My 2019 In Review

Let’s go ahead and get the typical boilerplate stuff out of the way: as an educator I don’t usually spend too much time dwelling on the end of the calendar year because it falls halfway through my annual project of teaching some kids some stuff and hoping that they at least retain the bits about being kind to one another and maybe how stories and language work a little.  This is an exercise I engage in because everyone else is doing the same thing, which makes it timely content.  The actual act of reflection is sometimes difficult for me, not because it’s painful but because it’s just not a regular frame of mind for me.  The whole point of keeping a blog is for me to fire and forget my thoughts.

Okay, I think that’s shaken the cynical cobwebs out, so let’s talk about the year and (I guess) the decade.  Again, it’s an entirely arbitrary benchmark that I don’t put much stock in, but folks are doing it, so let’s just try to go with the flow.

I suppose the proverbial elephant in the room regarding my year is the fact that Mom died back in May.  That was a massively disruptive event in the short term, and I had a lot of really complex feelings about the act of grieving and my perception of the social expectations surrounding it.  I went to counseling over the summer to help me process a lot of that stuff (that was good) and I recently realized that much of what I internalized as the appropriate way to grieve was directly received from my mother.  She was much older than I was when her own mother died, but it was pretty formative event in her own life.  I was still very young when it happened, but I think years of observing her building so much of her identity around the relationship with her mom put this unexpressed image in my head of appropriate grief for a parent.  It’s supposed to utterly wreck you, and the mere mention of the deceased should bring you to the brink of tears for years after they’ve passed.  It should feel like a gaping wound that everyone can see just by looking at you.  You’re definitely not supposed to be able to keep it together at the funeral.

Instead, I’ve been mostly fine.  To be sure, I miss her, and there’s definitely some sadness whenever something reminds me of her, but it’s just not the overwhelming psychic devastation that I’d been led to believe it would be.  I still feel a little uneasy discussing these thoughts because they seem so utterly alien.  Questions of whether I appear to be a bad son occasionally float around, but then I remind myself that anyone who would think that is not worth worrying about.  I’m really fortunate to have always felt totally secure in my parents’ love for me, and the distance that emerged between us as I got older isn’t unusual, let alone something for which I should feel ashamed.

So yeah, that happened this year.

Turning to more positive things, I learned how to draw this year!  I’m okay at it!  This is a skill that I completely lacked a little over a year ago, and now I have a decent working knowledge of human figures and faces.  I’ve definitely gravitated more towards a comic book style as I’ve practiced more, mostly because I enjoy comic books and that visual language is the one with which I’m most familiar.  There’s still a lot that I need to learn, obviously, but I feel way more confident after a year of regular practice.  My personal project of sharing almost everything that I’ve drawn this year has been so much fun, and it’s left me with a great visual record of my progress.  I didn’t meet my goal of completely filling out my first sketchbook this year (I have three blank pages left on New Year’s Eve, and I just don’t have the stamina to do three drawings before midnight), but I’m so happy with the artifact I’ve made for myself.  If anyone who knows me in meatspace ever wants to see a thing that I think is super cool, I’ll be happy to pull it out and show it off in the future.  I eagerly await the indeterminate moment in the future when I want to cringe at the results of my first year of serious practice.  For now, it’s probably best to let it belong to the rest of the blog: finish it and move forward to new projects.

On the blog itself, I’ve had an incredibly productive year in terms of output.  Participating in Inktober and doing my extremely on-brand obsessive completion of every day’s prompt without pause went a long way towards helping me maintain momentum through the fall when I typically get tired with the added work load of a new school year.  My output on the blog took a distinct turn away from personal topics (outside of a few reflections related to Mom’s passing) towards comics and movie criticism.  If I were to go back through this year’s posts, I would probably find remarkably little about myself explicitly on display, but there is a wealth of thinking and reaction to the things that delighted and irritated me this year.  At the risk of sounding pretentious, I find the mental grinding that accompanies engagement with someone else’s creative output really pleasant most of the time.  Occasionally it feels like work, but so does everything else.

If there’s a thing I’ve internalized over the last decade (and there are many), satisfaction with things done is a far more reliable metric of contentment than frequency of moments of delight.  This is a tangent, but I have never mastered the art of unabashed expressions of enthusiasm, and I think this is the thing that leaves me feeling most alienated from other members of various fandoms that I want to interact with.  You think this thing is cool!  I think it’s cool too!  Also, I am extremely uncomfortable with being enthusiastic about anything, so we’re probably not going to get much farther than that.

The reason I point this thing out is the stubborn desire I have for people to notice who I am based on the things I keep in my life.  My blog’s a running account of where my mind is focusing its attention, and I hope vaguely for someone to say, “I like that thing too!”

One thing which I have not discussed on the blog this year is the fact that I experimented with a thing tracker in 2019.  I’m not sure of a better name for it because it’s just a spreadsheet where I logged things that I encountered this year.  You can see what mattered to me based on the categories I maintained.

