Maybe Your Message Just Sucks

Yesterday, a miracle happened: I read an article in THE WEEK that was universally negative.

In case you’re not familiar, THE WEEK is a magazine that summarizes editorials around the world, usually taking four or five takes on a given news story and boiling them down into a half-page “He thinks/she thinks.”  It’s a great way of getting news you wouldn’t normally get – especially the International pages, where I get to see Indonesian takes on their new leader, or hear what the Pakistani take on Malala Yousafzai is.

And invariably, those boiled-down essays disagree with each other, because that’s the format THE WEEK has chosen.

Except for Gamergate.  The Gamergate essays culled from mainstream media couldn’t find one person in favor of Gamergate, so instead THE WEEK’s essay was “Well, why are they so fucking terrible?”  It was like watching an essay on the problem with ISIS – everyone agreed they had to be stopped, but how?  Not one major newssource really thought that Gamergate was, as they claim, actually about ethics in games journalism.

And what Gamergaters are doing is huddling back in their basements and muttering, “The news media have turned against us.”

Lemme suggest something else: maybe your story fucking sucks.

Look, as a Democrat who’s watched the media constantly overlook and misrepresent things that were vitally important to me, I get how frustrating it is when Your Top News Headline gets buried.  But the central truth about any journalism is that they generally don’t report news, they report stories.  Human beings have a deep-seated, monkey urge for narrative – who’s winning?  Who’s the good guy? – and a chronic allergy to dry facts.

But the traditional narrative you folks peddle whenever your take on the world fails to make world headlines is that the media have been “co-opted,” that they’re “turning against us,” that you can’t trust them because they have been infiltrated by people at every level.

Whereas the truth is simpler: Every news outlet is dependent on the good will of its audience to survive.  If people don’t like what they’re hearing, they won’t tune in. And then, lacking either advertiser dollars or (in the case of outlets like the BBC) voter clout to keep the money flowing, they will close down.

So every news outlet – including the Breitbarts and the Huffington Posts  – has to present stories in a way that pleases their audience.  If you present them with a take that’s too far outside their reality – CNN blaring 24/7 headlines that ISIS are bold freedom fighters, the Drudge Report touting the successes of Obamacare – people tune out, and they lose money.

That requires no far-reaching conspiracy.  That’s the hand of the market, and that hand is on your neck.  The journalists aren’t controlling the message: the audience is.

And that’s not new.  Your Gamergate take isn’t hitting the headlines?  Shit, man, ask gay people who lived through the 1950s how their pro-gay takes played on CBS news.  Ask the Afghanis who are getting mauled by erroneous drone strikes how they feel about things.  The filter of the culture that we live in causes all sorts of biases, and that’s inevitable.

But what you’re gonna tell me is that the media is run by elites who want blah blah blah and fuck that.  What’s happening is that your story, the one you’re trying to sell to the media right now, is not popular.  You’re like the asshole who shows up at black-tie fundraiser in a “NO FAT CHICKS” T-shirt and a beer funnel hat, then concludes that because you weren’t well-liked there, everyone must have conspired to ensure your personal demise.

Maybe your story fucking sucks.

And it might fucking suck that your story sucks, because as I just said, “stories” are not “the truth.”  The George Bush take that “Those terrorists attacked us, so we’ll take the fight to them!” was a great story, right out of the Hollywood playbooks, and it barely had a scrap of truth in it – but by God, the media fuckin’ loved it.  (That turned out to bite Bush in the ass when his promises of bold quick-access freedom didn’t pan out, and then the story became “Loser can’t swing a victory,” but that’s the danger of peddling stories – if you can’t make the facts fit your narrative, the media will devise their own narrative to fit your facts.)

