no cape no mask

who needs a costume when you have words?

Month: July, 2012

Grand Visions, Little Actions

Grand visions are what animate us, I think.

But grandeur isn’t enough, there has to be something that (buzzword, sorry!) resonates. . . That’s why I didn’t like Dark Knight Rises, it was a grand vision, but didn’t coincide with my vision. Too clean. Too sterile. Too well-turned out. Too long. Too bloated. Too little risk.

Too little Batman.

Nolan basically made a Batman trilogy that was more concerned with greatness, routes to it, and the relationship of the individual to both the state and the city. It was a Batman trilogy only in as much as it was a Gotham trilogy. Someone should have gotten Nolan to make the HBO series of Gotham Central instead, because only The Dark Knight (hey, wasn’t that the most successful one? hmmm) was actually a Batman movie.

Enough Batman talk! Back to the visions.

I don’t know if we all have grand visions of our own. We are all dreamers, creators of one kind or another (even if following other people’s designs, I fully believe that “When we make things, we initiate a collaboration with the preexisting conditions of the universe”, which is creative. thanks to @brainpicker for the quote!). But that’s not the same as having visions, grand or not.

When I say “visions”, I’m going by this definition:

“Especially, that which is seen otherwise than by the ordinary sight, or the rational eye”

Visions of the future, of yourself at a certain age, but specifically I’m thinking of things you wish to exist. I believe we’re all moved in some way by such visions.

Moved to what?

Because the problem with a vision that truly moves you is that it is usually either further away than you think, or seems distant in the exact proportion to how desirable it is to you.

The temptation is to cover a long distance in massive bounds. To stay up all hours, crash through barriers head-first on no sleep while consuming nothing but coffee and the occasional random spoonful of something usually an additive rather than a course. That’s the romantic talking.

The surest way to realize a vision is to break it into small steps and take them consistently.

Really, this is all just an excuse to say I’ve been slow to post because I was un-following 400 people on Twitter, minimalising my inbox, and discarding some visions that aren’t important. Romantic? No. But these little actions are toward my grandest vision.

More on that next time.

 

p.s.- And I don’t include links for fun, all the links above are IMO genuinely awesome. Open them up and forgo my words if you’re pressed for time, they’re worth it.

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Weakness? What Weakness?

One of the reasons Daredevil is a great superhero is that he is blind. It’s there, all the time. No matter his radar sense, his physical prowess, his facility with the Law, Matt Murdock is a blind guy, and there will always be situations in which that is a weakness.

Barbara Gordon, yes, the daughter of Gotham Commissioner of Police Jim Gordon, was in a wheelchair for years. As Oracle, her online persona, she was untouchable and highly effective. But when someone puts two and two together, as they always do, and her fortress is breached, she is a chick in a wheelchair.

One final example, Bruce Banner. He can never be sure whether he will painfully transform into a colossal jade giant, The Incredible Hulk, angry as all hell and not subject to Banner’s control.

Now think of Batman.

What is his weakness?

The examples given above are all a little obvious, so I invite you to consider a stroke of genius:

Spider-man. His weakness is twofold. He’s incapable of not taking responsibility. He’s got to make a living. In other words, Spidey’s weakness is that he’s a good guy with no visible means of support.

What is Batman’s?

I love the Nolan trilogy of Bat films, but his Batman has no single, easily expressed weakness. He’s a supremely capable individual thrown into testing situations demanding supreme capability. What holds the trilogy together around this omission is a lattice-work of grand societal themes, cool toys, and charismatic opposition, all bundled together in the 21st century cinematic equivalent of the well-made play.

If it’s true that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist, then the greatest trick Nolan ever pulled was convincing an audience that the Bruce Wayne/Batman character did, even in fiction. Because Nolan’s incarnation doesn’t. He’s a cypher for the common hope that our way of life and values are enough to keep us safe, nourished, and progressing.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But for me, it’s not very satisfactory.

If there’s nothing preventing you from being extraordinary, then the story of how you became extraordinary and what extraordinary things you do isn’t necessarily that interesting. Because the question is, why were you ever not extraordinary, and once you became so why would you ever not be? If you think I’m being harsh, consider why it is that we only ever hear about the marathon runners who are old, paralysed, blind, obese, or in some other way theoretically unlikely marathoners? Running a marathon takes preparation and dedication (can’t use that word without thinking of Roy Castle, bless him) for anyone.

