The Lessons Within “The Last Jedi”

Be advised: there will be spoilers in this treatise. I can’t discuss what I want to discuss without getting into detail about the plot and the arcs of the film’s characters. Fairly be ye warned.

Before I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I heard about all of the negative takes on it, all of the review-bombing, all of the neckbeard hatred getting spewed all over the Internet. It made me more than a little angry; the troglodytes and trolls who march to the drum of GamerGate and the myth of misandry and the Nazi party simply can’t take a hint, which is frustrating. I resolved to avoid spoilers as much as possible before I finally saw the film.

And now that I have, the vile vitriol of these chuckleheads is just downright amusing to me.

The whole point of The Last Jedi is that we need to let go of our pasts. In order to truly move forward, to be better versions of ourselves, we have to do away with preconceived expectations and deal with the now, in order to build a better future for ourselves and those we love. Above all, we have to learn from our mistakes.

And everybody in The Last Jedi makes mistakes.

Courtesy Lucasfilm

Let’s not mince words, here. The mistakes made by Poe get a lot of people killed. From the very beginning, Poe’s “take the fight to the enemy” attitude costs the Resistance the bulk of their fighting forces. He goes one step further when he disobeys Admiral Holdo’s orders to support her and hold their course. She knows Poe is reckless, that his macho never-say-die swagger and desperate plans are an unknown factor she cannot trust. And that lack of trust got under Poe’s skin so much that he sent Finn and Rose on a wildly dangerous mission and lead a mutiny against Holdo’s command. Poe made his mark in our lives, and in the life of Finn, by being an ace pilot and a bit of a maverick; it is these aspects he must face and overcome in order to grow. He — and we — erroneously believe that those things are always good things, when the reality is that it pays to dial back the recklessness and seat-of-the-pants ‘handsome rogue’ routine when other people are counting on you. That sort of thing, in times of crisis, can be downright toxic or even deadly.

Finn makes plenty of missteps in his own story. He is “a man who wants to run,” and that’s still his first instinct. Granted, it’s to undertake a desperate plan to get the First Order off of the back of the Resistance, but it’s still running away, on his own. Rose intervenes and finds a way to go with him; this does not stop him from continuing to fail. Even after he finally decides to stop running and dedicate himself to the cause of the Resistance — which, incidentally, is why the sequence in the casino matters — he keeps making mistakes. At the climax of the story, he puts himself in a position to make a “heroic” sacrifice in a suicide attempt to destroy a First Order weapon; Rose denies him that, doing serious damage to herself, but “saving what we love” is a better way to seek victory. She’s right, Finn screwed up one last time, and you can tell from the expression on his face that he’s going to learn from this mistake.

Courtesy LucasFilm

Learning from failure is something Luke Skywalker needs to do, as well. He got ahead of himself and operated under the assumption that the old Jedi Order was something that needed to be preserved. In his hubris, he completely mishandled the training of his nephew and gave rise to an individual who ultimately becomes the Supreme Leader of the First Order. He is so struck by the completeness of his failure that he removes himself entirely from the rest of the galaxy. It is only through Rey, her determination to carve out her own place in the scheme of things, and her unflagging belief in the idea of the Force as something that guides and protects, that Luke is shaken out of his depression and forces himself to come face to face with his mistakes. It is only through Rey — whose lessons are reinforced by Master Yoda — that Luke learns from those mistakes and manages to make a difference, saving lives in the process. Even perhaps, in the long run, the life of Kylo Ren.

Few characters exemplify toxic masculinity as completely as Kylo Ren. His power and potential are regarded with fear by his parents and his uncle. Snoke takes him in only to abuse him and exploit him. His alienation and isolation cause him to turn to the memory of his grandfather and the fascist scheme that created Darth Vader. Moreso than Armitage Hux, a power-hungry despot who fetishizes the Empire’s military might and comprehensive brainwashing, Kylo longs to be relevant and powerful. Since so much of his life has been out of his control, he wishes to seize control, and the only way in which he’s been shown to do so is by force. He and Hux both want to be bigger, badder, more powerful, and more famous than their predecessors. If that’s not a manifestation of the alt-right zeitgeist, I don’t know what is.

