Archive for Deep Thoughts

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I recently watched the excellent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, about Fred Rogers, the influential host of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood

The movie was a great overview of the man’s life, mostly centered around his television career, but occasionally dipping into his personal life, too.  Seeing Rogers single-handedly rescue PBS before a panel of senators intent on stripping away the budget of the fledgling network was incredible.  Watching him be present and listening to people of all stripes and abilities was heartwarming.  As so many have said online, his message of love is exactly what we need right now.

But that was also the part of the film that got to me the most.  You could see, as he got older, that his heart just wasn’t in it anymore.  That he was still trying, struggling against the darkness, trying to be a guiding light, but finding it harder and harder to shine.  Perhaps his frustration was best revealed when he recorded PSAs for children after September 11, 2001’s terrorist attacks.  He literally said that he didn’t know how much good the PSAs would do.  That is a man who has lost hope.  

I felt for Rogers at the end of his life.  As he watched the world around him decay into more violence, anger, and hatred, it must have been discouraging to realize that, on a large scale, he didn’t make a difference after all.  His message of love and understanding and trying to be a better person clearly didn’t get through.  I can’t even imagine how he’d feel about America’s current political landscape.  And it makes it really hard to stay positive when you think about the fact that, if Mr. Rogers couldn’t make the world a better place, what chance do I have? 

But Mr. Rogers did make a difference.  He made small differences everywhere he went.  That really is the ultimate lesson to be learned from his life.  We can raise our own children to be kind, understanding, and compassionate, but we can’t change the world.  We can’t make people be nice.  Sometimes you just have to accept that you can’t save everyone, but you can save your own children.  And hopefully they’ll take the lessons you learned from Mr. Rogers and pass them down to their children someday, instead of succumbing to the anger and cynicism of the world around them.  That was the best that Fred Rogers could do.  That’s the best that any of us can do.

(Not-so) Funny Games

Recently, one of my favorite podcasts, The Faculty of Horror, put out an episode about Michael Haneke’s 1997 film, Funny Games.  

This is a movie I’ve been putting off for years.  I don’t do well with horror films in the “home invasion” sub-genre, especially since I got married and had kids.  It doesn’t help that all the descriptions and synopsis have used the words “torture”, “sadistic”, and “depraved”.  But because I enjoy the podcast so much, I really didn’t want to miss an episode, so I finally broke down and watched Funny Games.

Much to my surprise, it really didn’t bother me all that much.  I think it helped knowing that the film is a commentary on film itself – more specifically the horror genre.  With the main antagonists breaking the fourth wall to literally wink at the audience and sometimes even directly address us, as well as a moment where time winds backwards before our eyes, the whole thing felt very staged and intentional.  It didn’t feel like I was witnessing a home invasion as much as I was a scripted performance.  This helped me stay detached enough to not feel the same dread and “too close to home” vibe I’d normally get from this type of film.

Even more interesting – ultimately, I didn’t really enjoy it.  I know it’s not a “fun ride” type of film to begin with, but even as commentary, I found it sort of trite.  Granted, it probably wasn’t 20 years ago, but so many meta films have come out since then, that this one feels a little stale now.

I also didn’t appreciate the way the film talked down to the audience; it really felt like Haneke was judging us the whole time.  My problem with that type of preaching is that most viewers of horror films understand the difference between entertainment and reality.  We know that horror movies are fake and we’re often the first ones to decry real violence in the real world.  So why rub our noses in our shared interest of facing the fears of real violence through the make-believe medium of film?  It’s quite smug coming from someone who has made plenty of violent films himself, even going so far as remaking this one shot-for-shot in 2007.  It’s an instance where I feel the film says more about the director than it does the audience he is so willing to judge.

There are still a few films out there whose reputation prevents me from watching them (most notably A Serbian Film).  But I’m glad I finally got around to seeing Funny Games, if for no other reason than it proves to myself that sometimes the bark really is worse than the bite.  

  

Summer 2015

Hey, folks! Sorry it’s been so long since my last update. I’ve been fairly busy over the last couple of months, working on Mental Floss, spending time on a beach, drawing, and writing, writing, writing. I’ve also spent an inordinate amount of time doing dishes, which is really the only blemish on an otherwise pretty decent summer.

