Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Pattern Analysis, Redux

Many, many years ago - before print-on-demand, 9/11 and home internet - I got it into my head to write and publish a short story collection. It's a tale I've retold many times as a motivational exercise in my capacity as a writer and as a civilian (the lessons of those days are useful in real life too) so I won't repeat it here, but there was a specific moment during the pregnancy of Paying For Breakages that I thought about again today.

Any good short story collection has a theme, and at the time I was struggling to think of one - I already had a half-dozen stories that I'd written over the previous few years so it needed to be vague enough to fit around them but strong enough to propel the stories I'd yet to write. In the end I flipped the exercise on its head and re-read the stories, hoping I might be able to find a common theme - and I was surprised to find one leapt right out. All of the stories, in one way or another, were about illusions: hallucinations, lies, deceptions, dreams, fantasies - things unreal temporarily promoted to reality. Reviewing the outlines I'd drafted for the yet-unwritten content, I recognised the same theme throughout those too.

Whether this was a particular unconscious obsession of my twenty-something self or the residual imprint of reading too much Neil Gaiman (or, more likely, a symbiosis of the two), it gave me a jolt. Writers bare their souls on the page, but we don't always realise it - we tend to recycle experiences and conversations we've had, the stuff of life pulverised and remixed into new cement, but the shadows that move  beneath don't always become apparent until we read our work again later, long after we forgot the ending, as if we were our own customer.

I've been a bit stuck lately. I wouldn't call it writer's block - there has never been a time in my life when a blank page has been anything but irresistible to me - but The Vagrant And The Snowflake has been a lot harder to focus on than any other book I've started. It might be the nature of the genre (I like worldbuilding a little bit too much, and can spend hours idly doodling maps or writing travel guides to the various countries of Komorolia), or the fact that this is the first of a trilogy and so requires far more planning than usual before I am comfortable enough to nudge that first domino. I'm certainly not uninvested in the characters, whom I already love dearly.

I had a similar problem with The Writing Class, actually: that one was difficult craft because it was a tangled ensemble, and while tangling is easy to do by accident it's murderously hard to do on purpose. I solved that problem by breaking off part way through and writing another book, Control, which was shorter, sharper and very different in tone. A useful distraction: each book became an escape from (and safety valve for) the other.

The Writing Class opens on Valentine's Day, but that's not why I'm referencing it here: I'm thinking of pulling the same end-run around myself that I did back then, by writing something shorter, wilder, less planned and more experimental as a mid-season distraction. I had the beginnings of an idea a little while ago, when I discovered I could suddenly do climb-ups when they had always bested me before, and caught myself staring down at my own hands, incredulous at this new ability, like every superhero origin story ever. That moment of unexpected self-discovery stuck in my mind.

It occurred to me while I leafed through some of my old blog entries that, like Paying For Breakages all those years ago, there is a theme that I did not previously recognise: the masculine appetite for gaining new powers, trying new things, uncovering talents we did not suspect, doing things that are out of character precisely to shake up that character. It's a primal driver of much that men do, and I think there might just be a story there.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Points Of Transition

It's 2017 now. You can tell because everybody on Twitter has stopped complaining about how crap 2016 was and started complaining about how 2017 has already failed to be any better. I've tried to keep my head down lately, and refrained from discussing politics online, precisely so I can't get drawn into the lurid violence of the worldwide game of Cowboys And Indians that seems to have possessed the world of late.

(That said, I do take umbrage with the use of the word populist to describe the sudden upsurge of selfishness, affected disgust at and disregard of fellow humans. That's not populist. That's the raging, screeching, unfiltered id, the antisocial reptile brain, the arrogant and venal animal self that any decent human being outgrew when their first teeth came through, or when their parents explained the difference between right and wrong. Casual evil isn't pragmatic or commonsense or 'how things are in the real world', it's just evil. I'm taking no sides politically here - all facets are just as guilty of this, and all blame each other for starting it - but I reserve a particular aversion for those who append their shitposts with #popcorntime and the like, as if they can sit back and watch the world burn and people suffer with amused detachment, as if it's nothing to do with them, as if it's not their own home that is on fire)

It's depressing, of course, but it always is when people you care about fail you, or turn out to be so much less than you had trusted them to be. I do in fact care about other people in the world, although some sneer at this, as if I have no right to feel a friendliness toward humanity, what with not being God and all, as if it's not my place. Such people are in the ascendancy, and the rest of us can only find ways to cope until the pendulum swings back... as it must, since the trouble with selfishness is that it never actually gets you what you want.

