A Fifth of Bliss

He who clings to the void and neglects compassion does not reach the highest stage. But he who practices only compassion does not gain release from the toils of existence. He however who is strong in practice of both, remains neither in samsara nor in nirvana.

—Saraha

Galactic Scoundrels

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My son and I just got back from the local tabletop game store (which rules, by the way), where we hung out at the kickoff party for Galactic Scoundrels, created by a local game company we backed on Kickstarter a few months ago.

It’s a storytelling game played with cards, dice, and (in our case) an appreciation for fart jokes. You’re collaboratively creating the dumbest or weirdest or bawdiest space western you can come up with. The game benefits immensely if you commit to either creating an over-the-top story or becoming a cartoonishly Randian scumbag.

Everyone in the game plays at being an off-brand Han Solo. You’re a space pirate with a ship that starts out as cheap crap and a moral code that hopefully ends up the same way. You try to bluff your way into a job (smuggling, theft, etc.) for some quick cash. If you get it, you do your best not to screw it up. While everyone else tries to screw you. Unless they’re trying to help you. For a price. Assuming they aren’t lying. Which they probably are.

It was me and my 11-year-old boy playing with an eighth-grader and one of the store’s employees, and we were all friends by the end of the first round. We faced everything from black holes to wormholes to a-holes to awkward sexual tension. We had only our guns, our wits, some bribing cash, and not a little bit of smarm to help us. Sometimes we could face a problem head on, sometimes we had to jettison unstable cargo or use a paying passenger as a human shield.

And we laughed. We laughed a lot. This thing was made for parties. It’s silly and funny and things are perfectly structured so the storytelling experience can fall anywhere on the spectrum from PG to Pornhub, depending on the crowd.

So far I’ve noticed only two weaknesses that really aren’t. One is that our first game, playing all three “episodes”, took well over an hour, so a full game isn’t quick. It feels like that’ll speed up as everyone gets familiar with the rules, though. And you can always play just an episode or two or use special “house rules” to accelerate things if you want to keep it to 30 minutes or less.

The other is that the biggest strength of the game is also its potential weakness: the story. The mechanics are fun enough, but the reason I’m bothering to write about the game at all its storytelling aspect. If you’ve got a group doing paint-by-numbers plots where the hacked data you’ve made off with is “spy secrets”, you won’t have as much fun. But if you’re playing with people who’ll imagine the data is the galactic president’s browser history, you’re going to have a ball. Story is such a big part of it that I didn’t care who won. I just wanted to see what happened next.

Right now I don’t know how to buy if you aren’t a backer and don’t live in central Arkansas, though you may be able to buy from Game Goblins’ site (the first link up top). I’m sure the creators would be delighted to help you if you contact them. They’re delightful nerds who made a delightful nerd game that made my entire weekend. I can’t imagine they’d be anything less than helpful. Here’s hoping this will be a springboard to even bigger successes for them.

Seems appropriate that it was Diablo

Blizzard announced this week a new Diablo game for mobile, not PC or console. Fans completely lost all perspective and succumbed to blind rage.

It’s really, really easy to make a nerd burn here or do the usual “kids today are so entitled” thing that literally every generation has done. But the real concern for me here is yet more fandamentalism. More from the new Church of Entertainment. More of people trying to find meaning by clutching at things that could not be more meaningless. And waiting in the wings? Are those ready to exploit it.

It’s easy, too, to get lost in judgment while watching it, but what I feel right now is heartache. Because what I see is a whole lot of needless suffering and fear. Fear of what Russell Brand (!) perfectly termed the unrelenting echo of an unfillable void.

I don’t know how we fix this. I refuse to believe that it isn’t fixable. But the rot is deep and the scale is staggering. It may take massive calamity before we awaken to it. Or, as Alan Watts once put it, “You won’t wake up until you feel you’ve paid a price for it.”

We Are What We Pretend to Be

I just finished watching Lodge 49. It’s wonderful. No one I’ve asked has heard of it.

