Blue-collar Heroes:  An Ode to the Ordinary

By Ash Bishop

Joseph Campbell really had something with the Heroes’ Journey.  It was a small part of his larger discovery that many stories throughout time share the same plot and character elements.  He made some remarkable connections about all types of characters.  Take, for example, the trickster Loki, who appears in Norse mythology in the 12th century, and yet shares multiple common qualities with Coyote, a myth of the Maidu peoples in North America.  Somehow, despite being separated by thousands of miles and hundred of years, the myths share multiple commonalities – both characters helped create the world, caused all sorts of mischief, and then destroyed their own creation. Think Bugs Bunny with the powers of a god. 

Bow. Bow to me.

You’re probably very familiar with Campbell’s specific formula for the hero, even if you don’t know you are.  The hero is usually born special, but he lives a relatively normal life until he hears the call to adventure.  This call usually comes in the form of an ancient wizard, be it Gandalf strolling into the Shire, Dumbeldore sending an owl, or Morainne Damodred showing up in random villages side-by-side with her Aes Sedai.  

Put another way, if something weird happened around the time you were born and a handful of years later, someone that looks like Ian McKellen is trying to get ahold of you… you’re probably destined for great things. 

Over the course of his journey, the hero goes on to perform various feats, eventually overthrowing an evil father figure, disrupting the status quo and saving the world. 

I suppose my first exposure to Campbell’s myth was also the first movie I ever saw, an under-rated little art house flick called Star Wars.  Luke is squarely on that pre-defined hero track.  He has an unusual birth, torn from his twin sister, his mom dying, he’s forced to hide from his dad, an evil paternal force corrupted by great power.  For a while, Luke is living the ordinary life of a farmer, until the kindly old wizard Ben Kenobi comes strolling over the sands of Tantoine to offer him the call to adventure. 

Maybe it was because the story has been told literally thousands and thousands of times, but even as a youngster, I found Luke very boring.  The fact that he was destined for greatness, literally chosen from birth to fulfill his destiny, made the whole thing a fait accompli.   There was no dramatic tension.  Everybody watching understood that Luke would defeat his evil vader and triumph.

But you know who wasn’t boring?  Han Solo.  Han had no preset destiny.  He was pretty ordinary, just trying to make a living using his wits, a cramped smugglers pit beneath his floorboards, and enough questionable ethics to shoot first.   We didn’t have any guarantee that Han would survive, much less succeed.  He may even decide to walk away from the whole experience just moments before the big climatic battle starts.  

Han is a different kind of hero, one not fully defined by Campbell’s various systems.  He’s not the offspring of a god comingling with a mortal, he doesn’t crash land in a field in Smallville, Kansas, and he didn’t survive an attack in the cradle by he-who-shall-not-be-named.  A lot of folks classify Han as an anti-hero, but I’m going to give him another title, with a nod toward his tendency for not-so-romantic employment.  I’m going to call him a blue-collar hero. 

One of the reasons I love Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney is there’s absolutely nothing special about his main character, Stuart McConchie – unless you really like stereo systems.  Stuart could definitely sell you one heck of a stereo system.  The closest he gets to saving the world is a conversation he has with his friend Ella Hardy:

Stuart:  “The war sent me back ten years.  It set us all back.  I’m just where I was ten years ago, and that’s not good enough.”

Scratching his nose, Hardy said, “What did you have in mind?”

“Maybe I could find a mutant potato that would feed everybody in the world.”

“Just one potato?”

“I mean a type of potato…”

Hardy said, “Maybe you could locate an intelligent bean.”

“I’m not joking about this,” Stuart said quietly. 

Choose ‘n one

Philip K. Dick’s novel takes place before and after a nuclear incident.  Once the bombs drop, Stuart effortlessly transitions from his job selling hi-fidelity stereo equipment to selling traps specially designed to stop mutated household pets.  More importantly, he uses his salesman’s observational skills to take the proper measure of the forces jockeying for control of the post-apocalyptic world.  Despite never being offered a red or blue pill by an old wizard named Morpheus, Stuart grinds away at his job, keeping  his head above water while facing nuclear annihilation, environmental disaster, and even villains armed with supernatural ability.  He adapts to his new environment, managing to squeak by with just his limited set of skills. 

Dick was a master of the blue-collar hero, crafting a famous one in Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard, as well as the less well-known but equally wonderful Bob Arctor from A Scanner Darkly. 

My own novel spends a lot of time with these types of ordinary, blue-collar types like Han, Stuart, Rick and Bob.  One of my main characters, Russ Wesley, struggles to even find employment.  He moves from town to town, restless, unable to find his place or purpose.  Russ isn’t just NOT destined for greatness, he had trouble graduating high school.  I’ll let him explain it:

…Russ’s father had given him nearly the same advice, ‘avoid responsibility as much as you can’.   Of course, Russ’s father was better at taking that advice than anyone Russ knew. As a consequence, he hadn’t been around for most of Russ’s life. When he was around, he’d permitted Russ to do whatever he wanted. He’d taught Russ how to gamble, how to pickup girls, and even how to roll a joint of marijuana, but he’d never cared much how Russ did in school, nor was he willing to help when Russ found himself struggling with homework. In fact, he’d called high school ‘a waste of good time and energy’. Russ stayed in contact with his mom, but his parents had never married, and his life of wandering had separated him semi-permanently from any information about his dad.

Knock it off, Chronos

Obviously, bad fathers are a staple of Campbell’s formula as well – sometimes they even eat you, like the titan Chronos.  But Russ’ father did something arguably worse than try to kill him.  He ignored him, failing to imbue Russ with a sense of right and wrong, or any sense of purpose, leaving Russ’ heroic impulse totally untapped.  For these and various other reasons, Russ has gotten off the starting line a little bit later than everybody else, and now he’s scrambling to catch a break. 

