Friday, July 23, 2021

Another Year Around the Sun

 I am ready to leave work, go to the local brewery, and celebrate my Birthday. 

(Yes, today is the day.)

The past few years, other than my 30th, were not very fun. Or they were riddled with depression. Or the looming threat of being old, yet unaccomplished, weighed on me. Not so this year, I am happy to report. 

I'm not sure why things have changed. I'm as old as Jesus was when he went to the cross for the world, which would make light of any of our accomplishments, big or small. That alone could be the reason for my paradoxical contentment, but I don't feel like it is. I released a book in hardcover this year: also a big accomplishment. Still, it's not as big a brag as it sounds. (In fact, it's deceptively easy.) 

This year is different in ways I never expected, and it's because I feel like I'm no longer a kid. 

I am becoming less aware of "age." I'll find out that a co-worker is actually in his mid 40s, when I thought they were my age. We act how old we want to be, which is a lauded trait among our aging boomers. This charming deception gives me social mobility, where I previously didn't. Instead of the need to "impress" my elders, I am collaborating with my peers. 

Hopefully I can avoid the pitfalls of other unequal alignments though. Like, it's sad to see a child acting like an adult. Youth and joy has it's purpose. A child that works in a coal mine, or emancipates themselves when they are 14, loses the freedom to explore hobbies and ideas ahead of their adulthood. Likewise, it's sad to see a 50 year old acting like they are 20. Age carries with it a quiet, established dignity that inspires others. It's a responsibility that we all should feel inclined to take part in.  (I.e. help your kids plan for the future. Be their roadmap. Don't fuck off to Coachella, forget to pay your rent, and then get angry when your "van-life" kids make a mess of you're apartment while you're away.) 

Concerning the above, I would wager confidently the reason I am so happy is because I where I'm supposed to be. That's enough, right? 

I sure hope so. I've already printed t-shirts for merch!

(No, I haven't.)


Thursday, June 3, 2021

Working Inside is Weird

My desk at work.

This past week I have been working inside the office for a couple consecutive days for the first time since the pandemic started. This was primarily due to my wife going on a camping trip with her dad, leaving me to fend for myself with Eowyn. The thought of driving by myself was terrifying. (Around this time last year I had a really bad anxiety attack while I was driving.) But, despite some close calls and a stashed emergency Klonopin, I got through it. 

Don't we always?

Sitting in the office, the loudest thing I hear is the sound of the HVAC fans running. The keys beneath my finger tips are deafening. No weird neighbors next door, arguing over dumb shit that doesn't matter. No homeless couples bickering up and down the street. Just the fans. 

I miss the office. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Ode To a Shitty Burger

I like burgers. 

I like large burgers. I like sliders. I like pigs-in-blankets. I like hoagies. I like pulled pork sandwiches. I like ruebens, cubans, and breakfast sandwiches. 

I like, really, anything with two slices of bread and a piece of meat in the center. It's primal and debasing to hold a burger and try to eat it as, like a collapsing star, it disintegrates into a slurry of deliciousness. Growing up, I would get a burger before getting my allergy shots for bee venom, convinced that the meat in my belly made me impervious to pain. What a ludicrous conclusion! But a serviceable salve to ease my fear of needles. Burgers were my answer to most of all life's problems when I was 6 years old. Today, they still kind of are.

Burgers, like friends, are fickle. Not all burgers are created equal. Some burgers disappoint and demoralize. Some even betray you. They illustrate the lie of consumerism and the commodification of once sacred and immutable things. Like a life of watching porn and encountering sex for the first time with another human being, eating a Carls Jr. Six Dollar Burger illuminates the hyperreality of bread, meat, cheese and vegetables advanced in the fictional ad space, while what is unwrapped in soggy wax paper is the cold truth: that all of us have been lied to. The burger today, indeed, does has a true referent, but it exists elsewhere, far from any motor oil encrusted strip-mall parking lot.

