Dying a Hero

Forgive me, for a moment, if I briefly talk about a personal bugbear.

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Harvey Dent spoke those words in The Dark Knight, the 2008 Batman film that I’m not ashamed to admit I don’t fully understand.  I’m not a particular clever guy, but I’d like to think I could at least follow the plot of a Batman movie.

Not so with The Dark Knight.  Seriously, that movie stops making sense about halfway through, and I just kind of go along with it.  I know the Joker’s amoral and seemingly irrational, and that Batman struggles to beat him without becoming him, and how they’re two extreme halves of humanity, but that’s about it.  And to be fair, I know most of that from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.  Everything else is just drama and chase scenes.

Now, I might not be intimately familiar with the winding details of the film’s plot, but I’m pretty sure I know what “you either die a hero…” means.  Yet it seems to be misused to an alarming degree on the internet.  People quote it whenever any previously admired public figure or company does something deplorable.

I’m all for personal interpretations and such – hell, I wish people would talk about their opinions on what stuff means all the time – but to use another bit of trite internet slang: you’re doing it wrong.

People seem to think the line refers to Harvey Dent living long enough to see himself become the villain, because he went on a bit of a rampage at the end.  But it’s not.  Harvey Dent died a hero.  It’s about Batman living long enough to see himself become the villain.  His vigilantism, once seen as heroic, becomes a reason to hate him.  That’s the whole point of the speech at the end.  Were these people just watching it for the punching?

Public opinion on what is moral will always shift as time goes on.  If health gurus are heroes for saving us all from obesity and disgusting food, you can bet your arse that one day we’ll hate them for taking away the simple pleasure of a sausage supper.  And a can of Irn-Bru to wash it down.

If this were any other film, I’d be content to write it off.  But, god damn it, it’s the only thing about that movie I felt like I really understood.

PS I know about that it would’ve been better if they’d just blamed Harvey’s death on the Joker instead.  But, as illogical as it seems, it still makes a lot more sense in the context of what the movie was trying to achieve than the Bat Sonar.


New Year’s Resolutions

When I was in Primary School, I dreaded the annual report card. A year in my life, reduced to a symbol, quantified and measured against previous years. I was convinced that this was the year I’d finally messed it all up. I used to be better, I’d tell myself. I used to put more effort into my homework, I used to be more well-behaved, I used to get higher marks in class. This year I’d been coasting, and this lack of motivation would be reflected in my grade.

I’m not sure this is an appropriate amount of pressure for a 7 year old to feel.

Every year I went through this, and every year I was proven wrong. The grades would always improve until they became straight As, even though I never studied. Why study if you’re already getting perfect marks? Why study when you can play Diablo and WWF Smackdown? This continued until my Highers, when I got AAABC. A B in Computing and a C in Chemistry, two of my strongest subjects. It had finally happened – I’d messed up, my doomsaying came true, and it didn’t help that my dad never told anyone about the C. As far as everyone else was concerned, I’d only taken 4 Highers. A pass at Higher level in a difficult subject would be a cause for celebration for many. For me, it was nothing less than an outright failure to be swept under the rug.

This occurs to me now because it’s time for New Year’s resolutions, which are kind of a reverse report card for adults. In the absence of annual state-mandated testing, we test ourselves. And, as the joke usually goes, we always fail.

I used to love making lists of things I was going to do. My old notebooks are filled with to-do lists, with countless more thrown away over the years. I couldn’t bear the thought of someone seeing them. At some point I stopped because I realised I’d been treating the list as an accomplishment in itself rather than, you know, actually doing anything. New Year’s resolutions were much the same. I’d start the year with hundreds of ideas of how I was going to improve myself, forget about them within a week, and go back to doing whatever it was I did to pass the time. Eventually I ceased to care, and the New Year’s resolutions disappeared.

A common story, I imagine. What’s curious, though, is how irrelevant my resolutions ended up being. One day in my early 20s I found a couple of New Year’s lists from the past, and I was struck by how many of those things I actually ended up accomplishing independently of any January optimism. I never became a cutting-edge web designer or virtuoso bassist, but I did code a website from scratch and my playing certainly improved. These were things I just did naturally because I enjoyed them, and to hell with measured progress. It was never really that I wanted to be better at them, but that I wanted to have completely mastered them by December. Because even though I do these things for my own satisfaction, I was convinced I’d been coasting, and that my report card had been suffering. And I’m not sure this is an appropriate amount of pressure for a 20-something to feel.

So this year I think I’m going to start making those lists again. But for now, I have only one true New Year’s resolution:

Stop being so hard on yourself.


A Year in the Life Awards 2012

Who loves a good year-end list? I do! I’m never quite in the present, though, and I miss a lot of what goes on, so this list will be somewhat unconventional, as it features things that came out in previous years but I only got around to trying in 2012. At least it’s a change from the usual “best movies of 2012” format.

