Moar Rez Murals!

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Power Plant

It’s been a very long time since I worked in Navajo country. The last couple years I’ve made a point to take Miladydebennet through a lot of my old haunts, and this summer that meant a trip through the Navajo Nation. It was great to see some of the old sights again, and to see them a little bit through the new eyes of my girlfriend. It was also great to see some new things in the old places. One of my favorite new things (new to me anyway) is the addition of street art all around the rez. These had me smiling all the way from Page to Santa Fe. I had even more reason to smile when I learned one of my former students had been involved in painting one of these murals.

It seems that these have been part of an ongoing project, called Paint the Desert initiated by a doctor who goes by the name, Jetsonorama. You can find a few articles on his project here and here, here, and here. I’ve previously posted some of the murals from along Highway 89, so I was very happy to catch some more this summer.

As always, you may click to embiggen. (In fact, I highly recommend it.)

These were in Kayenta, just south of Monument Valley.

These paintings were all at the Crossroads Trading Post.

Saw this somewhere along the road from Kayenta down to Chinle.

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Windmill

Found this piece on the road between Many Farms and Chinle.

These (and many more) were all painted along a wall in Fort Defiance. It would have been walking distance from my home for a few years. Kind of a surreal experience to get a soda from the old convenience store and walk around checking this out. Surreal, and very cool.

For me anyway.

Hope y’all enjoy the pictures.

Of Ringers and Runts: An Experimental Exercise in Geeketry!

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Nerds only now! The rest of you guys just run along…

img450fd49cc8adeI think most of us who play RPGs have had this experience, the one where the game master (GM) brings in a ringer. It may be a non-player character (NPC), or it may be the GM’s own personal player character (PC, which was much more common back in 1st edition, …yes, I’m that old). Either way, the ringer towers over the player characters. He kicks ass while they struggle to make a difference.

One thing that strikes me about this is just how often the players will initially greet the ringer with joy. He or she typically shows up just when the player characters face some challenge they thought surely would prove too much. Suddenly they have a chance after all. With the appearance of a ringer, you can’t help but feel that hope is alive and well again. At least you can feel that way until somewhere during the course of that epic battle when the three orcs your ranger has killed don’t seem all that significant in comparison to the 6 giants, four ogres, and thirteen trolls the ringer has offed while you were struggling with a random goblin. The ringer is always a mixed blessing. He can win the day, but he can also make winning feel an awful lot like losing.

If the ringer is still in the group six games later, then I for one reckon it’s time to leave.

Should a ringer stick around for several sessions, the players begin to feel they are just along for the ride. The ringer can reduce player characters, and with them the players themselves to the role of an audience rather than a participant. It can take the fun out of the story, and it can make you reconsider how you want to spend your Saturday nights.

I think most gamers would say that it’s bad GMing to let a major character overshadow the player characters like that. It’s the job of the GM to challenge the players, not take center stage and enjoy their applause every time he wins the day. This is why so many frown on GM player characters. Game Masters shouldn’t run characters of their own, so the wisdom goes. That’s just asking for abuse. But in my experience, the taboo against GM player characters just contributes to the problem rather than helping to solve it. Almost every ringer that I’ve seen began as an NPC, just another character in the cast. This is what frees the GM to set them up with extra power. Often, the GM doesn’t even plan to keep the ringer around that long. he’s just another character in the overall plot-line, so it’s not big deal if he has a little extra power. The trouble is that GMs do become attached to interesting NPCs, so much so that they look forward to playing them, leveling them up, and watching the kick ass. A GM can feel this way about an NPC just as easily as he (or one of his players) can feel about a player character. In effect, some GMs have player characters, and they don’t even know it.

img452cb6a3c0f00Back in the days of first edition, a GM’s player character was most often rolled up according to the same rules as those of the players. This provided a bit of a check on the whole ringer problem. Abuse could still happen, but there was a bit more of a sense that the GM’s character was supposed to be part of an ensemble. When they come in over-powered to begin with, they inevitably become the star of the show, and the notion that a given character isn’t really a player character can very well serve as the excuse for a GM to field one who simply dwarfs anything the other players can produce.

***

Anyway, ringers are a problem, right? “Don’t do them!” That’s usually a pretty good rule of thumb. So, here is a thought experiment. What if we toss that rule aside? Is it possible to put a ringer in a campaign without ruining everything?

Okay, I know you can do it for a game or two, but what if the ringer was there for the balance of the campaign. Is it possible to do this without ruining the players’ fun?

In essence, this is a question of re-protagonization. In gaming, we often talk about deprotagonization, the process by which a character is made irrelevant to the story-line in a campaign, but what can be done to provide genuine significance to a character living in the shadow of a ringer? That is the question posed by the prospect of gaming (deliberately) with a ringer. It’s a thought experiment of sorts, but hopefully an amusing one.

How to go about it?

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img450fd04546e89I can think of a few angles. Whether or not they would actually add up to a fun campaign, well that’s an open question! Anyway, here are the guidelines I would use to set up the campaign.

One: Much of the ringer’s activities take place offstage, leaving the player characters free to resolve their own challenges without the help of the big guy. For example, the ringer is a spell caster, and she is performing a complex task inside a building. The players must protect the building themselves. If they fail, her spell is ruined, and the overall plot takes a turn for the worse. What I really like about this example is the characters can fail without this resulting in a total party kill. If they blow it, then the enemy reaches the ringer, and the ringer then enters the fight. This way the PCs will probably live through their failure, but everyone will know the development is bad in the long run, because that spell was important. How? Well that’s a question for a larger plot-line…

Okay, this might be cheating a bit, because a ringer off-stage isn’t all that different from any other background piece of a campaign plot. Arguably, such things are happening just offstage in many campaigns. It’s just not that unusual. The full challenge of making a ringer work would be one of making it work when the ringer is standing right there beside the players, doing things along with them, and providing tangible assistance during the course of events. It could provide an interesting twist for a game or two to let the players cope with the sudden absence of their MVP, but if that’s the campaign, then your campaign doesn’t really have a ringer. That’s ducking the challenge here rather than facing it.

Two: Give the healer an inherently supportive role. What is she good at? She can heal like no-one’s business, or she is really great at support magic. She can make the other characters run faster, hit harder, and otherwise kick ass. If only they were a little better to begin with! (This works particularly well if you combine it with a definite plan for PC growth.)

What I like about this approach is it filters the impact of the ringer through the actions of the PCs. The ringer remains a ringer She can do amazing things, but the PCs will still have to kill the bad guys; they will still have to scale the cliffs, and they will still have to break open the door to the enemy castle. They may get a boost from the ringer, but it’s up to them to make that boost matter. In effect, the ringer becomes their own asset. It is up to them to make her matter.

What doesn’t work about this approach is that it soft-peddles the ringer to the point that she may not seem like a ringer. Fantasy movies and books are full of wise wizards with far more power than the warrior-protagonists which remain the focal point of such stories. Simply put, we care who wields the sword more than we care who keeps him healthy. That’s one of life’s little perversions, but I reckon it’s a common enough feature to storytelling, it doesn’t make much sense to deny it. A real ringer is a ringer than leaves carnage in his wake, not one that brings you back from the dead and gives you an energy drink. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but it is.

img4547cd6d641b0Three: Let a player run the ringer. I’ve done this countless times. My old first edition D&D campaign ran for over 20 years. Since we started a new plot-line every year or so, we would often roll one or of the old characters into the new campaign. This often meant that a single player would have a 9th level character or two while everyone else was starting at 1st. It could be fun. We let different players run the ringers in different campaigns, and with multiple characters on the board, no-one got bored. There was always plenty for the other characters to do.

This approach at least takes some of the sting out of the GM bias, but that may be all it accomplishes, and a PC-ringer poses problems of its own. If the ringer-rolling player isn’t present for a game session, then either someone else must run their character (something I don’t like doing), or your ringer is gone. How to explain the absence of the ringer or the player’s how to cope with his absence is sometimes a tricky question. Also, letting a player run the ringer makes it harder to control the relationship between the ringer and the other players. If that player is selfish, then she will deprotagonize the other players, and you can’t do anything about it without taking the player’s ability to run her own character. That’s no fun. It can all workout, but suffice to say that I don’t think this really solves the problems posed by putting a ringer in a campaign.

