Rogue One

SW always had really distinct visual style. Note that lighting?

SW always had really distinct visual style. Note that lighting?

I, like a lot of people, saw Star Wars: Rogue One. And like a smaller subset of a lot of people, but still probably a whole lot of people, I have some thoughts about it that I want to write down.

I guess I’ll start with a big rhetorical question: What do we want from our new Star Wars movies? What did we ever want from them? Cause we’re about to have a lot more of them.


I was born in 1976, which means I’m right in the gravity well of original trilogy super-fandom — young enough to have seen them during formative years; old enough to have not been raised with stuff that was inspired by them.

In looking back, the 3rd movie didn’t come out until I was seven-years-old. I don’t remember, but I can’t imagine I saw the first two until after the 3rd one, and it must have only been the 3rd one that I saw in theaters.

I do remember that I used to constantly dress up as both Han Solo (and Indiana Jones), though. There’s photo evidence, at least. And then there’s the story that my mom still likes to tell, that when she asked me why I wouldn’t wear any underwear with my outfit, I told her that, “Han Solo doesn’t have a drawer full of underwear.” I think we can all agree that I was probably right about that, and that I had an advanced early understanding of character research.

But without any exaggeration, I can say that the storytelling and spirituality of the original series had a huge impact on me as a child, likely forming structural ideas in my psyche about right and wrong, good and evil, and the overarching benevolence of a universal energy. I would be lying if I said I never in my life believed in the actual existence of “the force,” or didn’t try for maybe-kind-of-a-lot-of-time to use it myself.

My parents raised my brother and I secularly, but my dad taught me early how to use creative visualization and that self belief was tied to actual material outcomes. My mom taught me that there was more good than bad in the world, and that I should be good.

By the time I read ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ at age twelve, I had already understood some of its philosophical underpinnings. When I later read the Tao Te Ching, I realized I had already believed it was true. Though it’s backwards, I bet that was the only sequence of coming to these ideas that would have resonated so thoroughly for me.


The original series is a very black and white story about an oppressed population with God on its side rising up against a totalitarian fascist galactic power. It was told from the point of view of someone who had their formative experiences in America in the 50’s and early 60’s, and who was raised by a generation that had been victorious in World War II against a totalitarian fascist axis of nations. The bad guys use red and black colors. Their soldiers are called stormtroopers. It’s all right there on the surface to see.

There’s nothing complicated about the victory of the Alliance against the Empire. In the mind of its creator, this story already happened. So we hear it told with the assurance of a victor. The goodness of the protagonists is beyond-beyond reproach — it is archetypal.

Like, as if it were a story about the end of slavery in America being a good thing. Because no one is around saying, “I don’t know, it was really good for the economy! Maybe we should bring it back!” Or, a Revolutionary War story telling us how brave and just the colonials were. Because no one is around saying, “I don’t know, maybe we should give a foreign hereditary monarchy a chance! It might be better now!”

In 1977, we all understood that fascist totalitarianism was the embodiment of evil. That’s not really what’s happening in Star Wars: Rogue One, or in today’s America.


So what do we want from these stories? This film had a surprising amount of ambivalence about the effectiveness of a rebellion made up of groups with slightly different agendas. The heroes were finally allowed to be dark and actually conflicted — especially when George Lucas wants me to believe that Greedo shot first, when I know Han did.

Do we just want to see another Death Star be destroyed? Is there an enemy in this universe besides institutionalized evil? If we’re no longer so sure of our society’s understanding of what is the light side, and what is the dark side, will these be stories of a new rebellion? Will the dark side be shown as maybe not that bad after all?

In the last scenes of Rogue One, when I saw Darth Vader striding through that Alliance command ship, force-choking and flinging around anonymous rebel soldiers — lightsaber-stabbing people through metal sliding doors — he seemed plenty terrifying. As the embodiment of an irresistible force that must be opposed despite all odds — even knowing what happens to him in the subsequent movies — I think it was the first time I was actually afraid of him.

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Politics (again)

 

Well, I really, truly, honestly thought I would write just the one thing about politics, but here I am again.

On Tuesday 11/9/16 at around 6pm PST I put my one-year-old daughter to bed, and as I laid her down in the crib, I whispered to her that, “tomorrow, when you wake up, there will be a female President for the first time ever. You don’t understand, but it’s a really big deal, and it’s going to be really important for you as you get older.”

I don’t really do stuff like that, usually, because it’s silly. But I felt really good about saying it. Because I want her to have all of the same opportunities I’ve had, and I don’t think that should be a big deal.

I then sat down with my wife in our living room and watched as someone I had come to care about was drained of blood for the next four hours on live TV. So I drank the good scotch, cause fuck it. And then I went to sleep thinking that I was a fool to have invested my hope — the hope of my daughter — in our nation.


People seem to feel like politics is nuanced. That there’s a continuum, and that the balance should flow regularly back and forth. So, in that logic, it’s normal for there to be periods of oppression followed by periods of growing freedom; or that we must restrict, and then let be free — and vice versa.

I think it’s actually really simple. Who has the power, and are they using it responsibly? Are their policies intended to make life better for the majority, or the minority? Who speaks for the oppressed and who speaks for the oppressor? Who’s telling me the truth about how hard it will be and who’s finding a scapegoat?

Because the oppressor should always be stopped. They are always wrong. There is no other valid viewpoint, for me.

Those with power must be held accountable. We tell ourselves honorable stories, no matter our actual history. That’s what we believe in, whether we have the courage to trust ourselves or not. Our greatest virtue is that we can imagine our eventual triumphs in the face of our own history.

There used to be some nuance there, in seeing which candidates were a slightly warmer shade of the same color. But there was no nuance in this election.

I would rather see us fail as a nation because we loved too much than see us withhold freedom from one another because we’re afraid.

Jesus definitely came way too early, but it’s hard to say if that particular party will ever get started.


I remember in November of 2000, watching the election results come in, as GW Bush stole an election from Al Gore. It was so long ago that I had to piece together the details for myself, and remembering each bit was so surprising, somehow. Oh yeah, the most contested state was run by the brother of the presidential candidate that usurped the vote? Dangling chads?! Gore conceded, and then didn’t — and then the Supreme Court stopped a mandatory recount?! Al Gore’s running mate was Jewish? Gore won the popular vote decisively and still lost?!