 

Most Enjoyable Black Hole of Free Time: Europa Universalis III

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Released in January 2007, Europa Universalis III took a while to appear on my radar. I started hearing about it around the middle of 2010, bought it during the Christmas sales that year, and forgot to play it. It’s a notoriously complex game, see, and the few times I attempted to figure out what the hell was going on ended in me promptly giving up and resolving to learn it “someday”. It sat in my library until Summer 2012 when, in a curious fit of boredom and motivation, I finally committed myself to learning the rules. After about 15 hours, it started to make sense. I began to see the patterns in the Matrix. And I couldn’t look away. Days flew by. Who would’ve thought balancing budgets and poring over long lists of percentages in Renaissance Europe could be so fascinating? It might be intimidatingly complex to a newcomer, but that complexity is what makes the experience so unique and constantly surprising. In other words, it’s a game that takes so long to master that it’s nearly impossible to get truly bored, because you’re always learning.

What my time with Europa Universalis III taught me was that there are countless wonderful experiences out there if you’re willing to put aside instant gratification for long enough to appreciate them. It’s not perfect, and it’s not “user-friendly”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not utterly brilliant – only that it takes a while to get to grips with it. I think that’s a good life lesson for me.

Runner-up: The incomparable Dwarf Fortress, for much the same reasons.

 

Best Film I Watched This Year That I Won’t Be Watching Again: Half Nelson

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Film isn’t a medium I can really describe in any meaningful way. I lack the language to do so. What I can say is that Half Nelson, released in 2006, affected me deeply, and I shan’t be watching it again any time soon for that reason. There was something heartbreaking and human about this film without relying on grandiose set pieces or overwrought drama. It refused to take a side, but never seemed indecisive, merely honest in its depiction of a good man whose life is slipping out of his control. As a resident of a country where drug addicts are most often referred to as ‘junkie fucks’, it was refreshing to watch a movie that neither demonized substance abuse nor painted it as some romantic quest of self-destruction.

I hope one day I’ll be able to explain what I found so breathtaking about this film. For some reason or other, it felt very personal and I was very emotional by the end. I don’t know. Give it a try. See if it has the same effect on you.

Runner-up: It’s not a film, but one scene in particular in the first season finale of Homeland had me absolutely rooted to the couch. I can’t remember the last time I was so completely absorbed by a tv show, and so completely exhausted by the end.

 

Best Five Hours Spent in Mortal Danger: Heather burning in Galloway

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In one of my favourite Futurama episodes, the entire world is struck by what can only be described as a Stupid Ray. When an important message is thrown into a fire, Leela attempts to grab it, only to pull back in pain and say “Ow! Fire hot!”

This is how I felt during heather burning.

I’d been invited to burn heather by an old friend and recently-published author who takes delight in exposing a city boy to the world outside of the internet and coffee shops. When most of your experience of fire is at a safe distance on a cold November night, it’s easy to forget how dangerous it can be. In the barely-controlled environment of a dry summer hillside, it can be downright terrifying. Jokes fly at first, but before you know it, the fire’s spreading a little too quickly and you find yourself thrashing desperately at the inferno. The real fear sets in when you realise you’re almost surrounded by flames, and you literally can’t take the heat. Smoke is blinding you, you can’t breathe. Retreat is imperative, but the fire is remorseless and you are suddenly very aware just how powerless you are.

Fantastic experience. Often scary, and very hard work, but fantastic nonetheless.

Runner-up: I had a panic attack for the first time ever in December during which I was convinced I was having a heart attack. Not such a fantastic experience.

Most Delicious Cooking of the Year: Pork Wellington

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I found this one on Good Eats and was more than pleasantly surprised by how well it worked.  It’s like a monstrous and delicious sausage roll.

Get yourself some pork tenderloin fillet and half it lengthways. Flip one half around to make the size even throughout. Fill the gap with shredded dried apple. Roll out some puff pastry and spread a couple of tablespoons of wholegrain mustard on top. Sprinkle some fresh thyme on there. Now lay out some prosciutto, enough to wrap around the pork fillet, and use a rolling pin to knit the fat together. Grind some salt and pepper on there. Wrap the fillet in the sheet of prosciutto, then wrap it in the puff pastry. Bake in the oven at 190 degrees celsius for 25-30mins.

Both incredibly easy and tasty as hell.

Runner-up: learning to use a cast-iron skillet and oven combo to improve my burgers. The beef/pork mince combo helped too.

 

Biggest Disappointment: The Insider Festival

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The Insider Festival had acquired a mythical status in the West End. It’s a cliché of any small event, but it was the atmosphere that made it. Lazy summer days in the country and a notable lack of pressure to enjoy yourself. Simply sit on the grass, soak up the sunshine, go for a dip in the river, check out some bands. An absolutely wonderful way to spend a weekend.

This year, having had such a great time in the first and third years of the festival, hopes were high. Unfortunately, a combination of pissing rain and chill completely ruined the entire festival for me. Instead of wandering around at your leisure, running into friends and exploring, the weekend became an exercise in running from cover-to-cover and only leaving for the most essential bands. Such a shame.

Runner-up: Forgetting to buy mince pies at Christmas.

 

Most Gratitude To:  You

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For reading, of course.  If anything I’ve written over the past six months has entertained you or given you something to think about, even if only for a moment, I hope that I might provide that for you again in the coming year.

Thanks for reading.  Here’s to another year.