For students of history, especially those who have taken histories covering ancient Rome and Greece, many will fondly remember the case concerning the murder of Eratosthenes in Athens by Euphiletus, who found his victim engaging in an extramarital affair with his wife. Interestingly, the speech, written for the trial in question, offers wonderful insight into the public and private lives of men and women in ancient Athens.
The speech in question was composed, by a speech writer named Lysias, for the legal defense of Euphiletus, who was being charged for murder. One thing is clear throughout the speech: Euphiletus was hoping to justify his murder of Eratosthenes, making it abundantly clear he did nothing wrong, at least under Athenian law. Lysias’ speech was later studied as part of the great canon of oratory works. In fact, Lysias’ speech is still studied today by rhetoricians, historians, and classicists. What is most striking about Lysias’ speech for Euphiletus was the number of snapshots it offered of the oikos (home, the private sphere) in Athenian society.
Seasoned (professional) and budding historians are able to examine Lysias’ speech beyond the legal defense offered by its author. In other words, much like the work of micro-historians and many social historians, this piece of oration allows us to examine the lives of those who are not often recorded within the history books. The voiceless, the quietened voices, are given some attention here, which is fantastic, even if it is difficult to tease out historical realities from this work.
At the beginning of his speech, Euphiletus describes the situation of his house, his marriage, and how he finally learns of the extramarital affair. In doing so, Euphiletus is made out to be the victim, someone who is completely (and utterly) justified in his murder of Eratosthenes.
When I, Athenians, decided to marry, and brought a wife into my house, for some time I was disposed neither to vex her nor to leave her too free to do just as she pleased; I kept a watch on her as far as possible, with such observation of her as was reasonable. But when a child was born to me, thence-forward I began to trust her, and placed all my affairs in her hands, presuming that we were now in perfect intimacy.
In this section of Euphiletus’ speech, we see a glimpse into the nature of the oikos in Athens. Moreover, we see the development of a loving marriage, something built on trust, which is cemented by the procreation of heirs or children by Euphiletus’ wife. With the birth of Euphiletus’ first child, we learn that his stricter controls over his wife’s affairs were loosen, as she showed she could be trusted to avoid engaging in extramarital affairs, and other things that might cause ruin for his house and name.
This supposes Grecian women, especially in Athens, were not chattel owned by their controlling husbands, as some have suggested. Instead, it appears that Athenian women commanded more respect and power than many within the ancient world. Furthermore, this speech suggests Athenian women were given their own quarters, providing some measure of privacy, meaning they had some level of autonomy even with the house itself.
[M]y dwelling is on two floors, the upper being equal in space to the lower, with the women's quarters above and the men's below.
As the speech moves forward, toward the realization of Euphiletus’ wife’s affair, we discover the use of makeup by Euphiletus’ wife. The use of makeup also suggests an autonomy over one’s person. In other words, Euphiletus had no say in his wife’s appearance, and it shows that Grecian women exerted considerable independence and power over their own bodies. Moreover, as we read (and re-read) Euphiletus’ descriptions of the events that transpired, we find that Athenian women were not confined to the oikos. This seems rather counterintuitive, especially considering the mixed messages we often receive from written history and primary documents. Wolpert, who compiled an abridged version of Lysias’ famous speech, and one I was introduced to by Dr. Dale Street back in 2010, offers the following observation: “If women did in fact live in seclusion, then Eratosthenes would never have had the opportunity to meet Euphiletus’ wife.” Wolpert’s observation helps us shatter the notion that ancient societies clamped down on women, particularly their lives and their bodies. This isn’t entirely the case. Instead, women, especially in ancient cities like Athens, were able to exert their own influence, project agency, and act as independent individuals, who didn’t necessarily have to follow the commands of their husbands.
What does this mean for us? It offers a rather interesting picture of Athenian society, one that portrays society in a way that seems counterintuitive. Women had autonomy, albeit with strings attached. Women were not confined to the private sphere, as some might believe. Instead, women appeared to be active members of Athens’ public sphere, and, again, in a very limited fashion. While Athenian society was unique in many ways, it does show the need to examine (and re-examine) the intricacies of pre-modern societies, so we can understand the agency exerted by women.
1. Lysias, Lysias with an English translation by W.R.M. Lamb, M.A., Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1930. [Available in electronic form through the Perseus Digital Library.]
Originally posted on Medium when I maintained a presence there. Here for your viewing pleasure. Some themes will be revisited in the coming months. I think much of what is presented here still holds true, especially when it comes to trying to understand America's obsession with war, militarism, and military violence.
“They just need to shut down the war machine,” was the last thing I’d expect my father to say over the phone. The man’d been a war hawk much of my life. In fact, during my youth, he and my uncle owned and operated a Website called swornenemy.org, a neo-conservative, might-makes-right Internet haven, complete with its own merch shop. This conversation came after the many we’d had concerning the nature of infrastructure in the United States.
You see, I live in southeastern New Mexico, where roads, bridges, and other forms of infrastructure are crumbling from the sheer neglect or lack of adequate funding. He had a point. Nearly twenty years of endless war, at least if you took the short view, had drained the nation’s coffers.
The oft-quoted wisdom concerning guns and butter came to mind. Can you have both? Or, does one sap the other? These are just a few questions my father, an USAF veteran, and I have had over the years. Although these conversations are nothing new, especially in this country, they have a different weight now.
We live in an era of waning American prestige, an increasingly violent and multipolar world, and war, from at least one American perspective, is never-ending, draining, and only profitable for a small minority.
Major-General Smedley Butler was (and still is) the single-most decorated U.S. Marin in American history. Known for his bravery, his temper, and his late-life support for prohibition, few know Major-General Butler for his battle-wise pacificism. In fact, Butler gave a speech in 1933 that highlights some issues still relevant to a war-addicted (and war-weary) United States today. He spoke of the problems concerning American military intervention, war-profiteering by the country’s business elites, and being an industrial nation’s button:
I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.
I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.
I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
The above critique of American military interventionism and war-profiteering becomes sharper and more distinct when one considers Major-General Butler’s credentials. The man served, honorably one might add, the American republic for thirty-odd years. He wasn’t your average peace activist, who hadn’t seen the horrors of war. Instead, he was someone who’d experienced them first-hand.
Major-General Butler’s criticism of America’s addiction to war had been, sadly, lost to history. If asked who Butler was, many might know of his military record. Some might be able to point out his late-life pacifism or even his short-lived political career. Butler’s critique of the American military complex has been largely forgotten, especially in an age of continual warfare across the globe, all in the name of American national interests.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2020), wars fought by the United States between 1775 and 1991 claimed some 650,000 American lives. More recent conflicts, especially with the ever-expanding, never-ending War on Terror, appear to be more ambiguous when it comes to military deaths in battle. The United States spends, as of 2019, some data suggest that military spending exceeds 1 trillion USD every year, despite official numbers hovering in the hundreds of billions of dollars. 1 trillion USD support a military-industry complex unlike anything seen in human history, and a war machine that has seen little winding down, despite numerous setbacks overseas (think: Iraq and Afghanistan, generally speaking), plunging morale among the public and military servicemembers, and misappropriation of funds. The total military spending by the United States is purposely ambiguous, as are its military actions overseas. America’s total and ceaseless war machine is starting to erode American democratic-republican ideals, its national treasure, and the very organizations that are supposed to be committed to fighting endless warfare across the globe.
The Beginnings of Never-Ending War.
The beginnings of the American military machine can be traced back to the early period of the republic, when American presidents committed U.S. troops (and sailors) to pacify underdeveloped countries for American business interests or to ensure the safety of sea lanes for American trade. One of the earliest foreign military conflicts fought by the United States was against piracy, particularly against the Barbary Pirates, who had managed to defeat or cow many European military powers. The American military forces at the time were laughable, at best. However, they managed to secure American shipping interests in the Mediterranean through the Barbary Wars, one of the earliest foreign conflicts fought by the early republic.
Interesting aside: Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, which helped officially end the Barbary Wars, states the following: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, — and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
American military forces were used to secure American interests against piracy, uprisings, coups, and so much more. The United States, during the 1890s up until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, meddled in the internal affairs of numerous countries that found themselves freed of European colonial yokes. However, American foreign policy, backed up with the help of the British (and later the American) navy, produced conditions of possibility for American hegemony within the Western Hemisphere, which was originally formulated under the Monroe Doctrine and later given teeth with the [Theodore] Roosevelt Corollary.
WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.
