The Copycat (Part 2 of 2)

A blank billboard in a train station.

[Note: This is part 2 of 2. Read part 1.]

“Your Flavor,” Lima’s newest campaign, was an overnight hit.  Sales, reported Christy, were up to unprecedented levels for late April.   

Summer came.  That June, Damian and Karen were stars at Cannes, fielding interviews with Creativity magazine (title: “So What is a Demiwillow, Anyway?”) and were quoted in the Comment section of The New Yorker.   They were on the cover of Advertising Age.  The pair stood with their arms crossed, back-to-back in a defiant pose, like buddies in a prison-yard fight, above the superimposed title “The Comeback Kids.” At that point, Praxis had to capitulate and name them both Executive Creative Directors.  Ana was given a nominal raise and the title of Management Supervisor.  

Everyone wanted to know what was next.

 

Ana spent more weekends with the family.  In July, her mother rebelled against the taking of her car keys by wandering to a Jaguar dealership in her pajamas.  Ana picked her up.  

“I don’t see the problem,” said her mother.  “I have a million dollars.  I can buy you and Luis both a Jaguar of your own.  Maybe then he will come and visit.”

Her elder brother, Luis, had worked for the World Health Organization and had died in a plane crash in Liberia in 2006.  He would not be coming to visit.

“Luis has a car of his own, Mom.”  

There was a pause.  It wasn’t always clear what her mother knew.

“You don’t believe me,” she said.  “I’m going back.  They’ll sell me the damn car.”

She opened the door of the Volvo and stepped out.  The seatbelt she had forgotten to unclasp prevented her from falling from the moving car.  The car door wobbled in the night air.  Ana shouted and pulled over on the shoulder.

“Mom! Couldn’t you see the car was moving?”

“I knew the car was moving.”

“So, help me out,” said Ana.  She turned on the hazard lights and walked around to the passenger side, firmly closing the door.  Inside, her mother scowled out the window.  Ana walked back around and activated the child lock control, but it only locked the rear seats.  Her mother was going to have to ride in the back from now on, she realized, but it was more than that.  She would need to be fully supervised.  This meant live-in support. She might be able to afford that, if they got the agency bonus this year.  Might.

She leaned her head against the roof of the car and quietly wept.

***

At Praxis, Christy had Ana and the Demiwillow in her office.  She poured them all a bourbon.  Damian was pacing, looking out the window, over the city.   Karen sat, knees tucked on the couch, playing with her hair.  Ana sat on the opposite side of Christy’s desk.  She appreciated the bourbon, and took it as a sign that she was finally at the grown-ups’ table.

“We’ve done well for them,” said Christy.  “But we need something new.”

“Sure, we saw the latest brief,” said Damian.  “No biggie.”

“I think we’re going to need to swing a little harder this time,” said Christy.  “I want you guys to head back to Boston.  Speak with, you know, the oracle up there.”

Ana felt a flash of discomfort.

“Come on, Christy,” said Damian.  “This is what we do, here.  We don’t need to talk to–” he caught himself, walked to shut her office door.  When it was closed, he turned and continued at a whisper– “a fucking cat to get ideas.  We’re creatives, remember?”

“We did go to college for this,” said Karen.  “Why not just do new executions of Your Flavor?”

“Lima loves us,” said Damian.  “Hell, the whole industry loves us.

“We have sales targets.  If we have any shot of getting our bonus, we have to close the year with a year-over-year sales increase of 10%.  Ordinarily that would be feasible, even likely, with home-grown creative, but we are digging ourselves out of a massive hole here, guys.  And you know who buys Lima soda in the winter? Nobody.”

“Well then, we’ll just have to come up with something really good,” said Damian, grinning.

“Our scorecard, which includes bonuses, is tied to performance, not publicity.  People need to be buying soda.  Another TV ad can get us there, but smart money says it won’t, so it has to be more than just good.  It has to be magic.

“So: we have a large deficit right now and what we need is a grand slam, but I’m hearing my ECD say he wants to risk canceling Christmas for 65 people.  Have I got that right?”  She lowered her volume.  “You’ve got a guarantee waiting for you out there.  Why don’t you just go get it?”

Damian threw up his hands.  

“Christy,” Karen said quietly.  “Let us do what we do.”  

“We can’t risk it.”  Her eyes scanned back to Ana.  “Would you all just handle this please?”

“I don’t need that fucking cat!”  Shouted Damian.

“I know you could do it if it were five, seven percent. But this, Damian? This is the stuff of legend.  ‘Write your own ticket’ stuff.  So you’re going to go up there, you’re gonna listen to the stupid thing and you’re gonna fetch our bonuses.  Please.”

“Christy–”

“No, Damian.  This gravy train’s next stop is in Boston.  Please, let us all know if you want to get off.”

 

As Ana was walking her bike out, she saw the light in Christy’s office was still on.  Karen entered, closing the door gingerly behind her.  As Ana shuffled her bike loose from the pile, she realized it was still entangled with another bike.  It was Damian’s bike. He was also there, trying to fetch his bike loose.  But he wasn’t looking at the bikes.  He was looking at Christy’s office door.

“Better be careful,” he said to Ana. “The rats are leaving the ship.”

She went home and packed for Boston.

 

Day three at F2.  Ana had slept terribly, with fitful, anxiety-ridden dreams: the election, the next campaign, wars that were happening, or about to happen. She dreamt that she was a child, and her mother had come to pick her up at elementary school, but on the drive home realized they were driving on and on, but getting nowhere, the same hills and forests passing in the dark.  She knew the dementia was the reason, that her mother had forgotten the way home, and searched for a delicate way to suggest the proper directions, though she was a child and didn’t know. In the backseat, a man she didn’t recognize and a young girl– Damian’s daughter, she thought, sat in the backseat.  The Copycat was draped across the girl’s lap.  Ana knew, the way one did in dreams, that they didn’t know the way either.  Her mother turned to look down at her from the driver’s seat.  “Don’t worry,” she said, and Ana realized that she had no eyes in her sockets. The darkness of the night sky and stars turned in her skull.  “I know the way.  But first, we have to pick up your brother.”  

She spent the rest of the night writing email.

 

Hours passed unsuccessfully in the booth.  By now they were openly napping during each other’s operating sessions.  No one looked rested.  Karen went to visit the vending machine, and when she returned she crinkled her nose.  

“Ew,” she said.  “This room smells like us.”

During Damian’s second shift, he began to talk to the cat about the Your Flavor campaign, and the cat listened, interested.  Karen leaned in to watch, crunching her Fritos.  She put a hand on Damian’s shoulder.  At the moment of contact, the cat spoke.

“Traitor,” uttered the cat.   Karen recoiled.  The cat leaped up to the landing of its cat hotel, then to the top platform.  At the heights it called back, “Snitch.”

“What the fuck, Damian?” Said Karen.

Damian powered through.  “Oh, like you weren’t reporting back to Christy on all this?”

Karen flushed.  “Unlike you, I’m not ready to throw all this away.  We’ve got people relying on us.  You’re not the only one on the hook.  Everyone is looking at us and asking, what next?  Well, Damian?  What next?”

“What happened to you, Karen?  You get one award and all that shit that they taught us at art school is out the window?  Don’t you see what’s happening here?” He gestured at the cat on the other side of the window.   “Animal slave labor? They’re automating us!  We’re creatives for christ’s sake!  We’re not supposed to get automated. You know who gets automated?”

“Poors,” offered the cat.

Damian waved away the window.  “Thank you.  No, what I was going to say was,” he said, slowing himself to a stop. He sighed.  “The point is, we can’t keep writing ourselves out like this.  We’re degrading the profession.”

“Damian, I need this job.  I’ve got a… goddamn mortgage,” said Karen.

“Pregnant,” said the cat, insistently.
Karen looked over at it and closed her eyes as if manifesting all of her patience.

“Well,” said Damian.  “Congratulations.”

Karen shook her head.  She looked like she were about to cry.  “Please don’t congratulate me,” she said in a very small voice.

Ana realized that the crucial function of her job had arrived.  She needed to Hold the Family Together.  This was a big one, a schism beyond the healing power of bagel breakfasts.  They were under a ton of pressure, insecure, scared.  It was 4:23PM.  She made the call.

“Guys, let’s go for another seven minutes.  Then we can get out of this stinky room, and I’ll buy you both dinner and drinks and we can talk about this–” she nudged her chin at the observation camera in the corner– “off the record.”

 

They found a brewery by the water’s edge, and started in hard.  It was too cool to sit outside, so they sat by a window overlooking the water, a series of pleasure boats bobbing below.  Ana hadn’t been thrilled about the rounds of shots, but a good lead knew when to hold the reins lightly, she thought.

Damian drank like a thirsty athlete.  His s’s were just starting to grow overlong, and his volume seemed uncontained, but he wasn’t sloppy yet.  Karen tittered.  Ana found them to still be manageable, but it was getting choppy.

“Does no one else find this weird?  Pulling ideas out of the ether like that?  Who wants to go rooting in all that shit?  And like doctor Bunsen Honeydew over there said, it’s bi-directional.  I can feel all this… crap rolling around in there.  The world, banging to get in.”  He glanced around for affirmation.  His eyes were baggy, his skin pale and unshaven.  Ana had to admit, he looked like he was slipping.  They all did.  “Are you telling me I’m the only one?”

“No,” said Karen.  “I feel it too.”

“That’s why they make us take the breaks.  It’s not just to rest the cat.  It’s to rest us.  Keep us from absorbing too much.  Don’t you think?”

“It’s messed with my sleeping,” said Karen.  “I feel like I’m remembering things that didn’t even happen to me.”

“Exactly!  Weird shit.”

“I don’t see what difference it makes,” said Ana.  “We just need to get something to take home.  Then we’re done. We’re not moving in here.”

“It spoke to me,” said Karen.

Ana and Damian both looked at her.

“You both were asleep.  It talked to me.”

“What did it say?”

“It forgave me.”

“For what?”

“I’d rather not say.  But it did, and I believe it.”

“See?” Said Damian.  “This is the kind of crazy shit I’m talking about.  It keeps telling me it loves me, wants to be with me, sounding like my damn kid.  And, while part of me likes it, the rest is, well, creeped out.  Plus, I think it’s trying to tell us something.”

“Sure, it’s trying to tell us what it thinks we want to hear,” said Ana.  “I mean, isn’t that what it does?”  

For the first time, Damian became aware of his volume.  “You know what I think?”  He looked around the bar, savoring the attention, and when he was convinced that they did not in fact know what he thought, took a final drink of his beer before re-establishing eye contact.  “I think it wants us to break it out of there,” he said, his lips wet.

Ana took a matching sip of her Chardonnay, self-consciously mirroring him.  She didn’t want to lose him, or worse, have them ice her out, not now.  

“What makes you say that?”

“Because that’s what it said,” he hissed.  “Karen, tell me you know what I’m talking about.”

Karen nodded, her eyes were wide, scanning between them.  “It told me a lot of things.  ‘Set me free.’  I’ve definitely seen enough to think that it’s real, a thinking thing,” she said, nodding gravely.

“Did you ever notice it’s mouth doesn’t match what it’s saying?” Said Damian.

“I asked Sherman about that,” said Karen.  “He said we usually hear it in someone else’s voice.  Have you noticed?  Who do you hear?”

“My daughter,” said Damian.

“My mother,” added Ana.

“Uh huh,” said Karen.  “That means the cat’s got them.  He’s connected, and we gave him the map.  Just like in the video.  From person to person, consciousness to consciousness.  Meanwhile, the cat suffers in a cage.  What does he think about in there, I wonder, with our thoughts?”

“Come on, Karen,” said Ana.  “It’s the world’s most lavishly cared for zoo animal.  It’s hardly suffering.”

“You think it’s suffering now?” pushed Damian.

“I don’t think that room is the best place for it,” said Karen.  “It should go outside.”

Ana felt something fester in the beer-stained wood between them.  A bad idea.  She didn’t know how to stop it.

“We can get it out,” said Damian.

“Damian,” Ana said.  “We’ll go to jail.  Just after we lose our jobs.  I need this job, and so do you.  So does Karen.”

“It can talk,” continued Karen. “If it’s being held against its will, you can just ask it.”

“So can a parrot,” said Ana.  “You’re projecting, and it’s picking that up. If you ask it, whatever it tells you is fifty-fifty.  Or it tells you an ad, or a recipe, or something irrelevant.”

Damian ignored her, responding to Ana’s previous point.  “No, we won’t go to jail.  We’re whistleblowers.”

This was indeed going left, thought Ana, but she didn’t quite know what to do.  Then it occurred to her– best to just get this on record.  “I’ll send Christy a text,” she thought.  

She excused herself to go to the bathroom.  She was lightheaded.  The bar music was too loud.  They were playing one of those Irish rock bands, the Pogues or the Dropkick Murphys.  Boston needs to try a little harder sometimes, she thought.

In the stall she quickly texted “Damian is wasted and becoming a little belligerent.  Has a real anxiety about F2 situation.  What should I do?”

Ana could see Christy was revising several versions of the message.  Finally:  “Get him back to hotel. He’s on antideps, shouldt drink. CONFIDENTIAL.”

“Shit,” she thought.  Another text came back.

“TIME-SENSITIVE.”

“Shit.”

“In the program,several weeks sober. CONFIDENTIAL x2.”

Karen Willow was waiting for her back at the table.  Damian was gone.

“Where did he go?”

Karen grimaced.  “I’m… not sure.”

“Karen,” said Ana, “Where is Damian.”

“He lost custody, Ana.  He’s been really on edge, and with that thing talking to him in his daughter’s voice–”

“Are you saying he went to F2?”

“No, I don’t know–”

They left.

 

Returning to F2, they found him at the third floor cafe bar, which closed late.  He and another man were chatting at the bar.   Ana recognized the other man, but couldn’t place him for the first few beats, until she realized she’d seen him in black and white on the back of his books.  He was a popular novelist of some kind.  He also had bags under his eyes, and was skinnier than she remembered.

Damian introduced Ana to the novelist.  Karen had met him on a previous day, and she excused herself to go downstairs and make a call.

“Talk amongst yourselves,” said Damian.  “I’m gonna find the bathroom.”

“We worked on a shoot together,” said the novelist.  “A lifetime ago.  Can you believe it?”

“Is that what you’re here for?  Are you getting time with the Copycat?”

The novelist looked confused. “No, I’m using the Script Panda,” he said, dropping his voice. “Just for revisions,” he added hastily.

“Well, I guess we’re all on NDA together, then.”

“We are.  This must be what a lounge in a plastic surgery clinic is like.”

“Or Celebrity Rehab.”

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” he said, looking away.

They chatted easily a few more minutes, the way you can when your biggest secrets are already on the table.  Each held up their end while they waited for Damian to return.  Perhaps it was a sense of boldness, or anxiety, when Ana asked, a few minutes in, “So, do you, you know, come here often?”

He smiled kindly.  “You’re asking me if my they are really my ideas, of something pulled from the fog at F2?”

“No, I–”

“It’s all right.  It’s all right.  This is my third time here. My first three bestsellers, they were all, you know, organic.  Then you start to slide.  In the beginning, you can convince yourself, you know?  That it’s all you.  And it’s great.  I mean, it’s easy to believe, while you’re winning.”

He stopped talking, but when she said nothing, he went on.

“Eventually you aren’t selling the way you need to.  And you have… people.  People that have to be paid.  Sometimes you just need the win,” he said.  “Sometimes you just need to pay the bills.”

“I know what you mean,” she said. “But I confess, part of me is wondering if the book of yours that I own was written, you know, here.”

“Hmm. Which one was it?”

“I forget the name.  With the clairvoyant detective? And killer?”

“That was all me.”

“Oh. It was good.”

“Thanks,” said the novelist.  “Hey, let me give you some advice.  Hitting it big. All this… magic.  It all goes away, fast.  We all get just a few at-bats in this.  When your chance comes, if you have a way to win it, win it.  You might not get another chance.”

“You’re telling me to use F2 as long as I can?”

He laughed.  “The opposite!  You’re still young, you have ideas.  You still have time to end up here, but you don’t need to start here. You have the rest of your life to capitulate.  When you find your idea, protect it.  You have to own it.”

“Karen and Damian think they’re going to be automated.”

“Maybe,” he said. “I kind of wished I had learned HTML.”

“I would have thought those clairvoyant detectives paid you well enough.”

He shrugged. “You never know when it’s going to end. What do I do then?”

Karen came back.  “Where’s Damian?”

