Stories of Weird Mystery

Category: Culture (Page 1 of 3)

So Mrs. Lincoln, How Was the Civil War (2024) Movie?

I don’t write or say much publicly anymore about politics, largely because I don’t believe most people have rational views. I think they choose a group they want to belong to, one that confers some benefit or makes them feel powerful, and then they do and say whatever it takes to be welcomed in that group.

Unlike me, the only rational being.

No, I’m kidding: my “group” is detached intellectual outsider who’s too cool to play along.

Jesse Plemons in Civil War (2024)
God, I hope nobody walks away from this movie wanting to be this guy.

So I was pleasantly surprised that the harrowing new film by Alex Garland, Civil War, threads the needle of politics with astonishing care. It reveals nearly nothing about the political stances of the combatants, uniting Texas and California as the forces of rebellion. Nobody has a stereotypical accent or point of view, and we follow journalists who are covering the conflict with as much detachment as they can.

It all comes together to demonstrate that a civil war wouldn’t go the way so many think it will, as a fun opportunity to finally live fantasies from Call of Duty and look cool with a rifle strapped to your chest. It’ll be awful and pointless and wasteful, something none of us should wish for.

There have been some ripples in the punditsphere about whether Civil War will foment the very thing it depicts, making the conflict seem heroic or cathartic. Others wonder if it doesn’t go far enough to name names. If anything, this movie is a splash of cold water warning us to step back from our melodramatic rhetoric.

Civilization often feels to me like a terrifying pendulum between our drives for comfort (“Please just keep the wi-fi working”) and lunacy (“I gotta show the man on the TV that I believe in him”).

When the lunacy becomes comfortable, that’s when we’re in real trouble.

This film doesn’t let us get comfortable with lunacy.

Handbooks, Nominally Fictional

In my last post, I wrote about some of the non-fiction handbooks that influenced me, but I left the fiction handbooks for their own post.

Like my character Bud Castillo in my forthcoming novella A Scout is Brave (heard of it?), I took books very seriously (and somewhat uncritically) as a kid. To me, every book was a kind of handbook, containing secrets on how to live competently.

My head back then felt like the opening sequence to The Twilight Zone with weird shit flying all over the place, clocks and doll heads and action figures and electronic components and Legos.

Actually, it still feels like that.

What I assumed books would help me do is fake the level of calm consistency that I assumed everyone around me performed as a matter of course. So I combed through every book for hints on a Grand Unifying Theory of how to be human.

(Which is what Aubrey Marsh is doing in my novella, too.)

Here are some of the books that influenced me greatly as a young person (elementary school through early college). I don’t necessarily recommend them or even still adhere to their points of view; they just each had moments of gravitational pull.

The Mouse and the Motorcycle, by Beverly Cleary

Cover of The Mouse and the Motorcycle

People who know me from work meetings and social situations may be surprised to hear this, but I’m actually oozing with empathy. It’s just sometimes a little…delayed. Or misplaced.

As a kid, I suspected that almost everything (especially if it was shaped like a person or an animal) had feelings. When Skylab fell from orbit, I fashioned helmets for my stuffed animals out of plastic soda bottle bottoms.

So it made complete sense that a sentient mouse could ride a toy motorcycle simply by making the noise of its engine, and every story I’ve written or believed in since about the heroism of seemingly powerless people comes from Ralph’s ride with Keith’s aspirin tablet.   

Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls

Cover of Where the Red Fern Grows

This was probably the first (relatively) sophisticated work of fiction I encountered as a kid, along with the Ramona Quimby books.

(I didn’t get much advice from her, just validation that sometimes mischief came for you with the inevitability of the tides.)

My fourth grade teacher Mr. Clark read this to us after lunch for a few weeks, which probed to be a bad idea when he had a classroom of weeping nine-year-olds at the end…including me, to my great surprise. It was a revelation to have something untrue make me feel something real.

Catcher in the Rye | The Count of Monte Cristo | The Great Gatsby

Cover of Catcher in the Rye

When I got to high school, I of course fell into the Emo Boy Sociopath three-pack.

If you had a boardroom full of devious marketers and charged them with inventing stories for angry teenage boys with big feelings who felt forgotten by girls who should like them, they’d come up with this trilogy almost word for word.

Gatsby is basically Edmond Dantes in the American Gilded Age, right? A man with a sudden fortune uses it to impress a girl who spurned him and avenge himself on other men. The message of both books, that revenge isn’t healthy, is whispered at the end so as not to disrupt the fantasy.

