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.

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A Birthday Post

Another year staggers out to the alley and dies and a new year replaces it.  Birthday’s always seemed to be a more important marker for individuals than New Years because they actually convey a milestone to the person.  Perhaps we shouldn’t make New Years resolutions, but birthday resolutions.  Yet, I think more people see birthdays as an opportunity for hedonism, so why bring self-reflection into it?  But that’s what birthdays are ideal for:  self reflection.  I can look back at the previous year of life and look forward at the year that stretches ahead of me and make decisions about who I want to be and what I want to do.  So as the final, dying gurgling of 30 cease and 31 looks around and asks, “What’s the plan?”, here is an overview of the things that seem important from the previous year.

Jennifer and I Bought A House. In what has to be one of the smoothest first-time home-buying examples anyone could hope to have, Jennifer and I found the house we wanted on our first outing and had made and offer and been accepted within, I believe, a week.  This wasn’t how either of us thought the process would go, expecting at least a month of searching.  Everything was signed and transferred in time for us to move on the first day of our vacation, which had been planned long before we even decided to look for a house.  Thankfully, we hadn’t planned our vacation beyond the dates we would take off from work, so our vacation turned into a week-long moving/settling party.  Not terribly relaxing, but we didn’t have to find energy to contribute to the moving process after a long day at work.  We are still trying to arrange things to suit our tastes and aesthetic comforts and we still need a few pieces of furniture (primarily book shelves and a 42-inch flat-screen TV (well, that last isn’t really a need)), but we are largely settled and able to function on a day to day basis.  I hope in the coming year I can get the guest room/writing room set up to my tastes and that my wife can figure out how to arrange her office because that would relieve a bit of stress in her life.  I would also like to get that TV I mentioned, but I won’t hold out a lot of hope on that.

Film Noir. As a child I was always fascinated by stories of detectives.  The problem is that my only exposure to these stories were cartoons that riffed on the film noir / hard-boiled detective style.  A few months ago I discovered Philip Marlowe during a snowstorm.  As is typical with me, I went the roundabout way, discovering the Adventures of Philip Marlowe radio show from the 1940s and 50s.  I still haven’t read any of the novels by Raymond Chandler, but I do have an omnibus with four.  It is up next when I finish my Stephen Lawhead’s The Skin Map.  The radio show was everything I wanted from noir and I began compiling a list of movies.  Thus far I have seen Double Indemnity, Chinatown, The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential, Call Northside 77, and Quicksand.  What fascinates me most about the genre is that I seem to enjoy the movies regardless of quality.  The Black Dahlia, while not a bad movie, doesn’t really work, but I still liked it.  I think I prefer the movies from the 40s and 50s a bit more because, while edgy at the time, are tame compared to modern standards.  But I find the genre a lot of fun and I have plans for a story in the style of noir which will be wedded to–

H.P. Lovecraft. I love the concepts behind Lovecraft and have wanted to write a novel about Lovecraft and Houdini investigating supernatural mysteries.  It would be The X-Files meets Sherlock Holmes.  While not totally abandoned, I think I will put this aside for the time being.  But in my research of Lovecraft, I have grown to have more appreciation for his work.  He may not have been the best writer (by some standards), but he was fiercely imaginative and at times it feels that he wrote, not to be great, but to get all the ideas and images out of his head.  That what he saw and dreamt could not be contained and had to emerge in his writing.  Yes, he was a bit of a disturbed individual, but if you read his stories in chronological order, you see the mythology and concepts building, sometimes starting two or three times before finally being born.  And when you keep in the back of your mind that this was the same time that F. Scott Fitgerald was writing, it seems rather astounding.  Maybe there is room for a literary mash-up of The Great Gatsby and Cthulhu.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that you serve the all-high Cthulhu, ruler of Earth and devastator of man.”

Writing. I think I have written more this year than all others combined.  In October, inspired in part by my friend Cody and his Popgun Chaos Blog, I launched The Edwardian Adventurer, a blog devoted to reviewing episodes of Doctor Who in chronological order.  My goal was to combine a watching a show I enjoy with motivation to write.  If I could maintain a daily blog, it would be a great way to form a habit of writing.  The blog enters its fifth month and I haven’t missed a day of the five-day a week schedule.  This past week I even hit 100 episodes reviewed.  And while it would be quite the accomplishment to have amassed over 100 posts (over 150 pages of content), I am even more thrilled to say that people actually read it.  I have had over a thousand unique views in the last few months.  I don’t know how many of those are people who are regulars (probably no more than thirty or so, if site stats are to be believed), but it is an audience and a type of success.  What’s more, it has made it easier for me to self-motivate and write.  I now find myself wanting to write much more than I have the opportunity.  In fact, it is my birthday, and rather than watch a movie or finish a book, I am writing.

Stress. I made it my goal to hit 31 without having a nervous breakdown.  I made it, but I think I just barely made it.  The thing is, there is an immense amount of stress in Jennifer and my life right now.  Work and long hours have been hard on both of us.  Looking forward, I don’t really see an end to it any time soon, but I admit that I am planning and plotting regardless.  And just like with the aforementioned writing, there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished.

Grant Morrison. I’ve always enjoyed Grant Morrison’s writing on whatever comic he was on, but watching the documentary Talking with Gods made me appreciate the man even more.  I don’t remember which person said it, but the gist was that Morrison is a man who looks at a cold, indifferent, meaningless universe and decided that the only way to rebel is to be happy.  This resonates with me on some level because life seems overwhelming right now.  Thus, I find inspiration from Morrison.  Yes, his comics can be dark, they can be post-modern and trippy.  But they are also a celebration of all that comics can be.  They are celebrate the potential of the medium.  I think that is at the core of so much of his writing, rejecting the “real-life, gritty” view that comics seem to have taken ever since Watchmen, and saying that we can still have fun.  We can still have hope.

So, in the coming year, I can guarantee more Doctor Who reviews.  I hope to rid my yard of grubs and, by extension, moles.  And I hope to write more.  I would love for my writing to move from hobby to somewhat financially supportive.  I’m about halfway through a short story that I think has potential.  I’ve got an idea for a story (I actually started it in my Facebook status one day while bored), but it needs a bit more fleshing out.  Then, there’s a rather dark novel floating around.  We’ll see where that goes.

Here’s to another year….