The Thing I Like About …

28 Days Later: when life becomes cheap again.

In 28 Days Later, England has been overrun with zombies – fast-moving zombies infected with “Rage”. Jim, in a coma from a bike accident, wakes up in a hospital with no people, no notes of explanation, and no idea what has happened out in the world. He stumbles around a deserted London, calling out for anyone, and eventually encounters two other survivors – including Selena – who tell him about the zombies, about the attempted evacuations, about the hopelessness of everything. The whole world has been destroyed, and all that’s left is a struggle to live.

As the story progresses, Jim and Selena search for other survivors and try to find a way to safety from the infection. When they meet a collection of soldiers who’ve fortified an estate against the zombies, they figure at first that things are at least going to be tolerable now. But the soldiers aren’t interested in Jim and Selena’s safety; they imprison Jim and try to appropriate Selena for their own amusement. Other soldiers have also been imprisoned, and they and Jim are marched out into the woods to be executed. Jim escapes, and lies stone-still on the ground staring up at the sky … where he sees a plane flying overhead.

The whole world isn’t destroyed after all.

There’s hope of leaving quarantined England and finding real safety again, if only Jim can break back into the estate and rescue Selena.

So Jim openly attacks the estate, killing everyone who gets in his way. Gone are the notions of “every survivor is a cherished friend.” Gone are the notions of “human life is precious.” Now only his own life is precious, and the lives of his loved ones; everyone else is expendable.

Why is that good?

It’s probably not “good” to decide that life is cheap and that others’ lives are expendable (but they were the bad guys, after all); it’s that Jim has been controlled, cornered and threatened – nearly killed – because he believed that each life he encountered was a very large percentage of the number of lives left in the world. He put up with a whole lot of crap because he thought the ones shoveling it over him were a large percentage of the number of lives left in the world. And it was only when he realized the truth – and acted in his and Selena’s own best interests – that the bad guys were defeated and good could come out of the situation.

Out here in the real world, a lot of us tend to put up with a bunch of crap because we think the stakes are much higher than they really are. We allow others to dictate to us what we should and shouldn’t tolerate, what we should and shouldn’t do, what our own value is … and we do it because we want to “get along” or “stay under the radar” or – most insidious of all – “not make anything worse.” We do it because someone else told us it was “important”, maybe even “vital.”

But the irony of Jim’s situation? The fewer people there are, the more relatively valuable each person becomes … including Jim. If the world has dwindled from seven billion to a handful of individuals, then Jim’s life is proportionately worth exponentially more than it was before. He’s put up with crap because of everyone’s “new value”, but he also has a new value. He is worth just as much as they are … just like he was before.

We’re all always worth the same. We’re worth the same as anyone else, and we’re always worth our own support. Good happens when we prioritize our own lives and those in our care, regardless of “getting along,” “not making anything worse,” or because others decided we weren’t “important.”

It’s probably not “good” to decide that life is cheap and expendable. But it is good to reduce others’ lives to their true value – exactly and precisely the same as our own.

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The Thing I Like About …

No Escape: when he apologizes to his wife for not giving her the life she wanted.

In No Escape, Jack and Annie have been caught up in a civil war in an Asian country where they know no one; they have nowhere to go, and they fear for their lives. As they wait, hiding, Jack thanks Annie for staying with him even though it hadn’t been the life she imagined. She shakes her head, and tells him that the life she “wanted” wouldn’t have been nearly as good or rewarding as the life she ended up with.

We start life cobbling together lots of dreams and plans and goals. We think that life lets us down; we consider ourselves “jaded” because we’ve stoically accepted that so many dreams go unfulfilled. The things that happen to us that are beyond our control? – we assume those things are inherently bad. But most of the time, life turns out exactly the way we crafted it – whether we mean to or not, we put ourselves on a path designed by our own inclinations, fears, and responses.

And most of the time, the place we “end up” is actually far better than what we imagined for ourselves in our early dreaming days – before we knew what the world had to offer, or what we would want next year or the year after that. Life doesn’t “let us down”. We change. We learn and grow, and make new dreams. We let go of plans and goals that no longer serve us, and choose new paths. That’s not “jaded”. That’s living.

