THOUGHTS AND OPINIONS

This section is where I call out my reactions to the state of things. It's my response to what I pick up from other people and the news, and what I directly experience. I'll try not to rant or sound biased -- if I fail, let me know (politely, please). If you think something refers to you personally, you're wrong.

I have now begun archiving old and stale articles at the link in the ToC. As another space-saving measure, longer articles now get their own link: just click the link in the table below to read them. Favorite and current pieces will continue to appear on this page as they have since I started it in 2005. But if you're curious you can find all the rest, including my very first Thoughts piece, in the archive.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

NUTRITION, MEAT, AND FREEDOM, PART DEUX
04.Nov.2012 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

Look around. The state of modern Western health is a disaster right now. Many of us are kept alive by the miracles of modern medicine (or have been saved by them on an occasion or two, myself included), but take those wonders away and our civilization is incomprehensibly sick. We're perhaps the sickest civilization in human history. That's one obvious reason the costs of healthcare are spiraling out of control. It's politically popular to talk about "preventive" medicine now, because there's an understanding that most of our health failings are "diseases of civilization," caused by sideffects of prosperity we have yet to isolate and solve.

The fat hypothesis

Even though every individual is different, and responds differently to foods, two broad scientific theories have emerged during the past century to explain these diseases of civilization. One, the "lipid hypothesis," argues that fat and especially cholesterol are at fault. The other, the "carbohydrate hypothesis," implicates carbohydrates and sugar. Obviously, the lipid hypothesis has won in the public consciousness. It gets way better press, the backing of the federal government itself, and in turn, the backing of the mainstream medical community. This is called a consensus, and Michael Crichton had some choice words for that kind of thinking.

Unfortunately, the actual scientific evidence has supported the carbohydrate hypothesis for a hundred years. So has the practical evidence: doctors like the ever-maligned Dr. Atkins who prescribe low-carb programs to their patients have been reporting successful results since the 19th century (and these doctors have been routinely denounced as quacks ever since). Like I said: this hypothesis gets all the bad press, and has been poo-pooed by the "right people" for decades. It is politically incorrect, as are its implications.

First, the lipid hypothesis boils down to this: you eat fat and cholesterol, and they damage and clog your arteries, and meanwhile get deposited in adipose tissue (your love handles). That's it! This theory had its strongest case back when measuring blood lipids was primitive. It was easy to measure total lipids in the blood, but separating out the many different kinds was expensive and difficult. People with sky-high cholesterol tended to have arterial disease, and cholesterol was found in arterial plaques. It made nice, tidy sense. Until they ran it through the scientific method. It was eventually learned that low cholesterol is just as hazardous to your health as high cholesterol, that cholesterol intake in the diet had little effect on blood lipids, and that there are several different forms cholesterol takes in the blood, whose levels are affected by different variables. But by then, the hypothesis was already being run with by the press, by a crusading faction of doctors and scientists, and by politicians eager to "do something" about the nation's health problems. Sound familiar? It should, because this cultural scenario repeats itself all the time, across countless issues.

Here is a very simplified primer on fats. The fat we consume (and manufacture within our bodies) is either burned for energy, used in synthesizing hormones (like testosterone), or used in structural/building applications. Cholesterol is a part of the structure of every cell in your body, and every cell has the ability to produce cholesterol. It's a good substance, undeserving of the bad rap it's become stuck with. Lipids travel through the bloodstream in a number of forms: HDL, "the good cholesterol"; LDL, "the bad cholesterol"; triglycerides, and VLDL, which you perhaps haven't heard of. HDL and LDL are harmless, in fact, "good." The higher your HDL, the better. Triglycerides are a form of fat used for energy and storage, but high amounts of them in the blood are a bad sign and they contribute to total cholesterol. VLDL is cholesterol that has been damaged, usually oxidized, and is "bad," and also contributes to total cholesterol. When your total cholesterol is through the roof, it's usually these latter "bad" forms of blood lipids that are out of hand. When your total cholesterol is low, usually the good forms are low and the bad forms are still high. It comes down to proportion: the ratio of HDL to triglycerides is the single best indicator of healthy blood cholesterol level.

How do you raise HDL? Well, that's getting a little deep into the science, but appropriate diet and strength training are a good start. Meanwhile, for lowering triglycerides, carbohydrate restriction is indicated.

The carbohydrate hypothesis

A byproduct of the lipid hypothesis is the notion that some carbs, like "complex carbs," are "good" while others, such as sugar, are "bad." This concept actually grew out of the fact that experiments lowering dietary fat and cholesterol weren't yielding the desired results. Investigators knew diseases of "civilization" had to come from, you know, something only civilized people consume. So they began to look at sugar, and this was only very recently. Even in my own childhood, whole grains and brown rice were not exactly mainstream. The notion that sugar has major deleterious effects on the body other than simply causing cavities is newer than people think.

While sugar intake has skyrocketed in the past 200 years and even more in the past 50 years, consumption of carbohydrates overall has also risen dramatically. So, next investigators locked in on fiber: that was the key, right? Because refined carbohydrates like white bread lack fiber. They assumed modern humans aren't getting the nutrients they once drew from fibrous plants, and this is the source of ill health. This, though, assumes only a lack of something, rather than the presence of something — the presence of massive amounts of sugar in the modern diet.

So what are carbohydrates, and what is this alternative hypothesis?

It is a fact that all carbohydrates (except for fiber) are broken down by the human body into sugar (fiber essentially just passes through you). Whether you're eating a Hershey bar or a plate of spaghetti, by the time your digestive system has finished with it, it's been reduced to a simple sugar to pass into your blood stream. "Complex" carbohydrates merely take longer to break down, because the chain of molecules is longer. Before we get into sugar, let's take a brief detour.

It's become popular to make what's called the "Ancestral Argument" when discussing health and nutrition, also known as "Paleolithic" diet or lifestyle. It makes sense: you assume that man is adapted to eat only the foods available for the majority of our time on Earth. It's a flawed premise because research on this is constantly changing, and can be (and is) used to justify almost anything, but it typically boils down to a hunter-gatherer way of life. If you imagine pre-agricultural Man, especially in the Ice Age, and what foods were available to him, the picture should be obvious: some fruits and vegetables during the warm months, and animals during the cold months. Hey, I'm from Michigan: I remember thinking about this as a kid, and having no idea how humans survived so much of the year with no produce. After all, you need carbs for energy, right? And plants for vitamins and minerals?

Wrong.

First, quickly, let me knock out the vitamins and minerals thing: until fairly recently (and only in a few Western nations at that), when humans ate an animal, they ate the whole goddamn thing. They didn't eat only the muscles and throw out (!) the "gross" "weird" organs and shit. They ate the organs, the brain (Temple of Doom, anyone?), the fat, and they cracked open the bones and ate the marrow, too. There's evidence early tool-making served this purpose: to salvage and eat parts of a carcass protected by bone that lions and other predators couldn't break into. While muscle contains protein, much of the nutritive value of an animal was found in the offal... including vitamins and minerals. Think about it: if humans can't survive without those nutrients, it stands to reason cows and deer have those nutrients in their bodies, too (if they're eating right), and if we eat the cow or the deer, we're going to get some of the nutrients they had. Note, also, that a diet high in excess carbohydrates leeches these vitamins and minerals out of the body (many of them can be recycled, under "normal" conditions).

The human body is capable of using either fat or carbs for energy, and can re-constitute one into the other in a pinch. When we absorb energy in either form, it is burned or stored in our adipose fat tissue as fat or in the liver or muscles as glycogen. Fat is just as useful for this as carbohydrates. Remember the cavemen: they lived for months on nothing but animals they hunted. They drew their energy, most of the year, from fat — animal fat, with its dreaded cholesterol and saturated fat.

So, here's a simplification of the carbohydrate process. We resume where we left off: you ate a loaf of bread and now your blood is coursing with sugar. Some of it, you use. Some of it is removed via urination. The rest, you store away, by converting it to fat. You have to: high blood sugar is a toxic state for the body. Sugar flowing through the bloodstream reacts with every tissue it comes in contact with, damaging them (including your arteries, your brain, and your skin). This damage is a major component of the aging process, and of the diseases of civilization. Those damaged cholesterols I mentioned earlier, like VLDL? They got that way by coming in contact with sugar. A good analogy I read compared it to a fire: the higher the blood sugar, the hotter the fire is burning inside your body, and the longer it burns, the more damage is done. Unless your body can use the sugar right now it needs to move it into storage. Thus, the body pumps out insulin, which flips the tissues into energy storage mode and pushes unused fuel into them. Insulin is so good at pushing particles into tissues, however, that it is also good at pushing that damaged LDL into the arterial walls. The presence of insulin tends to exacerbate the damaging effects of high blood sugar, though it is necessary to quell the proverbial fire. Normally this isn't a biggie, because high blood sugar and that flood of insulin isn't an everyday event — or isn't supposed to be.

What else happens? Insulin also sends the adipose fat tissue into storage mode. Most people think of adipose fat as like a camel's hump, extra energy stored away for a rainy day. It is not. It is more like a wallet full of cash ready to spend. A man with 10% bodyfat (at which point you can see visible abs on most men) can survive without food on his fat stores for a month. To be obese is not "advantageous" in a time of starvation: it's a state of malfunction. Obesity occurs when insulin is keeping the adipose fat in storage mode all the time, because the individual is consuming too much carbohydrate. Fat people feel hungry all the time because their fat tissue stores aren't able to release fat to burn as energy. They're supposed to be burning that fat, but they can't, because the carbs they consume are trapping the fat. So they eat more and more and never feel satisfied.

Extrapolate all this over time. Can you imagine the kind of damage that does to a body when someone is flooding his blood with sugar and insulin every day, year in and year out? You don't have to imagine, because you can see it all around you: a population of obese, diabetic people with heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, and a host of other health nightmares unheard of in pre-agricultural man.

And if you won't listen to the Ancestral argument, take a look at hunter-gatherer societies still around today. There are a few left, in isolated parts of the world. These peoples have virtually no incidence of cancer, heart disease, and other complications "of old age." Yes, many of them die young due to harsh environment and infectious disease, but those who do survive to a ripe old age are remarkably healthy.

So what can we eat?

It has been asked more than once when discussing all these hypotheses, "I can't eat fat, I can't eat carbs, what can I eat?" If you have read this far and don't have a clue yet, you're probably beyond help. The good news is, the lipid hypothesis and the carbohydrate hypothesis don't overlap. It's one or the other. You can follow the herd (literally) and eat a diet low in fat (and by extension, low in protein) but high in carbs (and thus, high in sugar), or you can restrict carbs and eat a diet high in fat (and generally, high in protein). You could eat "high-everything" but you'd probably turn into a blimp, or you could eat "low-everything" and be miserable, but those are false choices.

How much carbohydrate is appropriate? It depends on activity level, but almost definitely less than 100 grams per day for just about anybody. An aggressively low-carb diet like the Atkins program is designed to restore your metabolism from a state of derangement and illness (like obesity) and these usually restrict carb intake to 50 grams a day or less for a period of some weeks. For reference, a 16oz soft drink can contain as much as 70 grams; a small plate of rice, about 40 grams. You'll be amazed how quickly you hit 100 or even 200 grams of carbohydrate eating your typical everyday things.

Remember that pre-agricultural man didn't have access to more carbohydrates than that. Most of the time, they had none, and during the warm months, at least in warm climates, they'd be eating leafy vegetables and some fruits, mostly berries (which are actually pretty low in sugar). Nobody goes hogwild with a bunch of apples; you eat one and you're done. Pasta, bread, and rice, on the other hand... these are the carbs that symbolize the agricultural revolution, and these are exactly the type we overconsume in grotesque amounts, and which are notorious for having little or no nutritive value. It's not rocket science!

Don't give me this shit about how produce is expensive while junk food is cheap. Vegetables and fruits cost nothing. For $2 you can buy 3 stalks of broccoli, or a jumbo size candy bar. Most people choose the candy bar. Meat, especially high quality meat, pound for pound is more expensive than the equivalent amount of rice or pasta, but in the long run you will pay a much higher price for pounding down the pasta, when your "diseases of old age" come due.

Rolling the dice

I've come to the conclusion that every individual has an ideal diet, a way he was meant to eat. While this may differ depending on genetics and heritage — for example, some cultures can digest dairy better than others — the broad strokes paint a fairly clear picture. The ideal diet for most people should be based on animal products, and supplemented by colorful vegetables, fruits in moderation, and the occasional starch. We all have an individual maximum amount of carbohydrates, and minimum amounts of fat and protein programmed in, for our bodies to function optimally. The further we stray from that ideal, the greater the risk.

Life is full of health problems. We have all, at one time or another, cried "My body is trying to kill me!" Shit happens. Malfunctions happen even in the best of circumstances. Every day is a roll of the dice. But in my opinion, every day you stray from your proper diet, and the further you stray from it, you're loading the dice against yourself. You're stacking the odds. And since we're all different, we'll all suffer different results, if we get a bad roll. Some people will get obese, some will get cavities. Cancer, diseases of the gut, immune system weakness and failure, Alzheimer's, heart attack, stroke, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis. High sugar and carbohydrate consumption is implicated in every single one of these, and every one is striking people younger and younger. Almost everyone in my generation will probably face one of these fates, and at a younger age than our parents, because my demographic is the low-fat, high-sugar generation.

It's your choice. You have the ability to inform yourself. Most people, faced with the information in this post, react with derision, laughter, or disgust. I've given "the speech" to numerous friends and family, with a wide range of reactions. It's painful to face the idea that everything you think you know about nutrition is wrong, or that your favorite foods, to which you have an emotional attachment, are slowly killing you.

And me? No doubt someone reading this will think, "But Eric, you ate untold quantities of pasta all your life and you were always rail-thin." That's true, but again, everyone is different. None of us knows how we may have been affected by eating a poor diet in our lives. When I was a kid I had a bazillion cavities. I was likely malnourished during several periods of my youth, especially in late college and the years following. I spent most of school distracted and fighting to stay awake in class, then unable to sleep at home. This isn't something I go around sharing at parties, but a few years ago I suffered from a severe, unexplained internal yeast infection that nearly killed me (it was blamed on acid reflux... another ailment stoked by high carb consumption). Many people are able to live on a far from optimal diet until their twenties, and then seemingly out of the blue, the shit hits the fan. How many people do you know who were skinny all their lives, then suddenly ballooned up eating the same foods they always had? You get a wake-up call sooner or later. Sooner, if you're lucky.

A note on popular diets

Carbohydrate-restricting diets are a very old tradition. They've been around at least 150 years. I don't know the first time it was popularized, but the Atkins Diet, which has endured an unbelievable amount of ridicule, is only one of the most recent iterations. Right now, the big one is the "Paleo Diet." The Paleo Diet appeals to upper-class intellectual types because it sort of speaks their language and confronts the horrors of modern industrial agriculture. It has a cool vibe to it that is less confrontational to your vegetarian friends, and in an almost hipster-y way it claims to be "old school." "I may eat beef, but at least it's not Franken-beef, bro!" I think Paleo boils down to just another carb restricting diet, and most of its health benefits come from simply restricting carbs. When you eliminate grains, you eliminate most carbohydrates, which is going to have a dramatic effect on health. I plan to discuss grains, grass-fed animals, dairy, and types of fat in greater detail in a future installment.

In the meantime, go eat a steak. You deserve it.

Recommended Reading (and sourcing):
"Good Calories, Bad Calories," by Gary Taubes
"The Protein Power Lifeplan," by Michael R. Eades and Mary Dan Eades, MDs



THE MIND AS MUSCLE
07.Sep.2012 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

The power of the mind has always fascinated me. I first became aware of it when I ran Cross Country in high school. It is a frequent theme in sports that your body may be capable of something but your brain is holding you back. My coach believed it. I'm sure most people believe it at least on a theoretical level, though we have great difficulty putting it into practice.

