Puppets and Their Masters

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8-9
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I closed the window and rubbed my eyes a bit. As i opened them, my glance fell on the single word that was streaming across the screen of my computer: ELECT.

About a week ago I had lunch with a new friend, and what began as the usual discussion over petty things with which we define ourselves evolved into a conversation about core beliefs and principles. We eventually debated free will and predestination, and as each spoke in turn I finally had the “aha” moment and said “oh, i don’t believe in the total depravity of man.” That was it–we both realized precisely why we were coming close to one another’s arguments and then missing the point.

I then asked her: What makes you think we’re fully depraved? She may as well have countered: What makes you think otherwise?

A great number of admittedly petty responses arise. I suppose the real answer is that I never considered it one way or the other, why I believe in free will, why I believe that man’s nature is generally good but tainted. I expect others to logically defend their beliefs and yet here, it seems, was an area that I had never actually thought through nearly as well as I expected. I took for granted that my church and the majority of elders in my life had it right–who among us is not tempted to do likewise?–and I took their belief as my own. This goes beyond the question of whether my entire Christianity is a product of my elders–I have definitely come to the conclusion of Christianity’s validity as a personal conviction. But the question is, was that REALLY my choice?

Once the questions began, the answers needed to be found, and quite frankly I have become bewildered by the lack thereof. It seems to me that some of the chief divisive factors between, say, Calvinists and Arminians, have been established on the basis of sheer semantics, on the interpretation of single verses. And here I come along, a member of the Assemblies of God church, and I don’t have a clue what my own church has to say except, perhaps, that we tend to make fun of Calvinism in a lighthearted way.

So after considering it, I figure I need to delineate the beliefs I have coming into this, because otherwise if they change I won’t be able to trace the changes and figure out which beliefs were logically grounded and which ones just sort of happened. To that end, I came into it assuming that generally speaking, I am a free-willed individual. Thus the good in my life is a product of my will just as much as the evil. My faith rests on my willingness to accept Christ’s gospel and allow him into my life. Likewise I may decide, whether purposefully or incidentally, to walk away from Christ (or, to continue the metaphor, to kick Christ out) and in doing may forfeit my faith. I therefore believe that it is possible for a once “true Christian” to lose his soul.

Okay, those are the assumptions. I look at a list of Calvinism’s five points and I understand that, for the most part, we are diametrically opposed. And so I begin to wonder why. The first question I have is whether our opposing views can be compatible. The second question (and the obvious question) is, clearly, if one of us is wrong and the other is right–which is it?

Our lunch discussion concentrated mainly on predestination versus free will. I say “mainly” because the truth is, you cannot isolate any of the five points of Calvinism; they are inextricable. Nevertheless, at least to start with, I will do my best to stick mainly with that debate.

The number one objection to a doctrine of “free will” is the incontrovertible fact of God’s sovereignty. We cannot interfere with God’s plans. There is nothing that a person can do that will have God scratching his proverbial head and saying “gee, didn’t see that coming.” Everything that happens happens because God allows it to happen. Likewise, since God knows all things, everything that happens happens with God’s full knowledge. Note: I do not say “foreknowledge.” That’s a particular peeve of mine because it erroneously places God’s knowledge within temporal boundaries. To say God knows something beforehand is to suggest that He must wait for it to happen. Yet God is not bound by human conception of time and therefore, just as he “is” (rather than was or will be), so he “knows.” It is wrong to say he knew or will know–he simply always knows.

The point, then, is that we cannot help but be predestined. And I don’t just mean in the “big things.” I mean in all things. Because even something as mundane as the sip of cream soda I just “decided to take” was, is, and always will be part of the story of my life. Save for the theory of alternative realities, my life has an eternal destiny that includes that sip of cream soda. There is no reality in which that quantity of liquid remains in the cup. Thus, though I may imagine myself as having “freely chosen” to take the sip, the fact is I can’t NOT have done so.

That’s all trivial, though. People like to focus on big things, such as the “decision,” whether it be God’s or man’s, of eternal fate. This debate tends to include the ever-popular indigenous heathen who lives a life entirely oblivious to Christianity and whether he goes to heaven or hell. The predestination fans argue, Biblically (of course) that all (wo)men will be held accountable for their actions to God. They then try to tiptoe around the truth by saying that “well, it’s beyond me, but since I consider God to be fair, there’s got to be some alternative way of judging people who don’t hear about Christ.” Except here Christ comes along in John 14:6 saying “no one comes to the Father except through me.” So unless Christ is lying, the native is proverbially screwed. So are a great deal of the people that lived “before current era” (which, by the way, is an expression that bothers me to no end, and if anyone out there can explain to me how the BCE/CE distinction isn’t an entirely arbitrary way of trying to ignore the importance of Jesus of Nazereth, please tell me).

