Categories
creativity Essays

Solving for X

If there is a point to being alive, a reason for existing as a self-aware organism in the Universe, it is probably to solve problems. I don’t actually think there is a reason for us or anyone else to exist, nor do I think that the Universe itself provides or requires any inherent meaning or purpose. But if there is any purpose, or if we can impose meaning post hoc, sans propter hoc, then I think the whole point is the solving of problems.

Let’s get this out of the way, just for total clarity: There was no “intent” on the part of the Universe or any other entity that a particular species (or any number of species) should emerge and go about the business of fixing things the Universe couldn’t fix on its own. That’s fantasy stuff. The Universe has no will, nor does it perceive that it possesses imperfections to be repaired. It doesn’t perceive anything, except inasmuch that the beings in it, and therefore of it, perceive things. But the fact that they do perceive anything is accidental, not purposeful.

By problem-solving, I mean something far more mundane, localized to the individual organism. One has the will to maintain one’s own existence because of the impulse, built into a being by natural selection, to seek out opportunities to overcome deficiencies, fulfill needs, create novelties, experience pleasures, and relieve suffering. Examples can range from achieving world peace to fixing a leaky faucet. From creating a great work of art to cleaning up a spilled drink. From being elected President of the United States to sending routine a work email. From filling one’s head with the knowledge gained from the reading of a book to filling one’s belly with a nice breakfast.

So what? Good question. “So what” indeed.

I first encountered this simple idea from a rather unscholarly source, Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F✻ck. It was quite revelatory in that it stripped away the various layers of made-up meaning we humans apparently need to heap onto everything. Manson’s point was more specifically about happiness, that rather than being a state, happiness is a process that comes from the solving of problems that a person wants to be solving. The anticipation, planning, and execution of solving those problems are what brings about actual satisfaction with one’s existence. Not glee or joy, per se, but contentment. Purpose.

In Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright writes that the Buddha already knew this. And while On the Origin of Species was still a good two-and-a-half thousand years after the Buddha’s time, his way of understanding human existence squares pretty well with what natural selection has wrought in us.

“Yes, as [the Buddha] said, pleasure is fleeting, and, yes, this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied,” says Wright. “And the reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure. Natural selection doesn’t ‘want’ us to be happy, after all; it just ‘wants’ us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.”

We have evolved to want to solve for x, to take pleasure in attempting to solve for x, and to take more pleasure in having solved x, but not so much pleasure that we feel like we shouldn’t now move on to y and z.

Despair comes from one’s problems being unsolvable or from having no problems that one deems worth solving. It’s always about pursuit of that which we do not yet have, be it material or informational. I was reminded of this again when reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, in a passage from when Genry speaks to the mystic Faxe.

“The unknown,” Faxe tells Genry, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. … But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion… . Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable — the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”

Genry responds, “That we shall die.”

“Yes,” says Faxe. “There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer… . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

Purpose, meaning, contentment, all of it comes from the day-to-day, moment-to-moment business of solving for x.

Again: So what? I don’t know. But maybe I can work with that. Maybe you can work with that. At the very least, maybe you can find some purpose in solving for that x.

Categories
creativity culture Essays media personal technology

Video Games and My Ceaseless Guilt

During the pandemic era, here in the Lost Year, we have been given a reprieve from the stigma attached to excessive video game playing. The experts have told us, as conveyed to us through the most elite media outlets, that being forced under the fat thumb of the socially-distant lockdown-quarantine absolves us of any anxieties we might have about wasted time, lost productivity, or rotted brains. For the age of COVID–19, video games are now good for us. Hooray!

So now I can spend hours exploring, battling, spell-casting, smithing, concocting, and acquiring inside the metauniverse of Skyrim, free of any worry that I ought to be doing something more worthy of my time. We’re all stuck at home, after all! These are extreme, extenuating circumstances! There’s a goddamn killer virus out there, for god’s sake!

Oh, but here’s the thing. Just like everyone else on Planet Earth, the pandemic has upended many aspects of my life, but one thing that has remained unchanged is my location in space. As a socially-averse autistic already working from home for the past decade, I was already not going anywhere. Not even the coronavirus could disrupt a life outside the home if it didn’t exist to begin with.

Nonetheless, when the Great Lockdown began in March, it still felt to me like a doctor’s note authorizing me to indulge in video games again.

(An aside for some context: I say “again” because I have had spurts of game obsession at different times in my adult life, starting with games like The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII near the end of college. Later, as time for games became scarcer, I would go through periods of serious Civilization addiction for installments III, IV, V, and especially VI, which Steam tells me I have played for almost 1400 hours, which doesn’t even count the additional hours spent playing it on my iPad. More recently, I became enamored with The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the WildAnimal Crossing: New Horizons, and, my current alternate-universe-of-choice, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, all on the Nintendo Switch.)

Since the vast majority of my time playing video games is solitary (save for when my semi-interested partner happens to be in the room), I have always perceived playing them as a way of sinking into my own little world. But I think being exposed to so much positive social reinforcement regarding quarantine video games made me feel like I was doing something with a speck of social value. It wasn’t just me being a weird 40-something dude manipulating cartoon characters in fantasy worlds all by my lonesome. Now I was in with the in-crowd. Everyone was doing it. We were being alone together.

But despite this absolution, I knew that I couldn’t claim to be leaning on video games to get me through the pandemic. I wasn’t being kept away from my job or unexpectedly burdened with truckloads of free time I didn’t know what to do with. If anything, my job got busier, my kids were home with me more often, and I actually find I have less free time now than I did in back the Long, Long Ago. I’m not killing excess time by playing video games. I’m frittering away the precious little time I have.

So really, I shouldn’t overstate how much time I actually spend on these damn things. The fortnightly Saturday evenings and Sundays I don’t have my kids at home are really my only opportunities to truly binge on pretending to be a Destruction-magic-specializing Wood Elf. (One who just became Arch-Mage of the College in Winterhold, what-what!) All week, I’ll look forward to long, uninterrupted play sessions that will allow me to fully commit to some major quest within the game, rather than settling for less time-consuming side tasks or level-grinding. But when I finally get to dive in, it isn’t long before the Guilt sets in.

