Saturday, July 16, 2016


          I have been in the midst of a kind of existential dilemma. As anyone who has visited my blog has noticed, I didn't publish any new articles last month, and I will admit that I wasn't completely satisfied with my last entry, my review of Captain America: Civil War, despite the fact that many people seemed to have enjoyed it. You see, as is typical with me, I have these strange moments where I fall in a downward spiral, questioning everything I am doing with my life and the world around me. Even now, for example, there is a subtle gnawing in the back of my head wondering why I am taking the time to even write this as opposed to doing something else, like, say, learning yet another language or walking through the park. It's maddening, really, and it makes it difficult for me to stay focused on any endeavor for extended periods of time. But, you see, this is only the tip of the iceberg, and my rabbit hole of problems goes much deeper. This gnawing feeling becomes absolutely heavy, haunting even, when I ask myself what many would consider to be much more "important" questions, such as "Why are you writing articles that most people will likely never read when you could be furthering your career by learning to be an accountant or getting another degree in Business?" or something else along those lines.
          It's at this point that my dilemma becomes much more rudimentary and philosophical. People occasionally ask me questions like the aforementioned examples, and I don't really fault them because I also occasionally ask them of myself. Fortunately, I have a few rather straightforward answers to such questions. Unfortunately, the answers are just as maddening as the questions themselves. For example, one such answer may be "I am not doing those things because that would make me like other people around me, but I don't want to be like other people around me." Other people around me are boring and anti-fun. Art and culture are things that fall by the wayside in the career field I ended up in, and I have little desire to associate with people who underestimate what is truly enjoyable in life. Related to that, another possible answer is "I do the things I do, such as writing, because it is more fun than those things that other people do." I desire to write because words can carry with them the pleasant sensations of art and beauty. As I have said before, experiencing the language of Poe or Milton is much more pleasant than being an accountant and counting other people's money all day (thankfully, I'm not an accountant). But perhaps the most maddening answer of all is "I don't do those other things because those take time to learn, and I don't have a lot of time, nor does anybody else, not to mention the fact that I appear to be naturally talented at Philosophy (or, at least, I think I am)." As I have previously written, humans are doomed to the same fate as every other creature on the planet, and this ultimate end can arrive at any time, in the form of a plane crash, an armed robbery, a tragic accident, suicide, a bloody mess, a stroke, seizure, hemorrhage, a house fire, or just sheer old age. And, as part of that same article, I also argued that life should be spent maximizing pleasures, which can't be done if you are using the time learning to do things that you don't really want to do, or taking the time to catch up on things you don't already know. And there is a distinction to be made between having fun and learning how to have fun. Since I left the master's program at San Diego State, I have reflected on this distinction quite a bit. I already know so much about Philosophy and have been formally trained in it. I was also fortunate enough to grow up with English as my first language, a versatile language with an extreme degree of expression and a large corpus of some of the most brilliant literature on the planet. At this point in my life, these are the tools I know how to use and am equipped with in order to experience the world with what little time I have left. I don't have time to devote to doing things that aren't fun.
          But alas, even trying to have fun is proving to be a difficult endeavor, for, with each passing day, the mountain of things that can go wrong in life seems to become more and more insurmountable, and it's starting to become difficult to make it through even the most menial of tasks. It may seem petty, but a recent example would be from this past weekend. Despite the fact that I haven't written a review since Civil War, I have been keeping up with my movies, having seen WarCraft and The Conjuring 2 over the past couple of weeks. But the experience each time, however, was maddening, particularly for The Conjuring 2. As I have mentioned in previous articles, one of the most enjoyable parts of a film is the level of immersion that one can experience with it. However, the phantasmagoria of a demon possessing the soul of an old man and haunting a British family's house is severely undermined when the drunken fat man in front feels inclined to provide his own idiotic commentary from time to time, or the couple in front of me will not stop muttering to themselves about something totally unrelated to the film, as if they were forced to be there and the film was an inconvenience. The unfortunate thing is that such a scenario seems to be becoming more and more commonplace, and I am left to wonder whether or not investing the time and money in going to a movie and becoming immersed in it, only to be interrupted by some fool who can't appreciate the value of the experience, is better than not going at all.
          Perhaps more depressing is that the above scenario is not strictly limited to movie theaters. I can't seem to escape it - there are distractions everywhere. Within the past several minutes, for example, a man walked in to the coffee shop I am at as I was writing the previous paragraph and proceeded to the counter to place his order, albeit while talking loudly on his cellphone. His voice had this loathsome tone of self-importance, and, when the girl at the counter asked him what he would like, instead of telling her, he raised a finger for her to wait a minute, as if the very coffee shop that he walked into was interrupting his ever-so-important phone call. He just looked like an asshole. Even when I looked away from the scene, I wasn't able to completely escape it, for his smug voice still echoed over me, partially drowning out even the words in my own head. At that point, my only recourse was to plug in my earphones and withdraw to the melodies of "Call the Ships to Port" by Covenant and "Black Star" by David Bowie (fortunately, I am still able to write while listening to music).
