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Category Archives: Pop Culture

(Politics) If Respect Is Mandatory, It’s Not Respect

Politics 150Earlier this week I received this response from a person named Kenny Stiles to my post on why I’m boycotting the NFL this season. Kenny thinks that the league should make all players stand for the National Anthem; not doing so is “the wrong way to protest” and a slap in the face for all military servicepeople. He also advises us to wake up, because this is the USA.

I thought about what Kenny had to say and considered my response carefully. In the end, I was inspired to write this. Thanks for encouraging my muse, dude.

Oh, say can you see,

Hello Kenny, I am a black man, aged 37. I work in tech, and I’ve been married to a wonderful man for nearly nine years. I live in California, but I was born and raised in Baltimore, MD — home of the Colts when I was a kid, and now the two-time Super Bowl Champions, the Baltimore Ravens.

By the dawn’s early light,

This is the city where Freddie Gray died in police custody. None of the six police officers responsible for his care were found guilty of the homicide that the medical examiner ruled as the cause of death. Someone killed him, but it wasn’t any of the six police officers — the only people near him when his life ended.

What so proudly we hailed,

I watched the people in this city — my city — tear it apart because they were angry, grieving, frustrated. Back when the Rams were in St. Louis, they had to deal with the same thing after Trayvon Martin. In Chicago, it was Laquan MacDonald; in New York it was Eric Garner; in Minnesota it was Philando Castile; in Cleveland, it was Tamir Rice, just 12 years old. These are just the names I remember, but there are way too many more.

At the twilight’s last gleaming?

Black folk have been trying to get something done about police brutality for years, but we only started getting attention for it a few years ago. I don’t know if it’s Twitter making it easier for folks to spread the word and get organized, or if it’s the fact that we got black boys and girls being assaulted and killed on tape, but we turned a corner on this. We’re not taking it lying down anymore.

Whose broad stripes and bright stars,

Last season, that protest came to the NFL. Colin Kaepernick started kneeling at the National Anthem during a preseason game and pissed off a ton of people. He also promised to donate a million dollars to charityso far he’s given $700,000 to 24 different places — but nobody talks about that. They talked about ratings going down, and politics not belonging in football, and how Kaep couldn’t get a job this season.

Through the perilous fight,

The owners haven’t said much about it — at least not publicly. Coaches and staff haven’t, either. But they don’t have to; we know what happens to people who don’t stand for the anthem. They get heat. They get told they should shut up and play. They don’t get listened to when they say that people who look like them are dying in the streets because the people supposed to protect us can do what they want and not get in trouble. They get cut for “being a distraction”.

O’er the ramparts we watched,

I’ve heard all kinds of criticism from different corners of the country, people saying that they just want to enjoy the game without politics ruining it. But politics ruin shit for me all the time, including right now. I love this game, and I love my team. I love this city. I even love these United States of America. But this game, this team, this city, this country — I can’t pretend any of ’em have been kind to me, showed me any love back.

Were so gallantly streaming.

It’s not just the police. It’s the way it’s harder for black men to get a job. It’s how black kids don’t get a decent education. It’s how it’s harder for black people to get paid. Or for them to get into leadership positions, even in the NFL. It’s the history of racial inequality and violence in this country in all aspects of our culture.

And the rocket’s red glare,

That history makes it so hard to break out of poverty if you don’t get famous doing something — like rapping, or playing a sport, or being a criminal. When we try to build ourselves up, the USA has a habit of knocking us back down. When we get pushed too far and start pushing back, all of a sudden we’re the ones causing the problem.

The bombs bursting in air,

No matter what we do to protest it isn’t the right way. Non-violent protests are ignored. Disruptive action like blocking traffic just makes people mad. Destroying property gets us called thugs. Taking a knee gets us fired. Going to politicians hasn’t done much for us in a minute — right now Republicans all over the country are doing their damnedest to make it harder or impossible for people of color to vote. Any time our voices are used to call out a problem or lodge dissent, people like you do anything you can to dismiss it, invalidate it, ignore it. It’s clear that this mythical ‘right way to protest’ is actually not protesting at all while bearing all kinds of injustices, just so you wouldn’t have to think about what we’re drawing attention to.

Gave proof through the night,

I want to make sure black children grow up in a country that loves them just as much as I love it, but we’re a long way from that. I want to make sure black men and women get paid fairly for the work they do, that when they see a police officer they doesn’t have to worry about getting shot or beaten. I want my country to admit that it’s been racist for a long, long time and start fixing it.

