October 29, 2011

The Tail of the Bell

Wow it's been a while since I've managed to post anything.  First it was simple laziness, then it was too little sleep, then it was Time Warner Cable of NYC screwing me over by accidentally disconnecting my internet for 3 days (I still have some withdrawl symptoms *twitch*) and finally it's my own personal illness.  It's been a rough couple of weeks...*sigh*.

Well, I'm back and I've got stuff in my brain that I have graciously decided to share with all of you.  Hold your applause, please, until the end.  I know it's tempting to just go on praising my huge genious mind for finally decending from upon Mount Olympus, but restraint is the hall mark of the enlightened. 

Yes, I'm aware of the hypocrisy...and ironically, I just don't care.

Right then...on to the topic at hand:

What I learned from NY ComiCon

It's obviously not a secret that I love conventions.  I've gone to DragonCon every year for the past 7, I've been to ACen 3 times, I've been to ComiCon twice now, and my dear sister and I are planning to go to that Harry Potter one (LeakyCon, apparently - don't worry, I'll mock them for that name in another post) when we get the chance/money/time.  But while I spend a lot of time praising these events as a glorious celebration of the universal weirdness of humanity as well as a place where different people can all feel included, I've given little attention to a disturbing trend that is permeating these events as well as Geek Culture in general: Us vs. Them.

As my post on DragonCon should have made obvious, I believe firmly in inclusivity over exclusivity in all things.  I've never known of any subject matter that has genuinely benefitted from true exclusivity for more than the very immediate short-term.  While I may address this subject more broadly in another post, suffice it to say that it is my firm belief that the practice of exclusionary behavior is both unnecessary and redundant.  If you commit to your ideals and your beliefs properly, people will proactively exclude themselves of their own accord.  It is not YOUR job to exclude people.  They'll do that all by themselves when they decide your "thing" just isn't right for them.  My fellow Mantids will recognize this practice as "The Trevor's Dorm" model of inclusivity as there was no one I can recall actively excluding from our little circle of friends who didn't just decide for themselves that our brand of fun wasn't to their liking.

Well, before we go down that path any deeper, let's return to the subject of my scrutiny again: ComiCon.  Like all conventions marketed towards the Geek Chic crowd, ComiCon attracts certain personalities.  It'd take too long to psychoanalyze that type so I won't bother, but you can probably take a rough stab at it from the name ComiCon.  See, the trouble is, one of the quirks associated with said personalities is the whole "we've finally got a place where the 'normal' people can't judge us" thing.  Now, don't get me wrong, I hate judgmentality, and as I said above I don't like it when one group decides that some other group is their inferior and uses that as justification for bullying/hate/dismissal etc., but this whole "WE are safe from THEM" thing must go away.

Too many people at ComiCon this year were saying such things as "normal people don't get to have this kind of fun" or "don't act so normal; you're at ComiCon".  Yes those were actually things I heard people say verbatim, and they're burned into my brain forever.  You see, the worst thing that ever happened to Geek Culture was the sudden popularization of all things geek (Comic Book superhero movies, the popularity of shows like Big Bang Theory, etc.).  Nothing's wrong with any of these individual pieces, but the effect it has had on the psyche of the geeks of the world is both detrimental and potentialy dangerous. I know what it's like to be discriminated against for liking certain things (Magic the Gathering, D&D, comic books, etc.), and you can bet that I've had more than a few "beat up the normal guys for being jerks" fantasies swimming around my aforementioned magnificent brain; but they must stay as fantasies. 

More than many demographics, it is the responsibility of geeks to practice some genuine inclusivity so as to avoid becoming the thing they claim to hate.  Their complaint is that "normal" people have spat on them for too long and kept them from feeling accepted and loved by the world at large.  So, naturally, when a ComiCon (or indeed, a DragonCon) comes around, many of them lash out against "normal" people in an attempt to balance the scales.And you can easily see why.  With their new-found strength in being part of the group that's "running the show", the sense of power is undeniable.  But the word for those who use their power to belittle others suddenly less powerful is "tyrant". This is exactly the kind of exclusionary behaviour I railed against in my childhood and it's the exact thing I condemned mere paragraphs ago.  The more immature among geeks have decided to label themselves such and then, as a means of self-agrandising, label anyone not of a similar mindset "normal" in order to justify an Us vs. Them mentality that allows them to feel superior.  This is perfectly acceptable behavior as a 5 year old or in a state of genuine oppression (slavery comes to mind), but it's just childish in any other context.