Four: Make the ringer its own challenge. It doesn’t have to be obvious that the ringer will help with tasks the players have set out to accomplish. Maybe she doesn’t really want to help at all and the players will have to talk her into it. Better still, if they must actively work to keep her on track over the course of the campaign! Is the ringer a drunkard? The players must keep her sober for the big fights. Is she really forgetful or otherwise aloof to the point of becoming utterly unreliable? If the player characters have to make decisions for her, or even role-play the process of guiding her actions, the ringer becomes an extension of the player’s own efforts. What she does is what they get her to do. It may still be her fireball, but at least it will be the players who told her where to place it.

On a side note: it could be interesting to give players powers enabling them to redirect the actions of the ringer. In effect, she becomes a power source, but at least some of her actions are determined by the players.

I think this approach is promising insofar as it gives the player characters some sense of control over the campaign. Still, convincing the hero to do the right thing isn’t quite as much fun as being the one who does it yourself. a fireball rolled up by another character will never be as fun as one you roll up yourself, even if you did talk the other person into casting it. Giving the PCs a care and feeding role to play in managing the ringer helps a bit, but this alone won’t provide a satisfactory solution to the problem.

img4577093b04e3cFive: You can give the player characters independent tasks and even long-term goals that diverge slightly from those of the ringer. Perhaps, the ringer is happy to demolish all the orcs in the northern wastelands, but she isn’t all that concerned about the elven princess the characters want to keep alive. Their challenge thus requires tasks that the ringer won’t help with and their sense of accomplishment will then rest (at least partially) on terms that don’t involve the ringer.

I think this is critical to resolving the problems posed by a ringer. Whatever problems the ringer can be relied upon to help the players solve, the players must face some problems they have to resolve on their own. If these problems can be put in play at the same time, in the same scenario, then so much the better. The ringer is in play on the table, and the player characters must do something for which her help will not be provided. Not only does this go a long way toward resolving the problems posed by a ringer; it can also spice up game combat in general. A battle with a subplot is more interesting than a straight-up fight, and if that sub-plot skews the significance of the characters present, so much the better.

Six: Let the characters progress to a level comparable to that of the ringer. This really is the big one, as far as this challenge is concerned, because it makes the ringer into a challenge that must itself be resolved over the course of the campaign. In effect, this turns the problem posed by a ringer into a source of meaning in itself. To make this work, though, you must risk letting the characters feel the weight of the ringer initially. Let them struggle to matter for challenge or two, then let them solve a problem or three, and finally give them a moment when they see the ringer as an equal rather than a superior.

For an extra twist, let the ringer become an enemy in this final moment, and let the battle with that ringer be the final test of progress. You know you’ve made it when your mentor lies defeated before you! …extra fun if some cryptic prophesy alludes to this early in the campaign.

Extra twist, or not, I think letting the players overcome the difference is the key to making a ringer into a positive force in the campaign. It’s an experience, I recall from my early days in gaming. I spent most of my gaming days playing first edition D&D. It was a consistent expectation back in those days that your character would start as a grunt and grow into power over the course of a campaign. Most importantly, first edition was a definite sense of diminishing returns. You could bring a 1st level character into an 8th level campaign, and by the time the other characters had made 10th, your own character was probably only one or two levels behind them. You weren’t quite even with the others yet, but at that point, you were one of the group, a force to be reckoned with. Watching your significance grow in comparison to the established characters in such a campaign could be a lot of fun. In effect, the over-powered characters provide a base-line from which you gauge your characters progress, effectively making it all that much more obvious than it would be in a campaign where the characters (and their enemies) are both relatively evenly matched.

The sense of character progress is something I missed in 3rd edition. The balance of power in that game didn’t shift much over the course of a game. If one character was 5th level and another 1st, ten games later, then 5th level character was till significantly more powerful than the 1st. You just couldn’t overcome the difference like you could in first edition. It’s one of the things that made the presence of a ringer that much more toxic in 3rd edition, I think. Under normal circumstances, the differences could not be overcome. I miss it. Maybe that’s what has me thinking about ringers.

No, I haven’t played 4th or 5th edition.

SixB: As a further twist on progress, give the ringer an active role in helping the PCs develop and grow. It’s easy enough to role-pay a mentor apprentice relationship, but it’s a little more fun to provide some significance to this in the game-mechanics. IN my home-brew system, I allow characters to share experience points, and I make this more effective under selected conditions, as in cases where the advanced character has specific teaching abilities, or if the characters have entered an established relationship of some kind). I let the players choose these things, of course, but I give these choices weight in character development. This can help to accelerate player character growth relative to the ringer even as it slows the ringer down. Such mechanics can help to facilitate the change in balance for an overall campaign. It’s particularly interesting when the players themselves have a ringer. Letting them decide how to deal with the differences in power-level provides another layer of meaning to the plot, and of course I try to ensure that the rewards for sharing experience and helping younger characters grow will outweigh any costs.

…of course, none of which is going to help any of the poor bastards when it’s time to meet the dragon!

An Uncommon Liberty

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Statue of Liberty Doll Sealskin, velour, cotton, rabbit, simulated sinew, thread, wire, Cup’ik, Maker: Rosalie Paniyak, UA 2001-008-0003

Back in May, I made a stop at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Lots of interesting stuff in there, but this one piece in particular caught my attention. The information card next to Miss Liberty had a nice note from the museum director. It reads as follows:

“I’m a Native New York who 13 years ago left the big city for the paradise of Alaska. Rosalie Paniyak’s Statue of Liberty doll is, for me, one of the funniest works of art in the entire museum, and the embodiement of what I left and what I have now.

“When I lived in lower Manhattan, my dog and I would walk along the Hudson River.There was Ms. Liberty, tall, strong, and noble, an image that took itself very seriously. Moreover, it welcomed people to a Very Important City.

“Rosalie’s Statue of Liberty is soft, with a face that is anything but dignified. She holds her torch askew. She is the Cup’ik version of an American icon, humorous and irreverent.

“After I enjoy its visual irony, what does this doll say to me? On the lighter side, that New Yorkers’ sense of self-importance is a bit silly. And more seriously, that this privilege of liberty has not always been enjoyed by everyong, such as Native Americans.”

Aldona Jonaitis

Museum Director

Violent Memories and the Civil War Era in the Southwest

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It must have been a couple decades back. I was at a small party in Forth Defiance. Those attending included a number of officials in the Navajo tribal government. Fort Defiance serves as kind of a bedroom community for the capital of the Navajo Nation, so this was hardly unexpected. What none of us expected that evening was a quick lesson that began when our host asked if anyone knew the name of the main street going through the town? No-one did. As it happens, the name was Kit Carson Drive.

Kit CarsonApparently, it still is.

To say that most of the party-goers found this shocking is putting it mildly. It may not be obvious to some of my readers why a room full of Navajos would object to a street named after Kit Carson, but even the most cursory knowledge of their history would make this pretty well obvious.  The man is popularly known as an old western Indian fighter, and as it happens, a good number of the Indians he fought were Navajo.  When General James H. Carleton, the Army Commander for the Territory of New Mexico decided to go to war with the Navajo people, it was Colonel Kit Carson that he sent off to do it. Carson marched through Canyon de Chelly, the heart of Navajo territory, destroying resources (just as Sherman might have) and letting winter bring his enemies in to surrender. This campaign, and the four years of internment at Hwéeldi (Fort Sumner) still constitute the darkest chapter of most historical narratives about the Navajo people. So, you can just imagine what it must have meant for people who can still tell you about relatives lost on the long walk to Fort Sumner to learn that a road right through their community bears the name of the man responsible for their deaths.

Kinda put a damper on the party.

You might think it odd that folks didn’t know the name of the road to begin with, but it’s hardly unusual. Folks don’t pay that much attention to street names out that way. Many of the roads don’t have signs at all, and I don’t recall seeing that particular name on a street sign when I lived out there (though one can certainly be found in Fort Defiance today). This party was the only time anyone ever mentioned it to me.

The old south isn’t the only place in this country with a questionable sense of public history from the Civil War era. Those in the Southwest have less to do with the war between the states than the early stages of the Indian wars which would dominate the interior west for a couple decades. Kit Carson Drive is one of many such examples. The Obelisk in the town square of Santa Fe provides another. It’s had its own share of controversies over the years, not the least of them being this dedication:

20914595_10214035631069907_2575022190736341192_n“To the heroes who have fallen in various battles with savage Indians in the Territory of New Mexico.”

