Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Non-Events

I'm sitting in a coffeehouse, trying not to get sucked into the old vortex of non-events. These are events that take place completely in my mind with little or no bearing on the outside world. I look at a pretty girl, just missing the window of eye contact, looking away as her glance moves toward me.

Now my mind is already starting down the rabbit hole of self-delusion. "If I play my cards right, I could probably strike up a conversation and get her phone number. I'd better not look at any other women in the place and make her jealous." The first thought has become so absurd that, luckily, the second no longer gets any respect from my conscious brain. (I suspect that may also be a symptom of maturity.)

Of course, even if the idea of me striking up a conversation with a strange woman in a public setting weren't ridiculous, worrying about making her jealous by looking at other women would still be absurd. But these are just the kind of mindfucks my brain concocts to keep me (relatively) miserable and alone.

Thankfully, I've gotten better at short-circuiting that mental wiring. Though I'm appalled at how much I still let these imaginary scenarios dictate my moods and actions. It must be one of the pitfalls of living a life of the mind.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

My Review of "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens"

I managed to catch the new Star Wars film on opening (Thursday) night without reserving a seat months in advance. In fact, the ticket-buying experience was shockingly conventional. I just walked up to the box office at 7:20 pm and bought a ticket for the 8 o’clock show. As it turned out, I could’ve waited until the last second, because the theater was mostly empty. There were only about 20 people there. I figured my chances of getting in were good at the Mann St. Louis Park Cinema 6. Even though it’s in a busy commercial district on Excelsior Blvd next to Hwy. 100, it always feels like a ghost town inside. There’s definitely an 80’s-or-90’s-Suburban-Cineplex-That-Time-Forgot feel to it.

Much to my disappointment, I was not swept away by nostalgia at the opening strains of John Williams’ iconic main theme. Years ago, someone commented that the reason all us grown-up Star Wars fans felt betrayed by the prequels was that they failed to literally transform us into 12-year-olds. That may be why the latest installment in the saga left me cold. Also, the fact that I saw it alone in a nearly empty theater with a bunch of strangers probably didn’t help. This is one of those movie-going experiences that would be greatly enhanced by the addition of a communal aspect. 

As it was, the Star Wars universe felt as old and worn-out as those wrecked Star Destroyers gathering dust on the desert planet of Jakku. I guess we’re supposed to feel comfy and cozy starting another trilogy on another desert planet, but I felt little connection to the setting or the characters. It would’ve helped if Rey, the gutsy, orphaned scavenger played by Daisy Ridley, had any real attachment to Jakku. But she’s just trying to scratch out a living on a cruel, desperate world.

It wasn’t until afterward that I saw the parallels with the current sociopolitical climate. Jakku works as an allegory for the Great Recession. Just as the desert planet’s denizens are surrounded by the ruins of the Galactic Empire’s fleet, we’re surrounded by our own imperial luxury that, for most people, has been gutted and stripped clean of all meaningful benefits. Our social safety net and communities have been shredded, leaving us to wander the metaphorical desert in search of useful relics from our overshadowing past. (I don’t know if that metaphor works for you, but it works for me, so I’m goin’ with it.)

While Rey’s plucky millennial navigates the economic wasteland left in the wake of an empire’s fall, we meet Finn, stormtrooper-cum-cubicle-drone, who’s having reservations about his corporate mission. He was taken from his family as a child by the First Order, the essentially faceless monolith that has emerged to fill the fascist vacuum left by the defeat of the Galactic Empire. I can certainly relate to his predicament. Maybe I wasn’t forced into the corporate world at gunpoint, but it doesn’t feel like there are a lot of other viable job options out there anymore.

Luckily for Finn, he’s put in charge of a captured Resistance pilot, with whom he manages to escape Starkiller Base, the planet that the First Order has turned into a megaweapon capable of destroying whole star systems. This is just one of the items J.J. Abrams ticks off on his journey down the nostalgia checklist. Stormtroopers? Check. Restless orphan on desert planet? Check. Escape from said desert planet aboard the Millennium Falcon? Check. Moon- or planet-sized megaweapon capable of destroying planets? Check. 

I don’t mean to imply that any of this repetition undermined by enjoyment of the picture. Honestly, I’m just using it as fodder for comedy. Every part of the production was handled competently. I just didn’t feel like there was any juice left in this fictional world. But, judging by the reaction of almost everyone else who’s seen it, I may just be dead inside.