It’s difficult to describe, beyond the setup: a down-and-out surfer finds a signet ring from a local fraternal order on the beach and returns it to the lodge. When he sees the dying lodge and meets the struggling people within, he falls in love with it and asks if he can join.

The lodge’s history is steeped in alchemy and ritual, so the show itself has mysteries, of course. But they almost seem beside the point, despite their intrigue. Todd VanDerWerff wrote about this halfway through the season:

It’s not clear what the larger point of the series is, or where all of its mystical portents and hints about some larger purpose for these characters are going. There’s a strong subplot about Dud’s twin sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy), who’s working at a Hooters-ish sports bar named Shamroxx, because she’s so burdened down with debt passed down to her by her and Dud’s deceased father. There’s a dead body in a secret, hidden room in the lodge. There’s a loose seal wandering across the road.

All of this, I think, has led to people trying to guess what Lodge 49 means. It has some of the outward trappings of a mystery show like Lost or Twin Peaks, so it must play by the same rules as those shows, right? But the series’ fourth episode, “Sunday,” is as good an argument as anything that the series is less about trying to make sense of its many loose ends and more about realizing that you find life amid the loose ends.

Lodge 49 is the anti-Lost. It’s a deliberate inversion of the (very successful) mystery-meat show format. In this case, the mystery isn’t the main course; its function is mostly to agitate the characters into opening themselves up to one another. It gives them reasons to build and sustain a community. So the show will reveal the occasional mummified corpse or Bruce Campbell, but it’s mostly content to wander and explore and build connections. It’s been called “deceptively aimless”. And that makes it a breath of fresh air.

Todd wrote this more recently about the overdue decline of the white male anti-hero and the punishment of women for entertainment. It hits the issue from pretty much all sides, and the whole thing’s worth a read, but this bit leapt out at me:

But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve capped an era full of white male antihero protagonists with a president who feels like he might as well be the main character of an antihero drama in some other universe, where viewers thrill at how he always dances one step ahead of the forces that would bring him down, cheered on by toadies and sycophants who eagerly abandon principle in the face of finally grasping power.

This is also a delicate dynamic to talk about because the surest path toward boring, bland art is to insist that it be morally, ethically, socially, and politically palatable. We need shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad to help us ponder the darkness within humanity, and within ourselves as individuals. To insist that art conform to some code of righteousness is a shortcut to making art that’s not worth thinking about....

What I am suggesting is that advocating for representation on TV and in films is not merely about painting an accurate, inclusive picture of the world we live in. Yes, we need more women antiheroes, more antiheroes of color, and so on — but we also need to think about how the stories we tell create long grooves in our culture, grooves that eventually crystallize into reflexive beliefs about who gets to be the protagonist and how they go about being that protagonist.

Read that last sentence again. The stories we tell create long grooves in our culture. It took me a while to understand that there is such a thing as a cultural illness, and that too many Travis Bickles and Jesse Jameses and Eric Cartmans often lie at the root of it. If you don’t believe that, sit down and listen to how Johnny Cash sang “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Then go into any bar where it’s playing and listen to how the drinkers sing that line.

Vonnegut wrote “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” But he decided that wasn’t clear enough, so he wrote this too: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

I used to think that people who were troubled by phenomena like South Park were being uptight and humorless. Now I wonder whether South Park’s omnipresent “screw you for caring about stuff” theme carved some of the grooves that helped pave the way for our current predicament.

My hope is that we’re waking up to it. The current president* may not be a coincidence, but neither is the appearance of two movies about Mister Rogers or the slow rise of shows like Lodge 49 or The Good Place. I don’t think stories will save us. But maybe we’re starting to realize that stories have shaped us more than we suspected.

Who am I?

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Hence, in order to realise that inherent and untainted happiness, which indeed he daily experiences when the mind is subdued in deep sleep, it is essential that he should know himself. For obtaining such knowledge, the question ‘Who am I?’ in quest of the Self is the best means.