— Smedley D. Butler, War Is a Racket
According to the data we have available to us, via the Congressional Research Service’s report entitled “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798–2020,” the United States has deployed military personnel to dozens of countries across the globe, starting out within those spheres of influence closest to the republic (or to the republic’s trade interests). As the United States developed as an industrial, and, then, as a military power, it became a dominant force, looking to secure its interests, or at least the interests of the nation’s politico-economic elite.
Franklin D. Roosevelt would end the tumultuous relationships the United States held with those countries within the Western Hemisphere. This change in foreign policy comes down to us in history as FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy. Although short-lived, it proved to be an interesting model of friendship and cooperation between the United States and its southernly neighbors. The reasons for FDR to develop a more peace-oriented approach to the nation’s southernly neighbors in Latin America might be linked to several things. These policies ensured a secure southern front at a time when international politics were slowly devolving into chaos. The Good Neighbor Policy allowed Roosevelt to focus on important international and domestic events. And, finally, FDR was a pragmatist and realized that committing American troops to pacification missions was problematic (and costly).
The consequences of American interventionism would rear their ugly heads during the Cold War. The Cold War would see the official end of Roosevelt’s idealistic, if not, hardly realized, Good Neighbor Policy. With his death, Roosevelt’s short-lived legacy of friendship and non-meddling would come to an end. In turn, the Western Hemisphere saw numerous socio-political and economic upheavals, which challenged the United States fundamentally.
The Not-So-Cold War.
The Cold War, ushered into the world following the Second World War, has been blamed for the rise of the American military-industry complex. In fact, the United States would, with the help of a better credit card, so to speak, develop the largest military industry and military machine the world has ever seen. Much of this can be linked to fearmongering amongst U.S. military officials and politicians. Moreover, the development of the U.S. Department of Defense, in 1947, probably played a significant role in the development of a rather burdensome military-industrial complex we are familiar with today. To add to this, we have the post-war hysteria concerning the communist threat against the United States and its allies. The communist threat was (likely) overblown. Many of Stalin’s moves following the Second World War, such as the development of buffer states between the West and the USSR, were more realpolitik than an attempt to spread communism throughout Europe (and beyond).
The Cold War, one could argue, was a war of threat-inflation. Using slippery slope arguments, poor data (think: Missile gaps reported by the CIA), and the right ideological conditioning, the United States developed a formidable military-industrial complex that outcompeted the Soviet threat by leaps and bounds.
I recently discussed the nature of the Cold War with at least one U.S. Air Force veteran, who served in the nuclear forces during the late-80s. He stated that when looking back he felt that he’d been on the wrong side of history. In other words, he felt that he’d belonged not to the league of good guys, the keepers of the flame, the keepers of peace and security, but, rather, to the dominant aggressor during the Cold War. In fact, a rather extensive (and thoroughly engrossing) article by Air & Space Magazine argues that some two-hundred American airmen were shot down over Soviet skies during the Cold War.
It was American military policy that made the Cold War hot. In fact, American interventionism under the Containment Policy, fueled by the slippery slope argument known in U.S. history as the Domino Theory, led to U.S. military conflicts across the globe. These conflicts racked up a considerable body count and drained U.S. treasure away from domestic programs for infrastructure, poverty relief, and even education.
The Global War on Terror.
The Global War on Terror, shortened to War on Terror, is another one of those historical paradoxes in American history. It is a war built on fearmongering, and it is a conflict masquerading itself as a war against terror, chaos, and evil. However, in reality, the War on Terror has used ubiquitous drone warfare to bring terror to millions of people worldwide. To paraphrase an observation relayed to me by a veteran, only Americans would make people fear clear blue skies.
The Global War on Terror has other consequences as well. The United States is said to have spent trillions of dollars on international conflicts — for what? If we look at the reasons given for the continued wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, northern Africa, and elsewhere, policymakers assure the American public that these conflicts are to ensure national security interests. Moreover, they are conflicts worth fighting, because they are ensuring a safe world for democracy and freedom. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. American interventionism has a considerable body count across the globe, and this body count is unlikely to lead to results such as democracy, freedom, and peace. To quote a shirt from the 1960s antiwar movement: Fighting a war for peace is like fucking for chastity.
The American war machine and the military-industrial complex have become bankrupt—both in their morality and their ability to protect the interests of the so-called Free World. The Global War on Terror shows that the Pax Americana is nothing more than a façade, something that, on the surface, seems nice, but underneath it is rotting and sticking like death has taken hold.
If history is any indicator, those who named the current period of peace are sadly falling victim to a sort of Orwellian language. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. I could go on ad nauseum, but I won’t.
Tales from the Homefront, and the Unintended Consequences of Ceaseless Warfare.
I am a child of the late-90s and early-2000s.
I remember when the Towers fell. I remember watching the twenty-four-hour news feeds, as people talked about what the United States was going to do next. I remember when we invaded Afghanistan. I remember when the war in Afghanistan became the forgotten war, as the United States shifted resources to its invasion of Iraq.
I also remember when the impact of ceaseless war hit me the most. I was in college, about twenty or so at the time. My youngest brother, who was about the turn nineteen, was deployed to Afghanistan. This wouldn’t be an extraordinary story if I hadn’t put two and two together: My brother was in the fourth-grade when the 9/11 terror attacks happened. He was quite young when we invaded Iraq, some two years later.
My brother served in Afghanistan as a young soldier, who turned nineteen over there. He fought a war that was about a decade old when he arrived. This got me thinking, what are the costs of ceaseless warfare. I’ve listed a few thoughts below, but I am sure I haven’t covered everything. Consider this a sort of conclusion with some food for thought.
— Rampant mental health issues among returning veterans.
— An inadequate support and care system for veterans and their families.
— Trillions in accumulated debts.
— An unsafe world for democracy and freedom.
— America has become synonymous with war, death, and destruction.
— Crumbling infrastructure nationwide.
— Rampant economic and political disparities at home.
— The decline of American prestige.
— A rotting educational system that turns out undereducated citizens.
How Did We Get Here?
The above question, a great deal more complicated than I’d like to admit, is the central question of this work. I set out to explore why the United States, a nation that once shunned, at least internally, ceaseless warfare and international entanglements, became the largest military spender in the global economy (spending something like more than the next fifteen or twenty countries combined). Moreover, how does the United States justify its ceaseless wars across the globe? In other words, this is part history, part political commentary, and part exploration of what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century, a century that has proven quite deadly and expensive as far as military escapades are concerned.
I've been contemplating the social, political, and economic crises unleashing havoc on the United States. This has pushed me to reconsider some topics and rearrange future postings. With that said, I am hoping to publish a new blog posting tomorrow, covering a heavy (and contentious) topic here in the United States (and across the globe). As always, new postings will be published before 23:00 Mountain Time in the United States. See you all tomorrow!
A recent series of conversations and popular culture deep readings have convinced me that popular culture isn’t the dumpster fire we all often believe. Instead, popular culture, like many things, has its give and take, its flaws and its strengths, and, more importantly, its problematic and brilliant moments.
In a recent blog posting, I discussed the rather complicated (and often overlooked) aspects of The Witcher, the TV show produced by Netflix. Prior to watching the show, I’d followed the Internet conversations concerning The Witcher, particularly the controversies surrounding its Afrocentric world-building. Oddly enough, much of the criticism came from author I’ve respected for their worldviews and their abilities to break free from the white, middle-class worldview of J. R. R. Tolkien. Particularly, one criticism that I found problematic was the views voiced by N. K. Jemisin, who appeared to have only watched a portion of The Witcher, claiming it was too “European” in its flavoring (a copy of the specific Tweet below). With that said, it brings up an interesting problem in popular culture, specifically our perceptions of what is considered diverse and a mirror of reality as it exists outside of a specific cultural artifact.
I hated "The Witcher." It makes me crazy. It gives young white kids the idea that this is something to believe in. It's utter bullshit. I think the people that made it have never been to Poland.