The shitty burger is the aesthetic product of many components. Down the street from my apartment, there is a decaying fast food chain, local to the Santa Barbara area. The reviews online are as abyssal and empty as the employees that absently attend the greasy kitchen griddle, and food poisoning is alleged all too frequently in that virtual space. The dinning room is always empty. Aging CRT televisions are void of light and sound. Vending machines contain stale baubles, forgotten behind scratched, hazy plastics. The employee that takes your order is tense and on edge. The fact that you are there in this solemn place is an act of violence. The order will most surely be incorrectly filled, but out of kindness you feign ignorance. The truth behind the shitty burger is the commiseration found in consuming it. The thin, dry patties are ingested under the wan light of a desk lamp in solitude and shame. In eating it, you have contributed to institutional racism and, simultaneously, are now emboldened to end it. 

I would disagree with the post-modernists that we have lost the true referent, what I refer to as the proto-burger. Just like the desolation which attends the shitty burger, the proto-burger is a sum of harmonious parts. Just as the fresh cut tomatoes, the grilled onions, the chilled lettuce, and ground sirloin unify to achieve mythic synergy, so people also gather around charcoal grills on lazy Saturday afternoons to experience unshakable community. At the checkered picnic table, people of all kinds and creeds have the opportunity to experience the original and incorruptible authenticity of the proto-burger. And, like waking from a bad dream, the memory of the shitty burger fades, ultimately to nothing, thereby allowing only the knowledge of the proto-burger to endure. 


Thursday, March 25, 2021

"Oncoming Traffic" By Stuart Warren


There was traffic on West 580, right in front of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. 

Traffic rarely happens. When it does, it usually inspires fascination, even wonder. The passing traffic does not stop. Motorists spying in the moments between moments. Life oncoming, then gone.

This time was different though.

There were two cars hedged off to the right shoulder: a 2038 Tesla sedan and a 2018 Honda Civic. The rear crush points on the Tesla were pancaked—what remained of the trunk space, mostly gone. I glanced out of my window and saw the two drivers in a heated fight, a paramedic between them with her hands up. A police officer was dragging a dumbbell set—ejected from the trunk of the Civic—off the center lanes while we waited.

By 2028, most of the Bay Area was autonomous. By 2032, the rest of the state followed. The current Administration established a buy-out program for manual-pilot autos, encouraging the conversion. But, among the millions, a small minority held out. Mostly older men, and a younger generation galvanized by passionate rhetoric to retain their “right-to-drive.” When accidents happened, it always involved a manual-pilot car. There would be a highlight on the evening news—national coverage if the collision was big enough.

The Civic’s owner was red in the face with anger, spittle ejecting from her mouth. It wasn’t about the car. She stood her ground. This would be on camera, the pavement her stage. Ten-thousand talking heads explaining the nuance of car ownership, the “right-to-drive.”

It was something we debated at work, before our managers would step in to re-establish office etiquette. At church, I would argue the nuance of scripture, how the church adjusted for cultural changes, while others flatly denied my points, on the basis of free will and choice. In school districts some advocated—think of the children, they would say—for manual-pilot school busses, that it was unconscionable to entrust students to the cold will of the onboard intelligence.

But as passionate and antiquated the logic was, we all knew that 94% of auto-accidents involved manual-pilot vehicles. 100% of all autonomous cars were zero-emission, and manufactured by carbon neutral companies. Average commute time was lowered by 30% as the speed limit was raised by 25% across the western United States.

The police officer signaled to the line of stopped cars to proceed after a few minutes. I cracked open my book and thumbed to the page where I left off, feeling the pull of my body into the seat, the scene disappearing from view.

Where 580 merged with 101 North, brake lights crept up along the frontage road.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Respecting The Stillness

 About the middle of the week during the so-called "protest" held at the Capitol building in Washington DC, I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone. It was just too much. The rest of the week's news was carefully filtered through messages delivered via Facebook messenger by writer, and fellow wookie life partner, Desmond White. They were mostly memes and updates about the ongoing certification of President-Elect Biden's win of the 2020 election. After all, humor disarms, and Desmond has enough of it to be awarded an honorary black belt in Judo. 

It was quiet though, after the apps were gone. My mind was at peace. No notification dings. No wild Facebook threads of frantic, hateful people declaring their opinions. Pure silence. I had forgotten what that felt like. I grew up with it. 