—Sri Ramana Maharshi

Cleaning House

Took me awhile after leaving the place, but I finally got it done. Some of it was foot dragging, some of it was technical hurdles, but after a couple weeks of farting around and sending support emails, I've finally purged my Twitter history.

But, you ask, what will we do without your archive of shitposts? To this I say, if you love something, let it go.

I’ve covered the whys of my leaving before, and mostly inertia kept me from sweeping up after I left. Jack doubling down on the “we should let Nazis and other abusers have their say about whether people are people” horse hockey finally got me fired up to finish the job. Plus I’m not sad about erasing all evidence of my previous shitposting.

Part of me really is sorry to do it. Twitter circa 2008 was a delight. It was a kitchen conversation the whole world was invited to. The whole world showed up, sat at the table or hunkered down on the floor by the lazy Susan cabinet in the corner, and we all got to know each other. We gave each other a window into our lives. We made jokes. Dear god, did we go overboard with that part.

But, if you followed the right people, there was love in that room. This isn't nostalgia. If you've been around that long, go use advanced search and look at your timeline from 10 years ago. It's a different place. A place that brought daily delight.

So I'm not angry. I'm sad. I'm sad to see yet another bunch of ostensibly well-meaning white men with money fuck things up for everyone. I'm sorry that that kitchen conversation devolved into becoming, as one friend so perfectly put it, the paper bag that we all scream into now.

My Facebook's gone, my Metafilter account's gone, and my toots are all purged (well, all but 175 that appear to be unfindable even from my archive). And I feel better now. More at peace. Less distracted from the people around me that need me now, today.

I made countless friends through those venues. Friends on nearly every continent. Friends who I’ve laughed and grieved with. Friends who have met me in, God, four countries outside of this one. I am sorry to shut the door on these places. But I'm not sorry to embrace what has come next. The next right thing. The next person who needs me. The next quiet moment, the next gift of boredom. Let us give thanks for having nothing to entertain us.

(Oh, for the record, I used TweetEraser to do the deed. No recurring monthly fee, no auto-posting to your timeline, and they patiently helped my dumb ass through multiple failed attempts when I didn't read the directions closely enough.)

Update: Scratch that. Now it’s 194 tweets. What the hell, Twitter.

Lost

The frogs were loud.

I was in the hammock last night, in the summer we stubbornly insist is still spring. Took me a minute to worry myself into my sweet spot for the night.

When I did, I noticed the frogs. I swayed there above the creek and listened to them call out for companionship and wondered if I could sleep in it. This high crickety lonesome. Like bubble wrap that somehow needs oiling.

There was that gnawing at the back of my head that so many of us word people feel, someone knocking on the other side of the basement door and saying "I have a gift for you. An idea. Use it now, or at least store it someplace safe until you can. Who knows when I'll come back."

So I reached up to the pouch that hung on the ridgeline above me, brushing past a book of Jane Yolen short stories, and I pulled out my phone as the sentence congealed. There was something to it, I thought, so I banged it out quick in my drafts app.

"The frogs were loud."

And then I said my prayer. I receive this gift with thanks, I acknowledge its heft, and I promise you that I will write it just as soon as I can. But I hope you will understand that I must sleep now.

And I did. It was deep and dreamless. I stirred only once when it had gotten cool enough to pull the blanket over me, maybe once more to worry over a pinched nerve. When I woke, I thought about my whiteboard.

Lance taught me about whiteboard meditation. You write something on your whiteboard and linger over it, see where it leads. I did my first one last week, and this is what I wrote:

YOU'RE LOOKING TO GET LOST

So many of my decisions, particularly the ones I've regretted, have been driven by what I believe is a fundamental need to lose myself. To be free of my own obsessions and fears and resentments and self-consciousness and, well, me.

I've found a healthy loss of me through helping others, through communing with that presence I reluctantly call "God", through immense suffering and loss. I never get it the right way when I chase it, yet chase it I have, in ways big and small. Through chemistry, through challenges to my endurance, through an addictive “faith” that was more like a dare, through women. And, I think, through stories and song too.

