Friday, 27 September 2013

The Master of Puppets

If you are a Metallica fan, a heavy rock fan, or perhaps just well informed, you will be aware of the album Master of Puppets. If not, don't worry. All you need to know for now is this: Master of Puppets is an album written with a strong sense of human beings lost under the control of institutions that can inveigle them into doing things almost out of fanaticism. Last week I pondered over how the converted are the truest example of fanatics, be it through a religion, a political motive and movement or even a newfound social perspective. The revival of the spirit, and the overzealous determination to remain loyal to this new chapter in life. This chapter, which almost becomes a new life in itself, has been used as a plot in many films and pieces of fiction as way of showing that the new fascist movements, lethal drugs and radical religious sects that lead to harm in these works of the imagination are fundamentally charged with the wrong mindset: subjectivity.
            Interpreting something based upon personal opinions or feelings, and allowing your emotional reaction to, perhaps, cloud your judgement. As opposed to what? Objectivity, which is more likely to be interpretation based on facts or evidence.
            Emotional response and interaction towards something. This week, my favourite band, Dream Theater, released their new album, Dream Theater. Their twelfth studio album during a lifespan of over twenty years, the band chose this project to be their eponymous work of art, justifying the move by believing this album to epitomize everything they are about musically. Having been in the progressive rock game for over twenty years, it is hardly an ambitious move to self-title an album; at least, from the outside, I don't think so. What's more, I personally love Dream Theater. It is an album that has a strong feeling of maturity within it. The more progressive songs are just as complex in rhythm, technicality and interpretation as ever. The sound has a real sense of...puissance. The first time I fully heard the album, I was jarred by the clarity of each instrument despite the plethora of things going on. For me, it is a fantastic piece of art.
            Of course, that's my subjective opinion. Having read reviews of the album on Amazon and elsewhere, some listeners were equally impressed, some less so, and others called for returns to albums of Dream Theater's that are over ten years old.
            There isn't a single album of Dream Theater's which I don't like. The genre entices me and inspired me to look beyond this single band to many others. Yet, the genre itself, "progressive rock", which can be linked all the way back to Pink Floyd, Yes, Queensryche, Fates Warning and more, is a genre that, if embraced by somebody seeking to adopt certain tropes of it in one's own musical composition, requires a ubiquitous concept of "progression" from the first album's first song to the first album's last song and then onwards towards the last song one ever creates. There should almost be a hidden contract between the genre and the musician that the whole journey, however long and successful, be a progression. A chance to grow as a musician but also as a person. Surely it is natural, when younger, to write with more of a flair, more of a palpable energy and to see that flair slowly grow and finally burgeon into a maturity that feels more fully fledged. Youth and inchoateness VS age and fastidiousness. Life can be a journey "of self discovery", yes, but what does that mean? We can fill in certain blanks. Not all of them, because every day we choose one thing, we consequently sacrifice another option entirely, that is the natural course of life. We cannot ever be complete, I do not think, but we can become more refined the more we develop; the same concept, I feel, can naturally be applied to art: be it music, creative writing, painting, dancing, whatever. Practice makes...almost perfect.
            Occasionally, when we find ourselves overwhelmed by a love of say, a novel, we begin to see this object of our love as exemplary of what all creations of a similar nature should follow. Were that the case, a series of novels would never work. A discography of music wouldn't, either, I don't think. If you have a favourite series of novels, you will probably have a favourite individual novel in the series. Take Harry Potter; if your favourite was The Goblet of Fire, then fine. Great in fact. But just because the following three books aren't as good as that one in your mind doesn't mean you should be disappointed, does it? I suspect if you asked J.K. Rowling, she would be most focused on the story being complete within itself; the characters being true to who they are. Remember, to love The Goblet of Fire, you first had to read books 1,2 and 3. Equally, the music Dream Theater was creating in 1989, through to 2003, all the way to now, has been fantastic. Do I have a favourite album? Yes, Train of Thought, from 2003. Have I ever been disappointed about a later release? No. Why should I be? My favourite band is producing great music. If you try to write a new album with a specific aim of it being better than the previous one, you set yourself up for comparisons that can be, at best, satisfying, at worst, excoriation in its truest form. Plus, as I mentioned, to write anything progressive or epic is a journey that will never be the same at any moment, and that is when you find yourself.
            Subjectivity is often a hostage of desire. It is understandable, for it is a part of the human condition to have favourites. A favourite is something you can draw upon in your moment of need and feel safe with, feel comforted by, and believe once more in the purpose of us all. Art revitalises that purpose, it shows that every day, everywhere, musicians, writers, artists - they are all working their socks off producing constructs of the imagination that they have thoroughly enjoyed creating, and want to share with fans and the public. Sure, album ten might not be as heavy as album seven; yes, unfortunately book eight didn't see the effervescent character of book six survive the forces of darkness, but everything changes, doesn't it? To be invited on these journeys is to need to realise a pinch of objectivity is required. Life is a path: if you walk a little way, only to stay at a wayside inn for too long, you'll drink yourself into a stupor and never set out on the path again. Sure, the booze might taste great, but what about the rest of the path; what about the roads that are laid out and are rejected consequence of the alluring decadence of the familiar?
            Make of that analogy what you will, I have a new book to read.


Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Take Your Bravery With You, You Just Might Need It

If you have ever watched Forrest Gump, you might have felt, once the credits began rolling, a plethora of emotions. Sorrow and yet happiness, guilt and yet hope.
            If that film touches anything, it is compassion.
            However, there is a scene in the film which is only lightly touched upon for the purpose of the film and where the plot is going; a scene that I have pondered over for a while.
            After running across the United States of America for three years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours, Forrest has attracted a following of people who see the simpleminded, yet wonderfully profound, protagonist as the standard bearer of all that they believe in. His running is symbolic of self discovery, it is a rejection of competition - so these people believe it to be. Yet Forrest, who - during his journeying across the Land of the Free - just wants to run, never proclaims himself to be a herald of freedom or individuality or supreme mental strength. He runs because it's what he wanted to do when he set out on that very first day. It is in many ways for Forrest, a sojourn into a place of utter tranquillity.
            The tragic part arrives when he stops running and resolves to finally return home after declaring to his loyal followers that he is 'pretty tired'. One member of the crowd asks, 'now what are we supposed to do?'

Now, what are we supposed to do?

This small scene could so easily have been inspired by and used as a transposition of any situation where a leader, real or purported, hangs up his boots. Where somebody depended upon or admired by others, finally reaches the end of his fuel.
            I recently finished the novel Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont, and one of the characters mused briefly upon the idea that people converted to a certain faith, belief or system of existence are the ones who, with regard to their converted devotion, become the real fanatics.
            Immediately, I took a break from reading the book, to really consider the implications of that character's (not necessarily the writer's) view. And I think Esslemont, or the character, Bakune, has a point.
            When somebody's life is or has been veering into a downward spiral, careening towards unemployment, poverty and perhaps even homelessness, it is hardly surprising that people who suffer these circumstances might see any escape as the best possibility. Put yourself in the shoes of somebody who has to sleep between two cardboard sheets in the warrens of a city in the middle of winter. Firstly, if their shoes still have soles then maybe there's something to smile about. Yet, go further. They're impecunious down to the penny. What do they do? They beg. Of course they do. They are cold, starving and don't know when their bodies are going to finally call it a day. They don't beg with a beatific smile on their face, do they? Were I in that situation, I'd be embarrassed, of course I would. People are walking past wearing expensive suits with aureate inlay briefcases; teenagers strut back and forth blabbering down their expensive iPhones that their parents are paying for, and even the average Joe Blogs, with a MacDonald's coffee in one hand and a cheap newspaper in the other, his own coat a touch on the scruffy side, looks to be worth more than a beggar could hope to be worth, ever again. I'd be horrified the first time I asked somebody for spare change, because your first words to that person symbolize that you've got nothing. You have hit rock bottom, there's nowhere to go for you but up, and yet the ladder's first rung is an interminable walk away. You look tattered, ragged and you probably have a pungent stench to you from the rain that you slept in, and you wonder why people cross the road? Yet you need food to survive, and so what else can you do, other than ask and hope?
            For so many beggars or homeless people, this situation isn't their fault, and had I the money and an administrative team that could set up a charity, I'd try, but all I can do is spare the change for the cup of coffee that might reinvigorate them for one more day.
            Go back to these spiritually depleted people, and add in anybody who is going through a breakup, a bereavement or a state of stasis, where life simply isn't going anywhere for them.
            Now, what happens when somebody with a way out comes along?
            The way out doesn't matter. Whether it's an alcove in a warehouse by night, delivering drugs by day; whether you're standing on a cardboard box as a herald of Christianity, the words of the Bible beginning to seep into you as you go through the mindless tautology of repeating sermon after sermon day after day, or whether something better comes up, and before you know it, you're wearing the expensive suit and carrying the gold-seamed briefcase, you're probably not going to say 'No thanks, I prefer being homeless and freezing my socks off.' are you?
            Converts are the biggest fanatics. The next time you find yourself watching a film or reading a book, try to look out for this particular storyline. Maybe you'll see it. Obviously it's not in every film...
            Forrest Gump never even tried to convert the ragtag horde who jog behind him, and yet there they all are, seeing the glorious sunrises and travailing the bitter winds. All because they've got somebody who has - in their eyes - offered them a way out. Forrest Gump's lifestyle is the answer to their problems, so they see it. No bills to pay, no job to go to, just a man who doesn't seem to let anything hold him back from doing what he wants to do, and they love that.
            Yet, when Forrest finally retires, boy does the fur fly. The lifestyle of these people is threatened. Their solitude from the real world is faced with its toughest question - who will take up the mantle without Forrest Gump? Now what are we supposed to do? They placed their lives in the hands of a man who wouldn't know where to begin with managing them. What if a god/goddess existed with such a tenet of doing what they alone want to do, so long as it does not harm anybody? Where does the acolyte go if the god decides this world isn't for them anymore? Faith is a precious part of the human condition; to believe wholeheartedly in somebody or something is to show a loyalty that is profound, but with loyalty there must also come maturity and willingness. A maturity to accept that the high watermark of anything, be it a society, an existence, a lifespan, will slowly but surely begin to diminish and weaken with time. After this, mustn't there then be the willingness to see the need for a new standard bearer?
            Forrest Gump is not to be blamed for the sudden aimlessness of these followers. What separates him, most of all, is that he didn't offer these people a way out of their current issues; the people saw and contrived it in his actions. They made him their god, and when he stepped down from the stage, they were each too filled with ire to step boldly into his shoes and take up the pennant.
            If you choose to follow, be prepared to lead. It might just fall to you. 