That our flag was still there.

You say it’s not patriotic to stand for the anthem. You say it’s disrespectful to all the soldiers who died defending my freedom. But isn’t it disrespectful not to say anything when we aren’t living up to the values they died for? Isn’t it disrespectful to pretend that nothing’s wrong, to act like you haven’t been making my whole life political since I was born?

Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave,

This is my country, too. I’m an American same as you. And if you cared about respecting this country you would respect the struggle of my people and the history of that struggle. You wouldn’t suggest that the NFL violate the very First Amendment to the Constitution by forcing its players to stand for a country that doesn’t treat them fairly. You do know what it’s called when an organization — government or otherwise — doesn’t allow its members to dissent, don’t you?

For the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

Kenny, you need to wake up. This is the USA. The people who sacrifice their bodies and youth every Sunday so you can watch a game with your buddies deserve better than you. You who think that we should be forced to honor the state above all, especially when it doesn’t live up to its own values. You, who cares so little for the free expression that our military protects that you would dare suggest silencing an entire group of people because you don’t want to know what they care about. Our country deserves better than you.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2017 in Politics, Pop Culture

 

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(Politics) Why I’m Boycotting the NFL

Politics 150Exactly one year ago today, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem in a silent protest against police brutality and the inadequate response by police departments around the country to the demand for more accountability. The NFL never really forgave him for the controversy it ignited; after opting out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers at the end of the season, he hasn’t been picked up by another team. While his 55.2 QB rating puts him in the bottom third of starters last season, it’s still better than Ryan Tannenhill (MIA), Cam Newton (CAR) and Eli Manning (NYG), all of whom are still members of their respective teams.

Kaepernick has been looked at by a few teams, and the closest he’s come to being signed is extensive interviewing from the Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens. Both teams passed, ultimately, and it’s widely believed that owners have effectively blackballed him from the league. These are the same owners who have allowed players who committed domestic abuse, aggravated assault, attempted murder, DUI, animal abuse and a lot more into their league. All kinds of this anti-social and illegal behavior is acceptable, but a legal protest against institutional racism is not.

Meanwhile, the link between playing professional football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been built steadily over a decade — the latest study has found that evidence of CTE was present in 99% of the brains of former NFL players they had access to. While this doesn’t say that *every* professional football player will get CTE from playing the game, it does establish a very clear link between the game and this devastating neuro-degenerative disease.

Did you know that players in the NFL are overwhelmingly black? 70 percent of total players in the league are black, with four positions in particular almost entirely populated by black athletes (cornerback, wide receiver, running back and defensive end all above 80% in 2014). Statistics for the 2012-2013 seasons on concussions reveal that these positions had the highest-reported incidents during that time. Meanwhile, there is not a single black American owner in all of the NFL.

This is a sports league where black bodies are routinely sacrificed for the game. Every week, a mostly white audience (77% of viewers) cheer for a team that is mostly black (70% of players) but owned nearly entirely by white people (only the owner for the Jacksonville Jaguars is a person of color). The average NFL career lasts a little less than three years, during which time a major injury is all but certain; afterwards, they face a life of physical disability, directionlessness, and unpreparedness for life after football. After the fun is over, these players often go broke. The viewership, however, moves on to cheer for the latest body to move the ball down the field without a second thought.

The toll of the game has weighed on me for a while, but the reaction to Kaepernick’s protest both from around the league and among people who have never watched a game put things into perspective for me. The NFL, for all its talk about the good it brings the communities surrounding their teams, doesn’t do right by its players. By extension, it doesn’t do right by the black community. Black people take most of the risk for the least reward — we dominate the injury-prone positions on the field but are nearly absent from the coaching staff, front office and owner’s boxes. The league’s sluggish response to the strong evidence about the damage being done for the sake of the game is bad enough, but blacklisting a player for drawing attention to another facet of this institutionalized racism is inexcusable.

It’s for this reason that I simply cannot participate in the culture of the NFL any more. My silence and engagement make me complicit to the destruction of my brothers playing the game, and I can’t allow that. It’s not right what the league is doing to black athletes, and it’s simply immoral what the owners are doing to Kaepernick for exercising his legal, constitutional right to non-violent protest. I won’t be a part of it.