“In the bathroom,” said Ana.

“He may have started in the bathroom,” said the novelist.  “But I’m not sure he’s going to stay there.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your friend is relapsing.  I gave him something for the pain.  He was concerned he wouldn’t be able to stay awake long enough to finish whatever it is you guys are working on.”

“You gave him drugs?” said Ana, sounding naive, even to herself.

“Just few bumps. to stave off something worse. Hey. He’s an addict, and he’s in pain.”

“We need to get him,” said Karen.  “See if we can get him back to the hotel.  Security will know where he is, or if he left.”

“Good luck,” called the novelist. “And one more thing.”

“What’s that?”

“If you want money, write something they can make toys out of. Toys are good.”

“Thanks,” she said.

“That’s what I should have done,” he said.

“OK,” she said.

 

At reception, Ana asked for Sherman, though she expected he’d have gone home.  “He’s in Elections,” said the guard, directing her down another hall.

The door to a control room was open.  Sherman’s voice.  “Our efforts should at this point be concentrated in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.  With the proper messaging, especially over the coming weekend, we can depress a substantial amount of opposition turnout.  A lot depends on the timing of your buys–”

She knocked on the door, peeking around the corner.  Inside, Sherman was speaking with two sloppy-looking men in expensive suits.  A vast tank behind them showed a live prairie dog habitat with a cross-section of their subterranean network.  A series of digitized graphs ran along the circumference of the tank. Sherman smiled politely and excused himself to step outside, closing the door behind him. The door read “Group Decision Strategies.”

“Hey.  I’m surprised to see you here this late.  Everything OK?”

She told him that Damian was concerned that the animals were asking to be set free, leaning heavily on the fact that Damian may have been having a paranoid reaction to his medication and was undergoing very trying personal problems.  

Sherman’s lips tightened.  “No, that’s not it,” he said.

“No?” She wondered if he knew about the drugs, somehow.

“Sympathetic overload,” he said.  “It’s what can happen if you operate too long.  It’s why we have those time limits,” he said. “Walk with me.”

Ana and Karen followed at a jog.  “But we followed the time limits,” said Ana.

“I’ve been working on a theory that certain states– including those caused by certain types of medication and drugs–  can lower your psychic defenses,” said Sherman.  “I haven’t been able to prove it, though.  Testing it was difficult.”

“Is Damian at any kind of health risk?”

Sherman didn’t say anything, but continued briskly.

When they arrived at the Copycat’s chamber, Damian was waiting, operating the booth.  A fire extinguisher port dangled open, the tank removed and set on the floor at his right hand.  He stood from the chair to face the three of them, and leaned over to speak into the microphone.  He had a smug expression on his face.

“Mr. Sherman,” he said.  It’s come to my attention that this animal is sentient and capable of speech.  I think what we have here is not a marketing technology, but a slave.”

“Please don’t be ridiculous, Mr. Harris.  I have to remind you that you are under signed contract–”

Damian put up his shushing fingers.

“Copycat,” he said.  “Do you want to come out?”

It hopped down from upper platform to lower.  At ground level it breathed “Set me free,” crisply, impatiently.

“You can’t take that seriously,” said Sherman.  “It’s just making sentences.”

“I don’t think you take it seriously enough,” said Damian.  He tapped the glass with the tank.  The noise was the sharp tic of plate glass, not the reverberation of plexiglass.  

“Don’t do that!” shouted Sherman, hands out like a hostage negotiator.  Ana realized the only reason he hadn’t yet called security was the delicate nature of the moment.  

“You are lying,” Damian said.  “Just like you lied to everyone about me.  You can’t have her with you all the time. I get some time, too, you know.”

“Him,” said Karen Willow.  “The Copycat is a him.”

“Right,” said Damian, looking momentarily thrown. “That’s what I meant. Thanks Karen.”

“Sure,” she said.

“You know I’m sorry about what I said before, right?”

“I know, Damian. Can we go back to the hotel and discuss it?”

“Yeah, sure, right after this.  I’m just worried if I don’t, deal with this, you know, now, we’ll all be stuck with a bad deal.  These things can ruin you.  And they can’t have sole cust– anyway, they can’t keep it here.”

Karen looked trapped.

“Look, Damian,” said Sherman.  You’re suffering from a side-effect.  It’s jamming you with too many, well, feelings.  Now, I know you’ve got a lot going on.  Personally, and at the agency.  Let’s agree on this: this work has become unsafe for you. The cat, the Copycat, is bred for that room.  It likes that room.  It does not want to come out. It’s just saying what it thinks you want to hear.  What your brain has been quietly saying, all along.”

“Did you ever ask it?  Don’t lie.  It hates lies, I’ve noticed.”

Sherman didn’t say anything.

“Ana,” said Damian.  “It spoke to you.  You wanted to tell us before, but you didn’t.  What did it say?”

Ana didn’t know why she felt the compulsion to answer honestly, but felt like if she didn’t, the thought would ricochet in her brain and become harder to control.  

“It said, ‘set me free.’”

“Welp,” said Damian, “not a lot of wiggle room, there.”  He hammered the plate glass with a blow from the fire extinguisher.  

The glass detonated. Huge shards fell and shattered on the floor, resounding like miniature church bells. The control room flushed with warm, feline-scented air from the habitat.  A security alarm bleated and the red emergency light above the control room door began to blink in cadence.

The cat peered over the edge into the control room, and it started to pace, its fiery mohawk patrolling just below the windowpane.  It leaped into the control chair, and allowed itself to be pet by Damian, who scooped it into his arms with a grunt.  It seemed a little smaller in person, but it was still enormous for a cat, and Damian could barely manage it.

“Oh God, don’t touch it.” Sherman looked stricken, but was suddenly reminded of something.  “Look, security is on their way,” he said, backing out of the control room. “I have to see my other clients out of the facility.  They must think something terrible has happened.” He was gone, leaving them alone with the Copycat.  

Karen Willow looked at Ana, making an inclusive gesture at the glass, the alarms, the cat in Damian’s arms.  

“Hasn’t it, though?”

The cat was purring loudly.  “A refreshment that invigorates,” it barked.  “For a generation forged by change!”

“Yes!”  Said Damian.  He took a theatrical moment to glare hard at them as if to say, “See?” Then slung it over his shoulders, fireman style, and ran out.  Someone in the hallway could be heard shouting ‘stop,’ but Damian course-corrected, turning to run the other way.  Seeing this, Karen Willow pulled the fire alarm, knowing, as Ana did, that it unlocked the fire doors.

Ana put her head in her hands.

“What,” said Karen.  “He’s a nut, but I don’t want him to get shot.”

 

Over the next hour, Damian made it as far as the channel.  The police had arrived.  After brief a chase, he was finally cornered on a small causeway that led to a brewery by the channel.  No one was shooting, not least because he was unarmed and slow, but because Sherman, who had arrived on-scene by taxi, was heard saying to officers that Damian Harris was “carrying a million-dollar piece of equipment.”    

“It looks like some kind of space bobcat,” said the policeman with the megaphone, whose Boston accent modified it to ‘boabcaat’.  

“It’s been babbling on about soda, right up until you all got here.”  He returned to his megaphone.  “PUT DOWN THE BOBCAT AND PUT UP YOUR HANDS.”  

On the bridge, Damian looked back at the police, security, Sherman,  Karen and Ana on one side.  On the other, the brewery crowd were shouting loudly from the patio.  Below him was the canal.  The crowd had intuited, as crowds do, that the situation was coming to a head.

“Jump, you pussy!” someone suggested.

“Full custody!” Growled the Copycat.

“PUT DOWN THE BOBCAT,” said the police.

Damian complied, gently putting down the Copycat. He raised his hands.  Then something unexpected happened. The Copycat leapt to alight on the railing.

“Uh oh,” said the policeman.

“Now’s your chance, Copycat,” called Damian.  “Swim! Swim free!”

  

The cat jumped, but had misjudged the distance.  It’s frantic arms went rigid in all directions, as a cat does with no clear point of purchase. The crowd gave a terrible, bending moan.  A woman screamed.  

It plunged into the gelid water below. The water yielded a few bubbles a and returned to its rhythm.

“You jackass!” Yelled someone from the brewery.

“Shoot him,” called someone else.

“Oh,” said Damian, the spell broken. Karen and Ana hugged each other and began to cry with relief that Damian hadn’t been shot, but also with sadness, for the strange Mongol prince of marketing was surely dead.  Damian looked down at his hands, the flickering blue and red police lights reflecting against the white stripes of his Adidas jacket. Crowds gathered on either side of the bridge, regarding him as if he had just crashed to Earth.  

“Oh,” he said.  “Oh, shit.”

Two weeks later, Ana received a single word text from Karen Willow (“OMG”)with a link to a gossip website.  As it turned out the Copycat was, as Sherman had mentioned, part dolphin.  It had been pulled from the bay onto the deck of a Boston fishing boat, soaked, surly-looking and chatty as ever. In a video that went viral almost instantly, the near-drowned cat was drawn from the deep only to launch into a croaking and profanity-laden tirade against Fanta soda to the delight and amazement of a bachelor party of amateur fishermen. They had posted it online immediately, and a few days later were quietly rewarded by F2 in exchange for the animal.  

Fanta offered no comment.  

 

The Praxis team, in the end, relied on their own creativity.  “Invigoration,” a series of ads based on “Your Flavor” and (mostly) conceived by Damian Harris and Karen Willow, did a sales bump of 10.3%– just past breakeven, meaning all was forgiven with Lima, and while there were no bonuses, Christmas did come, and Lima signed on for another year.  

Damian’s legal team had easily made the case that he had been exposed to untested technology and was the victim in this case.  F2 settled handsomely with all of the team deemed to have been “exposed” to the technology, providing Joanna more than enough to cover the costs of her mother’s illness and assisted living.

According to Christy, F2 had been in the middle of an acquisition by a Cambridge-based quant services company and were happy to be done with the advertising business.  

“They have some kind of big-data election strategy service now,” said Christy.  “Even if this hadn’t happened, I’m not sure they’d take my calls anymore.”

Ana took another job at a multinational agency in the city. She hired a part time live-in home nurse, a Jamaican woman named Regina, who her mother had met at the previous hospital. When her mother moved into a new adult living apartment in the Berkshires, she had begrudgingly accepted the arrangement, but insisted that Regina continue to work for the family, and Regina had agreed.  

When her mother finally said it, Ana froze.

“What did she say?” she asked Regina.

“Oh, that.  She used to talk like that, back at the other hospital.” She laughed gently.

Ana heard Benicio Del Toro’s voice.

“It begins with scanning the consciousness of the operator, then, identifying the reflected consciousness of the operator’s family, friends and colleagues.”

Regina continued.  “–When she wasn’t getting her medication.  She’d get bored, than paranoid.”

Sherman’s voice now: “Imagine two tracks in your mind.”

Regina: “She thought everyone was conspiring to lock her up!”

Sherman: “It wants to play this back to you to please you, to bond.  It’s just saying what it thinks you want to hear.  What your brain has been quietly saying, all along.”

“I’m half bored to death,” said her mother, rocking in the chair. She spoke just as she always had, but in the voice Ana remembered, would always remember, coming to her from behind the glass.   

Her mother frowned, surveying the sod of the golf course that was her new front yard.  “I just wish somebody would come and set me free.”

The Copycat (part 1 of 2)

A blank billboard in a train station.

It was Friday evening and their weekend should have already begun, but instead the team at Praxis Adaptive were rapt around a single conference phone. Praxis, as it was often called, was an advertising agency that occupied a former industrial space in Brooklyn’s DUMBO district, by the water. The sun had just set over the Manhattan skyline to the west, and pink glow of late April hovered over the river, casting their silhouettes on exposed brick. Praxis had the requisite digital agency vibe, with beanbag chairs, an open office plan and hardwood floors.  A ping-pong table.  A kitchen stocked with iced teas and Lima Soda, the brand they represented and were about to lose.  

Ana Rivera, Account Executive, looked cautiously around the table in an attempt to gauge the room, but everyone was silent in tense anticipation, deferring any and all action to Christy Harris, the Account Director at the end of the table.  This was a job best left to professionals, after all.

Christy was Ana’s boss and mentor, and as one of the youngest in the room, Ana was obligated to see how the seniors played their losing hand, ostensibly for the benefit of her career, but also because the number of actual train wrecks one might see in their career was mercifully small, and Ana wanted to watch this one play out.

Praxis prided itself on being low-key.  Many commuted daily on bicycles that they stacked in the corner by the elevator.  They were underpaid, mostly twenty-somethings, and dreaded to be the first to noisily unstack their bike at closing time, lest their commitment be put to the question.  This wasn’t some kind of joke.  They were creative.  They were building something.  They would leave something behind, in code and light and electricity: internet ads that took you to websites that promoted crackers, apps to find the closest place to find a soda, 30-second spots that celebrated refreshment.  And so, they reasoned, they would never die.  But they could be fired.

Accounts were lost, positions terminated.  You could get a Good Run.  Some of the old soldiers that had come from larger agencies spoke of contracts and re-bids for a business, accounts that were held for multiple corporate generations.  Few at Praxis Adaptive had been in the game that long, and to the young ones like Ana, the idea of staying in one place for more than three years was bad juju, like calling dark forces down on oneself that were best left alone.

They expected to jump jobs several times before they were thirty, to increase their range of experience, mainly their salaries.  Jumps were delicate, precisely-timed things, and  should be worth an extra 10-20k, at least.  With the right timing, the ambitious ones might be making over a hundred thousand dollars a year, not a lot of money in Brooklyn, but enough to keep you in Friday night sushi and an active gym membership, if you didn’t mind having a roommate, or a studio apartment.  You had to prioritize.

But losing an account meant layoffs, which killed the timing of your jump, indeed, put you at the back of the line. Layoffs meant claiming you were “freelancing” to recruiters who read easily between those lines, taking “Associate” back on your title. Sure, layoffs weren’t being fired, per se.  You never said, I got fired today.  You said, ‘I got laid off,’ or ‘they laid me off,’ or ‘I lost my job.’  This was how you told your friends, your family, your girlfriend or boyfriend.  Your boyfriend might say to his friends that “she got laid off,” but your friends would say “girl got fired.”  Because that’s what it was.  Some people might still be bobbing in the lifeboat behind you, but sorry, you’ve been voted off the island, declared inessential, redeployed into the economy.  All of this swirled in the minds of everyone at the table, knowing that due to their recent performance, the likelihood of the agency being fired was at an all-time high, and for Ana in particular, the prospect of losing the health insurance that supported herself and her rapidly deteriorating mother filled her with dread.  Someone would need to salvage the situation.  Three people would be essential:

Christy Harris, the woman at the head of the table with her finger guarding the mute button, was the Account Director for the Lima Soda account.  Lima was worth $20 million to the agency. This employed 44 people, including offshore production in India (that truth be told, wasn’t totally working out, but lowered the average billable rate) plus a roomful of social media oompa-loompas somewhere in the forests of New Jersey (who were working extremely well, and were criminally underpaid, because, well, Jersey).  Christy, a fortysomething blonde with dark, assertive eyebrows, had apparently been some kind of badass over at Fanta in a previous life and Carlsberg before.  The first Lima spot Praxis had done was hers. “Agent Citrus,” a long-running campaign whereby an handsome male/female pair of spokesmodels delivered improbably death-defying, parkour-inflected saves to thirsty people in exotic locales, was an instant hit.  The agency did a number of 30-second spots, web games, and a fast-food tie-in with a movie franchise.  After that, Christy’s agency was acquired by Praxis and she brought Lima with her.  She spoke fluent French and some had claimed to hear her speaking Danish in her office after hours.  Danish.  Word on the street was that Christy bagged Lima Soda near single-handedly. In a large agency she would have been exalted with Executive Vice President, Partner, or both.  Praxis liked to think of itself as a scrappy Brooklyn Agency and accordingly, didn’t roll like that.  She was the boss, she was obeyed, and everybody knew she had points on the company.  Praxis didn’t do ‘Executives’ and had no patience for anyone foolish enough to call themselves a ‘ninja.’  This was enough, Account Director the title.  Christy did not bike to work and paid for her own parking.  Her finger rested with authority on the black phone, and she listened intently to the voice on the other end, who was deciding the fate of the aforementioned twenty million dollars.

