Action and reaction. Fire and force. In order to soar in one direction, a rocket has to burn furiously against the space it wishes to leave behind.
I’m a lover, not a fighter. I’ve always been a little miffed that my country’s anthem-choosers went with “bursting in air” over “sea to shining sea”. The shining seas are really nice. Bursting is…upsetting.
I remember sitting in classrooms and being told about taxation without representation. About people who were tired of giving so much to a king who cared so little about what they really needed, people who chose to risk what stability they had to fight for something better. And the story always seemed unreal to me, a touch too epic and yet a little too simple, like a fairy tale. Or a koan. Or a parable.
And it was too simple. A 2016 Google search demolishes the distortions and oversimplifications of a 1996 textbook. There was deep loyalism and colonial infighting and there were issues of distance and time and administrative friction and there was religious fervor and exclusion and there were countless tortured slaves and slaughtered indigenous people casting ugly shadows all over the Founders’ stated ideals.
There was also the fact that the colonies were doing alright by themselves in the years leading up to 1776. Why revolt when life isn’t revolting?
But anyway, I’ve been thinking about how rockets work.
So there’s this game called Just Cause 3, and it’s basically GTA meets James Bond meets Batman meets Tropico. You push various buttons in various sequences to make uber-badass Rico Rodriguez run and drive and fly around a sun-soaked archipelago that cowers under a dictator’s iron fist, and you shoot this and blow up that and grapple-tether those two other things into a collapsing heap and rinse and repeat until a town is liberated.
And then you liberate all the towns in a province. And then you liberate all the provinces in a region. If you were wearing a tan shirt instead of a blue shirt, you’d say “conquer” instead of “liberate”. You’re not really a good guy here, so much as the most violent person in the world, whose violence happens to oppose the violence to which most other people in that world have resigned themselves.
The game’s creators understand this grey area they’ve put you in. It’s right there in the name.
For what did you blow up everything in that police station?
A just cause.
And why did you tether a deer to the back of a stolen sports coupe and use it to sideswipe that military motorcycle at 160 km/h while shouting “meat nunchucks, baby!”?
The game gives you an unlimited supply of remote mines; you stick a few to a statue of the Evil Bad Tyrant Dictator Guy, grapple up to a rooftop for a better view, trigger the explosion. After enough mayhem, you unlock rocket boosters on the mines, and you can stick them to the back of an empty car, set them off, and watch them propel the car forward (towards the entrance to a heavily-guarded base, perhaps) before detonating after a few seconds.
Fire and force. Action and reaction.
To push forward, you have to put things behind you.
And I’m writing this post so I can hear myself admit to myself that there are things in my life that I am afraid to put behind me, because I’m afraid of moving forward.
I’ve been doing alright by myself, more than alright by any modern standard, but I don’t feel free at all.
In the wide world outside the video game, where my potential for movement and exploration far exceeds the 400 square miles of Rico’s sandbox, I still find myself on the couch, dutifully spending another weeknight living out someone else’s power fantasy. I’ve used a helicopter to hit the ceiling of the game’s skybox, just to see if I could, but there are streets in my own neighborhood that I’ve never set foot on.
I spend 7 hours a week on a train to or from work. 28 hours a month. 330 a year. Between right now and when I’m nearing retirement age, I could potentially spend 10,000 hours getting better at any number of things. All I’d have to do is quit zoning out on Twitter, stop hate-reading bad editorials or idly browsing deal sites, and maybe open a book or a notepad instead.
I get 90 minutes to eat lunch. I keep telling myself I’ll bring my Maschine to work and spend 60 of them figuring out how to make music on it. Instead I hop online again and drink at the bottomless content trough while overeating McDonalds and trying to convince myself that what I’m doing is self care.
I have four waking hours every weekday that aren’t devoted to work or commuting, and my daughter gets one of them, and dinner gets another, so how the hell am I making time to keep up with multiple shows on Netflix and Hulu?
I am losing too much time and energy to things that don’t have my best interests at heart.
I am being taxed without representation. By myself.
And I’ve consented to this taxation. I love these shiny toys that eat up my free time and stall my creative drive. And Twitter is dope. And Mickey D’s is delicious.
I am the tyrant king of an island nation of one, and I’ve spent a year caring so little about what I really need that I’ve almost forgotten what it is.
But I haven’t forgotten completely. I’ve tasted better food before. And I used to have more conversations with real people, and no one ever got cut off at 140. And there was a time not that long ago when I made my own toys, created my own worlds to fly around in, wrote my own stories, told my own story.
I put all of that behind me for a good reason: I needed to move very far, very quickly, in a new direction.