So, we’ve been here before. Sorta (it’s demonstrably worse now). I’m trying to take comfort in that, that we survived eight years of control from these fascist know-nothings (Dick motherfucking Cheney OMG?!). That we could be attacked by terrorists and watch our nation all turn hawk for a while, surrendering so many civil liberties, and so much sense. Eight years of our lives.

When Obama was elected in 2008, and decisively at that, it felt like a fucking enema.

I guess I was naive to think that it was actual change, and not just another wide swing of the pendulum.


Human rights isn’t a zero-sum game. There’s enough for everybody. That’s the part that I don’t understand. Why does it feel like one side can’t have nice things? We can all have nice things. This is the most prosperous civilization in the history of the world (no citations needed! America fuck yeah!).


I didn’t understand who Trump’s voters were. I thought there was a loud minority of white nationalists, wish-it-still-was misogynists, evangelicals, and idiots. I forgot how insidious privilege and bigotry can be. It doesn’t require being a loudmouth; it just requires being okay enough with other peoples’ bigotry.

But that’s not entirely true — I do know his voters, I just forgot about them. Maybe a lot of America did.

My ex-wife is from St. Louis, MO., and I spent a lot of time there with her family from 1998-2004. It’s not a fun place to be when your internal default location is set to Bay Area, CA.

She came from a working class, Catholic family: a father that was a one-time-hippy carpenter and  a mom that was a psychiatric nurse and part-time art history professor.

But her aunts and uncles, and their families, were all middle-America, right-leaning folks.  The matriarch of the family, “Maw-maw,” who when calling the huge group to the table for Thanksgiving dinner said, “Everyone come and eat, even if your Jewish” — that last bit aimed at me, one imagines, unless she just said that all the time. But they were all so kind. And the food was good, and their traditions were lived-in and important to them. In a way that made the more hippy-dippy openness of my upbringing seem paltry by comparison. We ate and played spoons and drank and smoked cigarettes and talked. And we laughed a lot.

There was uncle Patrick, who was gay, and living with HIV. He was at Thanksgiving. You knew it wasn’t okay with everyone — how he lived — but they loved him and wanted him close. He lived in a three-story turn-of-the-century mansion on the south side of the city — where most whites had long since fled from. But you could buy something amazing there for cheap, and the uncles were all in the trades and could help bring it back to life.

There was uncle Tommy, who once asked me — and I believe without any trace of irony (and this is a real thing that happened) — “Why are so many smart people liberal?” I told him what I thought at the time, that maybe a smart person can conceive of things from a broader view, and that, in seeing more clearly the way people are affected by things, they can’t help but have more empathy.

I didn’t feel good about it at the time, and I don’t now. Maybe I should have just said, “I don’t know,” which seems even truer today than it did then — and it was always true. Tommy was an unfailingly kind person, who cared deeply about his family, who served our country in the military, and who worked hard. It mattered to me that Tommy respected me.

He and his brothers were civil war reenactors, and I believe on the side of the confederate army… (I can’t remember for sure), but war history enthusiast nonetheless . Tommy once took me into his room to show me the working WWII Mauser rifle that he had purchased at a gun show. That was the first I had heard that there was a thing called a “gun show.” I held the rifle. It was heavy–I remember that. The wood was worn to an oily dark hue. The gunmetal was dull, nicked, and emblazoned with nazi symbols. I don’t know why he wanted to show it to me, other than to ponder its antiquity and the oblique transgressigvness of its presence, in that place, in his possession.

I don’t know if he meant to communicate anything to me — to make me uncomfortable — but standing alone with him in the quiet of his small bedroom, with the breeze bringing bright afternoon light through thin, white drapes — it did. I don’t think he really understood the dark power of that object. Maybe it was a confession, of sorts. I just told him I thought it was “cool.” And in its way, it was.

I wonder how the last twelve years have been for uncle Tommy? Patrick? Uncle Dennis and Maw-maw. Were the kids that they wanted to make sure went to college able to do anything with the degrees they earned? Are they still in student debt that they can never possibly repay? How did they survive the financial crisis, when there was nowhere to ply their construction trades? How about uncle Hans, with his prescription painkiller addiction? Was he able to get on SSI? How’s his hep-C treatment going? Is he alive?

Maybe things aren’t as great as they once were, for them.

I’m projecting. I don’t know these people anymore and I have no idea if they even voted. I’m making them emblematic of something bigger than them. I shouldn’t do that, but I did. I wish we had found something better than Donald Trump to offer them.


Adam was my best friend since the fourth grade, growing up in Tucson. He was who I measured myself against. I wasn’t smart unless I was smarter than Adam. It wasn’t as cool as it could be until I could show it to Adam. It was funnier if we were together. After eighth grade I moved away to Washington state, but we stayed in touch. He came to visit and I went to visit him.

When I was afraid I was losing my mind, I dropped out of college, I got in my car and drove to Tucson to crash with him. One night we took mushrooms and wandered around the foothills of the Santa Catalina mountains and talked. He bummed smokes from me, even though he never inhaled.

He decided he needed to burn the t-shirt he was wearing — a Bobby Brady t-shirt –because it didn’t accurately represent who he was. And he was pretty right about that. It didn’t. He wasn’t some goofball kid, I guess. At least not anymore. He was a serious guy by that point. So we watched the shirt burn away in the dirt. I don’t know how important that gesture was for him in terms of re-charting his self-awareness, but it was important to me that he did that with me present. Things were more meaningful when we were together.

By 2000, I had been living in the Bay Area for five years and he had moved on to grad school, taking his philosophy degree and moving into theology, then living in a Jewish communal-living situation on the UCLA campus. My ex-wife and I drove with our good friend Wafi to see Adam in LA. For some reason we thought it made sense to take some pot brownies on our way out of town, which meant I spent most of the drive curled up in the passenger seat, terrified while Wafi played Front-242 and Skinny Puppy on the stereo.

That was the trip when I learned that I wasn’t really Jewish, and that it might not be okay to bring an Iraqi friend to a Kibbutz.