Holden Caulfield, of course, is Gatsby as a teenager, surrounded by emotionally-dead phonies and not yet sure what to do about it. (Revenge, Holden! That’s what’s next.)

I loved all three of them.  

The Planiverse, by A.K. Dewdney

Cover of The Planiverse

My friend William Simmons loaned me his copy of this book when I was in high school, and I immediately latched onto its scientific conceit: how biology and chemistry and physics and engineering could function in a two-dimensional world.

But the quest of its central character Yndrd for meaning has stayed longer with me than all of the little science lessons he encounters along the way.

There’s a quote in the book that sooner or later, every intelligent being must explore its options, that almost physically cracked open my skull to the possibilities of my life. I didn’t have to take my purpose for granted, and it was my responsibility to physically find out what it was instead of merely thinking about it.

I gave this book to my friend Chris Swinney, now passed away, because I thought it was the kind of book about being a seeker that a rationalist like him would connect with. I have his copy in my own library and I value it.

Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke

Cover of Childhood's End

I went through a phase of shunning science fiction when I entered college, and I made it through seven of ten courses as an English major perplexed why I didn’t give a shit about what I was reading.

A summer class on science fiction taught by Kent Beyette gave me permission to read the genre again, like Margaret Mead observing the people of the Manu’a Archipelago. We read Dune, The Mote in God’s Eye, A Clockwork Orange, and an anthology of classic short stories…but first there came this book, which made me cry with a sublime certainty that we could be a better species if we tried.

I cried too for the time I’d wasted on the 17th century poetry that no one reads anymore.  

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

Cover of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Really, this is a book about an idealistic philosophy professor who is driven mad by the terrible writing of freshman composition students. His rants about Quality, about seeking some form of excellence in even the smallest acts, were a revelation to me as a former gifted kid who just assumed he could half-ass his way through life because it had been working okay so far.

It’s scary to think that we live in a society so inured to whatever’s easy and comfortable that the theme of “give a shit about what you do even if it seems easy and minor” is a revelation.

But it certainly was to me.

A Prayer for Owen Meany

Cover of A Prayer for Owen Meany

To say that I had a confused sense of God’s role in my life as a young person would be something of an understatement. I wasn’t sure if God was fucking with me because I deserved it or because I needed to be stronger for some noble purpose.

Either way, I assumed God thought about me a lot.

In this book, young oddball Owen Meany struggles with what he believes to be a great destiny, interpreting his entire life as leading to a moment of service and sacrifice for others. He happens to be right (which was a message I grabbed onto the first time I read it), but that doesn’t change the fact that his awareness of that destiny makes his life myopic (which is what I get from it now).

Aubrey Marsh from A Scout is Brave is related to Owen Meany in many ways, though Aubrey believes his destiny is a far darker one.

This book snapped me out of thinking (too much) about my ultimate meaning as a human being while letting all the little moments that make that meaning slip by.

Our A.I. Future: Acres and Acres of Porpipe

My story “Acres of Perhaps” has been summarized by the site WritingAtlas.com, and I feel better than ever about A.I.’s potential to replace me as an artist.

Behold this glorious robot-generated cover:

Hideous and inaccurate A.I.-generated cover for my story Acres of Perhaps.

I’m not sure what a Porpipe is, but apparently there’s acres of it in my story.

That cover is a perfect symbol of the utter creative failure of “artificial intelligence.” The garbled text (“A the Fantay Comical Telvioin Optionitory Prorellsate”) and random images (Is that a toaster with a CB radio microphone clip on the top?) show exactly what it’s good at: filling space with a simulacrum of content without caring about its meaning.

We are finally on the cusp of replacing the freshman composition student, a dream all teachers have had since the age of Socrates.

If you want six hundred words or 700×700 pixels or four minutes of anything, literally anything, to earn money from curious but ultimately disappointed clicks, we now have the technology to complete the ouroboros. We can now game our own system by using algorithms to trick other algorithms into a crass imitation of value.

And I’m not even mad about it! I’m vaguely proud that my work is hard for a computer to understand.

A writer for the ’60s most famed and experimental television series watches the shows phantasmic creator choose between recluse genius and a quaint life of normalcy. Faced with stubborn alcoholism, a hit television series resemblant of the twilight zone, and a tree stump with questionably magical properties, the narrator watches cinematic wunderkind David Findley toe the line between brilliance and delusion.

