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Author Archives: Jakebe

About Jakebe

Jakebe is a cyber-rabbit who makes his burrow within the analog space of Silicon Valley, CA. He enjoys telling stories, talking about stories and exploring aspects of the human condition through stories.

Zen & The Art of Getting Shit Done

 

Buddhism 150It’s been a hard couple of months for me, mostly because of a few unexpected emergencies. I got into an accident at the end of February that totaled my car, and it took about a month for my insurance company to make that decision and offer me a write-off settlement. I had spent a bit of time researching available cars for a while, but past a certain point I had to blitz through buying a car because of the other sudden explosion — family. I’m still working through that one, and it looks like I’ll be devoting time and energy to that for a while yet.

My ADHD intersects with my Generalized Anxiety Disorder in weird ways. I’m not sure if I’ve talked about my anxiety disorder, but here’s a quick summary. Emotions are like the dashboard warnings on your car, right? They’re indications that there’s something you should pay attention to. Sometimes, the sensor and trigger for those warning lights can be faulty or over-sensitive; so you’ll feel angry at the slightest provocation, or your body will suddenly panic for no real reason. In my case, my anxiety trigger is really sensitive — it doesn’t take very much to trigger it, and that makes it harder to absorb new sources of stress when they arise. It’s easy for me to get overwhelmed.

When that happens, my ADHD kicks in. It feels like I have…hummingbird brain, let’s say. I’ll flit from thing to thing, rarely staying in one place or on one thought at a time. The more I try to settle down to focus on a problem, the more my brain slides away from it, distracted by the nearest shiny thing. Because there’s an urgent matter that needs my attention, some part of my brain will send an anxiety response to draw it back, but I can’t focus and I’ll slide to another distraction. This happens again and again, and I end up spending so much energy trying to get my brain on track that by the time I’ve wrestled it into submission exhaustion has set in and I don’t have much energy for whatever problem I’m dealing with.

It’s frustrating and awful. It means that instead of having the capacity to deal with what’s in front of me, my anxiety will throw me into a state where that’s more or less impossible. Flight becomes my default response, and I’ll get caught in an anxiety-flight loop until I’m too tired to run, metaphorically, from my problems. But I’m also too tired to deal with them.

This is one of the reasons that self-care is so important. I know that laying a foundation of care allows me to absorb stress better, recognize when I’m about to become overwhelmed, and pull back to manage stress as necessary. It does mean that things get done more slowly, but the process is a whole lot faster than letting the hummingbird tire itself out and trying to deal with things that way.

A big part of that self-care is taking time to practice meditation. Allowing myself to do whatever it is I’m going to do helps to ground me. It’s like…setting aside space to honor the hummingbird by letting it flit as much as it wants; sometimes it settles down to sip the nectar of a particularly attractive thought and I discover a solution for something I need to take care of. Sometimes, it simply gets tired and goes back into its cage of its own accord. Either way, meditation helps immensely to replenish my capacity to absorb stress and deal with unexpected things as they arise, without attachment or judgement. I can enter a state of flow more easily, and it’s not quite as devastating when that flow state is broken. Panic happens less often, and even if I’m tired at the end of the day it’s not that raw and troubled exhaustion that happens after time fighting anxiety; it’s a contented kind of weariness, knowing that I got shit done.

Those of us who have to deal with mental health issues have all kinds of other considerations that others might not. Whenever someone comes up to ask me something or make a bid for attention, there’s an instinctive rise of concern about how much this exchange will take out of me. If I’m dealing with a lot of stress-inducing stuff at the moment, I might not be able to spare much energy at all, but I want to help and I want to listen, connect, work with people. If I wake up too late to meditate, I realize that I’ve compromised my ability to deal with difficulties for the rest of the day and my focus will suffer. I worry a lot about being understood or communicating my internal life to others in a way that they will get or care about; it’s hard for me to open up or be spontaneous with people. There’s all this damage that makes the regular stuff so hard, and it’s hard to explain that in a way that doesn’t feel like a bid for pity or a plea for recognition.

With self-care, it can often be that a small change yields big results. Without stress management or coping mechanisms, the medication I take for ADHD can make it more likely that I’ll hit “hummingbird brain” — which is counter-productive to what the medication is supposed to do. Taking just 15 minutes in the morning to encourage quiet and focus can be the difference between a hectic but successful day and a total hot mess of wasted opportunity.

It’s important to do what you need to do to make it through the day; we all have those things that make us better people. It could be exercise, or conversation, or medication; writing, or singing, or hiking. Whatever it is, do it — and make space for others to do what they need. We never know what burdens other people might be under. We scarcely know how our burdens will affect us. But if we encourage and support one another, it makes everyone’s burdens a bit easier to bear.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Fandom) 2 Words

 

Fandom 150Comedians who use shocking or transgressive humor are often no strangers to controversy and criticism. Even the best of them sometimes tip over into the gratuitous, but most don’t stay there very long. The transgressive nature of stand-up comedy is used by these artists as a tool, a scapel that scrapes away the flab of public discourse to reveal the wounds buried underneath. Then there’s 2 Gryphon. He’s the most recognizable furry stand-up comedian we’ve got and has made transgressive humor a centerpiece of his act for over a decade now. However, that humor isn’t in service of exposing and ultimately healing the sensitive topics he frequently covers; it encourages flippant dismissal of the people who disagree with his stances. The “jokes” and comments he makes online encourage his fans to dismiss concerns that he’s engaging in bigoted behavior, spread misinformation and act on it in ways that hurt furries who are most in need of our compassion. 2’s irresponsible and insensitive attitude towards public discourse helps him to shrug off criticism but hurts the fandom as a whole — and that’s something we can’t tolerate any more.

Last Wednesday, 2 Gryphon announced his performance at AnthroCon had been canceled by the board. He did this by responding to a tweet not obviously directed to him from a Twitter account that hasn’t posted in two years before then. In the absence of any official word from the convention staff, it was assumed by both his fans and critics that the decision was made due to a long history of offensive comments made from his personal blog and Twitter account. The way this news broke is important, because it shows us how 2 handles controversy when he has control of how to present it.