“You’re Jewish, though, right?” a girl asked me. I think maybe she had been flirting with me. “Well, yeah, sort of. My dad is, but my mom isn’t, she’s German, euro-whatever. Anyway we weren’t really raised religiously.” The look on her face said a lot of things that she wasn’t willing to say out loud.

I don’t know what happened to Wafi, exactly. But we left earlier than we intended. And we didn’t talk a lot on the way home.

On 9/11 I got woken up by a phone call from my then mother-in-law. “They’re doing terrible things in New York on the news,” she said.

Later, Wafi moved back in with his parents to help them run their store. His brother, Munaf, who I played music with — and who I loved like a brother — told me that Wafi had decided to turn away from western culture. So I guess that meant no more pot brownies and Front-242. We never spoke again. Munaf met a girl and moved to Brazil. By that time, Adam had already been living in Israel and was studying in Yeshiva.

At some point in the middle 2000’s I talked to Adam by phone and we argued about Israeli/Palestinian relations. This wasn’t strange. We argued about everything, constantly. Our default mode was to challenge each other. There are pathways in my mind in which this is what I call love.

Israel/Palestine has been debated by people far smarter than me or Adam. His basic position was that they must protect their people. My basic position was that it’s never okay to oppress a population. How could it be right to oppress the Palestinians, when the Jews have spent so much of their history fleeing from oppression?

I’ve seen Adam a couple of times since that conversation, but that phone call was when our friendship ended. Because his final stance — what he felt was the answer that could not be countered —  was that, “might makes right.”

And yet somehow, despite our peoples’ history on this planet, I still believe he’s wrong.

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Politics

The actual first image search for the word

The actual first image search for the word “politics” in Google

In two days Americans will vote for president, and their choices will be Donald Trump, a failed business man-turned-reality-TV star; or Hillary Clinton, a career politician who is also the first female candidate for president of either major party.

I’m terrified. The fact that this even a close decision for this nation makes this the most incomprehensible, and consequential, election I’ve seen in my lifetime.

Trump is a cartoon villain. He’s a cliche. He represents everything negative about the status quo: unabashed wielding of swollen privilege, perpetuation of patriarchal notions of entitlement, Orwellian use of language and fact, and naked manipulation of the actual golden rule: that he who has the gold, makes the rules.

He’s a huckster and a would-be despot. A temperamental fool and a fascist demagogue. He’s a classless failure who has somehow made success his brand. He is woefully unfit to execute the duties of running businesses he started with other people’s money, let alone the presidency of these united states.

Didn’t our grandfathers fight a war against fascism? How is this happening?

Isn’t America still great? When did America stop being great? Was it in the middle of the 1960’s? You know, in that era of reason triumphing over belief — which seems to be the exact opposite mindset of the horde of visigoths within our midst.

Clinton isn’t a great candidate because she isn’t Trump. She’s a great candidate because she’s a great candidate. She’s lived her life in service to the public, with a focus on the welfare of children and the disadvantaged. She’s been a first lady, a senator, and a secretary of state. She’s qualified, prepared, and wants the job.

Has she abused her position for her own gain? Is she a wolf in sheep’s clothing in regards to her hawkish foreign policy? Is she duplicitous to the populace-at-large and catering to the 1%? Out of touch with the common man?

Unlike Reagan? Bush Sr.? Bill Clinton? Bush Jr.? Obama? Which president, of all men who have served, was the people’s champion?

Obama has killed human beings with robots. And he’s been a great president for this nation.

Clinton isn’t the inspiring orator that Obama is, or the wizened and no-fucks-giving humanist illusionist that Bernie Sanders is. She’s just a no-nonsense administrator that never told an Access Hollywood correspondent that you could just “grab them by the pussy.” That used to be enough to get someone elected in this country.


My daughter had her 1st birthday party a couple of weeks ago. A friend’s 3-year-old daughter showed up dressed as Rey from the most recent Star Wars movie and it really warmed my heart. Of course there should be characters like Rey for girls to look up to — determined, skillful, intelligent, strong, and respected characters. That should be normal. I remember how not-normal that was when the movie came out.

There should be a woman president. How amazing for my daughter to grow up in a world where a woman can be the President of America — for that to be normal.

Why would any woman in this country vote for someone other than Hillary Clinton? Why would any father of a daughter, or husband of a wife, vote for someone other than Hillary Clinton?

When the alternative is Donald Trump?

This world needs more Hillary Clintons and less Donald Trumps. Donald Trump, in its many forms — and from the shadows, as well as right before our eyes — has always been in power.

“That’s just locker room talk.” No, it isn’t. It’s the way power-hungry men communicate with weaker men that they want to bring under their control. It’s an expression of their power — to make you complicit in their shamelessness, in their awareness of their own patriarchal power.

I’ve been in locker rooms, and I’ve been in plenty of conversations with men about women. In my experience, most men are preoccupied with how they feel about themselves on a spectrum of being desirable, and being able to attract a woman. Most of the “locker room talk,” even when it’s very crude, is really just about feeling self-confident enough to attract a woman.

But not always. Sometimes it’s something else.

To openly tell someone that you enjoy the power to unaccountably step around a woman’s need to acknowledge and invite your sexuality is to grasp the all-to-present levers of the social machine that would subjugate all women.

Men and women should feel very afraid when they hear someone speak this way. And there’s no mistaking it for what it is when you hear it. It is what is worst about men, and what is worst about the desire for power over other people.


My truth is: I’ve never really had to care about who the president is. I’m a straight white male. Through a combination of genetics, education, upbringing, and life choices — which have been made with an extraordinarily broad margin for error — I have the appearance, temperament, financial security, and communication skills to circumnavigate the sharp edges of our culture. I speak with the language of power. I was born on 3rd base and no one bats an eye when I steal home.

Will my taxes go up or down a little bit? Will this nation enter into a new war that I don’t have to participate in, or feel touched by? Will the rights of people other than me become a little more or a little less restrictive?

If Donald Trump wins the presidency, it will be because people just like me don’t care enough to stop that from happening.

There aren’t enough blood-blind “deplorables” to force this equation’s solution, but ample silent onlookers.