Courtesy LucasFilm

Is there a redemptive path for Kylo Ren the way there is for Luke, Finn, and Poe? It’s difficult to say. He comes across to Rey as someone who wishes to help her, to become her ally. Partially due to seeking a relationship that is not abusive, and partially because he merely wishes to posses her, he reaches out to her, coming dangerously close to being ‘seduced’ by the Light. Rey, for her part, feels the pull of the Dark Side, the quick and easy path to power that promises to fix all of the problems in her life and in the galaxy. These are two characters who have been tossed about by tides of life far beyond their control, and who wish to make their own way forward. Kylo’s biggest mistake is in trying to tell Rey that his way is best. He both offers her insight and mansplains the Force to her. He does everything he can to win her over — not necessarily in a romantic sense, but to prove that even in recruiting a follower, in using methods other than abuse and force, he’s better than Snoke.

Rey, for her part, holds onto her belief in herself. She’s always been a person who reaches down into the depths of her own being to find strength, power, and answers. She turned to Luke because the Force was something she barely understood, and he encouraged her to feel it on her own terms to find her own purpose, as he did when he was young. It occurs to me that if he’d taken this approach with Ben, rather than adhering to what Jedi Order teachings he was trying desperately to preserve, things might have been different. But having made that mistake, he tries to learn from it and gives Rey the instruction she needs — the answers lie within oneself, in our own light and darkness, and it is we who must make the choices that decide the course we take. To Rey, discovering that the Force is not unlike the path of self-reliance that’s guided her until this point is the sort of epiphany we all seek — it’s as simple as it is empowering.

Courtesy LucasFilm

I know that I’m not the first to see The Last Jedi in this way, but I hope that in taking things point by point, character by character, I can illustrate why I feel this is a better film than Empire Strikes Back — it has more to say. To me, the best science fiction, even a fantastical space western where people hack off each other’s limbs with laser swords, says something about our society at large. If anything, Empire Strikes Back is a time capsule that latches onto the fears of its time. The characters are betrayed by friends and crushed by enemies. But these are things that happen to them, not because of them, with the exception of Luke’s decision to try and rescue his friends. The Last Jedi gives us active characters across the board whose choices, especially their wrong choices, shape the story that unfolds, rather than allowing it to unfold around them. If the story of Empire Strikes Back is one of fear, The Last Jedi is one of determination. And that will always be more empowering and more meaningful than fear.

Poe, Finn, and Luke all become determined to learn from their mistakes, to turn their failures into lessons that can be applied towards making the galaxy a better place. That’s what makes them heroic, not the explosions they cause or the sword fights they have. Kylo is blind to his flaws and failures, for the most part, and that’s what makes him villainous. The film is not merely saying “here is what toxic masculinity is”; it goes on to say “and here is how you can be better than it, if you stop and think and learn how.” Our heroes need to fight themselves just as much as they need to fight their enemies, and as exciting as their face-offs with their enemies might be, their struggles to overcome themselves and their pasts is, to me, far more meaningful.

Courtesy LucasFilm

I love this film. I love that its female characters are strong, determined, and supportive. I love that its male characters are flawed, insecure, and emotional. Nobody’s dumb, and nobody’s a caricature. These feel like real people. You can understand them, empathize with them, and desire to see them improve and grow — even a character like Kylo Ren. “You can be better than this,” I want to say to Kylo, as much as to many other people that have been in my life. “Why aren’t you better than this?”

The Last Jedi, in addition to being an exciting sci-fi adventure, a well-shot and nuanced film, and a worthy continuation of one of the greatest sagas of our time, is a living example of how we can learn from our failures and overcome our flaws. It shows us people, men in particular, who have fucked up and possess the strength and wherewithal to learn from it, to do better, get better, be better. This isn’t just something that applies to us now, even if the film is cast within a certain encapsulation of our current socio-political climate. It’s a timeless lesson, one that I myself have had to learn, and that will never lose its edge or its power as we move into a future that, one hopes, is better and more prosperous than the past we will, and must, leave behind.

Courtesy LucasFilm

That’s the whole point of it. Learning from our mistakes means letting go of our past. Stop fetishizing those things you hold dear, stop falling back on old habits and lines of thought, stop trying to force the world to conform to your point of view. Instead, look within yourself at your failures and flaws, learn what you can from those choices, and dedicate yourself to overcoming the obstacles you’ve created for yourself on a path to being a better person. Only then will you make the world a better place. You won’t do it by screaming at everyone else how wrong they are about things and calling them names.

As much as I laugh at the enraged fanboys, I can’t help but pity them. They completely miss the point.