The exchange with his fan puts 2 in a sympathetic light right away. He gets an innocent show of support from a fan excited to see him; he then has to disappoint that fan with the news. This allows him to present his absence from AnthroCon as “the convention is denying you, the fans, something we all want and they didn’t tell me why.” This framing primes his fans towards a particular reaction. It shifts focus from him towards the convention and lays the foundation that the convention’s board is responsible for this situation.

But it’s suspicious that 2 responded to an account he doesn’t follow two minutes after it was posted, especially since there was no obvious way to know it was even directed at him. It’s also suspicious that an account that had been dormant since August 2015 just so happens to make a random tweet right around the time the decision came down. The facts of the tweet and his response to it should make us question if what we’re presented with — an exchange between a comedian and his fan — is really what’s happening. But if 2 (alone or with someone’s help) orchestrated this exchange as a way to break the news, why would he do such a thing?

It’s because 2 understands the importance of framing. Political commentator Jim A. Kuypers describes framing this way: “Framing is a process whereby communicators, consciously or unconsciously, act to construct a point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be interpreted by others in a particular manner. Frames operate in four key ways: they define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgments, and suggest remedies. Frames are often found within a narrative account of an issue or event, and are generally the central organizing idea.” In argumentation, even the informal kind, how you sell your argument matters just as much as — if not more than — the content of your argument.

2 is a very smart guy who is great with sophistry — using clever but ultimately fallacious and/or deceptive arguments to win over an audience. He frequently targets and engages with the most extreme forms of criticism to dismiss any criticism outright. He mischaracterizes the content of those arguments to benefit his rebuttal against them and paint his opposition as foolish, ignorant, uninformed. He demands proof of what he’s being accused for, then dismisses, deflects or outright ignores it when it’s presented. He moves the goalposts constantly. He offers up token friends as proof against transphobic or racist remarks instead of addressing the remarks themselves. He uses a suite of different tactics to make sure criticism doesn’t stick, shifting the field of debate from his actions to general “SJW” fallacies that are functionally red meat to his fans.

The way he broke the news is consistent with his handling of criticism in the past. He knew that being disinvited from AC would create a controversy, and in the absence of definitive information or any official response from the convention itself he used the opportunity to set the frame of the debate and subsequent response. Tying the announcement directly to a fan exchange allows him to spin the narrative that the fans want this show and will be very disappointed if they don’t get it; that’s his basis for argument, and to be fair this would be true even without the work he put into framing the debate that way. However, opening with this also allowed 2 to provide a reason without any evidence, blame “the SJWs” for that reason, and encourage outraged fans to email Programming and demand an explanation — even though they’re less likely to trust anything besides the one they were given before. Instead of discussing the reasons that his critics have been giving for years about his comments and behavior, he picks a straw-man argument that we “have spread the lie that he’s a Nazi”, asserts that the Board has been duped by the lie and shouted down by the “silent majority” who just want to be entertained by his brand of comedy.

But I’m not a critic of 2 because I think he’s a Nazi. I haven’t seen any other critics of 2 say he’s a Nazi. His defense of Richard Spencer arguably makes him a Nazi sympathizer, but that’s a debate for another campfire. I’m a critic of 2 because he’s irresponsible with his language and insensitive to the social and racial issues that a large segment of the fandom have to face in their daily lives. In an environment where that kind of sophistry and insensitivity has given rise to the alt-right in our own fandom AND in the White House, we simply can’t tolerate that kind of behavior any more. It’s unacceptable to target the people with the least power to combat the narratives that are formed about them. It’s unacceptable to promote racist, misogynist, othering ideas under the guise of comedy. It’s unacceptable to take no responsibility for the environment you create and expect others to put up with speech and behavior that makes the fandom a less-welcoming, more-hostile space.

The fact that I disagree with 2 politically isn’t the reason I’m writing this, or advocating that he should lose his space at AC. He’s, of course, free to believe that this is a valid argument against Kaepernick’s peaceful protest on behalf of #BlackLivesMatter, even though he hasn’t done a single thing to be thanked for. He’s free to believe that this is a simple joke about Detroit with no reasonable link to racist undertones. He can say that this is just comedy and that anyone who takes offense should “just get over it and move on“.

I’m also free to call bullshit on all of that. 2 never defended anyone’s rights in any way that mattered; he uses free speech mainly as a smokescreen to avoid consequences for saying something shitty in the same way most Internet trolls do. Colin Kaepernick drew attention to a serious problem in a non-violent way as well as donating time and money to communities of color. Everyone knows that Detroit is a majority-Black city and there’s a long-standing history of racist comments comparing black people to apes. Comparing being transgender to claiming racial ancestry not your own is at best false equivalence, and moving from that to the absurdity of “burritokin” means that we can reasonably infer just how seriously he takes the whole idea. It doesn’t matter that he has black friends or transgender friends; he made comments that perpetuated tired yet persistent stereotypes that hurt disadvantaged populations. If he was truly a friend to these people, he would be sensitive to the social conditions they struggle with all the time and work to legitimize them as people with every right to self-determination that he has. But he doesn’t. Instead he mocks and diminishes their protests without ever touching the legitimate issues that cause the protests in the first place.

As a fandom, we’re better than that. If we hope to reverse the damage caused by people who feel entitled to say whatever hurtful thing they want, we have to start in our own backyard. That means calling out the people who promote bigoted and harmful ideas. That means pushing back against the people who insist on being as irresponsible as they can get away with using the platforms they’ve been given. That means demanding that those shouting “Free speech!” understand that there is a responsibility to accept the consequences of that speech.

2, by consistently attacking progressive activists and making jokes about marginalized groups, has proven what he thinks of us through his actions time and again. He doesn’t care who’s hurt by the things he says or does, or how his rhetoric makes the community a smaller place filled with narrow-minded ideas about what’s “valid”. And that’s his right. But it’s also my right to demand that the institutions of our fandom (including AnthroCon) refuse to legitimize that carelessness by denying him the platform he abuses, especially since he continues to deny and deflect criticism instead of actually trying to see the perspective of other people. It’s my right to say there’s no room in this fandom for a comedian who compares people like me to missing links, then tells me “Relax, it’s just a joke!”

