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(Personal) Cracking Myself Open

Myth 150One of the earliest memories I have about my mental illness is breaking down in the middle of lunch in sixth or seventh grade. Things were not going well for me. I was a shy and awkward kid who loved reading fantasy books. I was really sensitive, so I didn’t hold up to bullying very well. And I had gotten into trouble enough that in addition to homework and everything else, I had to write a sentence “I will not…something something something.” 1000 times.

I was sitting alone, trying to think of what impossible task I should do over lunch and how I could justify putting off the others, when I just needed to put my head down. It didn’t help. Tears welled up and I let them fall. My entire body locked up. All I wanted to do was curl up tighter. Someone found me, stood me up, and asked me if I had eaten anything. Then they marched me up to the lunch line.

It felt like my entire body had fallen asleep. I didn’t have full control over the way I moved, so I just lurched around like Frankenstein’s monster. I couldn’t stop crying. There was no way I could eat, or speak, or open my mouth. When the lunch lady asked if I needed anything, all I could do was sob and shake my head and lurch back to my seat.

To this day I have no idea what to call that episode. A panic attack? A nervous breakdown? Who knows. But it happened again when my sister ran away from home, and again shortly after I dropped out of college and moved to Arkansas.

I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety for my entire life. Most of the memories I have of my childhood are unhappy ones, where something in my brain just snapped and a response rose from within me that I still don’t understand. What’s more, I can remember similar things happening to the people around me; my father’s mind going after his divorce, retreating further into himself; my mother disappearing for hours to sleep off depression; my sister’s mood swings; the strange rumors that dogged certain neighbors. When I was growing up, our understanding of mental illness was little more than being able to identify “crazy” behavior; if someone did something “crazy” once too often, then they were branded. And there wasn’t anything they could do to shake that off.

Even now, knowing what I know about my family history and the struggles that my siblings and I face, I see that for the most part that understanding hasn’t deepened much. My sister is on medication that makes her incoherent or sleepy. My brothers still do things they don’t understand. And, now that she’s reaching the end of her life, my mother is beginning to forget things and become confused.

It’s taken me a long time to come to grips with my mental illness, to accept it and learn how to incorporate it into my self-image. But there are so many black Americans and others in the diaspora who either can’t or won’t for a constellation of reasons. Most of us simply can’t afford treatment for mental health issues, and wouldn’t know where to begin even if we could. There is a stigma, even now, around therapy and medication that makes it difficult to encourage folks to seek out. There is still this narrative that those of us with mental illnesses are just “weak” or “whining” and only need to “get your mind right” to overcome them. We know so little, but we have such strong opinions.

Talking about my personal struggle with these things is still frightening to me, even though I do it so much. But it’s important that I do. Within black circles, and geek circles, and even Buddhist circles, there is so much misinformation about mental illness and what people who deal with them are like. If being open about them can help to dispel that, then that’s what I have to do. For my family, for my friends, and for my community.

If you are dealing with a mental health issue, please know that you’re not alone. There are more of us than you know, willing and able to lend a hand. If at all possible, do what you can to lessen the stigma around these issues — especially in minority groups. There is no shame at all in having a chronic mental illness, or in seeking treatment for it. There is no shame in doing what you need to do in order to be the best person you can.

 

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Kwanzaa 2015: Umoja (Unity)

Myth 150We live in extremely divided times. Here in the United States, the population is split by race, income, politics, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, hierarchy of values and so many other things. Across the world, it feels like the same; if it’s not religion, it’s ethnicity. If it’s not that, it’s national background. If it’s not that…you get the picture. On a social level, most of us define ourselves by what we’re opposed to, instead of what we believe in.

On the Internet it feels especially true. One of the great things about finding a community online is the realization that we’re not alone — that no matter who we are, where we come from or what we believe, chances are good that there’s a group out there for us somewhere. It can be life-changing to find your tribe, especially when you’ve struggled to find somewhere you belong in real life. But this year the language of our communities seems to be one of rejection; we define our in-groups almost exclusively by determining who we collectively damn.