Ironically, this rests well with just about no one. The native never had a chance in all of the decisions he made throughout his life to accept Christ–so he did not freely choose to be damned eternally. This would work out well for the predestinationist except, of course, that generally speaking she refuses to accept that God might actually “predestine” someone for Hell. That seems “unfair” or “unjust.”

The Bible nevertheless tells us that the only truly “fair” result of sin is punishment. That’s where the notion of being “elect” comes in (told you these things were inseparable): we all deserve Hell, but God chooses some of us not to go there. This decision, while seemingly arbitrary, is chalked up to that category labeled “things God does that we as humans were not created with a capacity to understand.” I’m still not sure it belongs in that category. Frankly, it seems unlikely that God would leave one of the most striking inconsistencies with his apparent justice in an area of such great ambiguity.

Scripture says God is just, and scripture is (at least as far as most people on either side of this particular debate are concerned) infallible. Justice, however, cannot exist in a system wherein two equally guilty people arbitrarily receive diametrically opposed responses for their crimes. Justice is further exacerbated if we accept that neither party had any legitimate control over their actions. It would seem, then, that free will is required for God’s justice in this matter to stand; only if both guilty parties had a chance to either refrain from their crime or else accept redemption can it be “fair” for one to be saved and the other not to.

And so everyone turns to Ephesians 2:8. The New International Version says “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.” See, says the free-will proponent. Right there. “Through faith! Not by works! Only by our decision to repent of our sins and accept Christ’s forgiveness can we hope to attain heaven.”

That argument works very well when countering, say, the (typically) Catholic emphasis on good deeds or the somehow-still-accepted sale of indulgences. It does not, however, actually answer the question we are currently posing. In fact, I find that it attempts to dodge the very obvious implications of the verse. Most of my life I have heard that verse in paraphrase and assumed that I was hearing it verbatim. Usually we omit that aside. You know, the one that clarifies God’s participation in the process of redemption.

Without that aside, we get simply “By grace you have been saved, through faith.” And that is a very troublesome passage indeed, because depending on interpretation it can be used to support both the free will and predestination sides simultaneously. Go figure:

Free will: Through my faith I have received grace and am thereby saved.
Predestination: By God’s grace I have the faith that saves me.

Now let’s consider the aside: “and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Gee, sounds an awful lot like the second one to me. And yet this verse is one of the greatest arguments for free will and its involvement in salvation.

This puts us all in a precarious situation. The Calvinist believes (and, perhaps rightly so, as was just illustrated) that salvation comes only through faith, which is itself only possible because God has graciously allowed some–the “elect”–to possess it. If God chooses an “elect,” he must also choose to leave people out. In layman’s terms, God picks some people to go to heaven, and the rest of them are chosen to go to Hell. This group must therefore include all those natives and BC dwellers that never stood a chance in the first place, as well as the (far more comfortably damned) people who have intentionally denied Christ.

I have been hard-pressed to find too many people willing to just say “yeah, sounds about right” to that assertion. While we are comfortable in condemning the wicked, we are less willing to, for lack of a better word, indict God for creating people to go to hell. While clinging to predestination, we squirm under its repercussions. Only if those people had a choice can it be fair to hold them accountable for their actions. And yet free will does not exist. So they had no choice. Which means God must be willing that they perish. Except scripture says just the opposite. It’s a vicious cycle.

Yes, it certainly does seem in-character for God to allow something seemingly bad to happen so as to highlight his goodness. Milton did a fairly good job of demonstrating that in Paradise Lost. Certainly it’s a lot better to be saved from evil than to simply have existed in a pleasant state the whole time. But then the question is, with our tendency to oversimplify, are we going too far by saying “God sends some people to eternal torment merely to make those who are saved from such a torment that much more grateful to him” ? That certainly seems tyrannical–unjust–downright evil, in fact.

Nevertheless some people do go to hell, and they do so without ever knowing of Christ. If God is the “First Cause” of all we know, then ultimately he, not ourselves, not those people, is to blame for the inevitable damnation. This causation problem also arises in the context of another point of Calvinism, the total depravity of man. My friend explained, rather straightforwardly, that all the evil we do is our own fault (and a product of the fall) and that all the good we do is thanks only to God’s grace. I asked her for the Biblical basis of that distinction. She didn’t really know what to say. I didn’t either.

But let’s assume that total depravity IS in fact the state we are in, as a resultant of the (allow some chronological snobbery for a moment) clearly poor decision on behalf of Adam and Eve to consume that which was on the “gloves off” list. From that moment on, all mankind basically sucks. I’ll overlook the inherent contradiction I found in one Calvinist website that suggested that this depravity does not preclude social good (apparently even when fully cut off from God, who is truth, mankind is still capable of truth) and accept that generally speaking, all of our good is incidentally God-inspired and carried out.