While I agree with the criticisms leveled against those behind the production of the show, as articulated by N. K. Jemisin, I think it ignores a reality that the current popular culture moment forgets. There are no monolithic constructs in culture, despite being perpetuated by popular culture artifacts, biased (and often racist) writers and artists, and a sort of society-wide Mandela Effect writ large. Jemisin is correct in bucking against the white-washed and often problematic Euro-American tendency of creating a monolithic Europe, a sort of light upon the hill, shining out toward the backward, barbaric nations across the globe. In other words, there is no single Europe. There are many Europes, in fact. Western Europe is not the same as Eastern Europe. In fact, it gets more complicated: There is no monolithic Eastern or Western Europe either. With these regions, there are smaller units, often with their own complicated histories, cultures, dialects/topolects, etc. The same goes for Africa. Are we talking about South Africa? The Congo? Or, North Africa? The three examples above highlight many issues with monolithic constructions in Western (and even in many global) contexts. For example, South Africa and the Congo have experienced tremendous internal conflicts, often conflicting the monolithic image they portray outside of their borders. In South Africa, the iron-fisted Apartheid of the white-dominated government created an oppressive, state-sanctioned racial hierarchy. Despite this, the United States refused to pressure the South African government on its policies, particularly under the Reagan Administration, who didn’t think the Apartheid was unpalatable. In the Congo, a country created, in part, by European colonial mapmakers, suffered (and still suffers) from the impious fiction of a monolithic Congolese state. North Africa, another one of those monolithic creations, was once considered part of Europe, in many ways. In fact, under the Romans, North Africa and its diverse peoples were either part of the Roman Empire or under its socio-political influence. Despite this, North Africa remains, in the eyes of the West, part of the larger, mythic Africa, which doesn’t exist. The same goes for Europe. In other words, Africa and Europe are like a society-wide Mandela Effect, something everyone believes exists, yet when one looks for the evidence, it never appears. Instead, we find what really lies beneath.
The problem with the current cultural politics is the lack of understanding of our perceptions of the larger world. Our cultural politics have been subsumed under a form of accepted tribalism, an us versus them mentality. Republican v. Democrat. Black v. White. Christian v. Muslim. The list goes on and on. While many writers and artists have built and perpetuated these tribalist mentalities, they have also been resisted against. We can resist this dangerous politico-cultural tribalism, but it’ll take time and patience.
While the J. R. R. Tolkiens and George R. R. Martins of the world dominate much of the publishing market, it doesn’t mean this has to be the future. Instead, resisting the big publishers and their white-washed publication schedules is possible. In fact, it is necessary. The creation of culture doesn’t (necessarily) belong to the dominant members of society. Instead, in our age of technology-driven information and entertainment exchange, it is possible to resist the attempts made by large publishers to play it all safe.
How do we resist the tribalist mentalities in popular culture? How do we keep the future within our grasp? First, we need to be politically active, pushing for meaningful change. This means we have to vote for politicians who are going to ensure the future isn’t dominated by (and completely bloated with) these tribalists who feed us stories that are empty, devoid of anything meaningful. Second, we need to develop viable alternatives to publishing as it currently exists. It’s out there—we just need to seek it out. Lastly, we need to realize as well: While change is what keeps the incestuous nature of commercial publishing from killing all of us, we also need to understand that garbage exists out there. Hatred, racist/biased views, and disinformation are going to exist. We need to educate ourselves to recognize these, and we need to move forward, not purging them from existence, but recognizing them for what they are, a reminder of our human flaws and our tainted pasts, presents, and futures.
Originally posted on my blogs on Medium and over at Back to the Holodeck. I am hoping to delve a bit deeper in future postings, particularly with the two big postings I have in the pipeline, both of which I hope to get polished and published this coming week, a sort of treat for those who want writings that are a bit longer, more accomplished.
The 19th century was a time of great scientific advances in Europe and America. The innovations that resulted contributed to a feeling that it was a good time to be alive and that mankind’s lot was generally improving. The applications saved labour, improved health, enhanced communications and shrank distances. With the coming of the war, the dark side of science was given free expression, becoming death-dealing instead of life-enhancing.
— Patrick Bishop, “Killing Machines: Weapons of the First World War”
When I was growing up, I watched reruns of the Jetsons, with episodes containing fantastic technologies and lifestyles that were dreamlike.
However, I am also old enough to remember 9/11. (I say old enough, because I have students who weren’t even born yet, when 9/11 took place.) These two memories from my past shine brightly in the hazy darkness of my mind, contradicting one another. On one side, you have the bright, shining lie: Technology, that is, progress, will lead to better things. On the other side, you have the cold, hard truth: Technology, i.e., progress, doesn’t always result in the Jetsons universe. In fact, the succeeding nineteen years taught me, and everyone else, that progress was a myth, packaged and sold to all of us. Things didn’t seem to get better, at least in the grand scheme of things. Although things did get better, such as better gas mileage, better batteries, cooler phones, faster computers, etc., they didn’t have that same shiny exterior we were sold by the Jetsons. Instead, we seemed to be cheated out of our slice of the progress pie.
One could argue that I am not giving progress the benefit of the doubt. In other words, I am being one-sided in my argument. It is true that science and technology have helped to eliminate or at least mitigate some of the worst problems known to humanity. Things like clean water are becoming increasingly available to even the poorest of people in the world. Moreover, food crises are becoming less and less prevalent. These are true. However, with these movements forward, we seem to be stepping backward as well.
Technology and scientific advancements are still held by the wealthiest of nations, companies, and individuals. They are not being distributed among the wider global public. In fact, information, which supposedly flows free, despite resistance, isn’t flowing free to the hands of those who need it most. There is a cost to progress. The cost being what we pay for bandwidth to access the information we so desperately need. The cost is in the medications we buy, especially here in the United States. The cost of progress comes with large government subsidies to corporations that rarely, if ever, need said subsidies. Progress, in other words, is bought and sold to us like any other product in the capitalist machine. Progress is, in fact, a brand. Something that can be copyrighted, trademarked, fought over in the courts, and, of course, packaged, marketed, and sold to those sheep (i.e., most of us) who want to believe we are getting in on the ground floor of Progress.
When the Arab Spring occurred, many of us celebrated the potential changes that might occur for millions of people living in abject poverty, under authoritarian conditions. What we didn’t know, or at least we pretended we didn’t know, was that large corporations, many of the same corporations touting American democracy and its way of life, sold dictators and their goons the technology to spy on their own people, to shut down the Internet, and to clamp down when things got out of hand. In other words, the very progress we have seen stateside, that is, technological improvements in software, among other things, were being used to crush the will of sovereign peoples everywhere in the Middle East. It is no wonder that people chose extremism over democracy and fair and open societies.
Although technology and science have indeed improved the lot for humankind, they have also forced us to reconsider what progress means. To me, a child of the 1990s and 2000s, progress has a very different tinge. It no longer resembles the Jetsons. Instead, it reminds me, more and more, of Iraq (2003-Present), Afghanistan (2001-Present), Syria (2009-Present), and the U.S.-Mexico border (?-Present). It is the planes that flew into the Twin Towers. It is the expensive iPhone I bought, which happened to be made with cheap labor from China. Progress is seeing Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs, not as an icon, but as a robber baron, who didn’t give two thoughts about the common rabble.
This is a bit more spontaneous than many of my postings, and, for it, you can blame Netflix’s The Witcher series. I binged watched it in a day and a half, and I can’t say that I’m totally disappointed, aside from that damned ending of the first season. To be sure, there are plenty of spoilers here, which I will discuss in some detail. Nevertheless, read at your own caution, especially if you’re still finishing the first season.
The series begins with a flashy fight scene between Geralt of Rivia and one of the many monster encounters he engages in on the Continent. Moreover, Geralt is, from the get-go, established as someone who is clearly different from baseline humans. Geralt is a mutant, a non-human, despite his human-like appearance. The first episode sets him up as someone we, as viewers, might be leery of following and cheering for throughout the show’s narrative arc. However, after a few choice encounters, and a few narrative chess moves, Geralt appears to be someone who is, yes, special, possibly something other than human, and yet someone with firm moral foundations. At the beginning of The Witcher, Geralt is tested on his moral foundations, and he is tested on his (essential) social isolationism from other humans. As the first episode climaxes, Geralt becomes the monster everyone expected of him, despite being a character with firm (and admirable) moral foundations, with the killing of Renfri and her merry band of bandits, who are (fundamentally) neither good nor truly evil. Instead, we find that Renfri and her merry men are the byproducts of a cruel and brutal world, something Geralt knows all too well.
The first episode of Netflix’s The Witcher series serves as a fundamental entrance of our quasi-anti-hero, Geralt, who must push against what society believes him to be, and he struggles against his better nature, being good and truly human, which leaves him both vulnerable to his enemies and to the larger society that hates him (and his kind). The witcher, Geralt, struggles to maintain his humanity, his moral center, all the while trying to keep alive, fed, and safe from the real monsters of the Continent: Those flawed humans, who often seek out his services throughout the first season’s narrative arc.
As the first season progresses, we are confronted with the raw, and if I’m honest, the improbable humanity of the main character, a witcher, someone who isn’t supposed to be trustworthy, good, and/or human. The improbable humanity of Geralt is the most compelling portion of the series, and, more importantly, the show forces us to consider the baggage one must confront in a world that sees us as nothing more than monsters, mutants, etc. Geralt doesn’t belong, because he is a product of forced mutation through magic. As such, Geralt is an outcast, as are all who are witchers as well.
