I Know What I Said

One of the implicit rules I set for myself with this space is that I avoid cursing as part of my discursive style.  Though I don’t shy away from making use of my full vocabulary where I think it’s appropriate (I wonder sometimes if I should be more careful using flashy words like “discursive”), I’ve made a conscious choice to avoid using language to which some readers might be sensitive.  I also try to avoid using language that’s outside the norm of conversation in a setting where young children are present.  That’s my educator’s training coming through; I instinctively curb my own language when I realize that children may be around.  Part of this instinct is built on the understanding that some kinds of language aren’t appropriate for a formal education setting, and part of it is deference to social stigmas.  All of it is a recognition that different rhetorical modes are appropriate for different circumstances.

Contrasting with the voice I use here, I’m much more informal on my other social media.  Facebook (when I bother to use it anymore) is a place where I choose to be more conversational.  I’m more inclined to leave off self-referential subjects in my writing, and when I offer an opinion I try to minimize the use of loaded language to communicate personal emotions.  This creates a space where moments of heightened emotion come through extra clear to my audience (the go-to example at this point is my stint of very angry posts in the weeks following the presidential election; my emotions were running high, and I wanted people to know that so I was less measured in what I wrote).  On Twitter, my voice is even less formal than Facebook.  Part of this is because of the length restriction on Twitter, and part is because the audience I have on Twitter is built around communicating with adults with similar interests whom I don’t necessarily know from family, school, or work.  This is the online space most similar to my real life social group, and that makes it the space where I feel most comfortable writing in a way that reflects my mode of expression when I’m among like-minded peers.

In these other spaces I make use of my full vocabulary; that includes all the curse words that I know.  I typically use curses for emphasis, to convey especially strong negative emotions, or for humorous effect.  They never come out of nowhere, and they’re always employed with an eye towards producing a specific rhetorical effect.  I’m not a perfect communicator, so I’m sure that I fail to produce the effect I’m aiming for some percentage of the time, but that doesn’t change the fact that I pick my language for different situations with deliberation.  When I curse in conversation, it has a purpose; it’s never a failure to find better words.

In my last job at the special education school, I worked with a lot of students who made frequent use of profanity.  This was to be expected because the population was comprised of children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders; they often couldn’t process their feelings or manage their behaviors in ways that are socially appropriate.  These kinds of disabilities are frustrating and often feel restrictive (the mark of a student with any kind of EBD is usually a sense of genuine remorse for their actions following an episode because they know their behavior isn’t appropriate, but they haven’t learned how to better manage the impulses), and when people feel frustrated they look for ways to express that frustration.  While being constantly exposed to students cursing was dismaying at first, I grew accustomed to it and gradually developed a less judgmental view of their language choices.

The thing that I realized with my students was that for most of them, the major struggle was expressing negative emotions appropriately.  They generally would feel all emotions more intensely, but negative emotions were the most difficult to manage because we don’t have a lot of socially acceptable ways to express negative emotions.  Much of our everyday interactions with people are built around hiding when we feel sad or angry because these are difficult emotions to process and part of the social contract involves not burdening other people with your own problems.  Most of us are socialized to be averse to the idea of asking others to perform emotional labor through shared experience of personal hardships.  For my students, their disabilities made the fact of this social dynamic especially difficult, since it carries with it the added implication that experiencing negative emotions is bad.  For a child with a disability that prevents them from properly socializing, this extra stigma is tough, and it can create feelings of resentment.  I can’t express my feelings in a way that you like, so I’m going to just try to express them however I can.  Cursing, for someone who feels powerless, becomes a way to exert control because it forces other people who’ve been socialized to avoid that behavior to confront it and give the person speaking attention.  It’s unpleasant for most of us, it’s jarring when we aren’t exposed to it regularly, and it makes us uncomfortable.

That’s not a bad thing though.

The philosophy I’ve adopted with regard to cursing in my students now is a much less restrictive one.  School policy demands that students follow established guidelines for appropriate behavior; if a student curses in my earshot I have to correct them.  My correction, however, doesn’t have to be a moment of shaming the student for breaching the social contract.  I can take the opportunity to remind them that in the specific setting where they are (in a classroom, in the presence of adults), they should avoid cursing, but I don’t put a blanket ban on the practice.  It’s a part of the full range of human expression, and as long as it’s not being used in ways that directly denigrate or dehumanize another person, it’s a fair part of the language toolbox.

While we’re on that subject, let’s talk briefly about what I mean when I say “denigrate or dehumanize another person.”  I’m cool with people using whatever colorful curses they like, but I take issue with any kind of slur that’s built around an inherent part of a person’s identity.  Racial slurs, words preserved exclusively for insulting women, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist language are right out (avoiding ableist language is the hardest one for me personally, mostly because it’s a part of language that is largely invisible to most able-bodied people).  I’m not saying these kinds of words are off limits to people who belong to targeted groups (there’s a rich conversation to be had surrounding the reclamation of hurtful words), but as a straight, white, able-bodied, cisgender man I don’t have any legitimate claim to those words.

The irony of these words that I don’t allow myself to use is that they run the gamut from words that are treated as curses to denotatively benign words.  Some of the words that I don’t say also happen to be words everyone acknowledges are socially unacceptable.  These words tend to get lumped in with other curses that are socially taboo, but which carry non-derogatory meanings.  Folks who object to cursing altogether don’t see any difference between one kind of language and another, which leads to shaming the use of certain words for the wrong reasons.  It’s this logic that leads some white people to be offended at the utterance of the n-word without being equally alarmed by a white person calling a Black man, “boy.”  You shouldn’t do either because of the social history of the words themselves and their context, but the former example is also taboo because the n-word is acknowledged by white people to be impolite; people who put a blanket ban on cursing are often guilty of shaming one while overlooking the other irrespective of shared connotations of disrespect for a person based on the color of their skin.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here in my roundabout way is that the use of curse words is not a marker of intellectual or moral deficiency.  It’s, at worst, a marker of a person disregarding social norms.  Given that basic understanding, the thing to ask the next time you hear someone curse in your presence is why they are choosing to break social norms.  Interrogate that communication decision instead of making a classist assumption that they are acting in a way that is uneducated or that they lack a moral center.

