It’s Us Versus Us


We live in a weird, weird world.

NASA is working on getting us to Mars, but most people can more readily tell you what’s going on in the Kim K. / Taylor Swift feud than what’s going on in space. We’re in the midst of the most insane presidential election — literally — but most people can’t even name their local representative in the state Senate — a person who has vastly more influence over your life than the president will.

We pay attention to the wrong things, and we do it in the most messed-up way.

The election is an obvious, easy-to-hand example. You’re either Pro-Trump or #NeverTrump. Either “I’m with her” or “Hillary for Prison.”

Then start down the list of issues. Gay marriage: Either you carry a bible in your front vest pocket and insist that homosexual unions will destroy the fabric of the country if not the world, or you literally vomit rainbows and gay pride all over all your social media. Gun control: You’re either Rambo, walking the streets with an arsenal enough for a small country strapped over each arm, crowing about the 2nd amendment when you stop to reload, or you’re a hippie living in a dream world, trying to take every gun away from every law-abiding person everywhere while you’re getting murdered by the host of murderers lining up outside your door. Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter.

Get away from the election, and things don’t change. Take any issue in our time. Abortion? You either care about all life and will fight against all sense and decency for every human cell that ever embedded in a uterus, or you’re a bloodthirsty baby-murderer just waiting to chop up some babies. GMOs? They’re either the way and the future and the necessary outgrowth of the world we live in, or they’re Frankenfoods engineered by Monsanto to control your mind and turn you into a gubmint drone. Pokemon Go? It’s either the literal best thing that has ever happened to you in your couch-hugging, socially introverted life, or it’s the bane of your existence and you hope it dies in a virtual electronic fire.

This is our world, now. It (and I’m not even 100% sure what “it” is — maybe the internet, maybe social media, maybe just media, maybe it’s actually the personified world we live in) seeks out the black and white like a vampire running from the sun, it eschews shades of grey the way I eschew Fifty Shades of Grey.

You’re either one of us, or you’re one of them. Republican/Democrat. Pro-gun/Anti-gun. Pro-life/pro-choice. Dog person/cat person. Waffles/pancakes. Go ahead, laugh. But you know you can think up some anti-waffle propaganda just off the top of your head. (Nothing but straight lines with those jerks, and they’re in bed with BIG IRON, right?)

We’re social critters. We long to belong. And while it’s nice to be able to bond over the things we love, it’s a lot easier to find commonality in the things we hate. In-group/out-group. Those people over there? They’re the enemy. They don’t think like you. They don’t believe like you. They don’t share your values. How can you let them have their way?

Think about it. Trump, possibly the most unfit candidate to grace politics since there was even a word for politics, might win, not because people love him, but because they hate Hillary. Clinton, one of the most hated and untrusted figures in recent memory, might win, not because people love her, but because they are terrified of Trump.

I know I post a lot about politics around here. Maybe (okay, probably) (okay, DEFINITELY) too much. But I’m writing about it because this stuff is weighing on my mind. I’m really scared of what’s going to happen in this country after this election, regardless of how it shakes out. Not in that aw, I’m moving to Canada if xxx wins way that everybody always talks about. But in that way where I actually dread turning on the television in the morning, or opening up a news website, because I know I’m only going to see some new horror visited upon this country by its own citizens. By people who are twisted up in knots by this us vs. them mentality that permeates every aspect of every issue.

I fear that we could see another presidential assassination. Regardless of who wins. People on both sides hate each candidate enough, and we get so riled up about it all. Certainly there are enough guns lying around. It’s not hard to imagine some nutjob going off the rails and killing either one of them. Hell, it’s not hard to imagine some guy down the street who you thought was normal doing it.

I hate to pick on the RNC, because I know the DNC is going to have its own idiocy going on as well, but, well, the RNC is going on right now. I look at the speeches and the people on the stage and it terrifies me. Otherwise ordinary people telling a room full of other otherwise ordinary people that some other otherwise ordinary people outside this room are lawless, lazy people that want to see the country burn. People with no more political sense than a goldfingered golf-course gopher insisting that they’re sure the acting president is working for the enemy. People holding mock trials for their political opponents and whipping the crowd into a tear-streaked, red-faced frenzy.

And I know the DNC is going to go the same way, just in the opposite direction.

What’s so easy to forget, here, is that those people? You know, the ones you don’t agree with? The ones whose viewpoints you can’t even fathom? The ones whose brains must not even be functioning properly, whose thinking is so backward it’d be better if they just died off and left the country to the rest of us, who are single-handedly flushing the country down the tubes?

Those people?