This is not a judgement on anyone who chooses to watch or attend NFL games, buy NFL products, play fantasy football, or root for their favorite team. We each have our own uncrossable lines, and our reasons for why some things carry more weight than others. However, I invite you to take a long, hard look at the league and ask yourself whether or not it’s something you’re proud of. If it isn’t, what are you going to do about that?

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2017 in Politics, Pop Culture

 

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(Movies) DisneyFest: Home On The Range, The Incredibles, Chicken Little

Entertainment 1502004 – 2006 was a really rough time for Disney. With the diminishing returns on their traditionally-animated movie, they decided to move into computer animation full-time while being walloped by Pixar, DreamWorks and critics for mining their rich history to make a series of terrible direct-to-video sequels. While they were bringing their CG animation studio up to speed, they agreed to distribute a few cartoons from other houses — this is when they dropped Valiant (remember that movie with Ewan MacGregor as an earnest WWII pigeon?) and The Wild (with Keifer Sutherland and Jim Belushi as best-bud lion and squirrel, respectively). Neither one of them did very well in theatres.

In the meantime, Pixar was nearing the end of their original contract but still pushing the envelope of computer animation the entire time. The Incredibles, helmed by Brad Bird (The Iron Giant), was the first film directed by someone outside of the company. The gamble paid off — it won two Academy Awards, the Annie Award for Best Animated Feature, and became the first cartoon to win a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. While Finding Nemo was the obvious crowd-pleaser (making over $830M worldwide), The Incredibles was the critical darling that still earned its stripes as a bona-fide blockbuster.

Home On The Range (2004)
This is a strange and frustrating movie, mostly because it almost works. Roseanne Barr stars as Maggie, a prize-winning cow who is forced to relocated to a tiny farm called Patch O’ Heaven after all of her fellow cattle were stolen and her previous owner was bankrupted by the theft. With the help of fellow bovines Mrs. Caloway (Judi Dench) and Grace (Jennifer Tilly), she uncovers the plot to buy up all of the land for nefarious purposes and saves her newfound home. It’s a neat little story that aims for a certain Americana charm — and almost achieves it.

hotr-luckyjack

Look at the rabbit! He’s so awesome!

There’s a lot to like about Home On The Range, actually. Both the prim and proper Mrs. Caloway and the air-headed Grace are really fun to watch as they bicker their way through the story, and the movie is filled with supporting characters who are actually awesome. There’s Buck, the vain stallion frienemy of the cows; Alameda Slim, whose method of stealing the cows is a true highlight; his henchmen, three dull triplets who can’t understand Slim’s schemes for the life of them; and Lucky Jack, a three-legged rabbit who serves as half crazy guide, half old coot. A couple of sequences embrace the madcap Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic, and this is when things work best; there’s a wonderfully crazy energy that’s infectiously funny.

But Barr’s Maggie just can’t carry the movie on her ample back. A lot of the dialogue meant to establish her character or endear us to her just falls flat, one pun or one-liner after the other. When a joke actually lands, the script hammers it home enough to kill the cleverness of it. And more than once, characterization is sacrificed for plot with one or more of the three heroines doing something weird just because a beat needs to happen at a particular spot.

It’s a shame, really. I’m not too familiar with the behind-the-scenes conditions surrounding the making of the movie, but the writing was already on the wall by the time Home On The Range was being promoted — I remember it being touted as the last traditionally-animated film from Disney Studios. With a little more time and polish (and perhaps a recast of the lead), it could have been a decent if minor entry into the animated canon. Instead, it’s a trivial footnote in Disney’s history and widely regarded as one of their absolute worst films.

Still, I’m not sure it quite deserves the reputation it’s gotten over the years. It’s inoffensive, perhaps forgettable, but not a complete failure. There are worse ways to spend your time, which is damning with faint praise, I realize.

The Incredibles (2004)
Seven months after Disney bombed with Home On The Range, Pixar dropped The Incredibles. Just like every release before it, this movie took a major leap forward in computer animation technology — this time giving us the best-realized human characters we’ve ever seen, animating clothes of varying materials and realistic hair wonderfully. Since Brad Bird had come from a traditional animation background, it also represented a fruitful marriage of the old and new; Bird brought in several animators who had worked with him on The Iron Giant and tried to incorporate lessons from Disney’s Nine Old Men into the Pixar production model.

