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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Combatting Mindlessness with Personal Myth

Buddhism 150When I’m not pretending to be a giant rabbit who writes fiction on the Internet, I work at a services company where I deal with customers all day. The nature of our business is such that people often mistakenly believe we’re responsible for things that we aren’t, so it’s not uncommon for me to get calls from an irate stranger demanding that I change something I have no control over.

I would love to be able to say that my meditation and Buddhist practice enables me to respond in a calm and present manner to these calls, but I can’t. It’s times like these when the lizard brain takes over — often, I’m confused about why I’m being screamed at, and that makes my chest tighten and my heart beat faster. I’ll try to tell the caller why it’s not my fault they’re in this situation, which if I were thinking clearly I would realize is the wrong tack to take. Then an argument ensues, and all that matters is gaining the upper hand. For me, a ‘win’ would be getting the caller to drop their accusation of responsibility and go elsewhere. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re frustrated or feel like they’ve been helped. As long as they stop being angry with me, specifically, that’s what matters.

When I’m rational, I know that this isn’t a personal thing. I’m merely the most convenient face for a problem that someone has, and since I’m on the front line as it were I’ll bear the brunt of the negativity for some people. But it’s really difficult to remember that as it’s happening; that the person repeating “What are YOU going to do about it?” in your ear again and again isn’t speaking of a literal ‘you’. At that moment, you’re a representation of your work place, an entire company given a voice.

I’m not sure if you would have guessed it or not, but I like to avoid conflicts whenever possible. Part of it is I don’t like the stress that a conflict brings, but another part of it is the knowledge of my own temper. It’s a quick one, and I’ve learned a while ago to disengage myself from a situation that sparks it — chances are it’ll die down quickly and I can come at it reasonably later. Obviously, this isn’t an option when there’s someone on the phone with you, refusing to give you space until you resolve a problem that you just can’t solve.

But see, this is why you meditate. The feeling that you get on the bench, when you’re just breathing, is meant to be carried with you through the rest of your life. If you can remember, all it takes is a few breaths to bring you back to mindfulness, to remember who you are and what you’re doing, to take an approach to the situation that’s less instinctive and more helpful.

I ended up raising my voice to the caller the last time it happened. He was especially pushy, demanding that something be done and using the time-honored “repeat yourself in a louder voice” to control the conversation. I admit, I was flustered. I took it personally and handled it poorly. At that moment, all of my meditation training went out the window. I played his game, and lost.

If I had taken just a few breaths, I would have realized the truth of the situation. He was painting me as an enemy, an obstacle to a desired outcome, but I’m really not. Instead of allowing myself to be placed into that role I could have side-stepped that relationship entirely. I could have said, “No, I’m a friend, let me help you any way I know how.” While I don’t have direct control over the situation, I could have come up with a somewhat workable solution with just a little thought. But it’s hard to think straight when you’re running on adrenaline.

One of the things that I’ve tried to do is tell a story of myself that runs closer to the person I would like to be. I suppose this is an advanced version of ‘faking it until you make it,’ but hopefully it will be useful. As I move through my day, I tell myself that I’m a friend to everyone, even the people that would rather not see me. I tell myself that I’m helpful, generous, kind, attentive, compassionate. I construct a myth of myself — a rabbit who is an Avatar of Comfort, dedicated to putting everyone around him at ease. It doesn’t always work, of course — sometimes I forget myself and then I’m just David, grumpy and harried, who’d rather get back to whatever it was he was doing instead of being patient and helpful. But that’s OK. People fail to live up to the myths about them from time to time, but it shouldn’t stop them from striving for it.

That’s one of the ways I ‘access my totem’, I suppose. I marry my vague, animist spirituality to my Buddhist practice, so that my idealized self, the picture of myself at enlightenment, is a rabbit that radiates calm and peace. I’m not sure if there’s a name for that sort of thing (besides insanity), but it helps, when I remember to let it.

Does anyone else do this? What sort of stories do you tell yourself, about yourself, to encourage you to be a better person?

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Best Years of Our Lives (#37)

Entertainment 150The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Starring Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell and Teresa Wright
Written by Robert E. Sherwood (screenplay) and MacKinlay Kantor (novel)
Directed by William Wyler

This is a great surprise for a number of reasons. Unlike most of the other films on the Top 100 list, I had never heard of this one before. It’s odd to be this far into it and stumble across a movie you’re not at least passingly familiar with. Just on the title alone, I thought it would be some kind of domestic melodrama that served as the pinnacle of that sort of movie in its day. I wasn’t that excited to see it. I was quite wrong, and I’m very glad to be so.

The Best Years of Our Lives follows three military servicemen after coming home from World War II. Al Stephenson (March) is a banker and family man, with a quiet and successful domestic life waiting for him. Fred Derry (Andrews) was a soda jerk before he became a Captain in the Air Force, and he’ll be reuniting with a wife he barely got to know before he left. Homer Parrish (Russell) was a Navy seaman who was injured in the line of duty, losing both of his hands in an explosion. While he’s gotten used to the hooks that have replaced his hands, he’s not quite used to how civilians look at them.

There are so many extraordinary things about this movie I almost don’t know where to begin. I guess we’ll start with the top. Director William Wyler served in the war as well, and strived for authenticity whenever possible. He stuffed the ranks of the crew with actual WWII veterans, and drew on his own experiences in combat to fill out details about his main characters. Al’s reunion with his wife was patterned on his own, and it’s one of those scenes that really win you over. It’s really hard not to get sniffly.

In order to preserve a sense of realism, Wyler reportedly had all of his actors buy their own clothes off the rack and ordered sets to be built closer to life-size so they didn’t look like movie sets. You don’t notice it while you’re watching, but it really lends a close, lived-in feel to the entire movie; shots are crowded with people, so you actually get the sense of intimacy in their conversations. Director of Photography Gregg Toland uses deep-focus camera-work (I admit, that meant nothing to me either until I read something that explained it) to make sure you can see what’s going on in the background and foreground at the same time. This leads to wonderfully complicated scenes, where stories intersect in the same space for a moment or two before you follow one or the other out of the door.

