July 6, 2016

My Final Frame - Millennials and the Dialectic of the Superhero

This will be my last entry to this blog.  I’m not going anywhere, and nothing is wrong, but this medium has reached a rather evident end of effectiveness in an age dominated by streaming video and podcasts.  I’ve not posted for years now due in part to forces beyond my control, and I don’t anticipate being able to recreate a schedule that works to regularly update this space. But having said that, I’m unsatisfied that my previous de facto “final-entry” was so current events oriented and now serves as a dated reference to what feels like another era.  A lot has happened in the intervening years personally, professionally, and socio-culturally and I think I finally found something to say that will leave a better final mark than the old and tired debate over video-game violence.  It is my hope that what I present here will be a fitting finale to One Frame of Mind.

Before we begin, though, I need to hang one final disclaimer over the proceedings.  I am a self-identified Caucasian, heterosexual, cis-gendered, man.  I’ve referenced each of these in passing in previous posts, but for the matter I wish to discuss, I believe it’s important that I acknowledge that everything I say is unavoidably influenced by those perspectives.  I do not consider myself confined to these characteristics (as I’m sure would be true of most, if not all, of you), but I cannot deny that my experience of the circumstances discussed below may be a byproduct of them.  Having said all of that, I sincerely hope that what I offer here will resonate with you and maybe even help you understand your circumstances with greater clarity.  More after the jump.

Let us consider an old question from my youth and, likely, many of your childhoods as well: 
“If you could have any super power, what would it be?” 

January 30, 2013

Rated "E" For Everyone

So, first of all, an apology to those of you who were expecting my essay on GMOs for this installment. I had spoken to some of you about it, and I had even managed to outline it, but as I've said a lot lately, reality beckons. A bit of current events drama has unfolded that I feel is a more fitting topic (don't worry, it's not nearly as tragic) and I don't want to miss my window of opportunity to weigh in on the matter. Leave a note in the comments section if you still want me to address GMOs in a future post and I'll do my best to make it happen.

So what is this event you ask? Well, good ol' Ralph Nader is back in the news and lending his voice to the everlasting debate about violence in the general media and video games in particular. More specifically, and more outrageously, he referred to the game makers themselves as "Electronic Child Molesters". No you didn't just misread that, and no, I'm not going to use this post to rehash my argument (made in my previous post History of Violence, if you need a refresher) about why blaming any kind of mass-media for violence doesn't really deserve much credibility. Instead, I'd like to use this as an opportunity to look at some of the ways we ended up here in the first place. No matter what your opinion on video games may be, haven't you asked yourself "Why do we make such a big deal out of violence in video games?" at some point? Well, I have, and I'd like to share that perspective with you. So, without further ado, let's dig into this.

For Love of the Game

From what I can gather, much of the outcry related to video game violence centers around a handful of misconceptions and misunderstandings related to the nature of video games themselves. Video games, after all, are a relatively young medium of entertainment compared to some of the more "practiced" kinds that virtually everyone alive today remembers growing up with. As such, it's understandable and even natural that some people might find them unusual enough to be "frightened" by them. No, I don't mean waking-in-the-middle-of-the-night frightened, just the kind of fright that comes from not really having a solid understanding on which to base your experience. Under such circumstances, it's not surprising then that a certain number of people for whom this is true would try to "vilify" or "demonize" games as a response to that fear and lack of understanding. It's gotten the game-community no shortage of enemies; Jack Thompson, Leland Yee, and Joseph Lieberman to name a few of the famous ones. Even President Obama called gamers "under-achievers" back in his early days in the White House, and has even more recently called for more research into the effect video games have on violent behavior. From where I stand, there's at least one common thread amongst all of these people and that would be that each of them has been concerned predominantly with the effect of video games on children. I'd like us to look at this particular belief, understanding, what-have-you a little closer because, on further inspection, the concern doesn't hold much water.

First some "gamer credentials" for you in the interest of full disclosure: I'm a big fan of video games (and games in general; more on that in a moment) and have been playing since I was about 5 years old. I owned on original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) that my parents purchased for me at a very young age, and have had at least one (if not more) console for every generation of consoles since. I played games throughout my formative years and on through college and my first job. Now, in my current phase of adult life, I regularly play games (on each of the current generation of consoles, AND on PC) whenever I have the time, which is, sadly, not as often as I would like. I am one of many who consider video games to be a form of art and that they deserve all the protections and provisions that word implies. I am not a proponent of the insularity often preached by the so-called "Hardcore Gamer" demographic, and I am of the opinion that one day everyone will involve video games in their life to the point where "gamer", as a term, will fade into obscurity. I believe that there are games for everyone and that everyone should experiment with games to find ones they enjoy. In short: I love video games and hate to see them misused, misunderstood, and maligned in terms like those used by Ralph Nader and would, in fact, love to see them grow and expand to reach people of all stripes.

With that out of the way, let's get back to Mr. Nader's assertion. Let's ignore the rather firebrand-ish choice of language for a moment and get at the meat of what he’s talking about. His statement, to my understanding, is that video game makers are in the business of exploiting a capitalist environment to do harm to our children psychologically. The likening of game-makers to child-molesters is intended to invoke images of the kind of sexual taboos we often fear that our children may be victims of when left alone with “unsavory” people. Obviously, this is hyperbole on his part, but underneath that, we begin to see the source of his (and many other peoples’) misunderstanding of the nature of video games: the belief they are meant for children.

Hold on there; I am well-aware that children play video games. I just finished explaining to you all that I played them as a child, myself, and it’s well known that many are targeted towards and played by younger children. The trouble is, while it’s certainly true that many video games are meant to be played by children, it’s foolish and short-sighted to think that they were all meant for children. The title of my post may be familiar to some of you as the tag-line of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) category used to describe games with content suitable for all audiences. The ESRB functions for games in a similar manner to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which is responsible for evaluating and rating films (i.e. G, PG13, R, NC17, etc.) and offers this kind of evaluation (on a voluntary basis) to games in order to guide purchasing decisions that might be sensitive to content. Given this, it should now be at least somewhat obvious that the general public, and especially the game designers themselves, would know that not all content in all games is suitable for children. If we can make R-rated movies that only adults are permitted to see, it stands to reason that it should be acceptable to make M-rated (the ESRB equivalent of “R” is M for Mature) games that only adults were intended to play. In today’s world, more and more games are being made to suit this demographic of “mature” gamers (trust me, I use that word hesitantly at times) that want more violent, “adult” content as part of the experience. In a perfect world, that would be the only argument needed to end this discussion, but alas, I still can’t fly and my iguana hasn't evolved into a dragon yet, so this is not a perfect world.

So given the more-or-less parallel existence films and games have, why are games still singled out as being “for children”? Well, I suspect it’s due to a combination of historical revisionism and a kind of lingual bias present in the culture that seeps into the discussion. Let’s start with the history. There is a prevailing belief that games were always designed for children in American culture. While I can’t say for sure how this idea took hold, I will say that it certainly doesn’t hold up on closer examination. The oldest game that I’ve ever encountered is an ancient Egyptian game called Senet. It’s a board-game about passage into the afterlife that has been found entombed with royalty dating to between 3500 and 3100 BC. Not too much is known about the gaming habits of ancient Egyptians, but from what I’ve read, the game was played by both children and adults, and it’s set-up and goal held religious significance to those who would have originally played it. So much so, in fact, that even Gods were portrayed as playing this game on wall paintings found in Egyptian palaces.

So obviously there is an ancient-historical precedent for games being more than just children’s things, but what about a more modern era? Well, did you know that Atari was making “porn” games as recently as the 70’s and 80’s? Yes, one of the most hallowed names in gaming history was making 8-bit distractions for both children and adults in their heyday. Why haven’t you heard of them before? Well, in all likelihood it was a combination of things. For starters, getting a console at the time Atari was reigning champion was not something easily done since the console craze didn’t really hit American audiences until after Nintendo created the NES in 1983 after the game-market had already collapsed. Compounding that was the fact that these “porn” games were very hard to buy since, in a demonstration of the very thing I’m trying to refute, most businesses didn’t want porn games sold along-side what they considered to be “children’s” toys. Unfortunately, that very phenomenon blossomed into the full-blown issue it seems to be today.

With “adults only” games being more and more marginalized due to a misinterpretation of the scope of the gaming industry, it was almost inevitable that by the time M-rated (or even Teen-rated) games became more and more common they would also be seen as more out of place or inappropriate. Today’s gaming market is actually dominated by men in their mid-to-late 30s, and not children, but the business of selling games is still thought of as “toy-making” by the people who publish them, and so we end up in this rather precarious situation where games clearly intended for an adult audience end up being marketed towards children in a misguided attempt to simply promote the game. I’m cynical enough to know that the publishers also believe that children will likely attempt to buy the game either without parental consent or in spite of it, but that’s only partly on the publisher’s shoulders. Stores need to ID people and parents need to educate their children and themselves about the content that’s out there. We don’t seem to get as outraged over children getting into see R-rated films, so I don’t see why the same logic shouldn’t apply here. No special legislation is needed to “keep R-rated movies away from kids”, we just need to adjust to the idea that some things just aren’t for children and make decisions accordingly.

