On one of my favorite styles of music…

One genre of music that I have been hooked on for years now is post-rock.  I am not a true music enthusiast, so I will not attempt to make an exhaustive list of the best post-rock bands, or attempt informed commentary on the qualities of the genre, etc.  But post-rock is for me the ultimate music to drift away on my thoughts or to listen to on a neighborhood walk.

Post-rock developed out of shoegaze, and is, conventionally, without lyrics.  It features walls of guitars, rhythmic variations, LOTS of reverb, and most often conveys a sense of open spaces and isolation.  Some of my personal favorites as far as post-rock bands are Hammock, This Will Destroy You, Caspian, and Explosions in the Sky.  I have listened to many others, and many others are also fantastic to listen to.  Hammock is quite possibly my all-time favorite, and they may perfectly typify the genre with their long, flowery song titles, soaring riffs, and simple melodic motifs.

About eight or nine years ago my friend, at the time living in Seattle, introduced me to the genre, and I realized that this was a sound that I had always longed for.  To me, listening to post-rock is like hearing the soundtrack to a slice of life.  Complex, recursive guitars roll like waves of emotion over picked-out basslines that feel like the daily grind.  It is probably no coincidence that most post-rock bands come from the Midwest and Texas, with the premiere European examples coming from the plains of the former Warsaw Pact.  For example, Everything is Made in China… their song “after rock” has one of the most haunting uses of sampled dialogue I have ever heard.)

I recommend listening to post rock when you can give it your full attention, and yet also when you are in a position to let your mind wander and think about other things.  For me, the inspiration it gives is not so much about plots, or acute emotions, so much as a sensation of living a large amount of time in fast-forward, like a music video that makes the mundane into a work of art through montage, or a film sequence that shows the passage of time over a place impersonally and without a lot of cuts or camera movement.  There is a reason that post-rock has been used for soundtracks recently (one example being the indie Prince Sultan, which I have not seen, but has a phenomenal soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky.)

Hopefully this has been an enticing introduction to post-rock.  If you have gone through the Wikipedia article, it has lists of many other bands that represent the genre.  If you swing by this post, feel free to share any band names or songs in this style that you recommend or no, especially if I have not mentioned it here.

Water Falls

On odds and ends of life in the desert wastes…

It rained, yesterday, quite dramatically.  My coworkers and I ran outside to re-enact the Shawshank Redemption scene, but with the rain came a sideways wind, I presume from the temperature differential between the sunny areas and the odd cloud.  It was almost as though the sky at ground level was shocked, SHOCKED! to feel water actually condense and fall through it, and tried to bat it away.  I look forward to the real “rainy season” in the winter, although I have heard that it is mostly violent cloudbursts that flood things, then slink away for another year.  That would certainly explain the flora and their waxy casings and hard thorns, like cacti too uncertain of their next drink.

Besides excitement about rain, I have been reading Charles Stross’s The Traders’ War, which is a great page-turner with some big ideas about alternate timelines, different types of societies, and the overall mean streak that underlies human nature.  Despite the grittiness and drama, it is still a welcome escape into worlds with trees, water, and interesting people to imagine meeting.  Lately I have been having dreams of other lives – not in some mystical sense of feeling as though I were peering into an alternate timeline of my own, exactly, but dreams that have all of the details and foibles of real life.  I can tell that my mind misses trees and water more than my waking self is willing to acknowledge, but overall I seem to be adapting to the new surroundings fairly well.  This is definitely not my first long-term stay in an unfamiliar environment, and, I hope, will not be my last.

A friend of mine here wants to go to Seychelles in February, and I was looking it up today to become more familiar.  It sounds like a real sort of paradise archipelago, albeit with plenty of its own issues.  Certainly fewer, though, than most Caribbean resort islands.

