If You’re Like Me, You’re Pretty Much the Worst Person of All

It hasn’t been great lately for folks like me. It started when Phil Robertson, the “Duck Dynasty Patriarch” and now apparent Serious Theological Figure, spoke at a prayer breakfast in Florida and gave us a bizarre parable about atheists.

In it, an atheist family’s home is invaded by ne’er-do-wells who tie up the father, rape and murder his daughters, decapitate his wife, and then castrate him. The father then has a Road to Damascus moment where he realizes, in Robinson’s words, “something about this just ain’t right”, which is a far better punchline than, “The Aristocrats!”

Now, I’ll give this to Robinson; at least in his story it’s not the atheists themselves who are doing all these terrible things. In fact, in Robinson’s telling, he slips into the second person for some of the description, inviting his fellow prayer breakfasters to imagine themselves raping, murdering, and beheading. So it’s not quite the usual argument that without a god one can’t have morals and anything goes. Still, the deviants say, “Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?”

We’ve seen this schtick before and we’ll see it many other times. There’s no need to once again get into how this reveals much more about Robinson himself than it does atheists, or to wonder how being in that hypothetical situation would be vastly improved by believing in god. Thankfully, it only seems to work on those who are already going to hate and fear anyone who isn’t them, so it’s not like it’s going to get a lot of traction from being repeated. Still, it’s a nice reminder that there’s still a group out there who thinks I’m the literal devil and they have political power and a media platform.

And then came the Germanwings crash.

Now, I’m not going to say that I have it worse than someone who actually got flown into a mountain on purpose, or had a loved one to whom that happened. Obviously that’s not so. But in case there wasn’t enough tragedy already in the story, when it came out that Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot who engineered the crash, suffered from depression and was on medication, we got to hear everyone’s hot take on that issue as well.

It was an exciting discussion because after being told for years that depression is not real and you just have to get over it, I got to find out that actually depression makes people into ticking time bombs who should never be put in charge of other people. The same folks who laughed off claims of depression were now appalled that Lufthansa didn’t apparently take it seriously enough. The question hung in the air: was I, a person who suffers from chronic depression, merely whining for lack of backbone, or was I a menace to all around me?

Of course, I immediately did the responsible thing:

But was that enough? I take 30 milligrams of Citalopram every morning to combat the mighty sads, and it doesn’t always work. I don’t fly planes, but I’m often at the wheel of a car, with plenty of opportunities to take some folks out with me, not to mention that I live in the guntopia of America. What if one day I forget my Citalopram and suddenly I’m going on a non-drug-filled homisuicidal rampage through the streets? Or, because a side effect of antidepressants can be that they lift up a person just enough to finally act on those self-harm thoughts, the Citalopram works too well? Either way there’s blood on my hands and you’d be a fool to have ignored the warning signs.

That assumes depression is real, though, which of course it isn’t. It’s just a bunch of malarkey, a spurious diagnosis to hide the fact that I just don’t have the strength of character that others have. When I hate myself, want to crawl into bed, and can’t bear to be around people I like, instead I should just take a vitamin, get some sunshine, and do a little cardio and I’ll just perk right up. These happy pills I take are just lining the pockets of someone profiting by pretending they’re curing something I don’t actually have. I need to throw them out, get me a whimsical little brunette, and start living life again!

I understand the forces at work here. The Germanwings crash is horrific. Even as an accident it’s too much to take, and when it was discovered that it wasn’t one, it became even more unfathomable. How to explain someone deciding to end 150 innocent lives like that? At first it was attempted to explain it as terrorism, which doesn’t make it any better but at least puts it into a context we can somehow comprehend, but when that was ruled out, we grasped at straws. What came up was “depression”, and now that’s why he did it.

I also get that depression is very hard to understand for people who don’t suffer from it. It’s not just feeling sad, which we all do at times. It’s not just being run-down and listless. It’s difficult to describe and, frankly, depressed people don’t feel great being quizzed about it. Ours is a nation that doesn’t handle any kind of mental illness well, which is why we tend to lock a lot of sufferers in jail where we can forget about them. I’m aware that depression sounds like a lot of bullshit; it sounds that way to me too, and I know it well. Trust me when I assure you that I’ve eaten right, I’ve gotten exercise, I’ve taken vitamins, I’ve gone for walks, I’ve thought happy thoughts, I’ve gotten laid, I’ve taken a nice vacation, and it’s still there. If it’s not real, then it’s the most realistic simulacrum of an actually fake thing I’ve ever had to deal with on a daily basis.

