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Monthly Archives: December 2016

(Personal) The Semester That Was: Fall 2016

Reading 150Earlier this year — with some encouragement from My Husband, The Dragon — I decided to go back to school to pursue a degree in Psychology. I’ve gotten to a very good place with my mental health, but there are so many people who grew up the way I did without access to mental health services or education, who suffer in silence and ignorance about their issues. The goal with my degree is to do something to address these gaps in coverage and tailor treatments that speak to the particular manifestations of mental illness in communities of color. No one exists in a vacuum, after all — depression, anxiety, and social issues intersect to present unique challenges to people of color.

This first semester back in school was definitely an adjustment. I’m working a full-time job in the tech sector, which means that I’m generally putting in a few more than forty hours a week not including the commute, which adds roughly eight hours. Making time to read assignments, write essays and/or participate in online forum discussions was a process that I had to learn. Time management is more important than ever, and over the course of the semester I learned that it wasn’t so much the quantity of time I put in, but the quality.

Anyway, the plan is to go to Mission College for three more semesters with additional classes during the Winter and Summer sessions until Fall 2018, where I should complete my Associate’s Degree and be eligible for transfer to any California state university. Obviously, my target is San Jose State; they have a pretty good Psychology department and I should be able to get very good rates on my tuition. I’ll need 60 credits to complete the program, and with the credits from this semester and all other classes from my previous transcript I should have about 30 or so.

This semester I took two classes, Clear Thinking in Writing and Social Psychology. I would absolutely love to have one English or Psychology class a semester, but I don’t think it’ll work out that way, alas! Both of these classes were ones that I enjoyed quite a bit, even with the work. Clear Thinking in Writing really helped me to refine and organize my thoughts for my Social Psychology class, and I was able to use concepts from my Social Psychology class to strengthen arguments I wrote in Clear Thinking. I loved the synergy I lucked into this semester!

For Clear Thinking in Writing, we learned the basic elements of argumentation for three different debate models — Aristotilean, Rogerian, and Toulmin. Aristotle relied on three kinds of support — logos, or logical reasoning; pathos, or emotional appeals; and ethos, or reputation and expertise — to bolster his arguments. Rogers works well when you’re trying to find a common ground and some compromise between two opposing viewpoints; the benefit of using this model is learning how to understand an argument objectively and writing it out succinctly, without bias. Toulmin is the main model we used to understand the framework of a persuasive essay; the claim is essentially your thesis, or whatever it is you’re trying to prove, and you make your claim by providing support for it. All of your support, of course, is held up by underlying warrants that are understood and agreed upon by the writer and their audience. For example, if I claim that black lives matter, the warrant beneath that is that there is some disparity in the general perception of how black lives are treated when weighed against, say, white lives.

This class was a TON of reading and writing, which is to be expected for an English class I suppose. Our professor was relatively new, and she focused heavily on making sure we stuck to a basic, repeatable structure for our essays. I chafed just a little under the restriction, but it was quite useful to learn how arguments are templated and write to that style. My typical writing style is “exploratory”, to be charitable. I often don’t find the topic sentence of my paragraph until I’ve written it — so my my paragraphs tend to end with a sentence that crystallizes what’s come before it into a coherent thought, that I then use to springboard into the next paragraph.

However, that’s not a great way to write a coherent, well-structured argument. By opening your paragraph with your topic sentence, you make sure that you’ve signalled to your reader what your paragraph will cover and anchor it towards the service of your thesis. Every sentence after it must build support for the topic sentence, which in turn supports your claim. Organizing your writing from the top down gives every sentence a job to do and encourages your essays to be leaner and more efficient. And in this day and age, making sure your writing is crisp and lean is an invaluable skill to have!

In Social Psychology, I learned how the presence of other people affect the way we think, which in turn affects how we perceive and interact with the world around us. I shouldn’t have been so surprised to discover how much our environment and relationship with others affects our individual psychology, but I was! The class illuminated influences I never even considered and introduced implications that I had never connected. We underestimate how much we are influenced by our social situations, and simply knowing that has changed the way I think about my actions. We have far more power to change our environment than we believed, but the nature of that change is more complicated than we would expect.

Social Psych was my first online class, which was another adjustment. Sessions were usually reading a chapter or two of the textbook, watching a documentary video about the subject of the week, and then participating in a forum discussion about it. We also had three major tests over the course of the semester and signed up for various experiments in the Stanford Research Program. Stanford has a legendary experimental psychology program, and it was really interesting to participate in various lab experiments in some small way.

The knowledge I’ve gained in Social Psychology, while not all-encompassing, has definitely illuminated previously puzzling behavior for me and allows me to react more compassionately to actions I might have found unacceptable just six months ago. For example, we really don’t do well with uncertainty, so in situations that may or may not be an emergency we will tend to look to others for cues on how to respond without even realizing it. Because other people are just as in the dark as we are, they freeze as well, hoping for someone to respond in a way they can emulate. And when no one responds, we end up thinking that a potentially serious situation might not be that serious after all. People have been observed to sit in a room with smoke billowing out of a vent for these reasons, or take much longer to help someone in distress. Our ability to filter out our environment develops as a defensive mechanism against sensory overload, but it can also cause us to miss someone in dire need of help. So, if someone is having a health crisis or being attacked in a city and no one helps, it isn’t necessarily because people are bastards. Well, not necessarily. It’s because most of us are just trying not to be overwhelmed by everything around us, we are uncertain what’s happening in an emergency situation, and the people around us are as well — so no one does anything.