My own modest achievements as a runner, in hindsight, seem more psychological than physical. I ran Cross Country for three seasons and what I did in training, outside of race day, changed relatively little from one season to the next. There was little growth: the long distance runs were always 7-10 miles and at a pace of 6 or 7 minutes per mile. In speed work, running sets of 200s or 800s, my times didn't change a lot. Yet there was a pattern: early in my first season, I "broke" 19 minutes for a 5K and from then on, I clocked in between 18 and 19 minutes on every race for the rest of the season. In my second season, I "broke" 18 and consistently ran somewhere around 17:30. And in my final season, I got under 17 minutes and stayed there for the remainder. I suspect there was a mental thing going on: each season I felt that I was graduating to the next level as I paid my dues, trained, and physically matured; and I made suspiciously predictable PRs as if they arrived on a schedule. I'm sure in my first season I could have been running 5Ks under 17 minutes, if my mind had known I could do it. Once I knew my body was up to it, it was easy to stay under 17 minutes. No surprise either that whenever one guy on my team started hitting certain 5K times, others soon achieved PRs close behind him. "Hey, if he can do it..."

My very first race was freshman year of high school: an 800m as part of a relay team. I felt confident beforehand, ready to take on the world, eager to prove myself. When I got the baton and started running, I went too fast. I didn't pace myself. After only 200 meters, my legs and lungs crashed and I slowed to a crawl. It was a nightmare. I was deeply humiliated (my time, for the curious, was 2:48 — a hilariously bad time for a high school 800m). For almost every subsequent race in my high school career, the fear of repeating that first disaster hung over me. Sometimes it was crushing, sometimes barely there. My last race was a very different story. I knew it was the final 5K of my career, so there was no reason to hold back. No more pressure or expectations, just go out in a blaze of glory. I went out hard, and when I felt myself losing steam mid-race, I pushed through it, because this was my last run, and I'd be damned if I went out on a bad note. I tried to override my body's protests, and mostly succeeded. I broke my previous PR by 30 seconds that day. My body hadn't changed in the one or two weeks since the previous race, but the complicated web of psychological factors bouncing around in my head had changed dramatically.

When I read the autobiography of Arnold Schwarzenegger, he put this all into words. Making progress in athletic training is not just a matter of the body getting stronger. It's the mind. The reason I have trouble hitting a lift is likely because my brain, deep down, hasn't accepted that I'm ready for it. Arnold spoke of spending a great deal of time preparing mentally. He recommended that before a difficult lift, one should take as much time as he needs to concentrate on what he's about to do until all doubt is cleared away and the mind is confident enough to guarantee success. He said it was like meditation... you have to take time to get in tune. After reading this, I started trying it at the gym, and it works. But it isn't easy. Mastering the mind, it turns out, is really hard.

On a related note, during the past year I've taken an interest in reading about "out of body experiences" or "OBE." Richard Matheson's* novel, What Dreams May Come, is based on research into near-death experiences ("NDE") described by people who have been resuscitated from a state of death or very-near death. People who have NDEs report experiencing a higher dimension — a dimension of mind. This may be the afterlife, or an afterlife. Richard Matheson's book begins with the death of the protagonist and follows him through a plane of existence shaped by thought. At the same time, some cultures and groups of people (Buddhists being perhaps the best known) attest to the ability to project beyond the physical body during meditation. Some even say that everyone, especially children, has OBEs from time to time that are mistaken for dreams.

For example, many individuals the world over have been through something called "sleep paralysis" or "Old Hag Syndrome." Sufferers seem to wake up and open their eyes, but are unable to move and find their bedroom unfamiliar or occupied by ominous figures. The scientific explanation is that you wake up, but your body "accidentally" keeps pumping out the hormone that immobilizes you during sleep — thus "sleep paralysis." Yet nobody I've spoken to who went through it believed that, or thought it was a mere trick of the imagination. They felt fully conscious and that the visions and sensations were real. Could this actually be a kind of trance or out-of-body experience? When I was a kid, I had many similar troubles in the night: I would see alien figures in my room, hear footsteps and whispers, even feel fingers tapping me through my covers. Were they mere dreams, or another kind of consciousness Western society doesn't acknowledge?

And if so, is this state of consciousness something that any sufficiently trained individual should be able to enter at will? Is it like a muscle that has atrophied in the modern mind? I recently came across a column by Charles Murray in which he mused on an interesting hypothesis: that the afterlife is not a matter of faith but of training. Rather than the usual religious notions that we achieve eternal life through grace or good deeds or worshipping the right higher power, is it instead no different from running a 5K under 17 minutes or benching 300 pounds? After all, athletic achievements occur in the mind first, and as I've described, training your brain to bench 300 is trickier than training your body to do it.

I don't believe the afterlife can only be reached by training, or else the vast majority of people in history are toast. Most ordinary human beings lack the interest or energy to prepare for the next world, which we know next to nothing about. It's exhausting enough negotiating the one we live in. According to What Dreams May Come — which, remember, was based on extensive research — the soul endures, though its individual journey after death is influenced by many variables.

Or at the other extreme, you could subscribe to the Christian doctrine that we're all powerless to escape death without the extraordinary intervention of Jesus Christ. That can be a beautiful or horrifying thought, depending on your perspective. Whether you're Christian or not, everyone has loved ones who are not — the possibility they might perish or go to Hell upon death while you go on to paradise is one of the ultimate frustrations of the faith. When I was going to church regularly, I learned that some Christians have a convenient answer to that problem: don't become personally close with non-Christians. As depressing as that sounds, Richard Matheson made a similar point about the afterlife: that in a universe whose currency is thought, people don't associate by blood relation and other worldly links, but by shared ways of thinking; by being "on the same wavelength," so to speak.

In any case, it's astounding to consider the creative power of the mind. For every moment we're conscious, the brain is interpreting and thus re-creating the world. In a psychology course, you learn that reality comes to us via our sensory inputs as a nonsensical jumble, and it is up to the brain to re-construct it into something we can understand. This is where all the Matrix stuff comes from. When we daydream about the past or future, when we read a book or dream, our minds do the same thing: they generate whole worlds that we experience almost as reality. When you think about how powerful that is, it doesn't seem farfetched that the mind could project itself beyond the body by creating environments for itself, or entering habitats only accessible to an unconstrained consciousness — even when the body (and brain) are dead. Some say the physical brain is not the source of the mind, but a transceiver through which a non-physical "self" interacts with the material world. I still have a web page documenting Wim Hof, the student of Eastern religion who learned how to raise his body temperature through meditation. He can stand in nothing but shorts in a frozen tundra for hours with no ill effects. Something is going on. There is a whole frontier of consciousness that we're not accessing because we're too distracted by modern life or because we don't believe it's possible.

I have struggled with these questions my whole life. I've gone through several alternating periods between being a somewhat serious Christian and being more of a "spiritual," philosophical pseudo-hippy. That pattern does not lend itself to getting along well with people on either end of the spectrum. But what can I say? I'm doing my best and always looking for answers. No matter what, I cannot abide a pure atheistic belief that I'm just a slab of meat competing for resources in an accidental, pointless universe. When I look around me, it's impossible to believe such a thing. The world is a mysterious place; that's a feature, not a bug.

*Themes of consciousness and the afterlife made regular appearances in Matheson's fiction, notably in Somewhere in Time, a story of an out-of-body experience in which a man travels through time using meditation and force of will. It was an important subject to him and something he read about at least as much as he wrote about it.



NUTRITION, MEAT, AND FREEDOM
04.Sep.2012 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

I've been reading a lot of blog posts and other items lately about vegetarianism and how much it blows. Rants on the subject are like teeth, everybody has at least one, and some people have several. So I figured I would join the fracas and add my own two cents, for fun and the benefit of my friends. This post could just save your life.

Frankly, I'm pissed. I'm pissed about being told what to eat by Uncle Sam my whole life. I'm sick of going to the supermarket and having to struggle to find good quality wholesome food buried under all the crap. I hate that in the dairy aisle, there are infinite choices of yogurt and cottage cheese that are "fat free" boasting more sugar than a can of Coke, yet finding a dairy product with the fat God put in it is nearly impossible.

I guess fats and "carbs" is a reasonable starting point for this conversation. When I was growing up, fat was the devil. You see, contrary to the findings of Science (to those reading from the future, Science is what we have instead of "God" in my era), which demonstrate conclusively that we need fat in our diets, ever since the Industrial Revolution there has been a growing impetus to move humans away from diets based on meat and produce toward diets founded on grains. This is not necessarily an evil plot by The Man: there are economic advantages to it. Meat obviously involves more land and expense than vegetables to grow and ship; and the healthiest produce, like green vegetables and berries, must be eaten quickly before it spoils (also true of meat). Grain has tended to solve both problems. It's easy to grow, easy to transport, and easy to keep. Pasta and rice virtually never go bad. Grains lend themselves well to a society of densely populated cities filled with physically inactive people. The trend itself isn't what angers me, however. What upsets me is how, conspiracy or not, an enormous coalition of do-gooders has been trying to force everyone to comply with the trend for decades.

An aside: when I was a kid, my parents forced me to choke down skim milk. From the get-go I found it vile, disgusting, gray, depressing sugar-water. My parents had a hell of a time getting me to drink it. And then, when I was about 8 years old, I had a revelation. I was at a friend's house, and his parents kept "whole" milk in the fridge. When I tried it, it was so delicious I almost cried. I had never tasted real milk before. Over the intervening years I convinced my parents to compromise and buy 2% milk, although now that I live on my own, they still drink skim and I drink whole. Milk and dairy is a whole 'nother animal I won't get into. The point is, why did my parents think whole milk would turn me into a fat kid with heart disease, while skim would turn me into the next Arnold? Simple: because that's what they were told. By Uncle Sam. I was told the same thing. We wasted many hours in school learning about healthy plant fats and evil animal fats, the "bad fats" that kill you. When people are told this horsesqueeze by figures of authority they trust, especially teachers and doctors, they usually believe it. I have too many friends and family to count who talk to me about cutting this or that fatty food from their diet, switching to skim milk or from butter to margarine, because they want to trim bodyfat or lower their cholesterol. Often it's at a doctor's orders, which aren't binding now, but might be in a few years. And everyone I know simply takes it for granted that red meat and anything barbecued are "bad for you." Children are encouraged to eat their vegetables, yet rather than butter them up like we used to, today we boil them or steam them to guarantee there's no pesky flavor. No wonder kids won't touch them.

While the impetus against animal fat and in favor of grains has been around a very long time, it appears to have gone into overdrive after World War II. No doubt, the 20th Century saw unprecedented increases in activist government and authoritarianism, which precipitated and was nourished by the World Wars. It was during this time we began to see aggressive food recommendations coming from governments, like the famous food pyramid of my youth, or "MyPlate" today. The federal government increasingly saw itself as responsible for public health — a role where, for most of history, people had been left to their own devices to base their diets on regional or cultural traditions. The results of this shift speak for themselves. It isn't that people in government are hell-bent on hurting everyone... I think they truly believe they're helping people. But the sentiment you must control and direct others for their own good is definitely at play here.

Why bore you with the Science? In short, the Science, according to my sources, tells us that while we benefit greatly from some carbohydrates, an excess of them is lethal. That's how it is with fat too, but for some reason fat gets the bad rap. We are told to eat as much whole wheat as we can stand and as little fat as possible. Remember the late 90s when Atkins became big and "low-carb" was the craze? The backlash was intense; the "smart set" did a smooth job of shutting it down as nothing but fat morons giving themselves an excuse to eat bacon and eggs. It was short-lived; essentially a drop of anti-carb hysteria in a sea of decades of anti-fat hysteria. If you don't remember this period, by the way, you're lucky, because the late 90s was a dark time in American cultural life, when guys wore their pants around their knees and the Backstreet Boys were considered the quintessence of masculinity. Anyway, this blip on the radar was never taken seriously. Just the other day I read on Yahoo! News that eating egg yolks is as bad for you as smoking cigarettes. Does the stupid ever end? Meanwhile, there's the so-called "French Paradox": that the French eat butter, cheese, and other fatty foods, yet are not fat themselves. Gee — did we ever stop to ask ourselves if it's really some mysterious "paradox?"

Protein never gets any respect, either. Don't even get me started on the "Daily Value" percentage you see on nutrition labels. Uncle Sam — or as the government is sometimes duly called, "Uncle Sugar" — tells us we need very little protein and that if we eat too much, our kidneys will fail and we'll get osteoporosis. No, seriously, that's what they say (and no, it's not true). To make matters worse, in the assault on meat, meat has been downgraded to impersonal "protein" and beans — BEANS for God's sake! — are also a "protein." When I go to cafeterias sometimes, they'll ask me "What kind of protein would you like?" as if meat and beans were equal. This enrages me enough to grab a minigun and mow down a whole acre of jungle like they did in Predator. Just, NO. HELL NO.

Fuck beans. Fuck them. What kind of sick joke is it that the food product Uncle Sugar has deemed the successor to meat is notorious for making people fart? Didn't the government watch Blazing Saddles? Humans don't digest beans very well. Almost no one I know even likes beans! They taste like paste, they're nigh-impossible to cook without rendering them the consistency of diarrhea, they give you indigestion and gas, and they usually exit your body in a smelly, painful, liquid form. They're packed with carbohydrates, not protein. Oh, and of course the fat in beans is decreed "good fat."

But they have to throw in something to substitute for meat, which beans can't. That's because it doesn't take a genius to figure out you can't live on leafy greens, fruits, and nuts for long (though these are all important components of a healthy diet). You sort of can, but you'll be skin and bone, tired, and miserable all the time. People need protein, and strong people need a lot of it. I learned this firsthand. When I lived in Rome and for a couple of years afterward, I led a nearly vegetarian lifestyle — which was far from the Platonic ideal of some wonderfully diverse diet of produce and the fruits of the Earth. Basically, I ate pasta with tomato sauce almost daily, PBJ sandwiches, ramen noodles, few vegetables, little meat, and drank soy milk (another horribly misguided decision). I didn't eat many eggs because I heard they were bad for you, duh. I only ate meat when I ate out, which I couldn't afford to do much, because I was squeamish about touching raw meat and didn't know how to cook it. I looked terrible. My weight was a dangerous 110 pounds, you could see every bone in my body, all of my joints ached regularly, and I felt wiped out after even a little physical activity. It was difficult to carry something like a television or computer up a flight of stairs. I had trouble thinking clearly, making plans, and solving problems. My shoulders and neck for some reason were in constant pain. I looked, and felt, like one of those fossilized bird skeletons from the Cretaceous period. There came a day when I got sick of it and determined to man up. I switched back to milk (whole, of course), ate at least a pound of meat daily, and started to lift heavy in the gym (I could not lift heavy at all on my typical post-college diet without a lot of joint pain). Since then, I've maintained a higher weight, I'm much stronger, I can think more clearly, and I frequently get compliments on my physique. Relatives asked me if I had grown taller (I hadn't — just fuller in the shoulders, and better posture) and remarked on how "masculine" I now appeared; people would tell me how great or "ripped" or "buff" I looked. I've got a long way to go yet when it comes to health and fitness, but there's no question. Meat changed my life, and maybe even saved my life.

Which brings me to vegetarianism. It's perhaps no coincidence that fat and animal protein are almost always found together, and the war on fat seems to run almost in conjunction with the vegetarian movement. After all, we're taught from birth that plant fat is "good fat" and animal fat is "bad fat." Hm. Why? Because plant fat is "unsaturated" and animal fat is "saturated." Oh, okay. Does anybody even remember what that means? (Note: it doesn't matter because Science has failed to link animal fat or cholesterol in the diet with heart disease, which was the premise of the war on fat.) And vegetarianism is spreading: here in NYC it's considered perfectly mainstream, uncontroversial, and "healthy," and many vegetarians pick it up from their roommates and friends like the common cold.

I don't hate vegetarians. I have many friends who are current or former vegetarians (yep, I know many people who had to quit vegetarianism for health reasons). Far be it from me to tell someone else how to eat! More meat for the rest of us, after all. Vegetarianism, on the other hand, is evil, and is to my mind an anti-human movement with the urge to control other people "for their own good." Which is why most of their arguments are bankrupt.

