Monday, June 4, 2018

Writing Goals and the End of the World

Hey, Blog.

I turned 30 years old recently. I had 6 people attend my birthday, which means I got two friends a decade over the course of my life.

I was very disappointed and a lot of people said the problem was that my party was on Memorial Day weekend. They're right. I should have just rescheduled the date of my birth thirty years ago. My bad.

Anyway, I'll talk more about my birthday and the hilarious depressive episode that followed in my next post...

Memes!  Memes!  Memes!  Memes!

...but for this week I wanted to post a series I'm working on.  Or maybe a book.  I don't fucking know yet.

Andy and I recently went over to my neighbor Elizabeth's house and we were talking about my writing and somehow the topic of The Fifth Horseman came up.  The Fifth Horseman was an idea I had two years ago that I began with gusto and then got sad because of my job and stopped.

Classic Tony!

Anyways, the whole thing was inspired by a prompt on /r/WritingPrompts.  The prompt:

An ancient evil awakens. 
A modern evil doesn't like competition.

I wrote a short story and was later contacted by a script writer who wanted to turn it into a series.  That never materialized (because of my aforementioned depression) but it laid out the groundwork for the series. I'd like to post what I have here so far so that it's publicly available, and I'm going to keep working on it. Maybe it'll someday be self-published on Amazon and I'll be able to sell six copies, one to each of my friends.

Dream big.

Here's the chapter index, notes, and first two chapters as I wrote them. Really looking forward to starting this project again.

The idea

You might recall that in the Book of Revelation, chapter 6, four "horsemen of the apocalypse" are described.

My idea is as follows: The three "original" horsemen, Pestilence, War, and Famine, work under Death.  Recently, they receive three new counterparts who are essentially opposite sides of the coin: Disconnection, Waste, and Indulgence.  They correlate to seven sins and seven virtues, with each two Horsemen sharing two.  (Note that Indulgence and Famine share two of the sins and virtues equally; Pestilence was never given one because it is later revealed he shares Envy/Kindness with Disconnection.)

The main conflict of the story is that Pestilence hates his replacement, Disconnection.

The Riders and their sins and virtues are linked as follows (with each chapter exploring the connections):

War - Pride - Humility
Waste - Sloth - Diligence

Pestilence - The Main Character
Disconnection - Envy - Kindness

Famine - Gluttony / Greed - Charity /Temperance
Indulgence - Greed / Lust - Charity /Temperance

Death - Wrath - Patience / Persistence

The outline

  1. Meet Disconnection
  2. Seven Horsemen
  3. War and Indulgence
  4. War and Waste
  5. Famine and Indulgence
  6. Famine and Waste
  7. For Conquest and Glory
  8. Pestilence Goes to School
  9. Pestilence Goes to a Ball Game
  10. Pestilence Goes to the Circus
  11. Pestilence and the Horses
  12. Pestilence Files a Formal Complaint
  13. Pestilence and Death
  14. Pestilence and Humanity
  15. Pestilence and Disconnection 

Chapter One/ Pilot / Pitch
(the one that started it all)

The door to room 608 opened slowly, casting a soft beam of fluorescent light on its occupants. Mark Horowitz, age 89, lay sleeping on the hospital bed, his heart monitor beeping out a steady tattoo.

The man who entered room 608 was not a doctor, but might have been a patient. He was gaunt and bony. His skin had a grey, waxy appearance. His teeth were too widely spaced and appeared too loose to be healthy; his eyes were rheumy and slightly yellow. His nails were too long. His hair, black, was greasy, thinning. His breath rattled in his chest, and from every pore came a sickly sweet smell that was reminiscent of rotting things. He was not wearing a patient's gown, however. He was wearing a neatly tailored pinstripe suit.

"Hey gramps."

The man in the suit stopped by Mark Horowitz's bed and noticed, for the first time, a young man sitting beside him. The young man was in jeans; his t-shirt was well-worn but clean. He had blond hair held into a stubby mohawk with gel. His chin had a few lightly colored hairs, and it was clear he was attempting, and failing at, a beard. His face was an open, honest one; he looked like a guy who might be on the football team but wasn't the star quarterback. A handsome (if forgettable) fellow.

"Hello," said the man in the pinstripe suit in a gravely voice. This prompted a wet, hacking cough. He grabbed one of the hospital bed's guard rails to steady himself. His hands shook.

The young man didn't even watch. His attention had been diverted to the phone in his hands, where he was playing Candy Crush.

"So you're Pestilence, huh?"

"H-how... did you know?" asked the man in the suit between coughs. Shakily, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. He offered it to the younger man, but he waved it away.

"I've heard about you, from Famine. I'm Disconnection. But they all call me Dis."

"A pleasure," gasped Pestilence, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief.

"Yeah, yeah. Sorry you wasted your time but he's going to be okay."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Mark." Disconnection twisted in the chair so that his legs dangled over the armrest. He tilted back his head, holding his phone over his face. The screen illuminated his blond goatee, or what was supposed to be a goatee. His fingers texted rapidly as he spoke. "The doctors are going to get him a liver transplant so the cirrhosis is probably not going to get him. Sorry to disappoint you."

"They're curing him?" asked Pestilence, dumbfounded. "But... the pneumonia..."

"Antibiotics. Hey, do you have FaceBook?"

Pestilence looked down at Mark. He didn't look 89. He looked much younger, and his face was peaceful.

Pestilence looked up at Dis. "But where are his grandkids? They weren't vaccinated. They're supposed to be here, catching the measles."

"Sorry bro. They're not coming. Aiden's got a raid and Mackenzie is a mod for Advice Animals, so they're sort of busy."

"But he's dying."

"No he's not. Do you see Death here? Nope. Because the doctors took care of it. Modern medicine, man. It's something else. Hey, what's your Twitter handle?"

Pestilence shook his head. "I don't have a cell phone."

Dis looked up briefly in surprise. "For real? Oh man. Well... uh, good for you, I guess."

Pestilence reached out and touched Mark's face. His brow furrowed in his sleep, and the heart monitor began beeping more rapidly. In an instant, the door flew open and a nurse rushed in. She pushed Pestilence out of the way without a second thought and bent over Mark to check on him.

