Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Role of Parenting in Modern Mass Shootings

Whenever I'm faced with a situation, I try to approach it analytically and with a critical eye. I take the available information that I have, stand it against any presumptions or assumptions I might make to the contrary, and do my best to find the solution or truth somewhere in the middle ground. I trust my gut instincts rather than my emotions--employ logic and reason wherever possible.

With regards to the latest school shootings and the consequent rash of reaction on social media, I feel compelled to take the same approach in examining the issue. Scientific inquiry oftentimes necessitates the use of both constants and variables to determine the underlying cause or nature of a situation. By employing that approach with the school shootings, we can reach the following conclusions:

Education and school buildings along with student bodies represent a constant; we have had them on our soil well before we even became a nation.

Firearms and firearm ownership are also constants; these too have been guaranteed in our Constitution and have been a part of the fabric of American culture since our country's inception.

The variable, then, as I see it, is society itself--the mores and purviews that inform us, collectively, and the parenting that informs our children, specifically.

My point is that, for the past 242 years, we have had guns, we have had kids in schools, and yet, historically, we have not had drastically high numbers of incidents bringing those two things together. If anything, the very notion didn't jump into the collective conscience until the Columbine shooting happened--an integral moment in our societal evolution as the rise of the Internet and eventually social media was beginning to build steam.

If schools and gun ownership have remained the same, then what has changed? To me, it's obvious: our society itself is what is leading to these horrific atrocities. And, really, should that come as a surprise to anyone with two brain cells to rub together?

Look at the way modern life occurs versus merely twenty years ago. Back then, you would get bullied IN school by the SCHOOL bully. You would come home and find refuge. You might even talk to your parents/siblings/friends about it but, largely, it remained a geographically bound issue: once you left the school grounds, you were free to recover from the mistreatment and figure out how to cope with it.

Now? The most insidious abuse occurs OUTSIDE OF SCHOOL ON TOP OF whatever bullying is going on within the school's walls. Modern children (CHILDREN, for Christ's sake!) spend a great deal of their time on social media--whether it's Snapchat or Instagram--Facebook or Twitter--they exist largely in a world that caters to the cowardly--people who are emboldened by anonymity or at the very least the physical distance that the Internet realm provides them. These modern children are ill-equipped to deal with the responsibility of inhabiting such a realm (and it IS a responsibility--too many parents fail to recognize that) and, as a result of their lack of coping skills, they find themselves filled with rage and sorrow and no constructive way to expel the emotions that haunt them everywhere they go.

But I don't blame the kids--not in the least; after all, they merely learn from us. Look around you the next time you go out to eat at a restaurant. Take note of how many families are at a table together and how many screens are lit up. Children--hell, toddlers and INFANTS--sit there with devices shoved in front of their faces. They are completely disengaged not just from the conversation but from reality around them.

And who's fault is that?

It's the same damn people who do the same damn thing! The reason so many parents think nothing of how much time their kids spend on devices that are turning their brains into pudding is because they, themselves, think nothing of spending their own time doing the same thing. There is NO reason that a child should be sitting at a dinner table with a fucking iPad or iPhone watching videos, playing games, or otherwise being detached from their lives.

The reason it happens is at once obvious and appalling: it's a cop out--the easy thing to do. Our collective attention spans are approaching zero as are our levels of patience and abilities to cope with negative situations. These parents don't want to be bothered with expending the additional energy required to corral their kids when they're out to eat or, worse, to find more constructive ways to get their kids to do what they want them to do at home (do you have any idea how many times I've heard, "Oh, I don't know how you do it! So and so just refuses to eat dinner without his/her iPad!"

...

Are you fucking kidding me?

You're a goddamn parent! It's your RESPONSIBILITY to parent your child, whether you like it or not and whether you want that responsibility or not. I cringe every time I hear someone say shit like that--things like, "I have no choice," "(s)he won't let me," "they just don't listen." Who the fuck is in charge here!? Is it the kids or is it the adults?

You know how often you'll see my kids playing on my phone at the supermarket? At a restaurant? In the car? Entertaining them with electronics--appeasing their appetites for virtual distractions?

Never (or as close to it as possible). I don't allow it. I won't allow it because, in my eyes, I can't allow it; the consequences of so seemingly simple and innocuous an action are so far reaching that most people can't even fathom the ripple effect.

And guess what: my kids survive just fine. No tantrums--no whining. Hell, they don't even ask! In fact, if they DO ask, I remind them of the importance of self-control, discipline, and entertaining themselves rather than allowing a device to do it for them.

Do you know why it works? It's not magic, I assure you. It's the fact that I am unequivocally, unquestionably, in charge. It's undeniably still a democracy--they have voices and are encouraged to speak up, respectfully, when they have opinions on things--but, ultimately, I don't give them even the slightest opportunity to think that they run the show. I rule with an iron fist that can be as soft as velvet or as strong as steel but, above all things, one that is consistent.

That really is the key to all of it: consistency. My kids know what to expect from me every time we go out somewhere (or really in most situations in general). There's no wiggle room--no gray area. There's no "suddenly THIS time it's okay to play on daddy's phone but then the next time it's not okay." It might seem counterintuitive to folks who are afraid to step up and be hard on their kids (though, in truth, it's not being hard at all--it's doing what you're supposed to be doing) but children actually thrive when they have structure like that, even if it diminishes their perceived happiness.

I know this not just from parenting but from teaching too. I was lucky enough to teach in a school that had its student body representing the absolute worst, most dangerous areas of New York City. My classroom was filled with kids who were in gangs, who found themselves routinely suspended for fighting and otherwise engaging in violence. I treated every one of those kids the same way and, for the most part, they excelled. I had the toughest kids confide in me--ones who terrified their schoolmates simply by looking at them coming up and giving me pounds and high fives in the hallway.

How did I do this? By having high expectations for them, strict rules for them to follow, and the belief in them that they would be able to achieve the former AND honor and follow the latter. Did it work for every kid? Of course not--but the results that I did enjoy were remarkably encouraging.

With parenting, the percentage of success is even higher because, well, they're your kids! You spend far more time with them and both of you are far more invested in the circumstances and relationship because of your filial bond. The problem though is that you actually have to be hard on them AND consistent.

Nowadays, though, everyone takes the easy way out with things because damn near everything has lost its value. When I was in high school, very few people that I hung out with had beepers let alone cell phones. We would make plans at the beginning of the week for the weekend--arranging a meet up at the movies or the mall or even just at someone's house. Do you have any idea how low the rate of canceling was back then? It's so disconcerting to compare making plans back then with doing so today.

I love everyone that I have in my life and I truly enjoy spending time with them. With that said, the vast majority of people outside of my very, very small circle of closest friends are absolutely AWFUL with following through on plans. I'm not exaggerating when I say that out of the last FIFTY times I engaged in the process of making plans with people--meaning individual "let's meet up and do this at this place at this time" plans--I successfully met up with those people fewer than a dozen times. That means that fewer than one in every four conversations actually resulted in a get together.

Many times it's people bailing at the last minute but far too often it's a text/online conversation that goes almost exactly like this:

Me: "Hey! Good to see you!"
Them: "Hey, absolutely! How are you? We should totally get together sometime."
Me: "Definitely. When are you free?"
Them: ::gives availability::
Me: "Great--I'm free on all of those days. Just let me know which one works for you and I'll be there!"
Them: ::silence::

Maybe it's just me but I think that the higher likelihood lies with the way people interact with each other, especially online. Such little value is placed upon conversations and interactions because there are just simply so damn many of them. We say things we don't mean "Let's get together!" knowing that we can easily either forget about or actively dismiss them without much consequence, if only because, again, it happens so many times!

People's impulse control has diminished severely since the advent of social media; it's all about instant gratification with an emphasis upon whatever makes us happy, regardless of anyone else's feelings. People bail on plans with disheartening frequency, frankly, because they found something else that is more appealing to them. There's no honor anymore--no sticking with your word because, well, no one else does either. Plus, online interaction has become a surrogate for actual physical interaction (having a "conversation" on Facebook amounts to the same thing as spending time with someone in person).

Twenty years ago, AOL was still nascent and other online means of communicating weren't even available. If you wanted to interact with people, you really had two options: get together in person or speak on the phone. Some folks might equate the latter with social media due to the geographical separation but there is a glaring, undeniable difference between having an actual, physical conversation over the phone and even just texting: you have access to real-time emotional reactions. If you say something hurtful (or happifying--it doesn't have to be all gloom and doom), you're not only privy to the immediate impact of those words--you're responsible for the consequences at that exact moment!

These younger generations--the ones who are shooting up schools and crying out for help--are growing up in an environment that offers very little meaningful development. They're told or shown literally from their infancy to find meaning/entertainment/anything online rather than being encouraged to explore the actual world on their own. Kids in 2018 watch OTHER kids opening and playing with fucking toys as a form of entertainment.

Please--let that sink in for a minute.

How utterly, abjectly pathetic is that? I'll bet you many people don't see anything wrong with it though! Never even gave it a second thought!

"What's the harm?" they'll ask.

Seriously?