I find myself naturally drawn to this type of character; folks who tend to do their jobs wearing loose-fitting jumpsuits.   To use video game terms, they’re off the rails, free to wander an open-world and succeed, or fail, on their own merits.  Sometimes they’re just trying to keep the Vipers and the Raptors up and running so someone else can fight off a Cylon attack.  Sometimes they’re unlucky enough to stumble onto a parasitic alien onboard a salvage ship.  Sometimes they don’t even make enough money to take a vacation, so they have to hire a company to implant the memory of a vacation into their minds, wholesale.   

Of all the genres, sci-fi lends itself best to this blue-collar story.  The milieu naturally devalues human life.  Cities are over-crowded and environmentally suspect.  People are struggling to get by in a civilization so technologically advanced and impersonal its forgotten its original function, which is to protect its citizens.  The blue collar hero faces dual, almost paradoxical, obsolesce.  At any time they can be replaced by the millions of citizens they live alongside, but also via the constant encroachment of an advanced, robotic workforce.    

Overcoming this environment and the absence of a preset destiny is what makes the blue-collar hero’s sacrifice all the more authentic.  In the soulless wasteland of the sci-fi milieu, we find ordinary characters whose journey is the toughest — and whose ability to rise up and help others means the most. 

  

How I got Published

A short story spanning twenty-one years

by Ash Bishop

This isn’t really a short story, per se.  I’ll try to keep the details to a minimum whenever possible, assuming you have the same short attention span that I do. 

I earned my Masters of Fine Arts in 2001. The thesis requirement was ninety pages of a novel.  I reached that, but graduated without having finished the actual book. 

Around that time, I began teaching at a local community college and for a while writing took a backseat to trying to build a teaching career — though I did continue to declare to my family that I was a “writer”. 

My family hosts an Easter picnic every year.  In 2002, a good friend of mine, Sarah, brought her boyfriend, Jeff, to the picnic.  My dad pulled me to the side, “Sarah’s boyfriend is trying to become an actor.  You should talk to him.  Maybe you could write something, and he could act in it.” 

I told my dad that’s not quite how it works.  To make matters worse, Sarah’s boyfriend didn’t seem too impressive.  He was dressed far too stylishly for my liking, and he was old, AT LEAST in his mid 30s.  I didn’t like his chances. 

Looking back, the problem wasn’t Jeff at all.  I was simply too proud and too shy to do the networking that I needed to do to succeed.  I kept hiding behind the ultimate writer’s fallacy, that talent (assuming I actually had it) would eventually rise to the top.   

It was a bit of a surprise when Jeff landed a guest spot on a fairly popular show a few months later, called The Practice.  We huddled around the TV and watched him do his thing.  Sarah called later, saying that the Executive Producer had contacted Jeff and told him he was “the best part of the episode.”  They broke up a few months later and I didn’t think twice about it. 

I finally finished my novel later that year, hurried by the fact that my wife had become pregnant. I heard rumors that kids took up some of your time—turned out to be true.   But with a baby in my arms, I started stuffing physical query letters with SASE’s and dropping them in the mail.  It was pretty exciting to come home and check the mailbox each day, hoping for a message that might change my life.  A lot of polite rejects came back instead.  The better rejections did provide some advice, most notably, “this is a great book but it’s not commercial enough.”

They weren’t kidding.  The elevator pitch went up more than a few floors.  My first novel was about a man who is murdered and then wakes back to life in utero, reincarnated into a random family with all his memories fully intact.  He has a lot to do after that, be born, grown up, go through puberty, and eventually, try to solve his own murder.  It’s the book of a maniac, and someone who’d clearly rather follow his own flights of fancy than write a commercial novel.

Eventually, I gave up, stuffing my rejection letters into a box in the garage, same as everybody else. 

I took a job as a high school teacher in 2003 and was tasked with leading sophomore creative writing classes.  When those sophomores graduated in 2005, two of them (Russ and Cornelia – look for their names under the ‘thank yous’ in my novel) approached me to join their creative writing circle.  We would each write a book and share chapters, enthusiasm and accountability. 

Being a big fan of the mystery genre, I borrowed a bunch of troupes and then made the mistake of once more getting way too far outside the box.  I wrote about a bodyguard, tasked with protecting a young woman on an arc eerily similar to Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet.  A bodyguard protecting the body of someone in a Shakespearian tragedy?  Seems like things aren’t going to work out. 

This isn’t going to end well.

They didn’t work out.  For the book anyway.  I managed to find my rejection box and added a handful of letters.  Most of the rejections were coming via a new source now, called “email.” 

The writing circle disbanded after a few years.  Cornelia went on to become a successful lawyer.  Russ stuck closer to the dream, co-founding an educational App (Tappity), making a movie (Bear with Us) and an amazing short on YouTube (The Speed of Time).  He’s now in Sweden writing narrative content for Arrowhead Games. 

My second child was born and once again my writing slowed to a near stop.  Teaching is an interesting job.  Done right, it’s emotionally exhausting.  When you come home to chores and the expectations of a young family there isn’t much energy left at the end of the night to put into a novel. 

But around 2011 the dream resurfaced.  A little energy returned when I no longer had to change diapers, tie shoes, and deal with the worst (necessary) evil ever invented:  baby car seats.   I started a third book.  This would be another mystery, about a newspaper reporter investigating a murder while trying to keep his newspaper alive in the middle of the transition to “new media”. 

My queries were now entirely digital.  Following Russ’s advice, I used the website Agentquery.com endlessly, submitting the novel to over one hundred agents. 

If you’re reading this hoping for a publishing roadmap here’s the first major piece of advice:  individually craft every agent query.  Read about the agent’s other books, learn their tastes, follow their twitter ramblings, and then specifically target folks who you will get along with.  Everybody says this, but it’s true. Try and do only one query every weeknight for a month.  The form letter query doesn’t save time.  It takes away time, because odds are very strong that those form letters aren’t taking you anywhere. 

With this novel something more important happened.  I realized I really liked writing.  I liked it more than watching movies, more than playing video games, or reading.  It was a world of imagination crafted entirely to my own tastes, kind of like playing Dungeons and Dragons with yourself.   What could be better than that?  It occurred to me that I would do the job for free, and I had been, on and off for ten years. 