So, what do we do? Our fates are in the hands of others, whose motives are not our own: we can have no effect on their decisions until another election comes along (and not even then, in most of the important ways), so what do we do in the meantime? Petitions and protests don't work any more, and politics is closed to the unaligned. There is nothing significant in the world to which we have sufficient access or authority to change.

Except oneself. It's that time of year when we make resolutions, when we take a few things we hate about ourselves and promise ourselves we'll change them, only to let ourselves off when it turns out we have to work for it. On the whole people are better at Lent resolutions than New Year's, partly because you're promising God instead of yourself but mostly because it's only forty days, rather than just 'from now on'. SMART objectives and all that.

Between July and December last year I lost a stone, dropped from 21% bodyfat to 8% and became significantly faster and stronger. Six months seems a long time - too long for most people, who insist on trying to lose three stone in a month and give up all attempts at self-betterment when it proves impossible - but it isn't, while it's happening. I recall running up to the local parkour park last month, a good eight or nine weeks since my previous visit due to soggy weather (something about concrete makes it hurt more when it's wet, not sure why), and being quite stunned to discover that not only could I now knock out ten pullups per set - double my previous record - but could now perform easily the climb-up that I had spent many hours previously failing utterly to do.

There's a moment in every superhero's origin story when he discovers the extent of his new powers: that was mine. Physical feats unimaginable weeks before were suddenly not only doable, but with ease, enjoyably. I'd adjusted my workouts to target the movements and muscles that needed improving precisely to address these feats: like prayer and magic, it's always a shock when science actually works.

Can one man make a difference, per the comicbooks? Depends on the scale. Being who and what you are makes some difference to everyone who encounters you: I never considered giving up drinking until I met a friend who was a teetotaller but, crucially, wasn't a dick about it - he never brought it up or suggested it, but by example showed what was possible, and planted the seed of it. My life is better for that. I posted a photo of my six-pack abs (yes really: I carved them out as a challenge to myself before I turned forty-three) on Facebook to show that what everyone likes to believe is beyond the abilities of mortal men really, really isn't. Maybe it'll make no difference, maybe it'll just be the tiny bit of encouragement someone needs to keep going on their own path. Worth a try.

There are two old sayings. One is 'people never change'. The other is 'people change.' Both are true, but they're not using the word people in the same way. You can't change society, because society is only a reflection of a large number of individuals. Those individuals can't be made to change, because it's in our nature to resist external control. But you can change yourself. When a number of individuals do the same, the reflection starts to shift.

I've never liked the phrase 'be the change you want to see in the world', because it's a bit cloying and it doesn't really make sense anyway - if you want the world to change it's usually because you want it to be more like you, not the other way round - but perhaps the change you should make is simply to show the values you hold, to demonstrate them, to be who you are without imposing it on anyone else. Just prove that it's possible to hold your values, whatever they are, without having to hurt or denigrate or destroy anybody else, and someone somewhere might just draw courage from that.

A lot of hatred comes from the belief that a measure of hate is a necessity for living, that kindness is a luxury we can't afford. If you don't believe that, show it. Not by making arch comments on Twitter, but by living your life with kindness. Kindness is playing on Hard Mode when there are so many people waiting to kick your teeth in, true, but if those people truly respect strength above all then they'll see yours soon enough. CS Lewis called it guts, the ability to 'stick it' when times are hard: Rocky Balboa said something similar, that it isn't about how hard you hit, but how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.

In a world of swords, be a shield. The sword always breaks first.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Moments of Catalysis

I remember when parkour wasn't called 'parkour' but 'mucking about', or 'aggravated trespass'.

I remember the late nineties, spending night after night locked in battle with the Maria Doria level of Tomb Raider II, once reaching the ledge at the top of a climb and quite by accident performing a slow and graceful handstand, full of envy for Lara Croft's ability to traverse. It was something lost in the later games, that spatial puzzling, replaced by combat and QTEs and prequelific angst - the lonely joy of getting from one place to another with just the limited toolset of climbs, grabs and jumps, and nobody to rescue you or find your body, was what defined Tomb Raider, and it was perhaps inevitable after the movie came out that this simple joy would be smothered by developers' desperate need to Hollywoodise their games.