The movie navigates three parallel stories that offer a different perspective of post-war life. Al Stephenson probably has it the easiest; he has a loving wife and daughter, a boss who thinks the world of him, and enough money to live comfortably despite serving in the military for a number of years. Still, not everything is perfect. He finds himself distant from a son who doesn’t seem to appreciate his experiences; his job at the bank is unfulfilling next to the work he did with the military; and his neat, orderly life makes him bored and nervous. He’s also a little overly-fond of alcohol.

Derry is in a worse predicament. He doesn’t want to go from being an officer in the Air Force to being a soda jerk again, but being a bombadier doesn’t offer a whole lot of opportunity in peace time. His wife is accustomed to a certain standard of living and once that starts to slip they run into pretty tough marital problems. It seems like he typified the veterans’ experience post-war — going from an environment where his particular skill set is appreciated, even depended on to a society that has no use for him now that he’s back. It must be frustrating to make that adjustment, to finding your niche in a radically different world.

Homer has the most difficult time adjusting to post-war life. As a wounded veteran, he’s taken care of by Uncle Sam, but it’s hard for him to know what to do with the looks of his family and friends regarding his injury. His introduction is telling: when we first meet him, he’s using his hooks to take a match out of a matchbook and light a cigarette. It’s…actually impressive, and Fred and Al watch as he does it. Once he’s proven what he can do, they both accept that he’s fine with his injury and treat him as one of the gang. Later, when Al introduces Homer to his family, he says “This is Homer, he was injured in the war. But it doesn’t bother him, so it shouldn’t bother you.” And that’s that.

Around his family, though, it’s a different story. His parents respond with the shock and grief that Homer has already worked his way through. They try to tiptoe around the subject as much as possible and when they can’t they treat him with the utmost gentleness. It’s a natural reaction, but for Homer it’s emasculating. Their compassionate response — drawn from the best of intentions — actually makes it more difficult for him to feel like a useful, complete human being. It’s a tough situation that generates sympathy for both sides, and even though Homer saddens and sometimes frightens his friends and family with his anger you really feel for him.

The America portrayed in the movie is a far cry from the whitewashed image of perfection and prosperity you see in the 50s. There are a number of things society is trying to work out, and there’s an uneasiness that’s surprising but sensible. With veterans returning to flood the job market and production slowing down significantly, people were convinced that they were facing a return to the depression of the Thirties. Most surprisingly, people were already talking about the atom bomb and what it would do to change warfare; more than once, a character says that if there’s another World War we’d face extinction as a species.

The Best Years of Our Lives is at its best when it explores the personal costs of war, the uneasiness surrounding the returning veterans, and an America that was sputtering back to normalcy after five years of wartime. Al’s moral struggle as the new Vice-President of Small Loans is gripping; you want to see him go right by the veterans who come in asking for help to get their lives started again. Fred’s night terrors about a particularly hairy mission he lived through is something that I’ve never heard of in any other movie from the time, when there were fairly strong ideas about what soldiers were supposed to look like on screen. And Homer’s struggle to find his place with his disability is utterly engrossing, so much so that you don’t mind it when the film turns into a romantic melodrama for much of its third hour. He’s earned his happy ending, after all.

Every character is complete and charismatic, and that makes their conversations grounded, funny and human. There are still the classic movie touches — the swell of music during emotional moments, the shorthand common to the time that might not translate as well today — but for the most part everything ages well. There’s no doubt that the veterans coming home are from the Second World War, but the struggles they faced then are the same struggles our veterans face now. By painting those veterans as people trying to reintegrate into their lives, we’re stripped of the political context of what they’ve done so we can focus on their humanity.

I highly recommend tracking down this forgotten gem. It has a strong moral backbone, but it puts itself across amiably, without preachiness or treacle. Every performance is strong, the director has a sure hand on what he wants, and he keeps everything purring along smoothly. Even though the end of the movie can’t quite match what’s come before it, The Best Years of Our Lives is definitely worth three hours of your time.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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Thursday Prompt: The Collector

Writing 150(It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and I really wanted to get back into it. It helps me quite a bit with writing to be able to just bang something out between short stories or blog entries or whatever. Sort of a palate cleanser, or a chance to try something new.

This particular story was probably thought up because I’ve been talking with a friend who’s making a weretiger in a new World of Darkness game he’s playing in. Russian mobster and everything! The image just stuck with me, and I had to write something with it. I wanted to play with a more conversational style, with colloqualisms and weird cadences and tense shifts and everything. I’ve had to go back several times and find another way to phrase a thing, just to keep in character. It was fun! Also, one of these days I’m going to have to write a story about a nice tiger. 1620 words.)

You hear all sorts of rumors in this line of work. One week, word on the street is that Twomegs finally came out of the closet and fled the city to prevent him and his boy-toy from getting clipped. The next, you hear Jackson’s gotten his mistress pregnant and now he’s either got to get a divorce or abortion. Or you hear that the Boss has gotten one of those full-body reconstructions that you’ve seen on the vids, and now he looks like the Incredible Hulk or something. Most of the time it’s complete bull-shit, though there’s a grain of truth in there somewhere half the time. Jackson really did have a pregnancy scare, though it was with a different mistress then everyone had thought.

Anyway, you learn to take the things you hear with a grain of salt. But you still keep your ear to the ground, because every rumor has to start from somewhere. When I heard that the Boss had hired one of those manimals to make the collection rounds for him, it was one of those things I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. Most of those things were taking up jobs that were more physical than anything — construction work, firefighting, police work if you were on the straight and narrow. A few of ’em, though, they were bound to be attracted to more criminal enterprises. Gangs could always use some extra muscle, and those manimals had it in spades. The right one, with a little bit of smarts and luck, could go places around these parts.

I wasn’t expecting us to be the first kids on our block to land one, though. We do all right — we own downtown and the western half of the city, a few suburbs, but we’re still a local operation. I figure one of those manimals would be looking to join a big time crew before we’d ever get one ourselves. Figured I’d be trying to shoot one before driving one around to make a stop.

