Late one night, years ago, too sick with worry about my family to sleep, I turned on PBS, thinking, “Maybe there’s some Monte Python or something to lift my spirits.” But what fate handed me instead was historical Allied footage of GI’s discovering and opening Nazi concentration camps.
One thing that has stuck with me ever since is the outraged GI’s marching the townspeople of Dachau through the typhoid-infested hellhole outside their town, forcing them to confront the open pits of dead bodies, the stick-thin survivors.
The townspeople weren’t even aware! In fact, they had been donating food and clothing for the prisoners, supplies diverted by the camp staff to the Nazi cause.
Fast forward to today.
Recently, I subscribed to PushBlack on Messenger. Often the headlines are a horror to read, difficult to stomach. The events they introduce are stunningly evil.
And here you and I are, like the townsfolk of Dachau, ignorant of what’s happening. Thinking we’re helping by not being bigoted ourselves, or by donating to causes here and there.
“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”
Maybe other people go through life without regularly reexamining their own actions, striving to improve. I don’t know. What I do know is I can’t help but look back in order to look forward.
And looking back, I’m starting to realize that a central theme of my life since childhood has been shame. Specifically shame from failure.
One instance of a shame that has haunted me in adulthood is having walked away from an uncompleted Master’s Degree. To understand the significance, you need to know how close I came to completion. (No humblebrag, just fact.) I’d finished every needed course—two solid years of study—with an A grade in all but one, a B. (My graduate entry GREs had been a perfect 800 in both the language and logic sections, a 760 in the math.)
All that was left was the formality of a final, comprehensive exam. And for the first time in my overachiever’s life, I partied through the night before, unable to study. Then walked into the test, filled in two sections, thought “There’s no way I’m making somebody read this bullshit,” and walked out, half finished, never to return.
Jennifer had labored hella hard to keep a roof over our head through those years, and we’d gone far into debt with student loans, but for some goddam reason, I just couldn’t step through that final door. I rationalized it with the truth that I was already working full-time for a game publisher, more than 40 hours a week, with a family of 4 children also needing attention. But even then I knew it was clearly a rationalization.
Nowadays I recognize it as an unconscious walking away from a trap. Getting that Master’s would have led further into a career in academia; there was no way this guy here could have done otherwise: Pursue a PhD, then the pursuit of increasingly rare tenure somewhere, to spend my life writing post-Transcendental Derridian Subjectivist critique of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus or some such. No disrespect meant for PhD’s, but my soul would have withered.
That “walk away” doesn’t feel like rationalization. It feels like an unconscious pattern of turning away from traps, to instead achieve something joyful.
I had walked away from a great factory job after eight years, by not waiting out a layoff. Because it was clear I’d never otherwise have the courage to leave, to risk entering college as an undergrad at 30. My dad argued that I should return to get in 10 years for a vested pension, and rightly that I could take courses at night. But I’d have never escaped, and nowadays that factory is gone, its pension program ravaged.
I had walked away from GDW, as much as I loved the company and companionship, and as much as my star was rising there, to take a job at TSR. And not long after, GDW was no more.
I had walked away from TSR shortly before its collapse—and please hear me out. For most of my colleagues that change was nothing but a blessing, folding them into WotC, which treated them like royalty, honoring their years of TSR service with WotC stock options, though that new employer had no legal obligation to do so.
For me and mine the move would have been destruction. It’s no exaggeration to say that some members were still traumatized by the previous transit from Illinois to Wisconsin. I couldn’t uproot them again without destroying the family.
There are other walkaways I could list here since, but you get the point.
Ultimately it has all led to this place. A history of paths taken and things achieved, because other paths were abandoned. And at last maybe I grasp that “abandon” needn’t be a synonym for “shame.” To paraphrase Stephen Fry, it needn’t necessarily bedevil me. It may have fed my better angels, if people who judge me less harshly than myself are to be believed.
As a youth, watching this animation of “Night on Bald Mountain,” followed by “Ave Maria,” in the first Fantasia, is when I first realized that humans can easily conceive of hell, but not heaven.
Reading Inferno, followed by Purgaturio, and trying to wade through the blandness of Paradiso, clinched that thought.
William Blake’s words, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it,” is another way of stating the same.
(Blake illustrated Paradise Lost more often than any other artist, and was a renowned poet in his own right. Remember, “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright”?)
I’m convinced that we can more easily conceive of hell than of heaven because savagery is where we came from, “nature red in tooth and claw.” Heaven is a noble ideal we strive to achieve. But we’re having to invent it ourselves.
This is why I so often find myself disappointed with a priesthood that presents heaven as an established fact, with an established entryway. They’ve set up shop at a level spot and claim it’s the summit.
And why I so despise the Capitalist truism, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” Preying upon one another is a betrayal to the beauty and nobility we strive for, of which our race is so capable.
And the humor—like the joke in this graphic—which I’ve almost obscured with this little essay. 🙂
You may be aware of my love for Nathan Rockwood’s GameMaster’s Apprentice deck for GM-less role-play. Of all the oracle systems I’ve used, GMA is my hands-down favorite, with Cut-Up Solo an unusual second.
You can see in the image here all the information available on each randomly drawn GMA card, which makes it “one-stop shopping” for storytelling details.
Unrelatedly, my old college buddy Tim Ryan and I have been playing a cyberpunk role-playing campaign for nearly a year now, using the GMA core deck as game master, and my Bookmark HP RPG as the game rules. So when I discovered that Nathan was Kickstarting a brand-new themed GMA deck, for cyberpunk, I just had to back it!
Serendipitously, I’d already begun working on a Bookmark Cyberpunk Sourcebookmark. So I asked Nathan about including that as an add-on to his Kickstarter, and he agreed, enthusiastically.
Check it out. There’s also an add-on bundle available of the Bookmark HP RPG card, the Player’s Handbookmark, and the Game Host’s Guidebookmark. (D&D fans should appreciate the nostalgic nod of those titles.)
Footnote: When I designed the D6xD6 RPG back in 2014, though I’d included rules for character growth through experience, I sort of assumed that wouldn’t hold up to long-term play, just mini campaigns of a half dozen sessions or so. But as an experiment a couple of years ago, I decided to see how far it could go, and after a two-year campaign, the experience system was still working smoothly!
Still, surely the tiny BNHP experience rules couldn’t support a campaign, right? But I figured that, silly as the idea sounded, it couldn’t hurt to give it a try. And as noted, a year into a cyberpunk campaign, character growth is still working! One more reason to be proud of this little RPG, designed on a whim one weekend, as an experiment in HP/XP-less role-play.