In both of these courses, knowledge becomes power to direct my actions more efficiently and with greater understanding. It’s exciting to know the basics about how people tend to think in groups, and how to make a case for influencing people within those groups. By being aware of societal pressures, how they affect our mental and emotional processes, and the best ways to tweak those processes, it’s possible to write to the undiscovered root of a problem. That’s almost like magic to me!

Now that my classes are over for the semester, it’s time to look to a little bit of rest and relaxation before a four-week Winter session. In January, I will be learning about the history of rock and roll music, which should be tremendously rad. My education continues, and I’m one semester closer towards an Associate’s Degree.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2016 in Uncategorized, Writing

 

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(Movies) Hold On To Each Other or The Krampus Will Pick Us Off One By One

Entertainment 150Christmas-themed horror movies have a really poor track record; except for Gremlins, I can’t think of anything that could even remotely be considered good. Well, until now at least. I’ve already gotten into a few debates about this particular film with other folks, so please understand your mileage may vary. But for me, last year’s “Krampus” — which I only now got around to seeing — blends horror, comedy, and Christmas spirit perfectly. It delivers a cautionary tale that’s endearing and relatable, deeply silly, and actually kind of chilling all at once. The story turns out to be a meditation on what Christmas — and every winter holiday before it — is meant to be for the people who celebrate it, and the horrors that befall us if we forget it.

Tom (Adam Scott) is the patriarch of a typical American family preparing for the chaos of Christmas. Sarah (Toni Collette) is his wife trying to make the perfect holiday; his mother is an old-school German-speaking home-maker, while his daughter Beth is more interested in her boyfriend than her family. Adding to the stress, Sarah’s sister Alison is visiting for the holidays — with her obnoxious alpha-male husband (David Koechner) and four children in tow. To top it off, Sarah’s aunt Dorothy crashes the party to add her particular brand of cynicism, chain-smoking and binge drinking.

Only Tom’s son Max still believes in the Christmas spirit. That changes when his cousins embarrass him at the family dinner table by reading his letter to Santa out loud, exposing true and tender feelings about secrets that might be better left unrevealed. Hurt and angry, Max rips up the letter and tosses it into the wind, inadvertently summoning the shadow of Saint Nicholas. A supernatural blizzard cuts off power to the entire town, and that’s when the bloodletting begins.

Krampus tries to blend a kind of existential horror with demonic set-pieces that feel designed to be crazy enough to force a laugh, and how well it succeeds depends on your tolerance for tonal whiplash. I found it best to just buy into the film’s big request for a suspension of disbelief; once I did, I discovered that there was something surprisingly thoughtful lurking beneath the silliness.

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— HERE THERE BE SPOILERS —

Beth goes first, heading out into the storm to visit her boyfriend. She finds his home open to the elements, unnaturally frozen and everyone missing. On the way back, she’s chased by a horned figure jumping from rooftop to rooftop until she hides under a truck. Just when she thinks she’s escaped, another monster attacks her from the bushes. Tom and his brother in law are attacked as they go looking for him, and the family barricades themselves in the house. This, of course, doesn’t work — one by one, they’re isolated and abducted. As their numbers dwindle, their relationship to one another changes. Instead of focusing on what they hate about one another, they cling to each other a little tighter. Each terrible, strange disappearance forces them to band together that much more desperately.

This is where the movie starts to feel like it actually has something on its mind. Omi, the German grandmother, tells the story of how the poverty of her village made her lose her Christmas spirit when she was a young girl. Krampus visited, took everyone, and left her alone to serve as a witness. Now that Max and his family realize what is happening, they do their best to escape together; Omi stays behind to confront the demon, and that leads to a series of sacrifices. Tom gives his life to save his family, then Sarah gives hers to save her children. Eventually, Max tries to give up his life to save his cousin.

I might be overthinking this, or it might be the dire times we find ourselves in, but it was fascinating to watch these people realize the importance of unity against an often harsh and unforgiving world. As the home becomes increasingly unsafe and the family is driven into the bitter cold, I’m reminded of people learning to band together in ancient times for warmth and shared resources through the dark chill of winter. The festivity and merrymaking isn’t just because there was nothing else to do; these holidays are meant to deepen the bonds of community and remind us of the importance of our relationships. Gifts aren’t the meaning of Christmas; they only represent it. We give each other offerings to show our loved ones what they mean to us.

The consequences of forgetting how to be part of a community are often invisible and can easily go unnoticed. And by the time we realize that something has gone dreadfully wrong it’s too late. Max’s family struggle against a world that has suddenly turned against them in the worst way, and they display tenacity, ingenuity and bravery in the fight — but it does nothing to stop all of them from dying. Max begs and pleads with the demon to reverse what’s happened; he apologies, he promises to remember his lesson, he even gives Krampus back the coal bell he received as a token of his ordeal. Then he is thrown into a pit, and wake up in his bed.

Downstairs, his family is enjoying Christmas morning. For all of their flaws, they share a common bond that fills the room with warmth. Then, Max opens his gift — Krampus’ coal bell. A chill quiets the room, and everyone looks away from each other as they remember the horrors they’ve experienced.

That image is a chilling one. Instead of reaching for each other to share and relieve their suffering, they retreat into themselves. It strikes me as a particularly nasty version of hell; taking a moment that should connect us and trapping us within it with people who simply cannot do so. Being alone in that room full of people is an exceptionally lonely feeling.