First off, let’s get the Mental Floss stuff out of the way. The Strange States series continues. I had a surprise hit with South Dakota’s Wall Drug entry. I also updated an old article, 10 Very Rare (And Very Expensive) Video Games, which turned into a virtual rewrite thanks to a bunch of movement in the video game collecting hobby over the last few years. I also had a new, rather extensive article on the History of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, published on July 4th (fitting). Finally, I scored a minor viral hit with “7 Overlooked 80s Toys Worth More Than You Think”.

As for that beach time I mentioned, my family (and most of my extended family) traveled to Tybee Island, Georgia to spend about a week in a condo right near the ocean. It was an amazing experience to see my kids playing in the surf for the first time and to explore Savannah and the island itself. We had a great time despite the 13-hour, one-way drive with a seven and a not-quite-two-year-old in the car (thank god for tablets!).

It was our first family vacation and, oh man, did we need it. I’ve never really been one to take two weeks off from work, ever. A day or two here and there was always my preferred method of relaxation, but I have to say, it made a huge difference to just spend time away from work, from our normal routine, and from the world we usually know. It’s amazing what a little shift in perspective will do for your psyche. I know that ever since we got back, I’ve been more relaxed, I’ve been more patient with my kids, and I’ve felt like, yes, there is time to get everything done, instead of scrambling and racing around with my head down. Now I’m really jealous of all those Germans getting six weeks vacation every year. No wonder we have such a stressed out society.

I have been spending quite a bit of time writing fiction this summer, too. My main project at the moment is a Goosebumps-esque novel for kids. It’s based on a story my daughter and I came up with, which makes it all the more fun. So far I’m about 80 single-spaced pages in and I’m having a blast. I’ve also completed a couple of short stories and have a couple more that are in progress whenever I need to take a break from the novel. Everything is in the first draft phase at the moment, but I’m hoping to take a little time soon to edit and send them off to a few small publishers. However, self-publishing with Kindle is always a viable option today, too.

It’s funny how completely different my outlook is on writing fiction this time out. 10 years ago when I thought I was going to be the next Stephen King, I was sending manuscripts out to the biggest publishers in the business, not wanting to “waste my time” with the small press. Now, thanks to working in the nonfiction field for so long, I understand that having an extensive portfolio of published work is so much more important in the long run. I’m also not so egotistical to think I’ll be writing novels for a living like I thought I once might. It’s ok if I do my day job and then write fiction on nights and weekends. That’s what most writers do, even accomplished ones. I don’t know if it’s just maturity or experience, but I understand now what my writing goals should be, and it makes the writing that much more fun and exciting. Still, I hope I can get a few more things published, because that would be pretty sweet.

Unfortunately, all this time sitting on beaches, writing about video games and action figures and zombies (and all those dishes I have to wash), have prevented me from working on my podcasts this year. I have a new episode of When You Hear This Sound written and ready to record, but, ugh, it takes so long to do, and I don’t really have a good studio setup, and the air conditioning that’s been on all summer because it’s so bloody hot will screw up the recording, and excuse after excuse after excuse. I’m hoping that I’ll soon be able to get back to it, because I really do enjoy it, but with so much else going on this summer, it just hasn’t been a priority (especially when compared to sitting on beaches and getting paid to write about video games and action figures). But here’s hoping I’ll be able to make time for it again this fall and winter. I have some great ideas ready to go, it’s just a matter of finding the time and a few assistants to help me make them a reality. If only I hadn’t used up all my vacation time and I could take a little “staycation” to get some things done.

As we head into fall, I hope the next time I give you an update I’ll have finished the first draft of the novel, maybe cranked out a few more Mental Floss articles, and perhaps gotten around to a podcast episode or two (once the air conditioning is turned off for the season in November because Missouri weather sucks). I also have a few more things going on that I didn’t mention here, but they’re still up in the air at the moment, so I’ll wait to report on them when things have solidified a little bit. Until then, thanks for reading, and thanks for supporting me throughout my many creative endeavors.

2014: Year in Review

2014.
Also known as: The Year That Time Forgot
At least in my life.

Near the end of 2013, my wife and I welcomed a new baby into our little family, which pretty much occupied the rest of the remaining year. Naturally, the full-time job of caring for an infant carried over into 2014, which meant that most of this year was spent changing diapers, entertaining him, and trying to still make time for his neglected older sister. So now, as the year has wrapped, I really don’t feel like I did all that much worth noting.