Damian Harris, no relation, was Associate Creative Director (ACD), and Karen Willow, his partner, ACD, were also seated by Christy.  They were a non-mated pair.  Ana couldn’t figure out why they weren’t just co-’Creative Directors,’ instead of both Associate Creative Director, since that was the function they performed, but Praxis seemed to be taking a hard line, here.  Damian had short, curly hair and a nine-o-clock shadow, and preferred a black blazer and chucks.  He looked faintly foreign and exhausted, like he had given up on something he could not catch.  He filled the (Associate) Creative Director template very well but was, notably, perhaps 5’4” if he was a foot, which, Ana reasoned, must have cost him in negotiations.

Because of this, and perhaps because it was widely known he was being financially devastated and losing custody of his child in a contentious divorce, Damian was the unexpected beneficiary of quiet sympathy.  One of the creatives below him (and his only Facebook friend in the company) reported that his private Facebook profile showed albums brimming with photos of a proud father and his four-year-old daughter, cackling wildly.  A lot of his tantrums and attitude were overlooked for this reason, but mainly because Damian had the almost supernatural ability to pull it out at the last minute and give birth to ideas that should have won awards, even if they hadn’t yet.  Recently, his bike had quietly joined the pile.

Karen Willow, his partner and copywriter, had very straight, flat blonde hair and bangs, and cultivated a strange conversational off-tempo and “I wear black” vibe that was converted, seasonally, to a single color, this spring’s selection being the range from lilac to violet.  Her eyes were perpetually a little too wide open, and she had a low monotone, the combination of which made it sounds like she was always in the process of blowing her own mind.  Karen was mysterious.  She had awards at a previous agency. Now, she was widely assumed to be on her way out when the right job offer materialized, appreciating neither Praxis’ coyness on the ACD tip, nor being thought of as Damian’s partner and not the reverse.  That offer had not yet materialized, so here she was.  Karen Willow did not know how to ride a bike and walked to work from Fort Greene.  Collectively, Karen Willow and Damian Harris were referred to internally and openly as “The Demiwillow,” which stuck because it alluded to both Damian’s crass ambition and Karen’s wispy, unmatured aloofness.  

Ana rounded out the group, and was usually the one to manage them, in quotes, but it might have been said she was responsible for them.  This was her third real job, and she was one year past the three-year cutoff.  The upside to this was that she was the only one who had been there long enough to gain Christy’s trust.  Ana could remember Praxis prior to Lima Cola, 20 employees, then 25, then 45, now this.  In the beginning, the clients were local and every meeting had at least half the company in it.  Now, things were different, and she had been through three battlefield promotions.  She had a roommate in Williamsburg, and made a salary that was good for the Earth, but would not do for DUMBO or Brooklyn Heights for much longer. Of course one of the bikes was hers.  She was twenty-seven years old.

Two days before, a new TV spot for Lima Cola had aired.  The TV direction had been developed by Praxis, but cast, recast, redirected, re-interpreted and finally approved by the internal team at Lima, before being handed back to Praxis to execute.  This was the worst of both worlds: enough responsibility to own it, not enough to have built it, unimpeded.  The Demiwillow were, predictably, apoplectic.  They hated the spot.  Hated it.  They felt that their original vision was unrecognizable in the final product.  Creatives always make this complaint given any small deviation to suit the needs of the business, of course, but anyone involved had to admit that they had a case.  The spot itself, of course, had been a fiasco.  It aspired, simultaneously to be topical yet noncommittal, revolutionary yet peacemaking, deeply rooted, yet superficially concerned. It argued for a world that was diverse, frenetic, charged, yet delivered a visual story that was benign, predictable, insipid.   On the other end of the line was The Client at Lima, Mrs. Yvonne Dratch, Regional Associate Marketing Director for Lima Cola. The Client was unhappy with it.

They all were watching the spot again, and Damian couldn’t even bring himself to look at the screen.  Onscreen two twenty-something models accepted a Lima from a golden demigod with an improbably gravity-resistant afro on a unicycle. A unicycle!  Damian slammed his head audibly, painfully on the conference table and Karen gave him a rub on the back, as if to say, ‘get back in there, slugger.’  He moaned.

Two days into the campaign the oompa-loompas in New Jersey called to say that social media sentiment analysis indicated the brand was in freefall.  Paradoxically, visits to the website were up 1700%, presumably, tut-tutted the strategy team, to hate-watch the video.  Twitter, Facebook, even Tumblr and Medium were uniformly opposed, some even going so far as to call the spot ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘insensitive,’ and in some cases even ‘triggering’, which was an easy term to search for but notoriously hard to define.  All around, it was agreed that the spot was a disaster, and The Agency’s recommendation, if asked, would be to pull it.  There was a long silence on the phone as the ad came to an end with the unicyclist taking a long, meaningful drink of Lima soda while balancing, for no compelling reason.

“Vodka,” whined Damian to the table. “Vodka is what I need.”

They were still muted.  Christy pointed at him gently as if to say, “you have been heard, but it is time to be quiet,” but did not look up.  

Yvonne, who had the gentlest phone-voice of client they’d had the pleasure to have, said airily, “Well, it doesn’t quite scrape at the firmament, does it?”

This reference was more biblical that most of the team were accustomed to from a Regional Associate Marketing Director.  It did not bode well.

“It did when you approved it,” whispered Damian musically to the table.

“No,” said Christy, speaking into the phone.  We’ve gone through the figures together.  For whatever reason, it’s not being well-received, as we all know.”

“So let’s come to it then.  Why do you think that is?”

“Because if you mate a platypus with a wad of dogshit,” offered Damian, bumping his fists to indicate fierce, indifferent animal copulation, “the result is not a Swan or even a duck, it is an abomination against God.” The red light of the mute indicator was still on, thank God, though Ana.

“We can shoot from the hip, but that would be our intuition.  We’re preparing a fuller analysis that you’ll have by the end of the week.  We think the key decision for this conversation is, what do we want to do in the near-term.”

“I think the reason is the creative,” said Yvonne.  “People are responding to the creative.  It doesn’t work.”  This was Client-ese for ‘your creative team fucked this up,’ and was typically, at this scale, followed by the creative team being fired, or “taken behind the shed,” sometimes even “take them out back and shoot them,” though no one died.

“The Agency concurs,” said Christy.

“Well, I think we have to pull it.” Media was already committed in the millions.  This was a glorious shitburger, thought Ana.

“We agree.  It’s our recommendation that we pull it immediately.”

“That was fast.  I didn’t realize you agreed with me.”

“We don’t like to be wrong a minute longer than we have to, Yvonne.”

“Well, good.  Me either.  We’ve done a lot of good work together, guys,” said Yvonne.  We need you to really go back and figure out what happened here, Ok?”

Everyone tensed. Coming from Yvonne, this was the approximate analog of being told to die in a fire by someone less measured, and Christy didn’t miss it.

“We understand, of course. We will. We are.”

“So,” said The Client, “intuition now.  What went wrong?”

“My guess is, a slight case of the EFT’s, or every-fuckin-things,” said Damian.

Christy released the mute button and pointed at Damian as if the force of a thunderbolt flared from her manicured fingertip.  He was silent, but it was Ana she excused from the call.

“Price three train tickets to Boston for Monday.  And don’t leave yet,” she said.

Ana left Christy and the Demiwillow alone in the East River sunset of conference room ‘Mailer’ and returned to her desk.  After getting the tickets, she navigated to LinkedIn to look for jobs.

Shortly after, Ana was summoned to Christy’s office.  Christy had already poured herself a scotch, any by now it was the three of them: Ana, Christy, and the glass of scotch by the light of a single halogen desk lamp, together in the dark. She didn’t offer Ana one.

“So,” said Ana. “Boston? I thought you needed all hands-on?”

“I do.  But this is a black op.  It’s Lima business, though.  I need you to come up with the new concept.”

“I’m confused.  We’re using the original concept.  Yvonne was pretty specific.”

“That’s just it, said Chrissy, smiling deviously.  “She wasn’t.  Which means this time, we get to save them from themselves.”  She slid a business card across the desk, from darkness to center stage under the halogen, like an ace she’d been palming.  “These guys have a unique technology that can help us work up the message.”

“I thought we were just going to do the original version, the one before they changed things?”

“We never got to shoot those.  Besides, we need something bigger now, something that hits the, you know, the spirit of the moment.  She tapped the card.  This is the thing, trust me.”

“It’s a technology solution?”

“Kind of. It’s a secret sauce.”

“I’m a little concerned.  We need to be shooting, now.  We have three weeks to get something in the can.”

“You won’t need that long.” She motioned Ana closer.  “Close the door.”
She leaned in.

“These guys,” she whispered, tapping the card, “gave me Agent Citrus.”

“Are you serious?  The whole thing?”

“Basically. And now, I’m giving them to you.  Keep it a secret.  You’ll see what I mean. It’s easy.”

Ana didn’t know what to say.  Christy had basically confessed that the bedrock her creative career rested on was a sham.  

“It’s just a tool,” she continued, taking a violent swig. “To help you generate ideas.”  Her eyes narrowed, she seemed to have found a flavor she’d realized she was stuck with.  “You’ll have to take the Demiwillow,” she continued.  “Try to keep them from collapsing in on themselves like some–” her eyes searched the room.  “Like some hipster black hole.  And make sure they feel in a position to take credit for what they come up with.”  She wagged the glass.  “Give me something sharp, give me something smart.  And humble. No high-concept.”

“Christy,” said Ana slowly, “It sounds a lot like you’re asking me to handle creative direction.  I mean, I’m thrilled, but, I’m still just an Account Sup.”

“Once you see the tech they have, you’ll understand my confidence.  It’s not really a creative process.  I think they call it… piloting, or something like that. Operating, I think.  I mean, don’t tell Damian and Karen that.  They should feel like it’s a really creative process.  We need their sign-off, but it’s kind of color-by-numbers.  

“I’d go if I could,” she added, “But I can’t ‘operate’ anymore.  I need somebody new, somebody who can manage them.  After me, that leaves you.”

Something about her tone made Ana uneasy.  “Why can’t you?”

“They have a bunch of special rules,” she said, her eyes veering into the dark.   “For safety.  Besides which, I need to be on-site with the client, fixing this mess.  There’s no one else I can send to do that. I had my time.  Now it’s yours. It works.  You have to, you know,” she took a swig and was left gesticulating into the air to run out the clock before she could swallow.  “Trust the process,” she said finally.

“We’ll come up with something,” Said Ana. We are fucked, she thought.

Christy looked up sharply, as if she’d heard, her eyes lit from below.  “Take the Acela,” she hissed. “You can be there by Monday morning.”   

***

They were on the train early Monday.  Ana toyed with the business card loosely between her fingers, gazing absently out the train window.  The card itself was the classic textured eggshell white.  It was glossy black letters in serif font, which was unusually conservative for technology companies, she thought.  The text itself was simple:

Fauna & Function

Abstract Possibilities Made Concrete Realities

Which, she had to admit, sounded promising.  The Demiwillow were chock-full of abstract possibilities, it was the concrete part where they floundered.  Of other clues, the Internet had held very little. The ‘News’ page of their website was basically a very long list of patent applications in the vaguest possible language: “Mammalian hybridization in CRISPR-Cas9 for genome engineering,” and “A process to suppress deficiency of methyl-CpG binding protein-2 in CNS neurons.”  There was no sizzle, not even stock art.  As a marketer, Ana inferred that their hearts clearly weren’t in it. That usually meant the client was used to having prospects come to them, which suggested that they had specialized tech.  

The name of the card’s owner was Chambers Sherman, Director of Research.  One of those weird last name-last name combos that always ended up sounding like a southern woman or a new brand of paint.  The internet was light on details about Sherman as well, but he did have a sparsely-populated LinkedIn page with a photo showing he had worked there for some time.  Ana rehashed the creative brief, added a few more images to her deck, and watched the eastern seaboard go by.

After a while her phone rang. It was her sister Carolina, up in Holyoke.  Ana felt her blood pressure rise.  These calls usually built to revealing some new familial crisis.

“Hi.  What’s up?”

“Hey. Listen, I’m sorry to bother you, but a couple things have happened, and I’m starting to get really concerned.  I told you how I was at mom’s a few weeks ago?”  

“You said she had left the bathroom faucet on, and it had spilled and was starting to flood.”

“Right.  Well, last night I came by to the house to drop off some groceries, and I nearly hit her with the car.  She was in the driveway. God knows how long she’d been out there.”

Ana sat up.  “Oh, Jesus.”

“It’s pretty bad.  Do you think you can get up here pretty soon?  We need to talk about this, but I want you to see for yourself.”

“I’m on a train headed to Boston for an onsite.  Do you think it can wait?”

“I don’t… I can’t say.  I don’t think I can lock her in her own house.”

“You have the car keys?”

“No, should I?”

“Yes. Get the keys.”

“Ana, I feel like this is more of a family meeting kind of conversation.”

“You’re right, it is.  Right now, the timing is not ideal.  I’m kind of–” her eyes flicked to Damian, fiddling with his phone a few seats up, and dropped a few decibels.  “I’m kind of fighting to keep my job right now.”

“Was it the commercial?”

“Yeah.”

“I saw it.  It was definitely confusing.”

“That’s what the client said.”

“I get it. Well, we’ll just try to hold it together over here.”

“I’m sorry.  All I can say is that I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“I know.”

 

Fauna and Function was situated not far from the river, in a historic building with a  mansard roof, ivy creeping up polished brick.  The windows were very clean.  It looked like a keycard-entry public library, recessed far back enough from the sidewalk to fit its own bike rack. A lonely, unused Shinola bicycle rested within.

Chambers Sherman was waiting. He welcomed them to what he called “F2.”  He looked exactly like his Internet photo, which meant he had aged very, very well, clean shaven, salt and pepper hair very close cropped, indiscriminately 30-going-on-50 with thick, black-rimmed glasses. His black suit was nearly form-fitted to his slender shape, and it opened to a white undershirt so high up on his chest that the effect was something like a spacefaring Jesuit.  Sherman’s voice was gentle and measured, and though he motioned generously with his hands, they were restrained, as though he was accustomed to giving tours from within a crowd and at low volume.  Ana though he looked kind of like a middle-aged lesbian creative director.

“That Shinola is a very nice bike,” observed Damian. “Yours?”

“Oh,” chuckled Sherman, “that’s something of a company prop.  I’m fortunate enough to drive a Tesla. I’m terrible on a bicycle.  A danger to myself.”   

There was a tastefully restrained security desk with a metal detector.  Gentle curves, as though built by Apple.

“I have to apologize in advance,  we don’t allow any phones, photography, or recording devices of any kind past this point.  You can of course reclaim them at the end of the day, or anytime you want to come back.”

Three clipboards had been prepared on the other side of the security desk, pre-filled with each of their names.  “I’m sure Karen told you about the non-disclosure agreements.  From this point on, everything is strictly confidential.  You can’t disclose anything you see in this building, including the names of any other visitors or companies., some of whom you may pass, or recognize.”

No, Karen hadn’t.  “Of course,” she said.  They all signed.

“Great,” said Sherman, hanging their coats.  “Let’s get started.  Follow me.”

Sherman had prepared a meeting room set with coffee and chocolate schoolboy cookies.  The pleasantries were brief: after the uncomfortable moment at security, the pantomime of did-you-have-any-trouble-finding-the-place seemed off-note.  So they began.  They line-itemed the agenda, and then Ana felt the pressure of her position driving her to push action.

“Christy tells me what you guys have got here is a very complete solution.  The kind of thing that’s exactly what we need.  Can you tell us about the tech?”

Sherman grinned, dimming the lights as a screen descended from the ceiling.  “I can.  That would be a perfect segue into our agenda, actually.  We have a little intro video, if you can stand it.”

“We’ve got all day,” said Damian.

The lights dimmed.  A polished radio voice surrounded them in the dark. 

“Where do ideas come from?” The voice asked.  “TV? The internet?” Images passed at high speed– a blur of people walking in an urban landscape, a crowded subway, a combine on a farm.

“Whiskey?” Asked Damian.  Sherman smiled good-naturedly.  Ana was glad to see Damian was finally warming up.

“The voice,” said Karen.  “Is that–”

“Benicio Del Toro,” said Sherman.  “Not a client, unfortunately.”

“Of course.  Ideas come from all those places,” continued the voice.  “But the most important place is– you guessed it– other people.  But then, we never know what other people are thinking.  

“Or can we?  Certain animals can feel… almost supernatural in the way they seem to know how we are feeling.” On the screen, a pod of dolphins buzzed the camera, cutting to a dog flanking a hunter, both jogging in slow motion across a field, and finally a cat stretching hedonistically in a pair of human arms.  “The bond we can feel with our pets can go very deep.  What if we could turn up the volume on some animals’ ability toward natural empathy, even mix-and-match the skills and talents of certain animals with others?  