This update is long on chattiness and short on substance.  In the interest of making it somewhat useful, I will share a very tiny tip I have discovered.  I take a fair amount of vitamins, and melatonin to help me sleep, and what I discovered is that you can use the cap of the bottle of pills to measure out the right number (in this case, one of each.)  That way you don’t have to get them in your hand, or worry about them scattering across a surface and bouncing away, but you also do not need any extra equipment.

Currents of History

On a reactionary, yet satisfying film…

I went to see Kingsman 2: the Golden Circle today with officemates.  As a piece of filmmaking it was ecstatic genius – applied technology, taut script, masterfully handled film and comic tropes, and a profoundly coherent design strategy.  What I found very interesting about it was the way that it unabashedly felt like a celebration of values and standards.  In that sense, it is “rebellious” in an age where asking people to maintain personal responsibility, common courtesy, and the cultural mores that allow people to live in harmony have become anathema in most media.  To be honest, I waited for the other shoe to drop, for some wink to the audience that the often over-the-top traditionalism was all part of the act.  What was more interesting, thematically, was that it never did.

Instead, both Kingsman movies, in keeping, I suppose, with their title, are unapologetically reactionary in a very strict sense.  They treat the populist massacres and excesses of the twentieth century in many ways as a wrong-turn detour from a near-Victorian world of deportment and protocol, hierarchy and constraint.  While the film world’s technology, clear from the Bond-ian gadgets, gizmos, and throwaway lines about nanites and augmented reality telepresence, is at a Spykids level of handwaving, is cutting edge, the overall narrative is one of loss and redemption, upholding decency and mercy (though not without plenty of mooks mown down in the process), and venerating tradition for no other reason than it provides an anchor in a time of chaos and turmoil.

But one thing it did remind me of is the way that the “old world” of the pre-WWI, adventurously liberal world of the modernist era has sustained itself fairly quietly under the surface of raging seas of the Cold War, globalization, and the slow, sustained effort to infect the Islamic world with extremism on the part of Saudi Arabia and other neighboring powers.  Europe is still very much a continent of monarchs, aristocrats, and courtiers, even though many of those once-powerful names have merely gone behind a curtain of high-finance, high-speed racing, and high-stakes gambling.  The United States never even had a blip in the hold of power from the “first families” of the Eastern Seaboard, from their Episcopalian fortresses along the rocky shores of Massachusetts, New York, Maine, and riverine Pennsylvania and nestled in the hills and in the un-newsworthy playground cities of the coastal South.  Kingsman as a media property feels like a hyperviolent foray into at least the material trappings of that world, from bespoke clothing to small-batch liquor, from handmade electronics to a drug lord (lady?) indulging her nostalgic Johnny Rockets’ aesthetic grafted viciously onto a hidden Cambodian temple.  Not all elites are immune to the fashions of the times, and, the movie seems to imply, moving too far forward culturally creates some kind of inherent evil.  That echoes the idea of the well-connected all gathering to be blown up in the first film, for that matter.

I am reading too much into what is ultimately popcorn fare, but going off of the intricate detail of the film and the homages that flash past faster than you can say Ralph Lauren or George Dickel, the nostalgia for a bygone era and its society pump through the film like the thickest of blue blood, even when the action travels to an unseen side of America.  The “old ways” of America are, thus, the ways of the frontier and Fifth Avenue, robber barons and rawhide, rather than the currently vilified sorts of tradition surrounding religion and redneckery (as evinced by the slaughter of an entire Pentecostal church body and a bar full of bruisers in the first and second films respectively.)  I do not think it is possible to do justice to the potential complexity that the film implies through subtext, nor do I think that it is always a conscious thing in the minds of the films creators.

At the end of the day, it was a fantastically entertaining movie that will entertain you for more than two hours of intense violence, truly out-loud laughs, and a cameo sequence wholly unexpected and yet incredibly satisfying.  Even though the musical leitmotif is literally “Country Roads,” somewhere beneath it all remains the “Rule, Britannia” and “There Will Always Be an England” that underpinned the first film of the franchise.  I look forward to seeing where Matthew Vaughn and company go with the whole kit and caboodle.