That, to paraphrase Master Yoda, is how you fail.

Learn from those failures, or be defined by them.

It’s your choice.

Moving On from 2017

So, 2017 is finally behind us. Or, at time of writing, it’s about to be.

What a relief, right?

The year seemed incredibly long. News and events that occurred around Halloween or Thanksgiving feel like they happened years ago. It was exhausting, seeing the world get yanked unwillingly into a downward spiral perpetuated by a resurgent nationalist would-be oligarchy. Aspiring autocrats vied for power, and thankfully, the world fought back. Make no mistake, we are at war, with the stakes being the very future of our species. We have concerns that need addressing such as poverty, hunger, and climate change, but the unfortunate truth is that we can’t fully tackle those until we get rid of the power-hungry ignorant obstructionists.

2018, thankfully, holds the promise of us being able to do so. 2017 was a wake-up call, a year-long trial by fire in which common folk were called upon to rise up in the face of a new form of subversive, diabolical ambition. This may be less true for the world outside of the United States, but given the world-wide influence of the nation in which I live, it’s been difficult for me to see the rest of the world outside of the impact our current lackluster leadership is having. We’re in trouble, over here; we’ve tried to balance the bluster from our so-called representatives with a clarion call for help.

I spent a lot of 2017 wishing I could do more. I spent the first few months of the year focused tightly on self-examination: what I could change, what I needed to cultivate within myself, which parts of myself I needed to discard. As the year progressed, my attention grew more and more outward, being active in lending my voice to the resistance, and keeping my heart and mind open. It was hard at times, exhausting at others. I finally concluded that the start-up life was not for me, and in another instance of re-inventing myself, dedicated my time while unemployed to changing the focus of my dayjob career and trying to finish a manuscript that I’m eager to share with the world.

It wasn’t all trials and tribulations, to be sure. I rediscovered my deep love for Dungeons & Dragons. I made some new friends, and learned to appreciated quality over quantity for people in my life. I returned to therapy and balanced medication with meditation and writing. I took more measured, thoughtful chances, and was rewarded in wonderful ways. And I never, ever, ever gave up.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I do not believe in the no-win scenario. It can be difficult to see, clouded by the tumult of the world and rampaging egos of others, but there is always a way forward. Where there is life, there is hope, a chance for a better tomorrow. Leaving one’s heart open to possibilities isn’t easy in this world. People will exploit such sentiment, leverage feelings, manipulate one’s mind and perceptions. But without an open heart, one cannot find some of the greatest things this life has to offer — progress, reconciliation, self-discovery, courage, and love.

I’m still percolating my thoughts on The Last Jedi, but among many other things, the film illustrates not only many ways in which people can fail (at times spectacularly), but how we can learn from our mistakes, and turn the outcome of our flaws into steps towards a better tomorrow. It’s a lesson we all need to learn sooner or later; for me, I could have learned it sooner, but now that I have it in mind, tomorrow cannot help but be better than all of my yesterdays.

I had allies in my journey forward, friends and family and loved ones. To them I say: thank you. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you. I did all of this for myself, as much under my own power as possible, but it would be uncharitable to say that I could have done so much without your love and support.

They say the best revenge is living well, and to be entirely honest, I’m going to keep living as well as I can, if only to spite my demons and failures and head weasels.

And, of course, I’m going to write as much and as often as I can. I have unfinished work that it worth writing, worth reading, worth sharing. Everything from unsent letters to that manuscript. I want to see what I can do when I really buckle down and make the words happen.

Thanks for sticking around; if nothing else, thanks for reading all of this.

See you in 2018.



Thirty-Nine

I took some time to overhaul the look of this blog so that it was more centered on Dungeons & Dragons. I had intended, for the most part, on producing only content related to that game here. In the weeks since I made that change, I’ve struggled to generate said content. The explanation may be related to any number of things — the imbalance of chemicals in which my brain swims, the emotions that climb over one another for my attention daily, the tension that exists between my journey forward into the future as aspects of my past try to exert overwhelming influence on my present…

I think I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m thirty-nine years of age today. I think it’s normal for people to be reflective on their birthday, but given the last couple of years, there’s a lot for me to work over. Hell, I’ve spent the last fifteen minutes trying to puzzle out what it is I want to say here. And a bit part of the challenge is that I keep coming back around to the idea that other people will be reading this. But the thing is, I can’t write this for anybody else. This sort of thing is something I have to write for myself.