A.I. apparently cloned from a High School Freshman at Writingatlas.com

In fact, I propose that we refer to spam-like slabs of meaningless imagery and text as “porpipe,” as in:

  • “Did you see that tub of porpipe they tried to sell off as a new recording artist?”
  • “What we need for this side of our fraudulent website is just a column of pure, Grade D porpipe. I don’t care where you get it or what it’s made from.”
  • “Excuse me, professor, but the syllabus doesn’t say what percentage of our papers have to be porpipe.”
  • “Take the porpipe. Leave the cannoli.”

If you produce creative work that’s better than porpipe, that taps into something unique and interesting and human and fucked up, the good news is that you needn’t worry about porpipe replacing you yet.

The bad news? It may not be long until most people can’t tell the difference.

My Too-Late Holiday Shopping Guide for Procrastinators

Now that it’s too late for Christmas shopping recommendations except for the truly masochistic and insane, let me share some of my entertainment highlights from 2023!

Books

I’m terrible about reading current books, so these aren’t really recent.

  • I re-read The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas) for the first time in twenty years, and this unabridged edition reminded me of how this was the equivalent of appointment television in its time, full of tangents and asides and cross-purposes to draw out the story into a pleasant weighty significance.
Cover of Joe Sharkey's book Death Sentence
  • Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders (Joe Sharkey) tells the story of one of my “favorite” true crimes. List murdered his wife, mother, and three children in 1971 and bolted on the lam for seventeen years. He was caught in 1989 after an episode of America’s Most Wanted showed an eerie sculpted bust of his age-progressed head. What I find fascinating about his story is that he was an uptight devout Lutheran with obsessive compulsive disorder and a horror of failing to keep up appearances, much like many of my older relatives. He killed his family to “spare them” from poverty, he claimed. The book covers the case well with good detail and insight.

  • The Elephant in the Brain (Keith Simler) explains a lot of our more annoying human tendencies as artifacts of our evolutionary heritage and desire to be part of a group. I think it’s a key text in understanding how we apply so much of our higher mental powers to rationalizing our baser drives.    

TV

This is going to sound a little one-note, but Star Trek had a hell of a year with three fabulous seasons of television.

Picard Season 3
  • Picard Season Three may have pulled off the most dizzying reversal in television history from its first two abysmal seasons to a soaring and triumphant third. Showrunner Terry Matalas, a fan himself, finally understood what people wanted all along: 80% things we know and love mixed with 20% new cool shit. It’s a balance that the new Star Wars trilogy completely failed to achieve.
Strange New Worlds
  • Strange New Worlds Season Two took amazing risks with mostly fabulous results; though I still have mixed feelings about the musical episode, I’m glad they were brave enough to make it. The cast and producers are capturing the variety of the original series with a modern sensibility for continuing consequences, and this was fun to watch every week.
  • Lower Decks Season Four was still hilarious, but they faced some pretty heavy emotional consequences that demonstrated that this isn’t just a zany cartoon satire. What I like about Lower Decks is that it answers or addresses so many of the things we let pass us by unquestioned in the other iterations of Star Trek, patching holes and adding context with a sense of humor.

Movies

I don’t actually watch a lot of movies anymore, I’m sorry to say. It’s hard to sit still that long.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
  • Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was very good, though of course idiots came out to complain and demonstrate their commitment to the dogma of their childhoods by damning it as fan service. As I age, I’m enjoying stories more where heroes grapple with the longer term consequences of their lives, choosing once again to be heroic even when it costs more than it ever has.
  • The Menu was a wonderfully dark psychological study, full of surprises that turn out to be fully earned by the characters who get them.

  • I’m not sure what I’d pick for an even third film. Everything Everywhere All at Once was moving when I saw it, but I don’t remember much of it now and have no desire to watch it again. The Fabelmans should have been right up my alley (a nerdy kid learning to take command of his creativity), but it felt like it was missing a third act. Cocaine Bear was hilarious and had the virtue of delivering exactly what it said. So too did Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

Looking over this list and thinking back on my year in entertainment, I feel old and unwilling to take risks on weird new things that creators are making (or re-making). I’m falling out of the demographic for profitability.

When they remake Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I’m moving out to the woods away from all human contact.