Well, getting back to the plot, Rey and Finn are thrust together and join forces with Han Solo and Chewbacca, who bring them to their new family, the Resistance. (Sorry for skipping over a lot of stuff, but, like I said before, the movie didn’t really suck me in.) The film gets better as it goes. Harrison Ford is old, and Carrie Fisher’s face, due to “having some work done” I assume, is not terribly flexible, but they bring a bit of that old magic back to the screen, just enough to set the table for the newbies. 

Unlike Rey and Finn, Han and Leia’s son, now known as Kylo Ren, is well on his way up the corporate ladder. Unfortunately, he’s chosen the Dark Side (although, frankly, I don’t think the corporate ladder has a Light Side), along with the centerpiece of the Dark Side Junior Executive starter kit: a helmet that makes his voice super-creepy. (Check!) Han tries to reconcile with his son on a long, skinny walkway over a seemingly bottomless pit. (Check!) Alas, Kylo impales his dad with his red lightsaber and lets him fall into the bottomless pit.

Ya gotta give Abrams credit for killing off Han Solo, the most popular character in the franchise. The estrangement of Han, Leia and their son is also affecting. It kind of echoes the plight of Baby Boomers as parents. “Sure, Mom and Dad, you fought the Man, but now you want me to play it safe? Fuck that, I’m joining the Dark Side!” (I think I may be projecting too much onto this movie.)

Suffice it to say, the Death Sta- excuse me, Starkiller Base is destroyed by a motley crew of X-wing pilots, complete with fat guy! (Check plus!) I probably should’ve mentioned that the movie begins with the Resistance’s top pilot transporting a droid that has a map to the secret location of Luke Skywalker, who’s been off the grid since he got discouraged about losing Han and Leia’s son to the Dark Side and decided to go looking for the first Jedi temple. (Check infinity!) 

The movie ends on a high note, with Rey finding Luke at the top of a jagged little island. Mark Hamill’s aging serves him better than Ford or Fisher. His gray beard and weathered face perfectly suit his Obi-Wan-ish robe. When he lowers his hood and faces Rey and us, it’s kind of a thrilling moment, even for my dead soul. Hamill overplays the gravitas, but the thrill endures as Luke contemplates reclaiming his central role in the galaxy and the camera circles the promontory.

So if you’re looking for a good time at your local cineplex, this is the movie for you. If you’re looking for a way to reconnect with your lost youth and innocence and reclaim your soul, I’d recommend something less weighed-down with commercial and emotional expectations.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Scars

I read this essay at the StorySlamMN! on October 6th of this year at Kieran's Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis. That month's theme was "Scars."

I have a big scar on my right shoulder. I got it as an infant. My parents said I knocked over a cup of coffee. That story sounds less convincing the older I get, but they’ve given me no reason to doubt it, so I still accept it. I’m sure it must’ve been very painful when it happened, but I have no memory of any pain. It’s never been tender or sore. It just looks weird, like someone cut a gash along my shoulder with a sword. It feels weird too, like the network of nerves were exposed to the air, died and fossilized. 

When I was a kid, I was self-conscious about it. I played basketball, so whenever we went “shirts and skins,” I hoped to be on the shirts team. If I was a skin, there would usually be a few confused or even disgusted looks at my shoulder by other kids. The guy guarding me would sometimes ask what happened to it in the same tone of voice that you would ask someone how they came to be a double amputee. 

But those were minor inconveniences. It was only my sensitivity that inflated them to serious concerns. In adolescence, I found plenty of other things to be self-conscious about, and the scar moved to my brain’s back burner. As an adult, I’ve effectively forgotten about it. I’m only occasionally reminded of it, if I happen to catch a glimpse of it in the bathroom mirror.

If only emotional scars were like that: painless marks easily hidden and forgotten. My body has proved to be much more resilient than my heart.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Unrecognized Genius

My writing career began in a blandly straightforward manner. In 6th grade I wrote a short story for an assignment and got an A+. I even kind of enjoyed writing it, as much as a writer can ever truly enjoy the writing process. I had a good feeling about what I was writing as I wrote it, and my teacher’s validation confirmed my suspicions. Then and there I decided that I would be a writer when I grew up.

Clearly, I was born to write and, being a gift from God, it wouldn’t require much work to maintain my talent, which was lucky for me, because I wasn’t too interested in working at it. I was far more interested in accepting the plaudits of teachers, parents and other authority figures, the people who knew what was good.