What kind of nation do we want to live in? For me it is one of dignity, magnanimousness, and grace; where reason triumphs over feeling, and science over faith; where the rights of our minorities are indistinguishable from the rights of the majority; where we adapt and progress, rather than hold tight and perfect; where we welcome our neighbors and support our friends; where we are financially secure, but don’t pay for it with the soul of our culture; where we keep each other safe, but don’t in our fear lose site of the freedom that we’re protecting; where we may be excellent if we commit ourselves, and buoyed when we cannot; where we spend more money on education than on bombs; where we all have food to eat and shelter over our heads; where we value the experience of our elders and keep them in comfort. May our nation be strong because our hearts and vision are strong, and not because of our willingness to subjugate others.

I think many people saw the nation they wanted in Bernie Sanders and don’t see it so keenly in Clinton. Should we just burn it down, then? Keep the ember of your hope, always. Carry it forward so that it will find its time. It may be smaller than you like, but take the only step forward available to us, now.

May we not be silent. May we all die in a nation closer to the one we imagined we might make when we were young. And may my daughter, and your daughters, and all daughters forevermore, be able to do what we could not.

Because we don’t need to just defeat this man — this incarnation of that greater force —  but all incarnations yet to come.

#FUCKYOUDONALDTRUMP

#YESALLMEN

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Handmade Nostalgia

*Major spoilers for the TV shows “Stranger Things” and “Mr. Robot.” So there you go!

It’s been very interesting to see the ways that television content is splintering into increasingly narrow shards. How the hell did Maria Bamford get a sitcom-style TV show, let alone one as delightfully not-giving-a-fuck as “Lady Dynamite?”

I guess it’s not surprising in this era of breaking from the monoculture, decreased reliance on traditional television metrics (like Nielsen ratings), and an increasing ability to cheaply produce professional-looking programming, that people are pretty much just doing whatever they want. And that’s amazing!

stranger-things-illustrated-poster

Stranger Things” is an 8-episode show on Netflix that is beyond indebted to its 80’s-era influences: Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Stephen King (to name some). It doesn’t so much use these influences as a point of departure as it reconstitutes them in collage form with only the lightest papering-over of modern and/or novel touches. It is simultaneously a loving tribute and faithful retelling.

I turned to my wife during an early episode and said, “this is like a designer drug for a very small market.” I loved it!

It’s a story you already know: In any-suburb, America, a group of misfit kids from dysfunctional families encounter an out-of-context threat. Someone has decidedly-80’s-style superpowers. The government cannot be trusted and is an active antagonist against the kids. There is a dark parallel world brushing up against ours.

But they do the details so well — the costuming, the set design, the era-specific props. Check out these opening credits, for example. I could literally listen to that synth-core theme on a loop for hours. There’s a moment, a small detail, where a couple of kids jump off their bikes and cast them aside outside the back door of one of the kids’ house. It is a perfectly representative moment, lovingly brought forth from cultural memory.

There are some subversions and modernizations from what would be typical from the source material. Nancy, the “good girl” teenager character, despite losing her best friend, is allowed to move through a harrowing journey that sees her becoming a self-sufficient badass, rather than a scold, a mess, or a victim. Joyce, who’s lost son is the major plot driver, is allowed to transition from the typical shrill, “worried-mom” character into someone that doesn’t need her shithead ex-husband to help her, someone that can’t be tricked by the government scientists, and someone that ultimately braves the “Upside-Down” to save her son. Even the dick-face popular beau gets to redeem himself. In fact, that might have been the strangest and most welcome subversion — watching the second-in-command jock douchebag assert the menace that someone that horrible would actually have, and scaring the lead-jock straight.

I guess the least modernized take would be what’s handed to the character of Eleven (“El”). They didn’t find a way to turn her E.T. into anything beyond what you might have expected from a movie produced in 1983: a completely uncomprehending blank slate when that was convenient to the plot, and a tuning fork for her closest companion’s feelings when that was convenient to the plot.

I have a couple of quibbles. There’s a portion midway through the series when the wonderfully dad-bodded Chief Hopper turns into Sir-Knockout-Punch that threatened to take me out of things. And though they obviously spent a lot of budget on licensing for era-specific music — which was awesome! — I wondered if they might have been better off using a set of contemporary songs instead, to give it a small sense of separation. This playlist, which Apple Music keeps serving me, would have delivered the same sense of nostalgia via new content that the show managed. Or they could have just used “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire, which won a Grammy some years ago for preemptively scoring this type of looking-back. When all of the houses they built in the 70’s finally fall, indeed!

But all in all, it’s almost better than the things it borrows from. It has all the advantages, both culturally and in terms of production, of being produced in 2016, and none of the disadvantages of being produced in 1983. That is a very specific and somehow laudable accomplishment.

***

mr-robot

Mr. Robot” is a USA TV series currently in its second season, set in present day NYC, that centers around a brilliant, if unstable, cybersecurity engineer who work for the interests of “Evil Corp.” by day, and is a man-of-the-people vigilante by night. And somewhere in the depths of his own mind, he is also the leader of a cyberterrorism group (F Society), bent on taking down the likes of Evil Corp.

I was so blown away by the pilot. It’s such a subversive show that I was caught off guard, thinking, “how is this on TV, on the same network that produces shows like ‘Chrisley Knows Best?’” I guess if the revolution is being televised, you have to wonder if it’s really the revolution, though. Somewhat ironically, in the time between its 2 seasons, with our nation’s descent into Trump-ian madness, the show’s sense of the zeitgeist went from disturbingly prescient to oddly quaint.

But! Mr. Robot also engages in an examination of nostalgia in a similar way to Stranger Things. From the very first episode, the allusions to Fight Club are very clear, particularly in the very large plot point of taking out the consumer credit bureaus. But there’s also a lot of 90’s-repurposed punk rock nihilism and Christian Slater in full “Pump Up the Volume” glory.

When they give us the very telegraphed reveal that “Mr. Robot” is a dissociative personality of Elliot’s, it’s while playing “Where is My Mind,” by The Pixies. This is both an acknowledgment of their derivation, and a “fuck you.” In other words, they want us to know that they consider it to be beside the point. And as Elliot says to us, a personality in his head — shocked — “You knew all along, didn’t you?” And we did.