  • Comic Books – 147 trades read (I’ve not tracked most of the individual issues I’ve been reading this year, so the actual number’s probably slightly higher)
  • Books – 15 read (I have always felt I wasn’t a prolific reader, but I think I just enjoy books with pictures more)
  • Video Games – 18 finished (the vast majority of these are games that can be completed in a weekend; there are probably four or five that have play times that approach sixty hours)
  • Minutes Exercised – I quit tracking this when around halfway through the year.  I know I spent over a thousand minutes working out in that time, but my workout schedule got disrupted in the second half of the year with the move.
  • TV Shows – 51 seasons watched
  • Movies – 40 watched
  • Words Written – 132,428 (This applies only to words that have been put on the blog, but I’ve barely done any other kind of writing this year, so it’s pretty accurate)

The most fun aspect of keeping my things tracker has been the ability to look back and recall what I’ve seen this year and when.  A lot of the television and movies happened over the summer when I spent two weeks living like a bachelor while Rachael was at a novel writing workshop.  We watched all of Schitt’s Creek in this calendar year.  There was a glut of movies that we saw in December, mostly because of all the celebrating over the winter break.  I spent New Year’s Day 2019 watching the My Little Pony movie and playing Bandersnatch on Netflix.  The comics I read tended to be parts of long running series that I picked up when they were on sale.  I have read a lot of Star WarsTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Runaways this year.

The one caveat to my logs is that I only noted new stuff that I encountered this year; there was a fair bit of revisiting familiar stories, but I didn’t make note of any of that.

Going into 2020, I’m not sure what I want to accomplish.  I think I will do the tracker again, but I’m going to have to recalibrate a little bit with what goals I want to set for myself.  There were definitely categories of things that I lost interest in tracking early on, and I haven’t bothered to note them here because there’s just no data to pour over.  Others I way underestimated what I could accomplish in a year.  Back in January I thought it’d be ambitious to read twenty comic book trades this year.  I passed that benchmark in a month.  The trick there is that I don’t know if this sort of pace will be replicable in 2020.  I read a lot of comics because there were a lot of things I wanted to read; who knows whether that will be true going forward?

On a more public level, I think my primary goal for this year is going to be resisting the temptation to obsess over national politics.  The last presidential campaign was an incredibly stressful thing, and I already have all the information I need to cast my vote in November.  The current embarrassment has got to go, and I’ll vote for whoever Democrats put forward as the candidate.  I have preferences like anyone else, but the bottom line is that there will not be a worse choice than what we already have.  Obsessing over the horse race is only going to cause anxiety about things beyond my control.

I think that’s everything to wrap up 2019.  Let’s get on with another year then.

(And for the decade stuff, whatever.  I got into my dream career, started a blog, and moved across the country to a place where I’ve never been happier.  Next question.)

Reading “8: Legacy Heroes”

Typically I would wait a couple weeks before jumping into the next Die issue, but seeing as I took a month off from writing about comics, I need to do some catch up on the ongoing series that I’m reading.  I figure that if I work out thoughts about issue #8 now, that will give me a little breathing room to think about issue #9, which I read immediately after #8 and needs some time to process.

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Yellow is an extremely sad color when you desaturate it enough. (Cover by Stephanie Hans)

The star of this issue is Matt, and the cover reflects that fact indirectly.  It’s been clear for a while now that the sword he carries serves as the focus for his grief powers, and the sword’s sentience revolves around trying to make him as miserable as possible.  We’ve seen little bits here and there where the sword needles at him, but this is the first issue where Matt’s relationship with his weapon is more fully explored.  The blade of the sword serves as the focus on the cover, surrounding by sickly looking flowers with thorny vines and deaths’ head moths hanging about them.  In the reflection we see Matt’s wife and daughters set above a grave with a skeleton in repose at the bottom (probably meant to be his mother, who died when he was a child).  The entire composition reflects how the sword feeds off of the grief of its owner.  It’s one of the most somber covers the series has presented so far.

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The sword is mean, but its single-mindedness about making Matt miserable almost gives its whole trolling schtick a comedic tone, especially when Matt tells it to be quiet and it does. Almost. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The structure of this issue focuses on Matt as he copes with the burden of waiting while other people do important things.  Ash’s half of the party have arrived in Angria, a realm that apparently runs on the subtleties of court intrigue, and Matt’s character class is not suited to that type of play at all.  In the rules for the Die game, Gillen describes the Knight classes as built for players who want a straightforward, combat heavy experience in terms of mechanics.  We’ve seen this within the story before as Matt is very good at killing things that get in the way of the party physically moving from one place to another, but he’s not really suited to encounters built around the soft skills of role playing.  This issue begins with him and Angela having a conversation about how useless they feel waiting around while Ash does all the talking; Angela’s decided to do a solo sneaking mission back in Eternal Prussia to gather intelligence because that’s what she’s best at, and it will save her the trouble of metaphorically sitting at the table while the GM focuses on the party diplomat for an entire evening.  Matt doesn’t have the luxury of being able to generate a task for himself, so he’s relegated to the most miserable and familiar task of his life: waiting.

