Going West Into Nothing

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If I think about my first exposure to “controversial” pop-culture filmmaking, it was (like a lot of people my age) Quentin Tarantino. And to me it’s interesting in how through time he’s become such a lightning rod when it comes to film discourse, discussions about film culture and cultural appropriation versus influence, about direct and indirect ties to other older films, and even older niche types of filmmaking.

His works Kill Bill (both volumes 1 and 2) and Jackie Brown (adapted from Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch) are great, and even now if I rewatch those films and cringe at some of the violence and the language and the dialogue, they’re both still some of my favorite movies despite their flaws in violence and writing. The perspective that Tarantino frames violence is something both visceral and raw but also sensationalized in a surreal way I can’t fully express, but it always borders on uncomfortable depending on the context, and the back-and-forth always feels show-off in a ways to me, though maybe it’s a level of jealousy that Tarantino has the freedom to make movies that are mostly just conversations in diners and coffeeshops.

So then speaking of aesthetics and trappings, here’s the thing about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It’s really good, and it looks amazing, but I’m not entirely sure I like it.

Films that rely on nostalgia are weird. Media in general that relies on nostalgia is weird, because you have to balance a fine line in theory between historical accuracy and pure aesthetics. No one interested in retro wants historical accuracy, they want aesthetic. And those who want historical fiction aren’t that much interested in the aesthetics, because it’s just trappings for larger stories and unseen but deep-seated issues. So of course something that purports to be about the Manson family and Hollywood in 1969 is going to have to deal with that, which it does, but also doesn’t in a weird way that both fascinates but also bores me.

For the sake of convenience let’s just use OUATIH, sound good?

OUATIH doesn’t actually feel like a film, but rather, a showcase of scenes and interactions told roughly in order, so it’s less a series of narratives or linear stories that interweave, and more of skits that created a presented narrative, occasionally and honestly, sorta crudely, tied together with omniscient voiceover narration. It’s almost like an experience as opposed to a movie, where you can experience what it would have been like for this type of person or these types of people who would have crossed paths with stars, producers, hippies, and the beautiful and inescapable historical setting, which is so colorful and razor-sharp in terms of cars, fashion, and buildings…the background stuff.

But I don’t know if the background stuff really saves it, at least not in a way to make this a movie worth ever watching and re-experiencing again. In the same fashion, Tarantino’s previous work, The Hateful 8, was a beautiful film to look at and was shot magnificently, but felt so ripe and rife with violence I’m honestly not that comfortable just watching it again for a good long while, if ever, because the meat of it isn’t something that I can make peace with as “good.” Beautiful? Gutteral? Raw? Yeah, sure. Good? Ehh, not in that case.

I actually really applaud the way that it uses actress Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate not as an alternative-history thread (where DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, the so-so TV actor in a middling-to-sinking career, and his stunt double/assistant/friend Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, kill the Manson family members before they can do anything), but instead as a sort of larger background look at late 60’s LA and Hollywood, tying the presented narratives together at the very end after various intersections throughout the film in an almost afterthought sort of way.

And, as I said before, it looks amazing. It’s also wildly-quiet in comparison to his other films, in terms of lacking the “signature” Tarantino scenes of  intense dialogue and quips to stew on movie trivia, pop culture, niche subculture, or whatever was drawing his fancy that day (the honestly-stupid tipping monologue of Reservoir Dogs and the insider-movie stuff of Death Proof are particularly-jarring examples). Maybe it’s because this IS a film about insider Hollywood trivia and niche filmmaking lore, so that level of meta-narrative disguised as casual conversation would push it over the edge too much, so that self-editing and self-restraint helped a lot.

I just don’t think it was enough, overall, for me. Which is fine, because to bring it back to a deep-rooted belief here, Tarantino doesn’t make movies for anyone but himself and what he likes and wants to try out, and he has that freedom to experiment and make a meandering sorta-coherent film that purports to be an alternate-historical moment capture related to the “Golden Age” of Hollywood in and the death of the Summer of Love while also creating a showcase for the art and style of a particular era.

But you can find much tighter and better storytelling along similar lines in other places, like 2016’s The Nice Guys (directed by Shane Black) which is set in 1977 California and honestly, while taking place almost ten years after the Manson story, works just as well as being about “California in the (decade)’s”. The cars are great, the clothes and architecture and set design and fashion are on-point, the story revolves around a very historically-contextual thing. Everything in there snaps together quickly and efficiently, and you feel like you’re in 1977 in LA but not lost in it admiring the scenery, wondering about the drinking habits of some two-bit Western star and his sideburns or simply admiring the theater marquees during a minute-and-a-half driving sequence that’s there to remind us of back when movies were great, man.

Or whatever, like what you like.

It’s 2020, and I’ll be forty in three years, the media tastes of people are by and large something entirely secondary to me and my interactions with them. It’s easy to see why OUATIH was so well-received and loved, as well as why it was also roundly-criticized in various manners, I guess, but in the end all that neon and cool furniture and cars just wasn’t enough for me.