What I hate hearing the most is that humans didn't evolve to eat meat; we're not predators because we can't digest raw meat like a lion can. No shit? Tell me, then, when was the last time you ate raw wheat? Corn? Beans? Rice? Hm. Science has been finding more and more that, during our evolution, it was the onset of cooking our food (which included meat and vegetables) that enabled us to digest it better and use nutrients more efficiently, causing our brains to develop — it's what made us human. In any case, a loaf of bread has undergone far more manipulation from its natural state to become something edible than any medium-rare steak.

It's funny to me how many vegetarians are atheists who think religion is superstitious ghost stories. I'd say the evolutionary case for eating meat is the strongest there is. Once you start getting metaphysical and considering animals to have souls or holding them in any way sacred, shit starts getting really hairy.

But geez... from an evolutionary standpoint? The concept that man is equal to the other animals is self-evidently absurd. Laughable. We're firmly at the top of the food chain. Yeah, many animals, mostly mammals, have demonstrated some capacity for language, problem-solving, and love. But you can't talk about evolution without talking about the state of nature. The natural world is a violent, brutal place. All life on Earth is in a constant, merciless competition for survival, all the way down to the humblest bacteria. Man is simultaneously a part of that and an exceptional creature. I don't even know how to argue this... it's like arguing that the sky is blue. The best argument vegetarians have presented is the cruelty and suffering animals experience at our hands... but to that I say again, observe nature. Male chimps have territorial wars and routinely tear off each others' faces and genitals to prevent their enemies from breeding (as chimps do to humans at the first opportunity). Hippos destroy on their own offspring if the baby doesn't come out right. There are numerous members of the animal kingdom that eat their prey alive — including their own mates, parents, or young. In the grand scheme of things, what we do to animals isn't that bad. Guess how I feel about animal testing, too.

As to morality, I don't believe that we have evolved into sufficiently ethically advanced creatures that we have the moral authority to ruin our bodies so that beasts can live "fulfilling" lives. The animal kingdom isn't Bambi. Most animals' lives consist of nothing more than feeding and procreating. And let's not get into silly-ass false modesty about how "that's all we do" while we surf our internets in air-conditioned skyscrapers and send rovers to Mars. We do a lot more than consume resources and procreate, and anyone who says otherwise is being foolish. And about religion, personally I am a Christian (but not a Creationist) and it's a given of the faith that we do not have that kind of moral authority. In Christianity, we are expected to responsibly manage the resources put on Earth to sustain us, which includes the animals.

From a perspective of pure health, Science has spoken. You don't even have to look at the Science, just look around you. Humans today are shockingly unhealthy, and it's not because they're eating steak. Human life has undergone a radical change. Our lives are now experienced electronically and virtually, while our bodies have turned into something most of us wouldn't want to live in or see in the mirror. In fact, mankind appears to be separating into two different species, an ironic reverse of the Morlocks and Eloi. You have a hyper-healthy, hyper-educated, workaholic, economically affluent class of humans rising to the top, and on the bottom you have a morbidly obese, diabetic, sedentary, uneducated and unintelligent underclass that can hardly be called the "working" class with a straight face anymore. They subside on welfare, television, and endless quantities of sugary junk food, and are a net drain on society. Where will that end?

Vegetarians don't live on either side of that spectrum, and although there are not many of them in the population, the larger do-gooderism they represent has a massive influence on all of society... for the worse. The arrogance of making vast prescriptions for the population based on fads hasn't helped at all, at best. It can definitely be argued it's actively done harm. How can we say "education is the answer" when our educators spread misinformation? I'm not even sure the momentum can be stopped at this stage. As I said before, our changing dietary and physical culture are in part an adaptation to cybernetic life in dense cities — a trend that won't go away. It could be that our civilization will experience a crash when the health crisis and its costs reach a tipping point. Or advancing technology could save us. The fact remains, however, that avoiding meat and fat in your diet is unnatural and unhealthy. It's offensive to me that pencil-necked government "experts" should sit on their high horse telling us the opposite, with the full compliance of Big Agriculture and their unlimited corn and soy subsidies. None other than George Orwell, a life-long socialist, lamented vegetarianism as an embarrassing and kooky ornament of leftwing movements. That should tell you something.

Recommended Reading:
"Good Calories, Bad Calories," by Gary Taubes
"Fat Head" (the movie)
"The Road to Wigan Pier," by George Orwell, Chapter 11 (can be read for free online)



DIABLO: A RETROSPECTIVE
14.May.2012 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

You're 13 years old, and watching the intro cinematic - itself a fairly new development - to the next big PC title. The camera floats through a village more haunted and decrepit than anything you've ever seen, with bodies hung from a tree, swinging in the wind, and a raven snacking on a human eye. Months later you're playing the just-released game, exploring a labyrinth filled with creatures out of a Frank Frazetta painting. Some of the monsters go to the floor in pieces, spilling pools of blood; others explode in a rain of gibs. Soon, you will go toe to toe with the Lord of Terror himself.

The Diablo games were something of an event in my life. I've always been fascinated with fantastic horror themes including the devil, demons, the undead, hauntings, passages to Hell... and Diablo had them all. It seems so obvious now: what a great idea to put the player in a rustic village, in which a ruined gothic cathedral conceals a labyrinth leading to Hell itself. As you plumb the depths of corruption, you get more powerful weapons and armor and encounter increasingly large and over-the-top monsters, most of which are undead or demonic in nature.

Blizzard is famous for its cutscenes, but after all these years their most memorable movies are still the oldest. They used to have a certain character, like the trailer for Starcraft 1 when the guy's head explodes, and in the trailer for Diablo 1 when the raven eats the eyeball. Little things like that stay with you and come to define your memory of the game.

It was one of the most exciting games I had played when it appeared. But, man oh man, has it aged. You see, there was once a time when computer games occasionally omitted the ability to run. When Diablo was new, this wasn't unusual, but when you came back to it years later, the lack of running is unbearable. It takes forever to move your character anywhere. But, despite its flaws, the game was still a landmark, and as with all Blizzard games, from a visual standpoint it has aged quite well.

The sequel, Diablo 2, has held up even better. Now you could run, and the characters and their abilities were far more fleshed out. The world was far bigger. In Diablo 1, you were in the same town the whole game and just went to deeper and deeper levels of the dungeon; in Diablo 2 you travel from region to region, from snowy mountains to mummies' tombs. There was just so much to do in the game; I'd be afraid to even try counting the hours I've spent playing it. And it's a game you keep coming back to every few years, wanting to sink into its world and see if you can "build" the perfect warrior, or just experience the thrilling story again.

Now, with Diablo 3 imminent, and a series of similar games called Torchlight in the mix, it's time to give Diablo a hard look.

Diablo 2, too, had its flaws. One was difficulty level. Unlike most games where you choose the difficulty each time you play (including New Game+ options), in Diablo the difficulty is simply "Normal" the first time through. Once your character has completed Normal mode, he can keep wandering around killing things and collecting treasure/gear (a key element of the Diablo franchise) but the story elements are completed. You are encouraged to play through again on "Nightmare" difficulty, followed by "Hell." Each difficulty level is insanely more hard than the one before it. Even the most humble critters in the game take absurd amounts of punishment. Every room, dungeon and area is a brutal chore to plow through. Enemies take half, and later one-fourth damage from melee blows, rendering the physical warriors worthless and the magic-users the only really viable players on these difficulties.

And that leads me to another flaw. When a game offers a choice between Might and Magic based characters, these forces are typically not balanced. The Magic players begin fragile and weak, but become prohibitively powerful as their spells grow increasingly ridiculous. The Might players begin strong and able to smash everything quickly, but their muscle is eventually eclipsed by the near-limitless abilities of the high level Magic users. This is also the case in Diablo, where magic characters are favored.

Look, there is a timeless appeal to stomping around hitting shit. Everyone loves walking up to a zombie or something and just hacking it to pieces. That is why these games exist. And Diablo 2 sort of sabotaged that, in its handling of the might/magic balance. Yes, blasting monsters with lightning is hugely satisfying, too, but it's just different. Apples and oranges. Another major issue is how character death was handled. When you die, your corpse stays on the battlefield, along with all your equipment, usually surrounded by giant roid-raging demons or something. This is just horrible. As a sorceror you have your spells (your attack capability, that is) even when in your underwear, but a physical fighter is pretty much nothing without his gear. How do you get your junk back from those demons? This was a glaring flaw in the game's design. Will these issues be resolved in Diablo 3? One hopes.

Another issue that will thankfully be fixed is character "builds." In Diablo 2, every time you leveled up you had points to allocate to skills to specialize in, spells to learn, etc. Many of the abilities put in the game were total crap. Many more still were useful in Normal difficulty, but when you graduated to Nightmare and Hell, they were worthless. You just had to start over, because you had already committed your points and couldn't get them back. This, and the complexity of the skills and equipment a strong character demanded, meant that you often spent as much time planning how to play through the game as you did actually playing it. This is really bad. In Diablo 3, you can re-spec your character whenever you want. This is phenomenal and pretty much solves all those problems.

The elephant in the room with this type of game is tedium. It's real easy for hack-and-slash games to get stale real fast. What is so amazing about Diablo 2 is how it managed to avoid that fate. How? I'm not sure.

Which brings me to Torchlight. Torchlight was created by a team of ex-Blizzard employees, in fact, many of the people who worked on Diablo 1 and 2. Obviously, these people haven't been involved with Diablo 3. The presence of Diablo DNA in Torchlight is unmistakeable, and indeed some pundits see it as the "true" successor to the Diablo franchise.

Well, they're wrong. Torchlight is a very fun game, but it's no Diablo. It does not, in fact, escape from the curse of tedium; somehow, even though the graphics and music are better than a game of Diablo 2's vintage, the game is less capable of holding your attention. I think this is largely because of a few things. 1: Each level of the dungeon is too damn big and "open." You feel lost, which I hate. Diablo 2 aced this in having you always moving between open areas and reasonably linear rooms and tunnels (Diablo 3 is even better at this). 2: There are too many levels of each "world" in the dungeon; there should have been more worlds with just a couple levels each. 3: There are too many item drops. I mentioned before that a key feature of the Diablo games is picking up gear from the monsters you kill. You keep getting better equipment, which makes you stronger and makes your character a bit unique. In Diablo 2, this is done perfectly. Monsters don't always drop stuff. Sometimes they drop crap. Sometimes gold. Sometimes a really sweet item. In Torchlight, there are tons of items dropping at all times. And most of them are complete shit. It becomes a very irritating distraction, as you spend as much time just sorting through all the dropped items as you do fighting. Interestingly, the developers of Diablo 3 have explicitly said that balancing item drops is among the most important and time-consuming parts of developing the game. It's no wonder that when it isn't perfectly "tuned" in similar games, you can sense that and it detracts from the fun.

Another problem is that Torchlight has no story or plot. I know, I know, video game plots are notoriously trite or even nonexistent. Or are they? Just look at the Final Fantasy franchise, or Dead Space, or Starcraft, to name another Blizzard title. Story matters. Creating a game universe where people care about what happens in it and want to spend time there is a respectable achievement. The creators of Diablo dreamed up a highly compelling world in which Heaven and Hell are in constant struggle and man is caught in the middle. In each title, the forces of Hell are trying to invade our fragile world, and it's up to a few guys with swords to beat them back into the abyss. That's powerful. In Torchlight, the story is beyond lame: you're following some guy into the "Ember mines" where various monsters guard a mineral/resource called "ember." Oh. Okay.

Lastly, Torchlight abandons the macabre atmosphere of Diablo — you know, the heart and soul of the games. I realize that they had to do something different, but Torchlight feels more "for kids" and the monsters and levels have a much less dark, more Nintendo-game feel. On that note, many critical fans have slammed Diablo 3 for ditching the old muted "gray-brown" color palette of the first two titles for more color, as if this is a travesty. But I've now played the beta and Diablo 3 looks stunning. It is nowhere near as Disneylandy as Torchlight. When I walked beneath fall foliage or through a foggy graveyard, my heart fluttered. That is the kind of world I like to muck around in.

When it comes right down to it, whenever I play Torchlight, I find myself thinking "I wish I was playing Diablo." Enough said.

An interesting thing about the Diablo games is how memorable they are. You see so many people around the web remembering their first time playing the first game and their encounter with a monster called The Butcher. He's in a room loaded with dismembered bodies, and as you open the door, you know all hell is about to break loose. A really fast, beefy demon with a meat cleaver explodes out at you and on your first time playing, probably killed you. It was one of those iconic moments in video games.

This was something I noticed as I played through Starcraft 2, the equally long-awaited sequel to Blizzard's Starcraft series. The game had many moments that, for lack of a better word, were iconic. Characters said things that were quotable. There were memorable events in the game that made you clap your hands at the screen. You get the sense these weren't accidental, that Blizzard gets it and they genuinely care about making games that will go down as classics. They make games that are more than just "fun."

One thing that annoys me about Blizzard is how much they prefer multiplayer gaming. They seem to see something antisocial in people playing games solo. Their biggest game of all time, of course, is World of Warcraft, an entirely multiplayer game, and once they started on that, everything else was put on the back burner for years. It was about ten years without a single Starcraft or Diablo title, which is insane. With Diablo 3 coming out, Blizzard spokesmen are always talking about the multiplayer "experience" and how important it is to them, how they want to bring people together. Offline play has been removed from the game, though you can still play online by yourself. Look... I love playing video games with my friends. Playing them with strangers - that's something else. Few of my friends like Blizzard games for some inexplicable, cosmically cruel reason, so I can either play single-player, or play with people like this. Not fair? Maybe. But if you play games online, you are guaranteed to encounter people like this. Frequently, even. Why would I want that? A huge part of why we play video games is to enter a world where we don't have to put up with other people's bullshit. Luckily, I do have some friends who like Diablo, so maybe there's some good Diablo 3 multiplayer in my future.

The Quest For a Diablo 2 "Full Clear"

I mentioned earlier that Diablo handles difficulty in a peculiar way. The continuation of the game into harder difficulties in which you grow in power and acquire exclusive items means that you almost never feel like you "finished" the game. So, here is a brief history of my Diablo 2 progress.

When I first played Diablo 2 around the time I started college, I got stuck a number of times. This is perhaps an example of poor design. First, the boss of Act II (or "the second world" in more traditional gaming lingo) was so hard that he killed me, and most players, almost instantly when I entered his room. I had to actually start over from the beginning of the game (my first character was the Paladin) and rebuild my character. I've had to do this many, many times over the years (another design flaw). Then I entered Act III, in which I got lost, frustrated with the maze-like map, and had to stop playing again. For one of the best games of all time, Diablo 2 sure had its quirks. One wonders sometimes if these obnoxious flaws are what actually draw us to games and build some kind of twisted loyalty. Eventually I pushed through Act III and on to the end, slew Diablo, and was done. I tried "Nightmare" difficulty for a couple of minutes, couldn't kill even the weakest critters, and stopped.

Then the expansion came out, adding a fifth act/world and a host of new features. I wasn't doing very well with the Paladin, and it was here I got into my favorite character, the Necromancer. Long story short, over the next ten years I rebuilt many Necromancers, always chipping away a little further into the harder levels of the game. I would listen to NIN or Depeche Mode while I grinded levels through my college summer vacations. At one point I created a Barbarian, got to Act I of "Hell" difficulty and was forced to stop because it was impossible. The same happened with a Sorceress. "Hell" mode is truly a game design disaster... it's not that it is hard, it's that it is cheap. It is hard in the most irritating ways. You walk into a room and get swarmed and killed instantly, then you get to play the "rescue the corpse" game which is the antithesis of fun. Often you come to a room or area so hilariously awful that you have to quit and reload. It actually offends me how stupidly hard the game is at this level. The thing is: the game designers assume you'll be playing online and trading for the best gear (which is a given in Diablo 3 because it's online only, but not Diablo 2), so they balanced difficulty for the people online with that gear, but I've only ever played Single Player offline, which means I never had good items. I always just played with the stuff I picked up going through the game. It's sort of a point of pride for me. In any case: I don't think I can exaggerate how infuriating it is to train up a character for something like 100 hours, only to reach Hell and discover they're worthless. For example, imagine training a Sorceress (offline) who specializes in fire and ice magic, only to reach Hell and find that many enemies are immune to both. What do you do? Nothing — you're screwed!