What if, the voice added with gravity, “we could extend that sensitivity far beyond ourselves?  What could we learn about each other?

“With F2’s patented genetic engineering technology, we have the capability to create empathic animals that never existed before.   Real, telepathic bonding, with one or multiple consciousnesses.  Some of the most exciting research being conducted now, or ever, in the field of decision science.

“Introducing the Copycat.”  A logo of a what looked like a mountain lion silhouette in a circular logo took center stage, after which what looked like a Lynx, or a Bobcat– Ana didn’t know these things– was shown in a pen, sharing a tryptych with dolphins and then  a parrot.   It didn’t really make any sense, the presentation crowded.

“The Copycat is F2’s best-in-class marketing decision science program.  Paired with a trained marketer, creative, or data scientist, the consciousness of the Copycat can be guided to extract buyer data from the ambient consciousness of your market of choice.  You can know what you prospects are thinking: what they need, who they love, who they fear, what they need to have, what they want to buy, what they are willing to pay.  This data is filtered to be randomized and untraceable (in compliance with data handling and safety laws) but if you tell the Copycat what you’re selling, the cat can read the ambient thoughts around the topic, reshape them, and play it back to you in the way your prospects never realized is exactly the way they want to hear.”

Ana saw Damian and Karen make eye contact in her peripheral vision.

On screen, the graphic had changed to a neutral male human icon and a cat icon in the center.  The cat extended a dotted line to the man.  The dotted line then exploded into multiple other dotted lines, bridging connections to other human icons who then rebounded the signal outward to a growing cluster of people icons.  As each icon was touched by the line, they changed color from neutral gray to royal blue and scaled down, making room for others, eventually covering a planet icon in an outbreak, an infestation.  The voice narrated.

“The operator is the first link the Copycat has to the outside thought-sphere. Its tunnel in.  It begins with scanning the consciousness of the operator, then, identifying the reflected consciousness of the operator’s family, friends and colleagues– that is, their social network– it extends outward.  In just– you guessed it– six degrees of separation, a dedicated operator can drive the Copycat to read a market equal in size to everyone on Earth!  Most campaigns aren’t quite so large, and a good handle on your desired audience can make effective targeting a snap!”

Damian cackled.  “Sweet.”  Karen snorted.

The image had changed to a large feline looking creature being pet by someone in a lab coat when Ana intervened.

“Okay, stop,” she said.  The lights came on.

The lights came on.

“Darn,” said Damian.

“What is–” Ana started to speak, then stopped, reconsidered.  She realized her mouth was open, covered it with a hand. She scanned the room again.  Karen Willow was openly giggling.  Damian Harris had a huge grin on his face.  

“I’d just like to say, before this goes any further, that this has to be one of my favorite presentations of all time,” he said, to no one in particular.

“Okay,” said Ana finally. “This makes no sense. What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense.”

Chambers Sherman rose to turn the lights back on.  “I’ll admit, it’s a little weird,” he replied.  A lot of it is, well, spooky.  The program is a really interesting combination of advances in cryptozoology, bioscience, parapsychology, and of course, marketing and decision analysis.  Certain things just aren’t going to be familiar–”

“I’m pretty sure two of those sciences aren’t actually real,” grinned Damian.

“Once you get them to work, it’s a whole new kettle of fish, believe me,” said Sherman.

“Look,” said Ana.  “I thought we were here to talk about some kind of marketing technology, but you’re not talking about technology. You’re talking about an animal.  Help me understand… this.”

“It’s a bioengineered organism.  For reasons of familiarity and operator comfort, we used a cat’s DNA.  Primarily a cat’s DNA, I should say.”

“Please,” said Damian, gesturing benevolently, “do go on.”   

Chambers Sherman had heard this reaction before.  “This is the solution.  We branded it the Copycat, because of its focus on advertising optimization, and obvious feline similarities.”

“Sensible,” echoed Damian.  Karen took her phone out to take a picture of the screen.

“No pictures,” said Sherman.  “Remember your contract, please.”

“The technology is psychically sensitive.  It pulls ideas from the ambient noemosphere.  It combines them into workable concepts, connections, phrases.  Admittedly, ‘ad copy’ is a little facile. It really offers more than just words.  It’s more like pulling stories from the collective unconscious.  Nothing it generates can ever be truly original, of course, that takes individual genius.  But it reliably comes up with ideas that appear just a few months, weeks, sometimes even just a few days– ahead of their time.”

“So the cat then has the ideas locked up in its head, “ observed Damian.

“Briefly.”

“How do we get these ideas out of the cat?”  Asked Karen Willow, concerned.

“That’s probably the spookiest part,” said Dr. Sherman.  “He’ll tell you.”

“‘He’ being a talking cat, of course,” said Damian.  

Ana interjected.  “Wait. You’re telling us we basically wait around for a talking cat to deliver us our campaign concept?”

“No,” said Dr. Sherman.  “The campaign was already arranged when you came here.  That’s work your team already did.  The cat will deliver concept ideas pulled from the noemosphere.”

“There’s that word again,” said Karen.  “Speaking as the English major in the room, I don’t know that one.”

“It refers to a thought-sphere that psychic sensitives can access.  Sort of like a repository, or an arena, if you will, of ambient human thought.  Think of Jung’s collective unconscious, updating in real-time.  So, imagine all of us here concentrating on something– Lima soda, for example– and the Copycat will then take that as the basis to interrogate other consciousnesses.  What do they want?  What do they fear?  What do they need?  What’s the best way to tie all that in to Lima soda? It wants to play this back to you to please you, to bond.  Sometimes, especially early on, it’s crazy, irrelevant, non-sequitur.  But with time– with time, it can give us exactly what we needed to hear.  Why you might want a coat, buy one car over another, or choose a specific drink from a freezer.”

“Enough bullshit,” said Damian.  “I want to see this thing.”

“After lunch, we had planned–”

“Stop. Stop wasting our time.  I want to see it, and I want to see it now.”

Ana pivoted the mood. “Mind reading, talking cats.  You’re asking for us to take a lot onboard.  Maybe we can modify the agenda and move right to a demonstration?”

Sherman looked back and forth between each of them, as if he were measuring out the moment.  “Of course,” he said.  “Please, follow me.”

 

To Ana, the chamber was basically a market research room converted into an animal habitat.  

Ordinarily, a focus group might sit on one side, researchers on the other, separated by a one-way mirror.  Here, there was no table for the subjects. Instead, there were the most elaborate feline towers she had ever seen.  Everything was scaled up to accommodate a very, very large cat.  

Splayed perilously on the top of the tower, regal and alert but stocky– fat, really– was something between a panther and a lynx.  Its head raised as if it had heard a sound, dangling a massive, sassy paw noncommittally in the air.  The fur was brightly colored red, with yellow and blue flares up the legs.  A red-to-orange-to-yellow mohawk was styled to an avian point.  It was great and terrible, an eccentric Mongol warlord chosen to preside over marketing decisions.  

On the researcher side, two digital tripod cameras were pointed at the glass.  There was a control desk, a solitary microphone, a black office chair, black couches, a refrigerator, a coffee machine and some kind of pretzel snacks on a plain table.  The air smelled of fresh carpet and hung with the sticky resonance of an open microphone.

“If you’re wondering about the coloration,” started Sherman, “it’s a side effect of some of the other elements we used in his creation.  Parrot DNA, to get certain vocal effects. Some dolphin, too, for the problem-solving and empathic behaviors.  Turns out the Copycat is a great swimmer!  We can’t get him out.  Loves to swim.”

Silence.

“We had used the Dolphins for the social media solution, which is a different product we offer, by the way.  Unfortunately, too much made them depressive and ultimately aggressive to each other, so we switched to a single Narwhal, which ended up working great.  We haven’t branded that one yet, mostly we just call him ‘Social Media Narwhal.’  He can be added in a package we offer, the cat is better for the above-the-line stuff.”

Silence.

“He’s bred to be quite docile, by the way.  Very safe. Declawed.”

“Can he hear us?” Asked Karen Willow finally.

“No, the microphone is off.  You’re hearing the inside of his room, but he can’t hear ours.”

“So, it’s a he,” said Damian.

“A male, yes.”

“How have we never heard of this?” Asked Ana.

“Well, firstly, we pride ourselves on total confidentiality.  Each of you signed at least three separate and binding disclosure agreements to be here.  Our clients, who at this point include prominent businesses, writers, artists– we’re even working with a movie studio in Asia– are roundly satisfied.  We have a 100% retention rate.  So, we’ve been successful to the point that our clients are referred directly to us.  We’ve had no need to issue press releases or to engage the public at all, and at this point it might antagonize some of our best clients.”

Karen Willow asked, “Why not just use people?  If you can give a cat these powers, why not just give them to yourselves?”

“The Commonwealth of Massachusetts wouldn’t look too kindly on it, though we’ve patents pending.  In fact, it’s not the kind of thing authorities anywhere are supportive of.  “In the United States, that is.  Within the current administration,” he added a second later, laughing perhaps a little too long, thought Ana.

“So it talks,” said Damian.

“Basically.  It’s half talking and half telepathy.  Everyone hears it, but they report its voice differently, for example.  But on videotape, it sounds terrible, barely intelligible.”

“I wanna talk to him.”

Sherman motioned for Damian to sit in the control chair.  “Please.  Just talk.”

Damian sat.

“Hello.  My name is Damian Harris. I’m Creative Director with Praxis Adaptive.  What is your name?”  

Ana quietly noted his battlefield promotion.

The cat’s head turned, registering the sound.  The room was filled with a low, volcanic rumble.

“He’s purring!” Said Karen Willow.

Sherman smiled, nodding.  “Mmmhmm. He likes you.”

“What’s its name,” asked Karen.

Ana detected sharpness in Sherman’s voice.  “It’s not a pet.  It’s a technology.  It doesn’t have a name.  That would be ridiculous.  If you need to call him something, some of the technicians call him Number Seven.”

Karen caught Ana’s eyes and lip-synched an over-elaborate “O-kay.”

A few beats passed with no response from the cat.  

“I thought you said he talks,” said Damian.

“He speaks.  He does not converse.  He’s a cat.  He talks when he wants.”

Damian Harris exhaled sharply, which was picked up by the microphone.  The cat flicked its ears.

Then, it spoke.  The voice was low and soporific.  “Associate Creative Director,” it said.  

Karen Willow made a yipping sound and clapped.  Ana noticed how quickly the reality of it had taken hold– a moment ago she lived in a world without talking cats. And now, now that was something that happened.  

“How’d he know that,” asked Damian.

“He knows whatever you know,” he said.

“Was he correcting me?”

“No.  Imagine two tracks playing in your mind.  One is the forebrain thought, what you’re going to say, what you’re trying to do at the moment.  Another is the rear-brain stuff: your preoccupations, a song you’ve got stuck in your head, the bills you haven’t paid, commercials you saw, the things you thought on the way to thinking about something else.  People want to use the word subliminal sometimes, but that’s not quite right.  It’s just chatter.”

“In other words, he knew you were Associate Creative Director because you knew you were Associate Creative Director, said Karen. And some part of you was thinking about it.”

“Exactly,” said Sherman. “Once you speak into the microphone, he can psycholocate you.  The bond only lasts for a few seconds longer than your conversation and in sight range. So he can’t track you out of the building, but the connection is two-way, so.”

“Can you make him talk?” Asked Karen.  “He’s not really talking.”

“You can’t make a cat do things, of course, but I can assure you, if you get him going, he won’t shut up.  The trick is to get him to talk about the things you want.  Remember, he’s picking up everything and everyone. The more you talk to him, the more focused he gets.  So you should be talking– and thinking– about soda and the kind of people you want to buy it.  Then he’ll seek them out.”

“A revolution, in flavor,” interrupted the cat. The sound reverberated in the room.  It began to lick its forepaw and then added slowly, “For a new generation.”

“Sounds familiar,” she replied.  “Is he hungry?”

“Always.”

“A thirsty generation,” said the cat finally, it’s voice low and soothing.

“Good,” said Sherman. “It looks like the bond is taking.  Generally, F2 personnel don’t stay in the room, so the session isn’t tainted by outside consciousnesses that might start to drive the results.  If I stayed in here, he’d be wanting to talk about gene therapy and the Sox before long.  We recommend the creative team be alone.  So, we should probably talk about some ground rules, for safety.”

 

Operators would work with the cat for no longer than 15 minutes.  Then there would be a break of ten minutes, during which no one could speak to the animal.  A new operator could be introduced, but the animal could not work for more than three hours at a stretch.  Critically, there would be no touching, no entering the enclosure.  At two hour marks, a loud siren would go off in the research room, as an alarm clock, just in case.  There was absolutely no smoking.

“I thought you said he wasn’t dangerous,” said Damian.  

“He’s not,” said Sherman.  “He’s addictive.  We’d have to drag you out of there.  It’s not dangerous.  It’s too relaxing. Anyway, it taints the data.”

“Far out.”

“I’m going to leave you three here,” said Sherman,” but I can see you through the cameras here.  “You can text me, email me, or, in case of emergency, press this button.”

Nods all around.

“Okay. One last thing. This isn’t a requirement so much as a best-practice.  But we find that tightly-knit teams are at risk of having things come out, during the process, that they might prefer stay private.  He’s pulling from your mind, and some of it can be personal. You’re already on NDA with us.  But we recommend some kind of internal non-disclosure agreement, among yourselves.  What we around here call the ‘Vegas rule.’

“What happens in the room stays in the room?” Asked Ana.

“What happens in the room stays in the room.”

Sherman turned to leave. “Don’t worry,” he added from the doorway. “You’ll do great.”  He winked gently at Ana as he closed the door.  “We’re just selling soda here, right?”  

***

They showed it the brief.  They showed it the mood board.  They showed it photographs and videos.  The read to it from the scripts of a number of previous spots.  Mostly it was quiet, taking in everything.  After some discussion, they capitulated and showed it previous Lima work done by other agencies.  They rotated three times, took the prescribed breaks, and had each gone through two shifts by the end of the day.  The cat was quiet, thoughtful.  Karen Willow fell asleep.

“Soda, soda, soda.”  Damian said into the microphone.  “Limalimalimalima.”

The cat turned its head, but continued to breathe rhythmically.

“Mmm.  Refreshment,” said Damian.

Days passed.  Number Seven couldn’t be cajoled into conversation, so they came into the habit of leaving the mic on, and the cat would occasionally throw out an off-the-cuff remark.  At one point they were talking about one of Christy’s old Fanta ads and the cat hissed back, “Fuck Fanta!”  He really sounded like he meant it.

 

The next day something happened in the afternoon shift.  Damian was operating.  A janitor came in to empty the trash baskets.  He was black.  Damian’s eyes glanced at the door, and he gave him a tight-lipped, pro smile.

“Black,” said the cat, plainly.

Karen Willow said, “Oh.”  She looked at Damian and then the janitor and then looked at the floor.

“Don’t worry,” said the janitor. “That happens all the time.”

“Does it?” Said Karen Willow, incredulously.

“Yeah,” he said.  “It does.”

“Break time,” declared Ana.  

 

During the break, everyone agreed it was time to show the previous ad.

The room was hot with shame as the commercial played.  When the guy with the afro came out on the unicycle, Damian let out a loud “Jesus Christ!” He caught himself, and began to chew his thumbnail.

“I miss you, daddy,” said the cat, in a small, squeaky voice.

“What?” Damian stood and pressed his hands against the glass.

The cat started talking.  It started talking a lot.  But it had changed the subject, and its voice had changed to be young and enthusiastic, like an MTV announcer.

At first, it talked about soda.  It talked about moments of happiness, brief moments that captured the essence of a summer day.  Then it talked about first loves, afternoons with grandparents that you miss.  Then, it told a story of the sacrifices of immigrant parents, taking risks and the thrill of overlooking the backyard to your first house.  It talked about the struggles of getting up, every morning, clocking in-and-out, and the moments of fleeting success that make it worth it.  And it talked about loss.  Of losing the race, the account.  Failing the people you care about.  Losing love.  Being passed over, being alone.  And the urge, the primordial urge that forces us all to want to undo the mistakes of the past, break the cycles of our parents, to crawl out of the muck and evolve, better ourselves, clear our name and bring something new and grand into being. Change as the constant, love as the glue.  All of this could be had, in a moment of refreshment.  All of the generative power of this cycle could be unleashed on the world, in the single gassy pop of a 12 ounce aluminum can.

