were generally more genuine, more honest, more caring, than the people I knew in person.  One was twice my age, but he helped remind me that it was good to be a weirdo in the world.  He reinforced that, painful as it could be at the time, I was better off for being able to recognize the oppressive thumb of the media in every aspect of teenage life – how we all defined ourselves through music and movies and products and clothing, our desires for freedom and individuality forever bought and sold.  He reminded me that so much of the drama of high school was, in the end, completely meaningless; it was just that pressure-cooker environment, closing us in and denying us any good outlet, making it so intense at the time. And, of course, we talked books.  Teachers and parents were so much older, so distant, so dismissive.  But his curmudgeonly arse was well prepared to rant with me against Society At Large, while still reminding me that at least that part of it was fleeting — and that I’d end up better off by the time I was as old as he was.  I suppose I am, now. And I suppose, in some ways, I have.  And now I have no idea where he is or what’s become of him.  I guess he was even more right, that the things and people that seemed so important when I was 16 would someday seem dim and immaterial.  Ah well.

But another such Internet Friend was how I found OpenDiary in the first place.  He’d found it through his girlfriend, then stared one himself.  I can actually still remember seeing his first IMs with links to his journal, peering at the strange URL and mentally parsing “opendiary” as one word that would rhyme with “incendiary.”  The friendship with him lasted longer – but it, too, faded, became a Was instead of an Is.

Let me diverge back to the old-timey mechanics of the Internet for a minute.  The Internet may still, in some ways, be a Wild West, but it was even Wilder and Wester then.  Different in the small things, like how links were shared – the fancy websites would let you click a button to fill in your email address, the receiver’s email address, and it would send a link right to their email!  Groups of sites on related topics would sometimes cluster up into Webrings, since it was so unlikely you could find more information just by using AltaVista, Dogpile, or by Asking Jeeves. If we had something to say about it, maybe we could find the author’s email address, but that’s probably it.  Not every page had a comments section Almost everything seemed to be made by individuals, not companies, and the user was on the receiving end.  You could only make a website if you knew HTML and could afford the hosting.  Geocities, Angelfire, and Tripod were genuine revelations – the easiest, most accessible way for an average user to publish content.  But even on them, you probably couldn’t get any comments.  Thus the everpresent Hit Counter – with no comments, likes, or shares, hits alone were how we’d measure our impact.

I rehash all of this as a reminder of how different it was to interact with information then — and how innovative OpenDiary seemed at the time, bog-standard as it is now.  To be able to write anything you wanted,  put it on the Internet, and get comments from other users – even if you didn’t know a lick of code?  That was pretty amazing!  You could even select certain blogs as your favorites, to read their newest posts more easily!  Readers could submit posts they really liked to a Reader’s Choice feature!  If you didn’t know what to write, the home page always had a writing prompt, under which you could read what others had submitted for it!  These were surprising and complex features for the time.  No, really.  Some upstart called LiveJournal started doing similar things a few years later, but eh, that was the site for the stupid kids – the ones with the pixel doll avatars with blinky eyes and sparkly jewelry, the ones who got so worn out after reading just one paragraph that they’d whine if you didn’t put the details behind a cut.

To actually have a sense of community online – of creating content, sharing it easily, having it be read in a timely fashion by other users, who could then comment and respond to those comments and so forth… this was genuinely new. And, though I didn’t have many friends on there, nor did I really follow many other journals, it still made a huge difference to my life.  Not just the venting, but those flickers of feedback, support, even empathy. One person in particular helped keep me sane and bolster my spirits when I needed it most.  Arguably, what I really needed was a swift slap to the face, an internal sense of validation, and a different boyfriend, but still.  To be encouraged like that, to be able to have “girl talk” even at a distance… it was an amazing thing.

But really, why do I keep explaining the nature of the Internet at the time I kept that journal?  Because that was a big part of the experience for me.  It wasn’t just keeping a diary.  It was sharing it.  Even if it was never stumbled over by anyone, even if nobody commented, I knew it was out there.  I knew it wasn’t just me ranting into the void.  “Anyone could read this, today or tomorrow or next year” was part of the excitement.  And the anxiety.  There surely were times I was tempted to put the whole works on Friends Only.  Times I was a little afraid to say what I wanted to say, not knowing who was going to read it.  Times when I wondered whether – or how much – I’d “crossed the streams” with screen names or character names or whatever, how much I’d made it easier for people to tie together the other anonymous threads of my online life.  But, in the end, it felt better to have it out there.  To be a face in the crowd.  To give myself permission to trust the other faces.  To reach out, even if nobody reached back.

I have the text, yes.  I have all the comments.  But I don’t have that sense-of-place.  I don’t have that sense-of-outreaching.  Nobody will ever reach back and take a hand unhinged in time.  I’ll never have to worry about somebody taking those details and trying to figure out who I was, or who I now am.  I used that site to understand myself for so many years, and now I never will again.  The first times I ever really dared express myself, try to find myself, study myself… it was in a way that, in theory, any incredibly bored user could randomly stumble upon.  And a few did.  And however they reached out back then, however I may have reached back, that connection is cut forever now.  It is, all of it, Past, no longer Present, never again Future.

So I’m shocked, and I’m gutted, and I feel a sense of loss.

But I also feel… okay with it.

I’ve changed, you know.  If slowly.  I’ve hung on for so many years to so many terrible things.  I’ve been slow to see how I’ve changed, how I’ve grown, how I’ve stopped being that small child everyone seemed to love to hate, stopped even being that sullen and cynical adolescent, that untrusting yet self-sacrificing college student.  I’ve seen how those other ODers changed.  That helpful and encouraging girl? Apparently she gets to make a living at both writing, being encouraging, and being pretty, now!  Meanwhile, that friend who introduced me to OpenDiary in the first place?  I haven’t talked to him in years; he unfriended me on Facebook after I called him out on one too many instances of taking jokes seriously and getting critical in illogical ways, then acting like his paragraphs-long complaint was, itself, a joke.  It’s one thing to try to make a heavy situation lighter with comedy.  It’s another to turn every single conversation into anti-humor performance art.  In the end, I couldn’t tell whether he wasn’t the guy he used to be, I wasn’t the person I used to be, or if it wasn’t really about either of us — more about the fact that I’d made, well, real friends – ones who didn’t just rant at me, ones who didn’t make flippant jokes and insults when I tried to make real conversation, ones who actually cared about talking with me, sharing things with me, having a proper give-and-take.  Friends who didn’t just talk to me because they wanted an excuse to talk.  And that other early Internet friend?  Even less of a clue – I think we’d stopped IMing even before I was out of high school.  I’ll probably never know what’s become of him.

Over time, and by forging new connections in a different online community, I’ve gradually felt more comfortable with myself.  In some ways I’ve genuinely changed; in other ways, I’ve just molted more of the not-me things that had been encasing me. The beliefs – some imposed by me, others by others – that molded my growth, that constrained my ideas, that paralyzed my ambition, that exaggerated my every smallest mistake into an unforgivable catastrophe.  Through it all, I’ve cobbled together a sense of self, a sense of identity, a sense of will.  And now, as I write in this blog, as I write my short story collection, as I write my character guides, as I write my roleplays, as I edit an upcoming RPG, as I prepare to go for some much-belated sleep before I work from home a while, game a while, eat a while, and continue another day of life… I realize I’m finally developing a sense of agency.  I realize that there are things I can do, not just in the abstract potentiality sense – you know, that bullshit sense that we use to tell kids that they “can be the President someday,” or that they “can be whatever they want when they grow up.”  No, I realize that here and now, in the actual world as it is, with the actual me as I am, I can actually DO these things.  And I am.  Multiple such things at any given time, in fact.

I know that all these things will pass, too.  The online community I have now, the one that lets me reach out, write, be reached to, tell stories, meet people, grow… it will be another Connection Failed someday.  The friends may fade – if just because I do that awkward thing where I essentially assume they don’t want to talk to them anymore, try not to “bother” them, and go years without contact.  But, who knows.  Even The Boyfriend could decide that all this stupid “feelings” crap I try to impose on his life is only getting in the way of his work, and he could tell me to leave one day.  Maybe nothing in my life right now will last, not even a little bit – it isn’t some glorious, shining future that will see me through to my old age, and maybe it won’t even last the next year.  For all my ostensible agency, I really don’t get to decide.  Regardless of how long it may be, it’s still a chapter, and it too will see its end.

Still.  It’s an undeniable fact that the span of my life that could be written about and posted on OpenDiary… is over.  Completely and forever.

It gives me… a sense of closure, really.