Friday, 13 September 2013

The Odd One Out

Diverting off the curb and walking along the edge of the road in order to avoid rusted iron scaffolding or an old, rickety ladder with a gnarled and gerontic workman at the top, blowing as a leaf in the bitter winds - ever a symbol of nature's fought retreat against progress.
            Throwing the salt over your left shoulder in an act of appeasement to an innate order riven through with yet another inequity, an inequity caused by casual heavy-handedness or simple disregard for one's surroundings.
            Seeing a penny on the ground and picking it up, hearing the soft melody: "Find a penny, pick it up, all day long you'll have good luck!" drift through your thoughts.
            Superstition is a strange feeling. Just look at the first ingredient of the word, "super"; when I think of superstition, I immediately think of the word "supernatural", too. The extension, manifestation, product, of a power beyond what science and general consensus have determined physiologically achievable on Earth.
            My next thought from "supernatural" is Stephen King's Carrie, a tragic story about a girl blessed, or cursed (cue the dark and eerie horror music and the low rising fog) with telekinesis.
            Carrie's supernatural power is the leveller of her story. She has no real friends, is bashful and naive. She is manipulated by those around her and, as a reader, I saw her ability as her way of responding in an environment where everything was difficult to articulate for Carrie.
            Superstition is not a gift, nor, necessarily, a blessing or curse. What it might be is a state of insecurity and disharmony. Next time you see a scaffolding site, stop close by and observe how many people don't walk underneath. Listen out for conversations about breaking mirrors or kicking a black cat. What do all of these actions prescribe?
            Bad luck.
            When we lose at a game, be it chess or football, somebody we are close to might intone, "Oh! Unlucky!". If we fail at an interview, or don't make the cut for gifted and talented, we are again met with "Unlucky pal, wasn't your year." or similar.
            For some people, the separated negatives will always outweigh the separated positives. Is this a form of perfectionist thinking? I don't think so. Perfectionist mindsets, I believe, are mindsets that are ever aware that no matter how positive an achievement, within it there have been moments of slight or error. A perfectionist musician might come off stage and feel himself itching with disgust at the single wrong note he played halfway through a three hour show. A sporting perfectionist might come away from a team-based game with a pass completion of 97% and, despite this and the team's victory, feel he or she could have contributed more. These errors are rarely attributed to bad luck, because to believe you can achieve the best is to see yourself as the sole conduit between your own ability and your goals. You must harness that ability, clench your teeth and wade in through the quagmire of toil until you come through. You smile momentarily, but those flecks of mud on your clothes you've just noticed, they are the imperfections haunting you.
            Now see the person who finds a note of money, perhaps ten pounds, and picks it up. Whether they spend it or save it, I imagine the concomitant "How about that?" or "It's about time something good happened." that comes from certain people.
            And later, see that same person miss their bus home, and hear them curse "Just my luck!".
            How about that, huh?
            Now, why superstition, why bad luck? Well, today is Friday 13th, of course. What better day to be out crossing roads and riding public transport and walking high bridges with loose stones and whatever other perilous activities we could name that only become perilous because of this insidious day. A day where many people truly won't go about their diurnal businesses for fear of the myth. Today, people will die of natural deaths, there will be horrid murders, domestic abuse will continue and all manner of broken bones, shattered relationships, lost fortunes and trodden feelings will be accrued by the end of this perceived haunt. For people who believe they have bad luck, the atrocities of the world will be met with a blind eye and a deaf ear (but never the full pair, these people have their bad luck to worry about...), for today will be a day for cementing positions in the Pantheon of the Afflicted, for rousing the world's patient eyes towards the bad luck of such people. Bad luck that has been epitomized by the happenings of Friday 13th.
            DUN DUN DUNNNN!
            Perhaps we could name these people imperfectionists.
            Go back to finding a penny and let us recall the other half of the canorous melody, "Pass it on, to a friend, and your luck will never end!" - read it once more. Again we have these commanding directives to act. Find a penny, pass it on to a friend. How does one simply discover money, and then find the will to share such a symbol of serendipity? That would make employment and working seem a little redundant, don't you think? Yet of course, a penny is the smallest token of currency, and the message is in the actions. First, to act, and thus shy away from inactivity, is not to be granted, but to have earned luck for a day. To share this goodness is to anneal your good luck into something perpetual. What is the message there? You make your own luck! Sounds like meritocracy has come a-calling.
Now let us ride the winds of nature back to bad luck, and allow me to ask you, why are negative happenings and pernicious circumstances filed in the bad luck category, and yet success is usually met with a politician's confidence, or a derisive snort preceding a muttered "It's about time..."?
            Friday 13th is, for many intents and purposes, a scapegoat; a time when the indolent can justify inactivity and attribute their malingerer's behaviour to survival instincts; a day when those who feel that the world and Nature herself continue to accost them with arbitrary effrontery can raise a fist to the air, and curse their plights.
            And yet, on this most malefic day, I've found a penny!
            Now if only I could find a friend to pass it on to...
            Are you there, Carrie?