The thing is, if we are predestined, then neither Adam nor Eve had the capacity to do otherwise. If our sin is a result of their sin, and their sin is the result of having been predestined to sin, then our sin is a result of their predestination. And that’s where the whole “first cause” question comes in. Even if nothing else in the created order has sovereignty, we attribute it to God–which means that He willingly and intentionally set in motion the events that resulted in their, and therefore our sin. Thus, through a series of A implies B, we find that God is responsible for all of our bad too.

St. Augustine described sin as the absence of God (much in the same way that cold is merely a lack of heat). To that end, if we accept the above model, we must if nothing else applaud God’s ingenuity in having created an absence of himself. But heretical humor aside, the above model should strike us as inherently problematic. I am apt to reject it, just as I am apt to reject the notion that God haphazardly creates people for eternal torment and/or punishes people for actions they could not help but make.

I am therefore at a theological standstill and feel very much desirous of a clear way out. Free will clears up some of the issues, though it still doesn’t seem to help out the isolated native. Meanwhile, it seems to be an illusory contradiction of the inevitable ramifications of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God–we cannot possibly do or think or act in any way that God has not either directly or indirectly caused.

Free will and predestination, then, are like two parts of a roller coaster experience, wherein predestination is the track along which we cannot help but travel. Our free will, then, becomes much like centrifugal force: a sensation felt only within the system, but not actually existing. As you enter the loop, you swear you are being sucked down towards the center. Take off your seat belt, however, and if you’re moving fast enough you’ll find that you don’t fall out. Remove the track, however, and your cart is launched out into space. It is at this point that you realize two things. First, you weren’t really being pulled in. Second, no matter how much you believe in free will, it’s not going to save you when that cart finally hits the ground.

I was considering ending this essay right there, but then I realized it’s important to come full-circle, to finish the ride properly. With few exceptions, the roller coaster ends back where it started, and people safely get off. And let’s face it, even when you know that it’s the track keeping you alive, you can’t help but feel centrifugal force. Likewise, even if no free will exists at all, we cannot help but live as if it did. Winning this argument one way or the other won’t refute that. Even the staunchest of Calvinists will remind you that you can’t simply slack off because of predestination.

The key, however, is humility. Predestination is a slap in the face of human pride, which perhaps is a huge reason for the intensity of the debate over this issue in particular (that and the fact that, with Calvinism’s contingency, proving or disproving predestination basically proves or disproves the rest of it). When taken to their extremes, either assumption will lead us to “work our hardest” at “being good” — the free because they are responsible for their actions, the predestined as a way of saying thank you for the undeserved grace. Ultimately the former makes pride a much greater obstacle. We may forget that it is our faith and not our works that allows us any happiness at all, whereas the latter is a constant reminder of that fact.

And in the midst of an increasingly postmodern, individualistic culture, I can’t help but wonder whether emphasizing the personal involvement is merely a disgusting attempt to resist the true message of Christianity. I saw a human video today that depicted the spiritual struggle in a way I found somewhat unsettling at first. It showed four people sinning, controlled like puppets by Satan. One by one, these people were saved by Christ–and then they began to dance with Him. Like Him. They had become puppets controlled by Christ.

This left me with many questions. Is that a healthy or accurate way of viewing spiritual reality? Are Christians merely puppets for Christ? If so, is that a bad thing? Is Satan truly a free agent? Or is he too (and by extension, all that he controls) merely part of the great puppet show that God is orchestrating?

Feel free to let me know what you think. And yes, pun intended.

EDIT @ 6:15 p.m. 03/16: A comical anecdote. After publishing this, I was talking to a friend, to whom I explained, “I just spent the last two hours, give or take, writing about free will and predestination…voluntarily. Wait.”

I meant, of course, that this was not an assignment. Still, thought it was worth sharing. -AKB

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Dear Verizon

Several weeks ago, our contract expired, leaving me free to abandon your services. As I stepped towards the door, you shouted out (in typical Shatnerian style), “Wait! No! Come back!” and offered me a shiny new device. “New every two,” you called it–a reward for 24 months of fidelity. I stepped back toward the counter, interest piqued. “Alright, show me what you’ve got.”

Now, i’m not a pushover. New toys aren’t going to keep me in a hurtful relationship. Frankly i’m a bit insulted; i’m used to celebrating important relationships every year, not every other. Still, you’ve proven reliable in the past. You’re usually there when I need you to be. It’s just like in those commercials: no matter where i go, i get the creepy feeling that millions of people are following me. And so I’ve stayed with you.

“So, what kind of phone do you have right now?”

I’m not sure, so I slide the battery cover off (which is pretty easy, since after 2 years of abuse it’s more or less falling apart) and rip out the battery (which barely holds a charge these days) to reveal, somewhere between a string of barcodes, the “W385” you’re looking for. “I used to have a RAZR,” I explain, “but when it came time to upgrade I decided for something a little more solid, a little less popular, but still lightweight.” I then laugh and explain how ironically my “less popular phone” turned out to be the phone of choice for at least a half dozen of my friends, but i cut myself short when i notice that you don’t care.

