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Monthly Archives: May 2016

(Mental Health) What Is Depression, Anyway?

Self Improvement 150On the weekend before last, I walked all night to raise money and promote visibility for suicide prevention and related issues. There were more than a thousand people with me, all dedicated to this cause because they had been touched by mental illness and the havoc it can wreak over the lives of people who cope with it and the people who form their support network. It was a sobering thing, knowing just how many people were directly affected.

Walkers wore honor beads to show their connection to suicide. Green meant you had a personal struggle or attempt. Gold meant you lost a parent; white meant you lost a child; orange meant you lost a brother or sister. Red is for losing a spouse, purple is for losing a friend or other loved one. There was a rainbow of colors over a sea of blue shirts that day, and the sheer variety of people wearing green beads really blew me back. There were old hippies, young video game nerds, intellectuals and business-people, homemakers, people of color, couples and whole packs of others. I could look at someone, see their green beads, and know that I’m not alone in what I survived. So many people from so many different walks of life also deal with depression and the suicidal ideation that can be a part of it. It was inspiring, but also surprising.

We don’t talk much about suicide or the conditions that lead to it — namely, deep depression and anxiety. I can understand why. Mental illness is something that can be very hard to wrap your brain around; one can understand it logically, or have an idea of what it’s like through metaphor. But when you’re dealing with a loved one who feels like they’re only burrowing deeper into a hole you’re trying to pull them out of, it can be exasperating, confusing and make you feel hopeless.

Why do we do that when we’re depressed? What’s actually going on when people like me are in the worst of those troughs? I wanted mainly to try and explain things on a few different levels — what physically or chemically happens to the brain; what it feels like to me personally when it does; how it looks to our support networks; and what the depressed and their loved ones can do to help manage their condition before, during and after episodes. This might take me a little while to do, and it’ll most certainly take multiple posts. I want to make sure that my information is correct and any recommendations made are helpful, but also please keep in mind that I’m not a mental health professional. I have intimate knowledge about this, but I’m not trained to deal with it any way.

Depression (or major depressive disorder, or chronic depression) is a mood disorder often characterized by deep feelings of sadness, hopelessness, numbness, loss of interest and lethargy. People within a depressive episode can appear sad or empty to the point of near-catatonia; angry or irritable; entertain irrational thoughts or worries that leads to catastrophic imaginings; be unable to sleep, or sleep too much; appear tired or “slowed down”, so that thinking and speaking are noticeably delayed; appear distant, aloof and/or unable to explain what’s going on. There are a lot of other symptoms, of course — depression isn’t a “monolith” illness, and everyone’s relationship with it will differ depending on physiological and environmental factors.

So what’s going on in the brain that depression manifests with such different symptoms? Why do some of us get really sad and still while others get agitated, angry or paranoid? Why is it so difficult to treat depression with medicine or lifestyle changes, like so many other illnesses?

That’s a difficult question to answer, simply because so little is known about the physiology of the brain and how it relates to mood. The brain is a frighteningly complex organ that is really a bundle of inter-related systems working together to do amazing things — if any one of them runs into a problem, it can cause changes that are hidden through some dependencies and rise in others. The simple fact of the matter is we can’t pinpoint to one part of the brain and say with certainty that this is the part that causes mood disorders.

What we do know is that there does seem to be a genetic component, and parents can pass depression and other mental illnesses to their children. For example, my biological mother was schizophrenic and the children of schizophrenic people are at a higher risk for chronic depression. There is also a physiological component that might take a bit to explain.

So, our moods are actually electrical and chemical messages that travel through our brain. What happens is an electrical message is sent from a neuron, travelling down the long trails called dendrites to the end of the branch. Think of it like a rural family walking down a long dirt road to put a message in a mailbox. That message can be anything from “This thing you’re touching is very hot.” to “You are getting sleepy.” That message changes from an electrical stimulus to a chemical when it reaches the mailbox, and that chemical is called a neurotransmitter.

Receptors at the end of dendrites for other neurons are specially formatted for any of the 30 (identified) neurotransmitters; when those receptors pick up the neurotransmitter, it converts the chemical message back into an electrical impulse which races along the dendrite (that dirt path), into the cell body, and then to the axon — which changes the electric impulse back into a chemical — and the whole process starts all over again. We have anywhere from 10-100 billion neurons in our brains, and they can communicate with each other in less than 1/5000 of a second. It’s amazing stuff; our brains are processing incredible amounts of information at astonishing speeds, converting electricity to chemicals and back again.

So what happens to the message once it’s been received by a neuron? Well, it’s released from the neuron that started it and floats in the synapse — the space between neurons in our brain. It’s then either taken back by the neuron that started it (that’s called reuptake) or broken down into another chemical called monoamine oxidase (MAO).

There are three neurotransmitters that have typically been focused on when it comes to depression — serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Any one (or more) of the three have been shown to have unbalanced levels in people who are depressed. Basically, the chemicals that tell our brains to regulate our mood, sleep, appetite, stress and sexuality are in short supply or the brain has trouble actually knowing what to do with them.

