Brain Dead Serious

The Rise of Skywalker and Hope in Star Wars Films: A Review and Retrospective

For whatever reason, Star Wars has become the most chaotic fandom in recent years. Online, fans blast each other’s opinions on the new movies by Disney (and even the old ones) as professional critics analyze each movie with such intense scrutiny, you’d think they’re talking about some obscure art house French film that could decide the future of cinema.

It was in this murky, bubbling, steaming cauldron of poisonous fan feeling that the latest and final instalment of the Skywalker saga, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (TROS) plopped into when it finally dropped in theaters. As a big Star Wars fan myself, and to be completely honest, an active combatant in this mostly silly battle of opinions online, I feel it’s important for me to give my two cents on how this story that I’ve been watching since I was a kid wrapped up–perhaps the last we’ll hear of the Skywalkers and their morally confused family for a long time, if the decision makers behind the scenes are to be believed.

Here’s my spoiler-free review of TROS, as well as a retrospective of Star Wars films.

Feelings Don’t Lie: Mos Eisly Cantina Cheers

My fiancée, Erika, and I attended an early exclusive screening of TROS arranged by members of some of the most prominent Star Wars fan groups in the Philippines, namely the Philippine Lightsaber Guild, FightSaber Philippines, Star Wars Philippines, and 501st Legion Philippine Garrison. I love Star Wars but when it comes to geeking out over the Jedi and Sith universe, I tip my hat to these extraordinary fans. At the screening, we were met by Jedi ushers who wielded their colorful lightsabers to get everyone in line. Some were wearing masks, and one cool fellow actually had a Kowakian monkey-lizard (that adorably annoying creature owned by Jabba the Hutt) perched on his shoulder. Erika and I frankly felt a little intimidated and underdressed for the occasion amongst this crowd plucked out of the Mos Eisley cantina. Yes, I was wearing my Return of the Jedi (ROTJ) Luke Skywalker T-shirt–which I proudly drew and designed myself–but at the end of the day, it was just a T-shirt and sadly unimaginative compared to what these fans were sporting.

Given the kind of crowd at this screening, I was really curious about how they would react to the movie. Will they boo? Will they groan? Will they throw their popcorn or their Kowakian monkey-lizard at the screen if they felt like they were watching trash compactor material? I was expecting the worst knowing that TROS was taking a beating online, with many Twitter users hurling their most savage takes on it as they compared it to The Last Jedi (TLJ) by director Rian Johnson–a movie, which while acclaimed by critics, divided many Star Wars fans and has evolved into a lightning rod of bitter fan debate. And if these people are the most devoted fans here in the country, the ones who have spent the most time and hard-earned money to show their love for this franchise, then it would be logical to assume that they would have the strongest reactions to the final chapter, whether good or bad.

And then it was time.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

The crowd cheered and clapped as “Star Wars” appeared onscreen and the iconic yellow text began to crawl into deep space adorned by stars one final time…

———-

TROS lasted around two hours and ten or fifteen minutes, but it was over in a flash. I walked into that cinema with Erika waiting for the moment when I’ll be disappointed, bracing myself at every scene, almost certain that this would be the deal breaker that everyone has been talking about… and to my great surprise–that moment never came. Weirdly enough, the opposite happened. When the lights came on, Erika and I both had watery eyes as we laughingly looked at each other’s face.

What’s even more surprising was that we weren’t alone. The Mos Eisly cantina of a crowd we were with were clapping, cheering, and raising their lightsabers as the credits rolled. Everyone was visibly emotional, but not in a negative way. They were happy and sad that the story a lot of them grew up with had come to a close.

So what was it? What was the reason why instead of an angry mob of fans throwing their cloaks and muppets at the screen, we got a roomful of people who obviously had a great time watching a movie?

I think a lot of it has to do with going into a Star Wars screening in the right frame of mind. To illustrate, it’s best to describe our story.

Perhaps it helped that 2 weeks ago, I rewatched the original trilogy and the prequels with Erika to prepare us for TROS. She has never completely seen these movies before and as I rewatched iconic scenes with her, I felt like I began to see these movies with fresh eyes. She was so stunned to know that Darth Vader was Luke’s father all along in the original trilogy (she has amazingly missed all the references floating about in general pop culture), and so heartbroken when Anakin finally turned to the dark side in the prequels–so heartbroken, in fact, that she needed to take a break to catch her breath because it was too much (it’s usually mocked now but Anakin killing the younglings was really dark for family-friendly sci-fi). She loved all the movies with no exception, and somehow, that childlike wonder rubbed off on me, and I forgot how these movies are now fodder for ridicule and cheap bully points on social media these days.

As I immersed myself in this universe once more, I remembered myself when I was a kid, seeing all these for the first time. I didn’t care about George Lucas, why he’s a big deal, what he did and didn’t change, what he wrote and didn’t write. When I wasn’t aware how Jar Jar Binks could be a bad character when he was clearly a hero, albeit the goofy kind that I was familiar with in many Sunday morning cartoons. I remembered seeing C3PO and R2D2 cross that empty desert for the first time, two strange droids embarking on an epic adventure; and this wonderful feeling of being a happy kid with my imagination going haywire over all these fantastic things was rekindled.

Perhaps that rewatch helped. While I was prepared for a bad experience in the cinema, I also believe I had more actual context when I saw TROS; I actually refreshed my memory of the entire Skywalker arc and didn’t just read a bunch of angry tweets before going to see the movie.

In a word–feelings don’t lie. Whatever we’ve heard from others about the movie, Erika and I and those other fans in our screening unarguably had an excellent time watching a Star Wars film. And it bears emphasizing: TROS actually felt very much like a Star Wars movie in the mold of the earlier chapters. It ended the Skywalker saga in a powerfully emotional note and, in that way, provided a fitting end to one of the grandest stories of our childhood.

