Response to cnsnews.com

March 15, 2017
Responding to this cnsnews.com article in which my father wanted my professional opinion and gut reaction.
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I think to give my professional opinion adequately, I need to define some important terms for the discussion.
First, there is gender identity. This is how one identifies oneself based on the definitions of gender in their society. In modern America, for instance, when going to church women wear dresses and men wear pants, but in other countries, say Saudi Arabia, men and women both wear robes, but the distinction is in the headwear. In some indigenous cultures, it is defined by body markings, paint, piercing, or various behaviors. Gender identity is usually fully formed by the time someone becomes a teenager, but it starts to be defined and formed between ages 7 and 11, what is sometimes called the Concrete Operational Stage of childhood. At this age, kids’ brains need pretty clear, simple definitions of the things they experience. Milk goes on cereal, sugar goes on fruit, salt goes on vegetables, girls wear dresses, and boys wear blue. As they go into the teenage years, they start to add complexity to the definitions. Girls wear dresses, unless it’s a kilt, then boys can wear a kilt. Boys can sometimes wear pink and purple. Girls can have short hair, boys can have long hair, etc. So as the child compares him or herself to the definitions they have learned, they start to think, “Okay, well, I have a penis, I like sports, I don’t wear skirts, I don’t have a vagina or long hair, so I must be a boy.” 99% of the time, it doesn’t go much beyond that because the kid isn’t exposed to much more variation in gender, so the identity is solidified and they go on to live their lives without giving it much more thought. Even if the culture changes around them and boys and girls start acting differently, it would be rare for someone to experience a major identity change after reaching adulthood.
Gender expression is separate from gender identity because you don’t necessarily show the world what you identify as. Think of that time when I dressed up in Tara’s clothes when I was 6 years old: My gender expression at the time was that of a woman because I was following the cultural standards of womanhood–shoulder pads and all. But inside, I thought, “I’m a boy wearing girls’ clothes!”
Biological sex is the simplest idea to define except when it isn’t. Two X chromosomes makes a woman and an XY pair makes a man. But then we’re left without an easily identifiable sex for XXY, XYY, and X individuals (Klinefelter syndrome, XYY syndrome, and Turner’s syndrome, respectively). What gender do we assign to the people who don’t fit the mold on a genetic level? Then we find out that the reason the X and Y genes make sex differences in our cells is due to testosterone and estrogen production and sensitivity, where XY is sensitive to estrogen but produces a lot of testosterone, and XX is sensitive to testosterone but produces a lot of estrogen. What happens when mutations occur where a person with XX genes becomes desensitized to testosterone and begins producing a lot of it? Or for an XY person to overproduce estrogen? Biological sex may be easy to identify for most people, but that still leaves (0.1% of “male births” have Klinefelter syndrome, 0.1% of “male births” have XYY syndrome, and 0.03% of “females” have Turner syndrome. Total, 0.23% of the ~4 million kids born in 2015 means) over 9000 American kids every year have no easily identifiable biological sex–and that’s just from three genetic abnormalities.
Sexual preference seems to be suffering from an identity crisis of its own right now. Does sexual preference refer to biological characteristics or gender identities? For instance, do two people who identify as women (one dresses as a man and one dresses as a woman) consider themselves homosexual if they are attracted to one another? Would it matter if the one who dresses as a man has a vagina and the one who dresses as a woman has a penis? Or do they consider themselves heterosexual because they have different genitals? In a lot of ways, I think sexual preference is the least important thing to define because it can get super complicated and the end result always comes down to, “Well, I think my partner is attractive.”
So with these definitions, let’s look at what it means to be transgendered. In a nutshell, it’s when your gender identity conflicts with your biological sex. It is independent of your sexual preference, so you may have a penis, identify as a woman, and have attraction to other women (and you might also consider yourself homosexual).
My problems with this article usually come down to semantics. “Sex-change surgery” is no longer the term for “gender reassignment surgery” because the sex isn’t being changed. The person has the same genetic code before and after the surgery, so only the physical expression of gender (e.g. a penis being turned into a vagina) has changed.
The random, nonsense paragraph about conversion therapy really has nothing to do with the article. I don’t know why it’s even in there. Conversion therapy rarely “works,” and when it does, it comes with a range of side effects like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and suicide. The trade-off might be worth it to some people, but I think that should be the patient’s choice after they’ve turned 18 and lived away from home for a while.
When it comes to “gender dysphoria” the author of the article straight up lies. I’m holding the book with the official psychiatric definition, and it reads, “Gender dysphoria refers to the distress that may accompany the incongruence between one’s experienced or expressed gender and one’s assigned gender” (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Ed., 2013, p. 451). “Transgender” is the feeling of being the opposite sex, but even that is not specific enough for the psychiatric community, which defines transgender as, “the broad spectrum of individuals who transiently or persistently identify with a gender different from their natal gender” (p. 451).
Finally, he talked about the suicide rate of those who had undergone “sex-reassignment” surgery skyrocketing in Sweden. I couldn’t find the study he was referring to, but from what I’ve learned in my studies a lot can depend on the destination gender assignment. Men who reassign to female tend to have lower life satisfaction, and one hypothesis is that they have gone through life as male with all of the advantages of being male, and then they are suddenly thrown into a woman’s world and are given fewer advantages because of general sexism. On the other hand, women who transition to men end up very happy and satisfied in part because testosterone makes you feel great, and they get to reap the benefits of being male in a male dominated society.
So that’s what I have to say in direct response to the article. In more general terms, and as someone with an interest in the subject, I think teens and young adults will always find something to be confused and dissatisfied about, so if it’s not their gender or sexual preference, it’s their career or education or personal drama. Anything can become the center of someone’s dysphoric mood. Most people get over the thing that causes them grief by the time they hit 30–some of them do it on their own, some with the help of friends, and others with the help of doctors and therapists.
I think it’s good that we’re talking about it and I think it’s good that we don’t generally murder people en masse for defying cultural gender norms. I think everyone deserves to use the restroom. I also think that an individual’s life experience is more interesting than the collective experience of a group, so I try not to think of all transgendered people as being one way or the other just as I wouldn’t think of all South Africans or all Koreans as the same.
I also think that people are reaching limits of understanding. Not everyone has the capacity to know and understand 30,000 words (Shakespeare’s written vocabulary) and it can get downright exhausting to keep up with changing social standards. When you get enough small groups of people demanding respect and the use of a whole new vocabulary, it can be frustrating, and when you add in financial stress, school, new research, the economy, the government, international relations, ethical conundrums, and religion–research also shows that these kinds of pressures can reduce language ability among other cognitive skills. The world is in an unprecedented state, both in terms of actual population, but also in terms of diversity. The solution to that building complication and stress, in my opinion (which is based as much as I can make it on research and science) is to start with positive regard for our fellow humans, to be a little more laid back about things, and to keep an open mind about new ideas.
Edit: A friend pointed out that I had the age range of the Concrete Operational Stage incorrectly identified as 3 to 7 which is actually the Preoperational Stage. The article has been edited to reflect what I intended.

