Okay, This Is Just Ridiculous

One of my pet issues is the many stupid ways society and the state handles minors who color outside the lines, so to speak, especially when it comes to criminal behavior.  Tangential to that is the sex abuse scare, and perhaps nowhere have these two issues intersected more absurdly than in the prosecution of minors who engage in sexting.

Before I get to my point though, let me clarify something: when it comes to the actual sexual abuse of children, I have no problem at all with the state throwing the book at such people.  It’s sad that I need to point this out at all, but the problem is that in today’s hyper-paranoid environment there seems to be little room for nuance in the eyes of many people: it’s all black and white, and the black applies to absolutely every intersection of the concepts of ‘child’ and ‘sex.’  Therefore, anyone who disagrees with any part of that is automatically suspect in their eyes.  Frankly, I say fuck that noise.  There are important nuances with these issues, and this is one of them.  I say that both as a rational human being and as a victim of molestation myself.

Thus, when I’d read that parents in Virginia called the police after discovering nude photos that their 13-year-old daughter had taken of herself on her phone (and sent to friends), I was far more horrified by the parents’ actions than by the girl’s.  First off, Virginia again?  What the hell is it with that state?  Secondly, it’s not that I dismiss the girl’s actions–I think they were ill-considered, to say the least.  It’s that I am well aware that, in society’s well-meaning attempts to protect kids from abuse, it has clearly lost sight of the reason for its actions and has far too often hurt the very people it intends to protect.  One way this has occurred is through the prosecution of kids for sexting.  In the eyes of the law child pornography is child pornography, whether produced by abusive adults or by the kids themselves just having a little fun, and it’s just as illegal for minors to own it and produce it as it is for adults.  Which means it is possible–and indeed likely–for kids caught doing it to be prosecuted and treated like sex offenders.  The argument goes that these kids have to be stopped because the images might ruin their lives . . . as if subjecting them to criminal prosecution and labeling them sex offenders won’t.  Go figure.

Clearly society has lost it’s mind when it comes to kids and sex.  We need to treat these cases differently than we treat Chester Molester photographing himself raping a 9-year-old.  Heads up, people: teenagers have always been sexual beings.  It’s just that the technology available now makes it much easier for them to record and distribute their sexual activities, which means there’s hard evidence that sexual behaviors by kids doesn’t always equate to victimhood, and that, I think, is the real crime in society’s eyes: people just do not want to be reminded that their precious, angelic offspring sometimes behave sexually all on their own.  I can sort of understand–even if I don’t condone such thinking–why parents might want to see other people’s teens prosecuted for such things: serves as a nice lesson for their own kids, right?  This can happen to YOU, Junior/Missy, if you don’t keep your private parts to yourself until you become an adult.  But it’s hard to fathom parents turning in their own youngsters over to the cops . . . until you put it into the context of the zeitgeist in terms of kiddie sex.

This reminds me of the 80s and 90s when the big cultural bugaboo was drugs.  The War on Drugs got so insane that kids were being asked to inform on their own parents, never mind that having Mom and Dad arrested for smoking a doobie was likely to break up their family and destroy their parents’ marriage (not to mention getting the kids put into foster care where they were much more likely to be abused).  Kids were frightened because they were taught that drugs were such a horrible, all-consuming evil that NO cost–whether monetary, physical, mental, emotional, or whatever–was too high to get drugs off the streets.  And, of course, juvenile drug offenders were just as legally culpable as adults.  Several years and many billions of wasted dollars and lives later, it’s clear that the War on Drugs was a massive failure.  Drugs are no less widespread than they were back then, and the underworld that capitalized on their illegality has only gotten fatter and richer over the years.  Have we learned our lesson from that?  We’re only just starting to, it seems.  The atmosphere of fear surrounding drugs was so powerful that it warped the fabric of society in some dark and disturbing ways.  The sex abuse scare is now doing the same.

To be sure, there are some distinct differences between the drug issue and teen sexuality issue, but there are also a lot of similarities in the way we as a society deal with them.  For one thing, it seems we’d rather treat all cases with the blunt hammer of the law rather than try to find alternatives.  For another, as stated earlier, kids themselves are far too often hurt by the very laws and taboos that are meant to keep them safe.  Something has gone horribly wrong, and that something is called a moral panic.  There have been many of these throughout the history of human civilizations, and no doubt there will be more.  At their most extreme, moral panics can culminate in large-scale violent events like riots and even genocide, but mostly they just result in things like this, where the fear of a terrible outcome causes people to behave irrationally and do things that ironically tend only to make the situation worse.

No doubt these parents meant well, but they likely just ruined their daughter’s life.  Before, a handful of teens at the girl’s school knew about her actions.  Now, the whole world knows.  Before, she was a normal teenage girl with a (not particularly shocking) secret.  Now, she is a legally designated sex offender, and all that that entails.  And to what end?  Who exactly is being protected in this case?

Come on, people, we can do better than this.                   

I Came for the Sci-Fi; I Stayed for Robin Williams

Recently I got into a conversation on a friend’s Facebook thread about Robin Williams.  I grew up in the 70s and early 80s, so my fondest memories of Williams are as the iconic Mork from the sitcom Mork & Mindy.  I absolutely adored this show as a youngster.  The thing is, I was drawn to the show because it was about an alien from outer space living with a human, and as you know from the approximately google amount of times I’ve mentioned it here, I was obsessed with science fiction as a boy.  You can bet that if it had an alien, robot or weird creature in it, I was so there, especially since we only had two television channels where I lived, an ABC station (obviously) and the local PBS affiliate.  When there aren’t a lot of choices for a raging sci-fi geekboy, you tend to take whatever you can get.