I have to say that at that point in the show I was a little bummed. I had been beginning to wonder if the twist was going to be that none of what was happening with Elliot was as real as he imagined, and that he was somehow projecting the plots of 90’s movies — his childhood — onto his everyday life, as a coping mechanism. But I guess that isn’t a recipe for a multi-season show, is it?

***

But it’s interesting, to me, to consider that both shows exist at all, and the ways in which their being is inextricably tied to both the past’s popular culture, but also to specific regions within that popular culture. Is that now a style of TV show? Something that so actively engages with other stories?

There’s something odd about Stranger Things’ nostalgia for the comfort found within art that was itself a response to a very uncertain and fearful time, with the cold war looming, the 70’s hangover not quite faded, and the not-what-it-seems Reagan-era promise of a return to bygone values. What does that say about where we are now?

“Mr. Robot” doesn’t want to recreate its influences in the same way that “Stranger Things” does; it wants to comment on, and reconsider them. “Fight Club” ends with Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter holding each other’s hands, triumphant, as the credit bureau buildings collapse around them. At the end of the first season of “Mr. Robot,” they also succeed in wiping out peoples’ credit. But they let us experience the aftermath, too, and it seems clear that this doesn’t change anything. Or at the very least, that the future they wanted — whether they even knew what that was or not — wasn’t the one they were going to get.

“Stranger Things” really does just want to give you what you’ve had before and remind you why you loved it. In its best moments, it succeeded in the truly spectacular sleight of hand of recreating in me the sensation of seeing any of its influences for the first time.

The best example I can think of is this: It’s such a cliche to have the superpowers of a character be tied to their emotions, and for the use of those powers to take a physical toll on the person using them. And that was definitely one of the thin things about the character “El,” in this show.

But despite all of that — and how many times I’ve seen something just like that — through the prism of “Stranger Things” I wasn’t thinking about any of that at all. I was remembering being a kid, a kid like the kids on screen — playing D&D, wandering the world just hoping to find an adventure with my friends, and believing there must be something just beyond the all-too-thin membrane of my suburban surroundings. I remember wishing that the intensity of my emotions made me powerful.

“Mr. Robot” would tell you that that was always foolish — that it was never that simple — and maybe that’s right. But as silly as that sounds in the world I live in now, it also seems worth remembering that I felt that way.

 

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Check in

It’s been over a year since I wrote in this blog! That wasn’t intentional. But, we had a baby.

Having a baby is all the things everyone, everywhere has always said: profound, involving, exhausting, wonderful, etc. All of that is true, if somehow both better and worse than I would have imagined.

Another thing I hear a lot is that people feel this graceful slide into a secondary importance within their own life. That is also true, if very strange. I think for a lot of people this comes as a relief. Kind of how religion — and I mean no offense whatsoever — can serve to relieve the burden of your own self-importance.

I feel it — it’s happening. But it feels like a thing I need to accept, not a peaceful surrender. I’m not resentful; I’m so happy about my daughter. But I do feel a sense of mourning, somehow, at the transition.

I’ve always suffered for being too unfocused, and maybe even a dilettante. I used to think I had no time, that I couldn’t possible do everything I wanted to do.

I had all the time! I had so much time! The indolence! The fucking indolence!

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Smoke

I quit smoking a couple of months ago, after being a smoker for twenty years. At this point it seems pretty likely that I’ll stay quit. The physical withdrawal has passed, the habit has been (mostly) broken, and the balance has shifted heavily onto the side of not being willing to go through that again. I guess we’ll see.

It was super hard. I’ve tried to quit using the patch a couple of times in the past. Aside from the amazingly vivid dreams, I found it really annoying to use. Sometimes it made my skin burn and I’d agonize about whether I should just take it off or not before finally just taking it off. Sometimes it would feel like way too much nicotine and I’d be nauseous and clammy. Or, in some of the worst cases, I’d have terrible anxiety and become convinced that I was going to have a heart attack, until I took the patch off.

So I knew I had to quit cold turkey. I didn’t believe that nicotine replacement would work for me. Maybe it does for some people.

My dad told me it would happen in two’s: the first two days, the first two weeks, the first two months, the first two years. That seems about right. The first few days were awful and I basically just counted down the time until the days passed. I was mean to people. I have never felt so easily frustrated in my life.

My body felt terrible: constipation, trouble sleeping, and just general skin-crawling heeebie-jeebies. But the worst part was how out of control my emotions were — huge swells of sadness that I couldn’t figure out how to break.

After two weeks I felt more or less normal, except that I was far enough past the immediacy of quitting that I would forget that I wasn’t smoking. So, I would have some kind of minor frustration, or finish with something challenging, or get in my car, or eat a meal… And then I’d think, “great, now I can smoke.” Except I couldn’t! And that feeling, the realization that I didn’t have that activity anymore, was devastating. I think this might have been the hardest thing, in a way.

Two months in and it’s pretty OK. I still have that sinking feeling of “oh yeah” from time to time. The worst thing now seems to be how it’s affected my activities. Smoking served a really structural role in my daily life. When I was smoking, I could divide my time into two types of time: doing things and thinking about doing things. Smoking became the 5 minute thinking time that bridged doing things time.

For instance, if I were writing something, I would spend some portion of time writing, and then if I got stuck, I would go smoke to think about how I was stuck. Generally, the duration of a cigarette is enough time to come up with some ideas for most problems.

Or, if I was in a contentious situation, stepping away to smoke and think was often a good way to deescalate the situation and come back to it with the ability to compromise. I’m sure the actual ebb and flow of nicotine addiction helped in delineating these states, but anyway.

I feel really confused a lot, still, about how to organize my time. I’m having trouble allowing myself to do things that I know will be frustrating in any way. I feel lessened, somehow — less effective. Everyone I know has been very supportive of me quitting smoking, but there is an upper limit to this. Thirty days of bad behavior might be tolerable to someone, but six months, or a year, of slightly off behavior… That isn’t a momentary state — that’s enough time for you to alter the dynamics of a relationship. It’s long enough to be perceived as a different person.

I worry that I’m not as good at anything anymore, and then I tell myself that it will pass — that if it takes a year for that to change, that that’s OK. It just doesn’t feel OK.