Which brings me, at last, to the “linguistic” problem I hinted at earlier. I’m not talking about the use of so-called “bad language” (which is a whole other topic and another post) in games, but rather the language we use on a daily basis that makes it difficult for games to receive the “for everyone” treatment that movies or books do. Let me throw out a few expressions (or variations thereof) for you that I’m sure you’ve heard or even used: “That’s child’s play”; “Quit playing around”; “They’re just toying with you”; “This isn’t a game, you know”. Notice a pattern? Each of the phrases I just used carries the implicit understanding that games, toys, and play are all things not to be taken seriously, and by extension, not something that “mature adults” are to be involved with. Most of the lingual references to games or game terminology in American English (I’m afraid I can’t speak for those of you living outside the US) are used with the intent of belittling the idea of “play” so as to make the activities of an adult “superior” to that of a child.

Now, even if you choose to stand with those that declare “play” to be an activity that makes one child-like, I have to ask: Why? What’s wrong with “playing”? Why do we think so little of “games” and “toys” that we won’t acknowledge the possibility that adults might derive some benefit from them? Is it really that unthinkable that adults can derive something meaningful from an activity akin to “child’s play”? Is it somehow unseemly to learn from a game? While research has yet to demonstrate any kind of causal link between game-violence and real-violence, it has demonstrated that games are a great way to learn. People learn more when taught through some sort of game than from just reading about it or listening to a lecture. I believe children are often inclined towards games and play for exactly this reason. They are using the, for lack of a better word, mechanics of play to educate themselves about the world around them and its possibilities and limits. Ever play tag? Didn’t you learn pretty quickly if you were “fast” or “slow” compared to your friends? That’s learning through play at its best. It’s some of the most important work we can do in our brief lives on this planet.

So what happens when we become adults? Do we forget that our childhood play-time was valuable to us? Do we simply deny those lessons and pretend to ourselves that we learned everything from rigorous study? Is it somehow beneath us to learn about ourselves and our world from a game because we crossed some arbitrary line of years-spent-alive? While I accept fully that some things deserve a more “deferential” treatment than the average game (i.e. I prefer that my leaders don’t get Foreign Policy advice from, say, Call of Duty...ahem), I don’t accept that the kinds of things we learned from playing games don’t apply to most of our situations. I don’t mean things like “lasers are awesome!” or “slashing and hacking with swords is cool!”, but rather things like “making decisions on-the-fly” or “living with the choices we’ve made”. Yes, you can learn all of those things from video games. And thanks to the hard-working people in the industry, it’s never been more engaging or more exhilarating.

Part of the beauty I see in video games as an art is their capacity to teach us about ourselves in ways even more profound than a movie or a book. Unlike those non-interactive forms of entertainment, video games make you live out the consequences of your choices. Books, movies, and TV are all wonderful media, but in the end they are all limited as teaching tools in that even the best lessons are only ever observed; they are never practiced. We don’t have to live with the repercussions of even the most sympathetic protagonist of a book or movie, but we do when we play that character. Perhaps this is just the perspective of a “Generation NES Gamer”, but I’d like to think that this characteristic of “play” is something we all experience, even if we can’t identify it as such.

So are game-makers “child-molesters”? Definitely not. I’m pretty sure that even some of the most vehemently anti-game people would see that as exaggeration. Do they have the capacity to “damage children psychologically”? Sure. I remember being thrown off a swing when I was very little and it made me hesitant about going back on, so I’d say it’s possible. Are they a new kind of problem to be dealt with in such extreme and absolutist ways as censorship or banning? Not even close. This is just “their turn” in the spotlight. Everything from R-rated movies, to comic books, to plain-old-books, to Elvis’ hips has had a moment in history where people who didn’t really understand them tried to claim they were dangerous. Heck, people once claimed that women would all faint from amazement at the sight of the first functional trains! It’s a phase and it will pass. But it will pass even quicker if everyone just tries to remember how wonderful it was to experience play as something valuable to them. I know I treasure my time spent “playing” with friends and family as some of my most wonderful memories. So where do we go from here? Obviously there’s a lot to think about, so I’ll leave that to you, my readers.

Tag! You’re it!

I’m Trevor, and that’s my Frame of Mind.

December 25, 2012

Lost in the Myth

As I write this, it's Christmas.  Given the general tradition of merriment involved with that holiday, I feel somewhat unhappy that I might have closed out the year on such a sad and unpleasant topic.  Not that I feel this particular year didn't deserve to end on a sour note, mind you.  So in the spirit of the holiday, I thought I'd return to form by delving into something thought-provoking and fun to think about: Santa Claus (sort of).

Yeah, yeah...I know; predictable.  So?  What's so bad about predictability?  Hell, half the reason we do the things we do is to establish some kind of predictability in our lives that reassures us that things are OK.  So to that end, I thought it'd be fun to take a closer look at an icon that is at once over-exposed and incredibly important to the culture of the US, if not the entire world.  Some of you are getting ready to pounce on comments section with a Wikipedia link proving that the Jolly-Old-Elf is just a creation of the Coca-Cola corporation to market their soft-drinks at the holiday.  Tell you what, I'll save you the time.  I'm fully aware that Coke "invented" the modern image of Santa Claus as a marketing strategy, and I'm here today to tell you

It's the Myth that Matters.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to tell you to abandon all your cynicism or even that you should believe in Santa Claus against the evidence of your senses or reality itself; that would be ridiculous.  I think very highly of cynicism in today's world of deceit and psychological manipulation by marketing, and it's both sensible and healthy to maintain a level of skeptical and critical thinking to protect yourself.  But, I am also a big proponent of indulgence in mythology and the stories that inform the culture(s) around you.  With this "disclaimer" out of the way, let's dive in.

For those of you who only recently emerged from your nice protective rock, Santa Claus is the name given (in the US, anyway) to a fictitious being associated with the Christmas holiday who is often said to be responsible for bestowing presents on the good boys and girls of the world the night of Christmas eve so that those children can open them and play on Christmas morning.  Although there has been some variation over the years, he's generally depicted as fat and jolly, sporting a red suit with white trim, and an elven hat with a white tuft on the end of it and his preferred mode of travel is a sleigh led by a small herd of reindeer, including at least one with, well...."interesting" sinus issues. 

It is almost always said that Santa Claus is possessed of mystical or even magical powers of omniscience, i.e. that he can know if you're asleep or not and whether you've been well behaved throughout the year.  He is also apparently capable of travel across the globe with at least one toy for every good boy and girl in the space of a single night with no delays.  That's a pretty impressive feat given how hard it is for me just to get to work in the morning.  Barring some pretty esoteric exceptions, this is the basic image and description of Santa Claus as told to nearly all American children. Essentially, the story of Santa Claus that we're given is the story of a type of deity: an all-knowing and very powerful entity capable of great benevolence and willing to ignore or even punish those who's behavior is insufficiently "good" in his eyes. 

Given this basic understanding, I can see where the temptation towards "explaining away" Santa Claus as a marketing product or even a straight-up lie might come in.  Obviously, Santa Claus isn't "real" (Oh...uh...Spoiler Alert? Sorry) and many people feel that this representation of Santa Claus is a kind of extension of the morality code practiced by our society at large.  If the story goes that he's willing to pass up "bad" children, it's easy to see how this is a way of offering incentives towards "good" behaviors in order to help maintain the smaller and larger social orders.  And, of course, the main reason to be cynical about Santa's existence is that he actually is (to some extent) a product of marketing.  He's quite literally designed to be appealing to and indeed loved by children, thus having them associate positive feelings with their brand.  All this is perfectly valid criticism, and there's no way to sensibly deny any of the assertions about the "utilitarian" aspects to the Santa Claus myth.  However, on reflection, I'm forced to conclude that, in the end, ALL mythology serves a similar purpose to it's culture.  I could point to examples from ancient Egypt, or Greece to highlight this point, but I'm actually going to choose a completely different mythology to make my point: Batman.

No, you didn't misread that.  No, I don't think Batman and Santa Claus have much in common in terms of what they represent or how they're depicted.  What they do have in common, however, is that they are both cultural myths born of a profit seeking entity trying encourage a kind of brand loyalty while simultaneously offering their "followers" something to think about and believe in regarding the culture that created them.  Batman is a hero; a being who struggles and sacrifices in order to serve an ideal of justice that he has meticulously maintained in response to a tragedy in his past.  He has fine-tuned his willpower to the point where he will always strive to hold to this ideal, even when it comes into direct opposition to what he wants at the time. He uses an incredible arsenal of tools and gadgets to solve mysteries, aid him in combat, and gain access to information that others without his resources cannot.  He might be portrayed as a "mortal man", but make no mistake, he's nearly as omnipotent and omniscient as the red-coated cookie-fiend we've been talking about.  They're both symbolic representations of an ideal made flesh, and, by extension, they are both people we are meant, not just to admire, but to idolize.  We're meant to strive for the ideals they represent; in Batman's case, it's justice, and in Santa's case it's kindness and generosity of spirit.

So why couldn't we just tell children "seek justice in the world" or "be kind and giving"? Well, because, deep down at the core of what it is to experience our humanity, that just isn't enough.  Throughout all of human history, it has always been the case that we exemplify our ideals and values through these sort of "superhuman" mythologies.  As far back as the cave-men, we told stories of how nature itself punished those who weren't careful.  The ancient Greeks (see, I worked them in eventually) invented an entire pantheon of "supermen" who's stories speak volumes of the morality and values of Greek life.  The Holy Bible (and it's ilk) is, in essence, a story book of supernatural beings whose purpose is to convey a sense of right and wrong to its readers.  This is how we, as a species, need our world explained to us.  It has never been enough that something "is".  Even science fiction and fantasy stories are attempts to make absolutest statements about the scope and limits of the human condition by taking them to impossible lengths and then reaffirming that the condition persists even under such extraordinary circumstances.  As I already said in the last post: reality just isn't good enough. 