But look at it this way: millions of people suffer from depression without flying planes into mountains, making the Lubitz scenario such an extreme outlier it’s not worth getting worked up over. Or, on the other hand, nobody suffers from it because it’s made up bullshit, in which case you also have nothing to worry about. Why, it’s almost as if it’s likely that something other than depression might be at work here.

Who knows, maybe he was an atheist.

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Christ, What a Space Cabby

Pal John M. gave me a heads up on the latest artwork for the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest:

Since Otto Binder is dead, I think I have a good shot at this. Problem is, the New Yorker only wants a caption, not an eight-page pitch.

And this seems like a good time to bring you the lyrics to the Space Cabby theme song, which has the same tune as the Spider-Man theme song:

Space Cabby
Space Cabby
Does what a cabby does, only in space
Drives a cab
It’s in space
He’s the driver
Of a space cab
He wears a bow tie

It’s designed to quickly get you up to speed on the character and I think it accomplishes that task.

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I Played That! #4: Dark Forces (PC)

As far as most videogame developers are concerned, Star Wars fans want to be one of two characters: Luke Skywalker or Luke Skywalker. That is, they want to either fly a space fighter or wield a lightsaber. I guess when they were kids playing Star Wars, everyone fought over who got to be Luke. For us, everyone wanted to be Han Solo. Dark Forces was a godsend, then, to us blond-haired kids who always wanted to be the cool guy but instead had to be the dork with the lightsaber.

Built to capitalize off the first-person shooter mania that Doom solidified, Dark Forces put you in the role of Kyle Katarn, one of several not-quite-Han-Solos offered up when the real deal wasn’t available. Kyle isn’t a Jedi or an X-Wing pilot, he’s a dude with a blaster running around doing missions for the rebellion. In short, he’s the guy I’ve always wanted to be in the Star Wars universe and the guy I’ve barely ever been given the chance to be, at least in videogame form.

As Kyle Katarn I got to shoot bad guys, run through maze-like places, shoot more bad guys, figure out switch puzzles, find secret areas, shoot more bad guys, jump, strafe, get motion sickness, and eventually have to lie down in a dark room for a bit. I enjoyed the hell out of Dark Forces and played it over and over, but it gave me the woozies and pain-head kind of bad, so I could only play in short bursts. (Doom had done the same thing, as had Duke Nukem 3D, and as a result I stayed away from FPSes for a good long time.)

I stuck with Dark Forces largely because of the Star Wars theme, though it was mostly impressionistic than immersive. The graphics are not great. When Boba Fett inevitably shows up it mostly as a bluish-greenish blob than the well-known character. I fought the big bads of the game, the Dark Troopers, several times, but couldn’t pick them out of a lineup because they were mostly greyish blobs I had to constantly run from. Still, I had a lot of fun and felt like the material was handled pretty well.

Dark Forces’ emphasis on the Rebellion, on helping against the Empire without flying an X-Wing, makes it stand more or less alone in the Star Wars videogame canon; it’s one of only two I can remember playing. I didn’t even play the sequel, Dark Forces 2, better known by its subtitle, “Jedi Knight”, in which Kyle Katarn gets hisself a lightsaber and a daddy plot.

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The Movies-to-Watch List: Night of the Hunter (1955)

I don’t know what I was expecting from Night of the Hunter, but it wasn’t what I got. What’s there is a fascinatingly bizarre movie with weird tonal changes, a single riveting performance, and absolutely surreal scenes.

Robert Mitchum is amazing, and not just because the other performances around him are kind of wanting (the kid that plays John isn’t too bad, though Pearl is hopeless.) He enters the movie absolutely off his nut and just keeps going from there, and it’s fantastic. It’s also nice that he wastes no time in being a bad guy. We don’t have to have an extended, “Uhoh, is he what he seems?” bit because no, he’s not, and you know it and I know it so let’s not dither around. And as a bonus, he’s creepy in so many ways. His wedding night speech to Shelley Winters is scary as hell. Just a wonderful character, done absolutely right.

The movie is also interesting for the amount of just plain weirdness to it. As I said, there are some odd tonal shifts and some strange moments, such as the “Pretty Fly” song that kind of comes out of nowhere. The scene with John and Pearl in the barn and Powell on the horizon hovers on a border between amateur theater and German Expressionism and yet completely works.

