Red On The Tip of My Pen

How well I could write if I were not here!

 

I don’t know how this happened. I think about it a lot. That gets me nowhere.

“I’m writing a new novel I’m really excited about,” I said to Maya on the phone the other day. That’s my mom. I call her Maya.

“Oh, great!” she said. “What’s it about?” I heard the apprehension in her voice. She knew what I was going to say.

“It’s a horror novel.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. You wouldn’t like it.”

“Right.”

“I don’t know where this comes from,” I said. “I never liked horror movies as a kid.”

“I know. That was your brother. Do you like them now?”

“Yeah. Kind of. I mean, I really like them. Some of them. It’s weird.”

“You’re weird,” she said, with the kind of unconditional affection wrapped in mild insult that is the hallmark of mothers everywhere. At least, the good ones.

As an adult, I love horror movies, but it was a long time coming. I’ve loved horror fiction for a long time, but something about movies put me off. I remember sitting in the finished basement where I spent almost all of the free hours of my childhood. My brother and I were both stuffed on the love seat with the brown flower pattern that used to be my grandmothers, watching our tiny TV. Mostly it got used for Sega Genesis games and Saved By The Bell after school, but it was the weekend, and either it was my brother’s turn or I didn’t have a game I was playing. He had the remote, and he flipped from channel to channel.

He stopped on a shot of a boy with wide eyes. Creepy music in the background.

“Change it,” I said. “This looks stupid.” He didn’t change it. An awful owl puppet showed up on screen, and something scary happened.

“Ooo, a bad horror movie,” my brother said. “I love bad horror movies.”

“I’m going outside.”

I didn’t love bad horror movies. I still don’t. I love good ones. But not all of them. When I talk to people about horror or browse horror websites like Bloody Disgusting I feel alienated. Because I love scary. I love creepy. I crazy love unsettling.

But I don’t like gore. Blood and guts both disgust and bore me. They’re supposed to do one, but not so much the other. Furthermore, I don’t even understand why people find them appealing. I mean that literally. I consider myself highly empathetic, and I don’t bat an eye at the fact people have different preferences than me. I don’t like raw onions, but it’s not weird that other people do. They have a different mind, different senses, different reactions to the same stimuli. So I accept that people dig sprays of blood on the screen. I’m just not sure why.

It’s more true for me than it is for other genres I don’t like. I’m not a fan of romantic comedies, but I completely grasp their appeal. Human connection, the fantasy of idealized romance, the warm, beautiful feeling that real love is out there, possible, never even that far away. But with gore? I just don’t get it.

Which makes the next part weird. This novel I’m writing, that one my mother will be sad that she can’t read if it somehow gets published? It’s pretty gory. There’s blood. There flesh flying off of people’s faces and splatting against the wall. At some point, someone’s head pops clean off and lands amidst a pile of Doritos. I’m less than 10,000 words in. And my other novel? That was pretty gory, too.

It’s not that I hate blood and guts. Not enough to turn me off of a horror story or movie that otherwise appeals to me. Sometimes it’s even the whole point, but everything else is so conceptually interesting or well written that I love it anyway. Kill Bill is one of my favorite movies. One of my favorite short stories is Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train, which is not about cooking steaks on an electrified third rail. Although I should totally write that story.

When I read bloody, visceral descriptions of blood and viscera, I always wonder what the writer is thinking. Do they find this kind of thing appealing? Are the just totally unfazed by it? I used to think the answer had to be yes. Now I’m not so sure. Because I don’t find it appealing, and I am definitely fazed by it. But not while I’m writing.

I’ve noticed that my brain sometimes writes jokes I find distasteful for demographics I don’t identify with. The frattiest of frat boys, or the reddest of rednecks. Jokes I think would be legitimately funny to people in those groups, but that I don’t find amusing at all. Maybe generative creativity goes isn’t about the appeal to the brain that generates it. Maybe writers don’t always write for themselves, but for the ages.

Or in this case, ages 13-17, mostly male, parental permission required for entry.