Back to the Woods

On an idyllic childhood and the desire to shape the world…

On a break today, I talked with one of my fellow American coworkers and, as conversations are wont to wend, we got onto the topic of treehouses.  When I stop and play back the mental films I have of my childhood, some of the fondest memories I have are of times spent in the forests around my homes and my friends’ homes.  When I would read fantasy novels, the smells of leaves, of vineflowers in the evening, of moldering leaves, of a fresh creek were pervasive and real for me, because I could close the pages and go out to experience them firsthand.

But what struck me today more than the bucolic nostalgia of the rambling paths and rays of leafy sunlight dappling buzzing Virginia afternoons was something that my coworker pointed out.  I had described to him how even as a very small boy, my biggest dream was not to mystically melt into the trees and live like a forest spirit, or to preserve the stately trunks for all time.  Instead, my friends and I would endlessly talk of building things – creating a kingdom in the wood of forts, treehouses, platforms, stone walls, crayfish weirs, catapults, clifftop towers, bridges, tunnels, and every conceivable other architectural feature we could think of, besides houses, schools, or shops.  What struck me today was my friend’s comment that “it’s in man’s nature to homestead.”

That was really, at the core, what we all wanted to do as kids.  It is a different instinct than “playing house” or simply wanting to go on adventures.  There was this almost fundamental drive to enjoy the landscape, to be sure – I could and did wax poetic about the beauties of nature.  But what I most loved was mapping the creeks and paths, forts and rock cairns, and naming things.  There is a kind of plant, fern-like, that I have never learned the name of, but it carpeted the forest floor in a wide swath in the woods with broad, star-shaped fronds.  That area I named “the Valley of the Stars.”  The small cascades that bubbled with drifting sticks each got a name, as did the earthworks we dug into the creek banks.  It was thrilling to give names to these landforms and imagine that they were part of a larger world we could build and inhabit without authorities and without the sense of overweening responsibility that crept in as we got older.

Again, I am not writing a long enough piece tonight to go into all of the likely significances of this drive to tame the wilds and make a frontier, but it still pervades my life and my imagination, even after long journeys through the halls of college and the streets of hundreds of cities and towns.  The world has shrunk for me even as the possibilities within it continue to multiply, and I am not sure what all I have lost in growing up and growing old.  Somewhere under the new subdivision that they built on that vast swath of forest there is still the land that used to be the Valley of the Stars.  Somewhere in those leafy afternoons there is a world that I will search for a way back to for the rest of my life.

Webs of Copper, Webs of Glass

On the physicality of communications, old and new…

Over the past weekend I read a book called, Jefferson’s War, by Joseph Wheelan.  It is a surprisingly quick read, and a very interesting look at early United States history.  The subtitle he uses is America’s First War on Terror 1801-1805, and while discussing that allusion could occupy an entire long post, I am more interested in looking at that book in contrast with Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, by Stephen R. Platt.  What fascinated me reading both of them, is the role that slow communications played in so much of what went on during both conflicts.  The Barbary Wars of Wheelan’s book took place in the era immediately following the creation of the Constitution and the first years of the current United States, yet some sixty years later, during the Taiping revolution (or rebellion, or civil war, depending on whose point of view you take), communications were largely confined to paper and pen carried along by messengers.  At best, during the Barbary Wars, you had ships that employed flag codes between vessels – semaphore at a tactical level was not a novel concept at the time, but incredibly limited in range.

Large decision points of both conflicts hinged on information that was weeks to months out of date in arriving back at the countries of origin of the European and US forces involved.  Being an English and Chinese-language-capable scholar, Platt primarily discusses British and American involvement, as well as giving an in-depth look at both the Qing imperial forces and the Taiping rebels’ records (such that are available.)  His account covers many incidents in the war where the fate of the Taiping rested on perceptions in Britain that were shaped by communications, some physically intercepted, some merely delayed in reaching London than others.  Wheelan, too, touches on several decisive moments where the delays in communication between the US and its naval forces dramatically changed the outcome of battles, strategy, and public perceptions of the war abroad.