It’s not a joke. It’s my life. And I won’t put up with someone who says — by word and deed — that my life matters less than his.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2017 in Furries, mental-health

 

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(Personal) Technical Difficulties

Myth 150The thing that really sucked about 2016 is that I never saw it coming. I went into the year with the sense of excitement and optimism one usually does, confident that I could get my shit together a little more and find success with things that had always eluded me. The Jackalope Serial Company started in January with an ambitious first serial, a novel-length story that would take me the entire year to complete. Now that I had my mental health issues figured out, more or less, I was impatient to get to all of the things that I was too busy fighting my own broken brain to get to. Of course, that boundless energy and optimism didn’t last long.

As the year wore on, I found that it was a bigger struggle than I thought to undo three decades of bad habits and poor decisions; the serial faltered, then stopped altogether. In the wider world, political discourse had gone from rancorous to toxic as Donald Trump somehow managed to beat 16 career politicans (and a few outsiders) to take the Republican nomination for President. Great Britain surprise-voted themselves out of the European Union, kicking off a wave of far-right xenophobia and racism that would be repeated on this side of the pond months later. Surprise that Trump made it this far into the Presidential process turned to shock, and disgust at his incompetence and inexcusable behavior became horror, when he became President thanks to razor-thin victories in three states that gave him all of the electoral votes he needed.

As we were reeling from the shock and facing down the prospect of a disastrous four years of a Trumpist administration, I thought that I could be prepared for 2017 knowing that it was going to be a rough one. I expected that there would be a lot of hard days ahead, and most of my friends would be frightened, depressed, in trouble, and struggling. I resolved to plant my feet and stand my ground as best I could, help out however I could, resist and endure. While I was facing the oncoming tsunami of political bad news, I was blindsided by a few personal crises.

First, my family. I received a letter in the mail asking me if I was related to a child whose name I didn’t recognize. Sure that it was some kind of mistake, I brushed it off until I received a follow-up phone call that told me my sister had been deemed unfit to raise her two youngest children and they had been placed in foster care. The woman on the other end was a social worker looking for relatives to take them in indefinitely.

Suddenly, my husband and I were faced with the prospect of raising children. As an adoptee myself, I know how important it is — but there was no way we were prepared for such a huge task. I couldn’t ask my husband to blow up his entire life for children he had never met, and I knew that saying yes would put all of my plans on hold for who knows how long. There were a lot of hard conversations and frenzied calls to family; I finally got to reach my sister and pledged my support, but I told the social worker there was simply no way we could take them in.

Since then, I haven’t heard anything from either of them. I have no idea what’s going on, despite repeated attempts to get in contact.

Two weeks ago, I was involved in a five car accident that pretty much wrecked my car. Since I rear-ended the car in front of me and the driver of that car was able to avoid the “main” accident I was deemed at fault and will have to pay a huge deductible if the cost of repairs are under the car’s value. Since that’s looking less and less likely, I should be OK with the total write-off but I’m not looking forward to the rise in my insurance premiums later this year. Besides the stress of uncertainty about the status of my car and the fact that this was my first major accident, things turned out a lot better than they could have there. Still, it’s been very stressful.

On top of that, we’ve had persistent plumbing issues with our kitchen sink over the past couple of weeks that got progressively worse until we learned that the sewer line from our kitchen had been corroded completely. That’s been repaired, but now we’re back to square one — our kitchen sink drains very slowly, as if something is not quite blocking it. A fourth/fifth visit from the plumber is likely later this week.

The family crisis, accident and plumbing issue has been taking up a good deal of my focus; the Argumentation & Debate class has been eating up the remainder. As a result, I’ve been stressed to all hell and those old avoidance behaviors have been creeping back into my days. If I’ve been flighty, distant and unreliable online that’s why. I’m feeling overwhelmed with everything going on and I’m just trying to tackle the biggest problems with what limited energy I have. I have to reserve a lot to fight my worst impulses, which makes it even harder to deal with anything new.

I’m hoping that things will shake themselves out in a few weeks or months, but in the meantime things will continue to be a struggle. I haven’t had the spoons for activism or volunteer work yet, and it bums me out. I know that the administration of 45 and the Republican party are up to their persistent fuckery, but I just don’t have the emotional space to tackle that right now. I need to step back and try to right my world for a little bit.

Of course, this blog post means that I’m digging myself out of the hole, bit by bit. Hopefully I can return to a regular posting schedule soon.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2017 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

(Friday Fiction) A Birthday of Legend

Writing 150A dear friend of mine celebrated his birthday a week or two ago, and I offered him a quick short story as an impromptu present. As usual, it took me a little longer than I would have liked to finish it up, but here it is! 

Crux is preparing for a nice, quiet birthday celebration; however, one of his friends has different plans in motion and he doesn’t really take no for an answer.

The knock on Crux’s door threatened to bounce it off its hinges. The blue-furred labrador startled on the couch he was sitting in, nearly dropping his phone. It had taken him longer than expected to respond to all of his birthday wishes. He must have lost track of the time.

He shut down his texting app and checked the time — 7:00 PM. It was about the right time for dinner, but he wasn’t expecting anyone to show up at his apartment; everyone knew the restaurant the quiet party had been reserved at. He chose it because it was nice and open and quiet, a relaxed spot where his…variable-sized friends could lounge and would be encouraged to behave reasonably well. After all the…excitement of the last few months, Crux could use a break.

The door rattled in its frame more violently this time. Crux could feel the entire apartment tremble from the force of the knocking. He frowned; anyone big enough to do that would probably have a hard time fitting in the narrow halls of his apartment building. It’d be best to answer the door and walk to the restaurant as soon as possible. He didn’t want to cause any more of a scene with the neighbors, after all.

“Hold on!” he called out, slipping off the couch and jogging over to the door. He opened it…and saw the entire frame blocked by a wall of a man.