It feels as if the ME that was written about in OpenDiary is also over.  That melodramatic high school kid.  That anxious, overwhelmed freshman. That emboldened sophomore.  The sallow, hounded years that followed, cloistered like a hermit alchemist trying to turn lead to gold, apathy to love.  Those fitful, transitional years of first living alone, trying to hold a job and scrape together a future when I was still just barely feeling like I was allowed to exist in my own present.  I’m not the type to burn their whiny high school diary.  That’s no less emotional and maudlin than anything that might have been written in there.   This, I want to save.  I never knew who I was writing it for.  Me in the future?  Some future kid I knew I didn’t really want to have, but half-assumed I’d end up having anyway because That’s What Adults Do?  Maybe my nieces, I thought, once the first one emerged.  I still don’t know, honestly.  But I’m keeping the whole shebang.  I may never trust it to the Internet again.  I may never share it with anyone.  But it’s my past, and I’m not about to just delete it.  It was me. Though even the Internet doesn’t know that anymore.

I realize now that, though I may struggle – though finances are a horror, and job prospects are grim, though I struggle to reach toward what I want to do and be, though I still sometimes question whether I even deserve what I have now, much less what I want… I’m no longer grappling with existence itself.  I’m no longer trying, and so often failing, to justify my presence to the world and to myself.   I no longer feel so constantly judged, as if every person held an invisible dagger to my skull before I ever said a word – as if my existence alone was an invasion they had to defend themselves from. I no longer fear mistakes so profoundly.  To try and to err does not disqualify me from trying again, does not disqualify me from being an acceptable entity, does not disqualify me from having any worth, merit, utility, or potential.

I know this invokes all the most horrible types of irony, but it’s true anyway:  I accept my own existence.  I accept my sense of self – as a thing that exists in the world, and is allowed to.  I accept my sense of identity – as a thing that can be described in certain ways, that has certain characteristics, that exhibits certain behaviors, and is allowed to.  I accept my sense of will – as a thing that can wish that things and circumstances were other than they are, a thing that can express opinions and preferences, can make choices, can argue for its desires, can want to have an impact upon the world surrounding it by means of its choices, intents, and decisions, and does not need external justification or permission to do so.  And, though slowly, I’m accepting my sense of agency – as a thing that can actually act upon that will, a thing that can attempt art, share its ideas with others, collaborate to bring events and stories into being, and can otherwise manipulate its surroundings in order to cultivate circumstances it believes it would find more preferable.  Through so much of the time of that journal, I tried so hard not to be seen, not to be judged, not to BE – and now, I’m capable of asking other people if I could work with them in order to bring things into being.  I still feel riddled with hubris, often.  I still feel I’m pushing my luck.  I still worry about bothering people.

But it has been a long time now since I questioned whether or not I was really permitted to want, to feel, to think, or to exist.

I know I can still backslide.  That it may always be there, waiting for a moment of despondence, of confusion, of indulgent self-castigation, and I’ll lay myself back into the slow, sucking mire and, perhaps, never again convince myself I’m allowed to stand up again, never believe in another proffered hand, never be offered such a hand in the first place.  I worry, still.  I hold back, still.  Still, yes, but less. I know that the things I am wanting, the things I am doing, are – very often – not good, or at the least, they could always be better.

But I am doing them.

And, by this, the Me that is creating and influencing its world – if crudely – has walked away from the Me that waited for hope to happen.

This isn’t me telling my past self, or telling other present or future selves, “See, you can do it if you put your mind to it!  All you have to do is try!”  It’s a reminder of the long road I’ve walked to even become a person capable of trying.  It was not okay to be wrong, or to be unprepared, or to be caught off guard; I could not make myself try when I was not certain beyond all doubt that I’d succeed.  And my capacity for doubt is mighty.  And that vigilance is wearying.  I did not have much, but I thought it would all be lost if I made any sort of mistake.  On anything.  Ever.

I don’t think I could have been able to get here if I didn’t have this social structure I have now, this way of seeing myself reflected in others’ eyes, and reflecting them to themselves. Each of us standing on the other’s shoulders in that non-Euclidean geometry of friendship.  Mirrors reflecting mirrors, wheels within wheels, turtles all the way down.  It’s alarming how much different it’s made things – and a little scary to realize that, if that social scaffolding were to collapse, I’m not sure how well I could go back to that mire of silent isolation, now that I’ve been permitted an alternative.

The road to get here has been long and tiring. And I’ve found that, even once you reach Agency, there’s even more road left to walk, but you don’t know where it goes, and you may even have to create it from nothing.

I think you only get to find out by going there anyway.

Given an infinite Universe — or, perhaps, even a finite one — I’ll discover it for myself.

Off I go.

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Day 01 – A Song From One Of Your Favorite Albums

And it begins!

This is a tricky question for me, mostly because I’ve rarely listened to albums straight through.  I’m one of those heathens who always listened to the radio more than anything else.  I was fortunate enough to live within broadcast distance of my state’s capital city, so despite the paucity of other entertainment options in my small town — pre-Internet, no cable,  under half a dozen broadcast channels (and two of them were preacher stations, which don’t count) — I  still got to pick up a variety of music over the airwaves.  However, I mostly kept to the Oldies stations as a kid.

I liked the randomness of it, of never knowing what you’d hear.  The way that hearing your favorite song always felt like some divine blessing — music-manna falling from the sky, just for you.   Putting in an album and listening to it straight through never had that same thrll, even if you knew your favorite song was on there.  It was so controlled, compared to the roulette wheel of the radio dial.  You spins the knob and you takes yer chances.

So I never had a very big budget for CDs, and it wasn’t a high priority.  Which was just as well, because the local Kmart didn’t have a very big selection.  Really, the only reason I had CDs at all was that my parents had signed up for the Columbia Record Club, and if you didn’t buy a gross of CDs every month, they’d send someone to break your kneecaps.

Still, at some point late in elementary school, I rediscovered The Beatles.  I’d heard them on the Oldies station, sure, but they tended to keep to the safer tracks.  “She Loves You” and “Penny Lane” and “Hard Day’s Night.” None of the more psychedelic, avant-garde stuff; you’d never hear “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “I Am The Walrus.”   “Helter Skelter,” certainly not.  “Revolution 9” was right out.  And even “Strawberry Fields Forever” was, apparently, too trippy.   So, as I was experiencing some pre-teen rebellion and my father was a rather conservative man with a strong distaste for all things Hippie, some of these albums became like forbidden fruit.

Which, of course, meant that I had to get my hands on one.

I couldn’t just circle Sgt. Pepper in the Columbia Record Club booklet, convinced as I was that my father would kick me right out of the house.  And I didn’t have the means to go buy the CD myself.  Fortunately, despite all assertions that Home Taping Was Killing Music, my grade-school peers and I had a reasonably thriving subculture of mixtapes and bootlegs.

And so it was that, one day, I smuggled home a cassette of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, courtesy of an even-more-Beatlemanic friend.

My first challenge was getting the tape into my room at all.  I always just abandoned my backpack on the couch, so the obvious method of taking it into my room would be nothing but suspicious.  Instead, I had to wait until nobody was looking, then transfer the cassette from pack-pocket to pants pocket, then dash from the living room to my room.  It seemed a lot more daring at the time.  However, that act of subterfuge had only been the first hurdle.    I couldn’t just put it on the stereo — my parents would hear.  If they even found me listening to the stereo with headphones on, they’d surely ask what I was listening to.  Clearly, I thought, the only safe way to listen was to pop it in my Walkman, then hide under the covers, disguising myself as the usual lumpy bundle of bedsheets and pillows.

Brilliant.

So I huddled down, flimsy headphones on my ears, the old Walkman in my hand, thinking about the strange and transgressive music I was about to hear, the album I knew was famous, but otherwise knew nothing about.  I pushed down the Play button, which made that satisfying mechanical CLUNK.

However, instead of the innocuous orchestral tuning noises and hushed audience chatter, instead of the bouncy strum of the bass and the vaguely metal-prefacing screech of the guitars…

The tuning sounds sounded like alien instruments being dumped into a cave.  The mutterings were bizarre chants.  The bouncy strum became a low funereal dirge, and the guitar didn’t screech, but drone.  I had no way to know something was wrong at the time.  I had no frame of reference.

And so, for a good twenty minutes, I was convinced that Sgt. Pepper was an atonal, experimental album — probably designed to represent the feeling of being on drugs.

No wonder it was famous!

When the music slowed and slowed and finally stopped, and I opened up the blanket-fort enough to let in a sliver of light, I saw that it was no pregnant pause in a song — the batteries had died.  They’d been dying all along.

Feeling somewhat like a heel, I quickly found some replacements, rewound the tape, and tried again.

I didn’t dislike it, by any means.  And it did still seem fairly far-out.  “Lucy in the Sky” was as wild as I’d anticipated, and “Within You Without You” even moreso.  “Good Morning Good Morning” was a catchy but brutal ode to suburbia that, decades after it came out, I could still relate to.  “She’s Leaving Home” was rather depressing, and “A Day In The Life” was even more forlorn, but ended with such a nervy, cacophonous buildup, that, for a long time, I couldn’t listen to it all the way through, But none of it was anywhere near as strange as I’d thought it was during that brief bubble of time, hidden beneath the blankets.