The exploration of humanity, destiny, and connectedness here cannot be ignored. Although many fantasy and science-fiction writers have claimed The Witcher is nothing more than a grimdark Euro-fantasy set in a medieval backdrop, it is so much more than that. The Witcher interrogates our perceptions of humanness, our inability to fight destiny, and our connectedness as human beings. Despite being viewed as subhuman, or worse, Geralt is connected in destiny to Ciri, a princess of Cintra, who has been claimed under the ominous Law of Surprise, following a short (and bloody) battle between Ciri’s father and those who wished to keep him from claiming his prize under the same Law of Surprise. Geralt’s claim is denied by Ciri’s grandmother (and step grandfather). Ciri’s grandmother does everything to undermine the entwined destinies of Ciri and Geralt, which brings about the ultimate demise of Cintra and its independence on the Continent.
Geralt’s connection to Ciri shows that he, too, is worthy of being human, and, therefore, worthy of our consideration, and the consideration of those on the Continent. Geralt’s improbable humanity becomes a tale more compelling than the religious zealotry and religious nationalism of Nilfgaard and its bloodthirsty armies.
Geralt’s story, if under the guidance of poorer writers and directors, could have failed and failed miserably. It could have been a simple, white-washed Euro-fantasy. Instead, The Witcher turns into a story about our purpose in an ephemeral, ever-changing world. It becomes about redemption, for some, and it becomes a story about finding our humanity, after the world (and those within it) have stripped us of it. Geralt’s story is more than a homage to J. R. R. Tolkien, or a pastiche of those Euro-fantasy tales that dominate the fantasy genre. Instead, Geralt’s story, his humanity, his quest to find purpose and meaning, and his attempts to find deeper, more meaningful connections with others, especially humans, is something far more compelling than the story’s seemingly lackluster world-building, its flashy medieval-esque battles, and its grimdark motifs. It is far more than its sword and sorcery tropes, which also play a role, albeit more nuanced than many will discover upon a shallower, first viewing.
The Witcher is about our quest, as sentient beings, at finding purpose, meaning, connection, and coming to terms with forces larger and more complicated than we realize. Geralt, as a main character, is someone who, at first, appears to be utterly stereotype, nothing more. However, as each episode moves forward, Geralt becomes the antithesis to the usual strongman stereotypes found in poorly written and constructed grimdark fantasy stories. Geralt is flawed. Geralt is troubled. Most of all, Geralt is a human we all recognize, someone we often see in the mirror, and he’s not the only character who forces us to question our humanity, our connection with others, and our roles in the larger, grander designs of the world or universe that we inhabit.
Below, readers will find a revised (and revisited) version of an article/posting I originally wrote for Medium, following my first ever curated article on the hobby of world-building. Although I think the article really gets to some fundamental issues pertaining to imagination, fandom, and the hypermobile (and globalized) capitalist world, it does need a bit more work, and I hope to revisit many of this posting’s ideas in future blog postings.
To imagine is to represent without aiming at things as they actually, presently, and subjectively are. One can use imagination to represent possibilities other than the actual, to represent times other than the present, and to represent perspectives other than one’s own. Unlike perceiving and believing, imagining something does not require one to consider that something to be the case. Unlike desiring or anticipating, imagining something does not require one to wish or expect that something to be the case. –Shen-yi Liao and Tamar Gendler, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2019)
Sometimes meaning comes from the weirdest of sources. For me, meaning hasn’t come from a religious awakening or even my career, but, instead, from the imagination….
Although I’m far from what you’d call a traditional Marxist or even a Neo-Marxist, I would argue that Karl Marx was right when he pointed out that the very economic system we hold dear — that is, capitalism — tends to alienate people not only from their labor but also from the very products they produce. If we develop this notion of alienation a bit further, we find that the current economic system we hold so dear strips our world down into calculations, transactions, and meaningless abstractions. Therefore, our economic dealings leave our world devoid of real meaning, something that presents a number of people with a dilemma: Do I go along with this meaningless (devoid) world and what it has to offer, or do I go somewhere else entirely?
Like I said above, I didn’t go along with the soul-numbing options offered by the world around us. Think: religion, business, untethered consumption, etc. Instead, I retreated into the imagination, looking for a place that I could call my own. The imagination, while largely insular in nature, offered a great deal of opportunities to connect people on a very personal (i.e., human) level. These connections have spanned decades, continents, and the tests only time can throw your way when you’re least expecting it. Moreover, the experiences I have from fandom, world-building, fan fiction, and gaming, have had the greatest impact on my life’s direction. Without my participation in the Star Frontiers community around 2007–2009, I would have missed out on opportunities in desktop publishing, honing my craft as a writer, and making lasting connections with people who were just like me. I would also argue these experiences allowed me to find meaning, to find a place in a world where that is becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish, and, lastly, to find my purpose.
Early on in life I was blessed — Is that the right word for it? — to see young and seasoned professionals struggling to find out the world didn’t care much about one’s dreams, or about one’s search for meaning, or even one’s need to be a part of something larger and greater. Around the time I was graduating high school, I was on track to becoming an IT technician, something I’d dreamed about. I’d developed a passion for computers and all forms of technology. However, I was approached, at separate times, by my old man and a good friend who worked with the same company I had. They both tried to convince me to maybe, just maybe, follow my other, wilder dreams. I, of course, scoffed at these suggestions, much like anyone in my position (and in my age group) would do. I thought, What do these people know about the world? What did they known about passions and finding meaning through one’s work? It turns out they were right to intervene.
For those who’ve worked IT, they know that IT, especially the customer service side of the equation, can become soul-deadening. On top of that, after the advent of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, many in the field, including my father and closest friends working in IT, became disillusioned. They’d once bought into the rather libertarian promise that information technology would bring about a freer and nobler society and/or world. In other words, they believed that their work in building Internet infrastructure, setting up servers, or working with clients had produced meaning. In the end, like much in our world, it failed to meet those expectations and those very human needs we all have. In the end, people like my father saw their job as nothing more than a bullshit job (see video above), something that produced very little.
Around the same time, I’d been dabbling in the Star Frontiers community, contributing various projects and wild ideas to the Star Frontiers universe. The Star Frontiers universe had been all abandoned by its owner — originally TSR, which was later bought out by Wizards of the Coast, which, in turn, was acquired by Hasbro—, and this abandoned universe provided a fertile breeding ground for collaboration, world-building, fan fiction, human connections, and gaming opportunities. Those who worked on revitalizing and expanding the Star Frontiers universe came from all backgrounds one could imagine, making this an eye-opening experience for a rural, small town kid like myself. The individuals I interacted with found meaning in a shared universe, one that had gobbled up much of their imaginings and their increasingly disappearing free time.
During much of my time in high school, I spent my days daydreaming, playing games, and contributing to various fandoms and world-building endeavors. Much of this delving into the insular could be blamed on my living situation. My parents, both fresh from their divorce, tackled my awkwardness and unwillingness to conform with different strategies. Father believed I was becoming like those D&D players he knew growing up, who amounted to nothing and still lived in their parents’ basements. His approach was utterly vicious, and it led to a good deal of head-on collisions, some ending in fist-fights. My mother, on the other hand, didn’t actively discourage this inwardness as much as my father had. Instead, she saw as a call for help, a need for a male role model. Fortunately for me, my mother enlisted the help of an older, wiser nerd, who introduced me to a man I’ll refer to here as Mr. Zed.
It was Mr. Zed, a wizened Gamemaster and storyteller extraordinaire, who suggested I ignore the poking and prodding by my folks. He offered that I play a simple game, every day I had time. Little did I know that I was delving into the world of role-playing games — an utterly head-first dive into the insular, the abyss that is the imagination. I had experienced role-playing games in numerous ways, but I didn’t have the friends or the connections to actually play the games themselves. I’d collected numerous RPG rulebooks from the Web. At one point, I became so obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons that I collected gigabytes of data on homebrew rules and adventures.
What most people don’t know is that high school is the testing ground for our adult selves. It’s a time of hormones, embarrassing acne, and going through the bureaucratic channels that make up public school education. For me, high school was where I found the power and the importance of imagination, where I delved into the farthest reaches of mind. In turn, I found what my adult self needed to survive and even to thrive.
When I started high school, I began school in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where I played Mage Knight, MechWarrior, and, on occasion, Warhammer tabletop wargames at the local community center or even at the high school. During the spring semester of my freshman year, however, I started attending Dulce, New Mexico. For the first few months, I had little to do to pass my time. To me, Dulce didn’t have much to offer — and was I wrong as ever.
