The Antisocial Network – Chapter Two

Eric jumped half out of his seat and fumbled his audition listings onto the floor. A bemused looking Indian girl, or perhaps a young woman, watched him scramble to pick them up and compose himself. “Hi. I didn’t see you there.”

“I figured.” She closed a very thick textbook and set it by the backpack in the seat beside her. “I didn’t mean to pry, you just looked like a person who wished he’d stayed in bed today.”

Eric’s mind jumped back to his dream – if it was really a dream – of the night before. “No, not really to be honest. It just feels like Monday, you know.”

“Except it’s Thursday.”

“Monday is a state of mind.” Eric tucked the listings into one of his coat pockets and gave the woman a closer look.
And it was clear pretty quickly that he was talking to a woman. He’d only mistaken her for a girl because of her stature, or lack thereof. She couldn’t have been more than five foot two and had her hair pulled back in a conservative ponytail, which added to the impression of youth, but between the textbook, which was thicker than some volumes of an encyclopedia, and her smartly cut blouse Eric figured she was probably a college student of some kind. Her skin was the shade of polished cherry wood and she had the slight accent of someone who had immigrated from the Indian subcontinent, rather than been born in the States.

And thankfully she wasn’t accompanied by a looming, faceless shadow that no one else seemed to see.
She also had a warm, mischievous smile. “You must be quite hard on yourself, to think like it’s Monday even when it isn’t.”

Eric settled for a noncommittal shrug while he rallied his thoughts. Time for a quick subject change. Flexing his brilliant thespian improv skills he came up with, “What are you studying?”

“Neuropsychology,” she answered immediately.

“Does that mean you want to be a therapist or a surgeon?” Eric asked, wondering exactly how old she was but not foolish enough to ask.

Her smile stayed just as friendly but picked up a hint of longsuffering patience. People not understanding her field of study was probably a common thing. “A little of both, but closer to the latter with a fair bit of research thrown in, at least where I’m studying.”

“I didn’t know the U of C had a program like that.”

A moment of uncertainty, then she held out a hand and said, “Rachada Kalluri. And you’re Eric Han.”

“Wow. Does neuropsychology make you psychic?” Eric gave her hand a quick shake and a practiced winsome smile. To his surprise Rachada sat up quickly looking a little surprised. It felt like they’d gotten their cues mixed up somehow. Surprise should have been his thing. “Maybe we’ve met before, and I’ve just forgotten your name?”

“No magic trick to it,” she said, quickly relaxing again. “I saw your name on the mailing you dropped. What was it?”

Eric pulled the booklet out of his pocket again and looked at it. Then immediately felt stupid because it had been mailed to him, of course it had his name on it. He held it up for Rachada to see. “Audition listings.”

Now it was her turn to be surprised. “You’re an actor?”

Eric smiled ruefully. “Trying to be. Mostly, I tend bar. My parents would probably be happier if I was studying for a doctoral degree of some kind.”

She gave a quirk of the eyebrow and asked, “First generation immigrants?”

“On my dad’s side. He spent his whole life making things work here. Now he just…” He shrugged and trailed off.

“He wants to know that you’ll make it too.”

Eric nodded, suddenly uncomfortable. Rachada’s schooling must make her very good at relaxing people, the conversation had turned very personal very fast. He was saved from saying anything more when Rachada suddenly perked up like she heard something and dug around in her backpack. She eventually pulled out a pocket pager and looked at it for a moment before putting it away.

“Something important?” Eric asked.

“Probably not,” Rachada said, tucking her textbook back into the backpack. “Just the doctor advising my thesis. But I should probably get off and call at the next stop, just to be sure.”

“So what about you?”

She looked up from her backpack. “I’m sorry?”

“Did you always want to be a neuropsychologist?”