I read a lot of Reddit posts. Took a lot of Instagram photos. I wrote some unspectacular posts for Mental Floss. I put out a handful of podcast episodes. I basically just tried to get through every day, all of which have mostly melted together to form one long haze of existence.

The one thing I did worth mentioning was write, produce, direct, and mix The Thing Read-Along Record Book. Which, don’t get me wrong, I’m damn proud of, but it’s not exactly enough to hang your hat on for an entire year. And even though it’s only been four months since it was released, it feels so long ago that I barely remember that it was, in fact, this year.

I’m disappointed with 2014. I wanted to do more. I tried, but it just didn’t happen. I reached out to some local ad agencies to see about freelance work – and never heard back from any of them. I worked on some long-gestating personal projects – but I didn’t make any real progress, let alone finish any of them. I had plans for my new podcast, The Space Monkey X Audio Workshop – but wound up doing very little with it. I pitched some ideas for a local ad agency – and they decided to go in another direction. I wanted to work on a new record book – but got crippled by fear of the sophomore slump.

Naturally, good things happened, too. Every day my wife and I laughed at our kids. Every day we laughed with each other. Every day we found something to be happy about, even if it was something as mundane as a silly cat video on YouTube. I don’t want to discount these things, because they’re what make life worth living. But when you measure so much of who you are by the things you do, by the things you create, by the mark you leave on this world, a year when you have very little to point to and say, “I did that”, feels like a year wasted.

So it is with heavy heart that I say goodbye, 2014. Not because I wish you could stick around forever, but because you seem to have sucked for everybody – and I worry your influence is only going to carry over into the new year. This year we saw damaging breaches of online privacy. We saw video gamers who justified their misogyny by waving a false flag of journalistic integrity. We saw racial conflict bubble to the surface, with no real relief in sight. We heard almost daily how our civil rights are being violated by our own government, but we only raised a ruckus after a Seth Rogen comedy was pulled from movie theaters. We bought guns in record numbers because we’re terrified of our neighbors. We’re excited about lower gas prices right now without worrying about what’s going to happen once the Saudis have driven out the competition. We were essentially told there is nothing we can do anymore to prevent the devastating effects of climate change, and yet some of us still don’t believe it’s ever going to happen. We read documents detailing torture that has been done in our names, and some of us feel it was all justified. 2014 was toxic. What is there to miss?

All that being said, I am hopeful for 2015. I have a short list of things I want to accomplish. They’re realistic goals too, I think. But there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to boldly step into the new year with my head held high. I may not be able to change the world, but I can at least make my little corner as bright as possible. And the only way to do that is to keep moving forward.

Just keep swimming.
Just keep swimming.
Just keep swimming.

Good luck to you in 2015.
Good luck to us all.

2013 Year in Review

And so we come to the close of another year.

This means another year-end recap post to help me reflect and reassess the previous 365 days.  Sadly, much of 2013 is not worth remembering.

To start, Mashable brought their writing in-house, so my January 2 article on the future of tablets was my final piece for them.  I was disappointed to lose them, not only because they gave me some great topics to write about and the editors were great, but the inclusion of such a high-profile website on my resume definitely brought some much-needed attention my way.

Shortly after Mashable was done, I had prospects to write for Univision when a former editor at Mashable took a new position there.  I even wrote an article for the website, but never submitted it because Univision requires any employees – even freelance writers – to sign contracts in-person at a Univision office.  The closest Univision office to St. Louis is either Chicago or Kansas City, meaning I had to travel on my own dime just to spend 10 minutes signing some papers.  I would have needed to write at least three articles to cover my expenses, and in the crazy world of freelance writing, those three articles might never even come.  In the end, the job never materialized.