While at first we believed that it was the level of these chemicals that were the main cause of the problem, there has been research that indicates it might be the connection between neurons in certain parts of the brain — like the amygdala, thalamus and hippocampus, all of which have been shown to be physically different in people who deal with depression. Anti-depressants target certain processes in our brains to elevate the level of these neurotransmitters and to improve the number and quality of connections in the areas of the brain associated with them. SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, basically prevent one of these neurotransmitters from being called back to its parent neuron. So there are more of them floating in the synapse, waiting to be picked up by other ones and pass along the appropriate messages. MAOIs, or monoamine oxidase inhibitors, are drugs that prevent these neurotransmitters from being broken down if they’re not doing the reuptake thing.

So, to sum up, depression can be caused by an imbalance of three neurotransmitters — serotonin, dopamine or norepinephrine. This imbalance could be caused by an overly efficient reuptake process that calls back these chemicals before the job is done; it could be caused by bad connections between synapses in certain parts of the brain; it could be caused by the brain’s inability to form these chemicals properly to begin with. Each possible medication treatment targets one aspect of this problem, and possibly only one neurotransmitter. That is why it can take some time for medication to work in the first place (because physical and chemical changes to the brain don’t happen overnight) and some time for your psychiatrist to find the right medication (because the problem might not be that your serotonin is too low, it’s that your dopamine can’t attach properly to synapse receptors).

Even though our brains have a “post office” that passes along literally billions and billions of messages between neurons every single minute, sometimes something goes wrong with the system and we lose the ability to send and receive postcards that say “Having a great time, I hope you’re doing well!” Sometimes, it’s not even something in the brain — it could be hormones that are causing different physiological responses in the body that ultimately end up affecting the brain. There are no quick or inexpensive tests to pinpoint exactly what’s going on with the chemicals in the brains and bodies of us depressive people, so medication is often our most educated guess.

There are, of course, different kinds of depression. Major Depressive Disorder is what most of us think of when we talk about depression, but there is also Persistent Depressive Disorder (where depression lasts more than two years), Bipolar Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Postpartum Depression, Psychotic Depression (which is accompanied by hallucinations, delusions and paranoia) and others. A proper diagnosis can lead a psychiatrist towards one or more medications, but most often treatment will happen on multiple fronts; while looking for a chemical solution, cognitive behavioral therapy can help us identify and manage thoughts and emotions that come from depression.

What’s important to realize is that depression is a distinct physical illness — as real as diabetes, AIDS or Parkinson’s Disease. There is a real chemical and/or physiological disorder in our brains that affect how and what we think, our levels of energy, our ability to manage conflict and stress in our lives.

During depressive episodes, our brains are going through changes that make it much more difficult to manage our moods, sleeping patterns, appetites and other things. When we’re depressed, we may literally be physically incapable of being happy, maintaining a balanced perspective, sleeping or eating as we should, or even getting out of bed. The chemicals that allow us to do that are simply not present or active within our brain.

That is what those of us who manage depression have to face. While many of us are lucky enough to have access to mental health care and responsive treatment, many more of us are unable to visit a therapist or psychologist; have no means to seek help; or are in an environment where mental illness is poorly understood, stigmatized or completely ignored. Those of us trapped within those situations often have no recourse but to suffer alone and helpless.

So many of us who have this illness recognize that there’s something wrong with us; that we can’t feel happy or motivated or interested the way most people can, or that we feel empty and hopeless even though we have no reason to. We know that our inability to do everything that might be expected of us can be a real burden on those around us, and that it can be difficult or impossible to explain just what’s happening to us. When we’re in a place where getting out of bed and just taking a shower is all that we can do today, it can be extraordinarily alienating for even the most well-meaning advice to miss the mark of our experience, to offer ideas or solutions that the depressed person is simply incapable of imagining.

It’s an awful thing to be in that place. We can often be unable to think of times when we didn’t feel this way, or imagine a future in which we won’t feel this way. This is going to sound lame, but U2’s song “Stuck in a Moment That You Can’t Get Out Of” was a revelation for me; it really captured the major problem of depression for me, that idea that this is something ugly and permanent that I will have to bear for the rest of my life.

For those of us with this illness, there are a number of things that make our manifest symptoms and internal experience unique. Specific brain chemistry, personality traits, environmental and social factors, hormonal imbalances, life experience and so many other factors contribute to how we express, cope and view depression. And I know how difficult that is to help with, but trust me — it’s not any easier for those of us trapped inside of our own heads.

On Wednesday, I’ll talk more about my personal experience with depression. But for now, here are a few links that offer further information.

All About Depression — A website that offers information and resources about what depression is, how it works and manifests, and treatment options.

What Causes Depression? — A page from the Harvard Medical School that talks about what we know (and still need to learn) about the physical and chemical roots of depression.

Antidepressants (Wikipedia) — Wikipedia, of course, has an extensive article on antidepressants and how they work chemically. What’s interesting is we still don’t know exactly WHY they work; but the data gathered over the decades prove that they do.