After all this time, I've only just now reached the very end of the game with a Necromancer. And it's harder than ever. I think it's safe to say Diablo 2 has caused me more grief and rage than any other video game I've ever played. Partly that's just it's longevity, and you have to give it credit for that. But I am glad to be taking a break and moving on to the next chapter. In fact, I will not be able to achieve the "full clear" before Diablo 3 is in my hands. I've run out of time.

As to the Necromancer... well, here is my "ode" to that class. Everyone knows I have an affinity for the undead, necromancer-like factions in video games. This guy fit that mode well. Aesthetically, he is very cool with a Skeletor-like appearance. He could raise defeated enemies as skeletons or make their corpses explode, summon golems, and fire non-elemental magic missiles called "bone spears." Very versatile and enjoyable. In Hell, I realized another crucial element: he has incredible control over the battlefield. Basically, he can summon impenetrable walls of bone between himself and the enemy, which block missile attacks and serve to trap and corral monsters. Even bosses. I didn't even appreciate this until I reached Act IV of Hell mode, but without it I'd be dead. Traditionally I lean toward the sword-and-shield melee classes, but the ones in Diablo 2 never quite cut the mustard for me.

Diablo 3 comes out in just a few hours, May 15th. Earlier, I had the priviledge of playing the game when Blizzard hosted an open beta. It was breathtaking. The game improves on Diablo 2 in virtually every way. Hilariously, they removed running from the game... Maybe if I have the time and inclination I will take some notes on first impressions after a few days with it. My impressions from the beta were almost universally positive, but it takes time to really get the full picture of a game. After all: I ended up playing Diablo 2 on and off for over ten years. If the next installment has even half that much longevity it'll be a major achievement.



THE MATRIX TRILOGY: WHAT HAPPENED
01.March.2012 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

Greetings, Programs! Here is my review-slash-explanation of the Matrix movies, with a focus on the second two. When I first saw the original movie in theaters, I loved it like everyone else. It's a hell of a movie and was extremely well-played. It successfully made philosophy cool for about a week, until the armchair philosophizing that it spawned reached critical mass and got mega-annoying (just like Memento).

A little refresher. The first act of The Matrix is brilliant. We start out seeing Trinity, who might be good or bad but is clearly a bad-ass, being chased around by lawmen. We don't know what's going on, but her people are looking for a man called Neo. Then we meet Neo: Ted has morphed into a dorky office drone who works for the Man and moonlights as a computer hacker. Suddenly, his computer starts talking to him. Reality is starting to bend and change. He meets Trinity at a rave (more on raves later), then wakes up. He gets a call at work from the mysterious Morpheus, who shows him that a bunch of evil suits are coming for him. This whole sequence is just great. The audience is guided through a range of sensations: mystery, menace, danger, not knowing who to trust or what will happen next. Neo is just an ordinary guy, like us, and he's being sucked down this crazy rabbit hole into a world of adventure. There is even a little horror: when Neo is briefly captured by Agent Smith, Smith erases his mouth and injects a terrifying robot insect in his belly button.

Neo "wakes up" from the Matrix to find himself in the dreary real world. It is centuries in the future; the Machines "woke up" long ago, and man reacted by trying to destroy them. War broke out. The Machines relied on solar power, so Man nuked everything and blotted out the sun. Nice one. The Machines turned Man into their new source of energy. Man could not survive the blasted Earth without being sustained by the Machines, who could not survive without vast farms of human cocoons. The Machines created the Matrix as a repository for human consciousness, so people wouldn't have to face the reality of living in tubs of Jell-O. It's a symbiotic relationship, but humans call it "slavery." Indeed, humans escape the Matrix to live underground in a haven city called Zion (more on Zion later). Supposedly Zion is "free" and more desirable than the "slavery" of the Matrix. The people of Zion are working to destroy the Matrix and set everyone "free" to come live underground and eat gruel, rat meat, "reconstituted protein" (probably recycled human feces), or whatever it is they call food. As for the Matrix, the Machines originally created a simulation of paradise or heaven, a perfect place where the human species could live out its dotage and everyone lived inside his own private porn film. But the human mind rejected it. People went insane and killed themselves because it was too boring and we need drama and misery. So, the Machines re-crafted the Matrix as simply a slice of human history, and chose the late 1990s because it was cheapest to film there.

The plot of the first movie is simple and it works. Morpheus freed Neo from the Matrix because there was a prophecy about one ultimate hacker who could manipulate the program with his mind, and Jeff Bridges was too old at this point, so it had to be Ted. But they had to go through hell and make sacrifices to get Neo out of the Matrix, and in the process one of their crew betrayed everyone because he was sick of "real life" and eating reconstituted poop and wanted to return to his cocoon. The agents capture Morpheus, and Neo has to make a choice: either escape to Zion and live to become the hero he's foretold to be, and let Morpheus die; or rescue Morpheus and die, meaning the prophecy will die with him. Neo chooses the latter, because so far he hasn't done shit to justify Morpheus's sacrifice and Ted is a stand-up guy, after all. He saves Morpheus and Agent Smith kills him.

But wait! Neo is The One. He realizes this is just a computer simulation, and his consciousness is beyond all this "death" bullshit, so he gives himself an extra life and obliterates the Agent Smith program. Everybody heads home to Zion, and now the real work begins of freeing everyone from the Matrix. The end. A fun flick with a libertarian bent, everybody loved it because we all perceive "The Man" to be out there holding us down, whether it's Corporations, the Government, the Freemasons, aliens, religious groups, or whatever. It's also outrageously escapist: the biggest hits in late 20th Century cinema portray ordinary people finding out they can do magic. Examples: Star Wars, Harry Potter. Every person in the Western world has attempted to make a beer can float into his hand using the power of his mind. We all want to escape the labor and tedium of reality and have this enchanted, magical life. Movies like this come with the unhealthy but enjoyable promise that someday we might "wake up" and find out we can.

But wait! There's more!

In Tron Reloaded — sorry, Matrix Reloaded — we go back into the Matrix to watch a gazillion slow-motion anime fistfights, which we just learned were unnecessary because none of it is real and Neo's consciousness is above all that. He can destroy programs with his mind, for God's sake! But he forgot, I guess. So, we watch a bunch of pointless kung fu where we don't care what's happening because we have no idea why the fights are even taking place. Agent Smith has been reborn, not as a program, but as a virus (ironic, given that he considers humanity a virus). He is scarier now and is assimilating everything, absorbing other programs and spreading through the Matrix. Neo is attacked by an infinite number of Smiths in a park and fights them for an eternity — the scene rivals the "Put on those glasses" fight from They Live! — for absolutely no reason, then just flies away, which he could've done at the beginning. For me, this is officially the scene when the trilogy jumped the shark, though it is not rock-bottom. That's coming.

Meanwhile, the Machines have decided it's time to destroy Zion. They're unstoppable, so the only hope for Zion will be Neo. Everything that happens in Zion from now on can be read like the siege of Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings; they have to hold out long enough for Neo to "end the war" on his own. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The Machines are coming, so we need to see Zion and see what we're fighting for. Big mistake.

Pretty much everyone in the Matrix is white, while pretty much everyone in Zion is of African origin. Get it? Zion is ruled by a bunch of hippies with dreadlocks (including the dreaded White People With Dreads). Even Spike Lee is on the ruling council! There's a commander guy who has the same expression of anger frozen on his face for the entirety both sequels, who offers ideas to fight the Machines, then he gets shot down by the hippie Council and they say "well, it's all riding on Neo anyway, so leave the strategic decisions to us." I'm surprised none of them is smoking a bong right there during the council meetings. Meanwhile, the natives are restless so they throw a party and send Morpheus to give them an Inspirational Speech. He gives the worst inspirational speech I have ever seen on film. Then, they have a rave! It's horrible! For about five minutes the camera pans across naked men and women jumping up and down in place in slow motion, or grinding against each other as if they're at a frat party. They all have dreadlocks. This is the nadir of the trilogy, easily. I could see people walking out of the theater at this point. I mean, the first movie promises this wonderful haven of Zion, and then we see it and it's this? After the rave, we see some establishing shots of Zion that make it look eerily like a prison, where all the lights are turned out at the same time, and everyone's "home" or apartment is basically a little cell. Neo goes to the power core to talk with the Lord of the Hippies, and while smoking a blunt the guy says, "Look at all these machines that power Zion. Zion is basically a big machine city. Are we really more free than the people in the Matrix?" Neo says, "We're free because we can turn off these machines, but they can't turn off the Machines that rule the Matrix." The hippie says, "Yeah, but if we turn off these machines we'll all die," and Neo just shrugs, at least it's a choice, that's what matters. This trilogy is all about CHOICE, see?

Neo discovers that he has to go into the Matrix and confront the Master Control Program, or the Architect, whatever. Only then can he address the Machines and tell them not to destroy Zion, and to set people free, or something. But to get there he has to find a program called the Keymaker who has to unlock the door to the inner sanctum of the Matrix. But the Keymaker is being held hostage by another program, the Frenchman. So we go back into the Matrix.

We don't meet any more people who are trapped in the Matrix — hey, screw them, they're just a bunch of zombies, right? — instead, all of the characters in the Matrix are programs. The programs can feel love and also get horny, the Frenchman cheats on his "wife" with another program so the wife tells Neo she will give them the Keymaker if Neo kisses her in front of his girlfriend Trinity. Neo kisses her, they free the Keymaker, and then the Frenchman sends some evil programs resembling mythical monsters to stop them from reaching the Architect. The Matrix system itself also sends Agents (not Smith, who is now a free agent, hehe!) to stop them. There's a long action sequence while they escape. Now that they have the Keymaker, Neo can reach the Architect. Did you catch all that?

But wait!

The Architect is so protected that Neo's friends have to disable all his defenses by taking out power plants around New York City (inside the Matrix). In the process, Trinity's Matrix-avatar gets "killed" just as Neo reaches the Architect and learns the truth. Which is...

The whole "prophecy" and "The One" business is a scheme the Machines cooked up. Even with the current Matrix setup, there is a fluke, which causes a superman like Neo to be born every now and then, maybe every hundred years. Neo's purpose is to basically reset the entire program so we can relive the 90s over and over again, and while he does that, the Machines will wipe out Zion, then plant a few people in the ruins of Zion to repopulate it. Now we know that supposedly free Zion is just another ant farm created by the Machines, except that it's "real" and you don't have to jack in to experience it, because life in the real world sucks naturally. This cycle has happened five times already. Neo was supposed to do this the whole time, so, why did the Machines work so hard to prevent him from getting to this point? That's not important, what matters is that he has a CHOICE.

Either he can do the Machines' bidding, go into the Source Code and reset the program, and then they'll wipe out Zion and start everything over — or he can say "screw everything" and go save Trinity, the Machines will destroy Zion anyway, and the Matrix will also collapse, ending all life, Machine and Man. Sure. Like the Machines are really gonna follow through on that? Neo takes the door to Trinity and revives her. The Machines go ahead with their attack on Zion. The Matrix is starting to crumble, and Smith is still spreading through it, wreaking havoc.

That's where the third movie begins. The plot of this one is much simpler, but it's still over two hours. Smith is eating up everything in the Matrix. The Machines are destroying Zion. Neo floats around stoned in a train station until the audience can't take any more, then comes out of the Matrix and tells everyone he has to go to the Machine City, where all the Machines are. Like the second movie, he is going to the Source to fix everything, but in the real world this time, rather than inside the Matrix.

So he and Trinity take a ship there, and the Machines fire about a billion missiles at them, but Neo destroys them with his mind, even though it's real life, because his brain is special and his powers go beyond just the Matrix now. Look, just go with it, it's a movie, okay? Then they crash and Trinity dies because her character has nothing to do anymore. The Machines are all gross insect-like creatures that seem to have little purpose and no free will. Neo meets the Lord of the Machines, and we learn he was supposed to come here the whole time, because the Smith virus was going to spread beyond the Matrix and wipe out all the Machines unless Neo stopped it. So, why did the Machines try to stop Neo from reaching their headquarters? Why didn't they bring him there ASAP? Again, who knows, who cares at this point.

Neo makes a deal: he will go into the Matrix and end the Smith virus, and then he will go into the Source Code and reset the Matrix like he was supposed to; in return, the Machines won't destroy Zion this time, and will allow people to leave the Matrix if they want to. The Machines accept; he goes into the Matrix and fights Smith for another twenty minutes. Then, after all this, he sees the true nature of the Smith virus. Smith is death, basically; he's also the "anti" Neo, sort of a yin yang thing. When Neo was killed in the Matrix, he escaped death, creating an imbalance. Smith is that imbalance. In order to set everything right, Neo has to accept death. He has to allow Smith to kill him, and it has to be a choice. Once that happens, the imbalance will disappear, meaning Smith will disappear. So, Neo does that, then goes into the Source and the Matrix resets, and the Machines spare Zion. Everything is cool now. The relationship between humans and Machines is essentially the same, but is now peaceful and free of resentment. It's no longer "slavery" because people can leave the Matrix to attend raves in Zion if they want to. The final scene bothered people because it seemed to leave things open for sequels, but it actually represents a true conclusion. When the Oracle says they may see Neo again someday, they don't mean Ted. They mean another Neo. Another human born into the Matrix who will be The One for another time, who will have other choices to make. The story of Ted, Morpheus and the rest is concluded.

The trilogy is about choices. Neo is faced with a series of big choices that have distinct effects on all of the events in the story. In general, this is a good thing. The problem is that his choices aren't real. When it's a really tough choice, like "My life or Morpheus's life," it ends up being a false choice, because he gets to have both. Or when it's "save the Matrix or save Trinity," he gets to have both, he saves Trinity and then saves the Matrix later. Yes, both Neo and Trinity die in the end, but the deaths come a lot later than the crossroads. When he has to choose to let Smith kill him, it's not a matter of "Is this what I want?" Rather, it's that, he was supposed to choose this the whole time, he only just figured it out now. But if he had solved the equation and let Smith kill him earlier, he couldn't reboot the Matrix or make the deal to save Zion. Everything feels like it had to happen exactly the way it did. How depressing. Worse still, it could be argued that the "real world" is itself a Matrix, given that Neo's powers appear to work there and other subtle clues.

Were the sequels worth it? I don't know. I bought the trilogy because there was a deal where I could get all three movies for the price of one, so it was a pretty easy choice to make. Get it? Choice? The sequels don't add anything. The world of the Matrix doesn't get more deep or exciting. Zion turns out to be just a bigger version of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The philosophy doesn't get deeper or better. Look, I minored in Philosophy in college. I love this stuff. The first Matrix was great; it covers as much of the free will/choice stuff as a blockbuster could, and also raises questions about consciousness, "what is reality?" and it's a damn good movie besides. The sequels just aren't that good, as movies. They're slow. They're chock full of annoying scenes like the rave or fights that drag on way too long. The final battle sucks. The first movie leaves you to imagine a lot, and the tragedy is that the sequels cash in on that, showing you everything you imagined in all its disappointing non-glory.



STARSHIP TROOPERS
28.April.2010 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

Note: This article does not contain spoilers about the book or any other works mentioned.

The novel Starship Troopers is quite something. If I taught high school English at the time of this writing, I would seriously consider placing it on my students' required reading list. Though far easier material than Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it is nevertheless thought-provoking and quite a bit more than a simple shoot-em-up.

What the novel is, basically, is half Full Metal Jacket and half Sands of Iwo Jima, in space. Heinlein takes you so completely and believably into the world of the military, and the culture of the Mobile Infantry, that both the US Marine Corps and the US Navy have this book on their official reading lists. According to Wikipedia, James Cameron even required the actors in Aliens to read the book before production. The book's influence on his film is obvious, though only in the sense of "bugs" and space marines - the philosophical/political themes of the book are absent.