Croft was a cipher, and rightly too. The player had to inhabit this avatar, after all: backstory and motivation are a distraction from what every game should be about - the moment. The solving of the puzzle. Hitman went the same way (although may be pulling back again with the recent switch to episodic), GTA did too - games aren't movies, and they don't have to be in order to be respectable.

I wonder what the Assassin's Creed movie is going to be like. I like Fassbender - he can bring gravitas to a papier mache head or a purple-clad mutant, so I doubt he'll come up short - and the sheer weight of lore behind the franchise already rather prevents the movie taking over, but then AC is already halfway between a movie and a soap opera as it is. I haven't played an AC game since Unity, which I sank less than an hour into before I got bored with being tugged along by scripted events, just wanting to start the game already. I hear Syndicate was better, and will try it soon enough.

I remember Mirror's Edge, the flawed but wonderfully brave attempt to bring parkour to the gamer in a way that felt truly immersive, to take that same spatial puzzling that made TR so great and, er, go faster. It was brilliant, but hamstrung by unnecessary combat and unnecessary plot. I didn't get halfway through it, but I enjoyed the moment-by-moment sensation of it enough only to stop when a compulsory fight made it too much hassle.

I was surprised they made another. The moment is so rarely enough to bring a publisher back to put right past mistakes: more usually they think a narrative or a world is compelling and have to fix a flawed implementation (AC1 springs to mind), not the other way round. Mirror's Edge: Catalyst was an anomaly, and while I sincerely doubt they'll make a third I really hope they do.

I picked up ME:C, tried it, hated it and traded it in. Compulsory combat sections, too much plot - it was all the same mistakes all over again. But something made me buy it again a week later and persevere. Once the game stopped dragging me through other people's plots (which even the character of Faith, or at least her voice actor, seemed to resent) and gave me an open world to play with, I found that I could have as many moments as I wished.

It was that same feeling of traversal, the negotiation of space with tools. Run, jump, grab, vault, climb, drop, roll. The same feeling Tomb Raider used to give, the same moment.

Quite against my will, the stringing together of moments became an engagement with the main questline and a week ago I finished it. I'm still mopping up the last couple of sidequests but mostly I'm just enjoying the freedom. The plotline is pretty inoffensive, with good actors making the best of a hackneyed story and thinly-sketched characters. If, as is rumoured, a Mirror's Edge TV series comes to be I shall be very intrigued to see it.

I remember envying Lara, but I never envied Faith her physical abilities: they're more practical than graceful, and something about the first-person perspective makes them seem that bit more achievable. I took up parkour in real life about halfway through the game, and I'm slowly getting the hang of it: mostly it's bruises and blisters and humiliating failure but every now and then you get something right and there's that moment again.

Lara was a cipher, as any good videogame character should be, in order that we may inhabit her without having to be somebody else. With Faith the door swung both ways. Games are not movies and should not try to be, but if the measure of a fictional character is their absorbability, their propensity to cross the membrane of their medium and infiltrate us, Mirror's Edge: Catalyst is up there with some of the greatest novels I have read. I've always felt that games are art, when done right: perhaps this is a new measurement of that.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

England/Britain/the Internet Expects

Watching the Olympics - usually, pleasingly, while I'm lifting weights or pounding the stationary bike - has been more satisfying than usual this time round. London 2012 was marvellous simply because of the familiar scenery (although way too expensive for the likes of me to actually attend in person): Rio has been a messy affair, what with money problems and Zika and apparently frequent armed robberies and booing and green pools and bad-tempered doping accusations, but the sheer sport has shone through brighter than ever this time, perhaps because of the muck around it, rather than in spite.

It doesn't hurt that Team GB have done amazingly, historically well, and unpredictably so. It's been dramatic in the purest sense of the word - dead certs suddenly collapsing medalless, rank outsiders making insane dreams come true - with the records that fell being the long-term ones, the double-doubles and first successful defences.

It's been those records, the ones outside the mere be-fastest-ever stuff, that fascinate me. The goals of the athletes have been more varied and disparate than ever, and more personal. Contrast Lutalo Muhammad, positively distraught after 'only' winning silver in the taekwondo, with Amy Tinkler, over the moon with her bronze for floor gymnastics. As I write Callum Hawkins has taken 9th in the marathon - well outside the medals but still generally regarded as an excellent run. Mo Farah's golds, partly a cementing of his legacy but primarily a set of gifts for his kids.