They are our neighbors. Our dentists, our doctors, our lawyers. They bag our groceries and change the oil in our cars and patrol our streets and teach our children and defend our country and and and…

They aren’t robots. They aren’t faceless soldiers in an enemy army. They didn’t get their viewpoints with the latest firmware update on their birthday. They thought about these issues. Weighed them. Cared a lot about them. Maybe not recently, but at some point, they engaged their brain and made the best decision they could based on the best information they had.

And maybe their information was bad, but that’s not their fault. And maybe a trusted source is giving them deliberately misleading information, but that’s not their fault either.

They are just, to use a really tired cliche, like you and me.

We need to remember that.

Image of the Earth from Apollo 17

We need to remember that when our parents are telling us, beyond all belief, that they like Trump. We need to remember that when our co-workers tell us they don’t see what the big deal is with the whole Black Lives Matter thing. We need to remember that when our kids tell us that they’re gay or straight or trans or whatever.

They didn’t just make this stuff up. They’re not crazy just because they take the other side of the issue.

They are human.

It’s not us versus them.

It’s us versus us.

If we want to heal as a country, if we want to come through this thing (and again, I’m not even sure what I mean by “this thing” — the election? the decade? life, the universe, and everything?) in one piece, we’ve got to stop demonizing the “other” and start seeing each other as equals. We have to start trying to understand one another rather than just shouting about how right we are and how wrong they are.

That’s not a race thing, not a gender thing, not a religion thing.

It’s a human thing.

And we need to start acting like it.

I’m going off the political posts for a while, because I really just can’t. I can’t with the plagiarized speeches, with the shootings of and by police, with the protests, with the terrorist attacks. Lighter fare in the days to come, I promise. Probably gonna write about American Ninja Warrior or something ridiculous like that just to clear the pipes.

Photo: “The Blue Marble,” property of NASA.


I Hate Everything, Even My Own Birthday


Yesterday was my birthday.

The big three-six.

And instead of making a big deal about it here on the blarg, I wrote a dumb review of Ghostbusters.

That’s not my way of trawling for birthday wishes. To be honest, I’m not particularly arsed about birthdays. I’m five years older than my wife, so any mention of getting older in general just reminds me of how young I’m NOT anymore.

The fact is, birthdays kind of suck once you’re past your early twenties. You certainly don’t have any privileges to look forward to at my age, and nobody is impressed at the number of candles on my birthday cake or the fact that I can blow them out all by myself.

But having a summertime birthday, especially when you work in a school, is the double suck, because you don’t get the workplace shout-out. No company-wide e-mail goes out. No cupcakes in the breakroom. No pranks pulled while I’m at lunch. Nope, it was a day just like any other, pretty much.

Still, it’s a chance to reflect, and that’s a thing worth doing no matter how old you are. So, in the last year, these are some things I’ve done:

  • Finished, finally and for truly, my work on Accidentally Inspired (at least until I go back to work on it some more).
  • Started the truly harrowing task of submitting my novel to actual real-life literary agents.
  • Received my first rejection of said novel within hours after submitting it.
  • Finished the first draft of another novel entirely.
  • Started a new novel.
  • Posted, like, 200 times to this blarg.
  • Tried twitter and sucked at it.
  • Ran about 550 miles (impressive, considering the injuries I can’t seem to kick).
  • Applied for, interviewed for, and accepted an offer for a new job, all in the space of less than a week.
  • Lost about 10 pounds.
  • Gained 10 pounds back.
  • Lost about 5 pounds.
  • Gained 3 pounds back.
  • Pretty much stopped giving a sharknado about my weight as long as I don’t go above 185.
    • Not in that order.

Which is all pretty awesome, maybe. And that leaves out entirely any of the awesome things that I did with the family, or the awesome things that the family did that I got to bear witness to.

All of which is to say that, while the day itself isn’t something I would make all that much fuss about, the time spent getting here is worth being proud of.

So with that said, I’ll leave you with the electronic exchange of birthday wishes between a good friend of mine and myself, because it sure as hell made me laugh. (This friend is a touch older than me, and wiser, and one of my biggest cheerleaders. But she does know how to take me down a peg.)

D: Happy birthday.

Me: Hey thanks! I’m at that point where I prefer to forget about it😛

D: I’m never going to forget tho, so maybe I can be a pleasant reminder that at least you aren’t 2 1/2 years older?

Me: I guess I’ll take it, but I would still rather forget.

D: Ok, I’ll resist next time.

Me: We’ll see!

D: No I promise… I always yield to the requests of the aged.

Me: Dammit.
Seriously. Nobody cares when you turn 36.
Which is as it should be.

