Life and Times Chapter 34

Today is my birthday and as is my tradition, I reflect on the previous year, trying to find threads which make sense of my personal story while hopefully discerning where I am going on my journey through life.

Self-discovery was the theme of my thirty-third year. I have a tendency to be focused on externals, by which I mean anything but myself. This arose not because I truly understand myself, but because I have long struggled with inadequacy and dismissed myself as unimportant. And while I wouldn’t say I have completely overcome this, I have learned in the last year that the way forward is to be open and honest with myself because if I don’t understand myself, how can I move forward? When self-denial becomes self-dismissal it can result in resentment and bitterness. If we refuse to acknowledge our desires and dreams, we cannot evaluate them. Especially in terms of religion, which I am tentatively defining in this post as our need to be part of something bigger than ourselves, this can be especially disillusioning.

And so my first step on this journey was Summer Intercession. I took a class on the Bible and film since it would count toward my Religious Studies degree. And while I learned a lot about film analysis, the biggest lesson I took was learning that we don’t just like or dislike movies; we like movies that resonate with us based on our life journey and experiences. As a result, if we take our DVDs off the shelf and consider the themes of the movies we truly love, we will find recurring themes. The art we consume resonates with our existential questions of identity and transcendent value. Art enables us to determine what questions we value, what questions we feel are worth asking. Most people never get beyond saying “I like that movie/book/album; it was awesome” or “that movie/book/album sucked.” Instead, the question should be “why did I like/dislike that movie/book/album?” followed with “what does that say about me and what I value?”

So here are some of the pieces of art I have to work with. Feel free to do your own analysis, but after listing the pieces I will give my impressions and conclusions.

  • Doctor Who, which on one level is a connection to my childhood when, at age three and possibly earlier, I watched the show with my mom. For the past three years I have been watching every episode of Doctor Who in broadcast order and doing so has made me realize that some periods of the show’s 50-year-existence are more satisfying than others. In determining which stories to get on DVD, I am collecting the First Doctor era, the Second Doctor era, season seven, the Hinchcliffe/Holmes gothic horror stories, the stories for which Christopher H. Bidmead was script editor, and the Seventh Doctor era. There are multiple analytical threads here since the show has changed so much during the 50 years it has existed.
  • Weird fiction, with an emphasis on H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, which I almost prefer to Lovecraft, the real world suddenly shown to have other-worldly properties. Likewise, I love horror stories grounded in verisimilitude. Nothing kills a horror story faster than a revelation that asks me to suspend too much belief.
  • Psychological crime drama, with an emphasis on shows/movies such as Luther, True Detective, Millennium, and film noir. It is also worth noting that two of these walk a fine line of mundane/supernatural.
  • Sherlock Holmes stories such as the original canon, Sherlock, the Clive Merrison audio adaptations, Big Finish’s Holmes stories, and the Jeremy Brett series. With the exception of Sherlock, I feel that these stories get the characters of Sherlock AND Watson right. Sherlock, while still a show I enjoy, has moved from focusing on puzzle boxes to character moments. But this doesn’t mean I dismiss it. I love both characters, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Freeman’s Watson. Thus, Sherlock may appeal to me for different reasons than the other Holmes material. And along these lines, mystery shows and movies that have puzzle boxes are fun, and I resent them if they don’t play fair with the audience or don’t build their puzzles well.
  • Journeys of self-discovery and reality-discovery (or reality-questioning), illuminating human nature in the face of natural or supernatural opposition. Looking through my favorite movies is quite enlightening for this: The Dark Knight (an existential superhero movie that plays with themes of natural forces and transcendence in mythology), Be Kind Rewind (using movies to create community and identity [which I am doing here]), Citizen Kane (what is worth pursuing in life?), The Grey (existential survival in a world that may or may not have meaning), The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (character who representing aspects of humanity are searching for treasure), Gladiator (a man who stood to gain everything has instead lost it due to the selfish ambition of another), Hellboy 1 &  2 (a character with a specific purpose chooses to go his own way, but struggles with his imposed destiny), Midnight in Paris (a character struggles with his longing for an idealized reality in the face of his actual reality), Pan’s Labyrinth (a young girl learns of a magical realm in which she is a princess while in her mundane life she is the step-daughter of a cruel general), Son of Rambow (finding magic, meaning, and friendship in film), and so on. Sometimes my description of the movie may give more of an indication of myself than the theme of the movie. Like the I Ching, how we interpret the results says more about us than what we interpret.