That’s just rude.

My 2016 in Review

Well, that was a digression.

Setting aside all the stuff about the imagined malice of the year and the actual malice of people who are scared of their fading grasp on the world, I should offer some reflections on the year as it relates to my personal life.  The list of major events in my private life this year is a short one.  I left my job at the special education school where I worked for five years and began a new one at a regular high school.  My grandmother died.  I had a fight with my parents over taking some time to lick my wounds after the election, and then we reconciled.  It’s a mixed bag.  On the balance, I think that I’ve spent more days feeling generally happier this year thanks in large part to my new job.  At the same time, I’ve also had some extended periods where I think I was coping with low-level depression (summer was a particular low point; the combination of processing grief while being on an extended break from work is a potent one, especially when I filled so much of my time with news of the wider world’s troubles).  If my world were small enough to only encompass my friends and family, then I’d say that 2016 was not the worst year I’ve ever had.  The problem is that 2016 is also the year where so many white liberals like myself were also forced to confront just how fragile our carefully cultivated view of the world is.  To remain innocent is to remain ignorant, and there comes a point where you have to accept that trying to hold on to innocence for yourself is an act of violence towards people who need you to see their suffering.  That’s probably the big lesson I’ve learned from this year.

On the blog, things have been generally good.  At the time of this writing, these are my top five most viewed posts of the year:

  • “On the Collective Personification of a Year and the Devil in Our Current Politics” – So, this post apparently struck a nerve, because in the weekend since I posted it, it’s become my most viewed post for the year.  It’s been really nice to see the immediate response; I didn’t really think that I was hitting on anything that novel in my analysis, but I’ve seen at least a couple people note that they hadn’t considered fear of mortality as a motivating factor in the behavior of older voters this election cycle.  That’s been an idea that has floated around in my head for a couple years, so I figured it was old news.
  • “Is Final Fantasy Anti-Religion?” – I keep getting hits on this old post from 2014, which is great (I do love getting traffic), but it feels like a throwback to a time when I was deeply concerned with different things.  I don’t especially care anymore whether Final Fantasy is anti-religion; it’s a series that holds a significant place in my childhood, but as I get older I see it more and more as a series that refuses to grow up with me.
  • Gilmore Girls is Terrible to Lane” – This one isn’t a huge surprise to me.  Gilmore Girls has been in the zeitgeist this year with the revival on Netflix coming out.  Lane’s a character that I think a lot of fans really love, and it’s frustrating to see that the writers on the show consistently under served her.  I wanted better for her in the revival too, but she didn’t really get it.
  • “This is Not a Deconversion Story” – This guest post by my wife Rachael pulled a lot of traffic early in the year.  We had these grand plans to develop a series about exploring different religious traditions outside white evangelical Christianity, but we never could follow through; there was too much other stuff that makes up a life getting in the way.  Maybe someday we’ll return to this idea.  If not, that’s okay too.
  • “Religion in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII – Folks apparently really want to explore the religious themes of the Final Fantasy series, which I figure is the reason this post from summer of 2015 was one of my top posts this year.
  • Honorable Mention: Hamilton and Literary Terms”– [This post was originally in my top five when I first drafted my year-end reflection, but then I had a traffic explosion, so now it’s out.  I’m keeping it on the list though, because it entertains me.]  2016 happened to be the year that I discovered Hamilton: An American Musical.  I still haven’t seen it, but I’ve listened to the soundtrack endlessly, and one of the small projects I did back at the beginning of the school year was to think of some examples of lyrics from the musical that can stand in as examples of a small number of literary terms.  People love Hamilton, so there you go.  I hope my obsessive memorization of song lyrics aids teachers and students alike who just need to know what sound devices you can find in Thomas Jefferson’s verse about Hamilton being Washington’s favorite.

A fun side activity to look at as well is the variety of search terms that brought folks to my blog this year.  To those people who ended up on my little feminist blog looking for how to draw erotic superheroines, teenage girl simulators, and Nagate/gauna fanfic sex, sorry?  I mean, I get that you had to have been disappointed that you went looking for porn and ended up on a page with nothing but commentary about how terrible various depictions of women and intersex persons are.  Probably you just clicked away after you realized this was not what you wanted, but I hope you spent a moment reading my thoughts, and that you went away a little more enlightened in your quest for self love.  To all the people who searched for some version of Final Fantasy being either pro- or anti-religion (and that one special person who searched “final fantasy is anti christ”), I guess I have to say congratulations?  Those are, in fact, things that I discussed in this space in the past; thanks to you, it continues to be my most viewed topic.  To all the folks who continuously land here after searching for ideas on some catchy title to go with a particular topic, I offer my sincerest apologies.  I’m no good with titles either (you probably already figured that out though).  I want to give a special shoutout to the person who searched “catchy message titles for ten commandments”; I don’t know what post you landed on, but I suspect it was very far from what you wanted.

In terms of overall traffic, I’m closing out the year with nearly a thousand more total views than I had at the end of 2015.  My blog’s a low-traffic affair, so this difference comes mostly from a couple of special events that happened this year, including “This is not a Deconversion Story” and its follow-up posts, the death of Jack Chick (which precipitated a bit of renewed interest in my old posts discussing the theology of various Chick tracts), and now the first part of my 2016 reflection (many thanks to Rachael for boosting that one).  I often find myself playing the game of wondering what my traffic would look like without these unique events, but I suppose that falls into speculation about things that didn’t come to pass, and, well, that’s not a terribly productive use of time, is it?