What we know about Matt before we reach this issue is laser focused on two formative experiences in his life: first, the death of his mother when he was a child, and second, a life-threatening illness that his daughter had when she was younger.  Matt’s emotional core is grappling with the sense of helplessness that accompanies grief; his entire character concept is built around being able to take this abundant useless resource and turn it towards something that’s at least temporarily cathartic.  In Angria he can’t do that because it would be counterproductive.  Because of the frustration that is bound to well up from having nothing to do, we get this story where Matt doesn’t directly interact with the larger plot, but he gets some spotlight time to explore his character.

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BE SAD. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The lead up to Matt’s solo outing is literally ten pages of him waiting around just trying to pass the time.  He has conversations with his sword and with Ash primarily, and we get a boat load of world building exposition that I’m sure will be important later, but isn’t really that consequential for Matt in the moment.  It’s mostly just distraction to keep him from dwelling on his inefficacy in the present moment.  When the call to adventure does come (in the form of an NPC literally wandering into the tavern where Matt and Ash are hanging out to deliver a cryptic note) there’s a massive shift in visual tone.  The waiting sequences are all done in washed out yellows and browns, and the beginning of Matt doing something opens on a double page spread in these vibrant greens and blues that have been so rare in the series as a whole up to this point.  There’s some sense of foreboding as Matt enters the Eightfold Temple (the lingering question of when exactly he would have chosen the grief sword if Sol assigned him the Grief Knight class before they began the game is an interesting one), but it’s overridden by the sense of satisfaction that things are happening.  The entire sequence in the temple is filled with these intense colors keyed to Matt’s conflicting emotions; he’s having a major moment of temptation in the sequence, and it feels Deeply Significant ™ in ways that the before and after don’t (again, despite the fact that lots of very plot relevant things are happening just outside of Matt’s view in this issue).  That the sequence ends with Matt feeling like he’s had some catharsis following the chance to beat up some mooks and the colors coming back down to that washed out yellow feels totally on point.

In the end the side quest with the Eightfold Temple is very tenuously connected to the larger plot; Matt’s defeat of the representatives from the Joy Knights’ Order serves that most cliche of RPG tropes: earning the aide of a potential ally by demonstrating your superior strength in combat.  By proving that he’s definitely the Knight Paragon, he gets the Joy Knights in line to help Ash’s larger plan to build a coalition that can fight Eternal Prussia while also trying to find Chuck and Isabelle.  Of course, all Ash’s careful maneuvering gets overridden when Isabelle shows up to confess that the party is responsible for the destruction of Glass Town, so Matt’s adventure was once again mostly just an exercise in obscuring the futility of his position.  We’ll see if this theoretical coalition matters to the plot in the future, but for this moment its apparent mootness underscores the emotional reality that the issue wanted to explore with Matt.  Often we can’t actually do anything but wait, and one of the most common refuges from the creeping grief comes in the form of relatively hollow distractions and temporary catharses.

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ARE YOU STILL SAD. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Went To A Concert, Had An Experience

So last Friday Rachael and I went to see Of Monsters and Men live in concert because we are cool people who do cool things.  It also so happened that this was an outdoor concert in a venue that is basically just a big grass field where you are expected to bring your own seating arrangements.  Also also, the evening forecast that day called for rain.  Heading out into an hour-long commute to get to the venue with our bag of cotton quilts for ground cover, we knew this was clearly the best decision we had ever made.

Once we got through the gates and settled on the lawn with our ten dollar hot dogs (with no complimentary sides even!), we determined that we were going to enjoy ourselves no matter what because it was the first time we’ve gone to a live concert in Portland, and we just couldn’t be grumpy about seeing a band whose music we’ve both adored for years.  Never mind that we waited for about two and a half hours in the cold and the rain before the show began; this was going to be good.

And it was!

There were lights and dancing and a real energy to the performance that I’ve heard accompanies live shows but which I don’t remember experiencing for myself very often (I probably should go to more concerts).  The band did a tight hour-long set including some stuff from their new album and a lot of their best music from their earlier ones.  The lead singer, wearing silver sequined pants, was a ball of energy on stage; during one song she accidentally knocked over a tom drum because she was banging on it so hard.  Through a miracle, we didn’t get rained on at all during the show itself (except for during the opener, which was pretty spectacular given the lights and everything).  Then we filed out, fought the traffic, and got home by about ten-thirty.  Not too bad!

Somewhere in all that, I definitely had some feelings and thoughts about a bunch of stuff.  There was a slight impulse to try to record what was happening (I saw a few folks recording specific songs), but the thing that I kept dwelling on was the irreproducible nature of the event itself.  We recognize that there’s something electric about live music and original art that can’t be captured by replicas, and it makes the firsthand experience of those things feel ineffably special.  I kept going back to the core conceit of The Wicked + The Divine that the gods’ miracles can only be experienced in person; it’s clearly a metaphor for the specialness of the live performance, but it resonates when you’ve experienced something like it.  The feel of being in a crowd of people who are all moving with a unified purpose, to enjoy a moment with the true thing they’ve collectively grown to love by way of facsimiles, is amazing.  It’s ecstatic and euphoric and ephemeral so that when it’s done you’re left with a vague sense that something profound has passed through you.