I should be doing something more productive, the Guilt says. I should be doing something more creative. I am wasting my precious waking hours and living days on an experience from which I will derive no benefit beyond the temporary sensations of escapist hedonism. That’s fine for a little break from the workaday world, says the Guilt, but it’s no way to spend an entire day.

And maybe the Guilt is right. I’m a writer, a performer, and a composer, and I have the extraordinary privilege of being safe, employed, fed, sheltered, and loved during a major crisis, and I could be using it to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways. Even though very few people will ever read this piece, for example, and only some fraction of them will have found it valuable, creating this piece of writing at least adds something to the world that wasn’t there before. Hours and hours spent in Skyrim, Hyrule, or Duckbutt Island (my Animal Crossing domain) have no impact on the real world outside my video game console, except in what they prevent from coming into being.

It’s probably futile to attempt to quantify, even vaguely, what is lost or gained by spending time on video games. Because I could just as well speculate that the games might be a way for me to build up the reserves I need to create things to begin with. Perhaps they are addressing something in me psychologically, such that they become a net-benefit. Before writing this, I read a number of pieces asserting just that.

“I suspect that the total intensity of the passion with which gamers throughout society surrender themselves to their pastime is an implicit register of how awful, grim, and forbidding the world outside them has become,” writes Frank Guan in the conclusion to his wonderful 2017 (pre-pandemic) piece on video game obsessives in Vulture. Earlier in the piece, he says, “We turn to games when real life fails us — not merely in touristic fashion but closer to the case of emigrants, fleeing a home that has no place for them.” Well, for me, the world was definitely grim and forbidding before COVID–19 came around, and Placelessness, USA has always been my hometown. So maybe it’s a wonder I haven’t gone whole-hog on video games sooner.

The point is, though, that I don’t know, and I do know that time spent in a game is time not spent on literally anything else. And I’m not smart enough to know whether or not that’s okay.

Categories
Essays politics

Biden’s Promise to Pick a Woman VP: It’s 2020 and it’s the Right Thing to Do

Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

From the mainstream press, progressives, and the broader reality-based community, most analysis centered on how the pledge, and the individual woman chosen to fulfill that pledge, would help or hurt Biden’s electoral chances. 

In both cases, it is presumed that the Biden campaign is making a calculation, reaching the conclusion that a commitment to putting a woman on the ticket will, the the aggregate, help his cause. Folks on the right, obviously, purport to know that it is a miscalculation and also somehow discriminatory against poor, poor men. Everyone else, more or less, has focused on the particular factors that motivated the pledge.

You know them already: Perhaps the campaign is seeking to give a jolt to turnout from women, who favor Democrats; they hope to attract women who may have voted for Trump in 2016 to switch sides at the prospect of electing a woman vice-president; they see a commitment to diversity as something that will unify and energize more left-leaning voters who may not feel great enthusiasm for Biden; it is intended to present to the entire electorate a glaring contrast with Donald Trump, who is known for—and even celebrates—his abuse and dehumanization of women. And so on.

In all cases, the analysis—be it negative, positive, or neutral—is about tactics. It is taken as given that Joe Biden made this pledge to help him win the presidency, and all that’s left to do is to qualify and quantify that choice.

I am no grizzled veteran of national political wars, but I have been working in various arenas of national politics for 13 years, including a presidential campaign, and I can tell you with certainty that yes, this pledge was made after weighing all of these tactical factors. But I also do not believe they were decisive. Because what I also can tell you from my experience is that all of the people involved in these mammoth and byzantine political enterprises are human beings. 

Let’s take a trip way back in time to another era, one that might be unrecognizable today. Hop in our time machine and we’ll set the dial back five whole years, and we’ll set ourselves down in the city of Ottawa in a magical land called Canada. 

Standing at a podium before the national press was an impossibly handsome new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, flanked by his newly-appointed cabinet. True to a pledge of his own, Trudeau had assembled a cabinet with 15 men and 15 women.

“Your cabinet, you said, looks a lot like Canada,” said one reporter. “I understand one of the priorities for you was to have a cabinet that was gender balanced. Why was that so important to you?”

There is a pause, during which Trudeau somehow manages to simeltaneously deadpan and smolder, as only he can. He responds.

“Because it’s 2015.”

And then he gently shrugs.

Trudeau went on to explain that he had chosen excellent people for an excellent cabinet that represented the country’s diversity of viewpoints, but mentioned not one more word about anyone’s gender. 

Those who worry about “tokenism” claim to be concerned at the great injustice done to better-qualified candidates for positions being rebuffed for lesser-qualified choices who tick an identity checkbox. But this makes the absurd assumption that there is always one, single “best person” for any given job, one “right answer” among a sea of wrongs. It’s preposterous.

For any position there exists a wide variety of individuals who might excel, bringing to bear their own unique blend of skills and experiences. The idea that there’s a singular “best person for the job” is a trope, an ideal to which one can aspire, but not some incontrovertible mathematical constant. We’re talking about human beings working within human-created systems. 

Trudeau’s unspoken message was that he had indeed chosen the “best” people for their respective cabinet positions, and that there were any number of “best people” he might have chosen. For the project of appointing a national cabinet, achieving a gender balance was no hindrance. Trudeau was telling us that because of the wealth of talent available to him, there were no compromises or consolations in ensuring gender parity.

And by saying, “Because it’s 2015,” he was really saying, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

In the Biden campaign’s decision to publicly commit to placing a woman on the ticket, there is no doubt that many surveys were studied, many polls were taken, many consultants were consulted, and the political temperature of many constituencies was taken. This is presidential politics, and politics must be done.

Joe Biden is also a human being. He leads a campaign made up of human beings. All of them got into politics and government for a reason, and I’m willing to hazard the guess that the vast majority of them did so for the right reasons, imperfect as they all are. And as imperfect as he is, I think Joe Biden is in politics for the right reasons.