Dulce, for the uninitiated, is located on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. It’s this little no-name place in northern New Mexico, where the Archuleta Mesa towers over a semi-arid mountain valley. The town is centered around tribal buildings and businesses, which hug Highway-64 like plaque on arterial walls. Outsiders know Dulce for the cattle mutilations and the hunting.
What I knew about Dulce came from two sources. Our neighbors, Pam and Tom, found their dog, Dulce, in Dulce, New Mexico. They always retold the story when we visited their B&B down the road from our house in Pagosa Springs. I also remember hearing about Dulce in relation to the cattle mutilations in the late-1970s. The cattle mutilations were Dulce’s claim to fame. The History Channel once aired a documentary on the cattle mutilations when I was younger, with the narrator pronouncing the town’s name as “Dulche, New Mexico.” Locals claimed UFOs or the government were responsible for cattle being surgically sliced and diced. Conspiracy theorists blamed it on the Dulce Military Base, a sort of Area 51 military base, rumored to be located under Archuleta Mesa.
Mr. Zed was an unusual character, who also happened to live in Dulce around the time I lived there. Mr. Zed worked for the Jicarilla Apache Department of Education (JADE), and he wore clothes more befitting a Mormon missionary spreading the Good News than a day-in, day-out tech guy. He filmed official tribal events and lectures for the tribal government. Mr. Zed occasionally worked on odd bits of computer and film equipment he stashed away in his JADE office. His office in the old JADE building was about the same square footage as a small dorm room, maybe even smaller now that I think about it. The office was filled to max capacity with computers, video equipment, shelves, and old milk crates housing Zed’s gaming books. There was no organizing principle behind the clutter of computers, cables, and cameras. It was like a squirrel’s stashed-away nut collection, with odd pieces shoved behind cabinets or stacked atop of bloating and listing shelves.
Mr. Zed belonged to the first generation of role-playing gamers. His generation started playing socially-conservative games like D&D, escalating their gaming fix to the hardcore, morally ambiguous stuff like Shadowrun, Vampire the Requiem, Werewolf, Paranoia, and Cthulhu.
The first game I played with Mr. Zed and his coworker, D, was a homebrew version of Shadowrun. The game was a blank spot in my mind. I’d never heard of it, nor had I heard about things like cyberpunks and corporatocracies that filled the game’s rulebook. I wasn’t used to the game mechanics either. I spent the better part of two and a half hours creating my character from scratch, rolling dice, answering questions, and choosing traits, quirks, flaws, etc. This was not due to some overly elaborate character creation system imposed by the game’s rulebook. Zed liked modifying his role-playing games, adding bits here and there and stealing from online forums and fan Websites. The final character sheet consisted of intricate formulas, lists, and spreadsheets that Mr. Zed used in his role as Gamemaster, a sort of storyteller with god-like authority over the game world.
There are two types of Gamemasters. There are those Gamemasters who take pity on their players and offer a helping hand. Story, all round fun, and leisurely gameplay are key to these Gamemasters’ modus operandi. Then there are those Gamemasters who view their players as mere mortal playthings, who are to be bound and beaten in every imaginable way. Mr. Zed belonged to the second Gamemaster archetype. Zed’s gamemastering technique took a page from the “Monkey’s Paw.” Be careful what you wish for. He had a way of making fate, gravity, and the dice come crashing down on our party. His thugs were better equipped. The police were always a step ahead of us. Bullets hurt and so did explosions. Being captured or arrested meant brutal interrogations bordering on torture. Every roll of the dice brought silent prayers and paranoia-induced mutterings. High rolls were met with hollering — all around jubilation and high-fiving. Low rolls brought pale faces and globs of sweat and hopes that our characters hadn’t stumbled into the starry beyond.
I couldn’t wait to play the game. To fill my time, I explored the Web for new role-playing game experiences, world-building endeavors, and fandom. Sites like Wookiepedia and Star Frontiers US were my stomping grounds, when I should have been working on homework or focusing on things outside of the imagination. Instead, I couldn’t leave my skull kingdom. I couldn’t just leave behind something that provided entertainment, but also so (so) much more. I began writing again, for the first time since I was younger. I developed my own games, my own stories, my own worlds and universes. Mr. Zed released something that I didn’t know existed. It all sounds like your cliché Jedi awakening, but there it is.
The summer following my high school graduation put a damper on the daily game sessions at JADE. I knew was I going to start college in August. The college I was attending was some four-hundred miles away, making it too far for regular gaming commutes. Something told me that the group needed to end the game with a bang — a campaign to end all gaming campaigns. I wanted a campaign that ended in a total party kill (TPK).
I told Mr. Zed about my idea. A TPK was in line with Zed’s sadistic gamemastering sensibilities. Thus, he agreed to ending the campaign with a real blowout of a TPK. He began plotting out the new campaign’s general structure. What Zed’s new campaign taught me was that imagination has no real beginning or ending. Instead, our campaign, although ending in our characters’ deaths, was merely a beginning of something new.
When I started college in August, I couldn’t help but wonder how I was going to satisfy my gaming fix. I was in a new town and hundreds of miles away from the cramped JADE office, where I had spent countless hours gaming. However, I was surprised to find that others had the same interests. Others wanted to retreat into the imagination, but not for the sake of escape. These individuals, people I now call friends, wanted a stimulation that only came from the inward retreat into the imagination. We later started a gaming group in our dorm hall, using the empty commons area as our meeting spot. Four gamers turned out to the first gaming sessions. We were traveling across the galaxy, fighting the Wrath in our homebrew Stargate roleplaying game. We fought as guerrillas in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The dice clattered on top of tables, with silent prayers or mutterings under the breath of each player. I was transported back to that day when I came to Mr. Zed’s office in JADE. It was a euphoria I didn’t understand, nor did I care to at the time.
Thinking back on it now, I find that it is the retreat into the imagination that gave me something to do. It gave me a sense of purpose, while the world struggled to figure out the why of the ’08-’09 financial fiasco. The imagination gave me a sense of belonging, to a world or universe not necessarily of my own creation, although I had a hand in fashioning these places. My imagination gave me satisfaction when everyone around me, particularly those so-called adults in the room, couldn’t find satisfaction. Years later, now getting comfortable in my career, I find that my imagination has helped me find a sense of purpose and fulfillment that the dog-eat-dog system of capitalism couldn’t offer me. Funny enough, those people who were skeptical of my inwardness are now looking inward themselves, seeking answers, seeking meaning, seeking something larger than themselves, in their imaginations.
1. For those interested in the concept of bullshit jobs, consider: Graeber, David. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. New York: Penguin, 2019. (Sadly, we lost David Graeber in September 2020, whose writing, analyses, and ability to make sense of the larger capitalist world, among other things, has been lost to us.)
This piece is a bit more introspective, and it doesn't cover the controversial side of Rammstein's music and its brand. Instead, it explores the connection between foreign music, YouTube, and finding a value in one's self and being. Ironically, Rammstein is rarely talked about or even known in their home country of Germany, but they are a pretty big deal in places like the United States, which is weird (and cool), considering. I'll be exploring Rammstein in a more critical light in the coming months, as they are an interesting development in modern global popular culture.
Anger, hate, uncontrollable rage. These are just a few things that describe what kept clinking around in my skull kingdom, when I lived on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in Dulce, New Mexico. It was around the time my parents decided to end their attempt at emulating June and Ward Cleaver. Their marriage, much like their finances, eroded away with each passing month after my parents formally separated. Then, as a final “fuck you” to one another, their marriage ended in a fiery divorce, one waged from a lawyer office in Farmington, New Mexico, and a courthouse in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
I was enrolled in classes at Dulce High School around January 2007, just after completing my first freshman semester at Pagosa Springs High School back in December 2006. Things were weird, to say the least. The high school belonged to a long list of condemned buildings you’d expected to see in places that didn’t matter to the rest of the world. I’d seen plenty of them, and I knew no one cared about Dulce, which was fine. Dulce was a change from Pagosa Spring, a place that felt left behind, lost, and buried in the sands of time. In some ways, this was an attractive alternative to what I’d been exposed to in Colorado. In Colorado, I lived on the bottom rung, where I’d been tolerated because my folks lived in the Archuleta County, and the school district was the only one offering a free public school education. Aside from that, I was an unwelcome student, someone who reminded people of the county’s poverty, its people who lived on the edge, trying to survive paycheck to paycheck.