National Alliance on Mental Illness — NAMI is the leading organization in the United States dedicated to mental illness and improving the conversation about it within our country. They also have tremendous resources, information, and outreach.

See you folks on Wednesday. If there are any questions about depression or comments about information I’ve presented here, please let me know!

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2016 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Writing) Episodic Pacing

Writing 150I LOVE the rhythms of episodic storytelling. There’s the anticipation of setting the scene, the cold open that makes the play for your attention and emotional investment right away, and the momentum that builds through a number of scenes, action set-pieces or conversations that build to a climax that ties the entire episode together through theme, action or consequence. And, of course, the final scene or image that teases the fallout from what’s just occurred so you just have to know what’s going to happen in the next installment.

Like most of the rabbits in my generation, I grew up learning the ebb and flow of these kinds of stories. Each episode broken up into three or more acts; each act fulfilling a purpose that is necessitated by the act that follows; each scene establishing or deepening character motivations, developments and setting in order to provide the biggest payoff for what’s coming at the end of the episode, the run of the season, or an entire series. I’ve always been fascinated by the trick of keeping forward momentum, of knowing where to place the scenes that slow things down to keep things from moving too fast, of mastering the speed you move through plot so that turns are sharp but not derailing.

The best TV shows and comic books know how to work within the limitations of their allotted space and format, even turning these restraints into features that enhance the storytelling. Say what you want about LOST and Battlestar Galactica, but at the height of their stories there was almost nothing better. Each week — each commercial break — was an interminable gulf through which you had to wade in order to learn how the story ends.

Great episodic storytelling is as much about building anticipation as it is rewarding it with satisfying the wait. I love shows and comics that can pull me into the story so deeply that I’m completely immersed in it while I’m there and I totally forget that it’s set to end until, suddenly, it does — and then I have to think about how everything that’s happened will lead to even more intense consequences for the characters and the world they live in. It’s such a sweet agony. I love feeling that anticipatory, excited impatience.

This is something that I’d love to learn how to cultivate with the Jackalope Serial Company. The first serial, THE CULT OF MAXIMUS, features a pair of police officers caught up in an investigation that uncovers — what else? — something that’s been lurking in the shadows of their city for some time. The more they uncover, of course, the weirder things get…and the more the protagonists are irrevocably changed by their experience.

The premise is to submit an “episode” of 1,500 – 2,500 words each week, with four or five episodes bundled together to make up a distinct ‘chapter’ of the story. Committing myself to that kind of deadline has been all kinds of educational for me; it’s helped me to learn exactly what kind of space there is in that word count, how each scene needs to pull its weight within the limits of that format, and how to build momentum in a story arc while maintaining interest in what’s happening right there and then. The demands of episodic storytelling are surprisingly varied and strict, and I don’t think I really understood just how good you have to be at managing the pacing of the story until I started doing it.

It’s interesting to find myself developing a whole new appreciation for the craft by attempting a version of it myself, and I’m glad to talk about it — even if that means it might not be the best commercial for the Jackalope Serial Company itself. Even still, I’m glad that I’m realizing what I am and that the lessons I’m learning through the experience are being applied to the story in real time. As I write each part and move through the outline, I’m finding that my grasp of character, dialogue, plot and momentum grows steadily more sure. I’m a fair bit away from being a really GOOD storyteller, but the enthusiasm I have for the story and the craft involved in telling it is pulling me through this first little bit. I’d like to think that that translates into an enjoyable tale that has its flaws but is worth the time regardless, but we’ll have to see. I do think it’s getting better all the time, which is the most important thing.

In the meantime, looking at the television shows that I’ve been really impressed by and trying to reverse-engineer them to see how they work has become a favorite pastime. How *does* Daredevil manage to explore its main themes without feeling like it wallows in them? How does Breaking Bad put its protagonist through such a clear arc from season to season? How does Battlestar Galactica tell such a sprawling, epic story while still keeping itself grounded in these flawed and fascinating characters? And how can I use those lessons to inform my own writing? This is all wonderful stuff to think about — but it’s even better to talk about.

What are your favorite episodic stories, and what lessons of writing have you taken from them?

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2016 in Television, Writing

 

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(Personal) State of the Jackalope, May 2016

Self Improvement 150The past couple of months have been marked by the death of various tech around the burrow and the attempts to replace them. Now that Bigwig (my desktop) and Hazel-rah (the new laptop) are settled for a while, I can get back to the business of writing and I’m tremendously excited about that.

Hazel-rah is a Dell Inspiron 7559 15″, and it is a beautiful thing — it’s got a 4K HD touchscreen, Intel i7 Core chip, 16G of RAM and a 1TB HDD. The resolution is so high that it actually doesn’t know what to do with some apps or windows where things tend to be small, like my digital Pomodoro timer or the note cards for my Scrivener app but that’s OK. We’re still feeling each other out. I wrote on the laptop most of yesterday, and really loved the experience; I’m getting used to the international keyboard design, which means becoming more precise with touch-typing. That’s never a bad thing, right?