But Jesus, man, don’t mutter “The Colbert Report has turned on us.”  No.  You had a shitty story that wasn’t actually that compelling – yes, I know, you are positive that Zoe Quinn seduced all the judges in the world with her Pied Piper vag, but most people have looked at the evidence and not bought your take on things.  And I know, we didn’t look at all the facts, we didn’t investigate every nook and crevice of email the way that you have, but…

…nobody fucking does that, man.  If “Let’s look over the details” was popular, we’d have a prime-time show on NBC called “This Week’s Paragraph Of Obamacare,” where we’d investigate all the ramifications of each of one of the most complex laws ever.

You’re fighting the fucking tide of human nature, son.

And when I lost my big victory in 2004, when I wanted Kerry to kick Dubya’s ass, I didn’t go, “THE MEDIA STOPPED ME.”  I looked at it and went, “Well, shit, the guy did vacillate, he ran a poor campaign, he wasn’t inspiring at all – he was a bad candidate.  Who can we get to do better?”  So when Obama, for all his flaws, showed up, I went, “Dude can make a great speech!” and voted.  And I won.

But I wouldn’t have won if I took your whiny-ass take of “They’re out to get me!  They suppressed the truth!”  No.  The media is a conglomerate of factors, and there’s little conspiracy aside from “People don’t like to be told things they don’t want to hear.”  You told them something they didn’t want to hear.  Maybe that’s because you’re boiling over with bullshit – don’t rule that out, buddy – or maybe it’s because, like 1950s gays and dismembered Afghani citizens, your truth tells us something that society isn’t ready to listen to yet.

And for all you whine about us Social Justice Warriors, what we did was to change society so that it did listen.  More.  There’s still a lot of stuff that we don’t get through.  But we’re probably more effective because we recognize that hey, the media isn’t oppressing us, it’s simply as biased as the people who listen to it, and how do we change the minds of the listeners?

That’s how we win.

And that, Gamergate, is why we are currently kicking your ass.

Learn the lesson, or not.

You Will Always Be Depressed.

Every day, on Twitter and Facebook, I see people saying things like, “Depression is like cancer, man!  It’s a disease.  You can’t just will yourself to be happy.”

And as someone who has to trot out his goddamned bona fides every time I discuss depression (two suicide attempts, annual Seasonal Affective Disorder, a decades-long history of self-harm), I agree: depression is a disease that kills.

But what I hear every time I discuss techniques to battle depression is this:

“Oh, your ‘cancer’ went into remission?  I guess you don’t really have cancer.  Because if you had real cancer, you’d know there’s nothing you can do about cancer except wait around to die.”

I get that depression tells you that nothing you do will have any effect on your life.  But so much of the culture that has sprung up around depression seems to mirror the lies that depression tells you – an inherently defeatist story that screens out any successes. People often seem far more willing to talk about what doesn’t work, sharing endless webcomics about people with awful lives and going, “See?  That’s how it is!  You just don’t understand me!” than they are to share stories of what therapies are effective for them.

Don’t get me wrong: as a depressive, I get the irritation when someone goes, “Just buck up!” and “You should be happy, your life is great!” because frankly, that doesn’t work.  And I even get the irritation of the “You should try craniofeline therapy, it involves gluing a cat to your head, it totally works for everybody I know!” thing where someone takes one approach that helped them battle their disease, and extrapolates that out to “This is the universal cure.”

But depression is an insidious and deeply personal disease.  And there’s often no one thing that solves it – you need a multifaceted arsenal of coping tools, including medications, therapy, routines, friendships, better diets, more exercise, whatever will hand you a weapon to fend off these hideous thoughts flowing into your head.

And I worry that a lot of the culture that arises around depression online basically tells people, “You shouldn’t want to do anything now because that’s the natural response to this disease, that’s the reaction you should have” sends the message: Don’t look too hard for answers.  “Being depressed” is the answer.

During a depressive state, it’s hard to muster the energy to do anything.  Willpower dwindles; it takes a Herculean effort to go grocery shopping, let alone transform your life.  And when someone has as little willpower to spare as a depressive does, I think that telling them, “Well, anyone who copes with this better than you do just doesn’t have it as bad” instead of “Maybe there are better ways of coping you could find?” hands that demon liar in their brain a darned good excuse for them not to seek the treatments that would help them on the days they have the strength.