The Rise of Skywalker and the Unenviable Task of Making Sense of the Sequels

It’s been noted by a lot of critics and Star Wars fans on Twitter and Reddit that your reaction to TROS will depend largely on how you felt about TLJ; the argument being, TLJ was such a departure thematically from Star Wars that if you felt good about that departure, then you would dislike or hate TROS, which appears to swing to the other direction, in many cases, obviously “undoing” plot threads that were started in TLJ.

But while that may be true for others, it doesn’t apply to me because I’ve been generally critical of the sequels, both TLJ and The Force Awakens (TFA), which was directed by JJ Abrams who also helmed TROS. My personal laundry list of gripes includes: the sequels copying many elements from previous movies (TFA), changing or outright disregarding the arcs of major legacy characters (TLJ), and an overarching narrative that seemed to go nowhere (TFA and TLJ).

What’s great about TROS is it somehow pulls the unruly strings together, not just the sequels’, but the original trilogy’s and the prequels’, too, as it barrells through the final chapter. It must be noted that JJ Abrams planted seeds in TFA that heavily hinted at the ties of the sequels to the main Skywalker saga: namely, Rey’s mysterious parentage and Kylo Ren’s motives as they relate to the Sith. These were depicted in different ways, such as Rey touching Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber and remembering flashes of her past, and Kylo looking at Darth Vader’s charred helmet and talking to it like a deranged man.

A common frustration by critics of TLJ was that these narrative threads went unexplored or altogether discarded by the movie. Rey was revealed to have no ties to any known Jedi family and Kylo seemed to have suddenly gotten over the past. These and other unexpected departures from TFA’s storylines seemed to leave the final film with the unenviable task of herding the narrative toward a cohesive ending that somehow addresses all questions. Heck–with Snoke, the big bad, gone, was the denouement simply a battle to take down Kylo and his cartoonish general, Hux? Or if the true villains behind the war all along were the capitalists who profited from it, was Rey expected to end the galactic conflict by leading a revolution against capitalism (which, of course, her character wasn’t formally briefed about).

Even if an alternate Episode IX directed by Rian Johnson managed to answer these questions, it’s unlikely that version would connect at all to previous Star Wars trilogies. And the more I read about how disjointed the creative process for TFA and TLJ was, the more I believe that when Rian Johnson made TLJ, he decided to take it down a path where everyone must leave behind their feelings for most of the elements of the previous trilogies. It was a bold move and not a small number of people were impressed with it, but it clearly meant that expectations set in TFA didn’t matter and that the familiar Star Wars fans knew was completely gone.

The extreme fan backlash, the blockbuster flop that was Solo: A Star Wars Story, and the overall negative sentiment about the franchise following TLJ were apparently enough to convince Disney that it’s still too early to ignore the main Star Wars arc: the arc of the Skywalker family. But as the narrative threads lay in a total mess after the second act of the sequel trilogy, the last movie had to do something to course-correct while somehow also connecting both movies to the main story where it was initially hinted that they were linked to. It was almost an impossible mission, but shockingly, TROS did just that.

A lot of TROS critics sneer at how the movie dug up old elements and characters (most notably, Palpatine) in what many are calling attempts at “fan service.” It must be noted, however, that these elements only feel like they were made up at the last-minute because TLJ steered the sequels’ narrative to a direction where its predecessors didn’t matter. Had TLJ followed the original plot instead of breaking from the rest, the final movie wouldn’t be perceived as such a rough landing for the franchise.

As it is, TROS, against all odds, managed to make sense out of the diverging tracks of TFA and TLJ. It brought meaning to Rey’s troubled flashbacks, provided a plausible reason for how the son of the two of the greatest heroes of the Rebellion, Leia Organa and Han Solo, became a mass-murdering Sith, and reframed the galactic conflict in the original dichotomy between mysterious good and evil forces, instead of war profiteering and slavery. And while TLJ deconstructed legacy characters to create conflict, TROS wrote fitting prologues to make sure these beloved characters lived a life of meaning and purpose. The choices were obviously controversial, but I feel they generally worked to craft a very fun, touching story that satisfyingly felt like Star Wars, and not some other kind of dejected space sci-fi.

Perhaps more importantly, TROS ended the Skywalker saga in a heartwarming, and one could say more “respectful” fashion in terms of the past, that it has successfully ensured that all Star Wars movies going forwards may not mention the name “Skywalker” ever again, and it would be perfectly all right. Instead of forcefully, insensitively wrenching the story away from the past in order to set itself apart as TLJ did, TROS gently buried the past, put some flowers on the ground, and said a little prayer for it, and then walked off into the possibilities of the future.

Star Wars is a Story of Hope

I began this review describing how rewatching the previous trilogies with my fiancée, Erika, gave me a better lens by which to experience these iconic movies. All of these movies were new to her, and that helped me let go of a lot of weight that was on my shoulders as a lifelong fan. This is not a call to be simple-minded viewers. But it’s important to note that while we can never be the innocent, perhaps easy-to-please children we once were when we first saw these films, it also doesn’t hurt to be aware that we are now going into cinemas weighed down by adulthood and all its stark realities.

Many of us don’t even refer to Star Wars as a mere “story” anymore, but a “franchise”–a sad, corporate venture, not a tale about unbelievable things in a faraway corner of the universe. A lot of us don’t sit back in the cinema anymore to suspend disbelief for a few magical hours–we head into it to dissect the film like a corpse: why it doesn’t fit the established and known universe, why it proves Disney is a giant creativity-sucking company, why the movie is so wrong based on “canon,” and even wrong in terms of today’s morals.

Basically, in many ways, we’ve forgotten how to enjoy Star Wars. And I would argue this is one of the reasons why there’s such a backlash right now over the “return-to-innocence” form of TROS.