So an Atheist Walks Into a Mission Trip

June 3, 2013

My wife doesn’t like that I call myself an atheist, but agnostic isn’t a religious preference, so I don’t like to tell people I’m an agnostic. See, agnosticism is really just a lifestyle of critical thinking and openmindedness–it says nothing in and of itself whether one believes in god or not. It’s a scientific foundation, a preference for evidence before drawing conclusions, a hesitation to take anything on blind faith. There are religious aspects to a lifestyle of agnosticism, but it is not exactly a religion.

And I think that atheism is. Yeah, I know a lot of people say that atheism is not a religion, that it’s the exact opposite, and I sympathize with the need to distance oneself from religion, especially if one has been abused with it for any length of time. But let’s just be logical and note that there are strategies for ascertaining beliefs (agnosticism vs gnosticism) and the end results of those strategies, the actual beliefs (theism vs atheism)

So if we put it on a graph, (a)gnosticism is the Y-axis, and (a)theism is the X-axis. The further to the left you go, the more you believe in higher powers. The higher up you go, the greater need for evidence before making up your mind.

I would be somewhere in the top right corner; there is no evidence suggesting that there is a god (that can’t be explained in a different way), but there is also no evidence disproving god. I’m not convinced that god exists and I’m not willing to take a leap of faith, therefore, I am an atheist.

But I try to keep an open mind and when I discuss the issue with my wife, I often think, “Well, certainly, god doesn’t have to be human, it doesn’t have to resemble us in any way and could very well defy imagination, so maybe there is a god that maintains nature in an ordered way.”

Or maybe nature is just nature and why call it god? Why do we give god these attributes of human emotion if it is not human? Why do we sometimes picture god as a giant bearded man in the sky?

I don’t believe in that god. It doesn’t make sense. For that reason, because I don’t believe in the god that most people (by my estimation) believe in, I call myself an atheist.

So I went on a mission trip to Mexico last week. My father-in-law is a Presbyterian Pastor. Everyone on the trip was Presbyterian. The churches we visited were part of the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico. There was a lot of religion in my life for that week. Some of it was frustrating, some of it was fine.

We painted a sanctuary, made friends, painted a mural, made some repairs to the old sanctuary walls, played with neighborhood kids–all in the name of god.

I’ve been at odds with myself quite a bit over the whole thing. Do I think it’s important for communities to gather together and develop bonds with one another? Yes, absolutely. Do I think that religion is the best social binder? No. Do I think god cares one way or the other that people worship it? No. Do I think that shared commonality between people keeps them closer and more likely to work together for the common good? Yes.

My main motivation for going to Mexico was to improve my conversational Spanish skills. Since I teach English to Spanish-speaking immigrants, I felt I could better serve and teach them if I could converse in their native tongue. I think I’ll improve the quality of life of my 8 or 9 students in a tangible way by improving my Spanish. I don’t think that’s selfish, even though it may have been a little misleading to my fellow mission workers who all think I’m a devout Christian.

And as far as charity goes, I think many missions are poorly planned. I think that having a bunch of unskilled laborers eating up all of the local food and slowly doing manual labor that takes work away from local laborers is probably a bad thing. However, the main point of this particular mission group is to improve relations between our countries, not to aid the poor or fix their houses (at least, as far as my experience shows). I wouldn’t be okay with mission work that hurt the local community in the name of god.

This is all to say that I had a weird week. I don’t think religious missions are the best way to build relationships, objectively speaking. Relatively speaking, they are the best option for me. I mean, what am I supposed to do on my own? Cross the border and just start making friends? Well, that’s fine and possible, but I’m just one guy and the number of people I can help with my friendship and particular skill set is finite. Having a larger organization at my disposal increases the number of lives I can touch. In a way, I am using the Presbyterian Church to further my own cause. Maybe there is a more secular solution down the road, but I don’t have that option right now.