Mixed in with the joy of the evening were also some pangs of grief.  I bought the tickets for this concert the day before Mom died.  Every time I’ve gotten a reminder that it was coming up, I’ve thought about this fact.  Looking forward to this concert was like a final vestige of the time from before she was gone.  It’s a weird thing to focus on, but grief expresses itself in weird ways.

Anyhow, this was an experience that seemed worth taking a moment to note and remember.  It came, and was, and now it’s gone, and for the rest of my life I’ll have just the memory of how it felt, which is never going to be as good as the feeling itself was.

Reading “6: The Grind”

I have two answers to the not at all uncommon question of why I don’t have pets.  The first is the easy answer that I can give without risking deeper interrogation from folks who are unapologetically pet people: I’m allergic to cats and dogs.  It’s easy and straightforward and when you cite health reasons people tend to back off.  Occasionally someone might say, “but you love turtles, so why not get one of those?” and then I have to make vague excuses about living space or something similar.  I know and love lots of pet folks, but like with any fandom, enthusiasm for a thing can sometimes bleed into aggressive proselytization, and I am not about that life.

The second answer is much more honest: by my count I’ve directly or residually experienced the death of about eight cats and dogs.  My mother was a dog person, and she had a lot of them in her youth, and it was a pretty normal part of my growing up that I would periodically find her dogs dead in the back yard when I went to feed them.  Those are sort of background noise to the ones that died when I was in high school and college; I still vividly remember weeping in the hallway at the vet when I had to drive my father there with our dalmatian that he had decided to put down on a weekend visit to home.  I’ve been there to console my friends after they had to make the same decision with their own dog and cat at different times.  You take on a pet because you want the companionship, and if you’re not elderly you should expect that you will bury your companion.  I accepted a long time ago that you can’t avoid the grief when it comes to the people you love, but I’m not looking to go through that particular experience more than I absolutely must.

The purpose of this preamble should be apparent to anyone who has read Die #6.  Angela, the party’s rogue, needs to gather up enough Fair gold to sneak everyone out of Glass Town, but her attachment to her artificial dog Casey keeps pushing the needs too high.  She makes a decision, and at the end she’s effectively euthanized her companion.  It’s a robot inside a world that might not actually be real, but it still hurts something fierce.  Anyone who’s put a pet down gets it.

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These guys feel like the Platonic ideal of shocktroopers. (Cover by Stephanie Hans)

The cover for this issue features in place of a player character the forces of Eternal Prussia, the realm of Die that the party allowed to conquer Glass Town in the previous issue as part of their ploy to lure Sol out of hiding so they could try to end the game.  Eternal Prussia as a concept plays with the roots of tabletop role playing games as descended from war games of the nineteenth century and twists it with the automated sensibilities that seem to underscore Sol’s particular game world (anyone who has read the beta rules of Gillen’s Die RPG knows that the game’s background lore suggests an infinite number of pocket dimensions in which various versions of Die are situated).  They are both artificially intelligent creatures and mechanized puppets following a set script, and the cover’s depiction of a couple of infantry with their rust colored metal skulls next to a mechanized dragon drive that image home beautifully.

The focal character for the issue is Angela.  Gillen has touched on her briefly in previous issues, particularly to highlight how her Neo powers manifest in ways that evoke the behavior of addicts, but we’ve not spent a significant amount of time with her as the central character.  Up to this point she’s been mostly a foil for Ash’s own doubts prior to returning to the game and a device for getting the party into trouble.  Here we get nearly an entire issue that focuses on her backstory and motivations she brings to her time in Die.  To recap, Angela is going through a messy divorce, has had a very rocky career because of the vagaries of professional video game development, and is generally experiencing feelings of abandonment from every significant relationship in her life that are only compounded by her recent admission of her own bisexuality (in probably the most messy way possible).  We’ve known since the first issue that Angela’s life was the biggest apparent mess before she was pulled back into the game, and things like the particular vitriol surrounding her divorce proceedings lend special urgency to her need to get home.  Balancing all that urgency is the fact that Angela’s life in Die is infinitely simpler and she’s buoyed by the unconditional support of Casey, an artificial recreation of the dog that she lost just before Sol pulled everyone into the game the first time.

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Angela has been through some stuff. Being in Die seems like more of a respite for her than for some of the others, which makes her decision to try to get back particularly interesting. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Surrounding the macro story of Angela’s slow acceptance that she’s going to have to let Casey go in order to get back to her mess of a life is an extended discussion of the life of game developers.  Before he was a comics writer, Gillen was a video games journalist, and he talks pretty extensively in the ending essay for this issue about how affected he was by the open secret of the terrible working conditions that game developers endure to get out works that are often underappreciated by consumers and disregarded by publishers if they don’t turn immediate profits.  Much of Angela’s story is designed to be an exemplar of that life with all the destabilizing effects it can have on folks’ personal lives.  Angela’s marriage falling apart is definitely due to a decision she makes, but the circumstances that lead to that decision are so far out of her control as someone just trying to make her career pay off even in a small way.  It’s fair to note that everything we learn in this issue is told from Angela’s perspective, but this is the first time we receive any context for how her life has gotten in the state it is; Dominic’s narration in the first issue is vaguely disapproving of his sister’s life because he hasn’t seen the realities she’s dealing with.

