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Monthly Archives: November 2015

(Movies) My Last 3: Get Hard, The Martian, Quick Change

Entertainment 150Get Hard (2015)
Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart had to manage a storm of controversy around the release of this film; a lot of people thought it was pretty blatantly racist at worst, and tone-deaf at best. Their response wasn’t the best — basically, they were telling racist jokes to make fun of the people who would think that way. While I’ve been a defender of comedic boundaries before, I couldn’t say that I liked the rationalization for it. You can make fun of the mindset of racist people without resorting to racially-insensitive comedy; yeah, it’s more difficult, but good comedy is hard, right?

I was inclined to give this a miss until Ryan recommended it to me, and I’m actually glad he did. Get Hard is without a doubt a problematic comedy, but it’s also an incredibly funny one. I hadn’t been exposed to Kevin Hart very much before this, but I have to say I’m a fan at this point. Will Ferrell continues to find ways to refine and develop his stock comedic character so that while you know what you’re getting with him, there are always a few pleasant surprises in store.

Ferrell plays a hedge fund manager who is completely oblivious to the class divide that he embodies; he has an immense house, a super-hot wife who’s addicted to power, and is prepared to ascend to the highest echelons of the financial community. The insane lifestyle of James King is one that he feels he’s earned; he’s great at his job, put in his time, and is now reaping the expected rewards.

Hart is a struggling family man who just wants enough money for a down payment on a modest house in a better school district so that his daughter won’t have to go to an elementary school with metal detectors outside the front door. When King gets popped for fraud and threatened with a fairly intense jail sentence, he hires Hart’s Darnell Lewis to teach him to get ready for prison because being a black guy he had to have served time right? And we’re off to the races.

Through the first act and about half of the second, you’re actually ready to buy the excuses of Ferrell and Hart; James King is an astonishingly assinine person oblivious to the struggles of the people all around him and living a life of extraordinary wealth and privilege. The scenes where he actually has to deal with people outside of his bubble provides some hilarious and pointed social commentary. Darnell’s problems are only slightly exaggerated for comedic effect, but Hart plays him as earnest and relatable. When James and Darnell team up, it’s legitimately magical.

Then we get to Darnell’s cousin, Russell (played by the rapper T.I.) and then we’re suddenly in a much less comfortable place with the comedy. Russell is a member of the Crenshaw Kings, and Darnell thinks he might be able to convince the gang to protect James in prison. The usual “hoodrat black guys react to the whitest of the white guys” hijinks ensue and while it’s surprisingly funny it also undercuts the point the film tried to make up front — most black people (and other minorities) aren’t the stereotypes we make them out to be. By populating the rest of the film mostly with these exact stereotypes, the message comes across as fairly hollow.

Despite that, it’s still really funny. Get Hard is one of those films that I wish weren’t so easily dismissed because it could open up an interesting and necessary conversation about the prejudices even well-meaning but disconnected white folks have about minorities, and how the film’s ultimately letting James off the hook (his greatest crime is outstanding ignorance and that’s about it) doesn’t take its message far enough. It could have been so much more than it was, but what it was is actually pretty good.

The Martian (2015)
This movie is effectively anti-Gravity. Matt Damon is the title character, Mark Watney. During a months-long mission to Mars, a rather intense storm forces the astronauts to abandon their station in a hurry. Watney is hit by a piece of debris and goes flying off into the dust-storm; his vitals read as flat. The mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is forced to abandon him, but surprise! Watney has survived, and now must find a way to survive until he is discovered and a mission to rescue him is organized.

What follows is an intense struggle to survive for Watney, and a series of jumping hurdles for his colleagues at NASA as they figure out just how they can help him across such great distances. While The Martian certainly pulls no punches detailing the inhospitable nature of space and other planets, it ultimately makes the case that human ingenuity, collaboration and willpower can overcome any problem — known or spontaneous — that the great void can throw at us. Watney is an inherently fascinating character; even though he’s on the mission as its chief botanist, he quickly learns how to turn his faculties towards doing whatever it takes to hold on until he can be rescued.

Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor are equally arresting as the various NASA administrators and engineers trying to bring Watney home. They have to navigate very real issues of time and budget constraints, political realities and public relations issues to figure out the best course of action. While it would have been lovely to imagine that NASA would be given unlimited funding and time to bring Watney home with the unwavering support of the public at their back, that simply isn’t the case. Forcing everyone involved to make do with less, we see the pressure everyone is under to find creative (and dangerous) solutions to accomplish what seems impossible.

In a lot of ways, the story of The Martian is the story of Gravity — a single astronaut stranded in the unforgiving void of space after a cataclysmic event leaves them without the necessities for survival. But while Gravity tightens its focus on Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone to explore the existential question of what motivates us to soldier on in the face of extreme difficulty and lingering trauma, The Martian pulls back to examine how we as human beings pull together in times of crisis to do amazing things we never thought we could. I think both films are uplifting for different reasons; Gravity tells us that we as individuals are stronger than we could ever believe, while The Martian tells us that we as a tribe are even smarter, stronger and more resilient than that. It’s really exciting to think about, and actually makes you want to see us living up to that potential.

Matt Damon is immensely charismatic here, and he pulls off the trick of effectively being alone through much of the film’s run time. Watney’s crewmates — including Chastain, Michael Pena, Mara Rooney and others — are competent and compassionate people, and watching them deal with the realization they’ve left a man behind is just as engrossing.

