Taking The Piss Out of Magic: What it Isn’t and What it Really Isn’t: Special Gaming Edition

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flashlightDo you Recall that glorious moment in The Return of the King when Gandalf rides out to save Feramir and the last defenders of Osgiliath! Do you remember when he raised his staff and great light issued forth, driving the ring-wraiths away (along with all the cool kids who happen to be reading these here lines)? Yes, well, I do too. And now that it’s just us nerds here in the blog, let us talk of wondrous things!

What I’m particularly interested in on this dark morning here on the tail end of polar midnight, (aside from hope of a Gandalf-like ray of sun-light soon to come) is the way that some folks (ahem gamers!) often speak of wondrous things in particularly unwondrous ways.

‘Unwondrous’, Yeah, it’s a word now dammit!

One of the amusing meta-games that gamers have been playing ever since those heady-days of the early 80s is the game of “how do you stat that?” You know, the one where you decide that the Arnold version of Conan is a 10th level Ranger with an eighteen double-ought strength, and then your friend says; “hell no, he’s a 12th level fighter and he must have supernatural strength, 20 at least, …probably Chaotic Good alignment.” Then someone says; “You must be nuts! He’s easily true neutral.” …yeah, we geeks do that. Well anyway, the game of “how do you stat that” really comes into its own with magical effects, because stating magic helps to define the fantasy worlds in which the games take place.

In Tolkien’s work, mythic narratives began to flourish in fantasy fiction. Hell, for a time they almost seemed cool, cool enough for the mighty Zep at any rate, and this was a significant part of the cultural background informing the early days of pen&paper RPGs. But here is one moment where the game of stating the worlds around you  (real or imagined) always seemed to fall short for me, at least in mainstream games. They fall short really the minute the game of stat this is played.

You see, to stat that magic moment in which Gandalf drives off the wraiths in AD&D one would need to assign his light effect to a designated spell with a designated range, area of effect, and duration, all defined in precise mathematical terms. The effects of light on undead would be clearly defined in this spell, and the sort of power it takes to generate the spell would also be clearly explained. In Dungeons and Dragons and many of the games emulating it, this wondrous moment in the story becomes a function of well-defined principle of mechanics. One might even suggest that it becomes part of the natural laws of the universe in which the games take place.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed countless hours of manipulating precisely those very mechanics over the game table. Good times! I wouldn’t part with them for brand new vorpral sword. But one thing is definitely lost in this approach to gaming, the wondrous part of it all. The rules of mainstream fantasy games normalize the features of mythic narratives to such a degree that they become a kind of demi-science. One can often see gamers haggling over the details of some magic effect or trying to plot the precise mathematical formula needed to ensure that all the orcs on the game table fry-up in a fireball without singing the elven maiden. in most cases there is nothing mysterious about it; the game rules tell us exactly how this sort of thing works. It’s how many of these games are played.

What is lost in this approach to gaming is the very fluid nature of the narratives which inspire and inform the genre. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t really present us with a theory of Gandalf’s light, not a complete one at any rate. We might imagine that Gandalf is able to generate that effect because of some arcane set of rules we know nothing about, but what we have in a mythic narrative is simply the fact that he did that, odd as the whole thing may be. Wondering just how such seemingly impossible feats actually happen is an important part of the story. Wondering about it at the game table? Not so much. Not usually anyhow.

In the scientization of mythic narratives, the spell-books of classic fantasy gaming effectively set that wonder aside. Of course there are alternative approaches to the subject, such as those used in story-teller games, but my purpose here isn’t to argue for upping the nerditude of the game table. It’s to comment on something I consider an interesting twist in the culture of fantasy gaming, namely its tendency to frame wondrous things in terms of a well defined rational principles.

If fantasy games presents us with a kind of alternative physics, I don’t think this is entirely unique to modern perspectives on the subject. One sees it in references to The Force of Star Wars, and still more so in the theme-killing notion of Midi-chlorians (microorganisms responsible for the force. …blech)! You can see it in old Theosophical notions of an astral plane through which emotional and psychic powers turn out to follow a kind of physics in their own right, and of course you can see it in sundry New Age efforts to turn Quantum Mechanics into a science of wishful thinking. Folks use these notions and others like them to embed the uncanny moments of a narrative in a theory which makes sense of it. In some cases, that is the total point of the theory; in others it is one of many uses.