Mark's eyes fluttered open. "Sheila?" he gasped.

"You're okay," said the nurse, patting his chest. "It's just me. You're just fine. We're taking good care of you."

"Where's Sheila?"

"She went home, Mr. Horowitz. She'll be back first thing tomorrow, though, I'm sure."

Mark reached up weakly. "Could you stay with me?"

Disconnection grinned at Pestilence and wiggled his eyebrows. The nurse's pager began beeping. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket, checked it, and shook her head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Horowitz. I'm a bit busy right now, but I'll come back shortly." She began texting on her phone, and walked out of the room with her eyes focused on the screen.

Pestilence and Disconnection looked at each other.

"It's incredible, isn't it? People." Disconnection paused to take a selfie. "You bring them war, famine, floods, plagues, whatever, and somehow, they always find the silver lining. They unite and they grow stronger. They feed off each other. But then, you give them access to information, and it all falls apart. Knowledge is power, and power is corrupting. Humans love information, and they love stimulation. They crave amusement. Their natural curiosity is all-consuming, and they poison themselves with it. Give them access to the media, to each other, and everything good about them evaporates in a cloud of liking and sharing and inflating their sorry little egos for some virtual validation. You shrink their world, and you shrink their very souls. Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it easy?"

Pestilence took a few shaky steps back. "You... you're a monster. That's not how we do this. That's not how we do any of this! We're supposed to cause them hardship, not... not turn them against each other!"

Disconnection stood, his face illuminated by the screen of his phone, his grin manic in the electronic glow. "Wanna know a secret?" he whispered.

Pestilence shook his head, rooted to the ground, unable to run. Disconnection took a few steps toward him, his phone beeping softly over Mark's heart monitor, and spoke anyway.

"...I'm really good at Flappy Bird."

Bits and Pieces

From Chapter 7: Pestilence talks to War.

Pestilence needed to talk to the others alone. That much was obvious.

For millennia, for longer than time itself, he and the other horsemen had ridden throughout the world, testing people, wreaking havoc, and watching with pride as they failed and the humans overcame. But now, it seemed, things were different. The end of times? Finally, after all this time… the great, long good-bye?

“WAR!” he shouted, to be heard over the revving of the Harley. War sat on her cherry-red motorcycle in the parking lot of the Diner on Olive Tree Lane and watched the other departing, appearing to enjoy the noise she was creating.

“WHAT?” she yelled back.


“OKAY. BAR ON 8TH TONIGHT,” she yelled.

“NO, NOW!” yelled Pestilence. But War ignored him. She backed out the bike gently, then gunned it out of the parking lot without a turn signal. Pestilence cringed as she zipped neatly across three lanes of traffic, causing two cars to nearly collide. The drivers got out and

[Section lost.]

Pestilence covered his mouth with his once-white handkerchief and coughed. War ignored him. She held her cigarette between her index and middle finger, casually. Just below the surface, one could sense an incredible power, a tension that needed only the smallest spark to ignite. Her muscles were coiled like a large cat waiting to spring; everything about her bearing screamed that her seemingly casual stance was purposeful and intended, and that it would take little to break her from it and unleash her fury.

“You’re honestly okay with them?” asked Pestilence.

“Of course. As far as I’m concerned, they’re excellent allies.”

“But… but do you think their approaches are… ah, I don’t know… honorable?”

War let out a sharp bark of a laugh. “Ha! Honorable? Honorable is a dirty little word. Honor is what I promise young boys and vengeful families. Honor is the fool’s gold I use to gild their weapons and to shade their eyes. You think honor is anything more more than one of my tools? Since the dawn of human consciousness, since my conception, honor has meant only one thing to me. It’s the pride of humans, the pride that lets me exploit them. Do you think I could coax anyone into an early grave without it? If you think honor is anything but a comforting lie and a call to arms, you’re mistaken, Pest. Honor is…”

She blew out a puff of smoke and, with a hand, waved it away into the cold, still night.

Pestilence looked down. “You’ve done good, too.”

“Well, of course. Progress marches on like an army. People band together against common enemies, it’s true. But pride is the most powerful of human emotions. People betray each other, and seek vengeance, and they do it all in the name of honor. And that sense of pride is far more powerful than any sense of compassion they have. I draw men to me and they come, gladly, bearing spears and arrows and guns and bombs, and they gleefully mow each other down while I laugh and laugh.” She smiled. It was a wide, wet, red smile. “Heroes.” She laughed, low and throaty. “The prideful little heroes. They fight, and I win. I always win.”

From Chapter 7: Pestilence talks to Waste.

Pestilence was struggling to light his lighter when a flame ignited beneath his cupped hands. He looked up to see Waste holding out a plastic lighter. She made sure his was lit before she lit her own. It was the last in the pack; she tossed aside the empty pack without a second glance. The breeze blew it away down the block.

“You don’t like me,” she said pensively. It was a statement, not a question, so Pestilence didn’t respond. “It’s alright. No one likes any of us, really. But we perform an important role, you know.” She nodded, agreeing with herself. “I, for example. I’m the result of progress, and of convenience, and of automated, streamlined, industrial processes. All of those things are considered good, so why fret over the byproduct? I give back to people their leisure time. I remove the need for skilled labor, or for personal responsibility. Mine’s a sterile, prepackaged, disposable, one-time-use world. Isn’t that a nice, convenient thing?”

Pestilence said nothing.

“You might think I’m stepping on your toes. I know that disposables and one-time-use products have really damaged the infection game for you. But we could be great together. Instead of picking them off individually, we can slowly poison the lot of them, all together. It could be your magnum opus, Pest. This doesn’t have to be personalized. It can be streamlined, just like everything else. An assembly-line of human deterioration. The greatest human folly is their own laziness. They crave boredom, and they crave leisure, and they’re willing to destroy their own habitat to get more of it. The air and the water, the food, everything. And radiation. Oh, Pest… don’t you see how much potential there is?”

“It’s not meant to be a process. It’s supposed to be personal” said Pestilence gruffly. “I infect humans. Not the water or the air.”