Irony Is For Suckers

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(This was originally just a train of thoughts on Twitter put into a slightly-more coherent form as I try to work more and more in longform.)

I was recently on a kick one morning going to work, listening to Lifetime, the seminal New Jersey band that was around from 1990 to 1997. From that band came seminal late-90’s/early-2000’s hardcore bands like Kid Dynamite and later on, Paint It Black, as well as a plethora of other bands and projects, which at one point I had pretty much most of all that web of musical output. Yes, even the weird electronic stuff that I didn’t really get, but I wanted, in my collector’s brain, to make suer I had to complete this micro-catalog of this collective’s output, a capsule of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York-adjacent hardcore punk and emo.

They got back together in 2005 (which is when I finally got to see them live) and released a new record (which was really great) as well as a re-release of their very first one with a ton of other old stuff in there, which was very exciting for grad-school Costa at the time (again, collector brain). Listening to them you see the threads of inspiration that led to a TON of “modern emo” bands that were all the rage in the 2000’s touting hometown pride for being from areas considered not cool, all of it going back to a band from New Jersey who sang songs about heartbreak, bad friends, lonely nights, and weird times.

I think a lot about what I grew up listening to these days, especially framed within the essay “Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t” by writer Jessica Hopper (the essay’s probably almost 20 years old at this point?) that highlights how much of punk, emo, and hardcore is rooted in young (mostly-straight) male anxiety and frustration and how it fuels a sort of lashing-out in the feral-ness of it, and it makes you think also too about what could be seen as a very legitimate criticism of a lot of indie/punk/underground rock music of the 80’s and 90’s into the 21st-century…it’s really white. And it’s really male. And it is, overall, what could be simplified as “whiny white boy music,” a thing I’ve heard (not unkindly) used to describe some of the bands that I grew up listening to.

And I mean a lot of it all makes sense, punk can be very suburban at times, very male-centric, and at the same time it can not only all sorta sound the same but also sound self-centered, turning girls into grievances abstract concepts rather than actual people. You know, “whiny white boy music.”

But I mean, look at me;

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Me in 2007 at the Petrified National Forest in Arizona on a road trip…PS, don’t drive barefoot or in flip-flops kids, it’s illegal in some states!

What can I say?

I was a sensitive, nerdy, earnest teenager and 20-something who saw rage and frustration and not a small amount of machismo and bruteness in punk at the time when I was struggling with who I was going to become, so of course a band that instead sang about those sorts of things, about the moments in life you strive to remember in hindsight, about romance and the awkward pains and glories of it was something that I was going to be attracted to.

When Grant Hart of the immensely-impactful Husker Du passed away, I remember Andrew Weiss mentioning (and I’m pretty sure I’m butchering this paraphrasing) about how Black Flag was the band you were supposed to love, but Husker Du was the band that he knew he really should love because of how they spoke to him. How that band, melodic and honest and personal, felt more real and important than anything rage-filled or overtly-political that was held up as an echelon of punk rock at the time. To me, that was Lifetime. They (and bands like that of that time, of before, and after) were too earnest, and I think that sensitivity and honesty, not really masked necessarily in anger or political rage or playing at being tough, is what put people off and made people like me feel a little wimpy or not hard enough to honestly enjoy it.

Which is bullshit, ebcause in theory so much of what I loved about punk rock was the deliberate thumbing your nose at social constructs, and being macho is one of them, but I guess toxic masculinity is a hell of a fucking drug to shake.

All I know is that Hello Bastards and Jersey’s Best Dancers were sloppy and raw and I felt it in my gut every moment I listened to them, more than any other band considered relevant at that time in my life. I guess I was “emo” as the kids would say these days, listening to the singer of Lifetime sing, ironically enough, a cover of “It’s Not Funny Anymore” by Husker Du (from their second record, Hello Bastards) as I’d ride the subway home at night, thinking I was in those songs about those kinds of nights baring yourself to someone, even if it was just a record.

For Grandmothers

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Getting older is where you start to think about a lot of things, especially if you’re the child and-slash-or grandchild of immigrants, from anything vaguely-ethnic, because it’s that point in life where you finally start to find footing and parameters (I really like this word, I realized recently) about what you like and what you don’t like about the world those who came before you came from.

In that footing, you start to sometimes struggle, and I think the reason that when we recently watched Lulu Wang’s film The Farewell, which I’ve wanted to see but also struggled to bring myself to see (it came out last year and I’m mad I didn’t see this in theaters then because it would have definitely been one of my top films of last year), it so deeply resonated with me. I’ve also struggled with growing up Greek-American, with not wanting it, with trying to accept and embrace it, with the history of it and the current social and political aspects of it, of wanting to care but honestly feeling bad that I also don’t, if that makes sense. And so much of that seeps through this film, with Billi grappling to fit in and go along even though she knows that she can’t, occupying another space of the generation that are coming back, struggle with not being a part of their family’s cultures both on purpose and in defiance…AND YET still expected to go along with so much of it anyway when needed. It can feel like you’re being obligated to participate in elements of a world that only stands in the way of your own forward progress.