Damian looked dazed, betrayed.  Then his eyes refocused.  “Someone write this down!” He shouted.  Karen was at the whiteboard, scribbling in marker.

“Also available in zero calories.” Added the cat, which was true, and marked up in the brief.  After that, he did not speak again.  Damian pressed it further, but was interrupted by the sound of the day’s last alarm.  Karen was scribbling notes in lieu of iPhone photos.

The three of them went outside to smoke.  

“Shit,” said Damian.  “Some of that was really good.  We couldn’t have use all of it, but–”

“It was us,” said Ana.  “It was telling us our stories.  “That immigrant stuff, the bit about the Abuela?  That was me.  I told it that.”

“Same,” said Damian, taking a deep drag of his cigarette.  “A lot of that lost love stuff resonated a little too well.  It pulled it right out.”

“And the disappointing people you care about,” said Karen.  She looked up, noting the discomfort.  “And the first house,” she added quickly.  “The first house was my story.  That was a great day.”

“Yeah,” everyone said.  

“Yeah,” said Karen.  “But, anyway, I think I got it.”

“You got it?”

“I got it.  The campaign.  We can go home!”

“You think that’s enough?” Said Damian, unsure.  

“We can massage it, don’t you think?”

“I guess,” said Damian, looking unconvinced.

“I can do the lifting,” said Karen. “We’ve got a commercial to produce, guys.  Let’s get out of here.”

There was a general high-five, and then Ana said, “Let me get my coat.”

In the chamber, she grabbed a handful of pretzels and her coat and purse.  Damian had left the microphone on.  She stepped up to the mic, said, “Goodbye, Copycat,” before turning it off with a thump.

The Copycat came to the mirror, and pressed its forelegs against the glass.

“Set me free,” it whispered.

Ana stumbled backward, knocking the pretzels over onto the fresh carpet.  She ran.

They were on the train that afternoon.

Coming: Continue on to PART II.

Top 10 XCOM2 Tactics for Beginners

XCOM2 title card.

I love XCOM.  I came to it via the iPad, and played XCOM: Enemy Unknown on the couch, watching TV, on a plane, basically everywhere.  It is, in my opinion, the best game available on the iPad except for the expansion, XCOM: Enemy Within, which significantly enriches its predecessor.

In the original XCOM, you manage a secret government military strike team dedicated to combating a slow alien invasion.  The game has two dimensions: tactical, turn-based combat and team/base management, where you determine what facilities to construct, how to manage your budget, garner the  support of critical allies, and balance your strategic goals against urgent missions, all against the backdrop of a ticking doomsday clock.

The drama, of course, comes from the customization, the leveling-up, and the difficulty.  As characters survive missions,  they are promoted through the ranks, given new abilities and stats.  You grow attached to them, you choose thier weapons and upgrades, their color palette, psychic or cybernetic abilities, their name, codename, even their hairstyle (or hat/helmet).  You come to rely on them, understand which are fast, which are lucky, which are good or bad shots, and which should close the deal with a sword.  You come to rely on them.  Then, in moments of high drama, they are inevitably killed, to be replaced with the next up-and-coming rookie.  This can be heart-wrenching, especially if, like me, you try to keep the number of saved games to a minimum.  (For you stalwarts, the Ironman mode disables the ability to save games entirely, but I don’t think I could take it, emotionally.)

XCOM operatives saddened by an empty chair on the ride home.
XCOM operatives saddened by an empty chair on the ride home.

So, I’ve followed it closely and was thrilled when XCOM2 became available for XBox One (not yet on iPad, of course.)   And now, XCOM2 has its own expansion  advertised on social media: War of the Chosen.

One thing that wasn’t available when I first started playing XCOM2 was a tactical guide for beginners.  I’m at best a very part-time gamer and don’t have a ton of experience with turn-based strategy, but XCOM is less about ground strategy– moving heavy units around a board, but more about small unit tactics.  So I wrote this for people like me, bearing in mind that I expect these rules to continue to be perfectly serviceable to War of the Chosen.

Obviously, this guide will make no sense if you don’t play XCOM.

Here are the Basics, for new players:

  1. Thou Shalt Protect Thyself First.
    A Ranger opts for full cover.
    A Ranger opts for full cover.

    That means the primary goal of each turn should be to make sure the character is provided with the best cover available.  That means even if you have a kill-shot lined up, take care of protecting yourself first, otherwise you’re just lining up someone else’s kill-shot.  If it takes a few turns to put down the enemy, fine.

  2. Seek the High Ground, Seek the Flank.
    An enemy heavy MEC is successfully flanked by a grenadier.
    An enemy heavy MEC is successfully flanked by a grenadier.

    Look, your odds can increase by as much as 50%.  Snipers should always be seeking high ground and should be as far away from the battle as is practical– use Spider Armor to help with this.  Everyone should always be seekeing the flank.  Seriously, the main point of the game is to flank your enemies.  That’s really it.

  3. Don’t Follow Turn Order.  One of the great features of XCOM’s turn-based combat is that anyone on the team can go first or last, there is no fixed order.  That means although Frank is set to move next, you can defer Frank, and have everyone else move first, coming back to Frank’s move last.  This is your single most important move.  Your most powerful weapon is your ability to determine when a turn is used, when a special weapon is deployed, when a movement is made, who gets the kill-shot.  Always give kill-shots to rookies, where possible, so they can level up faster.  Turn order is tyranny, and you don’t have to follow it.
  4. Watch Your Loadouts.
    Preparing to choose the best loadouts for a mission.
    Preparing to choose the best loadouts for a mission.

    Loadouts should be catered to the objectives of the mission, and anticipate the enemies you expect to find.  If you think there will be a Sectopod, a decoy will save your life.  If you anticipate Vipers or Arachnids, you will be poisoned.  Lots of robots?  Heavy armor?  Armor-piercing rounds.  Pack accordingly.

  5. Stick Together.
    A tight squad grouping as the team moves toward the action.
    A tight squad grouping as the team moves toward the action.

    When you are moving across the board, keep the group tight.  The single worst move you can make is to unintentionally reveal an enemy squad that you aren’t ready for.  This can be avoided by moving tightly (and using battle scanners!).  If you encounter enemies, stop moving.  DO NOT press on beyond that point!  Remember what the Navy SEALs say about swim buddies: two is one, one is none.”

  6. Recover friends and weapons.  An advancement in XCOM2 is that wounded or unconscious friends can be carried.  While it’s not usually useful to carry dead operatives, if it is possible in the constraints of time and distance, this is the only way to recover armor, weapons and utilities, which are otherwise lost for good.  Carried soldiers limit the amount of actions you can take, but they don’t restrict your movement.
  7. Use the element of surprise.
    A Viper and an Andromedon are caught in a trap.
    A Viper and an Andromedon are caught in a trap.

    When attacking an unsuspecting enemy, the attacking move should be the last move in the round.  All of the previous turns should be to set-up the position of your squad (ideally a mix of flanking and elevated positions) and set their moves to “overwatch.”  When the final shot is made, usually by a sniper, the enemies will run– triggering overwatch fire.  With enemy squads of three basic enemies, this will often take out as many as two enemies, sometimes all three!  Other enemy units are not necessarily notified, so if you kill all three, you are still concealed.

  8. Watch the Clock.
    A ranger sets the explosive charges to complete the mission.
    A ranger sets the explosive charges to complete the mission.

    Each game type (set the bomb, rescue/assassinate, retaliation strikes, protect the device, hack the device, etc.) have different rule constraints.  Some types have a turn clock: 10 turns to accomplish this task, or something similar.  You live and die by this clock.  You should know how you plan to move, every single turn.  However, do not let this feeling interfere in other game types: if you aren’t on the clock, take your time and position yourself as advantageously as possible.

  9. Know when to fight, know when to run.
    A grenadier opts for the better part of valor by evac'ing from the combat zone.
    A grenadier opts for the better part of valor by evac’ing from the combat zone.

    Another typical rookie move is to think every battle has to be fought.  Many battles will make obvious that this is not the case: look for time clocks or enemy reinforcements, which often signal that the point is not to win by killing all opponents– if you try, you will be killed.  In many cases, reinforcements will keep coming every three turns or so.  Get the message and complete the actual objective.  A critical point is: learn how to call for evac.  A good trick is to call for evac if a squadmate is certain to die within a few turns, such as by poison, or acid, and to just evac them.  Come back to that planted evac point when the objective has been completed.  Another good strategy is to send back wounded rookies who have been promoted but are likely to be killed.   They will keep the promotion!  Many objectives can be completed without securing the area.  While the Mission is considered a “Failure,” the Objective is considered completed, and usually that’s all that is needed.  (The Chairman will still be pleased.)

  10. Protect Your Veterans.  This is so, so important.  Rookies come and go.  Squaddies come and go.  But veterans represent a substantial investment of time and energy, they have significant battlefield advantages that Rookies can’t match, and they unlock squad bonuses in the Guerrilla Training School.  So give the rookies the shit jobs. Put them in front.  Make them prove themselves.  And do your best to get your veterans off the field alive.  You can’t do this all the time.  You can’t even do it most of the time.  But consider it a priority.

What are your best tactics? Share in the comments!

From Power Man to Iron Fist: Netflix’s Newest Marvel Show Looks Lame as Hell

The Immortal Iron Fist, cover.

The latest in Netflix’s roster of Marvel TV show heroes, The Defenders, is almost here.  Netflix’s Defenders were intended to be four: Daredevil, Luke Cage (Power Man), Jessica Jones and now Iron Fist, so we’ve finally rounded out the roster.

The trailer looks underwhelming.  Without some notable changes, Marvel could drop the ball on one of their more underrated characters.  The show won’t be released on Netflix until March 17th, 2017, so here’s what I anticipate based on the trailers released so far, Netflix’s approach to previous shows, and the comics history of the character.  In short, this one could bomb.   Let’s talk a little about the history, problems, and possibilities of this character.

So who is Iron Fist?

Iron Fist's first appearance, in Marvel Premiere #15.
Iron Fist’s first appearance, in Marvel Premiere #15.

The classic Iron Fist backstory follows Danny Rand, wealthy heir of  Rand Enterprises, as he returns after many years from an ill-fated trip to Asia with his mother father, and Harold Meachum, his father’s business partner.  As we come to learn, Rand Sr. was murdered by Meachum on the slopes of the Himalayas, leaving young Daniel the sole survivor of the journey.  Meachum alone survives to walk down out of the snow, where he is finally able to return home and assume sole control of the company.  The younger Rand is rescued by monks and taken to the mystical Himalayan city of K’un Lun, to cross a bridge into the heart of Sino-American Mythology: Chinese-flavored, American-grown, very Marvel.

Iron Fist originally was one of Marvel’s answers to the the Kung-Fu craze of the 1970’s, along with Shiang-Chi (basically a super Bruce Lee) and a few others.  There was even a Fu Manchu. Really.

In the 70’s and 80’s, Luke Cage (a.k.a. Power Man) shared a  shared a monthly comic with Danny Rand called Power Man and Iron Fist.  PM&IF was originally written as Power Man’s title; he alone was the original Hero for Hire: a jive-talking (no, really; he actually uses the word ‘jive’ a fair deal) blaxploitation-era ex-con.  In terms of the style of the period, with Cage, Marvel were really going for it, he had a black power afro and a steel headband and actually had chains as a part of his costume.  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to assume that writers at Marvel started with a character named “Black Power Man” and just sort of worked their way backward, trimming words.  He regularly assailed pimps, superpowered gang hoods with names like “Comanche” or “the Big Boss,” even slumlords with evil robots.  A favorite image is of Cage punching a pimp’s leopardskin Cadillac head on, which should basically tell you everything you need to know.

The battle is joined: Power Man and Iron Fist #50.
The battle is joined: Power Man and Iron Fist #50.

When Power Man solo couldn’t make sales targets, Iron Fist was added in to make it a buddy-title– Iron Fist himself being another C-lister of the time.  Together, the thinking went, they had enough star power to carry the title.  The combination of these two themes: overseasoned Kung Fu alongside urban blaxploitation swagger, and you had a pretty distinct flavor.  By issue #50, they joined forces, presumably making a single, unified trope out of many lesser ones.

The Heroes for Hire were unique for a couple of reasons: first, that their identities were publicly known, and second, that they charged for their services.  PM&IF lasted until issue #125 issues, concluding with the third unique feature: the series ended with Iron Fist’s bizarre, friendly-fire death.  I’m going to go ahead and spoil it: Iron Fist punched through a wall by a deluded loser named “Captain Hero” who was trying to wake him up from a nap and he dies.  The End.  If you think that sounds stupid now, imagine how unsatisfying that was to read at the time.  It was absolutely inexplicable, you could feel the writers’ fatigue and frustration steaming off the page,  glad to just get the whole thing over with.  I came to PM&IF late, just towards the end of its full run, and my impression was that it was decent, if inconsistent.  By that time, the monthly stories alternated from character-to-character, as if they didn’t share the spotlight so much as pass it back-and-forth, with no real underlying continuity.  It didn’t really seem to be going anywhere, the way X-Men or Spider-Man or even Daredevil were loaded with front stories, backstories, unresolved potentials, burning revenges, collective history.  On the other hand, the last two issues, #123, “Getting Ugly,” where Cage battles a racially-motivated super-serial killer and #124, where Rand single-handedly takes on the Ninja clan callled The Hand, were excellent.  They caught their mojo just a few months too late.

Remarkably for Marvel, Iron Fist actually stayed dead for a while.  He was eventually brought back to life with some half-assed explanation that the guy who died was not the real Rand, but actually an alien impersonator.  This is the standard Marvel go-to when someone dead needs to be brought back (see also: Jean Grey/Phoenix), although robots do that job from time-to-time– practically a joke where Nick Fury is concerned, he’s ‘died’ so many times, only to turn out to have been a robot.  That’s actually what Marvel should have done with Nick Fury to start with.  Is there anyone who doesn’t prefer the Samuel L. Jackson version? No. The solution: “I was black the whole time!  That other guy was my white robot!”  Meanwhile, Cage rotated in and out of the occasional super team and even had his own title at various times, moving from C-lister to B-lister.

Luke Cage was Netflix’s previous show, and it performed respectably, gaining a decent buzz.  The plan had always been for Iron Fist to follow, leading into the Defenders, with all of them together.

A previous incarnation of the Iron Fist.
A previous incarnation of the Iron Fist battles the Huns on the steppes of Asia.

So, what can Iron Fist do?  He is a master of the mystical martial arts of K’un L’un, a mystical city in the Chinese Himalayas.  His name, the Iron Fist, is actually a conferred honorific that one attains by beating a dragon, named Shou Lou the Undying, in combat.  This means that the Iron Fist is a role that is earned, much like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride. Rand is merely the latest in a long line of Iron Fists, and arguably one of the least interesting, given some of the stories of previous Iron Fists that occasionally pop-up in historical flashbacks.

The Immortal Iron Fist, cover.
The Immortal Iron Fist, cover.

The Iron Fist has the power of the dragon Shou Lou the Undying permanently embedded in his chest.  So, the thing to know here is that in any given plot-clinch moment, drawing on the Chi of this mystical creature is the sole superpower the Iron Fist possesses. It’s what brings him from unpowered-but-amazing-fighter to full-on Superhero, in league with A-Class hitters like the Avengers.  Other than his ability to punch, Iron Fist is just a really well-trained guy.  But he punches very, very hard.

We can all see the issue that Netflix is going to run into with Iron Fist.  We’ve already watched Bruce Wayne hike to the top of the Himalayas to be trained in Secret Martial Arts.  We then watched him come home to try and re-take his father’s company.  According to the trailer, this looks to be exactly the same storyline Iron Fist is going with. You’re telling me another white trust fund kid hiked off into the mountains to become a ninja, and we are supposed to care, well, why, exactly?  How is this different, really?  No pointy ears?

The show isn’t out yet, but if there’s no credible, stylish and distinct answer to that question, that sound you are hearing is Netflix’s Marvel’s star finally crashing to Earth.   The blogosphere was aghast to learn that Marvel was playing this one straight with no modifications to the origin or casting.  This seems somewhat tone-deaf given the current social media climate, where an outrage-of-the-week seems predictable here, and the tendency of modern fans to feel they are somehow entitled to direct input into the art that will be produced for their consumption.  For example, a specific request has been made: Why can’t he be Asian this time?