“There you are!” A voice boomed way too loudly. “I was worried I might haveta kick the door in and drag you out.”

A great, shaggy head lowered from where it had loomed above the door frame. Hux gave him a big, toothy grin from under that mop of headfur.

Crux’s heart skipped a beat and his stomach sank. As happy as he was to see the giant, he also realized in that moment his plans for a quiet birthday were completely shot.

“You should know by now that you wouldn’t have to do anything that drastic to get me to let you in.” Crux felt himself blushing already, his mind racing with all that he would need to do to change his plans.

“I’m not comin’ in, pipsqueak. We’re goin’ out!” With surprising speed for his size, Hux slipped an arm around the back of the smaller blue dog and gathered him in against his bulk. “You know how cramped these little shoeboxes you like to live in make me feel.”

Crux squirmed as he was lifted off his feet and hugged against Hux’s broad chest, but it was no use. The forearm against his back was a steel beam wrapped in velvet; that chest might as well be a moving brick wall. He wasn’t going anywhere. “Well, the apartment’s only rated for citizens eight feet tall and smaller. It’s not meant to handle someone of your size.”

The giant snorted and rose as much as he could before his head crunched the ceiling. The cheap material dented easily, dusting a small shower of plaster and paint over Hux’s shoulders and Crux’s head. “Humph. ‘S discrimination if ya ask me. Can’t help it if I’m studly. Don’t you worry none, though. I know the perfect place ta go — you can get one of them sweet drinks you like and I’ll have room to really stretch out.”

Crux could have sworn he felt that massive chest stretch a little wider, saw the giant’s broad shoulders push towards either wall in the hallway. The whole apartment rattled as he stomped his way towards the front door. “I…actually have reservations at another restaurant, 30 minutes from now.”

“Awww, and ya didn’t invite me, little man? I’m hurt!” Hux squeezed the smaller male against him and slowly, carefully hunched down low. One shoulder pushed out of the front door, and then the other. Even still, it was a tight squeeze. Crux was almost buried against the much larger torso, unable to respond for several heart-stopping moments.

Even being as ginger as he was with the door, the frame still warped around the giant’s body. He ground his rear and package before slipping out onto the street with a grunt, rising to his full height with a satisfied groan. “There. Much better!”

Crux squirmed more as soon as he was able to. Hux had grown in the short jaunt from his apartment to the street; the canine had to be at least 15 feet tall now, maybe more. “I tried to reach you! You’re not an easy guy to get a hold of.”

Hux chuckled good naturedly as he stomped his way down the block. He took up the entire sidewalk now; other animals were brushed aside even as they scurried to flatten themselves against buildings or parked cars. “I guess that’s true. You don’t mind me tagging along, do ya? I’ll be your plus one!”

“Of course not.” Crux allowed himself to nuzzle Hux’s chest as he was carried along. “You’re going to have to scrunch down a bit though.”

Hux glanced down, an incredulous eye visible through that shaggy headfur. “Awww c’mon, pipsqueak! Yer killing me here! Don’t they have rooftop service or something? Can’t ye help a little old pup celebrate your birthday?”

“I’ll….see what I can do.” Crux wriggled in Hux’s grip to see if he could grab his phone.

“That’s the spirit!” Hux boomed, almost immediately surging up another five feet in height. “You’re the best, little dude.”

“You’re quite a handful, you know.” Crux was texting his friends, letting them know that there would be a very large change of plans.

“Nothin’ you can’t handle, lil blue. You know you love it.”

Crux’s cheeks warmed at the realization he couldn’t argue. “Yeah. I guess I do.”

“Heh. Damn right!” Hux rumbled as he leapt over a car to move into the street. Much more room there. “We’ll go to your little dinner party, and then I’ll take you someplace where we can have some REAL fun!”

The two canines walked to the restaurant together, one growing larger all the while. The rhythmic tremors took that much longer to diminish; car alarms blared in their wake.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2017 in Furries, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: The Princess and the Frog, Toy Story 3, Tangled

Disney Animation delivered a genuine surprise near Christmas of 2009 with The Princess and The Frog, a return to traditional animation that celebrated the culture of New Orleans in an adaptation of The Frog Prince. In the summer of 2010, Lee Unkrich completed Pixar’s first trilogy to near-universal praise with Toy Story 3, closing the chapter on Andy’s childhood and introducing us to the little girl the baton of imagination had been passed to. Later on around Thanksgiving, Disney scored big with Tangled, a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale that perfected their house style of CGI animation and announced the Revival of the House of Mouse. We’re out of the doldrums with Disney at long last, while Pixar continues its unrivaled run of excellence.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Ron Clements and John Musker — the directors of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Treasure Planet — were enticed back to Disney by being offered the chance to helm the film the way they wanted, with either traditional or CG animation. They chose the former, making a musical comedy that updated an old fairy tale in a new setting — a classic Disney move. Instead of getting Alan Mencken they tapped Randy Newman for the music, and they combined two competing treatments of The Frog Prince that both Walt Disney Animation and Pixar Studios had been working on. They chose New Orleans as a setting for its unique American history, inherent magical qualities, and the fact that it was Lasseter’s favorite. Hey, a little playing to the judge never hurt anyone.

The film follows Tiana, a hard-working black woman who strives to carry on her father’s dream — a restaurant that would connect everyone in the neighborhood through good cooking. The problem is she’s so focused on getting enough money together to buy a place that she doesn’t have any time to actually connect with the people all around her. Prince Naveen of Maldonia is a carefree playboy who flits from good time to good time without being tied down either; his parents have threatened to cut him off from the family fortune unless he marries a good woman and settles down. The prince is transformed into a frog by the dastardly Doctor Facilier, an old-school voodoo man who then changes Naveen’s valet into the prince’s doppleganger so that they both can take power. The valet, according to the bargain, will finally get the respect he feels he’s owed; Facilier can finally pay back the dark spirits he owes souls in exchange for his power.

princess-frog

The gang’s all here! …even that stupid firefly.

