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Monthly Archives: September 2012

Movie Review: Take Shelter

Take Shelter (2012)
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham
Take Shelter first pinged on my radar when I heard about this strange, contemplative maybe-apocalyptic movie featuring a guy who had visions about the end of the world. I was immediately intrigued. When I heard that Michael Shannon of Boardwalk Empire and Revolutionary Road fame was going to be the lead, I knew I had to see it. How could I not want to watch a movie that seemed targeted directly to me?

The movie isn’t quite what you get from the marketing, though. It’s a lot better than that. Shannon stars as Curtis, a man who has a great job, a loving wife and a deaf daughter who’s managing her disability considerably well. He works outdoors with his best friend, and together with the money made from his wife’s crafts they’re planning to put a deposit down on a beach house. With Curtis’ insurance, his daughter will have a cochlear implant fully covered.

Despite his great life, Curtis is plagued with dreams. Unnatural storms well up on the horizon, a thick, dark rain falls, and people caught out in it go crazy. They get more and more intense until they start to affect him in the real world; when he dreams about people going insane, he becomes too afraid to interact with them. His life is slowly but steadily invaded by the feeling that something terrible is coming, and he’s the only one to see it. In the quiet way expected of the American male, he bears this burden and starts to prepare for it as best he can. Those preparations come across as more and more severe to the people around him, and just like that his life begins to unravel.

There's a Storm Coming

What’s fascinating about this story, and about Curtis specifically, is that there’s no doubt in his mind that he might be crazy. While he’s preparing his storm shelter he’s also going to the doctor about his dreams and the possibility that his mother’s schizophrenia is beginning to manifest in him. He’s plagued by the idea that he could be wrong about all of this, that his brain can’t be trusted. But his dreams — and eventually, his hallucinations — feel so real that he can’t help but take action. Everything that Curtis does comes from a place of deep love, even when he makes choices that make his situation more and more unmanageable.

Jessica Chastain provides a wonderful counter-balance to Shannon’s stoic weakness. She’s open and talkative, but she possesses a strength under that welcoming exterior that pulls their marriage through Curtis’ ordeal. The more I think about the character of Samantha and the way Chastain imbues her with vulnerability, weariness and a spine of steel, the more impressed I am with her performance. You really feel for her as she struggles with the secret that Curtis is hiding, and then you watch in amazement as she pushes him into helping himself, to avoid making the mistakes of his mother.

The film itself is imbued with a quiet tension and a strong, pervasive mood. You’re not worried about Curtis’ visions, but the effect they have on him and everyone around him. Director/writer Mike Nichols does such a great job of slowly deconstructing Curtis’ life, and you genuinely feel for him (and Samantha) as the losses pile up. Watching someone succumbing to mental illness is a painful experience, but you never feel like the situation is hopeless. Curtis is smart enough and Samantha is strong enough, and you keep waiting for them to get together and pull it out.

I won’t talk about the ending for a number of reasons, but I will say this: I think it’s meant to be taken literally, and it doesn’t diminish Curtis’ journey at all. It’s cryptic, but you’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there.

Nichols directs the movie with deliberate pacing, which is a critic’s phrase for saying that the movie moves fairly slowly. However, if the mood stays tight and the actors are good enough, that can be a feature and not a bug. It works here. Shannon’s deadpan performance has room to work here, so you can study the smallest changes in his expression. When Curtis speaks, you know just how difficult it is for him to open up. Your heart goes out to him.

Take Shelter is a very good film. It has a lot on its mind, from studying how schizophrenia is its own nightmare to how difficult it is to be the loved one of someone with mental challenges. It talks about the dread we all face in our everyday lives, of immense forces beyond our control changing the world in ways we can’t anticipate. And it talks about the most basic way to deal with that, how a strong bond between two fragile people can sometimes be enough.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Movies, Reviews

 

Weakness Has Its Place, And It’s Not Here

Last week was a hard one for a number of reasons. I had a few concerns about my health lately, so I went to the doctor for a physical and to ask about what’s going on. My right knee has been bothering me too much to run, it was time for my asthma to be checked up on, and according to 23andme.com, chances are I had a G6PD deficiency.

My doctor was able to tell me what to do with the knee (heat, plus stretching, then ice) and recommended lower impact forms of cardio — ellipticals, biking and swimming. I’m not sure if running is out of the question, but I’m going to try the prescribed methods for stretching out my quads and head to the gym with Ryan for a few leg muscle-building routines to see if that helps.

I also took a blood test for my G6PD deficiency, and that was confirmed. For those of you who don’t know (and that’s just about everyone — I never heard of it until I was told I was likely to have it), G6PD is an enzyme(?) that helps make new red blood cells and scrubs the blood of oxidants, making sure you have enough. Some folks, especially those with ancestry in Africa and the Mediterranean, don’t have enough of this. Eating certain foods and taking certain medicines can cause anemic episodes, which in turn cause fatigue, shortness of breath, and other general unpleasantness. In extreme cases, it can be fatal.