Outside the blog, I’ve begun branching out and trying to build more of a presence on Twitter.  It’s hard; I still don’t fully understand the platform’s etiquette, and I’m regularly intimidated by the prospect of tweeting at folks who don’t know me.  We’ll see how I can improve on that in the coming year (as I’m writing this, my phone is blowing up with new Twitter follows; thanks again, Rachael).

And that’s my year in a nutshell.  How was everyone else’s?

I Need to Recalibrate

In no particular order, here are the things I’ve been doing with my time in the last few weeks:

  • Playing down my backlog of games.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed a couple of indie titles, and I’m finding myself feeling highly averse to games that a year ago I would have been aching to jump into, like The Walking Dead: Michonne and the complete edition of Dragon Age: Inquisition.  My lack of enthusiasm for the former is a combination of just being too smitten with the mechanics of Life is Strange to feel like Michonne will feel like an equally satisfying experience and being reluctant to jump into more violent narratives; my lack of enthusiasm for the latter is entirely because I’ve played through the main story once before, and I know what a time sink that will be before I even get into the material I haven’t played yet.
  • Reading the news voraciously.  I know that I become a news junkie during presidential election seasons, and with the surprise election of that man I’m finding myself even more drawn to keeping up to date with what’s happening.  I don’t think I can overstate how anxious I feel whenever I think about national politics, and it’s become the thing I devote most of my free time to following.
  • Sharing what I read on Facebook.  Because I’m so introverted and because my interests run towards subjects that are so emotionally charged, I often don’t have access to social outlets offline.  I get really anxious discussing politics or religion in person, especially when I suspect the other person doesn’t share my perspective (I often default to assuming that not sharing my perspective is the same as being hostile; I know this isn’t necessarily true, but anxiety doesn’t operate in a totally rational way either).  Sharing is a way for me to get those thoughts out in a situation that feels much more low pressure to me.
  • Calling my Congressional representatives on the regular to urge them to take action to oppose that man’s administration.  This is the one concrete thing I’ve found that feels like real resistance.  I want to do more.  I need to do more.
  • Writing for my blog.  This one’s a struggle.  I take pride in keeping my posting schedule, but so many nights it just feels like too much to pull myself together enough to write about any one thing for a thousand words.  I’ve been doing this for over three years, and it’s tough sometimes.  Even while I’m sitting here writing, I feel a constant urge to go check social media or see what news has cropped up in the last half hour.

Since the election, I feel like I’ve been in a pretty constant fight or flight mode.  The initial shock has worn off (I’ve not felt like crying since the end of that first week), but there’s a low-level buzz always in the back of my mind saying over and over, This is not right.  It’s exhausting to listen to it, but it also feels like shutting it down would be a betrayal.  I know that I have cultural protections in place that ensure my life will only be minimally impacted by the policies that are going to be pushed for the next four years.  I’ll be fine, insofar as there isn’t a massively disruptive international incident (I still feel like that’s a big if, but I’m trying to manage my feelings).  I more fear that my friends who don’t belong to protected groups will be hurt.  This is the biggest source of my current anxiety, and I’m not sure how else to express it.  I’ve spent weeks loudly decrying everything going on with the incoming administration that sets off alarm bells; multiple people who don’t agree with my politics have said to me to stop being so panicked, to stop being divisive, that it won’t be as bad as I think, to try moderation to accomplish something, and all I want to say each time is I can’t stop being afraid for my friends; why do you not understand this?

It’s been a rough few weeks in a lot of ways.

I’m trying to figure out how I move into a space where I’m acting as a good ally, and it feels like I’m failing miserably.  Besides calling representatives, I’ve had multiple moments where I’ve had to wonder if there’s anything actually being accomplished by all my reading and sharing and discussing on social media.  It’s straining relationships with people who disagree with me, and I don’t think it’s actually doing any good for the people that I want to help.  In my most reflective moments, it feels like a lot of performance with no positive impact.

As I’m writing this post I’ve decided to take a break from regular Facebook use.  I spent a day just ignoring the social media platform after I realized that I was still obsessing over it when I was supposed to be getting ready to go to bed.  That was only a brief hiatus, but I’ve resolved that I really need to rethink how I’m approaching social media in general.  I can’t shut it off completely, but it doesn’t need to be the centerpiece of my activities outside of work.

Of course, that means I need to figure out what to do with all that extra time.  I estimate that at least and hour and a half of my evenings have been spent reading and sharing news through Facebook; if I’m going to cut that down or try to eliminate it completely, I need to find something else to do with that time.  I want it to be spent productively.  I don’t know how to go about making that time productive.  This is the sort of thing that I know I need to figure out on my own.  I’m motivated, so I should invest my own energy into educating myself.

Part of the rationale behind all this reflection comes from this article that I came across the other day.  It discusses the psychological impact of being constantly exposed to traumatic events elsewhere in the world via social media, and the conclusion that it comes to is that for most people, the emotional cost of being exposed to these events is indistinguishable from actual trauma in their lives; you read too much depressing news, and it instills a sense of hopelessness that discourages you from trying to do anything to change the conditions that lead to the negative event.  It’s been on my mind a lot for the last few days, and I think on a personal level it relates largely to how I’ve been engaging with social media.

So, I’m going to try to change up my habits.  We’ll see how that goes.

Memories of My First Funeral

A couple weeks ago my students wrapped up reading The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.  One of the culminating assignments we gave them required that they plan and write a vignette in a style similar to what Cisneros does in her book about a memory they have from their lives.  I thought this was a pretty cool assignment, though a lot of students expressed having difficulty coming up with a memory that they wanted to write about and also actually planning the memory out.

One of the most important parts of teaching students how to do new things is effectively modeling those things for them (it’s really hard to do a thing you’ve never done before, especially if you’ve never seen it done).  It was a fun exercise; since I did it for class I’ve tried using the same pre-writing strategy to put together a piece of flash fiction I recently wrote (if you want to read it, you’ll just have to head over to the Escape Artist Forums and register an account; I can’t tell you which one is mine, but it’s somewhere in the batch of submissions for Cast of Wonders‘s flash fiction contest that’s going on for much of this month).