When you were eight, did you know how it would feel to love a child? When your plans of being married by the end of college are “dashed”, are you able to predict how incredibly happy you’ll be with the person you find twelve years later? Isn’t your degree just as valid even if you find joy in a completely different field?

Life is full of surprises – good and bad, good disguised as bad. None of us ever really gets everything we want … and that’s probably for the best. And when we’re hiding from people who want to kill us, our only dream/goal/plan is to have one more minute, one more day, one more chance.

That’s really the only goal in life that matters.

The Thing I Like About …

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: the part where he introduces Rocky to the group.

Dr. Frank-N-Furter has been working very hard on his creation – the beautiful Rocky. He has re-animated the fellow with some sort of wizard-science, and he is proudly parading him around the room full of fawning party-guests. Everyone is praising the doctor’s achievement … except Janet.

Janet looks shyly at Brad and then tells Dr. Frank-N-Furter that she doesn’t like men with too many muscles. (Poor Brad.)

Dr. Frank-N-Furter stares at her in absolute indignation and tells her, “I didn’t make him for YOU!”

Why is this important? Because we forget this for ourselves all the time, and it pretty much ruins our lives.

We arrange our lives around what other people expect/request/want/prefer, not just when we’re little kids and our parents are trying to teach us things, but forever – we get the job we think we “should” have and the education we think we “should” have and date the people that seem “proper”. Then we have children that we raise with all the other parents in mind instead of the children themselves; we compare and evaluate our parenting based on what the Joneses are able to give/afford/do and on what the Joneses think is good/wholesome/productive. And these are just the big-ticket items. We do it with little things too.

We cut our hair the way others are doing it. We wear the clothes that others are wearing, in the sizes that others are – or seem to be. We say the things that others are saying. We watch the things that others are watching. We don’t admit that we like Star Trek unless we’re with other Star Trek fans. We don’t like to share our political/religious/whatever views unless we know we’re in a group where those views are already accepted. We don’t care for conflict or confrontation, but we particularly don’t like the feeling of being excluded. Excluded could mean that you’re not part of the tribe, and not being part of the tribe could mean that you’ll be ejected from the village and left to die under a bridge.

But the fact is that there is a way-to-do-things for each of the seven-odd billion people on the planet. Most of the time, those ways to do things are correct and good. The differences between us make life more interesting, and the unique perspectives we each bring to the table are important and valuable. Unless we’re actually hurting someone, the only “should” in our lives should be to live exactly as we please without regard to anyone else’s opinions. We should build Rockys for ourselves without worrying whether others will like our creation or not. We should honour others’ building rather than the outcomes; outcome-judgment is for math tests and engineering and surgery, not for the stories we write or the paintings we like or the shirts that we pick (or, you know, the partners that we create out of spare parts).

Look around at your naysayers – the real ones, the ones you imagine, the ones you expect – and tell them, with a condescending look of indignation: “I didn’t build my life for YOU!”

The Thing I Like About …

Better Off Dead: the skiing advice.

In Better Off Dead, Lane Meyer is trying to win back his erstwhile girlfriend – and show up the pretty-boy bully – by winning an extremely difficult skiing contest, from the top of a very steep mountain. The first time he tries to practice, as he stares out over the almost-vertical run that lies before him, his friend gives him advice, but Lane looks at his friend as if he’s been given the most useless advice imaginable. He starts down the slope, and within a few seconds, he’s been tossed willy-nilly into the snow.

Later, before the actual race, his new girlfriend (the one who likes him for who he is, and who would never leave him for a pretty-boy bully) gives him the same advice his friend had given him. This time, almost in spite of himself, Lane follows the advice, and emerges victorious at the bottom of the hill.

The advice? [Gesturing down the slope] “Go that way, very fast. If something gets in your way, turn.”

Whether we’re skiing, or going to school, or working, or learning to knit, or … well, anything, really – we encounter difficulties, setbacks, bumpy transitions, mistakes, failures, disappointments, and, well, life. We look out over our lives and imagine a near-vertical run that stretches between us and our destination: the goals we have, the people we love, the stuff we want to do, etc., etc. We imagine that to start down that slope is dangerous, or even deadly, and that to leave the safety of the plateau is to invite disaster. We imagine so many things to be difficult or impossible or scary or perilous or bad … and the last thing that makes sense to an imagination like that is the notion that the answers are simple.