Speaking of writing, here is what I’m working on: building a buffer for the Jackalope Serial Company, starting one long-overdue commission (the prize winner of a fundraising contest for last year’s Clarion Write-A-Thon), editing another long-overdue commission, pre-writing another serial project being written in a shared universe (*really* excited about that!), and brainstorming ideas for submissions to People of Color Destroy Fantasy! and the Black Power POC Superhero anthologies. I’m hoping that I can write three short stories by the end of June while making good progress on the edit for a fourth, all while keeping up with the Patreon and the blog. That’s why I’ve scheduled ten hours of writing a week!

In addition to that, I’ve been forced to learn better time management and organization techniques through work and I am ever-grateful for that. Learning how to juggle multiple responsibilities is not something I’ve ever been very good at, but what the crunch time at the day job has taught me is how to go into each day with eyes open about how things are likely to go and what needs to be accomplished in spite of that. I may not hit the mark every time, but I get a lot closer than I used to and that’s entirely a bonus effect of work craziness. Thanks, day job!

This weekend will be The Overnight, a 16-mile moonlight walk through San Francisco to raise awareness for suicide prevention and mental health issues. I’m tremendously excited to be taking part in this, and extremely proud of the money I’ve raised so far — $1,708.00. I didn’t think I would be able to do this well, and I am very grateful to everyone who’s donated so generously already. If you would like to help me bring more attention to this very important issue, please head on over to my Participants’ page and make a donation. Any amount helps, and I would love to raise as much as I can for this.

In order to make sure I was prepared for The Overnight, I’ve really stepped up my running game. Over the past two weeks I’ve run at least three times — short ones (two or three miles) at reasonably easy paces (only 12 minutes per mile) but for me the most important thing is consistency, which I think I’m learning to develop! So that’s excellent. My diet is still a little shaky, but I’ve been taking strides towards eating better. More fruits, vegetables and fiber, fewer candies, carbs and fat. Hopefully this will translate into less of a pear shape, but even if it doesn’t that’s OK. I like what I eat and how much I move now, and hopefully I’ll get to continue on that path.

I think that’s it for me this fortnight: writing, time management, Overnight preparation. What projects are you folks working on? What do you hope to have done by the beginning of next month?

If you’d like to donate to the Overnight, please go to my participant’s page here: http://theovernight.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=18579

And if you would like to hit up my Patreon, which features serialized adult anthropomorphic fiction, go here: https://www.patreon.com/jakebeserials?ty=h.

 
 

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(Movie Review) Mice in Australia, A Bookworm and Her Monster, and a Djinn with ADD

Entertainment 150The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Remember that hot second in the 90s when Australia was the coolest thing ever? It was a strange moment in pop culture — all of a sudden, Paul Hogan was awesome again, and boomerangs were a fad, and Yahoo Serious was unleashed on the world. I’m still not sure why Aussie fever overtook the States for a few glorious years, but I am pretty sure that it was a major formative experience for me.

Part of the Australian wave was The Rescuers Down Under, the very first sequel ever produced as part of the animated Disney canon. Made 13 years after the first installment, it continues the adventures of mice Bernard and Bianca — two of the best members of the Rescue Aid Society. It’s sort of a United Nations of rodents dedicated to helping children and animals whenever they’re in need. This is such an amazing idea, and just typing it makes me fervently wish for a third Rescuers movie.

Cody is a young Australian boy who has the ability to talk to animals; he spends most of his days in the Outback befriending the local wildlife and saving them from dangers they face. He saves an enormous eagle named Marahute, which doesn’t sit well with a poacher named Percival McLeach (a seriously underrated villain in the Disney canon if you ask me). McLeach kidnaps Cody in order to force the location of the eagle out of him, and that’s when the Rescue Aid Society gets involved.

Bernard really wants to propose to Bianca, but it never seems to be the right time. When they meet dashing Australian kangaroo rat Jake, Bernard has to basically prove his worth against this rough and tumble tour guide. Because this is a Disney movie, of course he does — he saves the day, proposes to Bianca and Jake approves with no hard feelings. It’s a breezy little film that has a few really breathtaking action sequences, and even though the stakes feel relatively light in comparison to other Disney films you never feel bored or resentful of the investment the movie asks to make of you. The movie is populated with adorable, well-designed characters and Marahute is a stand-out; an eagle the size of a roc, with that sort of alien and almost goofy look that almost — almost — makes you forget how dangerous such an immense creature would be.

The world of the Rescuers is the true joy of the movie, though. I couldn’t handle the montage of Cody’s distress signal being transmitted by a team of dedicated mice, and the thoroughly sadistic doctor mouse and his team of eager nun nurses were wonderful interludes between action set-pieces. Jake is definitely one character who deserves more attention, and both Bernard and Bianca feel like old friends.

