The Precipice of Darkness

A young man realizes he’s thrown away his spiritual future by shitting in the Devil’s Playground

I’ve always been an opinionated asshole, but for those who didn’t know in high school, it might come as a surprise that I was even more of an opinionated asshole back then. I was also a huge nerd, with a slightly nerdier older brother who I idolized. We grew up playing our own rudimentary versions of generic RPGs, but it wasn’t until I was well into my teenage years that I began an earnest interest in Dungeons and Dragons.

For those unaware, D&D has not always been regarded as the harmless bastion of voluntary virginity that it is today (or as the aloof cultural capital booster it becomes when you cross over into the post-college years, but that’s a different essay). As early as the first edition, D&D was harangued by a variety of panicky fools, most notably from the Christian right. Concerns ran the gamut from the predictable and mundane (artwork containing naked women, the use of the word “demon” in reference materials) to the outrageous (claims that the game was evil in and of itself, and that players could fall under the control of Satan and his followers from playing too often). I was blissfully unaware of all this as a precocious 9-year-old, when I first started dabbling in RPGs, but when I dipped my toe back in the geek pond in high school, my inevitable google searches of “Dungeons and Dragons” led me to a piece of writing—and the man behind it—that would forever alter how I viewed the world I lived in, and the people who lived in it with me.

“Should A Christian Play Dungeons & Dragons” is an essay that is still available for view on Jack Chick’s website, www.chick.com. If you’re lucky enough to have never heard of Jack Chick, he’s the guy who publishes those hilarious/disturbing/hilarious again tiny flip comic books that teach you great lessons about Christianity; like homosexuals being evil, Halloween being evil, Muslims being evil…the dude is really into evil. It’s no surprise, in retrospect, that he teamed up with Bill Schnoebelen, the author of “Straight Talk” and an even more unhinged fruitcake than Chick is. I can’t say with 100% confidence that I read the entire article before I emailed Schnoebelen, but it seems likely. At the time I was just beginning to write consistently, and I loved arguing and honing my analytical skills any way possible. I wish I still had the original email, but it’s lost to the sands of time. To sum up, I wrote Schnoebelen a long and thoughtful email, devoid of any blind accusations or immature name-calling, and politely informed him that I thought his views on D&D being evil were misguided (this was well before I realized that there’s no arguing with a fool).

Much to my surprise, Schnoebelen wrote me back less than 24 hours later. Before I go any further, I’m going to reiterate that I do not have the original emails for reference, or I would quote them here. If Schnoebelen happens to become aware of this essay and he still has those emails, he’s welcome to forward them to me, but for now, we’ll rely on my memory. To his eternal credit, Bill was a pretty nice and well-spoken dude, and replied promptly and courteously, but we seemed to go around in circles, as do most arguments between the rational and the deluded. At this point in time, I was unaware of Bill’s FIRST article for Chick Publications, a much more whacked-out piece of literature titled “Straight Talk on Dungeons & Dragons”.  The original pice of writing I encountered was pretty far-fetched, but, it seemed to me, mostly full of inaccurate information and panicky conclusions drawn by a reactionary Christian with too much time on his hands, but not enough research.

How wrong I was. As our conversation went on, Schnoebelen’s worldview came into sharper focus, and to a sixteen-year-old boy, it was scary. The gist of the essay I read, “Should A Christian Play D&D?”, was that the game could lead a player away from God and a Christian life, and have dire consequences. The language was muddy, but my general takeaway was that Schnoebelen as arguing against D&D because it was potentially dangerous, and could make people go insane or lose themselves in a violent fantasy world. It’s far-fetched, but certainly not outside the bounds of reality. My initial arguments focused on the relatively small percentage of people who do horrible things after playing D&D, and most importantly, the fact that it was indeed a fantasy. Schnoebelen countered one of my dismissals by drawing comparisons between violent media leading kids like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to act out their violent fantasies, saying that in D&D players might try to make their fantasies a reality in a similar fashion.

Confused, I replied with something along the lines of “but the difference is this: magic and trolls and goblins aren’t real. There aren’t any real world consquences, only the consequences of a disturbed mind.”