But barring toxic relationships, how can you ever say no to your grandmother?

I’m also close to my remaining grandparents, my mom’s dad and my dad’s mom. My paternal grandmother who now calls me “Costa” instead of the diminutive nickname version because “Costa” is what she used to call my grandfather, who I’m named after. But he’s dead now, so I’m the only “Costa” around, and I find myself doing a lot of the things he’s done, like eating corned beef and pig’s knuckles, drinking coffee, carrying things in my shirt breast pocket, watching old movies, that sort of stuff I know he did.

His mortality, the way that after that last round of chemo he decided that the last six months or so they’d give him weren’t for more medical stuff, and how he lived for almost three more years after that “six months” diagnosis, made me think about this film and how drastically different the two narratives of my family and this film’s “fictional” family (do a quick google search if you don’t know the story behind it), but at the same time they’re about how people take the news and responsibility of living after knowing that the end is within sight of someone in a seemingly-cruel and awful way.

My maternal grandmother left the US to go die in Greece when I was a kid, and I remember her leaving and my mother telling us later on vividly. My paternal grandfather died when I was at work one day, and my mother called me right before I had a class to teach. I distinctly remember the day (it was my birthday, and I feel like I’ve always ended up working on my birthday) and I remember bolting home after that last class instead of holding my office hours. Both times I had a sense of something important happening, of a generational loss (Akwafina’s character breaking down at how so much had changed in a land that she was culturally expected to still maintain some level of connection to despite the way that it was leaving her behind, or maybe she’s left behind and feeling stupid and raw at noticing it and being hurt by it was an excellent moment of volume in an otherwise tonally quiet but heavy film) that I was only more consciously-aware of when I was older and it happened with my grandfather, though all my grandparents had undergone amazingly-hard lives to come to the US and create better places for the families that they had and wanted, creating communities in a strange land, even though I think in their hearts they always knew they were of two worlds.

How would I react if she was where Billi’s grandmother was? How would my family react, and would we make the same decision? The film makes the very valid point that the cultural practice of denying someone news like that about their health is illegal, and that divide is something that I think the film touches on as a part of the larger issue of how the family is collectively struggling, considering the overall idea of individualism versus collectivism.

Billi in The Farewell is learning about those clear lines and the grey in the spaces separated by those lines, and the way that the film frames interactions and experiences as part of this larger narrative not of the wedding, not of the lie, and not even of her own personal demons necessarily, but instead of recognizing not only the way that all the other family members orbit her grandmother, Nai Nai, but at the same time the ebb and flow of her own personal sphere. T

hat’s something that I think about a lot with my own remaining grandparents, their won spheres, their own lives both in relation to mine, but the life they had before and they life they have when we’re not there. Nai Nai’s life is hinted at, but her love for Billi and the rest of the family is absolutely something that blooms no matter what, and watching that bloom reminds me so much of my own grandmother.

Coins Tossed/Swords Crossed

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I’ve been craving fun in my media recently, in particular in the media that I consume in my downtime for no real reason. You know, entertainment.

We recently watched THE MANDALORIAN, the Star Wars live-action show (I loved it, so did Chontel, and I’ve got something about it coming to Patreon soon), but watching that also made me think about watching THE WITCHER, the Netflix adaptation of the Polish fantasy novels and sorta partially the video game series.

Now, the creators of the games treat elements of the games as sequels to the novels, but both the novels and the video games are, confusingly but also not, considered separate entities by the author of the novels, who has spoken out about his enjoyment of the Netflix show, which isn’t the first TV or film adaptation of his novels as well, adding interesting layers on top of the ways in which we can view adaptations and sequels of or to other works overall in a multilayered sort of sense, a wafer of various works within a larger framework of the idea…but anyway.

While a lot of  talk was made about this show appearing in the wake of the end of the long-running TV show GAME OF THRONES (the adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy novel series A Song Of Ice and Fire), I was confused because THE WITCHER so obviously NOT that, but rather reaching further back towards more classic fantasy epics, the kind of fiction I loved as a kid and still have an intense appreciation for. I half-jokingly referred to it as “hella anime,” mostly because it reminds me on a surface level of the Vampire Hunter D franchise (a mutated lone monster hunter with a weird attachment to his horse, silver sword, white hair, hated by people yet needed…need I go on?), but at the same time I’m serious in that it’s a swashbuckling action story with humor, brief overlays of worldbuilding to hint at more to come, and a primary focus on creating a cast of characters that reflect different approaches to action (brute force power, mental/magic and guile, and feral cleverness).

I think though what drew me to THE WITCHER a lot here was the fact that it’s action-forward and fairly straightforward overall as an action story, whereas the lesson that many took about genre from Game Of Thrones was that active and conscious deconstruction of r2luphazy1831fantasy was necessary to make it palatable, but also it had to function in direct opposition to what it was about the genre that drew some people to it (even without whatever problematic aspects that people find about or find in fantasy fiction, many of which can be actual legitimate ones that reflect actual bias and issues but that’s another talk for another day).