And the sad thing is, of course, that some people are so depressed that some treatments won’t work upon them.  That’s like terminal cancer, something I have a little bit too much personal experience with these days.  But depression is not like cancer in that for many  – not all – an adjusted attitude can be one of an array of effective approaches, and why do we spend so much time shrieking “Too bad you don’t have it as terrible as I do!” instead of “Maybe that person knows something I don’t, let me see if that works for me”?

Oh, right: because of assholes who think that depression is just a modified form of laziness.  And a lot of assholes do act as though you failing to break through depression and be a shiny happy person is some personal flaw on your part.

It isn’t.  My God, it isn’t.  You’ve been stuck with a horrible, eroding disease, one that kills on a staggeringly regular basis, and you are super brave for having the energy to venture out the door to try to fix this.  And what I am saying is that though there are some days the depression will win and you won’t get anything done – that’s what depression is – on other days you’ll hopefully feel well enough to seek help.

And I hope on those days, you’ll keep seeking out newer and better ways to function during your depression.

Because let’s be honest: functioning during depression is a hell of a lot better than not functioning during depression.  If in the depths of your woe, you can find some trick that lets you go to work, pay the bills, get your medications refilled, then your life will be a lot better than letting all that slide.  So it should be a goal to try to keep up that necessary work during the bad times so that you don’t emerge from a long and crippling depressive bout to go, “I FEEL HAPPY! HAPPY!” and then discover you’re out of work, in collections court, and have no medications.

(That principle still applies even if you only have bad times.  Perhaps especially so.)

Ultimately, while I get the need to connect with that power of knowing that others are going through what you’re going through – it’s why I blog about my depression – I think it can be toxic to fall back on, “Well, if they’re coping better than I am, I must have it worse than they do.”  What I’m asking you to consider is that someone coping better than you may have a skill – a skill that you can learn.  That skill that won’t vanquish all the sadness in your life – but it may knock today’s black-dog depression down from being 100% debilitating to 95% debilitating.  And though your depression tells you that 5% won’t make any difference, over the years that and a couple of other 5% improvements can improve the quality of your life drastically.

And yes, most treatments and approaches won’t work.  That’s the way of things.  But some do, and they work for somebody, and that somebody might be you.  And I know what’ll happen is that if it doesn’t work, then your depressive brain will take other people’s successes as a club and beat you down with it to tell you “SEE? YOU FAIL AT THERAPY, WHY DON’T YOU JUST GIVE UP?”  And some days the depression will win, and you’ll believe it’s hopeless.

But remember: depression lies.  Depression tells you that you can’t get help.  And yes, maybe you’re one of the terminal ones who no treatment will help – but depression would tell you that you’re a terminal case, even if that’s not true.

Depression is hard.  And I believe it gets harder in the long run when you look at everyone who has managed to keep functioning and decided they just got lucky.  Some of them did, of course, but chances are good that some of them had it as hard as you do and found better ways to cope – which means that you might be able to get there from here.

Hope often sounds trivial or silly in the face of such a withering disease as depression.  Yet hope is a power that you can use to harness, sometimes even on days you don’t believe in it. Perseverance is not an inherent trait; it can be trained, though it takes years.   And while depression will consume an uncanny portion of your productivity, keeping an open mind that there may still be things to learn to help you with this awful fight can sometimes help you find better coping skills.  Even after three decades of battling soul-crushing sadness, I still find new ways of dealing with things.

Because, as I stated, there are no wrong answers.  Therapy.  Medications.  Diet.  Friendship.  Changed lifestyles.  Whatever fucking works for you is beautiful, because lemme tell you – I do suffer from depression.  I want you to have ALL THE TECHNIQUES.  Because as someone who’s stood at the very least pretty damned close to where you are now, all I want is for you to feel as good as you possibly can.

