Mortal Combat

And no wonder we feel tired;
no wonder we feel gutted;
no wonder we’re lost and unsupported
in this purported fantasia,
beyond the clutches of history.

I laid my head down and said aloud “I’m probably dying,” which is not the truth, for I’m definitely dying, we all are, but I’ll take these lines to explain that when I say “I’m probably dying,” what I mean is that there are factors which affect my overall health either positively or negatively, namely, sleep habits, diet, exercise, mindset, and the like, and for the last two months or so I’ve fallen into a rut that’s expanded into a cave which reaches ever into the abyss, and it gazes back and says “you’re probably dying,” by which it means, the factors that affect my overall health are not great right now, and I believe I’ve hastened my inevitable demise, not to say that I’ll be dying anytime soon, but if I started this life with, say, ninety years, I’m probably down to something like seventy now.

And that’s my bad.
I’ve said for a while
that I need to take care of myself,
but fuck,
it’s hard.
Or maybe,
I’m just a quitter.
Hence, I’m probably dying.


Thank You, Kentaro Miura

In this world, fate will weave the threads of causality into an unavoidable tether. We are tied to people, places, and events, though we may not see things this way. We may tell ourselves that it was always us, and our choices, that we made the decisions that led to our current circumstances. Usually I’m a proponent of free will, but sometimes, the actuation of fate seems strong enough to be real.

Two weeks ago, I was up late as always, wandering through YouTube’s suggested videos and wondering when I’d finally accept that I’ve been depressed and should probably just go to bed. A more consistent circadian rhythm would probably do wonders for me, but I resist consistency with all my being – it’s my way of fooling myself into believing I’m a “creative type,” as though all artists are recklessly unpredictable and unhealthy. That was a strong sarcastic statement, but I think I should spell it out ’cause tone doesn’t always transfer through the written word. Anyway …

I was up late, on YouTube, watching one of VaatiVidya’s ruminations on the Soulsborne series of video games. At some point, a song sprinkled with soft piano and haunting vocals played, and I had a nostalgic flashback – but to what, I couldn’t remember. I just knew I’d heard the song before, and it hit me in just the right way. I looked at the list of featured songs that accompanied the video, listened to each of the original songs that it might be, and couldn’t find it. How strange, I thought to myself at the time. I know this song, it was definitely featured in the video, and yet the list yielded nothing – at least, it didn’t bring me to the song I wanted. I quit my search and went to bed at last.

Last week, I returned home from my weekly Pathfinder 2E session on an uncharacteristic Wednesday night (we usually play on Tuesday but I pushed us back a day), a little earlier than I usually do. I walked past my brother, who was sitting on the living room couch and playing Monster Hunter Rise before he went to bed. Our friend and roommate was down there too. He asked me how the session went, I gave a quick “It was good” or something similar, and headed up the stairs to my room. Habits cling fast – I turned on my computer and hopped onto Reddit. That’s when I saw it – a post stating that Kentaro Miura, the creator of Berserk, had died about two weeks prior.

I furrowed my brow. I grimaced. I felt a quick pain, then walked to the stairs and said “Guys, Kentaro Miura died.” A quick “Who?” followed by my “The author of Berserk.” “Oh shit.” Right? My brother, our roommate, and I are all relatively geeky, in our own ways. My brother still has a fairly sizable manga collection, and I’ve watched a handful of anime heavy hitters. But it had been a while since we experienced Berserk, and I had never read the manga.

I can’t precisely say when I first saw Berserk, but it was probably around ten years ago. My brother’s girlfriend at the time was his high school sweetheart, and they both enjoyed reading manga and watching anime together. I walked into the room while they were watching an intensely violent show – a band of mercenaries was cutting foes asunder, often literally, and the protagonist used his ridiculously large sword to cleave fools in twain. I think I saw a battle, then the political aftermath of that battle, and I just sat down and kept watching it. I was hooked. I didn’t need to start at the very beginning to understand that this man, Guts, loved to fight, and beneath his rough demeanor beat a heart of gold. He cared about his friends and comrades. He fought because he enjoyed it, yes, but he also fought to protect the people he cared about. The Band of the Hawk … ah hell.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but I got to the end of that anime and I was devastated. I didn’t go so far as to read the manga and become a full-fledged fan, but I kept the solitary season of the 1997 show in my back pocket for times I’d want to sound cool. A stupid and shallow thing, when I think about it, but hey – I wasn’t gonna gatekeep myself. I watched the show and I enjoyed it.