To which he replied with something akin to this: “Gnomes and trolls certainly are real. A band of gnomes recently castrated a young boy here and hung him from a lamp post for performing a gnomish ritual wrong.”

….what.

I kid you not, a grown man actually said this to me. Imagine how terrifying it would be, as a teenager, to be engaged with a conversation over email with a total stranger and suddenly realize they were 100%, verifiably out of their minds? I sent him one last message, something akin to realizing that he was out of touch with reality, and big him well. I think he emailed back but I deleted the whole thread, feeling dirty, shameful, and frightened.

It taught me a lot of lessons, but the one I’ll take to the grave is this: some people just can’t be reasoned with. Their worldview is so warped and damaged that even the most well articulated, well-reasoned argument in history will not move them from whatever twisted belief they’ve decided to cling to for dear life. It’s the reason I’ve had to explain to many friends, time and again, that if I fight or bicker with them, if I argue with them very heatedly and use strong language and fiery rhetoric, it’s because I consider them intelligent, open to argument, and worthy of conversation. Namely, I consider them a friend. Somebody who I feel is an idiot, is incapable of being swayed, or who just downright doesn’t deserve my time…they won’t get it. They’ll get pleasantries and coldness, because I don’t need to waste my breath on somebody who is never going to even try to see where I’m coming from.

In case you were wondering, I did a little more research into Bill Schnoebelen after I had recovered form the initial creep-out period. The dude is, like I said, a certifiable whackjob, or perhaps just a grift artist. He’s claimed to have been a Wiccan High Priest, a Satanist, and a Catholic. The last one doesn’t sound so incriminating, if he didn’t use that as a segue into his claim that he was invited to become a vampire by his fellow Catholics(!).

Looking back, the whole thing was kind of a watershed moment for me and my maturation. It was the end of my belief that people were basically calm, rational, and intelligent adults who mostly want to be left alone and leave others alone. I don’t believe that anymore: most people are blessedly stupid and content to be that way, but a large number are also intent on destroying the liveliehood and happiness of anybody who isn’t as afraid of life as they are. To that end, whenever I see people trying to dump on somebody who is daring to do things a little differently (and it happens far more subtly than you’d imagine), I make a mental note that this person is a weak and fearful person, and they are the only ones obligated to deal with themselves.

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That’ll be $1,500, please.

If it weren’t for my terrible diet, I might never have known that I was a victim of bank fraud.

I had some time to kill before attending a screening of the intensely bizarre Bad Film (review coming soon on Twitchfilm.com), and had also promised an old friend in Austin that I would send him one of Shake Shack’s goofy little neon burger shirts. Of course, if I was going to be waiting in line for twenty minutes, I figured I might as well get a burger as well. Once I had my order in and the shirt on the counter I handed the cashier my debit card without thinking twice, and that’s when I heard the tell-tale beep and saw the tell-tale frown.

“Your card’s been declined,” the cashier told me. My first reaction was annoyance.

“Can you run it again? It might just be the card,” I asked. She gave me a raised eyebrow and did so. Beep. Frown. A shake of the head.

“I’m sorry sir, your card’s been declined,” she repeated. Embarrassed and irritated, I apologized and then hastily beat a retreat from the restaurant, ready to call my bank and read them the riot act. This wouldn’t have been the first time they had suspended my card because of “unusual” charges (my girlfriend works upstate, and I travel frequently, so my debit charges are all over the place). However, once I pulled up my account activity on my phone, the anger turned to dread.

My most recent activity, according to my bank’s website, was a nearly $1,500 charge to a company name I did not recognize. I dialed customer service, trying to convince myself that it was some fixable mistake. The floodgates of dread opened wider when my PIN was rejected by the automated system, and I was bounced to an operator. Strike three came when the customer service rep told me the address I gave as verification did not match the address on file.

Things were not looking good.

Long story short, when I got to a branch, everything was taken care of very quickly. Whoever had gotten access to my information made the charge (to a wireless company based in South Africa that may or may not actually exist), then called and changed the address associated with the file. I changed everything back, got a new card, new PIN, and added a verbal password for a new layer of security. The only problem: I still have no idea how this person got a hold of my information.