Director Ridley Scott, coming off a pretty bad pair of movies in Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings, could have used a hit and I’m glad he’s found one here. Mars feels like a surprisingly interesting place under his lens — even though it’s foreboding and dangerous, it can also be beautiful in the sparse manner of, say, an Arizona desert. He keeps the action rolling forward, pausing for just long enough to get a sense of place here. I’m glad that we saw the movie in theatres; the landscape and sense of distance really tracks well on the big screen.

All in all, The Martian makes a good counterpoint to the steady stream of space disaster films we’ve been getting recently. Yeah, things go catastrophically wrong, but the triumph over adversity actually feels better than a successful mission that goes according to plan.

Quick Change (1990)
Between Ghostbusters II and Groundhog Day, Bill Murray starred in this overlooked gem of a movie that also starred Geena Davis (right before she was in Thelma and Louise) and Randy Quaid (one year out of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation). There are small parts in the film from Tony Shalhoub, Phil Hartman, Stanley Tucci and Kurtwood Smith (the dad on That 70s Show), and they’re all great. It also features quite possibly the greatest public bus driver in all of comedic film. And I’ve never heard of it until now.

Quick Change tells the story of a man named Grimm (Murray) so fed up with New York City that he decides to rob a bank to get out of town. The bank heist itself is pretty funny and twisty enough that I won’t say too much about it here, but the Grimm’s attempt to get away with his accomplices make up most of the film. The city itself seems to conspire against them, throwing its labyrinthine geography and endless supply of random kooks to keep them in town. Grimm and his compatriots keep getting pulled down into the murk of the city the closer they get to the airport.

Murray plays the jaded genius really well — no surprise there. His co-stars, Davis and Quaid, are pretty amazing too. Jason Robards is the crusty old police detective two days from retirement and charged with bringing them in. He’s jaded too, perhaps moreso than Grimm, but still believes enough in the rule of law to keep plugging away at an impossible, Sisyphean task.

The writing is whip-smart and surreal; the characters that Grimm and company come across own their scenes completely. From the taxi driver who doesn’t speak English to the bus driver with crippling OCD, to the random unhelpful sociopaths they meet in their travels, New York is populated with pretty amazing people all living their own stories. It’s both one of the best and worst things about pretty much any major city, and Quick Change captures it so well.

Another surprising thing about the movie is how prescient it is; one of the big reasons Murray wants to get out of the city is gentrification and development — new condos are going up on every block and pricing long-time residents out of the city. A huge plot point is the necessity of strapping the money to himself because terrorism has made airport security draconian and inconvenient. And the police are constantly missing their men because they’re getting caught up chasing down minorities.

The more I think about this film, the more I love it. Everyone’s at the top of their game; the story is surprising, engaging and actually driven by characters who are smart, funny and interesting; and this is one of the only movies actually directed by Murray himself. This is the first (and best) of three movies Murray collaborated on with his co-director and the writer of the film, Howard Franklin. If you’re a big Bill Murray fan who’s seen most of his Wes Anderson stuff, this is the movie for you.

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2015 in Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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(Personal) A Rabbit Thinks About Fear

Self Improvement 150Earlier this year I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and I’m still wrapping my brain around it. I never thought of myself as a particularly anxious person; sure, there were a lot of things that I had an outsized reaction against, but I always thought that was tied up with self-esteem issues or concentration trouble. It never occurred to me that my anxiety response was a significant piece of the puzzle — until I went to a group therapy class about it and learned how GAD works.

The therapist leading the class told us that our emotions are like the warning lights on our cars — they’re general indications that we should pay attention to something. If we get angry, it more than likely means our sense of order about the world is being upended and we should probably react to that. If we get sad, it means that we’ve lost something or must pay attention to something’s absence. And if we get anxious, usually it means that there is something coming towards us with stakes that we care about — our survival, our success, or our happiness.

You know how sometimes our low-pressure tire gauge comes on even though the air pressure is fine? Our how we can’t rely on our gas indicator because it comes on way too late to do anything about it? A lot of mental illnesses can be related to our car’s warning systems going out of whack in some way. In this case, my anxiety light is really sensitive and this can cause me to over-react to certain issues in ways that don’t really help me to deal with it.

At work, this manifested as a resistance to doing more technical work for years. I was convinced that I didn’t have the attention to detail necessary to be good at that job, and if I did something wrong I could royally screw up a customer’s system. Other, better support people would have to come in and save the situation and it would be all my fault. What if I did something that couldn’t be fixed? What if I never actually learned how to work with the command line? What if I disappointed friends I worked with, or troubles at the job followed me into my personal relationships? It would be better if I never touched the command line and left it to people who were inclined towards such things.

In my personal life, that anxiety kept me from writing. I could never finish anything because I wasn’t sure how endings were actually supposed to go. I tended to write from the hip, and the endings I loved most were the ones that felt like the only possible one for the story. You could see how each bit of the track in a story lead to this inevitable place that was both surprising and satisfying. I wanted to do that, and I wasn’t sure I could; when I tried to outline my work, I would often end up surprised by what a character did. They would tell me that they simply didn’t work that way, or would do something that caught me completely by surprise. Often when I’m writing a story, the characters “grow legs” and start wandering all over the place. Control over these guys is an illusion; an outline is a joke. I’m not the kind of writer who can plan meticulously.
So what does that mean for my work? Will anything I write just never be as good as I want it to be? If I don’t have the ability to tell the kind of stories I want to tell, what’s the point of writing in the first place? If I can’t get behind my writing, then who will? What if I put something out there and it’s so bad, people realize that I’m nowhere near as smart or wise or thoughtful as they might think? What if my own writing exposes me as the fraud I feel like?