Between writing and querying, I was investing about twenty precious hours a week in the dream.   

Nearly eighty queries into the process, I got two important bites.  An agent from International Creative Management (ICM) asked for the entire manuscript, as did agent from D4EO Literary.  A few weeks later the agent from D4E0 called and offered me representation.  I was excited and happy, but she didn’t have any sales, being generally new to the business.   

I did something I came to regret.  I asked her if I could “think about it”, buying time to hear from the more successful agent at the mega-conglomerate, ICM.  The ICM agent eventually passed, but it took three weeks to get her to confirm, and by then it felt like I was slinking back to D4EO with my tail between my legs.  The D4EO agent graciously signed me anyway, but she only submitted the manuscript to five publishers before moving on.  I’m not sure my stalling hurt me, or if this was par for the course, but it was tough taking three steps forward and then three steps immediately back. 

On the other hand, the rejections from those publishers were encouraging.  Most passed only because the market wasn’t hot enough, with one editor asking for my other books, saying she’d “read anything Ash Bishop wrote.”

Incidentally, the ICM agent quit the whole business a few short months later.

Looking fashionable, JDM.

Here’s where that bit about Jeff at the Easter picnic comes back around.   One day my cousin asked me for a movie recommendation, and I randomly suggested the Chris Evan’s picture “The Losers.”  My cousin told me he’d seen it, and how crazy was it that the main star was Sarah’s ex-boyfriend, Jeff. 

Jeff?  Jeff was Jeffrey Dean Morgan?  That was the old dude in the ripped jeans at our Easter picnic in 2002?! 

Shoot.  I should have written something that he could have acted in.

The lesson wasn’t lost on me.  I would have to get over my shyness and pride and actually network with people who might be able to help me. 

A few months later my wife came back from work and said one of her friends heard I was a writer. The work friend knew a writer too, Jesse Kellerman.  Would I like to get together with him and talk about how to get published? 

The name sounded familiar.  That weekend, we happened to be on the road to visit my wife’s parents in Ventura County and we pulled into a bookstore on the way.  This was 2012.  There were still bookstores.  This one happened to have an entire wall full of books emblazoned with the name Kellerman. 

“Sure,” I told my wife, “I’d like to meet up with him.”

Jesse Kellerman turned out to be one of the best people I’ve ever met.  I joined his reoccurring poker night, as a barely competitive sponsor. We became genuine friends.  He recommended my mystery novel to his agent, and she read it carefully before eventually passing, explaining that the market was too cold. 

I didn’t quit writing.  By then it was an escape.  The goal was publication, but writing was a fun trip into a lucid, waking dream.  I spent many hours jumping through these perfect worlds where I was both voyeur and God!  Of course I wasn’t all-powerful, and I finally decided to capitulate to the market.  At the time Hunger Games had been hitting its stride, and Divergent was being groomed as its eventual replacement.  

I jumped from the “cold” mystery market directly into the fire and wrote a YA science fiction coming-of-age novel. 

I took my time.  It didn’t make sense to hurry up and wait.  On my third mystery novel I had taken on a system of writing from 11-2 a.m. most nights before waking up six hours later for work.  Like I said, I was investing almost twenty hours a week, on top of raising a family and having a fulltime job.  But the lack of decent sleep had begun to effect my mood and my memory.  I scraped that system in favor of writing a few hours here and there.  The new approach took time and I finished my YA sci-fi masterpiece in 2015.  For those who have lost count, this was novel number four. 

With this novel, I was willing (and courageous enough) to ask for help.  Two good friends, Binney and Jen, read the book and gave me notes.  I criminally underpaid my wife’s best friend, Marisa, to line edit it (you’ll find all three of them in the novel’s thank yous as well).  

Despite slowing and deepening my writing process, I was beginning to feel my own mortality.  Now I was the old guy, wearing clothes not even as fashionable as old Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s.  I started going to writing conventions and glad-handing agents, elevator-pitching like crazy.  A number of agents asked for the entire book, but then went mostly silent.  Part of the problem was the YA genre was slowly slipping into the tank.  Divergent’ s third movie barely sniffed the theater.  I began to wake up, worried.

A few years had passed, so Jesse suggested we try his agent again, this time with the (still somewhat) “hotter” book.  I did.  As gracious as ever, she agreed to take a look, but this time she reported she had little interest in the genre.  Instead of passing entirely, she handed the novel on to someone else in her agency.

Around that same time I queried the actual agent for the Divergent series.  She asked for the whole manuscript and I began to get excited, but she passed on it a few weeks later.  I sent a follow up, hoping for some advice on how to improve the book, or at least make it more attractive to agents.  She told me something along the lines of “If I were you, I would start over completely.’

That didn’t feel good. 

Writing is subjective.  Everyone has individual tastes, or…maybe…I just wasn’t very good at it?  Was I wasting everybody’s time chasing this dream?  It is, as they say, darkest just before the light. 

While still processing that rejection, I got a call from Jesse’s agent. She said her fellow agent, Caitlin, had “loved” the book, a word Jesse’s agent hadn’t heard her use in a while.  Caitlin would be in contact soon with an offer to represent me. 

Thankfully I was alone in my classroom because I celebrated so much – a beautiful mix of dance moves and karate chops — that I actually tweaked a hamstring.  I’m not kidding.

I went out and bought luggage.  If I was going to be cruising around reading chapters at bookstores, I would need a new set.  It was 2016.  Note:  My debut novel is still six years away.

We spent an entire year revising the novel before submitting it to the first publisher.  Really good agents don’t want to put their name on anything unless it’s in tiptop shape, and the process of reading, making notes, revising, it takes time, a lot of which is just spent waiting.  In 2017 we began to submit, but publishers also make you wait…and wait…

I started on the sequel (book five) as we slowly received rejections. Caitlin was stumped, because the rejections didn’t indicate any specific problem with the manuscript.  Many of the comments were positive, “we love this…no thank you.”  If there was nothing they didn’t like, why were they rejecting it? We kept at it, querying and revising for two more full years. 