Time and again, folks seem to want to find a theory in stories made wonderful precisely because they defy our theories, or more importantly, because they defy our normal strategies for making sense of the world. What makes the moment Gandalf creates his light effect compelling is precisely our inability to fully make sense of it. It is likewise with more traditional epic narratives such as the role of missletoe in the killing of Baldur in Norse mythology, the origin of sea mammals in the in Sedna’s severed fingers, or the forceful eviction of the Gambler in Navajo legends (he was fired up into the skies from a great bow). What all of these and so many more narratives share is not conformity to an arcane set of natural laws so much as a momentary in-your-face violation of expectations which people are most familiar.

What I am suggesting here is that the notion of magic isn’t really a part of these narratives, or at least that it is not the key to understanding the momentary occurrence of irrational events. Such stories may relate information about a natural order (such as a world in which the availability game-animals are in some sense part of an active relationship to Sedna), but that order does not itself explain the moment in which something odd springs forth from her severed fingers.One doesn’t really need a theory to explain why such an event would occur, nor need one assume that someone telling that story entertains such a theory to explain the event they describe. One needs only to understand that the outcome of the narrative will be meaningful. In the interim, the shear absurdity of moments in that story is a thing to be savored, not to be explained away.

The notion of magic along with its specific variations come into such stories in efforts to square them with more familiar realities. Where the uncanny can be a feature of such stories, it becomes a bug when one imposes an expectation of literal truth upon it. So, people sometimes concoct a theory to explain the matter. Some of those theories provide an ad hoc defense of the uncanny, and sometimes they damn it as in the more pejorative uses of terms like ‘magic’ or ‘myth’, but the explanations remain ad hoc in either event, providing us with no real insight into the stories.

Magic, resides in the secondary and even tertiary rationalization of mythic narratives, but there is no reason to believe it resides in the narratives themselves. We needn’t imagine Tolkien plotting an area of effect for Gandalf’s wraith-baffling light ray, nor do we need to ascribe a theory of mythic-evolution to Inuit story-tellers relating the story of Sedna. Hell, we don’t even need to imagine that the Book of Genesis constitutes an attempt to explain the cosmos, though a world touched by the hand of Thomas Aquinas can hardly seem to imagine otherwise.

There is something in the effort to find a theory behind wondrous narratives that does violence to those narratives themselves. Such theories always end up falling short of their source material. It is the same whether we are talking about the hackneyed apologetics of fundamentalist Christians looking to read a consistent theory into all the traditions crammed into the Bible; an anthropologist trying to find such a theory in the oral traditions of some exotic people, or yes; something as simple as a gam designer trying to fit a wondrous theme into a rule system. The explanation never quite lives up to the promise of its inspiration.

Sometimes that failure matters more than others, but for me at any rate, the disappointment is a fairly common reaction. What concerns me most nowadays is the ease with which people seem to accept that mythic narratives ought to have a theory behind them, a set of principles that will explain them, even if only in terms of an error. That just isn’t the case. Sometimes this expectation gives us bad story-telling, sometimes it steers a whole generation of fantasy-gamers right past the fantastic part of fantasy, and sometimes it leads people to genuinely misunderstand great texts and brilliant oral traditions. Either way the variety of magics are never quite as brilliant as the stories which inspire them.

Magic itself just isn’t all that compelling, but a man playing chess with a fish or a cat that sings itself into a dragon? No explanations required.

…or wanted!

One Story to Rule Them All!

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the_hobbit_the_battle_of_the_five_armies_2-t2We All know that the ring destroyed the kings of men. We know it haunted Bilbo all those years in the shire. The ring destroyed Boromir and he was never even a ring bearer. We all watched as Frodo waste away under the influence of the one ring. But my question is what has the ring done to Peter Jackson?(Warning – Spoilers to follow. And yes, I know. I’m a grumpy old grognard. It’s worse than you think.)Yeah, I finally saw The Battle of the Five Armies, so I guess now is as good a time as any to share my thoughts on it. I’m not angry really. I’m just disappointed. More than that, I am concerned, very concerned.

I think I read the hobbit around 6th grade or soon thereafter. What I remember of the book was an enjoyable light read. It was the sort of story you read when young and cherish well into adulthood. I could identify with it as a youth because it was the story of a child like character adrift in a world larger in every respect than he was. Bilbo learned to get along in the Hobbit, even to thrive in it, but he never quite got a handle on the larger forces at work in that story, and neither did we as its readers.

It was a fascinating world that Bilbo carried us into. It was a world of myth to be sure, but not just because of the elves and the dragons. It was also a story in which the quest for gold seemed a perfectly sufficient reason to undertake a dangerous adventure, and a world in which orcs and goblins attack, because frankly that’s what they do. It’s a just-so logic that guides the Lord of the Rings, and that is just as any good mythic narrative would have it. a world in which great wars will happen. They will simply happen. No need for political complexities or struggles on which the fate of a whole world will hang. That sort of story will come later, but in the Hobbit, wars happen for lesser reasons, and that is all there is to it.