So, this Christmas, I’ll make it a point to be more open about the things that frighten or depress me — and I encourage you to do the same. It’s more important than ever to bring ourselves together, to hold on to one another before it’s too late. We haven’t reached the tipping point yet, but I worry that it’s so close. We have to learn how to band together; we may have our differences, and we might disagree, but what happens if we don’t is terrifying and irreversible.

Hell is a banquet table where everyone has no option but to use forks that are too long to feed ourselves. Heaven is what happens when we decide to feed each other instead.

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Monsters Inc., Lilo & Stitch

Entertainment 150After the surprise success of The Emperor’s New Groove, Disney took a sharp turn towards science-fiction adventure with…mixed success. Meanwhile, Pixar really stepped into it’s own with ambitious and confident storytelling, pushing the limits of what CGI animation could do in every new film. This aesthetic is one they never really got away from, which is what makes them such an excellent animation studio; even if the story sags a bit, there’s at least one thing you’ve never seen before. Monsters Inc. really allowed them to show off how far they’ve come with fur texture; take a look at Sulley, then go back to screenshots of Scud the dog from the original Toy Story six years earlier. It’s astonishing to see the difference.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

This is the first of a pair of movies Disney produced that married classic adventure fiction with science-fiction touches to bring it into the 21st century, and it’s the inferior effort. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though — Disney brought out the big guns for Atlantis, introducing new and more complicated animation techniques to give the movie a sense of scale; bringing on big names for the main characters like Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Leonard Nimoy, Cree Summer, and Jim Varney in his final role; and drafting Marc Okrand (the father of the Klingon language) to develop the Atlantean language for the movie. What we get is a film whose aspirations are clear on the screen, but misses the basics of storytelling in its reach to be a launching pad for a franchise.

So Milo (Fox) is a cartographer for the Smithsonian who spends all of his professional capital researching the myth of Atlantis; when his bid to search for The Shepherd’s Journal, a book that is claimed to hold the secrets of the lost city, is rejected, he is approached by an eccentric millionaire who promises to fund his expedition. Surprise! The lost city is found. Double surprise! The captain of the ship carrying Milo to the city has ulterior motives, and what follows is a race to discover the secrets of Atlantis so they can either be protected or exploited.

The crew of the Ulysses is a disparate bunch of strong personalities, and while they’re amusing enough they don’t get nearly enough time to make an impression. Instead, the movie focuses on Milo’s journey of self-discovery and the culture of an ancient yet advanced civilization that never quite feels believable. Milo and Kida, the princess of Atlantis and standard love interest, are the least interesting characters in the movie. Of course, they take up the majority of the screen time, which leaves the more interesting and fun characters struggling to push through the cracks of the main plot.

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Wouldn’t you rather watch a movie with these guys?

Still, the sheer amount of effort put into the film is admirable. It cost $100 million to make, had 350 animators working on it during the peak of its production, and married 2D and 3D animation to an extent Disney had never attempted before. The writers and directors worked hard to build a lost civilization that was completely new, and it shows — I just wish the end result had been more impressive. The blandness of the main characters, the tepid plot and the breezy pacing made the entire movie feel too light to be the epic adventure they were aiming for. The villain Rourke, voiced by James Garner, and the rest of the Ulysses crew were wasted opportunities; they were unlike most Disney characters that had been devised up to that point and they would have made a fascinating ensemble. The studio really wanted the movie to launch a spin-off series called Team Atlantis, and it would have been awesome to watch these characters have their chance to shine given more time.

But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Atlantis made only $84 million in North America and received tepid reviews from most critics. Ultimately, I think it’ll go down as a “noble failure”, a collection of interesting ideas that never really came together the way anyone had hoped it would.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Four or five months after Atlantis disappointed at the box office, Pixar released its fourth animated film — its first not to be directed by Andrew Stanton, no less. Pete Docter (who also directed Up and Inside Out) is well known and rightly celebrated for infusing his stories with a strong emotional hook, and Monsters, Inc. is no exception. The relationship that develops between the film’s titular monster Sulley and the three-year-old child who sneaks into his world is the joyous backbone of the movie; Sulley’s relationship with his best friend Mike is changed by it, and the adjustment to that change provides at least as much conflict as the film’s antagonist does. It’s a beautiful story populated by real, relatable characters — which only makes the technical achievements stand out that much more.

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Children are the worst, am I right??

In the world of monsters, energy is provided by the screams of human children but since that resource is finite and dwindling there’s a shortage. Sulley is the top scarer of one of Monstropolis’ premiere energy companies, but his fierce rivalry with Randall motivates him to do even better. After investigating a closet door left on the workroom floor, Sulley discovers a human child has entered their world — a catastrophe, to be sure, because everyone knows they’re toxic. In his attempts to get “Boo” back to her home, Sulley and Mike uncover Randall’s plot to extract all possible screams out of humans to solve the energy crisis. That would be fine except for the fact that the machine is severely traumatizing. Sulley, after caring for Boo, learns that humans aren’t toxic. They’re even pretty great to be around. However, protecting Boo means blowing up his entire life — how can he scare someone he has such great affection for? How can he allow this terrible device to become part of the system that keeps his society afloat?