Looking at my artistic interests, I have concluded that I am someone who struggles with idealized versions of life and realities of life. Sometimes I have difficulty differentiating between what is an unrealistic, idealized existence and what is hope. I am engaged in solving the grand puzzle box of existence, taking pieces of my own experience and weighing evidence from other sources, sifting through information to try to distill a core truth or meaning. I want to follow the evidence where it leads, but I suspect that objective analysis may be impossible since we are constantly ruled by our own emotions, desires, and limited ability to perceive. Thus, it may be necessary to live within a narrative in order to evaluate its validity (we can’t tell you but we can show you). Life may be a combination of experience and reason, and any truth claims that emphasize one over the other may be overselling their merits. In fact, the main lesson I took from 1984, which I read this past year, was not fear of government surveillance and propaganda, but the realization that it is impossible to live outside of a narrative that tells you how to perceive reality. All narratives make claims to ultimate reality; all narratives tell us how to interpret reality. The real task of humanity is to decide which reality we wish to inhabit.

At the same time, however, we can influence the doctrinal statements of each reality, which are far more malleable than we sometimes realize. In the last year I have learned more about my own faith tradition (Christianity) and have come to question what exactly is essential in Christian doctrine. My current Occam’s Razor for evaluating Christianity has been to use historical context to sort doctrine. For example, anything that would not have been possible for the first century church to believe cannot be essential (although it can still be worth considering for clarification or meaning). As a result, my previously Protestant faith as become a bit more fluid as I have seen far more influence of the hand of humanity in the development of the Western (American) church than the Spirit.

And going from that last statement, I feel that most of my life I have experienced American Christianity, not God. Again, looking at stories that question reality, stories where characters encounter the horrific yet attractive numinous (Lovecraft, Chambers, Doctor Who in some cases, even psychological crime drama) are best interpreted as my own quest for God, my attempts to connect with the divine in a way that is not so much doctrinal or intellectual, but emotional and experiential. I am head heavy. I am analytical. In moments of crisis, confusion, and pain, reason sometimes feels like a last-grasp at straws. I crave a mystical experience, one that I cannot reason away. I long to see reality unfiltered by human construct, should such a thing be possible, even if I risk madness (a la The King in Yellow and Lovecraft). The idea that life is nothing more than going to work, making money, buying stuff, and voting your conscience is, quite frankly, exceedingly boring to me. I have spent most of my life struggling to find peace in the boredom, but it isn’t working.

I want to live in a world where magic is possible. I long for it. I crave it.

Questions

This semester I am taking the career focus course in the Professional Writing program. Increasingly I am learning that I have no answer for the question, “what do you want to do?” I have been asked that question since going back to school, and I feel that I am face-to-face with that question every class period. Each time I feel numbness and disinterest in the question. Every time I hear it, my mind stops working. I can’t think. I can go on and on about what I can do, but I have no answer to what I want to do. How can I know what I want to do until I try it, experience it, evaluate it?

If finding answers is tied to asking the right questions, then I’m starting to think “what do you want to do?” is the wrong question.

Life and Times Chapter 33

My birthday was on the 4th, so I am a few days late with my annual reflection post. But today marks the end of Spring Break, and I’ve had a lot of time to think over the last week that I was not able to do on my birthday.

The biggest change I have to report is that school is taking up more and more of my time. For my first two semesters I only took six credit hours each. I’m now halfway through my third semester back at school, and I am taking nine credit hours. This has kept me incredibly busy. And in the fall semester, I’m thinking about biting the bullet and becoming a full time student.