It is one of the charming features of The Hobbit that Bilbo never quite accepts the logic of that world, at least not its more violent features. His rejection is visceral, childlike. It isn’t a worldly critique of the Draco-gold standard or the perils of Dwarven realpolitik. Bilbo never quite understands the logic of the battle which serves as the focus of this last film, not that I remember anyway. One suspects that there is nothing really to understand; it is simply what these characters were born to do, how Thorin was born to die.

Tolkien dies not unleash the complexities of Middle Earth on his readers until the Lord of the Rings. He did rewrite the Hobbit to put it more in sink with the larger work, but even then he let much of the larger scheme rest on the background of The Hobbit. We may even see hints of that larger scheme, even as we continue to see hints of material from the Silmarillion in the Lord of the Rings. But what isn’t explained in both stories is as essential to the story as what is. Tolkien understands this. If Jackson ever did understand it, he has almost certainly forgotten it by now.

Watching The Hobbit has been a lot like attending a play with someone who has read he script and wants to make sure we know it, along with everyone in the next three rows. Just as an annoying theater-troll will spout the next lines ahead of the actors, Jackson keeps turning The Hobbit into a chance to tell us about the Lord if the Rings. He simply will not let the Hobbit be the Hobbit. It must instead be a prequel to that later (larger) story.

Focused as he is on the grand scheme of things, Jackson has all but forgotten Bilbo. The epic narrative that Jackson insists on relating has little time for a simple hobbit and little place for aHobbits point of view. Yes Bilbo does many of the same things in this trilogy that he does in the book, but his story is never really allowed to compete with that of Thorin’s quest for power, the rise of the bowman to leadership, the doomed love affair between a Dwarven romeo and his elven Juliette, or for that matter, Gandalf’s efforts to piece together the story of the Necromancer. How could Bilbo possibly compete with all that!

All that Bilbo can do is to play a bit part in a failed bid to avert a war. Yet, the problem isn’t that Bilbo is a minor player in the great scheme of things. Rather it is that this version of The Hobbit has forgotten the importance of bit players. It is too interested in the great heroes to give any real credence to those with humbler ambitions. In that respect, this version of The Hobbit couldn’t have wanderd further away from its original source.

This Hobbit is a story that contains a hobbit, but it most certainly is not a story about a hobbit. It is too busy being a story about other things.

So what? If Jackson and his writing team want to tell a different story, there is no particular reason why they shouldn’t do just that. And yet The Hobbit remains unsatisfying (for me at any rate) because it can never really be what Jackson and his team want it to be, which is another Lord of the Rings. The story line simply doesn’t support the tone of an epic narrative; it’s characters have never been quite up to the task. The Dwarves are just a bit too foolish, the elves a bit too vain, and the men too reluctant to be anything at all. These are interesting characters for a story with less ambition than Jackson has brought to the story. For a grand epic, they simply will not do. So The Hobbit trilogy remains overshadowed and upstaged by the epic narrative which is to follow, the one we’ve already seen, the one against which this story cannot help but pale in comparison.

Yes, Jackson and company can certainly tell us what ever story they like, but I cannot help thinking something a little closer to the original Hobbit would have been more valuable. I find myself wanting to say; we’ve seen this. You did it right the first time. Now show us something new.

But alas! This was not to happen.

For whatever reason, Jackson could not bring himself to let the hobbit be the hobbit, or even to fashion it into something altogether new and creative. So many of his interventions pull the story towards the Lord of the Rings, which is something it simply can never be. Jackson’s heart is set on the Lord if the rings. His mind is bent on it. And it is his master.

The final scenes of the Hobbit are filled with allusions to the coming trilogy, and truth be told, that is to be expected, even relished. Yet each of these references drags on a bit too long. We get the reference to Aragorn, and we get the moment Bilbo replies to a knock on his door, which is actually kind of clever, or at least it would have been if Jackson had been content to let a couple quick lines connect the two stories. But he can’t do that. Jackson has to make sure we get the point, and each of these references seems to carry on well after we get the point.

Spoiling it.

It seems as though Jackson just cannot let the coming epic go, and the urge to tell us about his precious Lord of the Rings won’t let him settle for a proper allusion, just as it would not let him simply tell us the story of the Hobbit in the first place. It’s as though the Lord of the Rings has hold of his spirit.

It will not let him go!