So when I show up for work one day and they tell me I’m not driving the Crown Vic today but the biggest van we’ve got, I think I can be forgiven for thinking we’re in for some serious shit. Like, maybe I’m heading out to the east side for a scuffle with the Eighty or something. And that just scares the piss out of me. We give those assignments to drivers that have pissed off somebody important, or new guys who think they’re tough and have something to prove. I’m not either of those, as far as I know. So I’m thinking, “What did I do?” and “How do I get out of this?”

It’s almost a relief when the door to the pick-up location opens and this giant squeezes out of it. He looks like a cartoon tiger, bright orange fur with stripes, yellow eyes, huge bare hands and feet, but he’s fucking enormous. Like, eight feet tall and more than half that wide. Gotta be. He towers over the bouncer standing outside, and he’s wearing a double-breasted pinstripe suit that makes him look even thicker than he is. That wide-brimmed fedora on top of his head, with his ears sticking out through little holes, almost looks funny it’s so small. But I don’t dare laugh. When he walks up to the car and leans down to stare at me through the window, I want to turn on the car and keep driving until I’m out of gas.

“Are you driver?” He rumbles in a thick Russian accent, his muzzle twisting around the words like they’re uncomfortable. I can’t tell if it’s the English or words in general.

I nod, trying to close my mouth. I must look like a fucking half-wit here. But maybe he’s used to that. He just opens the door and squeezes into the truck.

That pinstripe suit rolls over me like an avalanche, and for a few ticks I’m jammed against the driver’s side door. The whole car rocks as he settles himself in, but to me it just feels like waves of pressure. Sometimes I can’t breathe against the door, and then sometimes I’m just cramped in my seat. The tiger doesn’t seem to notice how much room he’s taking up. He pulls the seat all the way back, but it doesn’t really help. Then he drops a piece of paper in my lap. I look down. It’s an address, in a town a few hours away. “Take me there.”

His voice bounces off the walls and rattles the shocks. I simply nod and start her up.

After a while, I start to get used to it. It’s my first time with one of them, and I’m nervous as all hell, but I’m thinking he’s gonna be sticking around for a while so I might as well get to know him while I can. So I try to strike up a friendly conversation.

“So. You from around here?” I laugh to let him know it’s a joke.

He turns to look at me on a neck that isn’t there, and gives me this look like I’m the dumbest person he’s ever seen. He turns to look out the windshield. “Nyet.”

“Heh, I knew that. I’m not from around here either; I’m from out East. Or what’s left of it now. Can you believe those dumb fucks still on the coast, like the ocean’s gonna turn back any day now?”

The tiger is silent. All right, so he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about that. I’m guessing it’s peanuts compared to whatever’s going on in Siberia or wherever the fuck.

“So what’s your name, fella?”

Again he looks at me. This time it’s cool and calculated, like he’s trying to find that vein in my neck. “Pyotr.” And he says it like it’s the most natural thing in the world. He even rolls the ‘r’ at the end, and it almost sounds like a little purr.

“Pee-odor,” I repeat. He just nods. “That’s a pretty cool name. I guess your daddy named you after one of them czars when you were born.”

“I was not born, I was made. I took the name of the first man I kill for money. Before that, only number.”

I don’t know what to make of that. So I just talk about myself. “Yeah? My daddy named me after his pa. Clarence. I hated it when I was a kid, but now I like the ring of it. Clarence.” I glance at him at a red light. He’s shifting in his seat, clearly not comfortable. I can’t tell if it’s the suit he’s trying to bust out of, or the seat that must be cutting off the blood to his legs. He takes a deep breath, and the light changes. I make the turn on the freeway.

“You know, I always thought tigers were real majestic creatures.” As soon as I say it, I know that this is a bad subject. But I keep going. “When I was a youngun my daddy used to take me to the zoo, and I’d just stare at them tigers all day. Even in their cages, they were—“

I glance over, and I see him giving me this look like he’s going to punch my spine right out of my back. I nearly piss myself right there. I look back at the road, and don’t say another word. He’s more than content to travel the rest of the way with as few words as he can make.

It’s getting to be evening when we finally got to the address. I stop the car down the block, but I think they were expecting us. A guy comes out of the house in jeans and a wifebeater and shit-kicker boots and he takes one look at the tiger stepping out of the car and he tears off down the street.

And I swear to God, I think I hear Pyotr start to purr. That fucker was definitely smiling. He growled, “Stay there.” Then he took off after him.

Five minutes was all it took for him to bring the man back to the house, kicking and screami

ng. If there was anybody in other houses who heard it, they didn’t come out. They both disappeared into the man’s house, and then there was more screaming. I could hear it over the engine. Lots of it, multiple voices, then nothing.

Pyotr reappeared just as I heard the first sirens in the distance. His jacket was unbuttoned, and his muzzle was slick with blood. When he got in the car he filled the whole cabin with the smell of it, and he put a wad of cash and some jewelry in the cupholder. The money was soaked through. I nearly gagged.

“Drive. The cops are coming.” He looked at me and I couldn’t look back. I got the hell out of there as fast as I could, and I drove him to the drop-off without saying a word. He muttered a half-hearted thanks before he got out and walked across the parking lot to the back entrance of the strip club. With a flash of his tail, he was gone.

A week later I started hearing rumors about the new manimal in town. Some say he’s a man-eater, that he eats part of the people he collects from if they’re late. Some people say that he killed a made guy for bumping into him, and nothing was done about it. I don’t know how they got started, and I don’t care. I’m sure as hell ain’t spreading them around to nobody.