So why put it on the blog at all?

Let me try and articulate this. People fight battles you can’t see every day. There are folks out there with diseases wracking their bodies with pain, without a single outward visible symptom. I don’t want to be reductive in my writing or over-simplify these very complex conditions, but when you break it down, at the end of the day, they’re alone in the war they wage with their physical forms. It may be a false equivalence, but I feel the same goes for mental conditions and disorders. While there are behaviors that inform others of what is going on inside — a literal request for help in completing a task or mitigating symptoms, or a figurative “cry for help” in one form or another — the reality is that we can never truly know what is happening on the battlefields we all have within ourselves.

My hope is that me rambling into a keyboard will help others in finding ways to come to terms with those battles. That, in turn, gives me more fuel to wrestle my own demons to the ground.

And wrestle them I must, or they will strangle the very life from my soul.

That may sound overly dramatic. I’ll plead guilty to perhaps engaging in a bit of hyperbole. I am, by nature, a storyteller. Stories tend to be dramatic in one form or another as a way to draw in the audience into the narrative and the characters affected by it. Be it as a novelist with my “rough and unable pen,” or as a Dungeon Master behind a screen armed with dice and terrain tiles, I want the people who read or hear my words when I’m telling a story to find escape, catharsis, or a deeper understanding about themselves or the world around them. A lofty ambition, maybe, and possibly a little pretentious. But more than anything else, I want my readers to read because they give a damn.

That’s why I’m such a fan of authors like Chuck Wendig and Seanan McGuire and Delilah Dawson — I care about what happens to the people in their stories. By telling us stories about people like Nora Wexley or October Day or Cardinal, these authors inhabit fictional characters with life and say to us through their actions, losses, and emotions, “these are people worth caring about.” Maybe it’s just me, but that’s why I read stories.

That’s also why I show up to D&D every Monday night. It’s not about rolling the biggest numbers or pulling off the most inventive moves in a combat scene. I show up because I care — about the characters at the table, about the people who play them, about our hapless Dungeon Master, whose narrative skills and voices are the skeleton upon which the players hang the meat of the story. And everyone at that table cares about each other, and the characters represented by dice and sheets of paper.

I’m waxing poetic here, but I swear, this all has a point.

Why put this stuff on the blog, instead of keeping it to myself?

Because I am worth caring about, too.

And by making that a public declaration, I am putting my foot down as far as my feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness are concerned. I can fill pages upon pages of journals with pontifications on the meaning of my life and how I need to find that for myself rather than looking for it in the affection and approval of others. (For the record, I have.) Added to that is the fact that I am aware of my status as a ghost piloting a meat suit on a rock hurtling through the unfeeling void of space at speeds I can barely comprehend. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, I’m one of around seven billion human beings on this planet, and there may be an exponentially larger number of sentient beings in our universe. The question of whether I or anybody else cares about me is ultimately insignificant.

But because I am sentient, because I think and feel, it’s anything but insignificant to me. That is worth remembering. And it has to start with how I feel about me. After almost forty years of life, it’s long past time to stop treating those feelings like they don’t matter.

I can never fully understand the battles others fight. I will never know what it is to be female bodied, have a different skin color, suffer from a chronic illness, or come from an abusive childhood. My context for relating to those around me is limited by my own experiences and whatever knowledge I have as imparted by other individuals and the world at large. But the feelings of those individuals do matter to me. This is especially true in the people I personally know and care about. Even if there is a world between me and an individual who’s touched my life or found an indelible place inside my heart, even if we rarely if ever speak to one another, your feelings matter to me. You matter to me.

I’d like to think I matter to you, but in the end, I have to matter to me.

At the most basic level of things, I have to fight this battle on my own. Nobody else can fight it for me. Others can fight it with me, certainly. And it’s good to have allies. But I am the only resource upon which I can absolutely undoubtedly rely. I have to treat myself as such. I have to value myself. I must matter to myself. I need to care about myself.

It’s the only way I can truly be my best self, and in turn, care about and fight alongside you.

To that end, I am taking this opportunity, at the dawn of my thirty-ninth year, to try and pull myself away from the memories and imprecations of my past selves, to strain my eyes towards the horizon, to stare into the howling and uncaring void that in the end consumes all of us, and scream the words:

I choose to be.

500 Words on the Adventurer’s League

Of late, (almost) every Friday night, I take a long trip from my flat to West Seattle so I can join in the occasionally madcap shenanigans known as the Adventurer’s League.