This is why you’ve got to find an agent that loves your work.  Working with an agent is more than a little bit like a marriage.  You have to trust each other, and have confidence in each other, and not quit on each other when things don’t work quite like you both expected.  An agent who is not excited by your writing simply won’t be around to help carry you through the process.  To this day, I’m incredibly indebted to Caitlin for not dumping me after investing three full years in the project and not earning a single penny. 

We decided that the problem was the market itself.  YA had gotten so hot, and publishers had signed so many books, that both the publishers and the market was now saturated.  I was, once again, too late to the party. Caitlin suggested I write a version of the story for adults.  Still only halfway through the YA sequel, I put it aside and studiously began book number six, tentatively titled Intergalactic Exterminators, Inc

It was now 2019, and my new luggage was still in the garage.  This time I really slowed down my process.  I knew revision with my agent would take a year, and then I’d be waiting for the publishers again. 

I finished the book in 2020, and my agent began to submit it in early 2021.  In June 2021, it was purchased by Camcat books.  Elana, my editor, requested her own changes.  She had a soft touch, but she’d guided the book upwards to an even higher level of quality.  In January of 2022, I finished her requested revisions, and the book was finally…done?

So, here’s my last major piece of advice: it sure helps to have great people around you to fill in your blind spots, and to pick you up when you start to lag.  Russ and Cornelia got me writing again.  Jen, Binney and Marisa helped polish the manuscript which landed me a top flight agent.  Jesse helped me get her attention. Caitlin helped me improve the book even further, and muscle through the early rejections.  Elana made the book even better. 

Of course, by now, it’s necessary to market myself via a hundred different forms of social media.  A few months into the process, my wife is wondering why I haven’t done more. 

“I started all this in 2001,” I tell her.  “Lemmie rest.”   

“No resting!” she says. 

But then in an act of mercy, she takes over all the marketing.  She makes my Bookbub page, and my Goodreads, and creates my Facebook author site. 

“Get that blog written about how you got published.  People will be interested in it!”  she lovingly insisted earlier this week.    

I can’t say if she’s right or not, but I know I wouldn’t have gotten this far without so much help. 

How to not Lose as Much at Blackjack

Or,

The Difficult Task of Killing a Bad Idea.

by Ash Bishop

There’s a moment in Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s 1982 series V for Vendetta when the central character, named V, is fatally shot by the police.  He’s alone, in a dank sewer system and it seems his crusade is over.  Instead of admitting defeat, he makes a stirring declaration:  “Did you think to kill me?  There’s no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill.  There’s only an idea.  Ideas are bulletproof!” 

V is a madman, but the good kind.  He hides beneath a mask and a wide-brimmed hat in order to fight against a Totalitarian government.  He’s inspired by the ideas of another British revolutionary, Guy Fawkes, and he literally wears Fawkes’ face – another nod to the undying power of an idea.

The problem is, what do you do when the idea is a bad one, and it still won’t die?  The best example of this conundrum is, of course, racism.  A race gains a reputation for having a specific, negative quality and that evil expectation sends damaging psychic runoff outward in endless waves. 

I could write a hundred blog posts on the fallacy of racism, or the dangers of Totalitarianism, or how our individual consciousness is at the nexus point between inductive and deductive reasoning — and that’s what makes life so dang confusing. And maybe someday I will.  But I want to start a little bit smaller.  Today, I want to talk about Blackjack.

Yep.  

Let’s talk about one of the ideas that has raised ornate, gilded casinos from dust out there in the vast desert.  

Before I go any further, how about a disclaimer?  I’m an English major with a master’s in CREATIVE WRITING!!!  I haven’t consulted a mathematician in any way in writing this. Everything I say from this point on should be wholly ignored.  

Seriously, pay attention to that warning.

Anyway, here’s the situation.  You sit down at a table at Circus Circus.  Because it’s inevitable, the dealer deals you a sixteen.  Because it’s also inevitable, the dealer deals herself something higher. In this case, let’s say a seven.  Her other card is turned down – you have no idea what it is. 

You hesitate, trying to run the probability in your head, and that’s when the final inevitability occurs.  The big fella next to you leans over and points at the dealer’s seven.  “She’s showing seventeen,” he says.  “You have to assume that the hole card is a ten.  You need to take another card or she’s going to beat you.”  The big fella is smug, but he’s also happy to help.  It’s fun for him to see that you don’t understand blackjack’s simplest rule.        

He is also, of course, dead wrong. Let’s address the obvious first.  If you are to assume that every card is likely to be a 10, that means the card he’s encouraging you to draw from the deck will also be a 10, putting you at the lovely total of 26.   

That said, the real math is pretty simple, but not in the way the helpful big fella believes.  See, there are thirteen different cards in the deck, divided equally in sets of four:  2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-J-Q-K-A.  Casinos tend to use multiple decks, but the percentage change is small enough let’s ignore that for now. 

Instead, let’s figure out the simple math about the dealer’s hand.  She has a seven showing, which means of the thirteen possible draw cards, five of them will help her beat your sixteen (10-J-Q-K-A), while the remaining eight (2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9) will force her to take at least one more card, with each new draw increasing her chances of busting.  In other words, she’s only “got you beat” as the big fella likes to say, in 38.5% of potential draws.  In the other 61.5% of draws, her situation becomes increasingly more perilous.  

Here’s how the math shifts with the dealer showing eight (her winning cards are 9-10-J-Q-K-A; 46.2%), and nine (her winning cards are 8-9-10-J-Q-K-A;  53.8%).  With any type of ten, you already know she doesn’t have an ace in the hole because it would have ended the hand immediately.  So, her potential winning cards are 7-8-9-10-J-Q-K.  That’s still only a 53.8% chance she beats you without having to draw.  In all those situations, the odds are hovering around 50% that her hole card helps her, and 50% it’s a card that will require another draw. 

