Monday, June 18, 2018

If This Goes On - III


guess which one is me

Hey! Before you dig in, did you know that subscribers to my Patreon can now read Galaxy of Zeroes every week (cough) in the virtual pages of The Hurting Gazette? 

The fifth issue is now available through my Patreon for subscribers. The double-sized premiere issue, featuring “The First Star Wars Essay,” is still available free here.

Thank you for reading!

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So let’s talk about “Message in a Bottle.”

I don’t think there’s anything on the band’s first album, 1978’s Outlandos d’Amour, that quite prepares the listener for the sophomore effort. The debut isn’t a bad album. It’s got “So Lonely” and “Can’t Stand Losing You” on it, and if it were those two songs long it’d be five stars. Unfortunately it also has “Roxanne,” a song I didn’t like when I was younger and which I really don’t like now that I’m older and know that sex workers have more important things to do with their time than assuage the feelings of sensitive young men. Outlandos d’Amour also has a song about a blow-up doll, which should tell you how young these guys were. The latter is far more forgivable than the former, especially since the former doesn’t get a lot of airplay anymore. It’s actually funnier than I’m making it sound. 

(“Be My Girl – Sally”) 

Now let’s talk about what writers block is and what writers block isn’t, at least for me. It’s never a matter of ideas – goodness, no. I never struggle there. What I struggle with is mental illness. What I struggle with is my mood and my energy. What I struggle with is feelings running hot and cold like a broken spigot at all times of the day. What I struggle with is being able to focus my thoughts, not a lack of them. 

Something odd I noticed while revisiting the Police: Sting’s lyrics are terrible. He’s certainly not an unintelligent man. Well-read, to his detriment. It’s not worth belaboring the point since the first couple Police albums are actually older than I am, but it’s hard not to wince now. Sting never found a meaningful human drama he couldn’t render utterly trivial. Synchronicity is musically a masterpiece, but it also has a song about dinosaurs and how the human race is walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs. It’s called “Walking in Your Footsteps,” and it has the lyric “Hey, mighty brontosaurus / don’t you have a lesson for us?” I wish I could leave it at that but he also rhymes “creature” with “future.”

Discovering a new fact about yourself is a bit like turning up a rock: sure, you might find a dollar underneath, but you might find a snake, too. You might even find both. You don’t get to choose.

The problem with Sting is that he was – objectively speaking, that is, as someone with no interest in men – a spectacularly attractive person. He also had a pretty distinctive voice with a good range, and could even play bass pretty well. The problem was that he didn’t really have a lot of ideas in his head. Everything good about the Police comes from the energy those two talented young men and one not quite as young man summoned while playing together. Everything bad about the Police can be summed up in the lyric sheet for Ghost in the Machine

This book exists because I knew I’d need it. Writing fantasy books and comic book reviews is fun, extraordinarily good fun. Healing. But then I also wrote another book that genuinely meant something to the world, meant something to people, to a lot of people who’ve read it and reread it and told me so, even before it’s ever been published anywhere but on my blog. It brought me closer to people, and brought people into my life . . . it’s funny, the other week someone made a comment under one of my articles at the Journal that I was a famously self-obsessed writer. That’s true, I mean, you’re reading a book about my cell phone game right now, and if you think about that it’s kind of a baller move to get up in the morning one day and decide you’re going to frogmarch your most dedicated fans through 50-70K words about your cell phone game. But somehow people, I have always suspected, would get the point, that the game was always just a spark for the essays, something to build thoughts around since people really seem to like me talking about Star Wars, and it’s a good commercial hook for when they end up between two covers. 

The real thoughts I had to think were thoughts that I knew were going to arise as a natural consequence of living through a fraught period in my life. Another fraught period, this one in a minor key. Just like this book is in a minor key compared to Tomorrow Is Always The Best Day Of My Life.

The Sting we meet with the Police is someone who really wishes he were a deep thinker, but just isn’t. He wrote a song that namedropped Nabakov – since we’re discussing questionable attitudes towards women. Young men will be lascivious, it’s part and parcel of rock & roll, well baked-in by now – but then he turned around and wrote a generational wedding anthem that just happened to also be about stalking a woman? Again, it’s not like it’s isn’t a decent song – but, I mean, come on. How can anyone ever really hear “Every Breath You Take” again? We’ve all heard it too many times. It makes sense on Synchronicity, so I don’t have a problem with it there in context. It’s a dark song on an album stuffed with dark songs. On its own and in the wild it’s thornier and unsettling. It’s not supposed to be something you hum in the checkout line. 