I have always said that the reason I particularly disliked TLJ (after two screenings, mind you, that’s how much I love Star Wars that it takes time to convince myself about how I truly feel about a movie), was how it essentially destroyed Luke Skywalker’s character–a sentiment many fans share. From the hero who saved his almost irredeemable father and the galaxy, who defeated the Emperor against all odds and temptations of the Dark Side, Luke was reduced to a guilty, fearful person hiding in a distant island in Rian Johnson’s movie.

At first, I thought it was just that, but having seen TROS, I finally truly understand why TLJ was not my cup of tea—because it was such a cynical movie. A movie without hope.

By making the characters—as diehard fans of this instalment put it online—“realistic,” TLJ tried to pull the mythology from the magical corner of innocence from where it originally blossomed, and uncaringly threw it into the drab, adult corner of experiences, which is, frankly, what we’re accustomed to every day outside the movies.

Suddenly, Luke’s triumphs over the Sith and himself were voided—he’s just an old man willingly whiling away his days in an unknown outcrop surrounded by the sea as the world crumbled before him. After hints that she was connected to the Skywalkers in TFA, suddenly, Rey was just somebody in the crowd who happened to have really strong Jedi powers. And, as mentioned, there’s no big bad. Snoke was a sham that wasn’t even worth five minutes fighting; he’s a bad idea crumpled and thrown into the trash bin. And the most heart-crushing point—the past didn’t matter. Legends didn’t matter. As the movie said, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”

But this is a shockingly cynical view of life. In my opinion, there’s a reason why we watch Star Wars movies aside from sheer “escapism.” It’s to believe in dreams. It’s to get in touch with that inner child we’ve lost along the way, who was told by our parents that we could be something special. That we WERE special. In a word—that we were the Chosen One.

In the real world, we’re not. We’re just another face in a grey cubicle in an office with hundreds of grey cubicles all being worked by people who have mostly stopped believing in fantasies and myths. People who’ve drawn a line separating “childish” things from responsible, grownup things.

In truth, I think some of us don’t like Rey being connected to the Skywalkers and welcomed the fact that she’s not connected to the legends at all because that’s also how we feel about ourselves. We have become so cynical and tired of heroes, that watching movies about the Chosen One is now a cheesy, nonsensical exercise in mush that’s only good for children. We’re ashamed of it. In some ways, we’re even guilty that we once believed in this fantasy, this lie because our everyday life experiences as adults have told us otherwise. This cynicism permeates every facet of our being such that whenever we hear of the classic prophesied hero, we dismiss it as “childish”—in current lingo, “fan service.”

Sure, it’s a valid view of life. And I myself like those kinds of movies that remind you of real life, that check your optimism, and bring you back down to the mundane. But this is Star Wars—this is NOT that kind of movie and it shouldn’t be.

From the very first movie, George Lucas has been weaving a fairy tale about hope. A bedtime story about good over evil. These movies have been trying to speak with the child in you who wants to believe in the fantastic and the impossible. And to snuff out that fantasy and bury it in a mountainous pile of canon detail and “rules,” and, worse, to start turning it into cynical science fiction, the kind we get by the dozen each year, is simply not right.

It’s been said that the greatest stories are those we’ve heard countless times in the fashion of legends because those are the stories that tell us about our unchanging, core wishes and aspirations as human beings. An insignificant character faces insurmountable odds on a great journey, and learns along the way about their strengths and weaknesses, and that they are the One—the one to end injustice once and for all. It’s an ancient narrative as old as people themselves. It’s simple, naive.

It’s also true. As our watery eyes after seeing TROS’ epic last battle attested to.

 

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Free Writing

The Absurdity of Our Ephemerality

Sometimes I can’t bear the thought that some haughty prick from the future, say, two hundred years from now, would casually drop a quip perhaps during class, that 21st century people actually ate meat from murdered cows, but then loved their dogs and cats at the same time. Then this entire room filled with futuristic a-holes would laugh at the joke and everybody would be like, “Man, how could people from long ago be so barbaric and stupid?”

———-

Hell, sometimes, I can’t bear the thought that my grandchildren would be joking about the poor, uncivilized world grandpa used to live in. How they seriously believed something like “gender” or “race” could be anything other than linguistic categories weaponized to control and oppress people. “I wonder if grandpa celebrated primitive stuff like that?” “I wonder how it would feel like to be the product of a violent, uninformed society? We’re really lucky we were born in this time.”

———-

What I’m trying to arrive at is that sometimes I can’t bear the thought of our ephemerality; that we must accept this frustrating fact that however serious we go about our daily business, and however fiercely we believe in our convictions, and however sturdy we build our buildings, or sterilize ourselves and our environment aiming for the perfect, spotless, hygienic modern way of life, all of these will lose their significance over time; they’ll be watered down, recontextualized, seen from a different perspective–a higher understanding; they’ll be reassessed, found lacking, and replaced with fresh concepts, innovative technologies, new things that would be impossible to conceive right now. And so, no matter how intelligent you think you are, no matter how cool you fancy yourself, no matter how much you think you get it–in time, you’ll be judged as wise as an ape, scratching its butt and smelling the rich aroma of shit from its fingers.

———-

“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman – a rope over an abyss… What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Here, I feel like Nietzsche just flat out gave up on humanity as he understood it–on his contemporaries–who are basically still us if you think of the “overman” as a type of being who won’t appear on this earth for many years to come. There are only a hundred or so years separating Nietzsche from us, and if you view this distance taking into account the hundreds of thousands of years since our species popped up on the planet, and the millions of years of hominid evolution–a hundred or so years mean diddly squat.

