Month: July 2014

High Octane Genuflection: Theology of Mad Max

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I grew up with the George Miller post-apocalyptic tales of Max Rockatansky, former pursuit specialist cop-turned dystopian Road Warrior. Through a series of Mad Max movies, the character survived one perilous descent after another into a world gone mad. The series, often imitated and never quite matched in tone or “pure” brutality, Miller’s Mad Max series is being given new life with a future film starring Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson as the leather clad anti-hero.

With the new Mad Max trailer (embedded below) the imagery is a color saturated maelstrom of automotive mayhem splashed across an Australian desert. A single shot among the chaos of metal and dust caught my eye. A group of painted, gaunt figures in ecstatic gesticulations with skull adorned steering wheels hoisted above their heads.

This image of society in full collapse, breeding in a contaminated wasteland, but finding a faith amid hell is intriguing.

In Mad Max, society is on the precipice of total collapse. Their are functionaries left, like police and public safety, even small towns clinging to free market normalcy. But stalking these institutions and people, are outlaw gangs of unmatched brutality. In Mad Max we learn the roads are the battlefields for humanity. One by one, men and women fall prey to savage biker gang leader Toecutter. This is the fall, where normalcy and hopes die on the outback asphalt. It’s also the least theologically laced film. Seems God or gods have walked away from humanity in Mad Max, leaving a highway anti-Christ to pick away the souls too weak or too slow to flee.

By the sequel, The Road Warrior humanity has been blow torched away by war, left to rot in the deserts. In this film Max finds group salvation embodied in two forms: Humongous and gasoline. The former is a scarred, deformed hulk in a hockey mask and little else. He commands his berserker minions to carry out unspeakable acts in the name of fuel to power their machines. Humongous is the next degeneration of Toecutter, irradiated and muscle bound, capable of savagery in the name of survival. His gang encircles and pursues a small enclave of survivors who have turned to gasoline as their savior. This is striking as on the face of it the tanker is guarded with fury and determination reserved for an otherworldly preciousness.Gasoline takes on a supernatural quality, becoming manna, capable of guiding and sustaining these souls lost in an infernal desert. It is a subtle idea, as basic survival of marauding hordes dominates the narrative, but the gasoline feeds hope, lust or greed in every player in The Road Warrior.

By the third installment, Beyond Thunderdome, pockets of humanity can be found in towns powered by pig excrement methane and run by gangs, like the cage-match-coliseum centered Bartertown. This is not the world of hope, it is merely a place to eat, drink and survive, just for a while longer. No, hope is hidden in a desert gully oasis where the child survivors of a plane crash have adapted a complex mythology for their survival and salvation. Led by a strong female character, acting as a form of shaman, we understand their history through cave paintings, highlighted by a bird feather and stick rectangle designed to echo a television screen. The cult of hope, seeking a savior who will return and guide them to paradise is heart breaking in simplicity and naivety. They await the Messianic “Captain Walker” to bring them home, echo strong elements of South Pacific “cargo cults” after World War II.To the children, Captain Walker is Max, deliverer to a new land out of the wasteland.The tribe’s leader performs a shamanistic ritual “Tell” of the collapse of mankind and their survival is a highly ritualized process and is sanctified by use of a children’s toy, View Master, to see a Shangri-La of past and future hopes. Max bucks these idealistic children with a cynicism born from years of blood and violence. There was no divine intervention for Rockatansky when his wife and child were killed on the highway by the Toecutter gang. Why should there be one for the kids? Here, twists and turns rewrite their juvenile understanding of their faith and along the way write a new reluctant savior into their evolving pantheon: Mad Max.

We finally arrive at Fury Road. While the plot remains roughly outlined, the trailer provides some ritualistic glimpses of a society rebuilding without a clear memory of what came before. A striking image of the War Boy cult dancing about an altar of car parts and steering wheels adorned with skulls. The steering wheel echoes an automotive mandala cluing into a possible a warrior monk caste born on the move, perpetually on the hunt. Could these gaunt marauders be custodians of a new faith where offerings of food and water to the god of gears are be rewarded with propulsion and power. These machines take on divine qualities after simple but potent tribute, gasoline. Will the Machine come to life and roar with monstrous power? These are not the qualities of idle machines, but rather gods and demons bound beneath shells of metal and rubber.

