Friday Flotsam: A few Quick Points on Authority and Other Things

A few quick conclusions crystalized or articulated over the past week or so.

1. Authority derives from relations and consequent responsibility. In fact, ‘responsibility’ is in a sense only another term for ‘authority’. Because to the extent that you are responsible for something, you must be able to exercise decision making power over it.

2. Authority is dependent on relationship, not outcome. A specific individual may conceivably lose his authority by misconduct, but the authority inherent in a particular kind of relation cannot be ‘abstractly’ abolished.

To take a concrete example, a particular man may lose his parental authority through abusing his children, but no amount of individual abusive fathers can strip ‘fatherhood’ of its authority.

3. Rule of law properly means rule of authority, as opposed to rule by threat and force. That is, we submit to rulers because they stand in a certain relation to us and to the extent that that relation gives them responsibility over us. Rule of law means the recognition and enforcement of this legitimate authority on all levels (including individual authority).

The only alternative to legitimate, recognized authority is raw force, and the difference between crime and punishment is simply that the person doing it has the authority to enact the punishment. If you will not recognize legitimate authority, you will be left with only force with which to guard your position.

4. It is rule of authority that limits the power of the ruler, not rule by ‘reason’, qualifications, wisdom, or the like. Because legitimate authority comes with natural limits: ‘being right’ does not (that, and who has the greater scope for proving his case and having that proof noised abroad: you or the government?).

5. To put it another way, much of the erosion of individual liberties comes from treating questions of authority as if they were questions of cost/benefit. Statistics and scientific data do not actually have anything to do with the question of whether the state or my employer can legitimately compel me to do something. Those things may be relevant once it’s determined that it does fall within their scope as a guide to what decision they should make, but if it doesn’t fall within their authority, then it makes no difference whatsoever if it’s a good idea or not: they don’t have the right to compel me to do it.

Data may be important in making a decision, but it has no bearing on whether it is your decision to make.

6. From an exchange with a friend earlier this week:
‘It would work if everyone went along with it’ is to politics what ‘It would work if we had unlimited resources’ is to economics. The whole reason this science exists in the first place is because that specific scenario is never going to happen!

7. If you have a hundred thousand ‘sovereigns’, then whoever is in charge of arbitrating between them is the real sovereign.

Thought of the Day: “I Pay Your Salary!”

You know the common canard “I pay your salary!” directed against, say, police officers or teachers? Have you ever considered just how absurd that is?

Let’s say that I have a dispute with a certain public school teacher and I play this card. Well, in the first place, I don’t pay his salary: I pay a small percent of a percent of his salary. More to the point, if I were to try to withhold that percent of a percent, I would go to jail. The fact that my taxes are part of the pool of money from which his salary is drawn gives me absolutely zero leverage over him, because I do not exercise any decision making powers over whether that money goes into the pool or how that pool is used (and the amount wouldn’t be enough to matter even if I did: would you be afraid if your boss threatened to dock your pay a tenth-of-a-cent?).

As he is a public servant (theoretically), what I can do is to examine the candidates who are or intend to be running for the position from which they could theoretically exercise some leverage over this particular teacher (though with the unions they probably won’t have much no matter what) and then cast my vote for the candidate who seems closest to my own view of thinking. If I’m really committed, I can give up a generous portion of my time to try to convince as many other people as I can to do the same.

So, what I should really say is “I can cast a ballot that, if accompanied by several thousand others, might eventually put someone over your head who would at least be inclined to punish you for this!”

You’ll note that that is not really a very good threat. Which is why teachers and other ‘public servants’, by and large, don’t care what any parents or other members of the public have to say.

Being accountable to ‘the public’ is not at all the same thing as being accountable to any particular member of the public. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Friday Flotsam: Whither Milo Murphy?

1. BW Media Spotlight posted a good piece defending Milo Murphy’s Law, the sequel series to Phineas and Ferb that, alas, failed to find the same audience its predecessor did and lasted only two seasons.