“Well, that’s a pretty basic phone. Depending on what you’re looking for, you’ll have quite a few options as far as upgrading goes.” You pull out the DROID and my mouth begins to water. I’ve read the reviews, and I know it’s the best phone on the market. But after all the discounts have been applied, you admit that our relationship doesn’t quite mean that much to you–and demand a cool $150.

Thanks, but no thanks. I back away and you say “Well, how about the ERIS? It’s a lighter, cheaper version of the DROID, but it still has excellent reviews.” “How much,” i inquire suspiciously. “Just 30 bucks.”

That’s not so bad, i think. “Okay, you’ve sold me.” I pull out a Jackson and a Hamilton and lay them on the counter.

“Just one minor detail. See, this is a smartphone, which will probably be used for a ton of web-surfing and such. So, since we don’t want you to have to worry about amassing a ton of data charges, we’ve conveniently mandated an unlimited data plan for all of our smartphones. It’s just 30 dollars per month.”

Indeed, you’d like to “conveniently” double my monthly bill. “I think not,” I reply.
You offer me the next best thing–the ambiguously named “3G Media Phones.”
“What’s the difference?”
“It accesses less Internet.”

What?

“It accesses less Internet than a smartphone.”
“What does that even mean? I mean…does it have a real web browser? Or just a few portals.”
“It has a full browser.”
“So how can it access less Internet?”
“The Media Phones only require a 10 dollar per month data plan.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”

*Sigh*
“Well, what does 10 dollars a month get me?”
“The $10 plan includes 25 MB of data allowance per month, and 20 cents per MB over that allowance.”
“What exactly does 25 MB of data allowance mean?”
“Um…”
“I mean, say I want to use Facebook on my phone. So i’m commenting on pictures, updating my status, etc. How long until i’m over my allowance?”
“I don’t know. I guess that would take a long time.”
“You don’t know? That’s kind of important isn’t it? I mean…wait a minute.”
“What?”
“How much did you say you charge per MB over the allowance?”
“Twenty cents, sir.”
“That’s 5 MB per dollar, right?”
“I…I believe so.”
“And so it would be five dollars for 25 MB, right?”
“Yes…”
“Then why on earth do i pay twice that for the first 25 MB? Shouldn’t you be penalizing me MORE for going over?”

“I don’t write the rules sir.”
“I give up. Forget these data plans–I don’t need to be able to surf the web. That’s what WiFi is for. These phones are WiFi capable, right?”
“Yes sir.”
“Okay, good. I’ll just get this phone without the data plan. Then we don’t have to worry about my allowance or your ridiculous pricing model.”
“But the data plan is required.”
“Why? Why pay for a feature i’m not going to use? Can’t you just put a data block on the phone?”
“Well, technically, yes, but we still require that you have a data plan for this phone.”
“Is there an actual reason for that?”
“Again sir, I don’t write the rules sir.”

So forget the 3G phones. I’ll take a basic phone. You show me the “Basic Feature Phones.” A part of me dies. Half of them are hideous. Now, i’m not exactly a fashionista but even I know when a phone looks like it was made six years ago. Besides that, almost all of them are chunky. I complain about this. “Oh, those ones are ruggedized.”

“Rugg-i-what?”

“Ruggedized. They are designed to withstand a lot of damage.”

I look incredulously at the W385 in my hand, which has held up against quite enough without this “ruggedizing” process.

“What if I have a habit of wearing tight pants? There’s no way I’m even going to fit that phone in my pocket.”
“We have an excellent assortment of belt clips and other accessories to help accommodate our heavy duty products. Can i interest you in—”
“No! No you cannot interest me in a belt clip that will snap off when i go to sit down at my already claustrophobic desk. You cannot interest me in a pouch that makes a fanny pack look en vogue. I want a phone that I can take along with me–not a phone that takes me along for the ride.”

Your blank stare suggests anything but a response. I look desperately at the last two phones. The “Razzle” looks really weird and has only a 1.3 MP camera, but then it does have a QWERTY keyboard. That said, I’m pretty sick of being “butt-dialed” and “pocket-dialed” and i’m sure that’s what will start happening if I get a phone with an exposed keypad.