(Puffy’s cool using it, though. Actually kind of nice to have that killer baseline on a song that isn’t about stalking a woman tee bee aich.) 

There’s no one way I compose essays. It changes depending on the challenge. Galaxy of Zeroes was always conceived as an exercise in improvisation: I wanted to do something else in the vein of Tomorrow Is Always The Best Day Of My Life but knew I didn’t have it in me to write another book quite like that one. Some of the lessons I learned from that book were negative ones. It doesn’t always pay to know precisely how my essays are going to end because when I work with that kind of determinism I can struggle to stay engaged in the writing. Writing is a very spontaneous process for me and its very easy for my brain to get sick of an idea before I write it down. That gets to be problematic when I get occasionally blocked. When I am too exhausted or emotionally drained to vent my ideas they curdle. Like the last few chapters of the first book of Balthasar Foeman, which have been written in my head for a month but which I can’t bring myself to write. Sigh. I’m sorry, Balthasar. It’s not your fault. 

(“All for the best, my good woman, for I am absolutely certain that you are now and always trying your best in every endeavor to which you put your formidable intellect – which is more faith, I hesitate to add, than you usually evince in regards yourself. All things in good time, I am sure, and I remain eternally patient and merely grateful in the first to have been created.”

I made a joke once that my favorite Police songs were the ones where Andy Summers played guitar – maybe it was funnier in my head, but the joke is that Summers is the rare rocker who works more through subtraction than addition. After he sets the initial riff for the first verse he lays back relatively speaking through the bridge and chorus, allowing the rhythm section to take the wheel. Summers is the oldest in the group, with a full decade on both Sting and Copeland. Musically he knows that the only way a guitarist can fuck up a band with a rhythm section that good is to get in the way. So he doesn’t, mostly. You don’t hear a lot of the notes he plays. They’re there, but they’re rarely at the front of the mix, sometimes even seem to disappear. On those rare moments in each song when he does stretch a little bit, it always comes as a bit of a surprise. He knows how to lay back in the cut. He knows it means more when you build to it. He knows how to let the kids do the hard work before swooping in with a couple perfectly chosen licks that wrap it all up – perfectly.

What I struggle with is the knowledge that there’s still a world of difference between acknowledging my mental illness and actually taking real steps to live with it. Because it’s hard to live with. It’s also been very difficult to realize all the ways my failure – or perhaps it would be better to say my resistance – to this acknowledgement hurt me over the years. I didn’t know all the ways I was hurting myself because of my poor sleeping. I didn’t want to put the pieces together and acknowledge that there was a reason why I felt better after three hours sleep than seven. It was easy to abuse myself when I had plausible deniability in the matter. 

The odd thing is that around the time when I was making serious long-term plans regarding my game they also began implementing a series of upgrades to the game economy that, when taken as a whole, simplify a lot of the upper-level resource bottlenecks that I had taken as invariable. It takes a lot less time for me to fully gear a character now than it did six months ago, when such an achievement was unheard of. The most narrow bottleneck, and hence the one that most dictates my pace of advancement, is still Zeta ability mats.  

Sometimes your life changes in dramatic bursts, thunderbolts that appear from the blue heralding new ways of living. It doesn’t always, however – most of the time change is slow and needs to be shepherded. You don’t just get up in the morning and say “I’ve changed!” Nope! You have to work for it. 

But here’s the thing about those Zeta mats: while they are by far the single most valuable resource in the game, they are also directly tied to the Ships minigame that most players justifiably loathe. I don’t loathe it but it’s still not my favorite. I do really like one aspect of it: because there are just naturally fewer ships than characters, the Ships metagame changes a lot more slowly. That’s why I’ve focused so tightly on building the characters who work best for the ships. The Arena meta changes frequently – every time there’s a significant new update a new faction takes hold. Right now it’s Sith, led in most cases by a significantly improved Emperor Palpatine. Getting two Zetas in an update took him from being mostly unplayable to the vanguard of the meta in the blink of an eye, which should tell you how valuable those abilities can be. 

Sometimes when you do the hard work of changing, of rebuilding yourself into something new and different, the changes can take on a life of their own. I came to understand a while back that the velocity of change in my life had advanced beyond my ability to control. My initial instinct was to frame that statement by saying that it was a fearful realization, but I don’t really think it was. Even good change can be jarring, though. 