 

Thinking About My Dad

Sunset

I don’t think about my dad that much, these days. I don’t know if that’s sad, or healthy, or both. I can bring him up in a conversation with my mom and it doesn’t make us both sad. There’s a moment where I worry that it will, because I remember when I could hear the tears in her eyes over the phone whenever I mentioned him.

I could bring up some funny memory, and we might both laugh, but the tears were there. The moment fogged with a dull blue. It didn’t ruin it. She didn’t burst into sobs. But they were there. And I felt a strange thing in my chest. Something like longing, something like hopelessness, something like desperation. A hand, tightly grasping just above my heart, slightly to the left.

It’s a feeling I get when I think about things that were beautiful but now are gone forever. It could be a person, or it could be the ruins of a castle in the mist. The part of me that exists only to laugh and hurt doesn’t know the difference.

That doesn’t happen any more. Now we can talk about him like something from the past. I don’t know when that happened. I think it’s probably a good thing because it means there is less pain. I have enough pain in my world. Everyone does, and my mother has far more than her fair share.

We can talk and laugh about the dumb jokes he used to tell, mention things he enjoyed, bring up a saying that he used to say—and he had a million of them—and it’s just like talking about anything else in the world that isn’t around anymore. Joe DiMaggio. The Roman Empire. My great grandmother.

Just another thing, and if there is pain, it is the memory of a sting. I can feel how it used to hurt, and that feeling is still unpleasant just like any unpleasant memory. But it doesn’t hurt anymore. Not really. It doesn’t burn. That’s probably better. I think it has to be better.

I know that, but right now, right here, soaking in the thoughts and memories, I’m not so sure. I feel some strange ache, impossible to describe because it lives in the same places as other things that shouldn’t be real because they don’t make sense. It can’t be a bad thing that I can think about my dad without hurting inside. It means that I’ve let go of the hurt. Let go of the pain. But the problem is that once you let something go, you don’t have it anymore.

Things that only live in the past don’t hurt. You can’t get cut by a knife you haven’t had since you moved away from your childhood house and didn’t take it with you. The things that still hurt do so because never move into the past. They’re still inside of you right now. Still living, still breathing, still edged. Some people have jagged fragments of memory that flow through their bloodstream and never stop cutting them. They spend all of their time bleeding. But that’s not the past. Just because something happened a long time ago doesn’t mean it has passed. Not for you. Not if it still cuts you. Not if it’s still sharp.

The opposite of sharp is dull. When an image is dull, you can’t make out its features. My memories of my dad can’t cut me, anymore. Not most of the time. But that means they’re losing their edges. Losing their clarity. When someone won’t move on from the death of the loved one even though it hurts them, they know this. Inside of them, they know this. To lose the pain is to lose the immediacy. The now-nesses of it. If someone can still hurt you that means they are still in your life. They still exist. They aren’t just a series of photographs, a little more faded with each year.

And they still have cancer. And you still get that phone call at work telling you that, despite the fact that you thought he was getting better, your father is dead. It happens so quickly that it’s hard to believe. He seemed fine when you saw him a month and a half ago. Too skinny, unable to eat very much, but fully himself.

Fully alive, and fully able to complain that he can’t eat bbq ribs with everyone else, but with that amazing and effortless humility that someone makes the rest of us feel okay eating them in front of him. You can live in the happy memories as much as you want, but if you want him to still be here, still in your life, then you have to relive that phone call. Over and over again.

Nothing is ever all good or all bad. There is no way to move on without giving something up. Everything we do means we didn’t get to do all the other things we could have done. It’s a cliché to say that loss is important because it makes way for new things.

New things are important. Moving past pain and tragedy and sadness are important. But so is remembering. And if the full memory–the rich and intense and sensory memory where our loved ones are, for a few impossible moments, still with us—if that memory is painful, then pain is important, too.