If you ask me to go to a party, I may say yes, but I will think no. If you ask me to be left alone with a story, to sit in a chair and read something that turns me, to sit in the dark and let a glowing screen change my feelings, I will leap at that chance.

I looked at that writing cue. The frogs were loud. And I thought about that smear of marker. You're looking to get lost. And I wondered. Should I write? Why?

Everyone who loves me will say yes, I should, because I have a gift. You have been given this, they tell me. It's a sin not to use it.

Okay, maybe, but for what?

Because what I want to do with it is get lost in it. Better if I can make you get lost too, because then you'll love me, won't you? Ask me what I wish I could do most of all, and I'd say I wish I could tell stories that delight. I want that for me, because I want that for me. That seems like a bad way to spend that gift, to feed it to my ego or use it as an escape pod.

It may be lucky that I've never really seen a story through. It may be the best thing for my health. Because the world is out there, people are out there, and if I'm going to get lost, shouldn't I get lost in them? In their stories? Shouldn't I be there to celebrate their triumphs, to hold them in their grief? Is that what the words are for?

The frogs were loud. My god, you wouldn't believe it if you haven't heard it. They knew nothing of anxiety or resentment or dread. They exulted in a natural compulsion: Tonight I must sing, because that is my nature.

And they sang, but not to me. Not for me, though it felt so. It felt as though I were in the center of it all, taking it in, letting it build in me until I could find the right means to grab your hand and tell you to listen, this matters, the frogs were loud and it changed me, it can change you too.

What is that for? Why is it?

What now?

I cannot find enlightenment or fulfillment by seeking it. I fail at the very first step because it is at odds with the very reason that I want it. I want it for me. And it isn't for me. Yet I have these words, and I am paralyzed because I don't know how to use them just for you. I don't know how to sing like the creekfrogs. They sing together. They sing to stay alive. They need not worry why because they cannot be corrupted as I am.

I want to lose that corruption. I want to lose me. I'm sick of me. And I know where to do it. I lose me in you. But I can twist even that into something it was not meant to be. So the words are a gift, yes, but they are also a burden. They put me at risk to be no longer useful to you. And without you, I go back to being something I've learned to fear.

I don't have a tidy bow for this. I have only the question of what now. I suppose it's time to shut up and listen. To find someone I can help, and trust that the words will eventually either show me what they are for, or else leave me alone.

Them Thar Hills

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The beauty of the Ozarks is nigh on to cubist. It is angle and protrusion, knot and jag. The Ozarks are a broken nose that didn't set quite straight, a tombstone worn illegible, a lover's lips blessing a c-section scar. Theirs is the beauty of use and meaning and scrabbling for a life lived hard.

When the fall comes, the trees go to the bone and the woods are a wake of tottering, knee-walking drunks swaying to a hiss and rattle danse macabre under a corpsewhite sky. Everything is contrast and vacancy.

But in the spring and summer, the hills will rain their life down on you. They will pack it in your nostrils, rub it into your eyes, grind out a shotgun-wedding waltz on the legs of crickets and the bellies of cicadas until you can hear the heat. The hills will not allow you to forget that life only comes in a surge of mess and scent and howling, that sweat is sometimes a wedding ring and walking is often climbing. They welcome you, and they dare you.

I left the Ozarks 16 years ago, but my heart is still buried in their clay, stained orange and still beating, somewhere deep in a bootlegger's cave.

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How do we write now?

You are completely at its mercy and it is your kingdom. The apples are all the things you have ever compared to apples. The stars are all the ways you have tried to describe the stars. Paradise is not just the day when the poem pours down like Niagara with the hottest couple in the world kissing steamily behind it, it is also the day that you spend changing the word A to THE and back again. That concentration is reverence. You are passing the beads of things through your fingertips and your head is bowed and your mouth is moving and the preexisting rhythm has found its place in you.