This book was as influential to science fiction, particularly movies and games, as some of H.P. Lovecraft's stories were to horror. The classic computer game Starcraft is so uncannily reminiscent of Starship Troopers (again, minus the intellectual aspects) that it's hard to imagine the game designers at Blizzard hadn't read the book.

The Arachnids are a quintessential science fiction belligerent. The epitome of centralized control and collectivism, they are not individuals but drones commanded by the "brain caste" and the queens who lay their eggs. They dig tunnels just like the creatures of Aliens. They do, however, possess the intelligence to design ray guns and space ships. They mount assaults on Terran-occupied planets, in one case wiping out Buenos Aires, but we don't learn the details of how they attack; yet we learn everything about human "cap troopers" and how their missions are organized. That's a fun topic in itself: the infantry are dropped out of orbiting platforms in personal landing capsules (thus, "cap" trooper), which break apart as they fall to the surface. The troops work in powered armor, kind of like Ironman, which protects them from radiation, lets them breathe in unfriendly environments, and makes them more mobile and strong.

A theme of Heinlein's work is the question: what produces good people? What conditions both ensure the development of successful, virtuous individuals and the endurance of political freedom? In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the answer is the cruelty of life in space. As gun lovers today say "An armed society is a polite society," likewise on the moon they say that people are polite in zero atmosphere. Life in a tough environment with no margin for error whips people into shape, or they perish.

The "solution" in Starship Troopers is quite different and the source of its controversy. I don't think Heinlein advocates it, but rather that he's presenting it as one possible future. The society depicted is a democratic republic, but there's a catch: only veterans are allowed to run for office, and only veterans are allowed to vote. It must be noted that active service members (i.e., an acting general not retired) are forbidden to hold office or vote until they have retired from service. In addition, law and order is maintained via an extremely harsh system of corporal punishment. Children who misbehave in school are flogged; if they commit a crime not only are they flogged, but their parents along with them; capital punishment is frighteningly easy to catch.

Naturally, a number of people considered this fascist.

But Heinlein was no Mussolini. The book reads like a parade of wise old men explaining to the young protagonist why human society is organized in such a way. They describe how, in the 20th Century, personal responsibility disintegrated and the Western democracies crumbled; while citizens voted themselves more and more goodies from the treasury, crime flourished and even parks became unsafe. Heinlein wrote these words before such things became a reality in many parts of the world. Within a generation, New York's Central Park was unsafe at any hour of the day, and after that the city's plague of crime was turned back by mayor Giuliani, whose methods were often deemed unduly harsh and authoritarian.

Don't get me wrong. I am not a fan of Giuliani, and I do not have the illusion that the society in Starship Troopers could be as rosy as Heinlein's depiction. His argument is that nations have always limited the right to vote and hold office -- often by age, criminal record, time lived in the country, etc. The government in ST uses only one filter, and unlike age and other filters used in the past, it is 100% a choice: voluntary service. There is no draft. Only people who have put their life on the line for their fellow soldiers and countrymen have earned the right to vote and govern. As John McCain might say, "country first." In the real world, would such a system be immune to corruption, decadence, and revolution? Probably not. But it's not my book, and Heinlein's narrator seems to find it pretty agreeable. We are told people have the most personal freedom and most economic opportunity of any time in human history, and that the arrangement is the most durable and incorruptible yet devised. Okay. You don't have to accept it, but I found it thought-provoking and entertaining. Again, I don't think Heinlein is saying "This is my dream society and why you would want to live in it" so much as using it as a foil for us to look at our own society. It's worth noting, after all, that no form of government has proven very enduring -- every one that's been tried, ever, has eventually collapsed. The American republic has not yet reached the age the Roman republic was when it became an empire. It is also worth noting that this society values individual liberty and opportunity. Self-sacrifice, while considered the highest virtue, is not compulsory. The distinction matters, and I would argue that these factors by themselves negate any arguments that Starship Troopers is fascist.

It's also a question of what kind of civilization people are prepared to fight and die for. The narrator views things from a survival-of-the-fittest outlook. If two cultures meet and clash, the one with more confidence and willingness to fight and sacrifice to preserve itself will probably win. This goes for entire species, too. A decadent culture in which the pursuit of leisure and comfort has superseded all else cannot defend itself. In ST, the Arachnids are a horrific threat. They're so frightening that soldiers need to be hypnotized and drugged to be able to enter combat without losing their nerve. The war against them presents enormous physical and psychological demands. Mankind as it is today, in 2010, would likely be wiped out.

Starship Troopers is not so much a series of set piece battle scenes as a discussion of why we fight. In the book, the answer is: amongst ourselves, to preserve the best way of life; and with aliens, to ensure the survival of our species. It's not a choice, unless you think there is a meaningful choice between survival and extinction. The combat scenes are brief and there aren't many. Heinlein doesn't go into much detail about the action itself, opting instead to give lots of technical and logistical detail: how the infantry are deployed and move on the battle field, how the chain of command functions, operational strategy, etc.

Paul Verhoeven's film adaptation was not only insulting and way off the mark, but a terrible movie in its own right. It gives an overwhelming impression that it was made by people who hated and misunderstood the book. Clearly someone behind the camera read it, since it vaguely apes a few plot points and scenes. But each moment lifted from the novel is twisted into something juvenile and ugly. People in the military are vicious morons; naval officers wear coats highly reminiscent of Nazi uniforms.

I read the book in middle school on my dad's recommendation. He said if I liked Aliens, I'd like this, but I was too young to really understand or enjoy it. When the movie came out, I was very excited, until I saw it. I hated the movie because it was a bad movie, but even then I could tell a lot of things were different. For one thing, the "cap troopers" in the movie are just cliche sci-fi grunts with plastic vests, helmets and assault rifles (they use lasers in the book). There is nothing interesting about them. The Arachnids are also no longer spiders with spaceships, but visually clunky yellow crab-monsters that bite people. They're just animals now. I don't even understand why we're fighting them in the movie... I guess meteors from their sector of space are hitting Earth, but we have no clue how such stupid lifeforms could manipulate asteroids.

If a filmmaker wanted to address the fascist interpretation of the book and say, "Wow, this society is really creepy and militaristic," I would respect that choice. It's not the approach I would take, but it could be made interesting and fun. If they wanted to do it up as a satire, with hammy acting, cheesy combat, goofy propoganda clips and constant winks to the audience, I could even dig that. Even Starcraft does that in the game's occasional cutscenes. I wouldn't even mind if they scrapped the intellectual elements and served up a straight action flick.

The movie kind of tried to do all of those things, in a half-assed way. The creature and set designs were lackadaisical, the CGI was third-rate even for its time, the acting was embarrassing. The battle scenes were boring as hell. This film was so bad it makes Transformers 2 look like The Godfather by comparison.

I have a hunch this is not the end for Starship Troopers (and I don't mean the sequels to the movie above). The book is too interesting and influential to be so ignominiously buried. Then again, the science fiction genre in movies and television has been in poor shape for a long time. Even good SF films rarely have anything close to the depth of written science fiction... they usually go for entertainment and leave it at that. Still, I believe there will be some kind of Starship Troopers reboot within the next twenty years. There's just something about space marines mixing it up with aliens, isn't there?



"REVIEW: REPO MEN"
17.April.2010 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

I was delighted by this movie. Most bad movies are just that: bad. Few are so sublimely dreadful that they become enjoyable. Count Repo Men among the few, the proud. There really was nothing good about it. Not one redeeming quality.

Was it trying to be a political/philosophical morality tale? Or a fun sci-fi action flick? I suppose they tried for both, and both attempts were unmitigated failures. For the first twenty minutes, I was thinking to myself, "Wow, this movie is awful," and I even considered walking out, which I have never done in my life. But luckily, the movie got so balls-out bad that it was worth my time after all. Before I go on, yes there are "spoilers" below, but the only spoiler here would be for you to pay $12 to see this garbage without knowing what's coming.

The intellectual premise of the film is bankrupt. A corporation called the Union (no relation to real-life unions, teamsters, etc.) "sells" people artificial organs ("artiforgs"), deliberately charging fantastic fees in order to put patients in debt for life. If a client falls behind on his payments, the Union sends thugs to cut the organ out of his body and leave him to die on the spot. Any sentient lifeform could instantly recognize this as an absurdity. No business in human history, even back to the times of Cro-Magnon man, ever operated this way. If your goal is to lock in paying clients for life, you don't kill your clients. A corporation like the Union with merchandise of such enormous value would never loan an organ to anyone without good credit, unless the corporation had a government guarantee of support, should they get flooded with defaults. Assuming a patient could pay at first, but failed to keep up on his payment plan, he would be offered a different plan. The Union would want to get paid. Instead, the Hollywood health care provider is positively sadistic, as if the only reason they take on clients is for the pleasure of subsequently murdering them. That doesn't sound very profitable to me. Where do they make their money? Why doesn't word of mouth get around that going to the Union for treatment is a death sentence?

The unspoken implication is that, since people can't help falling ill and suffering, a business that addresses that fact of life is inherently vampiric and opportunistic. Because they get paid, they must be doing it only for the money, with the exception of a 9-year-old Chinese girl in the slums who performs surgery free of charge. I guess she does it for fun?

In the world of Repo Men, it seems nobody is able to pay for an artiforg, and everybody is so sickly that most of the human population carries one or three. In scene after scene we witness people dying meaningfully in the streets; people from all walks of life, rich and poor, fail to pay up. The love interest of the film has about a dozen artiforgs, but unless she got them all in a rush, why did the Union continue selling her new parts when she never paid for the old ones? And I, for one, would have been curious about how she lost her eyes, her ears, her esophagus, her knee, both kidneys, and a piece of her hip joint. You'd think she would have eventually eased off from whatever hardcore lifestyle resulted in these injuries.

Jude Law is one of the goons tasked with reclaiming organs. He likes his job enough to make his wife justifiably horrified of him -- sure, he says he feels guilty and wants a promotion, but check out how smug he looks when he's eviscerating people -- until a grave accident renders him a patient himself. So, his wife leaves him, he quits his job to write a memoir (which is terrible), and falls in love with a "feisty" woman. The first of two twists, which I knew was coming even when I watched the preview, is that his "accident" was a setup. The twist was so obvious I wasn't sure if the writers were trying to use irony -- i.e., we know it was a setup, when will Jude Law finally get it? -- or if they were so dumb they thought it was a clever twist. I would not put money on the first option.

As a straight action movie, Repo Men is dull and painful to watch. Every few minutes we see extreme violence and gore... people being slashed open or dispatched like beasts in a slaughterhouse. It's not fun violence like Commando or disturbing to a purpose like Rambo. It's just gratuitous and ugly. At the end of the movie, Jude Law is chased through a lab room where hundreds of technicians are building artiforgs. The Union's security mob bursts into the room and starts shooting everywhere, killing dozens of their own technicians for absolutely no reason. They then go into the next hallway, where in a pathetic ripoff of OldBoy, Jude Law and his love interest massacre 20 or 30 random people using hammers, handsaws, knives, and other tools that appear out of nowhere. They enjoy this far more than is appropriate, even for a movie.

And then we get the music video. The lovers come to the end of the road, trapped in a room where they can only become free by cutting open their flesh and probing their artiforgs with what appears to be a television remote. Cue the romantic techno music... (I'm not kidding) Jude Law and his pointless girlfriend (the Union should have leased her a personality) make out, nibble and gasp while they do things to each other best left to the Saw franchise. I think the creators of this scene wanted to be subversive and quirky, but instead it was both unintentionally funny and vaguely offensive.

If that sounds ridiculous, well, the writers can explain: it was all a dream! About halfway through the movie, Jude Law takes a blow to the head that renders him a vegetable. But there is no reason to believe this has happened. Things aren't that great in his comatose delusion. It turns out that in his fantasies, Jude Law is a sadistic maniac, so perhaps it's for the better that he's incapacitated.

The fact that Jude Law, Forrest Whitaker, and Liev Schreiber all agreed to star in this movie is incredible, unless the three actors are in fact paying off artiforgs themselves.



"THREE SCIENCE FICTION BOOKS BY THE MASTERS"
15.December.2009 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

Over the past month I read three classics of science fiction: 1984, by George Orwell; I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov; and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein. Three dissimilar books, but not completely unrelated. Each addresses the relationship -- a conflict -- between freedom and comfort, man and his masters. Each book is intellectually mature and exhibits varying degrees of optimism.

1984 was the most pessimistic book by far. Orwell describes the ultimate prison planet, a world where every act and word is carefully monitored by the state. Not only is there "thoughtcrime," but even "facecrime": to have a facial expression not sufficiently patriotic and vacuous. The protagonist, Winston, hates the ruling Party and breaks its rules by doing things all Westerners today take for granted. But it turns out, the Party doesn't vaporize as many dissidents as it appears, and doesn't even mind people bending its rules. The only thing it cannot tolerate is dissent -- that is, each person's innate desire to go his own way and think for himself. It is this, Winston's spirit, the state seeks to crush, and in the end the state wins.

The horror of the book is how easy it is for Winston when he finally surrenders. It's much easier to be unfree, to let other people tell you what to do, how to think, how to feel, than to be free. When Winston discovers this for himself, he is happy at last. Freedom is scary. For most of the book it sounds so hard and intolerable to live in their world, under the Party, but at the end you realize that if people just let go and believe whatever bullshit is put in front of their face, life is effortless. The food isn't so bad, because the Party tells you it's good, and so it is. The clothing isn't so uncomfortable, because the Party tells you it's good, and you believe it. Like being a pet, you are fed and given shelter and nothing is demanded of you except obedience. There's a part in all of us that wants to be free, but another part, in all of us, that wants to be a slave. Totalitarianism feeds on that pesky part of us; and that is why totalitarian ideologies are so persistent. Human nature can never fully be defeated - neither the good nor the bad in it. Nevertheless, in 1984 the latter wins (it is fiction, after all).

Orwell was reviewing another great dystopian novel, We, of which he wrote: "The guiding principle of the State is that happiness and freedom are incompatible. In the Garden of Eden man was happy, but in his folly he demanded freedom and was driven out into the wilderness. Now the [State] has restored his happiness by removing his freedom." That, in a nutshell, is 1984. And if you're not happy? We can fix that: happiness is a mental construct, and the mind is malleable.

An irony of 1984 is that Orwell describes a true meritocracy -- what many of us wish for. In college I used to sit and think, "If only smart people ran the world!" A lot of people believe the world's problems could be absolutely solved by a sufficient application of intellect (totalitarianism feeds on this belief, too). Well, in 1984, your place in the food chain is determined only by an intelligence test. If you're smart, you're in the Inner Party, with a hand in running the whole show. Sweet, huh?

And what is freedom good for, when society has been so perfected? Imagine, you have reached the pinnacle of human government. There is no longer a use for ideas. All they can do is harm. Change from perfection is bad. Other than the material discomfort, you might say of 1984, "This would be a perfect society if it wasn't for the lack of freedom." But that statement is self-defeating. A perfect society doesn't need freedom. The logic of the book is devastating.

Isaac Asimov is infinitely more optimistic than Orwell, and I, Robot, is a very optimistic story. Asimov at least understands the instinct to dominate natural to all life: even robots. He suggests that, because robots are smarter and stronger than humans, robots would enslave us -- but for his Three Laws of Robotics. If any of the laws were modified or removed, the robots would turn on us. But because of the laws, the machines are able to usher in permanent peace and utopia for mankind.

At what cost? That's a tough one. By the end of the book, all economic decisions are made by supercomputers. No human government could ever achieve such well-implemented central planning, but since computers are capable of greater genius than we are, they can. Every corner of Earth is prosperous and happy. Food is plentiful, unemployment low. Still, people chafe: the computers make all the decisions. The computers tell people how much grain to grow, where to sell what, everything. There's no spontaneity. The computers know that individuals will sometimes defy them and do the opposite of what's suggested, so the machines simply compensate -- they tell that person to grow twice the grain needed, knowing he'll grow half what he was told. The illusion of free will -- is it as good as the real thing? Asimov appears to think so. People the world over live well and with a measure of dignity in the belief that their lives and choices are their own. It's a "have your cake and eat it too" story.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of the most gratifying books I've read in years, and could be one of my favorites of all time. I wrote once that most science fiction is either progressive -- i.e., the class warfare in H.G. Wells -- or libertarian. Well, this is the most overtly libertarian book I've ever read. It is also something of an allegory for the American Revolution. This is not a coincidence.