The Mad Max series shows society and culture devolve with each installment. It is about the worship of the machine and the mechanized destruction it can visit upon humanity. As the series evolves we see the bleakness change, becoming a strange reverence for the machine as savior. While the machine age led to the destruction of humanity, in the wasteland it has been mythologized, taking an inanimate object that can be roused to life with tribute and sacrifice.

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The Traveler

Here is a short story I put together last summer. I had intended to submit it to a Lovecraftian anthology, but felt it needed more polish. I like the asymmetric inspirations for the story- Cold War politics and the Space Race meets Lovecraftian demiurge.


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Dearest friend, do you not see All that we perceive – Only reflects and shadows forth What our eyes cannot see– Vladimir Soloviev

Man is destined to take possession of the universe … to extend his species into distant cosmic regions– Bolshevik pamphlet, 1917.

October 4, 1957 McNair Barracks Confinement Facility: West Berlin

“Tonight, God dies.”

“What are you talking about?” A frustrated Captain Leonard Moore locked his arms across his chest. “

Tonight, the U.S.S.R. will call out into space and God, his son and their acolytes will die,” explained prisoner Otto Hauptman.

“You are a rocket propellant engineer, Herr Hauptman. Not a theologian. Is it symbolic? Are the Soviets launching a rocket tonight?”

“Too simple. Missiles and rockets, that’s all you Americans think about. Such an inadequate people. You see me as engineer kidnapped by the Soviets to build their missiles. Too simple. Captain Moore, you need to look deeper,” Hauptman smirked mimicking his interrogator’s posture.

Three hours earlier Moore was rousted from bed by an authoritative rapping at his West Berlin apartment door. News of a “walk-in” at the Berlin barracks as wanted Nazi, Otto Hauptman, the “Wizard of Peenemunde” had turned himself in.

“Herr Hauptman, you are a wanted war-criminal. You appear here in Berlin after 13 years of work with my sworn enemy and now you mock me?”

The snapping movement of Moore’s wristwatch filled the room with a methodical, irritating ticking.

“What time is Captain?”

“23:00 hours.”

“It has begun,” Hauptman hissed.

“What has?” Moore was transfixed by Hauptman’s eerie coolness. Watching the old Nazi scientist gloat unsettled the World War II veteran turned Central Intelligence Agency interrogator.

A sharp bang outside the stout metal door into the visitor room startled Moore.

“Don’t move,” the interviewer pushed away from the table separating the two.

Moore burst into the secure hallway, “What the hell is going on out here!”

The Army MPs manning the barrack stockade hurriedly moved prisoners back into their cells as a distant phone rang unanswered. Moore grabbed a lanky, crisply uniformed Military Policeman, “Sarge, what’s going on?”

“The Reds! They did it! They launched a rocket into space….there is a Russian satellite in orbit!”

“What?”

A muffled shout from within the visitor room turned interrogation suite turned Moore’s attention once again. Moore slammed the door handle, “What did you say?”

“Sputnik,” Hauptman replied.

“What?” “Sputnik is the artificial satellite mentioned by your nervous Sergeant,” Hauptman nodded to the door.

Confused, Moore looked back at the heavy door, “How did you hear that?”

“Thirteen years in a Soviet laboratory prison, ones hearing is honed to pick up on the faintest morsel of conversation or rustle of humanity through the thickest steel or concrete.”

Astonished, Moore jabbed a finger at the prisoner, “Why are you here?”

“I possess information. Burdened with it is more appropriate, that I feel the Allies should know about it before the spectacular events unfold.”

“How benevolent of you,” Moore scoffed.

“Oh no my dear Captain, it is most malevolent of me.” Hauptman arched forward, his yellowed fingernails stroking the brown hued tabletop. The gentle strokes in the varnish went deeper and deeper with each pass. Splitting his fingernails Hauptman steadily peeled away curls of wood blotted with his own blood.

“Stop!” Moore slapped Hauptman’s hand flat.

The elderly German glared up at the interrogator, “I am writing out the story you so desperately want to know. Do not interrupt me again.”

Moore’s blood ran cold. Unconsciously, the old commando reached for where his .45 would normally be on his hip. It was gone, locked up at the sally port into the West Berlin confinement facility. Ten silent minutes passed. Moore watched Hauptman claw his fingers raw scarring a dizzying string of symbols and marks into the wooden table top.