I want action, I want swords flailing as a hero battles and hacks their way through a battlefield or whatever. I’m not interested and able to, at least mentally these days, nonstop immerse myself in what sometimes feel like hackneyed and heavy-handed attempts at complex and nuanced reflections of modern-day problems through the lenses of genre fiction or just dramatic fiction in general. While that isn’t necessarily a bad approach or way to create fiction-slash-media, it’s just annoying that I can’t find or have immersive and “fun” action-adventure as much in the genres I enjoy without them having to be eye-winkingly self-critical in the worst possible way, which to me, strips the immersiveness out of them.

It’s something I struggle with in film in particular (since we’re initially talking about a fantasy TV show here) where straightforward action that isn’t immediately framing itself as intensely serious just feels…lacking. But THE WITCHER, despite being presented as this “grim” and serious work of fiction in a setting full of monsters and prejudice and suffering, has moments that simply revel in the action and the visible shows of how, in that moment, that power in the hands of a heroics character can make you feel good. It might feel temporary, it might feel fleeting, but it’s a moment to hold onto and grasp. Geralt is a good character in this series because more and more it almost feels like he slips into the role of the straight-man rather than the antihero character framework, because he contrasts with so many other elements in this world that make me laugh. The “fuck” joke (that it’s one of two things he mostly says) as a response to what would in other contexts could lead to dramatic responses or silence is such a great example of that, an everyman response to any kind of inconvenience, large and deadly, or small and annoying.

“Fuck.”

Also, I love the looks and feel of various things in this show, of buildings and clothing and the roads and layouts of rooms and castles. The depth of small things like that (I I guess we’d call it world-building, though I’d think of it more as populating) ads a lot to me in terms of immersion into a story.

Plus…and this is totally a shallow thing that feels incredibly gendered as well as person-specific, I’m a sucker for cool-looking medieval weapons and honestly, this is sorta my jam. It appeals to the little kid in me who read fantasy novels alone in his room or on trips, engrossed in stories about heroes and villains. It put power into concrete totemic things and I feel like that was important for a kid who struggled to find his own voice and find any power that they could have.

I’m excited for more seasons, and I might even go back and throw this first one on again just for kicks. We’ll see.

Shredding, Saying, Thinking, Feeling

Every time someone ultimately ends up talking about punk music to me, or asking me about what I like about it, or what drew me to it, or what it’s about, the inherent political aspects of it are what ultimately feel like come forward as the defining characteristics, and while that tends to be really important, what I’m always reminded of then too is that it sort of takes away from another equally-important aspect that mid-80’s nascent emo really pushed for, which was this feral (a word and feeling that I always associate with punk music) expression of raw emotion and hurt and uneven frustration.

youcantstayhereartworkThose words, “feral” and “uneven” and “emotion,” those ultimately make me really feel like they’re the most important things to come out of being a lonely and confused teenager struggling to express myself, struggling to understand what I could and couldn’t do, and struggling with the limits and boundaries that were already being

I’ve struggled on and off as someone male with expressing fear, inadequacy, and the feelings that I’m not keeping up with peers and family, allowing myself to fall prey to this idea that men have to do certain things, meet certain expectations, and even now in my mid-30’s, with life having settled, with the life ahead of me of “serious” adulthood and marriage and domesticity and my career settling around me, I still struggle with it. I look back at what my 20’s were like and feel amazed at not recognizing how bad and depressing a lot of it was, stuck in a dual trap of bad situations and self-imposed cages where toxic masculinity my own hang-ups left me struggling because I didn’t want to admit how much I needed help, and how badly I felt like I was drowning among a sea of possible help, if only I’d remembered what punk music had taught me, what it really teaches us the most, which is that we are not alone, and we shouldn’t feel scared to admit we need those others around us.

Watching the Internet recently talk about and then talk about talking about how we should realize that sometimes, toxic behaviors in young men are not just reflections of toxic patriarchal behavior but also can be the scars of poverty and symptoms of depression, and then watching people react to this just makes me incredibly angry. I’m angry at how this is something that trickles down into young men, and those who don’t have avenues and canthari self-discovery moments like I did as a teenager into punk and hardcore and emo just get hard, cruel, calloused, and mean in response out of frustration and ignorance within them and aimed at them.

In “To Shreds, You Say?”, the band Iron Chic scream;

“Face to face with my greatest fear/I’m a stone baby you’re a feather/just leave me in the ground forever”

And lemme tell you, hearing this line for the first time, even in my 30’s (I think so hard about how much my life would have felt better if I’d heard this song when I was younger and really struggling with my place in life and feelings of inadequacy that honestly made me do some not-that-great things), is so thunderingly-deep, an acknowledgment of a deep-seated fear that I know I’ve had, and that I’m positive is so pervasive it seeps like a poison into so many people, not just me. That fear that you’re not doing well enough, that your friends and family are going to leave you behind, and that your contributions to any relationship and interaction will always be uneven.