My frustration with the game stems largely from the fact that it’s still a young enough game that the developers are able to very forcefully dictate the shape of the metagame. My prediction – my whole long-game strategy for Galaxy of Heroes – is premised on the fact that this is a very rich game environment that could conceivably support expansion indefinitely. They’re certainly not going to stop making Star Wars any time soon. It’s a rich enough game environment that, if the game sticks around long enough, the meta will gradually grow more sophisticated in a way that enfranchises people who have been playing the game since release. 

I got a box of snakes in my head. That’s my metaphor, that’s the way I choose to deal with the fact that for whatever reason life has chosen to compensate my writing ability with a head that is absolutely stuffed with reptiles. When it gets bad I can feel them wriggling around in there. I honestly can’t say how much dysphoria I feel because the rest of my brain is so loud that on most days it’s just not on the forefront of my mind. 

Would it surprise anyone to hear that I really like Copeland? Occasionally his drumming skips ahead a few years to post-hardcore. He’s not beholden to playing the same fills as any other drummer in rock history – he likes to play with his fills in the same way that a guitarist plays with a riff. Listen to “The Bed’s Too Big Without You,” later on Regatta de Blanc. The song is an excuse for Copeland to play every kind of fill he can think of around a really quite intricate rocksteady template. The lyrics are, eh, whatever. Bed’s pretty big. OK. Can we get a mix without the vocals? 

I’m making a number of assumptions here, any of which could turn out to be wrong. The first assumption is simply that the game will last long enough for this effort to pay off in any significant way. It’s a product of Disney’s contract with EA Games, a contract that was recently sorely tested when the release of one of the Battlefield games was so botched it made world governments to pay serious attention to the idea of regulating the industry. But this game remains profitable, I can only assume, from the fact that new expansions and promotions are thick on the ground. It’s essentially a rolling advertisement for whatever the latest quarterly Star Wars product is, so it sort of sells itself? 

That’s also another reason why I’ve never been tempted to spend any real money on the game: it is, at it’s core, an advertisement designed to get me excited about spending more money on Star Wars. I don’t need any extra inducement to do that, thank you very fucking much. Paying for the privilege of being advertised at seems like the dictionary definition of foolish. Also why I try never to wear clothing with big obvious logos, with the exception of shoes where it’s pretty much unavoidable because, yeah, Nikes really are that comfortable when you’ve got painfully broad and flat feet, and Doc Martens really are kind of inevitable when you’re this gay.

It is sobering to recognize the amount of effort I put, previously, into denying that I was indeed mentally ill. Dear reader, I assure you, I am. This is just one of those things literally every person who has ever got close to me figures out, usually sooner rather than later. When someone sees a part of you that you can’t really control, that changes their opinion of you. If someone sees you lose your shit and stays in your life, they’re probably pretty decent. (Shout out to the three people who I still talk to from high school, all of who saw me lose my shit on pretty much a daily basis for four years solid. You’re all good people for sticking with me even though my life took a few pretty unexpected twists and turns!)

This explains my desire to get the Phoenix Squad characters wrapped up as quickly as possible: they’re not going anywhere, yes, but by that same token they’re not going anywhere. They will always be powerful in certain aspects of the game because they work extraordinarily well together, and were designed to. They were also designed to be strong in Ships, which they are. They’re great in Raids. They tick all the boxes for characters who I am confident will continue to useful in many aspects of the game for a long time to come. They are next to useless in the Arena, but they are good in all the things that enable you to build up the supplies that allow you to respond more proactively to the Arena meta. 

1979’s Regatta de Blanc kicks off with one of the best songs in the band’s catalog. When you record a song like “Message in a Bottle” you don’t hide it on the middle of Side B. It is immediately evident from the first moments that the band is better – not a little bit better but measurably better. They understand better their strengths, which is that they are a power trio who like to play around the corners of thorny guitar melodies and anxious bass lines. 