Then I went to my allergist to take my vitals and discovered that my asthma has worsened — which explains why it’s so hard to run and I tend to get winded easily. I’m not the smartest guy in the room when it comes to listening to my body. I was put back on a maintenance inhaler (I had voluntarily stopped taking it several months ago) twice a day, and told that my rescue inhaler should be used more often before exercise. My allergist, this awesome little old Indian lady, dressed me down for not taking care of myself and not losing weight. I love her, and she’s right, but on top of all the other news…

I’ve known for a long time that I could be taking better care of myself. I should be eating better foods, exercising more consistently, flossing more, that sort of thing. But you know, there’s always something else you want to do at the end of the day — you don’t want to eat baby carrots when there are doughnuts at work, and you just want to crawl into bed instead of spending those extra few minutes flossing. There’s always a reason not to do the right thing.

For me, it’s just a matter of running out of mental stamina. I only have so much willpower to spread around. During difficult workdays, most of it goes to that. Then really putting in an effort to hit the gym takes what’s left. There are a lot of times where I simply don’t have anything left in the tank when it’s time to sit down and write, or take my medicine, or floss.

So things go slipping through the cracks. The habit I promised myself I would form starts to get skipped more and more, and then cut out altogether. Then I’ll go to the doctor’s office, see the effects of what I’m doing, promise myself to be better, and the cycle starts all over again.

Only, the cycle can’t keep repeating this way. I’m getting to the point where quality of life is going to be a real issue if I don’t shape up soon. The medical issues that are starting to pop up with more consistency, the relentless march of time, and my own failing stores of willpower are all weighing heavily on me. Why is it so hard to knuckle down and do what you know is right? Why am I so hard-wired to always pick the path of instant gratification?

I’m not asking these questions to beat myself up; I think they’re legitimate in determining just how I learn to move forward with a better plan to do all of the things I need to. My knee won’t get better without stretching, which means I won’t be able to run. If I don’t take my asthma medication as often as I should, it’ll be very difficult to breathe when I exert myself, which means I won’t be able to run far. If I don’t eat better and cut the weight, then there’s a whole host of issues that’ll stem from that — it’s harder to manage G6PD, no matter the severity, etc. etc.

In short, it’s time to stop fucking around. I’m not getting any younger. If I want to write, then I need to write. If I want to eat better, then I need to eat better. If I want to exercise more, then I need to exercise more. These are priorities that need to supercede everything else. The time for excuses is coming to an end.

The thing that I’m learning as I move through life is that it’s all in the doing. Really. That’s it. Productivity systems are a distraction, another form of procrastination. Thinking about the ideas behind actions is only useful if they push you to take better actions; if you get stuck in a theoretical loop and become too paralyzed to do anything, that’s no good. Action is the goal. If whatever you’re doing doesn’t make you act better, than you’re wasting your time.

Now that I’m coming out of this mild depression, I think I have to figure out how to conserve my willpower towards the things that take priority. My health and writing are going to be my biggest focuses closing out the year. My life will be organized around those, and we’ll see how far I get with that by December.

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Immense Ancestry

For my birthday, Ryan (my wonderful husband) gave me a DNA kit from the folks at 23andme.com. It was an incredibly thoughtful present, and he did his research to make sure that I’d get the most out of the opportunity. He knew that I had been interested in my ancestry for a while, and since I never knew my dad it would be the first bit of information I’ve ever gotten about him.

I sent in my bio-sample (a whole lot of saliva — I know, eww) pretty much the next day, and within two weeks my DNA had been run through the full service and the results were ready. It was astonishingly fast. It probably has something to do with the fact that I live very close to the labs in Mountain View, so if you’re across the country or something your results may vary.

When I got the email saying that my test results were online, I actually went through and read them on my phone. In some ways what I found out was genuinely surprising, and in a lot of ways it’s exactly what I should have expected. I’ll save all of the health results for another post; right now I want to talk about my ancestry results.

My mother apparently belongs to the haplogroup L1c4, which is found almost exclusively in west Africa. It’s an ancient family of man, and it’s quite common in African-Americans. That sounds about right; as far as I know, my mother was straight-up black. Well, not really. I think she was light-skinned, which is why nearly all of my brothers and sisters tend towards the lighter hues. What’s really fascinating is that the L1c branch of man includes the forest-dwelling Pygmies of west and central Africa, and the Bantu-speaking peoples there.