I’m not worth keeping around, I’m a drag on someone else, I’m the stone, and everyone else is the feathers that keep moving, keep moving. I’m constantly scared of being stuck, the rock who sinks and never moves forward, the person who social moors have trapped, even as the  spectrum of society grows and spreads and I just get left behind and forgotten in my own corner, and when you grow up with so many opportunities but also so many limitations on what you can talk about or feel scared of, it’s like lead in your lungs, poisoning you. And it’s hard to admit that without feeling like I’m taking advantage of those innate privileges I’ve got, the privileges existing in addition to the found families and communities punk music has led me to.

But I should, and you should, and we all should, and not feel like that we’re burdens because creating a burden from this sort of openness is when you treat it like a weapon to make someone else feel bad. And you’re not making someone feel bad. Punk rock has never made me feel bad, and neither should emotion. I’m not gonna let it do that to me.

Fields of Dependants

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We went to go see Parasite, the latest from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. It actually took us a while to get to see it because A) it came to the US in October and we were busy but also B) it was immensely popular and sold out in theaters a lot.

The film is beautiful on a visual level, which is something I feel should go without saying coming from Bong Joon-ho and from a Korean filmmaker in general (a lot of what would be considered “Korean New Wave” cinema always feels gorgeous), but’s also visceral and meaty in so many other ways, subtlely dealing with class struggles and class issues in a manner that feels so far removed from a lot of other attempts that I’ve seen in cinema (which are so ham-fisted at times it’s almost embarrassing).

As one family infiltrates the other, a soft and harmless scam that temporarily blinds them to the cruel ways in which capitalism divides us in a manner that can legitimately dehumanize a person, and the other reveal that their naive awareness of the world can truly have noxious and callous implications and consequences,  it’s so fascinating to see this unraveling of a balance that would be considered social norms even in the sense of “civilian vs crook”. We went into this movie with various ideas, vague on purpose. I’ve more and more started the habit of going into films with almost no knowledge about it beyond what an initial trailer might have shown me, and refuse to read about any films MV5BZmUxY2Q0OTYtYTY0NS00MmVlLWFmODctMDFmYWVjNWQ0NTZiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXRyYW5zY29kZS13b3JrZmxvdw@@._V1_UX477_CR0,0,477,268_AL_until after I’ve seen them, and in this case I had a general sense of horror and crime as an over-aching themes here, of a scam illustrating some horrifying truth to the idyllic scenario the “victims” present.

However, the way in fact that Parasite is more of a symbolic study of the toxic nature of class warfare, of economic disparities, of the poison of literally and physically allowing capitalism to infiltrate the very structure of a city (on a large scale) and a family (on the small scale), in a country that had a three-way struggle going on of nuclear paranoia, economic development, and economic disparity, was so far beyond what I initially expected…it’s one of the best films of the year as far as I’m concerned (in my relatively-small filmgoing experience per year).

Something I thought about hard as we sat in that theater to watch this was that we’d made a deliberate effort to see it in a theater rather than trying to find it through…”other” means just to be able to say that we’d seen the film. The experience of watching Parasite in a theater with the immersive quality of a film theater screen was, in what feels like and probably was a deliberate move, almost essential to truly understanding the movie and absorbing everything about it. We had seen The Lighthouse (also excellent), directed by Robert Eggers (who also directed The Witch, a movie I liked a lot), the week before, also in theaters, and again, it was a movie that honestly DEMANDED to be seen in a theater. I don’t think The Lighthouse would have had the same impact or affect on me if I’d seen it on a TV, even a big-screen TV, and Parasite works exactly the same.

The overall larger impact of the film drawing you into itself through the immersive nature of theater viewing brings the film viewer even more into the slow decay that capitalism brings upon social structures like cities, families, and personal beliefs about luck, about what’s owed to you, about the difficulty of accepting the myth of hard work and success.

Eagles & Princes & Yellow Pages

Fall is approaching. Time to dig in with horror movies and funky-weird goth punk music.

“He made me important.” – Robert De Loungville, Rise of a Merchant Prince 

I snatched up some Raymond Feist novels form my brother to re-read. I’ve been so immersed in work recently and besides the crime fiction I have around (I’ve been doing a bit of an incompletely and unofficial Elmore Leonard re-read as I worked on something about him for The Means At Hand) that I wanted something comforting, and Rise of a Merchant Prince was one of those re-reads. The pages are slowly yellowing, the paperback still in good shape, but definitely showing its age and its use from re-reads.