The Rescuers Down Under was the least-successful of the films of the Disney Renaissance; it was released on the same weekend as Home Alone, came in fourth for the domestic box office during its debut and had all of its advertising pulled soon afterward. It’s also the only Renaissance movie that doesn’t feature musical sequences, so there aren’t any instant classic songs to keep it fresh in our memories. All of this makes it a bit of an odd duck in the Disney animated canon, but it’s not any less enjoyable for it. In fact, if you’re an Australophile it might just be one of your surprise favorites.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The 30th film in the Disney animated canon is a landmark for the studio; it was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and four Golden Globes (winning Best Picture – Musical or Comedy), the third-highest-grossing movie of the year (behind Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and man, did it inspire a whole generation of furries who were sorely disappointed by the “happy ending”. It was the film that restored Disney to greatness after its stock had diminished through the 70s and 80s and proved The Little Mermaid was no fluke. The cultural impact of this film is staggering.

Belle is the beauty, a lovely girl who would rather read books than be more “traditional”; she takes after her father, Maurice, a crackpot inventor who moved to this provincial town in France only recently. She’s pursued by the handsome but arrogant Gaston but would rather have someone (or do something) more interesting; her suitor’s constant wooing is rejected as she hopes that she can live a more exciting life.

Enter the Beast, a prince cursed to be a monster for refusing hospitality to an old witch. If he can find someone who will love him despite his fearsome appearance by his 21st year, the curse will be broken; if not, he’ll have to live as a beast forever. When Maurice seeks shelter after being attacked by wolves, the Beast takes him prisoner until Belle offers to remain within his castle instead. And we pretty much know where it goes from here.

When you aren’t dazzled by the truly amazing songs and score, the wonderful environments and the distracting, er, qualities of the Beast, you start to notice how truly insane this story is. An enchantress goes around disguised as an old beggar woman for…what purpose, exactly? And she punishes a prince who is pretty much at the worst age possible for a test of compassion and hospitality instead of his parents? And every single servant in the castle is also cursed to be furniture, silverware and various tools because their lives weren’t hard enough? And the nearby town has completely forgotten that there used to be a king in a castle before his son was cursed just ten years ago? And….

I know it sounds like I’m ragging on the story, and I’m not. (Well, only a little.) Despite the very questionable details within the story, Beauty and the Beast holds up as well as it ever has. The songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are outstanding; the musical sequences are amazingly animated, and the character design is Disney at its most creative. Gaston is a villain for the ages, all bluster and noise, and Belle is a well-drawn heroine in her own right. The Beast is a unique and awesome creation, and the way both he and Belle are changed through their deepening relationship is wonderful to see.

Despite the strangeness of the underlying story, there’s almost nothing that doesn’t work well here. There are a few minor quibbles with how the Beast and his servants move from frame to frame, but their designs are so unusual it’s hard to fault the animators for not having the character models totally consistent. Belle, Beast and Gaston are all-time great characters, and the supporting cast is populated with wonderful, colorful personalities. There’s so much here to like, and there is nothing that makes you question the good will the movie earns.

So yes, Beauty and the Beast is a top-five all-time great in the Disney animated canon, no question. I’m really pleased that it’s aged as well as it has. It’s an easy movie to love, warts and all.
Aladdin (1992)
I hate to speak ill of the dead, especially when the person in question succumbed to an illness that personally affects me. But I was quite surprised by how little I enjoyed Aladdin, and most of that comes down to Robin Williams’ manic performance of the Genie. When I thought back on the movie, he was the biggest deal in it — and I think that’s true for almost everyone. But the Genie’s schtick simply hasn’t aged well and sucks all the oxygen out of the room. There’s not much energy left for the rest of the story to breathe.

Jasmine is a princess subject to that time-honored tradition of movie royals; she must marry a prince within a certain time frame or consequences will happen. Jafar, the Sultan’s trusted advisor, has been searching for a treasure hidden within the Cave of Wonders in order to simply take over the Sultanate of Agrabah, but can’t seem to find the right rube — the diamond in the rough — to be allowed entrance and snatch it up. That’s where street rat with a heart of gold Aladdin steps in; he’s manipulated into stealing the treasure for Jafar (in disguise as an old man), but ends up getting it instead.

It turns out to be a genie’s lamp, and the Genie fulfills his wish to become a prince so he can have a shot with Jasmine — the mysterious princess he met before when she attempted to escape the castle. Aladdin’s courtship is rocky at best, mostly because he tries to keep up the charade far longer than he should, and eventually his deceit yields disastrous consequences.

What’s interesting is the main characters — Aladdin, Jasmine and the villain Jafar — are all engaging, well-drawn and relatable. The fantastic elements of the story elevate the movie’s themes (the danger of pretending to be something/one you’re not) really well, and hyper-extends the consequences of the conflict while still making it understandable. I really like the writing in the story; the plot is tight and well-paced, the dialogue (especially between Aladdin and Jasmine) is brisk and natural, and the animation is fluid, smooth and imaginative.