Of course, in 100% of the cases, that second draw will be exactly what she needs, because casinos like to give you a little hope before tearing out your heart and stomping on it.  

One of the casino’s big advantages is they make you play first.   If you bust, they whisk the money right off the table before the dealer even has to test her own odds.  So, it’s much more important to consider your own odds while holding that sixteen. 

Five cards will help you (2-3-4-5-A; 38.5%), eight cards are waiting to ruin your day (6-7-8-9-10-J-Q-K; 61.5%). 

Here are the odds if you’re at 15, five help, 38.5%; seven bust, 53.8%; one makes your hand slightly worse, 7.7%. 

In the case of 14, five help, 38.5%; six bust, 46.2%; two make your hand worse, 15.4%. 

In the case of 13, five help, 38.5%; five bust 38.5%; three make your hand worse 23.0%. 

Notice the pattern?  It’s the same thing if you’re holding 12.  Your odds of getting a card that will get you above 17 but below 21 never improve from 38.5%.  It’s the real reason you “don’t like gambling”.  

In regards to “always doubling down on 11”, most casinos only give you one more card on a double down, so the math is a little easier.  Eight cards get you to the magic seventeen (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K; 61.5%).  That’s as close to “always” as you can get in blackjack.  Interestingly, doubling down on 10 doesn’t change the odds at all.  There’s still a 61.5% chance you get a card that puts you between seventeen and twenty-one (7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, A).  Always double down on ten? 

You can also lose at seventeen, by the way.  And at eighteen, nineteen and twenty.  

If this is making your head spin, consider that it gets even more complicated when you start to factor in multiple draws, which play a part in almost every hand.  The inside of your brain ends up looking something like this:  

Pay attention and you’ll see the chart tells you to hit on 16 against a dealer showing seven. Is the big fella right? Am I the one that’s wrong? Maybe not…

TL;DR section here.

So, what’s a truly simple system like the one the big fella is sharing with you, but without his tragically bad math?  Consider your goal is to get between seventeen and twenty-one regardless of what the dealer is showing.  Even though those amounts can still lose, they are considered “winning hands” because the dealer will never stop at sixteen and will automatically lose at twenty-two.  Remember also that you’ve got to do it safely, or not at all. Here’s the plan:

I don’t… want… to… draw!

Double down at ten, and at eleven.  If you’re sitting at any of the dreaded 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, try to remember that you never have a better than 38.5% chance of reaching a “winning hand” on a single draw, and increasingly worse odds of busting (30.8%, 38.5%, 46.2%, 53.8%, 61.5%). 

I’d play the bust odds and take another card on the 12, 13 and 14 but hitting on fifteen is truly a gamble (you’re giving up 3.8% in favor of busting with another 7.7% you draw an ace and holding your position), and hitting on 16 is, mathematically, almost always a mistake, regardless of what the dealer is showing.    

Fifteen and sixteen have done their part to build the casinos, assisted by the complicated nature of multiple draws as well as the incredibly powerful force of irony.  As you know, irony is an immutable, physical law of the universe that determines that you will always lose, no matter what.  

Bad ideas, and the subsequent social pressure that accompany them, are almost as frustrating.  

Let’s go back to the table at Circus Circus where you have sixteen and the dealer is showing a seven.  You sit at sixteen because that’s what the math says.  The dealer goes next, and because of the power of the aforementioned irony, she turns over a ten and then draws a four, putting her at twenty-one.  

The big fella’s congeniality crumbles.  He is confident in his own lousy math, and worse yet, he thinks there’s a divine order of cards.  You messed it up by not hitting and stole his “win.”  His face turns sour as the dealer grabs his chips, and he mumbles “Folks don’t even know how to play the game.”  He sips his Heineken and refuses to look at you.     

You want to tell him about the math behind fifteen and sixteen.  You want to explain that there’s no actual divine order.  You didn’t make him lose!  Every draw is random chance, and there’s a one-in-thirteen probability of getting any card every single time one comes out of the shoe.  This is true regardless of what the person before you decided, or what the person after you decides.  It’s not your fault!  It’s not! If it weren’t for the interminable power of irony, the dealer had just as good odds of drawing a five and busting.  Or a six.  

Bring it all down, Fawkes.

Wait… that’s not exactly true. Four of those thirteen cards have the value of ten.  So…you know…it’s safe to assume that every card is a ten.  It’s four times as likely as anything else!

Don’t worry Britney, Joe, and Whoopi; we’re just Levelin’ ya!

by Ash Bishop

It’s hard to forget the image of Britney Spears shaving her head poolside.  There were various theories about why she did this, from avoiding DNA drug-testing to an old-fashioned breakdown.  She allegedly told her hairdresser that she was simply tired of people touching her hair.

Regardless of the reason, the world went bananas, with paparazzi shooting from every available corner and people following closely on sites hosted by Perez Hilton (don’t worry, his time would soon follow).   She was committed to a thirteen-year conservatorship shortly thereafter. 

I stayed away from the whole debacle because something about it tugged at an unhappy memory.  It felt, faintly, like I was back in high school. 

In high school, I had never been able to come to terms with how cruel everybody was.  I hated how folks seemed to go out of their way to break each other down.  At a giant public school like the one I attended, a single social slip-up, heck, even a simple misunderstanding, could haunt you through your entire education.  In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest R.P. McMurphy called it a pecking party:

“The flock gets sight of a spot of blood on some chicken and they all go to peckin’ at it, see, till they rip the chicken to shreds, blood and bones and feathers. But usually a couple of the flock gets spotted in the fracas, then it’s their turn. And a few more gets spots and gets pecked to death, and more and more. Oh, a peckin’ party can wipe out the whole flock in a matter of a few hours, buddy, I seen it. A mighty awesome sight.”

Though I remained small and quiet to avoid this possibility, even when spared by the flock, I still struggled with depression.  For a sensitive person, it’s tough to see what appears to be random cruelty flying every which way, even when it’s not coming directly at you. 