If living without the sadness of my dad’s loss means thinking about him less, then that’s what I’m going to do. But if the only way to feel him still in my life is to sometimes leap into that pool of sadness and let it soak into my clothes and weigh me down for a while, then I’m going to do that, too. I never want the pain to go away completely, because I never want to lose him completely.

Sometimes I have to hear his laughter and see that goofy grin and feel my own tears sting my eyes because he’s there in front of me right now, but I can’t touch him. It means the pain will never be gone. Not completely. But then, neither will he. He will never be just a photograph.

What Our Worlds Teach Us

Circle

We become what the loom of time and causality around us weaves us into. We can only interact with the world that we can see, that we can touch, that can cut against both our flesh and our conceptions, and make them bleed. We develop the reactions, instincts, beliefs, and worldviews that this world demand, and we act accordingly. We do this because to do otherwise would make us useless, or worse, mad. We do this to survive. All of this applies full well to my call center job at the cell phone company. Also, I’ve been reading a lot of Lovecraft.

At the most basic level, any job we take or social circles we move in require not only their own rule of behavior and action to be successful, but also their own coping mechanisms. You either develop them or you don’t move very well in those worlds. They make for the weirdo stories that populate the pages of the internet that collect those kind of weirdo stories. All professions have their fair share, but customer service oriented fields seem to produce them with gusto. Likely because CS involves dealing with a lot of humans. And humans are, taken in mass, pretty special.

As you can imagine, being a CS rep for a cell phone company involves listening to a lot of complaints. Whatever the flavor, they require the same kind of mental toughness and framing skills to handle. A lot of the complaints are a legitimate. Those are tough, especially when we can’t help. Some of them are so wacky they are almost difficult to believe. Sometimes, those are tougher, even when it only takes five minutes of distance to realize that they are also hilarious. And sometimes it is difficult to tell which category they fall into. Like today, for example, when a woman told me that by doing my job, I was going to kill her baby.

“Can I have your first and last name please?”

“Nicole Jenkins,” she said. Obviously I’m making this up, partially to protect her identity and partially because I don’t remember. I could tell just from her name that she was tense. Something you learn how to do, if you stay in this kind of job too long.

“What can I help you with today Nicole?”

“I need to transfer my number, or else get my own fucking account.”

Terrific. Excellent start.

Her line was suspended, which means it wasn’t currently working. I also saw that she wasn’t an authorized user on the account, which meant there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. She couldn’t make changes, or get much information. I knew I had to tell her that, and I knew she would yell at me. But I also knew that I was protected from the consequences of her anger by that favorite shield of both corporate employees and war criminals the world over. I was just doing my job. It diffuses a surprising amount of tension. From my end. Not so much the customer’s.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but without seeing you as an authorized user, I can’t transfer the service. I would have to get authorization from the account manager. I can reach out to them, if you want.”

“It’s my fucking boyfriend,” she said, “and he removed me from the account.”

“Geez, that is really rough.”

“Yeah it’s fucking rough! Can I move my damn number? I want to transfer the service. I want to transfer the service to my own line. Under my name.”

“Ugh. I really wish I could do that for you,” I said, and I meant it. I think people can hear that in my voice, most of the time. Not so much this time. “But legally speaking the number is under his account and so you can’t remove it onto your own without his authorization.”

“This is a domestic violence situation!” she screamed. “There is a domestic violence order against him!”

“Oh geez,” I said again. “That’s awful. Listen, there might be a stipulation about that in our policy. I am so sorry about this, the whole thing sounds really awful. Let me put you on old for a minute and see what I can find. Is that okay?”

“Fine.”

I took a look. I didn’t find anything. I reached out for held to see if anyone else knew anything, even though by that point I was fairly certain that if there was some kind of exception to the rules, which there sometimes is for domestic violence, I would have found it. My support person confirmed this, but explained that we have other channels for this kind of situation. It was good advice.

“Hi, Nicole?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you so much for holding, I’ve looked into to this to try to see what we can do. I can’t do the transfer from my end, because like I said from our end the line legally belongs to him. But we do know that awful stuff like this happens, and we have a team that works with law enforcement in situations like this. You’re going to have to go through the police or through your legal representation, and they can contact our team and see how we get this done for you.”

