A couple of years ago, I was driving across the Bay Bridge when I realized it wasn’t over. That makes it sound like I was in a way darker place than I really was, but there was a part of my mind that had started to categorize my future entirely within the terms of my past failures – that, whenever I thought of my once dearly held ambitions, filed them under memories of things past rather than ongoing projects. There was a part of me that, even as I worked on these projects, never thought they would ever go anywhere. And, as I drove across the bridge, I found that traitorous sliver of fear within myself and exposed it, and burned it, and buried it.
I don’t know why. I don’t remember a train of thought that led me through that tunnel. I don’t remember a particularly inspiring day leading up to that nighttime drive. I just remembered that moment of realization, that everything was still new, everything could still change, I could still work towards something rather than allow myself to be blown along.
I do know that it had to be in a car. I do know that it had to be on a bridge. Symbolism is important to us, no matter how often we try to banish it to the realm of critics and textbooks. The concept of a life freely lived and ambitions daily struggled towards had been filed away in my brain, and that first drive by myself after I got my driver’s license and felt free came back, and that first long drive home, with my father in the hospital, not too long afterwards, came back, and something too big for me to notice its absence came back to me with them, and I was free of something that I hadn’t known bound me.
They’re subtle, the structures we build around our lives, the shells we become. They fuse with our bones and we forget how to live outside of them. We become people we detest just because we can’t figure out the component pieces of a personality that would suit us better. We are consumed by our noise and by the noise of others, by their expectations and suppositions of who we are and who they want us to be for our own good, who they want us to be for their own good, and who they want us to be so we might be understandable, might be measurable.
I can think of fragments of art that explore this idea of becoming our own prisons, but it’s so hard to explain until you’ve been there for yourself and set yourself free, until you’ve found the shape of your key that fits the shape of your cage. As I think about that drive, I remember bits of art that were, perhaps, pieces of the key for their artists, or perhaps their attempts to guide others to the shape of their own cells.
The Happy Scorched-Earth Incident
a Twine game by Lana Polansky
–seemed to me at first to be about anxiety, being in a room full of people who can’t reach you in any way because your mind is churning far too quickly, grinding up irrelevant concepts and worries and perceptions just to avoid having to engage with the world, spinning too fast and out of gear. On a second reading/playing, it seemed instead or as well to be about searching for meaning and divinity in a hot noisy crowded world, trying to come to terms with life being noisy and active and overwhelming from the perspective of a personality that prefers quiet and reflection, wondering why the patterns of existence ran so much against one’s personal grain. I have no idea if any of these meanings were intended. I may only be seeing myself in a mirror, in the reflective surface of my own anxieties and fears and gaping atheistic cracks.
Merrily We Roll Along
a filmed version of the stage musical
– following the life of a tremendously successful film producer backwards, year by year, and showing how he sloughed off his friends and his ideals to become the successful, creatively hollow, emotionally destroyed man he was. We see those who crafted his poisoned idea of success, and before that those who crafted their poisoned idea of success, and how each in turn was unmade by passing that atavistic ideal forward, a cycle of intellectual abuse. We see how many opportunities he had to become a different person, to resist the forces that pushed him into a life distant from his own heart – but, in the end, how much easier it is to pursue the person you are told you wish to become than to inhabit the person you are. Perhaps it all might have turned out differently if his friends, who tried to win him back to his old life of music, idealism, and creative fulfillment, had believed wholeheartedly in him themselves – but it seemed to me that their pleas always had an edge of the same greed, the same simple-minded ideals of success, that won him away from them in the first place. They were doomed from the start. The prison he is in now has bars only as thick as his ribs, his heart could still burst through, he could still be the man he wants to be – if only he could remember who that man is.
I left my grade school to attend another school shortly after throwing a chair at a teacher. My relocation wasn’t punitive, just reflective of the realization that I might not be fitting in so well at my current school. For all the bad press it gets, directionless rage does sometimes get results.
My new school believed that, left to themselves, children would eventually craft their own educations – not only their education, but their own management and administration as well. The students convened regularly, to vote on decisions affecting their own school-lives – meetings which, as an unshakeable rule, could only occur after one day’s notice. There were also more regular small committees to hear grievances and complaints that students would levy against one other. The ‘defendant’ would plead guilty or not guilty, and if they pled guilty then appropriate sentences would be devised and agreed upon by all present. If they pled not guilty, evidence would be piled up against their arguments, and they would generally either make a case for themselves or be forced into confessing their crime. If they they refused to confess, or refused to accept any suggested sentence, then special sentencing would be decided at the next school meeting.