The story hinges on Sulley doing the right thing even when it means throwing almost everything he believed for his entire life out of the door. That has drastic consequences — not just for himself, but for his best friend, his company, his entire social order. Even Mike doubts the wisdom of what he’s doing, so if he’s going to change his ways he’ll truly have to do it alone. Even for a monster, that’s intensely scary. The enormity of Sulley’s decisions through the course of the movie didn’t hit me the first time I watched it, but this time it reminded me of so many people who benefit from the status quo coming to a similar realization and standing on a similar precipice. Having to put aside a lifetime of unchecked assumptions is hard enough, but acting on it requires upending a lot of things that have become fundamentally tied into our social fabric. It will cause discomfort for friends, family and colleagues — and there’s no guarantee of reward or even recognition. Doing the right thing, especially when it goes against the direction one’s society is headed in, can be deeply frightening and intensely lonely.

That’s what makes Sulley such a great hero. His ultimate conflict isn’t external — though Randall certainly holds the line for the status quo. He has to put away his misconceptions, as deep as they are, and be the one person (monster) who stands up to challenge the deeply-held misconceptions of others before they lead to the ruin of a vulnerable other. The ending, which ultimately proves Sulley right and solves the city’s energy crisis, allows Sulley to reap the karmic benefits of making the right choice — but in real life, things don’t work so immediately or cleanly. Still, the look on his face at the very end of the movie is simply beautiful, a perfect way to close out the film.

The animation is leaps and bounds over Pixar’s previous films, of course; Monstropolis is populated with a crazy assortment of monsters, and Sulley himself is an eight-foot-tall, fur-bearing hulk that forced the studio to sink or swim with fur texture. But each monster in the film represents a unique challenge — Mike is a short, one-eyed ball that has to emote relatably even though he looks so alien; his girlfriend, Celia Mae, is a gorgon-y monster whose snakes have to be animated separately; Randall is a chameleon-like monster that can walk on just about any surface and can change his scales to blend in with the environment. Each monster moves in a distinct way, and their design informs their personality quite well.

It’s hard to believe that Monsters, Inc. is rarely mentioned in a conversation with Pixar’s best; it would be one of the crowning jewels of any other animation studio. It’s a testament to the longevity and consistent excellence of the brand that this generally falls around the middle of the pack, but don’t let that ranking fool you: Monsters, Inc. is a thoroughly great movie, and it holds up extremely well in the Pixar canon.

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

After a string of four big-budget movies that hadn’t done nearly as well as Disney had hoped, the studio decided to try a film with a more modest budget. Veteran animator Chris Sanders was asked to pitch an idea, and he gave them a character he had made fifteen years earlier in a failed bid for a children’s book. Originally set in Kansas, the setting of his story moved to Hawaii — which had never been the subject of an animated feature before. Throw in an also-new set of indigenous sisters as main characters, and you get Lilo & Stitch, a wonderful movie that’s fun, touching, and quietly revolutionary.

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A girl and her dog.

Lilo is a young native Hawaiian girl struggling with the recent death of her parents and chafing under the overwhelmed stewardship of her older sister Nani. When an illegal genetic experiment crash-lands on the island after escaping from an intergalactic prison, Lilo adopts him and names him Stitch. Hot on Stitch’s tail is the scientist who created him, Dr. Jumba, and Agent Pleakley, the “Earth expert” for the Galactic Federation. Eventually, fed up with their inability to capture the experiment, the Galactic Federation sends the giant alien Captain Gantu to collect him.

Meanwhile, Stitch upends Lilo’s life as she tries to incorporate him into their broken home. Neither of them realizes that Nani is fighting to retain custody of Lilo after several disastrous visits from their social worker, Cobra Bubbles (voiced with delightful stoicism by Ving Rhames). With so many forces on the island trying to tear them apart, and with Stitch’s “programming” giving him an imperative to destroy whatever is around him, things look bleak for all three of them.

The bad-guy-makes-good story has been told quite a number of times, but the new elements and the confident, emotional storytelling makes Lilo & Stitch wonderfully unique. Besides being the first animated film set in Hawaii, Lilo & Stitch centers on the relationship between two sisters — something that you still don’t see very often in film, animated or live-action. The fact that they’re indigenous Hawaiians, struggling to make ends meet by taking odd jobs to facilitate the island’s tourist culture, is at once a foundational element of the story and in the background. It’s an excellent example of telling stories featuring non-white protagonists; the reality of their lives is never ignored or downplayed, but it’s not exploited to be a Message Movie or poverty tourism. I can’t think of another Disney film that quite deals with the aftermath of losing one’s parents in such a grounded way.

Lilo is a little kid who is undoubtedly messed up by the turns her life have taken, but she’s intellectually and emotionally intelligent enough to recognize the suffering her sister is going through and how much Stitch just needs someone to care for him. She makes a lot of mistakes, doesn’t control her impulses well, and has an incredibly weird sense of humor. But she tries so hard to make her life work, and it’s that effort that forms the backbone of the movie. It’s her sheer force of will that turns Stitch around and keeps her small family together. She’s a freaking hero.

The story deals with the intense, aching loneliness of knowing how different you are and how difficult it makes your life. It also explores how transformative it can be to reach out for connection anyway, especially when it’s difficult. The mantra that no one gets left behind is repeated often, but it’s not an empty slogan; Lilo, Nani and Stitch fight like hell to make sure none of them is alone, and Nani’s friend David is a shining example of how to handle being friend-zoned with grace and compassion.

The watercolored backgrounds pop beautifully, taking advantage of the island setting to the fullest, while the designs of Chris Sanders are endearingly soft, rounded, and just the right amount of off-kilter. Even the science fiction elements fit right in, with spaceships and laser blasters and even aliens that look like they come from an advanced oceanic civilization instead of the far reaches of space.