Terrible Reviews: Ghostbusters (2016)


So, the Ghostbusters reboot is out. And it’s gonna be hard to talk about the film without also talking about the six-hundred pound elephant in the room, which isn’t an elephant so much as it’s the manifestation of insecurities accumulated over decades.

There’s a bit of controversy around this film. I don’t know if you’ve heard. It has the dubious distinction of being the most downvoted trailer in film history, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t a thing until somebody who was determined to hate the movie went and counted to solidify his point. And, much like politics, the reasons for that largely depend on whom you ask.

Ask somebody who’s optimistic or indifferent about the reboot, and they’re likely to say the people downvoting the trailer and panning the film before it ever saw the light of day are antifeminist manbabies who, uh, tickle themselves to Pete Venkman getting slimed every night before they tuck in. These misogynists, they would have you believe, are just butthurt about the beloved franchise of their youth being repurposed with a female cast, and they are VERY VERY ANGRY ABOUT IT.

Ask somebody who’s not happy about the trailer, and they’ll blame it on any number of things: that the special effects look dopey, that the jokes aren’t funny, that the performances look flat, and the list goes on and on. Then there are those who insist that the film is “ruining their childhood” by remaking something that should never have been touched again, as if films, once they’re made, should get cast in bronze and locked in a hermetically sealed chamber until the rapture comes and Jesus himself uncorks them all for his own jolly consumption.

Then, of course, there are the actual misogynists, who literally say that it’s a bloody travesty for their beloved film to feature women in the lead roles.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s actually pretty damn tough to compare the 2016 Ghostbusters to the original, because they are not in any way the same film. They share the same conceptual core, the same nougaty center of “oddball scientists fighting ghosts and saving New York from the supernatural,” and pretty much diverge in every other way.

Whatever. Let’s get to the (spoiler-free!) review first, and we’ll get to the gender meta-analysis later. And I’ll go ahead and disclaim now that the original Ghostbusters is comfortably one of my top-5 films of all time. (And I didn’t hate this reboot.)

The Good:

Whatever else this film might be, it’s designed to be a summer blockbuster, which means action, some laughs, and a big, climactic showdown, probably one that causes millions of dollars in collateral damages and destroys most of a city.

And this film delivers that. The action sequences are pure eye-candy, with the redesigned but classic proton-packs slinging hot ghost death around willy-nilly, and a full load-out of new gizmos and doodads for the ‘Busters to show off. Proton Grenades, a Proton Shotgun, Proton Pistols … it’s all good and it’s all fun. (We’ll discuss the merits of this stuff later, but the visuals are top-notch.) McKinnon’s fight sequence with her Proton Pistols was a total wow-moment in the film, and her character is sure to be an audience favorite.

The comedy will be a sticking point for some people. The original had a dry, deadpan humor to it; this film is much more in the trenches. There’s slapstick. Poop and fart jokes. Ridiculousness. And a lot of people will hate that. But this film knows what it is, and that humor fits right in with the tone of this film, which is goofier than the original right from the start.

Then, the showdown. Buildings get smashed. Ghosts run amok. It’s pretty much what you’d expect, and it looks pretty great. I almost just typed that the final baddie was a bit ridiculous, but then I checked myself. We’re talking about a film in the original whose final showdown was with the StaPuft Marshmallow Man. So forget it. Last showdown is right in line with the tone of the film.

Finally, a note on the story: the main through-line of the story gets established a lot sooner in this film than in the original. Within the first twenty minutes or so, we see the guy (who will later become the big bad) messing around, acting weird, and his role is gradually fleshed out. In other words, we get an idea of what’s actually feeding the problem much earlier in this film than we did in the original (where we don’t really learn about Zuul or any of that until after the halfway point), and I think this film is better for it.

The Bad:

For me, the film has one critical flaw, and that’s the pacing. It’s forty-five minutes into the film (almost halfway) before the ‘Busters catch their first ghost, which is too long for my tastes. Those first forty-five are spent introducing characters, investigating hauntings, and in short, getting the team together. I felt like the introduction of the central two characters (McCarthy and Wiig) was entirely too drawn out, while the other two (McKinnon and Jones) get relatively little intro: then, all of a sudden, the four of them are together, on a gig, busting a ghost … and THEN the film takes off.

A related, but lesser, complaint is the development of these characters. Only one character really changes through the events of the film, and that’s Wiig’s — but the change doesn’t come at the climax of the film, rather it comes in the first thirty minutes. The film’s climax is therefore not transformative for any of the protagonists, which leaves a story wonk like me a little disappointed. Come to think of it, I could just as easily say the same of the original film, sooo….