Me, I’m a big fan of Phineas and Ferb: it’s one of my all-time favorites, and I really liked Milo Murphy a lot as well. Both those are very strong, very creative shows and both hit my taste in humor pretty hard with a blend simultaneously weird and intelligent (“Our mascot is Murray the Middleman, who buys products from manufacturers and sells them to retailers at a hefty profit!”). Reading BW’s post made me wonder just why it is that PnF was so much more successful at finding an audience than Milo (this despite Milo starring the priceless Weird Al Yankovic himself in the title role).

2. Part of it, I suspect, is simply a form of sequelitis. PnF set the bar so high in the minds of its fans that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible for Milo to match it (especially when you remember that PnF actually took a while to get really good: it wasn’t until near the end of the first season at least that they really found their stride). Besides, audiences had four years or more to get to know and love the PnF characters; going from that to a new show set in the same world with all-new characters is just not going to be the same experience.

Come the second season of Milo and the addition of the reformed Dr. Doofenshmirtz as a series regular, there was also the perpetual problem that the creators ran into while trying to spin off Doof and Perry into their own show. Namely, that Doofenshmirtz simply isn’t as much fun as an incompetent good-guy as he is as an incompetent bad-guy. His stupidity and bumbling comes across as less funny and more pitiful when he’s trying to be heroic, and he and Perry don’t play off each other as well when they’re allies (actually, I think their best bet would have been the ‘Doof teaches high school’ option, since then he would be able to show a degree of competence while his brand of mayhem would be livening up a dull and pointless environment rather than causing havoc in an otherwise positive one, but that ship’s long sailed).

But I don’t think either of those were the main reason; if anything, they were only a catalyst exacerbating other issues. Having seen both shows multiple times, I think the main difference comes down to a few rather complicated factors. I’ll do my best to explain.

3. Both these shows are very optimistic, upbeat stories. On reflection, though, I think Milo might be a little too consistently sweet and optimistic. I don’t mean that Milo himself is too optimistic or a flat character or something (he isn’t: he’s actually quite well-written and performed, with a full emotional range). What I mean is that there isn’t enough emotional ‘texture’ going on. I don’t mean just conflict, but a variety of different audience reactions.

I’ll see if I can clarify what I mean.

In PnF, for all its cheery good-will, you had several notable points of conflict and tension among the main cast: Candace was always trying to ‘bust’ her brothers. Buford bullies Baljeet. Isabella is in love with Phineas, who is blissfully oblivious to her feelings. And, of course, Doofenshmirtz is always trying to take over the Tri-State Area or exact petty revenge and Perry tries to stop him without blowing his cover.

These problems were never resolved, or were resolved very slowly and only at the end of the series, and we didn’t expect them to be, but they provided points of interest and what I’m calling emotional texture: points of differing audience reactions to specific characters and with it alternating tension and release.

Candace’s role is especially important in this regard, where she is simultaneously an antagonist and a protagonist, with her antagonism lying on the surface and her sympathetic qualities underneath. If I can judge from my own experience, we the audience come to really like Candace, despite the fact that she’s vain, petty, and kind of a brat. The show, despite being called Phineas and Ferb, is really more about her and her back-and-forth struggles with maturity. The fact that she can be both the main obstacle or threat to the brothers and their loving sister, chief ally, and the show’s heroine helped to keep things consistently interesting. It provided a continual ebb and flow of engagement as she sometimes does the right thing, sometimes doesn’t.

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Doofenshmirtz played a similar role, in that he was a ‘villain’, but we quickly could see that he wasn’t really a bad guy, just an extremely immature and petty one, and you can’t help but feel sorry for him. Like Candace, we soon come to like Doof and want him to succeed, just not to succeed at his stated goal. Plus he has his charming, but strained relationship with his daughter, Vanessa (their relationship being one of the most notable instances of the fact that the characters do develop over the course of the show) and his odd ‘frienmity’ with Perry.