I really do feel different, which is surprising, and not welcome, yet. Interestingly, I don’t really struggle with the idea that smoking will solve this problem. I’m just struggling with feeling this way.

So why did I quit? I think if you asked most smokers they would have no trouble finding reasons to quit. For me, it’s that my wife is pregnant (which is amazing!). Two years ago we were not expecting a child and we rented our home. If I had died suddenly, while I’m sure that would have been terrible for my wife, it wouldn’t have been financially catastrophic. Now, with the baby coming, and with owning a home, I need life insurance. You spend about twice as much for a life insurance policy if you’re a smoker. I needed roughly 30 days smoke-free to be 100% that I’d pass a blood test for nicotine.

It’s funny that that’s what did it — that a relatively small psychological hurdle could get me to actually quit. It’s not like I’m even particularly frugal — I wasted money everyday on cigarettes for two decades.

But I don’t think that’s the interesting question. I think the interesting question is “why didn’t I quit before this?” Why did I smoke for so long?

Smoking kills people. People who smoke live shorter lives. Smoking smells disgusting. For any non-smoker, the smell of cigarettes on a person is completely off-putting — in other words: it’s anti-social. Smoking in public is against the law in the city I live in. Smoking has become taboo, effectively, especially in the Bay Area.

As I’ve gotten older, smoking has felt more and more like some kind of stubborn holdout behavior, like people who still have a paper delivered.

So what’s the existential problem I’m feeling? Is it that the version of myself that didn’t care enough about his own life to quit smoking has been slowly overwritten by a different person? A new person that’s a homeowner and a future parent, and who cares about the shame of being anti-social and outside of current social mores?

A cigarette can be an act of rebellion, I guess, if you think it’s the only thing distinguishing you from people that look and seem a lot like you. A destructive relationship can be the place you feel most comfortable, if you’ve been there long enough.

I feel really embarrassed by how attached I am to a juvenile worldview; I feel a huge sense of loss at the same time. And now I have to find some new way to feel better about that, and I guess I can’t just say “fuck it.”

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Yay!

A story of mine that was accepted in 2012 was finally published this past week. This is my first fiction sale, so obviously this is a pretty big deal for me.

But sure, the amount of time between acceptance and publication has definitely smoothed out my excitement. If I’m even a tiny bit honest about it, I definitely thought I would sell another story (or more!) over the last three years.

I feel like it might sound like I’m making a back-handed comment about the time it took, and that I’m somehow unhappy with how long it took — not at all. I have no idea what it takes to publish short fiction. It seems like the kind of thing that (maybe) happens all the time, to writers. I really don’t know. I am delighted that someone wanted my story at all.

I made up something, wrote it down, sent it to some people, and one of those people decided to buy it from me so they could sell it to other people. That couldn’t be more amazing to me. Who knows to what extent, or why, the story moved this editor, but I’m so proud that it happened at all.

That’s likely why I believed I would sell something else since that acceptance — because I then believed my writing had the potential to be purchased. Because of this publisher. And for that, I will always be very grateful.

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Gilmore Girls

My wife and I just finished watching Gilmore Girls in its entirety. We watched it a little out of order — seasons 4-7 first, and then we came back through seasons 1-3. I kind of tuned out at some point in season 7, so I watched the last episode of the series right after the last episode of season 3.

Anyway, the show’s great. Love it.

The show is basically a single mother (Lorelai Gilmore) raising her teen daughter (Rory) through high school and later through college. Lorelai had Rory when she was sixteen, so the conceit of the show (I guess) is that the slim age gap means that they’re effectively best friends, and since Rory is such a high-achiever, the parent/child role is often passed back and forth between them.

The dramas are all interpersonal, and frankly fairly low-stakes, considering that setup. The appeal of the show is really the characters and their interrelationships. Every main character has some shading to them, so you never really think they’re bad people. Timing is a huge element of the story overall, and I think the show is very fair to even its most thinly-drawn characters, even when time and circumstances put them at odds with each other. Even Kirk, the town weirdo, ends up getting the girl. Rory’s dad, who left Lorelai to raise Rory on her own at the age of sixteen, and who pops in periodically to fuck things up, even ends up being at least understandable. He’s weak, but you still love him, because you get it. That’s just Chris being Chris! He’s Rory’s dad!

It all takes place in the American fantasy of small town life that is the town of Stars Hollow. It’s always either East Coast turning-leaves autumn, or a winter wonderland, or even bright, sunny spring. You never see litter in the town square, or graffiti on the expertly-maintained buildings. Everyone attends town meetings to discuss their officious (but ultimately benevolent) town Selectman’s (Taylor) ridiculous schemes for drumming up tourism, or trumpeting some anniversary of a little-remembered revolutionary war event. With the exception of humorous disagreements, people are happy and have the money they need. Everyone in Stars Hollow has time to meet for lunch, or breakfast, or at whatever town festival, or … All of that.

Weirdest of all, maybe, is that the entire town treats Lorelai and Rory like their own daughters, effectively. They all want to make sure Rory gets into Harvard! When Lorelai and Luke (the whole-series-long love interest/intrigue for Lorelai) breakup, the whole town takes sides. At times it feels like some kind of Truman Show-esque experiment.

This is a weird element of the show’s tone. Lorelai fled her overbearing blue-blood parents and landed in Stars Hollow, working as a maid at the hotel that she would be running by the time of the show’s first episode. The town of Stars Hollow and its residents really did serve as Lorelai’s parents, in a sense — but you don’t really feel that. You can’t really believe that the Lorelai you meet could have ever been a maid.

Since you never really feel the pain of what that must have been like for Lorelai, it seems odd that they feel that way. That must have been crazy hard for her! But Lorelai is 1000% confident. Everyone in town looks up to her and she’s always three steps ahead of them all, usually to very funny effect. So, you know, it seems weird sometimes. I guess a version of the show with a more realistic feel around all of that would be completely different. Probably less fun, maybe more like a Friday Night Lights, or something.

Likely the biggest appeal for most viewers — and me among them — is the motor-mouth dialog between the smarty-pants Gilmore’s and everyone they come in contact with. The show has this heightened dialog that wedges the perfect comeback, quip, and topical reference into every sentence, and it’s all delivered at rapid-fire pace. The rhythms of the dialog are great — really fun.