I think my sample turned out pretty well, so I figured I’d save it and share it here.  As you might have gathered from the title of this post, it’s a sad memory, but it’s a vivid one for me (I worried for a few days after I showed it to my classes that I unduly influenced them all to write about the passing of parents and grandparents).

________

I wake early, ready to go to school.  Backpack full, shoes tied, breakfast eaten.  In the kitchen Mom sits me down at the table before we leave.

“Your Nana’s having surgery today,” she says.

I don’t really understand, so I nod and say, “Okay.”

After school I stay at my cousin’s house for a while.  My homework is to design a secret code that I can use to write messages that only I can read.  I stay at my cousin’s house longer than normal, and she and I talk about what might be going on.  We discuss Nana’s surgery, and we wonder if something has gone wrong.

As the sun sets my aunt takes us over to my Nana’s house down the street.  When we get there, all the grown ups are sitting on the front porch, and they’re really quiet.  My mom sits by the door.  Her eyes are wet.

“Nana’s gone to live with Jesus,” she says.

I know dying means going to sleep and not waking up.  She doesn’t have to sugarcoat it.  My eyes bunch up, start leaking.  There’s a stone weight in my stomach that drags me down into Mom’s lap, and I cry.  It feels like I cry for hours, but it’s probably only a few minutes.  At some point she moves me into the living room, settles me in my Nana’s recliner.  Balled up, trying to shut out the world, I feel the rough fabric against my arms and smell her cinnamon candies in my snotty nose.

Ragged, worn, like I’m part of the fabric of the chair, I feel like I could sleep forever.

At the viewing I can’t help being fascinated with the casket.  It’s white with pink roses, and my Nana lies in it.  She doesn’t look right, too dark in the white suit Mom’s picked out for her.  I can’t help crying every time I come close to see her.  Mom keeps ushering me away, and I keep going back.  The last time, I work up the courage to touch her hands.  They feel like parchment, and I worry I might break them.

I don’t remember any of the funeral.  At the graveside, Mom collects a rose from the casket–she’ll do this at every funeral that follows this one–and together we walk back to the car.  She opens the door for me to get in, and I turn and see that they’ve started lowering the casket into the ground.  I point this out, and my mother grabs and turns me away, burying my face in her coat.

“Don’t look!” she says.

DragonCon 2016 Postmortem

Every year around June, Rachael and I start talking about a thing.  We’ve done this consistently for at least the last five years now, and so far there’s a little less than a fifty percent success rate.

The thing is deciding whether or not to go to DragonCon.

Generally we don’t mind missing DragonCon, especially since it’s always held over Labor Day weekend, which means it coincides with the beginning of the academic year when we’re both under stress from the resumption of work and class.  Additionally, we’ve been trying for years to figure out how to do the convention thing with varying levels of success, and the general feeling of utter exhaustion that comes after leaving a con is a major impediment to doing it all again.  The unique nature of DragonCon further contributes to this exhaustion, since neither of us belong to any diehard fandoms, and the one segment of nerdery that Rachael does have a strong foothold in, progressive speculative fiction, just isn’t as well represented at DragonCon as elsewhere; it’s a humongous party geared towards a lot of things in which we don’t have huge personal investments.  It’s usually a lot of work for minimal payoff.

The recent years when we have made it out to DragonCon have happened mostly because we have friends who are also going, and we enjoy having opportunities to hang out with them.  These experiences are great, but they’re often proportionally small in comparison to how time is spent over the course of the whole day (we have yet to do any convention on a multi-day basis, mostly because we just haven’t had time to spare, even on the long Labor Day weekend).  If you were to make a pie chart distributing the amount of time we devote to attending DragonCon (and this includes travel time, because it’s absurd not to account for that in your planning) at least half of any given day is spent on trying to get to the convention.

This year our attendance was based on some unusual circumstances.  Rachael was asked to be a judge on the panel that selected the recipient of the first Eugie Foster Award, and so she was invited to attend the Guest of Honor banquet where the award was given out.  I got to be her plus one, so we made plans to go to DragonCon on Saturday and make a day of it.  Now, while our tickets to the banquet and Rachael’s day pass were taken care of, I still had to purchase my badge.  This meant that after stopping at the VIP member pickup for Rachael, we then had to spend an additional two hours waiting in line for me to buy my day-of pass.  This extensive waiting in line is a thing that happens every year we’ve gone to DragonCon, and it’s always incredibly draining.  Typically the acquisition of the badges is followed by exhausted collapse somewhere not too far from the badge room just to gather mental resources before deciding where to go next.  It’s not a good feeling to realize you’re tired before you’ve even done anything fun at a convention.

Once we both had our badges, we had to cope with the fact that we were in the hotel farthest from most of the events (they place regular badge pickup far, far away from DragonCon’s epicenter), and even after perusing the program for ideas of how to kill time until the banquet, we were kind of at a loss as to what to do.  Rachael suggested we go to a panel on dystopian fiction, which I was down with, and so we hiked a couple blocks to another hotel.  The panel was a lot of fun (my biggest complaint with it was that there seemed to be some conflation between post-apocalyptia and dystopia, which have always struck me as distinctly different speculative subgenres), and it provided some time to genuinely rest before going to check out other things.