And that’s why it’s such a surprise to me that Aladdin is my least-favorite film so far in the Disney Renaissance. But the Genie is a real problem; his constant barrage of hyper-kinetic joking and impressions is so distracting you’re left wondering what on Earth he’s talking about half the time. Maybe it’s that his joking is so topical that it’s this glaring time-stamp on what would otherwise be a timeless tale, or maybe it’s a sign that my sensibilities are aging enough that I’m just not into what comes off as aggressive, almost desperate whimsy. (I know how that sounds, considering the life-long struggle Williams had with depression; maybe that knowledge is even shading my perspective of his performance.) But the Genie tends to work best when he serves as the oversized conscience of Aladdin, his shape-shifting served to illustrate or punctuate a point. Less is certainly more in this case, and Genie’s presence feels so out of place with the rest of the movie’s tone it’s legitimately jarring.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but Genie takes this movie down a peg or two, and I wish it weren’t so. Disney’s strength in storytelling is its ability to walk a tightrope with tones, themes and ideas so that everything is executed carefully and with balance. One of the few times it allows itself to give in to excess earned it way more short-term gain at the cost of long-term enjoyment.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Writing) Marvels of Character

Entertainment 150One of the benefits of holding myself to a regular writing schedule is being able to quickly identify the things I should be working on. The first couple of chapters of THE CULT OF MAXIMUS feel a little boring to me, and that’s mostly because my main character — Officer Thomas Beck — is so inert as a protagonist. I had initially envisioned him as someone who was “Indiana nice,” to steal a phrase from a friend — polite to a fault, treating the “if you don’t have anything nice to say…” adage as a life-or-death value, but being fairly judgemental inside his own head. The events of the story would identify that as a problem and force him to speak up about the things he felt; he’d then have to actually engage with the world, become a part of it in a way he mistakenly believes he shouldn’t in order to be a good police officer. In some ways, it’s a lesson that’s top of mind for me right now.

But in the first couple of chapters, Thomas is a little…quiet and reactive. He’s observant, but writing the act of observation doesn’t really offer us any insight into his character — how he thinks and feels. It’s something that I’ve been focusing on in chapter three, and when I rewrite the first two for general consumption that is definitely the thing that I’ll be focusing on; that and seeding themes and events happening later in the story here.

It’s clear to me now that the “discovery” style of writing didn’t quite work for this story — that isn’t to say I won’t try it for another, but with a long-form project like this you have to at least have *something* pinned down. If not your character, then the plot, and if not your plot, then a solid world, or a theme, or something you really want to say.

Since characterization has emerged as a big deal for me, I’ve been paying closer attention to it in the stories I’m reading or watching, too. It’s struck me that Marvel comics and their cinematic universe excel at this — being able to create, communicate and maintain distinct and engaging characters across the board.

The husband and I recently finished the first season of Daredevil, the first entry into their “Hell’s Kitchen” corner of the shared universe with Netflix. It’s an astonishing series that draws a dangerous and shadowy world over thirteen episodes, fully populated with wonderful, mesmerizing characters. My favorite TV shows are often a series of conversations between two people with distinct points of view and a sharp wit; Daredevil‘s characters may not be the lightest in the world, but oh man are they earnest. Every single one of them enter a scene with clearly-drawn desires, and the stakes for them are increasingly high through each episode. They’re earnest, good at communicating, and incredibly strong-willed. Looking at them, you understand who they are and why they want the things they do.

This treatment doesn’t stop at the heroes — Matt Murdock, his partner Foggy Nelson and their assistant Karen Page. Wilson Fisk has emerged as one of the best villains I’ve seen on television in a long time, thanks to the incredible attention paid to his inner world by the writers’ room. Vincent D’Onofrio gives a hell of a performance, too. His character journey is utterly fascinating as we learn who he is, how he made himself from who he was, and who he thinks himself to be. He’s a truly tragic figure who is also incredibly dangerous.

Daredevil has taught me a lot about how characters are shaped by what they say, what they do, and how they say and do it. I love it for that, and I can’t wait to take that lesson to my writing.

Meanwhile, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is about to wrap up their third season later this month and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of that as well. I know a lot of folks sampled it through a comparatively slow first twelve or thirteen episodes, but the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier kick-started it into a higher gear that it hasn’t slowed from for the remainder of its run. The series is now focused on the Inhuman corner of the Marvel cinematic universe, all while constantly reshuffling the deck when it comes to SHIELD and its nemesis organization, HYDRA.

What Agents does particularly well is balancing a pretty brisk plot with deep characterization, making really effective use of limited screen time for its massive cast. Each scene between its characters does multiple things — often expanding, progressing or revealing a character’s motivation while also establishing another link in the plot’s chain. When someone makes a choice, you understand what it means for them to do that AND know how it’s been forced by circumstances AND wonder how it changes the direction of consequences for everyone involved. The sense of forward momentum creates this complex, unpredictable world that’s forever evolving; you see how Coulson and his crew are forced to change in order to keep up, and the toll that takes on everyone. Even more impressive, the protagonists aren’t solely reactive; their experiences give them this drive to enact these missions or change their views enough that they make pro-active (or rash) choices that are understandable, even relatable, but clearly mistakes.