Still, the more I listened to the album for what it was, the more I enjoyed it for what it was.  I had wondered before whether I’d have appreciated The Beatles as much if I’d grown up with them.  If I’d have dismissed them as firmly as I dismissed things like the Backstreet Boys.  But, hearing Sgt. Pepper, I realized that The Beatles really were more than pop stars, more than a manufactured boy band.  Maybe it wasn’t as avant-garde as I’d originally misheard it, but the album actually was experimental, throwing in sound effects and sitars and whole orchestras playing fierce non-music crescendos.  The Beatles used their power as the biggest pop stars around to get away with breaking that very mold.

In later years, I found different albums to sneak into my room, everything from Nirvana to Pink Floyd to Ozzy Osbourne to David Bowie to Marilyn Manson.  In hindsight, I don’t think my parents cared what music I listened to, at least not by the time I was in my teens.  But there was something about the sneakiness that made them all sound a little better.  Sitting on the bedroom carpet, door closed, headphones on, volume low in case the cord popped out, doing nothing else but listening with studious intensity.  Trying to think of everything on its own merits, and also in the context of everything that had come before it and everything that came after, as if trying to put together a map of pop culture itself, of Coolness itself.  Hoping I might, at last, figure out where I was — and how to get somewhere else.

Of all the songs on Sgt. Pepper, the reprise has always hit home most.  It is, itself, a different version of a song already heard.  Its grinding and screeching guitars seem to carry echoes of hard rock and heavy metal music still to come.   The alter-ego band motif calls to mind all my unanswerable questions — what if The Beatles never became famous?  What about the parallel universes where John never met Paul, or where Richard Starkey died of his childhood illnesses, never living to become Ringo Starr?   What about the one where John never met Yoko, and The Beatles were playing that very night in Branson?    Somewhere, maybe Sgt. Pepper really was released as half-speed avant-garde art piece.  Maybe that had a different effect on that otherwise-identical culture — or maybe it made The Beatles a footnote.

So it reminds me that music can matter.  It can be the soundtrack to someone’s personal life, or the soundtrack to a cultural revolution.  It can become so iconic that millions know it by heart, even though thousands discover it anew every year.   And yet, in the end, it’s rather arbitrary. Things could always have been different.  But no matter how a work IS, the way we actually perceive it  — the way we perceive anything — is informed as much by our expectations as by the work itself.    I certainly had strange expectations of Sgt. Pepper – and a still-stranger first experience.  It truly felt like music that fell out of a wormhole somewhere, and wasn’t meant for this culture at all.  How could I not be a little let down to realize that it was all so much more mundane?  And yet, how ridiculous would it be to scorn that album, or any album, or anything, for not living up to my incorrect assumptions or out-of-context first impressions?  I’ve tried to keep that in mind ever since, whenever I encounter something new.  Take it as it is, and in its proper context — not as I mistakenly thought it should have been.

But there’s another part to the story.  A part that I never knew until maybe a decade after this incident.  A deeply subjective part that, truth be told, might be the biggest factor in why I like the album so much.  Not just because it makes me think about my expectations, or transgressive media, or the cycles of teenage rebellion, or relationship between art and culture, or the way everyone has some sort of baggage or priming that disposes them to perceive things differently.   Rather, just because it reminds me that the world is very weird.

You see, I was in my late teens, visiting a friend’s house to help her and her family prepare to move away.  She had only come to the state a few years previously, so we had never known of each other until we were in high school.  But those few years we got to hang out in person were marked by ridiculous weirdness of only the highest caliber.   We were taking a break from the housework efforts, discussing our usual melange of whatever was interesting at the time.  And I told her this very story.

She blinked in surprise.  “That actually happened?”

I swore on a stack of moose.

She, too, had smuggled home a bootleg tape of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

She, too, was in grade school at the time.

She, too, listened to it in secret — and for the very same reasons.

She, too, had even hidden under the sheets.

And yes, she, too, thought it was one of the strangest, most avant-garde albums she’d ever heard.

But hers played back at double-speed.

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Labor’s Love Lost

Labor Day has come and gone.  Summer ends, and school starts for the kids, marking the end of freedom and the start of a fresh new year.  And, for the adults, the day off is an appreciated but insignificantly short lull in the droning sameness of workaday life.  There’s no real appreciation of labor or the workforce, no reflection on the condition of workers, or even on the condition of work itself.

I tried to write something more profound here.  Something about how hard it is to find work that affords even a simple life.  How the full-time job with reasonable pay and benefits is no longer basic, no longer standard, but a promotion.   How so many of us are temps, or “independent contractors” – frequently in name only – that we can only hope to be real employees at all.  How many of us have to work multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet to any degree.  How we’re saddled with student loan debt, because everyone all our lives told us that we’d need a good education to make it in the real world — so we sought one, paying more than we might ever earn back, even if we were still responsible enough to go to a public school in-state.   How we still get accused of being irresponsible spenders, even though an increasing number of us are choosing to rent homes rather than buy them, avoid owning a car, and even delay marriage and children — some might say out of a prolonged childhood, but arguably because independence is yet another luxury we can’t afford.

But it’s hard to try to speak so broadly.  I’m no expert in socioeconomics; I can’t sum up the changing function and fears of the American workforce.

All I can do is speak to my own experience, as one of those “gifted and talented” kids who grew up to be apparently useless to the world.

I won’t go through my own sordid work history; suffice it to say that it’s consisted mostly of temporary positions, rarely offered any kind of benefits, occasionally resulted in injury, frequently was riddled with miscommunication at the least and outright scandal at the worst, and had no bearing on anything I actually wanted to do when I grew up.

Because I never wanted to be something useful.  I never wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a mechanic or a teacher.  I kind of wanted to be an FBI agent until I learned all the rigors of training, which I knew my crapsack legs would not allow.  I kind of wanted to be an entomologist, until I realized that field work would require endurance and stamina as well.

No, what I always wanted to do, since the first time I pushed a key on my mother’s electric typewriter, was to be a writer.

Of all the things to be good at in the world, I was good at writing — at least, if you asked the adults around me.  They were always sharing the little poems I’d write as a kid, or the little short stories, or saying how good my essays were.  It was like that well into high school, when my teachers would say my papers were already graduate-level — and into college, when professors would say THEY had learned something from reading my essays.  (I’d stopped writing fiction and poetry shortly after I learned the word “doggerel.”)

And yet there was one constant refrain:  You Can’t Make A Living At That.

The one thing I was naturally good at, the one thing I enjoyed doing above all others, the one thing that anyone gave me any positive feedback about — the one thing I most loved to do — and the first thing out of anyone’s mouth was You Can’t Make A Living At That.

Nevermind that time and experience have shown that I can’t apparently make a living at anything else, either.

There’s never been anything I’ve loved so much as creating.  Writing most of all, but also music and drawing.  I’ve never been quite as good at anything as I was at writing, but the arts, in general, were my few islands of patience.  I’d get frustrated, as a child, with my lack of coordination in every other sphere of life, but something about Art of any kind was self-soothing.  There has never been anything in my life as wonderful as finding just the right word, playing just the right chord, watching that stirring scene in a play or a film.  Feeling the goosebumps rise, the tiny hairs stand up on the back of my neck, the wave of energy as if my body’s every cell was overflowing with life.   There is nothing like that aesthetic overload.  And if I could do anything, I’d spend my life trying to do things that wreak that same sensation in other people.  (Though it’s insufferable hubris to think I even could.)

I love to create things, but it’s so hard, at the same time.  Because there’s no point if you don’t share them, and yet sharing them is always an abject terror — calling on other people, sometimes even strangers, to judge the thing you’ve poured your time and effort into. Even if you wouldn’t go so far as to call it your “talent,” it’s damning enough to know that you spent time and ATP on it.  It could have been spent on work that makes you money.  It could have been spent on applying for jobs.  It could have been spent on reworking a resume for the tenth time, or tweaking another cover letter.  It could have been spent on something that was really worth something.  And I know that it should be.  Especially during these times that I’m unemployed, and everyone tells me that “your full-time job is finding a full-time job,” as if there are even enough jobs out there for which I’m qualified enough to apply.  All my ostensible “talent” just boils down to a fast typing speed and firm grasp of grammar and spelling — but every job I find is heavy labor or skilled professional or some kind of high-powered executive.  Jobs that I’m not qualified for, and in many cases physically can’t do.  But  America doesn’t believe in the word “can’t,” we just forgive different reasons for “won’t.”

But every once in a while, something just breaks, and I fritter away an entire afternoon writing something, or working on some sort of graphic design thing, or otherwise doing something creative. It hardly feels like any time at all – I’m just in the moment, doing what needs to be done for that task at hand, letting the inspiration guide me, and it’s all deeply appealing on so many different levels.   I’m focused, alert, productive, and yet I’m calm, steady, and persistent, even if I end up having to start over.  For those few timeless hours, I’m not scared or stressed or sad.  And then it’s done, and I have my draft of a post, or my short story, or some kind of photoshopped something, and I have a few moments of relative contentment (you know, where you realize the work is still totally Wrong but that it’s the best kind of Wrong you can make it.)  And while I might not be beaming or boasting, there may be a faint pearlescence of pride.