“If you truly believed in making it personal, how much more personal can it be than this? They choose the easiest and most convenient option and it leads to their own downfall. They drive their cars and eat their hamburgers and never think twice about it, but they’re the one swirling around the drain they’ve created. I think that’s beautiful.” Her face broke into a wide grin. “Falling autumn leaves, dry and ashy black, signal one great, final winter.”

Chapter Two: 
Seven Horsemen

The door to bus line 608 opened slowly with a pneumatic hiss to let on the waiting passenger. The passenger boarded gratefully and, with shaking hands, pulled out a well-worn leather wallet. Slowly, painfully, his knuckles gnarled with arthritis and shaking faintly, he counted out a handful of dirty coins to put into the till. Having paid his fare, he made his way toward the back of the bus, using the stainless-steel poles to steady himself, pausing occasionally to pull up his slacks, which were far too large for him.

Pestilence was not an attractive man.

He never had been, but tens of thousands of years had taken its toll. His skin was pulled too tightly over his skin and was pale to a point of sickness. His black hair was thinning badly and was perpetually greasy. His white dress shirt had a slightly yellow stain on its front of indeterminate origin.

Pestilence was a man people looked on with equal parts revulsion and pity, which was precisely the look he was going for. Back in the day, he'd walked through plague cities on a pure white horse that only served to emphasize his sickness with its vigor. People had fled him in droves. It was worth the cost of the horse. (He went through about two a year. He was dreadful at keeping things alive, be they houseplants or stallions.)

Nowadays, though, with horses out of style, he had developed a certain degree of fondness for the public transit system. He watched with grandfatherly enjoyment as people coughed on the seats, the poles, and each other. Occasionally a child would lick something while a distracted mother stared out the window. It was an elegant system and one of the last bastions of humanity untouched by the development of germ theory.

Of course, it was a bit slow. Pestilence arrived at the Diner on Olive Tree Lane twenty minutes late, but there was no avoiding that.

He disembarked slowly, hacking wetly into a once-white handkerchief. As the bus pulled away in a cloud of smoke and dust, a small girl in braids waved from the window, nose pressed against the glass. He waved back, then turned toward the diner.

His companions were already there. He could pick out War a million miles away; her cherry-red Harley was parked aggressively close to the handicap spot, daring anyone to touch or ticket it. She had always had a flare for the dramatic. If she could, then no doubt, she would have taken an elephant or a tank. She would have fit perfectly riding a bomb to their meetings and waving a cowboy hat in the air; there was no doubt in Pestilence's mind that her Harley was the loudest model, the Hog to end all Hogs.

Parked more conservatively two spots down was a shiny new blue SUV. A sticker on the back bumper showed a little cartoon hand giving a thumbs-up. Pestilence wasn't sure why, but that sticker evoked a sense of dread in him.

Beside the SUV was black van. The black van had a peeling "End World Hunger NOW!" bumper sticker next to a "no GMOs" and "Living Gluten-free!" sticker. Cute, thought Pestilence. Famine had a tendency to hop onto any fad diet he could get his hands on, taking them to dangerous extremes whenever possible. Lately, when he wasn't on safari, he spent his time working from home, where he managed a series of "pro-ana" web forums.

There was a purple BMW and a bright yellow Hummer parked between the van and the green Kia Rio at the far end of the lot. The Kia was dirty, paling its green to more of a grey color. The last time he'd seen her, she'd had a Corvair, in the same color, and in the same desperate need of a wash.

Pestilence let himself into the diner. It was uncreatively called "The Diner," although those that went there called it "The Diner on Olive Tree Lane" to distinguish it from the other Diner across town on 3rd Street.

It was mid-afternoon, a brisk autumn day, and the place was empty except for one very large party in the corner. A brightly smiling hostess began to get a menu, but Pestilence waved her off and pointed to his group, unable to talk due to a fit of surprised coughing.

Concealing her disgust, the hostess took him to the table and sat him down and went off as quickly as she could to get him some water.

"Well, look who's here!" exclaimed Famine jovially, consulting his wrist watch with an exaggerated manner. Famine was tall, lean man with a shaved head who was often mistaken for an athlete. He was well-dressed in a slim-fit European suit. Online, he went as "Raven93," and doctored pictures of pretty girls who were impossibly, skeletally thin, except when he was writing propaganda for Communist countries, in which case he went as "Comrade" and doctored pictures of pretty girls who weren't impossibly, skeletally thin.

"Hi, Fam. Hi, War," said Pestilence, fiddling uncomfortably with his silverware. There were more people than he'd bargained for here, and he wasn't sure how to feel about that. There had always been four of them. Now there were seven.

"Have you met Dis?" asked War perkily. War was pretty. War had always been pretty. She had high cheekbones and a gaze of unwavering, determined nobility. Her hair was a leonine mess of red curls and her nails were perfectly manicured. She could make anything beautiful. She could convince any young man that he only need to protect his country to have her, and regularly roped Pestilence and Famine into her schemes. Pestilence had her to thank for a very successful Civil War in the 1800s.

"We've met," said Pestilence gloomily.

"And yet, you still haven't friended me!" exclaimed Disconnection with mock upset. Pestilence realized who the blue SUV belonged to, and felt sick. Disconnection didn't notice; he was texting on his phone. "I brought friends," he added, his eyes fixed on the screen.

"Hi. Indulgence." A rather chubby young man reached across the table to shake Pestilence's hand. Pestilence didn't even have time to cough in it. Indulgence had a round face with a sort of desperate smile, and exuded a nervousness normally reserved for little dogs. He seemed both embarrassed and desperate to be liked. His clothes were designer and more garish even than War's; Pestilence thought of the purple BMW and knew immediately the kind of person he was dealing with.

"A pleasure," he lied. "And you are..."

"Waste," she said. She was a wisp of a thing, with heavy-lidded eyes and a fairly haughty demeanor. Her hair was black and perfectly straight. Her hands looked like she played piano; one of them was wrapped around a Starbucks cup. She had the sort of posture that Victorian ladies would have died for.

"Bit of a crowd?" suggested Pestilence awkwardly, not sure how to ask the others what the hell they thought they were doing.

"This is nothing," said Indulgence quickly. He looked immediately embarrassed at his outburst, and took to the plate of cheese fries in front of him like there was an antidote hidden at the bottom.