Rachada leaned back in her seat, pulling the backpack along into her lap. “I think I always wanted to be a therapist, even before I knew what that really was. But as I grew up I figured out sometimes therapy wasn’t enough to help people and one thing led to another. Before I knew it I was reading research journals and looking at grad schools.”
Eric idly wondered if there was anything you could do, therapy or otherwise, for people who saw specters on the subway. He suspected there was. He also suspected he might not like whatever that treatment was. Before he could try to think of an uncontrived way to ask Rachada if she had any thoughts on the subject the subway announced the next station coming up.

Rachada got up and gave Eric a parting smile. “Good luck with your auditions.”

“Thanks. Good luck with your thesis. I think you’ll need it more.” Eric watched her go, then took a deep breath and looked both ways in the car. No one seemed interested in coming over his way and there were only two stops left until he could get off. Apparently he was far enough from other people not to pick up weird voices from them although he could see the surreal faceless people clustered around the regular commuters towards the center of the car.

While they were still creepy none of them seemed to be paying any actual attention to him like the top hat man from his dream (vision?) that morning. Eric wondered if they would respond if he talked to them but quickly decided he didn’t want to find out. For that matter, he’d noticed that they tended to be paired, one ghostly faceless presence per actual physical person. There was one guy down at the far end of the car who looked like he had three of them clustered in quiet conversation just over his head, but that was the exception.

For a moment Eric wondered if there was one following him around. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be a good way to check until he got off the train. He hadn’t thought he could get more uncomfortable but the thought of one of those things following him around somewhere he couldn’t see it did the trick. He did his best to shrink down into his seat and avoid attention until his stop came up.

As he made his way off the train Eric did his best to look all around him and even went out of his way to pass a bank of vending machines so he could use the reflection in the glass to see behind him without turning around. Nothing. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

Then again, he wasn’t sure what he would have done if there was a faceless hallucination following him around.
The train had made its way underground and Eric was dreading the trek back up to the surface. To his surprise he didn’t really hear any weird whispering from any of the people on the escalator and none of them seemed to be accompanied by the ghostlike visions he’d been seeing earlier. He got up to ground level and stepped out onto the sidewalk with a little trepidation but, to his surprise, the situation there was much the same.

He started towards the theater with a bit of a spring in his step. Maybe if he could make it to the theater and through his audition without any further problems he’d be in a better state of mind to worry about faceless ghost people. Eric decided to put that on the back burner for the moment and try and focus on his currently uninspiring acting career. It was halfway to being the right decision.

The faceless ghost people didn’t cause him any more trouble that morning. The two men with chloroform turned out to be a much bigger problem.

The Antisocial Network – Chapter One

Eric Han was not, as a rule, terrified by people dressed in full tuxedos and top hats. Even if the stove pipe hat did have a pressure gauge attached to one side and the lid was half detached and leaking steam out of the top in a steady, ominous cloud. But when he was strapped down to a table and the guy in the tux had no face? Then his hindbrain decided it was time to start getting nervous.

Paradoxically it was when Eric realized he couldn’t scream, speak or even whisper that he started calming down. Weird things like this could only show up in dreams, right?

The faceless man stopped fiddling with the weird brass circlet it was holding and shifted its attention to Eric. “No, you’re not having a nightmare. And yes, I’m reading your mind. Please try to hold still.”

And the panic was back. Eric jerked hard at his restraints but he was in the typical cackling mad scientist rig – straps at the wrists, ankles, chest, waist, knees, ankles and head. And he still couldn’t scream, although there wasn’t a gag of any kind in play.

Holding still proved to be all Eric could do as the faceless man lowered the circlet it was holding over his head. There was a soft clicking noise, followed by a sound something like dragging a shovel over wet concrete that seemed to echo in Eric’s ears. The faceless man’s hat let off an extra large puff of steam and there was a louder snick. Then it turned away from Eric holding a strange bundle of black fur that was sticking up in every direction. Not until a drop of bright red blood fell from the hair did he realize he was looking at the top of his head.

“This is going to be a little uncomfortable,” faceless said, oblivious to Eric’s discomfort. “But rest assured, it’s all in your head.”

Whether it was the horrible pun or the sight of faceless picking up a weird, spiderlike contraption made of gears and wires, Eric finally hit his limit and woke up screaming.