When I stepped back to think about it, most of the anxiety I feel comes from a singular place: the realization that people will realize I don’t have the control it seems I do. That I’m all too often lost and frightened and that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. The command line scares me because it’s a binary — either the command you put in works or it doesn’t. Putting my writing out there scares me because in many ways it’s something I can’t take back — it either succeeds in what I’m trying to do or it doesn’t; either the audience reacts positively towards it, or it doesn’t. It either connects me to my audience through shared or expanded values, or it divides us.

I learned that I tend to “catastrophize” a lot. Possible mistakes I could make taking a course of action will have consequences far greater than the mistake warrants. If I can’t be perfect doing something that I’ve set out to do, then I would rather not do it at all. It was the main reason I could never push myself into doing something different, something more. Thinking about stumbling outside of my comfort zone gave me the worst feeling, and my immediate reaction was to retreat somewhere safe.

Realizing just what GAD is and how to deal with it is a process I’m still learning. Over the past year I’ve learned how to be comfortable with discomfort, and to even see it as a blessing — being unmoored with an activity is actually a sign that you’re stretching yourself and trying something new, and that’s one of the best things to do in life. Dealing with a situation not completely inside your control is just the price you pay for stretching yourself and learning new things.

Still, progress is slow. My tolerance for the new and different is rising, but it’s still lower than most. I still catch myself retreating to the familiar and the easy far more often than I should. But that’s a part of the process, too. We’re never going to get it right the first time we try something new; making mistakes are a part of the refinement and learning portions of building a new habit.

I’m still quite frightened about working with the command line at work. And I’m still nervous about posting up the stories that I’ve written online. I’m still worried about the endings of short stories I haven’t even begun to write. And I’m still learning how to deal with all of that. For now, it’s enough to recognize the anxiety is there, take a few deep breaths, and move through the discomfort to push myself anyway.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2015 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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(Movies) My Last 3: The Pyramid, The Book Thief, The Sacrament

Entertainment 150The Pyramid (2014)
This is a minor found-footage horror movie that I had been interested in mainly because I thought (mistakenly) that it was directed by Alexandre Aja. He’s a horror director I’ve really come to like after watching High Tension, the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and Horns. It turns out he only produced it, which is a real shame. Under the hands of some better filmmakers, this could have been really good.

The Pyramid is a faux documentary set during the Egyptian uprising of 2013 about a group of archaeologists uncovering an ancient structure that appears to have been built and then buried underground. After unearthing the apex of the pyramid, they find a way inside — and a series of events lead them further and further into the byzantine hallways. It doesn’t take long before they discover a malevolent force trying to keep them there, and kill them one by one.

The set-up and a lot of the action is actually fairly well-done here. I was impressed by the plotting; in a lot of found-footage movies, the characters have to contort themselves to have a reason to keep filming, or to go deeper into a horrible situation. Here, I thought it was fairly well-handled if a bit obvious that they were expositing. Once the scientists make it inside the pyramid and the proceedings get underway, the atmosphere changes dramatically and the sense of peril mounts really well.

Still, a lot of the dialogue is just clunky, and Denis O’Hare (hi, Russell Edgington!) is the biggest name and best actor there but you wouldn’t know it. The ending and the revelations about the true nature of the pyramid might work or it might not, depending on your tolerance for warped Egyptian mythology and low-budget (for a feature film) CGI. Even though the archaeologists and documentary crew are really put through the ringer, it doesn’t quite feel like torture porn because there are clear stakes and a hope — however small — that these hapless men and women will survive.

If you’re a found-footage enthusiast (like me) and are looking for a decent B-grade horror movie that’s slightly left-of-center, you could do worse than The Pyramid. It’s not astonishing, but I thought it was solid enough.

The Book Thief (2013)
A little girl is given up for adoption to a poor but lively German couple, right around the time the Nazi party is coming to power. After her new father discovers she can’t read, he teaches her and through that process instills in her a love of books and stories. As Hitler’s grip on Germany tightens, their Jewish and progressive neighbors are rounded up and disappeared. The community changes. And the son of the father’s wartime friend (himself a Jew) comes to their door seeking sanctuary.
The Book Thief is an adaptation of an Australian novel written by Markus Zusak, and it’s pretty obviously one of those movies that come out during Oscar season as a prestige picture. The cinematography is beautiful, the direction is measured and restrained, and the acting has that stiff, important quality — for the most part.

Here, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and newcomer Sophie Nelisse make up the family that binds together through the onset of World War II, and they actually do a pretty wonderful job. Rush is breezily amiable as the cool, engaged dad; Watson is unrecognizable as a muttering, severe house-frau. Nelisse is an effortless actress, moving through the story with whatever is required of her. It’s quite impressive to watch these three, especially as the hard exterior of Watson’s housewife cracks and you see the effect that the war and the political situation has on her.

And yet, the story itself doesn’t quite land with the weight it’s clearly trying to. It meanders from subject to subject with the expansive air of a biography but it doesn’t quite leave you with anything you can take with you. The framing narration — the voice of Death talks about the proceedings with a bemused, detached air that’s really grating — isn’t as clever or thought-provoking as it thinks it is. And honestly, the ending is a bit of a let-down in its obviousness. Instead of being emotionally affecting, it feels manipulative instead.

Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that explores the lives of ordinary Germans during the Nazi regime, and for that alone it’s worth a look. The performances are solid enough to keep you engaged even as you roll your eyes whenever the movie tries to prey on your sympathies. The only Oscar nomination it managed to earn was Best Score, and the music from John Williams is quite well done. I just wish that it was in service to a movie that had been more artful in what it wanted to do.