Because I’m pretty sure they’re absolutely true.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2013 in Furries, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

An Outrageous Deconstruction of Shocking Comedy

Buddhism 150In my opinion the best comedy is almost always surprising. A really great joke takes a well-worn premise and drives it off a cliff when we’re least expecting it, or connects two places we never knew were even close to each other. I’m not a psychologist or anything, but I think we like to have our expectations subverted in a relatively safe way. It keeps our brains nimble, always looking for new or overlooked connections — after all, it’s our ability to adapt that’s driven our success as a species, and play often serves the purpose of sharpening skills that are necessary for our survival. I admire comics who are constantly testing the world around them, looking for ways things fit differently than they should or don’t fit at all. It’s that perpetual, witty inspection that both inspires and exhausts me. It’s not all that’s required to be a good comic, though. You have to be able to read an audience, work with the mood of the room you’re in, figure out how to manipulate and control it. The best comics are quick on their feet but patient and stubborn; they work hard, are constantly perceptive, and test their own material with the same fervor they test the world around them.

Myth 150One of the ways comics work to surprise their audience is through shock humor. This is a very specific subset of a comedian’s bag of tools, and it’s a son of a bitch to use. You’re surprising your audience by saying blatantly offensive, politically incorrect things; this either exposes the flaws in those thoughts or allows us to release the tension we generate when WE have those thoughts. Good shock comics (again, only my opinion) tell us “It’s OK, other people think this way. It’s stupid and awful, but we’re only human. Let yourself off the hook, you’re not that bad.” It can be cathartic to hear someone saying the worst things and being allowed to laugh at them; with that lingering shame or tension surrounding sensitive topics gone, it can free us to give them a fresh look, to talk about them openly. Shock humor can make unsafe topics a little bit safer by dropping our defenses around them. It’s an incredibly useful thing, but only if handled in a shrewd and sensitive way.

There’s been a couple of controversies recently around shock humor that got me thinking about just why it’s so tricky to pull off shock humor, and how easily it can be done wrong. There seems to be an increasing tide of opinion that certain subjects should never be joked about, are never safe for comedy and that making light of those topics in any context is disrespectful or dismissive. I consider myself a pretty sensitive guy, and I definitely sympathize with the perspective of the beleaguered minority. I’m gay, black, Buddhist, and spend far too much of my time expressing my inner lapine nature on the Internet. I run up against the dominant culture quite often, and in ways that most people who land in the majority just a few other ways can’t really grasp. In other words, being a gay black Buddhist is harder still than being a straight black Christian.

Still, I recognize the miraculous way a good racial joke can lower the tension in the room whenever race comes up and pave the way for an honest, meaningful conversation. Never underestimate the power of laughing at yourself; it tells the room that anger and judgement doesn’t come swift, that it’s all right to make mistakes while trying to figure out the briar patch of racial relations. And trust me, people WILL make mistakes with this stuff. But it’s OK. Most people are well-meaning and ignorant of the reality of being a minority in any way. And most of us in the minority are still struggling with learning how to express our perspective in a way that they’ll understand. There will be a lot of mistakes on both sides, and we have to be patient with each other as we make and learn from them.

But sure, you might say, it’s all right for you to make a joke about black people. You’re black! Good point, I say. Is it ever all right for someone in a position of cultural power to make a joke about someone in a minority? I may be a gay black man, but I’m still a man. Could I make a shocking joke about a woman and expect to get away with it?

That’s a thornier issue. As we all know, there are no hard and fast rules for comedy. Comics will get called out one day on a joke they’ve made countless times before, for no other reason than the fact that someone got offended and voiced that offense in a way or platform that allowed it to catch fire. I think it’s very easy for the comic to be confused by the sudden backlash; it’s something he’s written and tested, by himself and with other comics, with countless audiences, and it passed with a variety of audiences. Why is it suddenly not OK?

I think it’s easy for a comic (or anyone who’s being attacked) to say “Chill out, relax, everyone else can take a joke, why are you so sensitive?” I don’t need to tell you that this is the absolutely wrong thing to say, but I’ll do it anyway. THIS IS ABSOLUTELY THE WRONG THING TO SAY. Shock comics work with material dangerously close (or probably over) the line with a lot of people as a matter of trade. The law of averages states that one of these jokes, no matter how well you proof for it, is going to go too far. When it does, you’re going to catch hell for it. And when you do, it’s important to understand that the person/people giving you hell are individuals with their own histories and stories that contribute to their reaction. Dismissing their offense as ‘over-sensitivity’ IS disrespectful, far more so than the original joke.

Every time a comic walks into a room with a new audience, he’s walking into a new minefield. It’s like playing an entirely new game of minesweeper, every time; you never know when you’re going to step in something that sets off an explosion. While you might be aces at minesweeper, and have never lost yet, there’s bound to be one time where something blows up in your face. And that’s because people are individuals, with their own experiences and history. They interact with that history in different ways, and you never can tell when something is too raw for someone to laugh at. If you’re dealing with touchy subjects, or shocking humor, the chances of you stumbling across a fresh wound dramatically increase.

These people aren’t being over-sensitive when they call out a comic on a joke that’s more offensive than funny. They’re just being themselves, and for the most part that deserves a measure of sympathy and thought. These people should be dealt with honestly and respectfully; comics should be secure enough in themselves and their material to resist the temptation to discount someone’s offended reaction. This could be the door to speak openly about these topics, just presented in a different way. In an ideal world, the comic would engage with criticism, discuss the joke and the reaction without ego, remove himself from the equation entirely. Unless the comic really believes what they’re saying, the reaction isn’t against the person (no matter how personal the response gets), it’s against the things the person said.

I think that comedy should be inclusive, like any other form of storytelling. When someone uses shock to surprise the audience, it’s important to set a tone of “we’re all in this together; let’s see what’s on the other side of this line of decency.” Even if the comedian is making jokes at the expense of a group that’s in the room, there should be an atmosphere of camaraderie. This is incredibly difficult to do, and not everyone can manage to simultaneously engender good will while essentially making fun of an entire group of people. The shock comic can’t be lazy with his humor, or let too many false notes drop. He must constantly engage with the temperature of the room, and adjust his material to suit it.