The Crystal Gallery Ice Sculpture Contest in Anchorage, A Review

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Last year I was in anchorage in early December, just a bit too early to catch the completed ice sculptures of this annual competition. I still got some interesting pics, but as I didn’t get the final products, what I got never quite found its way into the blog. This year, I’m stoked, because I’m in town later than before, and that means I get to check out the completed work.

Yeah-boyee!

So, let’s have a look at the completed projects for this year’s Crystal Gallery Ice Competition.

(You may of course click on an image to embiggen it.)

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We can begin with this spectacular bit of minimalism, well placed in front of a colorful tree. It takes courage for an artist to run with an idea like this. Such a simple composition and so profound, all of it beautifully executed.

I really like this one.

 

 

 

 

??????????????????????????????? Now this piece, here is some real talent. I mean, the symmetry of it all, and I really like the use of color. I mean, you wouldn’t think that would be a factor in an ice-sculpting competition, but seriously, this piece has some real color going for it. Also, it’s very blocky. Yes, it’s quite block-like.

Why don’t these pieces have titles anyway? I would entitled it “Colorful Block of Ice.” The artist should totally go with that!

???????????????????????????????This array of rough hewn blocks in front of the tree has a definite, um, ethos. Reminds me of Santa’s Reindeer, they way they are all stretched in a line like that. I don’t know who the artist is, but hey art guy, if you’re looking for a title, I would suggest; “Reindeer in Front of a Tree.” It really is an excellent piece, but my one quibble would be that you know there are supposed to be more of them, 8 I think, or is it 9 with Rudolph? I forget the exact number, but I’m pretty sure that you need to add more.

…also, they are kind of blocky.

…for Reindeer, I mean.

DSC00731These guys over here look kinda lonely. I don’t think they made the cut, really. Better luck next time guy! If you don’t mind a little suggestion, perhaps, you could do something a little more intricate. Please don’t be offended. I’m just, I mean, I know I’m not an artist. I just think, well, you know. Anyway, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t presume. I mean it’s your vision, and I respect that. It’s just.

I dunno.

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I think this one is some kind of ironic commentary on the public facilities around Anchorage, which I think is way cool. I mean, I know some people don’t like it when art gets too political, but personally, I like the edgy feel of it.

 

 

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Yellow on blue? Okay, I just love the way some of these guys work with colors! That really was a surprise here. Maybe some sort of study in contrasts or a meditation on the color green. I don’t know.

I just can’t help feeling the sculpture could have put more effort into shaping the piece.

No, nevermind. That’s just conventional thinking on my part. Who am i to question this guys vision? You rock-on block-carving ice-sculpture guy.

Rock on!

 

???????????????????????????????Now this is shear brilliance! It totally has my vote for ‘best in Show’. Do we get to vote? I mean, is the public part of this? Or is it, just professionals? I mean, well I don’t know. You just, you really gotta hand it to this artist. He has the shape of the blocks down perfect. So symmetrical, and so boxy! I mean, others seem to be exploring similar shapes, but I really think this piece nails it perfectly.

I’m also kinda hoping, we can move on to some more ideas here soon, because honestly, how are y’all gonna top this? You can’t really. Once perfection has been perfected, you just gotta go find your own bliss.

…preferably not in a block.

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I just, I dunno.

These guys really aren’t listening.

 

 

 

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Oh fuck it; I’m going to Humpy’s!

Rooting for the Indians and Damn that Custer Anyway!

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Dances-With-WolvesWhen Dances With Wolves came out in November 1990, audiences throughout the country cheered as Kevin Costner and his Lakota friends killed U.S. soldiers in one of the final scenes of the film. The Lakota in this film were decent (perhaps noble?), and the soldiers had been as contemptible as any character could be. More than that, the soldiers were emissaries of an aggressive nation bent on taking everything Costner’s Lakota friends had. Nothing could have been more obvious than our loyalties at that point in the film. Of course we rooted for the Indians!

Two months later, American troops and attacked Iraqi forces that had taken Kuwait, and Americans cheered as bombing attacks appeared on CNN just about all day every day. Iraqi treatment of the Kuwaitis had been cruel and Saddam Hussein posed a threat to world peace comparable to that the great Hitler (as some would have it anyway). Nothing could have been more obvious than our loyalties at that point in history. Of course we rooted for the American forces!

The transition always appeared to me rather seamless. It was a very disheartening moment, an indication of just how powerless the left wing critique of American imperialism had been. For once, the American public seemed to have gotten the message, at least one some level, and then it went right out and repeated all the same mistakes over again. Just as sensationalist accounts of Indian atrocities had once fueled military aggression against them, lurid stories of Iraqi conduct fueled support for military action in the Gulf War. And once again, America expanded its military presence in the world, to what end, we are still learning.