All of which brings me to Moon Knight. Marc Spector, a schizophrenic former mercenary who believes himself the reanimated avatar of the Egyptian God Khonshu. He has two weaknesses. His body is beat up and strictly human in its capabilities (or is it?). And he’s a crazy man who wants desperately to be a hero, but has spent his life taking every opportunity to go places where he can deal death and destruction.

I want to root for the crazy guy. I want to know if Khonshu exists, and if he picked Spector. I want to see if he can be a hero, or if he’ll just become a thug for good. I want to know which personality is the real one, or if there has to be a “real one”. I want to see whether his clicky knees will withstand the trials of heroism. And I want that story well done, not well-made.

What do you think? Do we queue for shows of strength, or triumphs over weakness?

p.s. – My weakness is ice cream. And fear of failure. Not necessarily in that order.

The Time and The Thing

 

If I had the time, I’d do the thing.

When I have time, there are things to be done.

So I work double hard at the things to earn up the time.

But when the time comes, I’m pooped from earning it up.

Time becomes the precious resource, instead of the thing. But the thing is always the precious (no ring jokes or LoTR references, you Tolkien lovers), the thing is always the point, the main concern, the priority.

Instead time becomes the priority, and questions of what time, for how long, how far in advance, whether it’s reschedulable or not. . . they take up the thing’s space. So now the thing (which should be the priority) has no time and no space!!

A woman is sitting in the window of a franchise coffee shop. Her coffee is in front of her in a “to go” cup, but she isn’t moving. The beverage gives off no steam.

She listens to the conversations around her. She watches the people who pass by the window, smiles a small but polite smile to those inquiring after neighbouring spots, makes room when necessary. She smells her coffee. She does nothing.

Her phone does not ring, she is notified of nothing, no earbuds grace her lobes. Her clothes are non-descript. She is without handbag.

Have you seen her?

I haven’t, nor her male counterpart, nor any gender degrees inbetween.

Maybe her unseeable breed are too busy doing the thing to be seen in coffee houses.

 

p.s. – “Man (or Woman) of Mystery” used to be a reference to spies and other (simpler) heroes, out there doing impressive things behind (colourful) diguises. Now, I say they’re the ones doing the thing, and not talking about it. They’re glimpsed but rarely in the meatworld, because they venture out only when it serves the thing to do so.

Heroes are all around us.

Grumpy Old Man Syndrome and Cynicism

Weary cynics are the Grumpy Old Men of our time, as old people increasingly self-select into the neglected, the prolonged, and the “good lord, what do I do with all this time?”.

Just as we tired of grandparents endlessly referring to the past, now it’s equally tiring to listen to culture vultures picking over the carcasses of recent works, squawking “seen it before!” and “unoriginal!”.

But sometimes, if you let them squawk awhile, they soften. They get to reminiscing about the stories they loved, and you get to learn a little history. And if you’re genuinely interested, they can tell, and before you know it you’ve found the common ground of a passion shared. Brandished convictions are relinquished, everybody stops poking each other with their opinions, and it becomes a conversation.

Cynicism is the reaction of the scorned lover who hasn’t stopped loving. That’s why real, full-on cynics are so distressing to be around. They’re tortured by what they can’t fully let go, and scared to trust love to redeem them.

Lot of warm fluffies in this pot, so here’s a palate cleanser.

What HE said!

This is my biggest issue with blogging, the knowledge that out there somewhere is a person who has already expressed perfectly what you’re trying to, and who has been heard by everyone you’re communicating with.

Today my example is Slavoj Zizek, who asks in this article:

“Do personal habits … have any actual impact on economic and political structures, or are they merely symbolic expressions of our own virtue?”

I’ve cut out the examples he’s used, and invite you to insert my last post’s reference to running the JP Morgan Challenge versus washing neighbourhood windows, or whichever superlative exemplars you came up with that I couldn’t!

Zizek is addressing larger questions to do with capitalism, but I was trying to get at the above question in my last post, as I think the answer then has to be juxtaposed with the amount of pleasure (direct or indirect) those “personal habits” give us, to then compare with ideas like the “greater good” and “what’s right”.

