Jeff's online journal, ramblings, whatever.

Archive for August, 2011

Disclaimer and Self Analysis (and, yes, Star Trek)

Some of the responses I’ve received to my most recent post, both in person and in the comments, have prompted me to repeat something that I already touch on in my “About” page. That is to say, this blog is not nearly a complete picture of who I am or what my motivations are. It is, laconically, a place where I post whatever I feel like. And it’s a personality trait of mine that when I feel angsty, I grow verbose, but usually when I feel fine I have no need to record it. When I feel good about life, I’m usually busy being actively engaged in things that I don’t think about posting a giant blog post about why life is grand. So please don’t think I’m suicidal or somewhat mentally unstable because I take a long time and use a Shakespearean allegory to say, in essence, that talking to women (in a romantic sense, anyway) is often scary (which I don’t think is an uncommon opinion). If I seem depressed, keep in mind that it’s usually not long-term and always situational, not clinical. Oftentimes months go by without me posting anything of consequence, and usually during those times I’m fine. I don’t need to go see another therapist.

However, I do believe, as usual, that there’s a deeper issue at work here. Just saying, “I write more when I’m angsty,” is true, but there’s a reason behind it. You see, when I was a kid I didn’t have any friends. Not really. I can think of one person that I can truly call a friend who I met in elementary school, and even he ended up getting leukemia and missing a lot of school. (He’s OK now, and is married with children, by the way, though I haven’t had contact with him in years other than being Facebook friends.) It was probably not until eighth grade and several school-changes later that I finally became, while not popular, at least a normal person who had some friends and fit in somewhere. This change, however, didn’t come about arbitrarily, or because somehow I moved to a school where all the jerks had been purged. It changed because I did a lot of self-analysis. I grew up in a time when there was a lot of “Be Yourself!” and “Don’t Give in to Peer Pressure!” buzzwords being thrown around. Being oneself, however, especially as a young kid who hasn’t necessarily been taught by his parents how to behave himself (probably not from a lack of trying, though, especially from my poor mom), means being someone really different and weird. It didn’t help that I had skipped kindergarten and consequently was not only always the youngest and smallest person in the class, but also a target of jealousy and resentment, even from some teachers. But it was easy to play the blame game and put all of my trials squarely on the shoulders of the mean kids (which was pretty much every kid, even if some of them were at least passive about it). I didn’t give in to peer pressure to do what other kids did, and consequently became that weird kid who picked his nose and corrected the teacher on occasion, who couldn’t sit still and finished his math quizzes five minutes before everyone else so just wandered around the room because he couldn’t stand the ticking clock, who then got kicked down the hill at recess because his favorite activity was to hide in his sweatshirt in the fetal position. “Be Yourself,” indeed. If I were another kid, I’d probably have made fun of myself, too.

It was that last thought that actually began my transformation in the middle of the eighth grade. After being transferred to my sixth school since starting first grade, I finally realized that I was the problem. That may seem silly now, but up until that point I was just acting like the world couldn’t understand me and it wasn’t my fault for being “me”. But I finally got sick of it all and began analyzing my own behavior from an objective standpoint. Nearly everything I did or was about to do, I stood back and asked myself, “If I saw someone else doing this, what would I think of that person?” And if the answer was something negative, I would refrain from doing said activity. This took an enormous amount of effort and mental energy, and of course I wasn’t perfect at it, but it truly did make a difference. Instead of just “being me” and getting mad at the world for not being able to deal with it, I started slowly changing what “being me” meant, and as a result, people were better able to deal with me on a personal level and I became at least somewhat normal and gained friends, some of which I stay in contact with today.

So what does that have to do with this blog? Well, as a side effect of this eighth-grade experience, I learned the important value of self-examination. From that point on I usually tried to keep an objective eye on some of my stranger behaviors and eccentricities, to avoid falling back into the old trap of “It’s not me that has the problem, it’s the world!” that gave me so much heartache growing up. And almost all of the more angsty posts on this blog are a continuation of this very same principle. A lot of my “wah wah I’m still single waaaahh” posts aren’t just venting or complaining, but genuine efforts to understand exactly the problems that I need to personally overcome in order to enter into a successful relationship. Keep in mind that my main audience for this blog is myself and this may make more sense.

