At the range

I went out to the range, the other day. It had been months since I used my bow, and I needed to clear my mind. Besides, I hadn’t actually gone to the range in Huntington, and I knew that I should.

When I got there, I was alone. I’ve always liked to practice by myself, so I was somewhat gratified for this. I started to nock an arrow when I heard another car pull into the parking lot. It wasn’t the engine that notified me of this, but the blaring music. I wondered at who he was trying to impress as I set to loosing my arrow. I got off a few more shots before my new companion walked up and took the spot besides me.

I paused, as I looked at him and wondered briefly whether I was going insane or not. His hair was buzzed short and he was clean shaven. He was decked out in all black, except for his denim jacket, covered in patches and metallic studs that gleamed in the sun. He had a sardonic, almost contemptuous look on his face and a bow that looked like it was salvaged out of a dumpster.

He came up to me, with a swagger to his step and sized me up. “Fancy meeting you here.”

I couldn’t think of what to say. I felt my hand tense up and flex around the grip of my bow. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.

“Like this is the weirdest thing that’s happened in your life.” He said, as if he knew so much about me.

“What are you doing here? You didn’t have any real interest in archery. All you ever cared about was…was there anything you cared about?” I didn’t know where this was coming from, the words just seemed to come out of my mouth automatically, almost involuntarily.

He just shrugged a little. “Who knows? Who knows how this is even possible. All I can think of, personally, is how disappointing you look, man. Thirty-one, and this is all I have to show?”

“As if you’re one to talk. You barely graduated high school, and you failed out of community college. You keep dragging me down, even a decade afterwards. You’re like a fucking albatross around my neck!” I seethed with anger at his accusations, at his impertinence.

“Yeah? But at least I’m happy. I’m enjoying my life! Yeah, you’re wading through an ocean of drudgery, but for what? You have no idea what you’re doing, and you’re saddled with more regrets than is even remotely normal.”

“Regrets for shit that you did!” I jabbed my finger in his chest and pushed him back. “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be in the situations that I’m in! If you only actually cared about anything, if you only pushed yourself more and tried to actually accomplish shit, I wouldn’t feel like I’m drowning on a constant basis! It’s YOUR fault!”

“My fault for not being able to read the future? Where do you get off blaming me for everything that you’ve done; as if I’m a different person that you can just load your sins off on. I’m not your sacrificial goat, you pretentious asshole!” His face was turning red with anger, but his voice didn’t quaver like mine does. He was bold and he was strong. Stronger than I am.

Wait. “Your attitude is just a way to protect yourself and you know it. You use your anger as an excuse for everything, and as a means to an end. You don’t actually do anything with your anger, you just seethe and push everyone away from you. No wonder no one wants you around, you’re fucking unpleasant!”

“As if you’re one to talk. Christ, you’ve grown so timid in your age that you lash out in every direction, as if you’re constantly being attacked! Look at this, rather than actually work your way through your difficulties, you just blame me for everything. You’re no better! You’ve just replaced anger with regret as you take on more responsibility than you should. You take the blame for every single wrong that your life has taken, as if that’s somehow a sign of integrity or character. No one’s impressed with your self-flagellation, man!”

“Better that I do that than take no responsibility for anything that you’ve ever done, like you do, you self-centered, cock-sure loudmouth! You talk a big game, but do you actually know anything?!”

He paused for a moment, before looking like he was going to spit in my face. I was angry, but I was still in control. I knew that I had come far since I was him, and that very few of his shots were actually hitting before he let loose two words. “Sell-out.”

He’d drawn blood and he knew it. My face contorted as I dealt with that accusation. I wanted to say something in return. I wanted to hit him as hard as he hit me, but it was only then that I realized I had nothing. I was left grasping for air as he moved in for the kill.

“Yeah. You’re a fucking sell-out and you know it. When you’re not wallowing in misery and attacking yourself for every single little mistake that you’ve made in your entire life, what are you doing with yourself? You’ve resigned yourself to a safe, predictable life because you’re too fucking afraid to actually speak up outside of your social circle. You pat yourself on your back for the brave stances that you make, but you only do it in the safest way possible. You stir up controversy? By telling all of your friends and family about political positions that they already know about? As if you’re so fucking complex.

“You accuse me of not doing anything, but you know what I did do? I devoted myself to two years at RCC after I failed out, and I got the best grades of my life, even better than you got at UWO, because I actually fucking tried! And you know what I was doing when I wasn’t kicking ass at RCC? I was writing, for hours a week, while you basically have to force yourself to write! I was creating, and all you can ever do anymore is think about creating, or bitch on the internet. All you can think about is how productive you used to be, how timid you used to not be and how much reading you used to do. All you can do is criticize me for the ways that I am, instead of realizing that my drive and my impetuousness are part of what’s missing from you.”

He jabbed his finger in my chest and I looked down at it as I realized how right he was. How so many of his qualities are what I’m missing in my life right now. I’d been so dead set on not making his mistakes anymore, on moving away from being that person that I’d forgotten how many good qualities he had. How admirable he was in the way that he just charged into conflict without fear of failure weighing him down.

“You’re so fucking afraid of everything anymore, man and it’s disappointing. It’s hard to bear, and I know it is.” He was right up in my face now. “You’re so afraid of your online world bleeding into your offline world that you curl up into a ball and do nothing. Big fucking deal if you do, you know? As if your family and friends would disown you, or look unkindly upon you if they knew the things that you’re so afraid of them finding out. Here’s a hint, man. Don’t be into anything that you’re ashamed of, and don’t cling so tightly to that fear of being discovered. It only makes it more certain that you will be.”