Beside him, the last member of their party patted Pestilence's hand. She was old, as old as time, and looked the part. She didn't speak much. Pestilence wasn't sure whether her pat was a gesture of support, comfort, or warning.

"Times, they are a-changin'," said Famine with characteristic chipperness. "Honestly, Pest, you might find some of their methods helpful. Tell them about WoW, Indy."

Indulgence had a mouth full of food. With a look of pure embarrassment, he choked it down so he could answer. Pestilence could already tell he had a crush on War. "It's just a game online. Actually Dis showed me. It's called World of Warcraft."

War beamed. Indulgence grinned shyly. Disconnection cast a look of smug superiority around the table.

Pestilence frowned.

"I thought we were supposed to challenge the humans, to test them in ways that allows them to rise above, and showcase their inner divinity? Don't think a game will help much with that."

"Well, that's one idea," said Disconnection dismissively. "Rising above, huh? Well, I guess. Seems like a lot of work. I mean, not to be a jerk, but when have they ever really impressed any of us?"

"Hungry people tend to reduce themselves to animals," agreed Famine. "I don't see a lot of nobility on my end."

"But relief efforts show how they care about each other," countered Pestilence. "War, don't you occasionally see... see moments of compassion and love and... and... humanity?"

War tapped a finger on her lips. "Gosh, sure, sometimes, but you know, one in ten thousand, a handful per army. It's a lot of work to pick those ones out. This is a lot more streamlined."

"This? What this?" demanded Pestilence suspiciously.

"Us," clarified Waste. She had a surprisingly husky voice for such a waif of a woman. "We feel that this is faster and more... ah... modern. Not that you aren't all still very welcome to help us. War, we're all long-time fans of your work." War beamed. "But with technology outstripping all other human development, we really think there needs to be a new paradigm."

"Indulgence and I have some Department of Defense contracts that will blow your socks off!" added War. Her eyes lit up. "Literally blow 'em right off!"

"Waste's been very helpful," added Famine. He smiled at her, and her face looked a little less stern at him. Pestilence felt sicker than usual. Were they an item, too? Were they all pairing off and leaving him to combat biomedical research and vaccines by himself?

"No offense, Gramps," added Disconnection. When he spoke, all other faces turned toward him. He was an attention magnet. He was perfectly average, and perfectly forgettable, and yet as magnetic as any other force on earth. He leeched their attention like a dry earth sucks at water. On the tiny old woman on Pestilence's right seemed unaffected. She sipped her soup in a single-minded way and ignored them all.

"The thing is, people are living longer and longer, and it used to be, they'd find Grace in your work, but now it's just a puzzle they're solving. You've lost your edge. Whereas Indulgence here is really on to something. He's got people buying like never before, wrecking themselves... and I mean, it's great, everything's so mass produced, even the poorest can afford it. Or at least, they think they can. They corrupt themselves with it. Me and him, we go way back. You have no idea how great computers are."

"It's true!" piped up Famine, no doubt thinking of his cushy work-from-home situation. "I mean, people have always been greedy. This is just expanding on it. Used to be only kings could really go wild, while all their peasants tried not to starve in the winter." For a moment he looked out the window, looking a bit nostalgic for simpler times. Then he snapped out of his reverie and continued. "Now, well, look at any first-world country. Not a lot of sickness or starvation. But they take it in the opposite direction. Treat everything with antibiotics, over-eat to an early grave, work themselves in a frenzy for items they lived without for years earlier. Have a look at Black Friday. It's a pretty fine situation."

"Keurigs are fantastic," added Waste. "Have you tried a Keurig yet?"

"But it's not fair," protested Pestilence. "There's no chance for them to redeem themselves. That's the point. They're... they're supposed to be able to rise above."

"And they can," said Disconnection with a wicked smile. "It's easy. Log off. Don't get a smart phone. Play less video games. No more McDonald's. Heck, anyone can do it. They just don't."

"But it's not a conscious decision."

Pestilence looked at each of their faces, frantic to find anyone who agreed with him. But War was grinning with delight, and Indulgence was ducking his head to hide his smile, and Famine was cozied up to Waste, who was unwrapping individually wrapped candies and tossing the plastic wrappers all over the floor. Disconnection was on his phone.

Pestilence deflated a little; his bony shoulders sank, and he sighed, letting out a faint wheeze. "They're doomed."

"Perhaps they always were," said Disconnection absent-mindedly, without breaking eye contact with his phone.

Disgusted, Pestilence rose from the table. "I need a smoke break," he grumbled. Waste quickly pulled out a pack and offered him one, which he took gratefully. He noticed they had a long, styrofoam-like filter.

He went out to the parking lot to smoke in peace in the cool autumn day. Around him, leaves rattled in the trees, and a cloudy sky promised rain sometime in the night, after everyone was tucked snugly into bed. Pestilence mourned them. He always felt he'd given them a fair chance: a comfort, to care, to face his tests with chins held high. They banded together against him, in love for each other; they banded together in war, and sometimes even in famine. Yet with Disconnection and Waste and Indulgence, they seemed doomed to die on their rotting planet truly alone, without even the consolation that they were aware that it was happening. It made him very sad.

Behind him, he felt a presence. He turned. A tiny old woman with a white perm and a hand-knit sweater stood behind him with a soft smile and gentle eyes.

"What about you? Don't you have anything to say about this? Don't you think they're a bit... biased? It's not really... equitable, is it? It's supposed to be equitable. Psalm 17:2, and Ezekiel 18:25, and... You know, Job, and calling unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation..."

He was rambling, but she let him, watching placidly at the ribbon of smoke that trailing from his cigarette into the sky and dissipated without a trace.

When he trailed off, she looked directly at him. Their eyes met.

"Don't you worry about them?"

"Yes," she said softly. She patted his arm, and he knew it was meant to be comforting. "But worry isn't meant for us."

"What will happen to them, Death?"

"They'll all end up in the same place eventually, dear. At the end of the day, really, they're all the same. People are people. Love them for what they are, for all their faults and their childish ways."

"But they're making it worse!"

"No one makes it worse for humans than humans." Death reached a hand out to Pestilence. "But there will always be beauty in the squalor, if you look for it. Now come on. Let's go inside. Indulgence just ordered a key lime pie."