Then there’s all those weapons I mentioned up above. Storywise, they’re a waste: the McKinnon character rolls them out, not because the proton packs are inefficient, but “just in case”. Every character gets one, and every character waves their altered boomstick around during the final showdown. They’re nice eye-candy, but that’s about it: in fact, the only non-proton-pack weapon that ends up having any story significance is a freakin’ Swiss Army Knife.

The Tough-to-pin-down:

Chris Hemsworth’s character is a big question mark for me. He’s so over-the-top stupid that it really stretches disbelief that the characters would allow him to stick around. Then again, he has some so-stupid-it’s-hilarious moments (the phone in the aquarium for example) which kinda make me rethink complaining about him. So he’s hard to nail down. Then again, my wife points out that he is the male equivalent of a worthless secretary hired just for her looks, so I guess that’s just my gender-blinders falling right into place.

Then there are the ghosts themselves. A lot of folks complained when the trailer came out that the effects on the ghosts looked lame or cheap. Hogwash, if you ask me. They look a little over-the-top, maybe, but this entire MOVIE is over-the-top. Still, the first ghost they catch is not so much a ghost as a freaking winged green devil monster. Maybe I’m nitpicking too much, but that seems less “ghost” and more “demon”. Regardless, in their first attempt to capture a ghost, they go up against this monstrous thing and they bring it down with relatively little trouble. It felt a bit like too big of a victory, too early, against too powerful an adversary.

Outside the Frame:

I said at the outset that you can’t really talk about this film without acknowledging the gender controversy. You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned it at all (well, a little bit around the Hemsworth character). There’s a simple reason for that: gender couldn’t be less of a factor in the movie. Which kind of makes this film the height of a feminist accomplishment.

How’s that, then? Easy. The protagonists are women, but it doesn’t matter that they’re women. The film would work just as well with the original cast of Spengler, Stantz, Venkman and Zeddemore as it does with these four ladies, as it would with any four male actors from today, as it would with any permutation of players and genders. That’s because these characters are not strong female characters, they are simply strong characters who happen to be female. There is no chest-beating, bra-burning moment of “look what we women have accomplished! See how we have thrown off the patriarchy!” No, these are simply capable women, going about their business, kicking ass and saving the day. They don’t need to prove how “feminist” they are. They just do it.

Then, there’s the fact that the film is a reboot (not a remake). Obviously it will be compared to the original, even though to do so is an exercise in futility. This will never be the same as the original, which means that the haters crying that the movie got remade at all will never be wrong. Still, the movie pays homage to the original in the form of cameos from the original cast and callbacks to well-known gags from the original. You still have the hilarious moment when they crank up the “unlicensed nuclear accelerator” in a backpack for the first time, and the other characters slowly edge away. Rehashed again is Bill Murray’s yank-the-tablecloth-off-a-set-table gag that he can’t resist, only this time it’s Kirsten Wiig being dragged out of a restaurant by security, grabbing the tablecloth as a last resort. Some will claim that these callbacks show the film is unoriginal, that it’s simply scavenging the corpse of the first film. Nonsense. They are little head-nods to fans of the original, they are winks-and-nudges to the folks who recognize them for what they are.

The Verdict:

The fact is, this is a perfectly ordinary film. It’s not going to change your life. It’s a good time with some funny ladies and some pretty excellent explosions and light shows along the way. There’s nothing earth-shattering going on here, outside of the sheer balls it took to retool the original so completely. That said? It isn’t a bad film. Not on its own merits and not by dint of re-inventing a film that, truth be told, probably didn’t need to be reinvented.

But when did “need” have anything to do with the movies being made in Hollywood? This is a perfectly good film with a lot of controversy around it. The fact is, your experience of the film will almost certainly depend on the baggage you bring to it. If you come to the film determined to compare it to the original, you’ll be disappointed. This film isn’t trying to improve upon the original; it’s trying to spin the yarn anew for a younger generation. If you come to the film with a more or less blank slate, you’ll have the chance to enjoy a visually delightful take on a true classic.

I’ll reiterate here something I said when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, and the purists were jawing about “IT’S NOT A SEQUEL IT’S JUST A REMAKE,” “YOU CAN NEVER IMPROVE UPON THE ORIGINAL HUR HUR HUR”. Which is: at the end of the day, Ghostbusters is not just a film, it’s a franchise. Movies, TV shows, video games, toys, motherfargoing Ecto-Coolers. And that franchise? However much you may love it? However much it may have influenced you in your youth? It owes you nothing. Star Wars owes you nothing, and Ghostbusters owes you nothing. If you loved the original and think any new take on it is an abomination? Well, for yourself, you’re right, and this film isn’t for you. But if you are willing to take a chance on something a little different, a little less heteronormative (and I just broke the word bank with that word), then hey, holy sharknado, you might have a little fun along the way.