Although in terms of science fiction content it wasn’t exactly on par with a Star Trek or a Battlestar Galactica, it had enough of a sci-fi hook to bring me in.  Even back then Mork & Mindy seemed to me less an out-an-out sci-fi show than a vehicle for allowing Robin Williams to vent his particular brand of hyperactive, oblique craziness.  But Williams was a world unto himself on the show, and the entire Mork & Mindy universe revolved around him and his ability to sell the character.  It was wildly successful, to say the least, and it’s hard to imagine a M&M series being half as entertaining without him.

After M&M Williams went on to fairly successful film acting career, including many roles for which he was nominated for some award or other, and a few that he won awards for.  What the films proved was that Robin was a versatile and dynamic performer, a man of many faces and identities.  But with all those masks, not a lot of people ever got to see his true face.  The sad clown is a bit of a cliche perhaps, but there is more than a grain of truth in it for Mr. Williams.  He battled chronic depression, alcohol and drug addiction to varying degrees throughout his life; I too have struggled with depression, and to a lesser extent drug problems.  It almost comes with the territory of being a creative person anyway, but when you have all the health issues I have and you’re too poor to afford treatment, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion.

But one thing I have never had to contend with was being in the never-ending spotlight and having to keep up appearances for the sake of your fans.  One of the reasons I chose to obscure my identity and write under a pseudonym, in fact, was because I am not interested in being personally famous.  A renowned writer?  Sure, give me every bit of that (but only if I’m worthy of it).  But I also dig my privacy.  I’m not a life-of-the-party kind of person–never have been and never want to be.  I have seen what that can do to perfectly good writers, artists and performers who aren’t cut out for it, and often it’s not pretty.  Williams is the quintessential example du jour, but there are so so soooo many examples.

Anyway, I just wanted to share a few thoughts about one of the greatest entertainers the planet was ever blessed with, an amazing one-of-a-kind soul who will never be replaced.

Na-Nu Na-Nu, sir, wherever you are.

Dispatches from Kowtown (8-12-14)

Man, what a day.  Some huge emotional ups and downs, but mostly ups.  First off, the downer: the tragedy of Robin William’s suicide.  I grew up with Mork & Mindy on my TV set and enjoyed his many films and standup routines throughout the years.  Williams was an amazing human being, and this just goes to show that no one is immune to mental illness, something we don’t deal with very well in our culture.  But Robin Williams was a comedy icon and he will certainly be missed.

Now to the good stuff.  Yesterday I wrote a review of Douglas Clegg’s novel Goat Dance, which you can read here.  Well, when I woke up and checked my blog this morning, guess who happened to leave an amazing comment to the review?  If you guessed Douglas Clegg, then you are correct!  Clegg was gracious enough to provide some wonderful details about his first novel that I didn’t know, like the fact that his parents bought him the painting used as the cover on the original printing, which makes his parents pretty bad ass in my book.  You can read his reply (and my reply to his reply) at the end of the post.  He also linked to the review on his Facebook page.

So, I dropped this info on a friend of mine, and she started researching Facebook and Twitter (the latter of which I do not have an account on) for similar mentions, only to unearth this awesome little tidbit from Peter Straub on his Twitter page, which somehow escaped my notice when it was originally published.  So basically, I got a two-for-one today with Clegg’s response and Straub’s nod to my review.  That’s Douglas Clegg and Peter Straub, y’all!  See, I’m so excited my Southern is coming out.  The only thing with Straub is that he didn’t like my criticisms of Stephen King.  Let me say that despite my criticisms, I still love Mr. King.  I just happen to think Straub is a better writer.  Just me, your mileage may vary.  But, as I said in the Straub review, King is still a brilliant storyteller, and I am not in any way discouraging people from reading his work.  Not like I could stop them anyway.  Something tells me King will be just fine.  I’m like an ant throwing dirt at a god: he has a bazillion bestselling books published and I have nothing published, so do take my reviews for what they’re worth.

But here’s the weirdest part of the day (as if that isn’t enough):  a couple of days ago my dad mentioned giving me his older laptop to replace my aging critter, as he had just purchased a new one for himself.  My poor old computer had been on the decline for awhile, with a busted back corner that wouldn’t allow the thing to shut properly; a plastic vent grill on the side missing every one of its little bars, exposing the user–namely me–to hot metal; and a handful of other issues.  Basically, it was on its last legs but was still usable.  But this morning, in addition to finding Clegg’s reply, I found that the bottom two rows on my keyboard were completely nonfunctional, making it impossible for me to type a reply to Clegg right then, as I was buzzing to do.  And, lo and behold, my dad had this new puppy ready to go for me today, assuring that the transition from old to new was smooth.  Thanks, Dad!

Hey, guys, since I’m on the subject, let me just tell you a few things about my dad.  He is the kind of guy who has always been driven to pursue to the very end any activity that interests him.  Because of that, his skill set reads more like that of an MI:5 or CIA operative than a middle class guy who works at a trucking company.  He’s a military vet and an amazing mechanic.  He was a world-class mason for years, with houses he built featured on magazine covers.  He’s a third degree black belt in a major Japanese martial arts style.  He became a small aircraft pilot, and then he went ahead and earned a license to teach others to fly planes.  He took up scuba diving.  He went to college to learn AutoCAD back in the mid-nineties and was one of the first people in his circle to own a home PC, which he taught himself to upgrade and repair.  Seriously, he knows more about computers than I will ever learn in my life.  He has a license in heating and cooling.  And he can operate/pilot everything from a motorcycle to a Cessna single prop to a semi-truck to a forty foot boat, and pretty much everything in between.  So, yeah.  That’s my pop.  I think I can safely say, coolest dad ever.

Be good, my friends.