And so I come to the final phone, the Samsung Trance in “Piano Black.” It’s sleek, trendy, and at this point the features don’t really matter. I ask to see customer reviews for the Trance. Another part of me dies. “Worst phone EVER,” says Sarah228 from Omaha:

This phone is honestly the worst phone I’ve ever had. It is extremely breakable (I am on my third phone in less than 6 months) and the battery life has never been good. It hardly lasts a day (I unhook it at 7am and it is dead by 11pm). This phone is a waste of your money. Besides the fact that the front display shatters easily, it is just cheaply made. My newest one is already starting to fall apart and it really hasn’t been through that much. Get a more durable phone. Don’t let the sleek design fool you (taken from VZW.com)

I dejectedly drop the reviews, pop the battery back in my W385, force the shoddy backing back over the battery, and slide it into my pocket.

I give up, Verizon. Screw your “new-every-two.”

You know that mass of millions of people i mentioned earlier? I feel like they’re all personally violating me.

Can you hear me now, Verizon?

.

.

.

Didn’t think so.

Review: L.A. Noire

Full disclosure: I’ve never played a Rockstar game before, and I understand that this game is atypical for the company, especially since it was made by Team Bondi, an external developer. I’m writing from the perspective, then, of a long-time gamer and lover of films noirs, and not as a GTA or Red Dead fan.

As with any award-winning, well-selling title, L.A. Noire has drawn a lot of criticism since its release several weeks ago, and not all of it is justified. Chief among complaints I’ve seen are the slow pacing, the lack of action proper, and vagueness about the truth (particularly the loose ends at the conclusion of the game). Clearly, people aren’t doing their research.

Ambiguity and high-tension, slow drama are the hallmarks of the noir genre; to complain about their existence merely validates the game’s success as an homage to classics like The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown. Rarely is a game so understated or nonchalant in its handling of the details; that L.A. Noire’s story is as infuriating as it is satisfying is indisputable, if you’re a discerning player. I realize not everyone is — and if you’re more a fan of neatly-wrapped stories and/or epic firefights, you will probably hate the experience that Rockstar provides here.

Moreover, while I have always been clear in my belief that ESRB guidelines need to be more strictly adhered to (by players and parents alike), I think this game demands a reiteration of the point: this is an M-rated game, and it definitely earns its rating. The game doesn’t shy away from drug abuse, psychosis, adultery, rape, molestation, nudity, or torture. It is made by adults, for adults, and is neither proper (nor, likely, enjoyable) for younger audiences.

L.A. Noire invites you to follow Cole Phelps, soldier-turned-cop in 1947 Los Angeles, California, as he climbs through the ranks of the LAPD in pursuit of justice, commendation, and maybe a little redemption. Story progression is fairly straightforward: work a few cases, get transferred to a new desk assignment (in addition to opening patrol, the desks are Traffic, Homicide, Administrative Vice, and Arson). Each case requires you to visit a crime scene, look for clues, interview witnesses, and eventually make arrests/formal accusations.

L.A. Noire is the most character-driven game I’ve ever played, thanks to new technology which allows for actor facial and body movements to be captured in minute detail. Characters can have nervous tics, shifty eyes, or slight grins without looking epileptic or cartoony. This, coupled with absolutely stellar writing, generates a host of deeply believable, memorable characters, and goes a long way to make Noire’s story extremely compelling.

Much of the gameplay seeks to exploit the new technology, ostensibly forcing the player to actually read a character’s face to determine whether they’re being flexible with the truth. This is an excellent idea conceptually, but it falls apart in execution. Characters so rarely tell the truth that the game trains you to assume falsehood for every person who can’t look you straight in the face; consequently the timid and grieving are often castigated for their timidity, accused of bold-faced lying, conspiracy, and even murder as they try to cope with the grave reality of what has just been told to them. Phelps has zero tolerance for anything less than complete truth, and the mere act of “doubting” tends to result in a vicious tirade. I often found myself wanting to pull Cole aside and tell him to calm down — “I didn’t mean she killed him; I just think she should try a little harder to remember last night. Don’t flip out on her.”

Lying or otherwise, most characters will find some excuse to flee either before or after you interview them, and roughly half the scripted gameplay involves chasing, on foot or in a car, fleeing suspects. Chase scenes are featured in almost every story case; the forty optional “street cases” are almost entirely chases and shoot-outs. Though these chases can occasionally be exhilarating, they are often tedious and predictable; it’s difficult to really “lose” the target unless you hit a particularly nasty obstacle — likewise, in shootouts, the risk of actually dying is almost nonexistent.

Noir is supposed to be drawn-out, but not to the point of excess, and unfortunately the tedium of L.A. Noire sometimes gets excessive. Whether it’s inspecting yet another worthless bottle at a crime scene, waiting in the car for your partner to catch up, watching a cutscene you can’t skip, or tailing just a little too far behind a suspect to actually catch him, the game will inevitably get on your nerves. Usually it’s subtle, though at times (particularly if you’re pursuing 5-star ratings or collectibles) you may actually pause and wonder to yourself “why am I even playing this?”