At least, that’s my platonic ideal of shock comedy. Most comics who deal with shock for laughs don’t do this, or they make frequent mis-steps and find themselves in trouble. Unable or unwilling to deal honestly and respectfully with the people they offend, they end up cultivating the attitude that “I’m just telling jokes, you don’t have a sense of humor, this fun-bus is leaving without you.” And that’s a shame; it makes the comedian look more like an asshole with a genuine disrespect for the groups he’s telling offensive jokes about, and it makes it that much harder for them to cultivate an inclusive atmosphere when they’re telling them. It’s why, say, Seth MacFarlane generated this groundswell of outrage over his Oscars stint last month; he brushes off criticism, fails to engage with legitimate grievances of a group who feels marginalized and excluded, and makes them believe that his party is not for them. His shock humor has the exact opposite effect that it should — it divides when it should unite, and it hardens our thinking when it should make our opinions more pliable, subject to scrutiny.

Yet, I don’t think MacFarlane or most other shock comics are actually callous, dismissive people. I think there’s only so much outrage you can legitimately handle before you start to get worn down, and the reactions of most shock comics to a seemingly endless chorus of offense is to dismiss it. Legitimate grievance or no, it all starts to look like the same after a while. There are some corners of the public who simply live to be offended, and to express their feelings as loudly and as often as possible. I think a lot of people who feel marginalized by public figures assume that these celebrities don’t have feelings and reactions of their own, and should be treated as something other than a person doing a job. Think about it; if you were called up publicly for a risque joke you’ve made, called a coward or a monster and had your talent questioned, wouldn’t your first instinct be a defensive one? Why should it be any different for another person, no matter how famous, rich or successful?

That’s one thing that our culture of outrage has taken from us; the ability to see one another as people, to give each other the benefit of the doubt. If a comedian is sometimes guilty of dismissing their audience as overly sensitive or politically correct, then the audience is also guilty of dismissing a comic as heartless or arrogant. People of all stripes will make mistakes when they’re trying to open up honestly about touchy subjects, and the best response they could be given is a patient and graceful one. If you feel affronted by what someone says, the key to convincing them to change their opinions or apologize for what they’ve said isn’t railing at them and making personal attacks. It’s to attack the ideas represented by their words and actions, speak about the effect they’ve had on you and how it prevents you from laughing about it. Because, really, honestly, I believe that’s what most comedians actually want you to do. No one goes on stage, or posts a joke, or makes a comment, with the idea that they want to alienate a large percentage of the people who might be listening.

And if they do, they’re genuinely not worth your time. They’re most likely bad people who thrive on attention more than anything, so the key response there is to not give them what they’re asking for.

Again, there really aren’t hard and fast rules for comedy, but I think that this is a good guideline for navigating the thornier aspects of the relationship between a comedian and his audience. I could be wrong; I’m not a comedian. And really, this all comes down to assuming more of the people you have a disagreement with, not just dismissing them with your worst ideas of who they are. If we could all just check that impulsive reaction and consciously change it for something better, the outrage would die down a little and actual conversation would spring up in its place.

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Double Indemnity (#38)

Entertainment 150Double Indemnity (1944)
Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson
Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
Directed by Billy Wilder

Holy cats, do the two main characters in this movie do terrible things. That’s actually what makes it so fascinating — this is a film noir that’s actually more Fargo than The Maltese Falcon. The main character isn’t a hard-boiled detective on the case of some twisty mystery; he’s a smooth-talking insurance salesman who gets up with the wrong bored housewife. Even though the stakes feel a bit lower, it’s still engrossing thanks to wonderful writing of Wilder and Chandler and the great performances of the leads.

MacMurray plays Walter Neff, a man who falls in love with Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck). Phyllis is lonely, tired of being ignored and mistreated by her husband. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that she’s sick enough of him to want him out of the picture, and from there it’s off to the races. To Neff’s credit, he rejects her advances at first. He wants no part of murdering someone just to collect the insurance money. But then he starts to think about it. What would be the perfect way of committing a murder, making it look like an accident, and collect the most money from your insurance policy? Intrigued by the possibility and spurred by his attraction for her, he decides to go for it.

He decides that Mr. Dietrichson should die by accident on the train, activating a double indemnity clause that pays double on the policy. With the money, Neff and Phyllis will be rich and together. It’s a great idea, of course, but the great hand of karma comes down to make sure nothing breaks their way after a certain point. That’s how these things go, after all. And the pressures of holding a crumbling plan together take their toll on the fledgling couple, causing mistrust and dissention. Once that trust goes, things fall apart quickly. Long story short, it doesn’t end well for our two lovebirds.

What’s impressive about the downfall is how inevitable it seems even while Neff and Phyllis take every precaution to make their getaway clean. While they’re obviously not good people, they’re reasonably intelligent and actually cool under pressure. What makes them crack, eventually, is Neff’s best friend and claims adjuster, Barton Keyes (Robertson).

Robertson steals every frame he’s in, chewing the scenery with the best character actors out there. He’s also incredibly smart and intuitive, stubborn and moral, and that’s what proves to be Neff’s undoing. When a false claim is made, Keyes has what he calls a “little man” in his gut that keeps him up at night. It goes sour on him with this case, and he suspects Phyllis of foul play. He trusts Neff as his best friend, while working as hard as he can to uncover the scheme he’s cooked up.

MacMurray and Stanwyck have a great, twisted chemistry together. and even when Neff and Phyllis turn on each other they’re arresting to watch. Phyllis is a hell of a femme fatale, completely sociopathic even though she’s in a bad situation; she’s not a woman caught in the balance of good and evil, she’s just evil with enough charisma to fool people.

Neff is a good guy, though. His libido and ego are fatal flaws, to be sure, but he seems to be a nice enough person who’s unfortunately caught up in a gravity well of crazy that he learns too late there’s no escape from. Even while you’re watching him deceive his friends and coworkers, you’re caught between two impulses — the desire to see him caught for what he’s already done, and the desire to see him squirm out of his predicament a better man for the experience. Unlike Phyllis, he begins to show remorse once he learns the extent of what he’s done and who he’s hitched his wagon to. That goes a long way in my book.