Douglas Clegg’s ‘Goat Dance': A Review

IX-clegg-goat-danceA few years ago I did something that remains one of the low points of my life: I went to Virginia.  If you’re interested I’ll share the whole wretched event with you sometime, but suffice it to say, what should’ve been a relatively simple fourteen hour car trip turned into a thirty hour dead-of-winter hellride.  The thing is, I was a nervous wreck for three days leading up my trip and literally got almost no sleep during that time.  And there was a storm when we got there, and not one but two semi-trucks flipped across the middle of the interstate.  And we got lost in the mountains.  And, and . . .

Now, I have nothing against the state of Virginia itself; I’m sure it’s lovely (when not in the grip of a snow storm, that is) but I plan never to return if I can help it.  Ever.  But long before that trip I read a little novel called Goat Dance set in Virginia at wintertime by a then-new author on the horror fiction scene.  It probably planted the seeds of my dread of Virginia, for which the road trip only cemented it.

Oddly enough, I first read this book during another road trip, albeit a far less eventful one.  I was a teenager at the time.  I had already cut my horror teeth on a handful of novels by McCammon, Koontz and King, and I had just discovered Clive Barker.  Our vacation was ending and I wanted something to occupy my time during the twelve-hour ride back home.  I found Goat Dance in the book section of Wal-Mart, or maybe it was at a drugstore.  I don’t really remember where I picked it up.  It’s not important.  But the cover had caught my attention.  It had one of those cutout covers that were so in vogue in the ’90s, and the cutout revealed a goat-headed man with a pentagram carved into his forehead (which, by the way, is not in the book, and a good thing too), and I loved, loved, LOVED monsters, so I figured I’d give it a try.

[Note: As you can see, I didn't use the original cover for my review--there are a variety of reprint covers and I chose the one I liked best.]

Anyway, expecting a so-so novel that would nevertheless keep me entertained for the duration of the trip, I bought it.  And then I read it, and . . . holy shit.  I finished the book right before we got home.  It had completely sucked me into its dark world.  When I say dark world, I’m fully aware this is a cliche often used to describe horror novels, but in this case the term is completely accurate.  This was Clegg’s debut novel, and he had knocked it right out of the park.  I haven’t read his entire oeuvre yet, but in terms of what I’ve read this book comes in second for me only to Neverland, or even ties with it, depending on my frame of mind.  Now this is what horror was capable of, and possibly more than any other book I’d read up to that point save McCammon’s Swan Song, it made me want to write in this genre.  And yet Clegg himself considers this one of his mediocre contributions.  Go figure.

The central protagonist of the story is Malcolm “Cup” Coffey, the survivor of one terrible winter at a prep school in Pontefract, Virginia which ultimately ended in two equally traumatic events for him: the death of another boy, and unrequited love for a girl named Lily, both of which Cup is still obsessed with years later.  So when Cup, now living in Washington, DC, receives a strange phone message from Lily on his answering machine one winter’s day, he decides to return to Pontefract to look Lily up and discovers a town caught in the grip of a nightmare that has only just begun and is slowly building up to something, of which Cup is unwittingly a big part.

I hadn’t read the novel for about fifteen years (ironically, about the same amount of time that passes between the prep school events and Cup’s return to Pontefract), but I recently realized what a debt I owe to Clegg, and this novel in particular, for the structure and certain elements of the content for my novel-in-progress, AL+ER.  Like Goat Dance, my novel uses fictional supplemental items tangential to the story to reinforce its verisimilitude, has a small town where the horror builds slowly and is rooted in a past tragic event in the town’s history, and features a little girl who has certain abilities and who is something like a compliment to the protagonist.  Of course, my book is significantly different in a variety of ways too.  For one thing, the young girl plays a much bigger role in my story.  For another, neither the protagonist nor the girl are from the town (Milton’s Eye, Mississippi) where the bulk of the horror occurs and are not directly connected to it in any way.  Also, my book is meant to be the first in a series that will feature the protagonist and the girl as a team, and there is more of a science fiction feel to it than Clegg’s novel has.  But for me to suggest that Goat Dance wasn’t extremely influential on AL+ER would be a bald-faced lie.  And there you have it.  So I decided to reread it, to see if it had held up to time and my own maturity (such as it is) and to determine exactly to what degree I am borrowing from it.

Without going too much into the plot, I will divulge that Goat Dance is my favorite kind of horror novel: the kind where the horror builds slowly, and where, by the time the main characters realize it’s there, they’re already thoroughly caught up in its web and cannot escape it, only deal with it.  Peter Straub did it beautifully with Floating Dragon.  Bentley Little did it spectacularly with The Resort.  And Douglas Clegg does it equally amazingly in Goat Dance.

Another thing I love about the novel is that Clegg leaves a lot about the book’s antagonist–a force or being that goes by a variety of names, including Goatman (hence the garish and inaccurate figure on the book’s original cover)–to the imagination.  Where did this Eater of Souls come from?  We know how it got where it is, but we never really learn what it is or how long it’s been there.  The monster’s true self is never really shown.  We see the various masks it wears and the people it manipulates, but we never look upon its own visage, and maybe we couldn’t even if we wanted to, which gives the book a nicely handled Lovecraftian quality.

But has it held up over time?  Damn straight, it has.  In fact, I think I appreciated it even more this time around (my third reading of the book, incidentally) because one character in particular, a teacher at Pontefract Prep, reminded me so much of one of my own college professors.  And I realized certain aspects went over my head the first and second time I had read it.  When I was a younger reader, I often found my first reading of an amazing book to be more impressionistic than detail-oriented, which was perfectly fine by me.  In those days I might not have been able to completely express what it was about a book that appealed to me, but that was only a sign of its quality, because I wasn’t distracted by the little stuff that didn’t matter.  I didn’t just read those books; I lived them.  And if a book could so thoroughly pull me into its world that I forgot myself, then it was a resounding success.  Moreover, if a book like Goat Dance could make me want to take up residence in that world, no matter how dark and disturbing it was, then that was just sheer genius.  Perhaps the only other writer I have ever encountered that could do this to me with such dark material was Elizabeth Hand, especially with the novels Winterlong and Black Light.  How did that happen?