What fascinates me about this is that the same sorts of “accidents” of delayed communications are not exceptional – if anything, the communications enjoyed by both sets of forces were still much more rapid and effective than those available to militaries, merchants, and decision makers of all eras of human history.  Today, delays of more than a few days or a few hours are considered abnormal – we find ourselves frustrated at having to wait longer than a few seconds for messages to transmit across the internet or to make a strong connection between telephone exchanges.  I find that one of the most difficult things for contemporary laymen to grasp is this incredible distance and delay in communications in history.  Sometimes I even find myself guilty of projecting the granted ease of sending a message nowadays onto situations in the past where even distances of a few kilometers could prove decisive.

We even see this in filmmaking and television writing.  I would argue that one of the big reasons for an explosion in television shows and films set in the nineteen eighties or earlier is because so many plots and tropes rely on communication breakdowns that require an inordinate amount of contrivance to render believable in a modern setting.  A missing person or a person running late to a critical “plot point” back in the day was entirely plausible and a regular feature of history and fiction alike.  Today, barring extraordinary circumstances, we are in constant communication with important figures in our lives and our world, for better or worse.  We rely on a network of communications that still relies on a grand, powerful, and redundant physical infrastructure unlike anything seen before – not even the Indian courier routes of the Mauryas or the Pony Express were effective enough to allow the interconnectedness we experience as a given today.

I will return to this topic later, and, I plan, in more depth in the future, but I wanted to capture that sort of “a-ha!” moment I had when I truly appreciated again just how much “the past is a foreign country.”  When we feel isolated today, it means that we have not had the interaction that we want with the immediacy we expect.  When we make decisions or carry out actions that can change our entire lives, we do not expect to do so blindly or without the resource of advice, be it from friends, family, and peers, or from the broad knowledge base of the internet or far-distant supervisors and managers in business and government.  Understanding the significance of that, I posit, allows you to better comprehend not only the past, but also the way that society and all its multifarious manifestations are changing from the depths of the Third World to the heights of globalized industry and science.

Buzzword Confessions

On earworms of vocabulary rather than song…

I have never run this idea by anybody else, largely because I do not really know how any given person would react to the whole concept, but since I was about middle-school age, I have always had a “set of words” that function like earworms.  Words that fill in gaps in songs when I drop lyrics, words that I can babble about to myself around the house (as is tradition when you have a place to yourself), words that have semantic value and yet seem as important as tactile sensations of the face.

The first word I remember lodging itself into my brain like this was “yam.”  I have Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart from ninth grade English class to thank for that.  As a freshman in high school, the biggest takeaways from that were that West Africa is beads, palm wine, and yam foo-foo, and how many women you can acquire to make beads, yam foo-foo, and palm wine, and how palm wine and yam foo-foo can make you a powerful figure in your tribe, if applied liberally across your kinship groups.  Also something about colonialism and despair, but those themes are hard to read for through the constant repetition of how enormously significant yams are.  Certainly the food and drink and agricultural woes of the villagers loomed larger in my memory than most other things as a freshman new to literary criticism and analysis.  From that Igbo staple crop I would get the word “yam” working its way into my subconscious, conscious, and pseudo-conscious mind at every turn.  Sometimes, though now I know that the two foods are unrelated, this would become “candied yams” when the random language generator in my brain decided it needed to use a longer nonsensical, context-less phrase.

After that period, which lasted solidly through high school, I got to college.  My freshman year, my awesome crew of total nerds/geeks/dorks (and I really do mean that sincerely – some of my best friends for life came from that tribe we forged out of language classes and the odds and ends of student life events) introduced me to Invader Zim.  If you have not seen the old, obscure Nickelodeon series (as I did not during its broadcast run) you might have to check it out.  It fused an utter nihilism about the adult world with deadpan humor dark enough to blot out the sun.  But it also had a twitchy sense of how repetition of words, particularly food words, catches on some snag in the brain.  I am sure I am not the only one who had this experience watching Zim, but whether it’s GIR quotes like “TO MAKE ROOM FOR THE TUNA” or “HE’S BEEN HERE THE WHOOOOOOOOOLE TIME” I still to this day cannot resist quoting that show with anyone I meet who has seen it.