What I’m trying to get at is that, even with a very formulaic structure and relatively static characters, the nature of those characters provides a variety of emotional experiences wherein we’re not really sure which one we’re going to get from scene to scene: is Candace going to be in ‘jerk’ mode or ‘sympathetic’ mode? Are we going to get one of Doof’s petty spiteful moments or one of his loving affectionate moments? This is what I mean by emotional texture: the characters move in and out of eliciting now one reaction, now the other.

4. Now, in Milo, there really isn’t anything like the above, or not to the same extent. Milo has a smoothly comfortable relationship with his friends Zack and Melissa, his family is supportive and loving, his sister patiently puts up with his curse (the closest she comes to antagonizing him is anxiously asking him to stand back), and even most of his classmates are friendly, if cautious towards him. The only hostile characters are Bradley, who is simply a jerk and doesn’t get much development, and Eliot the crossing guard, who does get some development and eventually warms up to Milo, but doesn’t have enough redeeming qualities or enough of a relationship with Milo to make him really sympathetic or interesting. For a while it looked like they were going to do something with Cavendish when he briefly thought that Milo was the villain, but it’s dropped pretty quickly when Dakota suggests that they simply ask Milo if he’s trying to destroy them. Likewise, Cavendish and Dakota have a bit of friction in their bickering, which is fun, but not really the sort of thing described above since it’s usually just standard ‘vitriolic best buds’ stuff, rather than, say, Buford and Baljeet oscillating between genuine friendship and genuine hostility (Dakota’s not going to be flying Cavendish into some cacti just for fun, for instance).

The conflict is almost entirely external, from Milo’s curse and various antagonists. Very rarely are the main characters in opposition with each other or in complicated or difficult positions with each other.

The result is that the emotional landscape of Milo is much flatter than that of PnF. Conflicts get resolved a little too quickly and the characters are uniformly likable and affectionate, except for when they’re supposed to be more or less just plain jerks and villains, or else they grow out of their contentious attitudes within a short amount of time (e.g. Melissa’s dad doesn’t like Milo, but learns to appreciate him over the course of a single episode). It’s all charming and pleasant, but it has considerably less bite than PnF.

The long-term conflicts include Milo’s budding relationship with Amanda (a hyper-organized girl at his school) and Cavendish and Dakota’s various time-related adventures, particularly involving the pistachio plants. There is also a low-key romance between Zack and Melissa that remains largely under the surface until near the end. These are all perfectly fine and charming, but none of them really create enough waves to give the show much texture.

Milo and Amanda in Milo Murphy's Law - YouTube

Now, a show doesn’t have to have this kind of thing – e.g. sympathetic pseudo-antagonists who are also protagonists and move between different emotional responses from the audience – to be good or to gain an audience. But thinking over the two shows, I think that is something that PnF had that Milo lacked and, what is more, lacked anything suitable to replace it with. It’s certainly not bad – again, it’s a very good show – but it’s less interesting.

5. The next factor is even more ephemeral, but I think equally important. It’s that PnF has more of an immediate appeal to it than Milo. It takes the form of an almost generic Saturday morning cartoon: kids have adventures in their backyard while their secret-agent pet battles evil scientists, their mother is oblivious to it all and their sister tries to reveal it. At the same time, that package is used to indulge the fantasy of kids who are able to do what real kids imagine doing: building roller coasters, being superheroes, flying rocketships, etc. Whether by design or accident, you end up with a show that captures the imagination of childhood and of the carefree games of summer, presented in the form of something like the very sort of cartoon that would go along with those imaginary games. The central idea of the show is embodied in its very structure, you could almost say. It’s basically a show all about childhood and the carefree experience of childhood.

Milo, on the other hand, is a bit more specific and less immediately appealing: about a kid who brings impossible disasters down upon himself wherever he goes, but soldiers on optimistically nonetheless. It’s a good premise, touching on optimism, persistence in the face of bad luck, and so on but it doesn’t tap as deeply as the other.