The Sacrament (2013)
More found-footage horror! This time, a documentary crew from Vice magazine travels to Bolivia after one of their fashion photographers receives a letter from his estrange sister inviting them to a religious commune that’s been started there. Upon arrival, they’re more than a little freaked out by the vibe they get from the followers of “Father”, and just when they’re about to shrug and say “different strokes for different folks” the movie takes its turn.

What follows is an updated and fictionalized account of Jonestown, one of the biggest mass suicides in American history. Directed by Ti West, this move maintains a great sense of tension throughout; he really knows how to mine the vague unease one would feel among an isolated group of fanatics. As events unfold and escalate, it becomes increasingly clear that the documentary crew are in over their heads, and that discovery is appropriately terrifying.

The main reporter, Sam, is distractingly stiff and unconvincing as the narrator of the documentary. As things unravel and it becomes harder to justify the decision to keep filming, the framing of the found-footage format begins to suffer; you’re not sure why the camerman would keep documenting an increasingly desperate situation. A lot of the dialogue rings hollow, especially the stuff surrounding Father — the actor portraying him has a off-beat charisma all his own, so he makes it work regardless.

Ultimately, this is a great movie for found-footage and Ti West fans, but I’m not sure it’s a must-see film. If you’re in the dark on a Friday night and are looking for something to get the blood pumping, this is certainly a good choice.

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2015 in Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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(Personal) The Wolf We Feed

Myth 150I’m sure you know this story. One evening, an elder sits down with his son. The son had been getting into trouble because he had problems with anger and lashing out, so the elder tells him a quick fable. “There are two wolves fighting inside of each and every one of us,” he says. “One of them is everything that is evil within us – anger, envy, sorrow, greed. The other is everything that is good – joy, compassion, peace and kindness. Though one may gain the upper hand for a time, the other is never truly defeated. They are fighting for the nourishment that only you can provide them.”

The son thought about this for a while, then asked. “OK. Which one of them wins?”

“The one you feed,” the elder says.

I think about this story a lot. As a Zen Buddhist, I see karma as simply the kind of environment we create for ourselves; we can only control our actions, and it’s important that we understand the effect of our actions on the people and places around us. It’s important to me that I bring comfort, contentment and connection to the places I’m in, because those are the kind of spaces that attract me. If I’m going to make the kind of world I would want to live in, I need to put in the work. So I try hard to find common ground with the people I’m with, to make them feel comfortable enough that we can work through our differences, to make them feel connected enough that they won’t fear me rejecting them for a disagreement. I don’t always succeed, but that’s the aim. That’s the kind of person I want to be.

But here’s something else. I self-identify as a social justice warrior. I know that’s a loaded label; most of the time it’s used by people who mean it as an insult. The narrative for social justice warriors is one of immediate, unthinking and overwhelming anger against anything that could be viewed as remotely offensive. If you say something politically incorrect, then the social justice warriors will grab their pitchforks and come after you. They’re the thought police of the internet.

I take on that moniker because I believe in the causes championed by many who’ve been derided as such. I occupy many different intersecting minority spaces, being gay, black, non-Christian and coping with chronic mental illnesses. I know what it’s like to move through a world that hasn’t been built for you, and I’ve experienced on a day-to-day basis what it’s like to have your existence questioned, dismissed or belittled. I’ve also experienced how occupying many privileged spaces has made my life easier in many respects; I’m a cisgender male, I’m able-bodied, I’m reasonably educated, have medical insurance and a support network. My illnesses aren’t so severe that I can’t function in modern society. There are people who have more fundamental challenges than I do.
So I fight for them, and I fight for the people who are dealing with the same challenges I do. I believe in a world where we clearly see, understand and accept the unique challenges and burdens of our fellow human beings. I believe we ought to live in a society that provides them with whatever they need to be healthy, happy and whole. I believe in fighting for a shift in our consciousness around these issues; it’s not enough that I personally believe these things – we as a civilization must address the needs of our most vulnerable and powerless. We must make sure they can be connected to the fabric of society just as well as those of us who don’t need additional considerations. I’m willing to work to make sure that happens, however I can.

This is a mindset I’ve come by recently, to be sure. As a progressive, it’s sort of my job to continually test and reshape my understanding of how the world works, my place in it, and how society should function. I absorb new information and ideas about the human experience, including the really fundamental concepts that we often take for granted. My views have evolved from where they were one year ago, and hopefully they’ll have improved still further a year from now. Change is a constant in so many ways, and that must be embraced.

However, I understand why so many of us in progressive spaces have the reputations we do. We’re passionate, we can be uncompromising, and we’re fierce believers in our way of life. For so many of us, especially as minorities, the ability to organize into a community and speak in a way we can be heard is very new. The power that affords us is intoxicating, and we’re still learning how to wield it responsibly. But for the first time we can say that the frequent targeting, incarceration, abuse and murder of our black men, women and children is unacceptable. We can say that it’s unacceptable for our transgender men and women to be forced through a parade of humiliating ordeals just to “prove” their gender to people who have no business policing that concept. We can say that each and every one of us occupy space of privilege as well as under-privileged spaces, and it’s important for us to recognize that and accept what it means. What’s more, when we say it loudly enough, forcefully enough, people have no choice but to hear us. We have the power to force a conversation about these issues, and we need to because otherwise the vulnerable among us will continue to suffer and die at the hands of a society that’s only interested in keeping things exactly as they are.