Bob Parr is an insurance agent and a retired superhero who used to go by Mr. Incredible. Public opinion had turned against supers some years before, forcing them to give up costumed crime-fighting and disappear into private life. Frustrated by his lack of purpose and forced deference to broader social conventions, he’s approached by a mysterious woman named Mirage for “freelance” superhero work. Bob leaps at the chance to become Mr. Incredible again, but he gets more than he bargained for and finds his entire family quickly embroiled in a fight against evil borne from past mistakes.

the-incredibles

A fantastic four

For a long time, this was my absolute favorite Pixar movie; while its ranking has fallen on subsequent viewings it’s not because it’s not as good as I thought it was — other movies are just that much better. Even still, The Incredibles is truly a feat of animation; the character and setting design establishes a world that’s both relatably contemporary and retro-futuristic; the themes are well-baked into the plot, which is driven by the characters instead of the other way around; the dialogue is brisk, clever and profound enough that character motivations are discovered in different places on subsequent viewings. Every member of the Parr family gets a moment to shine, and it’s especially great to watch the young children grow into their legacy as super-powered individuals. Just about everything works here, even though the movie is complex and intricate. Writer and director Brad Bird had a distinct vision for what the film should be, and achieved it nearly flawlessly.

In retrospect, though, the themes of The Incredibles have problematic implications. One of the central ideas is that extraordinary people should be allowed to be the best they can be, and that’s a compelling argument. But the way it’s presented doesn’t quite address the feelings of the normal people who have been relegated to bystander status in these god-like struggles. Syndrome because a super-villain because he was roundly rejected by Mr. Incredible, having no powers of his own and being just a kid. While Bob and his wife Helen relate better to children many years later (there’s a particularly great scene where Helen lays out the stakes for her son and daughter, telling them that these people will try to kill them), they also never acknowledge their part in creating the situation they’ve found themselves in. Syndrome oversteps his bounds in typical supervillain fashion, but the kernel of the point he’s trying to make is…actually sound.

But here’s the thing: the fact that The Incredibles raises these concerns and invites these kinds of arguments speaks to the calibre of its story. Really great superhero stories often get us thinking about the individual’s role in society and explore the tension between the freedom to be who we are and the responsibility each of us owes to our fellow man. This movie belongs in the pantheon; The Incredibles isn’t just a great animated film, or a great Pixar movie — it’s a great superhero story, too. It really is something special.

Chicken Little (2005)
This is the worst film Walt Disney Animation has ever made. The character design (with the exception of the protagonist and a few others) is generally awful, the dialogue is groan-inducing, the story is nonsense — though the twist almost works, and almost every decision made is a mistake that takes the entire production further from where it needs to be. You get the feeling that Chicken Little was Disney’s attempt to get with the times, but it really never understood why people gravitated towards DreamWorks’ brand of pop-culture-skewering, post-modern humor. It is the film equivalent of Steve Buscemi in a backwards hat and skateboard.

steve-buscemi-kids

Chicken Little is a tiny little chick with a big imagination. In the prologue, he causes a panic by saying that the sky is falling, only for his “evidence” to disappear once the townsfolk gather around. He’s been living down the embarrassment — and trying to make his father proud of him — ever since. At school, he’s bullied by the star athlete, a vixen named Foxy Loxy, and supported by three misfit friends. Despite Foxy being the breakout player of the season, Chicken Little hits a home run during the championship game and is hailed as a hero and receives all he ever wanted. Which is just about the right time for the sky to fall again.

There are the makings of a good story here. There’s nothing wrong with telling a fable about learning to believe in yourself, even when you are forced to take action alone. The slow, awkward way that Chicken Little and his father learn to connect through the course of the movie could be emotionally resonant for a lot of families in the audience. And with a lighter touch, the movie’s self-referential humor could have been mildly clever. The big twist — the sky is falling because it’s an elaborate camouflage constructed by space aliens — could have been a bonkers development that spins the story off into great and unexplored territory that also forces the protagonists to complete their arcs and deal with the situation. But none of that happens, and none of that is true. It just stinks.