At the March 15 debate on CNN in which this pledge was announced, Biden channeled a bit of Trudeau (though, he could never come close to Trudeau’s unflappable delivery). “My cabinet, my administration will look like the country and I commit that I will, in fact, appoint a — I’d pick a woman to be vice president,” said Biden. “There are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow. I would pick a woman to be my vice president.”

In other words, to commit to choosing a woman is in no way a limitation. There are myriad women, right now, who would be excellent presidents, and he’s going to pick one of them.

I can’t know anything for sure about what’s in a man’s heart, but I think Joe Biden has committed to running alongside a woman because he thinks it’s the right thing to do.

Because it’s 2020.

Categories
Essays politics

Twenty-Fifth Fantasy: Which Cabinet Officials Might Vote to Remove Trump from Power?

I loathe Mike Pence with every fiber of my being. I vehemently oppose just about everything he stands for, and have dedicated most of my professional life to fighting back against that which is made manifest by the unremarkable brain stored within the stony ahead that sits atop the thick neck of Mike Pence.

And yet if he were to become president right now, I would ecstatically dance in a field of flowers. In slow motion.

The Trump presidency is an emergency. A crisis unto itself. The death, the suffering, the lies, the bigotry, the abuse, the corruption, the disinformation, the celebration of ignorance, the eagerness for violence, the determination to crush dissent in any form, even on a ballot. This has to stop.

The impeachment process was one institutional attempt to stop it, but it was doomed to fail from the beginning. But with every passing day, Trump finds new ways to do increasingly unprecedented damage to the republic and exacerbate the destruction he’s already wrought. I keep wishing, without hope, that someone will do something.

The last institutional remedy that exists, outside of an election that may or may not be the final word, is for the administration itself to fall on its own sword. It’s utterly fantastical to even consider this a possibility, and yet I can’t help but wistfully imagine that somewhere in the deep recesses of Mike Pence’s conscience, he knows that the madness has to end, and that he is the only one who can make that happen.

I dream of the invocation of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.

For the president to be removed from power by his own administration, the vice president needs to consent of a majority of the heads of the cabinet’s “executive departments,” so eight top-level cabinet secretaries have to agree that the nation is sufficiently imperiled by the president to warrant having him stripped of his powers, and for the vice president to become “acting president.”

As a sort of exercise in hate-fiction, I decided to take a look at the current roster of cabinet secretaries to see if I could get a sense of whether there was even a hint of a possibility that eight of them might join in a revolt with Mike Pence, should he instigate one.

Of course, he never would. But let’s do this anyway.

I didn’t bother considering Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr, or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. These three are so clearly in the tank that to even fantasize about their turning on Trump is to give oneself an aneurysm. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao I also deigned unworthy of investigation, because if you can be married to Mitch McConnell, there’s no evil that you cannot countenance.

So let’s look at the rest of the cast of characters, and see if there are any Brutuses or Cassiuses among them. And remember, we’d need eight.


Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin: Maybe

Seemingly generated by a computer algorithm instructed to produce the most comically obvious evil banker stereotype, Steve Mnuchin does not at first blush to be someone who would care enough about the wellbeing of the country to take any extraordinary actions of principle to save it. Trump obviously doesn’t care what Mnuchin does as long as it serves Trump, but I also don’t get the sense that Mnuchin feels any genuine personal loyalty toward the president. Indeed, Mnuchin surely rankled the president when he worked closely with Trump’s arch-nemesis, Nancy Pelosi, to address the economic impact of the coronavirus in the pandemic’s early days.

This kind of pragmatism makes me suspect that Mnuchin would turn on Trump in a second if he felt that Trump was just bad for business, or that the risk he poses to the accumulation of wealth outweighed the benefits of the wide berth he usually enjoys. Mnuchin could perhaps be moved if Pence made him the right promises.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper: Maybe

Esper does not appear to be much of an ideologue, nor does he seem to be an overt Trump toady, which is what one might have expected as the replacement for the mostly-independent Jim Mattis. As Foreign Policyreported, “Esper has earned Trump’s trust particularly by coming into the job without an agenda and striving to present options that meet the president’s goals.”

It sounds to me like he just wants to keep his job and not do anything to make the president notice him. But this is frustrating folks in the defense establishment, as the center of power regarding national security has shifted from the Pentagon to the State Department in the person of Mike Pompeo. During the crisis U.S. strikes on Iran, it was noted with some alarm that Pompeo, and not Esper, had been given the spotlight, and in general Esper does not seem to be inclined to speak up or push back.

As Politico reported in January, “Esper appears to have made the calculation that it’s best to stay behind the scenes in an administration where few people have Trump’s ear, and where anything you say could be easily undermined by a presidential tweet moments later.”

If Esper won’t even stand up to Pompeo, it’s hard for me to imagine that he’d do anything so bold as to help depose the commander-in-chief. As an official told Foreign Policy, “Esper is seen as an excellent manager, [but] he is not a disruptor, he is not a change agent.” I suppose it’s possible that if there were already seven votes from cabinet secretaries to remove the president, Esper could feel secure in being the eighth. More likely is that he’d wait to be the ninth or tenth so no one could accuse him of being the decisive vote.

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt: No

Researching this article, I saw a tantalizing headline from a report by the Center for American Progress that read, “David Bernhardt Is President Trump’s Most Conflicted Cabinet Nominee.” Alas, this was not about Bernhardt’s conflicted feelings, but his conflicts of interest as an oil lobbyist and how they make him “vulnerable to corruption.” Vulnerable, you say.

Bernhardt strikes me as a fairly run-of-the-mill lobbyist/grifter who couldn’t care less one way or the other whether the world burns, as long as the burning is fueled by oil. The fact that you never hear about him merely means that he’s doing what he was put there to do, advance oil industry interests, and whatever happens outside of that is of no interest to him. I doubt Trump even knows what the Interior Department does, which I assume is just fine with its secretary.