Perhaps an example is in order. Let’s take the most recent post. I’d been feeling more and more down and lonely recently, but without any real specifics as to why, as I hadn’t sat down and hammered out the causes to why I’m feeling this way. Then I see that Star Trek review and note some similarities between the philosophies pointed out in that video and these struggles I’d been having. So, to properly focus and delineate exactly what these parallels are, I write that blog post. Yes, at that point I’m still feeling extremely depressed directly afterwards and not ready to change anything, but that’s OK. After some time passes, I reread the post in a more neutral frame of mind. Now I can clearly identify the root causes of the recent depression (I’ve been isolated, I haven’t figured out how to talk to girls without being a jerk, etc.) and I now have a baseline for self-improvement. So I take some steps to begin to remedy the problem (I start going to more ward activities, even if I still don’t really enjoy them, etc.), and while significant improvement may not happen overnight, at least the process can begin.

When I began this blog I described it as a journal I was keeping because I had trouble keeping a pen-and-paper journal. But for me, what I’m doing has never been as important as why I do it. Therefore this blog (or at least the lengthier posts) has been more self-analytical than descriptive. Heck, that’s always been my focus when keeping a journal (for example, this was written in a pen-and-paper journal when I was ten years old, showing that even before eighth grade I always had a bent toward self-examination). Without anyone else willing (or able) to give outside commentary on who I am, this is the best chance I have for self-improvement. This is why I don’t need to see a therapist: this is my therapy! (Plus, the few times I have seen a therapist they almost immediately pegged me in some category or another that I don’t think really fit the bill, then assigned me to write down and fulfill all these goals that I had no motivation or intention to keep, like they believe that the only way to live a happy life is to religiously follow Stephen Covey or something.) This is also one reason why I often have a negative view of myself: improvement isn’t possible if you view yourself through rose-colored glasses. I’m not depressed because I don’t think I’m worth anything, I’m down on myself  because I want to become a better person! These analytical posts also help me identify those cases where the problem really isn’t me, but I still need to do something about it (like, say, move out of Provo) to improve my life.

So why make this blog public? Why risk exposing some of my inner thoughts and feelings out to the world at large, where anybody can come across it and see inside to the various issues I privately struggle with? This is something I’ve often wondered myself and gone back and forth on an answer. But I think one important reason is that self-examination is, by nature, somewhat myopic. I can’t get a clear picture of myself from inside myself. So I put my thoughts out here in the hopes that others will help me see answers that I can’t find on my own. (And granted, all those things are good reasons to go see a therapist, but I’m still not willing to follow Mr. Covey. I’m just not wired that way.) I read and appreciate every single comment I get, even if I don’t respond to them all. And maybe, by seeing what makes me tick, some of you may recognize common elements in your own life, and even if neither of us do anything about it, at least we can empathize together.

In conclusion, please don’t worry about my mental health. For the most part, I am doing fine, and for those times when I’m not, I’m usually not just wallowing in it, but trying to identify root causes and solutions. (I don’t always act on those solutions very well, but that’s a whole different blog post.)

And now for an added bonus: Star Trek VI is one of my favorite Star Trek films. The Cold War allegories are all well and good, but I think a big part of why I really enjoy it (and Star Trek II), and why many people hold the original series over NextGen is the relationships between the main characters themselves and how that defines them, especially the Big Three (Kirk, Spock, and McCoy). All of these three would be very different people without the others. Without Spock and McCoy, Kirk would mostly be a self-obsessed captain without anyone to lean on. Without Kirk and McCoy to humanize him, Spock would just be another cold Vulcan like those that populate Star Trek: Enterprise. And without Kirk and Spock, McCoy would probably just be passed out in an alley somewhere. Even the rest of the main crew draws their strength from their relationships with these three. Sulu, in particular, would be completely unbelievable in this film if Kirk weren’t the type of man to inspire such great devotion that he (Sulu) is willing to disobey orders to serve a greater good.