In 1993, my first year of college, I read an article that I have never forgotten – in fact, it’s not an overstatement to say that it changed my life and brought me a lot of peace.  I was in a community college class studying Anthropology, and the article was called “Eating Christmas in the Khalahari.”   

The story is a fairly simple one.  Anthropologist Richard Borshay Lee goes to South Africa in 1969, and lives for a year with the !Kung bushmen.  At the end of the year he wants to thank them for being good hosts and so he buys the largest, fattest Ox he can find to share in a Christmas feast.  For a peoples constantly working hard just to stay above the sustenance line, it seems like a grand gift. 

Unexpectantly, the !Kung immediately turn on Lee.  They line up to insult him about how thin and weak the ox is: 

“Are you too blind to tell the difference between a proper cow and an old wreck?  That ox is thin to the point of death!”  “It gives us pain to be served such a scrawny thing.”     

As I read the article, I puzzled at what had caused the !Kung’s attitude to swing so drastically.   Why were they being so cruel in the face of a genuine gift, a hearty Ox that was anything but old and scrawny?

Lee was puzzled too, but he eventually unlocked the mystery.  One of the bushmen, Tomazo, explained the phenomenon:

“When a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors.  We can’t accept this.  We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody.  So we always speak of his meat as worthless.  This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”

As a unified tribe, the Kung! would sense when someone was starting to feel arrogant.  In response, they would make a coordinated, tribal effort to emotionally deconstruct that arrogance; in laymen’s terms, to break that person back down to size.  With this new knowledge, Lee eventually settled on a label for the !Kung’s aggressive verbal behavior.  He called it a “social-levelling mechanism”.  Britney’s downfall might have brought me memories of high school, but I suspect it would have transported Lee all the way to the vast planes of the Khalahari. 

It’s February 9th 2022, and right now we’re levelling Joe Rogan.  I don’t have much of an impression of him as a person.    We’ve never met and I’ve never heard his podcast.  I did watch a few episodes of Fear Factor back in the day, but my main focus was on how many bees people were able to eat.  Still, friends whose judgement I trust are canceling Spotify, and Joe, in righteous anger.   

I don’t question the righteousness, but I am curious about the pattern.  At least a portion of our collective ferocity seems to be coming from something much older, and deeper. Something imbedded in our own tribal roots.  We’re trying to protect ourselves from Joe’s arrogance – speak of his meat as worthless- to keep him down on our level.  As Tomazo says, “so that we may cool [his] heart and make [him] gentle.”  

Did social-levelling work for Britney?  Or did she pay a much, much higher price because of the way we went about hammering her with ridicule and shame?  Was it anything short of cruelty to take a child and lavish her with praise, listen to her music, buy her clothes (did she sell clothes?), let the media take her up, up, up, all the while waiting patiently for the inevitable opportunity to tear her back down again?  Watching Pam and Tommy on Hulu, makes me think that same cycle might not have worked out that great for Pamela Anderson either. 

A smarter man than I might argue that constantly indulging these ancient leveling instincts isn’t healthy in a culture predicated on instant communication, gratification, and celebrity.   (Whoopi, Aaron, Dave, James, Ellen, Armie, Marilyn, Louis, J.K., et al; “hi!”)   

I am not that smarter man.   Instead, I’ll just keep doing what I did in high school.  I’ll stay small, and quiet, and hope the generalized other doesn’t ever decide I need a good levelin’. 

Fortunately, the first step to avoiding the great pyre of public burning seems to be to stay away from demonstrations of significant social power.  I’m off to a pretty good start on that:

You’re (Probably) not a Pervert for Finding her Attractive.

by Ash Bishop

My daughter and I both play Cyberpunk.  While the game has interesting things to say about the power of community, the rot of late-stage capitalism, and even body-modification, we mostly argue about who is more attractive, Judy or Panam. 

Judy Alvarez

There’s no doubt Panam is attractive, but I prefer Judy.  There’s a world-weary sadness in her eyes that I find appealing, not to mention her punk aesthetic.  Judy is a lesbian and only romantically available to those playing female characters, but I don’t mind just admiring her from afar.  Heck, considering  the travesty that is the only heterosexual male love interest option — the corny, stupidly named, River Ward – I lucked out just having Judy as eye candy.

Except that with every recognition of her beauty comes the guilt.  Isn’t it kind of weird to be judging the appearance of what is essentially a high-detailed cartoon?

Volleyball, anyone?

I started to think about this subject back in 2003, when Tecmo released the first version of Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball.  One of their editors made a joke online, saying they were thinking of incorporating a topless mode, and immediately 10,000 enthusiastic young people flooded the Tecmo message board suggesting that was a good idea.  It crashed the Tecmo servers and caused enough of a sensation that it made the mainstream video game news. 

What sticks out in my mind is that in the comment section of IGN, for every few posts supporting the idea of a topless mode, there were always accompanying posts shaming those same requests.  The mild shamers frequently, defensively, mentioned how much they loved and were fulfilled by their real-life girlfriends (in Canada).  The more aggressive struck out in every direction, telling people to “get a life”; “get out of your mom’s basement”; “don’t you know that internet is full of real topless women”; etc…

…as I recall, there wasn’t any recognition of the dangers of overly idealizing, and sexualizing, young women’s bodies. But then again, it was 2003. 

Putting aside our social growth in this regard, AND the shame impulse, let’s consider where the attraction is actually coming from.  Comic book artist Scott McCloud accidently weighed in on the subject in his brilliant book Understanding Comics.  (If you haven’t read it, buy it, now).  McCloud explains how cartoons work in the subconscious by first introducing us to the idea of closure.  Closure, sometimes called object permanence, is the neurological phenomenon wherein people use their imaginations to “fill in the blanks” of the world around them. 