“I need my phone working!” she said. “I have an eight month old baby! I need my phone!”

“I really, really feel for you here,” I said. And I did.

“Fine!” she shrieked. “If my baby dies tonight, that’s on you!” She hung up. If phones could still slam, she would have slammed it.

I was shaken. I don’t know why not having a phone would kill her baby, but getting accused of infanticide is not the highlight of my day. I took myself out of available status and sat there trying to collect myself.

In that moment, just before she hung up, if I could have bypassed the rules for her, I would have. Which is exactly why they don’t let me do things like that. I had no way of verifying her story or even her identity, and scammers and identity thieves know that suckers like me work in customer service.

I told myself this, and I started to feel better. I told the story to some of my coworkers, and they agreed I’d done the right thing and the woman was being unreasonable, even if she was telling the truth. What else was I supposed to do?
And that’s all true, but this isn’t about policy. It’s not about whether or not I did the right thing or if I could have done anything else. It’s about how very easy it was for me to recover. It’s about all of the support and mechanism the world I work in gives me to move past even a situation like a woman accusing me of murdering her child. It is easier for me now than it would have been a few months ago. I imagine it will only get easier. Just ten minutes after that call, my main worry was that she would fail me on a customer satisfaction survey. But it was a minor worry. If she did, I could probably get it thrown out.

The Weird One

Headphones

Another 37, Day 27

The girl who wears the pink jacket. In my head I call her the Weird Girl. She used to sleep in alcove at the bottom of the stairs where they put in a couple of leather couches in an attempt to make our breaks more comfortable. Upstairs in the break room it kind of works. But the alcove is a strange spot; employees are always rushing through there on their way to and from places, and every entrance to the alcove comes from a blind spot.

When I see people there, which I usually do, it always feels like they’ve just jumped out at me. Jumped out and then sat perfectly still. I know it’s not just me. I get the same kind of looks from passersby when I sit there. “Where the hell did you come from?” Adding the couches ramped this effect up, and so it made the alcove, if anything, more uncomfortable.

Weird Girl used to sleep down there before her shift. Her shift is the same as mine: ungodly early. The couches are soft and spacious. They would make a lot more sense in the champagne room of a strip club that wasn’t quite nice enough to have a champagne room. I wonder if that’s where they came from. They look pretty new. She used to sleep in the morning on the couches, and so did I. I still do, sometimes, but I choose the break room. The lighting is better, and the couches are off in a corner. It’s much better.

Weird Girl was always the only one down in the alcove in the morning. There are two couches down there. The other one was always open. I passed it by and slept upstairs. Upstairs was prime real estate, and those couches were sometimes taken by the time I got there. Sometimes someone was sleeping, and sometimes, much, much worse, people were talking loudly. Too early for that. If the upstairs couches were occupied I’d sit at one of the dining tables. But they were uncomfortable, and that early I have no patience for anything.

So one day  I decided to sleep downstairs. In the alcove. With Weird Girl. I went down and there she was, just an enormous, puffy pink jacket covering up her tiny, sleeping form. I laid down on the adjacent couch and closed my eyes. That’s when she started snoring. The moment I laid down, making just enough noise for her to notice. The snores were loud, and inconsistent in that way that makes it impossible to get used to. I stubbornly put it up with it for for about three minutes before I could no longer stand it. I got up and went upstairs. I don’t know for sure if she was doing it deliberately. But I don’t know her, and so I’m free from the burdens of empathy and familiarity that bind me from seeing her as a complete person. And so I decide to believe she did it on purpose, to drive me away. It worked.

That was months ago. Weird Girl doesn’t wear the puffy pink jacket anymore. She ditched it for one much more dignified, even before it got warm. I’ve heard her speak a lot more. She doesn’t sleep in the mornings anymore. Maybe she gets there later. She also doesn’t sit alone in the lunchroom anymore. Not every day, at least. She’s made a group of lunch friends.