          But the concerns only start there. Living and working in a major US city has so much more to offer than living in the suburbs like I was back in California, but there is also something unnerving about it. It goes without saying that major cities tend to attract more crime and conflict, and Seattle, in particular, seems to have a fair bit of stock in the drug addiction market than many other cities. And, these days, it seems as if one can't read the news without hearing about the latest mass shooting in the US. Just about a month ago, for example, one of the worst mass shootings in US history took place at a night club in Florida, killing about 50 people [1]. And it goes without saying that such situations are not limited to the US - there was, of course, the bombing at the airport and metro station in Brussels, Belgium a few months ago in April that shocked an otherwise peaceful city [2], or the bombing at one of the largest train stations in Madrid in 2004 [3]. Moving further east, one of the more frustrating things is that the Middle East has become so concentrated with political turmoil, civil war, terrorism, and international conflict that it has become more or less impossible to visit, despite having its share in some of the most majestic wonders of the world, such as the Pyramids of Giza. In fact, to add insult to injury, some of the greatest artifacts of the Ancient world have been demolished as terrorist groups have destroyed the temples at Palmyra [4].
          And don't think that all of the worries in the world are terror related. It is apparently possible to be on an otherwise straightforward flight from Kuala Lumpur to China and seemingly vanish into thin air, never to be seen or heard from again, such as Malaysia Airlines flight 370 [5]. Or perhaps you can be seen a smoldering pile of charred "trunks, hands, heads, or parts of legs" if you end up on something like American Airlines flight 191, which crashed into a field after an engine failure and immediately exploded into an inferno, killing all 250+ people on board [6]. Or, instead of being part of a plane crash, you might find the burning body of a homeless person in San Diego, as part of the recent string of mysterious attacks on the homeless population in my hometown [7]. And, of course, you may also find yourself turning a street corner in many of the major cities in South America and stumbling into a maze of alleys and streets that constitute the local shantytown, laced with squalor and disease [8].
          Even learning new things about science and the world is becoming more and more difficult and disenchanting. There are two reasons for this. First, strangely, as I have gotten older, I have become increasingly unsettled by imagery and scenes of things like blood and long needles. There's something maddening about imagining a needle being inserted into a vein, stretching up the opposite direction of the blood flow, a small shard of steel sitting in your body. This makes it difficult to read about things like anatomy or medicine, or study things like Biology. When one donates blood, for example, one's veins and arteries empty and their life force drains - one's muscles become weak and feeble, and all color and vivacity seems to fade from one's countenance. Second, to a lesser degree, some aspects of science tend to de-romanticize the world, which is off-putting. Sex, for example, becomes a lot less...interesting...if understood as an activity that mammals do in order to fertilize some eggs and procreate, perpetuating this highly questionable cycle of existence. It becomes more difficult to enjoy a warm meal with a glass of wine by the fireplace when one is analyzing the amount of saturated and monounsaturated fat in each food item, and how each will affect overall cholesterol levels in the bloodstream. A romantic, candlelit dinner for two is suddenly not-so-romantic when you suddenly start wondering whether your date is getting enough sodium for thyroid health. We then come full circle back to my previous point, for, in trying to measure and quantify the overall cholesterol levels in the blood stream, one is forced to image their heart fat-ridden, arteries stiff and clogged, the onset of disease. It's a perpetual cycle. Signs of one's frailty and mortality are ubiquitous, and it truly becomes unnerving. I sometimes find myself curled up on the floor, unable to face it, trying really hard to detach myself from the world. This is why, when studying the sciences, I find myself drawn towards mathematics. Mathematics has the advantage of not directly forcing one to reflect on such unnerving things as the geyser of blood that might erupt from one's neck in the event that one is decapitated, as Biology is apt to do, but yet has the potential to boil the world down to its most rudimentary axioms. Mathematical principles also have the ability to apply to a wider array of scenarios, from explaining the beauty of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, to highlighting the underlying grammatical structure of a foreign language, to helping one establish a connection to a proxy server in order to anonymously surf the Deep Web.
          And, of course, there is that cruel mistress Fate, who, it seems, has been increasingly inclined to demonstrate her dominion over us sad creatures in the world. It's not that difficult to find examples of creatures being victimized by sheer dumb luck - just look to the news. Yesterday, for example, there was a story about two mothers and their children burning alive in a flaming minivan in Los Angeles [9]. There was no scenario that really precluded this; a van breaks down on the side of a freeway, two men get out of the van to examine it, and then a truck accidentally strikes the van and it bursts into flames, roasting two women and their children inside, their curdled cries undoubtedly serving as a painful parting gift to their husbands and fathers. Again, there was no real reason for this; it just happened, a stroke of sheer dumb luck. Of course, many will try to find a place to put the blame. And this is a point I previously tried to make in another article. Humans like to fancy themselves as a kind of creature superior to others, a creature who operates on these arbitrary notions of Justice and Virtue, that reward and punishment should dictate how one progresses through his or her life. This is a foolish assumption, for, try as humans may, Fate cannot be completely escaped, cannot be outmatched, and, often times, has more of a say as to how one's life unfolds than any court or legal system or relationship.