This scene, where (spoilers I guess) drill sergeant of the Crimson Eagles, “Bobby” De Loungville, lies dying in his protege Eric’s arms in an ice cave on a foreign continent, his lungs pierced by a broken rib. All the character can do is declare the importance of their leader, who lies burned and injured himself, the man who started the Crimson Eagles army, Calis the half-elf. It’s a bit meant to illustrate the character Calis as being vital to the mission and to the overall story of the books, but also, to me, what makes it so emotional is that it’s an illustration of the importance he had to these other characters. It’s an expression by De Loungville about just what Calis means to him. He raised him up from lowly soldier about to be hung into a man with responsibilities, with duties, with others who looked up to him for guidance. De Loungville was living before, but now, he had a life.

It’s an incredible way to express platonic adoration and relationships, in that small way that we never expect to hit us so hard when we read about relationships between men. It’s an honest admission of the root of friendship, devotion, and love, and it’s so painful to watch someone dying (even in fiction) thinking only of someone else, the man who means everything to him, because he gave his life purpose.

I love this scene. It makes me tear up every time.

I’ve been finding a lot of good nonfiction to read online actually, which feels rare;

I’m sure there’s lots of good nonfiction out there, it might just honestly be I’m tired of the same six or so I re-read a lot because I teach them. This latest batch is refreshing and I might incorporate them into what I assign.

The piece I mentioned above about Elmore Leonard went up at The Means At Hand and I’m proud of how it came out, and I’m also excited about both what I’m working on for Patreon as well as a possible other fiction thing. More on that as I get closer to an idea of where it’s going.

I’m trying to get writing done even with a bunch of teaching and grading, but I’m trying had to keep the balance as well as maintain some personal sense and personal space for movies and time with my loved ones. I keep meaning to do a list of all the movies we’ve been watching and rewatching, but I’m trying to watch more movies and less TV so we’ll see how that goes.

Kim Shattuck of the Muffs passed away and in a just and righteous world, the Muffs could have been and should have been bigger than Green Day.

So I guess it’s National Poetry Day, whatever that means, go read some poetry. That’s it for now kids, I’ll be seeing you around.

“A sword rang as it was drawn. ‘Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.'” – JRR Tolkien

 

The Elders Help The Saplings Grow

We played a few rounds of Photosythesis on Labor Day with a friend over some drinks and chili, which felt like a good way to have a low-key holiday celebration. I’ve never played this game before, neither had Chontel, but our friend had and ran us through it.

It’s a fun game about growing a forest and gaining sunlight as a resource to grow trees and cycle through their life cycle enough times to gain points. It’s competitive and strategic but doesnt feel as aggressively so as other games might because you’re not playing any kind of character, you’re a type of tree, literally.

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I’m enjoying board games (and games in general) as a fun way to spend time with a group of people and kill an evening. Trivia, mysteries, strategy, the rise in their popularity from a very niche subculture thing to again being in a popular consciousness as alternatives for socializing that don’t involve drinking or going out (party games) has made staying in OK again and when you’re tired and not interested in spending money going out, they feel like a worthwhile investment.

What I liked about this game in particular is that it’s reflective of something interesting overall from indie game development, which is that while it’s a strategy game it’s not a war game, which means that any elements that someone might find discomfort in (so many strategy board games are war and colonizing ones) are stripped away as you literally play as a tree spreading across the board, blocking other species of trees so soak up enough sun to spawn seeds to grow more trees or make existing trees bigger and more mature. What might have been a side-effect of limitations of resrouces to lead to certain types of independent video and board games being done in the way they were during creation due to resource issues forces creativity that bucks against the traditional models of gameplay both dititally and physically, and now that people recognize how important that diversity can be in fostering healthy play and healthy industries, you see a lot more of it. Who wants to play a game where you’re a tree? It sound boring compared to conquering nations or engaging in battle with pieces against another player square by square, or hoarding resources in an extended metaphor for some real-life historical event.

But it’s not.

Once you get the hang of it rounds move pretty well. We did two games, each being almost twenty turns (three cycles with six rotations per cycle) in a few hours. Even the first game where we were learning how to play was fun and not boring, and up to four people can play (I’m interested in how a two-person game might go and populate the board). We’ve played board games that allow more than two players (versus something like say, Stratego or chees) and other party games before (Mario Kart and Mario Party are popular at our place), but deliberately having “game nights” with board games is relatively new and interesting to us.

I grew up playing checkers, chess, Monopoly, and other board games with my parents and brother. We’d sometimes do family Scrabble night (not as much as I got older and became a surly teen), and I remember my dad playing Stratego with my brother and I. Then somehow card games became my obsession and I learned how to play poker and solitaire, and I’d play five-card stud with my grandfather. It’s so weird to look back (and laugh) because I never realized how much games were a part of my life in some background way, even if they weren’t just video games.

 

Nowadays we played a round of Bears Vs Babies recently (which is weird and fun), Betrayal At House On the Hill is on my shelves (which I love) along with perpetual party favorite Cards Against Humanity, and Level 7: Escape (which I didn’t really like but maybe might go back to). We really love playing Mysterium (which I’ve played in board gaming stores/public play spaces) when we can (which involves solving a murder mystery by interpreting dream clues) and you can’t go wrong with trivia games (where I can try to show off how much completely useless knowledge I’ve absorbed into my weird brain) like the very hard horror movie edition of Trivial Pursuit.