Given all of that, her dependence on Casey is totally understandable.  Pets are creatures that totally rely on us; they never walk away from us the way that a spouse or a child can in a moment of abject disappointment.  Casey is Angela’s rock, and despite that tiny bit of security, she ultimately chooses to let him go just for the chance of jumping back into the chaos.  It’s the most interesting of choices.

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Choices that don’t make a difference are how we learn the most about a person’s character. Given absolutely no exterior incentive, which choice would they prefer? (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Angela’s encounter with the Fair during this issue present an opportunity to tease her with a choice that will ultimately be meaningless from the Fair’s perspective.  They operate as odd amalgams of game programmers and artificial intelligences that are obsessed with duality.  To the Fair, Angela’s decision to give up Casey is ultimately irrelevant because chance denies her to opportunity to permanently trade him away.  The Fair wander off to whatever next thing that happens, and Angela is left with the realization that she’s made a choice but she’s going to have to carry out the consequences herself.  It’s one thing if an external force deprives you of a thing you want; then you at least understand it was just a thing you couldn’t have forever.  Instead, here we see her forced to make a choice she wouldn’t under different circumstances.  It’s all a cruel mirror of the end of her marriage, but played out in even more dire circumstances.  She could make the selfish choice, indulge in the thing that’s directly in front of her and offers her comfort in trying times, or she could let that go in exchange for the highly uncertain possibility of getting back to a thing that wasn’t much comfort in the first place.  This time she makes the selfless choice, and we’re left wondering if it will be worth it for her in the end.  We hope so, although there’s not much promised.

So I Just Saw John Wick

I feel like I’m slightly behind the times with this one (it’s only been, what, five years since this movie came out?), but part of my initial glut of movie watching that I used to kick off my extended staycation (ugh, that really is a terrible portmanteau, isn’t it?) involved checking out this actioner seeing as Entertainment has decided that we are having a collective moment regarding Keanu Reeves.  There’s only a bit of cynicism wrapped up in that; I genuinely enjoy most of the movies I’ve seen Reeves in, and lots of folks whose taste I generally jive with say that the John Wick series is a thoroughly satisfying thing, so I’m down with the guy’s sudden memetic resurgence.  It’s only the smallest tinge of I-see-what’s-happening that flavors this very successful PR campaign on behalf of an actor who is doing his comeback thing as he moves into his late-career phase.

But that’s all meta stuff that doesn’t really have much of a bearing on the fact of this movie.  Let’s talk about it.

John Wick Poster

Nothing personal, except for all of it. (Image credit: IMDb)

The fundamental thing to understand about John Wick is that it is a viscerally simple story.  A grieving man is robbed and his dog, the last gift from his deceased wife, is killed by the crooks who are just looking to boost his very nice classic car.  This grieving man, with his dead wife and newly dead dog, happens to be a retired hitman, one of the best in the industry in fact.  Armed with his rage and his grief, he sets out to kill the guy who killed his dog and anyone who would try to stop him from doing this very straightforward task.

That’s the whole story.  Blood simple, right?

Typically, I would have something to say about the tiredness of the dead wife trope; women have been dying to make men feel things in stories for as long as we’ve had stories.  Instead, I think I’d rather acknowledge it as a problematic part of the story, although it’s tweaked in ways that change the focus and mitigate some of the most egregious elements typical to the trope.  First, John’s wife isn’t murdered or raped or victimized by the bad guys in any way.  She just dies of cancer.  It sucks.  They were happy together, and then she got sick, and now she’s gone.  This isn’t a story that reinforces any narratives about gender roles or the idea that women must function as the property of men; it’s just something that happens.  Second, the bad guy killing John’s dog shifts the loss from a person to more abstract ideas of healing and connection to the deceased (and also the dog, but we all know that killing dogs in movies is a deeply upsetting thing for most folks, so there’s no real need to discuss that further).  John is trying to move on with his life, and the dog is his wife’s way of helping him with that transition.  He loses a lot more than a pet; he finds himself being dragged back into a world he already escaped at great cost.  This one careless mobster who wanted a fancy ride robs John of the next stage of his life.

Built around that emotional core is a very straightforward action flick.  Guns and cars are the dominant visual motifs (John is very good at both), and each sequence is highly engaging in the ways that it communicates John’s resolute character in his mission.  At one point early in the movie, the head of the Russian mob family John is taking down describes him as a man of absolute focus.  It’s a good bit, but it only makes explicit what is obvious from the moment John picks up a gun and starts his quest.  Injuries are of minimal concern beyond the way they impede his ability to act in the moment; the primary point of this extended exercise in violence is to underscore an act of supreme will, and it works phenomenally.