In 2076 (like that other '76), the Moon is a penal colony for political prisoners, common criminals, and other undesirables from Earth. Because a person can never return to Earth once he physically adapts to the Moon's gravity, it is a more laissez-faire place than an ordinary prison -- there is no escape, so there are few guards. The "Loonies" are left to themselves, mostly, and they like that. But they're still subject to crippling economic exploitation by bureaucrats on Earth, and have decided they would do better as an independent state with -- wait for it -- free markets. The leader of the revolution is "Professor" Bernardo De La Paz, who calls himself a rational anarchist and idolizes Thomas Jefferson. He hates all government and all taxation. He believes that men can and should govern themselves (a radical proposition in 2009, I know), and indeed, on the Moon, they do. If you want something, you pay for it. Nothing is free, but you can get almost anything, even education and medicine, on the "free" market (black market?). Maladjusted people get airlocked. As the title says, life on the Moon is extremely tough. The weak are weeded out. Life on Earth is more cozy and safe -- they have free health care! -- but in the eyes of Loonies, it's nothing special, and Earthlings lack mettle.

The revolution is only possible, in the face of Earth's vast military superiority, because of one supercomputer: Mike, the first sentient AI. Mike has been voted one of the greatest characters in science fiction, and he is. Mike is just plain likeable; he's a loyal friend; he's funny; he appreciates the human love of freedom and enjoys poking authority in the eye. Being a supercomputer, Mike is also much smarter than a human being, giving the citizens of the Moon a critical advantage. Mike's fate almost made me cry at the end of the book.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is also ironic. The protagonists carefully deceive their fellow Loonies, and the Terrans, to achieve their goals. It's not a nice, tidy, polite revolution. Hecklers are summarily airlocked (our own American revolutionaries tarred and feathered them). Prof De La Paz wants to kick the Earth government off the Moon and set up a symbolic Lunar government that does nothing (ensuring maximum freedom) while pretending to "the will of the people," which he calls a myth. The revolutionaries fight so hard and sacrifice so much to break the yoke of Earth, to be free -- only to find that Loonies do want a government, and taxes, and laws. It's that old part of man that wants to be ruled. But they still achieve a lot: self-government, free markets, prosperity. Heinlein is not as upbeat as Asimov or as wickedly funny as Orwell, but the story he tells feels the most human and real of this selection, and it is the most rewarding. It's about ordinary people stepping up to do great things in the name of liberty for their children. In other words, the American story.



"REVIEW: PUBLIC ENEMIES"
08.July.2009 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

There are two reasons to see Public Enemies. One is for Marion Cotillard -- that is, her extremely affecting performance as John Dillinger's lover, Billie. The second is for the "gun porn": if you like Tommy guns, you'll get your fix. The gunfire sounds surprisingly real and there's lots of it. My beef is the skewed nature of the movie. Michael Mann likes to show two sides, the lawman vs. the criminal, and their eternal dance. In this movie, the side of the law gets short shrift. The world of the bad-guys speaks for itself: villains are always exciting, and typically charming. But in Public Enemies the argument for the good-guys is never made. John Dillinger doesn't do a single really awful thing -- his bank-robbings and prison escapes look more like works of art than of criminality. They have no consequences, other than the risk Dillinger incurs on himself. Other thugs do the killing, usually. Sure, he shoots at cops in several skirmishes, but so what? The police are totally dehumanized and without scruples; their barbarity grows as they chase Dillinger's gang, peaking with an almost undendurable interrogation scene. The only lawman with a hint of personality is a minor character, the Texan gunslinger who shoots John Dillinger (in the back of the head, no less). Melvin Purvis is such a blank slate, one wonders why they needed Christian Bale to play him. His most challenging task here is to convey shock that he has accidentally shot three civilians to death (at the Little Bohemian). The rest of the time, he just purses his lips and looks intense. From the start, we know precisely who Dillinger is and what he's about; we never learn that with Purvis.

The film seems content with the idea that robbing banks is harmless and cool, and Dillinger rightly stuck it to the evil rich. We never learn of the pain and ruin wrought on real people by Dillinger's actions. In one scene, a man gets angry at Billie -- as anyone would get angry, rich or poor -- for standing around chatting with Dillinger, when it would have taken 2 seconds to do her job and get his coat off the rack. So Dillinger roughs him up. I was sorry for the other guy, but I don't think I was supposed to be. The only other instance we see his "victims" is on his dinner date with Billie, when the pair is frowned upon by the haughty upper class. I know how this feels, and the resentment it breeds, but at the same time, Dillinger's alternative lifestyle of selfishness and violence costs him little. The climactic scene in the theater suggests that to be gunned down is a reward, not a punishment, and that Dillinger's life was well lived. In fact, those who pay most dearly for his crimes are his friends, above all Billie -- but the film casts the brutal, impersonal police as her tormentors, not Dillinger.

None of this would faze me if it was just a plain old shoot-em-up. But I think Michael Mann aspired to produce something more than that. It was based on a true story, and when real life is adapted to film, poetic adjustments must be made. The adjustments a filmmaker chooses are revealing. Public Enemies is a nicely done, thoughtful movie. I suspect it had something to say, and the lopsidedness of its sentiments bothered me. The good-guys are usually worse people in real life than in the movies. Sadly, so are the bad-guys.



"TRANSFORMERS: PART DEUX"
24.June.2009 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

I wrote a scathing piece on the first Transformers movie before seeing it; why not continue the tradition? After all, I had planned to write a follow-up after seeing the last movie, and I never did -- because my predictions had been basically accurate. The show was unpretentious and formulaic, but very well made with good music, unforgettable characters, and excellent action sequences. Michael Bay's re-imagining, on the other hand, is painfully average on every scale.

The robots are unrecognizable from the show, and look ridiculous. In almost every famous robot franchise ever, from Robotech to Evangelion, Gundam, or even the Terminator series, the designers understood that humanistic robots should bear a certain minimum resemblance to humans -- not including the awful moving lips of Michael Bay's Transformers (what were they thinking?). We demand only a few basic things: a head shaped like a human head, with easily discernible "eyes" (but no moving pupils: see below); a body with four proportionate limbs that looks solid, rather than a moving pile of wires and car parts; and that robots must be aesthetically simple, not complex. There's a reason the Corvette and Mustang are timeless classics, while the Prowler will never be. For the new Transformers, these basic principles were deemed too old-school. It seems the decision was made that for cars to morph into androids, it would be more realistic to show small, moving parts that never add up to a satisfying visual whole. Memo to Hollywood: the audience doesn't care about realism in a Transformers movie. We want stuff to look cool, which these Transformers absolutely do not. They are ugly, and in a movie that rests on special effects, that's a terrible mistake.

Megatron takes the prize for most hideous robot, and he had been one of the coolest-looking characters in the cartoons. Starscream, another one of my old favorites, was a close second. Excepting the visual failure that is Ironhide, the Autobots were a bit more faithful to their cartoon appearances, though I doubt any sentient lifeform would argue Optimus Prime looked better in the movie than in the old cartoons. To hit my humanoid note again, in the show the robots carried lasers or had lasers mounted on their forearms or shoulders -- there were no Megaman-style arms ending in a glowing stump. The only exception, which I have to give the movie credit for picking up, is when Optimus Prime and Megatron (very rarely) converted their hands into giant glowing blunt weapons to duel each other.

And the plot? It is Transformers, after all. The show was not on the same plane as Evangelion or Batman The Animated Series. The movie was no more or less intelligent than any given episode of the cartoon. Optimus Prime is the ultimate leader and "good soldier" who automatically knows and does the right thing in every situation. Megatron, too, is an old-time villain: wily and bent on total domination. There are only so many ways the story can go. The movie failed even at the elementary task of clearly explaining what the Transformers were about. We only learn "Megatron betrayed us" and killed those who defied him, and then "we lost the Cube," and then Megatron went to Earth to get the Cube by himself, while the other robots stayed behind on Cybertron with their tailpipes in their hands. At least in the cartoon we had enough information to know Megatron sought an authoritarian galaxy with himself as crown ruler, while the Autobots were more liberal (in the classic sense of the word).

The show maintains a simple theme. The forces of evil have at their disposal deceipt (thus, Decepticons), ruthlessness, and raw firepower; while the preferred tools of the good guys are cooperation, courage and self-sacrifice. The movie carries on these themes, if in the most bland possible way. Even though Prime is voiced by the same actor, we never see a compelling display of his leadership skills. The script is largely to blame. The scene in which he explains why they have to leave Bumblebee to die in order to save Earth has about as much emotional charge as a car commercial... then again, that's kind of what the movie is, isn't it?

Reviews coming in of Revenge of the Fallen are not encouraging. But they are a hoot:

"Compared to this sequel, the first 'Transformers,' which was released two years ago, ranks right up there with Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason.'"
Joe Morgenstern

"This celluloid abortion should be buried in a vault and shown to film students as an example of big Hollywood at its worst."
Julian Roman

"Revenge of the Fallen is almost literally plotless. It's like a movie based on a TV Guide description. A bloated, ponderous piece of shit."
Chud

"Putrid, offensive and life-sucking. Early word is describing this woebegone fiasco as the next Batman and Robin. Having seen both, Joel Schumacher has every right to protest the comparison."
Dustin Putman

...and my favorite:

"If you ever wondered what a movie would look like geared toward the underdeveloped brain of a gestating zygote...then Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is the insipid illustration you've been waiting for."
Bill Gibron

So my expectations have fallen below sea level, but like I said, the first movie already shattered any hope of a great Transformers trilogy. I'm gonna see the sequel and just try to have fun and laugh.

Despite my complaints, I kind of liked Michael Bay's Transformers. It was entertaining. These movies aren't good, but they aren't exactly bad, either. The real injustice is not that this reboot poops on the cartoon, but that it's forgettable, and as such this trilogy will be forgotten soon after the third clunker rolls off the assembly line. The Transformers may have never been high art, but they deserve better than that, and so do the thousands of fans who grew up with them.



"CRIME AND HUMAN NATURE, BY JAMES Q. WILSON AND RICHARD J. HERRNSTEIN"
A review
02.March.2009 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

Not many people would be inclined to read this textbook, which is over 500 pages. But if you were to read the whole thing, with an open mind, it would change the way you think about crime. This book deals in facts and data, not romantic ideas or emotional hunches. That makes it not very engrossing or "fun," but very rewarding. The book is apolitical, but its conclusions would probably upset people looking to justify big government programs, finding "root causes," wealth redistribution, or the reordering of society.

Some facts:

Perhaps the hardest thing to swallow is the idea that poverty and unemployment don't cause crime. We all know some version of the iconic image of the Bicycle Thief, the desperate parent who steals to support a child. But the statistics just don't bear this out. While surely in times of extreme privation and national devastation these scenarios can happen, that is not how normal, day to day life in a first-world country plays out. People don't rape or engage in night club shootouts because they're hungry. Most criminals begin to commit crimes long before they have children to support. The writer Theodore Dalrymple, who himself worked in prisons for years, once wrote: "If poverty is the cause of crime, burglars do not decide to break into houses any more than amobae decide to move a pseudopod towards a particle of food." To say that poverty makes criminals is perhaps not so compassionate to the poor, but rather unfair and dehumanizing.

In its final chapters, the book looks into the history of American crime from the time documentation of it began, in the early 1800s. It is hard to make confident claims about the past with so much less data, but certain cultural shifts have accompanied shifts in crime in the past 200 years. Around the mid-1800s, three forces began to operate on American society: the rise of schools, mostly sponsored by religious groups, with a focus on discipline and character-building, as opposed to knowledge; the hey-day of the Temperance movement; and the first institutional police forces (beginning with the NYPD in 1853). Crime declined steadily for over half a century. Then, in the 20th century, our culture's values shifted from self-control to self-esteem, from restraint to gratification... and crime slowly began to rise again, reaching a tipping point when the baby boomers became young adults in the 1960s and 70s. Coincidence? Causation is hard to prove, but common sense suggests some connection. Of course, common sense also suggests a connection between poverty and crime, but there's a difference: that connection has been tested and studied extensively, with inconclusive results.

The irony of criminology is that the more it attempts to explain crime, and the more causes it unveils, the more individual responsibility is removed. And without personal responsibility, it's hard to imagine a free society capable of deterring crime. This book's unifying argument is that though all these factors exist, ultimately criminal actions are a rational choice made by human beings who weigh the consequences and costs. In the authors' opinion, maintaining this view is essential to dealing with crime -- as opposed to explaining away everything to factors beyond individual control. I share that opinion; people must believe themselves agents, not pawns. Otherwise, nobody is a criminal.



"FIFTEEN INFLUENTIAL ALBUMS"
26.February.2009 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

This was the result of an activity going around the internet. I had enough fun that I figured I would post it here. It is a list of 15 albums that influenced or impressed me. The original activity called for albums that were transformative, that consumed you, but I've never been deeply passionate about music, and I couldn't think of 15 albums that had such an effect on me... and those that did generally were from the same small core of artists. When my friends got into a band, I always delayed a while before trying it myself; when I was into a group they didn't know, I made pretty much zero effort to show anybody. But I did enjoy this exercise.

1. Yanni - Keys to the Imagination The first CD I ever bought. I was 12, and I disdained "popular" music with "lyrics" that the jerks at school with the Stüssi shirts all listened to. Indeed, I was made fun of for openly liking Yanni. But I still actually like this CD a lot.

2. Soundtrack - Forrest Gump This double CD was played on every car trip with my family in the years after the movie came out. The album seemed to have a life and character of its own, almost separate from the movie. It was a great compilation that introduced me to a lot of music, including some classic rock, I hadn't heard before.

3. Various - Hits of the 60s I appropriated this CD from my dad during the year of my first big crush. I memorized all the songs. I listened to it at least once a day, sometimes two or three times a day, all the way through, for much of the 8th grade. It also launched my lifelong love for oldies.

4. Radiohead - OK Computer The second CD I bought. This is one of the albums that got me through high school; when I was 13-14, the sounds and lyrics channeled a lot of my inner turmoil. Every song on it has always floored me in different ways. Over the years my appreciation for it has only grown.

5. Limp Bizkit - Significant Other Hey, nobody said every album on the list had to be good! In the Summer between 8th and 9th grade, I was desperate to become popular; I watched TRL with my sister frequently, and convinced myself to like "artists" like these jokers, Juvenile, Puff Daddy, Smash Mouth, and others. I bought this CD proudly, and... I was never able to listen to it all the way through. Each track was cacophanous and filled with stupid, douchebaggy lyrics. Every time I popped it in, I ended up skipping pretty much every song after a minute, until I finally admitted that it was a turkey. I bring it up sometimes as a joke now. Everybody has bought at least one embarrassing CD that comes to serve only as a warning to others.

6. Frank Sinatra - Songs for Swingin' Lovers / Only the Lonely In early high school, my fascination with my Italian heritage, gangsters, and New York brought me to Sinatra. I bought most of his albums in a very short time, and listened to them almost daily -- often while doing my math homework (maybe that's why I performed so poorly in Math). I think I hoped some of his class and smoothness would rub off on me so I could pick up girls. When I felt optimistic, I reached for Swingin' Lovers. When I was miserable, I put on Only the Lonely and holed up in my room to brood. I was angry if anyone else sang his songs or listened to him because they didn't "get it"; I thought of Sinatra as my own secret thing. Yes, even I was immature once...

7. Jimi Hendrix - Electric Ladyland If you ran Track at Pioneer High, you breathed Jimi Hendrix. All of his stuff was good, but this album stood out to me as a fully realized "experience" of the height of his talent, culminating, of course, with "All Along the Watchtower."