Sex and Character Development

February 23, 2013

When two people are naked together, they learn a lot. I think sexual intimacy leads to some of the most deep insights between two or more people, though we are often unable to put those bits of knowledge into words, or even unable to even recognize that we have learned something. Maybe it gets distilled to, “He really knows what to do with his tongue,” or, “She gives incredible hand jobs,” but in reality, we’re learning more than what we can boil down to a simple phrase.

Yet, that kind of depth in a character seems so often lost in books and television. Why? You know we’re all thinking it, fantasizing about the kind of sex characters have off-screen–we even ship relationships before they begin and fantasize about what might be. I know I wondered what Rick and Lanie would be doing if they ever got together on Castle.

Occasionally we get glimpses of sexual behavior: clothes might be strewn about the house, indicating a feral passion between two lovers, someone might have more intensity than the other, in the scene preceding the “fade to black” indication of intercourse, indicating perhaps a hesitance to go through with it. However, the two episodes of Sex and the City that I remember watching had some revealing things about the characters–in bed frustrations and things a person would do to make it more bearable, etc. And I was impressed with Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. That kind of sexual behavior is more telling than someone might realize.

Lisbeth, for instance, is a very complicated character, being (spoiler) raped and coerced into sex for money, but instead of retreating from sexuality, she attacks it. She pursues it, and you can see how dominant she is in the sex scenes with Daniel Craig, who appears surprised at her behavior–unsure of himself.

What does that tell you about the character? Is Lisbeth reacting to being raped, acting it out during voluntary sexual encounters as if to prove to herself that she is in control of her life? Or is it an indication of her healing process? Is she seeking out a relationship with Mikael in order to conceal the damaged parts of her psyche? Perhaps it is both, and that she wasn’t initially interested in Mikael outside of her sexual needs, but found herself engaging on a more stable, mature level as their relationship developed.

I found myself wondering about Buffy’s sex life in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. We got glimpses of that as well, but there are some pretty interesting questions to ask if you think about it. Buffy has super strength. Her first sexual partner is a vampire with super strength–they’re essentially on equal footing in terms of restraint and sexual intensity. But what about Riley? He’s just a regular human and Buffy is super strong. Does she spend the entire time trying not to hurt him? What if she gets lost in the moment and scratches his back so hard that he like, I dunno, dies from blood loss?

And does Buffy want to be in charge in bed? She can get anything she wants that is obtainable through raw strength. She picks up an I-beam like it’s made of foam (which, yeah, it was, being a TV show, but work with me here) and she could probably bench press Riley through the roof. So if she wants to be on top, nothing is stopping her from taking the most  desireable position. Nothing is stopping her from saying no if she’s uncomfortable or hesitant. She’s unstoppable. How would that affect Riley’s sexual behavior? Would he be trepidatious? Cautious? Would he be rough, knowing that he can’t actually hurt Buffy? He could sit there and spank the hell out of her (if she wanted it) until he was exhausted, and… what? Would he be emasculated by that? Riley is kind of a military man’s man: he might have some preconceived notions about what sex is about, and Buffy probably defies most of them.

Or! Maybe Buffy has trouble relating to the world because of her strength. Maybe she wants to be taken care of, told what to do, held down–whatever you can think of–during sex. We don’t know because we couldn’t see those details on a television series, but those are the kinds of things that we wonder about, or at least, we picture our own idealized versions of these relationships in our heads while curious.

Wouldn’t we have a better feel for characters in stories if we could see these intimate dynamics? What if we came to know and love this no-nonsense, hard-hitting car salesman and all of his wacky misadventures–only to find out that he is extremely self-conscious about his erectile dysfunction. We mock that kind of thing most of the time in comedies, but it’s a serious problem for a lot of men who have self-esteem issues as a result. And knowing he has erectile dysfunction is only one facet of a complex problem. Does this character have premature ejaculation as well? Is he able to maintain an erection for a few minutes and then spontaneously loses it? Does he get an erection early in the morning when he wakes up? Is the erectile difficulty a biological, circulatory disorder or a pre-existing self-esteem problem? If it’s the latter, we have a whole new avenue of character discovery to explore. What caused that self-esteem problem? Was he mocked by a high school crush? Did a rumor spread about his penis size? Did he have a respected religious leader scold him over his impure thoughts?

The interconnectedness becomes even more dense when we discover the details. Is he a no-nonsense, hard-hitting car salesman BECAUSE he is overcompensating for his sex life? Are they unrelated? If so, what drove him to be so tough with business and why can’t he apply that mindset to sex? Or is he applying that mindset to sex already and is baffled that it’s not improving anything?

I could go on and on, and it seems that I have. Apologies. I’m thinking about this because I’m working on a new novel that is tightly based on Franz Kafka’s The Castle. The original had quite a bit of implied sex. In fact, one of the sex scenes is pretty hot and heavy, despite being as implicit as possible (It was written around 1920, after all). But there is no detail at all. One of Kafka’s writing traits, at least in The Castle, is that he doesn’t give a lot of detail, doesn’t reveal what characters are thinking. Deception, and the doubts surrounding broken trust, are important themes, however, and so in my retelling, I’m interested in the minute details of the sex.