Where Zim intersects with high Nigerian literature in my brain is with the word “taco.”  To this day, more than a decade removed from that freshman year marathon of a goofy cartoon, I find that word popping into the most random conversations, or in any of the syntactic situations mentioned at the beginning of this post.  It did not help that one of my best friends during and for a long time after college pointed out a popular meme that “TACOCAT is a palindrome!” and further cemented that Mexican staple as my default filler word.

Stepping back from the comedy of the whole situation, I am curious if anyone else has words like “yam” or “taco” that they find themselves uttering when there are few other words to utter.  Certainly monosyllabic food names are no “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” or the wide-ranging “dude” of linguistics paper fame.  Yet all the same, like certain songs become earworms, I find myself with a very small subset of all words constantly hovering at the back of my mind as the ideal filler.  Maybe this is a shockingly bizarre idiosyncrasy of my own, but I would imagine at least some of you who might read this have something similar of your own, even if it is not an ethnic food name.

Putting on Your Shoes

On success, failure, and the tricks to making those first steps out…

A friend of mine recently moved to Tampa from Poland.  He has been stressing out about returning to the US, especially a place as unfamiliar to him, a mountain boy, as raucously suburban Florida.  He has lamented how he has gained weight, how he is uncertain in his new job, and how he has been frustrated dodging hurricanes and trying to find the right apartment to live in.  We have been friends like brothers for more than a decade now, and shared darkest moments and greatest triumphs across the internet while traveling around the globe a dozen times between us, at least by air miles.  But one thing that he seems to struggle with is just getting started on things.

In the office, from his accounts, he is gung-ho about getting the job done and making success for himself where there does not even seem to be any clear path to it.  But outside of the office, he feels trapped a lot – held back from going to the gym, held back from travelling alone, held back from pursuing any kinds of goals or happiness that does not line up quite right with what he hopes for.

In that regard, I have fallen into that frustrating place myself quite a bit.  But as I have gained life experience, what I have found is that a lot of pursuing success outside of your job hinges on taking some terrifying and intimidating first steps.  That, and a lot of self-deception.  A perfect example, and the eponymous one of this entry’s title, is the way that I get myself to go to the gym or go for a run.  I may have a grand plan to work out, but my procrastinating instinct is far stronger than any dream of getting “swoll” or knocking out miles out on the trail.  What I have to do, I find, is to change clothes into running shorts and a T-shirt, and just crossing that much smaller threshold is sufficient to kick off the rest of the event of exercising.  I lie to my “bigger thought process” that I am merely changing clothes, not having to face the prospect of thinking about how much it is going to hurt pushing iron or pounding pavement.

Clearly the simple act of changing clothes is not going to work as a panacea for everybody’s inaction towards exercise or even going for a walk outside.  I do, however, think that there is a deeper principle in action there.  It is not a perfect metaphor, but the chemical process of catalysis involves a similar “cheat code.”  Many chemical reactions require a large amount of initiating energy to kick off, but a proper catalyst can lower the amount of initial energy required for the magic to happen.  In my experience, this is the same way that self-deception works – you use a trick like changing clothes, or stepping through a doorway, or going to the car, etc to bring you closer to initiating a larger task.  The task itself will use the same amount of energy, time, emotional commitment, concentration, or whatever asset you have to bring to bear.  But with that catalyst, you overcome the daunting prospect of leaving your current, known, comfortable state.