A childhood stammer, buried by beatings from his father and gallons of castor oil, resurfaced this rainy October evening, “Is this an equation..?”

“Very good, Captain,” Hauptman pulled his hemorrhaging, trembling digits away from the table.

“But these aren’t numbers or letters I’ve seen,” Moore stooped to inspect each line. He also hoped he would hide his confused look by scrutinizing the etchings.

“The Soviets called it the Kobadesa Equation. Three hundred lines long in an alien language unknown to mankind. It was found by a trio of seminarians from Tiflis Theological school in 1899. A perfect stone sphere, with the equation spiraling around it, was discovered in the mountains north of Tehran.”

A shout from the hall this time did not distract Moore who remained focused like a fencer’s foil on the prisoner.

“What is it,” Moore shouted over his shoulder as a timid MP was proceeded into the room by his gleaming polished helmet.

“The satellite, sir. It’s transmitting a signal.”

“Can we hear it?”

“Sir, it’s transmitting on 20 Mhz.”

Moore glared at Hauptman, “Soldier, bring in a speaker.”

“As I was saying,” Hauptman curled his lip, annoyed by the interruption, “These seminarians returned to the Czarist Russia believing the sphere held a forgotten lesson that would raise mankind to a higher, spiritual plane. Men like Georgi Gurdjieff pushed forward these transcendental beliefs. But it wasn’t until the Bolshevik Revolution when the importance of the Kobadesa Equation was realized.”

The creek of the interrogation room door produced a pair of distressed MPs hauling in a single speaker trailing a kinked wire.

“We’ve been put on a national security alert, sir,” the sergeant said uncoiling a power cord. “I am not sure if we can let you remain here.”

“You go and do what you need to sergeant,” Moore wiggled the speaker to the table edge. “We’ll be fine.”

Hauptman closed his eyes as the speaker hissed and crackled, electricity warming it and eventually producing a sound. A single electronic beep. Followed by another. Then another. Hauptman smiled. Moore began to sweat.

“A magical sound, don’t you think, Captain?”

“Not very daunting,” Moore was mesmerized by the rhythmic broadcast.

“You hear a comical tone, Captain Moore. But it’s what you are not hearing that is important. I was captured by the Soviets to help them decrypt the Kobadesa Equation and it resulted in this,” Hauptman pointed to the speaker.

Hauptman gloated with pleasure as he returned to his monologue, “Science will kill God. Knowledge elevates man to his next state of being, making him Trotsky’s ideal, immortal and master of the universe. Yet one cannot wipe God away with just a proletarian slogan, that is what the Communists that regularly beat me realized. They needed to kill God and replace him with tangible, scientific truth from outside our reality. And when the west sees there is no God, then Communism will become transcendent.”

Moore stared at the utilitarian amplifier, transfixed by the beats of the satellite.Louder and louder they grew, those repeating beeps from space. Hauptman eyed his inquisitor like wounded prey. Psychologically exposed and vulnerable, Moore had no tools left as interrogator and captor. The pallid hand of the German rested upon the amplifier like a faith healer coaxing demons from a possessed parishioner. His touch threw the radio into a fit as the monotonous beep screamed to life in a guttural chant.

“What are you doing, Hauptman?” Moore staggered away from the table.

“Nothing,” Hauptman shrugged demurely.

The chant moaned ever louder from within the speaker, pushing Moore further and further away from the box. Back against the door, Moore fumbled for the door handle as the fear trembling through him seemed to shake the whole building. A pulsing vibration, angry and recycling, pounded through the stout barracks walls, dropping Moore to his knees. Clapping his hands tightly over his ears, Moore attempted to muffle the demonic rhythmic hiss.

” What is it saying,” Moore curled on the floor as the walls fissure and ceiling bulged upwards.

Hauptmann craned his head back and closed his eyes, “My vengeance has split the abyss. I will push the gods of Earth aside and command them to bow before me. To fall as my inferiors did at the dawn of time. To the deceivers I will collapse upon them to smother and conquer.”