Nietzsche here, dead as a dodo as he may be for many years, was still describing us–you and me. How the best thing about us is that we’re not an end; that even though we’re completely shitty in his eyes, hey, it’s a good thing we won’t be here forever; in fact, we’re just a bridge, a tool for the preparation of the arrival of the Overman or Ubermensch or Superman who is basically the coolest gal or guy since Jesus (no, seriously, Nietzsche had mad respect for Christ and the Overman is the next step towards the evolution of humanity whom he saw as burdened with unnecessary, ultimately self-destructive Christian ideals).

I don’t really want to delve deep in all of that. What I’m pointing out here is that one of the greatest philosphers of all time thought that it’s really fortunate that this current sickly crop of people would eventually be replaced by something better–I don’t know, maybe a new hominid species? A species that could better appreciate the beauty of living and actually take care of each other for the sheer love of others and not because of religion? Maybe a species that has evolved larger, more complex brains that would prevent nasty stuff like war from happening? Maybe robots?

He sounded really optimistic about it all, but I’m just here thinking about how he’s so gleeful about wanting to replace us with something better, like we’re an old television set or a broken mobile phone or laptop, and I can’t help thinking that I wish I could kick his dead ass.

———

Here’s a haunting thought: a sea of people who all thought they were the best of the best, the cream of the crop, the bee’s knees, and the cat’s pyjamas are all dead. Buried. Decomposed. Or dying at the exact moment you’re reading this. Only two Beatles are left. A host of folks who have dreamed so much, and achieved so much, who were loved by so many are now either forgotten or in the very last seconds of living in the memory of someone who’s also in the clutches of death in their bed.

Pondering their many hardships and countless adventures can be so romantic. Maybe the men imagined they were like Flash Gordon–a handsome, intrepid space explorer smiting evil–and the women thought themselves to be the real-life Jo from Little Women, a brave and independent lady breaking social expectations. The guys popped their collar and slicked their hair, and the girls stripped their suitors of their valuables like a Material Girl.

They were the protagonists in their own minds, as much as we think the same right now of ourselves. In many ways, they are ourselves just in a different time. And then the ink dried on their chapters, their books closed, and then the pages yellowed as new volumes were laid on top of one another. It’s an entire library of protagonists with nobody to read their exploits and heartaches.

Like I said–it can all be very romantic.

Until you imagine the future version of Twitter and somebody there reignites the discussion about how deluded people used to be.

Doubtless they saw themselves as good, decent people. But ’90s kids were still sexists and homophobes for enjoying that overrated show “FRIENDS.”

Is this our fate? Are we all destined to be fodder for some futuristic online troll and cybernetic class clown?

———

Some days when I’m taking long walks to work, a deep feeling of being displaced in time creeps up my leg, threatening to knock me off balance. I am walking over lands that used to be in the bottom of the ocean. This entire land mass had not been directly hit by sunshine for millions of years because here where malls and office buildings now stand was just saltwater and strange creatures of the deep now extinct.

Under my feet, deep, deep underground could be the ruins of undiscovered empires, maybe the powdered bones of a brutal chieftain who left villages overflowing with blood and decapitated bodies. People would cower to speak his name and looked up at him as if he was descended from a higher order, a demigod.

But nobody could possibly know that. That’s the very thing that’s so absurd about our ephemerality. We live such short lives that there’s no telling what stories our sneakers step on as we make our way to our dreary cubicles. There are not enough historians to chronicle what went on here, and not a lot of readers to bother to learn the past. After all, the lives of kings and knights may be interesting, but the days and nights of peasants scrounging for food could put one in a dull mood. In all likelihood, you and me, we’re taking our reasons to the grave–why we live this way and not any other.

And then thousands of years from now, what might this place be? Perhaps a barren, apocalyptic wasteland crawling with mutated rats? Or maybe a technological paradise where no physical bodies now reside, but instead free-flowing conscious data, electrical impulses that know everything but long for the old days when organic creatures could still feel each other by holding hands?

To have all these ironies in your head trying to crush you, bellowing in your ear, inviting you to walk away and do something different, anything different just to protest the fantastic absurdity of it all can be a tad jarring when you finally sit in your chair, fire up your laptop, open your email, and be greeted by a customer service ticket. Somebody’s order didn’t arrive.

We are trapped here in this time cage.

Literally. Just think how many millions of people have been killed throughout history by diseases we now treat as a chore to vaccinate ourselves against. In fact, we’ve forgotten so much about how miserable life used to be that we’ve begun to question if vaccines are really that good. Maybe they’re negatively impacting children’s brain development. We have the luxury of being ignorant. We’re lucky.

But not that lucky.

Don’t you feel cheated that if only you were born maybe two decades later, you’d surely open your eyes to a world who doesn’t know the dangers of cancer and HIV? A world where it’s very clear that gender is not black and white but indeed a spectrum, a rainbow, and every single one has the right to express whom they want to love? Hopefully by that time, the world is a more tolerant place, and the barriers that prevent us now from treating other people equally have broken down. But no–we are two decades early, and we must suffer the consequences of this chronological randomness as other people had done in the past. And make no mistake–a lot of them knew they were being cheated on by time, too. Many of them wanted to break out of their time cages, too, fly out and live in a nook of history more understanding, gentler, and with better healthcare. They all failed and so will we.

———

“2019. What a barbaric time to be in,” those space-dwelling, cyber-brain-enhanced jackasses would say.

If only there was a way to clap back at our future mockers.

If only we could let them hear us over the enormous divide that separates us, and give them–despite their greater knowledge and better, more nuanced sensibilities, more just societies–a big, old “FUCK YOU!”

“Fuck you. We don’t care that we’re backward, tribal apes who butchered sheep and loved our cats. We don’t care that you’re better; we were better, and the best, and the lousiest all at the same time–once upon a time. We existed, and despite all appearances that we were idiots, we actually knew what’s up. We were aware all along about the colossal shit that was going on behind the scenes. We knew.”