It should come as no surprise that this line acquired its share of critics over the years. It has had some defenders as well, to be sure, but plenty of critics. The sentiments might have seemed appropriate enough to those who erected it in 1868, but in the 1970s, sentiments had changed a bit, as had the political status of some of those ‘savage Indians’ referenced in the piece. So it really should have come as no surprise when calls went out for removal or modification of the monument. Today, at least, it may seem a little surprising to find the monument had Native American defenders, which apparently it did. Attempts were made to put the original wording into it’s proper context, so to speak, preserving it without appearing to endorse it, but some clearly weren’t satisfied with this way of thinking about the issue. Resolution apparently came in the form of a chisel, and the result is a monument with its own fill-in-the-blank question.

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It seems, the American public is hashing out a new round of debates over public monuments, particularly those in the South. Some no doubt find the entire debate quite trivial. Who reads the placards on a monument anyway? Of course when people fight over seemingly trivial things, you can bet your ass they aren’t really fighting over the trivial things. It isn’t actually history (much less historical monuments) that has people up in arms over Confederate Statues, just as it wasn’t really history that caused a word to fall off the monument in Santa Fe. Such battles are always about the present. They are about the way that people think and use history to shape the present, and there are usually some very specific present implications in these battles.

People typically see the present interests loud and clear when they confront advocates of social justice. If anyone ever forgets this, the term ‘political correctness’ is right there to remind us that someone (or at least someone on the left) has an agenda. What folks are slower to get, it seems, is the fact that these sorts of gestures are hardly neutral to begin with. There is a reason James W. Loewen devoted a fair portion of his book, Lies Across America, to Confederate monuments, and it wasn’t because these monuments contain sober and thoughtful commentary on the actual history of the region. A statue to a confederate hero isn’t just a reference to history as such; it says something to those who those whose ancestors those heroes fought to keep in bondage. And a monument to heroes who died fighting ‘savage Indians’ may say something noble to those descended from colonists (Spanish or Anglo) in the American southwest; it says something else to those descended from those very ‘savage Indians’.

To be sure, complications abound. Some folks may have ancestors on either end or neither of his memorial demographics, and some people may have no dog in the fight at all. Also ironic usage happens. Not every Native American takes umbrage at the word ‘savage’ just as not every Native American objects to the term ‘Redskins’. But we should be wary of efforts to make these exceptions into the rule. The Washington football team has, for, example paid good money trying to find, cultivate, and promote just about any Native American willing to help foster the notion that the team name reflects anything but a racist stereotype. Were the team name really so bland, one might almost wonder what use it would have for people interested in such a martial sport! And of course we now have the Cheetoh-in-Chief (who has his own bullshit civil war monument) mourning the loss of beautiful artwork and a desecration of history with every Confederate statue that goes down. His language is so flowery and positive. You’d almost think these monuments held no serious political significance in the present age.

Of course the folks delivering the Nazi salute in defense of Robert E. Lee might seem to argue otherwise.

To be sure, there are people, times, and places who don’t find it necessary to remove or modify monuments to their sordid past. Some of these might not even be terrible people, places, or times. But if the monuments to an abusive past aren’t so toxic, this isn’t simply because potential critics choose to let it slide; it’s because the community as a whole ha somehow managed to handle the issues in question. When the dominant voices prove tone-deaf or outright hostile to the interests of those on the wrong-side of monumental history, then we are all a lot less likely to get along. Then statues get pulled down.

…or someone just shows up with a chisel.

***

Just a few pics of Canyon de Chelly (click to embiggen):

 

 

Race Card Recursion: A Game of Social (In-)Justice

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a3wnwcyAWhat is the race card?

Or is that obvious?

Okay, I don’t guess there is much mystery as to the meaning of the phrase ‘race card’. It’s consistently employed as an accusation that someone has used the prospect of racism cynically to their own advantage. Maybe they have accused someone of discrimination who didn’t deserve it, or maybe they are just complaining about some general sense of inequity when (so the thinking goes) they ought to stop playing the victim and do what it takes to succeed in life. Either way, to say that someone has played the ‘race card’ means that they’ve raised the prospective of racial disparity on spurious grounds. It’s as if someone has raised the issue simply because they can.

…a bit like playing a card simply because it’s in your hand.

Okay, so I can certainly think of some times when I believe people have raised the accusation of racial injustice without just cause. I can think of instances in which people I’ve known in real life (or famous people I’ve known about from various media) seem to field the accusation without substantial cause. Of course, it is entirely possible that I may have missed a few things. Being a white guy, raised in lily-white neighborhoods, I lack the immediate personal experience to see a lot of this without reflection (or a patient person willing to explain it to me). Still I can’t help thinking, at least some of the accusations of racism leveled at various parties are indeed unwarranted, More than that, I suspect at least some of them have been made in bad faith, not merely as an error, but a lie.

I reckon this phrase ‘race card’ is as good a way to call attention to that sort of problem as any, at least any that willy fit into a 140 character tweet, (or at least 140 character mind).

Okay…

But if there is a race card, so to speak, then there is also a race card

…card.

Hell, the race card card works as easily as the race card. The mere existence of a body of concerns about race is enough to empower the race card. Recourse to the accusation of racism is enough to give that card all sorts of power. It’s enough to help shameless people exploit the topic. The race card card is no less convenient or easy to use. So long as people have concerns about the credibility of other people’s concerns about racism, cynical abuse of those meta-concerns will always carry a degree of weight And of course the existence of a short-hand phrase to communicate the message makes it all that much easier.

Indeed, a quick trip around the net reveals a number of people who believe (or at least maintain) that the subject of racism can be reduced entirely to cynical use of the race card. The mere mention of the word ‘race card’ seems, to some anyway, sufficient to answer a history of slavery, Indian removal, Chinese exclusion, manifest destiny, segregation, and countless comparable institutions and practices. Whether we are to believe, these things were never really about racism to begin with, or that all this history has been neatly contained somewhere in the past varies from source to source, but the theme is ubiquitous. Countless cultural conservatives would love us to believe that the subject of racism is (now at any rate) simply a liberal contrivance.

If I can agree that people sometimes use the prospect of racial discrimination to gain unwarranted advantages, then I must also insist that people sometimes use the prospect of such a ploy to dismiss legitimate concerns about racial disparities out of hand. You can use the race card to make people think you have been treated unfairly on account of your race, even if you haven’t. But you can also use the prospect of a ‘race card’ to to dismiss perfectly serious concerns about real social inequities. Both ploys seem to work. They seem to work best for different audiences, to be sure, but under the right circumstances, each can be a very effective means of getting undue leverage over others.

So, what sort of card game is this anyway? It ain’t poker! Honestly, I don’t think it’s any game you would play with a conventional deck of cards. I can’t help thinking this is a collectable card game of sorts. I can just imagine the race card saying something like: “+1 versus liberal sympathies. Triggers outrage checks versus conservatives.” As to the race card card, it probably just says it will counter the race card, “but only when used in combination with white privilege.”

The white privilege card doesn’t say anything.

It doesn’t have to.

It goes without saying that similar cards and counter cards exist for gender, religion, sexual preference, and …well, for gender again, and again. Similar cards should probably exist for class and geographical region, but we rarely see them. The ‘Class warfare’ card is a definite exception. It’s perfectly suited to eliminate any defense against assaults by the upper classes. Just put the class warfare card on the table, and you can screw the middle and working classes without any scrutiny, or even to torment the unemployed with a free conscience.

I don’t reckon there is much hope of getting rid of spurious political card games. None of these gambits are going away any time soon. In any event, people talk about the ‘race card’ a lot. By ‘people’ I of course mean ‘social conservatives’. People don’t talk much about the race card card.

I think they should.

Beatriz Spoilers for Supper

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Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a selfless healer barely making ends meet. When her vehicle breaks down at the home of a wealthy client, Kathy (Connie Britton), she is invited to stay the evening. Kathy and her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), are holding a dinner party with several rich associates. One of the guests, Douglas Strutt (John Lithgow) turns out to be as insensitive as he is wealthy, which is to say a lot. The plot thickens when Beatriz begins to suspect Strutt may have been the developer who wrecked her home town back in Mexico, thus scattering her family and ultimately triggering her own immigration into the United States. Is she right about Strutt? And if so, what will she do about it?

…especially after she’s had another glass of wine?

I’m supposed to like Beatriz at Dinner. This film has liberal politics written all over it. It expresses views much like my own, and it raises concerns I take very seriously. So, why don’ I Like it?