Star Trek and Me

Star Trek’s original series premiered on September 8 in 1966, and Paramount has recently dubbed that “Star Trek Day,” usually filled with a few franchise announcements and previews. This year, it’s a little tepid because of the strikes, but it still got me thinking about the influence the show had on my life.

(A few months ago, they asked some other nerds about that with heart-warming results.)

Now, it’s unquestionable that Star Wars was first and had a huge impact, especially with the ability to make my own stories with action figures. That’s one of the biggest reasons I became a writer, I suspect. Star Wars also taught me about courage and loyalty and friendship, and it had an enormous influence on my entire generation.

(I suspect you could call Generation X “the Han Solo Generation” instead because we learned to be independent and skeptical and cynical but still good at heart from him.)

As I got older, though, I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan, and something about them resonated with me from the start. Thanks to my friend Norman, I went back to watch re-runs of the original series, which were always hit-or-miss for me. I really liked James Blish’s novelizations, as well as the novels by Pocket Books.

Still, the movie era Star Trek was what changed my life.

You know, these guys.

My father left us in 1986, not that we were too sad for his reign of capricious twitchy terror to end. Still, I’d learned a certain way of seeing the world thanks to him, one that relied on fear and anger for the energy to get things done.

When he was gone, there was no one to be scared of, and the sudden vacuum was both freeing and awful. In the same way that Hitler supposedly made the trains run on time, my father established a pattern for our lives that, damaging as it was, at least provided answers. Bad ones, but…answers.

After my father was gone, my grades at school took a dive and I lost a sense of what was actually worth caring about. When someone decides all of that for you since birth and suddenly leaves, you don’t know how to make those choices for yourself.

During middle school and freshman year of high school, my brain felt like the day room at an unaccredited mental hospital. Sometimes the manic people bounced off the walls, full of passionate glee. Other times, the depressives took over and doom darkened the windows.

I truly felt like a bunch of different imaginary people were fighting (ineptly, like with gardening tools) for my soul. None of them were particularly nice about it.

I vacillated back then between delusions of epic importance (a future President, perhaps) and terror that I was a nascent sociopath blooming into an awful genetic destiny.

In 1987-ish, I watched The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock probably two or three times a week after school, often with my friend Carl (who was also no stranger to teenage melodrama), but it was one time when I was alone when a certain set of lines hit me in a new way.

You know which ones, I’m sure.

Marooned in the Genesis planetoid, Saavik asks Kirk how he handled the hopeless Kobyashi Maru command test. Kirk explains, blithely, that he cheated because he didn’t agree with the conditions of the test.

“I don’t believe in the no-win scenario,” he says.

On that particular day, probably after terrible grades or loneliness or God knows what, I had the strongest epiphany of my life until that point. I couldn’t quite articulate it then, and for years, I assumed it was about believing there were always possibilities even in the darkest hour.

But I think at a different level than I consciously realized, the message I received from that scene is that circumstances are usually mutable, but even the ones that aren’t can always be…bent. You can improvise with even the bad ones.

I learned the gift of reframing: looking at disasters as chances for heroism.

So began a (slow, limping, barely-on-impulse-power-with-the-mains-offline) turn toward…well, many more years of being a reckless idiot with intermittent bursts of competence.

Star Trek provided a positive internal structure for taking action in the world. The self-talk my father had left behind like a bee’s stinger slowly faded in favor of Starfleet’s more professional kind of discipline, doing good because what was the point of doing something else?

Why be human if you’re going to still live by the tooth and the claw?

I’ve been blindsided often over the years when people are proudly and spectacularly self-interested (or when I’ve been), but I still don’t believe in the no-win scenario.

A Summer Reading List

I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that summer is my favorite season, but it’s certainly the one when my body and mind expect to spend their days writing, walking in the woods, napping, and reading during afternoon thunderstorms.

Thanks to some poor financial decisions on my part (chief among them not being born into inherited wealth), I won’t get to spend my summer that way for at least another twenty years.

So in the meantime, I have a few go-to books for my summer reading that somehow remind me of a lazier time of year. Some of them take place during the summer, and others I simply read for the first time during one many years ago.

In case you also want to go on a mental summer vacation, here they are.

“The Body,” by Stephen King (from Different Seasons)

This is one of my favorite novellas of all time, and it takes place over a Labor Day weekend. I’m not sure if I first read it over a summer, but it definitely resembled most of the ones I lived: going on reckless adventures with friends as a way to court danger and learn who we were. I did that by breaking into abandoned schools and climbing onto roofs and skulking around in the middle of the night, but if there had been a body to go see, rest assured we’d have gone looking for it.

Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart

If there’s such a thing as a cozy apocalypse novel, this is one. When the human race is decimated by a plague, grad student Isherwood Williams ends up being one of the smartest of a small group of survivors who slowly rebuild a new and better society while the remains of the old one decay around them. Like the best science fiction, it’s a thought experiment in possibility.

You know you’ve got a good post apocalyptic book when you find yourself thinking, “Man, I’d love to loot a library just like that.”

Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke

Clarke will never be confused with a great prose stylist, but he manages to convey awe and strangeness with a pleasant scientific precision. I first read this novel of transcendent first contact — the kind where aliens come and tell us of our greater galactic destiny — in a summer lit course in Science Fiction at the University of Florida.

After years of being a fan of science fiction, I’d set it aside to be a good English major focused on the classics. When I read this book, though, I literally cried to think of how much better it was at exciting my imagination than anything I’d been assigned in my major.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

During the summer of 1987 after my parents’ marriage had ended with far less violence than any of us expected, my mother and I took a vacation with a friend and her kids to Georgia and North Carolina. We did the usual touristy things like panning for (likely planted) gem stones at a “mine,” but what I remember most was the house where we stayed.

It was built on the side of a mountain beside a shallow creek. From the front, you could see miles of rolling green hills. From the large windows and porch on the back, you could gaze into the darkly inviting woods.

My friend Norman had suggested that I read The Hobbit, and that’s exactly what I did. To me, that forest in North Carolina is what Mirkwood looks like.

This Sweet Sickness/The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

I find it hard to choose between these books for a summer read. The Talented Mr. Ripley has the virtue of taking place mainly during the summer, but the protagonist of This Sweet Sickness lives a strange dream-like existence that sort of feels like one.

I read these for the first time in 2005 when I started having an inkling that something wasn’t quite right with the life I was living. These are both books about men with deeply delusional and neurotic misunderstandings of reality, and they scared me at the time more than most horror.

I’m all better now.

P.J. O’Rourke

“She’s wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters.”

P.J. O’Rourke on reluctantly backing Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump

During my first semester of college, I took a course called History of Journalism with a wonderful professor named William McKeen. It was an inspiring and entertaining tour through Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, I.F. Stone, Seymour Hersh, Studs Terkel, Woodward and Bernstein, Hunter S. Thompson, and many more.

The class was so good that I almost became a journalist until Professor McKeen pointed out that the future would be all USA Today infotainment, a prescient notion in 1991.  

Like most recently post-adolescent young men, Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo aghast-witness-to-society’s-collapse schtick appealed to me strongly. I could imagine writing riotous features about myself witnessing the inanity of our culture: “It’s Will…at a gun show!” “It’s Will…at the Cabbage Patch Doll headquarters!” “It’s Will…at the ruins of the Manson family’s ranch!”  

The trouble was that I wasn’t cool enough to be Hunter S. Thompson. I didn’t drink or do drugs, I was nervous approaching people, and I couldn’t often summon the energy to be manic like he was.

What I needed was a nerdier, more introspective yet still hilarious journalistic idol, so Professor McKeen suggested I might dig P.J. O’Rourke.

I started with his book Holidays in Hell (excellent) and went on to Republican Party Reptile (meh) and then Parliament of Whores (probably his best), and I’ve followed him on and off ever since. In recent years, he was sometimes as stylistically conservative as he was philosophically, and some of his humor could feel a bit tepid, like an affable but exasperated dad.

But at his best, he wielded his satiric scalpel with precision and eloquence. He’s one of the main reasons I was a conservative in college: he made it feel dignified and reasonable to believe that applying government to our fleeting problems was like swatting a fly with a sheet of plywood.

(These days, I’m inclined to think that as clumsy as that sheet of plywood can be, some of our societal flies are big enough to need it.)

P.J. could cover a Communist revolution in some banana republic mostly from the bar, downing some scotch and smoking cigars and asking real people what they thought about the absurd situation. Maybe that’s as posed as Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo journalism, but it’s certainly more my temperament.

I’ve disagreed with much of what he’s written, especially later on, but he was always wrong within normal parameters…and usually entertaining and never hostile about it. To him, the culture war was less an all-out battle and more a slightly embarrassing brawl in a bar between the loudest blowhards.