I don’t know if Lauren Graham (Lorelai) is a great actor, or if she’s just incredibly charming and playing some heightened version of herself. She’s certainly great in this show. Melissa McCarthy, who plays Lorelai’s best friend Sookie on the show, is the bigger star of the two nowadays, after her role in Bridesmaids (among others). But Graham fully overshadows her in this show, and it’s not like Sookie just isn’t given anything to do — everyone on the show is talking in the same comedic language — but Graham is the only one for whom it seems like her native tongue.

Rory (Alexis Bledel) does fine with her role, but I never feel like she’s that great. But… The character of Rory is a very strange character… Rory is basically Superwoman: she’s the valedictorian of her high school class; she gets accepted to Yale, Harvard, and Princeton; everyone loves her, but on the rare occasion that someone doesn’t, she totally takes care of business anyway, and never assigns those feelings to herself; and she always — always! — makes time for whoever needs it. Even though Rory has the pressure of redeeming her mother’s life choices, comes from a broken home, lives in a town where every citizen projects their hopes and dreams onto her… Even with all of that, she never crumbles. Ever. She doesn’t start self-sabotaging, she doesn’t get short with people, and she doesn’t get depressed… That shouldn’t be an interesting character, but it is. I don’t know how much of that is the writers, Alexis Bledel’s performance, or a testament to how much you want Lorelai to have a daughter that amazing, since that validates everything about Lorelai’s choices. There’s a nice message there: that love, laughter, and believing in yourself will get you all the success you want. I think that probably works a little better as a parent’s fantasy than as achievable life advice — there’s no mistaking that this is Lorelai’s show, not Rory’s.

The show’s also interesting as a time capsule from a not-at-all distant time (the show ran from 2000-2007). Watching the changing cell phone technology (they have pagers in the first couple seasons!) is funny, the clothes, etc. It’s hard to believe 2000 is fifteen years ago, I guess.

But the more interesting time capsule element, to me, is the differently-represented America you can see in a relatively recently ended show. For instance, I think this show was probably considered extremely liberal for its time, but it’s a very white show. Well, Lane and her family are Asian, but… There are always people of color moving around in the background of the show, or extras in crowd scenes. But you don’t really hear from them. This seems like 2005’s version of working hard at representation, not 2015’s. Or am I giving 2015 too much credit?

That, and there’s tons of gay jokes in it. Lorelai in particular seems to hit that note really hard. Was the Michel character gay, or…? Seems like there might be an openly gay character on the show if it was starting up today. I can’t imagine 2015’s version of Lorelai would make those jokes, at least.

(OH MY GOD this blog is insanely long and I still feel like I have tons to say about this show. Warning: watch with plenty of Kleenex on hand. Bye.)

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Sports!

I haven’t watched a baseball game start-to-finish for maybe ten or more years. It’s a wonderful game to play — the big, wide openness of the field; the brightness of summer skies and the anxiousness of sitting in a dugout, on dirty, etched benches, with spit and sunflower seeds underneath your feet; the quietude between the bursts of activity; the unnaturally vibrant green of the grass and the silty recently-dampened dirt; the snap of a ball in your glove, that hurts, but only a little. Blah blah and other rhapsodic things of youth and will and all that.

But it’s a really boring game to watch. Really boring.

Apparently the San Francisco Giants have won the World Series twice in the last few years (2010 and 2012). I was busy — I missed it. Again, baseball is boring. But I always like the way a winning team can work its way through a community. People are happier, more unified. SF doesn’t always feel like a very unified place.

This year the Giants and the Oakland A’s were “wildcard” teams — both playing a single-elimination game to determine whether they’d go to the playoffs. For no particular reason, I watched the Giants play their elimination game. What I saw was Madison Bumgarner pitch a 4-hit complete game shutout that left no doubt that the Giants were going to roll away with that game.

Bumgarner is a long-haired, bearded 25-year-old North Carolina beanpole with sloped shoulders and sleepy eyes. He looks and sounds like he needs to hurry up and finish the game so he can rush home, sneak back into his bed, and get his rest before getting up before dawn to spend the next day baling hay for his tough-love father. Outside of that, I couldn’t stop thinking about how poised and calm he was on the mound. Totally in control. And that’s a thing that happens — dudes throw great games. He’s a professional athlete. It’s a thing that happens.

After the game, I listened to some of the players do their post game interviews — which are always entertaining for their non-controversial platitudes and the way players seems to want to bland their way away from reporters. But I was really struck by how blithely confident the players were. “Just a game, we’ll start preparing for the next one.” (etc.) I thought, Well, they’ve won a couple World Series, right? They probably are confident. But, if they were really any good, they wouldn’t be playing a wildcard game to get in the playoffs. They’ll probably just roll over in the next series. Right?

And then I tuned out again. Over the next couple weeks, I watched that regional excitement swell — people that never really seem interested in sports talking about it constantly. “Where are you watching the game tonight?” or, “Let’s talk later, the game’s on soon.”

I had to work on Saturday, but the guys I was working with had to watch the Giants World Series game (game 4 of the best-of-seven series, played in San Francisco). The Giants won and everyone was happy. I was home on Sunday, exhausted, nothing on TV, so I turned on the game that day — game 5, also in SF. And there was Bumgarner. Apparently he was on a roll since the wildcard game and had won the most valuable player award for the last playoff series. He had won game 1 of the World Series.

So I watched him, still that oversized NC kid, still poised, with an otherworldly calm. He threw another 4-hit shutout game. Dominant, totally relaxed. Accurate and in control.

I think I wanted to watch him fail. That’s the thing about sports. To its fans, sports are an arena for excellence. It’s aspirational to watch that excellence happen, so they say. At any time, you might see something incredible — life itself, in all its mundanity, might actually, momentarily, prove to be excellent instead.

But games mostly aren’t excellent, and they’re so often anything other than incredible. Which isn’t even to say anything about the more complicated social components of sports and its culture. It just isn’t often very incredible. It’s often just some guys, perhaps people that you may or may not want to impact the culture at large, given maybe a disproportionate platform with which to do so, just doing some stuff that rarely follows any kind of satisfying script.