What strikes me as odd for this semester is that in some ways I feel it has been a waste of time and in others, it has opened up a new, exciting path. Starting with the negative, I was really excited about taking Introduction to Graphic Novels. And while I have learned some pretty neat things in the class, I feel like taking it wasn’t the best use of my time and money. This is the first semester the class has been offered as a semester-long class (previously it had been an intercession course). The teacher admitted that she is still in the process of designing the class. I think it shows. I think the problem is that the class could easily be a writing class or a literature class (in that it explores the history and influences of graphic narrative). But right now, it tries to be both. I’m not sure that a single class can handle both. One major problem with the class, a problem that is beyond the teacher’s power to resolve, is that there is no good anthology on the history of comics. (At least, not the way literature classes have them. The Norton Anthologies are fairly comprehensive, but no such anthology exists for comics.) It’s an odd thought that comic scholarship is still fairly new and, as a result, there are no comprehensive texts available for the teaching of comics as literature or comic history. Most of the texts seem to focus on how to write comics. I’m more interested in the former than the latter.

Now to the more positive part of the semester: I have decided to double major. I went back to school to get a degree in Professional Writing. Now I’m adding a Religious Studies degree to this. On a whim I decided to take Introduction to the History and Literature of the New Testament, and I have loved it. Historical and literary criticism is a lot of fun, and my teacher says I have a knack for it. (All those literature classes have paid off!) While some Christian students tend to struggle with historical criticism, I have actually found it to be quite freeing to my faith. The more I have learned about church history, the more I have seen that the American evangelical lens is just one way of interpreting scripture, and it is a way of interpretation that I have occasionally questioned. Historical criticism has helped me to identify cultural biases and re-evaluate some texts, which has actually given me a greater appreciation for what the Bible is and what the writers were trying to say.

Pursuing two degrees is going to be difficult. The Professional Writing program is a well-run, comprehensive, work-intensive program. The program was designed to focus not just on theory, but on practical aspects. Last semester I took Scientific and Technical Editing. We used Carolyn Rude’s Technical Editing book. The class was not designed to just read the book, discuss the theories, and do a few exercises. Instead, we read the book, discussed the theories, did the exercises, and went out into the community to find a client who would let us edit a fifteen page document. We learned about the Levels of Edit approach to editing and took our document through a total of six different edits. It was a busy class. It was often stressful. But at the end of the course, I had a professional portfolio that it would take some people months of on-the-job experience to develop. I had it after a few weeks after taking a class. More than any other class I have taken in college (and I have taken quite a few writing classes for my Creative Writing minor), Scientific and Technical Editing increased my ability to write and communicate ideas. When I graduate, it may be the one of the most important classes I have taken.

The Religious Studies classes will be difficult as well. I was talking with the graduate assistant in my New Testament class, and he said that the Religious Studies department has a reputation of being writing-intensive and occasionally difficult. But this is because they take the concept of creating scholars very seriously. Prior to this class, I had never taken an essay test that required me to cite sources from memory. It was difficult, but I did quite well. More to the point, I enjoyed the challenge and the subject sustained my interest throughout.

So, again, life looks to be busy in the future. This is a good thing because busy-ness keeps me from becoming discontent. But it is a sad thing because it means I must refocus my attention a bit. In writing essays, one of the best pieces of advice is to narrow your focus. If you try to say too much, if you pick a topic that is too broad, the subject becomes unmanageable. If you try to put too many ideas into a sentence, you end up with an incomprehensible run-on. Instead, it is better to break things up. It is better to refine your focus, that way you can do one or two things really well. I’ve learned to appreciate this advice in my writing. I had never really applied this idea to my life. We live in a media-saturated age. There are so many things we can do, so much potential in every moment. Often I feel paralyzed by all the options at my disposal. I have great swaths of procrastination and boredom because there are so many things that I want to do, but my brain cannot focus on all of them at once. I overload. I shut down.