Perhaps the biggest blow came in June, though, when The Dim, a web series that a friend and I had been developing for a year, fizzled out.  We’d found a director for the pilot episode.  We found a location that would work for the shoot.  But as we started to fine-tune the script, there were creative differences with the director, and we wound up parting ways.  We tried to sign on another person we’d met with, but they were now too busy with other projects to come aboard.  It wasn’t long before the project died on the vine like so many creative endeavors do.  The director moved on, my co-producing buddy understandably shifted his focus to an exciting new business venture, and I…well, I was left standing in the rubble.  Hundreds of hours of research, writing, and editing down the drain with only nine unproduced scripts to show for it.  Nine scripts that had extensive notes for additional drafts, so it’s not like they’re polished and ready to shoot, either.  I’m still reeling from the defeat, honestly, because I had high hopes for it to succeed.  Maybe we can pick it up again someday, but for now I need to put it behind me and move forward.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t been an easy thing to do and has been a shadow cast over the rest of my creative year.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though.  I’m still writing for mental_floss, though it’s less consistent than it was a few years ago.  I only wrote a handful of articles in 2013, none of which were big successes, before hitting on an idea for a regular feature called Strange States.  It’s an ongoing project which hasn’t exactly blown up the blogosphere, but I’m having fun with it.  It will conclude sometime in 2014, so keep an eye out for it here.

My big creative achievement this year has been When You Hear This Sound, “a podcast dedicated to the weird and wonderful world of record books and storybook vinyl”, hosted over at Bubble Pipe Network.  I’ve really enjoyed working on this one-man show since it’s debut in June, and look forward to continuing throughout 2014.  It’s been tons of fun and I’ve learned a lot about audio production, so it’s been a good project for me, even if only two or three people have ever actually listened to it.

With my focus on When You Hear This Sound, it means Watching the List, my movie podcast, has been put on hiatus.  The show was so time-consuming to produce that it just wasn’t worth it in the end.  I’d love to see it revived in some format for 2014, but I’m still trying to figure out how to make that happen.

I also worked on a few art projects this year.  The first was a piece I drew for myself, but wound up giving to my grandfather for his 99th birthday after he said how much he liked the one I made for my niece last Christmas.  He hung it in his room at the assisted living facility, and even included it alongside some of his own paintings in a small local art show.  Sadly, he passed away shortly after, but I’m glad he appreciated it while he could.  I also worked on a Pac-Man series that I really enjoyed.  And I drew a few more pieces as Christmas gifts – one for my parents for Christmas and the other for an Instagram friend.  I have a few ideas I’d like to experiment with in 2014, and might even try selling a few if I can find someplace that produces good quality prints at an affordable price.

Despite the rough year I had creatively, 2013 was a big year for me and my family.  While much of the time things were fairly quiet, things really picked up with the birth of our son in August.  Then, just a few days later, our daughter started kindergarten.  Talk about a whirlwind of activity!  Things have settled down to some extent – as much as it can in a family with two kids, anyway – but I’m sure the year ahead will be filled with plenty of adventures and milestones to fill our days.

As for 2014, I’m determined to make some changes.  Not resolutions per se, but I feel like the New Year is as good a time as any to decide to do things differently.

The main thing I’m really going to focus on this year is doing more.  I want to get back to a more regular schedule of articles for mental_floss.  I want to get When You Hear This Sound on a consistent bi-monthly release schedule.  I have ideas for a few kid’s books that I’ve written down, but never developed, and it’s time I start working on those.  I have some experimental podcast concepts that I’d like to see produced.  I’d like to get back to some old creative writing projects I have in my archives and see about maybe reviving them for a new medium (podcast?  screenplay?  serial adventure?  RPG adventure?)  And, as all writers do, I’d like to find more time to work on new ideas as they come to me.

In order to do this and still manage to be with my family every once in a while, I’m going to have to be better about using my time wisely in 2014.  This is a skill that I and many creatives often lack, but I’m determined to be a “maker” – not a “wisher” – this year.  I haven’t completely worked out my plan for making this happen just yet, but I’m kicking around a few ideas that I hope to implement sooner rather than later.  I have a feeling extensive, complicated To Do lists will somehow be involved.  Maybe a spreadsheet or two as well…

Anyway, goodbye and good riddance, 2013.  Don’t let the door hit you where the Good Lord split you.

Hello, 2014.  May you be filled with creativity and good fortune for this lowly little space-based simian.

To my family and friends out there in InternetLand, I hope you all have a great New Year, and I hope you’ll stick around to see what kind of trouble I can get myself into.