First and foremost, I don’t like being pandered to. Beatriz might be good politics (which is debatable), but it’s terrible story-telling. The film contains one and only one sympathetic character, Beatriz. The rest of the central characters in this film are there to be despised. Virtually every line they utter is offered, not to help us understand their point of view, but to give us another reason to hate them. Even Kathy’s kind invitation is riddled with hypocrisy. It is less an expression of generosity or friendship than a kind of pretense, one soon blown apart by events unfolding over the course of the evening. Her feigned friendship notwithstanding, Kathy isn’t really prepared to treat Beatriz as an equal, a fact driven home time and again during the film. The other characters never even come that far. They are simply aweful, from beginning to end.

It’s not just that the characters in this film are one dimensional. The entire story is one-dimensional, showing us only enough of the rich white characters to know that they are contemptible. I don’t need to think of capitalists as terrible people to oppose their impact on the global economy. My concerns over the issue do not depend on moral caricatures, and I’m not at all interested in promoting such caricatures, not even in the furtherance of a liberal agenda.

It’s not that I find anything implausible in the notion that an immigrant woman struggling to pay her own bills could be more thoughtful and interesting than a group of rich white people. I just don’t need to be reminded that that is how I am supposed to feel about these characters with virtually every line of the film. Good characters have depth, even those we might regard as villains. They surprise us. They present us with novel thoughts and feelings. This just doesn’t happen at the dinner Beatriz attends. She is decent, perhaps even a little odd at times. The rest are uniformly terrible people, a fact driven home with virtually everything they do.

It would have been nice if Lithgow’s character actually had an insight or two, perhaps even a trace of moral character however flawed it might have been. Instead, he is relentlessly crass, unfeeling, and utterly incapable of compassion. I want to think of this character as over-the-top and completely unrealistic. But of course, the current President of the United States appears to have been written with same pen. So, I guess we can’t dismiss him as completely unrealistic.

Likely, the comparison with Trump is the real point of Lithgow’s character, but if he is Trump, then this is why the movie fails. It fails because its villain isn’t really at all interesting. Just like Trump, Strutt isn’t impressive in any way. He doesn’t have any style. He’s just an ass with more power than he deserves or really knows what to do with. Such people may exist in real life (and apparently they do), but they don’t make particularly good stories. Whether Strutt is an straw man or an accurate portrayal of mindset we can encounter in real life, he is a consistent disappointment. We engage him through Beatriz only to find that there is nothing to him, that there is no there there in his personality. The man has power and wealth and little else to say for himself or his life choices. He’s a bit like the weather, something to be survived, not reasoned with.

But can one survive Strutt? If a men with that kind of power cannot be reasoned with, then how are we to survive them? This I think is the question trying to make its way through the film to its audience. It is an interesting question. Suffice to say that I am not impressed with the film’s own answer to this question.

Strutt poses a threat to humanity itself, at least in the abstract, and more immediately to Beatriz. It isn’t just that his development projects wreck communities and threaten endangered species. Rather, he represents the worst in modern capitalism, complete with all its current threats to the environment and life as we know it. This is clearly how Beatriz sees him. Strutt himself seems aware enough that his actions create hardship for others, but he also regards the decline of life on this planet as a natural process, one which will occur with or without him. Everything is dying, or so he tells Beatriz. There is nothing to be done about it, so one ought to enjoy himself so long as he can. This, he suggests, is precisely what Beatriz herself should do. With that, Strutt reveals the depths of his own depravity and the conflict between Strutt and Beatriz comes to symbolize a conflict between nihilism and the value of life itself.

It’s in this last twist that Beatriz at Dinner nearly becomes interesting. It is established early on that she has a tremendous sense of empathy. She can feel others’ pain. So Strutt’s complete disregard for every living thing thus poses a kind of existential threat to her. She can feel the harm he causes in others, and if there is nothing she can do about it, then what use are her own efforts? She cannot accept Strutt’s crass hedonism as a way of life, but if he and others like him are setting the course of history, then her own values demand a confrontation.

To heal the world, must Beatriz not defeat people like Strutt, and if he (and others like him) cannot be persuaded, is there any alternative but violence? To fall short of that, as the film seems to suggest, is to accept the end of life as we know it. It is to give up on life itself. At least that seems to be the conclusion Beatriz draws from her encounter with Strutt.

Thus we are left with an ending every bit as dismal as the central villain of the film.

 

 

A Rambling Ranty Post about Realisms on the scReen

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Someone I know and love likes to say that Game of Thrones is all fake. It’s fantasy, so there is nothing realistic about it. This same individual (whom I know and love) eats up reality TV like it was candy. I think he knows as well as I do that those shows are often contrived, but that doesn’t stop him from getting really into the moment that alligator is on the hook and the second guy in the boat can’t seem to find his shot. I know as well as he does that Westeros ain’t real, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying about the fate of Jon Snow. Each mode of storytelling works for one of us and not the other.

But what does realism have to do with it? Or anything else for that matter?

***

It’s easier to see the connection for reality TV, not because it’s more real in an objective sense, but because the theme is more central to the genre. Reality television purports to be showing us something about how people in some part of this world really do live. That’s a claim that goes a bit beyond the story-line itself and reaches into the mess of life we sometimes call the real world. That claim constitutes a significant portion of the genre’s appeal. It’s a bit like porn, actually. The dialogue may be utter crap, but somehow the sense that you are seeing something real makes it a little more interesting. At least I think that’s the point, or at least part of it. For myself, I just can’t get into it. Knowing just how much manipulation goes into the stories told in reality television, constitutes a bit of deal-breaker for me. Perhaps I would enjoy it more if I could suspend disbelief and just enjoy the stories, but how does that suspension of disbelief work when a sense of veracity is central to the genre?

…also, there is the expository crutch!

Reality television leans very heavily on the use of exposition. Far too often, for me anyway, they break away from the action to have one of the characters explain events to the audience in their own words. Without these moments we would be missing a lot of the plot-line. Reality television uses these moments to fill in the gaps. It also uses them to tell us what’s at stake in the action, often playing up the drama well beyond any significance we could draw from the events ourselves. …if we don’t get this fish trap to work we’ll starve! We need to fix the oil leak in our car or we’ll freeze to death on this mountain top. That chef needs to change his recipe or the whole business will go under! …you get the idea. They’ll repeat these narratives a few times each episode, just to make sure you get caught up in the point. Maybe, I’m a hard sell, but most of the time I just don’t believe them. More importantly, I find the whole convention damned tedious. When did so much exposition become good writing? I’m guessing that moment in television history came during the early episodes of MTV’s Real World and that first season of Survivor.

Remember Survivor? Remember the hype leading up to the first episode? This was supposed to be about people surviving on their own under primitive conditions. Only they couldn’t! Those guys really couldn’t do much to feed themselves and contribute to their own survival. But they did get just enough food and water from the show producers to survive so long as they didn’t waste their energy trying to survive on their own. So they mostly sat around and bickered with each other. Somewhere in there, I imagine, the production team must have had a collective panic attack. …My God, the whole story just ain’t happening! What do we do? The answer turned out to be high school soap opera, and thus the master script was born for just about every reality television program made ever since.

That’s how I imagine it anyway. It may not be real, but if you had me and five of my friends telling you the story of this blog post, I’ll bet it would pass muster for reality TV.

“…this really is a must write blog post for Dan. He’s at his breaking point.”

“I knew, I had to do post something today. This post was like a dark cloud hanging over my head.”

“If Dan doesn’t finish this post today, I’m pretty sure he’ll be eaten by black bears.”

“I don’t see what the big deal is. Nobody reads blogs anymore anyway.”

I’m voting that last fucker of the island!

***

But let’s come back to the Game of Thrones! I get the concern. It’s fantasy. There are dragons. Magic works (except when it doesn’t), and well, hell, did I mention there are dragons? Clearly, some things about Game of Thrones are not real at all. Still, I think the show has two (maybe three) realisms lacking in many more ‘realistic’ genres.

First and foremost, it’s all the death, the gruesome terrible deaths, the ones that happen to central characters that we all know and love. Love it or hate it, George R.R. Martin’s penchant for killing off key protagonists has long since become the defining feature of the show. For myself, I love it, but there is a certain dwarf that better be in good health at the end of this coming season or I’ll, I’ll, …I don’t know what I’ll do.

Take that Martin!

People ask Martin about this all the time. I’m particularly fond of the answer he once gave The Independent:

“A writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth and the truth is, as we say in Game of Thrones, all men must die,” he told Galaxy’s Edge Magazine. “Particularly if you’re writing about war, which is certainly a central subject in Game of Thrones.”