Fall and winter are coming up and I’m trying to not go out and spend money to get ready for some travel next year, so I’m looking forward to more game nights with people I care about to socialize while still staying inside, because deep down I know I’m a homebody, and kind of always has been. Let’s see how many of the scenarios in Betrayal At House On the Hill I can get through. There’s quite a few.

Boardwalk Empires

I traveled a bit a few weeks ago. We went to the Jersey Shore, or we rather, as I was informed, we were “down on the Shore.” IMG_0726

I’ve been in New Jersey before (I have family in Jersey and in Pennsylvania), but I’d never been that far down into South Jersey, my only experience with this part of the state being reruns of reality TV and pop culture jokes/references…as well as reading the news in a post-hurricane Sandy East Coast watching first weather, then a fire, destroy huge chunks of the waterfront.

My wife is from New Jersey, and joked about it as “her homeland” in the way that she’s heard my family talk about where we’re from in Europe. It made me think a lot about homes, about the idea of a “homeland,” about a place where you’re from with its own culture and unique identity, and as much as we as Americans (and New Yorkers especially) tend to mock New Jersey, it (like so many places in the US) really does have its own unique culture that’s a lot more complex, I feel, than just tanning and corndogs and obnoxiously-bad club music for homophobic shitheads with bad hair. And that culture, despite how it looks, reflects (at least to me) an odd relationship where people who recognize growing up in toxic places nonetheless feel some level of nostalgia because there have been bright spots in there that have brought legitimate joy. IMG_0727

There’s a lot of toxicity, let’s get that off the bat, because that’s probably the best way to describe it. Not trashiness or just bigotry, but toxicity, because it’s a constant slow-seeping feeling that gets more and more obvious the longer you’re there. The amount of pretty-awful racist and hurtful novelty t-shirts was wild, and what was even wilder was seeing them on sale side-by-side with cheesy “I’m with him/He’s with me” shirts appealing to the June Gay Pride market also on the boardwalk and beach, two sides of the coin both feeding into capitalism, trying hard to catch and claim every single form of tourist dollar in any way, shape, or form.

It makes sense as places like Seaside try to continue rebuilding post-Hurricane Sandy, and you can see the newly-reformed and re-planted dunes created artificially to help shore up and restore the natural order and structure of the beach, and you see just how new the boards of the walkway are underneath you, how new so many buildings are, and the one taco place is a Brooklyn-transplant joint with bagged pork skins passed off as chicaronnes taking up space that could be served by an actually-good restaurant but hey, that’s how money works and gentrification, right? Even on the Shore. Try to hustle, try to make money and rebuild your life, better your life, stay alive, stay afloat. Not everyone can make it onto a cooking/travel cable TV show as a “local favorite,” so of course seasonal places pull out every trick in the book to try and pull in as many tourist dollars as possible. Capitalism is probably the one idealism that rises above all the “Punisher skull/Blue Lives Matter VS Rainbow Pride flag superimposed over a TV show superhero screen print” battles that seem to be raging on the front of the shirts worn by summer Shore temporary inhabitants.

It feels very wild and surreal to be a part of and even passively see.

At the same time though, I can understand the appeal even if, and especially if, you’re not the type to spend your days in squalor only go to out and party like it’s an approximation of 2005 in a European rave somewhere in a Cold War warehouse. We found the types of older Formica-top places I loved serving fried and raw seafood and drinks in the hard scratchy plastic diner cups that look cloudy but are just old with use and having seen a lot of ice cubes crackling against the inside of the cup. the drinks were cold and the boardwalk food…

…man, I love trash vacation food.

I finally had fried pickles and good fried Oreos, actually good stuff. Do you know what a really good fried pickle tastes like? It’s perfect. Somehow, the heat of the fried batter mixes with the sourness of a dill pickle to make something that almost but not quite tastes sweet, that really-fine line I’m constantly looking for with some foods, because the older I’ve gotten, the less I like “sweet” sweet stuff, although I ended up making an exception as we left the Shore, because we ended up stopping at an original Stewart’s for a Taylor Ham and cheese on a roll and a float, which on a 90-plus degree day, was absolutely perfect right before hitting the road back to civilization.

No, it’s not an Old-World European capital, or an obscure foreign tourist-friendly but not tourist-overwhelmed destination. Yes, it very much feels like and looks like the cliche of reality TV and every joke New Yorkers make about people from southern New Jersey.

So?

Every place is a homeland for someone, regardless of how they feel about it, about what sort of relationship they have with it. Ultimately, the conversations we need to have are not about who comes from what place or how faraway it is, but what we took from it that shaped us and what we left behind that we knew was wrong, was toxic, was not needed to grow as a person. Yeah, in comparison to where my family is originally from, New Jersey isn’t quite as exotic, but it’s a place that has just as many less-than-desirable traits and problems and social/cultural baggage I don’t care for and actively push back against.