The harm is that these kids are being taught to value things of absolutely no importance whatsoever--to prioritize these little bite-sized morsels of fast food existence that will sate them just long enough to pursue the next one. They're not being encouraged to use their OWN imaginations--to ask questions about the world and to seek their answers. They're not being told, tacitly or otherwise, that their parents or society as a whole believes that they can do things for themselves but rather that they should be watching others do those things...and somehow they're supposed to be fulfilled by this?

Give me a break.

People are so out of touch with themselves let alone their kids or other people in general that it feels like life has become a lost, meaningless cause. They are unwilling to expend the effort--to take the difficult road not even purely for the sake of the experience it will be provide but the very tangible, tactile results and rewards that such a course provides. They are failing their own children and failing themselves in equal measures by not stepping up to the plate and actually parenting them--engaging with them in real time, in actual space.

Encourage your kids to spend quality time with people in person and to stop wasting their lives on Snapchat, Instagram, and whatever other dozen social media outlets they're spreading themselves across. Stop acting like your hands are tied--like controlling your children (whether they're toddlers, teenagers, or anything in between) is an impossibility or, worse, is someone else's job. Stop seeking sympathy because your kids don't listen to you when your absentee parenting don't merit their damn respect in the first place!

You want these kids to stop picking up guns? Have them put their fucking devices down first and stop spending so much time online. Then, give them the structure and the support that they'll need to navigate this crazy cesspool mindfuck of a society that we have created for themselves. Don't worry about fucking your kids up--about them not liking you or about you being their friend. Be their parent first. Show them what leadership looks like--give them something to aspire to. Embody the change that you want to see in them--in society at large.

There is absolutely no reason that an elementary school or even junior high school child should have unfettered, unsupervised access not just to a device like a smartphone or tablet but specifically to apps that encourage negative communication and emboldens keyboard cowards. These kids do not have the mental faculties and emotional maturity to navigate the turbid waters that social media presences represent. There is something about things like Facebook and the like that excites the darkest, most primal, primeval aspects of ourselves. We've proven in the past two years that most ADULTS don't even have the self-control to use these things properly and we're somehow expecting that children--particularly hormone-riddled adolescents--are supposed to figure it out for themselves?

Bullshit! If more parents demonstrated not just an interest but an actual presence in their kids' lives--in ALL aspects, particularly online--then so many more of the warnings signs that are out there would be picked up upon! You're not being intrusive by demanding to look at what your kid is doing online--to see how they're interacting with others through social media nor are you being cruel or antediluvian by outright denying them access to those things. What you're being is a good goddamn parent--one who not only cares about YOUR child but all those with whom they interact, by association.

How else can you explain things like the following:

"An American Airlines employee saved two young girls from getting on a plane to meet someone who authorities suspect is an online predator. The girls, 15 and 17, hoped to travel from Sacramento to New York to go spend time with a man named “Drey” they met on Instagram, KOVR-TV reported."

Social media isn't inherently evil nor are the devices that we access them from. The problem of course is the way in which we use these things and the lack of importance that we place upon regulating them within our own households. Too many people are allowing their children to use these things in a decidedly adult manner, oblivious to the responsibilities that are inherent in maintaining an online existence. There's no oversight--no authority other than that which is formed within those virtual communities and conversations.

It's like a modern, digital version of Lord of the Flies. No matter how mature our kids might seem to us, they're still children and as such they need not only our love and support but our guidance and structure too. They need to learn from us what matters, truly, in life and what should be relegated to leisure time and entertainment. We have to hold not only our kids accountable (that's a separate issue entirely--this pandemic of "not my kid" mentalities that shirk responsibility and onus ownership) but ourselves for the consequences of our inactions.

If we all made ourselves aware of what was going on in our kids' lives beyond what we can see--whether that means peering into their virtual realms or simply encouraging them to discuss the aspects of our lives that we are not readily privy to--then maybe we could solve many of the issues that could potentially lead to tragedies like the ones we've seen. You're never too busy to take an active interest in your child's life no matter what you do. Turning a blind eye or failing to expend the effort to know--REALLY know--what is going on inside of their hearts and minds (let alone their phones)--is an active choice.

We need to start making better ones if we expect to see any real change in these horrible events.

Friday, February 9, 2018

A Microcosm of Modern America


Ever see this commercial? If not, give it a quick watch.




What did you see? I suppose that depends upon your degree of proclivity towards moral umbrage. I really liked the song and went looking online to see if I could find the name of it so that I could buy it. This was what I found instead:

"I would like Verizon management to review a Fios Quantum TV ad where a pre-pubescent girl is fetishized with red nail polish, red lipstick, 'Lolita' type sunglasses, and a bikini, to look as though she's twenty-five. The child is barely ten years old. Do you believe that masquerading a pre-pubscent child in the trappings of adulthood to market a product is okay?

In this moment of cultural awareness, WOMEN are speaking out about being preyed upon sexually — and Verizon management's approval of the overt-sexualization of this child must be understood for what it is —'bait'.  When a young girl is 'fetishized' as a means to signify 'DESIRE' it is offensive.

Your ad has struck such a negative chord in me, that every time I see it, I become angrier.

Women do not want to see their children objectified in advertising.

Verizon (Fios Quantum) does a disservice to our intelligence by continuing to run this ad."


My first thought was, "Wait...what?" I was so lost because I didn't see any of that in the ad. And yet, the further along I scrolled upon the page, the more indignant commentary I encountered:


"The current FIOS ad depicting a young girl as an object of sexual desire is repulsive on its merits, and doubly so given the current social climate.  Objectifying a prepubescent girl for the sole purpose of promoting your products is blatant exploitation.  The national conversation concerning the behavior of Roy Moore should have been enough for your executives to reject this ad campaign as tasteless and inappropriate.  We are FIOS customers and are very disturbed by your choice of subject material."


Then, out of the ether, voices of reason:

"No we aren’t. She’s a girl in a swimsuit in a pool. I came to look for the song."

"You have got to be kidding, I see a young girl floating around in a pool and dont see anything wrong with it and you see something sexual lolololol. So I guess every young girl around a swimming pool with a swim suit on is wrong in your eyes? This thread is unreal and just plain stupid."


Now, to this point, I began to view the thread as merely a dichotomy of perspectives--two sides that reached drastically different conclusions about the same objective material. I respect people's inherent right to think for themselves (when they do) and to express the viewpoints they have reached through their own internal decision-making processes...

...but then I got to these two comments:


"Agree that this is a terrible commercial.  It sexualizes a young child to look like Lolita.  Why don't more people complain?  This is a pedophile's dream.  I hate it.  Fios should be ashamed as well as the advertising firm that produced it."

"Absolutely appalled by the audacity of this company.  Continuing with this disturbing ad.  After the backlash from your own customers over this commercial you choose to continue running it.  So this ad isn't meant to sell us a product as much as an idea?  One too disturbing for this dad.  I'm leaving verizon and encouraging others to the same." 


There, in those two admissions of abject horror, lies a microcosm of everything that is wrong with our country right now and the reason that we are so utterly separated as a nation. People walk around agog with their mouths open asking how the hell we got to be in the position that we are in--how people could elect someone like Donald Trump into office.

Seriously?

It's because of shit like the above! For the past fifteen years at least, there has been this growing sense of moral indignation and entitlement among people (mostly of liberal sociopolitical leanings). This, consequently, has led to ever more boisterous, vociferous voicings of complaints about, well, everything!

Somewhere during the last two decades people stopped being capable of accepting the fact that, just because they don't like something, a massive change is warranted. Far too many people cannot simply be in disagreement with something--or even just to hold it in disdain and derision. No--whatever the object of their opprobrium is, it must change simply and solely because THEY are offended by it.

Look at the first of those final two comments. That question that's asked--"Why don't more people complain?"--is EXACTLY why Donald Trump got elected. TOO many people complain! About anything and everything!

So many conservative Americans have endured an unending barrage of bellyaching at the hands of their liberal brothers and sisters--a never-ending stream of complaints about everything from the environment and global warming to gender and racial rights. It's not enough for those individuals to be upset with something--they have to force their viewpoints upon everyone else. Their outrage is at once palpable and puerile.

I ask, instead: Why don't FEWER people complain?

When did we suddenly become so ridiculously thin-skinned? I thought that we were pretty damn tough, as a people, and yet, time and again, the village idiots become the town criers, prattling on about whatever latest thing has "offended" them. Isn't it said that when everything is offensive then nothing is?

How about the guy in the second quotation?

"I'm leaving verizon and encouraging others to do the same."

Seriously? Over a fucking advertisement?

And yet, this speaks precisely to what really serves as the underlying, subconscious core of the issue: our collective lack of self-esteem and skewed perception of value. I explored this issue back in 2015, somewhat satirically, but the point remains the same: people have lost sight of things that truly matter and no longer pursue things that provide actual fulfillment in their lives. They'd rather chase the ephemeral, evanescent serotonin squirts they get from social media and the safety and comfort of like-minded people than actually go out and improve themselves--challenge themselves, risk failure--engage in activities of meaning.