Childhood and childhood imagination is something everyone’s experienced and many people can still remember, and that kind of ‘boy’s adventure’ story is a familiar story-type. It slots neatly into the imagination, allowing its more specific characteristics to shine out better. Milo is a lot less familiar and a lot less ‘apt’ to the imagination; it feels more like a very personal, “let’s just go crazy” kind of story that the creators did because it was what they specifically wanted to make. It’s fun, but it doesn’t make an immediate or clear appeal the same way that PnF did.

6. Adding to these two factors is also the fact that Milo is a much more serialized show than PnF. Each episode follows its own plot and its own pattern and, apart from the three-to-five core characters, (Milo, Zach, Melissa, Cavendish, and Dakota), the casts vary considerably from episode to episode, and most of the characters are introduced piecemeal, coming and going unevenly across the two seasons.

In PnF, the show deliberately follows a fairly tight formula most of the time, and the same main characters recur and play more or less the same roles in every episode (Phineas, Ferb, Candace, Perry, Doof, Isabella, Baljeet, Buford). This was part of the joke, but it also had the effect of giving the show a very strong sense of identity, as well as solidifying the characters in the audience’s mind.

7. The net result of all these points is that Milo felt a lot less focused and a lot less, hm, sturdy than PnF, especially coupled with the aforementioned rapid conflict solving. It came across a little flatter, a little lighter and more superficial (ironically enough, considering how much lower the stakes in PnF tended to be). Both shows are delightfully crazy, but PnF concentrated its craziness through its strictly formulaic episodes, keeping the show familiar and grounded even as it went off the walls. Milo didn’t have that same kind of structure and so feels more fluid and scattershot. It isn’t so much that it does anything much worse than the earlier show, it’s more that it was just harder to connect with.

I still think it deserved to find more of an audience than it did (it’s much better than, say, Gravity Falls, not to mention more wholesome), but that’s my theory as to why it didn’t.

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I’m glad we have them both

The Walk Home

Background: A week or two ago I ended up in a discussion with Caroline Furlong on how to create tension in a story. Later I tried to come up with a simple ‘example’ scenario to illustrate my ideas. I ended up liking it enough that I turned it into a quick short, which I now present below. Enjoy!

Shit!

Kathy turned slowly on the spot, shining her flashlight along the three diverging paths in the night-shrouded woods. Overhead the sky was a solid black roof, and the air was thick with the threat of rain.

How long was it since she’d left the roadhouse? An hour? Probably less than that, but certainly much longer than it should have been. And much too long to try to go back now.

Damn you, Cheryl, you stupid idiot! She thought.

The night out had been Cheryl’s idea. She was the ‘friendly’ one of the two sisters, and despite being three years older than Kathy, most people pegged her as the younger. She got carded everywhere she went, while Kathy never did. That wasn’t because Kathy looked so much older – she was twenty-five and knew herself to be attractive – but rather because something about her face and the way she carried herself made her appear mature and reliable.

And Kathy was mature. She had a good job and was already rising through the corporate ranks. She was confident, athletic, knew her own mind, and didn’t take crap from anyone.

A night out at the roadhouse wasn’t usually her thing, but Cheryl had wanted to go and had talked her into coming.

“After all that work, you need a night off!” she’d said. “Come on, we’ll go out, have some drinks, maybe meet a couple guys, it’ll be fun!”

She’d pressed her so insistently that, in the end, Kathy had given in. Truth was, she had been overworking herself lately and she did need a night off.

And it had been fun for a while. They’d had a few drinks (Cheryl had a few more), danced a little, chatted up the boys, and generally had a good time. A good time, that is, until Cheryl slipped off with one of her new temporary beaus. By then Kathy was getting tired, and since she always strictly moderated her drinking (she didn’t like to lose control of anything, least of all herself) she had just about reached her limit as far as alcoholic entertainment was concerned. She waited idly at the bar, chewing peanuts and dividing her time between half-heartedly watching the muted TV and talking disinterestedly with one of the men present.

Finally, when Cheryl had been away what seemed more than long enough, Kathy had gone in search of her.