The worst part (and thanks to My Husband, The Dragon for pointing this out) is what happens to Foxy Loxy. Even though she’s set up to be a clear secondary antagonist and she’s kind of bitchy to Chicken Little, she also works really hard to be good at baseball and busts through gender stereotypes to follow her passion. She’s living the life that Chicken Little is afraid to because he’s chasing external validation instead. During the alien invasion, her brain is scrambled so that instead of being an exuberant, kind of jerky tomboy she becomes a petticoat-wearing belle who loves singing old pop songs that are cheap to buy usage fees for — just like Little ally Runt (an enormous, nervous pig). When the aliens offer to change her back, Runt says “No, she’s PERFECT this way.” And then they LEAVE HER LIKE THAT.

It’s one thing to make a movie that fails on so many levels, but it’s quite another to send the message that girls who are driven and athletic would be so much happier being the constructed fantasy of a misunderstood boy. It’s astonishing that no one in the writer’s room (there were twelve of them in total) caught the message this sends and thought the better of it. This is what puts it over the top, beyond merely “bad” and into “fucking terrible”.

Of the 56 (so far) Disney animated features, Chicken Little is the one that you can skip and be perfectly fine missing. Don’t see this movie. It even features the worst song of the Barenaked Ladies.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2017 in Movies, Pop Culture

 

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(Fandom) Further Confusion 2017

Fandom 150Further Confusion 2017 is right around the corner! Just two weeks after New Year’s Day, the convention feels a lot closer to the holidays than ever before — not that I’m complaining. Further Confusion actually feels like a part of the holiday season at this point, the last gasp of companionship and partying before we slog through the rest of the grey, cold winter. I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with old friends, meeting a ton of new ones, and being inspired to keep making the fandom an awesome place through the rest of 2017!

In addition to all of the usual stuff — hanging out at the Dealer’s Den, grabbing drinks with friends at TANQ and Haberdasher, rolling through downtown San Jose with my furry squad — I’ll again be on a few panels this year. I wanted to take a moment to let you know what I’ll be doing just in case you were interested in hitting one of them. I hope to see you there, or around the convention in general!

Friday, January 13th
1 PM: Titanium Tea XXVII – Los Gatos Suite 4F (Marriott)
I’m not a panelist for this one, but I wanted to talk about this really neat event that Watcher puts on every year! Titanium Tea is an informal social gathering for tea lovers; Watcher makes a special blend that’s exclusive to each event in addition to having a wide variety of hot and cold teas. He’s a really great dude and an excellent host, and I’m really looking forward to having a steaming mug of something special.

5 PM: FurPlanet Presents – Salon V (Marriott)
I’m not a panelist for this one either, but two friends will be debuting their most recent novels at the convention this weekend! Watts Martin will be releasing Kismet, an excellent furry sci-fi adventure; and Kyell Gold will be releasing Love Match, a novelized version of his Patreon serial (which you can join here if you’re so inclined). FurPlanet is one of the premiere furry publishers, and this is where you want to be to find out all of the exciting releases that are coming this year!

Saturday, January 14th
1 PM: Mindfulness and Transformation in Action – Almaden (Marriott)
I’ll be hosting a panel on mindfulness and mental transformation with Kannik again this year! This time around, we’re going to focus on how to use mindfulness and perspective adjustment to deal with interpersonal conflict. With the socio-political climate these days, it’s more important than ever to find a way to navigate conversational minefields with grace, compassion and empathy. In addition to talking about the theory of mindfulness, we hope to share and practice a few techniques that will encourage equanimity in the difficult days ahead.

4:30 PM: What’s Your Problem? – Almaden (Marriott)
I’ll be on a panel of fellow editors, publishers and writers discussing common and uncommon mistakes people make when submitting stories for publication. My time as a slush reader and editor for New Fables has given me some perspective on what works and what doesn’t for submission, and I’ll be joined by Kyell Gold, FuzzWolf and Ryan Campbell — all of whom have ample experience in the field and keen insight into the submission side of our writing careers. If you’re looking to learn a few tips and tricks that will help you get published, we’re more than happy to share what we know!

Sunday, January 15th
11 AM: Brainstorming in Real Time – Almaden (Marriott)
This panel was so much fun last year, and I’m really glad it’s back again! Brainstorming is an important but often-overlooked aspect of the writing process. A lot of the time, our first instinct for a story’s direction is fine, but we can make it so much more dynamic, unpredictable and special by mining details and connections that we wouldn’t think of at first. The Unreliable Narrators Writing Group (Kyell Gold, Watts Martin, Ryan Campbell and myself) come together for an interactive panel that demonstrates the surprising value that comes from letting your imagination run wild. This will be an excellent hangover cure, let me tell you.