My father belongs to the haplogroup E1b1a8a1*, and yes, the star is important. This is really interesting; it’s a massive sub-group, and some 60% of African-American males fall within the E1b1a subgroup. It’s quite likely that my paternal ancestors came here on slave ships, surviving the Middle Passage to work in the southeastern United States. Both my paternal and maternal ancestors are fairly common in America, so my mother was descended from slaves as well most likely.

At first I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. I had hoped for some strange identifier of my father’s ancestry, something I could use to dig for more information. Knowing that he comes from a very common sub-group means that…well, he could have been anyone. But then, I realized that he could have been…anyone. And that puts me in a very common place with people in African-American culture, raised by a hard-working single mother without any knowledge of their fathers.

In many ways, this makes me feel a kinship with my community. Not to romanticize, but the story of my family is the typical story of most black Americans. My ancestors were brought here under terrible circumstances and subjected to horrible abuses. Yet somehow they not only survived, they flourished; they found someone to love, they made a family, and the line survived through slavery and the Civil War, the rough treatment of the new South, segregation, the civil rights movement, the rise of black culture and all the troubles we’ve seen with black-on-black violence, poverty and crime. I’m the product of 150 years of struggle, and even though my family is broken and I carry a lot of their scars with me, my legacy is one of survival and flourishing in the face of adversity.

Even though I’m not any closer to knowing my actual mother and father, the DNA results did exactly what I hoped they would. They gave me roots that I can draw from, put me in a place where I can make sense of my history and connect my life’s narrative to much grander, longer one that stretches back decades. I feel like I know my people now. I come from western Africa, my ancestors were the Bantu who spread through the entire continent beneath the Sahara desert. They were sold into slavery, came here to America and overcame everything to bear children, to thrive in a hostile society. I don’t know the details, but the broad strokes are enough for now. It’s amazing that I’m here, living this life. I’m very grateful for it, and for the unknown family who lived their lives to provide it for me. I can’t waste what I’ve been given. I’ll honor where I come from by living as well as I can and helping others to do the same.

At long last, it feels very good to know where I’ve come from, and to confirm my ancestor’s home.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Literary Television Episodes

When I first discovered the Internet, one of the things that I immediately took to was the many different ways you could use it to disseminate information. Stuff like Wikipedia is great, and the fact that I could theoretically find out how to make just about anything by looking it up is stupendously awesome. If you’re interested about the basics of woodworking, or the finer points of baking, or studying mythology in different ways, there’s a place on the internet for you. If you learn by reading, or watching, or discussing, then you can find an article, video or community that suits your needs. It’s truly awesome.

It didn’t take me long to find that you could play around with how stories are told as well. Back when LOST was first airing, there was an alternate-reality game centered around the passenger manifest of Oceanic Flight 815. It was absolutely engrossing, a way to bring you deeper into the world in a way a TV show never could. LOST was one of the very first television shows to bring in the interactive element, and I can tell you now it was one of the reasons I became so terribly addicted to that show. To this day, I’ll go to the mat to defend it — mainly because the story it told took advantage of new technologies to push my buttons so, so well.

The internet has changed how we take in information and stories quite a bit — at least, for those of us who spend a good chunk of our lives here. Alternate-reality games are all over the place, and it’s almost expected for a TV show or movie with any sort of geek interest to have an interactive element. Even for those of us who are primarily writers, the Internet offers us a great opportunity to stretch the form of storytelling in ways we never would have thought about before.

One of my favorite things about this isn’t anything quite as out-there as ARGs or blogs and websites that blur the line between fiction and reality. (Though those are almost always really interesting.) The thing that really gets me excited about online publishing is the rise of serialized fiction, and how feasible, even easy, it is to get stuff like that out there.

I confess that serialized, episodic storytelling is one of my favorite forms. It’s something that’s been played around with in the sci-fi/fantasy genre for a little while now, but I don’t think it really hit the big time until LOST came around. Tying character journeys around a big, over-arching mystery that takes years to complete is a fascinating process, and it’s something that people have taken and run with to create some truly great fiction. There’s The Sopranos (heck, just about anything on HBO), Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, The Shield. Each season is treated like a novel, with episodes comprising chapters in that novel. There’s an arc and a theme for each one, and the premise of the show turns a little bit (or a lot, depending) at the end of every season. You get invested in the journey of these characters over the long-term, and there’s enough growth from year to year that it doesn’t feel like anyone’s treading water. That is, if you do it right. It’s complicated and difficult, holding that many moving parts all at once, but when you pull it off there’s nothing better.

One of the things I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time now is take that format and apply it to short stories or small novels. You come up with a setting or a group of characters, you plot out a ‘season’ of stories to tell with them, and you release them one a week at the same time and place. I even have two or three scenarios where that would work fairly well, and I’ve arced out some character arcs that might actually do. The only trouble is, of course, that I have a devil of a time finishing anything I start.