And as a typical video game, there really isn’t a good answer to that question. Many aspects are patently not fun. The frustration you feel both at the mechanics of the game itself (the delays getting in and out of cars, the idiocy of pedestrians, the slowness with which Phelps handles every piece of evidence) and at the characters’ behavior (one pivotal decision of Cole’s infuriated me primarily because I couldn’t control it, and heretofore had had the illusion that I was in charge of the story) is enough to make even a lover of the experience like me hesitate about recommendations.

Yet there, I’ve said it: I love L.A. Noire.

Why? Well, for one, the story is wonderfully captivating. Team Bondi has done a masterful job of weaving together the most seemingly insignificant things in this game into a web that would make Raymond Chandler proud. In fact, the latter quarter of the game plays as if the developers threw their hands up in the air and said “screw all this gameplay stuff. We’ve got a story to tell here” and what follows is one of the most exciting climaxes (and thought-provoking denouements) I’ve ever seen in a game.

But it’s the city itself that truly shines. On Rockstar’s Social Club site I noticed a bit of trivia which said that over 90% of the downtown portion of the game was faithfully reproduced, down to the company names and signage on storefronts. The soundtrack — a robust offering of 30s and 40s hits — is delivered over a radio which also features full-length radio dramas, timely news reels, and historically-grounded station IDs and advertisements; the effect is that at times you want to just pull over, watch evening slowly fall, and listen to the radio.

And no matter how aggravating the traffic in L.A. is (though once the freeways got put in, I understand it got much, much worse), its existence is quite a marvel. Almost a hundred authentic, extremely detailed cars populate the streets. Traffic lights function on timers and vehicles behave in a fantastically realistic way; sometimes changing lanes without warning, signaling for turns, pulling to the side when your siren’s on. You get a real sense that there are drivers in these cars with lives and places to go; and if, or rather when, you commandeer someone’s car, the things they say to you will make you feel as if you’re a genuine jerk for abusing your position.

L.A. Noire doesn’t really work as an open-world, story-driven game (and I’ll join the crowd saying such a game is inherently impossible). As a story, it works only as well as your interviewing prowess can take it — if you can get all the interview questions right, you’ll get a lot from this game. But Rockstar has given something else, too, which is incidental to both story and game and yet makes all the difference. They have provided a working replica of a real city in a real time with a real history, and they have offered you a chance to explore it at your leisure.

I heartily recommend you take them up on the offer.

Why Oedipus is Funny

I wrote this late the night of November 9th, 2008, after attending a variety show fundraiser. Since then my appreciation for the ideas I here express has only grown, as has my conviction that the best stories are the ones we feel least comfortable about when they happen.

THE NATURE OF COMEDY, or
Why Oedipus is Funny

“Comedy is tragedy plus time…Oedipus is funny–that’s the structure of funny. ‘Who did this terrible thing to our city?’ ‘Oh my god, it was me!’ See? That’s funny.”
-Lester (Alan Alda), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

There were six of us sitting around the table in an elegant dining room. One of the hostesses addressed the group, asking whether any of us wanted coffee. I was still processing the inquiry when she walked away at the behest of the rest of the people at the table, who were able to make the decision far more quickly than i had. When another hostess came over a few minutes later, i went to say “well, actually yes, i would like a coffee” but got no further than the “w” before the disenchanted glances of our party had banished her in a similar manner. Looking around the room, i spotted someone with a small wooden case filled with assorted teas, and at this prospect i perked up a bit, supposing that providence had kept me from the bean only so as to benefit me with the leaf. She didn’t make it over to our table for quite some time, and i grew well distracted by the performances going on across the room to my left, something i felt entitled to doing in light of my wallet having recently grown three dollars lighter. When she did arrive, i looked down at my cup and realized it was half-filled with ice water. I hastily gulped that down, slammed the cup on the table, and was about to point to the flavor of tea i desired to try when she closed the box and walked away. I stammered for words, and the guy sitting next to me–who had apparently been observing the entire episode–started to laugh. When the others at the table wondered what was so funny, i gave a quick recap. “It’s alright though. This just means i’ll have something to blog about.” The girl across the table replied with the sort of “awww” that follows something truly deplorable and pathetic, like a kitten not landing on its feet, and so i felt inclined to explain. As i looked back over the history of my writing, i discovered that the common factor in my comedic writing was, ironically, tragedy.

It’s not at all uncommon for me to say something like i did in that dining room. What others call “optimism” I refer to by a different name: cynicism. I think it unlikely that any man will ever confront tragedy and truly overcome it. Eventually he arrives at a crossroads, and must determine whether he shall be overcome by anguish and depressed into oblivion, or else flash a smile and brush the tragedy aside, wryly attempting to marginalize its gravity. The most cutting humor is self-deprecating–for who, after the large man has told a joke about obesity, dares confront him with the idea of weight loss–and likewise the funniest stories are those at which we are least inclined to laugh as they are unfolding. I could tell you, for example, that a certain relative had died, and depending on my inflection you might try to console me for my loss, or else laugh along with me, only after my delivery has assured you that such laughter is acceptable. We have sidestepped the reality of Death with laughter; we wink not at what is funny, but rather at the way in which the unfunny has been dealt with: you laugh not at my loss, but at my surprising callousness despite it.