Finally, just look at this viral photo of Kirsten Wiig greeting some young fans at the red carpet:

If the looks on those little girls’ faces don’t make this film worthwhile, then I don’t know what does.

All images are the property of Columbia Pictures.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: If-Then


What if life were like the movies? Or like books, or video games, or music?

What if life were like stories?

Let me back up. At one time in my life, I entertained the possibility of becoming a computer programmer. It made sense of a sort: I’m decent with computers, certainly I use computers a lot, and I’m kind of fascinated with what computers are able to do. I don’t, unfortunately, have the meticulous, detail-oriented mind that programming calls for. Still, I learned a few things about programming, one of which is the if-then parameter, which is the cornerstone of programming.

If this thing happens, then do this other thing. If this condition is met, proceed with the program.

It’s simple but critical. And it’s there in our stories, too. If you see a gun in the first act, then you expect to see that gun fired in the third act. If the main character starts off as kind of a jerk, then he will have some change of heart by the end. If this character is afraid of flying, then you can bet the farm he’ll have to get on a plane before the story runs its course.

But those are big if-thens. They are everywhere in stories. If the character has that extra drink, then you know he’s going to do something extra-stupid before the night is out. If she leaves a MacGuffin at home when she goes out, then that will be the very night she NEEDED the MacGuffin. If John McClane takes off his shoes, then the writers will be sure to make him tromp across broken glass.

You can predict what’s going to happen in stories, then, by paying attention to the little things characters do.

Wouldn’t it be nice if life were the same way?

If I wear this tie, the boss will recognize that I’m going the extra mile and give me a promotion. If I put in this time at the gym, I’ll end up with the body I always dreamed of. If I have a good breakfast, the rest of the day will go great.

Life is never so convenient. We prepare, we plan, we make adjustments on the fly, and life still blindsides us. There are no guarantees, there are no simple straight lines from the actions we take to the consequences we make.

Which could be disheartening, really. I mean, right now, I’m living my life in the hopes that: If I sink in all this time working on my writing and my novels, then I’ll get published and make tons and tons of money. But that isn’t a guarantee. It might not even be likely. Likewise, If I’m diligent about exercising, then I’ll enjoy a long, healthy life. But nope, that’s not automatic either. My books might never be published. I might get smacked by a bus tomorrow, or contract some horrible long-debilitating cancer that cripples me.

Life, to summarize, is a crap shoot.

So why try, right?

If the if-thens you set out have no bearing on the world at all, then what’s the point of planning, of trying? Damn, that’s dark and reductionist. And too often, I think — especially in this country — we think too much in that rigid if-then way. If I do this thing, spend this money, invest this time, then I expect these results. And if I can’t be guaranteed, then I’m not doing it.

We need to adjust our if-thens.

If I sink in this time working on my writing and my novels, Then maybe I can learn something about myself, entertain myself, and maybe possibly entertain a few other people, too. If I focus on my health, then I can improve the quality of the time I have, I can get stronger physically and mentally, I can do things I might not otherwise have been able to do.

Sometimes I look at life as a long con, where you keep your eyes on the distant prize and keep working toward that. The spire in the distance, the North Star that keeps you oriented.

But I think just as important is keeping focused on the immediate, the things you can count on, the real-life stuff that life throws at your feet.

Life doesn’t care about our big plans. Life owes us nothing. Best we can do is make the best we can out of the things we spend our time on.

And make sure we’re focused on the right if-thens.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

 


Things You Could Do Instead of Playing Pokemon Go:


Literally anything.

Already a guy has admitted to crashing his car into a tree (and I mean totaling it) because he was playing while driving.

Police departments across the country (if not the world? International readers, help me out) have been issuing statements: exercise caution while playing. Do not trespass while playing. Do not play while driving. etc.

My Facebook feed (YES I STILL USE FACEBOOK DEAL WITH IT) is lousy with jokes and memes and “funny” pictures of Pokemon popping out of people’s pants.

And people I know personally have expressed anger — ANGER! — at being run out of graveyards late at night because they were playing the game.

The game might encourage people to get up off the couch. It might encourage them to get out and socialize. It might rekindle a long-lost love for a game that many people apparently enjoyed in their youth. (I never saw the appeal, but hey, it takes all kinds.)

But it also encourages loitering. It encourages wandering more or less blindly into unfamiliar places. It encourages walking around with your face glued to your phone screen — which is something we already do too much of.

It is TEARING COMMUNITIES APART.

This fad cannot run its course soon enough.

Now get off my lawn.


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