The recent shocks to the oil market aren’t specific enough to Trump to spur Bernhardt to rebellion. My guess is he’ll keep pushing the oil industry agenda from within the administration for as long as he can, or until it’s time to cash out again.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue: No

Sonny Perdue’s stance on Trump may boil down to what he told the National Press Club in 2017. “I don’t think he wants a sycophant as a secretary. He wants me to give him my best counsel, my best advice, and he wants me to be right about that.”

This we know, and knew then, to be false. I assume Perdue did as well when he said this out loud to people who also knew it to be false, and knew that he knew.

Perdue also said that Trump has the “essense of a great leader.”

Perdue parrots Trump’s climate change denial and has reportedly kept in Trump’s good graces by speaking with expertise but never disagreeing with the president. Just a couple of weeks ago, Perdue was doing a public event with Ivanka Trump.

Purdue is happy where he is and he’s liked by the president. He’s a no.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross: No

Ross got on the president’s bad side when he couldn’t deliver on Trump’s desires to have the U.S. Census include a citizenship question, and the two have had some other trade-related disagreements. It was reported that Ross’s head was on the chopping block, but so far his head remains intact.

Ross is a curious case. He and Trump actually go way back to Trump’s casino bankruptcies in the 1990s. “For more than 25 years, the two socialized across marriages and states, with both owning nearby residences in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida,” reported NBC News earlier this year. “In June of 2016, Ross, a registered Democrat, endorsed Trump for president, saying, ‘We need a more radical, new approach to government.’”

His clashes with Trump are belied by his willingness to lie for him. So blatant were his dissemblings, the New York Times did a whole editorial just about that. “Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce, appears set on distinguishing himself again as the most compromised member of an administration that at times seems defined by ethical and moral flexibility.” Wow!

Perhaps most notably, Ross is a primary vector for Trump’s public endorsement of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. Ross is in too deep. He’s a no, at least until Trump hints at firing him again.

Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia: No

The spawn of Antonin, Eugene Scalia, probably hates his job right now, as unemployment has gotten so bad that graphs about it become art

But as his job gets more complicated, it also becomes more important, and he becomes more powerful, as he holds the fates (and checks) of millions of Americans. I’ve seen nothing to suggest any conflict with the president, and he seems happy to go right along with Trump’s push to reopen all the things, so I have to assume that Scalia is a no.

Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette: No

Similarly, Brouillette is making no waves, doing what he’s told and promising to shovel money to the oil industry. If he’s in a mood to disrupt anything, he’s not showing it. Nope.

Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf: No

Chad Wolf (wouldn’t you kill for a name like that) seems like he’s also performing as a functionary, fulfilling the demands of his bosses. The New Yorker reported that there’s some disagreement between he and white-supremacist Stephen Miller, but not so much that it’s worth risking his neck. He’s a no. But as an “acting secretary,” as yet unconfirmed by the Senate, it’s not even clear that his vote would count in such a circumstance.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Azar: No

No one in the president’s orbit must feel more diminished than Mike Azar. Trump didn’t even feel the need to inform him that Mike Pence would be heading up the administration’s pretend-efforts to deal with the pandemic, and other embarrassments led the White House to inform reporters that they were thinking of replacing him. And yet Azar continues to grovel and toady to his majesty at the snap of a finger.

Azar seems to be devoid of spine or principle. His back against the wall, he might do something rash, but he’s not joining any revolution.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie: No

Wilkie is a toady among toads. He helped push hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, made up the claim that it helped veterans get better, and denied the veracity of studies showing its dangers. Earlier this year, it was reported that he tried to dig up dirt on someone who reported she’d been sexually assaulted at a VA hospital.

I don’t think he’s too concerned with the well being of the nation, veterans or otherwise. He’s a no.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson: No? Probably?

What does Ben Carson do all day? What thoughts go through his head? When he prays, which I assume he does a lot, what does he pray for?

Who knows. We know that he’s defended Trump’s handling of the pandemic. He recently thanked the president, I assume with a straight face, for being “a champion for all Americans, especially our low-income and minority communities.” So whatever is going on in the mind, his gifted hands are not going to be dispatching Caesar.


You knew how this would turn out, right? Two maybes and a lot of ha-ha-ha-are-you-kidding-me’s. Earlier in the presidency, perhaps a Jim Mattis or a Rex Tillerson could have marshaled something of a rebellion for the sake of the nation, but even that would have been nearly unthinkable.

In other words, we’re stuck, at least until January 2021, when I hope to god a soundly defeated President Trump just gets the hell out of town. But my hopes don’t often come true.

Categories
Essays personal politics

The Truth Behind My Face Mask

On the old He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon show, the small, hovering wizard called Orko—the comic-relief sidekick to the muscle-bound warriors—never revealed his face. Floating in a red robe, with no discernible limbs below his torso, his head was covered by a large, floppy, pointed hat, through which his pointed ears protruded. If he had a mouth or nose, it was wrapped in a cloth or scarf of some sort. All one could ever see of Orko’s face was his eyes and total blackness.

I remember distinctly an episode in which Orko, a member of the species known as Trollans, fell in love with another member of his own kind, and the audience learns that Trollans had a custom for expressing deep affection: they revealed to each other their uncovered faces. In private, they would take off their hats, unwrap their scarves, and give the greatest gift of intimacy of which they were capable, to allow their true face to be seen by the one they loved.

So Orko would loyally, courageously, and selflessly fight the most perilous evils alongside He-Man and his Eternian compatriots, but they would never be allowed to see their friend’s face. That was for Orko to save for a time, place, and person of his choosing.

I loved that.

My preferred day-to-day uniform, assuming the temperature suits it, consists of a T-shirt, jeans, hooded zip-up sweatshirt, and baseball hat.

I chose this basic getup because of its neutrality. These various garments cover me in solid, muted colors, in forms that suggest close to nothing about who I am, what I do for a living, what my interests are, or where I’m headed. One can’t tell if I’m off of work from some office job or if I dress like this all the time. One can’t tell if I support a local franchise, ascribe to a political ideology, have attained any particular level of education, enjoy any particular forms of entertainment, or earn any particular range of income (I could be broke and unemployed or just relaxing in my down time).