But alas, it’s not to be. Keyes is too dogged, Phyllis is too crazy, and the noose around Neff’s neck grows far too tight. The end result is an enjoyable ride down the ruins of a man’s life, tightly-plotted and filled with rich, complicated characters that the actors bring to life quite well. Wilder and Chandler do a great job working from James Cain’s novella, incorporating classic noir elements to a situation that doesn’t seem to be what we think of at all when it comes to the genre. What we get is something that’s at once classic and unique, in a realm all its own.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Doctor Zhivago (#39)

Entertainment 150Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin and Rod Steiger
Written by Boris Pasternak (novel) and Robert Bolt (screenplay)
Directed by David Lean

After watching Doctor Zhivago, I found it easy to imagine why people were freaked out about communism. The movie, adapted from the Russian novel by Boris Pasternak, details the life of a poet and doctor while the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent civil war erupts all around him. Things weren’t great under the czars for a lot of people, but the suffering only seemed to intensify once the Bolsheviks rose to power. The story centers on the tension between the individual’s right to pursue their own happiness and the needs of society. Czarist and Bolshevik Russia swing from one extreme to the other and goes from bad to worse in the meantime.

Yuri Zhivago was adopted into a bourgeois family after he loses his mother. He cultivates two careers: one as a poet, and one as a doctor. What’s interesting is that these two professions come to symbolize the eternal struggle of a man as social animal — what enriches him personally, and the way he can be of best use to those around him. He’s recognized for his talents in both professions, but circumstances call for the use of the practical over the fulfilling more and more.

He falls in love with two women through an incredibly turbulent period. First, World War I demands his expertise as a doctor behind the front, and then he’s driven to leave Moscow when the Bolsheviks take over. His doubts about “the needs of the many” doesn’t endear him to the new regime, and his poetry is seen as far too personal and indulgent to agree with the political sensibilities taking hold at the time. Even his practice as a doctor isn’t enough for him to stick around; his family’s home and possessions are repossessed by the state and given to others as some measure of equality. Eventually, there simply isn’t enough to go around and the lack of goodwill forces him out of the city.

What follows is an arduous, harrowing and eerie train ride through the Russian countryside. It’s a very impressive sequence; the landscape is stark and beautiful, and a small community forms out of the strangers packed into a single train car. We also see how the building conflict between the Communist Party and the White separatists has ravaged the land. Small towns suspected of harboring the rebels are attacked by the state, and some are burned to the ground as part of a (literal) scorched earth policy. Yuri himself is even picked up and interrogated by the Communist military operation travelling in parallel with the civilian train. The sense of helplessness in the face of totalitarian power is palpable during these scenes; if Yuri gives an answer that the commander doesn’t like, then he could disappear immediately without his wife and son ever knowing what’s happened to him.

At some point, that actually DOES happen. Yuri, who’s been having an affair with a woman he served with during the war, goes to a neighboring town to end their dalliance once he learns his wife is pregnant. On his way back home, he’s conscripted into service by the Communists and spends several months trekking through the Russian wilderness to hunt down rebels. During this time, he finds out the state is essentially killing children and young men. Disillusioned with the new regime, he deserts his post and returns home, only to find his family has left. His mistress remains, however.

The movie is actually a romantic drama framed against the backdrop of societal turbulence. The civil unrest serves as the force driving Yuri and his loves apart, so that we understand how the rise of communism affected people on a personal level. It works well in that regard, but I actually find the tension between individual desire and societal need the most interesting. The melodrama regarding Yuri, his wife and his lover is interesting, but not quite the strongest part. Where the movie works best is as a historical record of what Russia was like during the rise of the Bolsheviks, and how the new regime took its reaction against the decadence of the bourgeois and Czarist classes to the extreme. Everyone, no matter who or what they were, were reduced to the same rough life. There was no room for individual pursuits or even a moment’s happiness in this new state. All that was left was what it was decided had to be done. Society above all, was the thinking.

Still, Doctor Zhivago works well as an epic romantic drama as well. Lara, this mistress that Yuri falls in love with, has her own intriguing story that also serves up the movie’s great villain — Komarovsky, an opportunist who forces himself on her and has a knack for not only surviving through the worst of times, but flourishing. I think he’s the movie’s best character. While Yuri, Lara and Yuri’s wife Tonya are interesting on an intellectual level, Komarovsky is the only person who connects emotionally. You hate him in a way that reaffirms your morality, and he’s incredibly effective as a loathsome individual. He serves as a useful critique of communism, actually. The Bolsheviks were hoping to stamp out people just like him, but he ends up succeeding in the new regime just as well as the old one.

Director David Lean does a great job of tightening the story and focusing on the most important parts, thanks to Robert Bolt’s efficient screenplay. Pasternak’s novel is sprawling, filled with characters that represent all walks of Russian life. We get a good sense of its expansiveness while still keeping focused on our viewpoint characters. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and everyone involved hits it quite well.

It’s not that often that I recommend a movie on the grounds of its historical interest, but that’s precisely why I’d recommend Doctor Zhivago. It’s a fascinating look at a crazy time in Russia’s history, and a fairly good romantic melodrama besides. The soundtrack is wonderfully distinctive, the sets are awesome, and the cinematography top-notch. All of it serves the mood of the story, as tragic and poetic as the Russian wilderness.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Politics, Reviews

 

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30 Days of Plants and Animals

Self Improvement 150Today is the last day of my Whole 30 culinary “reset,” and it’s hard to argue with the results. In the past month I’ve lost nearly 15 pounds, my stomach no longer resembles a beach-ball, and — I can’t lie about this — I feel better overall than I’ve felt in a little while. My energy levels are a bit lower, but they’re more consistent, and I wake up feeling more rested in the morning.

But it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. Cooking, while fun, is a fairly large time sink even after I’ve gotten my act together in the kitchen. There are a lot of foods that I’ve missed — even beyond the “This awful, bad-for-you food tastes too good to give up” stuff. Rice, beans, a slice of buttered toast, red wine…these are all things that I’ve been wishing I could have consistently through the month. Going on the Whole30 ‘reset’ can be a bit of an isolating experience, as well — I’ve had to put up with a bit of derision from folks about it, even though I haven’t really bought into the principles behind it. It can be frustrating to make a decision to eat better (especially on a drastic program like this) and have people second-guessing you every time it’s brought up. It’s hard enough to deal with your own brain screaming at you to break the diet, and peer pressure certainly doesn’t help.