For the uninitiated, the Adventurer’s League is the ‘official’ organization for players and DMs of Dungeons & Dragons, sanctioned by Wizards of the Coast. Participants log their adventures, XP gains, and magical items to maintain a relative power level. There are three tiers of play, based on player character levels. New players start with characters at level 1 and work their way up the tiers, trying a smattering of different adventures every week as they progress.

To what end, you might ask? The advantage of the Adventurer’s League is that you can take an official, logged character to any League venue and game, and fit right in. No need to explain any odd stats or homebrewed items to your new DM. You can review a logsheet at any time, make sure things are on the level, and start rolling dice from there. It could be a friend’s house, a coffee shop, or a huge gaming convention. It doesn’t matter. Got that +1 breastplate and your holy avenger logged and approved by another DM? You’re in.

Speaking of DMs, being a Dungeon Master for the Adventurer’s League has perks all its own. When you run an adventure, you don’t just get the satisfaction of helping your players have a good time, even if you kill their characters. You also get rewards to apply to characters of your own. Dungeon Masters can be hard to come by — the DM experience is ultimately rewarding in and of itself, but it can be incredibly intimidating. There are incentives given just to get someone behind a screen at the table. After all, you can’t have a Dungeons & Dragons adventure without someone to populate the dungeon and bring those dragons to life.

Most of all, however, beyond the experience points and whatever else players and DMs gain, the Adventurer’s League is a wonderful way to meet new people. Tabletop gaming, more often than not, is a collective experience, and everyone has something to bring to the table. Meeting like minds who contribute to a wonderful night of adventure and magic helps create a feeling of community. It helps people feel like they’re not alone. It draws people out, and encourages them not only to engage their imaginations, but share it with others. That, in and of itself, is a beautiful thing to me.

This happens with most D&D groups, of course. But when gathering at home, most of the players know one another, or get to know one another fairly quickly as they meet regularly. In the League, this happens with strangers. Every week. And everyone benefits from it, and walks away having had a good time.

I know this isn’t always the case, but so far, my personal experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. In spite of my worries, I plan to keep making the trip every week.

Gothmatum: A Thin Dark Veil

A journal entry for Gothmatum Baenre.

I am aware that, as long as my life can be and as much as I may discover, there are some things I may never understand.

For example: necromancers tend to fancy themselves “masters of death”, then give themselves over to curses such as lichdom and vampirism.

They lie to themselves.

These are states of undeath. They are born of a fear of death, not mastery. Those who seek such states retreat to remote, dark places. Crypts and foreboding castles are the order of the day for these so-called “masters of death.”

Cowards and fools, to a one.

Life and death are separated by a thin, dark veil. Those who live can see death. When she comes, the living can run from her, try fight against her, or reach out to touch her. She has no master. She simply is. She lingers on her side of the veil, patient and eternal. She cannot be wielded like a sword or staff, but she can be understood.

That is my goal. Not to master death, but to understand her.

The nature of the veil is of greatest mystery to the living. Those who cross it are never the same, should they return. Souls are carried to other realms, other planes, or simply are lost forever. How does the transition work? Is there a mechanism somewhere in the cosmic clockwork of the planes? Or is it truly a duty of a psychopomp to take the soul by the hand and guide it to its destination? The nature of the veil — what scholar who truly wishes to understand death would not make that their primary focus?

This is the goal to which I have dedicated myself. Many who claim the title of necromancer merely wish to dominate others with their animated corpses and fearsome spells that bring death. But do not evokers also bring death with fire and lightning? What of those illusionists who fool others into thinking that ravine is solid ground. No — true necromancy lies in studying the veil between life and death. Seeking to understand it. Maybe, for just a moment, penetrating it.

I have spoken to one who has crossed that veil in both directions. He claims his soul went directly from Mount Celestia and back with no stops between. Does he merely not remember the journey? Is the veil both thin as a razor and infinite as the void? These are the questions to which I seek answers, not “how do I cheat death” or “in what way can I extend my life until it is the thinnest of threads linked to a shambling corpse that plays at still being a wizard”?

The paths to the answers are dark. There will be false turns and pitfalls into roiling seas of madness. But I will find those answers. I will negotiate those turns, avoid those pitfalls. I have seen Death with my own two eyes. Now, I shall find ways to understand her.

That, in my mind, is true necromancy.

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