Throughout the decade or so since then, Berserk’s influence has reached many of the things I enjoy. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the brilliant man who created what many gamers call the “Soulsborne” series, refers to Berserk with a nigh-religious fervor. Enemies, locations, characters, weapons, armor sets, all these things and more: if they’re in Dark Souls or one of its spiritual successors, there’s a high chance they’re inspired by Berserk. Nearly every D&D campaign I’ve experienced has featured someone asking “Oh, is your character like Guts?” All of us nerds know of Berserk, even if we don’t study it or devote ourselves to it.

I often tell people that my love for horror and philosophical questions stems from Castlevania. I played Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow when I was a teenager, and it led me to all the things I love: vampires, demons, monsters and monster slayers, fancy weapons … I’m sure that The Legend of Zelda is frowning right now ’cause I definitely played Ocarina of Time before Aria of Sorrow, but the fact remains that the Castlevania series is the first I experienced that explicitly addressed demons, their ilk, and their legendary enemies – the heroic Belmont clan!

I’ve gone way off topic, but the previous paragraph is there to lend credence to the following assertion: if I’d known what Berserk was when I was a teenager, I would have eaten it up.

Would I have been able to digest its more mature themes of purpose, self-determination, and perseverance? Shit, would I have been able to handle its mature content? Maybe not. It’s possible I rediscovered Berserk at just the right time. But we’ll get to that, I promise.

Over the years, my brother and I moved out of our parents’ house to live together. Jobs, careers, and relationships have changed drastically, but we’ve struggled onward together. A few years ago, my brother approached me with a shirt. “Do you want this?,” he asked before explaining, “It doesn’t fit me anymore.” I took it and held it out to get a good look at it. It was a red Berserk t-shirt, with images from what I now know is The Golden Age arc. The arc I saw in the anime. Part of me didn’t think I deserved to wear the t-shirt, since I hadn’t read the manga, but I didn’t wanna look this gift horse in the mouth. I accepted the shirt.

I wear the shirt, but sometimes I forget the details that come along with it. Before meeting with friends one weekend, I wore the t-shirt into a liquor store. The clerk said “I like your shirt, man. Is that Golden Age arc?” I replied in the affirmative before adding that I still hadn’t read the manga. “It’s online, dude. Check out [insert name of website that I forgot after we left the store].”

I said thanks for the tip as well as the service, left, and promptly forgot all about the exchange until recently. Being a Castlevania fan, I eagerly awaited the release of the Netflix adaptation’s fourth and “final” season (quotation marks around final because the creators say they’d like to continue the show, but with a different group of characters – works for Castlevania!). When the new season released, people kept saying “Yo, that one fight scene – that’s totally Berserker armor!” Uh, what? I watched the scene and thought “Oh, yeah, her armor and her stance are totally reminiscent of Artorias.” If you’ve played Dark Souls, you know that Artorias is a notoriously awesome boss in the DLC, and if you’ve read Berserk, you know that Artorias is directly inspired by the Berserker armor from the manga.

Yeah, I’ve played Dark Souls but I hadn’t read the Berserk manga. I knew one link in the chain of inspiration for that badass armor, but I didn’t have the full story. Not yet.

Let’s run through the chain of events as I remember them, to get the causality right. First, I play Ocarina of Time as a child (as well as read Redwall), which gets me enjoying fantasy. I later play Castlevania as a teenager, sparking a love of horror and stories with darker themes. Some years later, while I’m still slogging (struggling?!) through college, I watch the second half of the Berserk anime. I feel great sadness, and I avoid the manga. My brother hands me his old Berserk t-shirt, which later prompts a friendly cashier to tell me “You can read the manga online.” Dark Souls happens somewhere in the midst of this chain, and I notice Berserk references more and more. Enough to make the connection to the Castlevania show.