Hand in hand, they went back into the diner on Olive Tree Lane.

Monday, May 28, 2018

I Ink, Therefore I Am

Tattoos are a deliciously polarizing topic.

Some people LOVE them.  Some people HATE them.

Regardless of what you think, the reality is, tattoos have been around for over 5,000 years and are currently booming in popularity.  23% of Americans have at least one tattoo.  And as of this year, more than half (53%) of Americans under the age of 30 have a tattoo.  If this sounds exaggerated to you, then you should be aware that about 75% of people get tattoos placed where they can be hidden: an ankle or a shoulder, for example.

Tattoos work by placing ink into the dermis of the skin using a needle.

This process ranges from irritable to downright painful.  When you get a tattoo, the initial tattoo with look shiny and leak a little bit of serum, blood, and ink.  As it heals, it scabs and gets itchy.  Eventually it peels away leaving the permanent tattoo in place.

Tattoos can take hours.  And you don't get anesthetic.

The earliest evidence of tattooing is seen on Otzi the ice man, below.  Born sometime around 3,000 BC, Otzi has several tattoos... 61, in fact, including bands on his wrists and torso, and a small cross on his ankle.

Since then, tattoos have been prevalent in cultures throughout the world.  They have been used as coming-of-age rituals, ways to identify slaves, prisoners, or criminals, ways to honor one's achievements, ways to identify oneself as being a member of a certain tribe, and have even been thought to have spiritual properties.  (Which makes sense, when you consider that a) the pain of getting a tattoo means you get a massive relief of endorphins, which makes you feel better, and b) the needles may be doing double-duty as acupuncture.)

Here are just some of many examples of multicultural tattoos:

In Papua New Guinea, Koita women with a  V-shaped tattoo on the chest indicate that she had reached marriageable age.  Although children were tattooed as early as four or five, the distinctive "V" marking was a coming-of-age tattoo for women.

In Polynesia, Somoan Tongan warriors were tattooed form the waist to the knees with a series of geometrical patterns.  Tattoos artists were on par with tribal elders or holymen; it was a coveted position passed down among generations.

Maori ta moko is ink chiseled into the skin, leaving raised scars.  Elaborate linework tells a story; every person's moko is different, which different styles of lines carrying different meanings.  Note, for example, the ladder-like lines on the nose; this design is called ahu ahu mataroa and it represents athletic achievement or prowness.

In Kalinga, Phillipines, the Butbut tribe tattoos with thorns, soot and a bamboo hammer.  Tattoos were earned by protecting villages, killing enemies, or demonstrating feats of valor.

Let's be clear: although all the examples above are "tribal" in nature, it's not like tattoos were exclusive to the Philippines or to Africa.  Native Americans got tattoos; Japanese geisha got tattoos; Norse Vikings got tattoos.

4channers get memes.

Tattoos are growing increasingly more popular and socially acceptable, so I'd like to talk about some of the interesting meanings behind them, as well as tips and tricks I've learned in the course of my own adult life.  (I have 9 tattoos.)

What Tattoos Mean

  •  Swallow: Not a sex thing, like you might have been told at a college frat party.  The swallow is gotten by sailors to demonstrate experience: it represents having traveled over 5,000 nautical miles; having two swallows represented 10,000 nautical miles.
  • Anchor: Ships are usually a symbol of overcoming adversary.  ("A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.")  Anchors are more interesting.  You'll often see anchors with a phrase like "I Refuse to Sink."  This might seem confusing, until you know the history behind it.  Most anchor tattoos include a length of rope.  In extreme storms, sailors would be forced as a last-ditch effort to save themselves to cut the anchor, because if it caught on something, it could capsize the ship.  Therefore, the imagery of a cut anchor is a symbol of overcoming extreme adversary against seemingly insurmountable odds... or about doing something desperate or brave to save oneself.  I personally LOVE the cut anchor story and wish more people knew it.  Anchors WITHOUT a rope attached symbolize stability and may include the name of someone special.  (This is where the iconic "MOM" tattoos on sailors comes from.)  Traditionally, members of the US Navy get an anchor after crossing the Atlantic Ocean
  • A diamond with the lines extended: this is called the Greek symbol of Inguz and it means "Where there's a will, there's a way."
  • Feather: generally purity, probably because of the association with angel wings, or because of the associated with Osiris, the Egyptian god of the Underworld, who weighed the souls of the dead against a feather.
  • Semicolon: often used to denote a bout of depression or unsuccessful suicide attempt.  The semicolon is an indication of a stop and then a continuation.
  • Triangle, or triangle with an opening: the "delta" symbol means change; an unfinished delta symbol means "open to change."
  • Triangle with a line on the top making a smaller triangle: a glyph, representing exploration and a desire to explore.
  • Compass: self-explanatory love of travel or wanderlust.
  • Lotus: enlightenment or "rising above" adversary.  (The lotus blooms in muddy waters and harsh conditions.)
  • Koi: in Japanese mythology, the koi fish is actually considered a masculine symbol.  Like trout, koi swim upstream to mate, so the koi is a symbol of determination, motivation, and a drive to succeed.
  • Cobweb on the elbow: this is a prison tattoo typically commemorating long sentences.
  • Astrology symbol: you are willing to buy/sell crystals. 
  • Winnie the Pooh / Eeyore / Tweety Bird: Your bus is late and you shop at Wal-Mart.
  • Barbed wire on the arm: a symbol that you chew tobacco and are willing to share, provided that Marlene hasn't cleaned out your truck recently and tossed your precious chaw.
  • Tramp stamp: You love Disney.

 Getting a tattoo is a permanent decisions so here are some tips for those of you thinking about it:

DO: Consider the location of the tattoo itself.  Areas that stretch like your belly are going to warp the tattoo later in life.  Also consider how the location of the tattoo affects your career prospects.  A facial tattoo is one you should really, really think about before you get it.  Typically, you should know WHAT you want and WHERE you want it for several months, if not a year.

Unless it's an arc reactor and then you should obviously get it on your chest.
(Side note: I have an arc reactor tattoo!)