The guy who is leaving Verizon is sending a tacit message of superiority--one that is echoed, unconsciously, by millions of people in millions of way every day. What he's really saying is this: "This [the ad] is morally objectionable and I, being a being of higher moral value and more discerning taste, cannot allow myself to be dragged through this societal mud and must instead adhere to my strict code of ethics that elevates me above the rest of the swine [who, in this case, enjoy the ad or don't find anything wrong with it]."

In other words: if you don't leave Verizon then you're a terrible person and, because this guy IS leaving, it somehow makes him better than you [and everyone else who chooses a different path].

Here's the problem with occupying the moral high ground when it's as rocky and unstable as this: you risk falling and looking damn foolish when you start dancing around, drawing attention to how noble you are.

This moral knight is making a stand with this Verizon ad but I'll be you anything that he breaks a hundred ethical codes every day either without realizing or it choosing to ignore them. People like this forget that they're human and thus fallible. They think nothing of judging the shit out of something inane and innocuous like a television ad and then ignoring the very real rules and regulations that comprise our society. Do you think this guy holds the door for people at the store? Does he stop several feet BEFORE every stop sign he comes to? And uses his turn signal every time?

Probably not.

And therein lies the rub: this selective morality. The moral fabric of our society has become more of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel rather than a verifiable codex laden with absolute terms. People think nothing of reaching conclusions without engaging in any hermeneutical analysis--forgetting that theirs isn't the only viewpoint nor is it necessarily the right or defensible one.

Me? I see a precocious tween attempt to effect adulthood has she sees it (as evidenced by the macaroons where most kids that age would be wolfing down Oreos and the like). She is attempting to appear older than she actually is--thus her expression of disgust for her younger brother, who, clearly, has no trouble embracing his youth.

Or, as another contributor put it:

"I think she's a cute kid trying to look and act all grown up as she shows disdain for her childish younger brother."

Just because you're offended by something doesn't make you right! Not only that--just because you're offended, it doesn't mean that anything needs to change. Only when people save their outrage for matters of true import will we begin to bridge the gap that exists between the two American factions. Until then, we will remain a nation divided--crippled by the sniveling drivel of those who cannot bear to use their analytical energy to examine themselves critically rather than to find ways to force society to change to fit into their very narrow views of how the world should be.

Friday, October 13, 2017

My 31 Favorite Dark Movies


There's no more inspiring time of year for me as a fiction writer than autumn--particularly September and October. Halloween looms in the darkness igniting my imagination with the flames of horror and dread. The wind howls as the temperature dips filling us with chills both physical and psychic; the days grow greyer and night encroaches ever closer upon the day.

It's a time that's geared perfectly towards snuggling under a cozy blanket with popcorn and watching horror movies. It's a genre that I grew up around as my mother would always rent movies or watch them on television while she conducted her daily chores. I can remember sneaking glances of B-horror movies like The Wishmaster and classics like The Hills Have Eyes while she ironed or folded laundry.

My personal taste in movies (horror, in particular) is as eclectic as my musical preferences and I believe stems from an inborn desire to blaze my own path in whatever I do. Though I can appreciate the classics in both cinema and music my favorites tend rarely to reflect the most popular of hits. As such, my personal list of favorite dark movies is at once multifarious and indicative of an inclination towards films that resonated with me--ones that I enjoyed instinctively and instantaneously regardless of their success at the box office or their ratings on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes.

**MINIMAL SPOILERS MARKED WITH AN ASTERISK PAIR AHEAD!**

#31 DUEL

Anyone who attended Marine Park Junior High School in the nineties knew Mr. Perl. He always rode his bike to school and was one of the most popular teachers in the school thanks in large part to his wealth of knowledge and depth of interest in movies, horror in particular. I was lucky enough to take his class and was introduced to a slew of incredible films including the directorial debut of one Steven Spielberg--an awesome thriller called Duel. Based upon a Richard Matheson (of Twilight Zone fame) short story, it serves as the ultimate warning tale against road rage.

**SPOILER ALERT**

What makes the movie work is the ever-growing sense of dread and danger that builds throughout the film and ultimately ends without ever seeing the face of the driver; the true terror comes from the circumstance rather the identity of its progenitor.


#30 STIR OF ECHOES

This one flew under the radar for the most part but it's my favorite Kevin Bacon film because I remember his performance capturing the terrifying sense of mania experienced by the main character as he descended slowly into perceived madness. I'm pretty sure I saw this one at the movies (Knapp Street UA FTW!) and so it has a special personal relevance as an adolescent evening adventure. I can still picture both the lovemaking scene and the creepy ass appearance(s) of the otherworldly figure that serves as the central plot point.

This one works for me because its focus is fairly narrow but the real horror comes from the impact that the situation has upon not just the protagonist but upon his relationship with his wife as well; his fear of losing his sanity resonated with me at an integral time in my own emotional development.


#29 THE BIRDS

Hitchcock is a master of cinema in many regards but my favorite of his contributions is The Birds. Though the practical special effects seem dated by today's standards the ever growing sense of dread that he manages to manifest in the movie is exceptional. Also, the visuals at certain points--portentous moments that seem to imply that the end of the world is approaching--are terrifying in their own right.

The impact of this one is apparent as soon as one steps outside and sees a murder or crows perched upon a power pole and telephone lines!


#28 KRAMPUS

This one is a relative newcomer to my catalogue but its impact was both immediate and long-lasting (as soon as the movie ended I began my hunt for an authentic replica of the Krampus bell and began looking forward to watching it with the children one night before Christmas). It's a pretty straightforward modern horror film though its execution places it more in my wheelhouse. I believe that comedy and horror go hand-in-hand and the performances in this film manage to capitalize on both (though the humor is inherently dark and occasionally situational).

The visuals are strong, the subject matter is unique as far as this list is concerned, and the overall effect (including an ending that generates quite a few questions!) made this one an instant favorite for me.


#27 WITCH

My relationship with this movie is a complicated one: I had expectations that went unfulfilled but what ultimately replaced my preconceived notions was an awesome, unsettling cinematic experience. Much in the vein of other films **SPOILER ALERT** where characters are picked off one by one, there is an inherent element of mystery that keeps viewers engaged. Where this film draws its greatest strength though (apart from the phenomenal performance of its lead actress) is from the ever-mounting sense of dread as the situation devolves perpetually towards its inevitable albeit surprising conclusion.

This is a film that maximizes the minimization of setting changes and characters; what you see is what you get right from the beginning of the movie. Excelling amid those constraints is difficult but remarkably rewarding when the end result is as successful as it is here.

Definitely want to add this t-shirt to the collection now from the folks at Teepublic.com!

https://www.dreffdesigns.com


#26 THE FOG

I'm a sucker for inclement weather when it comes to my movies and my photography (I love dark clouds, in particular). The Fog employs this in spades while also utilizing minimal jump scares and excellent lighting to proffer the implication of impending doom. The film gradually develops but then sustains an elevated level of tension that persists right through until the end thanks in large part to the music, which serves to create an environment of ambient eerieness.

A John Carpenter classic that features one of his best soundtracks.


#25 IDENTITY

Any movie that accomplishes its genre-specific tasks while also bucking those conventions and inciting deep thinking on my part is a winner in my book. Identity's premise revolves around that very premise as the horror that unfurls through the plot also unravels the underlying mystery that fuels the film. John Cusack provides a consistently excellent Cusackian performance amid a seemingly inexhaustible slew of plot twists that entertained and enthralled me the entire way through.


#24 GET OUT

Speaking of plot twists and convention breaking, Get Out isn't simply one of my favorite horror movies--it's one of the most well-executed movies of all time. Another film where the horror stems more from the circumstance and inborn traits than anything else, Get Out made my skin crawl not just as a social commentary (for which it serves as exemplar) but also as a legitimate scary movie. Jordan Peele managed to set the bar ridiculously high for himself and I can't wait to see what he follows this one up with down the road.


#23 THE VISIT

This is definitely a case of low expectations being absolutely obliterated by the end product. Like most people, I had long since given up on M. Night Shyamalan after having my interest piqued by films like The Happening and The Lady in the Water only to be let down with a resounding thud. Truth be told, the only interest I had in The Visit stemmed initially from the characters' names (my kids call their grandparents the same thing as the children in the film). I wanted to see it more as a goof than anything else and I was thusly shocked by how engrossed I became in the movie and how well executed it was.

In short, it hearkens back to the best elements that made Shyamalan popular in the first place including his emphasis on the vulnerability and humanity of his cast and some well-executed plot twists that were at once telegraphed but still surprising.


#22 SCREAM

Scream is another one of those coming-of-age moment movies that holds a special place in my heart. I remember going to see it in the theater and, more than twenty years later, I feel like it captured the zeitgeist of the mid-to-late 1990s. The premise itself isn't particularly novel nor is the cast, which capitalized upon the mega-popularity of its younger stars like Neve Campbell and Matthew Lillard as well as those slightly ahead like David Arquette and Courteney Cox.

The home invasion/stalker aspects always strike a chord with me and the mystery involved with the killer's identity was a great one with an awesome reveal. This one's just a really well-done movie by one of the giants of horror, Wes Craven.