This was a riveting movie and I’m glad to have finally seen it.

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Shriekback: Without Real String or Fish

I’ve been listening to Shriekback for about thirty years now. It’s the only band, of all my favorites, that I still keep up with. If it exists as an mp3, I have it as an mp3. And yet, I have learned something that I was simply not aware of all this time.

I got into the band just before the release of Big Night Music, and by then founding member Carl Marsh had left. I didn’t know much about the backstory or the history of the band — there weren’t too many articles about them and besides, I don’t usually care. Alls I knew was Barry Andrews of the bald head and basso voice, Dave Allen of the Factual bass, and Martyn Barker of the skipping rimshots. There were guitarists, Mike Cozzi and Lu Edmonds and such, but as far as I knew and concerned, that was the band. Later, as members would come and go and Barry Andrews stayed put, as far as I was concerned he was Shriekback.

I didn’t know until fairly recently (when BA started blogging on Tumblr) that the voice I loved on the early records was not his but Carl’s. Who was also responsible for many of the lyrics. Here I was, uberfan supreme, and I had no idea how much Marsh had contributed to the band I knew. I feel kind of dumb but alas, here we are.

And here we are on album #13, Without Real String or Fish, and it’s Barry and Carl and Martyn, and if you’re tempted to do a knee-jerk comparison of this album to those of three decades ago, it starts with “Now Those Days Are Gone” to aid or frustrate you.

Frustrate a little, yes, because while the band’s musical styles have always been all over the map, the one fixed point that tethered it was the smooth bass voice of Andrews or Marsh, always sounding like that character in the movie who’s trying just a little too hard to assure you he’s got your best interests as heart. Even when let loose on “Running on the Rocks” or “Suck” there was still a cool firmness to it. Here, though, on a few of the songs, the vocals are harsher, more jagged, and it’s disconcerting. It sounds like mortality. It’s not on all of the songs, just a few, so it sneaks up on you.

Musically, after the big stompy opening track, things settle down a little. In this current era of the band I’ve come to really like the slow, moody songs, and this album provides several. “Soft Estate” and “Horrors of the Deep” are quite good, but “Ammonia Tree” is absolutely off the charts. For the heavier tunes there’s “Recessive Jean” and the sprawling, anthemic “Beyond Metropolis” (If “parthenogenesis” in a pop song impressed you, you’ll want to bolt your hat on your head for this one.) There’s also the disconcertingly bizarre “Woke Up Wrong” which fascinates as it disturbs.

The final two tracks, “And Everything Like That” and “Bernadette” are the only two that just don’t work for me. In the case of the former, I can’t really put my finger on why, but for the latter the vocals sound a bit like Ringo McCartney can’t quite figure out if he’s serious or not. It’s a lovely song and I think deserves another take.

As with nearly every Shriekback album of the past ten years or so, I’ve had to give it a few listens before I really appreciated it. I was uncertain at first but now I’m well sold on it.

If you’d like a copy, you can order it here.

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I Played That! #3: Ultima III, II, and I (C64, PC)

If there is a single game that formed the basis of my videogame interests, it’s Ultima III. I can’t overstate how influential it was to me. Once I played it, there was no turning back, and that’s kind of an unfortunate thing.

Ultima III: Exodus had it all. It was a graphical, colorful adventure on a large map, with all kinds of secrets hidden on it. It teased you with views of places you couldn’t get to yet, and it hid things from you in clever ways. It was also just plain fun. You had a party with different skills, a bunch of spells and weapons, you could fight on ships, steal from merchants (I had looting the town of Dawn down to an art form), explore dungeons…there was just so much going on. I played it over and over.

It could also be brutal. Every now and then it would spawn a monster that your party was simply not strong enough to fight yet, and if you couldn’t get to a ship to blast it with cannons, you were out of luck. This could easily kill the game for you and dampen your enthusiasm, but it never got me down.

As its name implies, Ultima III is the third part of a trilogy. When I played it, I hadn’t played the others (hence, my ordering of them above), but that didn’t matter. All you needed to know was that the villains from the first two, Mondain and Minax, had an evil offspring called “Exodus” and you gotta stop it. Boom, now you’re all caught up. Nothing from the previous games really carried over, so the backstory wasn’t important.