It was then that one of the more alert of her recent acquaintances had told her that Cheryl had left with her new boy-toy a half an hour ago. Left not only without telling her, but more importantly without giving Kathy the keys to her car.

Since Kathy always drank less than Cheryl, the deal had been that Cheryl would drive them there – since she knew the way – and Kathy would drive back. But Cheryl had neglected to give her sister the keys when they first arrived, and had apparently been too drunk and too in love to remember to give them to her before she left.

Muttering curses against her older sister, Kathy had tried to call her cell phone. This had only yielded a flashing light and the muffled notes of an obnoxious ringtone from the front-seat of the car.

Left stranded, Kathy’s options had been to either wait for Cheryl to return – which she probably wouldn’t do until morning – or call her father to come pick her up. Her skin crawled at the idea. Her father didn’t approve of fun nights out, or his daughters flirting and drinking with strangers, or living on their own and chasing a good career, or really anything they did, it seemed. He was always on to her to ‘find someone who could take care of her’ and ‘settle down’. As if she weren’t an adult who could take care of herself! If he had to come and pick her up in the middle of the night from a bar, she’d never hear the end of it.

The man who’d informed her of Cheryl’s departure offered to give her a ride home, but Kathy liked the idea of accepting help from a strange man – even if he seemed decent enough – even less than calling her father. ‘White knight syndrome,’ she called it contemptuously. She could look after herself without depending on the kindness of strangers.

The bar wasn’t really that far from her apartment, say three or four miles in a straight line, and Kathy was an experienced hiker in good condition. She had decided she’d simply walk, taking a path that, she’d thought, led through the state park back to town, cutting off the better part of the journey by road.

Only, she was relatively certain that there ought not to be this three-way split in the path. And she wasn’t even sure what direction she was going anymore. Leaving the bar, she’d neglected to consider that she had no compass or map and only a vague idea of what direction town lay.

Shit!

Kathy pushed a slightly-damp lock of chestnut-brown hair out of her face as she considered the three ways. It would help if she had some stars to guide her at the very least, but the stars were lost in the clouds. Clouds that promised rain.

She took out her phone and tried to bring up a map to give herself some idea of where she was. For what felt like several minutes, she watched the GPS app spin its loading wheel before showing the little orange arrow indicating her position…in the middle of a completely featureless blob of grey. The paths, apparently weren’t even marked on the app. Frustrated, she tried to zoom out and was met with the loading wheel again. At the same time, a roll of thunder sounded overhead.

“Damn it!” she shouted aloud, shoving the phone back into her pocket. “Cheryl, I swear I will kill you for this!”

On an impulse, Kathy decided on the left path. That way, at least, went roughly in the direction of the road (she was almost sure), so if the worst came to the worst she could at least find her way there and take the longer, but surer route. She thanked her stars that she’d never developed a taste for heels and had worn comfortable, high-top boots for her ‘fun night out’.

She hurried along the path as fast as the darkness and rough terrain would allow, for the path dipped and rose frequently, and tree roots cast jagged traps for her feet. Now and again she looked up at the sky to check if the weather had changed. A few minutes after taking the path, Kathy saw the woods about her lit up with harsh white light as lightning flashed in the distance. But it was some seconds before the thunder reached her, so the main storm was still some way off at least. Perhaps she’d get lucky for once that night and it wouldn’t come this way at all.

As she walked, Kathy thought back, trying to recall if the TV in the bar had said anything about a storm that night. She dimly recalled absent-mindedly watching a weather report during one of the idle moments….

Suddenly, she froze. For she had remembered something else: another scarcely-noticed television report seen that very night. She’d noted it, commented on it even, and then forgotten it in the light of subsequent events that had seemed so much more immediately important.

The pallid, thickly-spectacled face of a middle-aged man. The affectedly concerned expression on the muted anchoress’s face as she read the report, shown in black-and-white closed captioning along the bottom the screen that nearly, but not quite obscured the banner headline:

ESCAPED SERIAL KILLER AT LARGE.

Shit, shit, Shit, SHIT!