I've mentioned plenty of times that I "hate normality" myself, but this is not what I was talking about.  What I hate is that too many people have a similarly narrow view of what constitutes normal.  The irony of the duality just mentioned is that it effectively confirms that the "oppressive normals" are correct in setting the definition.  They're WRONG.  "Normal", as any good statistician will tell you, is based on a bell curve that describes a population.  The vast majority of the population will fit nder the big central part of the curve, but this doesn't make those people normal and the ones on the two tails abnormal.  This actually means that normal includes a variety of people and their various perspectives.  The tail ends of the bell curve are all part of the normal curve; they just have a greater degree of variation from the ones found under the main arc. 

We're runing long (again) so let me wrap this up.  No one is "normal", and no one is "geek" either.  We all exist within the variations of people.  Those words only ever describe a population and have no merit when levelled gainst an individual. Why do groups of people cluster together then?  Because they have some characteristics in common.  Think hard about the people you're closest to; I bet that you aren't identical and I also bet that you have a lot of things in common.  It is this duality that makes us individuals with the capacity to be a group, however great care must be taken not to make the false assumption that your group has any kind of inherent superiority over any other or any individual.  How does this "Us vs. Them" mindset really serve a community (or an individual, for that matter) in the long run?  What do you profit from excluding people?  Ask yourself these questions next time you start to question the merits of including someone in the thing you love.  Who knows? You may even discover that letting them in on your "thing" will improve it. By denying entry, you're simply stopping your own evolution as people in its tracks.

As my Ur-example of this phenomenon, I will point to my fellow Mantids once again.  Those of you who call yourself Mantid, ask yourself this: "Would I have made some of the friendships I did had we not all agreed to accept one another?".  I know I am a better person for having let such a diverse group of attitudes, opinions, and perspectives influence me, and I also know that very few of us would have ever even spoken to one another had we not all agreed to make our tribe as inclusive as it was.  We can only benefit from the inclusion of others.  Besides, the "bad ones" that everyone is afraid of letting in will just exclude themselves....as long as you have the strength of character to understand yourself without judging others for making that same effort. 

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

October 18, 2011

Everything New is New...Again.

So, not 48 hours after posting an advertisement for my blog via FaceBook (no strangers, you may NOT friend me), I went and changed a whole bunch of stuff.  We've got a new URL, a new background, a new-ish format, and a new title.

Welcome to One Frame of Mind!

With the focus of my blog being largely my opinions on large (and minor) social issues, I thought a new title was in order.  I had a great topic in mind for my inaugural post on the new blog format, but unfortunately it's too long so I'm still trimming it down to something manageable.  As such, consider this a place-holder. 

Don't despair though! With a new title comes new enthusiasm for the idea behind it, and now that I've decided to put myself on a schedule (which the astute among you will have noticed I'm not very good at sticking to) you can expect weekly content from me regarding whatever happens to come across my brain.

Before I close out on you though, I have a few quick announcements, and some of them are even interactive:

1) NYComiCon was excellent and my aforementioned inaugural post will cover the subject matter it inspired - come back next week for the final cut.

2) I already run a daily content list-host at my job called The Daily Dose and it covers (in a much, much smaller space) some of the stuff I hit on here, but it has an interactive aspect to it once a week where I pose questions meant to be answered by my readers.  As an example of this, a ways back I asked my readers at work "If they were the only options, would you rather be hated or ignored" and posted the results anonymously in the next e-mail.  My question for you this week: do you want me to include an interactive post of this open-ended nature?  How often?

And finally, 3) I call upon all of my artistic friends to lend me your talents! One Frame of Mind is the kind of title that lends itself to a cool logo or image banner rather than simple text in a font I find appealing.  So, in that spirit, I ask you to submit to me (at darthmantid@gmail.com) any images you can conjure up (must be original lest the copyright lawyers come knocking on my door) that reflects the title and tone of the site.  I'll pick the winner based solely on the image I find most appealing and it will become the title banner of the blog. 