So much can be foreshadowed by a look or touch during sex that I feel needs to be said. But I don’t want this story to be passed off as some kind of thoughtless erotica. The sex scenes aren’t there only to feed my need for porn. They aren’t there to put everyone in a hormonal frenzy, but they will be hot and juicy, and that makes me doubt that people will take my attempt on classic literature seriously.

Cause when was the last time you read erotica and spent some time wondering about your place in the world? When did you read erotica and ponder the questions, “Am I really a free agent? Or am I a product of determinism? Am I ruled by a faceless bureaucracy?”


Skyfall was NOT good, you guys

December 13, 2012

James Bond has always been so cool. I remember as a child, maybe when I was 8 or 9? My parents got a cheap second-hand TV, so they put it in my bedroom. I didn’t sleep well when I was young, so if I was sufficiently bored during the summer months, I would watch TV late into the night. Some station, I think TBS, did a James Bond marathon for a week, like three movies a night. I saw most of the Bond films in that time period.

Moonraker, Goldfinger, The Man With the Golden Gun, You Only Live Twice, Live and Let Die, License to Kill…

So yeah, I was always a fan, each for different reasons. I like Roger Moore for the camp. I like Connery for the cold, sexy Conneryness. I like Timothy Dalton’s… I like Timothy Dalton. Pierce Brosnan was alright. I enjoyed Goldeneye but didn’t care much for the others. And now we have Daniel Craig.

I remember the headlines, “First Blond Bond Cast!” and then, “Best Bond Ever!” when Casino Royale came out. It is probably my favorite Bond film, all things considered, which I will consider, because–

Skyfall was terrible. No matter how many people say it was great, that it was the best Bond film of all time, that doesn’t make it the best. That’s all anecdotal subjective evidence. It is still a crap movie. Allow me to go on.

Rampant Sexism. Misogyny. Inconsistent Characters. More Sexism. Idiotic Plot (most Bond films are idiotic, but in the context of the Craig films, this one was a disaster). Totally Whitewashed. Unfulfilled Story Arcs. 20 minute finale that should have been scrapped.

Ahem.

It had good things too. One of two car chase scenes that I have ever enjoyed watching. The most brilliant blue backlit fight scene self-contained in one beautiful shot. The best cinematography of any Bond film (excluding the last twenty minutes.). The only Bond film to have character development. The best suspense of any Bond film (What? A spy being quiet and sneaky? How quaint!).

Let’s just start from the beginning. Spoiler alert. I’m picking this shit apart. I’m also going to swear a lot. I’m mighty pissed.

The movie opens with some fucktard putting all of the MI6 agents’ names on a single hard drive and traipsing off with it to Turkey. Yeah, nothing could go wrong with tha–are you fucking kidding me?! Who put that uber-sensitive classified info on a laptop and thought it was a good idea? Who thought it would be okay to send to fucking TURKEY?

And then Bond is all like, “Saving this bleeding agent is more important than that hard drive.” Since when is Bond sympathetic to dying people? Never. He spends the rest of the movie not giving a shit about injured or dying people, but for some reason, we establish right at the get go that he has a heart of gold.

So there’s an awesome chase scene where Bond and this unnamed agent (We find out she’s called Eve) are going after some dude with a shit-ton of bullets and this hard drive. It’s clear that they’re both willing to do whatever it takes to get the drive back. The girl is awesome driving the Range Rover around. Bond gets shot and shrugs it off. Starts punching the guy for shooting him. They end up on a bridge, they are out of time, Eve is ordered to take the shot, and she misses. Hits Bond.

Understandable. It wasn’t a clean shot. The train was moving and the bad guy was thrashing about. She hits her comrade instead of the bad guy and THEN SITS THERE IN DISBELIEF INSTEAD OF SHOOTING AT THE BAD GUY AGAIN WITH HER SEMI-AUTOMATIC M-4 RIFLE.

This is the most forgivable of Skyfall’s writing errors. Eve is on her first field mission (why they sent a virgin on such an important mission is stupid.) and she shoots the legendary James Bond. I’d probably choke and forget the bad guy too. But she had like ten seconds to aim and fire again. This is kinda sexist, but the least sexist thing that happens in the film.

ALSO, we find out later in the film that Bond was listening to M give Eve the kill order. All he had to do was duck. Bad guy gets shot, Bond lives, movie is over in 10 minutes and I go home happier than what ended up actually happening.

Okay, so then the bad guy, the real bad guy, the uber-shadow man–he magihacks the MI6 building and does some computer magic that isn’t actually possible in the real world and M’s office blows up. This kind of baloney is water on a duck’s back. I don’t mind it.

Except that the bad guy hacked into MI6. Why did he need to steal the hard drive with the agents’ names if he could have done it remotely? If one is to make computer hacking into a magic spell, you need to be consistent about it. There was no motivation to steal the hard drive. The entire foundation of the movie is flawed on two counts now, but let’s move on.

Bond is depressed. He somehow lived. We never once see the bullet hole that Eve made. He comments on it, but we never see the scar. Instead, we are treated to an hour of scar tissue that came from some random asshole and his Glock 18.

When MI6 blows up, Bond decides that he loves… the crown? M? Being an agent? We never find out. He goes back to London and has to be recertified as a field operative. We get a montage of him kicking ass at everything except shooting a gun. Then he digs fragments of depleted uranium bullet out of his shoulder, like a badass. This serves as a clever way for the story to move forward–oh wait, no, it adds nothing to the story. Bond is still a bad shot when he’s concentrating and he groans and touches his shoulder for the rest of the movie.