There’s an equation in here somewhere which plugs the individual’s socio-politico-economic impact (potential and actual), their well-being and it’s halo effect, the viable contagiousness of counter-cultural impulses, and what feels right into some kind of March-to-Utopia Matrix.

Alack, alas, I lack the Math.

Running For The Man’s Bananas

Just got home from running the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge, my annual gesture towards embracing running as “natural”, and also my good deed for the year. After all, the proceeds go to Barnardo’s (in London anyway, and there are other events around the world, it’s a big deal if you’re a suit). So it’s a good thing to be involved with, right?

But I started thinking a little about Clay Shirky’s idea of cognitive surplus (apologies for linking to TED if you’re a TED cynic) and wondered if there’s an ethical equivalent.

For instance, I did the run today out of a combination of obligation to former colleagues, a wish to do something charitable, the ease of this particular charitable deed (all I had to do was show up, run, then eat free bananas! Free Bananas, y’all!), and a gesture towards a form of fitness I don’t enjoy but know I should do more of.

So it was an easy good deed, and pulling out at the last minute would have made me look bad. Enough about me, why do JP Morgan do it?

Depending on your level of cynicism, it’s a CSR initiative, upholding the traditional sense of responsibility to the community that many of these financial institutions were built on (many moons ago, by Benjamins-loving dinosaurs in top hats), and creates ripples of benefit to contractors, agencies, the charities themselves, participants, and the beneficiaries of the chosen charities…

ooooooor…

it’s a giant tax write-off enabling a greed-monster to wear a bib of benefaction as it shovels your money into its greasy maw.

Or something inbetween, of course (curse my Western binary mindset!).

So the governing factor here seems to be convenience. JP Morgan scrape the loose change from all their leather sofas into a sack, hand said sack to a contractor who does all the work, and claim publicly to be invested in “giving back”. I roll up at Battersea Park, having done bugger all in the way of training and expended minimal mental calories beyond the occasional “gotta run soon, should practice, maybe? ah, screw it”, run for twenty-something minutes, and get bananas (which are free).

Should doing good be so “easy”? That’s a loaded question that can easily disappear into a swirl of “nothing’s-ever-selfless” shenanigans which has been touched on by many smarter people. There was even an episode of Friends about it, for crying out loud.

So instead, take that twenty-something minutes. I could spend it on Kickstarter, engaging with other people’s ideas to see which I might want to publicise on social media, or even back. I could spend it mentoring a kid (although I doubt they let you do that in 20 minute sessions), so fine, I could volunteer to teach my girlfriend’s nephews and nieces something, or even just babysit them for a bit. I could wash the windows in my building.  I could actually take that 20 minutes and sort all my un-needed clothing, walk it up the road to a charity shop or clothes recycling point, and have achieved that same good-for-others-and-good-for-me super-combo-hit. Hado0u-KEN!

None of these deeds would be massive, but would represent roughly the same amount of effort from me, and I wonder if they might not represent more of a tangible impact than whatever portion of my registration fee (which I can’t quote for you, because the company paid it) ends up with Barnardo’s. It’s not just cognitive surplus, this twenty minutes, its also ethical surplus. I have effort assigned somewhere in my worldview/timeline for ethical expenditure, clearly. So how to maximise it? How could that 20 minutes be best spent? “Best” is probably impossible to calculate, but there must be a tier of optimal alternatives whose utility is greater than most.

But it’s not only about others, is it? (Is anything, ever? See, we’re back to Friends already!)

I had fun. It was nice to see old colleagues, I actually enjoyed the run (maybe because of Paleo, maybe because I didn’t try to sprint the whole thing this year, maybe because the gentle raindrops were to me as the divinely refreshing perspiration of the Banana Goddesses). It was a blast, and was time spent out in the fresh air doing something with my body.

If someone whose motives we suspect organises something we’d happily participate in, and would almost certainly enjoy, should we “Just Do It”? Or should we instead ask our social circle what we could throw together that would serve a similar (or better) purpose?

Should we look local and organise, rather than letting the 1% facilitate our ethical ventures? Is any good done simply better than none at all? Is that argument in its turn just the kind of sloth-justifying rationalisation that has created the well-trained and largely passive consumer of modernity?