There are differences between these stories of course, and we could haggle over the details, but I’m not particularly interested in debating the Gulf War here. What concerns me is the question of which difference made the distinction matter? I can’t help but think that difference was time.

I would say that the critical difference is also a question of entertainment versus reality, but of course few war movies have provided near the entertainment value that the Gulf War presented to the American public. Whatever else that conflict represents, it was also a tremendous achievement in the theatrical violence. Plus, the conflicts depicted in Dances With Wolves have real world analogs. The specifics may have been fictional, but the issues in question were quite real. no, the difference is time. Dances With Wolves depicts a conflict most Americans believe to be over, and that makes it safe to flirt with critical appraisal providing it isn’t going anywhere.

Dances With Wolves was a story about America’s past. Cheering for the Indians in a fictional skirmish about an event long ago didn’t pose much of a personal cost for the average American. Sure, there may be some jingoists out there who really couldn’t stomach the thought that any aspect of American history had been anything short of a gift from God himself, but any discomfort they might have felt at the final scenes of Costner’s epic was surely the price of their own extremism. More folks could flip loyalties for that one brief moment, and then flip them right back again when push came to petro.

Custer Little Big manThat’s hardly an unusual transition. It’s as easily done as shifting from present to past tense when the topic of Indians comes up in a conversation, or shifting from particular issues to a great big general narrative about the history of Indian white relations. The hat trick is of course the phrase; “what we did to the Indians.” What continually fascinates me is its appearance in otherwise focused conversations. You could be talking about some specific policy and its impact on some specific native community, and the next thing you hear is someone telling you that they really think it’s sad what ‘we’ did to the Indians.

…except the past tense undermines the ‘we’ part. Those saying this know very well they aren’t including themselves in the damned ‘we’ of that sentiment, not really. A good portion of the times I’ve heard this, the impact of the utterance was precisely to shift the conversation away from anything that ‘we’ really could be do anything about today. And that is of course my rather long winded point; it’s easy to root for the Indians in Dances With Wolves, much easier than it is to support them in present, and much easier to support them than it is to question attacks on any prospective enemy we have today. Whether it be casinos, tribal mascots, or tribal jurisdiction, the same folks who will happily root for the Indian in a fictional battle set in the remote past are much less likely to support the native side in present day conflicts. As to foreign policy? Well…

Bombs away!

But let’s stick with Indian-white relations for a bit. You can see the whole transition in a stanza from one of Alice Cooper’s more obscure songs, but to get the full effect, you have to listen to the full tune. (Don’t worry; it’s one of his less shocking pieces.).

In case you missed it, the relevant lines are as follows:

I love the bomb, hot dogs, and mustard.

I love my girl, but I sure don’t trust her.

I love what the Indians did to Custer.

I love America.

There they Come. There they go.

– Alice Cooper

The line about Custer fits with the rest of Cooper’s rhyme scheme, but the line about Custer is a bit of a twist. The over-the-top jingoism of Cooper’s song seems inconsistent with the celebration of a set-back to the march of American history. We wouldn’t expect Cooper to root for the other side. And then suddenly, he isn’t cheerful at all, or at least the song isn’t, as we hear an Indian war-party come and go accompanied to faux-Indian music right out of the movies. He drops his rhyme scheme and sings almost as an aside, “There they come,” and then “there they go.” And thus a line about the demise of Custer and his troops becomes a comment about the proverbial vanishing Indian.

It’s safe to root for him, because he’s vanished.

Cooper’s song celebrates an Indian victory in order to mourn a Native loss, and of course that loss is precisely what the voice of the song calls for, the removal of an obstacle to the America cooper loves so much. And then of course the song picks up again as Cooper continues to celebrate all-things red, white, and soldier blue. It seems likely that Cooper’s treatment was deliberately ironic; it seems equally unlikely that he appreciated the full depths of that irony.

alicecooper13I don’t think Cooper’s attitude is at all unusual. I’ve heard similar sentiments many times. I understand why my old professor, a Choctaw celebrated the Custer’s last stand, and I understand why Lakota and Cheyenne do today, but they are celebrating a victory, something their people did right. Folks like Cooper are celebrating a loss, and one has to wonder just what they think that loss means?

As with any other great cultural icon, what is said of Custer is often really said of other things. At this point he seems to stand in proxy all of western history. The man has always had his critics, but it was probably the movie Little Big Man that taught the public to think of him as a raving lunatic. The Custer of this film is as ruthless as he is incompetent, and he is clearly the voice of western expansion. In the real world, it was Horace Greeley who advised young men to go to the West. In Little Big Man, it is Custer who tells the main character, Jack Crabb, to go West. It is Custer who carries out the most horrible atrocities of the film, the ones which make that migration possible, and ultimately, it is Custer (along with his troops) who will pay the price for Western expansion.