Contrast this with the TNG crew. TNG is filled with interesting characters, but none of them are defined by their relationships to each other. Picard would be Picard no matter who his crew is. Riker would be Riker no matter who he served under. The only lasting relationships between the characters is this sort of vague “we’re all good friends” thing, with an occasional romantic overtone shoehorned in by the final season. Don’t get me wrong: most of the TNG characters are great, but they would be the same in a vacuum. Kirk would not be Kirk, or at least recognizable as the Kirk we know, without Spock and Bones. That makes their interactions so much more strong and compelling than anything the TNG crew does for each other.

Consider this: in Star Trek VI (and, for that matter, Star Trek III), most of the crew disobeys orders and even logical sense in order to save one or two of their crew (in III it’s Spock, in VI it’s Kirk and McCoy). The gratitude and heartfelt appreciation the rescuees have for the rescuers is genuine, palpable, and touching. A good example is in VI when Sulu greets Kirk with his bridge crew behind him after the Enterprise and the Excelsior have destroyed General Chang’s bird-of-prey. The looks on their faces say it all: Sulu is glad and proud that he had the courage to put his friends in front of the state, and Kirk is touched, knowing that as long as he has good friends like these, he will be able to make a difference in the universe for the better.

Now take a parallel scene in Star Trek: Insurrection. Picard is ready to beam down to the planet, disobeying orders in order to save a bunch of Ba’ku natives that the Son’a want to move (for legitimate reasons, I might add, though I’m not going to go into that discussion here). Suddenly the rest of the bridge crew show up, and they’re all like, “We’re going to help you!” Picard’s all like “No, you’re not!” and they’re all “Yes we are!” and Picard’s like, “Fine, whatever: Riker and Geordi go do this and this and everyone else come with me and blah blah blah” and everyone goes and, uh follows their orders to disobey orders. The scene falls flat because Picard, while a good leader and a good captain, has always seemed so independent. He doesn’t need his crew to suddenly back his disobedience 100% without question, especially for a cause as dubious as the one they’re defending in the film. Indeed, Picard probably could’ve beamed down with five random ensigns who were sworn to blindly follow him for some reason, and gotten the exact same results. None of the crew seem especially invested in this except for “well, we’re all friends, and I guess good friends help each other out!” It’s the difference between truly devoted, genuine friends, and the kids from Barney and Friends. Sure, they’re all friends on that show, but there’s no substance to it! When Spock died, it hurt, and the scene became one of the most iconic scenes in movie history. When Data died, everyone was all, “Whatever,” and I doubt most casual fans even know he died, let alone how or why.

This is why the original series is so much more fondly remembered than even TNG, which kind of petered out in its film entries. TOS was defined not only by its plots and science fiction, but by its crew and their relationships. TNG was defined by its good plots and interesting characters, but not by their relationships. (As a side note, my favorite Trek series, DS9, was also defined largely by its relationships between characters, though the show itself wasn’t as accessible as TNG or TOS and never quite broke into the mainstream consciousness.) Even in the 2009 Star Trek film (the film that some Trekkies refer to as the New Coke Star Trek), the main part of the plot that doesn’t have to do with insane Romulans is the relationship between Kirk and Spock, and how old Spock knows that the two will never achieve nearly the same level of greatness without each other as they would together. The writers of that film knew that the real heart of the series was found right there, and even if you stripped away almost all of the other trappings of the Star Trek franchise, that core would still resonate.

There you go, Johnathan. Can I keep your money now?


The Undiscovered Country

(Note: while this post is called “The Undiscovered Country” and is inspired somewhat by the Star Trek movie of the same name, it is not a review or even really a discussion of said movie. You can either stop reading now or breathe a sigh of relief and continue on, based on your reason for being here.)