He continued: “We’ve all read this story a million times when a bunch of heroes set out on an adventure and it’s the hero and his best friend and his girlfriend and they go through amazing hair-raising adventures and none of them die. The only ones who die are extras.

“That’s such a cheat. It doesn’t happen that way. They go into battle and their best friend dies or they get horribly wounded. They lose their leg or death comes at them unexpectedly.”

The author goes on to explain, slightly morbidly, that we’re all going to die at some stage as mortality is inevitable. “Once you’ve accepted that you have to include death then you should be honest about death and indicate it can strike down anybody at any time.

“You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies, at least in my books.”

I take that to be a kind of realism. It’s not about authentic costumes or weaponry, or the details of some known historical event. It’s about the human cost of warfare. Martin is known to have patterned his fiction after some real historical conflicts (most notably the War of the Roses), but of course his work remains fiction. Hell, it remains fantasy-fiction. So, we have no baseline from which to compare his description of events to a known fact, at least not any he is obligated to render with accuracy. Still, Martin’s willingness to kill off the characters we care about tells us something about war that many more ‘realistic’ stories keep leaving out.

I would add that it isn’t just Martin’s willingness to kill important characters that sets his stories off from others. It’s his willingness to do it unexpectedly, suddenly, and often without any hint of heroics in the moment of death. Time and again, Game of Thrones invites us to identify with a character, to root for them, only to kill them in the end.

…only to leave us watching as the struggle goes on without those whose story arc had once defined the whole meaning of the show for us.

That is a kind of realism, one largely absent in a good deal of historical fiction.

***

None of this is exactly Italian neorealism. But each of these genres effects a kind of realism amidst a story-line saturated with fiction. Where one purports to show us something akin to lives of people in odd walks of life, another aims to show us how human beings struggle to deal with terrible events. For either to work, something in story-line must resonate for the viewer (or reader).  Each in its own way speaks to a sense of reality, though each also weds that sense of reality to a fabricated universe of its own.

***

Historical accuracy might be thought to present another type of realism, but of course historical films (and even documentaries) are saturated with their own contrivances. The blog, An Historian Goes to the Movies presented a very thoughtful discussion of the subject here, here, and here (and really throughout his entire website). In one of the most interesting passages in this series, he talks about the public’s penchant for scrutinizing the accuracy of material culture and fighting techniques in film while ignoring the historical accuracy of plot points:

I find it very striking that audiences apparently want a sense of accuracy about violence, but not about plot. They cheerfully accept absurd plot developments (like Isabella being way too young and way too far way to have an affair with Wallace), but will complain if the sword fighting looks too fake. (Compare contemporary film violence to that from the 60s, for example, to see just how much effort Hollywood has put into improving the realism of its violence.)

Imagine for a moment a film in which the emphasis was on accuracy of the plot, but not on accuracy of the costuming or weaponry. Picture William Wallace running around in a 20th century British military uniform carrying an AK-47 but engaging in fairly accurate political maneuverings.

Most people would react to that poorly, I suspect, because Hollywood trains us that accuracy means specific things and generally excludes other things. But theatrical and cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare employ this device fairly frequently. Instead of setting his Richard III in the 1480s, like the historical Richard III, or in the 1590s, when the play was first performed, Ian McKellan set his version of the play in the 1930s, depicting Richard as a would-be fascist dictator. A particular favorite detail is the arrangement of 16th century poem “Come Live with Me and Be My Love” as a sort of Swing-era piece. The famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech becomes a political speech. It works beautifully, and while the setting isn’t faithful to the play as Shakespeare envisioned it, it works marvelously and offers a wonderful comment on the politics of both the 15th and the 20th centuries while still being true to the spirit of the play. This is a film making careful, clever use of its choices about historical inaccuracy.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this commentary lies in the comparison with Shakespearean theater. While it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the kind of bias he exposes here is just to expected from viewers, the comparison with Shakespeare shows us that it isn’t. There is indeed at least one genre which reverses the emphasis, taking us out of the realm of period dress and sword techniques and inviting us to dwell on the plot-line.

I want to underscore at least one aspect of this question about accurate plot-lines, namely the sense of a character’s world view. Historical plot-lines can be inaccurate for any number of reasons, but one of the most interesting and common inaccuracies would seem to be a penchant for reading modern thought worlds into the motivations of historical characters. In this respect, Mel Gibson is the gift that keeps on giving. Whether it be a southern plantation owner who doesn’t own slaves, or William Wallace crying ‘freedom’ as he is about to die, his historical characters typically speak to the sensibilities of modern peoples more than those of the era in which they purportedly lived. Whatever the (in-)accuracy of his dress or battlefield depictions, Gibson’s characters are often living anachronisms, thinking and behaving in ways that have less to do with the period than the social order of the modern day.

Here is another respect in which I think Game of Thrones is particularly good. For those of us who live in a modern republic, the logic of an aristocracy can seem quite vicious, often unnecessarily so. Why all the fighting? Is it vain ambition? And if these characters must fight for control of their worlds, could they not at least spare the children of their enemies? Even the title of the series points to the answer, but I believe it was Cercei who explained it best.

Again, this is fiction. Hell, it’s fantasy fiction, but it’s fantasy fiction pointing at a kind of world that has existed in human history, one many of us have trouble grasping. It’s a world in which heredity defines power, and even a child with the wrong bloodline is a very real threat to the powers that be. This too is a kind of realism, one which reminds us people in other times and places may not be able to act as we would, even if they wanted to. I admired Eddard Stark’s efforts to show mercy in this scene, and I expect I’m not entirely alone in this. But of course we call know how that turned out. We are 6 seasons into the show, and thus far, I have every reason to believe Cersei was right about this. Not just Certei. Martin too. This is Martin telling us something about the social order of a certain kind of world. His world may be fiction, but others like it would not be, and his story does indeed help to illustrate how those worlds work. Is it realism? Not quite. But you could learn a lot about real worlds from this kind of story.

***

So it seems the attempt to show us how certain people live in certain times and places always reflect the priorities of those who produce them. Are they trying to show us how people dressed, how a certain series of events unfolded, or how people thought about their lives in the context of the times depicted? One could find other priorities in a film, to be sure, but it would be a rare story that didn’t have some serious blind spots.

The funny thing about such blind spots is they can be hard to see at first, but once you find them, they can be equally hard to ignore.

***

Okay, so one of the ways I am cheating my way through this topic, so far, is that I keep picking examples where one can arrive at a reasonably sure sense of what the facts would say about a given issue, what would count as real if we chose to care about it. What about when you don’t know? What is realism when we don’t exactly know what the fact is?

Take the film, Atanarjuat (Fast Runner). Better yet, take the film Reel Injun in which director, Zacharias Kunuk discusses one of the challenges he faced in making Atanarjuat. He wanted to shoot some love scenes, but that raised an interesting question. How would two Inuits living essentially in the pre-contact era have actually made love. He couldn’t very well just have them start sucking face for foreplay, as would be the case in most love scenes, because Inuit in the precontact era didn’t kiss the way people do now. Lots of people have heard of an ‘Eskimo kiss’, which is essentially rubbing noses, or so we are told, but how does that work? Past movies set in the arctic depict this in rather comic terms, which was definitely not what Kunuk was going for. He wanted to portray this as accurately as possible. So, he talked to the elders in his own community and based his own love scenes on their answers.

So, is the ‘Eskimo kiss’ in Atanarjuat accurate? Is it realistic?

It seems rather likely that the answer is ‘yes’, but that isn’t entirely obvious. The elders Kunuk spoke to, might have been wrong. It’s certainly possible. Historical information isn’t carried in the blood, and customs change a great deal over time while people’s ideas about tradition are often rooted in the eras of their own youth. So, it is possible that Kunuk’s elders might have been factually wrong about an Eskimo kiss.

So what if they were?

Worst case scenario, the love scene in Atanarjuat is still the best answer that an Inuit director could come up with after speaking with Inuit elders in preparation for a movie with an Inuit cast and made essentially with an Inuit audience in mind. I can manufacture (as I just did) an objective question that Kunuk might have gotten wrong, but his answer is still the most authoritative I know of. It is certainly the most authoritative answer most of his non-Inuit audience will ever see. Whatever the facts of this topic, Kunuk’s portrayal is still a thoughtful expression of an Inuit perspective about the subject. That has to count for something.