I grew up with that vision of a Custer in mind, one shared by multiple sources of popular culture in the 70s and 80s. I can’t recall meeting anyone personally who defended Custer in my youth, not once. From time to time, I heard or saw echoes of Custer’s previous incarnations in popular culture, the heroic Custer of Anheuser Busch or the onion-loving Custer of some old movie whose name I’ve long since forgotten. I could easily think that heroic vision as deluded, but of course that was a Custer who belonged to someone else, one who had been slain literally and figuratively on the screen of Little Big Man.

While we can haggle over the facts of Custer’s career and the details of his final battle, the successful caricature of Custer doesn’t facilitate a pro-native view so much as a an easy dismissal of the larger problems of American expansionism. This is where Little Big Man fails in its politics. (It was of course also a commentary on Vietnam.) In framing the horrors of American Indian policy as a reflection of personal lunacy, the movie invited us all to feel far too much relief at Custer’s ultimate defeat. It’s simply easier for all of us if Custer can take responsibility for all the horrors of America’s Indian policies, easier because he lost, and in his loss, folks can well imagine that he carries those horrors with him into the grave.

All of which brings to mind the title of Vine Deloria’s old classic, Custer Died for Your Sins.

abu+grahib+photo+4To be sure films like Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves call attention to larger problems, but they also point to a way out which all too many Americans seem to have taken, the belief that the ugly side of American military can be laid at the feet of the occasional lunatic clad in buckskin.

Or perhaps to a cigarette puffing soldier who lost her moral compass somewhere along the way.

Because surely the problems don’t go any further than that!

 

 

 

 

An Uncommon Holiday Celebration

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???????????????????????????????Take a look at this image from an old Thanksgiving celebration. It’s part of an exhibit at the Alaska Native Heritage Center (which is definitely worth a visit if you are ever in Anchorage).

These children are Alaska Natives, in this case Yupiit, which would have placed them a long way from New England during the mythic days of the first Thanksgiving celebrations. Still, I can’t help but shake my head at the notion that someone thought to costume these ‘Eskimos’ as ‘Indians’ for Thanksgiving.

So yeah, that happened.

What are the Necessities of Life?

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The_Necessities_of_LifeWhat are the Necessities of Life?

We meet the protagonist of this 2008 Canadian film in Baffin Island of the 1950s. Tiivii (played by Natar Ungalaaq) struggles for breath as he ascends a small hill in search of geese, his wife and children are just waking in their tent below. Upon seeing a boat on the half-frozen ocean, Tiivii sets aside the hunt and takes his family aboard for a series of medical tests. As the boat prepares to leave, Tiivii is told he must remain aboard, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves while he undergoes treatment for tuberculosis.

When next we see Tiivii, he is soon staring at a tree at the hospital in Quebec City, amazed at his new surroundings and quite unprepared for the coming hardships that await him. He does not fully understand his illness, nor does he realize how long it will take him to recover. He also has no idea how his family will fair without him.

An Inuit lost in civilizations? It’s an interesting twist on a familiar theme, that of a stranger in a strange land. The point is soon driven home as we see Tiivii struggle to master the use of a fork and spoon while the other hospital patients consume platefuls of pasta. He figures it out, but not before earning the derision of his roommates.

Through the story, we are invited to see the hospital and western civilization through Tiivii’s eyes, to see common utensils from the perspective of one who has never used them before and to imagine a common meal from the standpoint of someone has never eaten anything like it. We can also imagine his confusion at the sterile bathroom with its flush toilet; his longing for someone to talk to makes perfect sense; as does his desire to eat familiar food.

the-necessities-of-lifeWe’ve seen this storyline before, a person completely out of his element. It is often used to explore the differences between civilization and savagery. This was the premise for Dances With Wolves, and before that with Little Big-Man and A Man Called Horse. It’s a common enough theme in arctic films as well, being found in White Dawn and Snow Walker among others. What makes this film different is the trajectory of the stranger in this case; he has left a world unfamiliar to most of us, to enter one most of us will find rather familiar. We are used to seeing the story go the other way. Still Tiivii’s journey is compelling. Through his eyes, the western world becomes strange, unreasonable, and quite insane.