Does this mean that there's no value in simply stating the case in "non-fictional" terms?  Of course not.  In fact, the real problem with this kind of cultural myth-making is that people too often get so absorbed in the extraordinary, that they can often lose sight of what makes it so important: it's meaning is real, even if it's expression is not.  We shouldn't try to actually be Batman anymore than we should start giving out gifts by flying around in a sleigh led by reindeer.  To engage these stories in such a literal way is to miss the entire point of the mythology.  Humanity has always needed "gods" to worship, but we must take care that what we do in that act of worship doesn't take the form of blind belief, but rather a kind of introspective understanding of the meaning implicit in the story. 

Obviously, interpretations of these meanings will vary from one individual to another, depending greatly on personal experiences and environmental conditions, but the goal remains the same.  Put simply: don't believe in Santa Claus, but strive to understand what he means to you and those around you.  Who knows? You may even forget about Coca-Cola entirely.  Admit it, you kinda did, didn't you?

I wish you all a Happy Holiday if you are, in fact, celebrating one. Even if you aren't, I hope you'll look to your mythology of choice with a fresh eye. 

I'm Trevor, and that's my Frame of Mind.

December 16, 2012

History of Violence

About two months ago, I opined that, while it's fun to harp on subjects like video-games not including women when they should, or Transformers including teen-angst when it shouldn't, the real world often gets in the way.  More specifically, reality occasionally presents us with circumstances and situations so grave and dire as to command our attention and force us to (hopefully) become more introspective and thoughtful about the larger issues of the world. 2012 has offered us more examples of this phenomenon in action than any other year of my (admittedly short) life; yes, even more than 9/11 over a decade ago.  I say this because, I can't remember a year more tarnished by violent crime stories (publicized ones, anyway).  It feels as though at least once a month there came a story in the news about a mass murder or a riot gone wrong. Unquestionably, the two that stand out the most (in my mind) this year, are the shootings in Aurora, Colorado this past July, and Sandy Hook, Connecticut barely more than a day ago, as of this writing. They had much in common which helps them stick in the memory: both were the actions of lone gunmen who slaughtered dozens in order to satisfy what can only be described as a twisted desire, and in both cases they took the lives of children and families unrelated to them as a part of their "campaign" to achieve their goals.

I don't want to dwell on how sick and vile the actions of these obviously very disturbed young men were, since I don't think anyone would dispute or question that.  And, in all honesty, it's not the part of this that sickens me the most.  While I fully sympathize with the families whose lives are, at best, shattered by their actions, I find myself much more aghast at the baffling number of debates that sprung up like weeds across the internet in the wake of these killings.  Now, I'm as big a proponent of open debate and argument as you can get, but even I am sincerely disturbed by the amount of moralizing, proselytizing and condemnation of one another that has made itself known.  In the end, what I write here today may serve as merely another voice amid the din, but I am compelled to weigh in, so to speak, on some of the various arguments I have heard over the last 24 hours that purport to be in the service of "solving our problem".  As such, this will not be a conventional essay, but rather a point-by-point reaction piece.  I can't promise I'll have an answer of my own to all of the questions this will raise, but where possible, I'll provide my suggestion. I had hoped to use this format for an entirely different purpose, but, as I already mentioned, reality beckons.

"We Must Improve our Care of the Mentally Ill"

This argument, I actually have no real gripe with as presented.  The human mind is a very complex and misunderstood thing, and it requires extensive study to grasp even it's most fundamental components.  As such, it's understandable that we have a fairly unimpressive system in place (in the USA, at least - I cannot speak for those of you living outside our semi-dysfunctional little piece of the globe) for dealing with mentally ill people.  It becomes doubly problematic when a significant portion (and I don't use that word lightly - ask your local statistician) of that "ill" population become violent as a consequence of their condition.  Just so we're clear: the people responsible for incidents like Sandy Hook and Aurora are clearly mentally ill. I don't have a degree in psychology or an MD, but it doesn't take advanced education (I'd say 8th grade is probably sufficient, really) to see that these are the actions of people whose minds plainly do not work properly.  Simply put, healthy people do not solve their problems through murder, and as such these two and the thousands out there like them, qualify as mentally ill.

Like I already said, I think it's unquestionable that we should improve our understanding of and care for individuals like this, but this question actually skirts a deeper and much more complicated issue.  How do you find these people to care for them in the first place?  One of the things that makes such individuals so frightening and unsettling is that their "improper" thinking grants them a kind of advantage over the majority of the population in that they are capable of moving through our social structures and behaving in ways that the rest of us couldn't even imagine.  Put more simply, since they don't think like us, they're incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to predict.  There's an especially twisted irony to the Aurora murderer's chosen moniker of "Joker" in that the character whose name he adopted is an anarchist whose atrocities are so frightening because they are "designed" to be utterly unpredictable and extremely lethal while coming from directions and places we always believed were safe; like for example a movie theater or a school-house.  With that in mind, I'm forced to ask: what improvements would be required, and what would we need to do to actually implement them in an effective way?  I don't have a good answer, but mostly because I feel the question itself hasn't been properly put.  There's little I can add to the discussion besides the caution that we can't afford to overlook the fact that the chaotic nature of such twisted minds provides obstacles that are extremely difficult to overcome. 

"The Media Should be More Responsible for Keeping Violence and Violent Content from Young People"

I mostly heard this kind of "solution" in connection with the Aurora massacre, but I've already started to see threads pop-up where people are starting to ask "Was he playing violent games or watching violent movies?" and I think it's important to nip this particularly dumb argument in the bud.  In all fairness, the argument is usually used as a short-hand for "I believe there is a connection between violent imagery in the media and violent behavior in individuals who consume such", and I can't preclude that possibility.  BUT, the trouble with this line of reasoning is that it is exclusively a possibility at this point in the research.  To wit: no study has conclusively demonstrated a causal link between, say, violent games and violent crimes, but they also have not disproved any such connections either.  In accordance, this particular line of reasoning needs to be filed into the same kind of "possible scenarios" as "I could be hit by a bus tomorrow"; it's technically true, but practically irrelevant. 

While it's absolutely the case that exposure to something like The Dark Knight may have been the proverbial straw for the Aurora shooter, there's no way to have known that before hand.  No one creates violent content in their entertainment with the knowledge that it would inspire anybody to commit unspeakable acts.  Anders Behring Breivik (the perpetrator of the Oslo Massacre in Norway in 2011) claimed to have used Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (a first-person-shooter game, for those who don't know) as a "training simulation" for his eventual slaughter of dozens of men, women, and children.  While that is undeniably "a link" between his behavior and "violence in games", it's not the same thing as stating that "the violence in the game caused his violent behavior in reality", and it's definitely not the case that anyone at Treyarch (the studio that produces the franchise) was thinking that it would.  As I previously mentioned, these people "think badly" about the world around them, and aren't subject to the same influences on their behavior as "normal" people.  The banning or censoring of media content, might slow down these kinds of people, but they certainly won't stop them, and they aren't causally linked in the way the argument seems to want them to be.  We really need to abandon this line of thinking.  Entertainment is not problematic because it portrays unsavory things; people are problematic for failing to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

"Other Countries Don't Have As Many Gun-Related Deaths as the US"

Again, as presented, all I can say is "facts are facts"; this one is just plain true.  If you read the statistics published (and you trust them, as I do) you'll see that the United States simply has a MUCH higher rate of gun-related violence and deaths as a result of gunfire than many developed countries. We aren't always the worst, but we're firmly in the higher rankings in terms of "Number of Gun-Related Deaths".  There's NO disputing this no matter what political agenda you claim to support.  Numbers don't lie.  Having said that, people most assuredly do, and people can use raw numbers to justify just about anything for just about any agenda, even where it's not appropriate.  I'll deal with gun-control in just a moment, but before we address that oh-so-delightful topic in detail, I do have something to add to this "Other-Country Comparison" argument that I never hear in these kinds of debates (at least not sanely). The US is a nation born of gunfire. Calm down, now. I don't intend to justify our clear and present obsession with firer-arms, the second amendment and "gun-play"; I only intend to explain why the international comparison isn't as sound as many (myself included) would like it to be.  Even if we decide to narrow the range of compared nations down to just "Western Civilization", the comparison doesn't really hold up upon inspection from a historical perspective.

If we look at the history of warfare in, say, Europe, (which I will now attempt in as short a window as possible, so please don't take this as anything other than a very incomplete summary) we can see that it evolved along a very clear progression of advancements in technology.  From the simple brawl, to the blade, to the bow-and-arrow, to the first guns (around the time of the Renaissance), Europe's international warfare followed what could only be described as the natural progression of violence.  Tools grew more complex as the wars and the reasons to fight them became more complicated.  In essence, by the time the nations of Europe had firearms, they had already established a sort of national appreciation for and understanding of "The Art of War".  No matter how you may feel about that particular concept, it's clear that European scholars of all stripes were attempting to understand conflict between nations as something approximating a "civilized practice" that had rules, and behavioral restrictions.  Thus, the advent of the gun was merely the introduction of new possibilities and applications for warfare at a given level.  In essence, the mental discipline of the civilized warrior is established and functional, and all that was changed was the tool of conflict. 