I was a part of the generation that first experienced common and widespread use of the internet. The internet that we know of today, at least. The kind with browsers and websites that shared videos and files. The kind that had Altavista for web searching and General Mayhem for whatever disgusting thing 4chan currently is. The "small device" didn't really exist yet. I didn't have a cell phone or iPod until I was in middle school. I didn't get my first iPhone until after I had graduated college (2012, maybe?), though, in all fairness, I had resisted getting one just because the carrier plans were so expensive. I'm sure there's no true correlation, but it was a little after getting the phone that I got my first major panic attack. 

The idea of being constantly connected is both a blessing and a curse. I can't even express in words the convenience a cell phone affords when your car breaks down. During the pandemic, we can facetime with our parents and grandparents. Yeah, I know it's not ideal, but it's something at least! The increased distance we place between ourselves is problematic though. And there's a price to pay for being always connected. The speculative cyberpunk tv series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, features an episode (S1E11) about a government-run, social welfare facility, where patients are treated for Cyberbrain Closed Shell Syndrome. TLDR, it's a sickness that afflicts those who can't break away from the internet and it's communities. Disconnecting a patient being treated for the sickness causes them to become violent, withdrawn, paranoid, depressed, comatose, or incapable of interacting with people for prolonged periods. Obviously the illness is creative hyperbole, with no true equivalent in the world.  "Doomscrolling" and "shitposting" hardly compares, but the constant connection to Facebook and other social media websites already affects how we see the world and our attitudes towards others. 

Now comes the weird part. How do I tweet/post/gram when I don't have these apps on my phone any more? Not very easily I guess... If I had to chose between my health and leveraging social media to tell people about my books, I'm obviously siding with the former. So, this will be an interesting next few weeks as I launch my third book and connect with people about it. Please be patient with me as I adjust. 

Here's to a better, healthier 2021!



Sunday, December 13, 2020

Twofaced Politicians and Jarls and Bishops Only Want One Thing...

One of the things that I've struggled with when it comes to Christianity is it's sordid history when it comes to ecclesiastical structures. How could the common man come to know Jesus with all the elements seemingly against them? (Bad theology, no access to vernacular translations of the bible, endemic/systemic corruption, to name a few.) Because, if you are protestant, the implied answer is, "none." But that's a gross simplification and—arguably—blasphemous truncation of God's power to save and preserve his people, regardless of time period and reigning zeitgeist.

A good example of the roman architecture being absorbed by the landscape. 

Recently I read an essay by Umberto Eco named "On the Shoulders of Giants" (coined from Bernard of Chartes's quote "We are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants.") Eco’s general thesis is that there is a productive tension between the past and present. Innovators spurn the past, invoking a "newer is better" philosophy, but willfully ignore the shoulders of the "giants" they stand upon (that is, the great thinkers of the past). I see this concept playfully imagined in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla which presents a pseudo-historical recreation of Anglo-Saxon England, and the multicultural landscape of the time. The game itself, developed by Ubisoft Montreal, evokes the impression that it was heavily researched and painstakingly developed to render the world faithfully. Most impressive, is the haunting ruins that scatter the world map, which the developing nation-states occupy. Unlike Eco’s essay, the denizens of this medieval Britain, live in the shadows of giants, with their “modern” cities, parodies by comparison to the enduring roman infrastructure that are still serviceable some 800 years after their construction. Christianity is portrayed how I would expect it to be rendered in a AAA action rpg, though, to the game designer’s credit, the primary theological objective is to explore the mythology of Asgard and the eschatological conclusion of Ragnarök.

One of the abbeys (I forget which) built around a roman aqueduct.

All this to say, after the 77 hours I’ve put into this game so far, I realized that there was a striking resemblance between the bishops and jarls of Anglo-Saxon England and our modern politicians here in the United States, especially those that espouse a belief in Christianity. The development of Christianity, unfortunately coinciding with the fall of the Roman Empire, begat structures and organizational practices out of necessity, with ecclesiastical institutions filling the vacuum. Modern American conservatism lies to us and says that “things used to be better”, when the reality is less impressive: everything is still the same. People die and fuck and instigate conflict and oppress without pause, and will continue to until Jesus comes back. And, while, this might seem a trivial realization, I found it oddly comforting. If the televangelists and politicians of today equate to our previously mentioned bishops and jarls, then the typical, ordinary believer of today, likewise, existed.