This particular twist on the stranger in a strange land contains an element of nuance, however, that would be easy to miss. Audiences may think they know what it means for an emissary of modern western society to live amongst primitives, but what does it mean for such an individual to come live amongst us, or at least the 1950s variation thereof? It would be easy to think that Tiivii spends the entire story marveling at the wealth and richness of the city. In the space of a few opening scenes he has made a transition from the life of a forager scratching out a meager existence on the tundra to a cosmopolitan center with all the wonders of contemporary society. Tiivii may see this world from the shelter of a hospital bed, but he does see it just the same. How could he possibly understand the complexities which have put food on his plate in that hospital, or those that enable him to flush that same food away in the porcelain toilet? It would be awfully easy to think of this as the story of a simple man lost in the wealth of the modern world
…except that would not explain the title of the movie.

necThe title comes to us in a scene near the end of the film, one in which Tiivii explains to a young patient named Kaki (Paul-André Brasseur) what it is like to be out on the tundra. Although Inuit himself, Kaki, has spent his formative years in the hospitals. He does not understand the kind of life his own people have led. Asked what his homeland is like, Tiivii explains:

Beautiful. Lots of mountains. From the top you can see everything. You can see exactly where you are going. Not like here, where there are trees everywhere and you can’t see ahead. There’s a huge island. It takes many days to travel around it. There’s everything you need, all the necessities of life. Seals. Caribou. Geese.

Tiivii’s face lights up with each point of his speech, but the point of the scene would be missed entirely if this was thought to be nostalgia. Tiivii’s speech provides the strongest hint in the movie as to just how he sees the world around him. It is not a world of abundance at all; it is one in which he cannot see the materials out of which to make his clothes much to less to build a home. It is a world in which he cannot see food or medicine. All of these things must be brought to him. If this is mysterious, it is not the mystery of a miracle so much as a perverse trickery, one which hides the means of life from him while doling out the necessities a little at a time. Far from marveling at the wealth of civilization, Tiivii has been lost in the desert the whole time. He doesn’t see modern miracles in plumbing or cutlery. Instead he sees a world of mostly useless materials.

I think this is the real genius of Necessities of Life, that it actually flies in the face of conventional notions of the difference between foragers and civilized folks. Ever since Nanook of the North, mainstream film-makers have marveled at the struggle of arctic hunters against hunger and the elements. Time and again, Hollywood’s ‘Eskimos’ have been portrayed as dwelling on the edge of starvation, and it would be awfully easy to see in Tiivii’s story just another chapter in that narrative, one in which one of these primitives actually gets to experience the wealth of modernity. And yet, what Tiivii actually tells us is just the opposite; wealth is waiting for him back home on Baffin Island, and he cannot wait to leave the extreme poverty of the modern world behind.

Merry [War on the (War On)] Christmas!

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If I was to list the things I hate about Christmas, that list might well include Black Friday, bland food, and blander music. Jesus isn’t on that list. Oh, I know that I’m supposed to be working hard to get the Christ out of Christmas, at least according to certain talking heads, because that’s just what atheists do. But seriously, it would never occur to me to try and scratch Baby Jesus out of this holiday.

…mainly, because Jesus isn’t a big part of Christmas to begin with.

Yes, I understand American Atheists did a snarky Billboard. With that and a pickle, they’d still be one sandwich short of a lunch plate. Some of us will laugh (I know I did), but this is hardly a credible threat to the Prince of Peace. And seriously, atheist kids can’t be the only ones hoping to skip church for Christmas.

Schaedenfreude for All!

Schaedenfreude for All!

…if you think about it, they probably aren’t all that worried about it.

The annual fake war on Christmas is always entertaining. When folks find ‘Happy Holidays’ offensive or suspect an entire agenda behind use of the infamous X in ‘Xmas’, I can’t help but laugh. But I like to remind myself when the explicit reasoning people use makes no sense whatsoever, that’s usually because it isn’t the one guiding their actual thought process.

I figure the war on Christmas is primarily good marketing for right wing pundits, and apparently for Kirk Cameron. Near as I can tell, Cameron has never really outgrown his character on Growing Pains, but the culture wars certain do provide him with plenty of grist for the still-vapid mill. This yearm he’s workig the Christmas angle. …meh! Anyway, the war on Christmas does two things near as I can tell; it helps Christian conservatives misrepresent the battle over civic religious pronouncements, and it helps those same Christians rally the faithful by wagging the dog, so to speak.

savingchristmas_smI know, I’m mixing my metaphors, yes, but what the Hell do you expect from a Godless bastard?