Lilo & Stitch was Disney’s least-expensive movie since Fantasia 2000, but its biggest domestic and critical success since Tarzan. It just goes to show how you don’t need a whole heap of special effects to tell a story that resonates, and that you can do it with a cast of non-white characters to boot. Even in the post-Renaissance era, Disney could make some stone-cold classics.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Personal) Affirmations

Myth 150One of the things it’s been recommended we do to prepare for the Trump Administration is to learn how to be our own lights, to live our values openly and consistently. What does that mean? Well, Gandhi put it best when he said to “be the change you want to see in the world”. I know how horribly pretentious it is to quote Gandhi to open up a blog post, so I’ll beg your forgiveness now but also ask you to really think about what that means and how important it is to act upon. What kind of change do you want to see in the world? What do you want people to think of as a typical American? Be that person. Rearrange your life to make those values your priority. I wanted to take a moment to write down who I want to be and what I want to stand for now, so in the months and years to come I can come back to this as a North Star.

I am a Buddhist who believes that none of us are free from suffering until we’re all free from suffering. Enlightenment isn’t a static goal reached through years, decades, even lifetimes of work — it is an active state of being, a mindset that compels your thoughts and actions. Enlightenment is not being at peace under a bodhi tree in the lotus position; it is a life lived with complete focus and dedication to the eradication of suffering. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be tragedies; floods will still come, we will still lose the people we love, and we will still get sick, grow old, and pass on. However, it means that we are clear about the precious and impermanent nature of our lives, appreciate what we have while we have it, and learn to let it go once it’s gone.

Suffering comes from the unhealthy clinging to the good things in our lives and a pathological avoidance of the bad. We must learn to be uncomfortable, because that discomfort carries with it the promise of deeper understanding about who we are and what we’re about. The good times never last, but the bad times don’t either. Each carries with them a small truth about the nature of our existence, and our work is to sift through the sand to find that glittering and unmistakable gem.

Human beings are social animals, and I believe it is our life’s purpose to connect and engage with one another. Each one of us is an amazing creature, an entire world of thoughts and experiences, simultaneously common, vulgar, divine, unique. We must never forget that our potential is limitless when we learn to work together, and our doom is assured when we come to think of our fellow man as an enemy that must be eliminated rather than a companion that must be embraced and understood. It is difficult to connect with something as complex as another human being, but our life’s work isn’t meant to be easy. It is meant to be illuminating.

I will do my best to overcome my fear in service of that work. I will persist in trying to connect with other people, to connect other people to each other, to build and nurture a community that challenges and inspires its members to be more compassionate, more engaged, more devoted to the realization of our potential. I will endure the setbacks, dangers, and disappointments of this work because failure is only as permanent as I allow it to be. Abandoning my life’s work is a fate worse than death. I will not bear it.

I will protect those who are different, whose differences make them vulnerable to the whims of the mob. I will not tolerate intolerance of those who were born another race, worship a different God (or no God at all), who love different genders, who are different genders. I will stand up and speak loudly against those who would isolate their fellow human beings through cruel speech, aggression, violence. I will do what is necessary to make sure no harm comes to another human being simply because they are different. I will not assume someone else will take care of it; it is my life’s work to eradicate suffering, whatever form it takes.

I will keep learning how to tend to my life’s work better and more compassionately. I will correct my mistakes as soon as I am aware of them. I will be forgiving and understanding of the mistakes of others. I will be patient, kind, open, and honest. I must be brave in order to uphold these virtues.

I believe in a future where humanity embraces the full spectrum of its existence. I will work towards that future by respecting others and demanding respect in return. I will not allow myself or others to be mistreated. At the same time, I must be aware of my limitations and respect myself and my needs. I can’t continue my life’s work if I don’t take care of myself. I will do what I need to do to stay as healthy as I can for as long as I can; to do otherwise is to give in to despair. I will not bear it.

My name is David, and I am a gay black man living in the United States of America. This is my country. I refuse to let it stand for values that promote suffering, isolation, ignorance and selfishness. I will do everything I can to make sure we are a nation of united peoples, respectful and respected, engaged in the world and dedicated to making it better.

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2016 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Politics) Navigating Trump’s America

Politics 150Unless a miracle occurs sometime in the next two months, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States this January. If you’re a liberal like me, this is an alarming fact for all kinds of reasons. The election of Trump — who won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by anywhere from 1.5 – 2 million — is a signifier that our country is much more comfortable with what Trump represents than we thought. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, and disdain for truth, competence and compassion have all been revealed to be a much stronger part of the American fabric than we were willing to admit and now we have to pay the consequences for that over the next four years. What do we do with that? How can we navigate a political climate that seems so hostile and stacked against us? I think now it is more important than ever to resist what Trump represents by actively embodying our values; we must be aggressively compassionate, open and honest, and welcoming of those who are different and disadvantaged.

We already know how cruel Trump can be. He announced he was running for President by attacking American immigrants from Mexico, saying that they were drug dealers and rapists. At one of his rallies, he openly mocked a journalist with a disability. Whenever he has a public argument with a woman, he inevitably goes to their appearance, their sexual behavior, or their relationships in an attempt to dismiss them. He has mocked war veterans, members of his own party, people of color, journalists, entertainers, anyone who has accused him of illegal or immoral acts — mostly through Twitter, his cudgel of choice. This is not an aberration. Many in the GOP establishment have been using misdirection, lexicographical engineering, and ad hominem attacks as the common method of debate for years, even decades.