If you’re not a part of these spaces, or you don’t hold the same views about society, privilege and our individual responsibilities to our community, then it may seem like I’m forcing you to talk about ideas that don’t make sense. When you ask (or demand) that I explain these ideas in a way that makes sense to you and I respond with “It’s not my job to educate you” or a dismissal of that request, it can be tremendously frustrating. When you tell me that you don’t agree or explain your position and I respond by shouting down your ideas or making personal attacks and moral judgements, it can be enraging and only encourage you to dig in your heels. I understand that.

It’s taken me some time to reconcile my identity as a Zen Buddhist with my identity as a social justice warrior. Spending time in activist spaces, I see how so many of them have become hornet’s nests of anger and frustration. For so many of us, this is a life-and-death struggle. For so many of us, people like Michael Brown and Freddie Gray (remember them?) don’t happen in a vacuum. They’re not aberrations or miscarriages of justice. They’re the end result of a system working as designed.
So many of us in progressive circles are afraid about what happens to us when someone decides that our differences will not be accepted. As a black man, will I be harassed by the police while I’m driving? As a gay man, will I be targeted for expressing love towards my husband in public? As a non-Christian, hearing the rhetoric in our politics about anyone who doesn’t go to church is disheartening. And these are anxieties I carry with my all day, every day.

We’re tired of being afraid. We’re tired of living in a world where speaking up means being shouted down or dismissed. We’re tired of feeling like we have to justify our existence. And that fear, fatigue and anger has reached a point where it’s simply taken over these spaces.

I understand why that has happened, and I hope other people do too. But…at this point it feels like we’re feeding the wrong wolf. We’ve given ourselves over to this anger and it means that we’ve become unable to actually affect change. When someone comes to us trying to understand why we say or do the things we say or do, it’s an opportunity to actually explain our position, to connect with someone else, to actually act on our principles and change the world. When we shut that person down with “It’s not my job” or anger, then we’ve missed that change. The disconnection deepens; that person becomes unable to speak with us because they don’t want to be subjected to that anger again.

Not every situation in which we’re asked to explain our position is an opportunity, and I know that too. But I’ve seen too many people turned away at the gate of our spaces because anger and dismissal is our default response. A lot of us have come to see the world as a more hostile place then it is, and we respond accordingly. We’ve fed the dark wolf until it has overpowered our better nature.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve come to the decision that this cycle has to stop somewhere. We can’t keep alienating those who disagree with us, and we can’t keep shouting down the people who haven’t arrived to the exact same conclusions we have. If we expect to change the world, we have to change the minds of the people living there. And we can’t do that with the tone of the conversation we’ve been having in and around these topics.

Inevitably, this opinion is going to be called “tone policing” or “concern trolling” because I’m more interested in the tone of the conversation than the subject. Since I’ve owned the social justice warrior moniker, I’ll go ahead and own the label of tone policing too. Fine, I’m advocating that we consider our tone. You know why? BECAUSE OUR TONE IS IMPORTANT.

The emotions that we deal with as minorities are certainly valid. It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to be tired. And it’s OK to be afraid. There is a lot that’s wrong with the world we live in, and we’ve been fighting the same battles for a very long time. Sometimes, it’s even OK to let that anger fuel our actions; we can rise up and state in no uncertain terms that we will not tolerate unfair or extreme treatment from a power structure that is supposed to protect us from it.

However, different situations call for different actions, regardless of our emotional state. It’s important to consider what we want out of our conversations. Are we hoping to express ourselves in a way that gets someone to see the world the way we do? If that’s the case, what’s the best way to do that? Making someone feel bad about what they believe rarely changes their mind, from my experience. Making them feel kinship with you stands a much better chance. It can be more difficult, and a lot more frustrating, but ultimately it’s much more effective.

Explaining why a certain statement or action is offensive requires patience and compassion. If we truly want the behavior to cease, then we must get the person engaging in it to understand what’s wrong with it and what would be a better course of action. People aren’t willing to examine themselves if they feel attacked; they close themselves off as a protective measure. In order to soften habits, we must allow them to be vulnerable. We must respect that vulnerability and treat it gently. That is difficult, if not impossible to do when you’re angry. So we must find a way to temper that anger.

I understand where the anger of progressives comes from; in many ways, I share it. But I also realize that I must remain vigilant against the effect of that anger. I don’t want to feed the wrong wolf, because that pulls me away from the person I would like to be, which pulls me away from the world I would like to create. I do my best to feed my compassion, my joy, my kindness by acting on those emotions, even when it’s difficult. Especially when it’s difficult.

I think in order for social justice warriors to be effective in combat, we’re going to need to start doing the same.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2015 in Better Living Through Stories, Buddhism, Politics

 

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The X-Men Are Dead, Long Live The X-Men (Comics)

Reading 150The end of the Marvel Universe came and went before Uncanny X-Men #600 hit the stands, and it’s anyone’s guess why the powers that be decided to wait as long as they did. Brian Michael Bendis, one of Marvel’s big gun writers, had wrapped up the final issue of his years-long X-Men run earlier in the summer only to have it delayed by several months. Nominally, it would have been a great post-Secret Wars story that serves as the capstone to Bendis’ arc with the mutants and a good prologue to usher in the new status-quo set eight months after…well, whatever happens at the end of Secret Wars.

But delays have kept the ending to that multiverse-reshuffling story off the shelves, so here we have the end of one era for the X-Men and the beginning of a new one; the same week Uncanny X-Men dropped, Jeff Lemire’s first issue of Extraordinary X-Men came out too.