This negativity-focused basis for forming our collective societies is a troubling one, because it trains us to belong to something by vehemently rejecting those we feel shouldn’t. And what that encourages is an increasingly rabid rejection dynamic; when someone we used to agree with us doesn’t about the most recent topic of our anger, we get to turn on them. One of the things that gave me most pause about the way we unify online in 2015 was the controversy surrounding a fan-artist for Steven Universe, and the way the community turned on the creators and producers of the show when they stepped in to tamp things down. Is this what it means to be a part of a niche in the 21st century? Do we have to scream loudest in order to secure our space in these places?

The theme for Kwanzaa this year is “Embracing Kwanzaa’s Principles and Practice: Creating and Celebrating the Good”. I know, a holiday maybe shouldn’t be so serious-minded if we want people to hold it in their hearts, but I find the opportunity to create a ritual around introspection and re-commitment to our values at the end of the year to be a great one. Kwanzaa definitely has its work cut out for it if it wants to be adopted on a wider basis, but I love it.

Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration and focus on the Seven Principles of the Black Community here in the United States, though the institution has spread to at least Canada. It was started in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, as a counter-holiday to Christmas and the commercialization of it by the dominant culture. It’s meant to be a holiday that focuses on the experience of the African diaspora, but so many people in the black community are alienated for various reasons, it’s very hard for it to gain traction in a meaningful way. I’ve never met anyone who actually celebrates Kwanzaa, but now that I’m reconnecting with my heritage I thought it would be an excellent way to take something from the community that resonates with me and make it my own.

Umoja is the principle we focus on today, the first day. It means “Unity” in Swahili, a native African language predominantly spoken in the southeast of the continent. Above everything else, it’s good to remember that a strong community is a powerful thing; even though we each have individual power to affect change in the world, when we get together and rise up with a single purpose, amazing things can happen.

Which is why it troubles me that so many of our communities these days are so singularly-focused on pushing their weight behind excoriating the things that have offended or opposed us. Yes, rising up as a community and saying in no uncertain terms that certain behaviors and ideas have no place in modern society is very useful, but when so much of our time and energy is spent tearing things down we have to understand why people look at our groups as a destructive influence.

I belong to many different groups: I am a black man, and a gay man, and a Buddhist, and a comic book fan, and a tabletop RPG gamer. I’m socially and economically leftist. I believe that human beings are a social species, and the goal of our institutions should be to make sure every individual — no matter who they are — can find their place to be productive, whole and happy. I believe in unity, and I oppose the things that hinder that ideal, or makes it harder to achieve.

I believe that we have to take a long look at the communities we belong to and think of how we encourage unity within that community. Sure, we know what we will not stand for, and it’s important to be vocal about that. But how do we encourage the things we DO stand for? How do we make our communities a welcoming place for newcomers? How do we resolve conflicts within our communities in ways that make them stronger? What positive things can we do to create and celebrate the good within the groups we belong to?

It’s important to draw lines in the sand when our dignity, our rights and our lives are threatened. I absolutely understand that. But it is also important to show, by our examples, the best our community can be. We must show others — and remind ourselves — what we’re fighting for together, not just what we’re uniting against.

I’ll do my best to make sure the groups I belong to are united together for ideals that make our world better. We can change the world, if we work to make it a place where people see how they can make worthy contributions to it. No one changes for the better by being shunned and ostracized. If we need to push someone away because of their ideas and actions, we also need to show them how we can be reunited.

Have a joyous Kwanzaa today. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

(Personal) Choices

Self Improvement 150It’s that time. Best of the year lists are popping up all over the pop-culture and entertainment blogs. Books, movies, TV shows, art installations, plays and musicals, even memes are being reviewed so we can try to make sense of the past twelve months. We spent how much time obsessed over that back in February? What really were the best things ever last year, now that we’ve had time to temper our breathless enthusiasm? What are we actually embarrassed for even liking at this point?