Which is why it’s also no surprise at all that Trump is so brazenly, shockingly dishonest. He has lied about the things he’s said and done in the past. He has lied about the things others have said and done in the past. By now, it’s very difficult to be ignorant of the long history of Trump’s half-truths and falsehoods because they were a distinguishing feature of his campaign. Politifact has five ratings for claims made by Presidential candidates, the worst of which is “pants-on-fire” — a claim that is nt only untrue but obviously ridiculous. Over the course of the campaign, Trump has 60 claims with this ratingmore than his “true” or “mostly true” statements combined. However, most of Trump’s supporters don’t care about these lies; they actually care about what these lies are justifications for — a xenophobic, racist set of policies that will make lives more difficult for just about any minority in this country.

That’s the worst part of Trump’s ascendancy. After decades of fighting for equal rights and protections under the law, the next four years could see most — if not all — of those advancements dismantled. Trump, like so many of the white supremacists who have supported him, thrives on isolation, humiliation and threats to dominate the conversation. He wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and deport undocumented immigrants immediately, without punishing the companies who have been taking full advantage of their labor all this time. He wants to ban any Muslim from entering the United States and “register” anyone of the Islamic faith already in this country. He has threatened to jail Hillary Clinton, his major political opponent of the last year, multiple times. He has threatened to sue or imprison journalists who speak against him, activists who protest his policies, other government executives and legislators who have declared defiance of his proposed federal policies.

Those who have asked us to wait and see what a Trump presidency will look like have no answers for all the news that has come out about his transition. Steve Bannon — a hard-right white nationalist associated with Breitbart News — was tapped to be his chief strategist for domestic and foreign policy, which will almost certainly mean that the worst parts of Trump’s racist and anti-globalist policies will be a central part of his administration. He wants Tom Price to head Health and Human Services, which definitely means that repealing or gutting Obamacare — and depriving millions of the most vulnerable Americans of health care — is a campaign promise he intends to keep. His pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is in favor of charter education over fixing the nation’s ailing public schools, corporatizing our education. His Secretary of Transportation pick, Elaine Chao, is married to Mitch McConnell. The man he wants for Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, was a former partner at Goldman Sachs and hedge-fund manager. His Secretary of Commerce pick, Wilbur Ross, is a coal and steel executive who owned a company that lost 12 workers in a mine explosion and is also aggressively anti-free trade. The Trump administration will be stocked with pro-business allies with limited government experience, all with the singular aim of pushing government functions into the arms of the private sector.

There’s no question that Trump’s Presidency will present real hardship for me, people like me, my friends and family. The only unknown is how hard things will be; best case scenario, we have four years of an incompetent federal government that does a lot of crappy stuff that might be undone later, but worst-case scenario is the end of our democracy as we know it and a resurgence of fascist, authoritarian, white supremacist thinking. How do we get through the next four years, knowing that our lives will very likely be worse but not quite knowing how much worse they’re going to be?

I think it is more important than ever for us to actively, aggressively uphold the virtues that Trump and his allies are trying to destroy. We must be courageous in the face of this adversity. We must be compassionate to those who are being targeted at any given time, and ferocious in our defense of their lives, liberty and our democracy. We must be open and honest with ourselves and each other, willing to own up to our mistakes and work to reverse any damage they might cause. We must prize accuracy and truthfulness, no matter how painful or difficult the facts might be. And we must forgive each other, work with each other to become better people, and to forge a better community.

I won’t lie — I’m very frightened about what our country is becoming, and what it will look like during the next Presidential election in 2020. The scope of what we must deal with is overwhelming. Equal rights for minority and vulnerable populations, fixing our unjust legal system, investing in education, ending our reliance on fossil fuels to combat climate change, promoting green energy and technology, embracing the rich tapestry of differences that makes America a true melting pot while also respecting a common law that allows everyone to pursue their individual dreams are all things that we must fight for. Sometimes, we will have to fight for many of these things at once. I honestly don’t know if I have what it takes for sustained resistance these four years. But I know I must try. It’s OK to be afraid, but it is not OK to allow that fear to keep you silent and still. We must speak loudly for ourselves and our fellow Americans. We must move to defend our democracy and our community. We must be brave.

We must have empathy for the people who are vulnerable. Islamic-Americans, American immigrants, Americans of color, LGBQT Americans, Americans with disabilities, American women, poor Americans both urban and rural, progressive Americans, American journalists and entertainers — all of them have been threatened specifically by Trump at some point during his campaign, and his Cabinet choices signal that he will make good on at least some of those threats. If at all possible, we have to actively protect those who are in the crosshairs of Trump’s policies and supporters to make sure they’re as OK as they can be in this trying time. Only by reaching out to help those who need it will we be able to repair the tattered fabric of American community; we can’t expect anyone else to do it. We HAVE to.

We have to develop critical thinking, analytical ability, and a sense of our own fallibility. We are not always right — sometimes, the facts we have to base decisions on turn out to be inaccurate, or we lead ourselves to the wrong conclusions through the trail of facts we build. The world is a complex, enormous place; we will never understand all of it, and that’s OK. Even experts make mistakes in their chosen field, and most of us will never be experts in public policy, sociology, philosophy or most of the things we need to be to understand why the world works the way it does. We can do our best. We can put our trust in those we believe to be correct. But hear me — they will be wrong at some point, and so will we. We have to respect our ideals and values well enough to know when we’ve fallen short of them, and compassionate enough with ourselves to make room for our mistakes. We can’t allow our ego to extend the damage our mistakes cause by doubling down on them. We won’t fool the people who matter most to us.