Kathy swung the light around the woods with a new urgency while her heart jumped in her chest. The oncoming storm ceased to be a factor in her mind as a darker anxiety rose to cast its shadow. How could she have been so stupid? A walk home at night, through the woods, alone…what was she thinking?

For a moment, she stood very still, trying to control her breathing as she swept the woods with her flashlight. The wind was rising, and the trees around her waved and clashed together. That was on top of the many scufflings and scratchings and similar sounds from the underbrush.

Like most people of her age and upbringing, Kathy had very rarely felt experienced genuine fear. Her chief references for being scared were things like watching a scary movie, or having a bad nightmare. Real, honest-to-God threats to her own life and safety had rarely, if ever come her way. The possibility she might meet someone or something in the darkness that would mean she would never see the dawn was completely alien to her experience, and the sick clenching of her stomach as this idea took hold made her almost too frightened to move.

Get a grip, Kathy, she told herself firmly. Escaped serial killer doesn’t mean he’s here, in this park tonight. He probably isn’t. He’s probably a hundred miles away heading for the border. That’s what escaped criminals do; they don’t hang out in the woods like Bigfoot. Besides, you can take care of yourself, whatever happens!

With such sensible reassurances, Kathy successfully reasoned herself into going on. The beam of her flashlight cast a narrow, yellowish glow over the path ahead, sending livid shadows up from every tree, rock, and root, shadows that wavered and moved unsettlingly as she walked. Every so often, she saw a yellow or green or red pair of eyes flash out at her from the darkness on either side, making her jump.

Squirrels and rabbits, she told herself. Keep it together!

The thunder rumbled again overhead. The first cold drops landed on her head.

Damnit.

Things had gone far enough. She didn’t know what help he could bring at this point, but she wanted to call her father. It would help to hear a familiar voice at least! And perhaps that way, when she did find the road, he’d be able to come pick her up. Kathy would almost welcome a lecture at this point, if only it meant she didn’t have to spend a moment longer than she had to out in this damned night.

She reached for her phone. Then stopped and began feeling frantically in all her pockets, the cold clenching in her stomach growing tighter. Her phone was gone. When she’d put it away at the crossroads, it must have caught and slipped out of her pocket, and she’d been too agitated to notice.

Kathy looked behind her at the long tunnel of rain-swept night. Should she go back and look for it? She could hardly stand the mere idea of it. Besides, it was already at least a quarter mile back.

And were those footsteps she heard behind her? Was that a shadowy figure she saw among the trees at the very edge of her flashlight beam?

Rationally, Kathy knew she was being foolish. There was nothing there, no footsteps, no shadowy figure. Escaped serial killers didn’t lurk in rain-swept woods waiting for unsuspecting victims to pass.

Rationally, she knew there was probably nothing to fear. But she ran for it nonetheless.

Heedless of the rain, her flashlight swinging wildly, Kathy fled along the path. Every waving shadow and flashing tree seemed to her disturbed mind to herald that nightmare figure with his pallid, evil face and thick glasses stepping out of the night to grab her. Her own breath sounded loud in her ears, and the rain pounded down harder, soaking her and seeming to drag her down, as if even the weather wished to make her sluggish and prevent her escape.

The path dipped and her pace increased. She felt herself losing control of her own feet as they tried to compensate for the rapid descent. Mentally, she yelled at herself to slow down, but too late. Her foot caught suddenly on a root and with a scream she pitched forward, trying to brace herself with her hands as she tumbled the rest of the way down the short slope.

She fetch up on the bottom in absolute darkness, having dropped her flashlight in the fall. Hands stinging, a twinge of sharp pain in her leg, Kathy rose to her hands and knees, an inarticulate sound of frustration on her lips. The pain was almost irrelevant: it was the fear and sense of urgency that gnawed at her and filled her mind as she frantically felt about for the flashlight with trembling hands.

“Come on, come on, where are you?” she muttered furiously.

Finally her searching fingers brushed against the smooth plastic handle and she seized it with an exclamation of thanks and flicked it on.