The funny thing about Pagosa Springs, Colorado, was that it hid its poverty better than most. In fact, it denied its existence entirely, when it was easy to do so. As a poor kid growing up in a tourist town, whose rich and well-off despised the ugly, unfinished homes of their poorer neighbors, I understood where my place was in this place: I had none. In fact, I remember, not long before I left Pagosa Springs permanently, a coworker of mine from Victoria’s Parlor, a touristy restaurant, selling tea, light meals, and a cozy atmosphere, being evicted from her trailer home. She’d lived there for decades. She’d been known, to locals and friends, as the crazy cat lady. I knew her as someone who washed dishes, was grumpy, and preferred felines to human beings, who seemed to look down at her every chance they got. The crazy cat lady, as I knew her as (I didn’t know her name at the time), was forcefully evicted from her home, in handcuffs, and forced to watch developers bulldoze her home (and many of her unclaimed belongings) into the dirt. This was the real Colorado I knew. The one that plays nice, until they want something from you. In small towns like Pagosa Springs, Colorado, the elites of the towns act like the old Grecian and Roman elites. Their ways of life, their lifestyles, and their worldviews are supreme. Telling them otherwise is dangerous, for your family, your belongings, and your person.
Dulce didn’t hide much. In fact, Dulce was raw in what it displayed to the world. It was poor. Abuse, drug use, rape, and even poverty weren’t unknown there—much like anywhere, really. What Dulce didn’t do was cover it up like Pagosa did. People knew these things existed. They attempted to do things about, and some didn’t, just like anywhere. What Dulce didn’t have was the privilege of dying the existence of these human realities. The reasoning for this is simple, really: Dulce sat atop a First Nations reservation, owned, operated, and inhabited by a proud and (often) lost people, the Jicarilla Apache. When I say lost, I don’t me they themselves were lost in the world. Instead, if we you were to ask any Coloradoan or New Mexican of their existence, of their history, and their rich cultural heritage, you’d think they never existed at all. They were lost to others, unknown and (to many) not worth knowing.
The Jicarilla Apache were the closest I’d ever been to a lost people, a people largely ignored by most of those living next to them. Yeah, people knew the reservation existed, but they never acknowledged the existence of a group of people, whose history, culture, and beliefs stretched back to the First Nations of North America and the first human beings in the Western Hemisphere. The Jicarilla Apache taught me something else as well.
When I took classes at Dulce High School, I was tossed into classes that satisfied my mother’s need to make sure I got an education. These classes were often taken with her closest colleagues, so she could keep an eye on me, for various reasons. One such class was offered by J, a jack-of-all-trades teacher, who taught German, history, and even Chemistry. She was an amazing spirit, even if I didn’t realize it when I took her classes and gave her a hard time.
In German classes, I dozed off and repeated boring conversations and vocabulary constructions. A friend of mine, who had Internet at home, something I’d later convince my mom to get, told me about a German band by the name of Rammstein. He’d seen some of their videos on YouTube, which was just starting to become a thing back then. Rammstein, he said, was the best music he’d ever listened to. In fact, it was the reason he chose to take German in high school. This, of course, scratched my brain, and I began searching, high and low, using school Internet, to find what I could pertaining to Rammstein.
What I found was eye-opening. Rammstein’s beats and their lyrics were music, yes, but they also spoke to that dark side of my being, the side that’d grown in recent years as my parents began their trench war against one another. Rammstein said things that were profound to a teenager, but they weren’t necessarily profound for adults. In fact, my German teacher saw Rammstein as trash, even called them out for their guttural German and their bastardization of good and wholesome things. Her condemnation only brought me closer to Rammstein. What the fuck did she know? Nothing, I’d reasoned.
Rammstein spoke to me. I watched their scandalous “Amerika” on YouTube so many times I memorized both the lyrics and the video, meaning I could close my eyes and see the music, see the messages. Rammstein’s music broke through the confusing world, and it told me that I needed to fight being left in the dust, left in obscurity. Like Dylan so many years later, I needed t fight against the extinguishing of one’s existence, value, and footprint on history, the world, and the indifferent universe. I needed to look at everything around me, at everything I hated and cherished, and try to understand why. I needed to know why me, like so many on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, weren’t worth knowing. Rammstein broke through the angst, the rage, the hate, and Rammstein forced me to come to terms with my own realities. It forced me to move away from being nothing, a no one, to someone who mattered, even if the world (and those who inhabited) didn’t care who I was.
Fast-forward the clock about ten years, give or take, and I am getting ready for Rammstein’s new album, Rammstein. I listen to it after the midnight release, and I feel disappointed. I feel the angst, the darkness, the sadness all gone. I stop listening. A few weeks later, I begin looking up the lyrics, as I usually do, and I begin listening again, watching their music videos as well, and I get that connection again. I get that beacon of light, shining, cutting (really), through the dense fog of the post-Obama era. I come to realize that Rammstein, despite its controversies and its edginess, it, too, has grown old, bitter, and yet still a bit hopeful, despite evidence suggesting it should be. Rammstein, to me, broke through the haze, the self-hate, the disgust at one’s own image and being, and its lyrics and musical sounds told me to keep moving onward. The music of Rammstein, while not necessarily worth knowing for many, saved me from a path of self-destruction that we all know leads nowhere. As such, Rammstein’s music also encouraged me to try to hold out, to act as a stubborn bulwark against the forces (and peoples) who would rather plant you in the ground, with no memorial or second thought, just so you can be forever forgotten.
This was originally planned as a multi-part essay on my discovery of war games and tabletop RPGs, with plenty of introspection and tough questions concerning the nature of gaming, play, and games. Unfortunately, I never seemed to move beyond Part II of this particular essay series. However, in an effort to revisit this piece, I have brought it over to Archimedes' Death Ray, in hopes of expanding on and finishing this series of articles/essays on wargaming and tabletop RPGs.
My hope for Archimedes' Death Ray is to offer a place where research, narrative writing, and introspection can come together in meaningful ways.
If you enjoyed this essay (or others), feel free to share with friends, family members, and/or social media followers and colleagues.
Zed, to an impressionable young mind, was sort of like the corrupting influence seen in Chick comics' evil Dungeon Masters. However, I wouldn't say this was a corruption that was necessarily evil or destructive. Instead, Zed was someone who showed an unadulterated view of humanity, the world, and even the universe at large. Zed was a realistic, and he was damned good at telling stories and making you feel part of the story he was weaving together. Little did I know, I was giving up every spare afternoon to commit murder, mayhem, armed robbery, aggravated assault, all the while having fun with it.
You see, there is catharsis in acted-out violence. This catharsis was, for me, something I needed, something I craved. I needed to get away from mom and dad’s divorce battle. I needed to get away from my siblings, who appeared to be far too happy with Dulce. I needed to escape and work on a few things. What most don’t realize is that therapy is violent. Games like tabletop role-playing games are cathartic, yes, but they are also a way to work out aggression, disillusion, and, even, release those dark things from one’s mind and soul.
The first game I played with Zed and his co-worker, Dee, was a homebrew version of Shadowrun. The game was a blank spot in my mind. I’d never heard of it, nor had I heard about things like cyberpunk, corporatocracies, and cybernetic implants that filled the game’s rulebook. I wasn’t used to the game’s mechanics either. I spent the between part of two and a half hours creating my first character from scratch, rolling dice, answering questions, and choosing traits, quirks, flaws, etc. This was not due to some overly elaborate character creation system espoused by Shadowrun, but, rather, a creation of Zed’s own bored mind. Zed liked modifying his games, adding bits here and there and stealing from online forums, homebrew Websites, and fanzines. The final character sheet consisted of intricate formulas, lists, and spreadsheets that Zed used in his role as Game Master, a sort of master storyteller with god-like authority over the game world, for those who have no idea what I am talking about.
There are two types of Game Masters.
There are those who take pity on their players, offering a helping hand. Story, all round fun, and leisure gameplay are key to these types of Game Masters.
Then there are those who view their players as mere mortals, playthings, who are bound and beaten in every imaginable way.
Zed belonged to the second Game Master archetype. Zed’s game-mastering technique took a page from the “Monkey’s Paw.” Be careful what you wish for, as something might not go according to plan. He had a way of making fate, gravity, and the dice come crashing down on your head. His thugs were better equipped. The police were always a step ahead of us. Bullets hurt more, and the explosions were just ridiculous. Being capture or arrested meant brutal interrogations, bordering on Geneva Convention violations. Every roll of the dice brought silent prayers and paranoia-induced mutterings. High or even successful rolls were met with hollering—all around jubilation and high-fiving. Low or even unsuccessful rolls brought pale faces and globs of sweat and hopes that our characters hadn’t stumbled into the starry beyond for good.
The first gaming session we had started off simple.
Dee and I were hired to steal some corporate tech for a faceless, nameless client we found in the shadows of some megacity. However, this heist led to an accidental kidnapping and death, which precipitated in a fair number of violent gun battles with corporate goons and police agencies. In turn, this led to a higher body count and more enemies.