The end of Bendis’ X-Men run was laden with all of the problems I’ve had with his treatment of the title all along. Maybe he’s spreading himself too thin here; maybe there are simply too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to the mutants; maybe too many events and crossovers kept him from doing his best work. But jumping Jesus, All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men have been a hot mess for a long time.

Ever since the Battle of the Atom crossover (which saw three versions of X-Men from the past, present and future duking it out), it’s been really tough to get a bead on what Bendis has been going for with the titles. Cyclops, Wolverine, Beast and Storm have been acting and re-acting to each other without a clear sense of what drives those actions, and there’s been precious little in the way of character growth for anyone save for the folks that Bendis have brought on, like Eva Bell and Goldballs. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great characters — but you get the sense that Bendis doesn’t quite care about the rest of the gang.

Full disclosure: I’m a Beast fanboy, born and bred, and I’m willing to admit that most of my dissatisfaction with Bendis’ run comes down to his treatment of Hank McCoy. Under his writing, Beast mutated again, into some sort of oblong-headed, bat-eared, ape-mutant; brought the original five X-Men forward into the future; irrevocably broke the fabric of space and time by doing so, leading to the collapse of the multiverse; got a tongue-lashing from none other than the Watcher before he was murdered; and finally has to endure an “intervention” where pretty much every mutant who hasn’t stood with Cyclops calls him out. Through all of that, Hank has done little in response beyond look sad and then keep doing what he’s been doing.

So “The Trial of Hank McCoy” is…underwhelming for such a landmark issue. The gathered X-Men accuse Beast of breaking the laws of time and space, physics, nature; they want to “help” him, though they’re really vague about what he needs help with and what that help would mean; and Beast pretty much rants at them, calling down shame, saying “to hell with you!”, packing his bags and leaving in a huff. Before he leaves, he gets to see Cyclops — the entire reason he brought the original five into the present in the first place — hold a televised peaceful demonstration that…somehow proves him right?

It’s frustrating to see these characters you love twisted into shapes you don’t recognize by writers who don’t understand them. And I say this knowing full well that I’m just dude with a blog ranting about a fictional character in a universe that allows for Spider-Man, The Blob, The Punisher and Squirrel Girl to exist right alongside one another. I get how this sounds.

But there’s not a lot of cohesion to Bendis’ story with the X-Men. The only feeling you’re left with after reading #600 is “well…that happened.” There are interludes where young Bobby Drake confronts his older self about his sexuality, with Jean Grey there to provide the commentary, and the older Iceman’s reasons for remaining closeted all this time are actually pretty solid: because of who he was and who he ran with, he wanted just one part of his life to “feel normal”, even if that meant denying a basic part of himself. Those of us who exist in multiple minority spaces can sympathize with that — it can feel like you’re fighting against the current in every aspect of your life, and sometimes you’d give anything to know what it’d be like to not have to do that. I wish there had been more space devoted to this, but so far there’ve only been two whole scenes exploring the psyche of Bobby Drake. It’ll be interesting to see how this is handled elsewhere.

Ultimately, Uncanny X-Men #600 is a fitting capstone to Bendis’ run. The emotional beats are seldom earned, characters behave in confusing ways, and you’re never quite sure what to make of what’s happening. As a fan of Bendis’ work in the Ultimate Universe, I really wish he had done better here.

Jeff Lemire takes over from there in Extraordinary X-Men #1, and while a lot of the building blocks of the story are worn smooth by now there’s enough potential there that I’m curious to see what happens next.

Eight months after the end of Secret Wars and the restoration of the Marvel Universe, mutantkind are dealing with another extinction-level threat. The Terrigen Mists of the Inhumans are causing an illness in mutants and rendering them sterile; the rise of one race means the end of another. Against this backdrop, Cyclops’ stunt at the end of Uncanny #600 has caused humanity to lose their sense of respect (??) for mutants. Knowing they’re on the ropes and unlikely to fight back, mutants are being ostracized and eliminated to prevent the spread of “m-pox”.

Storm has taken leadership of the mutant nation now, and Iceman is her second-in-command. Right off the bat, it’s exciting to see Bobby step into a leadership position. Despite the fact that he’s apparently one of the most powerful mutants to ever exist, he hasn’t really lived up to his potential. It’s quite possible he’ll get to do so here.

The first issue is “the collection,” the part of the story where a catalyzing force realizes the need and taps heroes on the shoulder. Magik is put to use as the travel agent, locating mutants in trouble and bringing them to the Haven, a secret location where the X-Men are based. She goes for Colossus, of course, who is content to live out the rest of his days with a farm and a bottle of vodka. When she tells him he’s needed, he tells her he just wants a normal life — the same thing Jean Grey tells Storm and Iceman when they come to collect her.

Already, members of the team feel like they’re facing the same problem in different ways. Storm has doubts about her ability to lead mutantkind; Iceman has never really had any responsibility for anyone before; Colossus has never had a taste for the craziness of the X-Men; and Jean Grey doesn’t want the burden of being a symbol for Xavier’s dream. Almost none of them want to do what they’re being called to do — they’re doing it because they have to.

Nightcrawler and Old Man Logan round out the team — or will, once the former is rescued from a mysterious band of mercenaries collecting mutants as test subjects, and the latter once Storm and Bobby convince him to come along and figure out what his deal is. I get the feeling that the issue-ending reveal of the old Wolverine is supposed to be a big shock, and it probably would have been if Secret Wars had ended on time.