Well that wraps up the new introduction. I look forward to your comments, and questions.  Feel free to let me know what you think of the new format and what you think works or doesn't work.  I really love posting content and talking (in person or digitally) about all the ideas we dredge up with these little exercises, so I want feedback to make it better and more interesting. 

Thanks, as always, to the Mantids for setting this up in the first place; I hope I can make you all proud.

Until next time,

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

October 12, 2011

Out of Love

Ok, I've decided I no longer like the "lead with a question".  I've been thinking more about how to set this blog up, and I've decided that answering a single question just limits me and you in terms of responses.  Instead, I'm going start things of with a topic.  The topic will be drawn from the range of usual suspects for someone with my personality and disposition, but will not be phrased so as to limit the range of responses.  As before, I'll give my take on the matter at hand and you are free to respond to my words or just give your own thoughts on the matter.  Right then...that's out of the way; let's see how this goes.

Romance in Fiction

This is a subject I've brought up several times in conversation with family and friends and it always yields the same results: "We get that you don't like 'love stories'", "just cause you hate love doesn't mean there's anything wrong with stories about it".  Let me make something perfectly clear: I don't hate love stories.  In fact, I believe that all stories are inherently about love at some level.  I can't think of a single story that I've ever really enjoyed that didn't have a love story at its heart.  A well told story can only be made stronger through a solid portrayal and understanding of love.  It's an essential and beautiful part of the human condition that genuinely adds to a narrative when employed properly.  The problem with love stories is that, to my mind, they are rarerly employed properly.

The issues I have with romance stories in media (movies, books, tv, games, etc.) are threefold.  1) Not every story needs a love-interest plot to be overtly forced into the narrative, 2) not all love stories have to be about a union of two, and especially not just boy-girl, and 3) love stories in fiction need to flow from the over-arcing story.

Let me say in the interest of full disclosure, I am not a writer, I have no formal training in the construction of story-arcs for any medium, and I my statements herein represent only my opinion.  It's an opinion that grows from my own experience of these media and how they seem to operate, but just an opinion in the end.

On to it then.  Let's begin with my first problem: the crowbarring of love stories.  One of the reasons people start to think I hate love stories is that I complain about them nearly every time they crop up in my favorite movies or tv.  Of course, most of what I watch are sci-fi and fantasy features, and fantastical love stories are very much a part of that genre, but I do have a lot more of a problem with them in those genres.  This isn't because I have a problem in general (note that I don't complain about romantic comedies and their ilk having love stories in them - more on that in another post) but because too often the story they inject into the writing feels artificial and token. Too many of the love stories seem to be included in what I can only describe as a cynical attempt to make the story more marketable to more people.  Obviously some people love these kinds of stories, so someone in marketing made the decision to include a story-arc about boy-meets-girl or whatever in order to draw more people in to a film/book/what-have-you than they otherwise might. This is pretty obnoxious to me, as it inflates (needlessly) the time we spend in the story and makes at least two (if not all) our characters feel less real. But even if we assume this isn't the case, let's return to why crowbarring is a problem for me.

The life blood of sword-and-sorcery stuff is the suspension of disbelief.  This is true of all genres, but particularly of sci-fi/fantasy since they call upon us to accept things like dragons or Jedi; things that don't exist and never will (unless I wake up as God one day - and you'll know if I do).  As such, it becomes vital that the humanity of the story remain believable.  I can accept bravery in the face of a fire breathing winged lizard if my hero has some recognizable human flaws and characteristics.  It allows me to invest in him/her and makes the story all the more engaging.  Now, if in the midst of all this, our hero has to stop his/her heroism to have a romantic relationship with someone, that can work fine...if it's believable that the story would want them to.

Some stories just don't need romantic love of this sort in them.  There's nothing inherently wrong with it, but if it wouldn't add to or evlove from the story as a whole, why would it be needed? As a sort of absurdist example, imagine that there was an unspoken rule that said that every movie, book, and tv series had to incorporate at least one car-chase or stunt-driving moment.  This would be fine for genre movies like James Bond, or the Jason Borne book series, but would it really have added anything to Sense and Sensibility or Casablanca?  Of course not! Because those kinds of stories have nothing to do with car-chases.  Nothing a car chase contributes to its story would feel in line with the goals and ideals of either of the two works named, so their respective creators (wisely) chose not to include such a scene.