In typical action movie style, the emotional reality of what’s happening outside of John’s grief is largely ignored.  This is a very morally compromised world we’re inhabiting, and everyone is aware of it, but they give no thought to those questions.  Instead, every character responds to the scenario with a highly detached, matter-of-fact attitude.  Guys who know John take for granted what’s going to happen and commit to their job of either aiding or hindering him with total professionalism.  As John tears through waves and waves of mobsters we get regular reminders that they’re fighting him just because their boss told them they had to.  Even the mob boss treats defending his son (the perpetrator of the heinous crime) as more a business obligation than something founded in emotional considerations.  The result of this aggressive commitment to detachment is the sense that this whole sordid affair is just a particular variation on the retired old-timer returning to visit their workplace.  It’s a quirky approach to an organized crime story, but it really works in the context of John’s emotional journey.

Perhaps the only aspect of the movie that strikes me as irredeemably goofy is the Russian mobsters’ insistence on translating Baba Yaga as “the Boogeyman.”  I think Baba Yaga as a concept has sufficiently penetrated the popular consciousness that we could just leave John’s professional nickname at that without giving a facile faux translation that erases all the delightfully horrific connotations of a wild old woman who lives in the forest and eats people with her iron teeth.  Like, I get the cultural equivalency that the writer aimed for with Boogeyman, but it’s a different enough folk figure that the use of a sort of similar Russian character is just jarring.  But whatever, that’s just me.

Break Time

Sudden trips back home for unexpected events tend to take it out of you.  I’ve enjoyed having this long weekend to recover from all the stress of Mom’s funeral (it still feels weird to write that), but a thing that I’ve observed since getting back to Portland is that I’m feeling a little drained of creative energy.  I suspect that has to do primarily with the way that grief often mimics symptoms of depression; my moods are generally fine, and I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of work (all three weeks of it that are left for the school year), but I’ve noticed a slight bit of anhedonia on my part when it comes to my usual pastimes.  Writing feels particularly challenging at the moment, mostly because I don’t have a lot that I want to discuss here.  It’s a bit of a shame because I’m getting close to a major blogging milestone, but that can wait a little longer to be reached, I think.

I expect that my blogging break won’t last too long; as soon as something that I can pound out a thousand words on occurs to me, I’ll probably be back at it.  In the mean time, I’ll be hanging out on Twitter periodically and continuing to practice my drawing.  That’s a soothing activity, but it also scratches the same itch that blogging does.  I keep thinking that I’d like to learn more about inking and coloring, but then I think about the cost of supplies or even a decent tablet and stylus, and I go back to thinking that I should just practice with my pencils a bit longer.  There’s a running total of the number of pages I’ve filled up with drawings this year (along with a bunch of other stuff), and it’s really not that much when I think about it.  Although I’ve been playing around with doing full page drawings lately, they’re still relatively rudimentary and they take me multiple days to complete.  I think this is mostly just because I draw in short bursts with relatively long breaks in between; the pace might pick up while I’m not keeping up with my regular blogging schedule, but I don’t know that for sure.  We’ll see.

Turns out it’s really hard to capture non-neutral expressions (surprise!). I did this picture of Laura Wilson from The Wicked + The Divine crying during my week in Georgia, and while most of it is okay, I feel like I did something weird with the eyes (probably too wide) and the mouth (I still don’t have a solid grasp on lips; they somehow always end up looking both too thin and too full at the same time). The hair looks good though.

Five Words

On Friday my mother died.

It’s a simple sentence.  There’s the subject (“mother”) with a single adjective indicating ownership (“my”) and a prepositional phrase indicating the time frame (“On Friday”) before finishing with an intransitive verb (“died”).  Any of these components by themselves is innocuous enough.  “The car died in the parking lot.”  “On Friday I went to work.” “I love my family.”  “Mother enjoys talking on Sundays.”

It’s only when you put them all together that the whole meaning balloons beyond the sum of its parts, and the enormity of the thing settles down on your shoulders.  The foolish thought persists that this is another heavy thing you can carry along with some kind of dignity.  It’s only five words, and you’ve spent your whole life trafficking in the flow of language.  You literally hear, speak, and write thousands more in a given day effortlessly.  What’s five more words?

But then on Saturday you wake, and they’re the first words that come to mind.  On Friday my mother died.  Setting them aside takes more work than you anticipated.  Fatigue clings to you through the rest of the day, through the travel preparations and the breaks to rest.  You watch a TV show about children learning to live on their own, to govern themselves, to be the adults because their adults are gone, and while you laugh with your partner at the shoddy writing, you feel a twinge of relation.  Push it away.  It’s just words.

You try to take your mind off the words by reading stories.  Flush them out with a million more words.  The story about the young emperor who just wants to be decent to his people should be an escape.  He grieves his mother, ten years gone.  You turn to your favorite comic about young people making poor decisions.  The main character pushes relentlessly towards revenge on the woman who just killed her family.  You consider video games.  The one you’re playing centers a woman who has just lost her father.  Dead parents are everywhere.  On Friday my mother died.