#21 THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU

I think this one appealed to me more on visual and conceptual levels than purely upon plot and performance. I remember finding the aesthetics striking and the subject matter horrifying but intriguing. I should probably read the original H.G. Wells story at some point but I feel like it would be a different experience from the film. I know that this one is notoriously reviled not just by audiences but even by those involved with its production but I loved Val Kilmer in it and Marlon Brando was just creepy as all hell.


#20 SE7EN

Se7en goes beyond the realm of dark thrillers and ascends directly into the upper-echelon of all-time greatest films. It has its own iconic moment and quotation akin to Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, and the Sixth Sense, and features a cast of megastars that is loaded with incredible performances. I'm a fan of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins and so their inclusion as central plot elements allured me immediately; their implementation of course serves as the foundation for one of Hollywood's greatest thrill rides.


#19 I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER

This movie is the epitome of right moment in time influences. It came out right when I was hitting my stride in adolescence and so the themes and situations of the movie resonated deeply; the fact that the screenplay was written by Kevin Williamson served only to enhance my connection with it. I had no idea at the time that the Dawson's Creek dude had any involvement with the movie whatsoever but having watched it recently twenty years removed from that initial viewing, I'm dumbfounded by the fact that I didn't pick up on it (the vocabulary in the dialogue!!!).

I remember one moment in particular at the very end of the movie--an instant of pure surprise that I still laugh about when I picture it. I had gone to see the movie with my best friend James and we anxiously awaited the inevitable jump scare towards the film's conclusion. When it failed to materialize when we expected, we both went to relax only to find ourselves scared out of our seats...literally. We each jumped about a foot out of the seats and landed on the floor, probably scaring each other with our screams as much as the jump scare did on the screen.

Also late-'90s Sarah Michelle Gellar. Enough said!


#18 THE VILLAGE

A lot of people loathed this film and its out-of-left-field twist but that latter point is precisely why I loved it. This movie felt like one glorious Twilight Zone episode and the monster costumes were absolutely terrifying. I thought the performances were great (again, thinking of it as a modern Twilight Zone episode), the plot was concise, and the reveal was awesome. 


#17 THE THING

I didn't see this one until recently (either late last year or early this year) and I was impressed with not just how well the horror was employed but with how incredible the practical effects were. You simply do not see things like that utilized in modern cinema and it's a shame because you can't get certain things out of CGI effects. One of the best **SPOILER ALERT** pick em off movies with sci-fi and supernatural elements. The ending too is one of the best ever given its lack of clear resolution. Another Carpenter classic.


#16 SIGNS

Full disclosure: I was TERRIFIED of aliens as a kid. From a psychoanalytical perspective, I think it stemmed from an innate fear that I have of not being in control and so the thought of these beings infiltrating my home (a supposed safe place) and then rendering me incapable of fighting back while they probed away was panic inducing. It's why I've never seen movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Fire in the Sky, and the Fourth Kind. It's also why I found Signs to be as terrifying as it was despite being panned by most media outlets and M. Night fans alike.

Another instance of subject matter superseding performance and even plot!


#15 FROM DUSK TILL DAWN

The vampire genre is engorged with failed attempts to capture the terror of the phantasmagorical blood suckers. From Dusk Till Dawn takes a markedly different approach in that **SPOILER ALERT** it doesn't even address the plot element until deep into the film. In fact, arguably the creepiest and most unsettling element of the entire film is Quentin Tarantino's portrayal of Richard.

Still, the movie's action and horror elements are executed perfectly and are enhanced by the aforementioned late development of the primary conflict. Plus, it features possibly the greatest monologue in movie history courtesy of Cheech Marin--a character named Chet Pussy delivering a vaginal litany at a bar called the Titty Twister.

Inane and profane all the way, baby!


#14 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

This is one of my mother's all-time favorite movies and with good reason: it's arguably the greatest zombie movie of all time. It was revolutionary for its time having a black male lead actor and **SPOILER ALERT** his untimely demise is one of the most gut-wrenching moments in cinema history. The black and white aesthetic serves to enhance the darkness of the film and helps to build the overwhelming sense of despair that pervades.

Definitely the best of the best, genre-wise.


#13 28 DAYS LATER

Much like the realm of vampire movies, the zombie genre is rife with missed opportunities. 28 Days Later bucks certain conventions though and does so to great effect most notably in the way the infected move at breakneck speed--something that was rarely seen in films that featured the slow steady shuffling of the undead. I would shit my pants if I saw something like a Rage-infected individual barreling down upon me at breakneck speed!

For fans of The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later (and even its sequel to a lesser extent) serve as a great precursor to the awesomeness of Kirkman's universe.


#12 SAW

Profferer of one of the greatest mindfucks in movie history, Saw was a revelation when it came out. Even its first few sequels were incredible as they built upon the foundation laid by the original. A psychological thriller whose gore and visual horror was surpassed only by the visceral emotions elicited by the plot, Saw remains an all-time great. I would go so far as to say that its iconic, "OH SHIT!" moment is even more jaw-dropping than the Sixth Sense's.


#11 PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

I really enjoy movies that enable me to suspend by disbelief and to buy wholesale into the premise; few movies did so more powerfully for me than Paranormal Activity. As someone who routinely experiences things that defy explanation, I was already predisposed towards buying into the movie's raison d'etre; then, when the similarities between the film and my own life started piling up I found myself thoroughly spooked out.

The best films (and especially literature) transport their viewers/readers into the story--incorporating rather than inculcating to achieve the intended result. With Paranormal Activity, I felt like they weren't just telling a story but rather that they were telling my story--a sense that was strengthened by the whole found-film aspect. This one still gave me the creeps months later.


#10 THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

The second of three consecutive found film horror movies, the Blair Witch Project was the first and best of the genre. When it came out (as the nascent Internet had yet to become the de facto source of news), word-of-mouth was still the primary form of spreading information. The idea that this film was found was rendered all the more believable by the incredible grassroots and guerilla marketing employed by the studio and the film's makers.

The execution of the premise was damn near perfect with instances of genuine terror responses by the cast (the tent scene, in particular) and, as an avid hiker, it's one that still freaks me out every time I'm in the woods and I find some sort of copycat creations like the little men made of sticks or incongruent man-made structures situated in the middle of the forest. Its power lies in its plausibility despite the supernatural implications and that ending...sheesh.


#09 CLOVERFIELD / 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

Though they are two completely different films with only the most tenuous of connections between them I felt it prudent to combine them into a single entry since the things I like about one film are mirrored in the other. The first Cloverfield was a motion sickness-inducing whirlwind of a thrill ride that maximized the usage of indirect terror (so much so that, for people who hate the film, the majority seem to **SPOILER ALERT** abhor the only close up shot of the monster). Since I was eleven and first saw The Stand on TV, I've been hooked on the post-apocalyptic premise; the closer to reality the better.

Cloverfield allowed me not merely to juxtapose myself with the cast but actually to put myself in among them. Their terror became my own as I envisioned myself reacting to the same unbelievable set of circumstances that they faced. Its relatability then served as its greatest strength for me.

10 Cloverfield Lane, conversely, was an intense thriller that built up perpetually throughout the movie finally exploding (literally and figuratively) along the way. The psychological stress that the movie puts on the viewer is astounding and is phenomenally executed. It's one of the rare movies that necessitates a second viewing to allow for greater processing and comprehension of the sum total of hints, details, and loose ends that all are tied neatly together by movie's end.


#08 IT

The original television mini-series is second only to The Stand for me in terms of sheer awesomeness. As a film though the 2017 iteration of Stephen King's clown classic takes things to a whole new level. The cast and the requisite performances are all tighter--the sense of terror and dread rendered all the more horrifying in the face of pure unadulterated evil. I can't wait for this one to come out on Blu-Ray so I can watch it with my little ones!


#07 THE PROPHECY

Few movies had as profound an impact upon me as The Prophecy did. First, it was recommended by my brother who, at the time, I saw precious little of and so the film served as a tether for me--a connection point that bridged the many gaps that separated us. Second, it furthered my love affair with apocalyptic material that began with The Stand. It also made me an instant Christopher Walken fan courtesy of his performance as the angel Gabriel.

Much of my debut novel, The Lion in the Desert, was influenced on some level by the first and third Prophecy movies. They also got me thinking more deeply about religion (or specifically the relationship between a creator and its progeny) and cosmology--two of the primary themes of my Kosmogonia series. Just a great, great movie and the first to make me terrified of all-black eyes!


#06 RAVENOUS

Ravenous sums up my taste in movies and music perfectly. It exists as an improbable impossibility--an odious olio of disparate elements that amalgamate into a melody of dissonance. Ravenous is at once campy and terrifying--stultifyingly inane and riveting. Its moments of levity leave you feeling unsettled and uncertain but its horror pervades throughout. Robert Carlyle is absolutely MASTERFUL and the supporting cast is elevated by the collective performances of Guy Pearce, David Arquette, Jeffrey Neal McDonough, and especially Jeffrey Jones.

This movie is perhaps best summed up in its soundtrack--the main theme of the primary protagonist, Captain John Boyd:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLt98WxrYAw

If you've never seen this one then I cannot recommend it highly enough!