This is not a new phenomenon in any way.  Maxims from “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” to “from a tiny acorn grows the mighty oak” helpfully remind us that it takes a small movement or starting point to reach a great goal or grow and thrive in our lives.  What I suggest in this blog entry is to take those wonderful sayings and make them concrete.  Do not get hung up on “visualizing success” or planning everything in detail in advance – if that has never led you to succeed before, then dashing your hopes against the rocks of certain failure is not about to erode them away on any useful time scale.  If you, like me, get caught up in overthinking tasks and even things as notionally simple as going out and dealing with a busy, crowded place full of people you do not know, you can practice at first steps.

This idea is somewhat lampooned, and yet somewhat promoted as a serious concept in the Bill Murray comedy What About Bob?, with the scenes about “baby steps.”  I think the principle is very useful, and one that people tend to forget when they read blogs, articles, and so on that purport to offer a strategy for the chronically frustrated, heavily-analytical sort of person who might read it.  They advocate detailed planning, repeated completion, and other sorts of suggestions that offer little advantage to get past inertia or action paralysis.  What works for those already gifted with motivation and high self-confidence, people whose “reaction profiles” require low energy for initiation (to return to catalysis) is not going to offer a solution to someone who can visualize the worst case scenarios as readily and in as much detail as any success conditions.

What I have found for both myself and my chronically frustrated friend is that once he or I finds that catalyst, that little cheat code or ritual shorn from the larger, harder concept, we both end up reaching our goals far more often than when we try other means of getting to grander ends.  Hopefully this is helpful for some of you who might read this blog down the line!

Worldbuilding with Schiller

On writing and music…

The very first compact disc I ever bought was Schiller’s Voyage, the Anglophone market vesion of his album Weltreise.  I would listen to that album on my Christmas Sanyo portable CD player over and over again, savoring each song like a jawbreaker candy, tonguing and hearing through layer after layer.  With a yard-sale VHS recorder camera, I tried to make videos of the farmland vistas and low mountains that spread out in a beautiful rippling patchwork behind our exurban neighborhood to accompany the music.  I was entranced by that Trance album to where I could ascend in my imagination into these worlds and places that I had never, as a boy in Virginia, been even remotely near.

I sometimes wonder if it was fate that I found that CD, colored circles and round-edged jewel case, at the record store near the library my mother always took us to.  There had always been music to listen to on the radio, and my parents had vinyl and cassettes of all sorts of music.  But this was my first album, that I paid for and owned.  I still vividly remember putting on the ungainly large sampling headphones from the receiver at the store and jumping through the beginnings of several tracks, to “try before I bought” well before the mp3 and streaming brought music down to the status of a utility.

Since that time, more than a decade ago, I have listened to that album so many times as to have lost count only a few months into having it.  The lesson it taught me, to use music as a tool to nudge my mind, has become an ever important part of my life of the mind.  I may not be a great writer, pouring out captivating prose and poetry as quickly as a bird molts off great gouts of shimmering feathers only to grow them anew.  But I have harnessed that discovery to at least make attempts at capturing some of the stories and films that I have concocted in my head on paper and even, tentatively, on video.

Similar to finding the perfect runner’s high I have found that if you need to write particular sorts of things, the right soundtrack or music is marvelously powerful.  When I was in middle and high school, I would put on a lot of new agey-type music to work on the grand fantasy novel I had begun without much plan, relying instead on imagery and setting to carry a plot of only the vaguest dimensions atop.  I think that remains one of my greatest problems is that more than wanting to tell stories I want to take people on journeys like a helicopter pilot through my imagination, shouting out the names of fantastic places and buzzing the snowy heights of mountains in worlds without end.  What happens in those worlds is, to me, unfortunately secondary to their simple existence to be mapped, explored, named, and elucidated.

One of my goals while I have free time here in Qatar has been to work on the mechanics of writing more of that sort of detail – the things that readers are really looking for, as they are not filmgoers looking to watch a travel documentary about a made-up country, but require characters, deeds, and a comprehensible story arc.  To be sure, there are plenty of literary creations that have very little in the way of such things – Wittgenstein’s Mistress is one, for a particularly erudite example (and one I found by way of a David Foster Wallace biography.)  I am not, however, attempting to write about philosophical constructs wrapped in prose-poetry.