When Spider-man heard Doc Ock had created the technology to end global warming, even after Ock proved he could do it, Spidey doubted him. He gathered a small band together and fought on, past the defeat of the Avengers, their mind-controlled assault on him, the worldwide bounty put on his head, and uncovered Doc Ock’s real plan, to destroy almost everything, leaving only a rag-tag band of survivors (Spidey included) who’d have to live with the knowledge that they’d let a madman destroy almost everything, leaving only a rag-tag band of survivors… etc. Spidey knows a villain is always a villain, even when they’re creating tools for good.

Life isn’t a comic. But who’s in Hackney and has ideas for spending some ethical surplus?

Mouthwash now, before bed. Those bananas have a funky aftertaste.

Everything’s Ridiculous (even the stuff YOU like)

When it comes to the opinions of those around you, do you lurk, gathering intel, to decide how best to apply tact and spark a constructive conversaton? Or do you plunge in with your opinion, as honesty is the best policy, and you am what you am, whether or not you are in fact Popeye the Sailor Man?

Or do you instead sniff derisively at any written question that only offers two answers? If that’s you, we should meet, so that I can construct an inferred picture of your opinions and then non-offensively cultivate a mutually rewarding discourse.

Discussing a shared interest with someone you don’t know well is (at its best) enervating and inspiring, but the problem in not really knowing with whom you’re talking is… you don’t know where the boundaries are, or what the penalties are for crossing them. That always makes me uncomfortable, and the why is probably better addressed in a series of other posts or, better yet, after I die, by which time the Science will have developed brain/soul analyzers powered by the frolicking of nitrogen-rich-algae-crunching dugongs, and a horde of enlightened individuals can pore over my cell-scans and explain exactly why I was so uncomfortable when considering my potential to offend.

See the dugongs frolic! Hear them moo!

Anyway, one of the lovely things about my current job is that we all read comics and have done for long enough to have relatively informed opinions. We all think about comics (sometimes referring to them as “sequential art”) pretty deeply, and my colleagues have included Masters students and even currently one PhD student, all studying the form from various perspectives. We’re not planning to rush the University Challenge studio and stage a Brain Slam, but we’re also not scurrying home with pilfered foil variants (being careful not to press the foil, lest it crinkle) to mouth-breathe over illegally downloaded hentai and troll angrily about how Batman SUCKS, duuuude! We have lives and minds, would have been the shortest route through this paragraph.

And we all enjoy different comics. Sure there are some we most all agree on, and some we all agree should be read by anyone interested in comics, whether we enjoy them or not. Those we shall refer to as the “Worthies”. But overall, we have varied tastes. And we podcast together every week. So we discuss comics every week, and have to work with each other every week, and can’t afford to let debate become debacle. And like every other group of people who share an interest, we have guilty pleasures. I’m frothing a little with anticipation just thinking about mine, the froth growing blood-flecked as I think of some of the crap my colleagues go back to month after month. I’m pretty sure they think the same about my pet favourites (though they’re wrong, WRONG, FOOLISH ILLITERATE… aah, the dugongs, such harmony!) but somehow none of us has yet been slain…

… perhaps because we love comics but we can never take them too seriously. Disposability is built into them. They were sold on newsstands, in Japan they’re printed deliberately on atrocious paper and left on the subways like so many (vastly culturally advanced) copies of the Metro. Moreover, in being serialized they cannot command the gravitas of a film, play, or concert in the minds of the masses. Because there’s another one every month (or depending on the title, every week, sometimes twice a week), and you can read them anywhere, anytime, usually in under 15 minutes (and that’s allowing for “art appreciation” time), and for only a couple of pounds (maybe less if you work at it).

[I’m waiting for comics to have their HBO moment, where one publisher establishes themselves in the minds of the greater public as a purveyor of only the finest, series’ so fine as to transcend all previous estimations of the medium’s worth, and thus engages a halo effect around the rest of the form. I have been waiting for some time.]

So even though I will fight to the death to see Moon Knight #1 by Charlie Huston and David Finch nominated for “Best #1 of an Ongoing Series Ever”, I know there’ll be another Moon Knight comic coming around, and another new series of something else, and another grabber of a #1 to fall in love with.