Any place I’ve never been is a new adventure for me, because any place that offers something new to see, to eat, to interact with and mark down as another edge of the map that I can confirm exists and is full of actual people, that it’s a place where people go and enjoy themselves and take a weekend or a week during the summer. It’s what we did, its what others do, it’s what I like to do, and it’s what I feel I could definitely do again.

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Anthony Bourdain, Dirt, Amends

Writing about Anthony Bourdain has been something I’ve been really trying to avoid.

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Of course the obvious reasons are that it’s ghoulish, to immediately try to attach someone’s incredibly tragic death to something about “me” and my own sphere. I’ve never really been someone to ultimately invest myself emotionally in famous people, mostly because of the level of disconnect I feel from that sort of thing, but his passing was something incredibly sad and depressing and it really knocked me for a loop, which leads me to the other reason. He was not only someone who lived in a manner and with an attitude that seems almost enviable but at the same time, the reasons that I felt a connection to his work was not just that attitude and work, but also the willingness to be wrong, to learn, and be vocal about how bad he’d been before. It was a model of masculinity that I’ve recognized I should aspire to, especially given my own personal history of struggling with my own ideas of what manhood should be and what and how masculinity as a positive thing to try and build up should be based on.

It takes a bigger and better person to admit to not just having been wrong, but having been a bad person, which is what I always appreciated about Bourdain. Yeah, he was an excellent writer and had good taste in movies and books and liked to talk about that stuff, but more importantly, he was someone to look at and say “There’s someone who knows he contributed poorly to a larger social space and structure, and has been trying to fix and undo that damage however he could.”

I went into a casual re-read of Kitchen Confidentialunsure then, worried about how I could ultimately see a clash or a confusion between what I know now and have read by Bourdain about his own earlier work versus my own nostalgic feelings towards it, one of the earliest examples of nonfiction writing and travel writing that I actively felt not only entertained by but also engaged with.

You can imagine my disappointment then, oddly, in going back and simply finding what was always there. I was so sure of it, so sure of this book containing elements of the sexism and bullying on almost insidious levels that’s so pervasive in ANY workplace, not just the food industry itself.

In fact, I’m simply confronted with far less, which makes me really think even moreso about how Bourdain frames this period of his writing and the period of his life it reflects. It showed some in his later writings (like the shockingly-candid confessionally aspects of Medium Raw, which felt incredibly different and almost morose compared to the by-the-balls aspect ofKitchen Confidential), but I think the way that it showed up the most was in his later actions and how he talked about the world around him. He was still blunt, still forward, but also curious and, at the same time, repentant about his personal contribution to toxic masculinity. That level of candid personal awareness always struck me as a really honest move, because it’s a direct implication of not just someone admitting to being more educated now and recognizing the importance of feminism and in fighting against toxic masculine behaviors. It’s a level of self-recognition in having BEEN a part of those things, of toxic behavior and shittiness that contributed to the elements in culture that feminism works hard to overcome and fight back against.

When I think about my models of masculinity and the problems around modeling oneself as having to rely on an incredibly-small pool of male “heroes.” I mean, besides our fathers (which aren’t guarantees for a lot of people), who do we have? Who should we have and should we even have any in this day and age?

Too often as a young man with no role models because you feel like you’re pushing back against against “the system” and patriarchal structures, you end up falling into so many bad pre-existing traps of behaviors anyway, which compounds your own feelings of self-worth and self-loathing even worse. The explosion of critical looks (too-late, but anyway) into the toxicity of “incel” culture is a great aspect that, honestly, could be expanded on even moreso by pointing out that when you don’t allow boys to foster friendships (not relationships, friendships…and then also mocking close friendships like this as homoerotic) and don’t allow boys to have role models they really want that can reflect a wide range of behavior BESIDES traditional masculinity, you just create these pits that are so incredibly fucking hard to climb out of.

When I follow this example, when I look at my own background and the privileges I’ve had and the behaviors that I’ve indulged in while always seeing myself as “not one of those guys”, it’s honestly shameful. I’m ashamed at those moments of shitty behavior, of shitty things I’ve said and done even in casual ways that I now recognize as being cruel and in their own small ways continued contributing to “nice guy” behavior, cruel casual homophobia, all of it. I contributed to a bunch of it, and knowing THAT, more than any abstract ideas I can spout, is a model of manhood I want to be like. I want to not just be fearless, but also be open about how much I sucked without self-pitying and self-aggrandizing in the name of trying to somehow “redeem” my personal narrative.

It’s hard to be a man without falling into traps, especially the ones you dig for yourself in the name of “being better” or “different” that really aren’t that better or different than the walls and chains that patriarchy and toxicity keep you limited with. But sometimes we do have models that manage to try to get past it, and do better.

Not just saying what’s right, doing what’s right to make up for what you know you’ve done badly in the past. That’s what I saw in looking up to Bourdain as a model of manhood and masculinity, and that’s what I’ll miss about him and his work and impact the most.