At least, before I look at the clock and see just how much time I’ve squandered — time which could have been money, had I been working on something valuable.

And yet,  one part of my brain/psyche/ego/whatever is always yelling at me that I can’t afford not to do these creative projects, because with every day that passes, I might be losing inspiration, losing the moment, losing the window of opportunity. I know that if I don’t start writing when I’m inspired, the idea and the mood will be gone and I may never get it back.  And that maybe, maybe, this is the idea that DOES matter.

This is a selfish part of brain, really. It says to me, “YOU are the one with this idea right now. YOU are the one who can do this. YOU should do it, because nobody else is going to do it unless YOU do it. You’ve spent all your life hiding and making yourself feel bad, internalizing every paradoxical insult ever hurled at you, convincing yourself that you weren’t worthy of anything. But after all these years, you convinced yourself that you are worthy of being alive, you are worthy of having a sense of self, you are worthy of having a unique identity, you are worthy of having a will to achieve and incorporate new things into yourself, you are worthy of developing a sense of agency in your life. There is a reason you feel peace with yourself when you’re creating, or contributing to artistic creation. There is a reason that it feels like it’s what you should be doing. There is a reason something at the core of you twists itself up in a knot at the idea of working in an office again. There is a reason the bile rises in your throat at words like ‘proactive’ and ‘webinar.’ You know this, no matter how complicated you may try to make things for yourself.

“All your life, you’ve been hiding your lamp under a bushel, and forcing yourself to see it as a faint little glow under the Chernobyl sarcophagus — and equally as treacherous if freed.  But there are people who want to hear what you have to say, to see what you have to make. Some are known to you, and some unknown — waiting for some mutual creative experience to, however loosely, however briefly, tie your minds together. And you know that, even if there were nobody left on the planet, you’d still be writing. You’d still be trying to make something of it all. This is what you do. This is your nature. And if you’re going to feel guilty about anything in your life, feel guilty about denying these most fundamental truths of yourself. No matter what has happened, you never fully let them go. You never let anyone take them from you. Not even yourself. You think you’ve changed so much in these past few years, but you know the secret – know it and have known: the only change has been in self-perception. You’ve always had this same potential, but only now are you allowing yourself to see it.

“But now is no time to blind yourself for blindness, guilt yourself for guilt or shame your shame; if you think that any time was squandered, then allow it to squander no more. Don’t seek permission or justification to pursue a life where you are what you know you could be: by being and by knowing, you have earned this. Earned this, and earned things that will be beyond your knowing until, reaching upward – however weakly, however slowly, however blindly, with hands however numb, you find them in your grasp. Some you may have already – have but not yet feel. And no matter what anyone has told you, or you have told yourself, it is a goodness to feel. So – for the love of any and all ye gods and a thousand glimmering shoals of little fishes – just let yourself CREATE.”

Meanwhile, the rational part of my brain/psyche/ego/whatever is telling me, “Will you shut your idiot piehole and talk sense? Look, if you don’t work every possible moment your job lets you work, you can’t afford to pay rent and eat food. It’s not that complicated. Not that you exactly need to eat so damn much, and not that you deserve to live where you are, but you have a responsibility to yourself and the people who let you live with them to keep yourself alive and pay your fair goddamn share.  Remember THAT word, Dostoyevsky?  RE-SPON-SIB-IL-ITY?

“I don’t care how burnt out you feel, I don’t care how incompetent you feel, I don’t care how dissatisfied you feel. I don’t care how peaceful or happy or accomplished you think you should feel, and I don’t care what you aspire to, because your feelings don’t matter, and your idea of a future doesn’t matter.  Because the future is just like today with a different date slapped on the tin. I don’t care if you feel bad about yourself, because you should feel bad about yourself.  Because, idealism aside, you ARE the money you make. You ARE what you can afford. You ARE what everyone else sees you as. You are a human in a society, and you need food, shelter, and a certain base level of acceptable appearance in order to stay alive and engage in in remotely successful interactions. These things cost money.

“You like to think you see yourself as better now, but you don’t, because you’re still at least a little awkward about going out in public, and — yet again —  you should be. You’re pining away like you think you’re a Romantic hero, some melancholy soul rejected by society to its own disservice, but you’re just a dumpy unemployed ugmo with bad skin and bad teeth and bad legs and bad hair.  You don’t even deserve to THINK about beauty, much less believe you can craft it. If you wanted to help the people around you, you’d stop believing you could make things that people want, and you would sell all your art and craft supplies for actual money. Nobody will ever pay even five bucks for anything you’ve ever done, because they know and you know that there’s more value in the printer ink or paint than in the “work” you’ve subjected it to.

“And whose fault is all of this? Yours. You could have chosen differently all along, and you didn’t, and now you think you can THINK yourself into the right to a better life than you’ve earned. You are not a bohemian, you are not insightful, you are not important, you are not a thing that matters, and the more you delude yourself into thinking you are, the more you are going to be discontent with the normal responsibilities of adulthood. Nobody gives even a sixteenth of a shit about your life but you, and you don’t even deserve to care about it as much as you’re trying to. Even if I let you do the artsy-fartsy bullshit you think you want to do, you KNOW you’d only be upset with how it turns out, and you KNOW you’d whine about how it could be better and how you’re just not good enough. And guess what — you’re right.

“I’m saving you a lot of trouble and embarrassment. You think you’re at peace with yourself when you’re creating, and you think you’re finally freeing yourself, but you’re actually hiding from the reality of the world you chose for yourself. You could have majored in anything in college – English, or arts, or psychology, or some kind of science. And whatever you majored in, you could have chosen to spend less time and money on that asshole you were with at the time. But no, you majored in Philosophy because you thought the critical thinking skills were more practical, and you still wasted your time, energy, money, GPA, and sanity on an ungrateful alcoholic jerk. Thinking that you could help him, even though you clearly couldn’t even handle your own life well enough to pick a major that’s not a cultural joke. You regret that time now, regret how everything happened, but you know you deserved just as good as you got, and still deserve to be suffering the consequences. Everything matters, every choice matters, and all the choices you have ever made up until this point have put you where you are. And it’s not even that bad, you ingrate. You’re just poor and unhappy, and both of those are logical consequences of those previous choices – or have you completely forgotten the Philosophy major you wasted your family’s money on?

“Listen. Your responsibility to yourself is not to be happy. Happiness is what you can pursue when you are DONE with all your responsibilities, and even then you can pursue it ONLY if it doesn’t come at the unhappiness, botherment, or even mild inconvenience of anyone else. If you manage to climb out of this hole you’ve put yourself into – and good goddamn luck with that, gimpy – then maybe you can start thinking about whether you have needs as a person or not. Until then, shut up, be a broken-toothed little cog, get a job, and do it.  Be grateful when someone chooses to pay you money to perform one of those few services your useless ass is capable of performing. All you ever do is let everybody down – and that’s when you’re NOT trying to do things beyond your limits. I have been telling you these same kinds of things every single day since you were in the third grade, and just because you decide to stop listening to me doesn’t mean I’m wrong. So sit down, shut up, and go back to work.”

Clearly, that part of my psyche is rather a lot more emphatic. And louder. And tends to go on at length. And has more objective evidence behind it. All the hippie-dippie encouraging attitude has behind it is your usual hope/faith/optimism stuff, which is painfully cyclical. If you want to be an optimist, you have to be optimistic that optimism will help you. It’s like most religion, magic, and other forms of faith that way – though, while that paradox of optimism is straightforward, actual systems of faith tend to be convoluted and circuitous enough that you ultimately manage to believe in yourself without your own ego interfering. It’s pretty damn wonderful and heroic when it all works out, but there’s the reason why that’s the kind of thing you read about in fiction. There’s a reason why, when that happens in the real world, it’s news.

And so here I am, on my first day of my latest bout of unemployment, an indefinite Labor Day weekend.  Telling myself that I’ll write things, I’ll create things, I’ll do useful things for people, until I get some kind of job that gives me dollars again. Trying not to be so stressed out and sad that I give up and hide from the world.  Trying not to delude myself with optimism, nor fall too deep in the mire of pessimism, no matter how much that pessimism looks like objective and rational truth.  Trying to make peace with my lack of social value while still believing it possible to redeem myself.

Nobody ever gets what they want in life.  Nobody ever gets to be happy — the hedonic treadmill sees to that, if nothing else.  And so, perhaps nothing has changed in all this time.  Perhaps none of it matters.  I’ll take the next job I’m capable of that opens up, I’ll work it until they arbitrarily get rid of me, or the company goes under, or the work runs dry, or they replace me with someone, or I have to quit before I have a nervous breakdown over the incompetence and impossibility of it all.  I’ll try to do the creative and calming things I can do in what free time I have, if just for myself, if never to be seen by anyone else.  And in every other hour of my life, I’ll feel myself age, feel myself grow stupid, feel myself grow even more slow, and regret more and more all the things that hindsight fools me into thinking I could have done with this time.