As Dee and I moved across the post-apocalyptic United States, the bodies piled up like cordwood. Thousands died. Dee and I were like a two-man meat grinder. People came in one end and bullet-riddled or mutilated flesh out the other.
It gave me a certain high that couldn’t be matched anywhere else. I kept going to JADE to get my fix of mayhem and destruction. One days we couldn’t meet, I felt like I was going through withdrawals. I needed to roll dice and kick ass. I needed to get the demons out. I needed to escape from Dulce, even though it was never that place’s fault for me wanting to escape.
We’d snuffed out a group of homeless with a one-two combination of foam grenade (demobilizing the homeless crowd) and an incendiary chaser (not pretty, folks). After killing off a group of homeless people, who’d been victims of the two-man meat grinder tour, we’d stumbled into a fight with corporate security goons. The incident ended with our arrest and subsequent interrogation. The interrogation lasted half a gaming session and included various methods that makes me wonder about the mental state of Zed, even to this day. I have since concluded that Zed must’ve been ex-Stasi or a KGB agent in a former life. Again, this was his way of bringing down reality and every imaginable force onto our heads. Our actions had drastic and often horrific consequences.
Another incident involved a brief gun battle at a hospital with hospital security—the poor fuckers didn’t know the two-man meat grinder was coming to town to fuck up their day. (And to this day, I still have no idea why we ended up in a hospital.) My character, who was attempting to subdue the hospital security with a flash bang, missed the waiting room (and with the wrong weapon, too).
Zed made me roll a few six-sided dice, and, before I knew it, Zed was smiling to himself. My roll was low—painfully low. He smiled to himself again and rolled a few dice of his own. He chuckled. Rolled twice more in secret. The whole thing ended with my character tossing an incendiary grenade into a nearby oxygen storage room. The hospital was leveled along with a nearby nursing home. Somehow our characters managed to escape without a scratch on them.
Our tour of death changed settings, as I grew bored of cyberpunk and asked Zed to about moving to something a bit more exciting. This prompted Zed to change the storyline, tweaking it in a way to fit our demented gaming style. Our characters were kidnapped by aliens, who’d (somehow) heard about our earthly exploits. They needed some Terran muscle to move in on their own enemies. They wanted to capitalize on our ability to turn living beings into pounds of mutilated flesh.
At about the same time, my father was becoming more and more distant. My own mother was already distant. Home life was hallow, and it was just something I had to endure in order to get back to gaming the next day or week.
The new setting was borrowed from a little-known game called Star Frontiers. Star Frontiers was TSR’s (i.e., the creator of Dungeons & Dragons) failed attempt at creating a sort of serious space adventure role-playing game. For us, Star Frontiers offered a number of new killing fields. New aliens worlds became our shooting galleries, our explosive-laden playgrounds. Out intergalactic debauchery resulted in the destruction of a dozen worlds, with each world destroyed in a spectacular fashion—hell we were getting it down to an art.
A planet consumed by supermassive colonies of nanite cells.
Entire species were scratched out of existence.
We stole warships and jettisoned entire crews out of airlocks and into the hard vacuum of space.
Mayhem, murder, and outright plunder became the name of the game. We were the Two Horsemen of the Apocalypse, because we’d killed off the other two, coming to wreak havoc on mortal souls everywhere.
We were the devourers of worlds, galactic meat grinders, traveling the voids between stars.
To a younger me, nothing seemed more appropriate than mass destruction, mayhem, murder, and violence on a scale that could be barely contained by Zed.
The summer following my high school graduation put a damper on things. I couldn’t commit to daily or even weekly gaming sessions anymore. I knew I was going to start college in August. The college I was going to was some three hundred miles away, making it too far for regular gaming commutes. Something told me that the group needed to end the game with a bang—a campaign to end all gaming campaigns. I wanted a campaign that ended in a total party kill (TPK).
I told Zed about my idea. A TPK was in line with Zed’s sadistic game-mastering sensibilities. Thus, he agreed to ending the campaign with a real blowout of a TPK. He began plotting out the new campaign’s general structure. This led to our characters being brought back to Earth in a stolen warship.
It was the Welcome Home Tour.
Our intergalactic shenanigans followed in tow. A coalition of vengeful aliens began an invasion of Earth, threatening to wipe out all of humanity. This was payback for our intergalactic killing spree.
With our weapons locked and loaded, we stole an alien capital ship that was about ten kilometers in length. This required a bit of finesse that was well beyond our usual method of greasing opponents and taking over enemy ships. We vented the ship’s entire air supply, killing the crew and security and others onboard. This took a bit longer than we’d hoped. The alien invasion was successfully sterilizing entire continents of human beings, and they were turning the Earth’s surface into molten glass. This prompted a last minute decision to go out with a bang. We steered the capital ship toward the Earth’s atmosphere, blowing away alien warships left and right. The ship’s system went into the red, heading into critical. “Core containment breached.” We were leaking radiation like an old Russian submarine. “Core containment breached.” Then boom. Nothing else but a white searing light. A million-gigaton explosion obliterated the Earth’s atmosphere and everything the surface and around in orbit. It was fuckin’ brilliant.
When I started college in August, I couldn’t help but wonder about how I was going to satisfy my gaming fix. I was in a new town, and I was hundreds of miles away from the cramped JADE office in Dulce, New Mexico, where I’d spent countless hours gaming. I was surprised to find others who had the same gaming interests. Some of my fellow students had the same needs for buffoonery and destruction.
I started a gaming group in my dorm hall by setting up shop in an empty commons area. The group was a big hit, and four gamers turned out to the first gaming session. We were traveling across the galaxy, fighting the Wraith in our homebrew Stargate role-playing game. We fought as guerrillas in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The bodies stacked like cordwood. The blood ran in the streets. The dice clattered on top of tables, with silent prayers or mutterings by each player.
I was transported back to that first day when I came to Zed’s office in JADE. It was a euphoria I still didn’t quite understand, nor did I care to. There was something about doing debaucherous things. There was something about destroying Eden, killing off enemies, real or imagined, and dying a good death.
Further Reading: A wonderful exploration of why people play role-playing games can be found in Ewalt, David M. Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It. New York: Scribner, 2014.
This was originally planned as a multi-part essay on my discovery of war games and tabletop RPGs, with plenty of introspection and tough questions concerning the nature of gaming, play, and games. Unfortunately, I never seemed to move beyond Part II of this particular essay series. However, in an effort to revisit this piece, I have brought it over to Archimedes' Death Ray, in hopes of expanding on and finishing this series of articles/essays on wargaming and tabletop RPGs.
My hope for Archimedes' Death Ray is to offer a place where research, narrative writing, and introspection can come together in meaningful ways.
If you enjoyed this essay (or others), feel free to share with friends, family members, and/or social media followers and colleagues.
You might be asking where my story begins. Why I’m here, talking about games, play, and gamers. I guess you could say it all started when I was young, probably too young to remember anything profound. However, that isn’t the whole truth. My identity as a gamer, along with my obsession with games, play, and gaming cultures began when I was in high school.
As many of us know, high school is the testing ground for our adult selves. It’s a time of hormones, acne, masturbation, and going through the bureaucratic channels that make up public school education. For me, high school was all about gaming, fandom, and ignoring the spiraling world outside of the mind. I couldn’t care less about the homework or the sports. I did care about games, gaming, play, and sharpening the mind.
My high school experience was split between two high schools: Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and, of course, Dulce, New Mexico. I started my freshman year out in Pagosa Springs, where I played Mage Knight, MechWarrior, Lord of the Rings, Magic: The Gathering, and even the occasional Warhammer at the local community center or high school. During the spring semester of my freshman year, I started attending school in Dulce, New Mexico. For the first few months, I had little to do to pass the time. To me, Dulce didn’t have much to offer.
Dulce, New Mexico is located on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in north-central New Mexico. It is a place of little consequence for many New Mexicans, where the Archuleta Mesa towers over a semi-arid valley. The town is centered around tribe-owned and operated businesses and tribal government buildings, which hug Highway-64 like plaque might on arterial walls.
What I knew about Dulce, New Mexico, came from two unreliable sources. Our neighbors, Tom and Pam, found their dog, Dulce, in Dulce, New Mexico. They always retold the story of how they were driving through Dulce and found their beloved dog, Dulce. It was a story that matched their personalities and their posh B&B they lived in and operated.