Bumgarner kept pushing his way into that script, though. After his masterful game 5 win, the Giants only needed to win one of the two remaining games, even though it would be back in Kansas City, in the opposing team’s home arena. The narrative became, “will he pitch again in game 7, if it comes to that?” Because Major League pitchers don’t pitch that often — only every 5 games. It would be a stretch for him to pitch again so soon, even at the end of the season. It wasn’t just that it would be weird, it’s that it would be assumed that he wouldn’t be very good. Pitchers need rest, etc.

I didn’t watch game 6, but the Giants got blown out — 10-to-nothing. The game wasn’t in doubt after the second inning.

It was game 7 coming up — only one more game. Whoever won would win the whole thing, and then it would be over. Would Bumgarner pitch again?

That’s the script: He would pitch, they would win. He would be tired, sore, wobbly from the long season — but he was unstoppable, unbeatable, an ubermensch of the highest order. He would lead them to impossible, last-second victory, and mankind would be capable of great things.

The other reason I wanted him to fail was that I kept expecting him to. I know baseball pretty well. Bumgarner is good — he has “good stuff,” as it’s said. But he doesn’t have dominating, intimidating “stuff.” He just has good stuff. Whenever I watched him, he got hit — hard. The whole goal of pitching is to make people miss. He just threw strikes — an unusual amount of strikes. He wasn’t trying to make people miss, he was daring people to hit him. I’ve seen pitchers do that before, but they usually have extraordinary “stuff.” And even those extraordinary pitchers sometimes fail spectacularly.

He didn’t seem to care about that. He seemed utterly focused and unafraid. He believed in himself and his team, and he showed up, focused through all the quiet moments, and the preparation, and the lights, and reporters, and fans, and all of those distractions — and just did the simple thing, that he’d practiced thousands and thousands of times — he threw the ball straight at a glove, sixty feet away, slightly downhill.

Even though he got hit hard, the ball always found its way to his teammates’ gloves, or they made great plays, or guys missed hittable pitches. It was the perfect combination of great play around a pitcher just throwing great pitches. It seemed like it could fall apart at any moment. As soon as some of those hard-hit balls started falling into uncatchable places, that sync would splinter, and then the whole thing would collapse. Once it collapsed, I could stop paying attention again. And through the 5th game of the World Series, the walls just kept holding. But at any moment, Bumgarner’s unnatural cool and confidence would be shattered.

In time, everything is destroyed. But sometimes, if something lasts long enough, you wonder…

Game 7, the Giants up 3-to-2. Bumgarner hadn’t entered the game. That’s normal. We wouldn’t be following the script, we’d be following reality — the boring reality of so many professional sports games. And then they put Bumgarner in.

He went on to keep pitching strikes, guys kept catching balls in play, and five shutout innings later, Bumgarner had forced himself into some grand narrative again.

It was amazing to watch. He built up the tension and then held it together, gloriously — for weeks. And maybe all those incredible things that people say live within the lines of these games were real. Maybe excellence was real, and demonstrable. I had just seen it.

The outstandingly named Buster Posey, a former most valuable player, and the guy catching the ball when Bumgarner pitches, didn’t play very well in the series. During the post game interviews, Buster was in tears, overcome by Bumgarner’s performance. In the slow-mo replay of the last out of the game, when it was clear to Posey that the ball would be caught, he turned to Bumgarner and smiled hugely, slowly walking up to the mound. Bumgarner didn’t look away from the ball until it was secure in Pablo Sandoval’s glove. And then he turned to Posey and they embraced. In that moment, Bumgarner was the emotional epicenter of his entire team. They had trusted him and he had improbably delivered.

After the game, Bumgarner drawled to the reporters, “I’m tired.” I don’t believe him. I think he felt like he could crush a rock in his hands.

And a little while after, I thought about him — just twenty-five, too young to have felt his body start to betray him. He’s been on three World Series championship teams in his first five seasons. He just pitched at a level that almost no other people have — in a sport that’s been fastidiously tracked for over a hundred years. He’s an all-timer, and he’s only twenty-five.

What will he ever do in his life that comes close to bringing him into the surreal harmony that he just experienced? He might have a great, long career, free of injury, retiring on his own terms. But it would be impossible for him to achieve that high again, right? Will he go to sleep tonight knowing that he will never again be what he once was? Will he live and die unable to stop believing in an inevitable moment of transcendence that never comes? Will he be haunted by himself? I really hope not.

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Not of Symbolic Significance

In works of narrative fiction, transitions might have symbolic markers. Probably not so much in real life. So, after being very busy for several months, I’m trying not to ascribe any special meaning to waking up this week with a burst blood vessel in my eye.

My writing life has really taken a backseat lately, which is a bummer. I’ve been active in submitting completed stories, and I’ve written some new stuff so I meet the baseline requirement to keep showing up at my writing group, but I haven’t revised anything at all, really. And I’m not working on any of the things that I think are probably the things I have the most tangled and angsty motivations to work on. Those are the things that I know will draw me into the real writing places, and I know without even thinking about it that I’m not able to be there now.

I feel like I’ve made some progress on the short story submission front. Most of my rejections lately have been encouraging. Lots of “this is good but I don’t want it.” An editor doesn’t have to say anything at all, so if they do, I take it as encouragement. Very mild encouragement, but still. I guess I feel like maybe I’m at least writing at a level of clarity that an editor has a choice to make. That isn’t nothing.

But the difference between not-nothing and something is significant. I’ve been thinking about that lately. The universality of narrative, and the way that resonates with literally everyone, everywhere — be it in reading the difficult reading, or in watching the easiest of easy — means that everyone understands the shape and purpose of these things. It’s the framework with which we understand our lives.

To go from that awareness to being able to mimic and deliver something story-shaped is just a matter of work and practice and discipline. It just takes doing.

To be inventive and to hold a point of view, to create and innovate, or to be critical in new and interesting ways… That probably takes being.

So I wonder how much a person that is so busy being something else — so busy and focused elsewhere that they might even believe that their body is physically responding to the pressure of all of those things… How much can that person be a writer?

A hobby, or a craft, is something that a person can pick up and put down whenever they want. They might even become very good at it. But it is by definition something other than their mastery. A hobbyist isn’t an artist. Where is that line within us?

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