The United States, on the other hand, came into existence fairly late in the game of life.  At not even 300 years old, the USA doesn't have the centuries of development and sociopolitical evolution behind it that Europe does.  "But the US began life as a European colony!" I hear you say.  True, but that's actually part of the problem.  The US came to existence well after the advent of the gun and was born as a response to English tyranny.  With guns already established in that era as the tool of choice for combat, the not-as-established colonists of the new world (as opposed to those whose lives are part of a lineage going back centuries), looked to the gun as a symbol of empowerment and freedom from oppression.  In short: the US was created from violent rebellion. From its very inception, the commitment to and positive association with guns was an integral part of the American identity.  It's so engrained, that we have an entire amendment to our constitution specifically stating that people have a right to such weaponry.  So is it unreasonable to feel that America's gun-related death rate is too high?  Not at all.  But, I will say that attempts to point at other parts of the world are slightly less apt than they might seem.  With a history of gun violence going back to the very founding of the nation, it's only natural that modern-day America would cling to it's fondness for guns and the sense of power they instill in many of its citizens.

"Gun Control Laws Must Become Harsher/Gun Control Laws Should Not Be Changed"

And with that "history" in mind, let's get into this.  This is obviously the biggest, and most contentious issue to have emerged in the wake of these tragedies.  It's an endless back-and-forth with proponents of gun-control claiming that the laws should be made more strict so as to limit gun sales, and their detractors arguing that either the laws won't stop the problem or that more guns would have helped prevent these incidents.  Neither side ever gains much ground and the arguments proceed on ad infinitum with both sides simply making a case and then either talking past the opposition or refusing to acknowledge some critical detail that might yield some change in thought.

In the interest of full disclosure, here's where I'm coming from psychologically: I hate guns. Not weapons, mind you; I have no problem with tools of combat in principle.  I collect swords and knives, I play violent games, watch violent movies and TV, and I'm not against some members of society having guns of their own.  What I hate about guns is the level of removal required for one to use a gun as a tool of conflict.  The physical usage of the gun requires a level of removal from your own conflict that I consider to be both dishonorable and more importantly, psychologically unsettling.  As I may have mentioned back in October, I don't object to open conflict, but I do object to the removal of oneself from said conflict.  Basically, what I'm getting at is that guns remove YOU from your own conflict and thus dehumanize the situation and rob it of any meaning it might have possessed.  What sword-combat or even a basic fist-fight have over guns is that they force the participants to confront one another and remain intimately involved in the nature of combat.  This "human element" to violence is essential to keeping conflict "civilized" if you believe such a thing is possible. 

So where do I stand on gun control?  Well, it's best summarized as follows: Reinstate the Military Draft Policy.  No, I'm not kidding.  It's quite obvious to me that as a nation, the United States will never give up its guns.  It's equally obvious that "gun rights" have enough of a lobby in Washington to remain where they are with minimal intervention.  As I already said, I don't actually object to people possessing guns, but I am opposed to perpetuating a culture that misunderstand, mistreats, and abuses the privilege and responsibility of owning such a dangerous tool.  I firmly believe that part of the "gun-happiness" associated with American culture comes from the fact that while we extol the virtues (historically and presently) of possessing firearms, we don't reinforce the idea that to do so is to take on a tremendous burden.   But you know what demographic (on the whole; there are always exceptions) seems to really understand the responsibility associated with guns? Soldiers.

Had the US kept the Draft, I firmly believe that this romantic attachment to guns would be diminished at this point in our history.  If a comparison must be made to other nations (for example Switzerland) and their treatment of guns, this would be the sticking point.  Nearly all of those "better than us" nations have a mandatory military service policy.  Soldiers don't treat their guns as the tool of personal empowerment we often think of them as.  These are the implements by which these brave men and women must survive their circumstances.  No glory-seeking, no one-man army heroism; these are people who use guns to protect themselves, their allies, and indeed their entire country from harm that might befall them.  I submit to you that were military service mandatory in the US, we would see a noticeable decrease in gun-related violence and a lot fewer incidents like the ones in Aurora and Sandy Hook. 

Something Must Change

Time for my contribution to the discussion. It's undeniable that this issue is incredibly complex and obviously my lone suggestion is no more guaranteed to work than any other.  But to bring this all back to where we came from, the real problem with the gun-control discussion is that it always results in inaction.  It doesn't have to be my suggestion that gets implemented, but something must be.  Those who would say "don't bother, cause it won't change anything" are essentially insisting that the way things are is acceptable.  It's certainly possible that stricter gun laws might not improve matters, but doing nothing certainly won't.  The only way things ever change is if we take action to change it.  So it must be with guns, or we condemn ourselves to our present circumstances and nothing more.

I can't possibly imagine what must be going through the minds of the people whose lives were up-ended on the days of these tragic events.  But I can tell you what each and every one of them will think eventually: something must be done so that this never happens again.  Like any good realist (or cynic, depending on perspective, I suppose) I know we'll never be rid of incidents like these completely, but that's not an excuse to not try.  I don't claim to know what needs to change, but I know that we can't accept the way things are.  Reality, simply put, isn't good enough....yet.  Hard as it may be, we need to use moments like these as a time to seriously think about change.  It's inevitable that things will change, anyway; shouldn't we want it to be for the better? Perhaps more critically, shouldn't we want it to change on our terms?

Please feel free to use the comments to add your thoughts on the matter or even to express your feelings in the wake of the recent tragedy.  My heart goes out to all the survivors and their families.  I can't begin to comprehend your pain, and I hope, perhaps against hope itself, that it is short-lived. 

I'm Trevor, and that's my Frame of Mind.

November 27, 2012

100% Off the Mark

Well, it’s the Holiday Season again. The months from November through January here in the states are always buzzing with “Holiday Cheer” and “Merriment” and all manner of wondrous frivolity. It’s supposed to conjure images of families getting together and enjoying fine meals; children opening presents and playing with toys; hot cocoa and apple-cider ‘round the hearth and dozens of other warm and pleasant thoughts to counteract the cold darkness of the season’s weather. It’s supposed to call to mind “a simple time” of pleasures and friendliness, what with phrases like “Peace on Earth and good will toward men” (but definitely not women; that would be absurd!) being chanted throughout the season. The trouble is, I just don’t feel so festive and “merry” around these times anymore.

I don’t mean to sound like a Scrooge, and I do hold some genuine fondness for the holiday season, but it’s just gotten so much harder to appreciate it for the meaning it claims to instill. I fully recognize that part of my problem is deeply personal, and I have had some rough times of late that definitely contribute to my lack of enthusiasm, but upon further reflection, I think I’ve found a new culprit…

Black Friday killed the Holiday Season

Stop priming your outrage, Capitalism Enthusiasts; I’m not here to tell you how corporate excess is evil and how the massive spending is “bad for our soul” or whatever the lingo is these days. I’m not actually an “enemy of capitalism” like some think. I feel about Capitalism essentially the same way I feel about the old Dial-Up method of web-surfing. It fits the time in which it arose and is quite functional, but it’s not good enough and something much better will (rightly) take its place once the right minds are on it and the technology to enable it exists. Besides, there are plenty of people out there criticizing the capitalist excesses of “Black Friday” and I don’t want to jump on that band-wagon. I feel that anyone who knows what Black Friday is will already understand those arguments and will not need them repeated here. The reason I want to talk about Black Friday is because of a hidden cost (ha ha) to its very existence that often goes unnoticed. And the saddest part of all is that it’s actually right out there in front of us: people need to run these sale events.

Let me back up a bit before we dive into that, though, and give a brief (if not pretentious) history lesson on Black Friday and its ilk. For those who aren’t totally familiar with it, Black Friday is the name traditionally given to the Friday immediately following Thanksgiving Day (which is always a Thursday) and is associated with an unusually high-volume of shopping at most locations. Larger department stores in particular are targeted for shopping on this day, and there are frequently huge price reductions associated with the day itself. Since the volume is so high, the loss of money per item is made up by the sheer quantity of purchases, allowing most stores to sell at a price closer to cost. The result is often thought of as a good deal on all accounts; customers get a lot of product for less money, and stores see a welcome rise in profits due to the volume of sales.

While Black Friday may be a relatively recent phenomenon as far as history is concerned, it actually goes back at least a couple of decades in terms of the “tradition” it represents. Sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving have been expected for many years now, and people often use the day as a marker for the “beginning of Christmas shopping”, hence the continued association with retail purchases. With the more traditionally religious holiday of Christmas having long ago been overtaken in popularity (here in the States, at least) by a secular celebration of these kinds of capitalist excesses (let’s just call it Xmas) it’s unsurprising that large corporations would rush to take advantage of the “new tradition” that has emerged around it. The result is that every year, stores have opened earlier and stay open later on Black Friday to capitalize (see what I did there?) on the expected masses of shoppers looking to get the best deals. Regrettably, this “holiday” gets its name from the other thing it’s associated with most frequently: the mad rush and stampede of customers. Originally the term came from Pennsylvania and was meant to evoke the horrible vehicle and pedestrian traffic associated with the shopping. The last few years, however, it has taken a much darker turn. Every year that I have been cognizant of this event, I’ve heard on the news about people being trampled, bludgeoned, beaten, and even shot to death over deals and the animalistic desire to “beat the crowd” (apparently taken literally) to said sales.