For Lent I gave up Facebook. I shut down the account and walked away. I thought that having a Facebook-free life would give me more time. It didn’t. Either I didn’t use Facebook as much as I thought I did, or I found something to replace the habit. The point is that I must further reduce the demands on my attention. Already I have made the decision to put off doing a comprehensive review of The X-Files until after I finish my Doctor Who blog. Similarly, I am letting go of my hopes of watching all the episodes of Doctor Who before the 50th anniversary special (which is sometime in November). I’m going to take my time on this project and try to do good work. But it also means, much to the disappointment of a couple of friends, that I will be giving up my King Reads King blog. The goal had been to read through and review all of Stephen King’s novels. This is too big a project to accomplish in the midst of going back to school. It conflicts directly with my Doctor Who blog, and the Doctor Who blog has seniority. And frankly, I’m not sure my heart is still in King Reads King. I’m about 100 pages into The Stand, and I think it is well-written, compelling, and interesting. But I never want to pick it up and read it. I am going to commit myself to finishing it, but King Reads King is ending. And if I feel tempted to start another blog before I have finished with Doctor Who, I’m going to take the advice of McGruff and “Just say no.” (Okay, technically McGruff said, “Take a bite out of crime.” But he was part of drug resistance education and “Just say no” was a slogan of the war on drugs, so I’m throwing them into the same anti-drug pot for convenience. It’s artistic license.)

So these are the big things. As for smaller things that have happened this year:

  • I’m growing more apathetic toward DC’s New 52. At first I was so excited, but as time has progressed I have felt only Dial H and Batman, Incorporated are consistently good. Scott Snyder’s Batman has had moments of brilliance, but the whole “Death of the Family” arc seemed overdone and pointless. The Owls story was great, however. I’m hoping “Death of the Family” was just a low point.
  • I have become obsessed with tabletop role playing games. I’ve been ravenously consuming Role Playing Public Radio’s podcast and actual plays. Gaming is something that I would like to do on a semi-regular basis, but I have had difficulty putting together a gaming group. I would like some guarantee of this being a practical hobby before I start dropping the amount of cash that gaming requires. I am starting to wonder if I will have to hang out at game stores and meet new people if I want to have a regular game group. The introvert in me shudders.
  • I am still working through the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. I’m over two-thirds through his non-collaborative work. I have become a total fan of Lovecraft, but his writings touch on something I have only recently realized I have loved all my life: supernatural investigation. Accordingly, I have also started to re-watch The X-Files, but for fun, not for writing purposes (as per what I said earlier in this post).
  • This year I conquered my fear of climbing up the ladder and getting on the roof. It sounds silly, I know. The thing is, I have an eight-foot ladder and the lowest part of the roof is about nine or nine-and-a-half feet. I take written instructions very seriously, and the stickers on the ladder clearly say to not stand on the top rung. Also, I weigh more than I should, which makes the distribution of weight on the ladder a bit dangerous. But I’ve been on the roof twice now, once to clean the chimney and once to unsuccessfully fix a leak. Climbing down from the roof to the ladder is the scary part.

To wrap up, it has been a busy year. It looks to be busy still. But the bottom line is that I’m narrowing my focus this year. Hopefully this will enable me to better cope with the commitments in my life and decrease the amount of stress, overload, and procrastination I have struggled with recently.

Adventures in Leaving Facebook

Last night I closed my Facebook account. I had only been a user for five or so years, but Facebook had become such a part of my life that closing it caused me an irritating amount of sorrow. And make no mistake, Facebook wants you to feel this way. The site is designed in such a way as to make you feel guilty for leaving. After clicking on Deactive Account, Facebook brings up random pictures of your friends and informs you that “___ will miss you, ___ will miss you.” This is a cheap psychological trick, and it reinforced my decision. I was leaving Facebook because it was taking up too much of my life, both in time and in emotion. The joys of occasionally talking to a friend were far outweighed by the constant disappointment I experienced from political memes and casual discouraging words. I stayed on Facebook, I told myself, because it allowed me to keep in touch with friends who lived in other parts of the country. But many of those friends I actually see in person more than I talk to on Facebook.

So I disconnected. I’m still on the internet. I have this blog. And this one. I am on Twitter (occasionally) and on Good Reads. But I am making more of an effort to update this blog, so it will serve as a more complete view of my life rather than the occasional witty status update. This site will, in theory, be a better indication of who I am.

The Narrative of Gun Control

“. . . an idea can still change the world.”