We find out that he failed to pass any of his tests, not just the firearms test (which was a joke, by the way. Allowing him to walk toward the target and shooting one-handed? Please.), and he really shouldn’t be in the field, but that’s okay cause he’s Bond and he’ll prevail. I was fine with that. Faith in the old dog theme.

And this is the part of the movie where the major themes come out. When should people move on? When should we stick by the old ways? When should we adapt to new threats? When is enough enough? When do we throw in the towel, despite what we want, in order to keep our friends safe? M is being forced to retire, though she refuses. Bond is reaching his limits, yet he can’t give it up. They have this interesting interplay.

Bond goes to Shanghai, stalks the guy who shot him. It’s stealthy and cool. I loved it. The fight scene is… I need a good word. It’s more than brilliant and fantastic. It put me on the edge of my seat. It was magnificent.

Bond finds a chip that leads him to a casino in Macau. Weird little plot device, when you think about it, but, as I said, water off a duck’s back.

In Macau, Bond meets this stunning vixen. She’s cool and confident and dangerous. They chat over drinks. Then Bond dissects her psyche, revealing that she is a victim, trying to be strong. She needs to be rescued. He promises to save her.

And then he… does the creepiest Bond thing of all time. He sneaks up on her in the shower.

What.

The.

Fuck.

There was NO invitation for that in their previous meeting. Bond merely found out that she was a frightened victim of a lifetime of abuse… and then he took advantage of that! For fuck’s sake, she was trembling when he came up behind her in the shower. Some might read that as sexual excitement, but… that could easily have been her fear of, I dunno, sexual assault from a complete stranger in her goddamn shower. Did he know she wouldn’t cry out at his approach and just figured he’d assuage her fears with the power of his cock?

And then she died. For no reason. And Bond didn’t care.

I mean, she has a lifetime of being afraid of this bad guy. He’s controlled her and her clan, from what I gathered, for most of her life. She is pants-shittingly afraid of him. And the whole shotglass on her head thing was terrifying. But killing her? If he took so much pleasure in psychological torture, why would he mercy-kill her?

It’s just more acceptable violence against women who can’t take care of themselves and need strong, chiseled white men to take care of them. There was no reason to care about her plight, since she only got ten minutes of screen time, and she just ends up dying and never being mentioned again.

Bad guy is captured. Genius Q hacks into his computer while being connected to the MI6 network, cause he’s actually an idiot. Bond looks at a bunch of hexadecimal code and makes magic happen (ugh). The bad guy escapes and we get an interesting suspenseful chase scene. Then we realize that Silva, the bad guy, is going to kill M. The suspense builds very well. He gets to the courthouse and shoots it up and Mallory, the douche from before, turns into a badass and gets shot. Voldemort shrugs that shit off, yo. Not even kidding. It was a great moment. We see Eve doing something competent again. Good on them for not making her a total fuckup.

Then Bond takes M to Skyfall. The name of his family home in the middle of nowhere? I guess. I wish they would have turned the camera around at some point cause there had to be a town nearby. There was a church and this mansion. Weird, but okay. Some derelict house that Bond used to live in.

Oh, by the way, his full legal name is James Bond. I guess MI6 just tracks down orphans with that name and trains them into equivalent badasses to fill the 007 spot on their agent list. Or maybe little Daniel Craig Bond decides that since he has the same name as Sean Connery Bond that he should grow up and get that job. Whatever. Stupid.

Keep in mind, I loved this movie until M gets shot. I shrugged off all of the other problems until this bullshit happened.

So Silva and his private army invade the orphanage and get their asses kicked by Home Alone traps. There was so much wrong with this though that I slowly started second-guessing the quality of the film. Bond’s car guns do some magic bullet shit with their stationary barrels. The shotgun shells in the floorboards… go ahead and try that kids. You’ll be disappointed. Shotgun shells are not sticks of dynamite, as Sam Mendes (the director) would have you believe. Also, putting shotgun shells in baggies with bullets would not make pipe bombs. A shotgun shell cannot detonate a rifle round without adequate pressure–something a plastic bag cannot provide.

And then the helicopter crashes into the building and the ancient bricks turn out to have been laced with dynamite the entire time. It blows up and Bond is inexplicably trapped in the escape tunnel, science be damned.

Then Bond spends an hour under freezing water and is like, no big deal.

Then Silva dies a very appropriate death by knife. I liked that.

But M dying? By a bullet wound to the side? Did you guys even bother researching this shit after hammering out the rough draft of the script? Gut wounds take hours–DAYS–to kill. And killing M was… I’m out of words for how stupid it was. It added nothing to the plot, nothing to the movie’s themes. It’s like Mendes got scared that he actually created a strong female lead and decided to kill her off before people realized that women can be capable too. We wouldn’t want them rising up to be like, managers and bosses and upstanding members of society or anything. Only men can do that. So Voldemort takes over MI6, cause it’s really a man’s job, and Eve decides that field work isn’t for her, despite being pretty good at it, and she decides to become a fucking secretary.

The only non-white person in the movie decides that their personal worth is best invested in serving others. That’s right everyone, women and them ethnics are only good at helping the white men save the world when they aren’t getting in the way or needing to be saved.