However, the following year I was plunged into a cauldron of torment when I started middle school. In his comic book, School is Hell, Matt Groening calls middle school “the deepest pit in hell.” Groening’s description of middle school proved prophetic. My friends drifted away, in the case of my best friend, to find cooler companionship.

I unilaterally ended social relations with my parents and younger sister. They seemed partly responsible for my predicament, and, in retaliation, I downgraded our interactions to nonverbal or monosyllabic, and always invested with a heavy dose of sullen hostility.

My diary became my primary confidante. It was a series of school notebooks left over from various classes. In a fit of eco-consciousness, I filled the empty pages with tiny writing. I could put two lines of text in each college-ruled line. I’m not sure why I wrote so small. Maybe I wanted to “waste” as little paper as possible on my random musings.

As a writer, my confidence has been worn down over time by feedback and failure. But, at the dawn of my career, I was confident that becoming a professional writer who could at least support himself was a pretty easy goal. If anything, I was mainly worried that my genius might not be recognized in my own time. 

That became a compelling argument for my exhaustive diary. It would serve as a window into my formative years. Future scholars would pore over these notebooks, fascinated by the new light they shed on my groundbreaking body of work as an adult. It would give them fresh insight into my troubled relationship with my parents and the many indignities I suffered at the hands of my peers.
On the surface, my life was hell, just as Matt Groening had said it would be. I was bullied at school and essentially friendless the rest of the time. My free time was mostly spent watching TV, trying to forget my misery. 

But it was all just grist for the mill of my genius. As we all know, every great artist has to suffer, and these were my trials and tribulations, the pain I had to endure in order to join the pantheon of great writers. Shakespeare, Hemingway, Groening: I bet they were all picked on in their school days. (Well, obviously Groening was, since he wrote a book about it.)

All the pain would be worth it once I got the recognition I deserved. The world would know how I had suffered, and, through the power of my prose, they would sympathize with me and condemn my tormentors as the assholes they were. The kids flying high in middle school would be brought low, and those of us at the bottom of the pecking order, well, maybe not all of us, but certainly I, would be exalted. Just as the Bible prophesies, the meek would inherit the earth and the assholes would burn forever in the Lake of Fire. 

I had to believe this, otherwise there would’ve been no enduring the torment and loneliness. Even if I didn’t achieve worldwide fame during my lifetime, I was still at the very least guaranteed a posthumous exhumation of my oeuvre followed by the inevitable, global avalanche of accolades. 

It actually took years for the whole world-conquering genius narrative to take shape in my mind. I didn’t make the leap directly from well-adjusted child to megalomaniacal teenager. But it’s taken much longer to dispense with that delusion than it did to concoct it. By now I’ve at least gotten to the point that I have serious doubts whether my genius will ever be fully appreciated, although I remain cautiously optimistic.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Alternate Timeline Groups


I read this essay at the November edition of "The Encyclopedia Show" at Kieran's Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis on Sunday, November 15th. The show's theme was "Cults."

A new craze is sweeping the nation, a craze that may prove to be the end of Reality itself. It all started innocently enough when Civil War buffs began to reenact battles from that era. We could easily dismiss these eccentrics as an idle curiosity. But the fad continued to grow and mutate in new and disturbing ways. Some of the reenactors got bored with historical accuracy and concocted their own scenarios, the most popular of which involved the South winning the war. At this juncture, they made the transition from “quirky” to “creepy.” The break from reality signaled a crucial turning point in the evolution of this phenomenon. 

With this innovation, the movement achieved escape velocity from its original, limited niche, enjoying an extended period of exponential growth. A dizzying cornucopia of Alternate Timeline Groups was spawned, each dedicated to a scenario more esoteric than the last. Some of the more notable groups are the Hanging Chads, who prefer to live in a world in which Al Gore won the 2000 presidential election, prevented 9/11 and converted the entire U.S. economy to run on clean, renewable hope, ushering in a kind of Green, Liberal New Jerusalem. There are also the New Cokers, who imagine a world in which New Coke was a smashing success, leading to the ultimate defeat of Pepsi and total victory in the Cola Wars, signaling a new era of soft drink supremacy in which all beverage drinkers are united under a single banner of refreshment. Perhaps the least delusional of these groups are the Kubes, those who’d rather live in a world where Parker Lewis Can’t Lose conquered the airwaves and became the all-consuming cultural force it was always meant to be. 