Then, last week, I learn that the creator of Berserk died recently. Kentaro Miura’s name is now etched into my memory, and I read Reddit threads praising the man for his beautiful work. A few commenters state that Berserk changed the way they live their lives, and taught them valuable lessons.

Oh shit. This is my favorite kind of story. This is why I love literature and stories and writing in general – words, and stories in particular, have the power to save us from the ever-encroaching darkness of real life. They can lift us out of despair, and steer our feet back to the paths of righteousness and goodness. If Berserk had such a profound effect on people, and I love powerful stories, then I must read it.

So I finally did what that liquor store clerk suggested – I read Berserk online. Over the course of about five days, I crammed Berserk into my aching eyes. I scrolled over page upon page of beautiful ink drawings – line work that turned illustrations into paintings of sublime skill, character traits shining through simple gestures and expressions, beliefs and convictions poured into sword swings and knife throws and spell setups. I stayed awake until the wee hours of the morning, the sun rising outside my window, and I absorbed every. Beautiful. Page.

I essentially crammed thirty-two years’ of work into my brain and heart in a little less than a week. I knew a few of the important plot points thanks to the internet and my curiosity, and I was still touched. No, I was moved. I cried. I cried numerous times throughout the harrowing journey. Lots of sad tears, and some happy tears. Once I caught up with the current state of things, I read more accounts of readers’ Berserk experiences. I read the statements issued by Kentaro Miura’s colleagues and publishers. I cried more.

I have to support this man, and his creation. His art. I looked for copies of the manga – paper copies! – to no avail. Even my usual online retailers didn’t have copies in stock. Eventually I came to my senses and just did a Google search, which led me to a place where I could order one of the beautiful deluxe editions of Berserk. I’m buying them one at a time this time, slowly, with the intent to read the story deliberately – so I may savor each page.

After I ordered my first real copy of Berserk, I went to YouTube to wander through videos again. Maybe take my mind off the weight of the loss we’ve all suffered. But a lot of the content I consume is tied to video games. The Soulsborne stuff, in particular. And we’ve all been hit hard. So naturally, one of the first videos on my feed is by the magnificent Zullie the Witch. It’s a tribute to Kentaro Miura, highlighting many of the connections tying the Soulsborne games to Berserk. In the video, a song plays: soft, persistent piano accompanied by haunting vocals.

It’s that song. The one that filled me with nostalgia without giving me a name. But Zullie, bless them, gave me the song’s name.

Gatsu, or Guts’ Theme, by Susumu Hirasawa. From the 1997 Berserk anime.

I know that I chose to watch the videos that brought the song back into my life. I acknowledge that I’ve made a lot of choices that have led me to where I sit right now, listening to Guts’ Theme on repeat and writing about my experiences with Berserk. It all looks and feels like fate, but I think it’s more than that.

It’s the power of an artistic vision that understands struggle, consequence, and choice. Kentaro Miura filled Berserk with overwhelming troubles, then breathed life and spirit into people who could make the choice to face those troubles – or ignore them. Guts and his comrades could give up in the face of the overwhelming forces that deter them, but they struggle on. Their trials and their growth endear them to us, and we love and root for them. Their powerful stories, brought to life in beautiful detail by Kentaro Miura, bolster us in dark days and remind us that we too may fight the forces that threaten to destroy us – and learn, and fail, and grow in the process.

I could chalk up my string of Berserk experiences to fate, but I want to give Kentaro Miura more credit than that. Berserk is a work of art, and Miura-san is an artist. The sheer popularity of Berserk ensured that it would keep coming back to me, until I embraced it and loved it as it deserves.

I love Berserk. Thank you, Kentaro Miura, and may you rest in the dimension that follows life.


So Many Addenda

Every now and then, I
have to rewrite the rules for myself.
For example:

1. No more than three (3) caffeinated beverages in a day.

That’s a decent start. Should have
gone down to two (2) a day, but
if I can handle just three,
I’ll rewrite the rewrite.

2. Wake up before noon, no matter when you dragged your ass to sleep.

This is a tough one. Five o’clock in the morning
is no mystery to me. Neither is six. The sun is up
before I dream. But I have to try.