Tiana agrees to kiss Naveen only if he agrees to help her get her restaurant, but instead of helping him she’s changed into a frog instead! Now they’re stuck together with a few friendly swamp creatures, searching for another voodoo priest who can break the curse before the false Naveen can marry someone else and New Orleans is doomed. Along the way, both Naveen and Tiana learn the worth of bonding to the people around you and why community is such a special thing.

This is the first Disney movie to feature a Black princess, and it’s about damn time. Tiana, though, ends up taking a curious back seat to her own story; her character arc doesn’t quite drive the plot, and overcoming her flaw doesn’t allow her to make the choice that resolves the big complication. In a lot of ways, Tiana does just about everything right; she believes that while miracles CAN happen, good things generally happen through a lot of hard work. Everything she does is in service to a good end, and while she helps other people whenever she can, her disdain for the lazy Prince Naveen doesn’t necessarily cause her situation to be more complicated than it would be otherwise. It’s interesting to see how Tiana is not the hero of her own story, and that Naveen actually has the stronger arc; but then, that’s the point of The Frog Prince, right? It feels like Tiana is the main supporting character and we just happen to be in her POV.

Story problems aside, this is a really fun movie. The music is wonderfully lively and does a great job of advancing the story, adding emotional depth to the characters and celebrating the different styles of artistry there is down in New Orleans. The Princess and the Frog is black in a way that feels natural. Tiana has to work twice as hard just to have a shot at the things her best friend — a white socialite and daughter of a local businessman — takes for granted. Her best friend isn’t malicious or evil, just oblivious to her privilege and the effect of her life on the world around her. The villain — Doctor Facilier — works because he’s all about taking shortcuts; this makes a great foil for Tiana, but Prince Naveen is far more susceptible to his charms. The doctor also shows us all the different ways people justify taking those shortcuts for themselves, and his ultimate fate shows us what happens when the cost of those shortcuts come due.

The Princess and the Frog is a decent film that can’t shake the air of disappointment that hangs around it. For the first Disney film about a black Princess, you just wish it was…more. For the film that marks Disney’s return to traditional animation, you really want it to give us a reason to celebrate the art. But it isn’t and it doesn’t. It’s a well-crafted movie with a few character problems; given what the animation studio was climbing out of at the time, that’s a really solid result. Still, it would have been really nice to hit a home run with it.

Toy Story 3 (2010)
Released 11 years after Toy Story 2 and a full 15 after Pixar’s first feature-length animated film, Toy Story 3 represents the end of an era for the animation studio. Like Andy, it had grown up admirably, ready to move on to its future as uncertain as it may be. Checking in with Woody, Buzz and the gang for one last adventure feels like an appropriate way to celebrate their progress and provide a bit of closure for these characters. Of course, it also helps that Toy Story 3 is a near-perfect movie that shows us how to move on without letting loss or change make us fearful and bitter.

toy-story-3

Ugh, that freaking baby doll. Ugh. D: D:

On the eve of Andy going away to college, the toys are struggling to get him to notice them, much less play. Now that he’s moving out of the house, they’re faced with a pair of fairly unattractive options — either they’re about to be put in a box up in the attic or thrown out in the garbage. Obviously the attic is the more attractive option here, even though it makes them sad to think they’ll be collecting dust and going untouched for who knows how many years. A big misunderstanding leads most of the toys to think that Andy was going to throw them away, but Woody knows different; they were going to be put in the attic. Instead, they end up going to Sunnyside Day Care, which feels like a much better place. Kids will play with them until they age out of day care, when a whole new crop of kids will replace them!

While the rest of the toys try to make the best of their new situation, Woody is adamant about returning to Andy’s home and the attic. It’s soon discovered that the residents of Sunnyside are in something of a totalitarian society, with Lotso-Huggin’ Bear the dictator of the scene. Woody and pals have to escape, change the regime or learn to deal with an incredibly unpleasant situation.

What I love about this movie is how it uses personal experience and perspective to inform the choices we make about the kind of society we want. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, and it’s his belief that as toys they should do whatever their owner thinks is best — even if it’s not best for them. The other toys in Andy’s play room view their long relationship as something of a transaction that’s been completed; they’re sad that it’s over, obviously, but now it’s time to move on to what’s next. If they’re not needed by Andy any more, why not move on to someone who will need them? The Sunnyside toys remind me of revolutionaries after they’ve won; they may genuinely believe that they fought for equality and freedom, but after the dust has settled the policies in place are really geared towards them never having to be put in a position of subservience again. That fear of being controlled leads to the necessity of controlling others ruthlessly.

For a movie about sentient toys, the feeling of loss and death permeates Toy Story 3. Every character is dealing with it in some way, and it’s truly interesting watching how that struggles translates into action and interaction. The climax of the movie is a truly beautiful moment, as the toys of Andy’s playroom decide to deal with the situation in which they find themselves the only way they know how — together. The payoff for that scene is a wonderful affirmation of relatively minor characters in the other two movies, and comes the closest to advocating the worth of religious belief that I’ve ever seen in a Pixar movie.

Like Cars 2, Toy Story 3 plays with the rules of the universe in inventive ways that makes the world of toys that much more fun and that much more aggressively weird. Big Baby is straight-up nightmare fuel, and so is the musical monkey, and so is all the admittedly cool things they do with the Potato Head family. That kind of “adult” creativity, where the child-like spirit of play is infused with grown-up sensibilities, is my jam.

The epilogue is nearly pitch-perfect, but director Lee Unkrich goes for one last heartstring-tugging moment that deflates the whole affair. Still, even that overreach is forgivable; sending off Woody, Buzz and the gang is the one place where I think Pixar is allowed to be a little self-indulgent. Toy Story 3 is a great victory lap for Pixar that doubles as a celebration and affirmation for the animation studio as well as great final chapter for the story that originally made them.