Turns out the key ingredient was a heady spice made up of the beauty of the writing itself, the detail in the world-building and that slow-burn sort of build-up.  By contrast, Clive Barker’s writing is every bit as smart and gorgeous, but I have only occasionally felt truly horrified by his work, merely awed by it.  I think the key difference there is that Barker, as brilliant as he is, has a tendency to dazzle you with the sheer weirdness of his worlds and characters, which makes his work more dark fantasy than straight-up horror to me.  Moreover, he tends to throw you right into the bizarreness rather than let it simmer and build, and that choice often has a peculiar flattening effect on the horror elements of his work.  This is not a criticism of the overall quality of Barker’s work, mind you.  I still love every minute of it.  It’s just that for me, with the exception of some of his early stuff, the horror aspects of his fiction tend to take a backseat to the dazzling spectacle of the fantasy, which is obviously where his heart is anyway.  Not a problem for me–I love that too, just for somewhat different reasons.

By the way, I just recently learned that Clegg is gay.  Not that I’m shocked; many of the best horror and dark fantasy authors tend to have non-heteronormative sexualities.  I think a lot of that stems from the fact that Westerners are so weirdly puritanical and guilt-ridden about sex to begin with, and when you add on top of that the fact that when you’re a preadolescent and your sexuality is just developing, if your sexual feelings happen to be taboo too, you begin to see the innate horror of existence in your formative years.  The fact that you are in a sense a slave to whatever weird or unusual quirks/hitches nature has decided to throw into the pot of your genetic materials and/or the profoundly influential early years of your existence, I think we non-heteronormatives really get a sense early in life that the layer between normalcy and strangeness can be paper-thin in spots.  It’s just one step up from there to understanding that the layer between civilization and chaos can be, and often is, equally threadbare.

And that dread realization is generally the driving force behind horror fiction.  It’s a way for some of us to make sense of the burbling randomness and insanity of life.  Further, the need some of us have to create horror, to synthesize it, at least in part taps into another primal fear: the unfairness of being born into a time and place when you are thought a freak for whatever you find beautiful.  In Goat Dance, Cup is dealing with his own sexual neuroses, and it manifests in a deeply symbolic way in the resolution, as he finds himself at one point trapped in a foul pit–the sickly throbbing heart of the Eater of Souls’ domain and influence–with a naked child, the very epitome of innocence and vulnerability, and the desire (to his horror) to . . . eat her.

Ziiiinnnnng!  Bull’s-eye, Mr. Clegg.  Bull’s-eye.

Grade: A+

 

The Path of the Dark Side: Anger and Psychopathy

If you aren’t already aware of it, I’m a longtime fan of science fiction, a love that began with my interest in aliens, monsters, robots, dinosaurs and freaky and otherworldly things of all sorts.  Before I started kindergarten I was drawing weird creatures and spaceships, and it’s safe to say I was obsessed with the tropes of sci-fi in my toy and book preferences by the time I was in second grade.  Which meant that I loved Star Wars of course, even more than most boys my age.  Oddly enough, I never got to see Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back on the big screen, but I still collected the toys, coloring books and so on; the first film in the series I got to see at the theater was Return of the Jedi (which remains my favorite of the series to this day).  I was eleven years old by then and already acquainted with Eastern philosophy to some extent through my involvement in martial arts, and naturally I loved the character of Yoda, who was something like a tiny, adorable alien incarnation of Lao-Tzu.  It’s no secret that George Lucas based Yoda and the concept of the Force on Asian sources, and although more understated in Return than in Empire, it was prominent enough for my eleven-year-old self to notice it.  I finally saw Empire on TV about a year later, and I was thoroughly taken with Yoda at that point.

The reason why I’m bringing this up in an article about anger is because one of Yoda’s most famous lines actually touches on something I’ve been experiencing lately, and it has to do with anger.  The quote goes like this:

“Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”

Now, it should be noted that, in the best tradition of Asian thought, this statement should not be taken as an absolute, nor as an indictment of anger in itself.  Or at least I don’t take it that way.  Truthfully, the Star Wars universe is not generally known for its moral ambiguity, but on the other hand, it is essentially a huge ongoing fable in sci-fi form, particularly the original trilogy, and as a fable it is mostly a broad statement about the dangers of fascism and the kind of thinking and unchecked emotionalism that often leads to fascism.  One thing you will notice about the Empire in the Star Wars universe is that, excepting droids, there aren’t a lot of non-humanoids in it; indeed, you are hard-pressed to find even a great deal of racial diversity in the Empire, even when you look carefully.  And women?  Fugeddaboutit.  The Empire is an outer space version of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia (I know the latter wasn’t fascist ideologically speaking, but it was quite fascistic in spirit, I think), and Lucas contrasts this with the huge assortment of alien species, races and genders of the members of the Rebellion.  That is key to understanding the heart of the Star Wars films.

Now, on a forum I visit fairly regularly (a forum representing a certain minority group), there is an extreme bias towards a particular viewpoint that greatly diverges from the general consensus of society at large.  I will not share the nature of this forum or its members because ultimately it is irrelevant; these points would apply regardless.  Anyway, although I belong to this minority group in one sense, I often find myself at odds with it because I do not agree with the overriding philosophy of the majority of forum members, and it can be extremely frustrating.  I get angry more often than I care to while debating people who, it is resoundingly clear to me, would not change their views no matter how much data disproving their beliefs was presented to them.