3 PM: Write Now! – Salon V (Marriott)
Kyell and I have been running this panel for a few years now, and it’s always fun to see what people write when you sit them in a room for thirty minutes of uninterrupted time. We’ll spend a bit of time talking about the basics of story structure — the things you need to make sure are in place if the skeleton of your tale is going to hold up under the weight of its telling, and then turn the audience loose for a half-hour of writing! Time permitting, we’ll share what we’ve written and give real-time feedback on what we’ve developed so far.

Of course, I’ll be in a few other panels throughout the weekend. You can also find me in the Dealer’s Den, anywhere there’s coffee, or in the lobby of the Hilton or Marriott chatting people up. I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone who’ll be able to make it, and I sincerely hope everyone has a great time.

What panels are you folks particularly looking forward to? What sort of events are can’t-miss? Got any advice on great places to eat or drink in downtown San Jose? Let me know!

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2017 in Furries, Pop Culture

 

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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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(Infomagical) Day 1: Zen and the Art of Single-Tasking

Self Improvement 150We live in a world of constant, almost unavoidable connection. At our computers we have the world at our fingertips — we can search for any obscure thing our hearts desire, or keep up on the news of countries around the world. At any given moment, we can check in on our friends and the updates to their lives, big and small. We can watch any of the 300 hours’ worth of new videos posted to YouTube every minute; we can read any of the 150 million blogs on the Internet to find out what anybody thinks about, well, anything; we can read up on any of the 5 million articles there are on Wikipedia. It really does feel amazing to have the knowledge of the human collective within easy reach day in, and day out.

There’s a downside to this, of course. Between the news and blogs and YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and TV shows and movies, it feels like we can get trapped in this cycle of bouncing from place to place just to keep up with it all. If we’re not checking things out more and more often, we’ll end up farther and farther behind. Checking in with friends on Facebook becomes this anxiety-inducing chore; we have to wade through ads and posts that have been shared and re-shared, or get into political arguments with family, friends and coworkers. Wading through Twitter becomes this disorienting nightmare where everyone sure has these opinions about stuff and you have no idea what you’re talking about, but your silence is part of the problem.

At the end of the day, you’re sitting in bed scrolling through Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr just to make the little number badge on your phone go down — not because you’re actually retaining or processing the things you see. And you go to bed knowing that when you wake up, there’ll be a whole eight hours of NEW news to catch up on. You’ll already be so behind on things just because you need to sleep.

Infomania is a real thing, and it can be a major drag on your life. The podcast Note to Self recognizes this, so a few months ago they came up with a week-long challenge aimed at getting people to pull themselves out of the deluge of information, gird themselves with a life-vest, a raft and a paddle, then jump back in armed with the knowledge of what they want out of the stream. Instead of drowning in information, we can actually ride that wave, fish for what we need…and then head back to shore to digest it properly.

That challenge is Infomagical. I went through it last February, and I have to say — it really helped me to establish boundaries for myself and get the most out of my digital life. Now, four months later, I’ve got the chance to do it again. So I’m doing it! And I’d like you to do it with me.

The Infomagical challenge should be approached with one (or more) of several goals in mind. Do you want to be more creative? More knowledgeable? More in touch with yourself? More in touch with friends and family? Or do you want to be more current on what’s happening? The daily challenge is geared towards getting you a step closer to that goal.

Last time, my goal was to be more creative — all of the information I consumed was meant to push me closer to that purpose. This time, I’d like to be more *focused* with my creativity, so I’m going to make sure that I’m geared towards only taking information that helps me to be more knowledgeable and focused on storytelling. Every day I’ll check in here to talk about the day’s challenge, and to share what I learned from the previous day.

Today’s challenge is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding: today, you have to make sure that you do one thing at a time, to completion. That’s right — single-tasking. And these days it’s a lot harder than you think.

According to a scientific study, our brain switches tasks every 45 seconds. Even though it typically takes us 20 minutes to really focus and dive in to a single task. Every switch eats up a little bit of the actual fuel our brain uses for energy, so by the afternoon we’re exhausted and irritable. This has pretty far-reaching consequences for us; our ability to make responsible choices is compromised, our ability to focus is near non-existent; our stress levels shoot way up. And what’s worse is the pattern of interruptions (or multi-tasking) self-perpetuates. After a rash of external interruptions at work, we’ll end up interrupting *ourselves* once it calms down.