Now, leaving aside the obvious stupidity of literally killing other people over trinkets, toys, clothes, and other UNESSENTIAL goods, there is a more insidious evil lurking underneath this tradition that I feel gets little to no attention in the public eye. For good reason, I imagine, but I’m not above blowing the whistle when I feel like people are being mistreated for no meaningful reason. I mentioned earlier that my problem is that “people run Black Friday” and I meant it, but the people I’m referring to aren’t the mindless zombies who endlessly consume the goods sold. Rather, I’m talking about the exploitation of the workers that literally have to manage the whole event. Countless men and women are called to be at work for incredibly long and arduous shifts and, on top of that, they are expected to remain courteous, respectful, and calm to the legions of shoppers who berate, badger, and literally trample them throughout the day.

In the interest of full disclosure before I continue, I’ve never worked in retail myself, so I have no first-hand knowledge of this day from such a perspective. I have a lot of friends who have and still do work in retail and whose experiences with Black Friday shoppers are often akin to horror stories, but they are, in fact, just stories to me. So if you feel that this only makes me some “bleeding heart” who “doesn’t know what he’s talking about”, then feel free to close the window and go back to whatever it was you were doing. Those who wish to follow me down this rabbit hole, read on and ye shall learn the horrors of which I speak.

As I said, the major outlets and shopping centers have been opening their doors to the Black Friday mob earlier and earlier over the years, but the last three, and 2012 in particular, have crossed a line. In 2009 and 2010, major stores (i.e. WalMart, Target, Kohls, Sears, etc.) began to open for Black Friday at around 4 or 5AM and remain open until midnight or later. Think about that for a minute. It’s one thing to open a store early to take advantage of buying time, but to open your store when most people would not have woken up and would in fact not be waking for at least another hour or two is preposterous. Bear in mind, I say this in an attempt to view this from the perspective of an employee of these establishments. Essentially, they are asked to come in even earlier (to prepare for opening, obviously) and many will be staying on the floor for hours past their normal shift limits. That’s already unreasonable by most “civilized” standards, but then in 2011 they opted to “make up for it” by having most retail establishments open the doors at midnight following Thanksgiving.

I’ve already heard the arguments for why this is an improvement. “Well they don’t have to get out of bed early this time…they can just work ‘the late shift.’” “If they start at midnight, the rest of the day won’t be as bad…we’re spreading it out to make it easier to handle!” Leaving aside how those arguments reek of rationalization in the name of profit, this is still an unacceptable way to treat your workers. What is the archetypal Thanksgiving Day for? It’s a time where families get together and sit down for a feast they likely won’t repeat for another year. It’s a chance for people who haven’t seen each other to gather and reunite, just like in that one vaguely incestuous Folgers commercial that everyone on the net has mocked to death. Hopefully not quite like that commercial, but you get the idea. It’s stressful enough on those families when one or more parties have to be at work the next day for a normal shift. Imagine what it must be like to have this kind of pressure on you the whole time you’re supposed to be relaxing. “How many more hours can I afford to spend here so I can get some sleep before work” should NOT cross ANYONE’S mind in the midst of carving the turkey. What if dinner took longer than usual to prepare? You just lost an hour or more of time and might have to miss dessert or even the whole meal! Doesn’t it already sound outrageous? It should.

But it can’t even hold a candle to what was done this year. 2012, the year that most people are still ironically concerned about the Apocalypse, was the year they finally pushed it too far. Stores of all stripes began advertising that they would open their doors at around 8PM…on Thanksgiving Day! The midnight openings create enough pressure, but imagine having to skip Thanksgiving dinner in its entirety! I don’t care how good the deal is, or how magnificent the products are. NONE of it is worth taking away what many people would consider one of the more sacred days on their calendar. Yes, I know there’s no religion associated with Thanksgiving. The warmth and tenderness meant to be associated with the holiday counts as sacred to me, and on a more personal note, especially this year. I’m lucky enough to have been with my family, but I personally know people who were dragged from their dinner tables by an obligation to their employers for Black Friday. “Disgraceful” doesn’t even describe it.

It’s a recession, times are hard and family and friends will be more important than ever to a lot of people. Most of those people, regrettably, are the ones who will likely be looking to retail jobs for their livelihood. To those who would say “Just take a day off”, I ask you “with whose time?” Most people who earn $8.00 an hour really need that $8.00 an hour and many can’t afford to lose time that might be needed in a real emergency. There is no “emergency” here other than the personal one created by these employers who hold little to no regard for their employees. The result is that many people, young and old, had to lose out on one of the precious few times where Americans allow themselves to relax and spend time with each other. If I’m thankful for anything this year, it’s that I am fortunate that I don’t have such an unfeeling taskmaster of an employer and got to truly relax this year. The prospect of having to spend a holiday at work still makes me sick to my stomach.

And on that note, let’s bring this to a close, and look at why this “killed the Holiday Season” for me. Well, it’s not because I suffer for it, I grant. I don’t even shop on Black Friday. Partly because my self-preservation instincts are stronger than I get credit for, but also out of a sense of solidarity with my friends who have to lose out on what everyone else gets to think of as a time of gains. But the reason the holiday season seems less wondrous is that Black Friday represents a dead end. There’s nowhere left to go with this concept except to consume more and more of the calendar with each passing year. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if, next year, they started the sales on Thanksgiving and just turned the whole day into an extended Black Friday. We already have “Cyber Monday” and “Small Business Saturday” and nearly all of the deals get extended into the weekend after Friday as it is. And of course, this whole thing is a self-perpetuating cycle: people line up early for the sales, so they make the sales begin earlier, so people line up earlier for the sales, so etc. ad infinitum.

The whole thing has gotten out of hand and it crushes what I used to look forward to: a chance to wind-down and just enjoy something as simple as a finely-cooked meal and a few stories. Why does it affect me? Because the atmosphere surrounding these days is tense and on edge at all times. People are literally dying over something as pointless as “a good deal” at a department store. The news explodes with stories about how bad the crowds are and commercials all say that “you need to get out here ASAP to take advantage of it before it’s gone!” It gets harder and harder with each passing year to associate this time with anything other than the excessive, cruel, and outright greedy nature of the businesses that exploit our desire to do something good.

I know that the fact that this affects me is supposed to be “my problem”, but shouldn’t it be everybody’s problem? Just a bit, even? Shouldn’t we all be at least a little bothered by how exploitative and mean-spirited this half-hearted excuse for a tradition has become? Yes, we need to find a way to accept reality, but I believe we also owe it to ourselves and our fellow human beings to try and shape reality at least a little. We give and receive presents this time of year to make one another feel good during dark, cold, and unfeeling times, don’t we? Not because it was the best bargain and we were willing to leave the Turkey cold on the table. Or at least, that’s what I’m left hoping is the case.

I hope you all had a wonderful, uninterrupted Thanksgiving. For those of you who didn’t, my heart goes out to you and I hope that next year will see fit not to punish you for a crime not committed. Well…not by you, anyway.

I’m Trevor and that’s my Frame of Mind.

October 24, 2012

Breach of Social Contract

As long as we're back in essay mode again, I thought it was time for a slightly "headier" one. See, as much as I love talking about fun stuff like Aliens or Transformers on this site, it's just not as important as some of what's going on in the "real" world. God, that word leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Unfortunately, I've now seen all of the Presidential Debates between incumbent Barack "Everybody Chill the Hell Out, I Know Math" Obama, and Mitt "Makin This Up As I Go While Armed With Money and Binders of Women" Romney. While we're at it, I also took the time to watch the Vice-Presidential Debate between Joe "That's a Bunch of Stuff and Malarkey" Biden and Paul "The Fountainhead Shrugged When I Told My Party Leader to Shut Up" Ryan. Yeesh. If I were feeling diplomatic, I'd describe the events as filibuster-like bouts of political give and take. But I'm NOT so I'll call them what they are: public demonstrations of the reasons I continue to self-identify as a misanthrope. Yeah, we're going there.

By now, the subtlety with which I have lampooned each of the candidates should have tipped off many of you that I have a...oh, let's call it "bias" towards the left wing of American politics. Of course, if you've read any of my posts prior to this one, you should have figured that out by now, but for the newbies here: I definitely do consider myself to be "liberal" on the binary switch that is American political ideologies. But that very duality, my dear readers, will form the subject of today's post. For you see, I think I understand a little better why it is we consistently fail to come together as a people and make this world the shining place many believe it can be. From where I stand, it all stems from a common misunderstanding about human social nature. Most people would categorize us as "Social Animals", and that's essentially accurate. The trouble is we are best classified as "Tribal Animals", but...

We Don't Accept Our Tribal Nature 

I imagine a few definitions will be required to flesh this out a bit, so let me start from there. Social Animals are, to my understanding, animals that typically act as and within a group of their own species to ensure the continued survival of both the individuals of the group and the group as a whole. This is behavior typically exemplified in many kinds of organisms on Earth up to and including Chimpanzees, Ants, Buffalo, Geese, Wolves, Bees, and a myriad of others. This definition absolutely includes Human beings, but, as some of the more zoologically inclined among you may have noticed, not all those animals I mentioned are social animals in the smae way.

Ants and bees fit into a category of social organism often referred to as Eusocial, from the greek root "eu" meaning "good/proper" or "true/real". They get this definition from the way that they act not as a group of individuals, but as ONE individual entity with independently functioning pieces. None, save for a leader organism (often a matriarch in the form of a queen), have any indepenent "will" that guides their behavior, and all effort is directed towards the maintenance of the whole at the expense of any individuals. In this model, no one organism matters as the success of their "society" is dependent on the continued existence of the whole "hive" and nothing more. Obviously, humans (as a species) do not fit this pattern, but we'll return to this soon, so keep it in mind.