There will be hard truths to face these next four years. Our government might do things that are obviously, undeniably unjust but that we are also powerless to stop. We might find that it’s too late to save various parts of our environment that have been ignored for too long. We might see a wave of hatred sweeping the country and the rest of the developed world. Our lives may be changed irrevocably. But we can’t fall into the trap of denying these events, or thinking that we can go back to normal again if we just elect the right people. We must have clear eyes about our world and our place in it, and we have to do this to know the best way we can help make it the best world it could possibly be.

We must forgive each other when we make mistakes. For far too long progressives have torn their own communities apart for not being “woke” enough, for not doing the right things to protest injustice, for not being as far along in our understanding of our society as some are. We each have our own experiences and perspectives, and none of us ever come to the decisions and actions we make in a vacuum. While it’s true we must call out damaging attitudes, words and behavior, we must also do so with the goal of correcting them instead of excoriating the person responsible for them. We need our allies — even those who are still unaware of just how deep systemic injustice goes, or who are uncomfortable with certain forms of protest, or possess any number of imperfections. A community that demands ideological purity from its members is not a good one for realizing the dream of what America could be. There will be tension about matters of belief, and of policy — we will disagree with those who are in the trenches with us. But there are in the trenches, with us. We must be patient and kind to our fellow Americans who want to be on our side, but who don’t quite know how. Pushing them out and leaving them alone to discover the “right” way to ally only increases the isolation that we’re working so hard to combat.

In order to weather Trump’s America we must become our best selves quick in and in a hurry. We must remember what it means to be in a community of different but united voices again. We must be brave, compassionate, shrewd, patient, honest, open, and assertive. We can’t keep our heads down. We have to face this with all the strength and ingenuity we can muster. And we must do it together. That is how we make America great again.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2016 in Self-Reflection

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur, The Emperor’s New Groove

Entertainment 150Between classes, my day job and the crushing despair of the election, I haven’t had a lot of energy to write. I’ve been wanting to step back into the writing projects that have kept me anchored when the rest of my life is flying apart, and that starts with this blog. There is an awful lot on my mind, as you might imagine, but given that most of the people who would read this are more than likely in Chicago at a convention and I wanted to ease back into things, I thought I would start with a few Disney reviews.

We’re out of the Disney Renaissance now, and into that short, troubled period where Pixar was ascendant, DreamWorks Animation was the hot new kid on the block, and Disney Animation was struggling to keep its voice and remain relevant. A lot of the movies in this period aren’t as bad as you might expect, though there are a number of clunkers. For now, though, the scattershot approach yields mixed results as Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur, and The Emperor’s New Groove were released in the year 2000.

Fantasia 2000 (2000)

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Sixty years after the release of the original Fantasia, Disney Animation finally produced a follow-up that was booked as an exclusive IMAX engagement starting in January 2000. The wide release came a bit later in June, but by then most of its money had been made — nearly $65M of its ultimate $91M total came from the IMAX screening. Just like its predecessor, Fantasia 2000 blended various animation styles and techniques with a wide range of classical music. The end result is consistently entertaining, but it lacks a truly iconic sequence — the ambition of the animators is admirable but rarely met.

The crown jewel this time out is “Rhapsody in Blue”, featuring the wonderful jazz instrumental from Ira Gershwin played against characters inspired by the artist Al Hirschfeld. The music is a natural fit for the chaos of New York City as we follow various residents caught between their dreams and the reality of their lives and responsibilities. There’s a black construction worker who longs to be a jazz musician; a hen-pecked little man who wants to break the monotonous dignity of his one-percenter life to do something fun instead; and a little girl who just wants to be with her successful, busy parents. That first trill of the clarinet gets us off to the races, and the chaos never stops from there. It’s genuinely delightful, and the one sequence that really strikes its mark.

Donald Duck stars in “Pomp and Circumstance,” which is another solid entry that offers another seamless marriage of music and classic animation. The stately, driving beat that serves as the backbone of the music anchors the action here, lending a good sense of rhythmic momentum that moves Donald’s simple, funny, and surprisingly touching story from its set-up to its climax. There are a number of visual gags that work really well here, and it’s nice to see the studio finding new ways to stretch out its stable of iconic characters.

How you feel about the other six shorts depends on your interests. Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” scores an animist fight between a Forest Spirit and a Volcano God that’s surprisingly polished for its time; Resphigi’s “Pines of Rome” serves as a soundtrack to a truly surreal short cartoon featuring arctic, flying whales; “The Carnival of the Animals, Finale” by Camille Saint-Saens is a great companion to a silly tale about dancing flamingos and one yo-yo obsessed bird. Each piece tries to blend traditional animation with computer effects; while a lot of them hold up really well, the limitations of the art show in more than a few others.

Fantasia 2000 might be Disney’s best package film, though it was widely regarded as a flop at the time of its release. That’s unfortunate, because the inventive, challenging nature of these shorts really help keep Disney’s animators trying new things. I think there’s worth in updating this series every decade or so; it serves as something of a time-capsule for the state of the venerable House of Mouse, and that’s a great thing for any Disney fan. It looks like we’ll have to wait until 2040, though, for someone to complete the trilogy.