Eventually I did play Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress, which was something of a different experience. First off, I got this one (as I did with Exodus) pirated, and the files for it were somewhat corrupted in the process. As a result, there were weird glitches all over the map, including a “bridge” of castles connecting two landmasses and an infinite supply of boats. So it was kind of tough to play it as intended.

Secondly, Ultima II is just kind of bizarre. It takes place in different eras, some of which are more or less on Earth. At one point you’re in the Soviet Union, where “WARREN BEATTY ASKS: HAVE YOU SEEN DIANE KEATON?” So that’s a sort of thing that happens. It still has a lot to impress: there are still dungeons, secrets, flying a spaceship, dying of starvation instantly, so it has a lot to offer, but after the more focused plot of Ultima III it was a bit off-putting. I still, however, can recite from memory the poem that you piece together through the game.

I mention that I pirated these two; I more than made up for that later. Eventually Origin released “The Complete Ultima”, which contained the first three games with relatively upgraded graphics. Not only did I finally buy the things, I got to play Ultima II as intended and Ultima I at all. I don’t remember much about that first one, though. (I also re-bought them via GOG.com.)

Ultima III is the jewel in that particular crown, and it’s old-fashioned keep-a-notebook-and-pencil-handy-to-take-notes role-playing gaming at its finest. And what would come after it was even better, but that — and why I describe my love for the series as “unfortunate” above — is a story for another time.

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Aiding and Abetting

There’s a thing going on in the comics Internet that doesn’t really need another voice throwing in on, but since this is my little corner, let me address the part that directly pertains to me.

The very least a person can sometimes do is tell a friend, “Hey, you’re being a jerk and you need to knock it off.” I was in that situation and, instead of doing that, I enabled the person.

I’m sorry that I did that. It’s a small but important thing, and I got it wrong.

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I Played That! #2: Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II (PC)

Baldur’s Gate came out in 1998 after something of a dry spell for me, game-wise. The types of role-playing games I enjoyed, which I’ll talk about later, had been coming out less and less frequently, pushed off the shelves by swarms of first-person shooters and real-time strategy games, neither of which interested me much. (It was actually not the first such game to break this fast, and we’ll talk about that one in time as well.)

Baldur’s Gate absolutely blew me away. It was beautiful to look at, had tons of equipment, spells, characters, and locations, and a pretty decent plot. The mix of real-time and paused combat was a gift to me, who simply couldn’t handle most RTS games. I was playing D&D around this time, so the subject matter was interesting to me as well (though I had never followed any of the “Forgotten Realms” stuff, so the references to characters and organizations there were completely lost on me).

In 2000 Interplay released Baldur’s Gate II, and it was even better. The engine had been updated greatly, and the story was actually very very good, one of the best RPG stories I’ve encountered.

These games really returned role-playing games — as opposed to cartoons with slime-fighting in-between episodes — to the landscape. The games were developed by Black Isle Studios, and I’ll be talking about every single game they released before they went belly-up in 2003, leaving this promising field to go fallow.

In 2012 an “enhanced edition” of Baldur’s Gate was released, which I bought immediately and then didn’t really play. I’d started it twice but both times didn’t get too far into it. Part of this is because, in retrospect, Baldur’s Gate has a really slow beginning. It’s really hard to keep up your momentum during Non-Stop Xvart Attack. It’s also kind of punishing; one of the first quests you get is to clear spiders out of a guy’s house and they will wreck you over and over.

A month or so ago I took another crack at it and made it through the Xvart of the Storm and got going on the main plot, eventually finishing it. Coming at it fifteen(!) years later reveals a certain amount of nostalgia seasoning my memories of Baldur’s Gate. While still nothing to complain about, my memories had smoothed over some of the rough patches. Not only is the plot slow, it’s really hard to figure out what quests you’re still on and where you need to go for them, an the vast amount of spells, potions, weapons, and loot make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams nearly immediately, especially since you only need a fraction of them. There’s also the fact that the 2nd-edition Dungeons and Dragons rules make everything more opaque than necessary; this potion will raise your intelligence to 18, but what does that mean? What will this help me do?

On the other hand, I finished the game with more or less the first people you meet for companions, despite there being loads of others. There were quests I never went on, and places on the map I never visited. There’s a lot more packed into this game that I’ve barely touched, even after three plays (I’ve had the exact same party every time). So there’s at least one more play of it here for me.

And not only that, I’ve bought the complete Baldur’s Gate II from GOG.com, and will be starting that up again soon.

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