Tangled (2010)
This is perhaps my favorite modern Disney movie. Almost everything in Tangled works; the separate character arcs for Rapunzel and Flynn and how they lead to each other; the underlying moral beneath the challenge presented by the villainous Mother Gothel; the character design and animation, which feels like the culmination of Disney’s CG “house style”; all of the side characters, who are delightful one and all; the music and songs, which carry the emotional heartbeat of the film and also happen to be some of the best in a Disney musical ever. Tangled is so good it actually makes me annoyed that Frozen became the blockbuster success it did. I’m not knocking Elsa and her crew or anything, but Tangled is just streets ahead of Frozen in almost every possible way.

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It’s hard to tell if Rapunzel or the horse has better hair…

Rapunzel is the beneficiary of sun magic that saved her mother in childbirth. Stroking her hair and singing a song activates the magic and heals the recipient to the point that it practically reverses aging. Mother Gothel, a witch of fairly decent power, steals Rapunzel away from the King and Queen, traps her in a tower and emotionally manipulates her into never wanting to leave. Despite this, Rapunzel grows up into an amazing, curious, happy young woman who never stops dreaming about the wonders the world holds for her.

Flynn Rider is a two-bit thief on the run from the Crown’s guards for stealing the princess’ crown; unbeknownst to both him and Rapunzel he delivers it to the long-lost princess when he hides in her tower. In exchange for the crown’s safe return, Flynn must guide Rapunzel to the Festival of Lanterns, an event where the kingdom releases floating lanterns into the sky hoping that it will bring the lost princess back to them. On their trail, of course, are the Stabbington Bros — criminals that Flynn betrayed to take the crown for himself — and Maximus, one of the royal guard’s horses who is also a dashingly handsome, Lawful Good hero.

Rapunzel is one of the best Disney princesses ever. She is noble and good, but also an unmitigated geek who is unafraid about being open with her passions. She is not afraid to try something scary if it gets her closer to what she wants, and over the course of the film she comes to believe in her own strength and judgement. Her confrontation with Mother Gothel isn’t physical, but the screenplay from Dan Fogelman (creator of the excellent Galavant, by the way) does a stupendous job of making the emotional stakes high and clear. Her moral compass and easy vulnerability eventually shakes something loose within the cynical Flynn, catalyzing his own awakening into a hero who genuinely cares about other people. “I See The Light” is a perfect sequence, bringing the arcs of Rapunzel and Flynn together right in the perfect spot for the plot. It truly is a feat.

Maximus, the horse, even gets an arc that forces him to choose between his feverish adherence to the law and the clear need to break it in order to do the right thing. Gothel is such a wonderful and unique villain; instead of power or magic, she simply uses words to keep Rapunzel under her spell. She needs her adopted daughter far more than Rapunzel needs her, but in order to keep her from realizing that she subtly tries to sap the princess’ confidence at every turn. By getting Rapunzel to believe that the world is a cruel place she’s not capable enough to handle, she uses fear to turn people away from their better nature. She’s so ordinary, and she does what she does for clear and relatable reasons. But that makes her actions more despicable. We know people like her, and we see how they affect the people trapped in relationships with them all the time. What makes Rapunzel so admirable is not overcoming Gothel at the end; it’s being open and vulnerable despite the abuse she endured.

I had wondered how Tangled aged in the short time since it premiered, and if anything I’ve only come to like it more in the intervening years. It’s definitely a crown jewel in the Disney animated canon, and despite the oodles of praise and money it received during its theatrical run it’s curiously underrated.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2017 in DisneyFest, Movies, Reviews

 

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(Personal) Accountability Report, February 2017

Self Improvement 150At the beginning of the month, I noted that while I hadn’t quite achieved a perfect run on meditating and writing every day I had done pretty well for myself. There were a couple of days with Further Confusion where I didn’t hit my goal and a few more towards the end of the month, but overall I was building a pretty good routine for myself. For February, I had resolved to keep it going — write, meditate and count my calories every day. I had identified a few things that were working to keep me away from the meditation bench, writing desk and calorie counting app, and had developed a few ways to get past those potential blocks. This month, however, was a major stumble. In just about every metric I failed to write or meditate every day, and I was exceedingly spotty with my calorie counting.

Write every day. This just didn’t happen, for a lot of reasons. I seriously got out of the habit here, and I’m not even sure why. I think a lot of it was just…pressure, in general. Work has been a little difficult, and the whole thing with my online math course for school happened, and work on “Stable Love” and the “Gift Exchange” finale proved to be a bit more intimidating than I had bargained for. There were a lot of days this month where I just didn’t have the spoons for writing, even though I should have toughed it out and wrote anyway. It’s been really difficult to balance those kinds of long-term goals against the day-to-day demands of what comes up in the moment. I’m really going to have to find a way to do that, though.

This month, I will set the same goal I did in February: I will write every day, working on either a blog post or a short story. March will be notably busier; my “Argumentation and Debate” class starts up with twice-weekly classes on Tuesday and Thursday, and I’ll be working on my “Elementary Statistics” textbook in an attempt to get ahead of things for that eight week class starting up in April. Somewhere in there, I’ll be hitting up Texas Furry Fiesta — that’s something I’m really looking forward to, but it’s also something that I’ll need to prepare for ahead of time. I’ll need to make sure that my schoolwork and writing is positioned ahead of time so I can enjoy the weekend without worrying about all of the stuff I’ve let slip.

Meditate every day. This also just didn’t happen. There were a few nights of insomnia that made it really difficult to get up in the morning, and there were a few mornings where I just ended up getting distracted by my phone instead of doing the things I should have been doing. So far this month I’ve missed eight days, mostly at the beginning, but it’s still not great. There’s not a whole lot I can do about insomnia, I realize, but I could also make it a priority to meditate as soon as I get home on the days where I’m just not able to do it in the morning.

This month, I’ll set the same goal that I did in February: I will meditate every day for at least fifteen minutes. Ain’t nothing to it but to do it, but I do think that I will need to pay better attention to my bedtime. If possible, it’d be best to avoid a lot of phone usage before bed and if necessary I’ll take melatonin at around 10 pm to reset my body clock. I should be getting tired right around then, and preparing to hit the hay. If I can manage to do that successfully for a while, it’ll be easier and easier to wake up at 5:45, meditate, then get out the door and kick ass at work.