DO: Research your tattoo artist and work with them to make your tattoo.  Tattoo artists are not merely needle technicians; they can help you draw and finalize your tattoo design.  A good artist will usually want at least one consultation before plastering a tattoo on you.

DO: Be willing to shell out a lot of cash.  Including tip.  That's right: tattoo artists are meant to be tipped.  Fun story: I got a $60 tattoo when I was 19.  Ten years later, I shelled out about three or four hundred to fix it.  FIXING TATTOOS IS DIFFICULT AND PAINFUL.  Get it done right the first time, with the awareness that most tattoos will take a few hours and a few hundred dollars.

 See this shit?  EASILY a thousand bucks.  EASILY.

DO: Check placement and grammar.  Tattoo artists will place a temporary ink tattoo on your skin and then trace it with the needle.  If you don't like it, tell them.  They'll wipe it off and replace it.  If you're getting anything written, triple- and quadruple-check the grammar and spelling.

 Don't get a "MARGLE" tattoo.

DO: Be aware that you will likely feel woozy or dizzy afterwards.  Like giving blood, you'll want to drink some Gatorade and have a snack afterwards.  You'll also want to be careful not to let the tattoo stick to any clothes or sheets; the first day, there's a lot of leakage, and peeling away cloth from the skin is painful.  Plus, it totally ruins the cloth.

DON'T: Be drunk or intoxicated.  Duh.  A good artist will not do it if you are impaired; it is illegal.

DON'T: Get the name of a living person, unless it is your own name.  I'm serious.  I don't care how fucking in love you are; this is just ASKING for trouble.

DON'T:  Get a portrait.  They rarely come out well.  Also, remember, tattoos look best in the first year.  Over time, the ink can fade and "bleed."  Even an incredible portrait will slowly start to look shittier over time and possibly require touch-ups, so consider getting something representative of a person instead.

DON'T: Copy another person's tattoo.  Tattoos are personal.  It's okay to draw inspiration but generally considered rude to copy one you saw online.

BE AWARE THAT: Sleeves are done in multiple sessions and take a LOT of time and money.

BE AWARE THAT: Tattoo regret is a thing but it doesn't have to be.  I have some tattoos that are less meaningful to me now than they were than when I got them.  However, like scars, tattoos tell a story.  I got a dumb dragon tattoo on my leg when I was a teenager, and while I would never do that nowadays, that's who I was when I was nineteen.  If you're getting a tattoo, be aware that you, as a person, will change with time, and be capable of loving your past self.  This will prevent tattoo regret.

BE AWARE THAT: UV ink is super cool... and also completely untrustworthy.   According to the FDA, "many pigments used in tattoo inks are industrial-grade colors suitable for printers' ink or automobile paint."  UV ink is reactive and carries a higher risk than regular inks.  (The second most common ink people react badly to, for the record, is red.)  UV ink is also more painful to get and can take longer and require multiple sessions to stick.  (One of my tattoos has UV ink and after 2 sessions it is only BARELY visible.)  A lot of tattoo artists refuse to do UV ink at all.

BE AWARE THAT: The most important thing is that you love your tattoo.  Don't let others discourage you from getting a tattoo you really want.  It's your body to love. 

This is the best goddamn tattoo I've ever seen.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Borderline Personality Disorder

Ah, the month of May.

A notable month because it contains my birthday (which I share with Tony Stark), as well as Andrew's birthday (which he shares with his twin brother), as well as National Brain Tumor Awareness Month (which it shares with Skin Cancer Awareness, Garden for Wildlife, Foster Care, and Haitian Heritage).

But I would like to talk about two things closer to home than Golf or Burgers.  (Yes, May is also Golf Month and Burger Month.)

May is Mental Health Awareness  Month and, even more obscurely, it's Borderline Awareness Month.

Most people have never heard of Borderline Personality Disorder, or if they have, they've confused its acronym, "BPD," with bipolar disorder.

 Bethlehem Police Department.

Borderline is one of those harder-to-define disorders, one of those you'll-know-it-when-you-see-it types that lacks an identifiable mechanism and therefore a clearly defined treatment.  Highly stigmatized, it's a lifelong disorder of thinking that is often stereotyped even among therapists; in fact, some therapists refuse to work with these patients, as they are high-risk and often resistant to treatment.

Let's dive in!

First of all, let's talk about what it looks like.  You might have seen Girl, Interrupted, in which the main character is diagnosed with BPD.  She famously asks, "Borderline between what and what?"


People with BPD commonly suffer from mood swings and uncertainty about how they see themselves and their role in the world. As a result, their interests and values can change quickly. Combined with very black-and-white thinking, I think the "borderline" moniker comes from the tendency to polarize emotions, thoughts, opinions, relationships, and self.

You only need 5 out of 9 traits from the DSM to get diagnosed, but the truth is, BPD is one of those things that's remarkably easy to identify once you know what you're looking for.  Diagnosis can be tricky because many of the symptoms are themselves disorders: things like depression, anxiety, alcoholism, et cetera.  And some common traits, such as the tendency to obsess over a person (more on this later) are not in the DSM at all.

BPD has often been called "psycho bitch" or "crazy ex-girlfriend" disorder, and I'd like to take this opportunity to say that the Netflix show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is actually the best goddamn portrayal of BPD I have ever seen in media.  The main character, Rebecca, is highly intelligent and creative, with a tendency to manipulate others and self-sabotage.  She obsesses over her ex Back in season 1, I was saying, gee, she seriously appears to have BPD.  By season 2, I felt that the writers knew what they were portraying.  And then, in season 3, the main character actually gets diagnosed.  Called it!

Hopefully in season 4 we'll see some of the treatment process.  BPD is not something that you can treat with pills (although pharmaceuticals may be used to treat symptoms such as depression).  The main treatment involves long-term therapy: CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy, which for a long time I thought was some sort of Scientology thing).

Do yourself a favor and don't Google image search "CBT."

One of the reasons I like the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that it does a good job highlighting the non-clinical signs of BPD.  People with BPD tend to be intelligent, and creative.  The lack of "self" lends itself well to a rich inner fantasy life, portrayed in the show as colorful, incredible musical numbers within Rebecca's mind.