I haven’t. I’ve made some friends on the floor, but I don’t eat with any of them. There are a few large groups of people who all eat together and have lively conversations. I don’t know whether or not I’m envious of them. I tell myself I’m not, that I’d rather take time during lunch away from people to do some reading. I do treasure that time. On the other hand, I know myself. I know that I come alive in groups of friends sitting around, discussing nothing, laughing and making them laugh. The time would go too quickly, but maybe I’d treasure it. I haven’t tried to make those friends.

Instead I sit alone, listening to my audiobooks with my enormous headphones. The kind that make you look isolated and ridiculous. And I eat my strange little bowls of meat and veggies from home, and when I’m done I rinse out the ceramic bowls in the sink and plunk them down in my bag. When I walk back to the floor it sounds like I’m carrying dishware around in a reusable grocery bag through the halls, because that’s exactly what I’m doing. And I still sleep on the couch in the morning. For a while I didn’t, but I’m back to it now. I pull my hood over my face and try not to give dirty looks to anyone who comes in and turns on the light. The light needs to be turned on eventually.

I know that these strangers who I see every day but have never spoken to have an impression of me. That’s what people do. It could be anything, free as it is from the restraints of empathy and familiarity that would make them think of me as anything but a feature of the environment. A semi-fictional character in the backdrop of their own story, who can be extrapolated as much as he needs to be from the obvious traits. What’s the harm in that? It’s what we do.

Some of them probably think of me as Headphone Guy. The headphones probably make me look strange, with my sweatshirt full of tissues, and the way that sometimes when I haven’t shaved in a day or two some tissue fibers stick to the bristles under my nose without my realizing they’re there. Maybe some of them think of me as the Weird Guy. The guy who does Tai Chi in the middle of the break room seems to know and say hi to more of them than I do, so if there has to be a Weird Guy, it could certainly be me.

Does that make me uncomfortable? Do I care? Honestly, I have no idea.

Why You Should Get Mad At Customer Service

Customer services

Another 37, Day 26

You just got your bill in the mail, and the company screwed you. I mean, really screwed you. There are hundreds of dollars of charges here that you never made. The bill is complicated, but you’ve spent some time with it and you’re confident it’s the company’s fault. You are mad as hell, and you’re for damn sure going to get to the bottom of this. You call up customer service. A young woman with a pleasant voice answers the phone, and asks how she can help you. You are ready to yell. You don’t want to yell. You hate to yell. But this is a problem, and you’re ready to do it.

Except you don’t. Because she’s so nice. Because she’s doing her best to help you out, within her limited abilities. Because it isn’t her fault that the company screwed you. You shouldn’t be taking it out on her. You’ll feel terrible. It’s the damn company fat cats, the ones who designed the crappy system to screw customers like you. They’re the ones you should be yelling at. That would be fair. That would be just. You should call them up and yell at them directly. So…good luck with that.

I work in customer service myself, and I deal with a lot of what we call “escalated calls.” Plenty of customers call in angry, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for crazy reasons that only exist in their mind-bubble. If you listen to CS reps talk, it sounds like all of the customers are nuts and just calling in to whine in about invented problems. Some of them are, of course, but not most of them. CS reps talk like that because humans love to bitch in the break room; it’s one of the ways we bond. But there’s another reason. A subtler and more insidious reason: We are trained to think like that. It happens at every level, from initial training, to the company guidelines on how to deal with people, to the way our supervisors guide us to deal with escalations. It is all a way to teach us that, as much as possible, these problems are the customer’s responsibility.

One of the main things we like to bitch about is customers who get angry at us. “Why the hell is this vitriol directed at me?” we ask. Don’t these customers recognize that this is not my fault, that I just work here and I’m just trying to help? I used to feel that way. It’s hard not to, especially when you get the nastier callers who seem to blame you for ruining their lives, and are not afraid to use highly colorful language about your bodily orifices to make this point.