Because this is what it is to be an adult.

This is what it is to be a worker.

This is how we make a living.

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Damsels and Heroes

So, Anita Sarkeesian has a new series of videos that is out to address the use of the Damsel In Distress trope in video gaming.

Here’s Part 1.  

I fired it up and started watching, hoping to hear an interesting and nuanced discussion.  I’ll give it this; she definitely does pick out many examples of games where you have to Rescue The Princess or Save The Girlfriend.  To the exclusion of anything else.  But, even when she’s addressing the Legend of Zelda series — one of the more traditionally mythic storylines — she never seems to address the one critical point.

The heroes are saving the princess because the princess is important.

The fact that she misses that point is… bad.  Quite bad, really.

I’ll probably write about Zelda some other time, because there’s quite a lot to dig into there — and it’s my favorite story in gaming, anyway.  But today I’ll rebut her ‘argument’ by focusing on one classic NES game — THE classic NES game, one could argue.  A game with a rich and symbolic story, telling of powerful magic and the great mystical connection between females and the power of nature itself.  Yes, today I’ll be writing about… Super Mario Bros.

What, didn’t you ever read the manual?  Check out Page 2!

Or, I’ll summarize:  The Mushroom Kingdom has been overrun by black magic turtles.  Under their sway, the good Mushroom citizens have been turned into stones, bricks, and plants.   To make matters worse, Toadstool, the Princess of the Mushroom Kingdom, has been kidnapped by the Koopa King, a towering spike-shelled reptilian named Bowser.  But why does he kidnap the princess?  It’s not just because “that’s the plot.”  It’s not just to give Mario a reason to defeat Bowser.  In fact, it’s not about Mario at all.

Princess Toadstool is “the only one who can undo the magic spell on the Mushroom People and return them to their normal selves.”

Mario is not the one who saves the world here.  The Princess is.  Mario is just some schlub who has to fight his way through level after level, obstacle after obstacle, in order to find and free the person who has the actual power.

Not only does Mario not have the power to save the Mushroom People, his own greed and power actually destroy the people.  Remember what that manual said about bricks?

Remember getting the power-up mushrooms and smashing the hell out of those bricks to get more points or find some coins?

Mario’s a blundering greedy murderer!

Assume Mario knows that the Mushroom People have been turned to bricks, and that’s why he’s saving the Princess.  Assume you play like usual — stomping on enemies, smashing bricks, gathering powerups, all that jazz.  Congratulations!  You’re a monster!  I mean, think about it.  You can jump over all of these enemies.  You don’t actually have to kill them.  But you probably do.  You don’t actually have to break bricks and take power ups.  But you probably do.  I mean, that’s the point of the game, right?

That’s just the thing.  IS it?

Yes, it is possible to rescue Toadstool and beat the game without smashing a single brick, or squishing but one single Goomba.  Disregarding the time it takes to let the clock run out, it’s actually faster and less dangerous.  If the point is to Save The Princess — and, more precisely, to NOT DIE before you save the princess — that enemy-avoiding method would probably be the best idea, yeah?  After all, these enemies aren’t pursuing you.  Except for the Hammer Bros. and Bowser himself (and his decoys — whoops, spoiler alert for any time-travelers from 30 years ago,) most of them don’t even direct an attack at you.  They only hurt you if you touch them.  Which, again, they aren’t going to do unless you goof up and walk into them, or unless you stand there and let them walk into you.  Even Bowser can be defeated passively — and much more easily, at that — by grabbing the axe at the end of the lava-moat bridge.  You just let gravity do all the work.

However, that’s not as fun.

When you play the game normally, all Mario can do is smash things, kill enemies, and gather — more accurately, steal — coins that he never can spend.  In his world, Mario may be a plumber who makes his living by using tools, getting dirty, fixing problems, and providing services to others in need — but in this world, the Princess’s world, Mario is an oblivious agent of destruction, desecration, and greed.  It’s hard to even see him as brave or noble — what kind of coward would kill something he can so easily avoid?   What strength does it take to jump on something’s head until it dies?   Mario’s most significant trait isn’t strength or courage or bravery or love.  It’s just endurance.  He can run and run and run without stopping; he can jump for hours without his legs giving out.  And that’s it.  Every other power he gains, like shooting fireballs or becoming invincible or becoming, well, super, he gains from the magic powers of the world he’s invaded — powers which, one might suspect, have the Princess as a source.  (So far as the story goes, only Bowser and the Princess are magical agents — and if the Fire Flowers and Invincibility Stars are Bowser’s work, you’d think his minions would use ’em.)

To go even further into the potential symbolism, you could even draw a parallel between the gauntlet Mario runs  and the elaborate, painful, arguably unnecessary rites of passage many cultures require for a young male to become a “real man.”  Moreover, there might be a parallel between the abduction and isolation of Toadstool due to her life-restoring power and some cultures’ ritual 
seclusion of womenoften in darkness — where, at menarche, the woman is treated with the same mix of reverence and fear as divine kings, and given to think about the immensity and significance of her capacity to bear life.

But let’s reel it back in a bit.

Some people – even in this modern Western culture – want to portray Super Mario Bros. as an anti-feminist fantasy because the Princess is passive and takes no part in her own rescuing.  That’s technically true, but, well, given that she’s trapped in a pit in a castle, she isn’t able to rescue herself — and, again, that’s kinda the point.  Yes, the Princess is trapped and rendered powerless — and that’s exactly what’s caused all the problems in the world.

The moral of Super Mario Bros. is this:  Bad Things Happen When Women Are Stripped Of Agency.

Mario isn’t better than Toadstool; it’s hard to say anything more complimentary than that he performs some necessary evil in order to restore the balance of the good.  The Princess doesn’t have to fight monsters or kill anything in order to be powerful enough to save the world.  She just has to BE, and the world becomes as it should be.

And that’s where things get weird.

If a game were made where a female character could only be successful in proportion to how well she embodied certain negative female stereotypes — like vanity, ditziness, helplessness, etc — and oh, they have been — critics would rightly argue that the game perpetuated those stereotypes and was to some extent anti-woman.

But it’s vanishingly rare for one to look at a game where a male character is successful only in proportion to how well HE embodies certain negative male stereotypes — like violence, rashness, crudeness, etc. — and to call it anti-male.   (And, yes, I get that a male who lives up to male stereotypes is likely to be more successful than a female who lives up to female stereotypes.  That embodying male stereotypes is seen as “better.”  But isn’t that a problem, too?  Isn’t that THE problem?)

Ultimately, Super Mario Bros. says worse things about males than about females.  It says worse things about what males will do, when given the opportunity – smash and kill, even when it’s not necessary, even when it’s more dangerous, even when it makes it more unlikely that they’ll meet their ultimate goal.  It says worse things about what males value – money and rank, even when they’re not necessary, even when they’re arbitrary.  It says that they value power, even when they only gain that power from an external source.  It says worse things about what males have to endure in order to matter — miles and miles of peril, whereas all a woman needs to do is EXIST to be powerful.  It says that players — mostly young men, at the time the game came out — should aspire to a self-destructive sort of heroism.

And it says worse things about what men find rewarding.

What happens when Mario gets to the end of a level?  All he gets to do is lower Bowser’s flag from the flagpole.  He doesn’t raise his own.  There’s no little victory dance.  He doesn’t do the Mario.  The only celebration that happens is if you happen to finish with 1, 3, or 6 seconds left on the timer’s last digit — and then there’s a corresponding number of fireworks from the castle.  And then he just walks in there.

(I always wondered about those fireworks, though.  Who was setting them off?  Was there still some Mushroom Citizen holed up in there, celebrating Mario’s victory?  Was it some traitorous Goomba?)

What happens when Mario reaches the Princess?  Do we get to see her save the world and bring the Mushroom Kingdom back to balance?  Do they kiss?  Do they even make contact?

Nope.  The text you see is this:

“Thank you Mario!  Your quest is over.  We present you a new quest. Push Button B to select a world.”

Mario doesn’t win the Princess.

Mario doesn’t save the world, doesn’t even get to see it saved.

Mario wins nothing but another fight.

And when he gets to the end of that one, when he meets the Princess again, does he “win her” then?  Does he save the world then?

Nope.  You see the same text.

Sure, Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Monomyth may be overly simplified, but it’s still interestingly apt here.  Given the Princess’s powers, this would seem to be the Meeting With The Goddess, the sacred marriage, the unity with the anima.  But does that unity really happen?  The penultimate step of the Monomyth, usually, is becoming Master of the Two Worlds, coming to power both in the outside world one’s done all the adventuring in, AND the domestic world of their home.  Mario has to master two worlds all right — but they’re both alien, both dangerous; he never gets that final step of Freedom To Live.  There’s no credits roll, no “The story is over,” no closure.