——–

Nightmares before auditions were something Eric was used to, although torture tables and faceless Abraham Lincoln wannabes were both new images in his dreams. As a rule he didn’t think of it as performance anxiety so much as an overactive subconscious trying to process possible outcomes. Which usually meant variations on being told “You didn’t get the part” in some weird and embarrassing way rather than cranium removal.

As an actor digging into how a person’s thoughts might express themselves was usually something Eric put a lot of thought into. But since his fever dreams often caused him to wake up late, like his encounter with the magnificent steampowered hat and it’s faceless wearer had, such things usually waited until later. There really wasn’t time for anything beyond a quick shower and breakfast before he had to bolt out the door and head for the L.

A theater keeps its own schedule and auditions were generally in the late morning or early afternoon, at least for professional roles, and that meant Eric didn’t have to fight the crowds of people heading into the office that morning. Instead he half jogged down mostly empty sidewalks, his breath barely visible in the brisk fall air, the sun shining brightly in the pale blue sky. The world was peaceful and idyllic and Eric was happy for the quiet after his stressful awakening. It wasn’t until he started ascending the steps to the train station that he noticed the change.

Not that Eric recognized it as such at first. Public transportation is a noisy business anywhere and the Chicago Transit Authority was no exception. There was nothing unusual at all about hearing people talking before you started up the steps to board the L. Eric was from a relatively small town, sure, but after two years in the Windy City he had learned to ignore noise on or around the train and, like most native Chi Town residents, he brought something to keep him busy while he rode the rails.

For this particular trip that meant the AEA’s latest round of casting call notices. It was true that he was on his way to audition for a show already – but The Cherry Orchard was a period piece set in Russia at the beginning of the century. For all that forward thinking directors and union reps insisted the theater was becoming more open and accepting of actors regardless of ethnicity it was hard for a man of Asian descent to find rolls in period pieces. Eric didn’t hold it against anyone, he understood the desire to produce a show that matched the author’s original vision, but breaking into professional theater was hard for anyone. The added layer of difficulty made the task all the more daunting.

Eric’s instinctive response was to do double, sometimes triple the legwork and put in five times the effort, instincts that came equally from the Chinese and Jewish sides of his family, but so far that hadn’t brought him much in the way of results. So he spent most of the time waiting for the train to arrive looking through audition listings and trying to ignore the constant murmur of other waiting people. The train would be quieter, or at least have more white noise to drown out specific conversations.

A few minutes later Eric climbed onto his train and grabbed a seat near the back of the car. The place was about half full, typical for that time of day, and Eric had been riding with CTA enough not to pay much attention to who was in the car with him anymore so he didn’t take note of any of them. At least, not until they started talking.

CTA was not really a friendly place. Some people traveled with friends, sure, but that wasn’t very common. Most people carried books, magazines or the newspaper with them. If reading wasn’t their thing then some would have a Walkman or Discman and maybe even sing quietly along. Every once in a blue moon Eric spotted a well dressed businessman talking on a bulky black cell phone but they tended to wrap up their calls quickly, since extensive parts of the rail line ran underground where they wouldn’t get a signal.

But as he glanced up from his listings Eric couldn’t see any of those things. Instead, for just a moment he thought he saw a gaggle of washed out, oddly dressed, faceless people standing in the aisle, sitting on the seats and, in one particularly unsettling case, standing with a grab bar running right through its chest. Eric blinked once and shook his head. The weird images vanished but he was sure he could still hear people murmuring in the background.

More than a little unsettled, Eric slowly looked slowly around the train car in hope of spotting the source of the murmuring but all he managed to get was a bunch of weird or hostile looks from people in the car who were probably wondering if he was going to start something. None of them looked like they had just been talking to anyone else, or even themselves. Eric gave himself another hard shake and got up, walked all the way to the back of the car and let himself out.