So if someone asks me what is an ‘Eskimo kiss’, how am I going to answer them? I’m going to point them right to Atanarjuat, or maybe to Reel Injun. Of course, I could also say that an ‘Eskimo kiss’ is a silly western caricature of what different Eskimo peoples actually did, but then I’m still going to point them to Fast Runner, because what happens in Fast Runner is STILL the most authoritative answer to that question that I know of, at least on film. In effect, it is the most realistic film portrayal that I’m aware of at present.

The point here in this overly-belabored sub-theme is that realism isn’t always about objective facts. Sometimes it’s about perspective, Sometimes, it’s about the most authentic voice(s) you can find on a subject, the ones whose values and priorities are most relevant to a subject. This is particularly true of movies about exotic peoples, whether they be past civilizations, foreign cultures, or just the guy who does that really odd job. An outsider might manage a perfectly accurate portrayal of the lives of such people, but without some insight into their thinking, what would that be worth? Such insights must involve a native voice at some point. Better still when that voice can actually shape the narrative!

Will such a voice come with its own contrivance?

Of course.

Also, there is no Santa Clause.

Climate Change and Cthulhu

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What could be more evil than working to end all life as we know it? It’s a tough question for me, because I’m not in the habit of using the term ‘evil’ in direct reference to anything that happens in the real world. Mostly, I think of that reluctance as healthy restraint, but perhaps restraint isn’t always that healthy after all. Skepticism sometimes acts as the hand servant to kind of inertia. No need to think or do anything drastic. Let’s wait for the evidence! You can keep saying that until it’s too late. All of which brings me back to the notion of evil, because normal human cognitive bias is one thing and a focused political agenda is quite another. Uncertainty is one thing. When such an agenda imperils life as we know it, it would be a mistake to think of that as just another opinion. It would be a mistake to think of it as anything less than a threat, or to think of that threat in moderate terms.

Don’t get me wrong. Global warming is not the fault of denialists. We in the industrialized world are all contributing to global warming, but some folks are working damned hard to make sure we keep right on doing it, to keep questions about global warming and an effective response off the table, and toprevent all of us from addressing our collective responsibility as we ought to.

We are not supposed to demonize folks we disagree with, right? But there are times when the actual context of real world events finds its parallels in mythology and fiction. I can’t help thinking the issue of global warming has presented us one of those times.

Global warming sounds a lot like the Great Old One sleeping deep in the South Pacific. It’s hard to believe that such a threat could exist, hard to grasp the full significance of the prospect. It’s much more easy to dismiss it as yet another myth, a false god worshiped by fools and primitive peoples. If taken seriously, on the other hand, the thought is maddening. Like Cthulhu waiting in the deep, global warming threatens to devour everything we do and everything we care about. How does one grasp that and then go on about his life? How do you build a bridge knowing it will one day rest unused under a harsh sun? How do you write a book, conscious of the day there will be no-one left to read it? How does anyone look at a child knowing what’s coming without feeling a terrible urge to tears?

What to do about this threat? That’s a damned hard question. For myself, I couldn’t count the number of changes that must happen to combat the coming terror. I couldn’t even count the number of plastics in the room around me, starting with the computer keys I am tapping away at to write this blog post. I certainly couldn’t imagine my travels or my place of residence in the wake of the changes necessary to halt global warming. How would I eat? How would food find its way to me, let alone the millions living in the cities? It’s all way too much. The change is simply not possible!

If the world as we know it must change immediately (more like yesterday) in order to save the world as we know it… well that is a maddening thought indeed! It’s more than a little like saying the end of the world is a virtual certainty.

…and Cthulhu lies waiting beneath the waves.

As maddening as the prospect of doing something about climate change is for me, I think it must be all that much more difficult for those whose world view is entirely defined by the free market. Global warming is not merely a challenge to our future. It is a challenge to our present and repudiation of our past. Global warming refutes the cost/benefit analysis of every single transaction carried out since the fossil fuel revolution. (They all have externalities not yet settled.) It denies the value of progress. It turns the angels of manifest destiny into the harbingers of doom, a prospect once real only to those unfortunate enough to stand in the way of that destiny. Global warming changes everything. It transforms the meaning if history even as it demands a new social order. If we are to ever have a future, that future will not be reckoned as we have reckoned the past. For those deeply committed to a world as a function of supply and demand, it is not merely a daunting call for change; it’s a claim that their own world is an illusion. Faced with such a prospect, I can well understand why some people might think it better to deny the whole thing.

…but toward what end?

If Cthulhu is really sleeping there in the ocean, it won’t help much to pretend he is merely plankton. So what is the end game for climate change denial? You cannot build a better world on the present world order. You cannot even maintain this one. That is the terrible prospect which confronts us all. So, what will actually be accomplished by the billions of dollars poured into the effort to confound the issue and keep serious discussions of climate change off the table? What is to be gained by dismissing the whole thing as a Chinese conspiracy.

The thought that keeps creeping into my skull is this. We won’t experience climate change as a natural disaster. Hell, we aren’t experiencing it that way now. By ‘we’ I mean those of us in the developed world. Sure there are farmers whose crops no longer grow in certain places, and there are people whose homes are washing away, but these are lives lived on the margins of the modern global order, and for most of humanity these are stories about far away people and places. The narratives taking shape in modern media (even those reflecting a ‘liberal’ view on the subject) will reflect global warming in countless subtle forms. It will take the form of stories about rising prices, changes in consumer behavior, shifts in population, perhaps even a wave of refugees here and there. …and of course there will be political disputes over the consequences of all of this.

This is all broad sketches, I know, but my point is that most of us will experience climate change as social upheaval. There will always be a person or a policy between us and the natural phenomenon driving our new hardships. We will always be able to respond to climate change as though it were this or that bastard making our lives more difficult. We may never get a moment where Cthulhu shows his ugly face. It will always be possible to see his terror in the form of someone acting in a way we probably don’t like, maybe even one we are willing to fight about.

…all of which falls well short of dealing with the real issues.

So again, what is the end-game for denialists? I’m not talking about the every day Joe or Jane who isn’t convinced. I am talking about those financing the maze of think tanks and professional pundits, those who long ago transformed climate change from a scientific question to a partizan politics. I am talking about a President who won’t say whether or not he believes in global warming but tells us by his very actions that he does not. For these people, I suspect the payoff is very much what they get out of all their other political activities; it’s a chance to maintain their own status at the top of the current social order. In the context of climate change, this can mean little more than a chance to keep their privilege as long as possible while the rest of society unravels. There is no riding this disaster out of course, but the progeny of the wealthy may well feel its results long after others have died of it.

I keep writing this as though I am talking about future events, but of course the process has already begun. It will get worse, to be sure, hence the relevance of the future tense. But some are already feeling the effects even as others pretend there is no new disaster under the sun. In any event, I can’t help thinking the real benefit to the financiers of climate change denial will be little other than the hope that their children will be among the last to suffer the full effects of climate change.

This too is a Lovecraftian theme.

In effect, the financiers of climate change denial are hoping Cthulhu will eat them last.

GVXZTFi8

 

(P.S. Thanks to Milady DeBennet for producing the meme for me.)

Where is Home?

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BackyardTX

Backyard, San Antonio, TX

My old mentor, Willard Rollings, used to begin his history classes by asking students to introduce themselves. He always wanted to know what we called home. He would add that he didn’t mean where we lived. He wanted to know where our home was, and those were often two very different things. I don’t recall anyone who failed to get his point. The question always bothered me a little, probably because home has always been a bit of a problem for me.

I’m something of a military brat. My father retired from the army when I was very young, but he seemed to keep the habit of finding a new job every 4 years or so for quite awhile. I have just a few memories of Dad while he was in the service, but I remember quite distinctly the pattern of moving (along with every military base near each of our homes).

I spent my first four years in San Antonio, Texas. Naturally, my memories of Texas in those days happens to a bit thin. At four years old, my Texas had been the block we lived on. I remember that and maybe a steak-house whose name escapes me along with a small vacation house on LBJ Lake.) I remember fishing at the lake, and I remember all manner of snakes. I remember lots of little bits and pieces from San Antonio, but not much in detail. I also remember learning to string beads from Mom while we still lived in Texas.

HouseinCobadlyfaded

Beaulah, CO

I was stringing beads one day when Mom and Dad said it was time to go. I thought we were just going out for dinner or something, but we just kept right on going. I sat in my Dad’s old Volkswagon thinking about my string of half-finished beads sitting in a dish on the dining room table, wondering when I would get back to them. I was still thinking about them as great big white fluffy snow-flakes began diving into our windshield on our way into Beulah, Colorado. I never did get back to those beads. The next day my older brother and sister and I made a snowman in our new back yard. Scott kicked it over karate-style and Colorado became my new home.