This was all well and good when they were just writing fan fiction and engaging in “cosplay” at various “comic-con”’s. But at some point their hobbies turned into dangerous obsessions, crossing the line from daydreaming to deranged, treacherous conspiracies. Now these dangerously deluded people will stop at nothing to see their fantasies made flesh. They wish to rewrite history (and transform the present) to conform with their vision of an ideal world. They’ve accorded themselves the power that God saw fit to bestow only on Scott Bakula: the power to change the past, striving to put “right” what once went “wrong” and hoping each time that their next leap will be the leap home. (Sorry, I got a little carried away there.) 

Not only is this a perilous avocation, it’s also terribly annoying, especially when they refuse to acknowledge the aspects of reality that don’t comport with their scenarios. Great confusion is generated by their attempts to communicate with the rest of society, or the “reality-based community,” if you will. They’re isolated by their idiosyncratic worldview. This has bred in them resentment of the Mainstream, which merely compounds their alienation and redoubles their resolve to remake the world in their own image. 

These people expect the impossible. There will never be the kind of cultural apocalypse they’re trying to bring about, when all the different colors and varieties of life are steamrolled into a single, unified system. They’re trying to realize their vision of Utopia. Unfortunately, every previous attempt at effecting a Heaven on Earth has had the somewhat ironic effect of creating a Hell on Earth.

As a result, society is being engulfed by a flood of cognitive dissonance and willful ignorance. You can’t just pick and choose which facts you want to accept and which you can discard. The result is anarchy. There’s no continuity in such a world, no foundation on which to build a coherent, enduring worldview. The terror of constant change and insecurity consumes all, even thought. There’s no time for explanation, elaboration or reinforcement. Each ideology is discredited as soon as it has been proposed.

As the consensus on what constitutes Reality breaks down, so does Reality itself. The very nature of existence now changes from moment to moment as each Alternate Timeline Group gets its nanosecond in the sun and is then replaced by the next fashionable heresy. The possibility of logic and reason is drowned in a dizzying maelstrom of self-contradictory stimuli that offer no solid ground on which the brain may find purchase. Under the strain of such volatility, the physical fabric of space-time is fraying. God help us all. 

Where before we could dismiss recreationists as quirky eccentrics adorably divorced from reality, now we have no choice but to confront these deviants and deal with them as harshly as the law permits. It’s one thing to muse on the possibilities of what-if’s and might-have-been’s. It’s quite another to try and bring those dreams into being. Once the barrier between fantasy and reality has been breached, a menagerie of monsters is sure to be unleashed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was unable to read the following story at the StorySlamMN! last night at Kieran's Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis. Ergo, I offer it here for your approval. The theme of this month's show was "Money, Money, Money."


After college, I lived in Chicago for two years. Half the time I was working clerical temp jobs. The other half of the time my parents were putting money in my bank account. I was never a starving artist, despite my half-hearted wish to be. The only obstacles to making ends meet were my laziness, depression and reluctance to ask my parents for more money. 

A recession supposedly began in 2000, the year I graduated from college, but I never got the sense that work was hard to come by. If I could muster the motivation to call whatever temp agency I was with at the time, there was a good chance they’d have a job for me within a week or so. But then I’d have to actually go to work, draggin’ my ass outta bed on those frozen mornings for the privilege of sitting at a desk, making copies and directing calls for people who appeared to just be going through the motions of Life. It was all drab, dispirited offices and waiting to die. 

But I needed something to pay the bills while I became a famous comedy writer, so I continued temping in the hope that each job would require as little work as possible. The closest I ever came to the perfect job was a three-week assignment in the environmental bureau of the Illinois Attorney General’s office. I was a living, breathing Exhibit A for every right-wing blowhard who wants to rant about the waste of government bureaucracy. 

It was the only time I’ve ever had my own office, although it was nothing to brag about. There may have been grift in the environmental bureau, but it wasn’t being funneled to an interior decorator. It looked like they hadn’t updated the d├ęcor in fifty years. The best word I can think of to describe the bureau’s appearance would be “Shawshank-ian.” 

I was brought on board to send out letters alerting citizens to the apparent negligence of a utility company, or something like that, but the task was barely enough to fill a few days. After that was done, I had to harass my supervisor to give me things to do, which was not easy for me, since I had to overcome my natural aversion to labor. My boss was a friendly, easy-going guy named Terry who looked to be in his 30’s.  He gave me some stuff to copy and collate, but not enough to keep me busy. 