Rebecca's ability to manipulate others lends itself well to the phenomenon of making instant close connections with people that are later fraught with conflict.  Her highs are high and her lows are lows.  She suffers from depression yet also from a deterministic streak, often going to insane (ha!) lengths to get what she wants (for better or for worse).

And, of course, the central theme of the show is Rebecca's obsession with her ex, Josh.  Josh is her Favorite Person, a term widely used in BPD communities to refer to the object of one's obsession.  The tendency to obsess over a person or idea is a HUGE player in the life of someone with BPD, which is where the "crazy ex" stereotype comes from.  (Fun BPD activity: push people's limits so you know at what point they'll leave you!  ...oh crap, you just pushed them away!  Respond by having a big freak-out to win them back!)

Like just about any other personality trait (or set of traits), BPD can be harnessed and used for good, when people who have it get the right help and have a strong, steady support network.

For example, although 1 out of 10 eventually commit suicide, 
the other 9 out of 10 have a crazy strong meme game.

I think that, although it's a personality disorder that is heavily stigmatized and difficult to treat, the advent of the internet has lent itself well to various support communities and a better ability to share and understand the triggers and personality traits associated with BPD.

Including, but not limited to:
BPD is, like any other disorder, not fun, not easy, and not to be taken lightly.  However, it is treatable, and although people who suffer from it can be difficult at times, I'm inclined to believe that the world is slowly finding better ways to help people manage their demons.  Personality disorders are rarely as strong as the people they inhabit, and with growing awareness of the symptoms and treatment options, I have a lot of hope for the future of those who suffer.

 Always relevant.

Monday, May 14, 2018

On Guns

In light of the recent viral sensation, Childish Gambino's "This is America," I have decided to make a blog post on gun violence in America.

It's a polarizing issue, with some people calling for an outright ban on guns and others refusing even marginally more regulation, citing Second Amendment freedoms.

My own opinion is, as usual, somewhat moderate.

I don't think we should make guns illegal but I also think it's reasonable to ask for more regulation and more difficulty in obtaining a gun. For example, you are not allowed to drive a car without getting a license, and you have to take a test to get a license. Why isn't there a test and license for gun ownership?

I personally would like the following:
  • a federally instituted waiting period for obtaining a firearm.
  • a state-issued license or permit to own and operate a firearm, similar to a driver's license, which would require an initial test to demonstrate competency and safety knowledge, as well as a periodic refresher course.
  • a national OR state registry.  Again, similar to the DMV's registration process for vehicles.  Since many guns are obtained from interstate traffickers, a national registry makes more sense to me, but I understand how this is a difficult law to get on the books.  So let's start with a state registry.
  • an enforced requirement that guns be safely stored by their owners. 
  • government buy-back programs to reduce the number of guns in America.  (Guns bought secondhand are the most likely to be used in crime; people should be able to safely sell their guns back to the government or to gun shops.  A gun shop subsidy for buy-backs might be a good compromise if people don't want to give up their unwanted guns to the government.)
  • stricter sentencing for "straw" purchasers.  (Again, this is currently very hard to enforce because of a lack of any sort of ownership registry.)  

Many people will point out that some states already have laws similar to these, but they are poorly enforced and not universal to all states.  Also, there's no federal registry; gun ownership registries are kept on hard copies by the seller, which means that, if a gun is used in a crime, the investigation is slowed by the unnecessary bureaucracy of trying to track down registration and license records from the seller.  If the seller has gone out of business, the hardcopy records end up in state archives.

The Firearm Owners' Protection Act of 1986, aka FOPA, is an amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968.  FOPA makes it illegal for the national government or any state in the country to keep any sort of database or registry that ties firearms directly to their owner.  People who whine about the Second Amendment should be aware that it was only in the eighties that we decided against a registry, even though there's every indication that such a registry would be hugely beneficial to federal criminal investigations.  Most people who are against a registry seem to think that this is a bad idea because the government will then know how many guns they have.  Which is exactly the point.  And let's be real.  The government already knows. 

We live in the information age.  Every time you post to Facebook, the government learns a little bit more about you.  Need proof?  Look no further than the targeted advertising you see every time you log on to the internet.

This is my actual "recommended" list from Amazon.
Apparently it thinks I need cockroaches, inflatable toast, a terrifying medical baby, and an electronic pickle.
...yeah, I'm definitely on a watchlist.

People against any sort of gun regulation will argue that criminals will get guns no matter what.  And it's true.  Criminals get drugs no matter what, also. But when drugs are illegal, they are harder to get.  And while it's true most criminals already get guns illegally, the lack of any sort of national gun registry or gun database means that interstate trafficking and private sales are made fairly easy, and the suppliers themselves can avoid persecution.

In a perfect world, the guy who handed the Winter Soldier this semi would be a felon.

To the people who say gun control "doesn't work," I ask them, then, why not give it a whirl and see what happens?

We see a strong correlation between gun deaths and gun ownership.  This does not, of course, equal causation.  I personally think that gun culture in America is fairly diseased.  Our fetishization of guns is part of the problem.  To be fair, our nation was born from gun violence; we literally founded our country after overturning the government using guerilla militias.  So, you know.  Historically, it makes sense for Americans to be wary of the government and obsessed with home militias, although, in this day and age, with drones and tanks and all that, I'm not sure a stockpile of hanguns is going to do much good if it comes down to a standoff between you and Uncle Sam.

I'd like to tell a personal anecdote now.  Earlier in the year, there was an actual drive-by shooting on my block, two houses down from mine.  I have an English penpal and I had been intending to write to her that evening but, because the police had cordoned off the street, I was unable to get home.

My initial reaction, as both an American and a millennial, was pure annoyance at the inconvenience of the situation.  When I finally got home after a few hours, I wrote to my friend that I had been delayed coming home due to a drive-by, and she was like, "Oh, yes, traffic sucks."

My English friend did not even know what a drive-by was.

Drive-by shootings are so common to our urban culture that we have shortened slang for it.

When I explained to her that I basically live in the Wild, Wild West, she was shocked and appalled.

Incidentally, that movie has a lot of gun and perfume and steampunk spider violence.