Friday, 6 September 2013

To Share A Smile

In recent times, I have developed a keen interest in go-karting and watching Formula 1. Sitting low down in the cockpit, the track set out before you; the concomitant, pungent warehouse smells of oil and sweat assailing your senses; the heat from groaning engines swirling beneath your visor as you hold onto the wheel, remembering all the health and safety instructions and regulatory (British government risk-assessed) minutiae the marshals thrust upon you mere minutes before you are given the green light to zoom! into the action.
            I'd be remiss if I didn't see how all of this could overwhelm people, but I have found within myself a deep, burgeoning passion.
            And then, conversely, there is the rollercoaster.
            To speed along a track, breaking into turns at the last moment, smashing through the apex with great celerity whilst on the ground, is a great thrill for me. Being fifty feet above the ground in a capsule that is being tossed around tracks that feel rickety and unstable, even if they are in peak condition, is something quite diametrical. Something I find daunting. Terrifying.
            Presumably, I'm afraid of heights – a claim I feel can be reinforced based on aeroplane journeys where I've looked out of the porthole windows and felt my stomach knot and churn and my thoughts plague me with a plethora of possibilities – engine failure, terrorists crashing the plane, fuel shortages – which would all lead to a sudden plummet to earth, and my death.
            Doubts and worries are pervasive by nature. We all have fears. Some rational, some irrational. I'm not just afraid of heights, but also snakes.
            My usual day consists of waking up, having a small breakfast before doing some reading; lunch before my writing, dinner, and perhaps some time gaming. In between, I'll be in touch with friends via text, or social networks. Rarely do I have to stand atop a skyscraper, seemingly at the zenith of Earth's atmosphere, and look down while my devious inner self informs me: Jump Shaun, you can fly! Neither, thank all the gods, does my regular day allow time for me to be in close proximity to any serpents. Of course, I've stood on the other side of (what I hope) is a thick glass pane while a snake slithers slowly along a branch in a zoo's reptile house. Such creepy places, they are. So many tanks littered with sand and gravel and plants that many of these creatures (that I probably don't know the scientific names of) are able to camouflage around. Obfuscation is the work of the dastardly indeed.
            Is it the strange, lattice-like scales that make me cringe? Perhaps their tongues, sometimes bifurcated, are the source of my fear? The ugly, pale yellows and greens that some snakes are hued? Or, like in my nightmares, the way they slither. One instant, it is a slow, unhurried movement, which I (in my head) attribute to the dark, fat snakes; the next moment, their motion is much quicker, which I can usually tag on the ones I've seen jumping from tree to tree and gliding along rivers in the television documentaries. They remain in one place for but a fugacious moment.
            Whatever the reason might be, I cannot pinpoint it. Nearly all humans have a fear. Be it towards an animal, such as a snake, or more commonly, spiders. Heights are a common fear, too. Many people are afraid of the dark, some of the light! If you have ever watched a documentary on phobias, you'll know that, occasionally, people are rocked to their core by quaint things, such as eggs or water. Bizarre, huh?
            The reality is, it is easy to prevaricate about some trait, feature or characteristic of these objects of our fear and how the slither of a snake or the scurry of a spider or the unknowable unknown of the darkness is what drives us to a quivering panic. However, let us shout against ease for a moment, and think of fear as a broader concept, rather than simply individual responses.