Most of my friends have been pretty cool about it, though, and by two weeks in I had my “elevator pitch” for it down pat. The Whole30 operates on a simple — but demanding — principle; food should provoke healthy psychological and physiological responses, support a healthy gut, and prevent inflaming your digestive tract or suppressing your immune system. That’s it. If it only does three of those things, you can’t have it. And according to their research, that leaves you with meat, eggs, nuts, fruits, vegetables and a few oils. Dairy, grains, legumes, anything with processed or added sugar and alcohol does not pass this test. So it has to go, for at least thirty days.

It’s been a bit of a roller coaster. The first week or two was the most difficult; your body has to adjust to a radically different diet, and then the rest of you has to catch up to the ramifications of your lifestyle choices. Eating out is suddenly far more hassle than simply staying home and cooking for yourself, and that’s notably more involved than just popping something into the microwave and letting it go. It’s very much a trial by fire — at least it was for me. And now that it’s over I have a new set of tools that I can sharpen moving forward.

I think the best way to tackle this look back would be to look at the positives, negatives, lessons learned and what I’ll walk away with. This might be a bit of a long entry, folks.

THE POSITIVES

While you’re on the Whole30, they strongly recommend that you don’t look at the scale at all. You’re supposed to focus on other things, like how you feel and how differently your clothes are fitting, or how your skin is clearing up. In theory, I agree with this — learning to pay attention to your body is a vital thing if you want to have a good relationship with it. If something you’re doing isn’t making your body happy, you should learn to recognize the signs and pay attention. I think Whole30 aims to teach people to do this by positive reinforcement. See how much more energy you have? See how much better you’re sleeping? Notice how your skin looks better? So forth and so on.

And I have to admit, by that measure this reset was a success. I can’t boast more energy, but my energy levels are more consistent. I’m sleeping better in general, and when I wake up it requires far less time to get me up and running. A lot of the oily skin that I had on my forehead and nose has diminished, and my digestive tract has gotten a lot calmer. Before the Whole30, my stomach was bloated, I had pretty strong irritation in my bowels, I was constipated. For the most part, that’s cleared up.

It’s also worth noting that I lost 15 pounds in one month. That kind of weight loss is insane (and probably not healthy, but that’s another story). I’ve spent the past few years with my weight creeping ever-upward, trying to get back to 170 – 175. I’ve counted calories, I’ve tried weight training and cardio, and nothing’s worked. The Whole30 produced really surprising results that I can’t deny. It’s amazing to me that this one thing worked when nothing else did.

Beyond the physical, Whole30 forces you into a lifestyle change that I think is very beneficial. The program encourages you to know exactly what you’re eating, and really pushes you to ask questions you wouldn’t even think about otherwise. Since meat is such a vital part of the Whole30 diet, a lot of effort goes towards training you to make sure it’s quality. Ideally, you should be eating meat from locally-sourced, humanely-raised animals. Antibiotics and additives are discouraged, and just trying to cut out those two things takes so much of what’s on store shelves off the table. By hunting for the best meat you can find, you start to develop an eye for what’s acceptable and what’s not. It teaches you a totally different way to shop for food, and ties neatly into becoming a “locavore”.

A brief aside — being a locavore is something I highly encourage. It’s something that you don’t have to be a big hipster about, and you can do it in stages on your own pace. Find out about your local meat and dairy sources. Go to a farmer’s market to see what’s in season, what you can buy fresh from a farm. By choosing foods that are cultivated nearby, you’re cutting down on a lot of the problems with an extensive, far-reaching supply chain. It also really gives you a sense of place; you become knowledgeable about what does well here, what’s in season when, ties you to the cycle of the seasons and the personality of the land around you. Something as basic as food can be this gateway for connection to the world you live in, which is a really awesome thing.

Generally, you’re going to be forced to buy your meat, fruit and vegetables with as little processing as possible. You end up going to a very specific zone of your store, and you quickly learn that most of it is useless for your purposes. At our neighborhood supermarket, we ended up spending all of our time in produce and the deli. Then we brought it home to cook, because trying to throw together a dish with a little bit of taste is way better than eating ingredients.

And that brings me to the next perk of Whole30: learning to make peace with your kitchen. Ryan and I tend to live more like bachelors than a truly domesticated couple. The kitchen holds the appliances that we use to make quick meals: the microwave, the toaster, the coffee pot. Prepackaged food that requires the use of our oven or stove was pretty much our idea of cooking in. Anything that took much more effort than that was hopelessly complicated. I exaggerate — or do I? — slightly. We weren’t big cookers, and a month later, I have to say we still aren’t. But we’re a bit more savvy than we were before Whole30.

What’s more, I discovered that I liked to cook. I like to follow recipes, that magic ritual where you put a bunch of things together in the right amount, at the right time, to create something wonderful. When you pull off something relatively complicated or involved, or when you do something that you haven’t been able to manage yet for the first time (like, for example, cooking a perfect over-easy egg in an iron skillet), it makes you feel a bit like a wizard. Cooking is the closest I’m going to come to spellcasting, and as whimsical as that sounds the effect and reward is immediate and tangible. You create something delicious that you (or better yet, others) can appreciate.

The whole experience — from sourcing my ingredients to cooking it to eating it — was vastly different from the way I normally eat. I never really thought much about my food. It just comes from “somewhere”, and ends up on my plate to scratch a particular itch. Now that I’ve spent a month really studying it, looking at where my food comes from and thinking about how my body reacts to it, I’m glad to feel more connected and invested in the things I eat. I still love food, and all kinds of food — I’m never going to give up fried chicken, or waffles, or cheeseburgers — but that love feels more mature, more well-rounded, more complex because of the knowledge I’ve gained. And that means a lot to me.