That would make me rest easy. It would make it fair.

Justice is when the dead could answer back.

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Brain Dead Serious

Thoughts on Matters of Taste and the Dutch Tulip Bubble of the 1600s

The first ever critique of someone’s taste probably went something like, “Man, your taste in rocks is horrendous! What a dumb, lowlife you must be to think such a rough, ugly stone dislodged from a mound of bison dung is worth anything. Why don’t you be like me and collect these shiny, smooth, grey pebbles collected from a river? Look how beautiful they are!”

The shiny, smooth, grey pebbles might have also been presented as suggesting something of the higher intelligence of the stone collector.

You think it’s ridiculous now but once there must have lived a cultured ape.

———

When I think about how people go nuts over matters of taste, I’m reminded of the story of the Dutch tulip bubble that happened in the 17th century. For those of you who haven’t heard this crazy tale before, you read that right–tulips. Apparently, at one point in history, the Dutch deemed tulips so valuable that a single tulip bulb was worth as much as or more than an entire house including the land where it stood. Some of these flowers, which were introduced into Europe just a century before, were worth 10 times more than the annual income of a skilled craftsman.

The priciest of them all were bulbs that had an unusual mix of colors different from the more common single-hued varieties at the time. Many years later, people would discover that these exotic flowers were actually suffering from a virus that messed up how they look, producing the strange streaks of colors that the Dutch so coveted.

In short, these were very sick plants.

———

People lost their heads so much over tulips that they gave the flowers intimidating names like “Admiral Pottenbacker” or “Admiral van der Eyck.” There was even an “Admiral of Admirals.”

Come to think of it, if a garden bulb were to command such a great price that some deluded craftsman could lose his entire estate and end up with nothing but a sickly plant in a pot, you might as well call that piece of vegetation an admiral. Few titles would have been fitting.

———

And then as if the Lord of Sense got so tired of the noisy Dutch taverns trading in futures (this was, in fact, the birth of this questionable financial fuss, as well), he just struck hard one evening in February 1637 to end the farce once and for all. For some reason, people just stopped showing up in one such tavern supposed to hold one of these popular tulip auctions that determined who had the right to own a flower that hadn’t even bloomed yet.

And from there, the bubble burst. Some people felt the economic hammer fall more acutely than others, and there were a lot of folks who lost a fortune. Overall, however, the Dutch economy–already the richest of that era–didn’t really take a dive.

After all, when the dust had settled, no serious, logical person with a conscience would really bereave a family of all their valuables just because their drunk father made the wrong decision to sell everything he owned for a rare purple tulip with yellow specks on its petals the night before the mania melted away.

———

I personally think it’s telling that a mania like that happened to the wealthiest economy in that period of history. When people have so much wealth and so little reason to think why one person deserves much more respect or recognition than the other, then the ground is ripe for something truly idiotic to grow and thrive.

I mean, if I were wealthy, and you were wealthy, our neighbors were wealthy, our friends were wealthy–and if we’re all wealthy, then what would separate me from you?

Surely we can’t test our bravery to see who’s of better stock. We’re not soldiers. Or warriors. I can’t defeat you sword in hand and declare I’ve bested you after a decisive, unquestionable final blow to the head. And we all can read and write, can reason our way around issues using the thinnest of facts to back us up, so intelligence would be such a drag to measure. A contest like that takes so long to judge to determine the winner. Besides, people who love to argue never, ever lose an argument. They just keep on arguing until somebody gets parched.

Admittedly, this is a brazenly simple and theoretical version of what might have transpired, but people must have panicked as they realized they were running out of ways to one up one another.

It was probably a goddamn first-world psychological crisis that punctured holes in the very fabric of society.

And so out of nowhere, some florist raised his hand and said, “Ok–how about who owns the better tulip?”

———

True–taste is a good barometer of a person’s standing in life. One’s Admirael der Admiraelen de Gouda Tulip without a doubt indicated that one had sufficient education and class, as could be expected of someone who had sufficient sacks of money to trade for such a renowned plant.

But what of it?

Was that the point? To declare beyond a shadow of a doubt that one was filthy rich and on the cutting edge of culture? Versed in the finest, most secret knowledge of the floral market?

You could say it’s all just a game. People were trying to outsmart each other and make themselves wealthy like they do all the time, and so they put, what is called in fiction, a “MacGuffin” in the center of it, allowing them to play this game of who gets rich and who gets wretched. It could have been anything–a tulip, a sunflower, acorns, a ball of rubberbands, bitcoin… It doesn’t matter. The point was to get a game of big winners and sore losers going.

Things of ghostly value haunting the real world of men.

Isn’t that where taste comes from? Just utter confusion over what something is really worth?

———

Going back to our story, in the end, it seemed like the bubonic plague played a major role in reversing people’s minds about those tulips. Imagine how uninspiring it was to debate whose flower was better as your neighbors perished by the thousands.

Nothing like the prospect of painful death to remind us of what truly matters.

And that a fleet of admiral tulips wouldn’t make a pile of dead bodies any less stinky.

 

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Brain Dead Serious

Layton’s Operation Somewhere in Orion

The strange purple, part-mechanical beings from Cosmos Redshift 7 had tilted heads as they looked down on what appeared to be Layton lying on a cold operating table.

Bleep. Whirr. Granzik, I think the specimen looks better this way, don’t you think? Whirr. Bleep.

Bloop. Click-clack. True, Krik’ok. It is my personal opinion that you have outdone yourself. This piece is a work of functional art. Click-clack. Bloop.

Bleep. Buzz. Indeed. The highly illogical trajectory of this species’ evolution has resulted in an overabundance of inefficiencies, which I believe I, with your help, Granzik, have corrected. Buzz. Bleep.