This developed, as so many choices do, from my experience in middle and high school, when standing out for any reason was to experience trauma. And I don’t mean standing out like a class clown or overtly quirky student. I mean being noticed at all, for any reason. If my hair was noticed, I was made fun of. If I was seen standing in some position or other, I was made fun of. If I was seen sitting in some other position, I was made fun of. If I was heard talking, expressing an opinion, or asking a question, I was made fun of. When taunted with questions meant to humiliate me, I was mocked for any answer I gave, and was equally mocked for staying silent.

If the brand of clothes I was wearing was recognized, I was made fun of for it. If the characters or public figures emblazoned on my T-shirts were recognized, I was made fun of for it. If I wore more expensive, “nicer” clothes, I was made fun of for it. If it was known that my clothes came from a store considered to be uncool, I was made fun of for it. If it was known I got my clothes from a store considered to be cool, that disconnect meant that I would be made fun of for it.

Like many other habits and precautions I built over that time, I adopted my neutral uniform to be as unnoticeable as possible. I didn’t like how my hair and my head looked, so I covered it with a hat. I didn’t like the shape of my body, so I curtained it with a hoodie.

Now in my 40s, I still prefer the relative anonymity that this basic uniform affords me. No longer quite as cowed by heartless teens (though, sadly, not immune to their eternal derision), this basic setup gives space for the kind of self-expression I feel comfortable with. Superman’s symbol adorns my hat. I have a veritable library of Avengers and Star Trek T-shirts. The hoodies, they have stayed plain, though I now have one in a rather bold red-rust color. The T-shirt/hoodie/hat combo is neutral enough to allow me to recede into the background while offering a basic canvas for those things that give me some joy. And even with this little extra information that these things broadcast to others, I remain largely physically obscured.

I also wear glasses to correct my vision, but I would probably choose to wear them anyway, as I have foresworn things like contact lenses and laser eye surgery. The frames of my spectacles add one extra half-layer to the overall veil. Take away the hat and hoodie, dress me in a shirt-and-tie, and you still won’t really see my true face, because my glasses will still be there.

And like the hoodie and the hat and the rest of it, the glasses help define the character. They are part of the mask I wear when I play the part of me to the rest of the world.

Speaking of masks, in the pandemic era we now have the growing normalization of the face mask. They’re an inconvenience, to be sure. They must not be touched once applied, and they must vigilantly be kept clean. They can make it slightly more difficult to breathe, and I assume they will be much more uncomfortable as the weather gets warmer. And of course, they fog up my glasses, and I have yet to master whatever arcane spells or incantations that prevent that from happening.

And yet, I still find myself — weirdly? perversely? — looking forward to donning one. I didn’t understand why, at first. But then I figured it out.

The face mask gives me one more layer of blessed obscurity. It prevents any scrutiny of my nose, mouth, or chin. They can’t see my crooked teeth, my overgrown stubble, my cheeks sagging with age. They can’t see me react to anything with a smile, smirk, or frown. All they can see are my eyes, which are already altered by glasses, and my ears.

And yes, when the temperature allows, I try to wear over-ear headphones, even when I have nothing playing in them.

Also, like T-shirts and hats, the mask offers a little space for a small bit of expression, should I choose to use it. My current mask was made lovingly by my auntie out of the same fabric she used to make my son’s first baby blanket. I love it.

The fact that face masks are also now part of a supremely stupid culture war, and for some serve as a kind of signal of political allegiance, is deeply disappointing to me. Beyond the obvious fact that the right-wing opposition to face masks and what they represent is astronomically asinine, selfish, portending of greater suffering, I’m irritated that their symbolism within this culture war means that they are no longer neutral.

I can feel it when I go on one of my rare jaunts to the supermarket. Those not wearing masks are clearly disdainful of those who are, and, at least as far as I’m concerned, the feeling is mutual.

The face mask is there, primarily, to protect others from me, in case I happen to be carrying the virus and don’t know it. Any protection it affords me is, as I understand it, minimal.

But I also valued the fact that while it helped stop me from unwittingly spreading any pathogens, it also stopped me from unwittingly telling anyone anything about who I am. It gave me one more step back from the eyes of the world. Now, the mask is like a flare, telling everyone in view that I am on one particular side of a conflict. And good lord do I hate that.

I very much hope our need for masks goes away as soon as possible. I also kind of wish that when the virus is gone, that the masks could stay. We are already so exposed. I’d prefer that my true face be something to be revealed only for a time, place, and person of my choosing.

Categories
creativity Essays personal

Self-Loathing in the Shadow of the Unfinished Work

A couple years ago, I had the chance to be a real writer, and I blew it.

Way back in 2017, I was asked to spend two weeks in October at a writers’ retreat in Northern California. This had nothing to do with any books I had written (for I had written none) or high-profile publications in which I had been published (for I had not). But because this particular retreat offered a very particular fellowship for writers in a very niche subject area, the previous fellowship recipient kindly recommended me to be his successor. I’m guessing there also weren’t many other folks to choose from, or perhaps they were busy.

The point is that I got to spend one whole fortnight in a gorgeous, rustic home, surrounded by natural beauty, doing nothing but working on my craft.

The problem I immediately faced upon accepting this fellowship was that I had nothing to craft. One was expected to come to this retreat to work on a specific project, usually a book or lengthy article in progress. I had no such project, in-progress or otherwise. I had to come up with one.

So I did. The formulation I made was simple. I took the two areas of thought that were of the most interest to me at the time and decided to mush them together, comparing and contrasting, wrestling with their implications, and working out what epiphanies, lessons, or truths I could extract from the whole enterprise.

It would be a big magazine article, intended for publication in the journal published by my employer. In this way, it would help justify my two-week absense from work, which, I must add, my employer happily and generously granted. It would be a big piece. A “longread.” Perhaps it could turn into a book.