Heaving upward like a diaphragm, the interrogation room ceiling exploded upwards, showering the German and American in debris. The explosion snuffed out light and the ever present drone from Sputnik. A pair of worn brown leather shoes appeared at the top of Moore’s field of vision. His downcast eyes remained fixed on the ground, sure it would be the last thing he would see. As ugly as the filthy linoleum was, it surely paled at the horror that hovered overhead.

Those shoes were Hauptman’s and they paused in their progress towards Moore. Squinting against the tears and dread, Moore noticed the plain Oxfords hovered ever so slightly above the tile floor. Drawn upward, Moore saw Hauptman no longer tread the Earth, but dangled hideously from a greasy black tendril wrapping his neck. His absurd smile broadened as the tentacle slowly strangled the German engineer.

Moore followed the single feeler stretching up through gaping hole to a blanket of clouds.  Incomprehensibly long, a tentacle pulled taut, snapping Hauptman’s neck with a wet, muffled snap. A supple monstrous appendages swayed about delicately plucking life from the garden of humanity. Assaulted by the crawling sky, Moore felt a molesting caress circle his neck.

Then, a whisper from the darkness, “Look up to behold the face of the Traveler.”


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Asymmetric Inspiration: In Search Of

If you are a child of the 70s, you know the original theme song (above,) eerie scene music and deadpan narration of Leonard Nimoy for the television program In Search Of. Before YouTube conspiracy videos. Before History Channel’s flock of Ancient Aliens and odd docudrama, there was In Search Of. This television program, which I believed I watched on a UHF station here in Boston, was immensely influential on my intellectual curiosity and possibly the cornerstone of my creativity.

With Nimoy’s introduction and cool, intense narration of investigative stories on Loch Ness, UFOs, Atlantis and phantasmagoria, In Search Of (ISO) executed a tightrope walk between plausibility and wild speculation. In the parlance of gymnastics, each week it ‘stuck the landing’ by piquing your interest and making you wonder…what else is out there? What made ISO different from modern cable strange tales and pseudo-documentaries was its unashamed reenactments and embrace of open conjecture. Within each opening montage, narrated over images of UFOs and Stonehenge, was the following statement, “This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.”

Modern ancient conspiracy television series don’t embrace conjecture. Instead they assume an aggressive and belligerent posture. ISO was entertaining, spooky, and strange, never angry, arrogant or sanctimonious. My youthful brain bathed in a new oddity each week. From crystal skulls, aliens, Amelia Earhart, and Bermuda Triangle, ISO asked weird questions about weird problems. The circuit board of my curiosity was being soldered and wired with intense diversity by a program which I look back on with fondness.

In Search Of explains, perhaps better than any other influence, my odd and diverse interests. It opened my eyes as a child to a process of discovery that was decidedly unconventional. Today, I may not be convinced Bigfoot roams the Pacific Northwest, but I can read or hear or see something tiny or odd in a vast environment or work and immediately seek out the who-what-where-when of this footnote to a larger story. These footnotes in history, speculative or academic, inspired me to write short stories of monsters, or explore the origins of religious faith, or the incomprehensible questions of science. In Search Of, set the unconventional curiosity that would become my new mantra, Asymmetric Creativity.

Built Inspiration: Folk Architecture and its Influence

640px-John_Adams_birthplace,_Quincy,_MassachusettsI had a funny exchange with the team at Folk Horror Twitter about the absence of folk horror from the New England landscape. The social media team over at the upcoming  A Fiend in the Furrows conference, noted that M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village has a New England folk horror feel to it. A film, much maligned but with  the folk horror DNA at its core, The Village is close to what I lamented as absent. I realized that, to me, The Village, was more Pennsylvania than New England. What made me associate the horror film with a state technically outside the traditional definition of New England? Architecture, landscape and place name.