Nothing happened.

“No. No, no, no, no….”

Again and again she turned the switch from off to on, on to off. She tightened the cap and tried again. Nothing. It was broken.

With a furious, incoherent scream of despair, she threw the useless thing into the night. For a moment, she knelt in the pouring rain, hugging herself and shivering violently as she turned her head this way and that, scanning the solid night. It was almost completely dark, with nothing but the faint hint of deeper shadows to mark the trees. The steady tinnitus of the driving rain made her nearly as deaf as she was blind. If anyone was in the woods tonight, she would neither see nor hear them….

That means they won’t see or hear you either, she told herself. And why would anyone be out there tonight, unless they’re as stupid as you are? Get a grip, Kathy! The road can’t be too far off.

But for a while she stayed where she was, trying to muster the courage to press on into the darkness. Each breath seemed to catch in her throat, and every sound above the pattering of the rain made her jump.

Lightning flashed across the forest once again, sending coal-black shadows chasing behind trees. Kathy saw that she was still on the path, still going – she hoped – the right way.

With a burst of effort, she rose to her feet and began walking blind, hands outstretched, sweeping the ground before her with her feet. Every passing branch, every tree trunk that met her searching fingers made her flinch, but she kept going. There was nothing else to do.

Then, after what felt like hours, she saw light through the trees. Abandoning the path, she plunged through the trees, making straight for it, pushing her way though the wet branches. Cold water splashed up past the top of her boots from puddles that had formed from hollows between trees, and more than once she found herself caught up on bushes and branches and had to find another way through.

At last, though, the trees abruptly thinned on either side and Kathy found herself struggling up a steep bank beneath the faded glow of a street light veiled by the rain. She paused at the top, breathing hard and feeling relief flooding through her. She had found the road!

She set off walking as quick as she could with her hurt leg, but with more control now than when she had fled through the forest. No sense wearing herself out if she had to do this all the way home. Intermittent streetlights cast a ghostly sheen over the road, glittering against the infinity of raindrops that continued to pound down around her and glistening against the asphalt as if it were newly laid with tar..

After a few minutes, Kathy rounded a curve and with an exclamation of thanks beheld the neon glare of a gas station. The light in the little store was still on, harsh against the darkness and she fairly ran the rest of the way.

There were no cars at the pumps, and no one inside but the clerk, who was bending over a magazine on the counter. He looked up and started as she came in, dripping wet, covered in mud, and breathing hard, her face red with exertion.

“Jesus, are you okay?” he exclaimed.

Kathy almost laughed.

“I’ve had a rough night,” she said. “Do you have a phone I can use?”

He pointed silently to the public telephone that stood in a corner before the front window. Heart still hammering, but feeling the first pangs of relaxing nerves, Kathy dialed the listed number for a cab company with trembling fingers.

A half-hour later, Kathy stumbled into her apartment, exhausted, drenched, and filthy. Her hands were scrapped and raw, and her knee hurt rather badly from when she had fallen and from having walked on it for so longer after, but that didn’t seem to matter much compared with the relief of being home at last. She immediately went into the bathroom and took a long, hot shower. As she stepped out of it and into her pajamas, part of her wanted to go to bed immediately. Another part wanted to get the really stinging email that she meant to send to Cheryl off right now before she had a chance to cool off.

She wavered a moment, but in the end she decided that she would sleep better once she’d vented some of the anger that was searing in her chest. Now that she was through and her fears were over, Kathy felt a proportional degree of fury, made all the stronger for being mingled with shame at her panic of earlier. Really, how childish she’d been to lose her head like that.

She sat down at her desk, booted up her computer, and opened her email, her mind sifting through the many possibilities for verbally punishing her sister for this debacle.

But when she opened her email, she found a new message waiting for her. A message sent from her own account. Without thinking, she clicked it.

The email showed a large photo, somewhat blurry from the rain. A photo shot looking in through the gas station window. It showed herself on the pay phone leaning against the wall, looking absently out the window at the darkness while she waited for an answer, her soaking wet brown hair hanging limp about her flushed, tired face. Beneath the photo was a message.

