Missing the moon’s first visitor

armstrong on the moon

I was born 16 years after humans first walked on the moon.

It was years before I actually started to understand what the event meant. Two men had walked on a shore so distant, it floats in the sky. They ventured into the Sea of Tranquility and found it alien. They left boot prints upon another world.

The adventures of fictional characters into the reaches of space are among the things that inspired me throughout my life. The exploration of unknown worlds is something with which I’ve always been fascinated, and stories such as those drove me to start telling stories of my own, and the stories of others.

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Adventures in Nerd Mecca: San Diego Comic-Con

nick and phil at comic con

Trying this daily blogging thing again. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Our (second to) latest foray into the marketing of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel took co-writer best friend Nick Hurwitch and I to San Diego for the annual Comic-Con. If you’ve never been, well…yikes. It’s enormous. It’s packed. It’s a constant money-suck. And it can be a ton of fun.

I’ve attended Comic-Con on two other occasions, but both those times, I’ve been there to work in some capacity. This was also a work trip, but of a different stripe: Nick and I were each on a panel. We were there as authors. Which means very little except that it was awesome.

Comic-Con wound up being a pavement-hitting experience in hand-shaking and button-handing for us. Nick and I sprung for some 800 Time Travel Guide buttons to hand out to prospective readers, some of whom actually listened to what we had to say. Thursday, the first day of the convention, saw our book selling out at bookseller Mysterious Galaxy’s booth; that’s not exactly an incredible feat because there were only 20 copies on hand that day, but then again — selling books is hard. Try it.

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‘Avatar’ neglects a few interesting ethical questions

NOTE: This post contains a few slight SPOILERS about “Avatar.” I’m sure you can guess the plot of the movie based on the trailers, but if you’re scared at all, you may want to refrain.

Is it OK to take over another thing's body if it's comatose whenever you don't? The huge IMAX-projected blue hand twitched as the alien drifted in a giant, fluid-filled incubation tube, and my very first thought was, “So – is it alive?”

Such a question is never addressed in the whole of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” which I finally got around to seeing this week. A quick rundown for those of you who are living in Afghani caves or have been in hypersleep for the last few months:

“Avatar” takes place on a distant planet called Pandora, which has lots of multi-legged animals; huge deposits of some kind of awesome, possibly floating mineral (which will remain nameless due to its incredibly stupid name); and an indigenous population of 10- or 12-foot-tall aliens called the Na’vi.

In order to study, deal with, educate or subvert the Na’vi (the motivation changes with the wind) as well as to easily breathe in the Pandoran atmosphere, human nerds have cooked up half-human, half-alien hybrids called avatars. These avatars function generally as living robots. A human lays down in a machine and, through magical technology, has her consciousness or neural connections or something transmitted to the avatar, effectively becoming it. The connection is not unlike what’s seen in “The Matrix.”

The avatars are genetically aligned with their human “drivers.” The DNA used to make them is specific to the person who uses the avatar. Once linked in to an avatar, it seems the only way to pull a person back out is to hit a special, shiny red button (this is apparently dangerous) or to go to sleep. When an avatar sleeps, the person is automatically kicked back out, and the avatar essentially looks like it is sleeping. It’s completely unresponsive and is more or less dead or comatose until the driver links back in with it.

But it twitches, right? The avatar twitches when you’re not in it, and when you’re in it, it breathes, and it seems to sleep, and it lives, and it can die – we see it happen at one point. It’s not a robot. It’s biological.

So is it alive? And if it’s alive, does that make it okay to just jack into a computer and take it over and use it, and use it up?

My biggest problem with “Avatar” was that while science fiction as a genre routinely seeks out and takes on such ethical quandaries, this film dodges the vast majority of them. Primarily, the movie’s message is environmental – the main character finds himself drawn to the natives’ life of living without technology in harmony with the planet around them, and the bad-guy humans are trying to strip and destroy the Pandoran forests, out of, what else, greed.

Robin Williams' stunning CGI alter-ego in "Avatar." Fine, fair enough. Given the societal climate right now, the stage was set for a “Fern Gully” remake and Cameron’s the right guy to make this movie, as the box office figures are bearing out.

But what about all the other interesting questions “Avatar” could answer?

For instance, the eventual heartless-military-guys-attacking-poor-aliens plot turn leads to several human characters standing with the aliens, but when it all goes to war, there’s a great deal of random soldiers getting just as massacred as the aliens had been.