I love that. I love that these men and women at the very top of their professions, with leads and records unassailable, still keep setting new goals for themselves; I love that the up-and-comers don't just give up when a gold is out of reach, but set an interim target and define their own flavour of success. They are true self-starters, not needing anyone else to set their goals for them.

I've been playing No Man's Sky today, unable to drive to Army due to a minor yoga-related neck injury (yep, that can happen), which is a game about which everyone seems to be angry. Some are angry because they expected features seen in an E3 demo that didn't make the cut; some are angry because they weren't explicitly told that said features wouldn't appear; many are angry that there isn't much to do in the game except explore a universe of 18 quintillion detailed planets.

I never saw the E3 demo. I never read previews, take no interest in a game until reviews of complete code are available. Everything is hot air until the discs are burned. It's not fair or nice, but there is literally no advertised product that is not like this, and advertising only works because a handful of people choose to believe the hot air. This isn't a particular cancer of game development, it's everywhere. Ask anyone who voted for (or against) Brexit.

I love the game, for the same reason I always love an open world: because I can set my own priorities, my own targets, my own goals. The game doesn't stop me, or override my choices with an intrusive questline: the devs are working on adding base-building to the game, which pretty much defies the supposedly intended cycle of explore-warp-explore. Having my own little home on a backwater planet where I can potter around cataloguing the wildlife is pretty much my dream, so I can't wait: I'm already scouting out suitable worlds.

There is a (much-maligned, I think unfairly, in the comments section) piece at Eurogamer about games like these - 'adjective games' as opposed to 'verb games', a useful shorthand distinction I think - that perhaps sheds light on the kind of people who play these games. Adjective games appeal to people who enjoy the sensation of being there, who are prepared to make their own goals and stories: I suspect that this is also what distinguishes athletes from gymgoers.

Gymgoers go to the gym because they read somewhere (or were told by a doctor) that they're supposed to, to lose weight or look better or mitigate their heart murmur or whatever: they follow programmes they found online or in Men's Health, depend on a PT to motivate them, hate the work but accept it as a Thing They Have To Do. Athletes love being there, enjoy the sensation of a hard session, of good work completed: it's not an external compulsion, but an internal one. They set their own goals, their own agenda. Their coach or their nutritionist is not there to impose external goals, but to support their own.

I've moved, slowly, from gymgoer to athlete over the course of the last half a decade. I enjoy my runs like never before, feel restless and weirdly unjustified if I'm unable to work out for a day. I'll never contest the Olympics, of course, but I don't have to, because I set my own goals. Perhaps that's why I can be happy with No Man's Sky.

For all the victories and defeats and memorable moments, there is one in particular that I will forever associate with Rio 2016. It was Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D'Agostino's collision and fall during their 5,000m, where they both helped each other to get up and finish, running through what must have been terrible pain. It brought tears to my eyes: this is why sport is different to war, and better - in sport you can be kind, if you are strong enough.

Monday, August 01, 2016

A Hard-Won Banana Equilibrium

I used to hate bananas, then forced myself to eat them regularly until I got to like them, then came to resent them, and eventually stopped having feelings about bananas altogether. Like air and sleep the yellow not-really-a-fruit is simply a necessity now, something forgotten once inhaled. Not everything in life can be assimilated like that, but at least bananas can.

I'd be lying if I said I had writer's block, but I'd be lying if I said I'd done much writing lately too - the meniscus between real life and the fictional is a bit thin (at least for me. I understand this isn't the case for some writers, usually grizzled ex-Forces types whose novels have pointy aeroplanes on the jacket) and if my real-world equilibrium is disturbed the other one usually tips over.

That's not to say I haven't written at all: I have, and not badly either. But momentum is hard to come by, and my day job has recently become rather more bent towards authorly endeavour itself - technical documentation and training materials require a surprising amount of creative thinking and craft to do well, which is why so many of them are not done well. It's not a zero-sum game or anything, it's just... well, knackering.

Anyway, I have two weeks off work now and can switch that facet off for a bit. It is my habit to visit Eastbourne for a few days to enjoy the sea and the (comparative) quiet, but a part of me is tempted to stay home: there's something appealingly Spartan-slash-monkish about paring life back to naught but workouts, writing and prayerful meditation, and holiday eating is a bloody trial when you're trying to eat clean, hence bananas.