The art for both issues is pretty strong; Bendis has a number of collaborators for #600, and while it could have been distracting to have wildly different art-styles bouncing around between scenes it mostly works here. There’s enough continuity in the character models that you’re not left wondering who’s who, and there are some great dynamic panels that lend a sense of motion and emotion to the proceedings. (You can tell I don’t know how to talk about art here.)

But the artistic team of Ramos (pencils), Olazaba (inks) and Delgado (color) is pretty wonderful in Extraordinary. The character designs are crisp — cartoonish, but grounded — and the color palette does a great job at enhancing the mood of every scene. And not for nothing, but the new-look Colossus? Super hot. God. Damn.

The story for Extraordinary X-Men is likely to be unpopular. We’ve already covered the mutant race with their backs against the wall before, and the rumors that Marvel is effectively swapping out the Inhumans for the mutants seem to be 100% true. It’s kind of interesting that the editorial office is leaning in to the controversy by having the Terrigen Mists actually BE the reason for the extinction of the race.

But still, I’m hopeful for mutantkind. Even though they’re in possibly the worst situation they’ve ever been in story-wise, they’ve got good writers on their titles. It’ll be interesting to see how Lemire handles the relationships among Storm’s team. How will the adult Bobby react to the teen Jean Grey? Magik and Colossus haven’t seen eye-to-eye in quite some time; is all that bad blood really under the bridge? How is Storm going to get along with Logan? How does Logan deal with everyone else? I suppose we’ll see.

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2015 in Comic Books, Reviews

 

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Spillage

Buddhism 150There’s a Zen story that goes something like this: a Buddhist scholar comes to a Zen master and asks him for teaching. The scholar then proceeds to establish his credentials, talking about how long he’s studied, the doctorate he’s received, the professors he’s associated with, the whole thing. The master listens while pouring the scholar some tea. He keeps pouring, and pouring, and pouring until the scholar’s cup runs over.

“Stop!” the scholar says. “The cup is spilling!”

The master nodded. “You are like this cup. You are so full of ideas about Buddhism that I cannot put anything else in. Before I can teach you, you will have to empty your cup.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that parable lately. What does it mean for me to empty my cup? In some contexts, it could mean that I am trying to stuff myself too full of activities — when I try to fill every moment of my life with meaningful effort, some stuff is bound to be spilled; I’ll miss a deadline or drop a project I had meant to run full steam ahead on. In others, it could mean that I have so many ideas about, well, everything — how we should treat each other, how stories should be told, how I should be telling stories — that it’s that much more difficult to be open to new experiences and experiments. Lately I’ve been feeling full, and while in many ways that’s very good, it also means that there is simply no room in my life for much else; for surprises, or new interests, or much of new anything.

I know I wrote a big long post last week on all the stuff that I was planning to do this month; taking advantage of National Novel Writing Month to make meaningful progress on a number of short stories and projects is still in the plan. But I’ve traditionally had problems finding the edges of my cup, and before I know it I’m spilling again; I have to empty it in order to figure out just what I can hold.

That’s the balance I’m trying to find right now. How many things can I do and be only…two-thirds full? What kinds of ideas can I loosen to make room for the new? It feels like so much of growing older is figuring out how not to calcify, how not to fill your life to the brim so that there’s no room for anything else. The world is changing around us, constantly, and in order to be a part of it we must adapt to those changes, accept them as they come, figure out how to shift ourselves to make room for them. It’s difficult work, and ceaseless; it’s Sisyphus and his rock up the hill. But it can happy work.

Last week, I didn’t get nearly as much writing done as I would have liked. I’m not sure if my time management wasn’t up to snuff, or if I was simply too full. Work is still demanding a lot of brain power, and there’s just not a whole lot of it left in the evenings when I get home. I don’t think that makes me lazy or deficient — it takes effort to roll with the changes, and these are big changes that will take me a long time to adapt to. There are some parts of myself that have calcified quite a bit (read: the thought that I AM NOT TECHNICAL), and softening them will require repeated and sustained effort. Is that all I have room for in my cup?

We’ll see. I also ran three times last week; caught up on reading comics that I’m getting into once again; started in on Kindred by Octavia Butler, which I’m sure will be kind of a difficult read; and I’m trying to keep up on housework and cooking a bit more than I have been. Life has a way of…piling these things on top of one another in ways you don’t notice until you sit back and take stock of what you’ve been doing.

These are formless thoughts. I suppose I’m talking through why I haven’t been writing or reading as much as I’d like. That’s what I’ve sat down here to think about; and when I think about it, I’ve been doing a lot. Growing into a role at work that requires more of my mental space than I realized; exercising; changing my diet; keeping the burrow a little neater. Writing and reading keep being pushed off a bit for more immediate concerns. Is that acceptable? Can I ease up on that in order to take care of what’s in front of me?

Hmm. We’re taught as writers that in order to be the writer you want to be, you must MAKE time to write AND to read; that anything else is unacceptable, that if you don’t do this you can’t really call yourself a writer because you simply don’t want it badly enough. But I don’t think that’s quite true. I would love to build a habit of writing, and in many ways I have. It’s not a daily habit, but it’s often enough that I start to get that itch when I haven’t done it in a little while. Maybe, for now, that’s often enough.