But “simple” and “easy” are two different things.

It isn’t easy to ski down a steep slope and beat the pretty-boy bully to the finish line. It isn’t easy to impress a girl whose heart is wrapped up in her own insecurities. It isn’t easy to grow up, get a job, go to school, find love, have a baby, raise children, face illness, get car-keys out of a sewer drain with a length of chewed gum, etc., etc. … but the key to success in life isn’t making stuff “easy”, or following any particular strategy or path or method or plan.

For instance, pretty-boy’s method is to ski with significant skill down the hill. Lane’s method ends up being either to ski downhill or be swarmed by angry newspaper delivery boys on ski-bikes. Both methods require effort, and determination; both men are prompted by their various fears – Lane fears the loneliness of losing the girl and the sting of humiliation, and pretty-boy fears not being pretty-boy anymore and the sting of humiliation. The course is equally difficult for both of them, and the thing that allows Lane to win comes down, not to any particular physical superiority he might have, but to his panic at being chased by newspaper delivery boys. Both men, as they navigate the treacherous landscape of high school politics, would be unlikely to classify life’s challenges as “straightforward,” and both men have chosen very different ways to achieve their goals in the world.

But the one who takes the “it’s simple” advice is the one who wins the race.

What if you knew in your bones that it was as simple as that? That, even when things were difficult, or stressful, or daunting, the solution was perfectly within your intellectual grasp? There’s no guarantee that you would emerge unscathed and victorious at the bottom of the hill, but wouldn’t it make it a lot easier to jump away from that “safe” plateau and proceed boldly into our lives? What if there was no “wrong” path? What if it turns out we’re pretty much fine if we keep our wits about us, keep our goals in focus, and adapt as necessary? What if that’s the secret to all of it?

Go that way. Very fast. If something gets in your way, turn.

 

The Thing I Like About …

… video games: the endless possibilities.

I don’t actually play video games.  My eyes do not enjoy trying to navigate an avatar through moving terrain.  I play less visually complex games such as Peggle or Mario or Spider Solitaire.  But I do watch other people play video games; I have watched friends play – among others – Star Wars, Zelda, Resident Evil, various Batman incarnations, various Lego incarnations, The Last of Us, Black Rain, L.A. Noire, and Grand Theft Auto V.  It’s very fun to watch – I don’t get attached to looking for treasure or beating anybody at anything, and it’s kind of like a re-e-e-eally long movie with an ever-evolving plot and dozens of characters.

But the most amazing thing about all these games is how many different possibilities there are.  It isn’t just about going right instead of left. There are choices for good and evil, for money versus fame versus power versus other goals. There are so many different ways to complete so many different Lego-Marvel missions that I don’t know if a person could exhaust them all in a lifetime.  There are programmed personalizations that can take thousands of forms, and there are now often on-line features that let you add your own stuff.  Many games add new adventures later that can be downloaded. And even in my level of game – Mario, for instance – there are different ways to approach the journey: against the clock, to get the most money, to get the most lives, to spend the fewest lives, to jump as quickly as possible through the levels, to go through each level one at a time, to get all of the hidden stuff … and that’s in Mario.  I couldn’t begin to count the different ways you can approach a more complicated game like Grand Theft Auto V.

There is one problem, though. Companies are now spending hundreds of millions to make video games, and people are spending billions to buy them, and these millions of people around the world spend hours and days and weeks and even months playing these intensely, almost unbelievably complex games.  They devote time, energy and money to the endeavor, and they often have complaints at the end of it that the games weren’t complex enough – that they wanted even more layers, more choices, more paths, more differences, more outcomes, more possibilities.

Why is that a problem?

Because these millions of people with their complex, infinitely changing brains tend so often to shut off the games and the consoles, put on their shoes, and walk into a world where they refuse to believe the truth: that they can alter things, that they can choose to “play” however they wish, that any number of ways of living are equally good and viable, that they can change their minds in the middle or start over from the beginning. They don’t see that the world that spawned the video games is therefore so much bigger than the games – that the only limitations are the ones we make for ourselves.