We wandered through the dealer room for a couple hours, though we’ve learned that in the age of the internet, neither I nor Rachael have a burning need to buy anything we see and think is cool right on the spot (for my part, I think I’m also just at a point in my life where I don’t want things that are going to take up shelf space).  We hit the artists’ alley, because that’s one thing I distinctly remember enjoying immensely in years past, and perused the pop art.  I was a little disappointed this year, mostly because I didn’t see anything that jumped out at me as stuff that I absolutely needed to have on my wall.  So many of the comics artists present didn’t have styles that struck me as especially unique (Art Adams had a table, and I didn’t think his work was particularly more interesting than anyone else’s stuff, and he’s freakin’ Art Adams).  On the bright side, I did pass by Peter David’s table, which meant I got to see Peter David (on a scale of significance as an X-Men writer, I’m inclined to put Peter David near the top for his work on all the various incarnations of X-Factor; in a genre that’s relentlessly melodramatic and bubblegumish like superheroes, I’ve consistently found his stuff to go deeper than that of other writers).  That was pretty cool.

What was really cool was getting to the banquet and finding that Peter David was also there to present an award to Bryan Henson.  After I had a minor freak out, Rachael suggested I go say hello, which ended with me awkwardly listening to Peter David telling stories about his various encounters with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy and silently noting that he was wearing an Incredible Hulk tie.  It was probably the first time I’ve ever been genuinely star-struck.

On the bright side, it resulted in this picture:

Pictured left to right: Rachael, Rabbit (who accepted the Eugie Award on Cat Valente's behalf), Peter David, his daughter Caroline, and me looking like a doofus.

Pictured left to right: Rachael, Rabbit (who accepted the Eugie Award on Cat Valente’s behalf), Peter David, his daughter Caroline, and me looking like a doofus.

So that was pretty good, I guess.

The Season Finales for Flash and Arrow Were… Not Good.

DC’s television properties are generally not very good shows.  I’ve been watching Arrow and The Flash in real time for two seasons now, and I’ve never made bones about the fact that I think Arrow is a remarkably shallow show with an underdeveloped ideology that apes liberal values while promoting things like the efficacy of torture and devaluing its women charactersThe Flash honestly isn’t much better, but I’ve always been willing to give it a pass simply because it’s a show that isn’t ashamed of its identity as a goofy superhero series.  The CW’s newest entry in the DC universe, Legends of Tomorrow, is more in the vein of The Flash than Arrow thankfully (with a huge heaping of Doctor Who for good measure, though I’m pretty neutral on that series), but after watching its inaugural season I’m not sure how I feel about it long term; the early episodes had a lot of promise, but I’m kind of apathetic about the ending.

Getting into more specifics, let’s look at The Flash and Arrow in turn, because I thought they both had pretty flawed finales, but for surprisingly different reasons.  What I realized as I was wrapping up the second season of The Flash is that while you have all the fun parallel universe stuff going on (that stuff’s my jam; I am a pretty committed X-Men fan after all), the basic structure of the season was practically identical to the first season.  The Flash is confronted with a rival speedster who’s not afraid to do all the terrifying things you expect someone with super speed and poorly developed morals to do.  This rival’s identity is unknown, but he’s clearly bad news, and so Barry and his crew do everything they can to help Barry get fast enough to beat said rival.  Then, three quarters through the season, it’s revealed that the rival speedster’s identity is actually that of Barry’s mentor figure, and so they have one final showdown that’s basically about who can run faster.

This structure’s kind of infuriating because the early part of Season 2 of The Flash did so much to point the audience towards a different story arc.  There was even an episode early on that dealt with Barry’s anxiety over trusting a new mentor after the last one turned out to be a supervillain; now that it’s happened twice, Barry better have a severe complex next season, or the writers are seriously dropping the ball on this thread.  Anyhow, the point is that you can only feint and do the same plot so many times in a row before the audience is going to notice.  I know there are some challenges in coming up with an arc villain who is a credible threat to the Flash without just making them another speedster, but it’s superhero fiction; the writers can come up with something that’s plausible enough with some generous hand waving.The Flash Intertitle.png

On the subject of the finale itself, everything simply felt poorly motivated all around.  Zoom reveals that he wants to race Barry because he plans on using the energy from their running to power a multiversal bomb, which is perfectly fine as a motivation for a nihilist villain; what’s weird is that Barry is completely invested in going along with this idea simply because Zoom’s threatening to kill all his friends and family (the power of this threat isn’t necessarily unrealistic; the emotional component of having your loved ones personally killed versus them being annihilated along with everyone else shouldn’t be underestimated, even if a simple utilitarian examination of the problem renders the threat empty).  Barry’s been doing some really stupid stuff all season, so I’m willing to accept that it’s just part of his character that he sucks at thinking through consequences.  With that factor, it makes sense that his entire team would agree to lock him up in their illegal prison for metahumans (“Barry, you don’t make good decisions when you’re upset; take a time out.”).  What doesn’t make sense is why after everything goes south after the crew tries to stop Zoom without Barry’s help, they just let Barry go on with his original plan to do exactly what Zoom wants.  Really, if Barry’s as fast as he’s supposed to be (and it seemed like the show had established pretty firmly that Barry was fast enough to beat Zoom after he got his Speed Force upgrade) then there’s nothing to explain how things play out.  Yeah, Zoom has Joe hostage, but that doesn’t mean Barry can’t get Joe to safety (for that matter, the fact that Barry had no opportunity to save Henry Allen is pretty sloppy too).

Now, setting all that stuff aside (like I said, The Flash is not a pretentious show, so I’m willing to cut it some slack as long as it’s entertaining), the really infuriating thing about the Flash finale is that it ends by setting up Flashpoint as the primary plotline for next season.  Now, I’m cool with the time travel and parallel universe stuff.  I’m just not sold on the idea that The Flash has to delve into all the dark stuff surrounding Barry’s mother’s murder.  I like this show because for all its melodrama trappings it’s a relatively lighthearted series.  There’s peril, but mostly we’re watching the characters have fun being superheroes (my favorite moment of the series is still a scene from the first season where Barry and Joe are cracking up over the fact they can have fresh pizza from Coast City any time they want because of Barry’s speed); veering off into Barry’s traumatic past feels like a turn towards making the show go dark, and I just don’t think that’s the right direction.