Counting calories every day. This also didn’t happen, and was probably the thing I was worst about over the month. I think I’ve just gotten really bad at updating things through my phone, to be honest. I use it for games and chatting more than anything, and I just don’t think of it as a tool that I can use to be better at holding myself accountable. Being a bit more strict about my phone usage would be a really good thing; making sure that anything I’ve eaten or spent has been logged before I do anything else would be an awesome habit to get into! I am just not sure I’ll be able to pull it off.

In March, I will log every calorie I eat and every dollar I spend through my phone. This will help me reset my habits and idea of what the phone is for, and start pushing me towards making more responsible decisions for it. I’ll be trying to take better care of my diet as well, and maybe reinstalling Fitocracy would be a good way to look up quick bodyweight exercise routines or a circuit of stretches for the days when I’m not running. My phone needs to be more than a mobile entertainment unit or boredom eradicator; I’d love for it to be more of a digital assistant. It can get there, but I have to be a lot more mindful about its usage.

So there we go. In March, I’m still trying to build the writing, meditation and accountability habit. February was a step down from January; there were a lot more things working against me, but that’s likely to be true in March as well. I’ll need to work pretty hard to make sure that the right things are a priority for me this coming month and make better decisions to emphasize that.

I’m curious about what the struggle is like for other people by this time of the year. Are folks still working towards fulfilling their New Year’s Resolutions? Or have we dropped them at this point because real life is way more complicated and antagonistic than we had anticipated? Does anyone have recommendations on what might help build a good habit?

 
 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: WALL-E, Bolt, Up

Entertainment 150In 2008 and 2009, both Walt Disney and Pixar Animation were entering a new era. Disney Animation was under the control of Pixar executives Edwin Catmull and John Lassater, who set about trying to turn around the studio. They rehired a lot of the “new guard” who had left the studio years earlier, changed the development model to put more power and control in the hands of filmmakers instead of executives, and story meetings were more a gathering of equals rather than a series of notes handed down from on high. Meet The Robinsons was the first movie to benefit from this new development process, and the follow-up film Bolt was nearly completely retooled by it.

Meanwhile, Pixar stalwarts Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter were guiding Pixar into its future; WALL-E was billed as the last of the ideas the original brain trust had come up with at the beginning of the studio, and Up seamlessly carried the tradition of emotional story-telling, iconic visuals and engaging characters forward. Revisiting these films less than a decade after their release is a bit of a trip; even though computer animation has come a long way since then, they both hold up as excellent examples of their craft.

WALL-E (2008)
WALL-E is about one tiny trash compacting robot faced with the Sisyphusean task of cleaning up an Earth that has been completely covered in garbage. We’re not quite sure how long it’s been doing this job, but we can assume it’s been an awfully long while; entire buildings have been coated with cubes of condensed junk, but there is still so much refuse all over the place. Other robots of its model have broken down in service, and WALL-E scavenges their corpses for replacement parts. The humans who would have serviced it disappeared a long time ago, leaving behind their refuse as the only clues it has about who its masters are and what they were like. This little robot has been at the job for so long it has developed a fascination with the things it finds, a love of old musicals, and a friendly relationship with a cockroach.

The first act is a bleak setting made bright by the sheer personality of its protagonist. While I was watching it, I don’t think I quite appreciated how awful and desolate an existence that would be. Like WALL-E, I was too fascinated with all the things it loved and why. Even though it was carrying out its basic programming, its experience had built a distinct personality over years, perhaps decades, perhaps centuries. We spent over 20 minutes learning about its character, how it behaved when there was no one around to interact with. It was a strangely intimate view of the apocalypse, beautiful and lonely.

EVE, an advanced robot, breaks the monotony of this existence and kickstarts the story into motion. The two robots learn about each other as WALL-E guides EVE through the dangers and wonders of this desolate Earth, and just when it shows the newcomer its most cherished secret, EVE takes the tiny, fragile plant WALL-E found and goes into some kind of sleep mode. Confused and sad, WALL-E nonetheless continues to interact and protect EVE in the hope that it will wake up one day. Its diligence is rewarded by an unexpected trip to the Axiom, the luxury spaceship that the remnants of humanity live on, completely oblivious to anything but short-term pleasure. It’s here that WALL-E reawakens humanity to its better qualities, simply by being itself.

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Love is patient.

There’s so much going on with this movie it feels wrong to give it such an encapsulated review, but WALL-E is truly an incredible film — one of Pixar’s absolute best in fact. It tells a beautiful story in service to a theme that pushes us towards being better human beings. It’s mass entertainment that takes the responsibility of its power seriously, by asking us to take a look at our societal values and consider if that’s really what we want to champion. Rampant, unchecked consumerism, a lack of consideration for our environment or the consequences of our actions, and a misplaced optimism in the idea of easy answers could lead us to a point where we’ve effectively junked the planet, and by that time even the destruction of our home might not be a big enough wake-up call.

Even though WALL-E has some serious and heavy things to say, it says them elegantly, gently, and with utmost care. It’s just a movie about a robot who finds love, whose affection catalyzes a sea change in a future civilization that’s lost its way. But it’s also a cautionary tale about what we’re doing to ourselves and our world, a caring reminder of the things that make us great and makes life worth living. The fact that it can be both things without sacrificing the integrity of its other layers is a testament to the storytelling of director Andrew Stanton and co-writers Jim Reardon and Pete Docter. It feels something like the holy grail of responsible fiction, of socially-minded pop-art. We don’t have many movies like WALL-E in this day and age, and that’s a shame. It’s even more of a shame that we don’t have many movies that even TRY to be WALL-E.

Bolt (2008)
It was a long time in the wilderness for Walt Disney Animation. It had been six long years since their last financially successful and critically-acclaimed movie (Lilo & Stitch), and in that time they had come up with some truly terrible films. After John Lassater took over the studio and made some much-needed changes in its development culture, we began to see some improvement. Bolt, despite its rocky road to release, is the film where everything starts to turn around and the new guard of animators start to realize their potential.