This movie wasn’t good. Just because it had great choreography and cinematography doesn’t make it a good film. The plot is shit, the characters are shit, and the way it treats women is a joke. I mean, I can forgive the older films for being sexist, it was a product of the times, but the new films don’t have to subscribe to those old women-hating themes any more. It is so damn depressing to get excited for a movie like this and see it botch what could have been good.

Wouldn’t we have sympathized more with the tortured vixen if she lived and had to constantly look over her shoulder in case Silva came for her? Wouldn’t we have cheered her on if she could overcome that fear?

Wouldn’t we have loved Eve for choosing the hard life, being capable and determined to chase terrorists despite the risks and danger? Would we have thought less of her for taking up responsibilities that Bond is tasked with? (No, we wouldn’t.)

And M… I mean, the three main characters each represented three paths of aging. Silva went crazy and died because he couldn’t handle his life. Bond persevered and decided to keep up his field agent work, overcoming his obstacles. M persevered and decided to keep up her job and then she died because… well, any answer to that points back to the sexism. She SHOULD have retired. That way you’d have one crazy dead guy, and two old dogs who both made conscious decisions on the path of their remaining lives. One chooses to stick it out and one chooses to let someone else take the reigns. It’s a very full-circle zen kind of ending that would have been much more effective.

But fuck that shit. Women are terrible at deciding things, in the Bond world, so we’ll just kill her off and replace her with a man.

In conclusion: Nobody seems to put any stock into these godawful plot and character problems, praising the movie on it’s camera work and action fun. How about we stop caring so much about exciting movies (which have been perfected to a science) and start caring more about movies that have good writing and sympathetic characters? I mean, the ability to make a movie exciting will always be available, so if we start writing some good movies then we can tack on the action without difficulty.


Dragon Ball Z

July 29, 2012

I’ve seen a lot of the Dragon Ball Z cartoon on Cartoon Network, on Toonami back when that aired every evening. I was in… oh, early high school? But I never got to see the entire show. For one thing, I don’t think they aired the episodes completely in order. I remember seeing Goku train with King Kai in the Saiyan saga, most of the Cell saga, and just about all of the Majin Buu saga to the end of the series, but in bits and pieces. My friend had the end of the series on something like 15 VHS tapes, and I borrowed them to get some closure to it all.

I’m far from an expert on the series. I’ve seen less than half the episodes, by my estimation, but I can say with confidence:

Dragon Ball Z is a terrible manga and anime. And I love it.

I feel so stupid, so like a little kid when… well, let me start over.

My wife is a librarian. Her library is supported by a non-profit organization, The South Central Kansas Library System, which aids all of the libraries in the area with various things: Tech Support, inter-library loans, rotating book stock amongst libraries, budget counseling–quite a lot, actually. They’re a very helpful organization.

So there are three big shelves in my wife’s library that are dedicated to the rotating stock that SCKLS provides. Every, I dunno, three months, a SCKLS person comes in and puts new books up on those shelves, replacing what they put up a few months before.

Well, this time around, they gave her the first ten Dragon Ball Z manga volumes. So I got three of them and read them in like… two hours. It starts with Goku introducing Gohan to Muten Roshi and company, then Raditz shows up and all that.

It’s terrible, but I love it. When Goku comes back from the underworld to face Nappa and Vegeta, and Nappa is all like, “GRAAAA I KILL YOU!” Goku is like, “no.”
Nappa has just killed a bunch of dudes, he’s itching to keep killing, and Goku just sidesteps and checks on people.

Then Nappa tries to kill Gohan and Goku is like, “no.” And breaks Nappa’s back.

Interesting note: Goku’s power level, a completely ridiculous quantification of physical and spiritual chi power, is over 8000 in the comic, yet over 9000 in the TV series. That’s like… more than eight Raditzes!

But damn did I grin like an idiot when Goku waltzed in there and wiped the floor with Nappa.

And it’s so terrible. It’s basically a retelling of Christ. Goku dies, he’s resurrected, he becomes stronger than the evil around him. He’s not human. And his son is half-human half…god, really–so that makes it a Christ tale WITHIN a Christ tale. Goku is an unyielding force for good. He has the power to destroy or save the earth.

What sets it apart from other, more idiotic fare, is that Goku isn’t very smart. He has bad grammar, he’s relatively lazy about everything but martial arts, he has bad manners, he is generally ignorant of everything but his gut feelings… He powers through everything for the entire series, and when he fails, someone else does what he couldn’t. They power through something while he’s getting his ass kicked. Cell beats everyone up, so Gohan powers up and through Cell. Majin Buu starts to kick everyone’s collective ass, so Goku and Vegeta fuse together to become stronger and power through Majin Buu again.

There is no intelligence ever. Never do the heroes outsmart the villains. Never do they do something unconventional and unexpected. It’s the same formula.

1. Get ass kicked

2. Pull out all the stops

3. Win.

Occasionally, we get:

1. Get ass kicked

2. Pull out all the stops

3. Get ass kicked again

4. Use secret move that Toriyama just made up

5. Win

6. Explain to audience what just happened.

That’s just bad storytelling. “Oh yeah, by the way, while you guys weren’t looking, I developed a secret technique just in case it would be useful against some inconceivable evil that cannot be beaten any other way. GLAD I THOUGHT OF THAT.”

