Red Line Redemption

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An interesting series of events on the subway today:

I was at Davis station waiting for the redline inbound. There was this really cool old man playing some soulful blues harmonica. He played it through this little amp so it had a cool crunchy distortion effect, and he sang from a powerful and emotional place. I loved it, and I spent my wait for the train happily watching his moving performance. I noticed the clearly labelled and obviously placed tip box in front of him. We clearly shared a moment where he observed I was enjoying his music. He was singing a song about being broke, the lyrics repeatedly claimed “I got no money”.

If I didn’t tip, I would be an asshole. A down-right villain. It would be a flat-out sin not to offer him something for a performance I was clearly enjoying. It was pretty much theft.

But I didn’t have any cash in my wallet. The train pulled up. I stepped right by him and I felt his righteous indignation burning in my wake. He again crooned into the microphone, “I got no money”. I sat down on the train and glanced in his direction. He was looking right at me, right into my eyes. He stopped playing. He raised his hand to his forehead and made an L shape. Without breaking the beams of judgement connecting his eyes to mine, he tipped his hat down to sever our communications completely. I had no room to offer him a justification, he didn’t care. I had inexcusably broken a code of human decency.

The train barreled towards the city as I reflected upon the events. I felt bad. I don’t enjoy being the villain, like everyone else I like to pretend I’m the good guy. There were 5 stops left til my destination, but I disembarked the train. I couldn’t just ride away having committed this atrocity. I had to fix the err of my ways.

I found the closest ATM, the smallest denomination it offered me was 10 dollars. I entertained interrupting his playing to ask him if he could split a 10. But that would just be, in no uncertain terms, utterly asinine. The ATM spat out its green-died atonement, I shoved the money into my pocket and boarded the subway heading back outbound. The train arrived at Davis, he was still there.

I had a friend who was waiting on me downtown, I didn’t want to be late if I didn’t have to. As my train pulled into the station, the inbound train again pulled up on the opposite side. It was right across from the opening of my doors, and the blues man was in between. I had to make this quick. I got off the train, I dropped a 10 dollar bill in his tip box. Relief surged over me. I had proven myself. I had passed the trial fate had fortuned my way. Our eyes met. In a soulful and approving voice, a beam of auditory light in stark contrast to the velvety dark shades he had just crooned, he said “You da man!”.

I boarded the train. The doors closed. I rode towards the city a man redeemed.

A 10 Dollar Truth

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Thoughts on Five Ghosts, Volume 1: The Haunting of Fabian Grey

It is easier to control someone else than it is to control your self.

The Haunting of Fabian Grey illustrates one of the most apparent yet ignored truths about being human. Why did I decide to purchase this comic? I can perceive two reasons. The first is that I thought the cover looked cool. The second is that it was only 10 bucks. Am I happy I purchased The Haunting? I suppose so. Although I don’t think I will buy the next volume of the series. But I will say this, the art is cool. Very cool. And the concept behind the main character, Fabian Grey himself, is also very cool. This character concept is also very profound, for reasons I will now explain.

Fabian Grey has super-powers. These super-powers are not his own, they are lent to him by five literary ghosts, Robin Hood, Merlin, Sherlock Holmes, Mushashi, and Dracula. Each provide him with their own set of abilities upon his beckoning. However, these personas are beginning to get cold feet about associating themselves with Fabian. By the end of the first chapter it is apparent they do not always choose to answer Fabian’s calls for their assistance. And here’s the thing: when they decide not to show up Fabian is able to accomplish relatively fuck-all.

Fabian Grey gained these powers because he found the Dreamstone. Or, to put it more accurately, because he stole the Dreamstone. And it wasn’t just that he stole the Dreamstone, in order to keep the stone for himself he betrayed the friend who helped him get to it. Fabian Grey is able to accomplish incredible things now that he has the powers offered by the Dreamstone, but the powers are not his own. Fabian contributed relatively little towards the events that led to him being associated with the Dreamstone’s powers. He did not make the stone, he did not find the stone on his own, and he can only use the powers when the five ghost personas feel like it.

Fabian Grey has almost nothing to do with the powers of Fabian Grey.