3. Floss every day.

Please, just …
take care of yourself, myself.


Yes, I’m a Feminist

I want to speak quietly sometimes,
but I also
want to shout “Shut the fuck up”
when some dumbass
says “bitch” for the fifth time
when we’re playing a video game …
we’re just playing a video game.

I realize I have conflicting ideologies.
That guy is a dumbass, but he shouldn’t say bitch?
Forget all these
casual misogynies, I want to be soft.
When the world revolves around
unfeeling assholes,
I want to feel it all,
and get upset about it.
Let me be the quiet one
who gets pissed about
your white supremacist leanings.
Your patriarchy.
Your insistence that some thing
isn’t racist.
You don’t know.
I don’t know either, but I know
I don’t know.

I’m tired.


Ford This River Always

I am in love with
half the world,
though I’ve only met a few dozen
handfuls of people.

Every one is larger than my clasped hands,
but my heart makes room
for each new soul.
They are the vessels that ferry feelings,
and the rivers and trees
that make me whole.

They are everything at once,
brook and beam and boat,
and for them and myself
I am glad to float.


Transformation Aria

It’s not hard to imagine that one night, you’ll stay alone in your room while outside your door, everything suddenly changes. Or you change. You might not notice it at first, but one morning you’ll look in the mirror and ask “Were my eyes always this shade of green?” Or you’ll look outside and wonder “Was the street always like that?” Infinitesimal shifts in reality will add up to a whole new world. Maybe you’ll trace your life back and pinpoint that night. Maybe you’ll wish every waking moment afterward had been a dream, so you could wake up to the same eyes, and the same streets. Sane eyes, sane streets. But when you realize everything’s shifted, it’s too late. The crack in the universe has yawned too wide.


Can I get paid for that?

Last week, I played 80 hours of Monster Hunter Rise. Yes, do the math – quickly now! – in your head. If Monster Hunter was my job, I’d have shoved 16 hours of Monster Hunter into each of my workdays. Monster Hunter isn’t my job, though, so let’s break things down more realistically. I bought the game last Sunday (that’s April 25th, 2021); as of last night (May 2nd, 2021), I had something like 79 hours of playtime logged on my file. Maybe it was 80 hours and change and I’m a little too embarrassed to say so, but at this point, I don’t remember. I swear I’m trying to take a break from the game, as I think about the game, and write feverishly about the game. Anyway, back to the math – 80 hours divided by 7 days of playing comes to almost 11.5 hours a day. God, “eleven-point-five” sounds awful. 11 and a 1/2? Eleven and a half? Let’s just write out eleven and a half. For the past week, I’ve played Monster Hunter Rise for eleven and a half hours a day, on average.

Surely, some days were busier than others. Maybe on one day, I woke up, turned on my Nintendo Switch, and didn’t turn it off until I went to bed. There were breaks for food and the bathroom, of course, but I kept the game running. Every Tuesday, I play Pathfinder 2E with four of my friends. Last Tuesday, I definitely played Monster Hunter during the day, played Pathfinder during the evening, then pulled an all-nighter to play Risk of Rain 2. Quick aside: I experienced my first god run in Risk of Rain 2. It looked a little scary at first, but by the end of the first loop, I was nigh indestructible. By the end of the next loop, one of my friends who was new to the game was also nigh indestructible. We decided to play until we got tired. We saw the sun come up. Or, we would have, if we weren’t glued to our computer screens, wondering how far we could take our first real god run. (Potential piece about a god run to be determined.)

It is now a running joke that the house into which I moved with my brother and a friend of ours is called Gamer Haus. We adopt the shittiest “teenager with an attitude” voice that we can, throw up the horns (sometimes double horns), and exclaim “GAMER HAUUUUSSS!” to be funny. We think it’s hilarious. The only unfunny part is that I have adopted the joke as my lifestyle.

It’s severely unhealthy. But I adopted this unhealthy lifestyle to cope with my previous unhealthy lifestyle. Wait, what? What is he even talking about, you may be wondering. I shall now tell you what I’m rambling about.