Bloop. Clank. Look, Krik’ok. The specimen’s globular section is moving. It appears it’s attempting to communicate. Clank. Bloop.

Bleep. Whirr. Excellent observation, Granzik. Let us temporarily detach the five-limbed appendage affixed to its oral cavity. Whirr. Bleep.

Granzik proceeded to slice away at Layton’s head using a shiny red laser scalpel, which did the job proficiently.

“Ahem, thank you, good sirs. I was really having trouble speaking there with my hand attached to my mouth.”

Bleep. Whirr. Fascinating, Granzik. The specimen is convinced it has need for a means of expression. Whirr. Bleep.

Bloop. Click-clack. Indeed. Why would it need to convey its primitive, illogical thoughts? Click-clack. Bloop.

Uh, well, you know, how could I say ‘no’ to all of this, er, experimentation if I can’t articulate–

Bleep. Whirr. It seems to be under the delusion that it can affect the state of things if it speaks? Whirr. Bleep.

Bloop. Clank. Oh, come now, Krik’ok. Surely, it can’t be THAT deluded? We have already plotted its species’ future and it would not even be capable of reversing its planet’s current climatic course to a biotic crisis. Clank. Bloop.

Uh, excuse me. Wh-what did you mean by that? B-biotic cri… Are you referring to climate change? Are we going to die from cli–

Bleep. Buzz. I wish we could make it understand that affixing its five-limbed appendage to its oral cavity is a more efficient way to expend its biochemical energy, Granzik. Buzz. Bleep.

Bloop. Click-clack. Agreed. Instead of straining itself trying to talk, it could use its appendage to harness resources for us. Click-clack. Bloop.

Ahem, EXCUSE ME again, k-kind sirs, but what do you mean by that? Harnessing resources? Like, am I g-going to work for you now?

Bleep. Whirr. Granzik, did you just hear it say “now?” It seems the specimen is unaware it has been working for us all this time. Whirr. Bleep.

Bloop. Click-clack. Quite amusing, don’t you think? What does it think it has been doing all this time? Something productive? Click-clack. Bloop.

Bleep. Buzz. Quite amusing! Buzz. Bleep.

Hey! Yes! Of course I’ve been doing something productive with my life! I have a fiancée. We’re going to get married. We’ve been saving up, s-so we could afford a.. a decent wedding! And we-we’re going to buy a house, and-and..

Bloop. Clank. Krik’ok, I believe this species is describing its primitive courtship ritual. Clank. Bloop.

Bleep. Whirr. And a means to prolong its biological existence with its mate. Whirr. Bleep.

Bloop. Click-clack. Indeed, a juvenile fantasy! Click-clack. Bloop.

Bleep. Buzz. Its species doesn’t deserve to thrive, Granzik. Buzz. Bleep.

Bloop. Clank. Agreed. Good thing we replaced its reproductive organ with its limb originally designated for locomotion. Clank. Bloop.

WHAT? SO THAT’S WHY I CAN’T FEEL ANYTHING BELOW THERE BECAUSE MY FOOT IS IN MY DI–

Bleep. Whirr. That was an inspired medical suggestion by you, Granzik. I applaud your efforts. Now the specimen can use its libidinal drive to transport itself wherever we please it to be. Whirr. Bleep.

Bloop. Click-clack. Affirmative, Krik’ok. I recommend we place it in Nognon-9, so we can further study its behavior in isolation. Click-clack. Bloop.

Bleep. Buzz. Granzik, isn’t organic matter absent in Nognon-9? How can the specimen sustain itself in that bare wasteland? Buzz. Bleep.

Bloop. Click-clack. Oh, forgive me, Krik’ok. I forgot to tell you that when you went to the bathroom, I replaced the specimen’s stomach with an ancient radio device from its planet. Therefore, it cannot experience hunger anymore. Click-clack. Bloop.

Bleep. Buzz. Brilliant! Instead, it can listen to sad music from its planet. Buzz. Bleep.

Bloop. Clank. Exactly! Clank. Bloop.

WHY YOU DIRTY, LITTLE–

Bleep. Whirr. I would also like to take this opportunity, Granzik, to disclose that when you went to the spaceship’s deck to smoke, I replaced the specimen’s outer covering with polyester. I mean it doesn’t really need a tactile sense, right? Whirr. Bleep.

Bloop. Click-clack. Why, of course, Krik’ok. Why should it? It’s not like it needs comfort. Click-clack. Bloop.

Bleep. Buzz. Definitely. Buzz. Bleep.

Bloop. Clank. Also, when you took a drink in the pantry I put the specimen’s nose in the vicinity of its buttocks. Clank. Bloop.

Bleep. Whirr. Granzik, pray tell what’s the purpose of that adjustment? Whirr. Bleep.

Bloop. Click-clack. Absolutely nothing. It was done purely for the heck of it. Click-clack. Bloop.

Bleep. Buzz. Granzik, I love the way you optimize subjects! Buzz. Bleep.

Bloop. Clank. Thank you, Krik’ok. Bloop. Clank.

SO THAT’S WHY IT SMELLS SO BAD IN HERE I’LL KI–

Bleep. Whirr. So Granzik, shall we continue with the final touch? Whirr. Bleep.

THE FINAL TOUCH? WHAT FINAL TOUCH?

Bloop. Click-clack. Certainly. You may proceed with replacing its heart with a cracked mug, Krik’ok. Click-clack. Bloop.

A-A CRACKED M-MUG? A CRACKED MUG?!

Bleep. Buzz. That should effectively kill all its hopes and dreams. I wonder if it will survive, Granzik? Buzz. Bleep.

Bloop. Clank. I highly doubt it, Krik’ok, but the tests should confirm. Clank. Bloop.

NO! NO! NOOOOOOOOO!