So, here we have this super-hero, who without a support network isn’t able to do anything super at all. I think super-hero mythos too often lose sight of this fact, that we are nothing without others. Would Bruce Wayne have been able to become Batman without the massive wealth he inherited from his parents? Would Superman have been Superman had he not been born Kryptonian, with all the abilities such birth circumstances bring with it? None of these super-heroes are much in and of themselves, it is where they came from and who was around that made them what they are.

But I am writing this article to illustrate human truths, not comic book truths (if there is a such a thing). Let’s review the reasons I decided to purchase The Haunting of Fabian Grey, because they show that I really had nothing to do with my decision to purchase the comic at all. The first reason was that I thought the cover looked cool. At face value this is a simple proposition, something about me made it so that when I looked at the cover of this comic, I wanted it. Why did I prefer this cover to the cover of the comic next to it? Why do people prefer anything over any other thing? We cannot choose our preferences, if I do not like tuna fish I can not will myself to like it. Tuna fish will be gross no matter my intention to perceive otherwise. I like or do not like certain foods based largely on what sort of foods I grew up around. Simply examining cultural-geographical preferences of food tastes reveals this. To bring this reasoning to my decision to purchase Five Ghosts, I liked the cover and could not choose to like a different cover which I found repulsive. It is what it is. Perhaps I was born with certain predispositions towards certain colors or shapes which in turn determined which cover I liked most. I didn’t choose my birth circumstances. They are what they are.

I had almost nothing to do with the fact that I liked the cover.

Let’s now examine the other reason I decided to buy the comic, the fact that it was 10 dollars. Well, why would I find 10 dollars to be a reasonable amount of money to spend on a comic? No matter what reason we select here, chasing the path of ‘why’ will inevitably lead us to conclude it had nothing to do with me. Let’s say I find 10 dollars to be reasonable because the job I have allows me to occasionally make 10 dollar impulse purchases. Well, why do I have that job? Because I went to college. Why did I go to college? Because I graduated high school. Why did I graduate high school? Because of social pressure, it is what all my peers did in my upper-middle class suburb. Why did I live there? Because my parents thought it would be a good place to raise a child. Let’s stop there, we could keep going forever. Now we find that perhaps it was my parents who caused the 10 dollar price tag to sound so enticing. Perhaps I could have navigated an alternate path of ‘why’ and determined the state of the American economy caused the 10 dollars to sound inconsequential. No matter which path of ‘why’ we take, the final conclusion is the same.

I had almost nothing to do with my reaction to the 10 dollar price tag.

And an obvious counter to these musings will now be addressed. Regardless of the fact that the opinions which influenced my purchase decision were not formed through my own conscious effort, I still ultimately made the decision to purchase it. In that moment, in the comic book store, I decided to purchase the comic book. And I could have decided otherwise. I had something to do with that, right? The reality is, it isn’t that simple. To clarify I cite the results of Benjamin Libet’s (although it really isn’t in the spirit of this article to grant anyone ownership of anything) groundbreaking work on studying human consciousness [1]. Libet and his team instructed study participants to press a button whenever they wanted, and to remember when they first perceived the internal decision making process causing them to press the button. While this was occurring, a device was wired to the participants head to measure their brain activity. Libet and his team found spikes in brain activity before the participants claimed they internally decided to press the button. Libet’s team found that the participants brains had decided an average 200 milliseconds before the participants themselves were aware of the decision. Research in 2008 using more advanced brain scanning techniques found evidence that a decision was made in the brain up to 10 seconds before participants consciously knew so [2]. Further research has shown that people can be tricked into believing they were responsible for actions which they were actually not [3], tricked into believing that they expressed opinions which they actually did not [4], and that their actions are frequently influenced by sensations they were not consciously aware of [5].

Fabian Grey had almost nothing to do with the powers he had been granted.

I had almost nothing to do with my decision to buy Five Ghosts.

And between these facts lies a truth about being human.

People have almost nothing to do with the decisions they make.

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How a not-very-serious Sci-fi novel turned me into a much more serious person

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Thoughts on Redshirts

Redshirts Cover.