#05 DARK CITY

Kiefer Sutherland is not often praised for the diversity of his acting ability but, as the son of evil guy par excellence Donald Sutherland, it should come as no surprise that the former can nail the odd creepy performance. Dark City came out a year before The Matrix and, for me, serves as its spiritual predecessor. Its aesthetic is dark--its subject matter and themes even darker.

One part Matrix, one part Inception, and one part the Fifth Element, Dark City is a phenomenal amalgam of deep-thought and dark imaginings. Great, great movie.


#04 THE MIST

Not much to be said about this one: the ideal visual representation of the greatest novella of all time. Simply put, this is the movie I always dreamed of seeing since I first read The Mist as a kid. It manages to elevate the source material simply by altering the ending--one that will shock and awe audiences for all time (and one that Stephen King himself said he wished he had written).


#03 THE NINTH GATE

This movie features my favorite Johnny Depp performance of all time. A seemingly straightforward plot gradually obfuscates as it becomes infused with occult and supernatural elements. The mystery aspects coalesce beautifully with the dark overtones as the rare book dealer finds himself handling way more than he bargained for. I just love the way the plot unfurls; it's like a roller coaster ride where the ascent feels like it takes forever only to be supplanted by an enormous rush as gravity takes over.


#02 EVENT HORIZON

Few space horror films are as genuinely terrifying as Event Horizon. The movie makes use of all of the hallmarks of great atmospheric horror movies imbuing the plot with an ethereal sense of there's-something-more-going-on-here. It's hardly novel in its premise but rather excels in its execution with INCREDIBLE performances by both Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill (more on him in a moment).

This one stands out because of the horror of its nightmare-inducing visuals as well as the terror invoked by this idea of interdimensional possession (which is slightly Lovecraftian in its own right).


#01 IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS

The best John Carpenter film of all time. In The Mouth Of Madness is a massive mindfuck that generates one memorable moment after another. Sam Neill's greatest acting performance comes only a year after Jurassic Park and three before another great horror stint in Event Horizon. This movie combines the best aspects of a powerhouse trio of horror heavy hitters: John Carpenter's directing and soundtrack creation, Stephen King's exploration of small town terror and psychological horrors, and the inimitable H.P. Lovecraft's penchant for combining the ordinary with the impossible--the mundane with the monstrous.

It wasn't until my most recent viewing of this film a few months ago that I realized why I'm perhaps innately inclined to adore this movie: **SPOILER ALERT** it's essentially about a writer whose work will bring about the end of the world all while muddying the waters of reality and sanity. It combines all of the things that I love not just about horror movies but of fiction writing itself. Watching it is the most meta of experiences and it serves as a perpetual source of inspiration!

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Importance of the Visual in Fiction Writing

The art of fiction writing is a deceptively elegant one. On the surface it seems straightforward enough--put words on page and tell story. To do so effectively though requires a far greater attention to detail...and knowing how and when to employ those words to maximize their efficacy.

When it comes to my own fiction writing, I find that I come from an inherently cinematic perspective. I tend to have very strong visual depictions in my mind not just of characters or events but of place and time as well; in essence--a scene not unlike those found in movies or stage plays. My innate perfectionism drives me to convey those visual images to the best of my ability--not so that I can force readers to see the exact same thing that I am envisioning but rather so that I can provide the most authentic representation of that vision; the trick then is to ensure the latter while still allowing room for an individual's interpretation of the material.

In approaching my writing from a cinematic angle I therefore try to establish an environment--to evoke a mood with my word choice. I employ details not unlike a movie director who selects prop and background elements specifically to provide additional layers of understanding and information as a supplement to the events occurring in the primary focus. The director though has an advantage over the writer in that she can make use of those visual aspects with absolutely zero wasted effort.

The writer's challenge then is to make use of those same elements without drawing attention to their presence and without beating the reader about the head them. We must find the right (and potentially fewest) descriptors to convey our images--always to show rather than tell. We want to elicit certain emotions and to engage our readers in unconscious thought processes--to force the understanding into the background as a subconscious act. The only way to ensure this then is to describe what we are seeing without actually describing--to connote rather than to denote.

Here is a pair of examples that describe the exact same scene: 

FIRST
Janet stood in a cemetery over a casket that was being lowered into a hole that had been dug into the ground by three men using shovels. The sky was dark and rain started to fall as lightning flashed and thunder sounded out. She felt very sad over the loss of her oldest son who also happened to be her only child and who died in a car crash that also happened on a rainy night. She wondered whether or not she would be able to recover from his death, which had left her feeling depressed.

SECOND
Janet felt like she was standing at the foot of the abyss—her toes touching the precipice’s edge. A steady stream of tears fell from her eyes like the rain pattering upon the small wooden box in the ground beneath her. The darkness of the sky above paled in comparison with the gaping hole festering inside of her. She winced as lightning flashed awaiting the inevitable thunderclap that would follow. It was like seeing the oncoming headlights and hearing the crash that took away the tiny life that she had made; he wasn’t just the oldest—he had been her only.

She closed her eyes knowing that an eternity of sleepless nights awaited her—sensing that the most difficult days were still to come—her only company the pain and misery that tortured her from within and the three men waiting to shovel the earth back into place.


Though the latter example uses more words than the former to tell the same tale it manages to do so with fewer direct descriptions; the effect then should be a higher quality reading experience. The natural instinct is of course to tell rather than show; this stems from a fear of impotent communication--the writer's inability to cajole the reader into seeing the same thing that they are. Learning to suppress that urge and to rely upon the indirect will ultimately yield an end product that is not only more effective in its impact but likely more enjoyable to read as well.

Reducing clutter (words that are ultimately unnecessary in the telling of a tale) helps to service this end as well. All too often writers use a surfeit of descriptors thinking that they are adding to the story when really they serve only to interrupt the flow. In the previous pair of examples, the image of the "small wooden box" is just as powerful as the one evoked by saying, "dark brown wooden child-sized coffin."

In the latter example there is too much detail that strong-arms the reader into seeing a very precise image. In the former though the reader is led on a journey--one that ends with their own realization of what is actually being conveyed. Reading the word coffin will invariably evoke a certain emotion and visual image but the term "small wooden box" is loaded with information that the reader must unpack and in so doing provides a much richer reading experience.


Flash fiction is a genre that emphasizes this maximization of information through the minimization of words used. Arguably the most famous example of this style of writing is one that is often erroneously attributed to Ernest Hemingway. It is referred to as a "six word novel" and reads as follows:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Not only does that sextet of words proffer a wealth of information and emotion it serves also a catalyst of imagination allowing readers essentially to write their own mental novels in response. In the context of actual novels however writers consequently have their own stories to tell and thus want to rein in the reader's reaction while still allowing room for individual interpretation. Using a red candle as a symbol for a character's lust and betrayal of body is fine but either overemphasizing or inundating the reader with superfluous descriptors will only reduce its impact. Another pair of examples:

FIRST

She lay on her back upon her king sized mattress and stared up at the ceiling watching the black shadows that the orange candlelight created. She was used to the shape of her lover--the man who was not her husband--occupying the space beside her but now that space was empty. She had been cheating on her husband for seven months and each night would light a single red candle before consummating her elicit affair. She had wanted to end the additional relationship for some time and finally made her mind up.

Rolling over to her right, she reached up her left hand to the mahogany nightstand and picked up her golden, diamond-covered wedding band. She put it onto her left ring finger before rising from her black, Egyptian cotton sheets and walking to her left towards the window. She looked at the red candle and the round, brown table that held the white saucer that it sat upon. Since her lover hadn't come over she did not put any makeup on and so she leaned over with her naturally colored lips and blew out the candle's yellow-orange flame.


SECOND
She watched the solitary shadows dance across the ceiling as the flame flickered in the unseen drafts. Rolling over, she felt the coolness of the empty space beside her and smiled; her mind was made up. Reaching over to the nightstand she picked up her wedding band and slid it onto her finger before rising and crossing the room.

She stood before the red candle, pursed her pale bare lips, and blew out its light.


I would argue that showing not telling is only half of the writer's golden equation; the second half would be to do more with less. Wasted words serve only to distract readers and should be avoided wherever possible. Maximize the value of and information conveyed by your words and you'll wind up with a far greater finished product for your efforts!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Temporal Transilience: On The Implications Of Eternity & The Meaning Of Life

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/d/dd/The_Persistence_of_Memory.jpg/300px-The_Persistence_of_Memory.jpg

The human mind is innately incapable of processing terminally unbound concepts like infinity and eternity. We can conceptualize them and discuss them at length but to envision and embody them is nigh impossible for most. We are a species that is obsessed with extremes where, contrary to popular belief, size does matter. We ask constantly: what makes up the smallest things? How big are the biggest things? How far is the farthest thing? How old is the oldest thing?

It is perhaps ironic that we are comforted by boundaries though it may seem that we like to push or pulverize them at every opportunity. Knowing the limits of things provides us with reassurance: we like our seasons to change every few months (for those of us in temperate climes)--we like our lowest seafloor to stay put and our highest mountaintops to remain relatively stable. It allows us to go about our everyday lives content in the knowledge that we understand the way of the world.

Where we get into trouble then is when the limits are unknown or when we are unable to accept those limits (or, more importantly, a lack thereof); time in particular is perhaps the most unsettling. We are hardwired to think of time as being unidirectional--of events occurring in singular sequence. To us, life is not unlike a novel: there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to everything--past precedes present with future following faithfully ahead.