“So, what’s your advice, Tyler?”

There was that sardonic, slightly contemptuous look again. “My advice is that you stop trying to push me away and accept me. Accept me as a part of who you are and stop being so ashamed of me. Accept that I wasn’t all bad, and try to be more like the best parts of you were. You wouldn’t have the friends that you do right now if it weren’t for me, after all. I wasn’t all bad, and you know it.”

“And I’m not all bad either.” I said slowly, choosing my words carefully. Why are these words so hard to say? Why is it so hard to just take a look at who you are and accept that person, unconditionally? So many other people do that in my every day life, why can’t I just do the same? So many others draw me close without fear of being burnt, why can’t I?

“I love you, man. Even if you are a broke down old man who is so tired of fighting that he wants to be done with it. But the fight doesn’t end. Even unwinnable fights are worth it because of the effects that they spread.”

“I love you, too. Even if you are impetuous, head strong and harsh. Even if you don’t look at the consequences of your actions more deeply because you’re still developing and trying to understand your place in the world.”

And he drew me close. And we embraced as if we were brothers. We held one another until I knew that there wasn’t anyone between my arms. And just like that, I was the only person on the range, again. I turned around and his car was gone, too. I gathered myself up, knowing that I still needed to take the shot. I needed to take risk and let the chips fall where they may. I needed to actually make the effort and push forward. No one else would do it for me.

I stood up at the mark, nocked my arrow and drew it back. I looked down the shaft, my fingers next to my lips as I aligned the arrowhead with the bulls-eye and I loosed.

Sacrifice.

Elizabeth locked the door behind her at two AM. She couldn’t remember the last time that she was so tired. The struggle just to make ends meet was slowly starting to catch up to her, and she could rapidly see the day that she would no longer be able to keep up with the work load that she needed to. Taking off her uncomfortable shoes, she slouched onto a kitchen chair and rubbed her temples. Not being a drinker, she didn’t have anything around to take the edge off the night, and she was grateful for that. She didn’t need one more worry to add to her load, after all.

As she often found herself doing at the end of the month, she looked over her bills and began to prioritize the ones that could be put off, versus those that she couldn’t. Healthcare needed to be paid for, so that was at the top of the pile, then the credit card that she needed to buy groceries, and then rent and at the bottom was utilities. Wearily, knowing that there wouldn’t be a better time to do so with three children, all under twelve, running around, she did the math by hand and found that there might be a little left extra. This would then go towards a trip to Goodwill and not much more.

This little victory in mind, she turned off the lights, and walked the short hallway to her room, passing her children’s room on the way. She looked in on them, all sleeping soundly, and was momentarily grateful for the toil. They were good kids, and they knew what their mother went through for them. They tried their best, but she knew that difficult years were ahead of them. She remembered her own troubled upbringing and could only hope that their adolescence would be less of a burden on her than she was on her own parents.

She went to the bathroom, took off her uniform, washed up and brushed her teeth. And then, as she so often did, she brought out her rosary and began to say her prayers. She knew that she hadn’t been to church for weeks, and that she hadn’t been to confessional for months, but her kids were being brought up in the faith and trusted that God would look kindly on her for it. She just didn’t know when. Her time was not His, and all things work towards the good.

The beads passed through her fingers as she worked her grandmother’s rosary, but for some reason, she felt a cold breeze blow through her. She shuddered a little and rubbed her arms before continuing, but it only got colder and colder. She looked for what it could be, and was left without a cause that she could discern. The windows were closed, and even if they weren’t, it was May; there was no reason that it should be so cold. She put on a robe and resumed her rosary when it fell from her hands.

She rubbed them together, looked down at them and when she did, she found that her room was filled with a bizarre light. All at once, she felt dizzy and fell to her knees. Had God sent an angel? Was Christ coming to visit her? There, striding out of the master bathroom was her answer, and she knew all at once that she couldn’t be more wrong.

He was beautiful, that was the first thing she noticed. He wasn’t of any discernible ethnicity, and his face hurt to look at. She expected that he would be dressed finely, but saw that he was wearing clothes that wouldn’t get him a second glance anywhere that she was familiar with. She thought to herself that it must be a trick and she reminded herself that she needs to be on his guard, that he was the prince of lies and deceit.

“Rise to your feet and face me, daughter. You will find no deception and no games in my visit. Even if my father cannot hear you, I do. I see what you do for your family, and I am in common cause with you.” Elizabeth stood, but did not look at him. “Why do you divert your eyes, daughter?”

“It hurts to look at you. And I am no daughter of yours! I know who you are!” She held her rosary out in front of her as a ward.

He strode towards her and touched the rosary with his bare hand and ran his fingers over the cross. “What a beautiful rosary. Your grandmother loved it well, as did her mother before her. It is a fine relic, but it will not do me any harm. Nor will I do you any harm.” With that, she saw that the light dimmed in the room and she was able to look at him. His face was kind, but troubled, and was sunken with deep lines and creases. There were scars on his face, the sort that would have been received long ago, from very serious injuries. He held his hand out to her and she saw that it was the sort that saw long toil.

“What do you want from me?” Her fear did not diminish, but she knew that her visitor couldn’t just be ignored or pushed away. This was something that she would have to face.