Redshirts is not a serious sci-fi novel. Well, it is, but only because it pretends not to be. Like a hipster wearing a side-tilted Abercrombie and Fitch hat, its not-douchey because it is douchey. Or maybe its just douchey, I don’t know. The point is this: Redshirts is contrived in places and unbelievable in other places. But thats okay, because it knows it is, and it wants you to know it is.

Perhaps you’ve gathered this by now, but Redshirts is a bit of a satire. It pokes fun at the serialized, syndicated, spun-off, and rebooted Sci-Fi juggernaut Star Trek. It tells the story of low-ranking peons aboard the Intrepid, the flagship space-vessel of a futuristic human navy. These peons are not the heroic captains of the sci-fi world. These are not the square-jawed men who bravely topple spiral-toothed deathworms the size of aircraft carriers, these are the nameless peons who are consumed within the first few minutes of battle with said spiral-toothed deathworms.

The story is told from the perspective of Ensign Dahl, Dahl is the lowest of the low-ranking peons. Dahl is significantly more intelligent than his dim-witted superiors but struggles to be taken seriously. This slightly narcissistic perspective pervades the personality of the novel, Dahl is far from the only character to echo this sentiment. In fact, this schema of thought pervades the narrative so consistently that I wondered if the author was capable of writing in any other perspective.

If you asked me about this narrow perspective as I passed the half-way point of Redshirts, I would have called it a shortcoming of the book. But as the book entered its final chapters I realized something. I think the author, John Scalzi, is aware of this shortcoming. And I think John Scalzi wanted to make sure I was aware of this shortcoming too. And that’s because John Scalzi intended to overtly accuse me of possessing this shortcoming myself.

And by “me” I specifically mean me, Matthew Larrabee. I think he wrote this book for me. Had I finished the book and found the words “For Matthew Larrabee” on the final page, I would not have been surprised. I was more surprised that I didn’t. Why do I think this? Because the book pretty much says so. I quote:

“Honestly, Matthew, what the fuck are we doing with our lives?

I’ve been talking to your family about you, you know. They love you. They all do. They love you and when you had your accident it was like someone came along and stabbed them in the heart. It is amazing how much love they have for you. But, and again, I can tell you this because you’re me, I can tell they think you need to get your ass in gear. They talk about how you have so many interests, and how you’re waiting for that one thing that will help you achieve your potential. And what I hear is what they won’t say: You need to grow up.

Stop drifting. Stop trying things until you get bored with them. Stop waiting for that one thing. It’s stupid. You’re wasting time. You almost wasted all of your time. You were lucky I was around, but I get the feeling this isn’t something you will get to do twice.

Don’t you blow it either, Matthew. I don’t expect you to know what to do with yourself yet. But I expect you to figure it out. I think that’s a fair request from me, all things considered.

Welcome to your new life Matthew, don’t fuck this one up.”

Suffice to say, reading those words was a proper mind-fuck.

You see, I think the author struggled a lot in his youth. I think he particularly struggled because he perceived that the people around him didn’t take him very seriously. I think he figured out the cause behind this, it was because he didn’t take himself seriously. Scalzi is now a New York Times best-selling author, so I think he is taken just about as seriously as a Science-Fiction writer can be taken.

In the past five years, I have seriously considered careers as a professor, as a novelist, as a musician, as a script writer, as a filmographer, as a public relations manager, as a therapist, as a student, as a teacher, as a drifter, as a meditation coach, and as a US Marine. I am sure that I’m forgetting more than a few discarded dreams.

Who are you and what do you do? Too many times have I fabricated and discarded answers to this question.

I never took the question seriously, I never took myself seriously.

And Redshirts has changed that. Redshirts has changed me.

I am a teacher and a writer.

Seriously.

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How to warm up to insanity

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Thoughts on Prophet, Volume 1: Remission

Cover of Remission

I bought Remission on a whim. I entered the local comic store at 2pm on a Monday. It was Martin Luther King Jr. day. On Martin Luther King Jr. day American citizens are encouraged to help out their community by doing volunteer work. I did nothing volunteer-related on this day (neither did the vast majority of other Americans I know). I did however have volunteer-related fantasies. In the days leading up to this national holiday I had entertained thoughts of working to help my fellow man. You see, I enjoy fantasizing about committing to morally righteous decisions, but they are often not the decisions I choose to make. Like a serial womanizer who finds the purity of wedding ceremonies his most prominent daydream, my fantasizes are driven by wholesomeness while my actions are driven by selfishness.