Fair Warning: I Break Up Via Email.

A while back, I was writing a breakup email to a lover of mine, and a friend asked what I was doing.

When she found out, she was horrified.  “Man, only jerks break up via email!” she said.  “That’s the worst!  You have to call!”

Well, I don’t want to be the worst, I thought.  So I vowed to do that via phone.  And then scheduling got in the way, since I can write an email any time but phone calls have to be arranged.  And weeks slid by, and crises on both ends kept intervening, and in the end what should have been a clean break turned into an embarrassing null-zone that lasted for far too long.

(And did damage to what could have been a respectful post-breakup friendship.  I’m not proud of how I handled that.)

Thing is, I’ll break up via the medium I spend most time talking to someone in.  Mostly, these days, I date remotely, and since I loathe talking on the phone (WHY IS MY TEXT-BOX MAKING THIS ANNOYING RINGING NOISE?), that means most of my communication with my long-distance partners is texting or email.  And so is the breakup.

Which might be rude, I guess.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with needing a phone call to break up, and if someone told me “If you ever break up with me, it better be at least via phone,” then I’d do that.

(They’d know they were being broken up with the second their phone rang, as my girlfriend once went into the hospital for emergency surgery and I texted her the entire time: such is my distaste for Alexander Bell’s legacy.)

And I honestly don’t know how the world perceives breakups these days, in a time when it seems everyone meets their partner via online dating and sends naughty selfies.  I know some women think, “God, a guy who breaks up via text is the worst” – but I think those are largely in-town relationships, where the guy’s last six conversations were in her bedroom, and then suddenly he switches to text to avoid a fight.

So I don’t know what the perceived polite protocol is.  I’ve been broken up with via text, and in one notorious case via a Twitter DM, and didn’t think anything of it.  But as noted, I’m kind of a freak.

So here’s your warning: in the unlikely event you decide to date me, the breakup-email is an option.  I have no idea how society views that, but I figure you should know anyway.

(And in the unlikelier event you’re trying to date me now, well, I wouldn’t.  I’m supremely flaky at the moment, dropping out of communication as crisis after crisis hits the house.  My energy reserves are banked for family now, and I’m not trying to be rude, but I fear that’s the end result.  Maybe sometime later I’ll be all about the happy flirting and sweetness, but that time is not now.)

No, Peter Jackson, I Don’t Think You Learned That Lesson: On 45-Minute Battle Sequences

This article is called “Peter Jackson Walks Us Through His Battle Plans For The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies,” though it should be called “Peter Jackson Threatens World With Overly Tedious 45-Minute Battle Sequence.”

And in it, he says:

“After making the Lord of the Rings trilogy and two previous Hobbit films, Jackson has learned that epic warfare can be surprisingly boring….”

No, Entertainment Weekly.

No, he hasn’t.

Because if he had learned the lesson, he would have realized that the end of the last Hobbit movie was ZOMG BIG BATTLE sequence that nobody cared about half as much as, say, that first fight to save the Hobbits from the Ringwraiths in Fellowship of the Ring.  And instead of saying, “Wait, small character moments really matter,” instead he has doubled down on his solution to go BIIIIIIIIGGGGGGGGG and devised a solid forty-five-minute action sequence which will undoubtedly be as filled with as much CGI artificial excitement as, say, a greenscreened-in Legolas shooting made-up orcs while standing on an imaginary barrel, or dwarves fighting a huge dragon for-fucking-ever in a forever sequence that could have been replaced by a large placard that says, “THE DRAGON FLIES AWAY.”

The Hobbit makes money, because it’s pretty, and because people are sort of like, “Well, we got into this, we might as well see how it turns out.”  But I’m pretty sure that final sequence will feature a bunch of people I don’t care much about dodging things in what is a quicktime-videogame sequence except sapped of all the excitement of pressing “X” at the right time, and in the end we’ll go home having seen something that fits every possible definition of “exciting” and yet somehow just made us feel weary and ready for this to be over.