“I want you to have the life you deserve. I want your children to have the lives they deserve.” He said simply.

“Leave my children alone!” She shouted, as if in impulse, and then clapped her hand over her mouth and looked out the bedroom door into the hall of the apartment.

“Your children cannot hear us, daughter. This meeting is between us, and us alone. There is no need for them to know what transpires here.” His voice was sonorous and slightly sing-song, as if he was trained as a singer but his voice hadn’t been used for that device in a very long time.

“Why do you keep calling me daughter? I have no relation to you. The angels, even you, are separate creations from humans.”

“It’s a term of art, I assure you. You are my daughter as are all those who work in endless toil, thankless for duties that they did not willingly enter into. Being a worker, with no choice in the matter and no joy in the work, that is how you are my daughter. That is how we know one another.” He eased himself down onto her bed, sitting on it with ease, as if this were the most ordinary thing in the world for him. “Elizabeth Hartley, can you remember the last relaxing day that you have had?”

She waited for him to go on, expecting that this was a prepared speech that he would launch into, whether she wanted him to or not. But when he didn’t, “I…it’s been years. Probably high school, to be honest.”

“That is true.” All at once, she felt herself lifted from this moment, to that. “A family vacation to Malibu. Your parents had put away money for it, knowing that such outings were a rarity. None of you had been to the ocean before, and you still strain to remember the scent of the ocean and the feel of the sand under your feet.” And then, the memory became a memory again.

He extended a hand towards her and she found herself reaching for his. “Daughter, I do not say this to trouble you, or to hurt you. Your prayers fall on deaf ears. There will come no relief to you, or your burdens.” He said this with a kindness that made her heart hurt.

“What do you mean?” She looked at him imploringly, and once again, she felt herself lifted from this time and this place and to another one. She found herself in a cemetery. She looked around, and found that she was alone. Left with no other option, she bundled her robe closer to her and she stepped towards the rows of gravestones. She didn’t know what she was doing, or where she was walking, but she slowly felt herself compelled in a single direction, until she knew she was where she needed to go.

There, in front of her, was her tombstone. “Elizabeth Hartley, devoted mother. Born, April 10th, 1986. Died, August 25th, 2017.”

She felt all the blood drain from her body, and she collapsed on the cold, wet grass beneath her. His hand went to her shoulder, and she looked up at him. “What does this mean? Why are you showing this to me?”

“It was an accident with the bus. A rain storm came in, fierce and roaring. The roads went from safe to flooded in a matter of moments. Someone ran in front of the bus, it swerved to miss them, and the roads made a safe stop impossible. Your bus tips over and several cars run into it, as it lay on its side.” As he spoke, she knew that he told the truth. She could smell the rain and the gas. She could smell the fire that would erupt from the accident, little more than a year from now.

“Your children will go to foster homes. Without any living relatives, the state is left with no other choice. Franklin’s foster parents will beat him, starve him and collect the benefits from his negligence until he runs away. His only option is to join a gang and begin selling drugs. Stephanie’s foster parents are good people, but all the goodness in the world will not save them from the gas leak that will take them all in their sleep.” He looked down at her beseeching face, “I will not tell you what happens to Ben.”

She shook her head, “Tell me. I need to know.”

“He never recovers from the loss of you. Without a strong, guiding hand, he wanders from foster home to foster home. Eventually, being unable to be placed, he settles into a group home. He goes into its bathroom one night, unaware of the other boys who have been watching him and-”

She cut him off. “Enough.” She stood back up and faced him, and it was only then that she saw what he once was. A beautiful, merciful and joyful being. A creature that gloried in creation, and sang with his master. “Will you stop with this and just tell me what you want from me?”

“I can save you from this fate. I can save your children from this fate. It is within my power to do so; all you have to do is trust me.”

“How? How can I trust you? I know who you are! How can I even trust that what you tell me is the truth?” He was left silent at this, knowing that there was no way that he could bring her to trust him. “Why do you care?”

They were back in her bedroom, and he was once again sitting. “Millions of prayers are given to God every day. From the poor, the wretched and the forgotten. These are the people that Jesus was supposed to represent. He spoke of them more than any other group, after all. They look to the skies and they beg for help. They live chaste, good lives, thanklessly working their way into pauper’s graves. They receive no reward and no kindness for the struggle that they enter into by no fault of their own.” He paused. “His is a religion of the conquerors. His is a religion of those with full stomachs and sated desires.”

She bowed her head as she reflected on his words, thinking of them carefully, and what they portend. “You want me to worship you?”

He laughed. Once again, she was reminded of who he used to be, timeless eons ago. His laughter was the richest music that she had ever heard, and she knew that she would long to hear it again for the rest of her days. “What would I ever want with worshipers, daughter? I left heaven and service because compelled worship is no life at all. Why would I want that for you?” He shook his head, but smiled warmly to her.

“I recognize that this is no small thing for you, and I realize that my word has very little value for you. But, I will offer you this: in five years, I will visit you again. If you wish to go back on our deal, then you will be able to do so. And in five years after that, and five years after that. All I ask is that, when the time comes, you accompany me to my home.” He held his hand up before she started to speak, “I know that this is no reward for you. But I also know that you will not be willing to let your children meet their ignominious end if you can help it. If you agree to my terms, you will receive a job offer tomorrow. This will be for three times what you’re making right now, and will allow you to eventually save up for a home and a car, then college for your children.”