In the digital age, this is truly frightening. There are so many potential avenues through which somebody could have obtained this information, it was paralyzing to think about. Did they have access to my social security number? Did they have access to my computer? Were my family members safe? It all felt so anonymous and volatile. I eventually ran a credit check and found no aberrations, besides an Express credit card that was opened in my name in 2008 but never used (go figure).

The timing was lucky or unlucky, depending on how you look at it. I’m in the middle of ironing out a lease for a new apartment, and all the needed funds and checks were cleared days before this breach actually took place, so there was no last-minute, panicked shuffling of bank information and no emergency loans required. Still, I don’t feel very safe anymore. The fact is, I’m not sure if there’s much I can do about it.

Oh, and the funds are suspended because the fraudulent transaction is “pending” but I can’t officially dispute it/recover funds until it posts, so that’s fun.

 

The Strange Rage of a European Mutt

Stop right there: this post is not about white anger, at least, not in the sense that anybody outraged by that headline is probably thinking. I’m not talking about the rage white, European-descended Americans feel at the supposed hijacking of “their” country and culture, or any other right-wing talking point nonsense. What I’m talking about is an ethnically-inherited predisposition towards anger. Get off my back, willya? Jesus, fuck!

Spurred on by the recent untimely death of James Gandolfini, I’ve begun rewatching The Sopranos. I viewed the bulk of the series when I first moved to Austin with my brother Alex (back in the summer of 2005, a time when people still bothered with ordering physical DVDs from Netflix), but I had watched up to the end of season 4—the latest season available for home use at the time—and then never finished the series.

It’s nice being able to fall in love with the show all over again, and I feel that I can appreciate it with different eyes now that I’m a little older and a little more jaded, but the things that fascinate me most about the show are still it’s examinations of Italian culture and family life (insert a collective groan from Italian-American readers here).

I know that The Sopranos is a work of fiction, and all things being equal, probably one that takes quite a few artistic liberties as far as exaggerations of certain ethnic qualities. Still, at least one Italian-Jewish friend of mine expressed grief over the passing of Gandolfini, noting especially how his portrayal of an Italian-American father closely reflected her own (in some regards, obviously). This consistently blows my mind: I can’t fathom familial relations as depicted on The Sopranos, the strange paradox of unchecked raw emotional explosions combined with repression of deep grudges and conflict.

For context, I grew up in a white family, and when I say white, I mean white. My mom was the daughter of a Texas oil family, her parents were Texan going back generations and a Long Island-raised/English-born son of immigrants, respectively. My dad grew up working class in St. Louis, straight up Irish/Polish Catholic. My home life had almost zero concern with our roots; we were not the family that ate perogis or played Irish folk songs. The cultural touches that my family had all fell under the blanket heading of “Texan” in our house: my dad hunted and fished, was obsessed with grilling and chili, and of course, we were a Dallas family involved in the energy business.

As far as emotions went, it was a mixed bag. My mom was a product of a new era, having gone through therapy several times after college and eventually swearing to herself that her children would not grow up in an emotionally restrictive environment. We weren’t allowed to sulk as kids, and forced to talk everything out. It’s had a healthy effect on me for the most part, but I’ve realized recently that the one way I’m most like my father (unfortunately), is how we both deal with anger.

Sometimes, I, like all people, get angry over things that actually matter. When this situation arises, I actually think I’m remarkably level-headed compared to most people. However, I’ve got it backwards. I blow a gasket over petty annoyances, but only on the condition that I perceive them as being caused by someone else’s incompetence. In other words, if a plane I’m waiting for is grounded for 5.5 hours due to inclement weather, I’m liable to grumble and complain to myself, but I will more or less accept my fate; no amount of bitching can make ice melt faster, after all. By contrast, something that is completely insignificant but the result of somebody being inconsiderate with their words or actions will send me into a blood-boiling fury. It hasn’t changed since I moved to New York. Having to take three different trains because the L is down produces little more than an annoyed mutter, but if somebody cuts me off on the sidewalk I immediately fantasize about punching them.