So it’s war, and I get that, but the question of being a “human race traitor” – and in many ways, that’s what main character Jake Sully becomes – is never really addressed. It’s more thrown around as an epithet. Obviously Jake’s taking the right position in the film (mass murder always being the wrong position). But for the common human on Pandora, it’s the decisions (and propaganda) of a few honchos that leads a lot of people to their deaths.

Greed and murder are apparently the only things 99% of humanity is capable of in Cameron's film. Cameron’s movie never has Jake wrestling with the idea of killing his former comrades. His lot is cast with the Na’vi and everyone else is cannon fodder. But isn’t it as big an issue that to save one people, you’re killing another, most of whom are just misinformed?

Meantime, those unabridged jackasses behind the slash-and-burn blow-up-the-savages game plan have only the faintest glimmer of conscience (Giovanni Ribisi gives us one frown. Thanks, guy.) before they go on a tech-fueled killing spree. Yeah, I know what we’re getting at here thematically, but we couldn’t see a couple corporate/military lackies who might actually be, you know, human? Not everyone is a corrupt jerk who thinks only about money and golf – can we maybe ask the question of ourselves of what values we have as a people? Could the characters of this movie ask that question before they start indiscriminately killing one another?

Where “Avatar” pushes the envelope visually, it plays it safe in story and commentary. For a movie that harps on the value of life, there’s a lot of life that gets almost no value. A scenario such as that of “Pandorahontus” gives us an opportunity to think about these questions and our values. Is it really okay to use virtual reality to ride around in a living robot, even if that robot has no mind of its own?

Looking back at the road fully visible

A trending topic on Twitter today gave me an existential moment that was as fascinating as it was slightly horrendous. The topic –  #10yearsago – is pretty self-explanatory. I have a notoriously bad memory, so I was sitting in the basement with my sister, thinking about what I could have been doing 10 years ago as we were having a conversation, coming up with very little.

I had to accomplish the task mathematically. Ten years ago I was … about to turn 16. That made me a sophomore in high school, I think. Sophomore year, second semester, I was about to buck the system and join the staff of Novi High’s newspaper, The Wildcat Roar, which was normally a class reserved for juniors and higher.

(UPDATE: I realized soon after this that I’d done the math wrong, and actually was a freshman in high school 10 years ago. That’s not really conducive to this blog, so in favor of writing the one that I’m interested in writing, we’re adjusting to #9yearsago.)

Sitting in the basement, wandering through my life the way kids go through history textbooks, I realized that the singular decision to join the newspaper has had a larger effect on my life than any other thing I’ve done – ever.

It’s actually kind of haunting, not to mention a little grotesque, the way this one choice has absolutely shaped every. single. thing. that has happened to me since. From academia to career path, from college choice to my love life, from who my friends are to how I spent various summers, from what I wanted to be to what I am, the Wildcat Fucking Roar is responsible for all of it.

How unsettling, not to mention altogether underwhelming (who am I, exactly, that I can be narrowed down and pigeonholed so thoroughly?), is that?

Not that it’s all bad. I’m painting the suck picture here, and there’s a hearty helping of that. There have also been some incredible things to come out of this decision. Finding something at which I excelled was hugely formative for me. I had very little self-confidence for the entirety of my time in school, and journalism turned me around, helping to become (somewhat) more outgoing and altering my view of myself and the world at large. I have a few key people and newspaper to thank for that.

Central Michigan Life -- three years of long hours and great people. I attended Central Michigan University instead of the University of Michigan, a decision I stand by (and am extremely thankful for) to this day. My college years were dominated by my work at Central Michigan Life, which was altogether amazing. Many of my best friends are journos and I love them. And there’s Caitlin M. Foyt, who I only know (and who only loves me) because of the time we spent together on the newspaper.

But let’s also track the ensuing carnage from that single moment, shall we?

In 1999, I joined the newspaper. I designed the sports section. Jason Skiba, a journalism teacher who also had a major effect on me, had just taken the paper from an 8×11 magazine-format craprag to a broadsheet newsprint Actual Paper. Game-changer, that guy.

Skiba also gave me my first high school B. Because I got my section done late. Because designing is goddamn hard (and I still don’t believe I deserved that B).