What makes Pennsylvania aesthetic different than New York, than Massachusetts or Maine? It occurred to me in my life and travels around the Northeast (Pennsylvania to Maine) two things inform my perception of place, place names and architecture. Drive the roads and highways of Massachusetts and many place names are shared with England or Native Americans. This is a standard pattern for most of New England. Connecticut begins a shift to names that take on Dutch or German accents by the time you get to New York and Pennsylvania. However, my eye is pleased and mind inspired by architecture of the regions of America, specifically the Northeast. Here are some of the clearest examples of how place influences what we build, known as folk or vernacular architecture. Pennsylvania and New York share agrarian enclaves dotted with box-like, four room homes 800px-JChaddsHouseconstructed of stout, cool field stone. These field stone structures, generally two stories, are clean lined and sturdy with a no-fuss ethic to them. Shift to New England, especially the older cities and towns, field stone construction is mainly confined to property walls and foundations (such as my 1880 home.) Colonial homes, once ubiquitous  timber framed “Saltbox” found throughout New England (top,) are remnant styles of the mid-16th century and remind us of a continuing cultural influence on us. Each state seems to have a different tweak to architectural styles based on materials and needs. This is the foundation of folk architecture.

The structures are reflections of the people and their skills. Masons built field stone, carpenters assembled timber homes. Each group imprinting a unique cultural identity to the home. Since the creation of post-war suburbia much of folk architecture has become a relic. Yet these buildings are the stories our regional identities and link us to our past. So, what does this have to do with asymmetric creativity? Material provokes a sensory experience. That experience, retained as memory of the touch or smell of the material, spawns an emotion. Emotions sparks creativity. Wood clapboards of the New England “Saltbox” . Notice earlier I called those field stone homes of Pennsylvania “cool” a sensation not shared by some. The picture of the field stone home (right) may evoke an isolated, fortress feel. The place can change the tone of the story, how you express the creativity inspired by the structure. Is it cool and dark? Does it hide a rot in its earthen basement? What about the timber framed homes of old New England? Their low rough hewn timber ceilings, hovering like a repressive spirit over the occupants. Horror stories rarely work in gleaming, modern climate controlled cubes. Think of the brilliantly scary Poltergeist, it turned the horrors of suburbia on its head by making a clean, sterile tract home into a hell. But it wasn’t the home that nurtured the violation, rather the land it was built on. 788px-House_of_the_Seven_Gables_(1915)And what would a post about New England architecture and creativity be without even a passing mention of The House of Seven Gables? The mansion which I’ve walked past numerous times oozes an ominous feeling. Its jagged roof line and slate grey clapboards dominate the space, like a low mountain range over historic Salem, Massachusetts. Ideas are born from many influences. For me architecture prompts ideas, stories grim or heroic. Towering glass and steel can elicit awe, yet it does not inspire creativity in me as do the neatly stacked field stones or the long and wide timbers that make up our folk architecture past.

Absence of Paganism in Dystopic Fiction

Perhaps its because we are entrenched in a Christian-centric society, but I was wandering my home the other day thinking dystopian societies portrayed in media. What stuck in my head was the idea, propagated by mainstream and many indie creators, that the God of Abraham will be the rally point for survivors of a non-Biblical apocalypse centered on the United States.

Yet I am also struck by post-societal collapse entertainment, exemplified by the HBO adaptation of Tom Perotta’s The Leftovers, it often appears many have turned their back on the church entirely. This supposes large numbers of religious or “spiritual” people would throw up their collective hands and walk away from the greater question they sought out previously. There is a missing devotional component to modern dystopian fiction. What strikes me about the scenarios portrayed, either pro-church or anti-religion, is the absence of a new form of North American paganism. I am speaking strictly in the realm of fiction, as paganism in all its forms is alive and well, and growing in North America and around the world.

Why wouldn’t forms of paganism rise in the communities of survivors spread around the United States? If we fall back on Judeo-Christianity in times of hardship in fiction, why wouldn’t there me a lateral shift to adopt pagan ways by communities? Assuming collapses in mass media and broader cultural homogenization, would there be a shift to the especially among communities primed for such thinking? Would it be immediate? Or would it take generations, where old ways, folklore and myths, require time to germinate and evolve?

This is by no means an exhaustive look into the subject of faiths in dystopic fiction. I am merely pondering the idea of faiths or methods of worship that survivors would cling to in the years after a major cataclysm. If we are ready to accept Judaism, Islam and Christianity, as well as sweeping atheism, in the wake of a world altering disaster, why wouldn’t there be pagan constructs added to the mix? If so, what kind of pagan communities would grow from a post-technological world?