The result is the sense of humor described in that hallmark of nineties pop music, “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies. I am, beyond a shadow of a doubt, “the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral.” Can’t understand what i mean? Then perhaps you need to reread the first two paragraphs. Sure, i may not be audibly cackling in the back pew as the mother of the deceased leaks saline rivers over a casket, but i am able to appreciate the ridiculousness of mourning–especially in a Christian context, when we are technically crying because someone got to waltz through the Pearly Gates a little early, and if we are perfectly honest with ourselves, we’d like to be there too right about now. As for my own death, the only regret i will have in passing is that i will not be around to make sure the funeral procession is done properly, as i am certain that the eulogies will be far too reverent for the life i’ve led, and the epitaph will either be nauseatingly sentimental or else a terrible attempt at what is known in some circles as “humor.” It is therefore my purpose, before i ever write a will, to write my own eulogy, in the hopes that the only tears shed in my passing are those that follow especially hard laughing, as well as a list of potential epitaphs, one for every cause of death i happen to conjure up in my imagination, and a catchall “didn’t see that coming” for anything i miss.

But more to the point, the writing i’ve done over the last two years that has received the best response is that which was brought about by the worst circumstances. For example, the saga from that first midnight stab of pain in my abdomen to the drug-induced trip to the emergency room after my gallbladder had been removed, the caricatured encounters with stock customers at a grocery store, the times at which i realized i was overweight and made laughable attempts to alter that: every time something went wrong with my life, it went right with my writing. In fact, the writing suffered most when life was going well, and i was forced to delve within myself for source material–wherein, i assure you, we will only ever find arguments against delving within. And it was this realization that incited my comment that night, as well as the furious scribbling thereafter, when i realized i had never gone about explaining what an utter disaster our family’s trip to Disney World had been. It’s a shame, really, because in hindsight that would have made a terribly funny story. Consider, as I transcribe here, for the first time, the testament of my weather-worn moleskine journal at the time:
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August 06, 2007 | 8:56 a.m.
Things were running relatively smoothly until we got past the carry-on check, where we learned that the flight had been delayed. They just informed us that the 8:25 flight to Orlando has been pushed back just a tad–our new ETD is 12 noon.

9:17 a.m.
My father just informed me that the reason for the delay (according to the information booth) is that the plane’s hydraulics need maintenance. Thus they’re bringing in a mechanic–from Atlanta–who should be here by 11. Oh joy.

9:24 a.m.
Our flight has just been cancelled.

10:11 a.m.
Evidently there are no flights leaving from this airport that can accommodate our party of five and get us to Orlando today. They are now searching other airports for possible remedies to our plight.

10:29 a.m.
We are currently booked for an 8:25 flight for tomorrow morning, thereby eliminating a day of our trip. As this is awful, we are going to try the airport’s wireless access to see if there are any plausible options at all that will get us there sooner. Fingers crossed for Expedia, but morale is low.

10:47 a.m.
There’s a flight to Orlando through Cincinnati via Delta Airlines. We’re going to try to get on that one. If successful (and if that doesn’t get delayed) we arrive at 6:50 p.m. In my opinion anything goes so long as i am in Orlando tomorrow morning and NOT back here.

11:58 a.m.
The cool thing about this new flight is that it’s both more expensive–170 dollars more per person–and longer than our original booking. The cherry on top is that airTran, the line we were originally flying with, doesn’t feel obligated to return our money on the basis that they found us a perfectly acceptable alternative; namely, the 8:25 tomorrow flight. Naturally we are going to fight this tooth and nail. In the meantime, they just called the second ‘final’ boarding call for the flight to Atlanta we couldn’t fit on.

Another amusing facet of this hold-up is how it’s allowed us to listen to the brainwashing alerts of the TSA. For five hours we’ve been incessantly reminded that strange people who hand us mysterious ticking packages are not to be trusted. Also, we are to report anything or anyone that strikes us as out-of-place. It reminds me a bit of 1984, where you are endlessly calculating your actions in the fear that something you say or do will get you reported to and dragged away by the mysterious men in black.

From where i sit i can see that mechanic from Atlanta is finishing up on the plane we were originally supposed to hop onto, a little after 12, just as predicted. Had they not cancelled the flight, we’d be able to board now and would be in Orlando about three hours earlier than we will be. It’s their fault we’re not on that plane, and it’s them that should pay for it.