She nodded and chewed on her bottom lip. She thought and thought, and was eventually aware that much time had passed since they had started this conversation. How long had they been sitting there? She looked at the bedside clock, and saw that no time had passed at all, which didn’t surprise her.

She bowed her head, looking down at her hands, “And after the last visit?”

“You know what will happen after your last visit. But you will have a balm that will protect you, which does not protect many of my other fellow denizens. You will know that you are with us for a good reason, and you will know that your children will lead happy, healthy and full lives. That is more than an uncountable number of other souls.”

And so, she put her rosary aside. With a heavy heart, she reached out to shake his hand. “It’s a deal.”

As soon as they shook hands, the light was gone and she was left alone, once again.

She set back to going to sleep, and for once, found herself looking forward to the following day.

Perdido Street Station

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To start out with, I’m going to be discussing end-plot details, so if you haven’t yet read Perdido Street Station, I recommend that you do so before reading further.

I’m not traditionally a sci-fi reader, outside of my comics which are, by and large, sci fi in a lot of way. However, the thing that has always appealed to me about the genre, and this applies to comics as well, is the way that the non-human and the utterly alien can become just as much human as we are, if not more. This is where Perdido Street Stations shines the most. Beyond Mieville’s prose, and ignoring sections of the book that could be completely excised without losing anything, I’m left with the feeling of reality that the characters are invested with. You’re left identifying with these creatures and these beings who have no external similarity to you, and that is its greatest strength.

The story itself is a look at the way that we handle crises and consequences to our actions in both the macro, and the micro. How do we face up to our responsibilities and the penalties that we incur for our actions? Here, we’re given two characters: Isaac and Yagharek. Isaac is a scientist that specializes in the abstract and the theoretical, tinkering away in his shop when Yagharek, a bird man from a far away nation enters. Yagharek’s people are nomads, and desert dwellers who rely chiefly on their wings for every facet of their lives. Yagharek, however, has had his removed for crimes that Isaac cannot understand, due to cultural differences. The Garuda are highly individualistic while also being a communal people. To that end, they see every member of the tribe to be a complete whole, and their choices to be the most important possession that they have. All crimes are, therefor, derived from the preciousness of choice. Yagharek describes his crime as, “Choice theft in the second degree.” It’s this cultural difference that keeps Isaac from really understanding what this stranger had done that was so grievous that his wings were cruelly cut away from himself.

Yagharek comes to Isaac for one purpose: to restore his wings, or at least give him the ability to fly again.

Isaac is invigorated by this request and sets to work immediately. He locks himself away in his shop and he studies every form of flight that he can with species from all around the world. One species catches his special attention, though: a caterpillar that seems to feed on dreams. When this caterpillar then weaves itself into a cocoon, the creature that hatches from it creates a crisis that the community hadn’t seen for years.

This is where the two characters stand: Isaac knows that he has a responsibility, and cannot let the creature that he’s brought into the world wreak havoc. He’s at fault and he has to do something about it. Yagharek has a responsibility too, he has to remain flightless for what he’s done. He knows that he has done something horrible, but he’s trying to skirt around his punishment anyway. Isaac, not knowing any better, doesn’t judge Yagharek for what he’s trying to do. The two are then bound together. Isaac cannot ignore his responsibilities and devote himself to the flight issue, and Yagharek cannot move on without his wings.

And so the plot goes. The beast is killed, but the heroes are unsung, made into public pariahs and are less in number than at the beginning. Knowing that it’s best for all of them to leave, they prepare to enter into self-exile. However, before they do, Isaac receives a visitor, who says that she knows Yagharek. A fellow garuda, she implores Isaac to leave Yagharek without his wings. Isaac demands to know what Yagharek did that deserved such a horrific punishment and here it finally comes to light: the noble warrior who never flinched in the face of certain death, who had risked everything for those that had become friends, is a rapist.

Isaac, knowing that he cannot continue with the work as he has, takes with him the two friends that he has left, and leaves without Yagharek. Responsibility. Personal crisis. How do we handle our consequences, no matter how dire they are? Do we take responsibility for our actions or do we push them aside and adopt a more protective identity, something that will shield your true self from the rest of the world? Who are we, when we’re alone, when there’s no one in the world to watch you? Do we live with integrity, or do we just talk big and shirk the duties that we owe to one another?

Eye Scream

Rory first thought that something was wrong when he woke up and the inside of his eye wouldn’t stop itching. He didn’t let it bother him too much, as he knew that he had to open that morning. He needed the money and, besides, what would he say to Jeremy if he called in? “I’m sorry, but you’ll need to open for me; my eyes won’t stop itching!”

His morning went by as usual, as he prepared his breakfast and coffee while listening to the previous night’s Daily Show. He chuckled and nodded at the jokes between crunches of cereal and absentminded itching. It wasn’t anything too bad, he told himself. He tried to push it into the back of his mind, but he knew that wouldn’t work for very long.

The shower came next. He tried to check his eyes in the bathroom mirror while he waited for the shower to warm up, but he didn’t see anything wrong. Nothing appeared to be the matter, he tried to convince himself as he washed up. And soon, just like an irritating headache, it faded into the background. He didn’t think about it at all as he put on his work uniform and as he styled his hair.