Many of these guys are highly intelligent.  Of course they are.  They’ve clearly spent a good deal of their time and effort trying to find loopholes and ways to turn one of society’s most entrenched values on its head.  In some respects they are right, but the problem is that they take it way too far, to the degree that their talking points have become almost sacred mantras to them.  And, as we all know from the history of all major religions as well as the inflexibility of many true believers of all stripes, people who insist on maintaining their beliefs in the face of overwhelming opposition and evidence to the contrary can be at the very least frustrating to deal with, but often they are extremely dangerous to boot.  What’s interesting to note is that the most popular members of this forum are some of the most charming, but they are also among the most deluded.  They, of course, will do everything in their power to make those who disagree with them look like the dangerous or unstable ones.

You see, idealistic purists are never able to accept that they might be wrong in some pretty big ways.  They appear to have it all figured out.  Maybe they’ll admit that they can be wrong in some small and nonessential ways, but they will only accept that if it serves them in some way, like making them look more flexible than they really are and therefore emotionally well-adjusted.  Never mind that whenever I get angry at their inflexibility and hypocrisy (which is also in high abundance), then I am labeled the unreasonable one.  But this is a logical fallacy.  Being emotional in my presentation doesn’t make me wrong any more than being emotional would make me right–my emotional state has no bearing on the truth either way.

But I think they’re right in one respect: although it isn’t the end-all and be-all, my emotions do reflect my mental state to some degree.  And as far as I can tell, I am one of the mentally healthier individuals there.  You see, I am not out to charm or trick anyone into believing what I say.  With me, what you see is pretty much what you get.  If I’m pissed off, then I’m pissed off, and I don’t hide it.  If I’m happy, then you’ll know that too.  Likewise, if I’m in a contemplative mood, as I am right now and as I usually am when I compose posts for this blog, then that’s the side of me you see.  Moreover, I will be the first person to say that I don’t know everything.  In fact, in the scheme of things, I know very little.  Call it socratic irony if you like, or just call it plain old ignorance.  I don’t care.  And on top of that, I am a severely biased person.  Why?  Because I’m a human being.  Were all like that, whether we are willing to admit to it or not.  It comes with the territory, so to speak.

Hell, I’m certainly a passionate person too.  I always have been, even as a child, although during childhood my emotions tended to be directed inward at myself rather than outward.  I was a pushover as a child, even with my martial arts skills.  I was afraid of confrontation.  I had to learn to be assertive, to speak my mind, to say what I believe or what I know.  With that ‘turning outward’ of my emotions came a lot of new learning, mainly in the arena of self-control over anger.  I was dealing with a lot of dark stuff.  Still am, actually.  Anger is frequently a part of dealing with the frustrations of being a person trapped between two worlds, neither of which I am particularly crazy about.  Anyone in my position except maybe the most assured and cool-headed of individuals (more on these types later) could ever deal with all of this stuff without losing their shit sometimes.  Whatever else it is, that’s my sign that there’s still life in me, still a willingness to be open to the world enough to learn and grow, but with it comes the inherent frustrations of being the person who doesn’t really fit in anywhere because he isn’t willing to sell out to the predominant philosophy of any given community (including society as a whole) just to belong.

That’s me in a nutshell.  I have a lot of questions and very few answers.  Much of my rambling–here and elsewhere–is as much to convince myself as anyone else that I might have picked up something useful in my forty-some years on this planet.  But who can be sure?  It seems that just when I have a handle on things, there’s a shift in the applicable field of knowledge, or in the general wisdom, even.  But whatever I have shared here, it speaks to me as being true, and truth is important to me, often at the expense of popularity.  And my emotional outbursts, when they occur, are my link to sanity, my assurance that I haven’t become just another faceless, soulless internet clone spouting ideology without any humanity to back it up.  For, yes, truth is important to me, but so is remaining human.  Sure, I’ve gotten mad enough to spit when debating ideologues; as many of you who have had this experience probably know, it can be fairly disheartening.  But it means I’m paying attention, and it means too that I am still in touch with my messy, passionate, sometimes contradictory humanity.  What it really means is that I am still alive philosophically.  It can be an unhappy place sometimes, but it also keeps me rooted in the world rather than lost to the cold, airy, passionless realms of pure thought, which ultimately can lead to only two ends: mechanical beliefs and behaviors with no thought behind them, or psychopathy, where one understands their motivations but has no real emotional investment in them.

Here’s where those overly self-assured and unwaveringly cool individuals come in.  Let’s take a look at the Yoda quote again:

“Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”

He starts with fear, which in many ways is the most basic of human passions.  Fear is the driving force that keeps us alive; it kicks in when we think or know we are in danger.  As unpleasant as it is, we would never want to rid ourselves of fear entirely.  Yoda isn’t saying that fear is always negative and should be avoided at all costs.  He’s saying that when we allow fear to rule us, then we are on the fast track to evil.  Fear can lead to hate, especially when it results in isolation.  Think of all the groups of people that have come to be feared and despised.  All of them have been subject to it at one time or another, haven’t they?  And with a societal shift any of us could become members of a persecuted out group, right?  Evil men learn to transfer all of their assorted fears onto a particular out group, a group that is then blamed for all that is wrong with the world.  That condensed, personified fear then gives way to anger.  Anger can be an externalized expression of fear, and that’s what occurs with conscious prejudice.  Eventually, if allowed to go on, that anger transforms into hatred.  It’s a completely different kind of anger than what I fall victim to.

Finally, in the end hatred doesn’t resemble anger anymore.  The passion is no longer there; it has been replaced with a codified form of hatred, no longer symbolized by but actualized as the hated out group.  And that is where fascism is born.  The particulars of the out group are ultimately irrelevant; it could begin anywhere, with any group (including yours), and be directed towards any other group (including yours).