To sum up this somewhat meandering blog entry, I have found that using music ccan allow you to find the right words to capture a given place or time, whether you are attempting to pin down a dreamlike otherworld or to write a piece grounded firmly in the last several hundred years of history.  Music, perhaps uniquely among the aesthetic creations of humanity, can open waking gateways into the part of the brain that dreams without the cumbersome need for sleep. Music can send you soaring across landscapes that have no earthly counterpart for good or ill, and for me that first real musical takeoff came from Schiller (named, appropriately, for the German Romantic poet.)

Outsider Inside Out

On Perdido Street Station and the flow of reading…

For anyone who has read China Miéville’s fiction, it can almost feel like a cliché to talk about his portrayal of the outsider and those outside of “polite society.”  It is in many ways a mandatory manifestation of his personal politics, to the point that it becomes a meta-theme among his collected works, whatever their subject matter.  In his visions of strange and often horror-inducing things, the only thing that can redeem someone is their lack of participation in any part of ordinary society.  Their outsider status is like a step down the path towards a kind of half-possible redemption.

The idea of the outsider from “polite society” is, of course, a staple in most speculative fiction.  It is a trope that echoes through fantasy, with nearly every protagonist somehow cut off from the approval and embrace of the people, institutions, and world around them in some form or fashion.  Where that drives the plot is, of course, where variation runs the gamut.  Some stories feature the quest to create normality and to find a place in the world – this is particularly a trope of bildungsroman/coming-of-age stories.  Others rely on the outsider status as a kind of savior figure requirement – one could even argue that this is a feature of religious belief in the idea of Jesus’ being a prophet in his own town that could never be appreciated by it, Gautama Buddha becoming a castaway from his royal birthplace, or the idea of Mohammed wandering off into the desert, a failed merchant of Mecca, and returning wild-eyed and filled with bloodlust to build an empire out of the synergy of Abrahamic and traditional South Arabian religious and cultural products.

I find myself often identifying with this outsider trope, to the degree that when I come across a protagonist like, say, Quentin Coldwater of The Magicians I am initially unsure if I can sympathize enough with him to inveigle myself into his upbringing among the comfortable world of elite northeastern education and tradition.  But even he, despite his social and intellectual success, is inevitably cast as an outsider almost unto himself.  Reconciling that feeling of alienation becomes critical to developing characters and plots, whether revolutionary or reactionary in their natures.

Something that differentiates authors of speculative fiction especially is their portrayal of an understanding of what it feels like to be an outsider, the longing for approval and acceptance, the bitter embrace of the self for what it is, or the redemptive reconciliation of finding a place in the world.  I posit that this most often comes from the way that authors often picture themselves – not integral to their worlds, but rather in many ways exiles from whatever notion of normality pervades the times and places they inhabit.  What authors, then, do differently is instead of simply rebelling, destroying, reforming, or effecting control and change, is to tell stories that soothe that desire through the intellectual comfort of words.  Most fantasy offers at least a glimmer of hope, even Miéville’s dark and largely unrelenting works designed to unsettle and evoke a desire to fix a broken system.

Chasing those glimmers of hope has been a passion of mine as a reader since I was very small.  At this point, thirty-one years into my life, I read almost compulsively.  When I stop reading and have to consider my own place within the world and “the system” and nearly any sociopolitical landscape, I find that I am dissatisfied and frustrated by the way that no matter what frame I choose to look through, I can never quite climb through that frame and find a pattern of life that feels gratifying and meaningful.  I know I am not alone in that sense.