Recently I watched an online review of Star Trek VI (yeah, I know I said this wasn’t going to be about Star Trek, but I have to start somewhere) done by Internet reviewer Chuck Sonnenberg, also known as SFDebris. His reviews of both Star Trek and other sci-fi franchises, such as Babylon 5, Farscape, Doctor Who, and even Red Dwarf are excellent and highly recommended. Anyway, he discusses the title “The Undiscovered Country” and what that means in the context of the film. The title originates from the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, where Hamlet is discussing whether he should kill himself or not, but decides against it because whatever awaits after death might be worse. To quote that specific part:

The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

In the film, which is basically a big “end of the Cold War” allegory, Chancellor Gorkon (pictured above), who is a transparent Gorbachev stand-in, comments on this speech, but uses it to refer to the future, rather than death. This explains a lot about the other events of the movie: how perfectly rational people on both sides ended up working together to preserve the war; that is, working together for a chance to work against each other. Not only that, it explains why otherwise moral people (such as the Vulcan Valeris) were willing to go to extremes by assassinating several people, getting Kirk and Bones arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment on an ice planet, and other heinous acts. They would rather live with the reality they were used to, however flawed, than face something new and entirely unknown (in this case, a galaxy where the Federation and Klingons were at peace). This completed the Cold War allegory and the uncertainty of the early 90’s after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed. Heck, there were even comedies made on the subject, such as Bill Murray’s The Man Who Knew Too Little, which featured some Brits and Russians working together to try to restart the Cold War to restore their lives to something they were used to.

But let me go back a bit and repeat a line I said: They would rather live with the reality they were used to, however flawed, than face something new and entirely unknown. One more time: They would rather live with the reality they were used to, however flawed, than face something new and entirely unknown.

Using the allegory that an unknown future was as frightening as what lies beyond death (you know, without a religious context) gave me a whole new perspective on several issues I’ve been struggling with, both recent and long-term. As pretty much anyone who reads this blog would know, I am single. Extremely single. And it’s been getting worse, if that’s even a possibility. I’ve been living at home, where I’m lucky if I have a conversation with my parents once a week. I’m fairly isolated in my ward, where most people don’t even know who I am beyond “the redheaded guy I don’t talk to.” And now I’ve been working a job at the Little America hotel doing audio/visual work. This basically means setting up and taking down microphones, lights, projection screens, etc. whenever groups come in to use the hotel’s conference rooms. It’s a solitary job, especially since my only A/V co-worker works a schedule opposite mine, and even in the hour we overlap he doesn’t talk much. About the only friend I have left who lives within a 40-mile radius and hasn’t passed through the social wall of being married is Josh Reese, and while I do hang out with him on occasion (probably about once a month or so), it isn’t exactly socially stimulating, considering what kind of person he is. Other than that, the only social things I do mostly revolve around Annelise and her family, and even then we’re usually talking shop about murder mystery stuff.

In other words, I’m not just single in the married or dating sense. I’m single in a social sense. I’m single in an emotional connection sense. For the vast majority of my time, I’m single in a physical sense (i.e. not in the presence of other people, or at least interacting with them other than a nod as we pass in the hallway). If it wasn’t for this job, I could go for nearly a week at a time without seeing another soul (which did happen several times before I got hired back in June). There may be others in my type of situation, but even so they’re all isolated from each other by nature.

I stand alone.

It’s a sad story, you may be thinking, but what has that got to do with the Hamlet thing? Or you may be thinking, “Well then, go out and make some friends! Nobody’s forcing you to stay by yourself!” I suppose that’s true, though I could justify it by saying that I don’t have the opportunities due to my schedule, or that my ward keeps scheduling activities I have no interest in, or living in my parents’ basement hardly provides opportunities for me to meet people my own age. However, I think that, while these may be obstacles, the root cause runs much deeper.

A couple of weeks ago in a sacrament meeting I did try to jump-start my social life. I sat next to a girl with whom I’d had a short, small-talk conversation the previous week. However, the entire time I was extremely uncomfortable and when the meeting was over I politely excused myself and left (the room, not the church). She didn’t do anything wrong or particularly cold but putting myself in those kind of situations activates a “fight or flight” response in me for some reason. (It also didn’t help that she was nearly a decade younger than me, but I think her being closer to my age wouldn’t have made a big difference.) Why the fear? I’m obviously not happy with my life. Getting to know people leads toward a potentially brighter future, one with marriage, kids, or at least something to do on Friday nights other than play Heroes of Might and Magic III by myself or watch Internet reviews of Star Trek again. What kind of future would be in store? A world of possibilities! An “undiscovered country,” if you will! Ah, you may now see where I’m going with this.