And to make it worse, the secret techniques are almost always rendered useless by the next approaching villain. Only two things seem to stand the test of time: The Kamehameha, and the Spirit Bomb.

People, I haven’t even started in on the subtler things that make the series terrible.

Machismo. Holy testosterone! This story just drips with homoerotic bulging muscles and ideal male body images. I spent a long time as a kid fantasizing about having pecs with a lateral crease at the sternum. Hell, I would love muscles that are so defined that they can be represented by a single pencil line. The one redeeming feature of this subtext is that the final final bad guy, Kid Buu, is like, a scrawny wimp-like creature. Yet he contains so much power that he can destroy entire planets. He’s like two hundred nuclear bombs inside a pair of dangly fists. He’s superior to the other muscular men in the series, yet has no muscular definition. Kinda throws the male beauty standard out the window… in a way that I had to stretch to achieve, conceptually.

The other thing: Poor portrayal of women. The only women that seem to have any use is Videl and Android #18. Videl is a crime fighter. Android #18 is a chick who was forcibly turned into an Android and tries to kill people, then has a change of heart blah blah blah. Like, they are so useless and depend on men to save them. The only strong people capable of saving earth are men. Chi-Chi, Goku’s wife, used to be a martial artist but settles down to nag Goku and prevent Gohan from learning to fight. All she does is nag and scream, it seems.

So, yeah, the series appeals to my immature sense of masculinity, but I really would rather see a series that portrays men and women equally and at least has one or two major arcs that involve outsmarting an enemy instead of overpowering them.


Revisiting The Dark Tower

July 28, 2012

I used to be a really big fantasy fan. Back when I was, oh, thirteen and fourteen, I read almost nothing but fantasy novels. Oddly enough, I read everything except the Lord of the Rings. They seemed too big, which is weird to think back on, considering some of the other huge novels I read as an 8th grader.

But still, I read every Terry Brooks novel, I read Terry Goodkind, I read probably ten other authors who never got beyond one or two books before being swept away into the pile of generic fantasy novels. I’m not even saying that Brooks and Goodkind were any better, just that I remember their names better than any other.

Somehow, fantasy fell off my radar in high school. I think part of it was my need for rationality at the time, for consistency in my worlds, and reading ten different books about ten different universes with ten diifferent rules for magic, with ten different versions of elves, with ten different classifications for dragons–I just lost interest.

Magic, in particular, was always a bother for me. In some stories, it’s something anyone can learn, but needs devotion. In others, only the select chosen people can learn magic. In some, magic calls to people, yet consumes them from within as they use it. The rules change so often that you wonder where the sense is in all of it.

(I started writing a fantasy novel in college, back in 2005, to try and confront that issue. Magic was a very rigid system, something that obeyed a slightly revised set of physics in our world, something that only a few people knew of because they practiced and understood physics, making magic more of a science that the ignorant commoners didn’t believe in because they didn’t understand it, but this is all beside the point.)

Anyway, I finally got back into fantasy with Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. As my then-girlfriend put it, “It’s King’s take on The Lord of the Rings. I think you’ll like it cause it has guns.”

Everyone has their take on The Lord of the Rings. I highly suspect many fantasy authors were blatantly copying Tolkien in their novels. Some of them happened to deviate just enough to set them apart. I’m looking at you, Terry Brooks (He did some great stuff after The Sword of Shannara, which was the entire Fellowship, Towers, and Return all crammed into one generic book.) So I figured, hey, why not. I’ve never read Stephen King’s fiction. Might as well start. (I read, “On Writing” because I am a writer and, again, Rachel recommended it to help me get along with my own work.)

The Gunslinger, the first in the series, did not wow me. I found it highly original, very well-written, but… Something didn’t hook me. At the time, I was working graveyards and didn’t have much time for reading, so getting through the book was a sporadic, sleepy attempt. I simply didn’t understand parts of it because I was not in a good reading mood.

But I liked it well-enough to try The Drawing of the Three, which I really did like. I had The Wastelands checked out from the library and started it as soon as I finished book two. Before I finished book three, I purchased books four, five, and seven from the used bookstore in town. (They didn’t have Song of Susannah, but they had a really good condition The Dark Tower and I knew I would read it someday.)

I finished book five, The Wolves of the Calla, and my wife surprised me with a complete set of trade paperbacks in good condition. I started in on Song of Susannah, then finished The Dark Tower. This was all pretty much last year.

The series is imperfect, but it is good. Some of my favorite literary moments come from these books. I highly recommend them.

Then Stephen King went and wrote a book that takes place in the middle of the series. Book 4.5, if you will. Some people may have found that a little, oh, uncouth, but I figure *SPOILER* that if you can make yourself a main character in your own fantasy series and make it work *END SPOILER* then you can do just about anything with it, including splicing new stories into the mix, and I’m okay with that.

The Wind Through the Keyhole is good. It’s really three stories, one nestled inside one, inside another, and it does not interfere with the main story. It might throw in some… pacing issues? if you read the entire series from start to finish in its new form, but only because both book 4 and 4.5 have a notable lack of Eddie, Susannah, and Jake. Starting book five with such a gap in character development may leave some wondering who these people are, but that’s not a real problem for anyone who understands the meat of the books. Ka is a wheel, they say.