The vaguely heard whispers faded into the distance as he moved from one car to the next and the palpable feeling of people staring at him vanished entirely. The next car wasn’t any emptier than the last one but people deliberately ignored him as he stepped through. Half the time when someone moved from one car to the next it was because they were panhandling and had finished working the last car.

People weren’t paying Eric any attention but he couldn’t bring himself to ignore them. As he passed an older woman he caught slightly louder whispers and a strong feeling of loneliness.

Then he went past a man and woman, sitting as far from each other as their short bench would allow, looking in opposite directions. The air around them was filled with a whispering argument about rent, food choices and a dozen other past grievances. Eric hurried past.

Everyone he passed in the car seemed to be carrying on a whispered monologue of some sort and he was terrified of looking at them since he had no desire to be find more faceless figures slinking about. He kept his head low and hurried down to the end of the car were things were mercifully quite. There he grabbed an empty seat and hoped that they would get to his stop quick.

Eric had just started thinking about going back to his audition listings when a feminine voice to his left asked, “Rough morning?”

Genrely Speaking: The Western

Wow. We haven’t done this in a while. I know I promised you all more fiction at some point and trust me, I ‘m working on it, but these bits tend to be fairly popular too and I wanted to come back to genres once before turning back to fiction. So let’s take a look at a genre that I am personally not very invested in, but is still a major part of American literature.

While Westerns immediately conjure up images of the cowboy, the genre’s most common protagonist, there’s actually a lot of other figures that could populate a tale in the Old West. And it’s even possible to create a story with the Western feel without having to actually go to the historic time and place of the Western United States, circa 1870-1890. What you really need are the following:

  1. The feeling of openness. This, of course, comes mostly from the landscape. The Western plains are flat and featureless, giving the sensation of infinite possibility just across the horizon. Add in the very small number of people living there and that sensation only intensifies. It’s one of the reasons we see “space westerns” crop up from time to time in the form of shows like Firefly and the original form of Star Trek, to say nothing of anime series Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop and Trigun – outer space is the ultimate unlimited space. But this sense of openness extends to characters as well. The cowboy is the cliché of the Western, but many other characters populate these stories without anyone giving them a second glance. Robbers, prostitutes, miners, railway men and private investors all swarmed through the West and people never batted an eye. Watch El Dorado with John Wayne some time to get a feel for the many faces that can appear in a Western with nary a blink of an eye. From tough girl Joey McDonald (Michele Carey) who actually shoots Cole Thorton (John Wayne) to Mississippi (James Caan) who’s to green to even shoot, there’s a wealth of strong characters that avoid or earn most cliches nicely and who never earn a strange look from anyone else.
  2. The importance of independence. Characters in Westerns are at their most noble when they make their own decisions. Even El Dorado’s Nelson McLeod (Christopher George) is shown as something of a noble character simply because he decides who to work for and does it with all the considerable skill he possesses. The fact that he’s working for something of a villain doesn’t bother Thorton – those are just the kinds of decisions a person has to make. And a few months beforehand, Cole had been thinking about working for the same villain, so he understands the other side of the story. The important factor is that the characters are their own selves, and seek to remain so in spite of circumstances.
  3. The necessity of consequences. With all this independence running around and all these options to choose from there’s got to be another shoe dropping and it’s called consequences. People think of Westerns as all white hat/black hat in part because it shows people making decisions and then quickly facing the consequences of them. Joey McDonald shot Cole Thorton and, as a result, when the McDonald family needed Cole’s help he wasn’t able to help as much as he’d like because of the lingering consequences of his wound. Nelson McLeod worked for a villain and he wound up getting killed. But it’s important to note that Westerns try not to say whether the consequences came about because a decision was good or evil. Westerns are (typically) stories set right after the Civil War after all. Many people who went West had just fought a terrible war and, while they still felt there were things that were right and things that were wrong, they were much less willing to say for sure what those things were. The war had opened their eyes in many ways. The Western simply sees the facts of life – you make a decision and then the consequences come for you, for better or for worse. Even the vast open plains will only let you run from that for so long.