Two years ago, over the course of an exceptionally frantic and joyful summer, I moved to Chicago and learned how to build beautiful and meaningful things on the web. It was a lot to learn, perhaps too much for the time I had given myself to learn it. Tyrants set high bars for success.
But I learned it anyway, by casting aside everything else. No TV, just restorative sleep. No hate-reads, just reflective writing. No vidya, just code and code and code and code. I had left my wife and daughter in another state, and some days I forgot to call them to check in.
I was a rocket, and my trajectory was true, and that meant there had to be a million directions I wasn’t going.
I graduated and stumbled into the most challenging and rewarding and fulfilling job I’ve ever worked, and for a while it felt like I had finally arrived.
I mean, on paper, that’s exactly what I did. I don’t have to grind 60 hours to make ends meet anymore. I can afford date nights and pay the sitter a living wage. My work is recognized and appreciated within a community of like minded people whom I admire and respect. I no longer feel like I have to apologize for or explain away my two college dropouts at family functions; they are now prologue to an adventure instead of a tragedy’s motif.
The changes I’ve gone through felt like arrival for quite a while.
But what is arrival to a rocket?
I press R1 and Rico sticks a mine to the top of an unmanned enemy helicopter. In a couple minutes, I’ll have raised enough hell to raise my Heat Level and they’ll call in air support. Someone’s gonna man this chopper and right as they track me down and start opening fire, I plan to press and hold R1, which should trigger the extreme downward pressure of the pre-splosion rockets and cause the chopper to politely “land” before detonating.
Comically, I hope.
And tragically, I realize that I’ve spent the last year and a half doing the same thing to myself. The bladed bird is my creative life, soaring and explosive and hard to control and dangerous, brought to a standstill by a dramatic push to set my future on more solid ground.
But I hadn’t planned for the explosion after, the glut of timekilling consumer joys that would make me forget how good it felt to record something brand new and share it with the world.
In real life, the detonation is agonizingly slow. You ignite the boosters while playing your songs for 50 bucks a night and feeling like the brokest dude who ever conquered the world (or did you liberate it?); a few months later, you’re planning on writing an Internet radio app to help boost album sales for yourself and your artist friends back home; half a year on and you still haven’t put any new music out but it’s cool because you’ll hit 1000 followers soon and you’re getting really good at teaching and the school’s tri-weekly open mics feel like enough of an outlet for that gasping but ever-quieter voice deep inside; another year gone and Aesop Rock’s “Rings” hits your eardrums for the first time and you realize, holy shit, this song is about you. Or at least, it will be if you don’t change your trajectory, find some different stuff to put behind you.
It’s hard to admit, but I used to rap. And sing, and blog, and strum, and fold paper, and cook, and daydream about big stages in faraway places. I used to go to open mics every week and play billed slots on shows every month. I used to spend train rides refining couplets and reshaping clauses. I used to need to restring my guitar five times in a single summer.
And I was flying high, too high to reliably bring enough money home to my family or spend enough time with them when I got there. So I made my plans and set my mind and set my mines and pulled the trigger and found a more down-to-earth way of living.
But something’s bound to burst pretty soon.
And I’m hoping the pastimes to which I once pledged allegiance are still there.
Because I used to be braver than this. I used to be freer than this.
So I’m declaring my independence – from crafting and polishing my image on social media, from refreshing my feed in search of another like or update or aghast quote tweet to get riled up about, from Netflix binges and memorizing Hulu episode release days, from shopping instead of writing, from critiquing instead of practicing, from blowing up digital regimes instead of making the music that helps me stand up to real ones.
I’m declaring independence from trying to love a little bit of everything as a defense mechanism against forcing myself to fight for the few things I really care about. I’m a lover and a fighter. Some bursts are far more upsetting than others.
The easiest way for Rico to bring down a helicopter isn’t to blow it up or shoot it. All he has to do is grapple tether it to the ground and it will crash all on its own. The pilot AI is too rigidly aggressive to adjust to the tether, and it will pull at the line until it collides with earth and bursts into flames.
But humans aren’t coded like that. We can adapt.
So let’s say you were born yearning to soar, but reality has tied you down to an earth bursting with easy but hollow pleasures.
If you choose to stay where you are, you’ll surely rust from the inside out. But if you choose to fly, you’ll never break that tether, and you won’t be able to get as high up as you’d hoped, and changing direction too quickly or pushing too hard on the attack could disturb your vessel’s delicate balance and put an end to everything.
Why would you risk flight? Why would you even play the game at all?
Maybe you would if you had a good enough reason.
Or maybe the game is its own reward, and you’d give it a shot just ’cause you could.
Happy Fourth. Put something behind you so you can battle for something better. And don’t give up the fight.