Dinosaur (2000)dinosaur

Disney’s first computer-animated film was a creative disappointment but a box-office success, making nearly $350 million worldwide. While it was a fairly big technical achievement at the time I guess, the story is plodding and the characters aren’t distinctive or memorable. The visual splendor of the movie is front-loaded; once the characters are established and the first act ends, there’s little more than post-apocalyptic wasteland as a backdrop. Dinosaur is ultimately kind of a boring movie, with bland characters impressively rendered against live-action environments that still somehow look bleak and colorless.

Aladar is an Iguanadon adopted into a family of lemurs after his egg is carried far away by a Pterodon. While he’s accepted as a part of the tribe, his huge size and the fact that there are no other dinosaurs on their island means he’s unlikely to find a place where he truly fits in. All of that changes when a meteor strikes the planet, causing a cataclysmic upheaval that destroys the lemurs’ home and forces them to travel far to find another place to live. Eventually, they find a caravan of dinosaurs searching for a mythical “Nesting Ground” that promises food, water, and safety. Aladar must earn his place among his own kind by acting on the lessons he learned as an adopted lemur, which of course isn’t easy.

The characters are more archetypes than fully-realized beings, and they behave the way they do mostly because the story demands it. Aladar is the uncertain young idealist who always does the right thing; the leader of the dinosaur caravan, Kron, is a straight-up Darwinist who believes that only the strong should survive; Kron’s sister, Neera, is torn between dutiful obedience to her brother and her growing feelings for Aladar. The band of misfits that serve as Aladar’s allies feel like a grab bag of character traits — there’s the huge but prim brachiosaur Baylene; the elderly, wise triceratops Eema; the fun-loving, wise-cracking lemur Zini. There isn’t much sense of who these creatures are beyond their service to the story, and since the story is your basic “keep your morality in the face of disaster” fable, it isn’t strong enough on its own to keep our interest.

The scene of the meteor strike is intense, though. The action is chaotic but well-choreographed, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the devastation of an event like that rendered so realistically, especially from ground level. Knowing that this is likely the extinction-level event that ultimately wiped out the dinosaurs, it’s a little strange spending the rest of the movie watching the desperate survivors search for a safe haven that either doesn’t exist or will quickly dry up. This being a Disney movie, though, they gloss over that bit for the happy ending the tale demands.

That dissonance might be why the movie is ultimately so disappointing. The struggle for survival isn’t quite bleak enough to make Aladar’s morality and optimism feel like the beacon it’s meant to be, but the situation itself demands a gravity that means the story can’t be much lighter than it already is. In the hands of a better storyteller, Dinosaur could have been something special. As it is, though, it feels like a missed opportunity that still did well enough to be counted as a commercial success.

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

emperor-kingdom

The Emperor’s New Groove was once an entirely different movie called Kingdom of the Sun; it was supposed to be a more serious movie that borrowed elements from The Prince and the Pauper, Incan mythology and romantic adventures. Then Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame didn’t do so well, production fell pretty far behind, and executives threatened to shut the whole thing down. Out of the chaos, a minor miracle happened — the film was completely overhauled into a road-trip buddy comedy that was better than it had any right to be. Even though The Emperor’s New Groove is a relatively minor film in the Disney animated canon, its sheer comedic energy, creativity and brisk, confident attitude makes it a pleasant, if somewhat dated, surprise.

The film has voice talent that feels firmly planted in the late 90s. David Spade is Kuzco, a spoiled Incan emperor who plans to bulldoze an entire herding village to make room for his summer palace. John Goodman is Pasha, the poor villager whose home is slated to be destroyed. Little does Kuzco know, however, that his adviser Yzma (Eartha Kitt) is planning to kill him and take the throne; her plan hits an unexpected wrinkle when her good-hearted but bumbling assistant Kronk (Patrick Warburton, because of course) mixes up a dose of poison with a potion that turns the emperor into a llama. Now, Kuzco has to team up with Pasha to get back to the palace before Yzma takes over the kingdom.

It’s a much better film than it has any right to be. David Spade strikes the right balance between his usual smarm and the demands of his character’s arc, while John Goodman is a wonderful grounding influence as the straight man. Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton make for a great comic duo; Kronk walks away with the movie as a supernaturally capable yet mismatched villain’s henchman. Everyone seems game for the movie’s breakneck pace, quipping like they’ve been doing this forever and knowing when to slow down enough to make sure the story’s emotional beats land with the weight they need. The proceedings are cartoonish in the best way — inventive and self-aware, but with perfect timing and pacing.

I’m not sure that the movie has aged so well in fifteen years, though. When it was first released, I loved it enough to watch it several times over. This is my first rewatch in a very long time, and a lot of the comic set-pieces come across as a bit more thread-worn and old-fashioned. It’s a small disappointment that the surprise of the film’s quality has dimmed somewhat; even though it holds up fairly well, it’s not the kind of movie that can stand a whole lot of repeat viewings.

That being said, this is a really strong blend between the traditional Disney storytelling model and a post-modern irreverence that was really big among animated features of the day. The chaotic, nearly disastrous production process for The Emperor’s New Groove may have been the best thing for it; the desperation to get the movie into theatres forced the studio to scrap so much of its initial plans for it and improvise. That al-dente, anything-goes style of storytelling infects every frame of the movie, and it’s kind of amazing that the high-wire act is more or less a success.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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