So, instead, like the gamblers in Addiction by Design, I seek out the flow-state of speed-reading, where the words blur together into images like Muybridge kinetic photograpy spun at a rate that blurs the individual shots too much to be clear, but enough to be discernable.  I devour books, slide across the lumpy lines of letters like a slug escaping the sun of social disavowal and a sense of near-constant dislocation from my surroundings.  This flow state of reading and consuming books instead of merely reading them slowly and thoughtfully has been both rewarding and disturbing by turns.  Sometimes it leads me to miss details and mis-remember things from non-fiction or fiction alike.  Other times it means that I can comprehend the feelings and intentions of the works more acutely than if I were to read out loud, approaching each word as a separate symbol demanding detailed decoding.  I often wonder what it feels like for other people to read books, or to read my own words, and I know that that gets into ideas of qualia and perception and individuality, and passes out of the realm of vocabulary and precise words and into art, poetry, and empathy.

What has always driven me to imagine and create things is a desire to share that way that I experience things like music, good writing, and ideas with other people.  I want to show them the good parts of my mind and explore the wild vistas of my dreams and imaginings.  On the one hand, it feels quite selfish. On the other, it feels very generous.  It underlies a lot of the way that I spend days overanalyzing how others interact with me, or I with them, in hopes that I have somehow managed to find common ground with their own perspective or experience.

I was speaking with one of my coworkers today about this whole topic.  I brought up how I experience film and how it generates, mysteriously, this kind of heightened sensation of the world around me from sounds to textures to the edges of objects.  My mind becomes a cinemtographer of reality for a few minutes or hours, and I enjoy reality much more than when I am slogging through an ordinary day of work or listless boredom on a day off.  Sometimes good books, read intensely, can generate that same heightened perception, and I imagine that it has to do with sets of neurotransmitters that people attempt to harness through illicit drug use.  But what frustrated me was that I had a very limited ability to explain the sensation in a way that made sense to him through shared experience, and he did not find that he had ever experienced that sensation himself, at least in a way that lined up with my choices of words to describe it.  All the more reason to keep writing, I suppose, to reifne my ability to express things that seem at first blush to be inexpressible and weird, outsider thoughts from an outsider to every community he has moved amidst.

Embark and Disembark

On the movements of the crowd…

Watching how people behave when boarding and offloading from a bus set off the spark of an idea in my mind today.  It is a mundane moment, and it repeats every moment around the world on trains, planes, buses, trolleys, boats, and nearly any other mass transportation system invented thus far.  That sort of moment is very popular, creatively.  Filmmakers use it to highlight transitions, authors use it to portrary a fluid, chaotic situation for characters to disappear into – the imagery of seas and schools of fish, herds and flocks seems to lurk verbally around the corner, if not leaping before your eyes as a reader or critic.

What struck me, tonight, looking at the people as they milled about towards their various destinations, was how much you can learn about a person at such a moment.  Perhaps it is not something that others find noteworthy – I tend to get hung up on details that should pass withouth much comment. The part that was most intriguing was the way that some people stayed in a clump of friends, even if they did not board all together at the start; others were coupled with the person they shared a seat with, planned or unplanned; most others zipped off like extras on the set of a movie that called for extra-busy pedestrians with no particular destination.

I think that part of the reason why the motif of a milling crowd is so powerful is, at least on some level, the fact that it represents people who were previously “aligned.”  In the case of bus riders or those on a train, they are literally lined up in one direction, or bands of a particular direction, as though they were human representations of magnetic forces all being pulled in the same direction. This is as true for prehistoric processions and caravans of people as it is for riders on a sleek bullet train.  At the moment of embarkation, though, those same people were individuals, chaotic, moving around with the potential to be any sort of crowd or to remain an aggregate of individuals and small groups. Upon disembarkation, that orderly line of people and their things returns to a state of near infinite potential.

Out of those moments of potential can come a dramatic reunion, a chance encounter, a fateful meeting.  A crowd can flee a disaster, or become unwitting pawns of viral marketers.  Few other circumstances besides transportation and mass, synchronized movements can offer quite that same opportunity for a writer, filmmaker, or anyone who finds themselves desiring of orchestrating human interactions. Maybe on the next time that you are able to take a moment getting in or on, out or off of a line of people in transit, look at the hundreds of stories all unfolding about you and enjoy the complexity of our lives.