Mario never gets to stop running that torturous gauntlet.  Toadstool never gets to bring the world to balance.  Or, at least, it isn’t shown.  They’re never even shown to leave the castle.

Mario only gains the illusion of freedom by accepting a second, more agonizing quest.

The usual interpretation says that Mario gets to Do Things and act upon the world, whereas Princess Toadstool just sits there in distress and waits to be rescued.  That this supports the idea that males are powerful and strong and active; females are ineffectual, weak, and passive.  That the Princess exists only to be saved.

But, if anything, it’s the opposite.  Mario exists only to save the Princess.  Everything else he “gets to do” doesn’t matter. The coins don’t matter, the kills don’t matter, the points don’t matter.  He doesn’t have any dialogue.  He doesn’t display any emotion. Mario has no personality whatsoever. He’s a total proxy for the player.  Nothing done by Mario matters, except for rescuing the Princess and returning her to her full potential.

You want to talk about video games setting weird examples of gender roles?  The Damsel in Distress has occurred in fiction of all sorts, for ages — but it’s only in video games that the hero, the male protagonist, is so stripped of personality and humanity.  It’s a game mechanics thing, I know — early on, it had more to do with memory demands; even in modern games, the silence of the protagonist is a space that the player can fill with his or her own thoughts and emotions. If we don’t feel like we’re in control of the player character, we don’t feel like we’re playing a game, and the whole point is stripped away.  So, it’s not like it’s done for no purpose.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t be interpreted, can’t be seen as symbolic, or can’t have ramifications on what players come to think about the nature of heroes and heroism.

Personally, I think a player would come away from Super Mario Bros. — and, potentially, most other damsel-rescuing / world-saving games — less with a toxic impression of females and their roles, and more with a toxic impression of the purpose of males.  That males  want to — or should — attack anything that moves, and that they can’t or won’t solve problems peacefully. That males are expected to fix any problem, by whatever means necessary.  That males should not need help. That males should not ever show fear, nor any other emotion.  That males should not ever get physically tired.  That males are greedy, and will gather money or points or anything else just for the sake of Having The Most.  That males cannot make a mistake without it meaning their death, and the probable end of the world.   That males should suffer intense pain, without displaying emotion, just to be considered men at all.

Sure, games downplay the mythic significance of the Princess, the way she’s important to the unity and order of the entire world.  But they also downplay the practical, worldly issues of the hero — playing him up as something more than just himself, all the while disregarding the absolute trauma that prettymuch any given game puts the guy through.  What’s worse, honestly — being kidnapped and held in a pit, or running for miles, forgoing food, water, and sleep, and fighting off battalions of enemies at the risk of life and limb?   That we’d see the one as problematic and the other as perfectly natural, even desirable or glorious, is telling.

In the end, anyone who thinks the Damsel In Distress trope is inherently misogynistic just doesn’t have a good enough imagination. I’m not saying it’s inherently misandrist, either.  It’s just a method of telling a story, and it’s not inherently problematic to -anyone-.  But I do think it could be used in more interesting ways than it currently is.  And I’m not just talking about sprite-swapping and pronoun-editing, either, fun as those are.  I have ideas for a game where the intro makes you believe it’s a standard rescue-the-princess game — but, in actual gameplay, you ARE the princess, you know it’s a setup, you escape, and you have to try to reach the ‘hero’ before he destroys himself.  Or a game where the young male protagonist does have to face dangers to save a female who’s important to him — his mother.  He’s not the only person in the world who’s capable of it — he’s just the only one who cares enough.  It might have different gameplay, as well –  sure, you could hit the enemies with a bat, but implicit in the entire story would be “What would your mother say?”  Or, just a straight-up Save The Princess / Goddess / World one where it gets a little more heavyhanded with that symbolism — and a lot more sympathetic to the trials the hero goes through.

Women don’t have to be damsels in distress.  But men don’t have to be heroes in distress, either.

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What Remains.

  

Consider these two images.

Both depict an artistic tool, splattered with paint.

Both might, initially, evoke some amount of wonder — wonder about these stray streaks of pigment, raw and formless, that got lost on their way to becoming Art. Was that red used for a setting sun or a soldier’s coat?  When the rest of the flesh-colored paint made it to canvas, what was happening to the body it depicted?  This is what remains – what had it all been?

This wonder might grow all the more vivid, to know that the palette on the top was one of Vincent van Gogh’s.

It might wane to know that the easel on the bottom is a piece of home decor from Anthropologie.

And it costs over two thousand dollars.

They didn’t rescue this easel from the estate of an artist.  Its splatters are not the orphans from any great mother body of work.

It is exactly what it is: a large easel that has been splattered with paint.

And it costs over two thousand dollars.

There are humans who have purchased it.

They do not buy their own easel and bedeck it with the remnants of painting.  They do not even buy their own easel and fling paint at it until it looks more to their liking.  They let somebody else do it, then purchase it, then put it up in their home so that they might Say Something About Themselves.

Somebody looked at its classification and read “STYLE: Bohemian – layered and quirky” and thought that was fitting.  Fitting for the person they wanted to seem to be.  Fitting for the object itself.  They looked at it and thought: It’s disheveled and splattered and passionate and it’s just so artistic and BOHEMIAN and it only costs me two thousand dollars.  It only costs me two thousand dollars, and I don’t have to dirty my own hands with paint, and I don’t have to dirty my own mind with art or with the failure to create art.  I can turn this tool into something that exists only to be looked at, and that’s artistic, because art is a thing that is seen and not a thing that is done.  This could be churned out of a factory and I would never know, but surely it’s not because it costs two thousand dollars so it has to be handmade and artisinal and authentic.

Surely it’s not the case that they see the price tag and immediately craft justifications for that price.   Surely it’s not the case that they fear to buy any actual art because it’s all such a mystery to them, because nobody can just say which ones are Good and which ones are Bad. Surely it’s not the case that they can’t just say “I know what moves me when I see it” because they fear to ever be moved.  Surely it’s not the case that they splatter this object — and all the other objects they own — with these justifications and hopes and raw and formless emotions that got lost on their way to becoming an actual thought or feeling.

They thought:  this is a thing that is worth the money.

They want to be a carefree, artistic, authentic Bohemian so badly that they will pay any price for it.

Any price but the cost of lifting a tool.  Of taking up oils and pigments and applying them to a surface other than their own face, for any purpose but to disguise the lines of age and pain and false smiles held far too long.  Any price but the risk of ugliness, or the realization that the facades you create, the globs of thought and feeling you express, are just as empty, just as devoid of any goal, as the erratic spatters on that easel.  Not lost on the way to anything — just strewn around to make it look like they’re working on becoming just what they’re pretending to be.

Creative.  Artistic.  Authentic.

Bohemian.

But la vie boheme is a life where you cannot afford much of anything, but the one thing you can afford least is to stop making things. A life whereyou’d sooner spend a week without eggs, bread, and milk than a week without painting, writing, drawing, photography, singing, digital art, whatever madness you’re up to.  A life where your muse does not speak to you through the television or through the society ladies, does not tell you what things you could do to be prettier today, but which snarls at you incoherent and inchoate.   A life where you will and must do whatever you do to slake the heartlust of the beast that sits gnawing and howling and ever-hungry in the pit of yourself, the beast which may nip your heels to encourage one day and bite out your hamstrings another, the beast that cannot be bribed and cannot be tamed but with which you have together forged An Understanding and part of that Understanding is that it owns you as much or more than you ever could own it, the beast which resents all leashes and which will not simply come when you call because it refuses any name that could be spoken, the beast that you have fed of your own flesh, your blood and toil, tears and sweat, and sometimes it seems all for nothing — until those nights when everything has left you but the beast, which curls up warm around you, purring like a rusty diesel motor, and for once neither of you is asking anything of the other but to be there.  And you have nothing, but you would not do anything to harm the beast, not for two thousand dollars and not for two million, because to kill the beast of art would be the death of life itself.

But what do I know; I’ve not seen two thousand dollars in what feels like as many years, and everyone who’s really successful knows that things matter more if they’re worth a lot of money.  I can make no claim to being an artist of any kind; I just write things and try not to get in the Universe’s way.  I can’t even have pretensions of being an unpretentious Bohemian; I’m just some bunch of nothing barely on the shy side of bumhood.   But at least I know that I’ve made things, I’ve felt things, I’ve thought about things, and the sentiments I’ve splattered invisibly onto the things I own are the sentiments I developed for myself, the ones that got stuck to other things while on their way to creations and moments that ended long ago — not the ones that I just believe purchased the rights to.

People with more money than integrity can feel free to buy these easels if they’d like to, if they’d rather not make their own.

I think it would be a fine place for them to display the certificate from the star they named after themselves.