Since this is running long, I'm gonna have to cut some corners now, so let's move on to point number 2: Boy-meets-girl needs to go (more often, anyway).  I could go on about how boy and girl need-not be the only kind of romance we see in a day and age where gay marriage is becoming legal in more and more states, (and how non-traditional relationships have ALWAYS existed) but that's too cliche.  Besides, it would overlook the real issue: not all "true love" is between two people.  Since I'm all about sci-fi and fantasy, let's use Avatar to illustrate my point.  Whatever your feelings for the movie, it does one thing very right: it understood what the REAL love story in it's narrative was.  Jake Sully and Neytiri are the two individuals with whom we experience the love story in Avatar, but the story is about a love that's much bigger than boy and girl. Jake doesn't just fall for the pretty-blue-cat-lady, he falls for her whole world. 

While you could argue either way whether or not Neytiri is an object of desire, it's unquestionable that it's this planet and the culture of the Na'vi that Jake really loves.  Neytiri is just a convenient embodiment of all these aspects that allows both character and audience to see that love personified in a simple, but elegant form.  If it was really about Jake finding a pretty girl and wanting nothing but her, he also wouldn't have had as strong an attachment to his Avatar body.  Do not reach for your e-mail client to tell me otherwise; this is a story about love through a much more universal (literally, if the yogis are to be believed) understanding of that emotion.

The use of what I call "selfish-love" (which is not a judgment, just a differentiation between love of someone and love of something) as the central romance is over-played in too many things.  Love is a powerful and all-consuming passion and it has the capacity to do so much more than just put the spurs to the relentless pursuit of an individual.  In Death of a Salesman, a father's love of his two sons is powerful enough to push him to suicide for their betterment.  Why is it always written so as to limit it to the "thing that makes party A seek out party B and kiss"?  To me, this is demeaning of the emotion.  It confines it to what I consider its least impressive, if not most common, form.  Whole societies have been made and unmade because of the love of a few individuals for their people or culture. Empires are torn apart or established because of an unending patriotic love of one's country. It's the stuff civil rights movements are made of.  This is no trifling thing.  Why does so much of fiction treat it as so much smaller than it is?

To wrap up this over-long hate-speech (ha!), though, let's visit the idea that love stories need to flow from the over-arcing story.  To lead with an example, the love Han Solo and Leia Organa had made Star Wars a better work of art, but the "love" between Neo and Trinity didn't add much to the original Matrix since it really was just a plot device.  The difference being that while we see Han and Leia evlove as individuals who match each other, Trinity and Neo don't have any such evolution, and so her "love" of him is just in place to raise the stakes at the very end. She "loves" him because she was meant to "fall in love with the One", thus confirming his character arc rather than co-evolving with him.

Now, I love Star Wars and The Matrix as films as works of art and as expressions of the human condition, but this one aspect is the one (get it?) that The Matrix gets wrong (even wronger in its sequels...bleh).  In Star Wars, the characters of Han and Leia start off as antagonistic, but their circumstances lead them to understand one another and force them to work together.  In doing so, they come to understand one another in really meaningful ways, and ultimately, learn to love one another.  The wrapper on all this sweetness, though, is the story of that conflict (which I obviously don't need to explain...it's been over 30 years, people) which shapes the characters.  You'll notice that only Han and Leia have a romantic plot-arc in Star Wars, and that's because the story doesn't drive any other characters there (if you e-mail me about Anakin and Padme, you will receive an email-bomb with the words "You mean love has blinded you?" spray-painted on the box).  Only these two had stories that lead them to romance.

As an example of this bad habit pulled from the RomCom (romantic comedy for those not speaking the lingo) world, Crazy Stupid Love commits one such faux pas in the person of Julianne Moore's character. For those that haven't seen it, we're lead to understand that Stever Carrell's character (who's story is so lasting and dynamic that I've completely forgotten his name) will never love a woman like the one whom he married and recently divorced.  This sets up the central arc of the story, but there's a problem: we know almost nothing about Julianne Moore's character!  Why is this the woman he loves so dearly?  What do they have in common, apart from a background in slapstick comedy?  It's sweet and all, but it makes no damn sense?  Why should I feel for him if his one true love is a blank slate? Make no mistake, Crazy Stupid Love does a lot of things right for a RomCom (again, another post), so it's all the more glaring a flaw when something like this happens.