I’m not saying you’re lucky to be there. I’m saying as long as you live there you are in opposition to the powers that rule the world. You are the opposite of money. You are against presidents, oil spills, slaughterhouses, Young Sheldon. You’re the opposite of the red button under Matt Lauer’s desk. You’re the opposite of the red button that ends it all. You have never been so hard in your own name. Nobody has you.

Patricia Lockwood reminds me that the world still is, that llamas matter, that the place where I burn is always open.

I wanted to quote pretty much all of this, but I thought I’d focus on the promise, the target we forget to aim at. You are the opposite of money. You have never been so hard in your own name.

God damn.

Papa said drinking was for nighttime and for fools

The boy couldn’t ask Grandfather, either, for Grandfather was off again, into the snowy woods, to sing and to dance under the trees and wear beech leaves in his hair till the policeman brought him back: “Keep old Crazy Anders at home, please.”

—Jane Yolen, “Andersen’s Witch”

Just figured out what kind of granddad I want to be

You’ll have to come looking, I guess

I ditched active participation in Twitter several months ago. The outrage cycle was tiring. People shouting THREAD over and over again was tiring. The endless punishment of women and people of color while the Nazis were constantly given what could only absurdly be termed “free speech consideration” was exhausting.

Twitter seemed so full of promise once. It looked like it could change the world, and unfortunately, it did.

It’s like a high-speed microcosm of the Boomer generation, all promises of a new world of prosperity and ideas shared and debated, but then money and power start making demands and everything gets thrown in reverse. Such is Twitter, and such is America forever if we don't figure it out.

Though I had “left”, I kept coming to Twitter when called; I still had my blog alert my followers there when I made a post. I did that because of you, because Twitter brought a tsunami of wonderful people into my life, and I am desperate to stay in touch and remind you all how much you mean to me.

But it was also about ego. It was about “outreach”, a word that here means faves and attaboys. I hunger for that too, and it is a part of me that I would drag into an alley and kick to death if I knew how. But I can at least starve it.

I have no dreams of blogging professionally. I have a career that I like that pays me more than all but the most successful writers dream of, and that gives me options I would not otherwise have. So it wasn’t ever about money or fame. I’m just a dog whining to be petted, when you get right down to it.

I could justify that to myself before, but it's getting harder now. Not when women are being banned for criticizing men while the president* unintentionally brags about the size of his clitoris to North Korea and intentionally stokes the fires for war. I can't even distantly participate in a service that bigoted and loony. If I do, I’ve sold off the best part of me just like Jack and Biz did.

So I’m done. Facebook will never touch my new phone and I'm cutting the last remaining cord to Twitter.

I do hope you'll keep poking around here from time to time, and yes, that is still about both you and me. I'm working on it. But I hope I'm at least finally content to wonder whether anyone's listening, without seeking an answer.

Christmas 2017

It’s that time again. Here’s my ramblings for another season. Delivered on time, for a change.

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Dear Everyone,

It was Josh who gave me my first Nalgene bottle. Part of a care package he gave me before leaving for upstate New York and the Night’s Watch about one point five decades ago. I covered it with stickers and drank water from it. Fifteen or so years went by. Then I went camping.

Jack's Webelos den leader had planned a cold weather camping trip up in the Boston Mountains in early December. Weather originally looked to dip slightly below freezing, which we'd done before with no trouble.

The trees had gone to the bone weeks before we made camp. The wind was a gossip. We were down in a hollow and out of the worst of the breeze, but the sun left us to heap on clothes and hug the fire. We watched the night scratch and rattle its way down toward 20°, well below what we’d camped in before.

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The boy and I'd planned to string ourselves up in fancy hammock tents, but insulation is always a concern when you're dangling above ground. He asked if maybe he could go sleep in Alex's tent instead? Yes, of course, buddy. If you can't find me in the morning, go check the bench by the showers in the bathroom, okay?

Later that night I got him down and eventually debated myself away from the fire and over to my tent. I had a bunch of blankets, a sub-freezing sleeping bag, a fire-engine-red union suit and a whole lot of worry. Then some random neuron fired and I recalled Josh's Nalgene.