Maybe we could try shutting off the consoles but keep the game running. Maybe we could let it play out in front of us, with every step we take and every decision we make. Maybe the key to world peace is not for everyone to be of one mind, but for everyone to be of countless unique and boundless minds, following their own paths and shaping the world into whatever they can imagine. Maybe the thing I like about video games is that they’re just like life.

The Thing I Like About …

Awake (2007, Hayden Christiansen): the part where his mother lights her cigarette.

Awake follows a young man’s attempt to get a heart transplant before his own heart stops working.  His mother (played by Lena Olin) wants him to consult her own physician – the best heart surgeon in the country – but Clay (Christiansen) wants his friend Dr. Harper to be his surgeon, and he places his trust in Dr. Harper.

Of course, things go horribly wrong.

Clay is prepped for the transplant, and is given anesthesia; he then experiences anesthesia-awareness, a lovely little complication wherein he is fully aware of what’s happening to him during surgery but is helpless to move or communicate to the surgeons – the surgeons who cut into his chest and pull out his heart.

Ouch.

Clay begins to wander through his memories in an attempt to retreat from the pain of the ongoing operation.  Things have all sincerely gone horribly wrong, and he is in fact dying.  This is represented, as he walks “home” in his imagination, by each street light going out consecutively, leaving a growing trail of darkness behind him.  He goes into his “house”, where the lamps also go out one by one, as well as the fire in the fireplace.  He makes his way upstairs and lies down wearily on his bed, and the bedside lamp goes out too. He’s in pitch black now, and we know that it’s because his body (and his spirit) are very nearly dead.  He’s very nearly dead.

And then his mother lights her cigarette.

She’s sitting by him in his imagination-bedroom, and smoking a cigarette, and she’s telling him how much she loves him, and how proud she is of him, and how wonderful he is, and how strong.  She’s telling him how gladly she would die for him, how she would give him her own heart, because that’s what mothers do.  She lights her cigarette, and it’s the only light in the room, and Clay follows it out of his imagination-house, out to where he can wake up and be alive again.  He uses her little light to light all the other lights.

Her little light saves his life.

We’ve all been in darkness, both real and metaphorical.  We’ve all waited and hoped to see that little light.  We’ve all clung to it with every ounce of strength.  Yet we’re sure that our own contributions are small, that we’re not important or strong or good enough, that what we have to offer isn’t worth anything.  We don’t think we can really heal or fix or help.

But in the pitch-black, one little light makes all the difference in the world.

The Thing I Like About …

Highlander:  the part where Heather grows old while Connor stays young.

Highlander is the story of a man who is apparently immortal – forever young and mostly unkillable.  He is driven from his village, because for some reason, villagers are afraid of neighbours that never age and never die.  He makes his way to a remote part of the highlands, and he lives there with the love of his life, Heather, a lovely young woman who accepts his … condition.

She grows older, and older, and is eventually old, and eventually dies, and when she asks him on her deathbed why he stayed with her, he says that he loves her as much that day as he did the day he met her.  And for centuries after she’s gone, he never loves another.

People want to live forever.  We want to stay young forever.  The vampire trend isn’t for no reason.  We fear aging and we fear death, and we think we want to be like Connor … except that our loved ones – our spouses, parents, siblings, friends, children – will all die around us.  So, if that’s the deal, then we actually don’t want to take that deal.  Maybe we don’t want to live forever after all, if our loved ones can’t live forever with us.

It turns out we don’t fear aging and we don’t fear death.  We fear loss.  We fear losing our hearts and our happiness and our loved ones.  And it turns out that living forever didn’t keep Connor from losing all of those things … in fact, it made it harder because he had so much more time to mourn.  It turns out that we all just want a life filled with what Heather and Connor had – a love that transcends the changes around us, that withstands time and tide, that looks past physical beauty and infirmity and sees only the beautiful parts inside.

It turns out that we fear dying alone … and the answer to that fear is to love one another as much at the end as we do in the beginning.