Speaking of things that shouldn’t be so dark, let’s talk about Arrow now.  I have to say up front that this was not my favorite season of Arrow.  I thought the first season was goofy and overwrought, but Seasons 2 and 3 were plenty entertaining.  Season 4 just felt really aimless in comparison.  I think that thematically there were a lot of struggles to redefine Arrow as belonging to the same universe as Flash, which I’m guessing is the more popular of the two shows at this point.  The Flash is silly, and it’s filled with patently absurd pseudoscience, but it’s firmly positioned as a sci-fi superhero show; Arrow by contrast was always just an action show where the heroes wear colorful costumes but don’t actually do anything superhuman.  This season, they tried to embrace their comic book roots more firmly, but instead of upping the absurdity with extraordinary human stuff (there’s a strong tradition of superheroes who are just regular humans in peak physical condition with a bunch of gadgets) they decided to go for a weird mystical thing where the key to beating the villain, who’s basically a D&D wizard in a nice suit, is embracing some metaphysical stuff about hope as an actual force to counteract his magic.  It dovetails with the season’s major themes of hope versus doubt and a person’s ability to find redemption, but the end result just feels really clumsy to me.Arrow (TV series)

Now here’s where my opinion on the two finales diverges.  Where I think the Flash finale was perfectly entertaining but riddled with character problems that strain plausibility, I was fully on board with all the decisions that all the characters were making in Arrow.  Oliver doubts his ability to beat Damien Darhk until he has an eleventh hour epiphany about the importance of trusting your friends to support you; this makes perfect sense in the context of the show and what the writers have been doing all season with Oliver’s character arc.  I’m even cool with the ending resolution that Digg and Thea decide to quit vigilantism so they can get their heads straight after they made some very questionable decisions this season; all the character stuff makes total sense to me.  I just found that I didn’t care about anything that was happening.  The Arrow finale is supposed to be full of tension and all these moments for emotional highs with thousands of nuclear missiles flying through the air and Oliver making a couple of stirring speeches to rally Star City around both his personas in the contexts where they’re most needed.  On paper it’s all very textbook, and I don’t have an issue with any of it.  On the screen… well… I couldn’t get excited about any of it.  Part of that might be my own viewer’s fatigue (it’s been a long time since I followed any television series in real time, and I kind of hate it, but it’s the only way to stay current on CW shows without paying extra to see them), but I think there’s also just something about this most recent season of Arrow that’s been off.  Also, and this seems like a really obvious criticism, but the flashback plot of Season 4 was really boring on pretty much every level (there’s no narrative tension left when you know that Oliver will get some interesting scars but otherwise he’ll be fine, and his pretty female companion of the season will end up dying tragically), so that was a quarter of every episode that I just wasn’t invested in.

I know there’s a three month break now, but I’m already dreading jumping into next season for all these shows.  The CW’s announced it plans on doing a four-way crossover event with The Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, and now Supergirl, which is changing networks (I’ve not even tried to keep up with Supergirl this season; I had hoped I could catch up later, but since it’s going to CW I’m doubtful the first season will be made easily available to binge now).  Like I’ve already mentioned, I really don’t like having to schedule out time each week to watch television, and the idea of having to set aside four hours each week strikes me as super daunting (this isn’t a communal activity that I do with friends, so it’s one of the most introverted pastimes I have; that makes it hard to prioritize).  I expect I’m probably going to spend some time this summer thinking about whether I really enjoy these shows enough to continue committing to them.

Twelve Hours in an Airport

Over my spring break I had the chance to fly out to Los Angeles to visit some friends, which was amazing, but through a series of weird circumstances I ended up at the airport twelve hours before my flight home at the end of the weekend.  What follows is a log of the Facebook posts I made during my wait.

The reason for reposting these here is a matter of posterity.  While I’m sure they’ll exist in Facebook’s databases forever and ever more, I would like to be able to look them up in the future sometime, and my blog provides a slightly more organized platform for reviewing things.  Also, for all the inconveniences that come from being stuck anywhere for a prolonged period of time, I quite enjoyed myself with this little project.  It was entertaining to see how different friends of mine imposed different narratives on a pretty barebones survivor’s log.

Reading “Brief Lives – Chapter 7”

Where the end of issue #46 presents a level of heartwarming that’s unusual in The Sandman, issue 47 begins a long string of heart wrenching moments that are going to carry us through to the end of Brief Lives.  Now that Dream has come clean to Delirium about his original motivation for starting their search for Destruction, the two are ready to try again in earnest with a better understanding between them.  Immediately, we see Dream treating Delirium more like a partner now than as a sidekick (as soon as they establish that they need to go talk to Destiny next, Dream turns the decision of how to get there over to Delirium).  It’s a nice change in the status quo, and a necessary one once Dream and Delirium finally meet with Destiny.

Destiny’s always a funny character to see show up, because I can never shake the feeling that he’s something of a narrator surrogate (it doesn’t help that in this issue he even has a moment where he starts reading the text of the caption in the next panel out of his book).  His purpose in virtually every appearance he makes in The Sandman is to foreshadow what’s going to happen and, if he’s talking with other characters, make sure they’re warned too so that the tragedy can be maximized when the bad thing comes to pass (you never see a scene where Destiny informs his siblings that they’re about to have some pretty good times all around; maybe if he did that every once in a while the rest of the Endless wouldn’t think he’s such a killjoy).  In this case, Destiny serves to give Dream a reality check on his latest failed relationship (“she wasn’t in love with you, and the last time you see her is going to suck” is the basic gist of what he says) and to not so gently nudge Dream in the direction of the one oracle who’s capable of telling him where Destruction is: Orpheus.

Yep, Dream has to go see his estranged son’s head in order to find out where his estranged brother is, all because he promised Delirium that he’d help her out.  Given all these developments, it’s pretty understandable that this is the issue where we see Dream have a real, authentic emotional breakdown.