On Sunday you rise early to lug an overstuffed suitcase to the airport.  Board a plane far too early, try to sleep in a tiny space while you half listen to comfort music.  Get irritated when the words catch you off guard, break through the shell you’ve crawled into.  “It’s the breathing that’s taking all this work.”  “We are falling but not alone.”  “I would give it all if only for a moment that I could just understand.”  On Friday my mother died.  Wipe your eyes, pick a movie from the plane’s library.  Best to stick with something safe, dumb.  There’s a Transformers movie.  Perfect.  You hit play.  The girl’s father is dead.

The plane lands, and you text your father.  He and your uncle are picking you up.  It’s a much needed reunion.  There are smiles and jokes in the car, small talk about work.  Your partner brags about you, and while you secretly enjoy the praise, you’re unsure if you like the attention.  It’s good to swim in words that have nothing to do with

On Friday my mother died.

Your uncle parks the car, and everyone hops out.  The journey’s over, at least for now.  You see your dad, and as the two of you hug, muttering apologies and reassurances and anything else you can think of to fill the space you struggle together to understand something that can’t be contained in five words.

It’s A Lot

“We stay out of other peoples’ grief.”

That’s a motto of members of the Andromeda Initiative in the Mass Effect game I’ve been playing.  It tidily sums up the reality that this group of folks have decided to make a really long journey from their home, one they can’t take back, and everyone they know and love who stays behind will be gone before they ever arrive.  Every person you meet in the game has a story about someone who didn’t come with them, and the vast, rarely spoken rule is that you give them space to deal with that story on their own terms.

It’s a sentiment I can respect.  We don’t have very good social scripts for coping with negative feelings, so the impulse to give space and let people deal with the messy stuff privately makes sense.  There’s a vulnerability to seeing someone else’s grief that most of us just don’t handle well.  Better to steer clear, stay out of it.

I don’t know what you do when you can’t give space because you’re the one sitting in the devastation zone.  Years of practice have taught me to dissociate a little bit; this is happening to me, but it’s also happening to other people.  I should focus on how they’re doing.  I should do something to help meet their needs so that the attention doesn’t turn on me.  God, being in the spotlight when this is how I’m feeling would be the worst.  Move along now, other people need comfort more than I do.  Is it possible I could just turn invisible, sink into the machinery of mourning and go unnoticed while I lick my wounds in private?  That would be nice.

Better yet, maybe I could just sleep for a bit.  Take a vacation from being present while absent on the other side of the world.  If I hadn’t caffeinated this morning maybe that would be a possibility.  Instead it’s sit at home, let my mind race, wait for more information, any information, consider doing something as a distractor.  Maybe I could read a book or watch some TV.  There’s always video games to sink into if I just need to stop thinking about this, but that’s not really going to work, is it?  Nothing works when you feel the world being reshaped around you and the cascade of realizations won’t stop coming.  Little things like figuring out a new Sunday morning routine, wondering about the logistics of traveling home to say goodbye, what’s going to happen with your father who called you at three in the morning to deliver the news and all you could say was “Okay,” and all he could say back was “It’s not okay.”

We stay out of other people’s grief.  We can’t get away from our own.

I Woke Up And I Was Crying

I have a vivid dream about my grandfather still being alive.  The circumstances vary, but a few key details always seem to be present: I’m happy to see him, as is the rest of my family, because I know that he’s been dead.  We’re thrilled to be reunited, but on the edge of everything is the sense that it won’t last.  In the most recent version, things had changed up a bit because my grandmother, who passed three years ago in May, was also alive.  For whatever reason, that wasn’t important; she had never been dead, and she was celebrating my grandfather’s return along with the rest of us.  At the end of the dream (which always feels only vaguely like an ending), I found a note from my grandfather wishing us well; he had already left.  The details are fuzzy, but I think the note was in a stack of papers that were supposed to be instructions for repairing an old computer; I thought it was charming how old the technology appeared to be.  Anyway, the note was addressed primarily to me.  My grandfather had been reading my blog, and he wanted to encourage me to keep it up.  He liked my thoughts.  It was at this point in the dream that I began to sob because he was going away again, and I already missed him.  Not long after that, I woke up and felt actual tears on my cheeks.

It’s a strange feeling to describe this experience; I don’t typically remember much about my dreams, and, being dreams, they tend to be nonsensical things that aren’t worth spending much thought on.  Even this dream, when I try to impose some sort of narrative sense on it, still feels disjointed and random.  The remarkable thing about it is the way it made me feel.  I miss my family members that aren’t here anymore, but most of the time it’s a detached sort of missing.  If you’ve ever heard the metaphor for grief of the ball in the box, it’s probably the most accurate way to describe how it typically feels: long stretches where everything is fine punctuated by brief acute sorrow.  What strikes me as weird for how it hits me is the way that it’s consistently my grandfather who seems to trigger the feeling.  If I remembered being especially close to him when I was younger that would make sense, but I’m not sure that was the case.  Memory is a terribly unreliable thing, but what I mostly remember about him was how hard it seemed for him to have to take care of my grandmother, who was particularly ill during the last few years of his life.  I know that my dad and my aunt felt close to him, and I wonder if it’s awareness and empathy for those relationships that stirs the part of my brain that will randomly decide to remind me of something missing.