But that’s an entry for a different time. For now, I’d like to ask you guys if you’ve found anything like what I’m talking about — a great story that’s been broken up into different episodes, like a television show. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them around, but I’m curious what other people have found out there. Share, share!

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2012 in Television, Writing

 

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A Life of Intention

My post about why we should think about including furries in our fiction drew a lot of comments after it went up. I got a *lot* of people Twitter-bombing me about why I was wrong! A lot of the feedback was useful, and I’m grateful for it. It offered up a new perspective on the issue that I hadn’t thought about. FuzzWolf, one of the owners of FurPlanet, thought that “furry” was a meta-genre instead of a sub-genre, and that it can be applied to a lot of different genres to tweak it a bit. It works sort of like the “-punk” tag, I suppose, where an additional set of sensibilities can be applied. Steampunk, cyberpunk, emopunk and the like. I actually like that idea; it ‘justifies’ furry as an aesthetic choice that doesn’t need any further explanation. Do we ever really justify the steampunk or cyberpunk aesthetic? The setting usually informs the characters, but it could hardly be called necessary. There’s an awful lot of science-fiction and fantasy tropes that exist simply because we like them. And that’s just fine.

However, I would encourage us to look at our preferences and try to determine what they say about us. I still say that a choice that is “purely” aesthetic — whether it’s putting a key on top of an umbrella or giving your protagonist twitchy ears and a tail — tells us something about the author and his ideals. It’s still a kind of communication to your audience, and I think it pays to be aware of it, to strip away the bits you don’t mean or don’t want and accentuate the bits you really want someone to pay attention to. Our sense of aesthetics, believe it or not, is another tool that we can learn to use as writers to great effect. To write as well as we possibly could, I think it’s important to pay attention to every aspect of our craft.

I know I sound anal about this, and I apologize for that. But here’s what I believe. As communicators, we have the potential for tremendous power. Through writing we can manipulate the emotions of our audience, which often acts as a back-door to manipulating the thoughts of our audiences. If you can get someone to not only consider a different point of view, but also convince them to imagine the emotional experience of another point of view, you can force them to explore ideas and realities they never would have considered otherwise. That’s powerful stuff, and I think that’s what we as writers are basically trying to do. Even on the most basic level. When we’re writing the most basic porn material, we’re still saying “I find this extremely arousing, let me show you how and why.”

It’s a very cool experience, to agree to take that journey with someone. It’s like letting someone in to your home, your innermost sanctum, and showing them the most precious things you own. You want to connect with someone, and you want the other person to have a great time doing so.

The best way to do this kind of writing, I believe, is through understanding your intentions and determining the best way to carry them out. In order to write well, to really communicate whatever it is you’re trying to say, you have to understand what you’re saying and why you want to say it. You also have to understand how people are likely to listen to what you say and determine what conclusions they draw from it. I don’t think it’s enough to simply say what you want to say, exactly the way you want to say it. You have to have some consideration for the effect of your words. Otherwise, what’s the point of communicating at all?

For most of us within the fandom, there exists a sort-of shorthand. We don’t really need to know why furries exist in the universe of a given fiction — we already share the aesthetic of the author. He knows furries are cool, we do too, we can move on with that understanding. But it enhances the story significantly, I feel, if the author sits down with an understanding of why he thinks furries are cool. It gives him several new ways of telling the story better, of being clearer and better evoking the emotions you want. If you want someone to actually experience something as an anthropomorphic fox, knowing exactly what to focus on makes it easier to do a great job with it. Just moving forward with the shared reality that furries are cool is good enough. But why not try to make the story great? What can we do to make good enough even better?

I think it’s important to approach life the same way. We tend to forget this, but our lives — like our writing — is essentially a series of choices. Everything we do is a choice, and as the days pile up we start to do these things automatically. But what if we took a moment to figure out why we say the things we do, or why we eat when or what we do? What do we learn about ourselves from that? What happens if we take pieces of our lives and really looked at them?

Even when the knowledge of ourselves causes us pain (we eat because we feel sad, and we feel sad because we feel powerless, etc.), that knowledge gives us the power to understand our intentions and do something to change them. Instead of eating when we feel powerless, why not address the situation where we feel our power is being removed, for example? What else can we do in response to that situation? I think if we look at our lives — and our writing — with a curious, critical eye, we can discover so many things that we’ve forgotten we have control over.

One of the reasons I’d like to see more writers taking a look at the question of using furries in fiction is because it almost always results in a better knowledge of self. And when we have that, we have the tools we need to improve ourselves and our writing along with it.

Hopefully I’ve explained myself a little better this time. What do you think? I’m pretty sure a lot of folks will think I’m full of shit or needlessly overcomplicating this. Am I? Tell me how!

 

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