He'd extolled its many features and benefits in the attached note. "Once I was camping in cold weather," he wrote. "Before bed, I boiled some water, poured it in my bottle, wrapped a shirt around it and stuffed it in the bottom of my sleeping bag."

Aha.

Friends, I am here to spread the good news. My toes warmed instantly. I lay there, cozy as could be, and recited a very long gratitude list as I listened to the coyotes summon the moon.

I am grateful for my mummy bag.

I am grateful for my blankets.

I am grateful for my hat.

I am grateful for the lee side of the mountain.

I am grateful for the woman I watched playing with wolves yesterday.

I am grateful for the pot of veggie chili I had for supper.

I am grateful that I am packed into this nylon tube and suspended amid nature's annual death rattle, Dutch-ovening myself because of the chili, with no cell service.

I am grateful for a plastic bottle. A plastic bottle that has warmed me three times: Once when it was given, once when I recalled the gift and its attached advice, once with my toes nestled up against it.

I woke not long after dawn to a well-frosted tent. I made coffee. I dried and packed my gear. I came home. I kissed my wife and daughter and dog. I showered and shaved my head and eased myself back into civilization clothing and civilization eating and civilization life.

Checking out like this is a sheer luxury, I know that. But it helped. It helped with my fear and worry and frustration. But it wasn’t checking out that did it. It was yet again being dragged into the world of others.

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Watching the kids pointedly not swearing while rassling tent poles. Letting my boy show me every natural shelter outcropping he'd scouted out (three of them in total). Gathering with four other men and our children around a fire and sharing our stories. We communed in the death that is December, we passed candy and cocoa and opinions, and our species again seemed possible. Certainly worth fighting for.

I am grateful for this boy. For these friends. For this life. This life in which I got so damn lucky that I almost feel ashamed.

It's been too long since we’ve gathered around you. We need to get together. We need to remind each other. Maybe we'll cast our stories out into the cold, see what thaws.

My coat still smells of fire. I haven't washed it. I know I have to. But not yet.

Achievement Unlocked:

In the last five days, I have:

  • Driven 650 miles
  • Made and blind-baked four pie crusts
  • Roasted and braised a turkey
  • Made sides and gravy for 16
  • Reserved enough broth to make turkey gravy salted caramels (YES I WILL, MOTHER FUCKERS)
  • Waited to hear if my nephew has a brain tumor (he doesn’t, hell yes)
  • Hosted family overnight
  • Run a frankly absurd number of dishwasher loads
  • Hand-washed all the family china
  • Done an introvert-month’s worth of socializing
  • Invented the unit of measurement known as the introvert-month
  • Eaten enough carbs that I feel Confession is warranted, despite my Protestant-bordering-on-Unitarian leanings
  • Made my father-in-law cry

Every inch worth it. Tomorrow, I return to work, so that I may rest.

Home again

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We have returned from vacation and I have fetched the still-recovering boy from his grandparents'.

I have been tempted to whine about the hundreds of miles I've driven the last two days. But I thought of how much he's quietly endured this week, painful heartworm treatments and prednisone and temporary relocation across state lines while I laid on a beach. Yet my boy still cried and damn near threw a hip wagging his tail when he laid eyes on me.

Some say that we don't deserve dogs. I say that we are all home, and that is what I needed most.

hashtag parenting

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Tom King wrote the hell out of The Vision. It's a lovely and terrible story that's three parts surburban desperation and one part straight-up horror. It has one of the most poignant and unexpected applications of Chekhov's gun I have ever seen.

Comics fans have been happy for a while now to see our favorite characters mainstreamed onto screens big and small. Such is our delight that we have quietly tolerated those movies and shows lagging about two decades behind the kinds of stories even mainstream commercial comics are willing to tell.

Every superhero movie's third act is essentially "now we punch robots". Tom gave us a robot who makes the compromises he must to protect his family, who does everything he knows to be right and still loses. Who might be willing to burn the world to keep them safe.