—Evey, V for Vendetta

The United States was formed as a shining beacon of the Enlightenment. It was formed on the principle that reason could be used to run a nation. Each group would have its voice and no one group would have total dominion over another. The only flaw with this goal is that reason is influenced by perception. Sure, during the Enlightenment it was believed that people would come to their beliefs by using logic and reason, setting aside perception for higher thinking. But we no longer live in the Enlightenment. We live in a post-modern world (or by some accounts, a post-post-modern world). And while we still prize reason and logic, we are swayed far more often by narrative.

Narrative tells us who we are. It tells us what to value and who to trust. It will sometimes offer statistics or studies, but we often come to the narrative first then find evidence to support it. And why not, since it is easier to know what to look for once we have decided on how to perceive.

After grieving over the divisiveness in our nation, a divisiveness that seems to prevent people from talking to one another about politics, after watching a horrible election and living through a year with multiple mass shootings, I have come to the conclusion that we do not argue facts; we argue narratives. The Right has a narrative of individual freedom and fiscal conservatism, of protecting the interests of the wealthy so that jobs will trickle down to the middle and lower class, of self-empowerment through drive, ambition, and motivation. The Left has a narrative of social justice, of looking out for the interests of the downtrodden, of ensuring equality for all groups. That is, ultimately, what political issues are: narratives expressing group ideals.

And after watching arguments on Facebook and reading articles online in the wake of the election and the Newtown shooting, it seems that we use narratives to rally our personal beliefs and reason to try to convince others. But the problem is that reason, in the face of narrative, will often lose. It doesn’t matter how many statistics are cited about mass shootings, the narrative of fear and protection is stronger. The narrative of gun control is that we need guns to protect ourselves from rampant crime. We need guns to protect ourselves in case the government attempts to oppress us. We need guns because the Founding Fathers say we can have them. We need guns because armed citizens can stop mass shootings. It doesn’t matter that serious doubt can be thrown on each and every one of these beliefs. As long as people believe the narrative, statistics and studies probably will not work. The narrative is more powerful because it humanizes the issue. It frames the argument in terms of our family, our friends, our children, not in the terms of numbers or percentages. In my editing classes, we were taught to always talk about people, not about things. Readers like reading about people, and narratives specialize in people.

As tragic as it is, a school shooting makes a compelling narrative. Our media will cover the event for days. But what our media does is attempt to portray the event in as objective way as possible. Then pundits come in to weave a narrative around the event. Faces of victims become what we could protect with a gun. Faces of victims become who we could save by stronger gun control. The same event is interpreted in two different ways depending on the narrative of the pundit, depending on the narrative of the viewer. And after a few days of vicious, heated arguments, we end up back where we started: two sides mad at each other, convinced the other side is wrong, and no change.

Stricter gun control would probably make a difference. (What real purpose does an assault rifle play in civilian hands?) But it is an incomplete solution. In order to institute real change, we have to create a better narrative. If we believe everyone is only one bullet away from being a victim; if we believe we are only one gun away from the government oppressing us; if we believe that an armed citizenry will stamp out crime; if we believe that the only way to feel control over our lives is to have a gun; then nothing will change.

Ultimately, we need to decide what narrative we really want to tell: one of fear or one of hope. Are mass shootings just the consequence of the status quo, or are we willing to ask the truly hard questions about guns, violence, and the American culture? What kind of narrative do we want to tell?

An Account of What The Future May Hold (For Me, Anyway)

In the Autumn of 1998 I began my freshman year at Southwest Missouri State University (now and henceforth known as Missouri State).  I attended with the intention to pursue a degree in creative writing.  And yet, it never occurred to me that I didn’t need to go to college, at least not directly after high school.

I used to do this more.

I continued my college career until 2002, where I just stopped going, a few credit hours short of graduation.  In truth, I never had a great heart for college, and what interest I had was diminished by the end of my junior year.  Sure, I enjoyed some of the experiences and made some good friends but I never put much effort into my education.  I was perceptive and intelligent enough to be able to retain enough information from lectures to get by with a C average.  But I hardly cracked a book and almost never studied past my freshman year.  I was in love with the romantic notion of learning but not the concept of hard work.  Thus, when all reserves were burned out, I quit.  I never made the active decision to quit, I just stopped registering for class.  I regretted not finishing what I started, but I never regretted not getting a degree.