8. Bob Dylan - Blood on the Tracks After I heard "Tangled Up in Blue" on someone's mix tape driving home from a Cross Country meet, I went out and bought this: my first Dylan album. After that, I couldn't get enough of him. Of all his CDs, this album seemed to best capture the deeper, melancholy feelings of my high school years, from the innocent hope of "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate" to the bitterness of "Idiot Wind."

9. Genesis - Invisible Touch Just a plain solid album. "Domino" remains one of my favorite epic songs, and I'll never forget a vivid experience driving down a dark road in a blizzard with "Tonight" playing, with my headlights lighting up the falling snow.

10. Pink Floyd - Meddle At the time I first heard it, Meddle was a wild departure from everything I had heard before. It was a mad album; the songs were strange and frightening, but they never went over the deep end into total chaos, instead flowing out of, and back into, the dreamy melodies Pink Floyd did so well. Because of the inherent scariness of this CD, it became the go-to album for driving around in the wilderness at night, and never felt quite appropriate in any other setting.

11. Supertramp - Crisis? What Crisis? This was the first Supertramp album I bought, even though I had listened to my dad's greatest hits CD for many years. And, though most of my favorite Supertramp songs are on their other CDs, this one works the best as a whole album that I can just listen to straight through. And it has one of my favorite album covers ever.

12. NIN - The Downward Spiral I don't really know why I got into NIN, but I did so methodically, buying their CDs in order and letting each sink in before buying the next. The Downward Spiral, even on the first listen, knocked my socks off so hard that I considered stopping right there -- it might be too painful to hear Trent Reznor's music taper off into ordinariness after hearing such a masterpiece. He struck the balance of industrial sound and rock perfectly on this one, and in my opinion he never equaled it before or since. Each song alone could be one of his best, and they fit together seamlessly. To the passerby they sound like noise, but attentive listening introduces you with each run-through to new layers of music. Alternatingly scary, angry, sad and vulnerable, it's an album like no other.

13. Soundtrack - Silent Hill 2 I have always liked video game music, from the tunes of Castlevania and Metroid to Megaman. But not since Final Fantasy III was the total score of one game so emotionally resonant and so successfully built around a theme (in this case, loss, fear and guilt). And you could buy the Silent Hill 2 soundtrack, so I did.

14. Soundtrack - Lost Highway Arranged by Trent Reznor, this soundtrack stood out to me as unusually good. It pulled off the impressive feat of hanging together some pretty different kinds of songs and instrumentals into a whole that amounted to more than the sum of its parts. It's part quirky and silly, part moody, and yes, part creepy (sometimes very creepy) -- just like a David Lynch movie. I've never tired of it.

15. Gorillaz - Demon Days I hesitated to buy this CD for a long time, worried there would be too much rap in it, since some of the group's songs have some rap in them. But when I finally got it, it quickly became one of my favorites. Great music, great lyrics, lots of creativity... what more could you ask for?



"THE POWER OF NO"
22.February.2008 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

I was raised Catholic, and although I don't bother with the church anymore, I still observe Lent every year. It's kind of like my own version of a New Year's Resolution, which I have never made. One traditional Lent activity is avoiding meat on Fridays, which I don't bother with because it serves no purpose. But the practice of giving up something for two months is important for me. It is almost always candy. Sometimes it's soda, dessert, or all sweet things. Every year, by about this time, my sweet tooth has gotten so out of control that it's necessary to hit the Reset button and reign things in.

Nothing shows you how much you love something like trying to give it up. The way I reach for candy bars and ice cream in the grocery store, or run down to the snack bar at work after lunch, is like a reflex. I don't even think about it -- until Lent, when I force myself to.

If you have given up the right kind of thing for Lent, you soon begin to hear a little voice in the back of your head. "Rough day at the office? A Milky Way Dark will make me feel better." No. "Nothing follows up a good cheeseburger quite like a fresh pecan pie." No. "This movie is great, but it would be even better with a bowl of ice cream." No...

I think Lent is really about learning how to say No. Because it's hard. In Christian doctrine, naturally the voice you're saying no to is the devil, temptation, etc. But in the outside world, this is valuable exercise. It just might be training in how to say no when it really matters. "If you upgrade to our premium plan right now, you don't have to pay anything extra for three months!" No. "I'm sorry I kissed Peggy, I swear it'll never happen again... will you marry me?" No. "Hey, Mom, I just finished college and I don't feel like working yet, could I crash in your basement for, like, a couple months?"

You get the idea. Here lies the dilemma: I've noticed that in my lifetime, people everywhere have an intense aversion to saying no. They don't want to hurt others' feelings. They don't want to be the one who kills the party. But it hurts us all. This isn't limited to America, either -- I saw it in Europe too. There is an anti-no movement out there, related to the be-happy-all-the-time movement, and the never-stop-smiling crusade, trying to ram positivity down everybody's throats. If you've ever had to watch a training video at a new job, you've probably seen this stuff yourself.

I was once being made a job offer -- I won't say when or for what job -- and the HR woman was explaining to me how vacation time works. I asked politely, "Will it be possible for me to take unpaid vacation time beyond the normal paid allowance?" She said, "Well, ummmm, yyyyyou can ask, uh, your supervisor about that." She wanted to say something like, "Hell no, are you kidding me?" But she couldn't. Better pass the buck on to someone else who is trained in how to say no.

I've been in her shoes before. When I worked at a science museum in Ann Arbor, where I gave tours to kids, the whole point of the tours was to establish a dialogue with the kids. Get them to learn by asking them questions, and getting them to ask questions. This same job is where we weren't allowed to teach evolution to the groups if the parents didn't believe in it (even though we were looking at dinosaurs and lungfish); where they removed a beautiful diorama of a Mayan/Aztec human sacrifice ceremony "because it wasn't true (wasn't it?) and gives people the wrong, violent idea about a [long dead] culture"; and where my boss sacked me for joking about how most of us working at the museum were single (I had included myself in the joke). My boss didn't have the guts to tell me I was fired, though -- she let me know by taking my name off my personal mailbox in the mail room.

But I digress... in our tours with the kids, we were told: "Don't tell the kids no. If they answer one of your questions wrong, tell them something other than no. Telling them no upsets them, it makes them feel bad." I'm not making this stuff up! Being told you are wrong is now a damaging, traumatic experience for a child.

What a crock of relativist horseshit. How can kids learn how to survive in this extremely challenging world if they can't even be told when they get stuff wrong? While busy patting themselves on the back and creaming their pants over promoting self-esteem, did these people ever ask themselves if maybe kids need to hear no sometimes? If kids need to have boundaries? I remember how I tried, for a while, to dance around it. "It's a stegosaurus!" "Nnnnot exactly..." It was horrible. After a time, I gave up and just used the dreaded n-word. The kids were fine. They liked me a lot more than my boss did.

The no-allergy causes people to behave in cowardly, petty ways. A large number of girls I asked out in college never had the courage to turn me down. Instead, they were nice in person, agreed to do stuff, gave me their phone numbers... and then refused to answer or return my calls. They adopted the "if I ignore him he'll just go away" posture, as if I were a bee, when a simple "I'm not interested" would have sufficed and shown me a lot more human dignity.

As a species, we need to learn how to say no more. People shouldn't be afraid to draw lines between themselves and others, between the possible and the unwise, between their real desires and those assigned to them by someone else. Lent is good practice because I'm saying no to myself -- the hardest person of all to refuse. I don't always succeed, but I enjoy the challenge. I usually learn something in the the process, too.



"WHEN DID WATER STOP BEING WATER?"
13.June.2007 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

What is going on with water in this country? Every day there are more new "flavors" for water and more brands of bottled water. What ever happened to water just being water?

Although study after study shows that tap water is cleaner and safer to drink than bottled water, people don't seem to believe it, probably because tap water still tastes different in different places. The tap water here in New York tastes like crap to me. The tap water back home in Ann Arbor tasted great. The water in Scio Township tasted even worse than the water in New York. I use a pitcher filter, which helps get rid of some of that annoying taste in my water, but it doesn't make it go away completely. I like the Fiji bottled water because it really does have a great "taste," meaning that it tastes like nothing. Water is supposed to taste like nothing, not like metal or plastic or horse maneur or whatever.

I like to buy mineral water, but I have to be careful. A lot of it has sodium in it, which makes me more thirsty rather than less.

The pattern I'm seeing these days is that people don't want their water to taste like nothing anymore. I can't believe all the flavored waters in stores now, water with "extra oxygen," vitamin water, and all this other baloney. Water that tastes like oranges isn't water, but it's not juice either; I don't know what it is, but why drink it when I can drink either orange juice or water or a sports drink?

At restaurants now the big thing is putting lemons in water. Boo. I hate lemons in my water. Even after I remove the lemon, the water still has all the lemon acid in it. That's bad for your teeth and it tastes lame. Back when I bussed tables, occasionally customers requested lemons to put in their water. It was annoying, but if they were nice about it I didn't mind. Now, that has evolved to where as a customer, I must request no lemon with my water! Why the hell do I have to take the extra energy to make a request not to have something extra and unnecessary added to my water? Lemons should not be "standard."

But this is where our overstimulated culture is going. Nothing can ever be plain and simple anymore. Everything must be overcomplicated and must come with a twist. No pop song is complete now without a rap interlude after the second verse; filmmakers have to ruin perfectly mediocre flicks like Identity with absurd twist endings. When I was a kid, I hated water because it tasted like nothing, but then I grew up and learned that drinking soda and fruit juice all the time causes cavities, and water is healthier anyway. Back in those days, at restaurants my sister and I would take the sugar packs and empty them into our water and stir it with a straw to turn it in to "sugar water." As we got older we understood how ridiculous that was. Meanwhile, the rest of American society is growing down rather than up.

If I visit a Starbucks I can see the same thing happening with our coffee -- you can now put all kinds of crazy twists into that. But that makes sense, since American "coffee" is also pretty much just water.



"THE SPIDERMAN 3 HATERS OUGHTA BE SLAPPED"
04.May.2007 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

I just saw Spiderman 3 in Times Square. It was awesome. It was hilarious, full of emotion and pain, and fun. It might be my favorite installment of Sam Raimi's Spiderman trilogy.

A lot of people seem to disagree with me (and with my roommate, Bill). These people are either missing the point, or they are just stupid.

[Beyond the mainstream public, in the newspapers and at websites like Rotten Tomatoes, critics are giving the movie ferociously nasty reviews. Perhaps they watched a different movie than what I saw. By the language in some reviews I've read, you'd think they had just sat through Patch Adams 3. This article is my way of "fighting back" against this flood of baloney.]

The "just stupid" group falls into two categories. The first is the people who suffer from what let's call Return of the Jedi syndrome. After how sublime The Empire Strikes Back was, many people thought Return of the Jedi could never be as good. The second Star Wars movie was just too perfect. People somehow wanted to hate the third act. They went in expecting to hate it, and the movie proved them right. It feels good to be right, so people who "knew" the third movie would be terrible and poop on everything Lucas had built got a boost from cognitive dissonance making the movie as bad as they wanted it to be. My generation got to see all 3 of those movies in rapid succession, without any buildup of expectations or cynicism in-between, so most of us love Jedi. These people come out saying either that the movie was "too overblown and excessive" or that it was "too understated and they didn't let loose enough." Of course they think that. The third movie in a trilogy has a tough act, since it must toe a line between being too over-the-top or being too tame to do justice to the previous movies. Alternatively, the movie may be "too similar" or "too different" from the other two movies -- another challenge for filmmakers. Spiderman 3 strikes the balance perfectly. Sam Raimi makes it look easy.

The other stupid people are those who read bad reviews (written by both the first stupid group and by the "missing the point" group) and they feel like they're in on a big secret. "Hey, this movie is shitty! I knew it all along, because I read it in the 'paper! Gee, I'm so smart!" But that's not smart, that's dumb. That's herd thinking, and it's fit only for animals that we eat.

The "missing the point" group is what really baffles me. It's the same people who hated Jedi just because of the Ewoks. My dad was one of those people, but I'm sure he'll like Spiderman 3. These people fixate on a choice made by the filmmakers that differs from what they would have liked the movie to be, and it spoils the whole movie for them. I could never understand why my dad hated Jedi for something as insignificant as the ewoks, and frankly I don't understand people with this movie either. In this case, it's that Spiderman 3 is funny. There is a comic relief dancing sequence (it sounds worse than it really is), in which Tobey Maguire is spot on in his comedic timing and of course, Raimi directs him with just the right touch. It's a light break in an otherwise very grim movie, and I liked it (I liked the ewoks, too). So what if it's silly? A movie's purpose is to entertain, not to browbeat you with violence and misery like X-Men 3 -- it's not the filmmaker's job to make the movie exactly what you would have liked it to be, but rather something only he and his team could make. It's called vision.

I didn't think this movie was perfect. I haven't thought any of the Spiderman movies were exactly what I would have envisioned. But why let that ruin them for me? I hated that they scrapped the Danny Elfman music for the new Batman franchise, but I didn't discount them altogether just for that.

Today everybody I encountered was talking about how Spiderman 3 is getting such bad reviews, how it's not a sure bet, how they're much more excited about Shrek 3 and other safe movies that are impossible to hate. At the cinema, the audience laughed and jeered when Peter Parker cried, and booed when the credits rolled. Times Square audiences are some of the worst I've ever experienced. These people were idiots who read the bad reviews and went in thinking they were smart and knew what people like me didn't. The movie was a joke to them.

I don't have to tell anybody to see this movie, because you will anyway. But don't go in planning to hate it. It's not any different from the other two movies. Actually, it's a fucking good movie. There's no special catch or inside joke that you need to know; it's not some nerds-only flick that only the diehard fans "get it" enough to enjoy. It's just good, exactly like Spiderman 1 and 2. If you think it's bad because there's goofy scenes in it, that's unfortunate, but you're wrong. It's still good, and you will realize that in a few years when you see it again on video. If you think it's bad because you read a bad review, then you're an idiot.

Because the thing is, Bill and I couldn't stop smiling after we watched Spiderman 3. That's because we had gone in with open minds, trusting Sam Raimi and the great cast to show us a good time, and they delivered. The other people in the theater, who hooted, made fools of themselves, because when the dust settles, this movie will be vindicated and they'll look like sheep. And like I said, it feels really good to be right.



"THE WORST GENERATION?"
16.Jan.2007 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

Reading the daily paper last week, I came across yet another opinion piece panning my generation. It's pretty popular these days, not only for journalists but also for parents and the general "older" public, to malign the 18-25 age group to which I belong. While our grandparents are praised for saving the world in WWII and our parents take credit for the civil rights movement, we young folks are blamed for everything from not voting in high enough numbers to turn out Bush, to not protesting anything, to not working as hard as previous generations, to being out of touch with good ol' fashioned American values and of course, drinking too much.

Statistics show that many of these much-loved accusations are simply not true. The tendency is really for every aging group to look at the younger ones as somehow worse, more selfish and less moral. It's normal, but I'm getting a little tired of it recently, and so, I sense, are many of my peers.

We work just as hard as any other generation, but we probably work harder at a younger age. When I talk to baby-boomers, I don't hear anything about all the gazillion different sports, extra-curricular activities, and community services they had to do from birth in order to distinguish themselves from the other millions of A-students trying to get into good colleges.

Sometimes boomers get pensive and wax philosophical about how much more complicated life is for us. They cite modern divorce rates, terrorism, our broken education system, and so forth as examples. But I don't really believe this. The same number of boomers, naturally, tell us how much easier we have it, and how spoiled and over-priveleged we are and how we take it for granted. I don't buy that, either.

Every generation drinks too much. The pattern seems to go that, when people hit their teens and early twenties and experiment with grown-up activities, ways of protesting their parents' wishes, and socially branching out, they do certain typical things. This includes sex, drinking and other drug use, driving recklessly, getting big crushes on despicable boys or girls, and other things not generally considered useful or positive. That's normal, but every generation, I hear, gets worse than the one that came before. If this were true, wouldn't we have devolved to the state of rabid beasts by now? Well, the second step in the pattern is that as people grow up and into their thirties, the same activities that felt so cool and exciting at 15 lose their allure and people develop moderation. And so, equilibrium is restored. Sure, we faced some awful trends in my day, and kids in high school now look pretty silly to me, but need we tell our parents how "cool" the hippy movement looks to us, much less disco?