Comics, moreover, have been scorned for much of their history, and while their recent relation to blockbuster movies has raised awareness of them, well… critics remain critics, and comics remain words and pictures, the combination somehow lacking the artistic gravitas of either the one or the other. Telling people you like comics still usually leads to twitching eyebrows, mentions of “cartoons”, and inquiries into the worth of attic-loads of crap. Unless they’re, y’know, cool.

But more than this, there’s a silent acknowledgement amongst our hardy lot that in amongst the high drama and splosions, buried in the scratchy pencils that begin every panel, there is something undefinable that speaks to us.

Comics have their academics (as we’ve already mentioned), and they will happily discuss just what exactly constitutes a “comic” for hours on end, contrasting schools of thought and using the word “McCloud-ian”. The same can be said of films, music, and art. But of all of them I like to think that comics lovers are the most able to laugh at the medium even as they’re intoxicated by it. And that’s why we can handle each others’ shame-faced revelations. Because we know that what we’re really talking about is the human ridiculous, or the ridiculous human, the laughable blob of cosmic silly putty at the core of us all that makes us like one thing or another for reasons we can’t explain with these “words”, or even these “images” of which you speak, but that is clear and present when you turn a page and a 2D arrangement of lines and colours makes you grin from ear to ear.

We have all shared the joy comics can bring, so we don’t judge each other when the fun stops at one. (I love rhymes) Nor do we probe because we “just want to understand”.

More on that impulse next time…

 

Riffing on the World’s Finest, via Seth Godin

Seth Godin (who you’re all following, or are at least subscribed to on a daily email basis, right?) yesterday posted about the importance of understanding your audience’s worldviews before addressing them (here), and in doing so used the imagined contrast between giving a talk to a conference full of Batman worldview types, and a conference full of Superman types. I imagine the Batman conference would be broodingly silent, save the occasional knuckle-pop or cowl-creak. The Superman conference would be more like being in a room with a dozen faulty fluorescent bulbs sputtering and blinking, as the attendees zoomed in and out at super-speed, saving kittens from trees and reporters from helicopters. Tough crowd, Kryptonians.

Anyway… I want to offer another way of looking at this pair.

Batman is a man perfected. But still a man. When Donald Rumsfeld started talking about “known unknowns“, he was unwittingly talking a lot like the Bat. He (Batman, not Donald, we’ll likely never mention Donald again) knows you can only predict so much, only cover so many angles. His response is to hone himself to humanity’s physical and mental limits, learn from the best, surround himself with talent, ally himself with comrades in conviction, and: plan for when all of that’s not enough.

What makes Batman a Superhero (instead of a white collar boxer playing dress-up and buying boys to be his friends) is his strategy, his pre-meditation, his rigorous assessment of options. He is the Caped Crusader of Contingency, the Dark Knight of Dire Outcomes. He has to be, because otherwise, he’s just a pointy-eared guy in way over his head.

The question this all raises, though, is:

What’s your plan B? (the “B” there is not for Batman.)

How often do you consider the variables of any given situation, from what you need to pack tomorrow to the future of your company? And when we say consider, I don’t mean in the idle way that I work in a comic shop and occasionally think “hmm, awful lot of cheap comics on iPads now, wonder what that really means?”. I mean like sit down and game out a dimension of your future according to what you know, what you know you don’t know, and some out-there stabs at those things you don’t even know you don’t know. How often do you do that? Often enough?

The reason for the question is that there’s another way of approaching things. Consider Superman. Superman is an alien solar super-battery juiced up on Norman Rockwell home-cooked Apple Pie Values. He feels obliged to turn his greatness to helping people, and uses his wicked-cool powers to race into hazard with minimal thought, secure in his unique giftedness and ability to plan on the fly (heh). In other words, though he is by his nature responsible (as are we all, right? sure!), he depends heavily on an established, oft-used, and negatable (Kryptonite anyone? Lead shielding?) set of abilities to see him through any eventuality. Furthermore, Superman’s potential unforeseen eventualities may originate anywhere, in any dimension of space or time. The scale of his abilities increases the range of his potentialities, he could literally have to deal with situations beyond the range of human comprehension or imagination, he’s that powerful and driven.