I eventually drifted more toward fiction (partly because it seemed to have a clearer path of entry and partly because I can’t resist exaggerating and distilling the truth), but O’Rourke’s wry observational style still influences my work.

I’m grateful for that influence and I’ll miss him in the world.     

Great Uncle Will, What Was the Pandemic Like?

“Well, Merricat, we handled it in a very American way. We started off with a blithe dismissal of the threat followed by a sudden panic, which triggered hoarding and conspiracy theories that many tried to challenge with argument and virtue signaling. Once we got our footing, though, we marketed and profiteered our way to the end until even the CDC got bored with it.”

“Was it really a big deal?”

“It turns out, honey, that 584,000 deaths are a big deal to some kinds of people but not to others. That was a weird lesson we learned when wearing a lightweight cloth was worth storming state capitols to prevent.”

“But we overreacted, right?”

“To all crises, there’s really only the choice to underreact or overreact because nobody knows what perfectly reacting looks like until it’s all over. So in America, we split the difference by overreacting in some ways and grossly underreacting in others.”

“Was the Old Internet involved?”

“Boy, was it! That’s where sneering malcontents competing for meanness points used to live. They liked to overreact to overreactions because they magically knew exactly what we should have done all along from flunking out of biology in community college. They were the kind of people who’d give us shit for swatting a wasp with a 2×4 when that’s all we had.”

“Is criticism bad?”

“Good faith criticism sure isn’t, but even if we’d discovered that masks were useless — which we didn’t — what was the harm of trying them? Oh, that’s right: our deeply entrenched freedom to be profoundly stupid. We were a country back then who confused the LIBERTY to hit ourselves in the face with a brick with the NECESSITY of it.”

“Is the pandemic why we’re living in this abandoned mental asylum?”

“Oh, of course not. The real disaster came a few years later with Pronoun War I and II, followed by the Great Gas Surplus when panicked simpletons blew up all the Shell stations because fuel got suspiciously cheap. Then we had no way to ship food across the country and many had to literally air fry their guns to eat them instead. It was a crazy time.”

“I wish I’d lived to see all that.”

“Well, it certainly showed us who we were. Now finish your sriracha armadillo ear soup and cover your facial vacuole with the cloth mask like I showed you. I think a radioactive tornado of non-biodegradable drinking straws is coming.”

My Computer History: End Program

I’ve been writing recently about my Gen X computer experiences from the days when they required more patience and commitment than the convenient appliances of today.

I wrote about how the TI-99/4A was my gateway to computing, and how I learned persistence from the TRS-80 Model III, and how the Commodore 64 inspired my ingenuity, and how the Apple II+ made me an amateur scientist, and how the Apple //c kicked off my writing. I wrote about the weird outliers of the Commodore SX-64 and Amiga 500 that may have been too clever for their own good. And I wrote about how the PS/2 and Macintosh labs in college set up my vacillating loyalties that persist even today.

I’m lucky that I’ve seen both worlds, enjoying the hobbyist tinkering of BASIC and also the vast interconnectivity of the devices we have today. I feel a little like someone who witnessed the Wright Brothers taking flight and then the Moon landing six decades later, with each magical in its time and context.

It was a lot easier to be accidentally dumb back then, with only nearby resources to learn from. If you lived somewhere with a lousy library or culture of idiocy, you could have huge gaps in your knowledge that were hard to even know about, much less fix. I learned to shave from a high school friend who described it over the phone, but it took my stepfather to tell me to use warm water instead of cold. Now I could learn that on YouTube.

You felt weirder then, too, with only the sample size of your town or neighborhood to go by. There weren’t many alternative models for how to be, and most of them came down to stark divisions instead of gradations: male or female, white or not, American or not, rich or poor, able or “handicapped,” straight or queer, dreamer or worker, city or country, north or south, bookish or mechanical. When a deaf boy joined my second-grade class, I thought his hearing aid was a Walkman and he was a bad ass rebel who refused to take it off.

It’s harder to be that dumb today, but some people are making their best go of it.

Now with access to all the knowledge on the planet, you have to work hard not to know things – to choose only a few sources of information that reinforce your perspective and filter out others. But humans are humans and our brains take a lot of energy, so it’s natural that we fall into the shortcuts of prejudice if we don’t fight against it.

Those old computers taught me that ideas are malleable, refined through a process of active experimentation until they “work.” That hacking mentality has been the cornerstone of my writing practice as well as my perception of the world as a giant experiment ever in refinement.