2015 was a big year for me, personally. I made the decision to speak up for causes that I’m passionate about in ways I never had before, and that opened up connections to folks online I’m so glad I got to make. I’ve shared my perspective as a gay black Buddhist who spends a lot of time pretending to be a jackalope online, my experience with my mental illness, my opinions and fears about telling stories. I’ve stepped into black geek, social justice and furry writer spaces, and I’ve found that those communities are homes I’d been searching for all my life. It’s been a transformative time.

I’ve had to change, personally and professionally. At my day job changes in ownership and company structure forced a shift in my position, and I found myself learning technical skills that have always frightened the living shit out of me. Months later, that fear is still with me — but I’ve learned how to make peace with it. I know how to use that discomfort to sharpen my focus, to be careful, to pay attention to what’s necessary. The lessons I’ve learned from that experience I’m trying to apply to the rest of my life.

December is upon us, and we’re all making one mad dash through the last holidays of the year. It feels like we’re rushing through a time that we should be taking slow; the days are short, the nights are long and cold, well-built for silent contemplation. I’ve spent so much of my life letting my reflexes take over how I act on what I think and feel. If fear motivates my behavior, I’ve often let it with no questions asked. If anxiety demands comfort, I indulge in it. So many of my actions have roots in an automatic stimulus. I feel x, I do y. It didn’t matter for a long time that these reflexes no longer serve a useful purpose, or worse, hold me back. I use them because I’ve always used them.

I’ve been making a persistent effort to live deliberately. I’ve become more consistent with my meditation, and taking the awareness cultivated on the bench throughout my day. I’m still new at this, though, so I fail quite often. When I’m overwhelmed force of habit reasserts itself and I fall back on those same ingrained behaviors. But I’ve gotten better at recognizing when I end up on those tracks, stopping for a minute to ask myself if I want to be there, and repositioning myself when I need to. As with everything, it’s a work in progress. But progress is being made.

Everything we do throughout our lives is a choice that we’ve made. It can be difficult to take stock of our options and pick the best one, especially in the many moments that make up our days. Emotions demand action, we’re often pressed for time, and our emotional reflexes have been well-honed. But it’s helpful to double-check whether they’re still useful after a certain point. We’re often in situations where our first response — our reflexive one — doesn’t fit, and it’d be better to go with something else. It’s hard, slow work to do, but that awareness pays dividends sooner than I thought.

I’ve learned a lot more about myself this year. Learning about how my anxiety is on a fairly sensitive trigger helped me realize all the ways it influenced my decisions; I’m now working on consistently short-circuiting that system to make smarter choices. Learning that I have issues with ADHD has allowed me to recognize that there are certain things my brain will just never be good with. Far from simply letting myself off the hook with that, it encourages me to work harder (and more efficiently) by knowing I need to rely on something external instead of my own brain. Timers, to-do list and calendars have become essential; follow-through is not something I’m great with, so finding ways to make sure I finish what I start needs to be baked into every process. In this situation, knowing my limitations hasn’t made me feel lesser; it’s allowed me to work within and beyond them to do a lot more than I thought I could.

This year has been great. I’ve made a lot of progress, and I feel I see myself and the world around me a bit more clearly than before. But there’s still work to do. I can be better still about how I manage my time. I could be more efficient with my projects, work through them more quickly by making sure I’m on task when I’ve set myself to be. Learning to be comfortable with my fear and anxiety is never something that will end. It’s a project I’ll be working on all of my life. But the work becomes more familiar with time and practice. Maybe it won’t be easier, but I’ll get better at it.

And working on the connections that I continue to make will be a big focus next year. Now that I’ve finally found and understand community, working hard to be a productive part of them is something I really want to do. I want to support my neighbors, both in the real world and online. What are the best ways of doing that? How can I help through my perspective and experience? What can I do to help us be better?