We examine time and reality from a position of myopic solipsism, assuming that, because we view and experience things one way, that such is the true nature of things. Our examinations invariably lead us along similar directional arrows both spatially and temporally. With the advent of telescopes we began to look deeper into space and thus time and with the advent of the microscope so did we look inward.

The discovery of the atom led us to think in terms of composition: what are we made of? I'm still awed by the beautiful symmetry that exists in our cosmobiological histories: the elements that dominate our lives from the carbon and hydrogen in our bodies to the gold in our wedding rings all came from stars billions of years ago--some of the biggest things in the universe that existed in a time and place almost impossibly distant from our present state. We are all made of star-stuff from aeons past...how poetic!

The problem though with our tele- and microscopic explorations is that they led us constantly along the same direction to points that might not actually exist (again something that addles us incessantly). If the atom makes up matter then what makes up the atom? And thus the discovery of subatomic particles--protons, neutrons, and electrons. But, then, what makes up these particles? Why, quarks and leptons, of course! But what makes up...

You see, no matter how small we go we will always ask what is smaller because, I believe, it is simply how we are programmed to think. We cannot envision something that cannot be divided further--dissected into yet smaller constituent pieces. At that point we wind up falling back upon approximations:

"Well, at that point it would be so small that we couldn't measure it so it wouldn't matter anyway."

Go in the opposite direction and we reach a similarly disconcerting conclusion. If the universe is finite in size then what lies beyond the edge of the universe? And if it is infinite then is it not still in our nature to wonder what exists outside of it?

Once again we find ourselves trading in science for the metaphysical or philosophical. Even religion is forced to shrug its shoulders in response to such queries. If God created everything then who or what created God? (The typical answer is, "It's a mystery," which is the sacred equivalent of the secular, "It wouldn't matter anyway." Ditto for the responses to, "Where does God live?" and "What came before God?")

We live within a bounded world and thus it is exceedingly difficult for us to picture anything being physically unfettered...but what about time? Marcus Aurelius said in his Meditations that:

"Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away."

This notion of time as a river seems to complement our typical perspective of an arrow of time dominating and directing our lives since a river begins at one point and moves steadily in one direction...and yet it works also to contradict that purview. A river, despite its motion, exists all at once. Heraclitus famously proclaimed that, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man,” and yet, while the river does change, it exists still in perpetual entirety.

But just what is time? It is commonly defined as:

...the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future. Time is a component quantity of various measurements used to sequence events, to compare the duration of events or the intervals between them, and to quantify rates of change of quantities in material reality or in the conscious experience.

Time in physics is defined by its measurement: time is what a clock reads. In classical, non-relativistic physics it is a scalar quantity and, like length, mass, and charge, is usually described as a fundamental quantity. Time can be combined mathematically with other physical quantities to derive other concepts such as motion, kinetic energy and time-dependent fields.

We know from Einstein's work that time is malleable--that two people with identical clocks traveling at significantly different speeds will experience differing durations of it but this refers essentially only to the present. The real issue stems from the past and the future--those uncertainties that stultify us (the past with its esoteric origin and the future with its questionable inevitability). We are used to experiencing things and analyzing them in terms of three time states: past (before), present (now), and future (ahead) but, as I stated earlier, merely because we encounter reality with such boundaries does not mean that time cannot or does not exist in an all-at-once state; perhaps we have evolved to be so constrained in our thinking or have yet to evolve to a higher order level of cogitation.

I should note that what prompted my thinking on all of this was a movie I saw recently that probed the idea of a timescape as opposed to an arrow of time.

(*SPOILERS* AHEAD FOR THE MOVIE ARRIVAL)

In an excellent analysis of the film on NPR, Marcelo Gleiser refers to the brain's "neurological plasticity" when it comes to learning new languages enabling it to adjust for its differences to other already known languages. He references too the iconographic language of the Heptapods--beings who view time in its entirety and thus speak in a way that is devoid of time values. They are able to move freely through time and space because of this perspective and, consequently, there is a profound impact upon the protagonist when she eventually learns to become untethered in time. (The article can be found in its entirety here.) 

I could not fall asleep after watching the movie because my brain was afire with analytical excitement. Two recurring queries dominated my thoughts though and it is this pair that I wanted to explore here in this essay. The first and perhaps most pressing is: why don't we see all states of time simultaneously or, more importantly, why can't we? If there is neurological plasticity with regards to language then why not time?

It might seem like an insignificant differentiation between don't and can't but I believe that it is utterly material not just to our discussion here but to our very existences. I understand that the notion of time existing all at once seems incongruent with commonsense and indeed our everyday experience but many giants in physics not only support but adhere to that very belief. Richard Feynman touched upon it in his sum over histories theorem but Einstein took it a step further. In 1955 the latter wrote a letter of condolence to the family of a friend who had recently passed saying:

"Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

We are used to our arrow of time and we allow it to shape not only our thought-processes but the very actions of our lives. We have our earliest memories from childhood or perhaps infancy that represent one terminal boundary and then we have our inevitable demises that, presumably, create the second terminus thus closing the loops of our lives. We can read about the distant past much as we can surmise about the far future but in terms of actual memory--that which is utterly internalized and drawn upon with a much different sense of realism and emotional energy--we are privy to only that which we have already experienced and are experiencing now.

Having access to all of our life at one time (as explored in Arrival) would have an intensely immense impact upon our present (ha!) states of mind as well as our future actions; it would defenestrate our long adhered-to beliefs and tenuous knowledge about the natural order of life. In the movie (again, SPOILERS!), the protagonist knows that her daughter will eventually die prematurely of a disease and that her foreknowledge of this presumed inevitability leads to the disintegration of her marriage (with the assumption being that she knows of the future circumstance but will take no action to affect the outcome). She remembers what it is like to hold and to be held by her beloved as she meets him for the first time.

She manages somehow to live her life in spite of this knowledge but how would we, then, approach such daunting information in our own lives? How could we possibly engage in relationships that we know are doomed from the start? How could we develop attachments to things that we know are going to break?

Say you had a favorite teddy bear. You know that nothing lasts forever except love but even this fades over time. Let's say you could see the future--the exact moment the bear falls apart. Would you hug it less or sleep with it less frequently if it would extend its life by a year? A few months? Even a day? Wouldn't you get to the point that you never interact with it just so that it can go on existing...and yet now you run the risk of losing the meaning that it had to you in the first place?

The first issue with what I like to think of as temporal transilience is whether or not knowledge of future events can impact the present and thus lead to changes in said future. If we see the pain of a future loss is so acute that it destroys us would we then at the moment of genesis of that relationship or interaction choose not to embark upon that journey in the first place? Of course few things would be solely saddening and thus one sequence of poignant pain couldn't possibly negate the perhaps lifetime of happiness that would precede it.

Would we exist then as representatives of Feynman's sum over histories? Instead of particle wave paths canceling each other out resulting in a few states of higher probability would it be our emotions that experience time as such? Would we feel in the present the net sum of emotions resulting from past and future in concert?

And, again, what if we could choose to alter things? Being somehow conscripted to the events of our lives would make it easier to accept the bad things but think about the implications: knowing every single thing that will happen to you at one point means in essence that there is no such thing as free will--that fate and destiny dominate your narrative. These are concepts that I explore deeply in my second novel of my Kosmogonia series, which, in turn, is inspired by the very nature of its name (Kosmogonia is a bastardization of the Greek word for cosmogony or the study of the origin of the universe) and that I still grapple with today.

Our discussion thus far has been merely superficial though--hardly scraping the surface of the topic. We have probed temporal omniscience as it pertains to one life bound by birth and death but what if those limits were altered? What if, at each point of decision in our lives, new universes or dimensions were created based upon the options that we chose?

Though it might sound like far-fetched science fiction it is actually based upon a well-known interpretation of quantum mechanics called the Many-worlds interpretation. It is described as:

...an interpretation of quantum mechanics that asserts the objective reality of the universal wavefunction and denies the actuality of wavefunction collapse. Many-worlds implies that all possible alternate histories and futures are real, each representing an actual "world" (or "universe"). In layman's terms, the hypothesis states there is a very large—perhaps infinite—number of universes, and everything that could possibly have happened in our past, but did not, has occurred in the past of some other universe or universes.

The quantum-mechanical "Schrödinger's cat" theorem according to the many-worlds interpretation. In this interpretation, every event is a branch point; the cat is both alive and dead, even before the box is opened, but the "alive" and "dead" cats are in different branches of the universe, both of which are equally real, but which do not interact with each other. (From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Many-worlds_interpretation)
The concept of a multiverse caters to this interpretation and perhaps makes better sense than a universe in isolation: every possible outcome has a universe or place of existence. To put it into perspective, imagine that in this universe you went to work wearing a navy blue skirt and white blouse. In another universe you opted for a floral print top and a rose-colored blazer. Then imagine that, for each of those, you stopped at Starbucks and ordered a different drink. In some of those instances it was raining and in others still there was sunshine. You left your house or apartment at 6:58 a.m. or 6:56 a.m. and drove yourself or partook in a carpool. Now imagine all of these possible scenarios where one tiny grain of sand was moved a millimeter to the left by the wind and another to the right...