If I’m being honest with myself, this is equal parts annoyance with other people’s stupidity/rudeness and annoyance that anybody other than the forces of chaos would dare to inconvenience ME.

REVIEW: CASINO

“In the end, we get it all.”

Casino (1995)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Martin Scorsese and Nicolas Pileggi

 

Casino will always be my favorite gangster movie. Oh sure, it’s possible that somebody, maybe even Martin Scorsese, will make a film that blows everyone’s minds in the next several years, but as time ticks away, that seems increasingly unlikely. I first caught a glimpse of the film on television, I think more than halfway through the proceedings. I was a little lost as to the arc of the story, but enthralled by its scorched pastels presentation of the mafia-owned Las Vegas. It’s a time and place in history that’s well and truly lost, and one that remains alien to me, as I’ve managed to avoid the neon-festooned Land of Broken Dreams for my entire life; the closest I’ve ever come was driving past on the way to Colorado when I lived in Los Angeles.

The prevailing wisdom is that Casino is a serviceable retreading of subject matter thoroughly covered by the more popular Goodfellas (1990), but this comparison begins to fall apart under scrutiny. Yes, both films are largely concerned with Italian American criminals. Yes, both films are steeped in period clothes and music. Yes, both are almost operatic stagings of the rise and fall of men who fought the law (and the law won). However, once you dig a little deeper the differences become clear. Goodfellas is about the making of a gangster, the origin and retirement story of  Henry Hill, a man who wanted it all and who was willing to risk everything to feel like somebody. Casino is about the self-destruction of the mob in a town they controlled with an iron fist, while its protagonist, Sam “Ace” Rothstein (a legendary performance from DeNiro) tries to hold on for dear life. Henry Hill is a hothead, a young kid from the block who bites off way more than he can chew once he’s convinced that the sky is the limit. Ace is a seasoned veteran, a smart guy who got to be the best by making the smart plays, and he’s one of Scorsese’s most tragic and relatable characters. Ace’s downfall is almost entirely beyond his control (save for his involvement with Ginger, played pitch-perfect hateable by Sharon Stone): he moves out to the desert reluctantly, wary that his business and way of life will be meddled with by the powers that be, and, as the movie unfolds, he’s proven right time and again.

Both Casino and Goodfellas are ultimately about greed and corrupting power, but the former makes its point far more subtly than the latter. Ace is a man driven by discipline, respect, and dignity, and DeNiro plays the character with a perfect combination of stone-faced distance masking a finely calibrated sense of right, wrong, and a desire to be loved. Casino is all about the destructive power of desire, but Ace may be the only character in the universe of the film that desires something pure, rather than power, money, or status. In the end, Ace’s greatest sin is pride, in that he refuses to walk away from his brutally manipulative and despicable wife Ginger, and of course, she eventually leaves him.

Gangster films are often based around the premise that people will root for bad characters if they’re sufficiently charmed, but Casino deviates from the script by following the arc all the way to the end. We’re initially equal parts delighted and frightened by Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci, doing what Joe Pesci does best), but by the end of the film, we nod with grim-faced stoicism as Nicky receives his well-deserved comeuppance. Still, Casino leaves us with some troubling notions; while Ace escapes with his life and livelihood relatively intact, the powers that be, who in many ways are responsible for the *ahem* house of cards’ collapse, dole out punishment and clemency as though they were a  moral or ethical authority. Similarly, the Las Vegas authorities are plenty happy to turn the other way while the Wiseguys do business, up until they aren’t getting greased in just the right way, and then the moral outrage switch flips. In many ways, Casino seems to be hinting at the possibility of no real moral distinction between the good guys and the bad guys, as the fates of all players seem to fall at random, with Ace escaping purely by luck of the draw.

In the end, there’s just as much to love here as there is in Scorsese’s more celebrated gangster picture, but Casino has the added value of immersing the audience in a time and place that’s well and truly gone, and asking a question that was daring for the time, but may come off as obvious now: is there a right and wrong? Or are there only winners and losers?