Not that I’m snarky.

On Happiness and Productivity

“If I could just manage to feel happy again, I’d be productive.  I just know it.”

That’s what my friend said to me, and he was entirely serious about this.  He’d been experiencing depressive fits for months, his life decaying at an increasing rate, and he blamed all of his flagging grades and lost friendships and money troubles on a lack of happiness.

See, when he was happy, he could do anything.  He would wake up empowered and DO ALL THE THINGS.  And he’d be productive for a day, maybe a week, before something bummed him out again and he just couldn’t rouse himself to do all these depressing things.

The trick, my friend thought, was to somehow arrange his life for MAXIMUM HAPPINESS, so eventually he’d just be happy all the time and thus productive.

Whereas I told him the trick was to learn to keep working when you were miserable.

“Look,” said I. “Right now, you have a beautiful sailboat.  And it is a glorious thing, with full sails powered by your happiness, and when the winds are blowing strong you can go anywhere.

“Unfortunately, happiness is like the wind in that it comes and goes.  It’s good enough to get you around, but some days dreams will die and plans will die and people will die… and then your sails go slack.  And the happiness will probably come back – it usually does – but by the time it returns, you may have starved to death on a becalmed sea, hoping like hell for the wind to come back when what you really needed was an oar.”

It’s a misnomer to say that anyone can work when they’re happy.  A lot of people don’t want to do the unfun work when they’re depressed because they’re too despairing to go look for work, and when they’re happy they don’t want to bum themselves out by going back out and seeing how terrible the job market.  So as it turns out, they’re actually unproductive no matter what their mood; they just have an excuse that works under any circumstances.

But even if you get ALL THE THINGS done when you’re happy, you gotta learn to work when your lover dumped you, when your dog just died, when that rejection you were dreading just came in over the transom.  Because life has a nasty habit of not giving a shit about how good you feel.  Life usually asks, “Well, did you pay the bills?  Get a job?  Go to work?”  And if the answer is “No,” then life tends to say, “Well, okay, I’m just gonna make your life harder for you then.”

You can wait for happiness to fill your sails, man.  But you might be waiting for a long time.

Get the oar.

Conversations With My Wife

SCENE: The wife and I have snuggled for an hour after a hard week, recharging her wifely batteries.

GINI (not leaving my embrace): I feel so much better.

ME: Aww, yeah. That’s your daily dosage of Vitamin F talkin’.

GINI: Okay.

ME: Which isn’t actually a real vitamin.

GINI: Okay.

ME: Because I’m vaguely worried if you thought it was, you’d divorce me and go get a supplement.

GINI (snuggles closer): Oh, you know I prefer getting my vitamins naturally anyway.

Why I Hate Stealth Games, Or: How I Discovered Roger Ebert Was Right

So as a reward for, you know, selling a novel, I finally got a PS4 after months of hand-wringing.  (Yes, I abandoned my good ol’ XBox 360 after years of racking up achievements, and it feels a little sad to have all my Rock Band ‘cheevos gathering dust at the ass-end of a hard drive now.  But looks like the XBone’s a loser in this generation’s console wars.)

Anyway, so flush with triumph, I got two games – Shadows of Mordor, because I was excited about the orc vengeance system, and The Last Of Us, which I was excited about because it was a zombie game.

Both turned out to be stealth games.

Oh Christ, I fucking hate stealth games.

This is not to say that your great love of stealth games is the work of Satan’s anal warts, but I fucking hate every aspect of stealth games. Because it’s like programming.  Because it’s like writing.

Look, in my day and my night job, I spend many hours painstakingly mapping approaches to complex problems.  I have to do a lot of tedious research to scout out the landscape, looking carefully ahead for hidden problems, analyzing the pros and cons of whether this methodology would be more effective, everything proceeding at a snail’s creep.  And when I’ve set up the plan and want to explode out of the gate, I still proceed at a dim crawl, because every line is critical and I need to get each of them right.