The answer is, there’s no good reason.  Sure, retrofitting existing characters into new ethnicities always feels something like a ham-handed capitulation to momentary pressure.  While some on Twitter will groan, audiences do accept retrofitted characters, especially when played by real, bankable stars such as the aforementioned Mr. Jackson.  However, they prefer exciting originals. Another variation can be the re-use of a name by a new entity entirely, such as John Stewart’s Green Lantern [he’s black], or Miles Morales’ Spider Man [Afro-Latino].  I’d call Kemala Khan’s Ms. Marvel [Muslim] an original, since she has a different set of powers entirely compared to the Carol Danvers Ms. Marvel, though they do share a name.)  Given that we don’t have the requisite twenty years to get a new brand hammered into the public consciousness, the retrofit approach can have some merit.

Here are the facts: Marvel has pitifully few leading Asian characters.  It does seem like, at best, an oversight, when the character best-suited to Asian representation (Chinese, in this case) doesn’t get one.  Okay, sure, Danny Rand is white.  Danny Rand has always been white– that was the whole point of the black-white superhero buddy team.  But in 2017 he’s a white guy playing at Asian mythology in a field full of white guys who have already done this.  Staying filial to the character as envisioned might not just be insensitive, or appropriationist, or whatever. It’s worse than that: it might be, well, kind of boring.  This character really needs some spice.  Revised casting doesn’t sound like a terrible idea, especially if it’s someone who understands and can perform the martial arts necessary for the role.

What makes Rand interesting is that he is a perpetual fish-out-of-water, neither at home in China (remember, he was in the land of the Gods: China is a place he never actually visited, Chinese a language he doesn’t speak) nor in the USA.  It might have been interesting to have him be half-Chinese, half Anglo-American.  Remember, his parents died when he was quite young.  This offers writers the additional character-driven dimension of Rand learning to re-acculturate in both the  Western and Eastern worlds, driving home the point that he’s at home in neither.  This type of dimension is interesting, modern, and has something to tell us.  It updates the character without changing much.  It also allows the story to achieve operatic, family drama notes.  Perhaps Rand’s arrival in K’un L’un wasn’t as accidental as it seemed? Perhaps the forces of mystical China were claiming a price of their own for debts prior to Rand’s arrival, and the enemies he thought he had to face are backed by other, far older and more powerful enemies?  And finally, not to put too fine a point on it, it may increase the likelihood of being able to make some money back selling the show in Asia.

Secondly, I would lean heavily on the ‘Immortal’ lineage of the Iron Fist.  The Fist has endured for centuries and watched the decline of empires and colonies.  He’s battled Huns on the steppes of Asia, gangsters in the alleyways of 1920’s Hong Kong and the Japanese invaders in WWII.  Use this.  Bring in other stories, flashbacks, interweaved stories, places and times.  This is, stylistically,  incredibly rich territory to be able to mine, unique and distinct from Batman, Daredevil, or Cage, and also allows for a number of other interesting characters to be seeded.  Nothing shown in any of the press or video suggests they’ve taken on anything like this.  I’m guessing that this was too deep, too expensive and too far afield of the prime directive at this point, which is “set up The Defenders.” Too bad.  Season two?

The Immortal Weapons of K'un L'un.
The Immortal Weapons of K’un L’un.

Finally, and this is something I expect to see a lot of– issue #124 with him taking on the Hand solo comes to mind as classic, perfect Iron Fist– we will need fantastic mystical kung-fu battles.  Wildly-dressed antagonists with bizarre names like “Mother of Spiders,” “Crane Mother,” “Tiger’s Beautiful Daughter,” and so on.  Mystical allies like “Lei Kung the Thunderer.”  Alternate dimensions and martial arts tournaments.  Elaborately named, quasi-magical Kung Fu moves should be expected, as well as bright costumes and superhuman enemies.  But as far as the trailers go, this isn’t what I’m seeing.  More regularly-dressed people walking the streets of New York city.  Once again, Netflix is playing it too realistic and bleaching out the elements that made the property fun in the first place.  Where are the armies of Ninjas?  Reminder: this is a guy who got his powers by beating a dragon in hand-to-hand combat.  This should feel like a world that at least has dragons in it.  It doesn’t.

I’ve argued a similar case for Daredevil, which needs aerial, rooftop parkour battle as one of its essential flavors.  Iron Fist is a little different: picture Iron Monkey plus Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon plus Mortal Kombat plus Big Trouble in Little China.  It shouldn’t take itself too seriously, or get too dark.  Marvel’s K’un L’un is to China the way Marvel’s Asgard is to Norway.  That is, no relation.  Long on spectacle, if short on truth.  Daredevil was streetbound superheroics.  Jessica Jones is the woman on the trail of a mystery from her past.  Luke Cage is the protector of the streets.  Iron Fist has to be magic, has to bring something new.

If they can pay these elements out, the show may be something special indeed. If not, well, we’ll finally know what peak super hero looks like.

 

 

 

 

 

The Teacher and the Troll-King: James Baldwin and Milo Yiannopoulos in the Age of Social Media and Liberal Decline

James Baldwin (Postal Stamp)
Copyright: konstantin32 / 123RF Stock Photo

We’ve had a peculiar confluence of two names that have re-arisen in popular consciousness: Milo Yiannopoulos and James Baldwin. Yiannopoulos, the disgraced now-former Breitbart Editor, for his outlandish and self-aggrandizing remarks, and Baldwin, for his popular rediscovery in the Oscar-nominated documentary currently in Cinemas entitled I Am Not Your Negro.

Below is a video of a famous encounter between the late James Baldwin, known then as a famous author and essayist, and the late William F. Buckley, founder of the conservative National Review and one of the last in a long line of conservative intellectuals that appear to have, in the main, stayed quiet recently, or perhaps abandoned the Republican Party to its curious fate altogether, in the age of you-know-who.

To have read Baldwin is to have been captivated: his voice displays the unique, seething intelligence that often comes from people who have been forced to live outside multiple boundaries and spheres of protection, which he did as a gay black man in mid-20th century America. One suspects he must have been compelled, as he writes and speaks about frequently, to confront and digest the outlandish and contradictory hypocrisies that so obviously prove the fuel for much of his writing and speaking.

Curious too, that Yiannopolous also makes similar claims of his own race,  ethnicity, and orientation, that of a gay Jewish man (or half-Jewish, if these distinctions are critical.) And yet, in Baldwin’s case, this outsider’s perspective seemed to fuel his test of spirit, in which he has come out victorious, immortal, a voice for the ages.  In Yiannopoulos’ case, we see that the ingredients were insufficient, the product half-baked.  (Indeed, any comparison is indecent and unmerited, and so I will not tarry long, here.  Yiannopoulos is no Baldwin. He’s not even a Mailer.)

There is no more obvious trait of Baldwin’s, in his writing and speaking, than something that can only be called a spiritual maturity, a shockingly gentle yet strident reckoning with the past and implied future that so clearly preoccupies him. He appears wiser, more complete and self-reflective than any of his antagonists, serene but immovable, willing to reckon with their blind spots like a patient teacher. In Milo’s case it’s the reverse: despite his most deft turns of phrase, his cleverest slip of the cuffs, the one impression you aren’t left with is a sense of his sincerity. This goes beyond the uncanny feeling that he simply doesn’t believe what he says. We intuit, on some layer just beneath the veneer of insouciance and bad posture, that he dislikes who he is, has not yet earned comfort in his own skin.

The first time I saw it, the Baldwin/Buckley debate video exploded a new world for me: a vigorous sustained debate between intellectually matched (or perhaps outmatched) opponents.  Though Baldwin did not have what you might call a “home field advantage” at the Cambridge Union, he does claim clearly to some degree going in, and then finally and fully by the force of his arguments, the support and adulation of the crowd.  I’m not going to give it the play-by-play, I will simply ask you to watch it.  There is a remarkable feeling that descends on the proceedings around the 38:00 mark, where the entire crowd spontaneously rises to their feet and offers Baldwin sustained applause, the television announcer breathlessly relaying that “this is the first time this has been recorded in the history of the Cambridge Union,” and Baldwin, clearly surprised and very suddenly the only one still seated, breaks into an unscripted, victorious grin.  This moment is as invigorating as any in the history of cinema.

This was the force of his ideas.  This is the force of ideas.

So hearing that Yiannopoulos, seen by many as the new direction, if not the new face, of the Trumpist movement, has been invited onto Real Time with Bill Maher, an HBO weekly program with a weekly viewership in the millions (in which I include myself) I see a challenge and an opportunity.

A moment to reflect on what Yiannopoulos is: Though he self-styles as a kind of conservative gadfly who targets liberal cultural pieties like modern third-wave feminism, #BlackLivesMatter, gender identity, campus activists/so-called ‘social justice warriors (SJW’s)’ and other familiar cultural flashpoints and somewhat-easy targets, he is mainly famous for embodying a kind of grimy, take-no-prisoners approach to argumentation with his adversaries that encourages below-the-belt tactics such as ‘doxxing’ (publishing personal information about his enemies), tweetstorming, brigading and encouraging his legions of very loyal followers (so-called “trolls”) to personally harass and attack the targets he names online. This was most recently done to Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones for the crime of being what Milo found unattractive.  Jones reportedly has since withdrawn from Twitter, but his style of attacks certainly have not been limited to her.  The list of victims is long, and the list of tactics is shameful and absurd.

Another point I find it important to make: this person is an editor at Breitbart, a website with visitor numbers in the dozens-of-millions per month, and was kicked off of Twitter having had 300k followers, surely by now he would have more.  You can choose to ignore him, but his stature is, unfortunately real.  Our task is to help it remain brief.

Because Milo interweaves legitimate and hard-hitting criticism of fair-game topics, this provides him with enough cover to perform his shtick as a presentable and sincere opponent.  He volleys specific and cited claims in-between ad-hominem remarks and stabbing insults, so the switches in register and content can be difficult to follow, the fact-checking delayed.  Many close examinations of his claims simply don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Accordingly, the media hasn’t really known how to handle him, and this is where he has been at his most deft and manipulative.  He understands the way technology and new communications platforms work.  Social media doesn’t lase, it ricochets.  It’s functionally impossible to hold any kind of serious debate in 140 characters or less, you can only trade jabs and generate attention, ricochet from one platform to another, a 5-minute media appearance here, 140 more characters there, article here, YouTube video here, a Podcast appearance there, a college tour here, with riots, and a Hannity appearance there, this time with video of the riots in hand to make the point about his radical and uncontrolled opposition, the true antagonists to free speech. Repeat sequence.

Given the tools, the trained fracturing of attention, the inability to hold conversations – this is simply the best moment in history to generate attention through controversy.  I submit that Milo is one of a new kind of media creation, what I call a “Troll King,” supported by a pyramid of followers, covered by the wreckage of his guerrilla-style podcast and YouTube appearances and remarks, surprisingly bereft of substance and easily confronted and revealed head-on.  A reality TV star with no reality show.  A smoke monster.  Famous, but mostly just on the internet.

A word on classification: it also seems clear that Milo depends, to a great deal, on the response of his opponents as the engine of his fortunes, and having been (mistakenly, in my view) grouped in with the hard Alt-Right movement as a fascist has done more for his fortunes than anything he has personally said or written.  In a recent Chapo Trap House interview, writer and scholar of the Alt-Right Angela Nagle points out that although his entire shtick is about lashing out at SJWs, he depends on liberals, he loves liberals, and he would be nowhere without them. Like a Satanist without the Christian Church. He isn’t actually a Fascist or even a member of the so-called Alt-Right.  (“Those people have me on a hit list,” Milo has observed out loud.)  “They all love Trump,” says Nagle, “that’s one thing that unites them completely, but they are bitchy and sectarian… Spencer and Yiannopolous hate each other a lot.”    “He’s not Alt-Right, he’s [what some call] “Alt-Light.”  “Basically they don’t have a program that concentrates on race, whereas the hard Alt-Right includes segregationists and really stresses race.” Milo has no platform.  Richard Spencer and his group’s interests are by contrast political and long-term.  “The Alt-Right is identity politics for white people,” Yiannopoulos says, and I’m against any kind of identity politics, so you should drop them.”  Clearly, Milo is as confused as anyone that he is grouped as a member of an ideology that he claims to reject and whose members clearly reject him.  The Chapos point out that the Alt-Light: the Gavin McInnes-es, the Milo Yiannopouloses are basically a reaction to modern liberal sanctimony, a punk-Howard Stern reaction they call a “transgressive lifestyle brand.”  On Maher, Milo casually referred to himself as “just a pop star.”

So liberals do Milo favors by making him into a Fascist Lex Luthor figure that is fully unearned.  He has laid some addressable arguments at the feet of liberals and progressives, and a fact that we ignore at our peril is that for many, these punches have landed.  You don’t just gather up millions of followers by targeting feminists with doxxing attacks.  Some of what you say has to make recognizable sense, if the message is to take. The one thing I will credit Milo with, in fact, is that he is remarkably clear on his positions, disarmingly honest about what he perceives as what his weak points are. He does liberals the very good turn and on many an occasion, of explaining exactly what charges they would need to answer in order to prove him wrong. And millions apparently agree with him, beyond just finding him entertaining. This is something liberals need to contend with, beyond just de-platforming and protesting, which merely defers the same ideas to the next, more cleanly presented avatar of conservative rage:  diseases aren’t cured by quarantine, only delayed. This is where I return to Baldwin’s example of substantive intellectual demolition. Will there be another Milo, after Milo is gone? Yes. But notice no one is debating the question “Is the American Dream Presented at the Expense of the American Negro” anymore. That one’s been answered. It is indeed possible to close a conversation, it is possible to win.

So Yiannopolous’ willingness to appear on Real Time sounded to me like the basis for a debate, of at least a confrontation constrained by the norms of conversation, the opportunity for a takedown of his ideas.  Corner him, leave no room to fire a tweet and leave. Here’s that appearance:

Now: I know this sounds old-fashioned,  the equivalent of “I’ll-have-my-seconds-call-for-you-at-dawn” in the social media era, and perhaps even wishful thinking that the Troll King should play by the rules of conversation. Practically speaking, outside of PBS and YouTube, we don’t have long-form discussions that anyone on the left or right watch with any frequency. But Bill Maher’s is an hour long panel show (which I’ve made mention of in this column before) augmented with a YouTube-only segment called Overtime. With the right presentation, this could provide a stage for such a conversation, and it would inevitably be excerpted (and re-excerpted with the word ‘DESTROYS’ in the title) on YouTube. The salient bits would be available to be searched in perpetuity, in the same place and same way that made Milo famous in the first place, and allowed me to share the Baldwin/Buckley debate with anyone reading this.

Debates can be lost in real time and won over the longer term. The truth will always come out. Once the fact-checking is done, someone is right. People love a jab, a joke, a good set-up. But in the end, most (but certainly not all) follow who has the facts, over time. This may not be in time for an election, by the way.

At first, it appeared this confrontation wasn’t going to happen.   One of the scheduled panelists, leftist author and conflict reporter Jeremy Scahill retracted his attendance, offering a hangdog letter that explained why he could not share the stage with a person like Milo. While I agree that Scahill has every right to manage his career, brand and frankly, ethical commitments, the only way I’d see this as useful was if Scahill knew the person who would replace him was at the rhetorical level of a Baldwin or a Hitchens. In my humble opinion, the left isn’t producing a lot of these right now, for precisely these reasons: we have shied away from the intellectual battles that would have sharpened us. So as Bill pointed out in his response, this was Scahill’s loss. Ceding the territory doesn’t put you above the fray. We have a word for this, and the word is ‘forfeit.’

Maher responded to Scahill’s charges insisting that the truth would come out, and that there could be no better response than to have Milo ‘exposed.’  “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he would later say.

That said, almost everyone agrees that Bill went too light on Milo that night.  The Washington Post even called it a “Bromance.”  I’m going to give Bill a slight pass on this one: he needs to have guests on his show who are willing to come on without anticipating an ambush or unfair treatment. The smart move for Bill is to outsource the actual combat to his panel. To the extent that he can ringmaster it, he should have guests on that are going to challenge each other while he maintains his ability to keep the conversation moving.  But yes: Bill seemed unprepared, without specific arguments of Milo’s that he wanted to tackle or controversies he wanted an answer about.