This breakdown is a very different experience from Dream’s affected moping back in issue 42.  There are no panels where Dream poses dramatically in a rainstorm of his own making.  He doesn’t gaze wistfully at the landscape with an artfully composed bit of sorrow stubble on his chin.  The whole incident here barely lasts two pages.  Destiny tells Dream a series of things he already knows but has been denying, and facing the reality of what’s coming next proves too much.  Dream collapses, weeping over the series of events he knows is going to unfold once he goes to see Orpheus.

This is a watershed moment in the entire Sandman series.  Before this point, Dream’s story has a certain sense of inevitable movement towards something, but he’s largely been unaware of it.  After this, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Dream fully understands everything that’s going to follow, and he’s going to do his level best to approach it with the same equanimity he always tries to project.  We as readers still don’t quite know what’s going to happen, but we can tell just from Dream’s reaction that it won’t be anything good.

This is the most undramatic breakdown Dream’s ever had, but also the most authentic. (Artwork by Jill Thompson, Vince Locke, and Daniel Vozzo)

Anyway, while Dream’s having his epiphany, Delirium has a similar moment of stark clarity.  Being in Destiny’s garden is a disorienting experience, since it’s meant to be sort of a timeless place where all events intersect; just before encountering Destiny, Dream and Delirium catch a glimpse of her from long in the past when she was still Delight.  One of the major mysteries of The Sandman is the circumstances surrounding Delirium’s change.  It comes closest to being explored in this issue here, but everything still remains incredibly vague.  We’re reminded that Delirium has a unique perspective on existence: she can see everything that’s outside Destiny’s garden.  It’s never made clear if this is a side effect of her current state or if she has always been able to see the impossible (Gaiman only ever wrote one story set before Delight’s transformation where she appears, and there’s no real exploration of this aspect of her character there).  What we do know is that in this moment, when Dream’s at one of his lowest points in the entire series, Delirium collects herself enough to scold Destiny for being himself.  The only thing she manages to say before he walks away is a reminder that Destiny doesn’t know everything, and they both know there are two sides to every coin.

Then we get to see Dream and Delirium’s roles reverse, even if it’s only briefly.  Delirium acts as Dream’s caretaker, pulling him to his feet and reminding him what they need to do.

The remainder of the issue moves pretty quickly over Dream and Delirium’s arrival at Orpheus’s shrine, where Dream speaks to his son (entirely off panel) and gets directions to Destruction’s current whereabouts.  It just happens that Destruction, who we’ve been seeing in small interludes throughout the arc doing a very bad job at being an artist of various sorts at a small scenic villa, is living on the cliffs just across the strait from the island of Orpheus.

Next time Destruction invites Dream and Delirium in for dinner.

Hooray for Blogs!

The other day I came across this article by Rian Van Der Merwe thanks to the regular Friday link roundup at Natalie Luhrs’s site Pretty Terrible.  It’s a short, thoughtful piece about the importance of maintaining your web presence in a place that isn’t walled off in the way that social media platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter typically are.  Those places are designed in a way that they want to keep you within their network rather than branching out and exploring other interesting places on the web.  The general motivation behind this design is, naturally, profit.  Big social media platforms get revenue from native advertising and their ability to mine user data for information that’s valuable to marketers, and the more users stay within a given ecosystem for their web browsing, the easier these companies can get that data.

For the content creator, this model means that it’s highly lucrative to base yourself on one of these platforms.  On Facebook you have the built in audience of your entire friends list, and the number one thing that creators want is eyes on their work.  Going to a platform where you’re starting at more than zero is really tempting, especially when it’s so hard to build an audience (I’ve been blogging for two and a half years now, and though my site metrics say that I’ve gradually increased average traffic, it often feels like I’ve yet to build a consistent audience; I can’t shake the feeling that increased pageviews for me is tied to a growing library of content, though timeless posts are a lot harder to come by than timely stuff).  Nonetheless, the point that Van Der Merwe makes about how valuable personal blogs are for getting to know other people in a way that the curated, algorithm derived feeds of social media don’t really allow is a good one.  If I stuck to just Facebook and Twitter (and in this case Twitter is a still a superior platform, though we’ll see what happens when the extended character limit rolls out), then my exposure to interesting things and thoughts from other people would be relatively limited (my Facebook feed especially feels like it’s mostly just people sharing things they’ve read without offering their own particular thoughts, and it comes across as pretty isolating sometimes).

So I’m on board with Van Der Merwe’s idea.  The joy of personal blogs is that they help you get to know people in strange, quirky, sometimes roundabout ways.  The topics they cover helps you learn about what they think is important; the arguments they make help you see how they think about things.  And, of course, their sites help you get away from the curated platforms and dig around the more open web.

In the vein of that last, point, I was thinking I’d just share some links to blogs that I enjoy following on a regular basis.  Many of these I’ve mentioned at one point or another in the past, but not everyone’s seen everything I’ve put out, so here’s a collected set.