I don't know why Americans are so convinced that they need guns to defend themselves.  Everyone else in the world seems to be doing okay with more restricted gun access.  Why are we so paranoid, so convinced our freedom will be taken away?   It's not like Europe is a totalitarian regime of unimaginable horror.  Yet Americans seem convinced that we're one gun regulation away from the total collapse of civilization as we know it.

Let's look at some statistics.  In America, 2/3rd of gun owners cite "personal protection" or "safety" as their reason for owning a gun (or multiple guns, which is baffling, as the average American has onl two hands with which to wield them).

In 2015, 102 people were killed during home invasions in the US, compared to 505 killed by accidental gun discharge.  (For those wondering, the 102 killed during home invasions were NOT necessarily killed by a gun.)

Not necessarily a gun.

In other words, if you are scared of dying in a home invasion, and buy a gun, congrats. You are now statistically 5 times more likely to die. Good job.

"But it won't happen to me!" cries the average American, setting down their Budweiser indignantly.

That's why the FBI stats make a distinction for "accidental discharge." Because those 500 deaths were people who thought it wouldn't happen to them. Those were people who didn't want to die.

As for those who DO want to die, in 2015 there were about 22,000 suicides by gun alone. "Expert gun owners" are 44 times more likely to get bummed out and kill themselves on purpose than on accident. These are often people who are experts in a literal sense: there's an overwhelming number of veterans, for example, who know exactly what they're doing when they pull the trigger.

As for whether or not guns actually prevent crime when placed in the hands of "expert" gun owners, well... annually there's about 250 "justified homicides" according to the FBI. These are situations where a gun was used "in self defense." This includes but is not limited to home invasions.

I think the math speaks for itself. About 1/3 Americans own a gun. Every year, twice as many accidentally kill themselves than defend themselves.

You are more likely to get hit by lightning than to ever have an armed gunman try to break into your house. You would be better off buying a lightning rod than a gun. Can't accidentally kill yourself with a lightning rod, as far as I know.

Norway has some of the strictest gun laws in the world.
The Norse mostly just defend themselves with hammers.

Let me play Devil's Advocate for a moment and mention that total defensive gun uses are generally held to significantly exceed the number of justifiable homicides and include things like warding someone off via brandishing (but not using) the weapon.  55,000 instances per year tends to be the low-end estimate.

However, it's difficult to say what constitutes "defensive gun use." I used homicide rates because they've got an objective and measurable use. DGU research is a bit wishy-washy for my taste and relies pretty heavily on self-reporting and assumptions.

The implication here seems to be that, in the extremely unlikely (more unlikely than being struck by lightning) event that your home was invaded by someone whose intent was to kill you, then it would behoove you to have a gun. This makes logical sense to me.

However, the suicide odds ratio is higher than the homicide avoidance odds ratio. Which brings me back to my original hypothesis that having a gun in the home is probably more dangerous than beneficial.  And while I'm not at all against people owning guns, I think that the idea that they are needed for protection is utterly ridiculous. And I think we need much, much better regulation, as evidenced by the amount of people getting killed by guns meant to "protect" them.

You can protect yourself with measures other than guns.

Ultimately, it's political rhetoric that is one of the things most likely to doom good policies on gun control. (To say nothing of conversations ABOUT the policies.)  Regardless of where you stand on the subject of gun control, I think everyone should support political candidates willing to talk, listen, and push towards finding a better objective model of the costs and benefits of firearms ownership, separate from political rhetoric. 

At this point in time, emotions are high and the issue has become a partisan one, with people on either side unwilling to compromise.  And if you'll excuse the pun, it's the disenfranchised American who is caught in the crossfire.

I say "disenfranchised" because many of the victims of gun violence are children who cannot vote on issues that affect them.  In the Parkland Florida shooting in February, for example, 13 of the 17 killed were too young to vote.  And here's some other disturbing stats:

  • Alyssa played soccer
  • Martin had a younger brother.
  • Nick had been accepted to the University of Indianapolis.
  • Jennifer went by "Jaime."
  • Luke loved Lebron James.
  • Cara was a dancer.
  • Gina had "spa days" with her mom.
  • Joaquin was naturalized as a US citizen in January 2017 and had an Instagram dedicated to artistic urban graffiti.
  • Alaina was active in JRTOC and volunteered after Hurricane Irma.
  • Helena shielded her best friend, Samantha, with a textbook. Samantha survived.
  • Alex loved roller coasters and played trombone in the marching band.
  • Carmen received a letter one day after her death declaring her a National Merit finalist. She never got to read it.
  • Peter was shot while holding a door open for classmates to run to safety. He was in JROTC.
Oh shit sorry those weren't statistics; those were facts about the 13 kids who are dead now.

On the four "adults" we lost:
  • Meadow was 18 and had been accepted to Lynn University. She posted tweets about it 1 day before being killed.
  • Scott was 35. He was a geography teacher who was murdered while escorting students to safety.
  • Aaron was 37-yr-old assistant coach. He used himself as a shield to protect students who were being fired at.
  • Chris was a 49-yr-old Naval reservist who had been deployed to Iraq in 2007. He had given students lunch money and rides to school.
So, please explain to me why having your guns taken away is more important than any one of these people being taken away. Please explain to me how guns protected these individuals. Please explain to me why you still believe there's NOT something very, very wrong and very, very sick about our culture.

 Presented without comment.

I believe that if we want to keep our guns and uphold the Second Amendment, then it is critical that we pull our heads out of our asses and start trying to reach regulatory compromises (such as safe storage, or gun buy-back programs to reduce the number of guns) before it's too late.  Because, sooner or later, people are going to get sick of gun violence and ban them outright (as most developed countries already have).

I believe that it is in the best interest of BOTH parties, as well of the best interest of the American people and the Second Amendment itself, to push for reasonable federal regulation.

The stance that "something needs to change" is a non-partisan one, in my opinion.

As usual, if you are reading this and don't agree, then no judgement. If you would trade in any one of these individuals for your AR-15 then feel free to say so. But I want you to admit it, boldly and unapologetically, that the cold aluminum semi-automatic rifle you're clutching is valued more than the 17 American lives we lost that the Second Amendment was designed to protect in the first place.
If you can admit to that without shame, you may keep your weapon, and may God have mercy on your soul.