 

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Fiction Friday: The End of the Night (Moontime World)

Writing 150I’ve been itching to write about werewolves recently, because I feel such a strong attraction to them but never seem them quite displayed the way I’d like to see them. I also have a thing about vampires — most of the time, I’m going to hate your vampire character because all of the “baggage” that comes with being a blood-sucker is stuff that is decidedly not for me. So I thought I would write about a supernatural couple — she’s a vampire, and he’s a werewolf — and the challenges they face making their relationship and separate lives work together. This is my very first crack at it, so chances are the characters will change significantly over time. 1151 words.

Dr. Gibson droned on in Luneisha’s ear, describing the patient’s arteries in a manner so disengaged it was almost admirable. She typed the words into the transcription software just as distractedly; she had been at this long enough to know that she could off-load that part of the job to a mysterious automatic process she still hadn’t quite understood. What she focused on, instead, was the sound between the syllables.

She imagined him in his office, hunched over a stack of papers in front of his computer, his rolling office chair never content to stay where it was supposed to, his weary head resting on the hand across his forehead. His voice was deep with authority; if he weren’t so tired, he would have had a presence about him. As it was, he was a man who had shrunken into his job, let it beat him down until he no longer registered the power and responsibility he had over so many lives and deaths.

When he was uncertain, he tapped his pen on his desk. When he disliked a patient, he leaned away from his desk and back in his chair. When he was thinking about something else, he tumbled over four or five words at a time and filled in the paused with ums and ahs. He struck her as a serious man, in the way powerless people tend to forget that there are things to smile about.

The thought struck her; she glanced up from her typing and realized she hadn’t transcribed anything for nearly a minute. Luneisha cursed under her breath and scrolled the recording back. She wanted to get this last one finished before the sun came up.

In five minutes, Dr. Gibson’s report was typed and proof-read. She sent off the night’s work and stretched, ignoring the pop in her joints. It felt good to stretch, though she didn’t know why. The physical processes that governed all of that had stopped a long time ago — long enough for her to start forgetting what it really felt like. It had been twenty years since she last saw the sun; in all that time, she still wasn’t sure how she worked.

Luneisha checked the clock. 5:45 in the morning. She leaned back in her chair and sighed. It would be morning soon, and Sam still hadn’t shown up. She was hoping that she would at least get to see him before she had to go to ground, but it was looking more and more likely that she would be going into the basement alone.

She looked around her bedroom. It was small and cheap-looking; a thread-bare carpet covering a concrete floor, particle-board walls that curved in too many places; a bed, computer desk and chair that were obviously rescued from a dumpster. The computer and the monitor were new though — a sleek tower hummed sweetly next to her leg, baking her clammy skin with the heat from its processor. The monitor stretched for over half the width of the desk itself, the light near bright enough to illuminate her room, its colors crisp, the picture sharp.
Luneisha knew what to splurge on — this monitor was one of her only links to the outside world. Sometimes, waiting for Sam, she would watch old episodes of Degrassi. It made her feel good to see young people walking in the sun, talking about stuff that didn’t matter like it did.

Abruptly she stood and cursed under her breath again. She started to pace the room. She had spent too much time alone this week; she always got like this when she was left to her own thoughts. It wasn’t the strength or the speed or the senses that made her feel inhuman; it was the isolation. If she could just go out once in a while…

She turned away from that thought, too. She couldn’t trust herself around people, and she knew that. Not after last time.

Luneisha closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. She felt lungs that had stopped working decades ago inflate and collapse. She felt her slim shoulders rise and fall under her shirt. She stepped away from her past, her dark thoughts, her confusion, and stepped back into herself. Things would get better, because she would make sure they would.

When she opened her eyes, she looked right into the panting, grinning face of Sam.

Luneisha hissed and jumped back; Sam laughed. She had no idea how a man that size could move that quietly. It almost didn’t seem fair. She glared at him as she waited for him to recover himself.

“Hey girl,” he grinned at last. “What you doing here in the dark, all by yourself?”

“Waiting for you, fool.” She stepped back into the center of the room as he turned on a light; his clothes were covered in dirt and leaves, and he was barefoot. He still had that wild look in his eye, the one he got when he went a little too far. “I didn’t want to go to bed without you.”

“Awwwww, ain’t you sweet.” His smile was too wide and all teeth. “Sorry I made you wait so long, darling. It was hard to get away from the boys.”

Luneisha turned her relief into stony-faced disappointment. “Mm-hmm.”

“Come on, Lu, don’t be that way.” Sam slunk towards her, his small backpack dripping from one long arm to the floor. “I was only late because I got you a present.”

She raised an eyebrow as he stepped closer, blocking the light. “Yeah? It’d better be good.”

“You know it is.” He nodded towards the backpack. “It’s in there. All yours. But you probably shouldn’t open it until we’re in the basement.”

Luneisha cracked a smile as she stood, breezing by him to scoop up the bag. “Oh, so you make me wait until the sun is almost up, and now I can’t open my damn present until I’m already in bed?”

Sam spread his arms wide. His fingertips nearly brushed the walls on either side. “Hey, I’m only looking out for you. We don’t have a lot of time.”

“No we don’t.” Luneisha opened the backpack and looked inside. A feeling came over her, and she knew if it could her mouth would be watering. “But this almost makes up for it.”

Sam laughed. “Almost?? Good Lord, woman, what else I got to do to be on your good side?”

Luneisha reached for Sam’s hand and squeezed it. He was burning hot; maybe she was just cold. It had been so long since she had eaten something. “Come on downstairs, and I’ll show you.”

Sam followed obediently without another word. Luneisha lead him with one hand and clutched the backpack full of blood bags tight with the other. It was funny how quickly her mood could turn around. All it took was a little bit of company.

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2015 in Writing

 

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