          Another example that better illustrates this was an incident about two weeks ago in Florida when a two year-old boy was eaten and drowned by an alligator [10]. The setting couldn't have been more picturesque, like something out of a movie: a family goes on vacation to Disney World, the supposed "happiest place on Earth". While staying at one of the luxury resorts, they go down to a nearby lagoon for the evening. Their two year-old child, not even old enough to understand the concepts of Justice and Merit and Punishment, proceeds to splash around on the edges of the water. Before long, the boy is snatched by an alligator and dragged underwater where he is drowned. For the next two days, a large-scale search and rescue mission is undertaken to try and recover the boy involving various authorities, including federal law enforcement organizations. To what end all of these various groups were involved is still perplexing. The explanation of the incident was clear from the outset - a boy was more or less snatched by an alligator, likely for food, not unlike when an alligator hunts fowl or rabbits that wander too close to the shore. The child's remains were eventually found, but the aftermath was just as perplexing as the search. Law enforcement vowed to find the perpetrator alligator, religious authorities held public vigils, people raised their hands to the sky wondering "Why? Oh, why?", as if there was some kind of methodical explanation for the event. I wonder what people were expecting to happen after the manhunt and the prayers - were the police planning on arresting the perpetrator alligator? Were the well-wishers expecting God to smite the heathen gator with holy light? Was the community expecting all alligators to come to their senses and abandon their ferocious onslaught in the face of solidarity? Throughout all of this, the simplest and most elegant explanation is overlooked: sheer dumb luck (or, in this case, bad luck). Again, humans like to think themselves above Fate; we like to find someone or something to blame for events that are more or less outside of anyone's control. In each of the above cases, these individuals didn't really do anything to merit their fate (it's unlikely the women and children did anything to deserve perishing in flames, nor did our child in Florida do anything to deserve being attacked by an alligator), but the point here is that, to use a common expression, "sometimes shit happens".
          Is there a solution to all of this? Are there steps that one can take to avoid being the victim of a terrorist shooting, a flaming airplane crash, avoid being exposed to unsettling imagery, such as needles and decay? How can one avoid dealing with all the assholes that seem to be becoming more and more ubiquitous in the world? Or how can one minimize their chances of randomly being hit by a car or being eaten by an alligator? The most apparent answer seems exceedingly simple and ingenious: don't go outside. There is an odd beauty in the logic here - you can't die in a plane crash if you are not on a plane. You won't get killed by terrorists if you don't go to places with suicide bombers and AK-47s. You can't get eaten by an alligator if there are no gators around. You won't have to deal with assholes as long as you don't go to places where assholes are. Granted, it's possible to die in a plane crash if you are on the ground and get hit by a flaming plane, but I find that scenario a lot more far-fetched than being a victim on the aforementioned plane, however unlikely that may be in and of itself. Likewise, it's certainly possible to die in a terrorist attack while being at home, but I can't recall the last time there was a terrorist shooting occurring in someone's house (at least, occurring in someone's house in the US). And, apparently, one's chances of being attacked by an alligator are minimized insofar as one does not travel to Florida. In short, one can avoid becoming a victim of the outside world to the extent that one does not interact with it. Such a course of action seems to become more and more inviting with each passing day - the world becomes increasingly more heart-wrenching every time I read the news, and such reminders of our mortality, and how feeble this crude flesh and bone really are, are increasingly frustrating.
          Sadly, this solution is not foolproof, however. For, try as he may, not even one's house can protect one from Fate. In taking so much care to avoid dying in a plane crash, to avoid aberrant drivers, to avoid the most painful distractions the outside world can present, spending more time in one's house just increases the chances of being destroyed in one's house. A couple years ago, there was a man that was swallowed by the gaping maw of a massive sinkhole that suddenly formed under his bedroom, never to be seen or heard from again (interestingly, this also happened in Florida) [11]. The Chelyabinsk Meteor also had the potential to completely ravage otherwise innocent and peaceful neighborhoods - the shock waves from the passing meteor already shattered windows and injured dozens of people, and, since it was reported that the glow from the meteor was 30 times brighter than the sun, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that one would have quickly gone blind if they looked directly at it [12]. Of course, there are also more sudden things like a brain aneurysm or heart attack that can happen anytime, whether or not one is nestled safely in the privacy of their own home or out and about, exploring the wild dangers of the outside world.
           Such is the dilemma that we are faced with each day, but most people don't realize it. I've realized this for some time and it is, to say the least, maddening. How on earth did our species survive for as long as it has? Again, humans like to elevate themselves above the so-called "lesser" beings, and think themselves capable of outsmarting Fate. Of course, it's at that point that Fate reminds us of the pathetic frailty of this hollow shell and destroys us with anything from a fucking hole in the ground, to being torn apart by an alligator, to burning alive, to cursing us with a galactic event, such as a meteor strike, to suddenly having us drop dead from a stroke. I suppose the real test of human ingenuity would be to escape all of these dangers, all of these worries. But until that happens, all I can do is be reminded of it everyday when I read the news, walk outside, or witness it happen to others. The clock is ticking and, sometimes, the ticking is the only thing that I hear.