It's because of these problems in character development that I proclaim with certainty that the story itself must provide the reasons for the romance.  Great stories always make it the inevitable and natural progression for their characters - love becomes the only reasonable path.  Look at Pride and Prejudice or Romeo and Juliet and you'll know what I'm talking about.  Even if the intent was to start from "These two people will fall head-over-heels for one another" and work it out from there, they construct a setting where we don't just expect the characters to fall in love, we demand it.  It must happen for the story to feel complete.  That is what I would call well done romance.

This has run on for too long, so let me just conclude by inviting you to post your comments about your take on this rather critical issue in pop-media.  I'll happily re-visit this topic if it proves popular enough. 

Thank you for your time, and I'll be back next week.  I love you all.

October 2, 2011

Getting Medieval

Before we begin with what I hope will be a new and more effective format for these little cerebral exercises, I have two things I want to say while they are still topical and fresh in my mind

1) The Fort Tryon Park Medieval Festival was today, and it was a spectacular event.  Another wonderfully open-minded gathering of oddities and quirks that blend (almost) seamlessly together for the sake of the enjoyment of life.  I know that sounds wierd coming from me, but that really is the kind of stuff I live for: the simple open-minded enjoyment of life.  See my earlier post about DragonCon for more about this if you're interested.  Still, props to the Washington Heights crew for putting together another successful festival.  Keep up the good work, boys and girls.

2) Today was the last day of one of my most inspirational TV personalities (although he would never call himself such).  My tendancy to rant and rave about minor social hiccups or little stupidities of modern life have all had their roots, at some level, in his work.  His sense of humor, intelligence, wit, and mastery of the written and spoken word make him one of the best things to ever appear on TV.  Although he will not be gone from the show forever, the fact that I can no longer expect to see him when all the "serious" stuff is said and done makes the world just a bit less entertaining.  I speak of course, of the infamous Andy Rooney of CBS's 60 Minutes.  I salute his illustrious career and wish him well. 

Now then...the new format.

Since it's been suggested tht I offer questions explicitly, that's just what I'll do.  I'll begin these posts (with some probable exceptions) with a question.  It is this question that I hope you will all seek to answer with your comments, but the manner in which it is done (i.e. whether you want to address it vis-a-vis my own take on it or from a completely different perspective) is entirely up to you.  I'll obviously welcome commentary on my own perspective if you should feel inclined to offer, but don't feel limited by that.   So, on to the question at hand - it's a doozy. 

Why do we find violence so appealing?

Well, let's unpack that question just a bit by first asking "Do we find violence appealing?".  Short answer: Yes, as a spieces we seem to be drawn to acts of violence.  Long answer: Whether committing or simply witnessing violence, it seems wholly ingrained in us to find catharsis through violence.  Look at the vast majority of popular movies, tv, games, books, and sports and you'll find that they all somehow hinge on violent behavior.

Since these are short-form explorations of ideas and theories, I won't waste time providing examples (plus I'm pretty sure you can do that all on your own just by thinking for more than 2.5 seconds), and I'll cut to the chase.  I believe we find violence so appealing for two primary reasons: Simplicity and Certainty.  Keep in mind that these ideas all boil down to opinion and are, as previously stated, short-form so I won't be providing muc in the way of "hard evidence" for my claims, but I will try to bring my experience to bear on the subject matter. 

Let's start with Simplicity.  We live in an incredibly complicated universe.  How complicated?  We just found out that neutrinos can move faster than light and we'd previously believed nothing could move any faster.  Why we believed this is unimportant.  What is important is that this changes decades (if not centuries) of physics.  One little observation changes it all.  That's pretty complicated.  But complicating that is the fact that we have to communicate all this complexity within the comparatively primitive (but no less complex) medium of language. 

Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about.  Ever been struggling for the right words to explain a situation?  Did you ever say the wrong (or not) word and suddenly nobody knows what you're talking about anymore?  Language is a remarkable tool, but ultimately useless.  Those of you who have ever heard me say that "everything I tell you is a lie" will be familiar with this notion of words as inappropriate for commmunicating "truth" since no sound can convey all the reality of a thought properly.  As an example, when we speak of "happiness" we are trying to convey something that cannot be so hastily summed up in a few syllables.  The feeling's "truth" is in the multitude of its expressions, not in this meager collection of sounds forme in the throat.  It is not "happiness" anymore than the smile or the warmth of a hug is "happiness".  Language cannot convey meaning alone. 

How does this relate to violence, you ask?  Well, in a way, violence bypasses the inconvenience of inaccurate language.  Imagine this: You are trying to explain to someone why they should take a seat.  They refuse.  You try a new explanation using different and, presumably, better language.  They don't get it.  You try a third time to explain to them why taking a seat is the correct thing to do under the circumstances, and they continue to stand.  By now, your frustration, impotence, and even anger are building up a good head of steam.  It is at this point, where language has failed us completely, do we consider violence.  This is not to say "beating the person senseless", but simply taking them by the shoulders and forcing them into the seat.  Where language and the "civilized method" have failed, physical force has prevailed and give you what you want and them what they need.  Part of you might say "why didn't I just do that to begin with? That was so much easier!"  Of course it was...it was simpler that way.  You got your message accross clearly, succinctly, and with no further confusion: "take a seat" as only physical force can communicate.

This then, brings me to my other point: Certainty.  We've already seen how language complicates matters, but the astute among you will no doubt have also realized that language leaves wiggle room where it might not intend.  Sometimes we choose our words so as to include room for interpretation.  Words like "sometime", "whatever", "something", etc. are deliberately used to convey a sense of fluidity of meaning that allows the listener to apply his/her own preference.  This is beneficial when it is part of the point, but more often than not, our language leaves us vulnerable to this interpretation without our desire or consent for it.  Did you ever try arranging something (meeting up, planning a weekend) and end up with one or more people involved doing something quite different from what you had expected?  Someone shows up late, someone else shows up at the wrong place/date...you know the drill.  This is the uncertainty of language at work.  Even with direct and blunt language, the room for interpretation remains.  Some people just don't use some words the same ways.  I, for one, take issue with the use of the words optimist and pessimist in pop culture as "people who see the best/worst in everything" since what they really are meant to convey is "people who assume this is the best/worst possible world".  Those two ideas are similar, but different in significant ways (which we'll discuss in another post - hold your thoughts). 

But where is the uncertainty in a quick shove ("move") or a slap on the wrist ("don't touch")?  There often isn't any.  Obviously the violence in question must be applied at the appropriate moment, but barring that possibility, there is less opportunity for uncertainty with physical force.  If we look at any major action movie, the final conflict always begins with a dialog in which the two combtatants (or more) come to the conclusion that there are no words that can change anything anymore.  The time for talk is over, and the time for action has begun.  Simple, clear, action now takes over the plot and the setting and we are allowed to simply "be in the moment" with our heroes (or villains - don't think I've ruled that possibility out!) as they settle their dispute in no uncertain terms.  How could they be uncertain...there are no terms.

This then, is the essence of why I believe we feel violence is cathartic.  We spend so much of our civilized life trying (often in vain) to find the right words, and the right expressions, only to find that we are still not understood.  This frustration builds slowly but surely and the result (I feel, anyway) is the need to relieve that tension.  For myself, games and movies do a great job.  I love violent games and movies for their ability to allow for comunication I don't usually have the opportunity to experience. 

This is not to say that I only love violence in my games or movies. Some of my favorite games and movies have nothing violent about them.  However, especially in the case of games, the ability to perform violent acts provides a sense of relief from the impotence that can be felt even by people who have real mastery of their language.  I don't think we'll ever be free of these desires, and I think it's naive to think humanity will ever "outgrow" this desire for physical conflict, but I do see why it needs to be controlled and chanelled properly.  Do not take this post as my endorcement of violent behavior.  I see nothing outright wrong with violence, but I also see why words are still superior.  After all, who wants to die over who gets the last piece of cake?  Not I, that's for sure. 

Well, I hope this little adventure into simplified complex thought has not left any of you with any surplus violence brewing within you.  If it is, I ask only that you find the words to express it in the comments.  I look forward to your thoughts....complex and uncertain though they might be. 

Until next week.