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Your Daily Rage: A “Straight Look” at Landen Gambill and Blaming the Victim.

So. Allegedly, a UNC student was raped, stalked, and abused by an ex-boyfriend – a fellow student. And she reported this through the University’s “proper channels,” which somehow involve NOT contacting the police and instead abiding by the school’s “Honor Code.” It did its own independent investigation – somehow, despite having no real clout – and apparently determined that the ex’s take on the matter was Nuh-Uh, She’s Lying. When nothing resembling justice seemed to be forthcoming, and when she filed a federal complaint about it, she made matters more public – still without naming the alleged perpetrator. And now SHE is the one being accused of “intimidating behavior,” and facing expulsion by the student-led campus judicial system. And this ex-boyfriend has faced no consequences, nor even the threat thereof.

In response to this issue, Alexander Baron has crafted an op-ed entitled “A Straight Look at the ‘Rape’ of Landen Gambill” which, as you can infer by the quotes placed around “rape,” is very nearly the Iliad of victim-blaming.

There’s no end of things to criticize in it, but I’ll focus on just one – one that seems to be at the core of it all.

How could he have abused her sexually for a long period? A one-off assault or act of rape, yes, but that is not what was alleged here.

It appears the internal tribunal did as good a job as could be expected under the circumstances. One of its members asked her: “Landen, as a woman, I know that if that had happened to me, I would’ve broken up with him the first time it happened. Will you explain to me why you didn’t?’”

That sounds perfectly reasonable. Her answers did not, and the adjudication concluded that her claims were without merit, or at the very least that they had not been proved. Reading between the lines, they thought she was a bit of a flake, apparently with good reason.

Yes, Baron seems to believe that persistent sexual abuse is almost ludicrously implausible, that no rational woman would not break up with an abuser immediately, that breaking up with an abuser would make one safe, and that Gambill – and, by extension, all other domestic abuse victims – is “a flake,” and, later, “an emotionally or mentally disturbed young woman.”

Further, he asserts that “Some women are just plain dumb.”

This is said to them, after enduring persistent sexual abuse, physical abuse, stalking, and harassment. I’m just not talking about the UNC case in specific; the facts of that matter are for the law to decide. It’s clear that Baron would say these things of any case, of any woman, of any human who has been abused by their partner. He, and others like him, say these things as if the dynamics of an abusive relationship do not make you hold yourself hostage as much as any sneering, snapping “partner.”

So why DON’T abuse victims leave?  Why don’t women leave abusive partners?  Why don’t men leave cruel wives?  Why in the world would anyone stay? Why would you get into a relationship with someone so terrible, and why wouldn’t you leave with the first hit?

Because it happens much more slowly than you might think.  Slowly enough that you think you can adapt, can follow that learning curve, and that it’s all going to be over soon.  You’re both going to get through this together, you just have to be strong through the hard times and not make things worse.

Slowly, over months or even years, the abuser has isolated you. You do not have friends anymore – each time you spoke of friends, your partner grew more cold, acting as if it was a betrayal; each time you said no to coffee or a movie to instead watch TV with your partner, they seemed so much more kind. Soon you feel guilt for your friendships, and set them aside, because love is more important than selfishness.

The same can extend to family – through that same slow pulling-away of the rug, that same guilt, and often an appeal to your own strength. Mocking you, a grown adult, for wanting to talk to mommy and daddy – you just talked to them last week. A couple weeks back. Last month. You don’t need anyone else to make your decisions for you, you don’t need help; you know in your heart what to do. All you need is each other. Right? Or are you saying they’re not enough for you?

And you think you could leave? Where would you go? Who else would put up with you? You really think it’s possible to SAFELY betray the only person who will ever love you?

“You’re stupid if you don’t leave,” others say, as if it makes you safer – even though about 75% of domestic assaults reported to police have occurred AFTER separation.

As if you feel you HAVE the freedom to leave. As if you have the ability to get by on your own.

As if you aren’t made to believe, day after day, that your validity as a human, your permission to exist, hinges on how well you’ve appeased the irrational.

That, desperate for sense, isolated from others or any contrary idea, you don’t cling to the cardboard cutouts of Logic and Love that your most-adored enemy builds for you, holds up to you as real. Each day, pushing the grotesqueries closer and closer to you; each day, taking genuine Love and Logic farther away. As if, when you start to believe you don’t need them, don’t take that most tentative step away, they don’t falter, don’t quiver doe-eyed at your feet and beg to be washed in your mercy, don’t rend their clothes and recite the litany of I’ve Just Been Under A Lot Of Stress Lately, But I Can’t Make It Without You, I Need You, Or Else I Don’t Know WHAT Will Happen To Me; I’ll Just Go CRAZY.

As if you are not the lynchpin that keeps them from flying off the axle.

Or, more than that, the shock absorber trying to know everything, plan everything, predict everything, to diminish any unpleasantness to nothing. Dutifully absorbing all the damage you can to give them a smooth ride – and absorbing, on the other side, all the damage they deal out disproportionate when the slightest bump comes through into that isolated echo chamber – the smallest bump becoming a shake, becoming a tremor; as if all Armageddon is not due unto you because you allowed the imperfect.

The mangled metaphors are intentional; you can not waste your time trying to quantify just how irrational or convoluted everything is, because you are stripped of context and are busy just trying to survive it. You can only grasp at fragmentary metaphors. You want to deny what is happening, to deny how senseless, how meaningless it is, but you have no escape, and all you can do is hope against hope that, somehow, someday, it will have meant something.

Why didn’t you get out earlier? Why get out when things still looked safe, when the only hazards you saw could be avoided easily, when every assurance was that it would all be calm again soon, if you were just careful enough? Why, when everything bad is really only your own fault, and if you can just be a better person, be a better partner, nothing will go wrong?  By the time you realized it was more than you could handle, it was already more than you could escape.

To give still another metaphor – it’s like a broad and gentle river, once peaceful and warm and almost impossible to drown in, that has grown ever rockier, ever swifter, and each time you tried to reach the shore it swept you back along. Soon it’s all a roar of rapids. Soon your boat is sundered on the rocks. And now that you’re being rushed downstream with a force you could never fight, now that you’re too sore, too tired to swim – now that the banks are too steep to climb, even if you could reach them, and too muddy and slippery and eroded by the river’s own force to give you anything to hold on to – now that you’re being battered on the rocks and close to drowning, you’re being told it is YOUR fault. It’s never the river’s fault for dashing you against the stones; it’s never the stones’ fault for being there, it’s your fault for getting in, your fault for not getting out, your fault for being in the wrong damn place at the wrong damn time. It can’t help the way it is, but you know that. Why don’t YOU help what you’re doing? Why don’t you watch where you’re going? Why don’t you pay attention? Why don’t you ever LEARN? Do you think the river actually LIKES pushing you around? It doesn’t, it’s just the way things are, and they can’t be otherwise – not as long as you keep making mistakes and causing trouble.

If it sounds like that diminishes the abuser’s agency, that’s because it does. They themselves don’t believe they are being abusive. “Abuse” is always an action at least two steps more harsh than whatever they’re doing now.  They’re just venting. Just acting in the way that they have to act. They’re only being fair. The fact that it doesn’t feel fair to you is only PROOF of how selfish you are. This isn’t What Is Being Done To You Because I Choose To Do It. No, simply enough, This Is Just What Happens When You Screw Up.

It is the way it is. And, as they assure you in those lucid times, in the small hours of the morning, they tell you they are sorry and they tell you they are trying and they tell you it was a mistake.  They really do feel better, though.  It won’t happen again.   They’re glad you understand.

You see, they’ve had a Rough Childhood. They learned how to be by watching other monsters, and you should be proud of them for growing claws so much shorter than their sires’.

And you are.  And you do believe in them.  And you do care.  You do believe they can get beyond this, that it’s all temporary, that everyone’s given up on them but you.  So you have to help.  You have to give.  You have come to believe this is Right, and this is Just, and if YOU don’t do this, who will?

Because you’ve seen the fragile good in them, the intelligence, the sensitivity, the talent – it shined out so bright, before, soul-true and clear, and it is why you first came to love them. And it’s not gone away, oh no; it’s still there, but it’s hidden, deep under layers of filth and talons. Nobody else can see it; nobody else takes the time to look. Even THEY have forgotten it, sometimes.  Sometimes the filth and anger and dull-eyed dispassion covers it up for so long that not even a glimmer of The Real Them is seen anymore, and you start to doubt it all.  You start to wonder if they haven’t really changed, if what matters more isn’t who they are on the inside but how they act, how they treat you, for most of the actual time.

And you burn with shame for your selfishness, because how dare you care so little for them?  Helping them get better is the most important thing of all.  Even if they have changed, that only makes it more important that YOU stand strong.  If they’ve changed, and their life has changed, it only reaffirms that you can not.