Because of the well-designed world presented by Valhalla, I can reasonably imagine a man living in a hamlet beside a river, concerned with his crops and animals. He takes a wife, has a few children, only one or two surviving to adolescence. The village
is threatened on occasional by lawless thugs or journeying Vikings. Otherwise, against this backdrop and the changing seasons, the Church existed. People were forgiven and baptized, listened to the priest and took communion, just like they did today. No one wrote books about their unimpressive lives, whereas the conniving abbots and deceitful kings endured in memory because their status in society afforded them biographers and notaries. So, it’s comforting, in a weird way, I guess.

Thank you, Lord, that the world is boring.

Urnes Stave Church: Built in 1129 in Norway. 

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Thoughts on The Witcher 3 And RPG Story-Telling In General

 While I'm almost certain that others have documented this I was thinking about interactive storytelling in the context of playing video games, specifically western RPGs. (I have little experience with Japanese RPGs so I won't be covering that here.) 

There's been examples of "choose your own journey" storytelling already in printed media. When I was a kid, R.L. Stine (of Goosebumps fame), introduced a new line of books called Give Yourself Goosebumps, where you could explore a book with branching plots. Generally you would read the book and then flip around the pages at certain points, guided by the spooky editor to continue the branching plot. The limitation of course is that the overall plot length was not very long, as far as total time spent reading. Honestly, I never read one to completion. I wasn't much of a reader until High School. However, I would see them all the time at my library when I was in elementary school, and flipping through them, enjoyed the concept more so than the content. 

Similar to my love of reading, my love for western RPGs didn't bloom until high school as well. The first one I remember playing was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which had a variety of choices in game that would determine various future plot points. At the end of the game, you could even choose an "evil" or "good" ending! Likewise, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines also had branching storylines and alternate endings based off of decisions in game with various factions. (Still one of my favorites!) Of course, nowadays, games can have upwards of 20 different endings due to the level of resources made available by AAA studios. And this is where The Witcher 3 comes in to play. For those unaware of the franchise, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, is a western fantasy RPG developed by Polish game studio, CD Projekt Red. The game is based on the fantasy novel series of the same name, by Andrzej Sapkowski. The game takes place after the events of the books. Following a witcher named Geralt of Rivia, who is a tradesmen dealing in monster killing, royal body-guarding, and general mercenary work. For a general review of the game, see here.

Before I explain why I like The Witcher 3's general approach to storytelling, I should explain how most western RPGs depict their characters. Most feature protagonists that begin as blank slates with varying levels of cosmetic customization (from clothing to physical appearance). A smaller number feature fully developed characters that the player enters into to vicariously experience a narrative. (The Witcher 3 utilizes the latter model.) After this point, western RPGs will excel or flounder depending on the degree of immersion the simulated game environments generate. Most games can succeed if the character design and world design are adequate, but its the narrative pieces that string the player along for 60+ hours of gameplay. 

Western RPGs simulate both standalone novels and serialized fiction because they capture multiple narratives contained in a greater world. A grand quest line can last up to 20 hours, simulating a novel, whereas one off requests and adventures serve as short fiction set in a larger conceptual world. Specifically, what I like about Geralt's character in The Witcher series, is that his life experiences accommodate the variety of in-game situations and dialogue choices that guide the progress of the game. Oftentimes, western RPGs feature a narrow subset of dialogue choices during play. These amount to A) good, B) bad, C) irreverent, and D) neutral. The intention of using these options is to give the character freedom to interact with the world and its characters, but they are arbitrary at best and functionally limited. Geralt's life experiences are varied enough that we can believe his responses to actions in-game. Not only that, but Geralt is an imperfect character, and his responses can vary between forgiving and capricious, with far reaching consequences for his actions. For example, Geralt has an opportunity at one point in the game to overthrow a nefarious king. The ability to do so is determined by whether or not Geralt assaults a non playable character several hours before the plot point opens up. And it's crushing to have the opportunity to end an evil king's reign, only to be stonewalled later on.

It's a weird thing to ponder the illusion of choice in games because it's all scripted ahead of time. But I like the concept of an interactive novel. It appeals to me as a greater form of storytelling, offering immersion that just isn't possible with conventional storytelling methods.