But eventually it hit me. Yes, it’s not fair for customers to the hourly working just trying to pay their bills on the other end of the line for an overcharge by a Fortune 500 megacorp. But on the other hand, we are their point of contact for the company. Who the hell else are they going to blame? The people actually responsible are never, ever going to talk to them. This is not a coincidence.

My particular Customer Service Superpower—and every good rep has one—is that people find it difficult to get or stay mad at me. Even when they are clearly upset or aggravated I can almost always calm them down. I think it’s because I never sound upset or frustrated with them. It stems back to this over-developed set of empathy that, like most things, is an advantage and a disadvantage. Even when a person is clearly in the wrong I’m almost certainly going to sympathize with them, and if comes across in my voice. So many times I’ve heard people say, “I’m angry, but I know this isn’t your fault. I’m not blaming you.”

The thing is, human brains don’t divide things up very well. If you are talking to someone about an issues that upsets you but the person makes you feel calm and comfortable, you can’t help but feel calmer and more comfortable about the issue. It’s a variant on the halo effect, and it’s the same reason attractive people are better at selling real estate. Objectively the 5 bedroom colonial doesn’t have fewer plumbing problems when presented by Sexy Rita than it does with Ugly Joe. But Sexy Rita puts you in a better mood, so the problems won’t seem so bad. This effect has been thoroughly tested both in laboratories and in the field, and is extraordinarily robust. It doesn’t mean that your free will is somehow stripped away. But there’s a measurable influence.

When it comes to customer service, it means that that friend representative who is discussing those nasty charges but whom you don’t want to take it out on is manipulating you. She probably doesn’t mean to. Honestly there’s a good chance she has your best interests at heart, to the extent that she can while also keeping her job and doing her best for her employers. But the very fact that she calms you down, that you recognize her as a human being with feelings who is just a small part of an unfeeling machine, makes you less likely to fight for what you deserve from the company.

Right now, if you consider yourself a good person who is nice to service people, the idea that you should be willing you yell at them might be making you uncomfortable. That’s a good sign as to your humanity. On behalf of customer service representatives everywhere, I assure you that we highly and sincerely appreciate it.

And our bosses? They appreciate it even more.

The Dragons of Our Imagination

Dragon

Another 37, Day 21

A little boy stands on a mound of dirt at the edge of the park. It’s near dusk, and the trees and the fence posts make shadow puppets with the light of the setting sun. The boy’s arms are spread out, and he whirls around the mound like he’s flying. He runs up the side, then races back down down. His movements have a child’s fluidity, lacking effort, lacking grace. It’s too chaotic to be a dance, too wild to be a practice. I know exactly what he’s doing, because I did it a thousand times. At one point he jumps off and chops at the air with a “ha!” I smile, and I hope whatever dragon or manticore or fiend of the lower air he’s fighting, it’s finally been slain.

I recognize this boy because I was exactly like him when I was small. I found the world boring. But I was never bored. Reality was thin and dry and so often tasteless, but the multiverse inside my imagination went on forever. I’m an adult, now, but I haven’t really changed. I can no longer rush around a featureless patch of ground and stay entertained for hours fighting the chimeras of my fancies. Mounds of dirt are no longer enough for me, and I am bored much more easily. But I haven’t really changed. I still will rarely choose the straight path to reality when there is a door into the fantastic just off to the left, even if the door isn’t really there. And I’m not alone. I’m part of a generation who, in this way at least, never grew up.

I think I was a fairly extreme example, but you only need to look to the most popular media to see the truth. Once upon a time fantasy stories were the exception. In the media that saturated my world growing up there was an assumption that mostly everything took place on boring old earth and followed the mundane rules. There were plenty of exceptions, of course. But they felt like exceptions.

Not anymore. We’re surrounded by fantasy. We’re soaking in it. To take the most obvious example, big blockbuster movies that don’t have a supernatural or super science element are nearly nonexistent these days. The days of Speed and Die Hard 3 as the big events is over. Now we have Lord of the Rings and The Avengers. The most popular drama on television is full of swords and kings and dragons.