THE NEGATIVES

The reason I think we, as a society, have the diet we do is because it’s cheap and fast. I forget who came up with this model, or where I heard it from first, but almost any commodity you can buy will have three costs: a material one (cheap vs. expensive), a temporal one (fast vs. slow) and a qualitative one (healthy vs. unhealthy). Obviously, what’s best is something that’s cheap, fast and healthy — it’s reasonably nutritious, doesn’t take a lot of time to prepare or consume, and doesn’t cost a lot. So much of our diet industry is based around chasing that holy grail. It’s why we have Power Bars and protein supplements, Slim-Fast and pre-packaged salads. We want to eat food that has it all. But something cheap, fast and healthy probably isn’t going to taste very good. But we don’t have time or money to spare, so we sacrifice quality to eat food we like. At least it’s cheap and fast!

In order to make food that tastes good, you’re going to have to pony up for it somehow. It’s either going to be expensive (think of the pre-packaged stuff you get at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods), take a lot of time to make (think of cooking your own healthy version of, well, anything) or it’s not going to be good for you (think of any fast-food restaurant). Sometimes you’ll have to pay in time AND money, and that’s basically what Whole30 forces you to do.

Getting locally-sourced, humanely-raised meat takes time; you have to research what sort of conditions are important to you (Is it important for the animal to be free-range? What about no antibiotics? What about vegetarian-fed?), then you have to find sources that match those criteria, then you have to find out where the product is being sold. When you do find it, it’s probably going to cost a lot. Our food production system is geared towards using factory farming methods, and anyone stepping out of that system will need to pay money to do it. In the end, you have to put your money where your mouth is and pay for your beliefs.

I don’t think this is necessarily a negative. But it is something that impacted my life over the last 30 days, quite a bit. Ryan and I, as I said before, aren’t big cookers — we both have fairly busy lives and we sacrificed healthy eating for what was cheap, fast and available up until now. Whole30 puts quality above everything else, so it’s difficult to do if you’re not willing to put in the time and/or pay up the money for it.

My grocery bill shot up in February QUITE a bit, and most of my evenings were spent preparing food — either for dinner that night or for breakfast and lunch the next day. As much as I appreciate discovering a love of cooking, other priorities were shoved aside to make room for this. While I’m glad I had the experience of living with an uncompromising set of ideals for thirty days, I miss having the time to focus on writing.

Whole30 itself is also ridiculously prohibitive, and while their philosophy is sound regarding why they demand those restrictions, it’s actually really freaking difficult to live that philosophy out ‘in the wild’ without becoming kind of a fanatic about it. Going out to eat is a bit of a nightmare; even if you have a dish that looks ‘safe’, you have to ask what the chicken or steak is cooked in, whether that has any added sugar or butter, or ask for croutons or cheese to be taken out of your salad. If you don’t have friends who are doing it with you, it can be kind of isolating. Nobody wants to be the guy with the ridiculously specific order at the table, but you have to in order to live up to Whole30’s uncompromising philosophy.

Even with the drastic increase in money and time spent making sure our diet complied with the Whole30, we tended to rely on a few simple staples for breakfast and lunch. As a result, I’m burned out on turkey patties and canned tuna. It’ll take me at least a year to get my enjoyment back for either of those! We didn’t manage to get to specialty stores for ghee or clarified butter (two of the only oils/fats approved for cooking), so we went through a ton of olive oil.

The bottom line: the Whole30 is a fairly advanced-level diet, which makes it almost impossible to follow for someone who doesn’t really know their way around a kitchen. A couple of friends who were doing it with us fared far better, but they like to cook and have quite a few years of experience on me. In fact, all of the best Whole30 meals I had during the month were cooked by other people; without them, it would have been a much blander experience.

So, despite the massive (for me) time and financial commitments to Whole30, it still didn’t feel like enough to really fall into this alternate lifestyle. That was frustrating, but changes like that don’t happen overnight. I can’t imagine someone even busier than I am (or in a place that isn’t quite as good with fresh produce and alternatively-sourced meats) could manage it. You can’t do the Whole30 well if you’re picky about your food, don’t have a lot of time to devote to it, or financially strapped. And these are people who most often sacrifice healthy eating for cheap, fast food.

SO WHAT NOW?

Now that this whole experiment is over, I have to admit I’m looking forward to going back to ‘normal’ life. I’m not planning to fall directly back into my bad eating habits, but I now know that there’s a place for carbs and starches on my plate. It’s not nearly as large a place as it once was, but I’m glad to give it a little room.

Despite all of my griping about how time-consuming cooking was, I’m glad that I developed a habit of making meals in the kitchen and that’s something I really want to do. With time and practice, I’ll become more efficient with it so that there’s room to cook healthy, fast meals and still have time to do other things. The next month or so will be finding that balance between cheap, fast and healthy — I know that there’s no magic bullet that will offer all three options, but surely I can come up with a “payment system” that I’m happy with.

From now on, I’ll probably be cutting down on my carb and dairy intake. I’m lactose-intolerant, so I shouldn’t be having nearly as much dairy as I do, and I have to admit I’m a bit of a believer in a lower-carb diet at this point. I mean, the results speak for themselves. What I do have will be of better quality and more nutritionally sound than before; if I’m going through the trouble to have cheese or rice, it had better do more than just taste good.

I’m still planning to indulge in things that are bad for me — I love food far too much not to. But the difference here is that I’m choosing it for the sheer pleasure, not feeding a dependency on sugar or caffeine. For now, I can eat a cookie or have a cup of coffee and then…not have one for a while, and be fine. I don’t want to give that up. When I do indulge, it won’t be for crap. I don’t have time or health to waste on unhealthy food that’s also disappointing. The cheesecakes will be fine, and lo, the caramel shall be like spun gold.

All in all, it’s difficult to call the Whole30 ‘cleanse’ anything but a success right now. I lost weight, I feel better, reconnected with my food in a really awesome way and took baby steps towards having a small amount of culinary skill. Time will tell if I’ll keep the progress I’ve made, but for now I feel pretty good about what I’ve done, and what I CAN do.

Now excuse me while I tear open this box of cookies.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2013 in Diet and Exercise, Self-Reflection

 

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