At the retreat, I worked dilligently. Not one for sightseeing or communing with nature anyway, I made the most of this precious allotment of uninterrupted time. I dug deeply into the subject matter. I collected research materials, I interviewed experts over email, I took meticulously sourced and cited notes, I jotted stray thoughts, I sketched outlines, I worked in feature-laden applications for Serious Writers working on Major Projects, and I drafted sections and subsections and introductions and transitions and reflections.

I did not expect nor intend to finish the entire project during my residency, but by the time those two weeks were up, I had a piece that had grown to something like 13,000 good words.

But I still blew it. I never finished it. Two and a half years later, it’s still unfinished.

There were some contributing factors.

For one, during my time at the retreat, something went haywire in my ear. My existing tinnitus worsened exponentially, I began to go through spells of vertigo, and I lost some hearing. This was something of a distraction. It never stopped me from applying myself to my work, but obviously there was a good deal of mental energy that was inevitably spent on this emergent crisis on the right side of my head.

For another, a few months after my return, my marriage ended. You can imagine how that might drain one’s will to work on projects that are largely extracurricular.

These are fine excuses for why it became much more difficult to me to finish to project, but really, I never finished it because I never decided to finish it.

There was never going to be a mystical space carved out of my normal life to make room for plowing ahead with this work. My job resumed, my kids needed their dad, and I needed to manage a monumental and traumatic life transition. But even with all that, I failed to make the decision to sit back down at the computer and write.

Months passed. Then more months passed. In my mind, the Major Project became a queasy source of regret and shame. And the further time progressed from that autumn of 2017, the more I perceived that project as an unmanageable and outdated mess. I think I almost felt like it was angry with me.

But of course, it wasn’t. Nor was it unmanageable; I needed simply to decide to manage it. Nor was it outdated; I needed merely to decide to refresh it.

Nor was it a mess. I was.

A few months ago, I decided to return to it. I even announced it so that I could give myself at least the illusion of public accountability. And over the last several weeks, I have indeed been working on it.

It’s not finished. It begs for merciless refinement, and I don’t mean some tweaks for consicion. It needs some real horror-movie chainsaw violence done to it. I need to detatch myself from feeling precious about certain passages or turns of phrase that simply to not contribute to the larger goal of the piece. I need to rethink the way it’s framed in the opening section so that the reader is better ushered into the subject matter. And I need to find a path out of it, a way to merge its various tributary streams into a single current.

I need to figure out what it really is.

And I will. I haven’t yet, but I will.

I don’t know what this product will be when it’s done. It might yet be that magazine piece I promised my employers back in those innocent days of 2017. But perhaps it’ll be better suited to a series of blog posts. Or maybe it’ll cry out for expansion into a book. I can’t yet say.

Part of what makes this project loom so large in my psyche, and why it still provides a steady drip of regret into my heart, is the weight of validation I placed upon it. By being given this fellowship at this beautiful retreat, even if it had been a strange fluke of circumstance, I had the chance to be a real writer.

Let’s not get technical, now. I know that I am, indeed, already a writer. I constantly churn out written work for my job, I have written for several websites, I been published in a couple of journals, and I write for my own blog.

But you know what I mean. I sought the imprimatur of a real writer, someone whose byline is recognized and sought. Someone who is asked to be on panels at conferences. Someone whose name graces the spine of a book. Someone whose writing actually matters.

I’m not that guy. I might never be.

I definitely won’t be if I don’t decide to write.

And even in the best possible circumstance, in which this piece catches lightning and earns me some amount of approval, it still does not have the power to make me what I already am.

In fact, I may never publish it at all. It may turn out that its entire premise was ill-advised, and that it simply can’t be worked into something that is worth putting out into the wider world.

I don’t know yet. But even if another soul never reads a word of it, I promise myself this.

I will finish it.

Categories
culture Essays media technology

Losing Dora: We Might Be a Little Too Invested in Animal Crossing

“Daddy, I have bad news.”

I awoke to find the boy in his pajamas, standing in the doorway of my bedroom. Though I hadn’t put my glasses on yet, I could still see he had gone pale and was shocked with grief.

“What is it?” I garbled.

“Dora is leaving.”

Confused, I squinted with my face still half submerged in pillow. “What?”

“I accidentally told her to leave and now she’s never coming back!”

And then, the tears flowed.

The boy was not referring to a real person, or even a human, but a video game mouse named Dora, a character in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Dora was a resident of the digital island on which Animal Crossing takes place, a member of the computer-generated community that the boy is responsible for maintaining as part of the game. The situation he was describing — the loss he was grieving — was the news that Dora had decided to move out, and that he had inadvertently convinced her to do so.

“She asked me whether she should follow her dreams, and I said yes, she should follow her dreams, and she said that meant she should leave, and I didn’t know she would do that and now she’s going away forever!” He declared that Dora, who is indeed a-Dora-ble, was his favorite island resident, and that he never wanted her to leave. The boy sobbed as I comforted him.

And as I comforted him, I also thought to myself, I can’t believe this shit.

For one thing, this feels a little like a trap. Someone with as big a heart as my son’s is always going to tell someone to follow their dreams, and having that be the trigger for a beloved digital companion to bugger off seems like something of a gotcha for the empathetic.

But the real problem was, of course, that the imminent departure of a fake mouse-person who existed only within the confines of a 7-inch LCD display was enough to make my son go the full Kübler-Ross.

I consoled him as best I could. I assured him that the character is not real and has no feelings to be assuaged or validated, and no means of bearing regrets or grudges. I reminded him that it means that the island now had room for a brand new villager who would put their own unique stamp on the island’s life. But nothing I said mattered. He was experiencing what was, for him, genuine loss.

Later in the day, he calmed down and felt embarrassed. I assured him he never needed to be ashamed of, or apologize for, having feelings, and that this was a good opportunity to remind himself that these are, in fact, fake characters on a fake island who do not actually know him or have any thoughts of any kind. He understood, of course, but I could tell he was still hurting.