Now geese and buffalo, on the other hand, absolutely strive for the protection of the individual, but do so by relying on a "safety in numbers" method of group behavior. The "Herd Social" organisms of the world function, not like a hive, but rather as individuals that share a space and each finds a niche where they can live out a relatively unmolested existence. The social aspect comes in when a situation arises that potentially threatens the herd. If any individual raises the alarm, the rest will follow suit and respond appropriately; i.e. they will all run away or stand their ground as a group to ensure the survival of as many as possible. In many respects, human civilization seems to follow this pattern; the majority don't claim direct responsibility for any other individual and we react as groups to threats to our space or existence by rising to one aid. Pretty close, I agree, but still not quite right. For our answer we look to chimps and wolves: we are "Tribe Social".

Tribalism is basically the form of social living where a given individual lives amongst others of its species where there are strict boundaries set around which others are part of its social circle. The "pack" or "mob", if you will, forms the social unit in question. Often, there is an associated "Alpha" (not always, but often male) who "leads" the tribe by maintaining a strict hierarchy within it of who is permitted to mate, or eat, or enjoy other social liberties within the tribe. This leadership is often absolute, but changes when a challenger of sufficient strength (as defined by the tribe's collective perception of strength) "usurps" the current alpha and takes his/her place as head of the tribe. Additionally, the tribe works as a whole (under the alpha's guidance of course) to expand territory, acquire food and other resources, and protect the community from various dangers...including other tribes.

Yes, the other defining feature of a tribe, that sets it apart from a herd or hive, is that tribes DO NOT MIX WELL. The contact of one tribe by another is either stringently avoided or results, nigh-inevitably, in open conflict or war. Tribes don't get along very well, and under the alpha's guidance, tribes will often fight for the right to control territory, resources, access to mates, and security. Sounding familiar to anyone else? Sounding at all like our democratic process? Obviously, we often choose to dress up our tribal behaviors in the guise of something "civilized" by holding debates, elections, and "campaigning" for resources rather than outright fighting over them; but make no mistake, we are tribal creatures through and through. Besides, we regularly (as a species and a nation) engage in actual violent conflict with other "tribes" for a variety of reasons. The debates between our various candidates represents nothing more or less (to me) than the head-butting of tribal Alphas, campaigning on behalf of tribes labeled as "Democrat" or "Republican" by their various constituents. Millions of Americans align themselves with a tribe and root for "their alpha" to "win" the debate, and therefore gain some sort of claim over the way the nation will progress.

But don't think that we're only tribal at this scale; look at ANY classroom and you'll see the exact same behavior in the form of cliques and circles of friends at any age. To those who would say "my clique/circle doesn't have an Alpha", look carefully, and you'll see that it most assuredly does...it just might not be YOU. In fact, it might not be a proper "human" at all. Sometimes an image or an ideal is sufficient. The punk movement has no organization, but it has beliefs that guide its members. And even in those circumstances, "leaders" inevitably rise who embody the movement. Civil Rights in the US had no nominal official leader, but I'll be damned if someone tries to make the case that people like Dr. King or Malcolm X don't fill that role handily.

This pattern exists at virtually every level of human social gathering that I can think of. Left-wing, right-wing, liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, indepenedent, academic, gamer, musician, religious, graduating class, sports-fan, fan-boy, fan-girl, neighborhood (sometimes down to the building!), city, town, state, country, skin color, hair color, height, weight, straight, gay, bisexual, male, female, cat-people, dog-people, lizard-people, and COUNTLESS others all form the basis, for good or ill, for tribalism amongst us. It's actually so imbedded in our nature, that we are often multi-tribal. I know I've identified in my life as many things that all have a "tribe" with an "alpha" who is them-self part of multiple other tribes. In some cases, I have even been the alpha myself. It's nothing to be ashamed of, but it's essential that we pay attention to and remain aware of this behavior. Why? Glad you asked.

So much of our time on this Earth, as a species, is spent looking for a tribe to belong to. Most of us don't need to be an "alpha" of our tribe, just a constituent. But in our quest to find the tribe (or tribes) that that we fit, something weird always happens: we deny that tribal nature and attempt to dress up our world in something more "pleasing". Let me give you a couple examples: recall the definition of the Eusocial Animals - the ones that live in a hive that exists solely to serve the hive itself with no regard for the needs of any individual. Sound anything like Fascism to you? It ought to. The Nazis called themselves "National Socialists", implying that they are a nation of individuals who serve their Nation absolutely. I can almost hear the buzzing. And yeah, their "queen's" mustache, alone, was grounds for re-thinking that idea.

Look at the Communist party of virtually any nation that has attempted to build their infrastructure around its tenets. Communism itself is essentially an attempt at Herd Social behavior. Think of the mantra of the Communist party: "From each according to his ability, and to each according to his need". Sound like the mutual protection of all with no specific elevation of any one? Sound like life in the herd? I, at least, think so. Essentially, the mantra asks that each individual contribute to the heard without being individually responsible for the herd as a whole. In cases of protection, we fight or flee as one, but otherwise we simply carry on.

Of course the problem with that is that you can already see how another form of Herd Social behavior can arise as a direct consequence of that "live and let be" model: Reaganomics! What's more "herd" than simply leaving everyone alone entirely and letting them "do as they please" while simply coming together for a war? I can almost hear Ayn Rand nodding in approval. Under these terms, the new herd is one where some in the herd are doing VASTLY better than others, but still expect the compliance of the rest of the herd. How could this be expected to last? It couldn't!

Which brings us, at last, to the 2012 election. It almost seems like we're finally in a situation where we can embrace our tribal nature. Two parties: one red, one blue (a sign of tribalism if there ever was one), fighting it out for Alpha-status over both tribes. But alas, it is not to be. The governing principle of the last two (if not three) election cycles that I can observe is this notion of "reaching across the aisle". Especially in this election, there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of both candidates to work on a "bipartisan" level. In essence, both tribal alphas are fighting over who could peaceably unite both tribes the best. All I can say to that is: WE ARE NOT A HERD! Although the average American would probably never admit it, we don't want to reach across the aisle. We want the other side of the aisle to shut up and stay down. We want to bludgeon the opposition into submission so that "our side's alpha" can lead us onward. In our heart of hearts, we want, nay, need conflict. And why shouldn't we? It's in our very nature.

No generation on the planet has managed to grow up without a major war as the single most powerful cultural influence of their time; no one gets through life without establishing boundaries and pushing against the boundaries of others in the name of progress (high-school  anyone?). But this, I submit to you, is not a flaw in the human condition...merely its natural expression. See, while it might be uncomfortable to admit it, the peace and harmony of "reaching across the aisle" doesn't get us anywhere. I've watched the "bipartisan" politicians utterly fail to achieve anything. Obama can't get things done because he can't garner the support of the Republicans AND Democrats alike. Congress can't ever pass a decent law that would make any noticeable progress in our lives because they can't do anything without compromise. Harmony, however comfortable or ideal it may be, is stagnation and mediocrity. Conflict, at it's core, is our life.

With the elections just around the corner, I just want to remind everyone to PLEASE go and cast your vote. We may not have this whole thing down perfectly, but nothing improves without the participation of its tribe in the social order. This promises to be a very divisive election, so please make sure to contribute to this very important conflict. With any luck, we will see some improvement.

Happy voting.

I'm Trevor and that's my Frame of Mind.

October 1, 2012

Transform, and Sell Out

Ok. So it's been a while since I've gotten something more traditionally "Me" on this site so I think it's time for a return to form. I know some of you are expecting my Post-Con entry, and I assure you it is coming, but I have something special in mind for it that will take some more time. Don't worry...the further away from Con we get, the more cold water I feel justified in pouring over it (spoiler alert). I can virtually guarantee you'll like it (spoiler alert).

What, you might ask, do I have in mind then? Well, I may not have Dragon*Con to complain about right now, but that doesn't mean I can't get in my two cents in (which in this economy will be worth far less than two cents by the time this goes live) about something else relating to my beloved "Geek Culture" world. So then, let's get down to business, eh? I've got a bone to pick with the people responsible for bringing one-time Nerds-only icons into the larger popular culture. See, I've been speeding down memory lane by going over cartoons and such from my childhood (read: the 80's and 90's) and I think I've finally nailed why so much of what has emerged lately just doesn't sit right with me. Put succinctly:

Even Products Have a “Soul”

Of all the many, MANY, icons of my childhood that I've been re-consuming rabidly, one of the most important and often misunderstood by both geek and pop culture is The Transformers. No, stop! Do not close that browser window! Yes I know they're basically just toys and toy commercials. I also know that you probably can guess where I'm about to go with this. Maybe you can't or simply don't care. Either way: patience, grasshopper. Patience.

Since the last decade has only provided me Michael Bay’s incarnation of the property alongside a couple newer, well-meaning-but-empty cartoon iterations, I’d been craving some of the old-school version. To that end I've been watching the first two seasons of The Transformers cartoon from the early 80’s known as the G1 Transformers. I fully expected it to be pretty pathetic compared to the rose-tinting of my memories, and I was partially right about that. I have so many fond memories of the characters and their antics, and I still treasure those memories. I went into this stroll down memory lane confident that whatever flaws I found in the show (and make no mistake, they are there), I’d still cherish those positive associations. However, as I got through the first season and switched over to the second, a funny thing happened: I didn’t feel the rose tinting dissipate. In fact, I felt my fondness for the show and it’s “shtick” grow.