A friend of mine got into an altercation of sorts with another student on the day before the last day of school. He lied, obviously and repeatedly, to the court, denying his obvious, flagrant, and unanimously confirmed guilt – because he knew there was literally no mechanism in place to punish him for this transgression. The judicial committee meeting couldn’t hand out a sentence without his consent, and calling a school administration meeting would require at least one day’s notice, at which point it would be the last day of school anyway and no relevant sentence could be passed. In the end, the school broke its own rules just to hand out a meaningless half-a-day worth of suspension – and ended up demonstrating, even more acutely than before, the fragility of their own pretenses.
It was basically a prank, and it was basically without consequence, but it’s hard to overstate the importance, to me, to my understanding of the world, of realizing then how flimsy the structures built to control our lives really are. When we rebel we may look like assholes who seek only to destroy, but if we don’t know what can be demolished and what cannot, if we don’t know which structures hold us up and which hold us down, we can never be free. Many people have lived their lives without ever realizing that all they have to do to break the machine which grinds them down is to refuse to be a part of it. This possibility is hidden from us, and many are scared of us seeing it, but without it freedom will always be unattainable and stagnation be inevitable.
a game by ella guro
– game characters never do quite what you want them to do. The crouch is always a moment too late, the double jump doesn’t happen, the rhythm of shooting the little pixelated gun is a bit off, the platform is too slippery, and it’s never really your fault. It’s just that this person you occupy is wrong, it isn’t doing what you’re telling it to, it’s, goddammit who programmed this fucking game, who constructed this world, why am I shaped this way, why can’t I do this, why are my hands shaking – is there something else? Is there a deeper truth behind why this world fits us so poorly, so loose and itchy? Will there be, if I fight through this noise, these voices telling me what I am and what I’m not, these voices telling me what I want and what I don’t, a moment of silence? A moment of reflection? Will I be able to hear my own voice?
This world is fake, this world is paper, this person in this place in this time is a lie. The only thing I can do is tear a hole – through myself or through it, we won’t know until the blood starts flowing.
a Twine game by Tom McHenry
I want to be the very best, like no one ever was. I have to sacrifice everything to do it, but that’s okay because nothing I have is worth anything. I will probably fail, but that’s okay because it’s just a dive down into the whirlpool we’re already being sucked into. Imagine the glory. Imagine the money. Imagine the fame. Imagine anything but where you are right now, as what little life you kept for yourself begins to rot away.
Your glorious future waits for you, and always will.
Horse Master Class Anxiety Dream Game Review
a review of the preceding Twine game by John Campbell
– why are you set on this path? They say the unexamined life isn’t worth living, but when you peer too closely at your own experience all of those almost-experiences that were never quite yours fade away. What about all the lives you have never lived, the branches of possibility sheared off by the wind? When you forget them you make, of the tree of your life, a ladder – perhaps easier to climb, but leading nowhere. Up to the sky, alone at the peak, looking down, exposed to the wind. A single-minded mastery, shared with no one, begins to drain of color and meaning.
There are so many possibilities lying just beyond consideration. It’s absurd sometimes to think about how trapped we feel, pushed into the narrow channel leading from now to the future, thinking that our only option is to live tomorrow the same way we lived today. We could do so many different things, attack our dissatisfaction from so many different directions, if we could only forget the assumption that today leads through a single path, or perhaps a handful of similar paths, to tomorrow. Why do we move in two dimensions when we exist in three? Why do we think in three when we age in a fourth? Why do we dream of a fourth when there may be dreams an order of magnitude greater, more beautiful, and more complex?
Eventually, sometimes, you notice. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you realize how many of the things that are holding you back are completely made up. Your job. Your history. Your gender. Your friends. Your personality. Your family. Your sexuality. Your tastes. Your pride. When you find your sledgehammer, it’s hard to know what to smash. It’s hard to know whether this aspect of yourself is dispensable or not. It’s hard to know what parts of yourself to hang onto.
And it’s never over.
Destroy everything if you want. Make yourself a new life, make yourself a new person. It might make you happy.
Over time, though, your shape will change again. You will outgrow the form you’ve given yourself, and find the self you’ve made now a prison every bit as constricting as the prison you left behind. Our skin ossifies and cages us, over and over again. And, over and over again, we must break free, until our final body embraces us, and carries us down into our last prison.