Our imagination is working constantly, supplying the information that is left out of the realm of our senses.  Every second, it is compensating for the millions of blanks of our limited perspective. Here’s how McCloud explains it (he does a better job than me): 

We end up living much more in our imaginations than in so-called “real life”.  Real life is just what we can see, hear, smell, touch and taste, literally everything else exists in our heads.  It’s one of the reasons people’s recollections will differ so significantly even when they share a common experience.  It’s one of the reasons we have Fox News, and CNN, and never the twain shall meet. 

Old woman facing right? Chicken strutting left?

This process of closure effects the way we experience everything, and art is no exception.  In fact, in art the process is often purposeful.  The less details an artistic rendering has, the more the viewer must “fill-in” with their imaginations.   Abstract art exists almost completely to take advantage of this neurological principal. 

So how does it work with cartoons? Consider two artistic versions of the archetypal femme fatale.  In the Brian DePalma film, Femme Fatale, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos plays Laure.  Not being a cartoon, Mrs. Romijn-Stamos is stuck already fully formed in our imagination. 

In Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Jessica Rabbit is far less defined.  With her broader strokes, she can expand outwards in our imagination, becoming a non-specific amalgam of every femme fatale we’ve ever encountered, in real life or otherwise.  This cartoon-like flexibility allows her to persist in our collective conscious, our fanfic, our cosplay, etc…  while Mrs. Romijn-Stamos has been, sadly, lost to time.     

The same principal works with the character of Dimitri in Nintendo’s Fire Emblem Three Houses.   No one should romance him, he’s a psychotic madman, yet he’s one of Fire Emblem’s main romantic choices.   If we can look past the murder, his otherwise lack of specific details are very forgiving.  They leave us free to fill in the blanks — physically and otherwise — with our imaginations.  And, if we’re so inclined, to buy these pillows:    

Conversely, when you add enough details, the figure becomes limited, even boring.  Consider Nicolas-Jacques Conte, 18th century French painter and inventor of the pencil.  Conte accomplished quite a lot and, like Dimitri, he rocks an awesome eyepatch.   But is he the subject of anyone’s fan-fic with this level of detail in his etching?  Probably not.  There’s too much information – nothing is left for the viewer to provide for themselves.       

The Ultimate sex symbol?

The cartoon takes advantage of closure to become a cipher for so many different things.  It’s a partially blank canvas, with just enough information to launch our imaginations in a certain direction.  The guy on the IGN message boards in 2003 is admitting an attraction to Kasumi, but he isn’t just attracted to her.  He’s using her as a non-specific representation for all women of a certain type.  He’s probably dreaming of classmates, the girl he saw at the mall, co-workers, and even your girlfriend (in Canada).  Shamers be happy, it’s real life that he wants after all.  

Getting closer, Nicolas.

This is all Generation X’s Fault

By Ash Bishop

I’m just going to say it… this is all Generation X’s fault. We who grew up with a generational anthem refrain that went like this: “I feel stupid, and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us.”

Our Boomer parents left us virtually unattended. We might have been surrounded by kidnappers, reckless drivers, pedophiles, and tetanus — it was hard to say for sure — but the Boomers still let us ride our bikes unaccompanied to the cinema and dream of being a whip-cracking archeologist.

It probably mattered if we went to college, and what college we went to, but nobody told us that. And we were too busy trying to figure out how to socialize with each other and unlock the riddle of why everyone else was having sex, just not with us. There was also the challenge of surviving roller-rinks on gangly legs thanks to ill-timed and unanticipated growth-spurts.

We didn’t care one bit about politics. We elected Clinton simply because he played saxophone on Arsenio Hall. We didn’t know anything else about him. Why not? At least he seemed to have a little passion, something we were otherwise lacking.

We were a little worried when the Boomers explained to us that we needed to sign up for the draft. Stories of our fathers’ trips to Vietnam were terrifying. The way our high school football coach twitched violently when a helicopter flew overhead told us everything we needed to know to stay away from armed combat.

It turned out to be an empty fear. The closest we came to a war experience was watching night vision images on CNN.

Shielded from the need for maniac anxiety or fervent Nationalism, we grew up without a strong system of governing values. Sure, some of us got involved with the local church, others tried to cobble together an identity by following the lead of popular celebrities, but without an existent threat, we were mostly just floating adrift on a forgiving Capitalist machine.

It didn’t come without a price. The end of the 20th Century felt a little bit like it was also the end of the world. An underappreciated 1995 Kathryn Bigelow movie put it best. Like a celluloid prophet, the film Strange Days explores issues of disruptive technology, racism and police violence. Yet it was Tom Sizemore’s listless existentialism that rang the most true to Generation X:

“Uli doesn’t care about anything. He’s a nihilist.”

“You know how I know it’s the end of the world? Everything’s already been done. Every kind of music’s been tried. Every kind of government’s been tried, every fucking hairstyle, bubble gum flavors, you know, breakfast cereal. What are we going to do? How are we going to make another thousand years? I’m telling you, man, it’s over. We used it all up.”

For better or worse, the world didn’t end on December 31st 1999. And along came the Millennials. They looked up at us, with their natural youthful passion, and we shrugged back at them.

In the shrug lies the problem.

Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant treatise Sapiens explains it better than I can:

“Contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species. Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, reevaluate and criticize. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.”

The Millennials were young, surging with hormones and fire and a desire to right all of mankind’s wrongs. They needed discord, something to rebel against, something to overthrow. If only we’d been able to summon the passion to tell them to stop playing their music so loud, or to say no to drugs, it might have given them something to sneak away and do. It’s extremely hard to overthrow a shrug.

… but it’s not impossible. How do you generate creativity and dynamism when your predecessors believed in nothing? The answer is simple: you believe in everything.

Cultural engines revving, Millennials went on the hunt for whatever could provide even a hint of contradiction, no matter how large or small. Patriarchy? Race? Sexuality? Politics? Millennials were ready to reimagine all those things. ‘You Boomers think you accomplished something fighting for gender equality? Step aside ’cause we’re getting rid of gender altogether!’

Cultural battlegrounds have appeared and disappeared overnight, and there have been many causalities.