Asymmetric Study: Witchcraft and Charm Magic

In recent years, I was lucky to attend a Harvard Extension School class on the History of Witchcraft and Charm Magic. Led by Professor Stephen Mitchell, Witchcraft was a true thought shifting class for me. It demonstrated an intellectual honesty and curiosity not defanged by rigid or dismissive thinking. Professor Mitchell’s class was lively and energetic, living up to its mission to demonstrate the “magical world view” that flies in the face of moribund monotheistic thinking.

In Witchcraft we were immersed in all facets of European folklore and magic, with focus on Scandinavia, that showed the transition from the pagan world and its belief systems, often socially at odds with the Christian conversion view, was not as cut and dry as we’ve come to believe. Yes there are remnant Christian holidays and day names, but the roots of the witchcraft hysteria in Europe and America, the ideas or beliefs lost in time and turned into the devil’s handiwork jumped to life for me.

What I came away with from Witchcraft was an even more open minded view of our hazy collective past. The importance of folklore and mythology of converted populations require greater study and nuanced understanding. We can be inspired by the folk tales of the converted, before they fell to monotheism, to create more broad minded fiction free of moralistic lectures or stale cliches. These forgotten worlds of agrarian and fertility cults, the dismissed Golden Bough or the innovative work of Carlo Ginzburg (whom I think I shall return to in a future post) showed me asymmetric thinking and creativity are possible and rewarding.

Besides, any class that starts with Necropants and Icelandic incantations can’t be a bad thing.

New England’s Bedrock Darkness

Here is a post I contributed to the short lived New England Folk Horror website.

New England Folk Horror

Witchcraft 005AIn a letter to his friend Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “It is the night-black Massachusetts legendary which packs the really macabre ‘kick’. Here is material for a really profound study in group neuroticism; for certainly, none can deny the existence of a profoundly morbid streak in the Puritan imagination.”

The lightning rod that is Lovecraft understood the quiet darkness that inhabited New England. Today many view the region as the home of lobster, Revolutionary War history and the Red Sox. Yet go back to the period of the 17th century New England was a strange place teeming with devils and temptations. Expectations of boundless resources were tempered in those first years by starvation and want. As William Cronon wrote In Seasons of Want and Plenty those early colonists who saw Natives freely plucking fruits, but never realized the bounty wouldn’t last, “many initially seemed to believe that strawberry time would last…

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Asymmetric Creativity

Asymmetrical Creativity is a modern term applied to an old idea. Generations referred to the Muses, those goddesses responsible for poetry, arts and science. No doubt you’ve even referred to a person or perhaps a musician as a muse, someone who ignites your creativity, through words, song or simple presence.

Asymmetric creativity is the incarnation of the muse in the 21st century. It is unique in that is pulls from a dizzying number of sources, disciplines and media to collide in the artist or writer’s brain. For me, I have realized like a lightning bolt, that each inspiration hauls a different weight to the hill or carries a special weapon in the battle of creativity, thus the asymmetry of creative influence. Some weigh more than others, some cut deeper, some need just a glancing blow, these sources of creative inspiration. They rarely, if ever, match up in breadth of influence, but they all play a part in the combat that produces a work of art or story.

History- from archaeology to folklore studies- detail the base map of my inspiration. Reading, watching and learning about the facets of our collective history in detail and minutia, have inspired me to write more fiction than anything else. In asymmetric creativity, the world of the real outweighs all others. Yet, look at the vibrancy or energetic freedom of my current creative state, and you will find a greater variety of smaller, potent influences. Comic books, Anime from Japan or films from around the world, each influence an aesthetic choice made by me. These are the wildly differing influences that are too numerous to list in detail. Film makers, artists and animators have found a way to energize my creativity, producing disproportionate results removed from their broader cultural impact. Akira Kurosawa, Katsuhiro Otomo, Bernie Wrightson, Steven Spielberg each taught me something about my creativity.

The final component to my personal asymmetrical creativity comes from the writers, those select few who put down words and excite my imagination with inspiration and sometimes envy. H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King, Robert Heinlein, Edgar Alan Poe and Robert E. Howard, arrived with hammer blows of prose. They showed me the way of writing what you want, how you want, and never to be led by the heard. Instead go your own way, hack a new trail through the underbrush of mass-market-mediocrity. Perhaps your persistence will be rewarded. It matters not because if you’ve fought on the side of asymmetric inspiration your reward will be contentment with the journey.