Which leads to the second form of hate-derived evil: psychopathy.  But in fact, it seems to me that there is a good deal of overlap in the two forms, passionless thought and psychopathy.  The Nazis were so effective at exterminating Jews not because they were a bunch of angry hooligans making trouble.  Yes, it started out that way with the Sturm-Abteilung, but it ended with a group of people who had completely dehumanized their Other and was able to commit mass murder in a mechanized, soulless way.  They had completely severed themselves from their humanity, from their ability to feel anything meaningful in relation to their beliefs about the Other, at least in their occupational capacity, but that in itself is a sign of a problematic mind.  Anyone who can turn that sort of evil on and off like a faucet is probably beyond hope.  Hitler could be a passionate speaker, but he also knew full well what he was doing.  He was manipulating his own people; remember, those who no longer have a conscience do not stop at manipulating the Other.  They know how to turn the passion on for show to manipulate their own group towards a desired end.

At the forum I frequent, I have begun to see that there are several people like this.  They can offhandedly dismiss anyone who disagrees with them with a flick of their virtual wrists.  They can be passionate when they need to be, for the sake of show, but they can also be charming and manipulative, planting doubts about their opponents in the minds of each other and manipulating each other, reinforcing each other’s delusions with coolly repeated mantras in true cult-like fashion.  They can make sweeping moral statements that casually dismiss the ethical concerns of billions of people and not once consider the possibility that they are anything but 100% correct about these things.  They have come to a place where they routinely place ideals over real human beings.

And now, sad to say, I think the forum in question has finally exhausted its value not only to me but also to the minority group to which it is devoted.  I hope, dear readers, that you do not allow whatever group(s) you belong to, whether a persecuted minority or not, to devolve to this state.  Please be on guard against the eternal creeping of the Dark Side, and may the Force always be with you.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology: Film Review

Recently I’ve found myself searching through Netflix for the unusual, the oddball, the just plain bizarre.  When I happened upon a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the title hooked me immediately and I knew I had to watch it.  I have since watched it twice, finding some of the ideas presented in it useful to varying degrees.

Apparently a sequel to another doc, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which I haven’t seen, the film is basically a Marxist and Freudian examination of the concept of ideology as presented in and through an assortment of films both well-known and obscure.  Truthfully, I don’t really get the “pervert’s” part of the title–it seems to be little more than a red herring to draw attention to the film, and I can imagine it works like a charm.  Directed by Brit Sophie Fiennes and narrated by the thoroughly engaging (if sometimes difficult to follow) Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, the film is a fascinating documentary that, if nothing else, offers us a unique perspective on a motley collection of films we know and love such as They LiveJaws and Titanic.

But I have to admire Žižek–a knotty foreigner with a thick beard, a pronounced Slovene accent and a stilted manner of speaking, he boldly challenges us thoroughly capitalist Americans to step outside our comfort zones and look at movies through utterly oblique eyes, and he somehow pulls it off spectacularly.

He begins by claiming that when we feel we have escaped the influence of ideology, it is then that we are most susceptible to it.  Indeed, we actively resist being removed from it because it is extremely uncomfortable to disengage from our ingrained social identities.  Or, as he succinctly puts it, “freedom hurts.”  It’s hard to argue with that, especially in a nation where the political divide continues to widen every year and where outlandish conspiracies once relegated to the political fringe have moved nearly into the mainstream.  Žižek aims his criticisms squarely at consumerist culture, of which we Americans are by far the biggest offenders.  Not that he has nothing positive to say about us.  For example, he makes no bones about the fact that he admires Starbucks’ model of compassionate capitalism, identifying it as the perfect form of capitalism in the age of cynicism.

With nary a misstep, Žižek tackles the symbolism of the shark in Jaws, the true message of the Catholic church in The Sound of Music, Travis Bickle’s sexual repression in Taxi Driver, and the concept of the Big Other as represented in propaganda films like post-WWII Russian narrative film The Fall of Berlin and the Nazi documentary The Eternal Jew, among other things, all from the Marxist point-of-view.  Whether you identify in any sense with Marxism or not, Žižek presents Marxist philosophy in terms that are easy to grasp, or at least much easier to grasp than the works of Karl Marx himself.  I can vouch for that–I have tried to delve into Marx’s writing several times, with various degrees of success.  I can understand the basic premise of Marxism, but it’s all pretty confusing beyond that.  In fact, the Marxist idea I find most engaging (but no less complex) has nothing much to do with economics per se: dialectical materialism.  But more about that later.

Anyway, if you’re at all interested in Freudianism, Marxism, semiotics, film history, film criticism, and so on, this shouldn’t be missed.  And now, to find a copy of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema in my little Southern town.  Yeah, good luck to me, huh?

Grade: A

Updates: 7-20-14

Okay, so I finally got around to creating an Indigo Xix account for Facebook.  You can friend me or follow me by going here or by searching for Indigo Xix in the search window at the top of FB.

I also deleted a couple of articles dealing with gun control.  Not because I have changed my opinion about the issue, but because I no longer want the hassle of dealing with irate gun people, and because I do feel they were harsher than I originally intended them to be.

That’s all for now.  Have a good one, people.

AL+ER Teaser (Chapter One)

Here’s a teaser from the first chapter of my dark fantasy novel AL+ER.  Please bear in mind that this is an early draft and may be subject to editing.  This constitutes roughly three pages of my nineteen page double-spaced manuscript for Chapter One, so less than one-sixth of the chapter as a whole.

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Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger album started up on the CD player, thundering with the speed grunge opening track Rusty Cage. Doing his best to ignore the gelatinous movement of the floor and walls of his apartment bedroom, Eric shambled over to the dresser and carefully—as carefully as his present condition would allow anyway—lifted the single object resting on top of it, a maplewood box with beveled corners and a brass latch. Medusian tresses of cigarette smoke wound through the space around him, a poison-toothed nimbus. With his back against the dresser he slid to the floor, pulling the box down onto his lap as he went. He popped the latch with his thumb, opened the lid and began removing its contents one by one: a Zippo with a musical half-note etched on its side; a folded and frayed letter he had penned as a teenager to a musician he idolized at the time but had never sent; a handful of old family photos with bent corners; another photo of himself as a preteen standing in a long hallway in a building he couldn’t remember; several guitar picks, paperclips and bits of loose change; tiny plastic weapons to long-lost toy figurines…

He dumped the remaining assortment of trinkets and effluvia onto the floor. And there were the cards, now exhumed from their burial at the bottom of the little wooden tomb. The Ledlow Tarot, as he called them. Or sometimes the Deck of Sins. They were wrapped in a square of black silk. Peeling away the silk covering, he splayed the partial Tarot deck—the twenty-one cards of the Major Arcana, which is all Allie had completed—in his left hand. He shuffled the cards and set the deck face-down on the carpet before him.