And Krik’ok went on to use the shiny red laser scalpel on Layton’s chest as Granzik held the cracked mug ready.

 

 

 

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Free Writing

Tell Me Something Not Worth Telling About

Tell me something not worth telling about. Something nobody would have any time to discuss or profit from in any way. Something that’s of no use to anyone. Least of all to you and me. A forgettable, ordinary piece of knowledge that won’t make you and I wiser. Or dumber. Or braver. A message that tells nothing of the messenger and without any meaning except what you make of it. Let’s pass the time killing it to achieve something unachievable and unknowable. Uncatchable. Something that makes us tired not because it’s a goal they told us to chase after but because doing something is tiring, and these bodies are made to tire. Expire. And at night we’ll sleep, close our eyes anticipating a blank slate, a new beginning where anything is possible and everything is impossible at the same time. We’re in the center of an endless white sea, or black sky–who’s to tell? We begin to confuse things until nothing makes sense, while feeling like we’re on the edge of a massive indescribable discovery. I’ll slowly walk towards you as your eyes and mine talk, sharing a coded language the greatest minds will never unlock. Because there would be nothing there and everything. I’ll see my perplexed but reassured expression in the clear mirrors of your eyes, and you will no doubt see somebody who looks like you, feels like you, but strangely unfamiliar like you, reflected in mine. And then you’ll take me to the crest of that wave of nothingness until I can’t take it anymore–the extreme shallowness and childishness of it! That innocent violence that leaks from the seams of beautiful plans! We’ll destroy the world. Their dreams. Their hopes. Their little, tiny important things. We can do it–us pieces of crumbling driftwood torn apart by the ruthless tides.

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Brain Dead Serious

Social Media is Trying to Define Me, So I Have Chosen to be Defined by a Taco Bell Burrito

The social media industrial complex has been telling us how to define ourselves, shaping our minds and our beliefs, fashioning us into foot soldiers of one brand or another, the coolest cause or the latest mass-produced celebrity–and that’s why as an act of resistance to all of this existential violence, I have chosen to be defined by a Taco Bell burrito.

You may ask why, if I’m being serious in challenging the status quo, did I nevertheless select the best-selling product of an American chain of fastfood restaurants to define my very being. But see, that’s the crux of this willful act of defiance in the face of this monstrous labelling machine. By consciously choosing a delicious item in the menu of a massive capitalist business as an anchor for the definition of my Self, I am strongly subverting the meanings being handed to me without my consent.

Taco Bell thinks that I’m merely a statistic in their usual conversion metrics but little do they know that I’m secretly a dangerous guerrilla of post-modern revolution.

I’m eating their burritos while battling in the trenches of definitions. Every mouthful of saturated fat and sodium takes the fight to this behemoth of colonial capitalism, and every bite of the soft, tender wrap oozing with melted cheese and juicy beef a shedding of imposed needs I have imbibed through constant exposure to advertisements calculated to induce brainwashing in their audiences.

This is my own way of saying “NO” to the repressive forces that have been unleashed on my individuality since I was a child. This is me taking back my life from those who want me standardized like the rest of the poor misguided souls on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and everywhere people are judged, measured, and monetized every day. I eat this Taco Bell burrito and wash it down with Pepsi to assert our humanity and that which is rightfully ours.

I see the underemployed workers, the unhealthy eating habits, the starving farmers, and questionable assembly-line methods that sustain this system of consumerist servitude. And I think of them all, waving the flag for them, as I let out a loud burp smelling of diced onions and sour cream.

I could, of course, subscribe to more conventional advocacies, such as feminism or advancing the rights of LGBTQ, or saving the environment, but after thinking my options through, I have decided to leave these battles to other people in the community while I wage furious war on culture industries, starting with aligning my selfhood with a half-pounder burrito. Not a quesadilla or a Mexican pizza. Not even a taco–but a burrito.

This is only the beginning of my activism. After my thirst for change has been quenched, and the Taco Bell burrito and me are one and the same existence, I’m moving on to the McDonald’s Big Mac.

 

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Brain Dead Serious

A Man Who Is Extremely Content to Be Perpetually Dissatisfied

DON: Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. This is Don Fernandez, your host for yet another edition of The Human Condition, bringing you the most striking interviews of common people you wouldn’t normally think about if you had something better to do. Tonight–Mr. Charlie Mendez–a man who is extremely content to be perpetually dissatisfied.

Mr. Charlie Mendez–can I call you Charlie?

CHARLIE: Well, I don’t know. I prefer “Charles,” really. Has a more respectable ring to it. But go ahead, call me “Charlie,” if–

DON: No, no! Absolutely not! If “Charles” is what you prefer, then “Charles” it is.

CHARLIE: Nah… Use “Charlie.” I hate that nickname but… fine! Just use it.

DON: But… I’m totally ok with calling you “Charles.”

CHARLIE: Please. Just call me “Charlie.”

DON: Ok, ok! “Charlie” then.

CHARLIE: Ugh. Ugly name.

DON: Good grief!

CHARLIE: I know right? There are thousands of better names out there and your mother somehow saw it fit to give you the most atrocious, banal, wimpy name possible!

DON: Ok. I may have jumped in this interview the wrong way. Clearly, this–what’s manifesting here–is a symptom of the problem you were going to discuss with our audience today. That is–you, Charles–or Charlie–are a man who’s extremely content to be perpetually dissatisfied.

CHARLIE: I… wouldn’t really frame the issue that way. Seems too simplistic. And reductionist. It’s definitely more than that.. but, uh, I guess if that’s convenient for you, then… fine!

DON: I see what’s happening here.

CHARLIE: Do you? I doubt it.

DON:

CHARLIE: But again–it’s ok!

DON: Ok! So. Let’s move on–

CHARLIE: God, I hate when people move on, but…

DON: –but let me guess–you’re fine with it?