            Much of my pontificating and blogging and online –and offline, alas for my friends and family – has focused on the human condition. A concept that develops as we do, because we as a species are ever evolving in our understanding of ourselves, yes? What is the human condition? A series of quasi-accepted rules (would "laws" be too formal?) that have been founded on the trial and error of sympathy and empathy?
            If you are a dog owner, and you ask somebody, "Is there an animal you are scared by or of?" and they respond with, "Sure, dogs!", firstly, you should probably tighten the leash holding your Rottweiler, and secondly, if you were hoping like yourself that they fear spiders, the ability for you and they to now empathise with one another has grown diminutive*.
            Why? Well, a dog owner is almost certain to be a person comfortable around dogs no matter their size, appearance or ferocity. This isn't always the case, because the owner of a small dog (or a small dog owner, for that matter!) might be as intimidated by a German Shepherd or Rhodesian Ridgeback as the next person. Yet if, like above, you own a Rottweiler or another big dog, it is unlikely you'll turn to the person with cynophobia and say, "Gosh, I know how you feel," placing a hand to your chest, your eyes narrowing as you cast all thoughts back to a dark and harrowing experience with a canine that caused you to fear dogs. You might have been bitten in the past, don't let me rule that out, but you've clearly faced and overcome your fear, haven't you? What has occurred, then, is time. Time, alas, is a leveller. You can no longer truly say you share, only that you shared, their fear. Memories decay, fracture and dissipate until we might have only thin threads that are sewn back to equally thin threads every once a year, when somebody mentions that dreaded haunt we buried so long ago.
            During a high school assembly, an older student I remember seeing only in that one assembly, had brought her mother and pet snake as part of a show and tell. The snake was innocuous, supposedly. She permitted the damned thing to coil around her and then at the end she replaced it into a tank and people were allowed to go up closer and take a look. I made what I hope was a dignified dash to my next class. Was she ever afraid of snakes, I'll never know. Had I been offered any chance to go near the reptile, no matter how harmless, I'd have said No.
            If you can empathise with a person, then you are not just resolving within yourself to understand their fear, but you are offering them the reassurance that they are not isolated from society by this phobia. To empathise is to share your feelings in a bond of mutual understanding that will, I suppose, manifest itself into something the empathiser wants to aid the "empathisee" with. The irony being that this manifestation is abstract, and might only be a smile or a shared look. Just something that allows us to feel for that person in such a way that they can reciprocate the smile, renewed by the knowledge that people understand what they are going through. Isolation can be pernicious if triggered by a seeming abnormality. To openly admit to cynophobia, in a world where dogs are heavily domesticated animals, could lead to social ridicule, directed ignorance and stigmatic labels. None of which is fair. Had I gone near that snake, and had to say in front of my friends and peers, "I'm scared of snakes," I suspect I'd have been tormented for it. Maybe for merely an hour or so, but ridicule is unwanted no matter how fleeting or interminable.
            What is my suggestion, here? That all people with acrophobia should stand atop a skyscraper and look down, and after a few minutes of this collective resilience, we should each cheer as we overcome our phobia in the here and now? Not so much. More that, when facing fears, perhaps a shared feeling from somebody else, a friend or not, just anybody who can say "me too", is the best armour there is; there are so many fears out there, within so many of us – could we just not take a step closer and give each other a reassuring smile?
            Perhaps sharing fear alone is enough to empathise, truly. Do I believe that?
            I don't know.

I'll be going further into this topic soon.

*What an interestingly paradoxical phrase "grown diminutive" is.