But this is a guy whose idea of security is to have a key (for the Fortress of Solitude) so heavy only he can lift it. Because he can’t conceive of someone stronger than him? Someone smart enough to create a device stronger in one plane of movement (that of key-lifting) than him?

Superman doesn’t have a plan B. He doesn’t need a plan B. He’s Super.

And he’s not real.

The cyclist who doesn’t check the weather forecast. The student who doesn’t do the reading. The perennial latecomer. “It’ll be fine”. “Don’t worry about it”. “You’re taking this a bit seriously“. All of this is acting Super, throwing on a cape and mask, leaping out the window.

And that’s a known known.

p.s. did you ever have the “Batman vs. Superman: Who Wins?” conversation? Here is a funny take on the answer, and here is a portal into the weird world of those who “debate” the issue.

Don’t ask me.

Why (not) bother?

A task requiring effort is more unattractive today than at any other time in history. Diversions abound, and require less effort than ever.

So why bother?

There are always reasons, rational, logical reasons to pull your finger out and [fill in overused buzzphrase here]. But as we increasingly learn, lead by those legends of the silver lining, economists (who since the catastrophic failure of much of their accepted heterodoxy over the past few years have begun to concede that , hey, maybe we’re not all rational agents all the time) rational doesn’t always win.

So if you can’t count on yourself to be rational, choose your irrationality. When you won’t do something because it’s the right thing to do, do it because someone you look up to would do it (because it’s the right thing to do). You’re adding a cognitive step, which makes no sense, but it may work, it may activate that lizard part of your brain that flicks its tongue out in disgust at the idea that someone else might excel where you fall down. That you might not be being all you can be [there is a little soldier in your head, I promise]

Most guys who are familiar with this concept and have read a comic book would ask “What would Bruce do?”. We naturally compare ourselves to the billionaire playboy vigilante with the best car ever. But I see Bruce as being a better indicator that what you’re going to do is ingenious, resilient, and uncompromising. That’s great if you’re trapped on a sploding bridge or assaulted by a man wearing a muffler mask. But what about when you’re just trying to be better, day by day less douche and more swoosh?

Enter Steve Rogers. And to assist, Tony Soprano.

For Tony, one of the toughest parts of figuring out how to subvert his Uncle Junior’s leadership of the Soprano family was reconciling himself to undermining a member of “The Greatest Generation”, the generation that fought the World Wars and built the modern world as we know it with the sweat of their brow and the courage of their dreams, often (and in Uncle Junior’s case) after leaving their homelands for a better (newer, richer) life. How could these brave men and women have gotten old and unreliable? How could they no longer be fit to lead? How could they be so out of touch with the world they helped create? Such was Tony’s quandary.

Steve Rogers is the embodiment of this fabled Greatest Generation. Steve was a wimp whose courage, tenacity, and desire to serve were so indefatigable that he was gifted with strength and endurance to fight the battles no-one else could. Subsequently, he lost everything and was frozen in Arctic ice for decades until thawed out into a modern world he still struggles to understand, as it is in so many ways a degeneration and perversion of his generation’s work-in-progress.

But The Greatest Generation didn’t just craft modernity from grit and nerve. They also held doors open for others, offered to help strangers, built communities, bought fresh flowers for their partners, whistled while they worked, and wore sharply pressed clothes. They worked hard, but didn’t seek profit in the honest toil of others. This is myth-making, but myths are meant to be inspirational, and all myths originate in truth.

So when nano-debating, in the specks of time in which we make these decisions, whether to stir-fry the now-softened vegetables for your partner, whether to take out the trash or leave it for your housemate, whether to call or text…

I invite you to ask “What Would Steve Do?”

Because you’re really asking “What would I do if I could be bothered to be my best?”.

And if you ask the question enough, you’ll reach a shorthand version that cuts the whole debate dead.

“Are you proud of yourself?”

 

Post-script

I know the Greatest Generation is a glorification of a group of normal human beings who happened to live at a certain time in history, and that throughout the ages humankind has glorified their predecessors, that we are creatures of nostalgia and sentimentality. I also know that embedded in this generation were many values we’ve since shed (or tried to), like segregation along race and class lines, homophobia, religious orthodoxy, etc.

But this is a post about Captain America. It’s a story we write that we may become better. A post-it note for the fridge door in your head.

Take what you want.

Leave the Segway.