So, The Wind Through the Keyhole is great. You don’t need to read the other books to enjoy it on its own, but there will be plenty you’ll miss out on if you don’t. More than plenty. I think a good, oh, fifty percent of the satisfaction in this book is how it fits into the Dark Tower universe. The stories are great, yes, but the details of the stories, so easy to pass off as nothing but names and traits, mean so much more in the overall narrative.

Everything beyond this point is a spoiler, cause I want to air my thoughts on the details of the story. Don’t ruin it for yourself. The joy is in realizing on your own.

*

Oh man. It feels good to get the reincarnation stories completely examined. Wizard and Glass did a great job of detailing the origins of Eddie, Susannah, and Jake as Cuthbert, Susan, and Alain. As soon as I started The Wind Through the Keyhole, well, as soon as I got to the story of Tim, anyway, I thought, “Yes! We finally get to see Oy’s origins!” And because I relate Oy so closely to Jake, I kept thinking that Tim was Jake. Yeah, I’m a little scattered at times. But it wasn’t until Tim is saved by his mom that I realized that it was Roland’s origin story.

And that made me so happy inside. Roland is so broken, deep down, so tormented, and it was nice to know that he had been able to save his mother from the blindness caused by the intruding man, instead of losing his mother to the blindness caused by the intruding man, ya kennit?

The parallel, the allegory, social blindness instead of physical blindness, forgiveness and regret, oh King handled it exceptionally well.

And I wasn’t even entirely wrong about Oy. I’m quite certain that Jamie DeCurry is Oy. Jamie doesn’t speak very often. Oy doesn’t speak often. Roland prefers to go into danger with Eddie (Cuthbert), but settles with Jamie (Oy). Jamie and Oy are magnificent trackers. Roland is eventually surprised by both Jamie’s and Oy’s capabilities.

Lastly, I was really happy to get a glimpse of what could be in Roland’s perpetual quest. In the final chapter of the final book, Roland has Cuthbert’s horn. Is the letter from his mother another one of those artifacts that would change his destiny? I can see situations where that horn would really alter the course of events in the books, and the letter? It may not serve a real physical purpose in Mid-World or End-World, but could it change Roland’s countenance? His capabilities for forgiveness? If he had that letter when he reached the Dark Tower, would his personal hell be forever ended?

A lot of stuff seems to hinge on the regrets of Jericho Hill, which I’m hoping we’ll get an account of someday. Apparently there is a comic that has a lot of those moments, but like I said a few posts ago, I’m not a huge fan of the comics. They’re too thin. They try too hard to be authentic.

Also, I really want to know what happens to Rhea and John Farson. I could swear that Roland said something about how he knew he would face Rhea again someday, and I kind of assumed it happened off-screen between book 4 and 5, but 4.5 seems to cut the intermission short on action. If there is anything I can fault 4.5 for, is that it makes it seem like the journey from Oz to Calla Bryn Sturgis took only a couple weeks. Before, Eddie’s account seemed to suggest that time had slowed so much that it may have taken several years. Perhaps that was only because Eddie is relatively impatient and has skewed perceptions of time. Susannah didn’t seem to notice the passage of time, but that was either because the chap was fucking with her or time was moving steadily along because she had some real markers by which to judge. Her weird menstrual cycle and the whole, “I’m pregnant! Oh, nevermind. Oh maybe I am! Oh maybe not.” thing.

I kinda love that there is just enough inconsistency to have these questions.


Full Alert

July 26, 2012

2 AM, the dead of night. A light mist hangs over the house, shrouding us within its mystery. I’m awake, for no reason I can conceive.

Well, might as well roll over and go back to dreamland.

“What’s that man doing?” Rachel asks.

Full alert. I freeze. The only light I can see is the dim crack of indigo that penetrates the curtains. If there is a man in my room, he is behind me.

I am as still as can be. The smoke detector flashes, and it takes all that I am to remain motionless.

“No, I already have a balloon,” says Rachel, then she rolls over, asleep, oblivious.

I take the opportunity to match her, and I can now see what was behind me, any would-be attacker believing I am still asleep.

But there is no one: a curtain, a kitchen, a home devoid of motion, save the three cats that breathe in silence. I, myself, take in a lungful.

My bladder aches, perhaps the reason I drew away from slumber in the first place, so I throw off the covers and stumble to the bathroom. I look out the window as I do my business. Empty, the back yard. The sun-torn garden getting its few hours of relief.

My phone rings. Full Alert.

I button my shorts as I run the short distance–both because I want to avoid disturbing my wife’s deep, yet interesting, sleep, and also because… 2 AM phone calls are always bad news. Your mother never calls at 2 AM to catch up. Or maybe she does. The police certainly never call at 2 AM to deliver the good news. Or the hospital.

“Hello?” I ask the unknown number.

I am greeted in return by a loud, steady hiss. The hiss of air escaping a cracked pipe. Of an air-compressor’s blasting valve.

But no body. No voice.

“Hello?” I ask again, this time sans the sleepy panic I may have had before.

Still. Nothing. Hiss.

I end the call, study the number. It could be anyone.

I’m a rational man. I know I’m prone to panicked flights of fancy. I know how to maintain the facade of calm serenity.

But I wonder if the shotgun under the bed is enough. Perhaps I should relocate the handgun from the closet to the nightstand.

Perhaps I should go back to bed. I am safe, I say, I am no target. I may have been one in the past, but no longer. I am invisible.

I step to the bed, the palace of dreams, and hear a car door slam.

Full alert.