And then another strange feeling; I instantly knew what it was that got to me about their recent transition into modern world, and specifically with the recent movie adaptations. Michael Bay has made, as of this writing, three Transformers movies in live-action using CGI robots, and a fourth is currently in the works. All three of them worked in many of the classic G1 Transformers I’d expected along with some of the original iconography of the show. All three were sprawling epics depicting explosive battles and near constant action. All three were box-office mega-hits grossing billions of dollars. And all three of them…how shall I put this….SUCKED!

Don’t get riled up…if you personally enjoyed them, then good for you. You’re wrong, but good for you. All kidding aside, there were some definite bright spots to the “Bayformer” movies, and I confess to having enjoyed some of the blatant fan-baiting this franchise has managed to crowbar into the script and sets. Unfortunately, that’s actually the problem: in attempting to make something to appease its fan-base (i.e. people like me who grew up on them) and make it marketable to a wider less devoted audience, they can’t do anything but pander while basically tossing out everything that made Transformers what it was. In essence, they managed to (mostly) replicate the body of the work, but left out the “soul” of it that gave personality and meaning.

Those who would (rightly) point out that Transformers is, was, and always will be a toy commercial with an overly-elaborate budget should keep in mind that this kind of “simplicity” actually gives writers and directors a good deal of creative freedom to create the “product” in imaginative and intelligent ways. Look underneath the hood (get it? Car joke? No? Fine, I’ll stop this now) and you’ll find a pretty well thought out show with well realized characters and a consistent moral and philosophical infrastructure.

As a small-ish example of this, let’s look at the way the Autobots and Decepticons (the two opposing forces, for those who still haven’t clicked the link above) are depicted as teams. The Autobots function as a sort of Arthurian democracy where their well-respected and beloved leader rules absolutely, but with compassion, and who maintains a healthy respect for his “subjects” and there contributions throughout their struggles. The Decepticons, on the other hand, would seem to operate under a similar structure, but their leader is a megalomaniacal tyrant who inspires his team, not to cooperate, but to betray him and each other at least once per episode; often to the detriment of their mutual goal. See what they’re saying here? Heroism is achieved by unity under a respectful and thoughtful leader, while villainy is ultimately its own downfall due to the failure of its leadership to achieve that unity. That’s pretty deep for a toy commercial, wouldn’t you say?

So if a commercial can make philosophical statements with just its setting and characterization, why is it that a multi-million dollar special-effects laden spectacular has to boil down to a story about a suburban teenager trying to get laid? Seriously, if you haven’t noticed, the plot of all three of these movies is basically “how do I get into Meagan Fox’s (and eventually Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s) pants?” repeated ad-nauseum, while occasionally being interrupted by some explosions caused by giant robots. Well, it’s because the G1’s were basically a cult phenomenon (slightly bigger, I’ll grant, given the legions of followers; we…er….they are called “Trans-fans”), and cult phenomena don’t sell enough movie-tickets. So the solution: use the images, language, and iconography of the old show (the easiest pieces to replicate – even I could design an Optimus Prime themed website, for example) and swap out the infrastructure for something broad and pleasing to allow for greater audience reach. The results speak for themselves.

Any of you who haven’t had their heads in the ground while reading this will know that I am absolutely for inclusivity in all things, and that absolutely applies to the franchises I love. So why does the obviously far-reaching approach to Bay’s Transformers bug me so much? You’d think that this would be a form of that ideal made into reality. Well, unfortunately, it isn’t. Because inclusivity is not about making people like what you like. It’s about allowing people to discover why they like it, too. Exposing new audiences to Transformers is a good idea; great even, by my standards. Doing it by removing the thing that made it a phenomenon in the first place so that more people will be “convinced” they like it? Not so much. That’s not inclusivity at work; it’s just pandering. Moreover, it yields an entirely different product than the original. In essence, Bay’s Transformers is NOT The Transformers of my childhood. It’s something new, masquerading under the marketable name of The Transformers. This isn’t a problem in-and-of itself, but it will ultimately just disappoint people like me who have built up an expectation over the years and simply mislead “new fans” by offering something completely unlike what is claimed to have inspired it.

Just to prove that it can be done properly, look at Marvel’s The Avengers. Tons of fan-service, lots of flashy special effects and gorgeous actors (seriously…I don’t care what your sexual orientation is, that’s one hot team) all designed and marketed to invoke the world of the comic books that inspired them. What did they do right? They didn’t toss out the underlying principles and ideas that made them The Avengers. Instead, they tossed out the specific details and minutiae from the comics. Any comic book fan will tell you that the fine details don’t resemble any of the Avengers books with much fidelity. Sure, the heroes themselves are visually recognizable as their comic counterparts, but the reason that works is that they feel like the heroes from the books. They speak and behave like The Avengers rather than like walking monuments to a previous incarnation of the same name. The story isn’t actually much like any of the canon that I know, but it feels like an Avengers story just the same. Pandering iconography like the Tesseract (or The Cosmic Cube, for you fans out there) or the tease at the end (which I won’t spoil) are all present, but they work because that “soul” remains that keeps the whole enterprise grounded and coherent. Now that’s how it’s done.

So if anyone else out there reading this hopes to bring some vestige of my childhood to the world at large, just keep this in mind: everything (commercial, art, or both) has something like a “soul” that defines it. Those things also have their distinctive looks, language, and icons, but that soul is the most important part to understand. If Transformers doesn’t feel like Transformers, your job wasn’t done right. And remember, lackluster or uninspired source material isn’t a license to “not care” about or disregard that soul. One of the most successful films of the last decade was about a billionaire who dresses up like a flying, rodent-like mammal and beats up a criminal in clown make-up because his mommy died. It can always be done.

I’m not saying you “shouldn’t” enjoy something like the Bayformer movies and I'm also not suggesting that these two new groups of fans can't get along or even unite. But I am asking that we take a moment to consider that real inclusivity and real outreach means giving others a chance to discover the thing it is, not the thing it was marketed to be. You might find something great, but at the very least, you’ll have learned something more about yourself in the process: this just isn’t for me.

Well, I hope you've enjoyed this return to my over-crowded mind.  It's good to be back.  Given the subject matter, I suppose there's really only one thing left to say: ‘Til all are one!

I’m Trevor, and that’s my Frame of Mind.

September 6, 2012

In Memoriam - Robert LaRocco


On August 27, 2012, a man I love very much passed away. Robert LaRocco was 63 years old; too young to have left us, but old enough that he had left his mark on countless others as a teacher, mentor, friend, partner, father-figure, and even a beloved "uncle" to me and my family. On September 4, 2012 that same family, along-side dozens of people who knew and loved him dearly, held a funeral service where any who wished could speak about his life and how he had changed it. What follows are, in order of presentation, eulogies prepared by some of his closest friends and family.  Where possible, original grammar, punctuation, and formatting have been preserved in their original form. 

Sam Austin

Rob LaRocco is the last person who would ever permit me to stand in front of an audience and be boring. So even though my subject is a sprawling epic, I will try to keep my tribute brief and diverting. Rob and I first crossed paths in Fall 1981 when Rick Rosen, a dentist who hoped to quit his day job by producing a musical I’d written, gave me Rob’s name as someone who was selling a piano. All I knew about Rob is that he was selling a piano, and I lost interest as soon as I heard it was a Story & Clark piano.

There the matter might have ended had Rick not invited Rob to join him one night at a restaurant in the Village where I was playing. Rob immediately struck me as a dynamic and charismatic presence, with a smile that could light up the entire room. But he really got my attention when he learned that Rick’s plan was to produce my musical in Connecticut for a transfer to Broadway. “Why do you want to mount a whole production in Connecticut? I could understand if you just want to get your chops up, but if you want to bring this show to New York what makes you think you’re going to get producers up to Connecticut to see it? Instead of wasting your time with Connecticut regional theater, why not do a workshop in New York to begin with?”

What Rob didn’t know is that the other people at the table were the board of directors for that waste-of time Connecticut theater company. This was the first of many occasions I heard Rob say something that, while undeniably true, might not have been the most politic comment to make. And even though later that same evening he was apologizing to me for offending the board, I was delighted that he had. I felt as though I finally had someone in my corner who knew what he was talking about. Then when he invited me back to his apartment and played me some of his many beautiful songs, I realized he was much more than just an outspoken guy selling a piano. He was my hero.

It took me a couple of weeks to move in, but after that night I never really left. And through the thirteen years I was by his side, we met and cultivated all kinds of wonderful people, shared untold splendid adventures, and even dared a few years in to start collaborating on what turned out more often than not to be some terrific material. Having promised to be brief, I couldn’t possibly bear witness to all his acts of caring and generosity, but I will let one of the earliest stand for all. My sister had recently moved to New York with the hope of pursuing a singing career, and Rob suggested we visit the Winter Garden theater just so she could see how they had transformed it for the big smash hit of that season, Cats. We got all the way to the lobby of the theater before Rob whipped out a ticket for one of the best seats in the house at that evening’s performance, handed it to my sister and said “Enjoy.”

[I want to go off book for a moment here because after I wrote this I remembered another of Rob’s many generous acts that was also a crazy adventure with many amusing episodes and one that I wanted to share. He volunteered for Fountain House, a wonderful nonprofit organization in midtown that is basically schizophrenics helping each other to function. Rob created and played many Fountain House shows, and on one of those occasions I was charged with getting his parents to the show after Rob had already gone ahead. I wanted to make sure I had the right address to give the cabbie, so I called ahead and one of the schizophrenics answered. I asked “Can you tell me where you are located?” and she said, “I’m in the lobby.”]