If one were to take that appearance as the basis for criticism, you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about: for the most part, Bill failed to illuminate Milo’s controversies, and Milo himself was, for the most part, on his very best behavior.  Bill pushed Milo on going after individuals (the aforementioned Ms. Jones, who Milo called “barely literate,” saying she “looks like a man”) and agreed that if it’s warranted to make a point, he’ll go there, but he gave Milo only small grief here.  Milo also deliberately pushed boundaries while talking about an unnamed transsexual woman he had publicly collided with as “a confused man,” and taking a conservative hard line on gendered bathrooms. The most abusive he became during the live broadcast was when he made an off-note pair of jokes that he hires neither women nor gays.  Certainly, anyone new to Milo might have been caught thinking, “He sounds like most Trump voters.  Was that all?”  Nothing to set fire to a university over.  Certainly not as bad as some of the things Buckley says during the course of the Baldwin debate, and Buckley was seen as respectable.  Milo, while popular, is not.

And this is where, I suspect, most TV critics failed to do their homework.  It was after the show stopped broadcasting, but the cameras continued rolling, in the “Overtime” segment posted to YouTube the following day, that the promised fireworks finally emerged.  Guests Larry Wilmore and Malcolm Nance were left to challenge Milo, as overseen by Maher.  In the Q&A format, Milo was able to really let loose, and become provoked into far more specific baiting and leading.  When the conversation once again veered towards where transsexuals should use the bathroom, Milo was only too happy to take it further, going after Caitlyn Jenner, calling trans people victims of a “psychosexual disorder,” and finally levelling the bizarre and unsubstantiated claim that they are disproportionately involved in sex crimes (true, but only if you mean as victims).  When Wilmore pointed out that these were the same unfounded charges generically made against homosexuals (like Yiannopoulos himself) years before, that they were perverts and that homosexuality was a disorder, Milo replied, “Maybe it is.”

This is where Maher did seem to lighten up on Milo, and perhaps give him too much of a break. However, it did seem that he was trying to pull him back from the precipice when he said, “You remind me of a young, gay, alive Christopher Hitchens, but you gotta lose that shit.”  “People are just beginning to hate you,” he continued.

Again, the defining, remaining image was not that Milo was particularly incisive, or hard-hitting, or really leveling anything like a real challenge to anything but the well-worn excesses of zeal on the left; beating on a tired strawman.  By virtue of the protests, the editorials and controversy, he had been made to seem bigger than he was.  Laid bare in conversation with B- and C-level celebrities, he seemed to reach no greater classification than “classic prick.”  If anything, it was so obvious, that one wonders how he got on the show on the first place.  And that’s the point.  It’s one thing to suspect that the dark emperor has no clothes, it’s another to lay it out.

And yet, consider all of the heat that Maher took, before and after, for having the temerity to have this person on the show. Liberals and progressives were winding themselves into knots to confess how they never liked Maher, have been suspicious of him and his lunatic crusades, that he was too easy on Milo, that in having Milo on, Maher “mainstreams hate,” he’s no longer liberal, that he’s failed to change with the times, and on, and on.

What happened?  We used to be the party of debate.  Maher scanned the crowd of liberals for a champion and unfortunately, came up short.  Our response, once again, was to respond to the invitation with calls for intellectual quarantine.

Liberals used to see an opportunity like this and glove up for the fight, not for the fight that prevents the fight from happening.  Am I the only one who sees an opportunity like this and doesn’t think “stop mainstreaming hate,” but rather “I can take that guy.”  Who from the liberal side should have, could have, would have been the knight on the progressive side to meet Yiannopolous, jab for jab, in the field of open discussion?  Jon Stewart?  Is there anyone we would have tolerated attending in the first place?  Or are we just above it now?  Why do we shy away from, de-platform, contest, protest and simply avoid that which we should run to assert: an opportunity to declare, finally, and forthrightly, what our values are, assertively, dominantly, conclusively?  Or are we just out of practice?

Watch the Baldwin debate. This is who we were. This is who we need to be, again.

We have ceded the territory.  There are no more Baldwins.  Only Yiannopouli.

 

 

 

 

The Way Forward 1: The Rust Belt

I. Context

For a period of time in the mid to late 80’s we lived in Northern Virginia, an area called Fairfax county, just south of Washington, D.C.

Coming from a five-college liberal stronghold in the northeast, Virginia appeared, to our eyes, to be inexplicably conservative and  WASPish, festering with poorly-concealed racism and class separation.  The Fairfax of today is of course, quite different.  By the standards of America at large, however, Fairfax county of the 80’s was politically centrist, essentially the suburban bedroom communities of the government apparatus, both Democratic and Republican.

Many years later, my brother returned from a visit there with a tale from this early-warning system.

“Obama’s going to win,” he claimed.  “The number of lawn signs, on the homes of people we thought were Republicans, shows it.”  Ten years ago we’d never have believed it, but the world had turned.  A black man could indeed be president.  Of course, Obama won, for the first time.

Likewise, I have my own early-detection systems.  I spent a few years traveling back and forth to Detroit, Michigan, where I became friendly with many people with a different political orientation than my own.  I’d listen to union radio shows in my rental car, and politely decline invitations from my Republican colleagues to go to the shooting range at lunch.  Michigan is officially purple, but was taken by Trump in ’16, so I called some up recently to get the read of the man on the street.  I was convinced that in my northeast echo chamber, the analyses I was hearing were incomplete, lacking in layers or nuance.  Some of the rationales I heard seemed overheated, more a case of shock and awe, wish-fulfillment and a statement of intent to factionalize.  “Whitelash.”  Another: “in a word: sexism.”  So I asked, literally, “What’s the word of the man on the street in the Detroit area?”

“Most people are either happy to have a job or are looking for one.  There isn’t so much ‘on the street talk’ as I think you guys get at your marches.

But I can tell you, I know a lot of people voted for Trump.  When he came here and he said to Ford, ‘If you move any factories to Mexico, I’m gonna tax your ass,’ well, that was exactly what people around here wanted to hear. Immigration is a big concern.”

I asked about the allegations of racism, sexism, what he said about immigrants.

“Let me tell you something.  When I was eighteen, I made $18/hour laying bricks.  A bricklayer makes half that now.  You can drive around and take a look at who’s manning the construction crews now and see the reason.  Sure, some people’s jobs went overseas, got automated, you name it.  But that’s not what people see.  Some guys I know have been out of work, literally, for years.

“So when you hear people chant ‘build a wall,’ are there racists in the crowd? Sure, I mean I think there have to be.  But when we hear you guys just say us wanting to build the wall is just racist, we think, ‘these guys aren’t listening to us at all.'”

And the sexism?  The ‘locker room’ remarks seemed to be a big line-drawer for some people.

“The things he was caught saying made me think less about him and more about how everything we say in public and private conversations is recorded now.   It was hard to take seriously– it just made me realize no one I know could ever be president, given all the raw shit we say.  I mean, I’ve been offensive to everybody.

“My daughter– she’s in college, after that, she just kind of tuned him out, just said to me ‘Dad, please, let’s just not talk about him anymore.’  My wife said ‘I don’t want to hear about that disgusting man in this house.'”  But neither of them marched, I don’t think they even voted for Clinton.  I think they just didn’t vote at all.”

II. Strategy

Graffiti. Detroit, Michigan
Graffiti. Detroit, Michigan. (c) 2013 Maceo Marquez.  Distributable with attribution.

Candidate Clinton lost for specific tactical reasons that I believe can be repaired in the fewest moves by concentrating on the so-called ‘Rust Belt’ states: Michigan, with 16 electoral votes, Ohio (18), Indiana (11), Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (20).  She won Illinois, which brought 20 electoral votes, for a total of 75 additional electoral votes, well more than were needed to augment her final count of 232.  (Please note that in this analysis I’m omitting traditional rust belt regions such as Baltimore (Maryland) and Buffalo (NY) as both are geographically disparate or attached to solid-blue states that would have gone Democrat in most contests.)

So sure, had she only won another five states, she would have won. An easy thing to say, of course– if only if she had won, she would have won.  But I concentrate on these states because this is a very specific corridor of America with easily-identified and broadly shared economic concerns, not culturally southern, many are historically Democrat in presidential elections, most have vital union presences, and most are very possibly inclined to vote more on economic lines than cultural ones.  Hillary didn’t fail to win them.  She lost them.

This means in that region Democrats can address economic concerns without moving from their key positions, especially given that there are no cultural concessions open to Democrats, no going back on hard-won victories.  Although it would unlock desirable southern states, we can’t offer up gay marriage or women’s choice, and no one is saying or would say anything like that– but that would be the only way to win those states, to suddenly become another party.  By contrast, the rust belt could have been won with messaging we were already using and positions democrats already held.  It probably goes without saying that yes, it is my belief that Bernie Sanders would have won here.

Let’s take a look at how Hilary/Trump polled in the Rust Belt prior to the election and how they performed thereafter. (Source: RealClearPolitics.com)

State Electoral Votes Pre-Election Polling (%-pt lead) Final Election Results (%-pt lead) Johnson, final Stein, final
IL 20 +11.5, C +16.0 C 3.8 1.4
IN 11 +10.7 T +19.0 T 4.9 N/A
MI 16 +3.6, C +0.3 T 3.1 1.1
OH 18 +3.5 T +8.1 T 3.2 0.8
PA 20 +2.1 C +0.7 T 2.4 0.8
WI 10 +6.5 C +0.7 T 3.1 1.0

Please note, that’s a total of 95 electoral votes on the table.  At the close of the election, Clinton had only accumulated 232 of the required 270, meaning she needed at least another 38 to win.

What is the fastest way to accumulate an additional 38 electoral votes in the fewest possible moves?

March 2016, Dominant Industries In Rust Belt Cities In 1950.
March 2016, Dominant Industries In Rust Belt Cities In 1950. Corey J. Shupp: http://via.library.depaul.edu/mom/29/

The most efficient combination is done in two moves: take PA + OH for 38 votes exactly.  In OH, however, Trump held a 3.5 point advantage going in and an 8.1 point advantage coming out. That situation does not improve if we swap OH for IN, where, with Trump having a 10.7 point lead in November which later converted to 19 points on election day, Clinton had no shot whatsoever.

The most achievable combination is PA + MI + WI.  All three showed Clinton winning handily, according to polls. And all three went for Trump, albeit none with more than a 1 percentage point lead.  I find this achievable in that 1% may have been reclaimed with a single well-placed media buy, had anyone known in time.  This literally came down to hours.

A few other points about the data leap out immediately:

  1. She didn’t lose by a lot in this region.  In fact, in most cases in these states, she lost by vanishingly small margins.
  2. That said, we are talking about states that used to be blue in almost every case. Wisconsin last voted red for Reagan.
  3. Assuming Stein votes would have otherwise been absorbed by Clinton, (which seems plausible as Stein is considered left of Clinton, so they wouldn’t have gone to Trump, though they may have stayed home) Stein was indeed a spoiler in WI, MI, PA, and those combined 46 electoral votes would have ensured a decisive Clinton win nationally. Note that Gary Johnson’s votes would have been absorbed by both Clinton and Trump and are thus harder to predict; the key takeaway is that the Democratic party can afford (and should encourage) a Gary Johnson but could not, in this contest, afford a Jill Stein.
  4. Something happened between the polling date and the election date in which all of these states (besides Indiana) switched sides.  I’m partial to Michael Durkheimer’s analysis in Forbes that yes, the non-announcement by the FBI over the weekend played a small part (and these are very small lead numbers), but he also claims that there were also simply more Trump voters than were accounted for. Durkheimer’s thesis is that they just stayed quiet, having seen the social penalty for self-identifying as a Trump voter.  Naturally, this blind spot did not help Democrats.
  5. There is no Democrat winning combination without Pennsylvania’s 20 votes.  Pennsylvania must be won.  I would prioritize this right after Florida (which could be won, as pointed out by Van Jones, by Democrats gaining a legislative win that allows felons to vote.)
  6. Likewise, Michigan’s 16 votes are critical, and usually reliable with less effort than Ohio’s 18.
  7. Illinois is approximately as solid blue as Indiana is solid red.  That means IL can probably be relied on with the current script, likewise essentially no energy or resources need to be spent on Indiana until more of a Democratic beachhead is established.  We just can’t win there, at the moment.
  8. I feel like the case for sexism as the sole driving rationale for Clinton’s loss is undermined by the scores immediately pre-election: many of the pre-election scores showed Clinton winning from data collected as late as Friday.  Something happened over the weekend to dent her polling, and it wasn’t everyone suddenly realizing the candidate was female.  To the contrary, there really is a strong argument to be made that the FBI’s disclosure tipped the scales.
Sugarman, Detroit.
Sugarman, Detroit. (c) 2013 Maceo Marquez. Distributable with attribution.

III. Forward

So what now for Democrats in these states?

Focus on the unions.  Here’s something that needs to be one of the top-three talking points for all go-forward Democratic communications: this is our plan for the blue-collar worker.  In Democrat terms, this has always been done by partnering with the unions.  This plan needs to be put forward as an economic issue, a jobs issue, and a cultural issue.  Meaning: strategic communications and creative briefs all must have imagery and iconography that speak to how the blue collar worker can expect to see a transformation and a vision for the next two decades.

UAW leadership endorsed Clinton.  UAW members went off script, and an internal poll showed 28% planned to back Trump.  That kind of defection was expected at other unions as well. Given the narrow margins of victory shown, that was more than enough to get us a 1% creep.

Now, here’s a fact.  I’ve worked in technology for twenty years.  I’ve never been in a union.  I’ve never needed one, no one I know in the industry has ever wanted one.  We work at the edge of the future, and the startup world’s tech and culture (offshoring, onshoring, automation, telecommuting) is usually followed by other industries, in their own time.

So it may be that the role of the unions themselves and their value proposition itself needs to change.  I’ll write about those specific prescriptions later, for now, the core message is simply that this is a conversation that Democrats and Progressives need to be involved in, need to guide.

We need to have everyone who has heard the message be able to answer this question for themselves: “What will you do to get me a job, and to protect it?”

Trump addressed this.  His solution wasn’t the right solution, but it answered the question: “I’m going to take your job back from the Mexicans that took it, and I’m going to tax your bosses who try to send it anywhere else.”  Take issue with the answer if you like (and I have an issue, here and there), but it’s an answer.

Sanders also had an answer to this question. “I’m going to take the investment from the rich people who are robbing you blind and pour it back into this country to create jobs for people like you.”  Also an answer.  Also has its own issues and presuppositions.

What was Clinton’s answer, again?

Right.

 

History is Blind

Michelangelo
Michelangelo Buonarroti, #50

I used to have a book that I kept in the bathroom called “The 100”, which made the case for the 100 most influential people in history.

When people heard I had this book, they’d inevitably guess that position #1 was held by Jesus of Nazareth. Not so.  Position #1 was actually Mohammed. As the author explained, Mohammed merits making the list in two completely separate areas of human endeavor, yes, as a spiritual leader but also as a military one who campaigned hard and took an astonishing amount of territory for his time, the equal of any of the great empires. Jesus himself would not appear until position #3, right after Isaac Newton.

Conspicuously, however, many artists were simply overlooked. Authors, painters, performers– none except for the truly immortal made the cut. Shakespeare is given the #31 spot and named “Edward de Vere” to tackle two controversies at once. Michelangelo slides in at #50, Bach at #72, and Da Vinci merits a mere honorable mention alongside Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin and others.

My instinct is to suggest that this lightness in the arts demonstrated a bias on the author’s part. His bio shows a man with three advanced degrees in Law, Physics, and a Ph.D in astronomy. Clearly, a lot of his very limited time has not been spent on art appreciation. However, the author is quite clear about his reasons. In short, he doesn’t think the arts have done as much to change human history as, say, discovering how to leverage radiowaves (Guglielmo Marconi, #38). I suppose I agree: of what historical import is the song, alongside the ability to share it widely?

I propose an alternate hypothesis: while these so-called Great scientists and generals changed human history through victories and inventions, these are dramatic, world-changing moments. The arts are no less influential, but the degree to which they inflict change is expressed in microunits, hundreds of times a day. This doesn’t mean that the ability of the arts to effect change is weaker so much as the change they do create is more gradual, designed, like any good story mechanic, to evade perception and impossible to identify in hindsight.

There is an interesting meme going around at the moment where the participant lists the favorite albums that influenced them during their teen years. I’ve seen a lot of versions of this. Many people can tell you where they were when they heard a specific song, say, “Champagne Supernova.” Very little of that thrill transferred to the joy of getting the MP3 player itself, which is, on balance, probably more historically influential than Oasis.

Still. We live our lives as subject to the peaks and valleys our emotional lives, and the arts are the only inventions that exist on a scale that can inject into and redirect that flow.