See you soon, Kathy.

Friday Flotsam: Free Thinking, a Review, and the End of the World

1. One of my co-workers has a sticker on his computer that says ‘Danger: Free Thinker’. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, and he seems like a decent guy, but in my experience legitimate ‘free thinkers’ (to the extent that such creatures exist) do not proudly identify themselves as such.

‘Free thinker’ or ‘think for yourself’ tends to be nothing but a form of branding; a way to lend unearned weight to opinions. It’s the intellectual equivalent of ‘organic’ or ‘made with natural ingredients!’: usually not true and of dubious utility when it is.

When someone describes himself as a free thinker, he usually means that he is free of long-outdated forms of popular opinion and instead follows one or another contemporary trends without realizing it’s a trend.

2. It is one of the odd traits of a culture such as ours, which prides itself upon its advanced nature and defiance of ‘established modes’ that its people usually fixate their critical faculties, not on genuinely established opinions or current dogmas, but on those that were or are supposed to have been held several generations before.

This, of course, is inevitable; a society needs an established creed to guide its actions and values, and you can’t have the populace legitimately in perpetual revolt against the current climate of opinion, otherwise it wouldn’t be the current climate. So a society that holds independence of thought and rejection of dogma as its defining characteristics and feeds its people on myths of bold reformers who courageously stood against tradition will have to have a kind of false bogey ‘establishment’ for the people to feel they are boldly defying.

Hence the phenomenon of ‘free thinkers’ who all think according to how those in power wish them to think. Hence too the even more ridiculous assertion that children do not learn to think for themselves from their parents, but from the paid indoctrinators of the State.

3. I’d say I’ve only encountered a few writers whom I would class as legitimately independent thinkers. That is, who actually appear to me to subject all or most of the ideas that come under their view to critical examination and draw conclusions from that. They tend to draw the ire of both ‘sides’ of the actual establishment and to critique those assumptions that are held to be unquestionable by all.

In any case, they do not usually boast of being ‘free thinkers’, they simply offer their observations and let them stand or fall on their own merits. Rather like how if you get freshly-slaughtered pork from a homesteader, he doesn’t feel the need to put ‘organic’ on the package.

(By the way, none of that was meant as a back-door attempt to assign myself the label. Though it is hard to declaim it without seemingly invalidating everything I say. “One cannot be too careful not to think about it,” as Prof. Lewis put it).

4. If I were to tell you that I spent some time watching an old man spreading goop around, you would come away with the idea that I had perhaps spent time with a senile relative, or even in a mental institution. You’d likely feel pity and sympathy for me.

If I were to tell you that I had spent time watching M. Bouguereau paint (ignoring the time factor for the sake of the example), however, you would react with awe and envy to find that I had been privileged to see a genius artistic hand at work.

Yet the two statements are both true versions of the exact same subject. Indeed, the first one is a more factually specific, describing the action rather than containing it in the more abstract concept of ‘painting’. Nevertheless, the second is the more accurate way of describing it, because it conveys the nature of the event more correctly and evokes more appropriate responses.

Similarly, I think that, whatever the factual sequence of events that made up the creation of the world and the descent of species, it will always be more accurate to describe it as “in the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth,” and “God formed man out of the clay and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”

5. The Terror has gotten an entirely-too-flattering review from Caroline Furlong. Read it and then check out her blog if you haven’t already.

6. Some people say, and have been saying that it’s the end times. Technically, it’s been the end times for 2000 years now: with the coming of Christ we’re in the final age of the world regardless. But as for whether we’re approaching the actual Last Judgment, well, my own thoughts are, why would that matter? What difference does it make? We’re all heading for judgment, final or personal, and it can come at any time for any of us. We’ve been told that repeatedly. Worrying and wondering about the end times seems to me a waste of time. The important thing is to be ready and have our lamps timed and full of oil when the time comes.

(For what it’s worth, personally I don’t think we are, but again, who cares?)