Will it be over soon? Can we leave the bunker long enough to smell the roses? Maybe to see Indiana Jones V? It doesn’t seem like it. Language itself is the gatekeeper of all cultural values, and the greatest of wars will continue to be fought there.

Just don’t expect Generation X to get involved.

In Praise of the Hidden Genius of Starship Troopers

by Ash Bishop

“Pay attention!” Johnny Rico’s teacher tells him as the movie begins. Only History teacher Jean Rasczak isn’t actually talking to his students, he’s talking to you. Sitting on your couch, munching on your favorite snacks, you’re the main character of the movie. It’s you that has the opportunity to move along the character arc and learn important lessons about yourself.

The thing is, like Rico, you can’t pay attention. There’s too much going on, too many beautiful people, too much intense gore, too much bad acting. From your spot on the couch, you manage to miss all the important details. For example while Rico is making googly eyes at Denise Richard’s Carmen Ibanez, Rasczak continues to speak in the background. Here’s what he says:

“This year we explored the failure of Democracy, how the social scientists brought our world to the brink of chaos. We talked about the Veterans, how they took control, and imposed the stability that has lasted for generations since.”

Do those words bother you? I hope so, but maybe the modern reader is better equipped to notice the fact that the movie takes place in Buenos Ares, and lily-white Denise Richards is playing a character named Carmen Ibanez.  Casper Van Diem’s character is named Johnny Rico (Juan Rico in the novel).  Hollywood has taken a lot of grief in the last decade for white-washing, but there’s something far more sinister afoot here. 

Juan Rico and Carmen Ibanez, obviously.

In this strangely white version of Buenos Aires, Rasczak explains to the viewer that only “citizens” are allowed to vote, while “civilians” are not.  What’s the difference between a citizen and a civilian Rasczak asks his classroom?

Rico gives the answer:  “A citizen accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic, defending it with his life.  A civilian does not.”

In other words:  Citizens are soldiers, civilians are, well … civilians. Only soldiers can vote.

Are you bothered yet

How about when Rico joins the military to become a “Citizen” and starts to mix it up with violent drill instructors dressed like this? 

Director Paul Verhoeven was born in the Netherlands in 1938.    His family moved to The Hague in 1943.  As his Wikipedia explains, The Hague was the location of the German headquarters in the Netherlands in WWII.  Verhoeven witnessed firsthand the power of Nazi propaganda, their films, their speakers, their movies, and, perhaps more importantly, their ability to effectively wield the fallacy of distraction.

You see, even if you’re trying your best to pay attention, sometimes the distractions are just too much.  Once Rico finishes his first day of training, his coed team of good-looking soldiers hit the shower.  This is possibly Verhoeven’s best moment.  He’s well-known for employing copious nudity in his films (Showgirls, et al.) so when all the central characters strip down and strut around in the water we’re unsurprised by what we think is gratuitous nudity.  We’re also exasperated, titillated, and a little embarrassed. 

We feel the rush of conflicting impulses, and it’s a very effective distraction.  If we were still listening, we’d hear what the characters are saying about why they joined the army:

“I’m going into politics and you know you gotta be a citizen for that so here I am.”

If we were paying attention, we’d probably be thinking to ourselves, wait…not only can’t you vote if you’re not a soldier, but you also can’t serve in the government?  How do civilians get representation?   

“I want to have babies, and you know it’s a lot easier to get a license if you serve, so…”

Wait!  You need a license to have a BABY and you can’t get one unless you’re a soldier?!  Are these even the good guys?  I’m starting to really question the ideology of… of… oh, hey, boobies!

Verhoeven is pulling a fast one on us.  He’s trying to teach us something about our own ability to not notice the danger directly under our noses. We’re quick to enjoy the spectacle and freely surrender our own facility for critical analysis.  We ignore that small tickle in the back of our brains that keeps insisting, maybe the “good guys” shouldn’t be giving those fully-automatic assault rifles to all those grade school kids. 

“I’m doing my part!”

For its entire run-time, Starship Troopers tap-dances furiously to keep us from noticing what Verhoeven is also desperately hoping we’ll see.  In cheering for Rico and his squad of hapless soldiers, we’ve traded every one of our core values. We did it in exchange for a misleading familiarity.  Because these “good guys” look like (some of) us, because they’re wearing the masks of heroes in a sci-fi movie and because they’re handsome, charismatic, smiley and naked, we completely miss the fact they’re also the perfect embodiment of a neo-imperialistic Nazi Germany.  

When I first saw the film at a theater in Santa Barbara in 1997, I endured it’s two-plus hour runtime still rooting for those “good guys,” cheering for Buenos Aryan John Rico in his Nazi greys. I even remember nodding during the mid-movie commercial for the galactic justice system:

A murder was captured this morning and tried today. Execution tonight at six!”

…I thought to myself, “finally a justice system that serves actual justice.”

I was either totally won over by the films’ subversion of Democracy, or I was simply young enough to still be a little hazy on concepts like “due process” and “Civil Rights”.

Mind you, I didn’t actually like the movie — not on first viewing anyway. The climactic battle is between Rico’s squad of heavily-armed, hyper-masculine soldiers and a giant, sentient insect with a vagina for a mouth. The soldiers don’t want to kill the vagina, just pacify it so it can’t control their minds. “It’s afraid,” Neil Patrick Harris’s character announces just before the credits roll.

And as the lights of the theater came back on, I recall a wave of critical disappointment washing over me. I could not believe that the mastermind behind Robocop and Total Recall had made such a turkey of a movie.   

Somewhere, Verhoeven was probably chuckling to himself because I’d ignored his advice. I’d failed to “pay attention,” failed to travel along the character arc the movie had set up for me.  I’d been facing my criticism outward, judging the movie without noticing that the movie was quietly judging me. 

If only I’d taken old Rasczak’s advice, I might have been better able to understand how seductive the fallacy of distraction can be.  I might have understood the weakness in myself and not been swept under by the spectacle, walking away from my own most precious ideals without even realizing I’d done it.