It must have been a thousand times Eric had done this in the last fourteen years, ever since Allie had given him the cards that summer when they’d both been ten. That was in 2001, the Summer of the Black Sun by Solomon Ryan’s reckoning, and by Eric’s too. Ordinarily he would be shaking by now, but a rare calm filled him this time, and he placed his right palm atop the deck for a few seconds as he pondered the same question, or some variant of it, that he always pondered at this point in the ritual: What will tomorrow bring for me?

Drawing the first card from the top of the deck, he placed it to the far left of what would become a line of five cards.

The Magician. The figure in the card waved his wand a bit before pointing it accusingly at Eric, a golden infinity halo pulsing over his head. Time to get his ass in gear and do what needed to be done. That’s what it meant. An auspicious start.

He drew the next card. The Chariot. The two muscular beasts, one a black unicorn, the other a pale griffin, strained against their shared yoke, briefly rearing past the two dimensions of their flat rectangular prison before being yanked back into the picture plane. Again the theme was motivation, but the Chariot indicated decisiveness as well. So he would go through with it this time after all.

The Lovers. Two entwined adolescents, a male and female, the boy a brunette like Eric and the girl wearing Allie’s unmistakable blond bob with the too-long bangs that half hid her eyes, broke from their hug to look at Eric with expressions of irritation at the interruption of their eternal embrace. At the center of it all, literally and figuratively, there they were. He and Aldora Ledlow, aged ten, sitting Indian-style and facing each other on the floor of Eric’s tree house.

Justice. A young queen who resembled Allie’s mom as she had been in those days, bearing a sword in one hand and a pair of scales in the other. She wore a sorrowful countenance. Everything would be set aright come tomorrow. The cards would decide. Before he drew the final card he felt a shudder of anxiety.

Here it is, folks, the moment of truth. And the winner is…

Death. The Reaper, who slashed his scythe outward, and Eric quickly withdrew his hand from the card to avoid losing a finger. Of course. How could it be anything else? It was the one he’d been waiting on for the last thirteen years, wasn’t it? Well, to be sure, Death didn’t always mean the big sleep. Sometimes it meant a transition, a major life change, or just the end of something important.

Like the world.

No, there was satisfaction in the realization that he would face judgment at last. There was no question of his guilt. The verdict was inevitable. The only matters to be settled now were where the trial would take place and how the punishment would be inflicted. It couldn’t be here in his apartment. Much too plebeian. BOOOOORRRRRing, as Allie would have said. Maybe he would fall from a high place; that seemed the most fitting. Hmm, too biblical? Too showy, certainly. Besides, going that way deprived him of the long trial, an essential part of his fate. The most appropriate means of seeing himself tried was by the same way he had lived his life for the last decade—with the aid of foreign chemicals. Yes. Isn’t that why he’d purchased the Spectral anyway? Hadn’t he known somewhere in the back of his mind that he was going to use the Spectral as a doorway out of this miserable existence?

Good, that was decided. All that was left now was to select the venue. Several minutes of wracking his brain got him nowhere on that count, and he nearly decided to do it at home after all. Then it came to him, and he nearly cackled aloud at the perfection of it. Galaxy House. That mysterious domicile made famous by its former owner and still more infamous by what had happened to him. Truth be told, Eric had always wanted to see the inside of it anyway. Now he would.

Focusing on My Writing

You may have noticed that I didn’t put up an Of the Week post this weekend.  The thing is, I’ve decided to suspend that series for awhile.  I’ll probably pick it up again at some later date, but for now I have grown weary of it.  This doesn’t mean I am going to stop posting awesome artwork, quotes, etc.; I’m just going to do it as the fancy strikes me rather than at regular intervals.

However, I am going to be slowing down on my blogging.  The reason for this is that I am focusing on writing my novel AL+ER right now.  I am shooting at having it completed by the end of the year, although it will no doubt require some heavy editing after the first draft is done; I hold no illusions that my novel will be anywhere near ready for publication by the end of December, but hopefully it won’t be too long thereafter that I can start shopping it around to publishers.  I have also considered taking the self-publication route, which may be necessary as the novel is going to be difficult to pigeonhole and publishers tend to dislike when things don’t fit comfortably into easily recognized genre boxes.  But that consideration is still months down the road.

Meanwhile, here’s some artwork related to the book.  There’s a rock band in the series that the main protagonists follow, called Lostsol, and this is a cover design I created for the band’s first album, Room Outside the Outside Room.  The title of the album is somewhat abstracted on the cover, but I did this intentionally, for reasons that will only be clear once you read the book.  And notice the dark sun behind the band name, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is a symbol that recurs throughout the novel and ultimately the entire series.  For now, just keep in mind that mirrors and mirror images are also important to the novel.

Lostsol - Room Outside the Outside Room (cover design)
Lostsol – Room Outside the Outside Room (cover design)      

Some Thoughts on the Scientific Method and the Anti-Science Mentality in the United States

There’s a succinct and spot-on piece penned by Editor-in-Chief Analee Newitz over at io9 entitled If You Love Science, This Will Make You Lose Your Sh*t.  The article examines a piece written by Jason Mitchell, a Harvard-based professor of psychology, who addressed a growing criticism of the social sciences surrounding the fact that many of its researchers have published studies throughout the last decade or so with results that were not reproducible.  Mitchell, therefore, challenged the very notion that reproducibility is important to the sciences, which is no less than a brazen refutation of the concept of science itself.  Newitz (rightly) ripped Mitchell a new one for this nonsense.