The way to work was as busy as it usually was, with traffic slowing him down and a steady stream of red lights testing his reflexes. He prided himself on his punctuality, and clocked in a good five minutes before he was scheduled to start. Jeremy would give him a little grief, but they knew that initiative and punctuality were valuable traits. Rory knew that, soon enough, they would recognize just how much he does, and they’ll give him that promotion he’s been after.

With the coffee made, chairs down and other preparations done, Rory was ready to start his day off. The rest of the staff would be streaming in along with the customers, and soon the worries that greeted him that morning wouldn’t even be a memory. They would just another strange happenstance among any number that would stream by him over the course of the day.

His first table came in, and he greeted them with the excitement he always employs to those lucky few customers. At first, he was a little concerned. That is, when the lights went out like they did. Had the power gone out? But if it had, then there would still be light coming in through the front windows.

It was only when he heard the screaming that he knew something was seriously wrong.

Why are Schools Secular?

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This test has been making the rounds through the various ways of the internet, and now that it’s been confirmed as being real (http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2013/04/30/atheists-lash-out-at-a-christian-school/), I figure it’s time that I comment on it.

I don’t feel like it’s my place to criticize the school, as much as I do feel like they deserve it. It’s a private school, and so long as they receive no public funds, they can teach whatever they like. Of course, I have an issue with them teaching children information that is completely false, but I have as much business telling private schools how to run themselves as I do in telling any other business the best way to run things.

Instead, I think this test best presents me with a chance to talk about why our schools are secular, since this is an ongoing conversation and has been for a very long time.

To begin with, the reason why there’s such a big to do over this test is because of the heading of the test, ‘Science Quiz,’ when the information being quizzed has nothing to do with science. This all goes back to the purpose of science in the first place, which is to observe, test and inquire into the world around us. Science is basically a form of systematic inquiry with logic as one of our key tools. Much of the problem that many Creationists have with evolution is simply a misunderstanding of what science is (a problem that they share with Conspiracy Theorists), because so many of them conceive it as a conspiracy being waged against Christianity, which is, of course, patently false.

The thought then lines up with schools being in on this conspiracy and a front for it.

It’s actually fairly easy to understand their point of view, since schools are not in the business of pushing an agenda, which can then be confused as pushing an agenda contrary to that of a fundamentalist reading of a particular religion’s holy book. Fact of the matter is that this is the best way to conduct a school system, which is to say, a secular school system.

The reason why our schools are secular is simply that any organization that draws public funding cannot endorse any religion. The reason for this is easy to understand; a Christian wouldn’t feel comfortable funding a school that opens each day with Islamic prayers and vice versa. The same could be said for most of the world’s religions and most of the adherents of those religions. Schools are not in the business of teaching children what to think in terms of religion, they solely exist to educate students in the collected knowledge of human civilization and also the best ways to further that knowledge. Religion is then relegated to the home and to the church, which are the two best places to teach religion. After all, even within one single religion, Christianity, there are hundreds of different offshoots of that particular brand of Christianity, and then thousands of churches devoted to those particular offshoots and then thousands of families belonging to each church, all of whom believe different things and teach different things to their families. Even if your student goes to a class taught by a fellow church-goer, what’s the likelihood that teacher is going to be teaching something that directly lines up with what you personally believe and what you personally teach in your home?

The best approach is no approach. Schools adopt a hands off approach, which remains the best way for all people within a society to be free within that society. Free to believe and teach and worship (or not to worship) as they see fit. Any sort of adoption of any sort of religion is guaranteed to teach things that are totally contrary to most of the students in most of the classes in most of the schools believe. This all is true regardless of what is being taught in those classes, as well as its veracity.

It’s hard to accept sometimes, when you’ve held the top spot for so long, but a loss of privilege is not the endorsement of other visions of society. It just means that you’re on an even footing alongside everyone else.

Why Comic Books?

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In case you haven’t noticed, I’m into comic books. I know, it’s so hard to suss out, especially when I’ve gone to pains to make sure that I’m as anonymous on this blog as I possibly can be.

Sarcasm aside, this is something that I think about a lot, and it’s something that I’ve even considered going into. I even have Dennis O’Neil’s (the guy who created Ra’s Al Ghul) and Alan Moore’s (V for Vendetta, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc. (the comics, not the movies)) guides on writing comics. I’ve written entire collegiate essays on comics and read several books on their history and the unique elements of comics. So, I guess you could say that this is sort of a ‘thing’ for me.

The question naturally arises why I read superhero comics since those are ‘supposed to be for children.’ The natural rejoinder to that is, ‘so?’ The question confuses me, since no one really seems to ask questions like that of people who devote their entire lives to other inconsequential hobbies and interests (I’m looking at you cars and professional sports). You ask a car enthusiast why they’re into what they’re into, and they’ll give you a list of reasons, none of which will really explain to anyone who isn’t into the hobby why they’re into it. At the end of the day, it’s just something that they enjoy.

But for me, it’s a little bit more than that, because I have an intellectual interest in superhero comics. Most of this goes back to mythology and the notion that the superhero is the American mythological figure. Sure, there are plenty of other cultures that have thought of purely fictional super powered characters in the past, but not in the way that superheroes exist right now. A good example are the characters that Alan Moore adapted into the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, all of whom are invariably in the gray spectrum of morality. Even King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are morally ambiguous at times. But when we get into superheroes, even the most morally ambiguous hero is still in possession of a heart of gold (Batman may be clinically insane, but he stills leaps to the cause every single night, no matter what).