There is something deep here that speaks to the worldview of my generation and the ones after us, now that I’m old enough to put an “s” on the generations after me, and people my age run an awful lot of society. Something deep that is not entirely obvious.

“People like fantasy” is the common explanation, or else the even more glib, “Um…have you heard of Star Wars?” These explanations aren’t wrong, but they also aren’t complete. What does it take to enjoy fantasy, fully and completely? Why is it that this was not always the case, and why is it true now?

First and foremost, it requires a specific trait. A trait that has no name. If you don’t possess this trait you might enjoy fantasy, but you will always prefer realistic fiction because you can never take fantasy seriously.

When I say “seriously,” this doesn’t mean that the work in question needs to be somber, or serious, or Profound. I just mean that it is capable of saying something worth saying, something meaningful. You can watch a well regarded superhero film such as Captain America: Winter Soldier and enjoy it a lot, but depending on your worldview, and whether or not you possess the all important trait in question, you might have one of the following reactions:

1: Winter Soldier was a fun summer popcorn flick that I enjoyed very much for its spectacle, its witty dialogue, and its non-stop thrills.
2: Winter Soldier was a fun summer spectacle that was also a surprisingly effective political thriller that made some interesting points about corruption in politics.

The trait is sometimes called suspension of disbelief. That’s part of it, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Someone without this unnamed trait can enjoy a movie like Winter Soldier, but cannot regard it as meaningful or relevant to the real world because there are people in costume with superpowers. These things are unrealistic and objectively ridiculous, and that rules it out as something serious.

On the other hand, someone with the trait doesn’t feel, emotionally or intellectually, that costumes and superpowers rule out the ability of a work of fiction to be meaningful. The suspension of disbelief allows you to engage with a story despite crazy and impossible happenings, but it isn’t enough to take it seriously. It takes more.

I’ve always had this trait, and so many of my peers possess it. Honestly I have trouble talking about media with anyone who doesn’t. Growing up it was a problem for me, because so little of the entertainment world felt satisfying. There was plenty of fantasy fiction out there, but only the occasional film and very, very little television.

Now we have an enormous amount because so much of the audience possesses this trait. We are capable of taking a story about elves fighting orcs just as seriously as a story about cocaine smuggling. And in some ways, that is a terrible place to be. Because if the trait burns strongly enough within you, you start to crave fantasy. Because inside fantasy the possibilities are endless, and the story-space is enormous.

Whether it be a love story or a spy story or a slice of teenage life, I am far more likely to get bored if it follows the mundane rules. Why would anything be so limited? It’s like painting with only two colors. Cooking with only two flavors. I look at the world this way because I have this trait. I don’t know that it’s better to be this way. Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t. I’m not interested in putting a judgement on it.

But you can only understand the state of modern media if you understand this trait. If you assume that it is escapism or a love of kid’s stuff, you don’t understand it. Escapism does come into play, but no more than with any form of entertainment. If you think Lord of the Rings is escapism but not Shakespeare, or The Godfather, or a night drinking wine and eating expensive food, then you don’t really know what escapism is.

As for kid’s stuff, it used to be that kids were the only ones who had time for imagination. Once you grew up you had to ditch all of that and get down to the business of life. We don’t live in that world anymore. Maybe it’s because we are collectively wealthier. Maybe it’s because we have a lot more time on our hands. The point is, we no longer have to give up the world of imagination.

There was an unspoken assumption growing up that eventually I’d grow out of fantasy and superheroes. I hated the idea, and when I reached a certain age I noticed that there was no pressure to do so. No one was forcing me, and what’s more, everyone I knew felt the same way. We discovered that we could play Dungeons and Dragons and talk endlessly about Batman and still pay bills, drive cars, have kids, and run companies.

So we didn’t give up our imaginations, nor did we tame them. We can no longer entertain ourselves with a mound of dirt. Now, we have to write about our dragons. We have to draw them and render them in CG fighting movie stories for all the world to see. And now that we can, the dragons aren’t going anywhere.