That first B knocked me out of contention to be among the 80-odd valedictorians in our grade-inflated high school. It pushed me out of four-year straight-A contention, which had a massive effect on my work ethic. Suddenly I couldn’t obtain academic greatness, and therefore, the pressure was off. I was somewhat coasting through of high school after that because really, who the hell cared at that point.

The majority of high school was dedicated to The Roar. I worked up to editor in chief, a role shared with one Nick Hurwitch, and I let it consume my afternoons and weekends. I wrote a feature column and stupid articles about movies and cartoons. It was a writing outlet and I was in love with it.

When it came time to go to college, journalism factored in heavily. My work at The Roar had me considering journo as career path, which in turn led to me looking seriously at CMU and Michigan State (at the time, I didn’t think I had much chance of getting into U-M). There were a handful of other things that occurred, including scholarship happenings that influenced the decision, but in the end, CMU was as much a choice that made sense financially as one that had a journalism program I could get behind.

As far as career was concerned, the thing I’d always sort of planned to do involved creative writing somehow. Mostly I was thinking “novelist” and therefore studied creative writing. Journalism was a backup plan, and thus my minor. It was later that I realized I could double-major without too much stress and it made much, much more sense.

But journalism was always the “backup career” in case I needed to do something in the meantime while waiting to get published/discovered/otherwise famous. Until, of course, it became the primary career as I devoted just about all of my time and energy to CM Life. I rose as high as managing editor at that institution, spent a summer as design editor, got some pretty great clips, did a whooole lot of editing, and parlayed my time there into internships and a couple of jobs. (It wasn’t until much later that I realized the industry was falling apart and as a “backup plan,” it was barely feasible.)

One has to wonder about destiny when you find a woman like this, a year after you thought you'd never see her again. While I was there, I met Caitlin, which tops the list as The Single Greatest Thing To Ever Happen To Me. For that reason alone, the 10 years of journalism that were the result of Skiba’s (and later newspaper adviser Lydia Cadena’s [she deserves much more mention than I’m giving her here]) influence and the intoxicating allure of newsprint have been, as they say, Fucking Phenomenal. The last year with her has been life-alteringly great, and without the decision to attend CMU, without the decision to study journalism, without my experience at my high school newspaper, I would never have found her and life would be sad and abysmal. Of everything that’s happened, even if everything that had resulted from journalism was negative, it would have been well worth it.

Although, she could have made it a little easier on me and said something to me five years ago, instead of us waiting until last March to finally admit to each other how we felt. But anyway.

The massive influence of journalism on me led me to my internship, which constituted a second summer in journalism, at the Grand Rapids Press. Since I’d been interested in page design and have some sort of irritating affinity for editing copy, I did a copy desk internship there. That work experience and my experience as an editor at CM Life (I basically started as an editor and designer, which robbed me, in retrospect, of a great deal of reporting) led me to a copy desk job at the Port Huron Times-Herald. Moving to Chicago led me to the Web copy editing job I currently hold.

I’ve come to realize editing definitely is not how I want to spend the rest of my life – at all. I wonder what might have happened if I’d had the foresight to drop journalism in favor of spending more time immersing myself in English, creative writing, and film – the way I’m starting to wish I had.

So today I’m two months out from turning 25, and pretty much reserved to the notion that journalism is not, in fact, what I want to do with my life. And deciding not to join the newspaper way back when I was two months out from turning 16 would have put me at a different college, in a different city, studying a different thing, and eventually working a different job. I wouldn’t have spent the last year living at home, or most of the year before that in Chicago, or most of the year before that living in apartments in southeast Michigan night shifts at newspapers and watching movies.

What ifs are difficult and, obviously, pointless. What isn’t pointless I think, though, is recognizing the path of life and how important a single decision can be. And despite all this random career insecurity I’ve been suffering from for the last year, it’s important to note: I have never ever been happier, in my life, than I am today. When I look back at the path of my life, despite some misgivings, I can’t help but wonder about the concept of fate – journalism, that one original decision, is responsible for me finding the woman of my dreams. And we’re together despite my inadvertent efforts to never realize how she felt about me, or to tell her how I felt. The path seems to have led me, inexorably, to Caitlin.

Hard to downplay the significance of that.

It’s weird thinking about the exact path of life over the last 10 years. But you can’t change a path if you can’t see it, right? And I can certainly see it, in stark clarity.