I also remember hearing about Dulce in relation to the cattle mutilations of the late-1970s. The cattle mutilations were somehow linked to either UFOs or government-run black ops looking to see the long-term effects of radioactive fallout in the area. To complicate matters, Dulce also had a reputation for housing a secret military base under Archuleta Mesa, something locals always talked about. The History Channel even aired a documentary on the mutilations when I was younger, with a British narrator pronouncing the town’s name as “Dulche, New Mexico.”
Locals believed different stories when it came to the cattle mutilations. Some believed, as I said above, it was government agents who surgically sliced and diced the mutilated cattle, looking for something civilians weren’t privy to. These same government agents were said to arrive in silent, black helicopters. In Pagosa Springs, Colorado, some forty-five minutes away, it is rumored that there exists a military base near the Great Sand Dunes, where the silent black helicopters are stationed and hidden from prying eyes, only to make appearances during moonless nights. Others, who, after a bit of coaxing, claimed it was UFOs, experimenting on cattle. Still others, like a family friend mentioned, believed the cattle mutilations were linked to Dulce’s secret underground base, a sort of Area 51 military based housed deep under Archuleta Mesa.
We moved to Dulce, New Mexico after my parents decided to end their nightmarish take on June and Ward Cleaver and the whole white-picket fence in the suburbs. My father kept the house in Pagosa Springs, and our animals, four cats and a dog, were left to fend for themselves in a housing that was unfinished and dead inside. My mother took the three of us kids down to Dulce, New Mexico, where she worked as an underpaid, overworked math teacher, hoping, praying, to make a difference in the lives of the kids she taught.
The first few months in Dulce were damned boring. We still went to school in Pagosa Springs, some forty-five minutes away. This required that we commute every morning to a little place called Chromo, Colorado, which is located on the border of Colorado and New Mexico, so we could catch a school bus at 6:00 or 6:30 a.m. We were back home, in Dulce, around 4:30 or 5:30 p.m., only eat, watch some T.V., and finish whatever homework we had left before heading off to bed and repeat the cycle all over again. This all continued until my mother decided it was time to enroll us in school in Dulce—much to the chagrin of my great grandmother, who didn’t much like the idea of her three (white) great grandchildren going to an indian school.
My brother and sister seemed to loved Dulce. My brother played sports and worked for the school. He later told my mother that playing sports in Dulce kept him from dropping out of high school. My sister played sports, too, hung out with friends, and watched Gilmore Girls every day at 3:00 p.m. She liked Dulce because it allowed her to be independent of my father, who could be a real hard ass when he wanted to be.
For me, Dulce didn’t have the stuff I was used to. My classmates weren’t interested in old-school games. They played Xbox, PlayStation, and on their PCs. I preferred dice and paper to television screens and controllers. I spent the better part of two months goofing around the small apartment my mother rented from the school district. I’d come home from school and watch T.V., eating copious amounts of frosted Cheerios or Cornflakes with whole milk—mom liked whole milk better, and it tasted a helluva lot better than the two per cent stuff we bought later on.
Anyways, my boredom progressed, pushing me further and further into a sort of social and mental isolation that worried my dear mum. I spent hours looking for something to do, something to occupy my time. Thankfully, my brother’s stolen stash of VHS pornos came in handy. I could fantasize while Rosy and her five friends worked their magic. After a while, though, even the porno stash staled. The same routines. No surprises. Boredom returned.
My taste in extracurricular activities worried mom. She was afraid that I’d off myself or turn into a pudgy blob, who’d stay home all day, mooching off her cereal supplies and satellite television subscription. She wasn’t exactly in a stable state of mind when we’d moved to Dulce.
Her marriage of sixteen years was coming to a fiery end, complete with a major custody battle waged from two different states. She pulled extra hours to pay for the apartment we lived in, the increased appetite of her three children, and a divorce lawyer, who she found in Farmington, New Mexico, nearly two hours west of Dulce proper.
Dulce was not home for my mother, who’d grown up in rural North Dakota. North Dakota was the land of nice neighbors and friendly faces. It also happened to be a place where your dollar just went further—kinda like a colder, wetter version of Arkansas or Mississippi. To my mom, Dulce was the closest place she’d come to living and working in a warzone. Student suicides, crime, poverty, and abuse were common and permanent staples of Dulce, or so she kept telling us. She wanted to keep her kids away from all of that. That was the reason she’d agreed to move to Colorado from Illinois with my father back in the late-90s. She wanted to keep us away from the despair that many locals experience while living in Dulce, or even in New Mexico, for that matter. There’s a reason why the Land of Enchantment has a popular and more cynical motto, the Land of Entrapment. Sometimes you just can’t escape, even if you want to.
My mother’s anxieties led her to find outlets for my energy. These included gong to after school programs or learning and practicing Jujitsu with Mr. B, our family friend and a history teacher at Dulce High School. These activities weren’t exactly what I’d been looking for. Again, boredom ensued. It took a series of fistfights with my little brother, whose knuckles were like steel gloves of fury, and bending the shit out of a metal door (don’t ask) to our apartment before Mr. B told me about some guy named Zed. He knew Zed had something that’d interest me, and I was skeptical, at first.
Zed worked for the Jicarilla Apache Department of Education (JADE), and he wore the clothes that fit the likes of a firebrand Moron missionary rather than a day-in and day-out tech guy. He filmed official tribal events and lectures for the tribal government. Zed occasional worked on the odd bits of computer and film equipment that he’d stashed away in his ten-by-ten-foot JADE office.
Zed’s office in the JADE building was about the same square footage and same state of disrepair as a large broom closet than (say) a dorm room. The office itself was filled, to maximum capacity, with computers, video equipment, listing shelves, and milk crates holding many of Zed’s gaming books. There was no organizing principle behind the clutter of computers, cables, and cameras. It was like a squirrel’s stashed away nut collection, with odd pieces stashed behind cabinets or stacked on top of bloating shelves.
Zed had lived on the Reservation as well. He was married to a Jicarilla Apache woman and had two kids. His son went to school in Dulce as well, about a decade or so behind me.
Zed belong to the first generation of role-playing gamers, who probably started playing socially conservative games like Dungeons & Dragons, escalating their gaming fix to the harder stuff, which was morally ambiguous, violent, and infinitely more complex than D&D. These games included, but were not limited to, Paranoia, Shadowrun, Werewolf, Cthulhu, etc.
When I started high school, I played war games, chess, and was involved in the downward spiral that was CCGs. In high school, Mage Knight was the game to play. For those who didn’t enjoy fantasy, it was MechWarrior. We also played plenty of chess, creating our own variants. Before war games took off, we played Pokémon, Magic, and Yu-Gi-Oh!. For those of us with a little extra cash, _Warhammer was another go-to, but it was usually with small squads and homebrew rules rather than with large armies and official rulebooks. My adventure from war games, chess, and card games progressed into an obsession and hobby involving tabletop role-playing games. This is not a hard progression to imagine. In fact, many have followed a similar progression themselves.
What happens is that you start playing chess. You grow bored, because the pieces rarely do anything exciting. There is just skill and not much in the way of luck/fortune and randomness. You start to imagine how you can complicate the game. For me, this led to war games, which are sort of like chess, but they add some rather interesting elements often missing in chess. The boards (i.e., tables) are usually much larger. You often use dice, and you have different units doing unique things on the board/table. I remember one time that a host from Fear the Boot said that once you play war games, you can never go back to chess. This is because there isn’t much in the way of surprise, luck, and/or variation. However, war games grow boring, too, for some. You start putting together armies, which cost a considerable sum of money. Before too long, you are imagining how you can complicate the game a bit. You imagine taking on the role of a commander, grunt, or even the magic user on the table. This is the first step into role-playing games many have.
Role-playing games, at least in my experience, were off limits. My parents knew of Dungeons & Dragons, and they feared what the game could do to a young mind. They were the kinds of games my father warned me about. My father saw Dungeons & Dragons as a portal of evil that could possess impressionable minds, encouraging ungodly behaviors, among other things. I have no idea where he got this idea. I am sure this opinion was lifted from the pages of some Chick comic, where evil Dungeon Masters corrupt the souls of seemingly innocent, impressionable children.
I ignored my old man’s warning and decided to jump into the world of role-playing games. I had nothing else better to do. Little did I know, Zed would offer an unadulterated look at the seedier side of gaming, particularly in the form of tabletop role-playing games.
1. For an excellent discussion on the Satanic scare and moral panic surrounding Dungeons & Dragons, consider reading Laycock, Joseph P. Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds. California: University of California Press, 2015.
1. Chick comics, moral panic, and Satanic scares, along with America's rather tumultuous Culture Wars, will be the subject of future essays/postings here at Archimedes' Death Ray. My hope is to understand characters like Chick, a Christian fundamentalist, who wanted to save us from ourselves, and, of course, the devil himself.