And so begins my review of Remission, volume 1 of the science-fiction comic series Prophet. This is not a review of my self-assessed shortcomings, so why do I begin my review of Remission with a soliloquy on my failure to act as an admirable citizen on Martin Luther King Jr. day? Because I am insane.

Remission tells the story of the rebirth of humanity after a really, really, really long time spent extinct. Here is a lesson I learned from Remission: it is important to gently ease your audience into your insanity. Do not go reveal the depths of your divergent thinking right out the gate. Offer your audience something comprehensible, ease them into your world, and only then do you have the hero mate with an alien race whose face resembles the human vagina.

The human-vagina-faced-nymphomaniacal-alien is one of the many imaginative alien species found in Remission. And let me tell you, Remission is good. At least what I understood of it. You see, the first few chapters of Remission grabbed my attention and entertained me in a classic way. By classic, I mean to say the story had the elements readers of pop-fiction such as myself find enticing. The hero, John Prophet, is relatable yet manages to emanate an air of mystery. The world is hostile and interesting, offering John Prophet interchanging bouts of good-fortune and tragedy. John Prophet has a long-term goal that he inches closer to with every chapter. His goal: to set in motion events that will restore humanity’s presence in the universe.

Remission begins very entertaining, engaging, and understandable. Then comes chapter 4, and then all that flies out the window.

Beginning with chapter 4, the narrative begins to recoil from the classic elements of a pop-narrative which I earlier explained. Beginning with chapter 4, Remission introduced me to a comic truly alien. The art leaves the confines of Earth-inspired concepts. The hero becomes less relatable and his goals become more obscured. The narrative leaves the familiar and enters an alien unknown. I wish not to spoil by going into specifics, but I will say this: This dive off the safe path of clear narrative and into the dark waters of abstract insanity works. Why? Because the first 3 chapters gave me the tools I needed to make it through this insanity with my mind intact.

The later chapters are able to enter truly abstract and truly alien places, places that my human mind tends to avoid, without alienating my attention span. Remission can can pull off this feat because it plants seeds of understanding during the opening chapters. There are three seeds: 1) John Prophet is our hero. 2) John Prophet’s goal is to set in motion ancient plans to restore the human race. 3) The universe John Prophet finds himself in is fucking weird. As I read deeper into Remission I found it was often up to me to seek the soothing clarity offered by seeds 1 and 2, to remind myself who the hero was and what the hero’s goal was. By the final chapter, the narrative offers comprehensible plot points only as a sparse act of mercy, a dilapidated trail marker to keep a worried hiker trudging ahead.

As I look back on the table of contents for Remission, I see that I would describe more than half of the chapters as perfectly comprehensible, and only less-than-half as truly abstract and insane. Yet this review focuses on the minority of this dichotomy, I choose to focus this review on the rarer insane chapters. This imbalance is important because it displays the lesson for artists (and the insane) within Remission. When I think back on the story of Remission, it isn’t what I understood that jumps out at me, its what I didn’t. I will admit that it was the things I understood which kept me reading the story, but it was the things I did not understand which kept me from forgetting the story.

Remission taught me this: People rarely forget their encounters with insanity. If an artist wishes to use insanity to earn the attention of his or her audience, the artist must not introduce their work with an abundance of insanity. If an artist does not heed this warning the artist will lose their sane audiences. Insanity must be carefully revealed, revealed only when the audience can be trusted to stay seated through bouts of discomfort. Like salt on a french fry, insanity is insufferable on its own but irresistible when paired with something consumable. If an artist wishes their audience to remember the artist’s work, the artist must at some point put their insanity on display. But if an artist wishes their audience to absorb their creation in its entirety, the artist must prepare their audience to navigate their mind through the insanity.

I’m sorry I opened up too soon about my self-frustrations. Next time, I’ll be sure to have a nice chat with you about your day first.