Originally, Bolt was American Dog — the second film to be directed by Lilo & Stitch director Chris Sanders. The story was roughly the same; a dog traveled across the country in search of his home with two strange animal companions, all the while believing he’s still living out a TV show he stars in. However, Sanders was removed from the project after resisting changes requested by Lassater and other colleagues. He bolted for DreamWorks and How To Train Your Dragon, so…at least he landed well. Chris Williams (who went on to co-direct Big Hero 6 and Moana) and Byron Howard (co-director of Tangled and Zootopia) stepped in to take over, and made a genuinely good movie in a much shortened development cycle.

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RIDICULOUSLY cute.

Bolt is the star of the eponymous action TV show; he’s an adorable white German Shepherd who has been trained to believe he actually has super-powers and needs to protect Penny, the daughter of a world-famous scientist who’s been kidnapped by the evil Dr. Calico. A misadventure finds Bolt knocked unconscious and shipped across the country to New York City, where he quickly conscripts an alley cat to help him make his way back to his owner. Along the way, he discovers that he doesn’t actually have superpowers but he doesn’t really need them; determination and resourcefulness are amazing enough.

I was really excited for Chris Sanders’ version of this story, because I loved his work on Lilo & Stitch and heard that one of the animal companions would be a giant mutant rabbit whose family lived near nuclear test sites. It was disappointing to hear he was taken off the project, and I was pretty skeptical about the details that were coming out of its development. Seeing the final product won me over, though — the character work is excellent, and the action set pieces are incredibly well-realized. Each one provides the characters with an opportunity to advance their arc, so the lessons they absorb in their downtime frequently translate into action that illustrates how far they’ve come. Bolt, the poor dog, has to realize that the world is nothing like the way he thought it was — but that it’s also just as amazing, and he can be the hero he’s always believed himself to be. Mittens, the toughened alley cat, has to learn that her previous experiences aren’t a predictor of what other people will be like, and that’s it OK to be vulnerable enough to trust people.

Together with Rhino, the extremely excitable hamster-in-a-ball, they make the perilous journey across the country to get Bolt back to Penny. The movie moves briskly but organically, with the story doing a wonderful job introducing secondary and colorful tertiary characters, building tension, releasing it with crazy action, and settling the characters into a new equilibrium they must struggle to reconcile with. Bolt, Rhino, and even Mittens in her own way, are all amazingly cute; it’s really interesting that Disney settled on a more rounded and softer house style for their computer animated movies, but I think Bolt is the movie where that really solidified.

It did really well when it came out, making $310 million worldwide against a $150 million budget and scoring 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. Yet, as Disney moved on to more ambitious and more successful projects, it got a bit lost in the crowd when we talk about the studio’s Revival era. Bolt may not have the passionate fan-base of Tangled and Frozen, but it deserves a second look — it’s a solid movie that marked Disney’s welcome return to form.

Up (2009)
Everyone remembers the prologue to this film — and rightfully so, because it’s amazing. What a pleasant surprise it was, then, to rediscover how great the rest of the film is as well! One of the great things about this project is remembering movies you had forgotten about for various reasons, or making new connections that you hadn’t noticed before. For example, now I realize that my favorite Pixar director isn’t Brad Bird; it’s Pete Docter. He has a keen eye for wonderful characterization and emotional detail that is practically unrivaled at the studio. While he’s had his hands in most Pixar productions to date, it’s the ones that he has guided as director — Monsters Inc, Up, and Inside Out — that prove his mettle.

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You know you want this for a wallpaper. YOU KNOW.

Carl Fredricksen, a nine-year-old boy who idolizes renowned explorer Charles Muntz, meets Ellie, a loud and confusing girl who all but forces him into a friendship. That friendship blossoms into romance, is preserved with marriage, and the two have a happy life together. However, Ellie falls ill before the couple is able to live out their dream of traveling the world. When she dies, Carl retreats into the museum of the home they renovated, surrounded by her memory while his neighborhood changes all around him.

Fed up with the pressure to adapt to the changing times, Carl decides to simply “steal” his house by tying thousands of balloons to the roof and sailing for the spectacular jungle waterfall he and Ellie had always wanted to go to. His impromptu trip is complicated by a stowaway — Russell, an eager Wilderness Explorer who just wants to help Carl so he can get his final merit badge for assisting the elderly. A dog outfitted with a device that allows him to speak English and an extremely rare jungle bird round out the motley crew as they discover that adventure always carries with it a number of surprises.

At its heart, Up is about the importance of moving through the entirety of the grieving process so that you can move on with fulfilling the rest of your life. But it’s also about how the connections we make help us to do that. Carl lost his whole world with Ellie; even though his desire to finally fulfill the dream they had together causes him to take action, he was also using it as an escape to further retreat from the world. It was only after meeting Russell, and Dug (the dog), and Kevin (the bird), that he rediscovered his spirit of adventure. It feels weird to keep plot details hidden, especially after all these years, but the conflict that arises when the group arrives in the jungle serves as a cautionary tale. This is what happens if you disengage from people; this is what happens when you decide that it’s just too hard to work in tandem with others who are different.

Beyond the prologue, Up is filled with amazing visual moments. The Fredrickson house is simultaneously setting, metaphor and additional character, a refuge and a fragile thing that needs to be defended. Almost every scene it features prominently in is amazing, and what’s best is that Carl’s balloon-assisted flight isn’t even the most unlikely or wondrous thing in the movie. Docter does an excellent job of taking these high concepts and grounding them with real emotional weight. Even when things get silly or unlikely, we’re completely taken in because we understand what’s at stake for all of these characters.

When Up was released, it received near-unanimous praise; it won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score, while being nominated for three more awards including Best Picture. It is a crown jewel in Pixar’s animated canon, and rightfully so — it continues their dedication to telling wonderful stories that simultaneously teach us how to be better people. Docter’s touch with showing the value of being in touch with our emotions and each other is invaluable, and Up is one of the best examples of the magic he can weave if given the chance.

 

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