What are the weaknesses of the Western? Westerns are stories from a comparatively simple time. Frontier living was much more straightforward than life today and this is part of where the Western’s simply accept and deal attitude towards consequences comes from. But it can make these stories harder for a modern audience to accept.

Particularly because consequences in the Old West were doled out by whoever had the most raw power at any given moment, very different from the lives most people today live.

What are the strengths of the Western? Westerns are American myth, and thus have much of the appeal of all the great mythological traditions. Larger than life characters, chances for teachable moments and plenty of memorable moments to use as touchstones.

Westerns aren’t exactly “in favor” at the moment. They speak to a time gone by in imagery that is very steeped in that era. The age of the Old West isn’t far enough gone to be classic but not so near as to seem nostalgic or even relevant. But given time this genre will no doubt come back into some of its own and continue to do good work in the landscape of American storytelling.

 

In Defense of Critical Thought for Pop Culture

This post comes about as an outgrowth of a recent discussion I had about the state of American poetry. Now those of you who read a particular recent post of mine know I don’t really read poetry in literary magazines much. Well while I was talking to a friend about American poetry I pointed out that I didn’t really think what you found in literary magazines really represented American poetry.

The heart and soul of American poetry is in our music industry. Be it country music, rap or generic “pop” music, the rhythm and rhyme of song and dance form the meter of our nation’s most important poetic expressions.

Now why should that be? Aren’t music labels focused on driving the bottom line? Bent on creating albums that will appeal to the consumer and do nothing for the human condition? Maybe. But maybe, just maybe, there’s more at work in this equation than you might think.

Make no mistake – all great cultural touchstones were originally parts of popular culture. Homer was blind – it’s unlikely he wrote down his great works himself. We don’t know much about his life but it’s commonly believed he traveled about as a minstrel and sharing his stories to make a living before he was “noticed” and his stories recorded. Shakespeare’s plays were considered lowbrow and his writing not up to the standards of university educated playwrights of his time. Jane Austen wrote brilliant novels filled with characters who are timeless and loveable. She also saw things about human nature that the greatest scholars still miss in their sweeping treatises. She was taught by her parents, reading books and basic socialization, there is nothing scholarly about her novels.

Yet these people are fairly representative of their eras of great Western culture.

There were no gatekeepers these people had to go past. No journals promoting them, no scholars encouraging them (the opposite was true in at least Shakespeare’s case) and no intent on their part to create timeless works. They just tried to share something with an audience in the best way they knew how and they did it so well they set a benchmark in some way, shape or form. When they set that benchmark people took note and their work began to spread.

This brings me to the real point of this essay. In the world of pop culture critics it’s not uncommon to hear people apologizing for scrutinizing TV, movies, pop music or comic books. It’s as if there’s no reason to sift through all these new media outlets that are catering to the populace at large rather than the particular psychosis of academia. Surely the only ones deserving of critical analysis are the artistes, the literary masters, the great poets. I would like to propose to this group of pop culture critics – of which I am a very minor and unimportant member – that it’s time to stop with that attitude.

The definitive voices of days past were working in popular culture, gaining recognition and praise precisely because vast swaths of people could get to their work and appreciate the deep and timeless truths masterfully presented in ways they could clearly understand. The proliferation of mediums and technology have made tracking with culture both easier and harder. We have more information at our fingertips but at the same time anyone can create quality content very cheaply and there’s more people doing it than ever before. The need for people to sift culture with a critical eye and find the things that are truly timeless and truly accessible is greater than it’s ever been. Pop culture critics have an important role to play in that.

There’s also a need for people who will stand up and say that our movies, music, novels, comics, TV and YouTubers could be doing better. Saying that there is room for improvement and suggesting how it might come about, not because of esoteric theories but because of human nature and the need to understand, will elevate the culture and bring us closer to the next great touchstone in culture.

So the next time you take a hard look at a movie or song that you really enjoyed and want to talk about it with your friends, don’t apologize. Own it. Think long and hard about pop culture, try to create some yourself and share the lessons with others. That’s the only way culture can go from a brief pop to a timeless classic.