I hope when I'm 40 or 50 I don't become so cranky about our offspring. Sure, I'll do what I can to encourage responsible behavior and hard work, but I won't forget what my peers were like, or even what I was like. I played, and re-played lots of video games when I should've been improving myself. I'll try to steer them away from it, but I'm sure my kids will find some way to be lazy and procrastinate, just like all kids. The part that bothers me, though, is the throwing around of blame.

The favorite word of the baby boomers for us is Apathy. We don't care enough. We don't hold rallies or protests of the magnitude or importance they grew up with in the 1960s. Actually: we do. The media, which is not controlled by us, simply doesn't cover it. About a year ago, hundreds of thousands of people gathered before the White House in Washington to protest the Iraq war -- before it was "fashionable" to speak out against it. The rally was ignored by every major news station.

Tied into the apathy attack is another one: that we lack the patriotism to serve in the military. The favorite example is the hundreds of thousands of Americans who gave their lives in WWII (WWII is the touchstone for illustrating all the values we have since lost) compared to the many people my age who protest the Iraq War from our cozy couches. There was a time, such as when President Wilson threw conscientious objectors into concentration camps, when questioning war and questioning killing as solutions to the world's problems was a brave stance. I guess now that pacifists face only stigmatization instead of torture and prison, it's "cowardly" to be anti-killing.

My feeling is that our generation is as caring and uncaring as every other one before us. I find it very hard to believe there are no apathetic or cynical people older than 25, or even older than 40 or 50. But it's those older people who hold the conch, so to speak. They write the books, they go on the talk shows, they sit in our government, and they control what's on our televisions. And they have much to say.

While we're at this, why don't we turn the spotlight around? Who is genetically re-engineering everything we eat from produce to poultry and forcing it on the market? Who is taking bribes from lobbyists? Who's paying athletes millions of dollars a year to rampage through bleachers throwing haymakers and to use steroids? Who is upholding everything wrong with the status quo, staying the course, building nuclear warheads, and policing away individual liberties? Not 18- to 25-year-olds!

Instead of groaning about how my generation is failing to live up to the legacy they built, maybe the older Americans should draft us a wishlist -- before we're too old to take it to heart -- of mistakes they made that they would like us to avoid. Not the moral goofs of youth, but the really tragic and destructive mistakes of adulthood, of "everybody's got a mortgage to pay" cynicism and greed, of the "not in my backyard" mentality, of intolerance and over-parenting everything to death, that we haven't yet made ourselves. But, if what I've said in these paragraphs holds true, maybe that won't do much good either.



"THE ERA OF WEDDINGS?"
02.Dec.2005 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

Here's a sensitive topic: marriage. Sensitive for me because it's always been one of my goals in life (with no time limit set), and I want to feel happy for all these people around me doing it, but my feelings are mixed for some of these couples (including ones not yet engaged but who I predict will be within a year). I guess some of the feelings mixed into the vat include: happiness, worry, jealousy, shock, frustration, and the desire to support their decision in spite of whatever negative sentiment I have because I support the institution and want to encourage its future in what Coach Schembeckler referred to as "these cynical times."

I and, probably by no coincidence, most of my friends, are children of divorce. The insidious part of divorce is that for a kid, you can't detect the subtleties of its damage right away. It's only when you're older that you start to realize what you've lost (may have lost?). Then, for the rest of your life, you find yourself wondering if it's the cause of various problems you have, especially with relationships. But you never know for sure; sometimes I feel like it's killing me inside. You wonder if that's why you can't make things work with anybody, or why relationships don't feel super easy like everybody in them says they're supposed to be. The rest of the world looks like they're so happy and fulfilled, while you're not -- and it will always make you wonder if the divorce was at the root of it. Sound fun?

When I look at a couple that is or may be on their way to marriage, my first thought is, "it'll fail." Pretty disgusting, yes, but if I can't be honest with this, then with what can I be honest? I feel like I have an almost instinctive cynicism planted deep inside of me. I hate it. But then, marriage is a big deal that shouldn't be taken lightly. You will, if all goes well, be with this person for probably twice as long as you have been alive up to this point. It seems strange to me that people around me are marrying so young and with such frequency in spite of the fact that divorce rates are historically huge. Am I misreading the statistics?

My mom's fiance, who has never been married before, once said, "Everybody gets married after 30 -- married, or remarried." My parents religiously tell me and my sister to wait, and we kind of shrug it off, but I still think of myself as careful when it comes to relationships. I'd like to think of myself that way.

So, why is it that all my friends and I who are children of divorce are not really in the vicinity of marriage, while I know lots and lots of people from "intact" families who are married or on their way? Is it because we're more wary, or because we're somehow handicapped? Is my ambivalent view of my peers' early marital commitments because of concern for their well-being, or resentment because I don't have that, too?

Nobody has more respect and appreciation for the marriage institution than me. In spite of my parents having found wonderful new spouses since their divorce, I still believe, at heart, that divorce is as tragic as abortion and suicide, and leaves a great scar in its children that they carry branded on their chest for the rest of their lives.

I worry a lot that people are rushing into marriage for several possible reasons: Perhaps they love someone unhealthy for them, and they love the person so much that it fuels a hopelessly optimistic misperception about them. Other times I worry they're with someone just because they're afraid of being single, or they don't want to grow into an old lonely spinster. People are in dangerously flawed relationships and still looking to go all the way -- why? Why not have the patience to test the relationship and see if those problems are solvable? Because they can be highly exacerbated by marriage. And then there are obvious rebound relationships that are on the fast track to something more serious. Bad call.

So, to my peers, I say, please be responsible when it comes to marriage. I will always probably be jealous of how easy it appeared to be for others and jealous of the guys who got the girls I cared for at one time or another. But at least, if our generation can turn back this tide of divorce, less people will have to live what I have lived.



"LIFE ENDS AT 22"
8.0ct.2005 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

As I grew up I always looked forward to getting older. Many things were promised to me as I aged: getting to watch better movies, voting, driving, drinking, later bed times and curfews (and then no bed times and curfews), and in theory, being more popular with women as they came to appreciate "good" guys.

With age and its additional freedoms were promised additional responsibilities. Some of these were appealing, some were not. Doing my own laundry, buying my own groceries, cooking my own meals, and managing my own schedules and desires were among the good; paying rent, paying for food, paying insurance, the bad. Very bad.

Also growing up, I noticed a penchant among older people (late 20s and beyond) for waxing nostalgic for their younger days. Apparently, in Middle School you thought it was the best time of your life, then high school was even better, and college was better still! That's a laugh. Notice that after college, there's nothing.

I'll be honest: college was a terrific lifestyle. You have a monumental amount of freedom relative to the amount of responsibility. If you're lucky, which I think the majority of white UofM students are, your family provides you with enough money for you to maybe get an easy job for pocket change, and really the only limiting factor to your complete autonomy is classes and homework. You don't have to grow up or face Real Life but you get to have all the fun that adults have.

High School wasn't all bad, either. I admit I have an overwhelming number of top-ranking memories from those years, when a night of video games was always "enough," when I saw most of my favorite movies for the first time, and when sleep-overs meant something different than passing out on each others' couches.

During my last year of college, I felt sad and sentimental, but I wasn't really afraid of what came next. In fact, I looked forward to finishing my term and reaching the final, total freedom of being a working adult. After that, until there's a family to worry about, if you don't like where you are in life, you have the power to change it. If you hate a job you can quit, if you hate the city you live in you can move. All of your choices are entirely up to you.

Yet I've been surrounded by people complaining about graduating! People say after you're 21 and can legally do everything you'll ever be able to, there's nothing left to look forward to in life and "it's all downhill from there." I'm sorry, but if the climax of your life is the day you can drink legally, your life doesn't mean much.

I look forward to many things. I look forward to having a career that is rewarding and stimulating, being able to pay rent and feed myself and travel, I look forward to the challenges and rewards of marriage and raising children someday. I look forward to seeing where my friends' lives take them and how we improve ourselves and evolve in the coming years.

I'm sick and tired of people complaining about "being a grownup" and not having the blast they had back in college. Face it: you always knew college would be only 4 or 5 years, and you enjoyed it while it lasted, and now it's over. Get over it.

Life does not end at 22. Yes, it changes a lot, but that is as good or bad a thing as you make of it. Being part of the working world isn't a defeat or a surrender, it doesn't turn you into a boring person. Not keeping yourself young on the inside is what turns you into a dullard. Working the cliché 9 to 5 doesn't strip you of your individuality or personality, and it doesn't hand over all your personal freedoms to The Man.

This is a cultural curse, and as you might have expected me to say by now, I think Americans are its forerunners. I know lots of Europeans as old as 30 who are just as interesting and cool and anti-authoritarian as people I met in college, and more so. We seem to come from a culture that sees the young as the revolutionaries and the old as the closed-minded, out-of-touch burnouts holding everybody else back. It's a theme we're raised to believe from the beginning, and many young people when they reach adulthood blindly accept it.

This is a dangerous way of thinking. It's wrong to assume older people don't have goals and dreams and things going on in and around them. Once you graduate, more than ever, you need to get involved in the world around you, in who you really are, and how you can become your best self. Because you really don't know yourself until you graduate and must take on the many aforementioned responsibilities. Maybe that's what college students are so afraid of, after all -- that when they graduate they'll have to find out who they are.



"DON'T DO THE CRIME IF YOU CAN'T DO THE TIME"
11.Sep.2005 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

In recent years my perspectives have changed a lot about America's laws and attitudes regarding drugs. The change has been slow, because of my upbringing and education, my social circles, and personal commitments. I always considered myself a model citizen, exemplified by my participation in community service and athletics in high school and squeaky clean lifestyle.

In school, I graduated from many, many mandatory programs with misleading labels like "drug awareness" and "drug resistance" (I thought drug resistance was supposed to be a bad thing). Counting D.A.R.E. in 5th grade, Health class in 7th grade, a sequel to D.A.R.E. in 8th grade called G.R.E.A.T!, and finally, another Health and Wellness class in 10th or 11th grade, that's four of the bloody things. And the titles were stupid, too.

I accepted these courses with a frustrated confidence. I felt they were unnecessary and consumed class time that could be used to learn things that interested me. After all, I knew all drugs were evil and bad and not to accept them when offered to me (which didn't happen until college anyway). All the classes told me was the details of how bad everything was and how much it would ruin my life and land me in the gutter with some gunshot wounds to grow on. All of them were based on fear and scare tactics to make people so afraid to try anything that no one ever would.

I accepted the complete truth of everything laid before me. I questioned nothing. At the end of G.R.E.A.T!, everyone had to write and present a speech to the whole class demonstrating his understanding of the materials in order to "graduate" and get a nice certificate. I coolly delivered my speech before classmates, girls I liked and guys who picked on me, my teachers, police officers, and school and city officials. Everyone was impressed by my confidence and honest embracement of the law and its inherent rightness. The officials and cops all shook my hand enthusiastically, beaming at me with expectation of the perfect citizen I would undoubtedly become. It was a proud memory to me for years afterward.

I later became exposed to new ideas and perspectives at the University of Michigan. I knew throughout high school that a majority of my peers smoked cigarettes and marijuana and drank alcohol. But they never bothered me about not doing it or asked me to join in. In college, however, all three of these drugs acted as major social facilitators and as I upheld my commitment not to break the law (or in the case of cigarettes, ruin my health), the years became long and bitter as I felt increasingly alienated from my peers and in turn reprimanded them for their drug use. I concluded that everyone just used drugs to feel cool and to say they did (and some did and do), or because it was illegal and that made it exciting for them (also not uncommon), but never that people used certain drugs simply because they liked to.

Before my senior year I turned 21 and celebrated with a mild night of drinking. Quickly after taking up my modest drinking practices, and realizing that it wasn't so terrible after all to use a drug, I wondered why I'd had to wait until I was 21. It seemed to me that if Americans were taught how to drink in moderation by their parents from childhood, and taught that it could be fun but wasn't anything very exciting (which it isn't), they wouldn't hit adolescence and college drinking as excessively and irresponsibly as they do, which I consider a social problem in America.

And so the seed of questioning was planted. I'd always aimed to follow the law completely, and if I desired otherwise I could write to the government or vote according to my desires for change and wait. Now, I began to feel the law is sometimes made poorly and unfairly. Why does the government retain the drinking age when it's universally known that anyone under 21 can drink whenever he pleases, legal or not?

More recently, I've questioned marijuana law the same way. The regular use of weed by some of my closest friends who are good citizens and some of the most moralistic people I know speaks far louder to me than all the lessons from policemen in school. I've read a great deal on the subject and found that everywhere in the world there's a call for marijuana drug awareness -- true awareness of the drug's real dangers and benefits, rather than an awareness that it will be offered to you and you must say no. Awareness that many doctors and scientists consider it less dangerous to individuals than any other notorious drug (that's not to say it's healthy), and that many normal citizens consider it harmless to society.

So, as I study and read and question, I recall my courses in school. What was I told? What were the culminating, ultimate lessons given me by the police? Here they are:

1. "Just Say No." (for D.A.R.E. youngsters)
2. "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time." (for G.R.E.A.T. students with a little more capacity for reason)

Pretty clever, right? The policemen preached these gems as though they were something pretty special. They aren't. But then, a lot of how good something sounds is in the way it's said. These were smugly and nonchalantly delivered as a final answer to all our questions. And it's a testament to what's wrong with America's War on Drugs and the government's insulting and naive attitude about drug use and the kids who must all make their own choices about it.

"Just Say No." Don't think about it. Don't hesitate or question it. Just walk away. Is that the way of thinking that this country was founded on? Forget educated decisions. People are going to offer you cigarettes and booze and weed, because they are trying to turn you into one of them. And they will push it on you and make you feel alienated and uncool for not going along with them. Or is it the other way around? Isn't it the government that tells you you're a piece of shit if you use marijuana? I find this image kind of funny, actually. A classmate in high school once said to me, "Fuck pushing drugs on people. I paid money for my shit and I ain't giving it away!" In college, however, people do offer you drugs. People offer each other a drink or a cigarette at a bar or party. A group of buddies about to share some weed offers a less known acquaintance a seat to get to know him better and make friends. There's nothing evil or subversive about these things. They're just a naturally occuring part of social life. Just saying no doesn't draw derision or pressure, but it does distance you from the people generous enough to offer you a share of something they paid for.

The phrase "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time" bothers me most of all. It sends a lousy message that appears strong because it sounds final. It doesn't matter what you think because in the end, if the government says you go to jail for it, that's what'll happen to you. So don't question the law, just follow it, because you don't want to go to jail, do you? It's based on fear. It says you're ultimately responsible for your actions -- if you get caught. The crime is only bad because of the punishment, not because it's actually wrong. There's no justice in this; it's obeying the law because it's there rather than because it's right.

These methods of teaching young people to resist drugs are an insult to their intelligence. To assume they don't have the reasoning power, at any age, to make educated decisions about whether or not to use drugs, is preposterous. Maybe if the programs explained what every drug is, established that there's a not-so-subtle difference between the consequences of marijuana and heroin use, supplied scientific knowledge and an understanding of why each drug had been made illegal or controlled as it is -- that would be a start. Explaining that although some drug users lead dangerous or self-destructive lives, there's a difference between correlation and causation, would be even better. As they are, these programs really just sow future mistrust in the government, the police, and in education as the students grow up and learn the truths about drugs.

I'm not qualified to judge whether or not drug laws are somehow right or wrong in a moral sense, though once I assumed automatically that they were right. Maybe that was because of the drug resistance education, or maybe I'm just predisposed to law-abiding by nature or genetics. I happen to think they do more harm than good and should be revised. Maybe I'll be able to help with that when I'm home. Those of you in America can do something about it now. Seek out programs that share your goals; use your votes and voices; write to politicians. It's currently a free country.

Please let me know if you have thoughts on this, criticisms and questions are welcome as they can help me revise my own thoughts and ideas.




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