It has been nine and a half years since attending classes, and I am re-applying for Missouri State.  In these nine years, I have received something I desperately needed.  I experience life unsheltered by parents and the artifice of college.  I needed to see how difficult life could be.  In my post-college years I went from one food service job to another, even being unemployed for various periods.

These years have given me something else I needed, which was time to think.  I have come to a conclusion about my life up to this point.  It has been marked by reaction rather than action.  Stephen Covey, in his wildly popular Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, pays tribute to the concept of being proactive.  By this, he means we must recognize the ability we have to choose our actions.  We must choose to act, not to react.  My entire life has been somewhat passive.  I respond as things occur.  I have rarely pursued anything.  So, when I graduated from high school, I merely did what my parents and society expected of me.  I went to college.  I pursued the degree I figured I would always pursue: creative writing.  I never chose these things, and I never had any passion for either.

After spending my time in various dead-ends, spiritually, emotionally, and even career-wise, I have decided to really put some thought and effort into living.  Reacting isn’t living.  My circumstances probably won’t change if I just react.  I may have a wife that I love and I may have a job in a time when many people find themselves unemployed, but on a deeper level, I haven’t been happy for a long time.  Life will never change if I continue to react to my circumstances.  No, I don’t have any guarantee of success.  I may continue to be at the same income level for the next decade.  I may even be rejected in my application.  But if I don’t try, I guarantee the status quo.

Saturday night I submitted my application for re-admission to Missouri State University.  I will be changing my major from a bachelor of arts in Creative Writing to a bachelor of science in Professional Writing.  I have become more interested in the technical aspects of writing, particularly communicating ideas.  Professional and Technical Writing are more marketable than Creative Writing.  And truth be told, I don’t need a degree in Creative Writing to write a novel.  I just need talent, which I have.  It is discipline that I need, and I have been slowly learning that over the past year by consistently writing both here and on The Edwardian Adventurer.  In addition to marketability, technical writing classes will help me with a book collaboration that I am currently in.

I hope to find out how the application goes in the next few weeks.  I’m eyeing courses and plotting a tentative schedule to balance school, work, and writing.  The future looks busy.

But it also looks bright.

A Reminder of My Own Insignificance

While driving through the Kroger parking lot in Mansfield, OH, I couldn’t help but be amazed that there are elderly people here as well.

Yes, this seems a silly thought, but let me completely unpack what I mean by this. To me, when I see the elderly people in Mansfield, it makes me realize that there are more people than I will ever come into contact with. This couple, walking to the car with their groceries, have lived a long life, the details of which I may never know. They fell in love and were married. They lived lives of joy or sorrow. They could be happy or they could be bitter. They may have many grandchildren or they may be the end of a family line. They will climb into their car and we will drive our separate ways and our knowledge of each other will fade into the distant memory of people passing in a parking lot. It doesn’t matter how many people you interact with on a day to day basis. It doesn’t matter who brightens your day or who ruins it. There are more people in this world than you will ever know. And in that moment, sitting in my car, I found this overwhelming, amazing, and beautiful.

More Music

Recently I discovered that when I listen to The White Stripes on the way to work, I feel that the day is going to be good, possibly fun, but undeniably quirky. Yesterday I listened to Radiohead, and felt nothing but dread for the day ahead. And yet, more so than The White Stripes, I connected emotionally with the lyrics in Radiohead’s song (it was “There, There”, incidentally). There is a certain dark, fairytale magic in this particular song, a feeling that is heightened by the music video. Anyway, Radiohead seems a band that perfectly captures a post-modern anxiety that lurks just below the technological sheen of our society. They are a distopian band. And while this fascinates me on the one hand, on the other hand, sometimes I just want to hear some distorted, blues-based guitar riffs.

All this said, I’m now ready to approach Radiohead’s most recent album “The King of Limbs.” I have heard that this one takes a bit of work, but I’m more eager to approach it than I was upon its original release. If I find great moments of profundity, I’m sure I will try to post them here.