You have made your commitment, and you will do your duty: you will protect them from all that troubles them. You will give them safe haven to drop their defenses. You will help them wash away the collected dirt of ages. You will endure the flinging of all the filth they’ve packed into their wounds like scars. You will not flinch at the claw-marks left on them, at the gouges that never heal, at the lifeblood that’s never stopped oozing away or the blazing red infection that’s spread out to taint almost everything in them. Your patience is a pitcher and your love is clear, cool water, and you will fill it to the very brim, you will balance it on your head and walk it to them, barefoot and mincing, not spilling a single drop or wasting any on yourself.

And when the closest wells run dry, you find one even farther. Because there are those precious evenings when Everything Has Gone Okay Today, when you see the slightest curl of a smile, and see that light sparkling in their eyes again, and the air tastes so much sweeter because you didn’t even realize how long you’d been holding your breath.

And you believe that, someday, if you can just be good enough, every day will go okay.

So you come to them and surrender your love to them — not trying to control what they do or how they do it or to do anything for them, of course.  That’s not your place. And you know that you must respect only what they want, only what they need, only what they choose.

So you surrender it and you hope that they will raise it and wash themselves, sluice away the grime, wash out the wounds and soothe the burning pain. That they will raise it to their lips and drink deep, like a magic potion, that will shrink their claws and calm their rage and turn them from beast to man.

But you surrender it all before them, and wait for a moment in between work and smoke and food and game and drink where they have attention to spare for acknowledging you. And they take up all the love you’ve borne to them, but that great jar looks no bigger than a thimble in their taloned hands, and you realize how foul all the water really is. And they give you that reproachful look that says “I’d ask if this is REALLY everything, if you don’t actually have more for me, but I know you can’t do any better.”

You look down to the floor that you’ve memorized, and your chest grows tight and your teeth grind and you wish that shame made you invisible. But you are all too there, existing audaciously, full of that galling selfish habit of filling up the space that you’re standing in. You know you don’t deserve anything from them. You don’t deserve anything at all. You can only earn the right to give a damn about yourself when you adequately help your partner.

So you try to be even more patient, to walk even farther, still spilling nothing, spending nothing on yourself, and hoping that if you do this every day for enough days, it will all add up to enough.  Enough for them to DO something with. Finally enough to matter.

Because if you stop now, nobody else will ever help them. Nobody else will even try. Because if you can’t do this for them, if you decide to give them any less than all of you, you are a disgrace. If you have ever had any question about whether you deserved the lashing-out they’ve given you, whether you really needed to endure the stink of it all, you KNOW that you’ll deserve – and get – even more if you try to leave.

You didn’t know what you were in for when you began this, but you can not stop until it’s over.

You know that what’s happening does not make sense. Still, you are stripped of anything else. You’re made to feel simultaneously useless AND crucial. You are worthless, but you are needed. Without you, everything would be even worse. Without you, they would hurt themselves. Without you, they would hurt their friends. They would hurt their family. They would hurt the pets. They would hurt strangers.

Isn’t it worth the pain if they just hurt you instead?

It’s not like you matter much, anyway.

And you’ll matter even less if you allow the only person who cares about you to sink completely into ruin on your watch.

Soon, you’re in that echo chamber, that whitewater, that seething mass of metaphors, seeing only what you’re allowed to see, responding only in the ways you’re allowed. And even though you don’t matter, even though you have no real power, YOU are the one who’s responsible for how things go. YOU are the strong one. YOU are the one in control.

Nothing bad has to happen at all, if you don’t make mistakes. If you don’t predict every possible bad thing and prevent it. If you don’t forget to put the laundry in the dryer, don’t drop the eggs, don’t make sure the restaurant still sells the combo meal they like before you say you’re going to buy one for them, don’t buy the wrong brand of soap, don’t change the channel when they’ve been out of the room for half an hour, don’t talk out of turn, don’t ask any uncomfortable questions, don’t look disapproving when they take their tenth shot, don’t wear your seatbelt when you know that means you don’t trust their driving, don’t smile when you should be frowning, don’t frown when you should smile, don’t look like you’re faking it, don’t just agree to everything you’re told but don’t you dare say no.

Is it irrational? Yes. But you are in a situation where rationality no longer matters. You can’t use reason as a tool to fix anything, help anything, stop anything, or remotely change anything; it’s like trying to pound water with a hammer, or reverse a river by turning it with a wrench. There’s nothing solid to strike, nothing solid to grab onto. The abusive relationship dynamic operates on irrational emotion. Nothing is “smart” or “dumb” or “right” or “wrong” anymore, nothing is “safe” or “unsafe,” “okay” or “not okay.” There is only what they want and what they don’t want, and whether you’re satisfying that want or not. The only way to survive is to adapt – to try to play along, even though the rules change all the time.

And there is nobody in your life but them. Even you aren’t really there anymore. Nobody else sees what’s happening. The few times you’re with others, your partner acts just fine, and nothing shows, even when their friend goes on about that new product they bought – the same one that your partner spent GOOD MONEY ON last month but broke just because they threw it at a wall during the first week when they were mad and they KNOW the store has a return policy but they lost the receipt because YOU didn’t take it out of their pants pocket before doing the laundry and you had the BIG FUCKING MOUTH to tell them that it wouldn’t cover damage from throwing it at a wall and they said it shouldn’t fucking BREAK so easy, and they’ll pick up the shoddy plastic piece of shit and speed back to the store even though you and your fat fucking mouth are saying it’s probably closed by now and OH LOOK, CLOSED, I BET YOU THINK YOU’RE SMART, and DON’T YOU TELL ME TO CALM DOWN, I’M CALM ALREADY, DO YOU WANT TO SEE ME GET MAD? And it’s not ABOUT this plastic piece of shit they don’t even WANT it it’s about the PRINCIPLE of it but it’s NOT EVEN ABOUT THAT anymore because YOU have to act all SCARED JUST BECAUSE THEY SPEAK THEIR MIND AND WANT WHAT’S THEIRS and they are DONE talking to you, don’t you say ANOTHER FUCKING WORD, just GET IN THE CAR and you do and they throw the plastic thing at you and you don’t make a sound, and they speed back to the house you’re supposed to call home, pausing only to puke rum and bile on the roadside, and you say nothing all night and try to wait it out and you sit on the couch and watch stupid TV and something makes them make that little sound that they make instead of really laughing anymore and you think the storm has passed but then the commercial comes on for that stupid plastic product and their face goes hard again and you memorize the floor again and you don’t know whether they want you to say sorry again or if you say sorry one more time you’ll have a reason to be sorry and you just say nothing and wait again, and eventually it’s time for Well Are You Coming To Bed Or Not and you know that not’s not an option and you just say nothing and wait because tomorrow will be a different day and maybe everything will go okay.  Maybe everything will go okay. Just as long as you never ever mention that product or that company or that store ever again and are willing to see them angry at you all day if they so much as see a billboard that reminds them of it all. But here’s their friend, going on and on about that very thing and how great it is, and your partner somehow keeps their cool.  And when, later, with surgical caution, you praise their strength and calmness, they tell you it was only a big deal earlier because they owe you their honesty. That only you get to know the Real Them. Only you can be trusted with it. Everyone else sees a mask, but they give you the truth, both good and bad, because That’s What Love Is.

You’re not saying you want them to be the same fake person they are for everyone else, are you? You DO love who they really are, right? You don’t think that they’ve put this much work into the relationship, been SO patient, been SO trusting, only for you to wish they treated you like everyone else, DO YOU? Because that would be pretty fucking ungrateful, wouldn’t it. That would make you a real piece of shit. But you’re not like that, are you. You’re the only one who really loves them, you know. Who knows what would happen without you. Aren’t you glad that they TELL you when something’s wrong? Aren’t you glad they can SHARE what upsets them, glad they can yell and punch walls and break things and make a mess and make threats, without being judged? Aren’t you glad that they know how to handle their emotions – that they don’t come looking to hurt you, but they only push you if you’re in the way? That they sometimes just need to THROW things, and if your head wasn’t there it wouldn’t have been hit, now would it? That sometimes, they just NEED what they NEED and you just need to understand and give it to them and save your selfish “no” for a day that’s not bad enough already. Because it’s not healthy to keep it all bottled up, you know. You wouldn’t want them to just keep it all in until they EXPLODE, would you? You know better. Aren’t you glad they can be so open and honest? Isn’t that what love is?

Love is their honesty.
Love is your silence.
Love is their freedom.
Love is your caution.
Love is their freedom from consequences.
Love is your suffering so they don’t have to.

Love is telling you every way you’re wrong.
Love is never telling them no.
Love is trusting them, even in danger.
Love is being stronger than your fear.

Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others.
It is not self-seeking.
It is not easily-angered; it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Even when you have lost all faith, even when you are shorn of all hope, you still have that love. And you believe they still love you. And no matter how hard things you get, you stay, and you hold on. You hold on for dear life. 


Because can you imagine how it would end if they DIDN’T love you anymore?

Can you imagine how things would end if you left?

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