This time last year, in the beginning months of the pandemic, I was bound to a contract that locked me into working 50 hours a week. Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch; if I wanted to meet the terms of the contract and reap the material rewards offered therein, I had to work 50 hours a week. Some weeks, I pushed it to 60. (Shit, I now realize all of my numbers are mismatched and I should adopt some stylistic rules or something. For now, I’ll just let everything flow from the keyboard; sorry, editors.) Long story short, I fulfilled my contract, and all was well. Until I signed up for another year of the same business. I thought to myself “I started late the first year and still met my obligations, so this year I’ll have it easy.”

I’ve never been more wrong in my life. This pandemic has taken a toll on all of us, and I was already burnt out from my first year of this contract work. In the beginning of my second year of contract work, I could hardly work 30 hours a week, let alone 40. I had to hit 40 at least, if I wanted to keep a steady pace. But I didn’t stay steady. My work was slipping, and I anxiously kept a tally of how many hours I’d need to fulfill my contract this time.

Here’s my strong opinion on work: 40 hours a week is horseshit. Unless you absolutely love what you’re doing, it’s soul-wrenching and heart-rending to work for 40 hours a week. Add in commutes, overtime, deadlines, et cetera – 40 hours just doing a job is too much, and the things that go along with a job make it worse. In my ideal world, I’d work 20 hours a week. Make it four days in a row, work five hours a day, and call it good. If 25 hours are necessary, fine, make it five days of 5-hour shifts; really though, three-day weekends should be the way, and working more than five hours a day should be discouraged. Productivity declines at a more involved clip. So let’s be good to ourselves and take it easy, yeah?

I can’t blame my burnout entirely on work. I happen to have very bad habits. I’ve built them up over several decades of conflict avoidance and people-pleasing. When people ask if I want to do a task, or they offer certain roles, I’m the first to say “Yes, let me try that.” It’s too easy to let work pile up, and I always think I can handle it if I just “buckle down” for a good day or three. I also put off doing important things – life maintenance sorts of things, such as doctors’ visits and teeth cleanings – because I’m too comfortable in my little cocoon. I don’t want to drive to an office somewhere and talk to a person I’ve never met – but I should. For my sake and the sakes of the people who care about me.

Where was I, again? Oh yeah, I played a shitload of Monster Hunter Rise last week. ’cause I’ve taken a big-ass break from work.

About three weeks ago, I just didn’t want to log onto my work computer. I knew there would be emails, and Teams messages, and tasks I should have done months ago; I didn’t want to face the cascade of work. So I let my computer sit for a week. That week leaned into the next one, and on Thursday of the second week of my unwillingness to work, one of my coworkers reached out. She asked me about a specific project, and said that everyone is worried about me. I came as clean as I could: I felt frozen, and I couldn’t do any work. Things happened fast: my supervisor sent me a message, telling me to take all the time I needed to take care of myself.

I felt a weight lift, but it wasn’t completely gone. Work itself isn’t the problem: it’s also my responses to problems, and the coping mechanisms I use to escape responsibility.

For the past three weeks, I’ve fallen back on old habits and become a night owl again. Shit, that’s a lie: I’ve been a night owl the whole time. Staying up until 5 A.M. is nothing difficult for me. I cram my waking hours with video games, while a voice in the back of my head says “Shouldn’t you make a doctor’s appointment? Shouldn’t you reach out to your co-workers? Shouldn’t you keep up with social media? Shouldn’t you do more things?”

No wonder I’m burnt out. It’s work, it’s life, it’s a lot of different responsibilities compounding at once, and my unhealthy perspective turns any one of them into the first domino; I handle one, I have to handle the rest. And that’s a lot of time. That I now have. That I’ve spent playing Monster Hunter Rise.

Last week, I played 80 hours of Monster Hunter Rise. This week, I won’t play nearly as much. This week, I’ll make a few phone calls – to a doctor, to a dentist, to an optometrist. I’ll get my appointments scheduled. I’ll talk to my supervisor and figure out where to go from here.

I’ll take everything one step at a time. I’ll put my life back in a place where I can handle it in a healthy way. That’s the dream, anyway – I just have to live it.