We left Colorado in the middle of my third grade, but part of me stayed behind. Four years in Apple Valley California and 3ish years in Rawlins, Wyoming hadn’t changed anything. We finally settled in Boulder City, Nevada, just outside of Las Vegas when I was 14 or 15. (The math here doesn’t quite compute, so some part of my memory must be off a click.) I rather liked Boulder City, but was I ready to call it home? Or was home still in Colorado?

Californiahouse

We had a rather nice house in Apple Valley

I think I was the only member of my family that connected with Beulah, Colorado. Mom and Dad had nothing but bitter memories of the place. For me, though, it’d been 30 acres of ranch-land. We probably didn’t make very good use of it, and by ‘we’ I mean the family as a whole. We just weren’t ranchers. Me? I had no problem figuring out what to do with the place. It was a battlefield. Several battlefields, actually. Some World War II era, some Vietnam, and some from the old west. It was also a race-track. It was swimming pool and a basement with a pool table. It was a lovely fireplace. It was two streams I would fill with fleets of sticks counting as battleships. (You’ll have to excuse me. As a child I was quite the war-monger.) It was a place to ride horses. It was a place you could shoot a gun (or a bow and arrow) out in the back yard. I loved that ranch, so I loved Colorado. All those years, I had never stopped thinking of it as home. My family had long since shaken the dust from their feet. I hadn’t.

So there I sat in Rollings’ class with a ready answer to his question, except for one thing. I’d been living in Boulder City, NV, for over a decade at that point, and I couldn’t really say that I hated the place. It might just be, I thought as I contemplated my answer, that Boulder City (and the whole Vegas area) was actually home.

HouseinWy

Rawlins, Wyoming (the less said, the better)

I learned just how much Vegas had become my home as I spent 3 years studying in Chicago. Whenever people asked me where I was from, I had no trouble answering them with ‘Las Vegas’. Of course I would never have said I was from Las Vegas to anyone who lived in Las Vegas. I was actually from Boulder City. But in Chicago that is a distinction without a difference. So, I would tell people I was from Vegas. Most importantly, I found myself feeling a bit of satisfaction saying that, the kind of satisfaction you get telling people about your home. Sitting there in Chicago, I think I finally let go of Colorado and came to claim the Vegas area as my own. It wasn’t just where I’d been living all those years. It really was home.

I spent three years in Fort Defiance, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. Oddly enough, I lived in a graveyard, a fact I hadn’t noticed when I first moved in. My neighbor let me know about it one day as he told ghost stories and pointed at the stones around the neighborhood, stones which were actually gravestones that had been tipped over. Some of these graves dated back to the era when Fort Defiance really was a Fort and relations between Navajo and whites were a lot more tenuous. I never had the nightmares over those graves that my neighbor did, but I always thought it an odd thing to live in a neighborhood built on a graveyard. It’s a little more odd given Navajo attitudes about the dead. In any event, this was an interesting time and place, but it was also a difficult time. I can’t say that I ever thought of this place as home. I miss it sometimes, but not like I miss my homes.

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Boulder City, NV

Three years on, I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, I still worked on the Navajo Nation, commuting to Chinle, Arizona to teach classes for Diné College. That was a hell of a commute! I think I totaled 500-600 miles a week, usually travelling out at the beginning of the work-week and coming back at the end. My brother always wondered why I didn’t travel around the area more; why I didn’t want to go to Phoenix this weekend or Sedona on that one. The truth was, I was tired of traveling by the time I got back to Flagstaff. I loved my weekends, and those few full weeks when I could afford to just stay home. Mostly, I loved my new home.

It didn’t take me long to embrace Flagstaff. Flagstaff was full of bike trails, and I took to them like a fish to, …well actually I was never very good at mountain biking. That didn’t stop me from getting out there and collecting a few scars. I rode almost religiously every other day. Flagstaff was where my cats would mug me whenever I came home and try to get me to play when I was packing up to go. Flagstaff was also a few nice restaurants, a game store (two at one point), an occasional trip to Charlie’s Tavern, and a few other things. Flagstaff was home for a little over ten years. In fact, Flagstaff was the first time I ever thought of the place I actually lived as my home. I still had a foot in Vegas (family) and another on the Navajo Nation. I think it was while I was living in Flagstaff that I developed the habit of leaving my clothes in a suitcase, but with all the local travel, I felt pretty well grounded. I had a home, and it was rarely more than a half days drive away from me at any given time.

So, why did I leave Flagstaff? Well, in a word, ‘money’. When gas hit $4.00 a gallon, I realized I’d have been better off giving up my vehicle and working at McDonald’s than continuing the big commutes. I didn’t want to move out of Flagstaff either, and I didn’t particularly want to move back out onto the reservation So, I quit my job and tried a few different things, none of which worked out. Life in Flagstaff soured. The place was still great, but my experience of it was growing more than a little bitter.

Eventually, I ended up in Houston, Texas, teaching at a private school. I liked Houston. Could have made a go of it, but I didn’t stay long enough to make it home.

I still remember getting a message from Ilisagvik College in Barrow, AK. It had been at least 6 months since I’d applied to work there and now they wanted to interview me. I know why now, but at the time, it was just inconvenient. I think I actually started writing out a ‘thanks-but-no-thanks response. Then I thought “what the Hell!” and wrote something else. Long story short? Barrow is now home. And yes, it’s home in the sense that Rollings used the term. It’s where I belong. It’s where I’m comfortable. It’s where my moral compass points whenever I am somewhere else. I could rattle on about it a bit, but honestly, Barrow is all over this blog. Suffice to say that I now call Barrow home.

…only there is an odd twist to it. I still think of the American Southwest as my home. It’s where I want to go whenever I get a chance to get out. Barrow is pretty isolated. Much as I love the place, I love it a bit more when I come back to it. I think most folks who live there would agree, you have to get out from time to time. Whenever I do, I find myself looking to get back to my old haunts. I’m not too particular about it, really. The whole southwestern region has become a comfort to me. Nevada? Arizona? New Mexico? Get me out there where I can smell sage or see red cliffs and I am happy. Feed me a not-particularly authentic taco and I am even happier. The Southwest feels like home, and that home feels just a bit better knowing that it isn’t entirely an escape from the place I actually live. This isn’t like those years of wishing my family were still back in Colorado while they were so happy to be out of it. When I go back home to Barrow now, I’ll be happier to be there. It makes it just a little easier to enjoy visiting my old turf.

So, what has me traveling down this very self-indulgent road? Nostalgia to be sure, but honestly, I’m not sure that this post is entirely about me. It may seem ironic given the me-ness of what I’ve written so far, but I think what triggered it was my girlfriend, Monica. I have spent the last month with her, here in Los Angeles. (She would say, San Dimas, but to me this is L.A.) Moni has lived in this area pretty much since she was a teenager when her family first came up from Mexico City. It’s definitely her home.

18765880_10155734820518488_805433055802920588_nWhen I go back in August, Moni plans to go with me. In the meantime, she has been visiting old friends and taking me to some of her favorite places. In part, Moni is introducing me to all the people in her life and in part she is telling her friends and family ‘goodbye’. We didn’t get to everyone (dammit!), but I’ve met enough of Moni’s people, and spent enough time with them that for the first time I have a sense of what this move means to her. In the last month I have eaten dinner with Moni’s family, partied with some of her high school friends, traveled a bit with others, eaten at their favorite restaurants, and listened to a good deal of their favorite music. I’m starting to get a sense of the world Moni will be leaving to go up to that icebox I call home. I now have a sense of what she will be missing, and the thought of taking her away from it, away from all these people, is a bit daunting. She wants to go, so she is excited, but she is also leaving a lot of people behind, and so she is also sad. A few paragraphs back, I looked up to find Moni crying. So now I feel bad too. I’m excited to have her coming with me, but I’m also nervous. This is her home, and I am taking her from it. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not something to be taken lightly.

People can live almost anywhere, but some places become home.

I wonder if Barrow will be home for Moni? I expect she is wondering about pretty much the same thing. Hope doesn’t come easily to me. Thankfully, it comes easier to Moni. She is braver than I am. I wonder how she will cope with my cats? How she will like some of the native foods? How she will cope with the cold?

…whether she will find in Barrow something she can call home?