1:25 p.m.
We snagged lunch at the same shoddy cafe/diner we ate breakfast at. Josh and I had to sti by ourselves at the bar due to lack of booth space. After that it was time to face the TSA security checkpoint–again.

After everything that had happened to us already, i doubted much else could go wrong. After all, it was just a quick trot over to the conveyor belts, removing the shoes and watch, retrieving my belongings on the other side of a metal detector and getting aboard the plane. Boy was i wrong.

We stepped past the woman who’d taken our boarding passes towards the belts when she stopped us and gestured towards a separate lane of traffic. As i was the last member of our party to follow this instruction, i assumed our sudden stop was because of those in front of us. But when i turned around, there that woman was again, closing me and the others in a small, roped-off quarantine zone of our own.

Five minutes later we finally mustered up the courage (aka impatience) to ask a nearby TSA worker why we were so special. She informed us that Delta had flagged us for a special security processing, as indicated by the string of “s”‘s on our passes. After what seemed like an eternity we were finally released, as a man on the opposite side of the belt instructed us to put everything in the plastic trays. But not the normal ones–the special ones with orange tape. When a novice came over to assist us with standard trays, he was told “NO–they’re orange.”

Stepping through the metal detector ought to have, in my opinion, ended the ordeal but in actuality there was one more step: the pat-down. Yes, we’d been specially selected by Delta Airlines to have our butts, legs and chests rubbed by TSA attendants just in case my 10 year-old sister was secretly harboring an AK-47. Meanwhile, they rubbed circular pads around our belongings and the special orange trays, which were then put in a special tester (God knows what we were being tested for).

Now i am sitting in the queue, waiting to get on the NOW BOARDING! Delta Airlines Flight 5963 to Cincinnati. Perhaps I’ll get on now. Or perhaps i’ll wait for the third “final” boarding call.

2:00 p.m.
I thought my dad was kidding when he said we’d have to walk across the tarmac to the plane. I also thought he was kidding when he said we’d be in the back of the plane. Turns out he was, but both happened anyway. So here i am, in 11D, seats only going as far as 13B, waiting to take off for Cincinnati.

5:17 p.m.
As i said earlier, the plane was quite small. Nevertheless it was good for Josh and Rachel’s first flight. The transfer at Cincinnati was flawless, and we are on a much larger (and newer) plane than earlier. There is one hitch, however: the young screaming toddler sitting (and kicking) behind Josh.

August 07, 2007 | 8:43 a.m.
I might have told you about our airport experience, the bus ride to our resort, the resort itself, or our experience in Downtown Disney. But we just found out that the moron who my dad ordered the tickets from just put my family in debt. My father asked for five tickets, and he was told the cost was around 600 dollars. What was never told to him, that is until he read his e-mail this morning, is that the 600 dollars was per person. Thus, although the man from Delta never once rattled off a total, we just paid over 3,000 dollars to fly in a small plane’s coach section and have to get strip searched, walk across a tarmac, and connect elsewhere. We could’ve flown first class on any flight for cheaper. Now, I’d been under the impression that last-minute seats were cheaper because, after all, the seats are about to go unused anyway, so if they can get a little money for them, may as well.

Right now our vacation is like a black hole leading straight to Hell, which is where airTran and Delta can go too.

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It wasn’t enough that our flight got delayed; it had to get cancelled.
It wasn’t enough that our flight got cancelled; the airline couldn’t reschedule us.
We had to pay for Internet access so that we could check Expedia for other outgoing flights–from the same aiport.
We thought we were paying twice as much as the tickets were worth, and then thought we were topping it off when they strip-searched our family.
But that wasn’t all. The next morning, when that e-mail dropped the bomb on us, the good spirits that are generally engendered by Disney World were crushed under the reality of hard economics.
We’d spent over 3,000 dollars to get delayed, cancelled, strip-searched, walked across a tarmac and jammed like sardines into the back of a plane with freaking propellers on it. By the time we were ready to leave for home, i was almost praying for the turbines to fall off, hurling us headlong into the Atlantic Ocean.

And why?

Because i knew the making of a good story. If we had survived that crash, i’d be sitting there on the 9 o’clock morning news in an oversized chair next to Matt Lauer, reading my moleskine entries with the air of one who has been through the fires of Hell and has the ashes to prove it. I wanted that in earnest. Not for the money, not so that people would pity us and send hate mail to Delta Airlines, not so that guy who sold us the tickets was fired for lacking clarity, but because i had a story that needed telling, and was painfully lacking an audience.

I ended my moleskine chronicle of that trip on the very first day, with the verbal equivalent of a stiff middle finger to one sales representative, two airlines, and the corporate world in general. I was living a tragedy. But now, more than a year later, i can read through my entries and laugh. Woody Allen is right: comedy is, in essence, nothing more than the tragic in retrospect, when the observer is removed from the dire consequences he was previously needing to be wary of. Bring on the tragedy, then.