What I learned from years of SYNTAX ERRORS is that life can be debugged and improved, though perhaps never perfected. There’s only “works” and “works better” for more people.  

It’s useful to know that even if “answers” are far easier to search for these days, we still have to do the experimenting ourselves.

Who’s ready for some programming?

My Computer History: Oh, Yeah, the Consoles

[I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck!” I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.]

Astute readers may have noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned any of the video game consoles that influenced me in my Gen X childhood, and there’s a very good reason for that.

If you were to engineer a torture device for people with untreated anxiety disorder, you’d invent “games” that hint at the possibility of winning by skill but endlessly rob it from you with no save states, no endings, terrible controls, and buggy programming.

I mean, this is what we were working with:

And this:

Did I have fun with my Atari 2600 as a kid? I did. But starting there, I probably lost years of mileage on my heart and lungs yelling at shitty console games with only a few shining stars to keep my hope alive that the next one would be better.

I can list the few video games that, through a combination of design and story, may actually have contributed something to my life. Note how many of them were on consoles.

  • Eamon (1980, Apple II), which was a fantasy text-adventure you could customize.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982, Atari 2600), which had a story and an ending.
  • Taipan (1982, Apple II), which was great for trading commodities and becoming a drug dealer before Grand Theft Auto made it cool.
  • Lords of Conquest (1982, Commodore 64), which was a Risk-like game that I enjoyed playing with Norman.
  • The Legend of Zelda (1986, NES), which had a save game and a storyline plus lots of secrets to discover.
  • Wasteland (1988, Apple II/Commodore 64), which had an engrossing storyline and witty writing.
  • Wing Commander (1990, PC), which had a great storyline and fun flight sim physics.
  • X-Wing (1993)/TIE Fighter (1994, PC), both of which were deeply story-driven with great flight-sim features.
  • Tomb Raider (1996, PlayStation), which barely makes it onto this list because the archaeological visuals only SLIGHTLY outweigh the frustrating gameplay.
  • Jedi Knight/Mysteries of the Sith (1997, PC), again with good stories.
  • Outlaws (1997, PC), again with a great story and wit.
  • Metal Gear Solid (1998, PlayStation), frustrating as fuck but a great story.
  • Half-Life (1998, PC)/Half-Life 2 (2004, PC), both featuring amazing game play and storytelling as well as multiplayer fun.
  • Neverwinter Nights (2002, PC), with a great storyline and game mechanics (though the graphics were odd).
  • Knights of the Old Republic (2003, PC), with one of the best storylines in a game ever.
  • Jedi Outcast (2002, PC)/Jedi Academy (2003, PC), also with great storytelling, level design, and lightsaber physics.
  • Lord of the Rings Online (2007, PC), which may be one of my favorites of all time because of the gorgeous accuracy and absorption of the world building, as well as the enjoyment of playing with friends.
  • Portal (2007, PC) /Portal 2 (2011, PC), which are both arch and witty games with mind-bending physics puzzles.
  • Red Dead Redemption (2010, XBOX 360), which had an engaging story and a lot of fun territory to explore.
  • Borderlands 2 (2012, PC), which tells an amazing story with some of the best characters I’ve seen in a game, including THE best villain.
  • Pillars of Eternity (2015, PC), a beautiful distillation of everything that SHOULD have been good about Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale.

Also, a few runners-up:

  • Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 5, which are both gorgeous games with interesting but very problematic stories. I feel pretty icky through much of Far Cry 3, and the ending of Far Cry 5 pisses me off.
  • River Raid and Frogger on the Atari 2600 are sentimental favorites because my mother loved them so much, sitting down after dinner on the floor with a cigarette and playing them for hours.
  • Various generations of shooters (Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Rainbow Six) were fun to play with friends until the Adderall-twitchy ten-year-olds took over.

I freely confess that my exposure to video games has been spotty and my needs are unusual: I like tinkering and exploring and fighting if it’s relatively easy. I’m not looking for a tooth-and-nail struggle in my leisure hours because that’s what real life is for.

If you’re remembering the consoles of the 80s with an abiding fondness, here’s my challenge: pick up one of the new remakes of those consoles or an emulator, and time how long you enjoy playing it.

On the whole, I’m a little like a high-functioning alcoholic. I know that I’ve lost countless hours to video games that I didn’t really enjoy while I was avoiding other things. But the good ones…they were pretty good.

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