CHARLIE: Sure! I mean, what can you do? Launch a revolution?

DON: Charlie, you don’t have to launch a revolution for anything. You know, you can say “No” if you really don’t like what’s happening.

CHARLIE: I do say “No.” I say “No” all the freakin’ time. But then people or circumstances push back, and when that happens, I say “Fine then, yes!”

DON: Don’t you think that’s a supremely defeatist attitude?

CHARLIE: Oh, I do. I do think it’s defeatist. And cowardly. And absolutely nothing will ever change in my life if I continue being this way!

DON: And? How do you feel about that? Sorry, let me rephrase–

CHARLIE: Oh, I HATE IT!

DON: Jesus.

CHARLIE: GODDAMMIT I HATE THE FEELING! But at the end of the day, I just let it slide. It sucks but.. fine!

DON: See, Charlie, maybe you just need to try harder. If things don’t go your way, perhaps you should try just a little bit harder to, you know, get really, constantly angry at the state of things!

CHARLIE: Constantly? Like, uh, constantly-constantly?

DON: Yeah.

CHARLIE: Like, uh, hate it forever?

DON: Yes!

CHARLIE: To do what?

DON: Well, so that you’re so angry and mad at the state of things that you finally push yourself to do something about it!

CHARLIE: Huh.

DON: Don’t you think that’s a better way to live than just being extremely content to be perpetually dissatisfied?

CHARLIE: To be honest–that sounds like a TERRIBLE idea.

DON: Terrible? How so?

CHARLIE: How? What do you mean, how? It’s freakin’ terrible. Constantly being angry in order to actually do things… are you insane? That’s the most terrible idea I’ve ever heard and it makes me sick!

DON: Oh no, just… just stop th–

CHARLIE: But if that’s your opinion, then, FINE!

DON: This… This isn’t going anywhere.

CHARLIE: Nothing’s going anywhere. You, me, this world. All of us ain’t going nowhere. I’ll keep working my soulless day job working with soulless people, enriching some soulless millionaires that keep this soulless society in check! You think just because people are getting more offended these days that this will actually result in a movement that will free us from the savage shackles that have held our humanity back from time immemorial? No! It’s a deception! A mirage! Fifty, five-hundred, five-thousand years from now, we’ll still be talking about the same issues stuck in the same rut!

DON: Charlie, Charlie… I hate to break it to you. But it’s precisely because of people like you that things aren’t going to change. Because you refuse to do anything about your situation! All you do is complain!

CHARLIE: Are you thick? You think I don’t know that? You think I don’t go to bed at night with those exact, same thoughts haunting me to sleep? Of course I’m aware of my shortcomings! Of course I’m aware I’m part of the problem–and the very CAUSE of it! And you know what? I HATE IT!

DON: Here it comes.

CHARLIE: BUT THEN I TAKE A DEEP BREATH, TURN ON THE TELEVISION, AND THEN… I’M OK!

DON: …What do you watch on TV? Maybe… maybe that has something to do with this attitude of yours.

CHARLIE: Nothing particular. Some sappy drama. Or childish sci-fi. Whatever’s on. They’re all garbage. But I watch them anyway. Because once you get used to the trash the soulless media industry is serving you, they numb your mind and your palate enough, and then… they’re ok!

DON: That’s sad.

CHARLIE: Miserable. Bleak. But I’m fine!

DON: What about a relationship? Maybe you just need to be loved and experience love to get out of this vicious cycle of being utterly content with misery?

CHARLIE: Oh, that has nothing to do with it. I’ve been married for over 10 years already.

DON: Wow! That’s quite an accomplishment. You must love your wife very much.

CHARLIE:

DON: Er, right?

CHARLIE: …Nah, I don’t like that woman.

DON: What??

CHARLIE: Yeah… I mean, I got her pregnant after the most horrible sexual intercourse I’ve ever had!

DON:

CHARLIE: Like, I’m not even kidding. It’s shockingly boring and disgusting at the same time! But we sort of… you know, got off, so the thing did its job, so I guess it’s all right. Then her belly started growing bigger after a few months and both our parents pushed us to get together. Oh, I freakin’ raised hell about that for weeks! I screamed at all of them, told them hell no I’m not marrying that woman whom I barely remembered from one drunken night at the pub! But my parents are devout Christians and they believe that a child has to have a father and mother living together yadda yadda yadda. So, you know, after a week, even though I didn’t like her not one bit, I said, “What the hell, FINE, I’ll marry the wench!” And we got married, and the baby was born, and oh God Almighty, what a bloody ugly baby that was who grew up to be one of the ugliest children I’ve ever had the misfortune to lay my eyes on. And my own flesh and blood, you know? But I accepted the kid, anyway.

DON: Because deep inside you loved your kid, right??

CHARLIE: Nah. Because I couldn’t do shit about it anyway. So… FINE!

DON: OK THAT’S IT! FINE! Let’s end the interview right here. I’ve had enough!

CHARLIE: You angry at me, Don?

DON: YES! WHAT KIND OF A FATHER HATES HIS OWN KID? YOU’RE… YOU’RE MAD! YOU’RE PSYCHO!

CHARLIE: So what? What are you gonna do about it?

DON: I–I… WELL, NOTHING FOR NOW!

CHARLIE: So you’re fine for now?

DON: GODDAMMIT. I’M AFRAID WE’LL HAVE TO CUT THIS STINKIN’ PROGRAM SHORT AGAIN! ‘TIL NEXT TIME IN THIS GOD-FORSAKEN MADHOUSE OF A SHOW! THIS IS DON FERNANDEZ, HOST OF THE HUMAN CONDITION, SAYING GOODNIGHT AND GOOD LUCK! I HATE ALL OF YOU!

CHARLIE: Come on, Don! Chill! It’ll pass!

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