The Meditation Clock

energy place

Another 37, Day 18

Take a deep breath. Feel how the air fills your lungs and expands your chest. It is better to breathe with your abdomen than your chest, but don’t worry about that now. This moment is about awareness. The sensations of your body, and all that you feel and observe around you. Good. Now let the breath out. Don’t try to control it. Just allow it to flow out of you like water. Feel the way you vibrate with the exhalation. If thoughts arise in your mind do not judge them. Just watch them from a distance, uninvolved. Let them pass away.

Good. Now take in the next breath, and let it out. Just like this. Your thoughts will come, but they do not define you. Do not follow them, but do not worry if you have walked a few steps up that path. Just gently return to your center, to your breath. There is only your breath, and there is only this moment. Breathe in, then breathe out.

Good. Now check the time. It’s important to know exactly how much time you have left in the meditation. No, don’t worry about your breath. You can get back to that in a moment. Your breath isn’t going anywhere. Just open your eyes and look. Go ahead. Just check the time. It’ll only take a second.

No, wait, never mind. Don’t do that. It’s not important. There is no time. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed. There is only the moment. Only the breath. Right here, right now. Breathe in, breathe out. This is perfection. It is never far away, only you stand between yourself and the tranquility of emptiness. Take the next breath, then let it out. There is nothing but the next breath. No you, no self, no time. Good.

Speaking of time, you’d probably better take a look and see how much time has passed. It won’t take more than a second. Less than that, even. Light moves so quickly, and the optical systems in your brain are very fast. Just flit your eyes open for a fraction of a moment. Your phone and its timer app are right there. You won’t need to worry about it for very long, then you can get back to the breath thing, which is what is really important. Listen, you are not going to stop thinking about this until you do it. Just take a look. What can it hurt? You’re won’t be able to meditate proper until you do it. You know this. You might as well give in.

No, no, no, that’s no good. This is a willpower exercise as much as anything. What does it say if you can’t make it through just a few minutes without consulting a clock? Okay, that helps. Good, good. Now back to breathing. Let the breath in, feel how it suffuses your being. How you are the breath, and the breath is everything, and the breath is nothing.

What if the timer already went off but it didn’t make a sound? It’s happened before. It’s a cell phone app. It’s unreliable. Dammit, you shouldn’t have thought that. It works 99.99% of the time. Why did you have to go and think that? Now you have to open your eyes. You have to check. You’d feel like a jackass if you just sat there meditating for too long. Wait, no you wouldn’t. That would be fine. Just have a little faith. You always do this. You always worry about the time and it’s always fine. Just let it go. Just take a breath. Breath in, breath out. Good.

Okay, you’re not going to stop thinking about this. You only got two breaths in, that time. It’s getting worse. You’re going to have to give in pretty soon. You already know this. Look, you’ve put up a good fight. You’re no Shaolin master, here, but you’re on your way. Isn’t that half the reason you meditate, anyway? You think it’s going to give you superpowers? But a journey has to start somewhere, and you’re paying your dues. But you’re only human. For the moment. So just do it. Just open your eyes. Take a peek. Okay, you are doing it. You’re going to just do it. Right in, right out, get it over with. Are you doing this? Yes, you’re doing this. You’re just going to do it.

Oh holy Christmas in July, that feels so much better! That wasn’t such a big deal, was it? Now you know. It’s over and now you know.  You have five minutes and forty three seconds left. That’s not so bad. Now you don’t have to worry about the time anymore. You get to focus on your breath again, just like Buddha would probably tell if you if you were listening to one of his guided meditation videos. Breathe in the universe, breathe out the fickle illusion of your transient. Less than six minutes left. There’s no chance you’re going to worry about the time again. Not very much chance at all. Feel the way the air floods into your lungs, as if that is where it desires to be. Don’t worry about the time. You’ve totally got this. Just focus on your breath. There, just like that. Just like that. Good.