When you begin to consider all of the possible outcomes and the variables therein then you begin to get a sense for how large and all-encompassing infinity is! With regards to the aforementioned access to all-time, what would the impact be of having access to the timescapes of all of those different realms of existence? Would we lose our sense of self and our penchant for persisting in the present? Would we become lost in the time-stream--choked by the waters of the past and future, drowning in the overwhelming flow of time itself? How could we possibly exist with exposure to that much information about ourselves?

Again, the Feynman approach might somehow factor in where conflicting realities would annihilate each other and we would be left with access to fewer outcomes but still, such omniscience seems to me a burden of unimaginable weight! And all of this is restricted to our own personal places in the multiverse! What if we had the ability to see literally ALL time? Not necessarily the memories of others, per se, but that which existed before and will exist after our own time on this plane?

Even this can be further divided between eternal and finite existences. If the universe had a beginning and has an end then what would we do with that information? The ability to see not just our own ends but the end of everything? I would imagine that it would be terrifyingly beautiful but also innately debilitating (for reasons I will explain in a moment).

And what if there really is no end and was no beginning? Would it be possible then to become trapped in our own examination of past and future--traveling forever through perpetuity thereby a) losing the ability to live in the present and b) depriving us of our physical experiences? We would be like YouTube videos buffering forever as we awaited a return to our regularly scheduled programming!

At that point, past and future would lose meaning because they would be indelibly linked; there would no longer be beginning and end--only a single state of being. Time would essentially loop in upon itself, which, interestingly enough, is the way that the universe's shape is often described. Many believe that there is no end or beginning to the universe and that one who embarks in a particular direction will eventually return to the spot from which one left or that there is merely the appearance of an end like the map in a sandbox type game like GTA IV.

Temperature too appears to be malleable in a quantifiable sense based upon the discovery of negative temperatures--the idea of the temperature scale looping back upon itself.

(By definition, Absolute Zero is the coldest theoretical temperature--the point at which all motion ceases--and yet temperatures have been discovered and created below Absolute Zero. At these so-called negative temperatures behavior changes from that of extremely cold particles to extremely hot ones thereby implying a closed loop of temperature--go too far in one direction and you find yourself approaching from the other end. For more information scope out this awesome article: about negative temperatures.)


http://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu/img/FLP_I/f05-09/f05-09_small.jpg

This is a photo of virus molecules but, to me, it sort of looks like a lunar settlement: the macroscopic mirrored in the microscopic...the loop of existence demonstrating itself once more.

Wading into the murky metaphysical waters of the afterlife, what about time after death? Would we be privy to the arcane wisdom of the great beyond whilst still we lived? The ontological implications of this epistemological miracle would be profound! They would shake the very core of our philosophical and scientific beliefs (saying nothing of the various religions this would shatter) effectively redefining life and what it means to live--to be.

And what then of an endless array of afterlives? The idea of a paradisiacal post-life was created in part to comfort those who feared death but also to ensure obedience from those who existed on the present plane of existence. By fostering desirable behavior from the flock, the political heads ensured both obeisance and order through the promise of an idyllic post-existence rife with halcyon days spent amid empyrean environs; life was bisected into two distinct eras: now and then.

Of course, the notion of reincarnation most closely approximates the idea of an infinite existence but even that is curtailed by the confines of our lovely blue orb: each return trip would be inherently earthbound. There would be no need for other times or realms of existence because everything would take place here ad infinitum. In those instances, would we keep our memories of our past selves (assuming a lack of access to the proposed all-timescape)? If so, would we continue to accrue lifetimes as we aged?

The nature of the self then is tested; who are we if not ourselves, after all? Reincarnation implies that the self remains but the vessel changes. Our consciousnesses then defines us: we are comprised of our mind and memories--our emotions and experiences. The emphasis of course is on the word our; to have someone else's memories would be an exigent existential enigma!

Access to all-time would, I believe, damage our innate senses of self. We define ourselves based upon boundaries that we take for granted or aren't even aware of. It is the amalgam of experiences, decisions, feelings, and remembrances that make us who we are, bookended by birth and death--awakening and eternal sleep. Without these delineations we cease to appreciate our respective individualities.
 
A step even deeper into the rabbit hole leads us back to where we began: if there was a beginning of the universe and thus time and we had access to knowledge of such a point then what came before that? This, in my opinion, is the fundamental question that baffles most people and which sends them scrambling to God or the physics textbooks for answers. It is arguably the single most difficult thing to conceptualize: what came before time itself?

To ask such a question, to quote the great Corey Taylor, is a pseudo-sacrosanct perversion of the fabric of everything; time is the most hallowed aspect of our existence because, by its very nature, it establishes the parameters of our lives. By relinquishing our grip upon the need for such clearly defined parameters then do we begin to appreciate our own places amid the infinite.

The faithful find their answers in God. The universe itself was created and there was nothing before that--just an endless void. God the creator then becomes a cabalistic entity--the recondite source of all whose existence cannot be questioned and thus answers everything.

The scientific find their answers in inquiry. Though their godless examination is viewed as sacrilegious or even heretical by some they choose to use logic and reason to reach a qualitatively definable conclusion. The inimitable Stephen Hawking said of both time and God:

"Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang, are simply not defined, because there's no way one could measure what happened at them. This kind of beginning to the universe, and of time itself, is very different to the beginnings that had been considered earlier. These had to be imposed on the universe by some external agency. There is no dynamical reason why the motion of bodies in the solar system can not be extrapolated back in time, far beyond four thousand and four BC, the date for the creation of the universe, according to the book of Genesis. Thus it would require the direct intervention of God, if the universe began at that date. By contrast, the Big Bang is a beginning that is required by the dynamical laws that govern the universe. It is therefore intrinsic to the universe, and is not imposed on it from outside."

(Excerpted from http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-beginning-of-time.html)

The answer from a scientific perspective is simply that there is no before; within the singularity that preceded the Big Bang (and thus time), the laws of physics broke down and thus time was impossible. Existence had yet to be and instead there was only a timeless point of potential--infinite energy and an eternity of time compressed to an impossible degree. What has ensued--now bounded by the laws of physics/quantum physics--has set the limits on not simply what is knowable but what is relevant.

We live in what is termed the observable universe. It is dubbed as such because it is as far out in space (and thus back in time) that we can possibly see: given the age and size of the universe, it is as far as the farthest photons could have traveled in the time that the universe has existed. We need light to see and so if the light is so far away that with even an infinity of infinities of lifetimes it could never reach us then whatever lies beyond that point has no meaning to us because we simply could never observe it. It is impossible to reach the edge of the universe and so whatever lies beyond it (whether something or nothing) is meaningless; it is impossible to measure time before it began and thus a time before time is also inconsequential.

I find that answer to be both confounding but utterly fulfilling: there is no place beyond space and there was no when before time.

Still, I can't help but wonder whether or not time exists all at once and whether our perspective of the temporal arrow is in consequence of or opposition to that reality. Like the heptapods in Arrival, were we to maximize our cognitive capabilities would our increased faculties enable us to see the true nature of things and to process it in ways that we are presently incapable of doing? Or have we evolved in such a way as to protect ourselves from time--to create boundaries that enable us to exist as ourselves (just as we have evolved to ignore background noise so as not to have our senses perpetually engaged)?

It leads me perpetually to one overarching question: would omniscience and omnipresence render our lives devoid of meaning?

We spoke earlier of the possibility of our free will affecting fate. What if through our free will we were capable of altering things in the present thereby changing our potential futures? Would we become obsessed with this tinkering--struggling to find the "right" combination to result in a perfect life? Wouldn't we lose much through the elimination of negative experiences since there is so much to be learned from them?

What if the decisions we make are irrevocable? What if we could STILL see the future but maintain knowledge of the past and thus our other possible futures? What if we give up the dream relationship in one for the dream job in another and lose twenty years due to illness or accident?

Is it like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? You have a certain amount but you can gamble getting more; when you lose you're saddled with the knowledge that you could've simply walked away with what you had and been happy...but then again, what if the what ifs would have torn you to pieces and you wound up obsessing about what could have been rather than what was and what is?

If you could see the entirety of your life at a given moment then the joys would constantly be balanced by the sorrows. Would you still watch the big game knowing your team is going to lose? Would you still be as invested in that job or relationship knowing that it's ultimately doomed to fail? Being able to see all points in time and all places neuters those experiences of value--it robs you of your ability to experience them in their proper temporal position and it makes your present a living hell; it would make every living moment a nightmare fraught with worry about the future, which, by definition, would already be in the past for you in your present--something to look back upon before it even happens.

The problem with omnipresence and omniscience is that it strips the importance away from life events; their value lies in their mystery--in our not knowing the outcome. In any given circumstance--whether it's a sporting event, a relationship, or simply a walk in the park--it's our blindness to the end result that renders the experiences both enjoyable and worthwhile. We need the boundaries of temporal spacing--past, present, and future--but also simultaneously boundaries with regards to knowledge of our lives.