Shortly after we got together I told Rob that I had thrown away the card with his name and phone number. When I told him why, he said “Oh I would’ve refused to sell you that piano, it should only go to a beginner.” Even then I had no reason to doubt that he would do what he thought was in someone else’s best interest even if it meant sacrificing his own. Oddly enough I never doubted that, even through all the strange twists our relationship took. His commitment to caring for and nurturing those around him was that absolute and unwavering, even if he often made you feel like you were wasting your time with Connecticut regional theater. He was always in our corner. He loved us all. And we will never forget him. And we will miss him more than words can say.

Trevor Schechter

This is bullshit.

I hope you'll forgive my irreverence. I know he would. Rob was often an irreverent and inappropriate man. Not out of some misguided sense of rebellion like the average teenager, nor out of a desire to cause trouble or make people uncomfortable. He was the way he was because it was sincere; because it was genuine.

Sincerity was all-important to Rob. Ironic, I suppose, given his commitment to the world of theater where nearly everything you say and do is technically a lie. But as any good performer will tell you, if you can't feel it yourself, no one else will. And so, that's what he tried to instill in me my whole life: mean it, or no one will care. And he must have meant it: look around you at everyone who cares. Any doubt that any of us may have had about whether or not he was right is gone as of this moment. We all cared. More people than can possibly be here today cared; all because he maintained the strength needed to be sincere and true to his sense of self.

I say "the strength needed" only because I know how hard it is to be what you are in this world. I suspect that all of you do as well. So much pressure to conform, so much resistance to change; it all works against us. But Rob found his way to stay sincere: he was a creator. In the struggle to leave our mark on the world, Rob left his by creating sincere, honest, and admittedly crass people out of everyone he touched. I can only imagine that some time ago in his life, he had simply grown tired of dealing with the all the insincere showmanship (both on stage and in real life) and decided to just do better himself.

But that alone wouldn't leave a mark. Maybe a footnote reading "here lies a bitter and irreverent man", but nothing worth remembering. Rob, whether he wanted to or not, made sure he'd be remembered: he put himself into the world. Ask yourself: how hard did I have to work to understand Rob? How much effort did it take to really understand what was going on under the hood? I suspect the answer may be: a lot. But why was it so hard? Surely someone who wore his heart on his sleeve like he did wouldn't be difficult to figure out. Well, that's what makes Rob memorable: that work you were doing wasn't really about understanding him, it was about understanding yourself.

Rob had an uncanny sense for when people weren't being honest. He wasn't a human polygraph machine, but he knew when people didn't mean what they were doing or saying. He knew sincerity when he felt it, and it was all he wanted from us. None of the pomp and circumstance, none of the formality: just you, as you want to be. And most amazing of all was that he could bring that out in you. He went above and beyond to make you more like you. He would scoff at attempts to play something down; shove you, willingly or not, into the spotlight; and laugh at your attempts to be anything more or less than what you are.

Now some might think of this as cruel or unfeeling. It isn't. His actions carried the sincerity he felt was needed in you. When he made you learn that song, or pushed you onto that stage, he did it because he knew that whatever you may suffer, it was in the service of your evolution as a genuine human being. He was making you into you, because he didn't want anyone else. He didn't care for your status, your power, or even your beliefs. He wanted to see who you were when stripped of all pretenses. He wanted to see what you'd do with an audience that cares; even if that audience was just him. He wanted to care about you and most importantly, he wanted you to care about you.

It is a rare gift to be able to look so honestly at yourself and come out of it stronger than you were. So often we hide our flaws and make excuses for our mistakes. Rob wouldn't stand for that. He would make you confront you at every turn and he would be there to guide you away from the despair that often comes from being so honest with yourself. He wanted a world filled with honest men and women who can look at themselves with sincere love, and he would go to hell and back to see it become a reality.

You see, the truth of the matter is: everything you are, even the ugly, is still you. And in the mind of Rob LaRocco, that made you beautiful. That made you magnificent. And it made you worth caring about. No bull.

Alexandra "Sasha" Schechter

For Sasha's eulogy, I would like to direct you to her Tumblr where she has posted it in its entirety.  It's a beautiful story spoken from the heart with great feeling and sincerity.  I encourage you all to read it.

Saletta Boni







Paul Steinberg

I’m smiling, even though I’m heart-broken, because when Rob’s students were singing too seriously or too earnestly, he would call out “Smile!” He wasn’t even looking at them; he was looking at the music, but he could hear it in their voices. I’ve sat through countless of my niece’s and nephew’s lessons and watched Rob do that over and over, and it’s easy to hear the difference in the singing when they’re smiling or not smiling. But it wasn’t until I took a few voice lessons myself and heard Rob yell at me to “Smile!” that I came to realize that smiling doesn’t just improve the sound of your voice, but it actually changes the energy in your body—it gets you out of your head and into your body—and then everything looks and feels much better. So I will try to keep smiling through this and in the days ahead. Rob would definitely approve.

When I first met Rob, I had already been an uncle for 11 years—the first four an uncle by love to the kids of a very close friend, and after that an uncle by blood when my sister started having children. Being an uncle had become the most important aspect of my identity to me; it brought me more joy and more satisfaction than anything else I was doing at the time. Not having children of my own, I was able to devote all of my parental instincts to my nieces and nephews, and I was a pretty good uncle. Then I met Rob and something wonderful happened. Here was someone doing the same thing as I was, and even more so. And it was the first time I ever met anyone else doing it like this. Now I had a companion and a model, someone who really got who I was in a way that no one else did. I could see myself in him, and he could see himself in me. Rob wasn’t just an ordinary uncle—the kind that has his own life and who loves the kids but mostly spends time with them only on holidays, birthdays and special occasions. No, Rob was a consistent and nurturing presence in all aspects of Trevor’s and Sasha’s lives, and like good parents do, he learned as much from the kids as they learned from him.

At that time, even though I was loving being an uncle, I was still struggling with the desire I had always had to be a parent of my own children, but I hadn’t been able to figure out any way of doing that that felt right to me. But when I got to know Rob, I finally saw that being an uncle could be a thing in itself, and it suited me perfectly—probably better than being a parent myself. One thing about Rob was that he had no absolutely use for authority or convention, and in fact he actively worked to blaze his own path despite pressures from family, friends, community or culture. So Rob made up his own way of being an uncle, and he perfected it. There are no words to describe how much it meant to me to know him and get close to him. By the way he lived, he helped me understand who I am and what I want to be. We were the “gay uncles” (along with many others), and thanks in part to Rob, there is nothing else I could ever want to be.

I want to say one more thing, and if Rob were here in his body, it would make him very mad. But he would not want me to speak at all if I didn’t say at least one thing he could fight with me about. The thing about these fights was that at least half of the time I didn’t really believe that he believed in the position he was taking, and the rest of the time, two seconds after the fight was over, he was back to normal and saying that he likes seeing others loving what they’re doing even if he didn’t like it or approve of it himself. He was like that—judgmental in one sense but open and accepting in another sense.

Anyway, there is a teaching in an ancient yoga scripture (of course Rob would snort with contempt at the word “scripture”). The teaching is that we never die, because we are never born—our true essence or spirit or soul exists independent of the body. The body is like a suit of clothes: it wears out over time and then we cast it off, but that does not change anything about who we truly are. Death has no effect on the existence of the spirit. Rob lives on in Sasha…in Trevor…in Saletta…in Tony and Sam and David…in me…in all of his students…in all of you…and in everyone else he touched. And he is here right now (probably rolling his eyes). We can see him, hear him and feel him if we let go of our assumptions and they way we’ve been conditioned to think about the way the world works. That’s one of the ways Rob lived his life—shattering assumptions and convention—and if we can learn that from him, he can remain a constant and loving presence in our lives.

Tony Davis

Over thirteen years ago on Halloween I met Rob, from that moment on there were few days that we were not side-by-side; it was an instant attraction.
It was not just his wit and his writing talent that made him special. It was how his heart opened up to me; I was the privedged one to be loved by him.
You could debate on any subject for hours; and you would usually win.
We had built an amazing life together.
Full of adventures.

He was the Master of collecting quotes. One of his favorites that he would remind me of when I questioned myself on making important decisions was:


You were my strength.
I always knew you would be there. I'm going to miss those 3am wake-ups because you couldn't sleep; you just wanted to talk and get a hug.
I'm going to miss you calling me at 5pm everyday to see what time I was going to be home from work.
You encouraged me to go back to school; which I've been doing one-class at a time.

Then this year we talked about getting married.
It had only been conversation until just a few weeks ago when we were having dinner with our friends Janet and Larry, you suddenly out of nowhere blurted out, "We're going to get married."
We went home that evening and made plans to get married this October on Halloween. My life was complete. Now you're gone.

Goodbye my love.
Big hugs to you.
Life will never be the same.


Robert LaRocco is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx along side some of the most well known and beloved musicians and composers of our time.  A fitting resting place for a great artist and an even greater man.  I thank all of you for indulging in me in commemorating someone I loved more than all these words could possibly say.  I invite all of you, my readers, to contribute any words of your own to this memorial by posting in the comments section.  Don't hold back; speak from the heart.  That's how he would want it.

Rest in Peace, Rob.

We are Sam, Paul, Tony, Saletta, Sasha, and Trevor, and that's our Frame of Mind.