Agents of SHIELD is a great marriage of character work and tight plotting in an ensemble cast. There’s almost no weak link in the show, and that’s really impressive for a story of its scope. I can take that lesson to THE CULT OF MAXIMUS, too — now that we’re nearly finished with the establishment of the characters and the world, I can use the show as something of a template for how the action moves forward, and how it’s formed by the inextricable threads of character and plot.

I’m genuinely grateful to be living in this Golden Age of Television — learning how to tell engaging, complicated stories in an episodic format has developed into a really great art, and watching the work of people who are really good at it helps me with my personal storytelling development.

How about you lovely writers? Are there shows that have storytelling aspects that have influenced you bunches? Which stories have you used for inspiration or lessons in how to deepen your own craft?

 

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(Personal) Retaining Mindfulness Under Stress

Buddhism 150So far this year has been an obstacle course, as I’ve mentioned a few times here. Work has flared up significantly as I shift positions and my company makes fairly major changes on an organizational and product level; priorities have been shuffled accordingly, and even though I’m getting better at juggling many things at once my ability to remain organized and focused still leaves a lot to be desired; and I still have a problem with saying “yes” to too much, underestimating the amount of resources and time each new thing will take. I can’t pretend that I’m on the verge of figuring things out, but I do think I’m making steady (if slow) progress addressing everything.

The latest hurdle has been entirely tech-related. My laptop went out of commission when the screen was broken, and the backup laptop I brought out of storage worked for a little while before simply turning off one day and never coming back on. My desktop has been having crazy performance issues where the hard drive is pegging at 100% usage for no discernable reason, and I’ve eaten up so much time troubleshooting it. Depending on where you go, it could be the “Show me Windows tips” feature in Windows 10, the Superfetch or Windows Search services, Google Chrome’s pre-loading capabilities or Skype doing whatever it is Skype does. It could be the AHCI driver for the Intel chip I have getting stuck in a loop, or it could actually be malware. I’ve tried nearly a dozen things for the past two weeks without success; Ryan and I eventually determined it has to be corrupted files on the HDD causing the OS to freak out.

Long story short, I’ve purchased a new laptop (at a great deal) and a new solid-state drive for the desktop that should improve things drastically. Hopefully, I’m out of the woods for now with my tech issues. But that still leaves me with a ton of sunk time where it was difficult to get anything done.

Life has been stressful for a few months now, and it doesn’t look like things will abate any time soon. Stepping back to take stock of the first four months of my year, I’ve noticed that despite a minor crash last month I’ve been holding up pretty well. I’d like to think that improved diet and exercise, better sleep and a recommitment to my meditation practice has helped with that a lot — and it has. But also, my perspective has shifted on being kept off my feet and I think this more than anything has helped me become more resilient.

The world is not a perfect place. I consider myself an idealist; there are ideals and goals that I strive to achieve and I genuinely believe the world would be a better place if everyone did the same. Not necessarily MY ideals, but some set of values that they would like to embody. I won’t even pretend that the things I care about are the things that others should, too.

But those ideals can often get in the way of my ability to deal with situations where I need to adapt on the fly or respond quickly. If something goes wrong and my instinctive response is to sink into anger or depression because my vision of an ideal world has been challenged, that’s a problem. Of course it would be great if all of my stuff worked, or if other people respected my time and boundaries, but that’s not quite the world we live in. The only world we have is the world of what is, and we are best served accepting what is in front of us and determining the best thing to do with it.

That’s not to say that I don’t get angry or frustrated; I certainly have these past few weeks. But it’s important for me not to get attached to those emotions, or the idea of a perfect, fair world where things are the way I prefer. I allow myself to express my frustration, vent a little, and then try to deal with whatever I need to. Giving myself space to be frustrated is important, but so is letting go of that frustration so I can see the situation as clearly as possible.

There’s always a solution to a problem. Sometimes, that solution is “Walk away from this!” or “Learn to accept this will not work the way you want it to.”, but there’s still a solution. Really bringing this in to my understanding of the world has helped me stick with a problem longer without feeling helpless, exasperated or depressed.

This is actually something I learned at my day job in tech support. Learning how to troubleshoot is an incredibly useful skill, and while I’m not great at it I’m leaps and bounds over where I was just last year. It’s a set of techniques that can be adapted for just about anything — figuring out tech problems, or home repairs, or car problems, or even why audiences aren’t flocking to your blog or story or comic. Being able to step back and look critically at something helps us to pinpoint problems and address them as best as we are able.

For example, my current serial for the Jackalope Serial Company isn’t one I’ve been terribly happy with. After some time taking the story apart, I’ve realized that my protagonist is as bland as Wonder bread, and that the supporting characters who’ve been introduced aren’t quite engaging enough to pick up the slack. This is mostly because I set out to be a discovery writer, which really hurts me when trying to write a story on a regular basis. In order to be excited about the story, I have to know where the plot is moving. In order to know that, I have to understand how the characters relate to one another and the world around them.