Being omniscient would afford us the knowledge of all-things but would at the same time render them worthless; it is the openendedness of each moment and experience that imbues them with meaning--the fact that they have potential and that we must make our decisions based upon the unknown that shapes not only who we are but the lives that we live.

The solution then is to take each day as it comes, to plan for the future, to reflect upon the past, and to derive our personal meanings in the present from the memories we've made and the moments we've yet to encounter.

Not knowing is ultimately what gives our lives meaning.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Subjugation of Subjectivity



Somewhere in the past ten years or so there has been a seismic shift in people's ability to handle subjectivity. Opinions, while proffered at unprecedented rates, transmogrified from simple observations and standpoints into full-fledged mission statements and personal philosophies; modern Americans have so much of their self-esteem tied up in their viewpoints that they no longer view them as malleable manifestos but rather as rigid truisms--ones that they must convince others are not simply the right ones but in some cases the only ones. Whether it's about something as intimate as one's personal politics and religion or as inane as musical or television preferences, people have inexorably entangled their self-worth in their opinions...and it's driving me crazy.

I'm a voracious consumer of music--it's easily the most important passion I have and is something that I partake in daily whether by listening, writing, or playing it on guitar and piano. My love of music has its genesis in my early childhood but it didn't fully take root until the mid to late '90s when I began to explore it more deeply. Growing up, my mother always had the radio on and there was no shortage of records and cassette tapes arranged next to the stereo. In the mid-'90s my parents got me my first CD player and, having nothing to listen to on it, my father took me to the Wiz on Avenue U to pick up a few albums. Among them were Billy Joel's "The River of Dreams," Seal's self-titled 1994 release, and the Batman Forever soundtrack. I remember loving the first album, being indifferent about the second, and having a mixed reaction to the third.

From 1997 through 2001 (incidentally the breadth of my time in high school), I began to refine my taste in music and drastically expanded my collection from radio classics to then-current alternative rock, nu-metal, and rap. Some of my favorite albums still today came out during that time and I remember discussing them extensively with my friends--both musically inclined and casual listeners in their own rights. We had our favorite bands with preferred albums and tracks among them; what we didn't have was the petty, puerile arguments that dominate discourse in 2016--not just about music but about everything.

I was so stoked when Korn released their new album in October and then again when Metallica's first release in eight years dropped last month. For as excited as I was about hearing the music though I was equally and oppositely dreading the inevitable explosion of ersatz experts on my favorite guitar site and on Facebook proffering their insipid musings about both. The torrential shitstorm of commentary that ensued though far exceeded the conjecture I was anticipating.

See, the problem is that it's s no longer enough simply to have an opinion on something. It used to be that people could engage in discussion about things without it turning into an argument with egos on the line. Sure there was always the odd argumentative type who would turn anything into a debate but nowadays it feels like everyone does that. Facebook, Twitter, and the like abound with faux perspicacious peripatetics spewing their uninformed diatribes, obscenely overcomplicating things that should be way simpler and that exist almost solely for our entertainment and enjoyment.

Take the Metallica release for example. At its most basic level, here's what happened: a band released an album comprised of a dozen songs. Here's what should have ensued: people made a decision to buy or refrain from buying the album based upon their feelings about the band; the ones who did make the purchase then decided whether they liked the album or not.

That's it! No rocket science involved--no smarmy, pathological pedantry. IS that what happened? Not hardly!

Aside from the requisite trolls who came to comment about how much they can't stand Metallica or how awful the band is (something that I still can't comprehend--do these people go into restaurants or stores that sell food and products that they dislike or have no use for just to pass judgement upon those places despite having exactly zero use for or interest in their offerings?), you had actual FANS of the band parsing through the album--dissecting it to the point of idiocy. I saw comments about the following:

Metallica trying too hard to sound like "the old" Metallica.

Metallica needing to sound more like "the old" Metallica.

The album sounding too much like the last album (Death Magnetic).

How washed up the band is/how terrible the band's live performances are.

The songs are too long.

How terrible Lars is.

I'm not saying there isn't any sort of veridical value in these statements nor am I trying to say that they aren't valid viewpoints; my gripe instead is that these are even issues at all for people in the first place. Look--I get wanting a band to sound like they used to. There's a lot of emotion and memory tied up in that era of personal discovery when it comes to bands but people often fail to consider the human and creative aspects of making music; writing fast, heavy, angry songs as a teenager works when you're that age but it might not necessarily still apply when you're middle-aged. Metallica, in particular, consists of some pretty old dudes and Lars in particular is fifty two years old! After playing this style of music literally for decades I'd be shocked if he didn't lose a step physically in terms of his playing; ditto for James and Kirk as well.

My problem with the Metallica album along with everything else is people's seemingly innate need to deride shit--to manufacture this sham sense of superiority in an effort to elevate themselves. It's become:

"Oh? You like the new album? Yeah, it's okay I guess. I mean it's not as good as Master or Kill Em All. Actually, I could barely sit through most of the songs. I'm done with Metallica. They're garbage."

The same thing happens with television shows. People no longer get behind a show and stay there. Instead, they live and die with every episode: one night it's the greatest show on television and the next it's full-on, "I'm DONE with this show." The Walking Dead is one of the biggest victims of this type of behavior and it stems mostly from a separate issue of folks demanding instant gratification and having non-existent attention spans. Two of the most incredible episodes of the series had comparatively little gore and violence and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they are among the show's lowest rated. They weren't artsy, highbrow pieces nor were they dialogue-heavy slogs; instead, they took what makes The Walking Dead great aside from the gore, violence, and special effects--the atmosphere, the inner/emotional turmoil (both for the characters themselves and the viewers), and the ability to evoke a very real sense of terror and dread--and they maximized them to great effect.


Think about it: would a show like LOST have a snowball's chance in hell of making it through six full seasons if it started airing today? I doubt it! In 2004, millions of people watched the first few episodes and had the same simultaneous response: "What the hell is going on!?" Back then (it feels like 112 years ago instead of the decade and change that it actually was), that was enough to get people interested in the show and to maintain that interest for years on end. They didn't decide from episode to episode whether this was the greatest show on television or the worst: they recognized that the writers were telling a story and they wanted to see where that journey would take them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, towards the end of the show's run, people began to grow disenfranchised with the aforementioned story. It took too many twists and demanded too much from them to keep their fandom and hold their interest; the genesis of the modern mindset was already beginning to be seen. Lost was judged suddenly on a per-episode basis with more and more people jumping ship--citing "this season (5 or 6 in particular) sucked--it was wAaAaaAy better in season 1 or 2."

People are clearly entitled to their opinions but my problem is two-fold: if you're going to pass judgement on something then at least have a reason for that critique OR, if you can't qualify that stance, at least don't try to act like you're basing it upon some unspeakable enlightenment that the rest of us mere mortals are incapable of processing or at the very least aren't privy to. I don't understand why things (bands, albums, songs, television shows, movies) can no longer be viewed in isolation--assessed based solely upon their individual merits. At their core, why can't the Metallica songs be good or bad--ones that you like or don't like? Why do television shows and movies have to be judged on the whole based upon isolated instances of mediocrity?

Again, my problem isn't the negative opinions that people have about things--it's how shallow and uninformed those statements ultimately wind up being. If you ask someone who says, "Eh. Metallica's sucked since The Black Album" WHY Metallica has sucked since The Black Album then you'd like to think there would be a well-thought out reason; more often than not though all you get is fluff, rhetoric, or circular reasoning. If you're going to start a debate about something or take a differing stance then you should at least be able to articulate YOUR OWN STANCE ESPECIALLY if you're shitting all over someone else's!

My plea though is just for folks to take a step back (or one down off of their soapboxes) and just enjoy shit for whatever it is. Either you like it or you don't so why not just leave it at that? Just because there are schisms of opinions doesn't mean either side is wrong or somehow less valid or worthy than the other. It's okay to take a dissenting stance and not feel the need to put down the other side simply to make yourself feel worthy or righteous. I just can't wrap my head around the schizophrenic way in which people approach their recreational activities! How enervating must it be to listen to a twelve song album and, with each track go, "LOVE IT. BEST BAND EVER. UGH. HATE IT. SO OVER THESE GUYS. THEY'RE THE WORST. OMG LOVE THIS ONE. THESE GUYS STILL HAVE IT! THIS IS TOTAL GARBAGE."?

I miss the days when opinions were just that: responses to a yes or no type of question. Did you like the movie? Yeah--thought it was great/Nah, it wasn't my cup of tea. What do you think of the new album? It's awesome/It's terrible. Don't get me wrong--I'm all for having a meaningful discussion about something but the problem is that most people no longer engage in actual discourse. It's become: I think this, I'm right, I don't care what you think because you're wrong. People don't take the time to listen to other people's viewpoints and, if they do, they rarely resist the urge to convince them why their opinion is the wrong one!

I'm just amazed by the capriciousness that defines people's perspectives and how alarmingly incapable they are of backing up whatever claims they make. "This was the worst _____ ever...because." Is it really that hard to go that extra step and to explain why you feel that way? There'd be so much less bickering and unnecessary arguing if only that seemingly trivial act were to occur with greater frequency.

Then again, what do I know?

Everyone's a critic.