But there was other fun to be had. My partner’s son was visiting, and he had set up his own little home on my son’s island, which is hosted on the same Nintendo Switch console. We were making preparations for my partner’s son, who is a little older than mine, to “friend” everyone in the house so that we could visit each other’s islands and send each other gifts. Fake gifts, of course.

But somewhere in the process of setting up a Nintendo online account, which would enable the older boy to interact with us, the older boy’s profile on the console was obliterated. All the work he had done to get his own game going was now lost.

The tension in the house increased to the point of near-suffocation.

My partner and I scrambled to see what we could salvage, retracing steps and retrying the account set-up process, promising the older boy that we’d do all we could to reestablish his standing on the island, where he would now have to start anew, back in a meager tent rather than a house, and sadly bereft of bells, the currency of the Animal Crossing society. We all promised to essentially execute a stimulus package, crafting expensive items and harvesting resources for him so that he could, at the very least, have the means to get back up and running as quickly as possible.

Not one to broadcast his emotions, the older boy did his best to remain stoic, but we could all see he was crushed inside, though also moved by our collective promise to put our own islands on a wartime footing, directing all manufactory capability toward the reconstruction of his place in society. Like an Animal Crossing Marshall Plan.

After successfully assigning him a new profile and legitimate online account to go with it, we fired up the Animal Crossinggame, and lo and behold, there was a Nooksmas miracle. His save data had not been deleted with his profile, and the game simply asked if we wanted to assign this new profile to the existing resident. Hell yes, we did. He was saved, and we all stopped being snippy with each other.

Look, I get it. Especially at this point in history, when kids can’t be around other kids and families are stuck within the same four walls most of the time, the love and toil one puts into a game like Animal Crossing becomes very meaningful. Animal Crossing’s world is the opposite of what we’re living through, where one can be outside, interact with anyone, and be totally free from worries about money, jobs, or disease. The characters we meet have delightful quirks, engage us in conversation and activities, and make each island its own special mini-society. Having discovered this wonderful escape, losing any of it feels like a real loss.

Later, the older boy encountered Dora the mouse on my son’s island. Dora mentioned that she was planning on leaving the island, and he urged her to rethink her position.

She was persuaded. We told my son the good news: Dora was staying.

The day was saved. Both boys, having faced what was to them unthinkable loss, were given a second chance. Everything was going to be okay.

Except for the fact that this game has utterly devoured my family, making us crazier than we already were, and that I will likely need many weeks of intensive therapy as soon as this quarantine is over.

Maybe I’ll have a chat with Dora.

Categories
creativity Essays media personal

Animal Crossing and the Joy of Bucolic Drudgery

Me, in jester’s hat, superhero mask, and business suit, with the quetzalcoatlus skeleton that looms over my property.

Why did I play Animal Crossing for four hours today?

About a month ago I became one of the bajillions of people of all ages enthralled with Nintendo’s bucolic-drudgery simulator, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I never expected to be. When the game was announced, having no frame of reference for the previous iterations, I was utterly uninterested. Then I saw the deluge of fawning coverage and player testimonials about how this game, this experience, was keeping people sane during the COVID-19 lockdown, and I decided to give it a shot.

Now it’s the center of most family activity and interest at my house. My kids can’t stop talking and thinking about the game, and even my partner, who never plays any video games whatsoever, is utterly devoted to it. (She plays more than any of us!) The four of us are constantly dishing about the other island residents and trading gossip about their quirky behaviors (we all just love Zucker), and we cheer each other on for our successes. (“I finally caught an oarfish!”)

My partner Renée with her big catch. I have a heart attack every time I pull one of these monsters out of the water.

But, you know, why?

I do understand the general appeal of the game’s overall shtick. After all, I spent a great deal of time, circa 2000, enriching the lives of my Sims (or making them suffer unthinkably), and more recently I have easily logged around 1500 hours fashioning empires in Civilization VI. And while I’ve never really gotten the hang of Minecraft, I can at least appreciate how its limitless palette for creativity is so engrossing. I’ve even dabbled, rather tepidly, with Second Life. Animal Crossing boasts many of the elements that made Minecraft, Second Life, and the Sims and Civilization franchises appealing. And it’s way cuter.

But viewed from another angle, playing Animal Crossing can seem a lot like the equivalent of doing manual farm labor for a cult leader. Tom Nook is Joe Exotic and we are all his expendable underlings being paid in fake currency and expired meats.

For example, I can spend an hourlong game session just pulling weeds.

Let me slightly rephrase that. I choose to spend an hourlong game session pulling weeds.

And the crazy part is that I love it. With every clump of vegetation I yank from the ground and stuff into my “pockets,” I have made my little island home (which is called Duckbutt Island) just that much more beautiful, and made a larger canvas for me to do with as I like. The methodical, somewhat rhythmic pulling of the weeds is rather meditative, much like real gardening can be (but without the real dirt or real bugs). Even the sound that comes from each weed-pull, a sort of squirty “yoink,” is weirdly satisfying.

I’m not kidding here. When I go on a jaunt to a “mystery island” or visit my kids’ domain and I see a lot of weeds, I think, and perhaps shout out loud, “Oh boy! Weeds!

Later, I can store all those weed clumps away and wait for Leif to come back to Duckbutt town square and purchase them at a modest markup.

Planting flowers, shaking trees, whacking away at rocks, collecting seashells — all of it is tedious, and yet it’s the tediousness that’s often the most appealing part for me. I do also enjoy the creative customization, designing one’s avatar and dwelling, and I have fun checking the boxes that qualify Animal Crossing as a “game” by hitting certain milestones, fulfilling necessary tasks, and upgrading life on Duckbutt. Those things all help Animal Crossing feel like it has a “point.”

But even without those things, it’s remarkably soothing to simply wander one’s island and gently tend to it.

Me in my red outback hat, dress made of cherries, and recycled boots, livin’ life like it’s golden with the boys — my two giant snapping turtles.