The battle over civil religion has been driven by concerns about the entanglement of religion in public institutions. This is not an effort to drive God entirely from the public sphere, nor is it an effort to enshrine atheism in that sphere. The question is simply whether or not government facilities ought to be making any kind of explicit religious expressions, whether it be a copy of the Ten Commandments or a Manger scene.

Now I’m not entirely sold on the value of opposing every cross, prayer, or hand-made sign with religious sentiments that makes an appearance on public property, but every time I’m tempted to support a compromise on these issues, some joker from the religious right (or ten of them) makes it a point to suggest those reflect the true Christian nature of this country. …and what seemed possibly harmless then becomes a great big slap in the face. In any event, those defending use of public institutions for explicitly religious expressions have some real questions to answer about how this squares with the establishment clause, and near as I can tell most of the culture warriors are too busy generating narratives that bypass the whole problem. The War on Christmas is just such a narrative. As long as every challenge to a public display of Jesus in the manger is really part of an effort to crush the joy of Christmas, the Christian right will never have to address the constitutionality of its public agenda. People will be too busy saving Christmas from godless grinches.

…just like in a television sitcom.

Vintage Christmas

Vintage Christmas

The larger and deeper misdirection here is also simpler. (It’s a multi-lered misdirection, really it is!) Jesus has been a rather minor theme in the actual celebration of Christmas for most of modern history. Sure, children sing the occasional Silent Night in a Christmas pageant, but they also sing Jingle bells. Were I a believer, I wouldn’t want to take bets on which one gets a bigger round of applause from the audience. But that’s just the tip of the pagan pine bough. The fact is that Christ is always playing catch-up with his own holiday, and last I checked, he was well behind the marketing professionals on this one.

These days I hear a lot of people talking about putting the Christ back in Christmas, as if simply saying the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ would provide them with a real victory. The fact of the matter is, though, that people have been saying ‘Merry Christmas’ for generations without meaning much more than ‘Yippee, presents!’ or ‘Hope you get a good bonus.’ Hell, even the more profound messages of giving and family togetherness are as easily embraced in secular circles as those of the truest of the True Christians™. The right wing culture warriors know this and they want to change it, or at least they want to be seen trying to change it.

Whatever else the war on the ‘war on Christmas’ is, it’s also a means of investing the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ with a new and more political meaning. It effects that investment by conjuring an enemy, so when you say ‘Merry Christmas’ now, you aren’t just wishing people a nice glass of egg-nog. Hell, you aren’t even just telling them to celebrate the birth of Jesus or wishing them all the blessings the Prince of Peace could possibly bring. When you say it now, you’re pissing off an atheist, and nothing says you love Jesus more than pissing off an atheist!

Good fun for all!

Only, most of us aren’t all that bothered by the phrase. Hell I say ‘Merry Christmas’ as often as I say ‘Happy Holidays.’ When I did a brief stint at a Jewish private school, i said ‘Happy Holidays’ more, but that certainly wasn’t about pissing off any Christians. Anyway, I don’t think I’m unusual in this regard. The phrase Merry Christmas just isn’t a problem for most unbelievers, at least not when Bill O’Reilly isn’t writing the script.

vintagecoke

Coke, another “reason for the season.”

The real threats to the religious perspectives on Christmas have never been secularists; they have been the myriad pleasures of worldly ways. The threats have been train-sets and iphones, bicycles, and Barbie-dolls, well-spiked punch-bowls at office parties, gaudy lights, and near riots at the local Walmart. It’s these things that compete with Jesus for our attention on December 25th, and quite frankly, it isn’t atheists that are pushing them on people. It’s good-old American capitalism, and let’s be honest, Christian conservatives are hardly interested in fighting a battle against corporate capitalism. So, they’ve conjured up a scape-goat. This way they get to have their stale gingerbread and eat it too. Through the ‘war on Christmas’ Christian conservatives can pretend to fight for the spiritual significance of their holiday all the while going right along with the very practices that keep turning the conveniently imagined birthday of Christ into a hollow and impious event.

Don’t laugh; it works folks!

I can’t be the first or even the thousand and first scaped goat to complain about this little gambit, but well, it’s a white Christmas up here in the arctic, and I’d rather gripe than go outside. Plus, I’m an atheist. I’m supposed to be grumpy and grinchy. Some days I am happy to oblige.

Oh yeah, there’s one more thing.

Merry Christmas everybody!

An Uncommon Elf

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Wondering who this is? Well it’s Ronnie James Dio and his old band.

…no his REALLY old band.

This was Dio before Black Sabbath, before Rainbow, and well before Satan made his way into the man’s vocals. Heck, the lyrics seem almost normal, even wholesome.

I don’t imagine he would have flashed the hook of horns much during these years.

Nope!

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