The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of

Fear of an uncertain future is such a driving force that it drove otherwise rational people to kill in order to preserve the status quo (in the movie, anyway). I have no idea what dating will do to my life. I’ve never had a successful relationship before, and even the unsuccessful ones I’ve had either never got off the ground or didn’t last longer than a month. And that’s only been with two girls ever, one of which got into the relationship because of a “what the hell, I’ll give it a shot” attitude. How do I conduct myself? What’s the difference between the way you treat a girlfriend and the way you treat, say, a sister (besides the obvious physical things, I mean)? Will I still be able to play Heroes? Will that even matter? Where’s the line when it comes to how much of my own life, habits, and customs will I need to change to keep a woman? Do I even need emotional support? I’ve gone a long time without it, and I’m still alive, right? Wouldn’t it be better off for the ladies in the world to end up with someone who doesn’t have these issues? There are probably about a thousand questions I haven’t even thought of on this topic! This puzzles my will! I’d rather bear those ills I have than fly to these others I know not of! At least I know how to set up a 16-channel mixer with several lavalier and handheld Shure mics, along with an SM-58 or two for the lectern, combine them through a Kramer VGA switcher to output on three separate screens, while hanging some parnells to provide a nice podium wash, etc. etc.! Or failing that, write a rock song about cooking! I have no idea how to sit next to a girl in church without it becoming so awkward that I consider fleeing after the sacrament has been passed and spending the rest of the hour in the bathroom! It seems my native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought!

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.

Fear of the future can drive some to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do. It also can paralyze those who should do something. I could go on more dates. I could talk to more people. Heck, even Josh goes on more dates than I do. Looking back on my life, it seems every time I’ve been successful socially it has been due to others taking an interest in doing it for me (usually relatives, or Steve Porter). And when that person leaves my life, or at least leaves my daily life, then all the sociality seems to disappear as well. Back at BYU I used to host a game night every week, and we had quite a nice bunch of people show up every week, at least until Steve got engaged. Then it dropped to the five guys who were just into gaming. I moved to a different apartment and set it up again, and once again we had a pretty good turnout until two of my roommates got engaged, at which point it dropped off. But the main reason I held game nights was because that was where I was comfortable socially!! I don’t know how to approach girls at a dance, or at some social dinner, or whatever. But when I’ve got a set of Bang! cards or whatever in front of me I know exactly what my job is. I’m playing this game. I’m making sure everyone else knows how to play. I’m making sure that everyone gets a fair chance to play. I’m trying to make sure everyone’s enjoying themselves. I honestly don’t really care if I win or lose, as long as everyone played fairly. (This behavior, by the way, is somehow wrong? I guess? A lot of people seem to resent it, though for the life of me I can’t figure out why. When playing with family, I’ve noticed Mickey is just as much of a stickler for rules yet seems to catch a lot less flak for it. Maybe I’m just an ass.) My point is there are very few situations in which I am socially comfortable, and they are often ones in which others do not thrive socially. So it’s obvious that I need to step out of my comfort zone in order to progress in life, especially socially. And it’s obvious I’ve got to do it, because there’s nobody left to do it for me, and no girl is going to suddenly call up and ask me out.

I believe I am capable of learning. I believe that if I put my mind to it, I could learn to like dancing, or basketball, or small talk, or whatever, if it served the greater good of meeting people, social support, and dating. But it frightens me. What kind of person would I turn into? Would I be recognizable as me? Would I be betraying everything that currently makes up who I am? Does that really matter? How can one really betray one’s past self, anyway? He’s not going to know. Continuing as I have been has been producing diminishing returns, to the point where, as I said before, I stand alone. But being alone is an ill I know how to bear. Thus conscience makes a coward of me, and I sit alone in the back of the chapel, or at home on weekends.

Marriage, dating, life: all enterprises of great pith and moment. But paralyzed by the fear of the future: with that regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action. Thus this weekend I will be playing computer games.