In this way, Animal Crossing is less a game, and more of a place to go — which is especially valuable at this moment in history. Countless other games offer this kind of escape, of course, from Fortnite to World of Warcraft to, well, name your MMORPG of choice. None of them, however, have appealed to me the way Animal Crossinghas…with perhaps the exception of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which, while not a “sim” by any means, provides so rich and wide of an experience that one can simply wander and putter about delightedly for hours. And believe me, I have.

Zelda aside, perhaps it’s those other games’ sprawling complexity that suggests to me that the effort to master them wouldn’t be worth the time and energy.

Animal Crossing has many layers of complexity, but they all feel very optional. One can advance and upgrade at one’s own pace, and in the meantime there is always something to do, harvest, beautify, design, or craft. And, importantly, as you meander and dawdle, no one will be out to get you.

However, one aspect of Animal Crossing that has really solidified it as a breakout phenomenon at this moment is its social component. Players can visit the islands of friends or anyone on the internet who opens their island to visitors. I’ve played online with my kids while they’re at their mom’s house, but otherwise I have interacted very little with anyone else. What am I missing here?

I suspect it has more to do with me than the game. My reticence and anxieties over social encounters in meatspace seems to carry over to Animal Crossingin strikingly similar ways. Just like in the real world, I worry over what to say or how to behave around another player, and feel exhausted in advance by whatever expectations they might have of me. I feel pretty confident of my ability to cultivate lasting friendships with Zucker the octopus and Truffles the pig. And Blathers, well, he is my true soulmate. But actual humans are another story.

At least on a computer generated island, no one expects our avatars to make eye contact.

Categories
Essays personal

Neurotypicals Keep Feeling Things At Me

Here’s how Stephen Colbert helps explain how I, as someone with Asperger’s syndrome, am in a constant state of anxious bewilderment at this current moment.

The introduction of truthiness to the American lexicon by Stephen Colbert in 2005 was something of a cultural watershed, the moment when we all finally had a way to describe the semi-facts and quasi-reality we experienced consuming political punditry. Overwhelmed as we are today with outright lies and misinformation, the George W. Bush era of truthiness seems almost idyllic.

But remember that the driving force behind the phenomenon of truthiness was not the relative veracity of a claim, or even the convenient massaging of facts. Truth was not really the point at all. Emotion was. In coining this neologism, I think Colbert may have inadvertently prophesied our current dystopia.

“Face it, folks,” said Colbert as his “Stephen Colbert” character on The Colbert Report. “We are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or Conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No. We are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.”

And here’s a kicker.

“Anyone can read the news to you,” he said. “I promise to feel the news atyou.”

Remember that.

I recently happened upon a piece from Psych Central by Ivy Blonwyn about her experience counseling a married couple wherein the wife was neurotypical and the husband was very likely an Aspie. Blonwyn writes:

We neurotypicals cannot begin to fathom how hard it is for Aspies to exist in a culture we dominate. We set the rules. We design society. We define social norms. Even something as fundamental as the rules for manners and polite conversation are foreign to an Aspie. They may behave ‘normally’ (as NTs [neurotypicals] define it) but that’s because they’ve memorised how to follow our seemingly nonsensical rules by rote. It’s a script for them and a senseless one at that.

For example, when Dan was breaking eye contact, waving his hands and gasping, I had been talking about a movie that quite interested me. A neurotypical who had not seen that movie as Dan had not would automatically realise the important part of the conversation is not the movie. It is how the speaker felt about it.

An Aspie on the other hand, cogitates on the movie (they haven’t seen) and having nothing to contribute to the subject of the movie, wants to advance the conversation to something they enjoy talking about. Hence the appearance of impatience and disinterest.

It never occurred to Dan that I was telling him about my feelings. He thought we were discussing the movie. ‘No, I was telling you about me’, I told Dan.

‘Then why didn’t you say that?’ he retorted.

As a neurotypical, I thought I had. It was implied. So obvious, that it never occurred to me to verbally express it.

But Aspies don’t make assumptions so hard-wired in NT minds that what we really mean is usually left unspoken.

I experience this kind of interaction all the time. Someone is telling me something about their day, something they’re going through, or something they experienced, full of details and observations, and I can barely maintain my attention. If what I’m being told has no direct relevance to me, is about something of which I have no experience myself, or is out of my control to do anything about, my brain desperately seeks to abandon it.

Particularly if the speaker is someone I care about, I make my best effort to be attentive and engaged, and I think I usually succeed. By now I know that to appear to lose interest is hurtful and offensive. I want to be supportive and useful to the people I love, so I do my best.

But I also don’t quite get it. Why would I want to know about the plot of a TV show you watched? Why would I want to know about a casual conversation you had with your coworker? How can I possibly be a part of a conversation in which I have no frame of reference? What’s the point?

It’s because the speaker is really telling me about themselves. They are not reading the news to me, they’re feeling the news at me.

And that’s just what neurotypical people do and it’s perfectly normal. For them, it’s necessary.

The propagandists of our current informational hellscape, such as Fox News, the president, and the great heaving mass of conspiracy theorists, all of them are feeling at us, and people are responding.

But even the “good guys” in the reality-based community, such as progressives and the otherwise-sane folks I follow on Twitter, are doing the same thing. They may be working with actual facts that are actually true, but the outrage-tweeting they engage in operates under the same priciple. They, too, are feeling the news at us.

And that’s why I can’t deal. When opponents of the president shame-tweet his latest outrage, I keep appending the question, “So what do we do?” No one ever answers. Not necessarily because they don’t know what to do (though I suspect they usually don’t), but because that’s not the point. They came to emote, not to cogitate.

My neurology is ill-suited for this moment. I do not find satisfaction or connection from this mode of communication.

If someone I love tells me how bad their day at work was, I will likely try and brainstorm solutions to each problem they faced, when that’s not at all what they wanted from me. They were feeling their news at me, not looking for answers.

I’m looking for answers.

For those I love, I will try to be better at accepting what they share with me, what they feel at me. I will try to better understand that they are trying to share themselves, their souls, not their raw data.

For everyone else, I will try to ignore the firehose of feelings, and seek answers elsewhere.