So I knew if Galaxy of Zeroes was going to work it needed something at its heart to fill the same role as “Let’s Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About Teaching Let’s Talk About Love” from my last non-fiction book – that is, it was time to look at what I had assembled in the first third of the book and see where to go from there. Some of what I was happiest with in that book were the sections where I gave myself a specific challenge to improvise about. It doesn’t perhaps seem as obviously improvisational to you, dear reader, but that’s how I built “Let’s Talk About …” 

The lyrics to “Message in a Bottle” aren’t that bad but they’re not that great either. Like the best of Sting’s lyrics, they’re functional and broadly descriptive. Not one for investigating complex interior states through rock lyrics, our boy. “Love can mend your life,” he says before also noting, “but love can break your heart.” It sounds good in the moment but it doesn’t pay to linger. It really doesn’t. 

A funny thing happened halfway through the writing of Tomorrow Is Always The Best Day Of My Life . . . well, maybe not so funny. We had a presidential election that didn’t quite go the way we were expecting. Suddenly a book that had been conceived as a group of quieter personal essays had to change. It took a while to figure it out – if you go back, there’s a significant gap between “Trifles, Light As Air” and “Let’s Talk About …” The book changes because the situation changes. If I’ve done my job it’s supposed to read as a disruption. I want to communicate, to anyone who wants to hear, how much it sucked to be on the cusp of a new era in my life and suddenly discover that the timeframe to dystopia was actually a lot shorter than I had anticipated. 

Of the five Zeta abilities required for a fully operational Phoenix Squad, I’ve still got Hera and Zeb left to get past Level VIII (of XII, for context). But the other four (Kanan, Ezra, Chopper, and Sabine) are all at Level XII, Ezra and Chopper are completely filled out, and Kanan and Sabine are only short a couple gear slots each. They’ve all had their Zetas (except for Chopper, who has no Zeta but is very powerful without it). It didn’t take anywhere near as long as I anticipated to get those four up. I’m putting Hera and Zeb aside for the moment because there’s really no reason I can’t go for Palpatine right this second. I decided to focus more aggressively on the Sith and Empire characters who make up the bulk of the meta at present, because – well, at this point why not? It’s a cell phone game, why am I hesitant to compete?  

But the song! It’s a monster from the first bang of the snare to the last fade. It seems effortless, just three guys jamming together in the studio – but it’s because they’re good that it looks so easy, and that you don’t mind “a hundred billion bottles / washed up on the shore.” See, people are isolated! 

I’m not really that concerned about trying to sell Tomorrow Is Always … right now. It sells itself. I anticipate it will perhaps be an easier thing to sell fantasy stories than multi-genre autobiographical critical essays about – well, about fucking everything to such an absurd degree that the Venn diagram of people who share my unique tastes is pretty much just me in the center listening to Interpol and writing about Star Wars obsessively while also, like, being newly but enthusiastically gay for girls. As #brands go, it’s not a bad one? 

It’s not so much, I guess, that I want to know if I can compete in the meta – because I’ve already shown that with some judicious planning and flexibility, I can. It’s that I’m hesitant to commit fully until I know I’m completely ready to take a dominant position and keep it up fairly consistently with a relative minimum of work. It’s not enough to win once, because anyone can win once. The people who perform the best over time are the people who put in the work to show every time. 

What seems to work for me is trusting that my readers will care about the things I care about for the same reason they always have: if I’m doing my job as a writer I can explain to you why it matters to me, and if I can explain to you why it matters to me, you’ll understand a part of me that you didn’t before. I just dyed my hair bright neon red and that can’t hurt either. 

Getting there is just a matter of farming. And I’ve been farming every day – every single day – since January of 2016. I downloaded the game just a few days into the year that changed my life forever. It was the last good decision he ever made, because the game gave me something to hold on to in the lowest moments of my life. And it hurts to admit that something so small and petty as surviving to the next drop was literally the only thing keeping me alive for a while in the Spring of that year, but it’s not something I’m likely to forget anytime soon.  

I can kid Sting because he gets to cry himself to sleep tonight on a mattress that costs more than I will make this year, no doubt. And that’s even probably if I sign a book deal tomorrow. The joke is that Sting is rich enough and well-ensconced in the pantheon of rock that there is very little anyone could say at this late date that could possibly change that (barring an awful #MeToo moment, which, yeah, please, no). But the real joke is that this guy, this same guy who’s always so excited about desert roses and brand new days and seems really eager to sell me something even when he’s not – he used to have something. 

When he played with these guys, he actually had a lot. 

You know, that’s life. When you say you’re going to get your shit together you don’t work on getting some of your shit together. You work on all of the shit. What’s the point otherwise?

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Galaxy of Zeroes


If This Goes On - IV

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It's the cover!


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