All this seems to be connected with my recent reading of Fun Home, the graphic memoir by Allison Bechdel about her life growing up with her closeted father in a small, rural Pennsylvania town and his sudden death while she was away at college.  Bechdel’s narrative surrounding her father is preoccupied with trying to make sense of his life and how it relates to her own; she makes it clear from early on that her father was a distant parent, someone infinitely more interested in his own pursuits than the work of raising children.  The central thesis of her recollections is that her father’s death could have been suicide (he was hit by a truck while doing yard work) precipitated in response to her own coming out, a decision that he had been unable to make when he was younger.  There are a lot more moving parts than that built into the memoir, and it’s all relatively circumstantial (there’s no evidence his death was anything but accidental), but the purpose of the book’s narrative isn’t to establish hard facts about a life; it’s to make sense of feelings of alienation and lost opportunity that Bechdel experiences in relation to her passed father.  Practically every page is punctuated with a tragic moment from their relationship, but the method of presentation is so relentlessly matter-of-fact.  Bechdel is working through something extremely complex on the page, but she places the narrative at such a remove that the most heartbreaking bits (her initial eagerness to study literature at college as a way to connect with her father giving way once she realizes he’s more excited about the books than about her thoughts on them, for example) just slid past me on the way to the book’s conclusion.  There’s a cerebral quality to the way Bechdel depicts her grief in Fun Home that makes sense to me, precisely because it feels so detached.  It may in reality be far more visceral than that (in talking about the book after we both finished it, Rachael explained that her experience while reading was far more emotionally taxing), but what I found most relatable about Bechdel’s grief was how it turned into a thing she wanted to figure out and make sense of.  I don’t understand why certain things strike me as sad or if there’s something unresolved about relationships I had with lost family.  Once I’m past the moment where the grief has hit intensely, I’m left wondering what just happened.

Before too long the wonderings tend to slip away like the dream itself with just the impression of a memory and a feeling.

A Brief Reflection

[TW: discussion of suicide]

Last week, the day before the inauguration, I was sitting in a meeting with one of my grade level teams when I got a text from a friend about one of our former students who had recently died.

Longtime readers and folks who know me in person are aware that this isn’t the first time I’ve had this experience; two years in a row at my old job I heard about students and former students who had died suddenly.  Both times were difficult, especially because they were kids that were known by the other students; it’s hard to describe the stress that comes from trying to manage your emotions while your helping a group of kids who already have difficulty managing their own emotions work through this kind of bad news.  For months afterward, those students’ deaths hit me in weird ways.

This time I felt vaguely sad, but it was a pretty detached feeling.  I was texting with my friend about this while my coworkers went on talking about how we were going to proceed with teaching Othello this week; I didn’t bother to tell them anything had happened.  This wasn’t a kid that they’d ever met, so the only reaction I felt like they’d be able to offer was the same sort of abstract sympathy that you reflexively present whenever you find out someone’s received some really bad news that doesn’t impact you.  Even as I’m writing this, I’m still trying to figure out my own emotions and whether I’m feeling personally impacted; it’s hard to judge, especially since I’m beginning to understand that my process for working through grief isn’t really an overt thing.  I’m five years removed from my last interaction with this student, and I honestly don’t know how this news is going to shape my emotions over the next few months.

There is one thing that I know I’m feeling more sensitive about after this latest loss; this student committed suicide.  I don’t have any details, so I don’t know the circumstances surrounding their decision to end their life, but given what I remember about the student, it’s likely an expression of their mental illness.  In light of that, I’ve felt much more acutely aware of all the immature jokes that some of my students make about killing themselves over minor inconveniences, and I’m feeling less inclined to chide their jokes and move on.  It’s a pervasive fear among educators that we might miss signals that children are in need of help or fail to act when we do recognize them.  Once this year I’ve had to stop class to deliver a serious talk to my students about the importance of not joking about suicidal ideation and also making sure they tell an adult if they are having thoughts along those lines.  That was a weird, somewhat uncomfortable shift from the upbeat tone I usually try to take in class, but it felt necessary in that moment.

Now I’m wondering if there will be more of those moments, and if so, do I mention the incident with this student?  Personal connections are powerful tools for making lessons stick, but I’m not sure if this is a personal connection.  The news is less than a week old as I’m writing this, and I still don’t know how I’m affected.  I don’t want to cheapen what happened to my old student by using them like some kind of object lesson.  That’s a hard thing to weigh against the importance of teaching children that it’s okay to seek help when they’re having suicidal thoughts and feelings.

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Given the nature of this post, it feels like it would be irresponsible not to include links to some resources for anyone coping with suicidal thoughts.  If you are experiencing suicidal ideation, please seek help immediately.  You are a unique and irreplaceable person, and the world will absolutely be lesser without you.