So, today, we try to break the cycle. We resolve to work on one thing and one thing only until it is done. Or until the time period you’ve alloted to work on it is over. Keep interruptions to a minimum with the help of understanding friends; keep distractions as few and short as possible. Notice how you feel at the end of the day, after you’ve spent the whole time cultivating focus. And let’s talk about it tomorrow.

Be well, friends!

 

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(Comics) A Wolf for the People: Sam Wilson’s First 100 Days as Captain America

Reading 150Sam Wilson has not had an easy time of it during his short stint with the shield. He’s basically operating on a shoestring budget out of the basement of a neighborhood church, with only two (testy) people on his staff and no resources. He’s on the “wrong” side of an ideological difference with his best friend and former mentor, Steve Rogers; that same difference has caused most of the public to turn against him. And, for four issues, he was transformed into a wolf/human hybrid against his will by a mad doctor.

Fortunately for us, Sam’s trouble is our delight. The first six issues of Sam Wilson: Captain America makes a bold statement about how he handles the responsibility of being a symbol; writer Nick Spencer positions Wilson as a superhero in an intensely divided country, so no matter what he does he’s going to piss off half the population. Still, Wilson takes a stand even though it’s unpopular, because he’s learned the only lesson worth knowing from Rogers. In order to be worthy of the costume, you have to live up to your morals unflinchingly.

What makes Sam so interesting as Cap is that his morality is so different from Steve’s. Their big rift comes from the fallout of learning that SHIELD has been working on a Cosmic Cube that has the power to reshape reality. The person who leaked this information, an Edward Snowden-type known only as The Whisperer, was nearly caught until Sam helped him — he believed that blowing the whistle on SHIELD’s activities is a public service that he shouldn’t be punished for. Rogers, on the other hand, thinks that though The Whisperer did the right thing, he should still be brought to trial for his actions. Wilson doesn’t believe it’s possible to trust due process in this case, but Rogers does. It’s the difference between Lawful Good and Neutral Good.

That rift deepens when Wilson takes on a militia appointing themselves as border patrol to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, and it’s there he discovers people are being taken and experimented on by Dr. Malus. On the run from SHIELD and Rogers, Wilson is captured and turned into Cap-Wolf, which is the real reason you folks should get these issues. Of course.

Wilson’s investigation takes him through the business world, where Serpent Solutions is making a power-play on behalf of other corporations. The commentary on the current state of corporate politics is a little more ham-fisted, but Sam’s resolution of the arc is surprising yet pragmatic; what I love about the way the story winds down is his realization that ideals don’t happen in a vacuum. Choices have far-reaching consequences, because at this point of American life everything is connected. You can’t advance your morality without stepping on a political landmine, and those politics are deeply influenced by gigantic corporate interests whose success and failure affect the livelihood of millions. If you shut down one thing, you begin a cascade that quickly spirals outside of your control.

Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson have different ways of reacting to the system. Rogers’ Captain America was wholly inspirational; he wanted to be the physical embodiment of the best principles America was founded upon. He believes that the system works, but only as long as the people within it strive for the ideals they serve to the best of their ability. Wilson’s Captain America isn’t so sure; he believes that the system is rigged and leaves out a lot of people who can’t defend themselves against it, and those are the people he wishes to serve.

The Whisperer is the embodiment of that difference in opinion. Since Steve believes in the system, he believes that he can convince people to do the right thing and justice will prevail. But Wilson understands that even if they win in the courtroom, other connected threads will act to preserve the status quo however it can. The system will protect its own, and Steve is inextricably tied to it. Sam has always been an outsider, so his morality doesn’t depend on that allegiance.

So who IS Captain America these days? What interest does he serve? As our understanding of the government shifts and our ideas about what it should and should not be doing changes, every once in a while we need to step back and check on that. I love that Nick Spencer is really diving into that through Sam’s turbulent first days on the job, and I’m really curious how Wilson’s journey continues. There is going to be a lot more fighting for him coming up — Avengers: Standoff is getting into full-swing, and there won’t even be time to take a breath before Civil War II lights up comic stores this summer. Somewhere in all of that, Steve Rogers will don the mantle of Captain America once more, giving us two versions of the hero serving two different visions of America.

Maybe, at this point, that’s the best we can hope for.

 

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