  • Slacktivist – I discovered Fred Clark’s blog a few years ago by way of his ongoing review of the Left Behind series, which he started about a decade ago (he’s recently been able to pick it back up with the help of his Patreon supporters).  I don’t think I can overstate how instrumental Clark’s blog has been in helping reshape my faith away from the conservative evangelicalism I was steeped in for most of the last decade.
  • Samantha Field – Samantha’s primary focus is on exploring the ways growing up in Christian fundamentalism has affected her life as an adult and working through the damage in order to find healing.  If Slacktivist helped me see the problems inherent in conservative evangelicalism and grapple with them, Samantha’s blog helped me recognize just how abusive the subculture can be.
  • Love, Joy, Feminism – Libby Anne’s blog is similar in subject to Samantha’s but Libby Anne writes from the perspective of an atheist who left the Christian faith altogether after her experiences with the fundamentalist subculture.  Libby Anne’s experiences as a parent trying to navigate child rearing while dealing with her past exposure to abuses by the home school subculture are interesting and help provide focus on an aspect of American Christianity that I’ve not seen elsewhere.
  • Pretty Terrible – Though I’m not hugely engaged with the literary community at large, I do hear about a lot of major things that go on by way of my wife, Rachael.  She turned me on to Natalie Luhrs’s blog back when it was still called Radish Reviews because her Friday link roundups are always full of interesting articles related to social justice and issues in the fiction world, and now it’s a regular part of my weekly perusal.
  • Whatever – Though John Scalzi’s best known for his sci-fi writing, I’ve actually never read any of his novels (I do have copies of Lock In and Redshirts sitting in my bookcase waiting to be read, whenever I get around to them).  Instead, I started following his blog a few years ago when I heard that he’d announced that he wouldn’t be attending any conventions that didn’t have an explicit and thorough anti-harassment policy.  Like the name of his blog implies, Scalzi writes about whatever strikes his fancy, from issues in publishing to politics to Twitter absurdity.  I follow him because he consistently offers his thoughts in a cogent way that’s entertaining and easy to follow.
  • Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men – I’m primarily a fan of Jay Edidin and Miles Stokes’s weekly podcast, but their companion blog feels like essential reading for the visual companion that they put out to go with each episode.  Since comics are such a visual medium, being able to see precisely what it is they’re talking about is always interesting and informative.  Besides that, pretty much everything supplemental that Jay posts on the site, like guest essays and reviews of X-Men: Evolution episodes, is well worth a read.

And that’s it for the major stops in my blog rotation.  If there are any blogs you particularly like yourself, feel free to drop them in the comments with an explanation of why you like them.

What Are We Witnessing Here?

Some write friends of mine recently had a conversation about the importance of titles as parts of creative works.  We were joking in context of the list that Neil Clarke published last year of the ten most common short story titles he’s received in his slush pile at Clarkesworld, and that turned into a general lamentation that many amateur writers don’t take particular care in giving their works distinctive titles that contribute to the story in some way.

Of course, I’m a terrible amateur writer myself, and I confess to putting some pretty lousy titles on stories I’ve written in the past too, so this complaint is directed at myself as much as anyone.

Anyway, as I am wont to do, I began thinking about this trend in relation to other creative projects, particularly video games (there’s probably some interesting thoughts to be had regarding movies and novels, but I think the general simplicity of titles in those media exercise more influence on short stories than the other way around).  In the world of AAA games, most games belong to long-running franchises that maintain a core title that evokes a specific brand.  A Final Fantasy game will be pretty, feature a story and characters built from Western narrative tropes but with a distinctly Japanese perspective, and have chocobos and someone named Cid; Street Fighter is a one-on-one tournament fighter featuring broadly painted nationalist stereotypes and a lot of fireballs; Fallout games are post-apocalyptic, satirize post-World War II American culture, feature a bunch of giant radioactive monster bugs, and have a dog; Tomb Raider will be an adventure story about a woman named Lara Croft who will be pleasant to look at as she does lots of action-y things in exotic locales.  Short, simple titles that are highly memorable are the norm, partly because they reinforce brand recognition.

WitnessPoster.png

What the heck does this title mean, anyway? (Image credit: Wikipedia)

In the world of indie gaming (or indie anything, really; I see a pretty uniform trend among independent creators in any given field towards quirk and counterculture aesthetics) titles tend to be less generic and more descriptive because franchise branding isn’t as majorly ingrained.  Developers in this branch of the industry don’t have the luxury of massive resources that AAA games get allotted, and there’s (usually) more need to rely on creativity to draw an audience.

All this brings me to the most recent game that I played (besides Fallout 4, which, well, you’ve seen my thoughts on that game), Jonathan Blow’s recent release The Witness.  Many years ago, I played his first major breakthrough Braid (that game was excellent, and I regret that I no long own a copy of it, since I originally bought it on our Xbox 360), and it stayed with me as a high water mark for games that thematically incorporate their mechanics with their stories.  When I heard that Blow’s next game was releasing, I was pretty excited, because I was hoping for a similar experience.  I told Rachael about the game, and after she also received a recommendation for it from a friend of ours, we decided to buy and play it together to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Before I go any further, I’ll say upfront that we played through the game and enjoyed it immensely.  We didn’t find all the secrets that are apparently hidden in the environment, but between the two of us we completed the majority of the puzzles and reached the basic ending where the island resets itself.  Most of my thoughts are based on what I experienced, though I’m aware there are some other things built into the game.

Firstly, since it’s the thing I’ve been pondering since beginning this blog post, what’s up with the game’s title?  To whom is The Witness referring?  Are we supposed to take it as descriptive of the nameless, faceless player character (whose only defining trait is a shaggy haircut that can be inferred from the character’s shadow), and if so, what precisely are they witnessing?  While initial exploration of the island suggests that the various statues of people found standing around might be indicative of actual people who were caught up in some kind of catastrophe, the final area inside the mountain at the island’s center suggests the entire locale, including its stony citizens, is an artificial construct that’s meant to suggest some kind of event without actually being caught up in any such affair.  If this is the case, then there’s not much for the character to truly witness on the island other than its remarkably intricate and artificial complexity.  Alternatively, is The Witness supposed to be the player themselves, with the event being something on a more meta level as we observe the piece of entertainment that Jonathan Blow and his studio have devised?  If that’s the case, then doesn’t it seem to smack a little bit of hubris that a game, which by its nature is supposed to draw the player into contributing to the experience, is reducing the player’s role to that of observer?  Either interpretation strikes me as plausible (and given Blow’s penchant for seeking out greater thematic complexity in his game designs, both could be simultaneously valid), though they still feel to me like tricks played at the player’s expense, if for no other reason than because the title’s opacity is contributing to Blow’s overall goal of getting people caught up in the near endless conversations about what his game means whether they want to or not.

So I guess despite my complaint that The Witness is a terrible title, it succeeds in contributing to the overall effect of the work that it names.