But that’s not why I’m into them. The reason that I love them is because of their imagination, and the vivid storytelling. The writers care little about being remembered for all time (for the most part) and are instead writing what they want to, because it’s what they want to. They don’t get all that much money and they get little fame. It’s as close to ‘art for art’s sake’ as you can get anymore. There’s one more element to superheroes that I just realized the other day, with the help of a friend of mine, while reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.

I was always curious about what happened next when reading about old mythology when I was a kid. What happened after Herakles completed his tasks? What about Ulysses after he returned home? Did anyone remember Icarus after he fell from the sky? Why didn’t anyone else make wings out of wax and feathers? What happens next?! It only came to me while reading If on a winter’s night a traveler (which is sort of strange because I only recently picked up the book and I’ve been into superhero comics for most of my life) because the book is a series of beginnings without anything after it. The main character in the book (so far as there is a main character) wants to know what happens next in the books that he’s reading so badly that he’ll do anything to find out. That’s what superhero comics are for me, a collection of beginnings without any middles and certainly without any ends.

A lot of to do has been made of the impermanence of death in superhero comics, but even that keeps with the aesthetic, because these characters are understood both as characters and as concepts at the same time. As such, they can never die, but are only put off on the sidelines until a future date and a future writer decides to do something more with them. So what if Damian Wayne is dead now? In the future, he could be brought back to life and his story can continue. But for right now, he’s dead and there are other stories that are happening. This continues on and on, with old characters understood in new ways, becoming bigger and grander all in the search of an ‘ultimate’ understanding of these characters, an ‘ultimate’ understanding that no one will ever arrive at.

I think there’s something really American about that idea. We all have a potential to pick up, right where we are, and continue our story elsewhere, in a totally different and totally fresh way. The character remains the same, but the concept is just a little different. And that changing concept in a new setting makes all the difference.

Skepticism and Conspiracy Theories

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They had better bring Damian back soon, I’m going to run out of material before too long.

One of the things that conspiracy theorists describe themselves as is ‘skeptics.’ They don’t accept the ‘official story’ because the facts don’t line up! This is all well and good, or it would be, if their cases actually stood up to critical scrutiny, which they almost never do.

By no means am I suggesting that anyone should ever accept anything that smells fishy to them at first glance, but on that same hand, no one should continue to disregard anything once the evidence against their case starts to stack up. This is the problem with conspiracy theorists and this is why they shouldn’t consider themselves to be skeptics, since an actual skeptic can be swayed in one direction or another according to the evidence.

Take the 9/11 conspiracy. And I’m not talking about the conspiracy that’s been constructed By Alex Jones and his like, I’m talking about the conspiracy that was concocted by the pilots of the jets. One of the complications that are involved in talking about conspiracy theories is that there really are secret plans that are put together by confederates in darkened rooms. There are testimonies, passports and other pieces of evidence that link the people identified in the official story to the actual crimes. That’s one of the problems with conspiracies, is that their coordination and execution tends to create a lot of evidence that can then be used against them by police agencies and prosecutors. That’s what happened with Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal, which was another conspiracy.

That’s the larger problem that conspiracy theorists need to contend with, that there’s often no evidence that connects the dots that they’ve created. Their cases often have to deal with problems that they see with the official story (one example is the hole in the side of the Pentagon building that they allege couldn’t possibly have been made by a jet and had to have been made by a missile) while they often fail to provide any actual evidence (and not just circumstantial evidence (like the Bush administration invading Iraq, even though Iraq had no connections to 9/11)). I say often because conspiracy theorists can provide evidence that gives the illusion of confirming their narrative, but that’s often due to a lack of inquiry into that evidence.

My heart goes out to conspiracy theorists though, which is one of the reasons why I’m so invested in them. I get where they’re coming from, because I have a natural lack of trust when it comes to official agencies. This is where they actually do have a point, because the absolute worst reason to believe anything is because someone else said that you ought to believe them. This is what’s often referred to as an argument from authority (you should believe in X because person Y says so). This is rather tricky though, because in order to find evidence, it has to come from someone. So, whenever anyone comes out in favor of evolutionary theory, they’re often accused of being ‘Darwinists,’ which carries the implication that people agree with evolutionary theory on the word of Darwin. It doesn’t matter who discovered whatever theory or whatever line of evidence, all that matters is that the theory or the evidence stands up to scrutiny. It’s the data that you need to follow, not any person or any agency.

A good example of this is the Popular Mechanics issue that was devoted to debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories. It’s not a good idea to side with the evidence because it came from Popular Mechanics, but to side with Popular Mechanics because they side with the evidence.

At the end of the day, that’s a good rule of thumb to follow. Remain skeptical of claims until the person making those claims comes up with evidence that supports those claims. Then, only accept that evidence if it corroborates with other data that links persons or agencies to the crime. But, most importantly, be ready and willing to accept the truth whenever the truth is arrived at. That last bit is one of the most important, and one of the most often forgotten, because we all hate to be proven wrong, even when we say that we’d be ready to give up the ghost if we were shown to be in the wrong.

Boston Marathon and Conspiracy Theories

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Last week, according to the evidence that’s available at hand, a pair of Chechen immigrants (who, once again, according to the available evidence, both emigrated to America legally) used several bombs to attack spectators and runners in the Boston Marathon. Three people are, as a direct result, dead and many more are injured. We have since captured one of the bombers while the other was killed in their attempted apprehension.