 

The Political Theology of Theodore Nuge

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Not believing in souls myself, perhaps I am a bit naive about the subject. I tend to assume that ensoulment is a pretty sweeping kind of project. Everyone either has one, or they don’t. That’s my usual sense of the issue anyhow.

Lately, though, I’ve been reading up on this thing, exploring the works of an obscure theologian (Theodore Nuge) who has a great deal to contribute to our understanding of the matter. You see, it turns out that although people in general may be thought to carry something along the lines of a soul, it turns out that many people are actually without a soul. Seriously! Soullessness, would seem to be a big thing. It’s actually rather common. Just who laks a soul and how they came to lose it, now that is indeed a very interesting question. I’m still learning this subject, though, and the Nuge seems to understand it much better than I do. So, let me share with you just a few of his insights into the nature of souls and soullessness.

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On the subject of soullessness, Nuge’s most accessible work would seem to have been about a musical exposition once scheduled at a Native American business venture. When the exposition was called off, Nuge is said to have remarked that those responsible lacked proper hygiene, and that they were in fact people without souls. Just how to account for their lack of souls remains a matter of some dispute. Nuge was thought originally to have ascribed this status to them on account of their indigenous nature, though he later suggested the individuals in question had become soullessness on account of political activities. It is possible that Mr. Nuge’s later comments reflected something of a shift in his thinking, however, as the intent of his first comments on the subject would seem to be less than clear. Not everyone agrees with Nuge;s self-exegesis. Subsequent attempts to clarify Nuge’s relationship to the Native American community has been preserved in obscure digital source material.

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Some scholars find Nuge’s proclamations of affinity for indigenous peoples a bit hollow, given the ease with which he dismissed Native American activists, but we must consider the intersection of indigineity and disensoulment carefully before moving on to the rest of his work. Far from a flippant comment, it would appear that Nuge’s appropriation of indigeneity is actually part of a much larger theme in his works. Even Theodore’s musical performances are said to have incorporated native, or at least faux-native themes. Nuge’s interest in Native American themes would seem to contain a number of clues into his thoughts about disensoulment. Let us consider one of the most interesting features of Nuge’s work, his ideas about spiritual hygiene!

It is not simply the case that can souls be lost, according to Nuge, they can also become quite dirty. Indeed, a soul according to Nuge is in constant need of a bath, except that a literal bath doesn’t seem to do much to cleanse a soul. No, to cleanse one’s soul, a person must go into nature, preferably with the intent of killing something. Consider the following texts:

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QED?

Having established that souls can indeed be cleansed by nature, we should perhaps add that they can be be healed by nature as well. So, we might be inclined to think of Nuge’s comments as indicative of a state which is generally inimical to good spiritual well-being, one which is akin to sickness as well as lack of hygiene. Although Nuge himself never committed this notion to a single lexical item, it may be productive for us to adopt a technical term for this state. Let us call it the state of being ‘yucky’!

Now let us move on to the importance of hunting practices. Although Nuge does seem to attribute soul-cleansing and healing power to nature in general, he ascribes its full healing power to the pursuit and killing of animals. Consider the following passages:

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Last but not least…

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So, you can see, there is special cleansing power in the hunting and killing of animals. It’s like the super-soap of soul-cleansing wilderness spirituality. Indeed the very moment of killing an animal would seem to be the best agent for eliminating any yuckiness that has attached to the soul.

With all this attention to hunting, it should be said that there is at least one other soul-cleansing agent in life, at least according to Nuge.  He also finds the power to cleanse a soul in one other thing, music.

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Near as I can tell, these two sources constitute an exhaustive list of soul-cleansing/healing agents in the work of Nuge. If he acknowledges this power in any other activities, I have yet to find a discussion of it in Nuge’s work.

So, what does all this have to do with Native Americans? Well, to answer this we must consider some of the Nuge’s experiments with Native American dress and neo-primitivism! Nuge seems to credit Native Americans (along with sundry friends) with guiding him through the soul-cleansing process. Often, he suggests, they are their with him when the Nuge cleanse his soul by killing animals and/or playing music.

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All of this would seem to add up to a kind of neo-primitive shamanism. Whether hunting or playing his music, the Nuge is connecting with the spiritual power of primitive people, and with the souls of loved ones lost. It is this connection to primitivity which cleanses the soul, either by releasing an arrow in the direction of Bambi, or by whaling away on a guitar. In each case, the sould-cleansing power stems from the return to primitive nature, the escape from civilization into a more basic form of existence.

All of this is quite fascinating, to me anyway, but of course it is merely one half of the coin in Nuge’s work on souls. You could think of it as the heads side of having a soul. The tails side is that you can lose it.

Who doesn’t have a soul? Well,Pimps, whores, and wellfare brats, for one.

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Now that might seem like kind of a random list, but it would seem the Nuge assumes these people share a common political agenda.

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Indeed, Nuge would seem to suggest the success of that political agenda, namely the campaign to elect Barack Obama as President of the U.S. had dire implications for the soul of America itself.

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…and of course, this trend only got worse in more recent elections!

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Journalists, it would seem, have no souls.

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During the last election, even Fox News seems to have suffered a loss of its soul.

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Some might find it odd to think of a news station as something that could possess a soul in the first place, but this should really come as no surprise. Corporations are people, according to SCOTUS. It shouldn’t really be all that interesting to find one has a soul.

…or that it lost it.

Other candidates for soullessness?

The Southern Poverty Law Center.

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Those who oppose voter identification.

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People who disarm citizens and cops.

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Critics of the Nuge.

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And of course, animal rights activists.

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In one of his more ideosyncratic passages, the Nuge even suggests that anyone who doesn’t think Theodore supports ‘allthings LGBT‘. Some might consider this an odd basis for disensoulment as it’s tough to imagine how the very existence of one’s soul could be contingent upon recognition of another person’s, but the more difficult theological questions here probably have to do with the unusual construction of LGBT rights. It way well be that Theodore’s rather ideosyncratic construction of G in particular is the key to the addition of creepery to the status those disensouled on account of their agnosticism regarding Nuge’s political stance on LGBT issues. It’s a very difficult thing. Some say God works in mysteries ways. Nuge talks in them.

So, as you can see the list of people lacking a soul is rather long, according to Theodore Nuge. The list may seem rather haphazard, but a few common themes can certainly be found in his work. Democrats and liberals are two overlapping-but-not-quite-synonymous groups that lack souls, according to Nuge. Also, Media. Given the importance of hunting for spiritual hygiene, it probably makes sense to find that those opposed to hunting lack a soul.

Also, those who don’t Like the Nuge’s music.

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So, what to make of it? As I mentioned before, I am new to the subject of soulology, but on a more serious note, I do think talk of souls can be very meaningful. The question I would ask is what are the metaphors? What does all this talk of souls really mean to those producing it? maybe, we can’t get far if we expect a literal answer, but we get a lot further if we ask what personal values are expressed in such talk.

Nugent’s talk of the soul-cleansing power of nature would make sense to a lot of people. Hell, it makes sense to me. While some might object to the role of hunting in this approach to life, it does express something found in few modern means of interacting with the natural environment. It provides someone with a definite role in nature. A tourist hiking a nature trail is, at best, someone who will take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints. He doesn’t belong in nature and he knows it. A hunter, on the other hand, is part of it. He is, for that purpose anyway, as much a part of nature as the game he tracks. More to the point, he knows it. So, Nugent’s comments on the cleansing of the soul during a hunt may not square with some people’s thoughts about animals, but they certainly do strike me as an authentic description of his personal experience.

What seems most objectionable in all this is the growing sense of personal pettiness in all this talk of souls. How quickly the profundity of nature turns into a spiteful outburst against those who could interfere with it! How easily, Nugent’s personal associations with Native Americans turns to license taken against other Native Americans. Nugent’s talk of soullessness enables him to dismiss an awful lot of people. I don’t believe in a soul myself, but I have to wonder at the soul of someone who does believe in such a thing but seems so ready to say that others don’t have one. It’s a metaphor, of course, but a rather double-edged one at that. Can someone who so often finds no meaningful life in others really find much meaning in his own?

I’m old enough to remember when Ted Nugent was mostly a guitar sound coming through my speakers. Tastes vary, of course, and some of his lyrics are more than a little questionable, but I really did like the sound of that guitar. Listening to it now, I can almost sense that soul-cleansing power Nugent locates in nature and in his music. (Many will disagree, I know) The thing is, after listening to him talk about the soullessness of others, I usually feel like I need some of that power. I just wish he’s produce less of the one and more of the other.