The Jackalope Serial Company hasn’t been a rousing success exactly, but instead of giving up on it (like I probably would have a couple years ago) I’ve been able to troubleshoot some problems and come back more excited and with more direction. This latest run might not live up to my ambition, but that’s totally fine. I’ll take stock, learn what’s wrong and try a few more things to fix it.

Detaching from ideals about the way the world should be or our own meager abilities has really helped me have a healthier relationship with my mistakes and flaws. And even though 2016 is going to stay super-challenging, I feel that the challenges are shaping me up instead of wearing me down.

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2016 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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(Personal) Where I Stand

Writing 150I thought that 2016 was going to be different. With the launch of the Jackalope Serial Company and a host of opportunities for this little black geek to write stories for anthologies specifically for him, I had prepared for a big focus on storytelling. Now we’re entering the middle third of the year, and the JSC is sputtering along, I’ve still only finished two short stories and I’ve had to take frequent breaks to manage other things that are going on.

All of the reasons have been well documented here, of course. I’ve changed positions at my day job, and that required a lot of training and focus; at the same time, the company I work for is undergoing a massive upheaval that means it’s next to impossible to get settled, so there isn’t a solid foundation for me to dig into. I’ve worked pretty hard to succeed in those conditions, and I’m getting to a point where I’m doing all right. But lofty goals for extracurricular activities had to be pulled back or scrapped entirely.

I’ve also had to learn a lot about how I’m interacting with the world and the various communities I inhabit; the climate of our society has become so aggressive and uncompromising and it’s easy to be swept along in that current if you let yourself. I didn’t like the conclusions or consequences that I was being lead to, and I had to pull back to reorient myself towards the truths I’ve gleaned from my own experience. That means pulling back, reflecting on my experience, and observing how others act on theirs for insight, connection and understanding. It’s been a fruitful process, and I feel much more solid on my beliefs, why I hold them and understanding why people believe and act the way they do.

That’s not to say that I have all of the answers — of course I don’t. I don’t know any more than you do. But I’m a lot more comfortable with where I stand on my path and I feel more confident about the direction I’m going. I’ve made choices to stop, reorient and refocus, and what’s left is acting on that knowledge to see where it leads me.

The Jackalope Serial Company will fire up again this week with chapter 3 of THE CULT OF MAXIMUS. I’ve set down an outline for the rest of the story, and it’s allowed me to know what’s really important character-wise as well as work out the kinks of plotting and purpose. The first two chapters felt…exploratory by comparison, and while that can be fun for exercises it’s really not that great in serialized fiction. It’s important to establish a sense of momentum, the idea that the story is leading somewhere, that there is acceleration, waystations, the whole bit. The serial has that baked in a bit more now, and I’ve learned from the bad start.

I’m working on editing “Stable Love” so I can finally clear that off my plate; then there’s the People of Color Destroy Horror! story that I’d like to submit by the middle of the month. There is the Clarion Write-A-Thon prize that I still owe to a good friend, and right after that I’ll set to work on my People of Color Destroy Fantasy! short story. I’m also working on a collaborative project that I’m quite excited about; I was nearly done with the outline there, but a few revelations about antagonists and character-building have encouraged me to take another look at it. There is a black superheroes anthology that I would love to submit a story for, a contest for transformation and mind-control stories that I think I’d like to submit something for, and online-only stories that I want to publish at least once a quarter.

My ambition to publish short stories hasn’t diminished at all this year, even with the bumps along the way. I just have to make sure that my ability to deliver and be organized is up to where it needs to be.

Oh! Ryan and I have also gotten into cooking through this service called Blue Apron. Basically, ingredients for three two-person meals are shipped to us every week and we learn a lot about cooking through making them. They’ve been surprising and delicious, every week, and I’ve liked most of them (the only one I didn’t really care for was the catfish po’ boy). If you find yourself eating out a lot and want to have healthier meals, I’d recommend it. $60/week seems steep but if you compare that to the money you spend on restaurants you might find yourself in a wash.

I’ve also begun running again, which has done wonders for my energy and mood. This is nominally training for The Overnight Walk, to build strength and endurance in my legs, but the truth is I’ve just missed being out on the sidewalk. It feels so good to be out there again.

That’s where I stand right now. The day job continues to be demanding, and I’ve taken some time to assess how to deal with that and work on the things that are important to me. Diet and exercise continues to improve, but the weight isn’t coming off just yet. All in good time.

If you would like to support my serial erotic fiction project, please head over to my Patreon site and sign up! For as little as $1/month, you can have (almost) weekly episodes delivered to you!

And if you would like to help me support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, please make a donation to The Overnight, a 16-mile dusk-til-dawn walk through San Francisco to raise awareness for suicide prevention and mental health issues. My participant page is here; anything you can give would be very much appreciated.

 
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Posted by on May 2, 2016 in Diet and Exercise, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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