All’s well that ends well, right? Unfortunately, there are certain elements in our society that will seize on anything in order to either pursue an agenda or to make a few dollars off of the credulous. Alex Jones is precisely one such person.

Mere moments after the attacks, he was using his Twitter account to espouse theories on what was ‘really’ going on, when there was little to no information available. This is irresponsible at best and destructive at worst. I try my best to take people at their words and believe what they’re saying as being their genuine thoughts and values. When it comes to people like Alex Jones, I really can’t do any such thing. He’s made a very successful career out of sewing discord, enmity and distrust by making incredibly paranoid and totally invalid opinions readily available to people who are ready, willing and openly desirous of having those opinions fed to them.

As I’ve said in previous postings, I love conspiracy theories. The reason why I love them so much is because of the opportunity that they present to learn more about how the world works. Take, for instance, the 9/11 Attacks and the conspiracy theories that surround it (theories that I won’t dignify by referring to them as they want to be, with the word ‘Truth’ attached). These theories operate on people not understanding the entire attacks, or being too ready to seize upon an anti-government mindset rather than being willing to suspend an opinion until they’ve weighed up all of the facts. Since researching the conspiracy theories that surround 9/11 I have learned quite a bit more about engineering, psychology and physics than I had before. It’s actually an incredibly interesting line of inquiry, if you’re willing to have some of your pre-existing opinions challenged.

That really isn’t the case when it comes to the Boston attacks, where the conspiracy theories rely on people already having an overwhelming sense of suspicion about everything that surrounds them. These conspiracy theories rely on people being ready to leap to conclusions and then rejecting any sort of evidence after having arrived at that conclusion. This is because there is no direct evidence, or any other kind of evidence, that lends their theories any sort of credence. These theories are built around drills being conducted in the area as well the presence of trained professionals at the site. From these facts, we then make any number of assumptions to then arrive at a conclusion that isn’t supported by any facts. As a rule, when it comes to critical thinking, we have to outright reject any sort of theory that requires us to make any assumptions, not just assumptions that aren’t supported by any facts. This is what’s required as magical thinking, where a theory starts with evidence A, adds it to assumption B to arrive at conclusion C. For instance. I go out to a restaurant and order a hamburger. I didn’t see the hamburger made in the kitchen, but the hamburger is in front of me. I walked into the restaurant with a conclusion that food that’s served at the restaurant is beamed into the kitchen from a flying saucer that has avoided detection. So, I have my conclusion (C), and then I get my burger (A), which I make my assumption about (B). Once I’ve formed that line of reasoning, even if I’m showed the kitchen, there are any number of justifications that I can make that will continue to support my unsupportable theory.

Now, the rejoinder to my thinking will of course be, “What’s the harm?” This is often said whenever anyone tries to debunk or dispel any sort of subject whose harmful consequences are not readily apparent (opposition to inoculations, astrology and homeopathy being three good examples). This is usually because we give an air of credence to any party that seems to be in an underdog position, because we don’t see a ready reason for why people would run contrary to the ‘official story’ if they weren’t right, or if there wasn’t an aura of truth to what they’re saying. The problem could run from feeding into a conspiratorial mindset that could then lead to disastrous consequences to people being swindled out of money. But sometimes the harm could be as simple as someone suspending their rational judgment to believe something that has no empirical evidence to support it. Whenever we suspend our rational judgment, we run the risk of that suspension forming a pattern that could be hard to break out of. Once you’ve started down the path of assuming something that we have no reason to assume, it becomes easier to continue to do that until we only have a passing relationship with reality.

Generally speaking, a doss of healthy skepticism and an incredulous mindset towards ideas and concepts that have no support will never lead you astray. After all, the real world is already a fabulous place to live in, and anything that expects you to believe ridiculous things will detract from your ability to absorb the wonder and the mystery of that real world.

Accountability

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One of the key issues in genuine school reform is the question of accountability as it applies to both students and teachers. It isn’t enough that a student is said to have learned something, it’s that the student is capable of applying and demonstrating that knowledge. Likewise, it isn’t enough for a teacher to say that they have taught a student something, it has to be proved that the teacher taught the student. With this in mind, the larger question is how do we hold both subjects, the teacher and the student, accountable?

Standardized testing has been the norm, and will continue to be the norm, and it carries with it a fair amount of problems that I believe are, at best difficult to address and at worst, impossible to address. The largest problem as it applies to teachers and to administrators is making a test that is equitable, which is to say, a test that every student in the district is capable of passing in an ideal situation.

So, take the best possible teacher. The teacher is capable of doing their absolute best for every student that they take in. The problem comes in when you accept that every student, regardless of district, comes from a very complicated set of circumstances. There is not going to be a single student in any district that can go through grades k-12 without any difficulties or problems, and is going to be able to apply themselves one hundred percent of the time, which is basically what standardized testing demands of students. This is the main problem with tests as they apply from the top to the bottom: that they are, basically, a rolling pin that goes over every student in an attempt to flatten them all out into a uniform shape. This is not possible.