In order to understand what’s going on here, we need to examine the scientific method, what it is and what it’s for.  In a nutshell, the scientific method is a process through which scientists can test their hypotheses, which is just a fancy word for hunches, albeit ones that are usually well thought through.  The origins of the scientific method as such can be traced back to the Renaissance, but the concept behind it goes back at least as far as Aristotle, so it has a long and distinguished history.  In fact, it is one of the few human inventions that have lasted, being tweaked, refined and improved upon over the centuries rather than completely scrapped for a different approach.  But the latter is precisely what Mitchell is proposing scientists do.

Mitchell’s belief that reproducibility isn’t important to science is a dangerous precedent for someone in his position to set.  Reproducibility, which is the ability of both the original experimenter and others in the scientific community to duplicate the results of an experiment, is vital for determining scientific truths.  Otherwise, a study could be fabricated whole-cloth and passed off as accurate without anyone being the wiser.  Think about the implications of that.  Would you trust your children’s lives or your own to a new medication that had only been demonstrated to be safe and effective in a single study that couldn’t be duplicated?  And yet, this is the level of standards we have been getting in the social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics) as a matter of course in the last few years, which is the reason for the criticisms that have been leveled against many of the studies in these fields.  Even without gross fabrications these fields have traditionally had less rigorous standards to abide by than the hard sciences, but it seems that some, including Mitchell, believe there should be even fewer standards for testing claims, or perhaps none at all.

All of the fields listed above have been problematic, but the one that most concerns me is psychology because it is the one that most directly impacts the lives of many people.  Thus, for someone of Mitchell’s standing to dismiss the importance of reproducibility in studies that come out of his field is downright chilling.  For starters, consider that psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are often called as expert witnesses in criminal court proceedings, sometimes in literal life-or-death cases.  Now, if you were on trial for a murder you didn’t commit, would you want your fate put into the hands of someone who placed little or no importance on the most accurate and widely respected forms of fact-finding among scientists?  I wouldn’t.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the so-called soft sciences that have been impacted by this kind of lazy thinking.  It has even infiltrated the hard sciences, most notably in the areas of evolutionary theory and biology, the big bang theory and climatology.  What you should notice immediately if you are at all politically aware is that the importance placed on empirical fact-gathering for these issues tends to break down along political and religious lines, with liberals tending to support the validity of traditional scientific thought and conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, tending to favor a faster and looser approach to the empirical evidence, despite what they may claim.  Anyone who takes science seriously can discover this for themselves by putting their studies and claims to the test.  But, of course, if the test itself is viewed and treated as valueless by them, then they can make the results say whatever they like, which is mighty convenient for those who hold to beliefs not supported by the hard evidence.  Like climate change deniers.

The fact that the vast majority of scientists working in the field of climatology (not to mention tangential fields like geology and oceanography) agree that our planet is indeed undergoing significant climate change and that we humans are to a large extent responsible for it should be enough to silence the deniers.  The problem is that it has become a deeply politicized issue.  Without politicians jumping into the fray, this probably would not be a controversial issue at all.  But it is, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why: many wealthy politicians, particularly those who are fiscally conservative, have a direct financial stake in businesses that are strongly contributing to global warming.  The Guardian points out that a mere ninety companies worldwide are responsible for two-thirds of the world’s problematic emissions, with most of the bigger ones being oil and coal companies.  Guess who are some of the major investors and employees of these companies?  Wealthy conservative politicians.

These are primarily Republicans, but there are also some conservative Southern and Western Democrats in the mix.  And it isn’t just politicians who are directly tied to Big Oil and Big Coal who are the problem; those companies also use their money to gain political advantages through Congress.  If you’re interested, there’s a website that lays out the connections between energy companies and major political players: Dirty Energy Money.  It is definitely worth a look.

By the way, lest you think these politicians are just constantly lying to our faces, well, there is certainly some of that going on, but it isn’t the whole picture.  You see, often what happens is that these fallacies begin first as lies, but eventually the liars tell their lies so often that they begin to believe their own lies.  So how does that happen, exactly?  Do you remember those pesky things called cognitive biases that I’ve talked about before?  One of the biggies here is confirmation bias.  This is the tendency for people to gravitate toward information that already supports what they believe.  Thus, these politicians and heads of energy corporations have fabricated their own science with which to counter the real science.  Likewise, the deeply religious have fabricated their own science to counter the mainstream scientific findings that disturb them.  So, you see?  They no longer have to lie–they have their own bona fide science they can believe in, allowing them the comfort of avoiding the unpleasant evidence that shows their beliefs to be misguided.  This is what we call pseudoscience (literally: ‘false science’), and the more people they can convince to swallow it, the easier it is for them to maintain their Grand Delusion.  Unfortunately, their success rates are frighteningly high because a great many people are too morally and/or emotionally weak to face Truth-with-a-capital-T.

And if it’s that easy to convince people to dismiss the overwhelming evidence presented by the hard sciences, imagine how easy it is to sway people when it comes to the murkier realms explored by the social sciences.  It’s true: hard policies with regard to mental health issues and other social issues are often a reflection of the current societal biases that are masquerading as science.  This is why in the past, when homosexuality held a much greater stigma attached to it than it does now, the studies of the day often tended to reflect the stereotypes of that era–because psychological studies which are not held to the same rigorous standards as the hard sciences are far too easy to manipulate to reflect whatever the investigators want it to reflect.  So please remember that fact when you consider studies coming out today that deal with issues which are in some sense politically, socially or ethically controversial.