I’m so grateful for this year, even though it’s been difficult at times. I’m thankful because it’s brought me closer to so many of you. I’m really looking forward to the work of continuing what I’ve started here next year. I’m really looking forward to helping bring us all closer together.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Fiction Friday: Veniamin’s First Cup

Writing 150For the month of September we’ll be following one of the characters I play in a Dresden Files tabletop RPG in little vignettes. The Dresden Files setting is basically modern fantasy, in a world much like ours but where vampires, werewolves, faeries, ghosts and other supernatural creatures hide in the shadows. Veniamin Kovalenko is just entering the wider world, trying to make his way as a fixer and private detective. Here, we see him just a few days into moving to San Francisco from the middle-of-nowhere California. He is about to have his first cup of coffee from an honest-to-God snooty coffee shop.

Veniamin was acutely aware of how out of place he looked. He was tall and lanky — 6’6″, but just over 200 pounds — with a mop of reddish-brown hair and a beard that looked like it belonged to a lumberjack or hermit. There was no way for him to tame that much pelt so he just didn’t bother. It covered his eyes and obscured his mouth so that any expression he made was hidden and his voice sounded muffled, flat and distant.

He thought a suit would make him look more civilized, so he bought one off the rack with half of the money he came to San Francisco with. While it covered his gangly limbs, the sleeves and legs were far too thick and his discomfort with the clothing showed. Even though he was wearing it for the first time it already looked rumpled, as if he had slept in it, as if he had worn it and nothing else all week.

“Welcome to Philz, what can I get you?” The chipper barista didn’t seem phased at all by the human match-stick that loomed over her across the counter. She beamed at him the same way she beamed at every other customer.

Veniamin blinked at her as if he was surprised she was there. He stared at her, then up at the chalkboard menu above her. Maybe it was the font, or maybe it was the way every square inch of the board was filled with something, but it was hard to make out anything intelligible. The confusing gaggle of words and numbers simply washed over him, threatening to drown him in much the same way his suit wanted to. He didn’t know why he thought this would be a good idea. He felt like he was in shock. He wanted nothing more than to run to the redwoods and climb one of them.

“Uhm,” is what he managed to say.

“It’s your first time here, huh?” She gave him a sympathetic look, then glanced back to the chalkboard. “You kind of have that deer in the headlights look.”

Veniamin felt the blush rising in his cheeks. He sniffed once. Behind the overwhelming scent of roasted coffee beans, he caught her lip gloss — cinnamon, tinged with the smell of powder and the synthetic berry of her shampoo. His shoulders slumped a little, and he felt his heart slow down. He liked berries, synthetic or otherwise. “Yeah. Sorry. I have no idea what to get.”

The barista smiled at him. “No problem! I would recommend the Tesora roast; it’s kind of our gold standard. Full-bodied, low acidity, kind of a rich and nutty flavor with a smooth, clean finish. It’s nice and middle-of-the-road, so you can taste it and decide where you’d like to go for your next cup. Okay?”
Veniamin blinked. He had no idea what those words were supposed to mean when put next to each other. But she seemed to know what she was talking about, and was the first person to speak to him this long and still be friendly. “Yeah, OK.”

“Great. How do you take your coffee?” She looked at him while her arms seemed to move of her own accord, grabbing a filter and stuffing it into the top of a coffee machine.

“Hot?” Veniamin hadn’t expected the question. There were ways to take coffee?

The barista laughed and nodded. “Right, right. Medium cream, medium sugar?”

“Sure.”

“All right, I’ll get that right out to you!” Finally, the barista looked away. She turned, grabbed a scoop of almost-black beans and ground them. When she returned to the coffee machine, he was still there. “Oh! You can pay at the cashier right there, and I’ll call you when your cup is ready. What’s your name?”

“Veniamin.” He drew himself up straighter, eyes glittering behind his hair. He said his name like it was a challenge, as he had been taught.

The barista simply nodded. “All right, Benjamin, I’ve got you.”

“Thank you.” Veniamin hesitated. He felt like there should be something else to say, but nothing came. He had the distinct impression that he was coming across as a weirdo. He turned and lumbered to the cash register.