Clean eating is a meme (by the internet definition, of course) - it's another one of those too-good-to-be-true oversimplifications that pepper the world of popular nutrition (think about that phrase for a moment: popular nutrition. That's the world we live in now. No wonder terrorists want to kill us all) - but like all oversimplifications it is a simplification of something true, or at least indicated by peer-reviewed study. The inestimable Fritha Louise, in railing against this practice via the medium of YouTube, actually got me to try it through cunning reverse psychology/me being bloody-minded and it's been enormously helpful. I'm not a large chap - five-five in my socks, although I'm very rarely in socks, for reasons I hope are obvious - and cutting fat is a bloody trial when your BMR is in the 1400s. Clean eating lets me cut without having to starve and forces me to find ways to make avocado appetising, a challenge of near Dark-Souls-level daunt which I have, I'm happy to say, bested, through the application of lime juice and cayenne.

So, yeah. I'm losing weight and training harder than ever, and I'm not suffering for it as I have in the past. It's big news for me, anyway, and I've blogged for only the second time this year, so perhaps the emotional logjamb of recent months is clearing a bit. We'll see.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Squeezing The Middle

Every now and again I seek out something I have always disliked or missed the point of and endeavour to start afresh with it, to reset and retry on the offchance I might actually like it now. Occasionally this bears fruit: suet dumplings, custard and stilton, for instance, turned out to be far tastier in adulthood than as a pasty schoolboy (unmixed, I might add) - but more often than not I turn out to have been right the first time, which is oddly depressing.

I'm forty-two now, which is the same age as Bond and is likely the exact midpoint of my lifespan, since I neither smoke nor drink and my genes are good. I've had occasional midlife panics for the best part of a decade now, where I seek out something new and unprecedented to add to my being in an attempt to prove to myself I've still got the poorly-defined, elusive 'it'. I've always assumed that this was simple nostalgia for youth, when everything seemed new because it was, that this sense of discovery was what the midlife man tries to replicate.

I've never been convinced that it's really about trying to be young again. Men don't age that way: most of our role models are middle-aged, because getting to middle age is how they got to be role models, by gathering the wisdom of years and surviving the process. You can't really look up to someone who hasn't survived something. Talent isn't an accomplishment, application of talent is. Now I've been in the midrange of life for a while I think it's probably just about change.

We are supposed to resist change as we age, but we don't - we just resist the worsening of the world around us, which seems inevitable and perfectly sensible, really. When a man is trying new things in midlife he isn't striking out to recapture lost youth: he's trying to prove that losing youth isn't a drawback, that it doesn't make us any weaker or less than we were. Men are fine with growing up, we just want to use it for something. In a sense I have an advantage over most men my age in that I have no wife, kids or mortgage to drain my time and opportunities - on the other hand I have no money either, so I can't just take a month off plying the roulette tables of Monaco in search of new experiences.

As is so often the case, I have the refuge of writing. I occasionally resent the lack of performance in my field - you can't really demonstrate authorial creativity at parties, in the same way a saxophonist might blow or a singer warble - and I'd give anything to possess some kind of social artistic talent, like dancing. But for the habitual loner, which every man is at some point in his life, writing is perfect: you only need a pen, and you probably have one. When you invent worlds you're never short of new experiences.

I've been in the middle of things for a long time: in the middle of The Vagrant And The Snowflake, in the middle of some lifestyle alterations, in the middle of various disasters and accomplishments. I've made some changes, while some other changes have remade me, and right now I'm watching some of the mid-2000s dance movies I've always eschewed because, you know, what if I was wrong? I'm probably not, but it's as well to make sure.

It's chaos, midlife. It's a mess of past and present and future, of maintenance and progression, of wisdom hard-earned and glorious new ignorances discovered. But it's a chaos that we've earned, that we're comfortable with, that we're able and willing to handle and shape. It's only called a crisis because it looks like one from the outside.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


I journeyed far and found refuge abroad
Leagues away from where I lay my head.
Now I've returned, this place seems all but dead:
My home is not my home. This bed and board

Holds nothing for me now, and yet I'm trapped
By history, the knots tied in my life.
Knots can be cut loose - where is my knife?
Freedom calls me: history be scrapped!

But wait... must I escape, or change my mind?
Is the grass I seek no greener than
That on which I stand? A thirsting man
Beneath a waterfall would heaven find...

Wisdom needn't rush. For now, no haste.
I'll keep my knife at hand, though, just in case.