At Terry’s suggestion, I brought a book to work and read at my desk. There were days when that was all I did. It was rather awkward sitting in my office, day after day, just reading, as people walked by, people with things to do, deadlines to meet, environments to protect. When the silent judgment of the passersby got to be too much, I would take out my notebook and do some writing to create the illusion of work, but the shame wasn’t enough to completely overcome my laziness, and, eventually, I’d go back to reading. On the plus side, I managed to finish The Lord of the Rings. It was an especially amazing feat given the fact that I am not a fast reader. 

When Terry learned that my assignment was coming to an end, he suddenly sprang into action, taking me to the bureau head’s office. She got on the horn and tried to get my assignment extended, but to no avail. She then apologized for her inability to keep me around longer. I thanked her for the attempt, although I was somewhat relieved to be unemployed again. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could handle the guilt of reading The Lord of the Rings on the taxpayers’ dime. 

On my last day, Terry bought a cake and herded a bunch of reluctant people into the break room to celebrate the end of my three-week tenure. I appreciated his gesture, even though the joy of the occasion was dimmed somewhat by the awkwardness of the fact that I had only said about a dozen words to most of the people there, and I was pretty sure they knew how little work I had actually done.

It was a rather pathetic example of your tax dollars at work, but, on the bright side, it did keep a kid like me off the streets.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Myth of the Mighty Mississipp'

I decided to take a nice, leisurely bike ride to the Mississippi River today. There's a lovely trail that follows Rice Creek through a wooded hollow from New Brighton to where it meets the river in Fridley. Or where I thought it did.

Due to construction, there was a detour I found somewhat difficult to follow. The route didn't seem to be taking me any closer to the river, until I realized the shocking truth. This is all that remains of the Mighty Mississipp':


Through internet research, I discovered that the Mississippi River ran dry over a century ago, shortly after the historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced the closing of the American frontier in 1890. What we've been led to believe is the Mississippi River is actually an open sewer system that funnels the waste of Mid-America into the Gulf of Mexico. Chemicals are pumped into the sewage at strategic locations to mask the smell and create the physical illusion of water.

This elaborate hoax was concocted by the nation's captains of industry to avert a Socialist revolution and the miscegenation that would surely result. With the active collaboration of the press and federal and state governments, America's leading industrialists oversaw the construction of a 2,320-mile-long concrete trench in the dry riverbed.

It was the greatest hoax ever perpetrated against the American people (until 9/11). But it's time people knew the truth. Fiat justitia ruat caelum. "Let justice be done though the heavens fall." That's what I say.

Nah, I'm just joshin' ya! Here are some river pix to ease your troubled minds:


Monday, October 12, 2015

Hipsters of a Certain Age

I'm getting too old to be a hipster. I'm tired of trying to keep up with fashion trends. I've reached that age when hipsters either start dressing like cool adults or give up and procreate. Unfortunately, I have all the personality traits of a parent except the desire to be one.

I'm a creature of habit. I like stability and security. I've never really liked the night life, baby, so my interest in going out is driven solely by my desire to make new friends and meet women. (I remain stubbornly single due to my aforementioned homebody tendencies and self-sabotaging thought patterns.)

Is there anything sadder than the aging hipster? The sight of a middle-aged man (This condition seems to afflict women at a much lower rate.) clinging to the final moments of his window of coolness brings tears to my mind's eye. I don't wanna be that guy.

I don't wanna listen to that sad bastard music anymore. Maybe most Top 40 doesn't have the same depth or artistry as indie rock, but at least they're lookin' on the bright side! Sometimes I wanna grab those mopey indie rockers and shake some sense into 'em.

"Snap out of it! Your problems aren't that bad! I've got real problems! Help me out here! Give me a peppy, chipper, happy song for once, or at least something that doesn't make me wanna blow my brains out! That'd be really nice!"

Teenagers and 20-something's can wallow in that self-pity, because they don't have any real problems yet. Once you hit your 30's though, then you've got real problems, and the sad bastard music just brings you down.

I'm glad I rediscovered musicals during my Return of Saturn (age 27) breakdown. Those also gave me a better appreciation for my parents. (They love musicals and are pretty corny.) I learned the value of what I'd previously thought of as cornball, cock-eyed optimism.

The difference between happiness and sadness can be as arbitrary as one's perspective. Intellectually, I believe that, but it'll take a while before I can fully embrace the concept emotionally.