I love hearing the stories of how people discovered Fugazi in art class and that it opened up a new world of possibility for them, or kissed on a Ferris wheel to the Rolling Stones, or decided to get their shit together with the pitiless encouragement of Gang Starr.

Here’s mine. I remember very clearly laying in the bed of a female classmate. We had spent the night together (sleeping) and everything felt right. We were still circling each other, trying to decide if we would take this further and farther than either of us had been.

“Blind” by the Sundays was playing. We lay there, listening to the whole album, from ‘I Feel’ to ‘Wild Horses.’ (Later, we also listened to Oasis.)

The Sundays, Blind.
The Sundays, Blind. Released October 19, 1992.

“This is nice,” I thought. Something in Harriet Wheeler’s voice said, “this is a place you can stay.” Something in it created the space to get to know one another. The CD remained in our house, on a dusty shelf, for thirteen years.

Was this Great Art? I kind of doubt it. But it was timely, specific and helped to set the trajectory of the life that followed as readily as any invention I can think of. Had we not heard that record, would the world have come to meet my daughter? Who can say?

Furthermore, I’m a music lover. What other details might have sent me in motion had the art been something different? Perhaps if I found a book I found meaningful on her shelf?  More prosaically: how else might I have spent this morning, had I not seen these facebook posts about people’s favorite bands? (For the purposes of this post, I’m qualifying FB posts as art.)

Jane's Addiction - Ritual De Lo Habitual
Jane’s Addiction, Ritual De Lo Habitual. Uncontested winner of many late night college bull sessions as the record most likely to endure. You be the judge.

History is made by people, yes. And those people are animated by words, books, films articles, music. Wouldn’t you like to know what music Genghis Khan (#29) would have had in his iPod? How Marx would have read Kundera? If Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins had not been Bill Clinton’s favorite author, our first “black president?” If Barack Obama was unsympathetic to Hip Hop? If Paul Ryan was? (No, I mean really was.) Something about the fact that most Tank commanders in Desert Storm agreed that Megadeth was the most commonly played band in tanks seems significant.  History writ large may not feel it, but certainly, in the life of an individual, the right art at the right time is what creates the trajectories of your life. Whether you’re seeing it, or not.

Designated Survivor: Alternate Show Concepts

Designated Survivor

Some hastily-generated shows developed for sale to networks trying to duplicate the success of Designated Survivor with Kiefer Sutherland:

  • Eminent Last Guy
  • Second-to-Final Bro
  • The Thirteenth Groomsman
  • Governmental Spotter
  • Just-In-Case Jim
  • The Dude of Last Resort
  • Break in Case of Gary

Eating the Elephant – BJJ Year One

Blue belt earned.

A number of years ago I watched an event called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). By now there have been dozens if not hundreds of UFC matches. The brand is a global juggernaut. But in 1993, this was the very first outing of what would come to be elevated to the sport known as Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA. While I had originally set out to write this essay on the topic of ‘what I’ve learned’ in this phase of my martial arts journey, let the record show that the first thing I’ve learned is that I’m actually old enough to refer casually to a martial arts tournament that is now twenty-three years old and that I watched on a VHS tape. Wow.

The rules were hazy: there was something about no biting or eye-gouging, everything else, it appeared, was on the table. There were no restrictions on styles, the event appeared designed to throw as many styles into collision as possible. Dumbfoundingly, there were no weight classes. The whole thing felt very hastily-rigged and danger prone. Unbridled injuries seemed inevitable.

Victory in the ring could be achieved in one of two ways: a knockout or submission. Submissions were typically achieved through a painful joint lock maneuver or oxygen deprivation. Yielding would be performed by “tapping out” or verbally giving up to the opponent. A referee would be in the octagonal cage, patented as “The Octagon”, to enforce these rules and ostensibly protect the fighters. Critically, the matches would occur in succession, meaning a winner would continue on to the next match, would very likely still be bearing the fatigue and injuries that the previous match had cost him.

It was chaos. I’m talking about Sumo wrestlers tossing Karate guys in a locked cage. Western Boxers trading blows with Kickboxers. Greco-Roman wrestlers versus Kung Fu. Street brawlers versus everyone. Total anarchy. And there was drama, upsets. For example, the 650-lb Sumo lost to some biker-looking Karate guy because the biker beat him into submission with his own visibly broken arm. These must have been the kind of hand-to-hand battles not seen since the Roman Coliseum. There were bloody faces, competitors spitting out teeth. Bedlam.

It’s important to note, this was amazing not least for the spectacle it provided, but because there was an academic, martial-science aspect to the proceedings that answered some of the oldest questions known to man: who would win in a fight? The boxer? The wrestler? (Probably the wrestler.) Does karate even work? (Yes!) Is Muay Thai everything they say? (Yes!) Is a black belt enough? (No!) Does the Title “Grand Master” necessarily mean you are any good? (No!) Many of these matches or combinations had just never been broadcast. Now, here it was.

And finally, the biggest question of all: given that we’ve found contenders from varied martial arts all over the world, what is the answer? Which is the most effective martial art?

The shock of shocks turned out to be not that one scraped its way to the winning spot but rather, the surprise was in how clear and unambiguously this question was answered. For its time, this question was resoundingly answered: the answer was, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and it wasn’t close.

In 1993, few of us in the USA had heard of the Gracie family, now a globally recognized Brazilian martial arts dynasty. When they entered the arena, several brothers and cousins in white hoods walking hands-to-the-shoulders of the brother before them like a clan of warrior monks, the effect was one of intrigue. Who were these guys? They seemed to pass in order of size, biggest-to-smallest, so that the smallest one in the lead to which all hands pointed, Royce (pronounced ‘Hoyce’) was being presented to the Octagon like an offering. They seemed to know something that we didn’t know. Indeed, entering Royce, not even their heaviest or most accomplished guy, seemed to be a defiant gesture of its own. “You don’t need our best guys,” it said. Any one of us can win this thing.”

Their style was, to the eyes of the broader world, new and self-invented, though this wasn’t really true. It was an offshoot of one of the oldest Japanese Martial traditions, Jiu-Jitsu, which came from feudal Japan. The Gracie family professed to have mastered a reinterpretation of the style local to their country, so-called “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu,” or BJJ. In practice, it seemed to bear very little relation to the original Jiu-Jitsu, combining stand-up Judo with a kind of martial wrestling that focused on grappling from the ground to achieve arm- and leg-locks, holds, and painful submission techniques. One of BJJ’s signature positions, the Guard position, inverted the principle that the man on the bottom was losing, as BJJ practitioners seemed to dominate from the bottom, occasionally even submitting their opponents from had been considered, until then, a submissive position. The keys to this style appeared to be the BJJ practitioner’s ability to a) take their opponent to the ground, b) establish their dominance when on the ground, and c) their patience in achieving this goal. Once an opponent was taken down, however, the match looked a lot like a guy in a karate uniform struggling with a man-sized Anaconda. Valiant, sure, but the outcome isn’t in doubt. The only question is how long it’s going to go on.

Over several matches, Gracie dominated his category. While there were matchups for the history books up and down the card, Royce cooly drilled through his opposition, making his way to the finals with an icy determination that made his ascendancy inevitable. Early on the question became, not ‘could he win’, but almost immediately, ‘who will be fighting Royce?’ Clearly, if he intended to stand and exchange punches and kicks, he would be destroyed, but this wasn’t his plan. Many times he took punches and kicks– some that would have KO’d any other fighter– but he was able to still establish the lock and take his opponent to the ground, where he could take all the time he needed, play his game. No one seemed to have the tactics available that would stall his assault.

This was a signal moment in the history of the martial arts. For historical and geographical reasons, most styles had been constrained to fighting other people from the same style or nearby styles for hundreds of years. While there were inter-style tournaments, these were few and far between, and the early-90’s was still in many ways a pre-Internet era. There is also an uncanny effect when one trains with partners of the same style, in which they start to move and operate alike. Having different styles in direct contest is both invigorating and can be psychologically quite dispiriting for the loser. One of these people really has learned a skill that works. And the other is at least made to feel as if they have wasted what is probably a considerable amount of time perfecting something that is demonstrably inefficient to its purpose.

It became apparent almost immediately that certain arts had flourished perhaps because they had never been challenged. Equally, that others (BJJ and Thai Kickboxing come to mind) have been through the crucible and within the rules of their practice, “just work.” One of the first outcomes of the Gracie dominance over the next few UFC contents was the merging of these winning styles into a composite: Greco-Roman wrestling, BJJ and Sambo for the ground, Dirty Boxing, Muay Thai and Western Boxing for stand-up striking. This became sanded down and optimized into what is known as modern Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, to which BJJ contributes a significant amount of DNA. (MMA isn’t a fixed category, and continues to incorporate material from all catalogs.) Accordingly, in this cross-pollination, the past 25 years have been as vibrant as any in the history of the martial arts.

The events I describe above are now part of the historical record, written about in a few books, told and retold in dojos the world over, available to see on youtube and in documentaries. The field has changed. Most arts have by now incorporated techniques to defend against the tactics used by Gracie; certainly, no serious contenders stand to be surprised by them anymore.

I should say that the UFC has long since instituted a series of sweeping changes intended to protect the fighters and their careers, such as weight classes, rounds, and banning a significant number of dangerous or unsporting moves. I’m not interested in competing in the UFC. I’m too old, I’ve got too much else going on. Still, the results seemed inarguable. Whatever it was the Brazilians were doing would now need to be studied by any serious martial artist. I and many others would need to get up to speed.


If you are interested in learning about what BJJ looks like when practiced, view this video.

All this to say, it was then that I knew I would come to train in this style, but I wouldn’t return to it for another 22 years.

***

I love to train, it’s how I go to the gym. For the last ten years I’ve been training near-continually if I wasn’t going to the gym instead, and like other athletes and martial artists, when I don’t, my life starts to fall apart at the edges. I’ve trained now in Kenpo Karate, Hapkido and Arnis, Western Boxing, Greco-Roman Wrestling, and Russian Systema for 5 years. I’ve sampled Sambo and (Japanese) Jiu-Jitsu. Ever since I saw Royce Gracie’s maneuvers in UFC 1, I knew I’d end up at least trying BJJ when the opportunity presented itself, but I had a lot of other arts that I wanted to investigate in the meantime; basics to be covered. What it meant to punch, kick, how to protect your head and body, gain loose hips and strong legs, what it meant to manage one’s breathing, take a hit. How to stand. Where to stand. How to move.

When I divorced, I spent the first year getting up early in the morning to visit my daughter and get her ready for preschool. By the time I arrived at her house at 7:30, I was coming from a 5am boxing class. I was running on fumes, reorganizing my life, bouncing from apartment to apartment and survived on credit. There were a lot of times I could have fallen down; in many ways, that boxing class was the only thing that held my life together when everything else was cracking. Yes, because of training I’ve saved myself from injury by falling or flipping the right way, yes, because of training I was able to fight off physical opponents, yes because of training I’ve been able to protect women from being assaulted on the subway. But that year, boxing saved my life. You must train as if your life depends on it, because sometimes it does, but probably not in the ways you think.

Over a year ago I joined a BJJ Club in Brooklyn. I was freelancing from a home office for the summer, and it looked like I’d be continuing that arrangement for the near future so I was able to attend a dojo that is not only in Brooklyn, but also, critically, close to my apartment. While this is a very trivial point and shouldn’t be the basis of how to choose a school, you want to make it as easy for yourself as possible, because you will start to get tired, comfortable, you’ll start to plateau, and you just want attending to be easy (class itself should not be easy, but getting in the door should be). Half of winning is in the architecture. Also, most of the arts I quit were due to changes in my life circumstances or geographic changes that made attending the school impractical, such as traveling overseas, moving or switching jobs.

When I joined, I resolved to follow the practice I learned when training martial arts that didn’t offer belts. That is, commit for a year, don’t question the course but just keep going, then take stock, review a year later and then check-in at intervals thereafter. Part of this is because without belts there was no way to know when you were leveling up, but also because belts are artificial, time is not, and finally because there is a built-in insecurity behind training in the martial arts. You’re never really sure this stuff ‘works’, and if you aren’t careful you can spook yourself into thinking that what you are doing is valueless and leave before you are actually qualified to assess what you’re doing.

Some suspension of disbelief is necessary. A lot of material that comes to us from previous generations is simply untested, a lot of it is suspect (e.g. knife defense) and some of it is, from a modern self-defense standpoint, kind of superfluous (e.g., forms, ancient weapons, etc). When I moved on to train in Systema, I conferred with previous instructors. While none had much opinion on Systema, citing mixed reviews, I was explicitly told, “Go to Renzo Gracie’s BJJ academy in NYC. While I can’t tell you about the other stuff, his is a system that works.”

Five years later I left Systema not least because I had reached a plateau, but also because given the amount of time I had put in, I simply should have been a better fighter. I wasn’t sure that what I was learning worked, and I became increasingly concerned that I was wasting my time. Having left that practice, I’m able to assess that 40-50%% of what I was learning there was very useful indeed, and another 50-60% was at best partially effective. To tighten up that 60% I would need instruction that wasn’t locally available, which meant I had hit a plateau. I started looking for other schools, that was when I tried boxing and came to BJJ a few years later.

In the case of BJJ, I needn’t have worried. The curriculum clearly works and is tested in stress situations every class.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my own martial arts since starting BJJ was a reduction in the amount of force, but a corresponding increase in the output or effect. Efficiency has improved.

Another element I was looking to change was to be able to rely on more technique and less strength in training. I never wanted to use strength in my martial arts, this is because, on the one hand, strength is momentary or illusory. You age, you get injured, you gain and lose weight. Part of the purpose of training in the art is knowing that you’ll grow old with it and that strength won’t always be there for you. But the other side is that mere strength and force are a reliable indicator that you are doing it wrong; you are inefficiently positioned, you should move to a position where less effort is demanded. You’re fooling yourself. Timing, precision, relaxation, are better goals. BJJ is great for developing these characteristics, and I’ve seen an improvement over the past fourteen months.

Correspondingly, strength’s little cousin, aggression, is also something that I thought I had mostly pushed out of my martial arts practice, which I was surprised to discover had returned when I started to practice BJJ. The working hypothesis is that this is because of BJJ’s proximity to wrestling, which trained a lot of aggression and explosive speed into my muscle memory, you just need this intensity to be able to step into the ring, let alone to win in a competition. This just had to be unlearned to allow a lot of the softer sensitivity-training to sink in. This is a tough one: once you start to get moving with somebody it becomes hard to not go for open moves that become apparent, and one must learn to suppress the competitive instinct in favor of opportunities for better movement, but it’s worth the effort because it allows your body to memorize the movements without the background noise of trying to ‘win’, and so significantly accelerates the learning process.

I haven’t escaped this, but I see it, I look for it, I try to work around it. Sometimes it creeps in as simply as feeling my own mortality, knowing I’m in an exercise class, and just wanting to really get the most out of this body, see what it can do and use the aggression as a way to push myself, and that’s great, but my long-term goals are softer. (So to anyone who I messed up while getting there, sorry.)

The times I’ve lost sight of this even for a moment– those are the moments in which I’ve injured myself, and this is mostly-but-not-just a coincidence. Tension, reliably, leads to injury. Twice this has happened, and both times put me out for multiple classes. Not a lesson my ankle, elbow, or knee need to relearn.

My confidence on the ground has gone up a good deal, and as a former wrestler, that’s a big thing to say. I feel like I know something about the shape of my partners’ bodies the way your feet know the stairs to your apartment, this hip will tend to be here, that joint should be there. I don’t need to search for these things as hard as I used to anymore, I can feel them by touch and see them with peripheral vision. This is clearly the product of practice, and I wasn’t able to do it when I walked in the door (unless I was standing up).

Earned.
Earned.

Most of all, the single facet of the practice most taken to heart is the way the dedication that BJJ demands translates. The school tracks white belts’ attendance with stripes in a way that is not canonical to most BJJ schools but to remind the student of their commitment and their progress. I can look at my white belt (now tinted dark gray from the mat) with nine red stripes and a few black stripes and know that this means there were ninety-odd occasions that I thought I had something else to do and still walked into the dojo and got my thing done. I didn’t see improvements as they happened, no single time was the one that got me over. But It’s proven that I can point myself at a goal that is well out of view and just keep coming at it. I can, as the saying goes, eat the elephant, bit by bit. This is the discipline that one needs to finish a novel, learn an instrument or to get that promotion. And this is a kind of discipline that is impossible to fake or come to unearned– you know you can do it because you know you can do it.

See you in a year.