It’s nice when I finally triumph.  It is.

But when I settle down to game, I want to blow shit up.

Plus, most stealth games are actually incredibly tedious puzzle games.  “But you can approach the guards in any order!” you cry.  Well, kinda.  You can have your take of one of two approaches, through this corridor or that tunnel, maybe branching to three if you throw a brick to distract them. In actuality, what you have is an incredibly constricted experience, where there are basically a handful of strategies that work and infinite strategies that won’t.

Plus, I never feel like the guards are humans, because they’re incredibly fucking stupid – oh, hey, I’ll just walk in the same circles all the time, what’s that, I guess everything’s normal, UURRK MY THROAT.

I don’t feel like I’m outwitting a bunch of clever opponents.  I am patently fighting a modified computer AI, where if I step one foot here then I am VISIBLE and all the guards will converge on me at once, and if I am here then I am the THIEF OF THE NIGHT.

So when I do win, I get little sense of triumph.  I don’t feel like I’m Batman – I feel like Ferrett, sitting on a couch, having vanquished a bunch of arbitrary and maddening rules to achieve a marginal result.

That is my day job.

I hate being weak enough that any time I annoy two guards, I’m all but dead.  I hate having to manage ammunition.  I hate having to crouch everywhere when what I want to do is LEEEEROY JENKINS my way to success. There’s nothing wrong with stealth in general, but my preferred game mode is charging in with some limited strategy, maybe a minute’s worth of scouting the field before going, “Okay, reflexes, you can take it from here.”

I almost returned The Last Of Us to GameStop, even though I was really enjoying the story, because the bullshit one-hit-kill Clickers were really pissing me off.  Then Gini said, “You paid for it, you should enjoy it,” and after wrestling me to the ground in a no-holds-barred match, ultimately convinced me to -

- and I am loath to admit this before a group of gamers -

- lower the difficulty.

I had never lowered the difficulty this early in a game before.  (I did once before, on Dragon Age, on the final level, just because yes I could win the final battle against the fire-resistant dragon with my fireball-slinging mage, but it was taking forever and I was getting very very bored.)  But I did with The Last of Us because I really did like the story, and so I basically treated The Last Of Us like a very slow and clumsy movie, where I ran past a lot of zombies (who, on the lowest difficulty level, were no challenge at all) to be treated to snippets of cinema.

It was good cinema.  But the gameplay was highly unsatisfying.   Now we had something where stealth was clearly the way you were supposed to go, but if you want to screw up then fine, kill seven soldiers with a brick while standing in the middle of a field, whatever, do what you like.  It felt, honestly, pretty condescending as a gameplay experience.

And I realized that part of the reason games work is that you do feel the tension along with the characters.  When it was hard slipping past the fucking clickers, I felt a horrible fear for everyone involved in the game, and when I got to the next segment of the story I felt both triumph at having propelled myself to the next objective, and fear because I knew just how hard it was for them.  For the first time, I understood Roger Ebert’s criticism that videogames were just bad movies, because once I actively disdained the gameplay, well, The Last of Us was about as good as it gets in a videogame storywise, and the fairly lengthy cut-scenes were padded by these even longer annoying segments of what I can only describe as violent paperwork.

And I realized: I need to go out there and get back into a style of videogame that rewards what I like to do.  That is not a stealth game.  A stealth game is just a continuation of the most frustrating things in my life, and so this weekend I’ll probably seek out Infamous: Second Son or play the new Civilization (which punishes imperfect strategy, but one can play quite profitably against computer AI up to Prince level without thinking too hard) or anything that involves blatant power plays and not sneaking.

I do not like to sneak.  Plotting and planning is my life, and I wish to escape my life.

Hand me the gun.  Leave that barrier behind.  I’ma charge into battle, because today I want to be a superhero.