Most of the pastries next to the cashier smelled stale, but there was a fruit danish that at least smelled sweet enough for it not to matter and some small rectangular bar that reeked of nuts, cardamom and honey. He bought both along with his coffee, found a corner to squeeze into, and inhaled the pastries before his name was called. The small bar was practically inhaled; the fruit danish gone in two bites.

As he chewed, appreciating the way the spices and honey lingered on his tongue, he watched the people who filled the coffee shop. Most of them were staring down at their phones, but some were reading papers or having quiet conversations. He couldn’t hear what they were saying from here. At least, not as he was…

He loosened his tie with a small grunt. He was wearing a suit. He was in a coffee shop. He was in the middle of downtown San Francisco. He was supposed to blend in.

“Benjamin!” The barista called out, looking around briefly before spotting him.

He rose, strode over to the barista, and took the cup.

“Why don’t you take a sip to let me know how it tastes?” She looked excited for some reason.

Veniamin sniffed. The coffee scent was buried under cream and sugar, but blended they all worked together to create something more. He closed his eyes, let the smell bounce up to his brain and light it up. Then he took a sip.

The heat didn’t bother him. The cream smoothed out the bitterness of the coffee, while the sugar lifted the lighter aspects of the taste on his tongue. The coffee reasserted itself along the back of his tongue, a lingering bitterness that was managed by the thickness of the cream. Veniamin found himself smiling as the warmth traveled down his throat and spread through his chest.

“Good?” The barista looked pleased, and that pleased him.

“Great.” Veniamin took another, longer sip. He felt more like himself, like he was in a forest, or fishing out in a river. “Thanks.”

“No problem, Benjamin. Have a good day!”

“It’s Veniamin. What’s your name?”

“I’m sorry. My name? It’s Marian.”

Veniamin stuck out a broad hand. “Marian. It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for the coffee.”

She beamed, but there was something different in her expression this time. “My pleasure, Veniamin. Take care.”

Veniamin smiled, hoping it would show through his beer. He floated through the crowd at Philz and out of the door, feeling for the first time the magic of San Francisco.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

A Look Through the Stacks

Myth 150To be honest, I’m still recovering from Sasquan. Monday was a bit of a lazy day for me and Ryan, and Tuesday was all about diving into the day job. I’m mostly caught up there, just in time for my annual review later today — at this point, I’m expected to prepare to hand off my current workload as an administrator so I can begin training as an actual support engineer. That means documenting a LOT of processes as clearly as I can.

After that, it’s all about technical training — which as I’ve mentioned before is pretty daunting. I’m excited, though, and optimistic. I think if I put my head down and push through with a clear plan on how to learn the things I need to, I’ll do fine. I just need the time.

In the meantime, there are a number of projects that have been stacking up here on the Writing Desk. I have a number of essays planned about all kinds of subjects — the meaning of bigotry, dipping my toes into the waters of afro-futurism, stepping up my game when it comes to tabletop RPGs, crafting a “season” of podcasts for mental health issues. I want to talk a bit about what sort of things we would want in a “perfect” furry hangout spot; if we had the opportunity to say, rebuild FurAffinity from the ground up, what kind of features would we want? What would the perfect user experience be?

I’m still working on “A Stable Love,” with the hope that it’ll be finished by the end of the month. From there, I’m moving on to three more short stories that I’m hoping will be polished and ready to show by October. I’d like to really get my act together for my Pathfinder game, and start doing periphery writing for my characters in other games. Kraugh the Togorian, Veniamin the werebear, Kerrebuck the Wookiee, and Takoda the troll all have stories that need telling. (Also, holy crap, I really do just play earnest giants, don’t I?)

I’m reading an anthology of furry stories for review elsewhere, and I’m noticing an interesting theme that runs through the stories there. I’m really looking forward to writing my review of it, mostly because I get to talk about the intersection of furry fiction and minority issues. You might have noticed that’s been something on my mind a whole lot this year.

So for now, head down, quiet time, hard work time. It’s time to transmute the excitement of the convention into fuel that propels me through the effort of creative production.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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