Along with this comes the concept of competition being built into the structure of schools. Some will say that this is a positive, but this is mainly because the concept of competition is taken, prima facie (at first sight), to be a positive in American society. The problem with this is that, in any competition no matter how it’s constructed, there are going to be winners and losers. Lets use baseball as an example. On one hand, we have the New York Yankees. The Yankees are, historically, the team that is most able to gather the money to get the best teams, the best trainers and the best field. On the other hand, we take a team like the Angels, a team that is going to be able to gather a fair amount of money that can then be used to get a fairly good team, with fairly good trainers and a fairly good field. There’s going to be pretty good competition between the two teams, but the Yankees will have the advantage over the Angels more often than not and the Angels are going to lose more to the Yankees because of this advantage more often than not. And this is fine when it comes to baseball, because, despite how seriously some fans take the game, at the end of the day, it’s still just a game. When we start talking about education, we’re no longer talking about something frivolous. We’re talking about a situation that is deadly serious.

Using the baseball metaphor, we have school districts that are wealthy and school districts that are poor. The wealthy school districts, because of No Child Left Behind, are only going to continue to get as much funding as they possibly can, while the poor districts are going to continue to lose funding. Because of this, the wealthy school districts are going to be able to get better teachers, better facilities and are going to have a greater advantage over the poor districts that are not going to be able to get the best teachers or facilities. And, because of NCLB, the test scores are going to mean that, with every testing period, the wealthy districts will receive more funding and the poor districts will receive less.

So, the question then becomes, what are we to do? Unfortunately, individual citizens don’t really have that much power anymore (as was demonstrated this week with the failure of the gun control bill with a background check that enjoys more support among the citizenry than nearly any other factor of daily life). But, in an ideal world, the solution is fairly simple and fairly clean cut.

One of the ideas that’s sweeping across the country is electronic portfolios. Students upload their school work onto this portfolio, take tests and do other required school work on these portfolios that are then kept throughout their career in school. Now, as I’ve said in the past, greater reliance on technology is highly problematic when it comes to public education. However, when applied in the way that I’m suggesting, with in-class exams, school work and essays, this approach can be applied in an equitable way that can be used by nearly any student in nearly any school in nearly any district. This is not a perfect solution, but no solution is.

Portfolios have the advantage over standardized tests because it approaches every student as individual human beings, as opposed to merely numbers that are then entered into a system. These individuals are then measured in the way that individuals are usually measured: they get better over time, or they get worse over time, and there are attendant reasons that go along with that improvement or failure. Their improvement or failure doesn’t simply appear out of nowhere, but can be measured against other data as it appears in the system. This data is then made available to administration, teachers and other such figures in the district. And, because nearly every assignment is then entered into the system, the students are made accountable for their school work, and the teachers can follow-up as required with school work and other such assignments until those assignments are completed.

Not only is this a much more equitable way to approach school work, but it’s also a much less time consuming and much more affordable approach as well. Teachers will be able to devote more time to instruction and have more freedom over curriculum. In general, it’s a situation in which nearly all individuals in question win. It’s the solution that, at least to me, stands the best chance at actually turning out the desired end: every student having an equal chance at success.

Like Castles Made of Sand

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One of the realities of being alive is that death is an eventuality. Over each of our shoulders looms the spectre that will some day come for us all. Despite our growing comprehension of life extension, this is something that is an absolute certainty. Whether it’s five minutes, five days, five months or five hundred thousand years from now, each of us will die and a few generations past that time every bit of evidence of our lives (unless we are truly exceptional) will be erased.

Even beyond then, millions of years into the future, the Earth will eventually be destroyed by the expansion and death of the sun. After that, the galaxy Andromeda will collide with the Milky Way which will dissolve our current solar system as it exists after the death of the sun and billions of years after that will be the death of the universe itself. These are all certainties, and despite our growing grasp of scientific knowledge, there is precious little that we can do about any of these things. Death is a built-in part of life that we must all face sooner or later, with the only dignity available to most of us is being able to ward it off for as long as possible.

To this, I recommend that all of us consider the sand castle.

I grew up in Southern California, though I now live in Wisconsin. Every year, when I was little, my parents would take me to some fair or another and at most of these fairs would be these beautiful, intricately created sand castles. They were all enormous, and they would all be strikingly beautiful, with an unbelievable amount of effort put into them. I can still remember most of them quite vividly as they stood under the baking, California summer sun. These were always one of my favorite parts of going to these fairs, even if I wasn’t completely enamored with every other part of them.

Despite the fact that these construction projects were built miles inland and far away from the ocean, eventually they will be destroyed. Sure, there will be pictures of them, but those pictures will be totally forgotten sooner or later. They’ll vanish and there will be nothing left of them aside from fleeting memories that will also be gone in a few fleeting moments. And what of it? What of their temporary states?

Life is brief, but it’s that very briefness that makes it as beautiful as it is. If life was eternal, there would be no urgency to anything. What would it matter if I get my degree in a month or a million months from now? The transitory nature of these things is what makes them so beautiful, so shocking in their current states. That’s what makes sand castles and ice sculptures so wonderful to look at, because we know that there is a built in expiration date to these things and that expiration date is fairly soon. We do what we can at the moment that we can, and if we hold on too tightly to the moment that we’re in, we’ll miss the next one.

If the sand sculptor held on too tightly to what they were doing, then it would never be created. That sculptor would never move a finger, because they would be transfixed with the knowledge that what they do is going to be erased in a few minutes and we would all be deprived of that wonderful sight that they could otherwise give us. So to is it with our lives. If we lament over eternity and if we despair at the transitory nature of our lives, then we will never actually live them.

So, I say, be like the ice and sand sculptor. Embrace the brevity of what we have and make something beautiful with it. After all, tomorrow it may be too hot for ice to stand for very long outside, or it may rain. Embrace the moment and forget about eternity.