Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Unsolicited advice: My 10 must-dos during the 1st six weeks with baby

There are dozens of books, magazines and blogs giving baby advice, so here's mine, based on almost six weeks with one baby. So, you know, there's that.
Dance, baby, dance

But I've been feeling nostalgic already, so let me relate what I learned in this first six weeks. Here are 10 things to do in the first weeks after baby comes.

1. Heal. This is #1 and above #2 for a reason. Whether you had a c-section like me or had a vaginal birth, your body has some physical healing to do. Add to that what one friend called a hormonal hangover and a lot of powerful emotions and you've got a lot of working on yourself to do. And while someone else can lend a helping hand with baby, no one can take a nap for you, hydrate for you, take medications for you, or shower for you. This goes for mental health, too--take the Edinburgh post-partum depression test, which was given to me at every doctor's appointment, mine or baby's, and before I left the hospital, and seek healing mentally and emotionally, too. The active effort you put into healing will pay dividends, not just for you, but for baby, so listen carefully to your doctor and do whatever it takes to heal. Step #1: Prioritize healing your body and mind.

2. Take care of baby. Duh. But while it's easy in theory (feed, change, hold, repeat), it does take some patience sometimes. Other times, it's kind of a delight. I weirdly love changing baby's diaper and gauging the amount and shade of baby poop. Maybe it's because she was borderline on the jaundice scale, but I always think, "Good job, baby, get those bilirubins out!" Step #2: Attend to baby's needs.

Okay, those two, frankly, take up 90% of your time in those first six weeks, but they're also kind of no-brainers, so here's on to the other bits.

3. Say no. Knowing that we were having a baby in flu season, we agreed with our pediatrician about creating a "cocoon" of just a few vaccinated people around our baby. This gave us permission ("Doctor says...sorry!") to say no. No to more than one visitor a day, no to work or church duties, no to cleaning the house... Having a new baby is a big deal and you can control the demands on your time and access to the baby. It's kind of a perfect excuse. Step #3: Say no to anything you don't want to do.

4. Say yes. On the other hand, the baby is also great excuse for saying yes, especially to people who offer to do something for you. Not only did we accept food from the people at church, but when my mom offered to help organize my pre-pregnancy and/or post-natal wardrobe, I jumped on it. In fact, prep yourself for the idea that people want to help you and come up with a list ahead of time of things that would be helpful for you, ideally that play into others' strengths. My mother-in-law loves gardening, so I called on her to help me catch up on nine-months' neglect of the yard. My parents love long walks, so I asked them to the dog out with them. Step #4: Say yes to anything you do want.

5. Introduce baby into your life. Make some cozy memories with baby joining you on things you like. My husband cuddled up to baby and played the new Spiderman video game. My mother-in-law and I took baby on her first outing to a garden center. Find ways to introduce baby into the things that are important to you. If your hobby is ice luge, I'm not saying you should strap a helmet on her and toss her down a mountain, but you could watch YouTube highlights together. Step #5: Begin to build family traditions and memories, even if you're the only one who remembers them.  

6. Capture the moments. As first time parents, we took (take) a lot of pictures with our cell phones, but we also hired a photographer to take some glamour shots for the mantle piece. I'm glad we have nice pictures, but with baby, it's really been  those candid cell pictures, especially the ones in the hospital, that are priceless. An early attempt at a smile, a few seconds of hiccup video--these are really precious because they are so fleeting. I'm shocked how quickly our baby went from an eye-rolling, mouth-lulling hot water bottle, to a rounded-out baby capable of eye contact and moving her head. I also have kept up a journal on my phone, using talk-to-text to dictate while I breastfeed or carry baby.  I have a formal baby book, but it forms my thoughts into a strict template that doesn't line up with my priorities (why keep a log of head circumference? why do I have to list the celebrities currently popular? Where can I put footprints?). For photographs and journaling, make your own candid impressions,  Step #6: Enlist your smartphone in protecting memories by taking pictures and/or keeping a journal.

7. Take care of business. You may think your mind is a sleep-deprived mush, but you can draw on some support to make sure that you do all the paperwork of baby. Besides just the regular birth certificate and social security card stuff, I would highly recommend reviewing baby's insurance to make sure you like the plan, making baby a beneficiary on your financial accounts, and opening a 529b college fund. There's something very satisfying about setting baby up. Step #7: Set up baby's financial and legal security.

8.  Don't suffer through "almost good enough." The footed jammies I loved when I was pregant and registered for in a half dozen patterns--the feet are too tight, making it difficult to get baby's splayed toes through. I thought I could deal with it, taking a little longer to get her dressed, until it was the middle of the night and I had just changed her diaper and now she was thoroughly awake as I tried to jam her feet it. So, I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the feet out of the pajamas right there. Sure, maybe my daughter will have a repressed memory of me standing over her cradle with scissors, but now both our lives are easier. Step #8: Do what it takes to have what you need.

9. Prepare to leave. Whether you just want to go out for a date night or you're going back to work, take the time to set you, your baby and your caretaker up for success. Decide what you do and don't need the caretaker to do while you're gone, prepare a bottle and steel your mind to be away from baby. I haven't had to have a paid sitter yet, but as I'm interviewing them, I'm grateful I'm figuring this out now rather than last minute. Step #9: Put time and attention into preparing for the time when you're away from baby.

10. Slow down and enjoy it.  It's a cliche, maybe, but between multitasking, checklisting, and getting a little too eager for baby's next stage, it can be hard to stop and smell the newborn. Every step goes fast--you only have a dozen days with the umbilical cord, a couple days in the hospital, and you only hold your baby for the first time once. Step #10: Hold on to these moments as they come.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Let's not give up on travel: Why travel matters and how to do it a little better

The Adriatic Sea: The Closest I've Come to Croatia
At the risk of sounding like an insufferable hipster, I've liked Croatia before it was cool. Heck, I liked Croatia when it was still Yugoslavia. Maybe it was that hottie Goran Visnjic as Dr. Kovac in ER or adolescent fascination with war-torn countries, but I fantasized about the turn-of-the-century glamour of pre-WWI resorts on the Croatian coast, and the fringes of both the Ottoman and Roman empires, and the melting pot of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim culture. I got a Croatian dictionary for Christmas once and tried my best to leverage my junior-high Russian into self-learning the Croatian language. I didn't grow out of loving Yugoslavia. I watched depressing subtitled films. My undergraduate thesis was on a late-20th century Slovenian war poet. In graduate school, I had to appeal to both my own department and the Slavic department to take a credit/non-credit spot in an undergraduate class where I finally got to study the Croatian language. For 20 years, "Croatia" has been top of my travel to-do list. #2 is "Thailand," which is actually more similar than you'd think, because both Croatia and Thailand are countries experiencing a serious backlash against tourism.

At the same time "America first" policies and slogans swept over my homeland, a slew of countries from my beloved Croatia to New Zealand are telling outsiders to stay home. "Tourist go home," the graffiti reads, reminding me of the "Yankee go home" slogans of post-colonial outposts like the Philippines. Forder's 2018 "No List," sometimes in the past focused on safety, emphasizes the "places that don't want you." A slew of popular liberal websites bewail the impact that "over-tourism" is having on places like Venice,  Machu Pichu, and, yes, the Philippines. Stop raping the land and the culture, these opinion pieces complain, you bloated selfie-takers.

Hating "tourists" is nothing new, as the year-long residents of many American summer destination sites can attest, but is also complicated, as the year-long residents of many American summer destination sites can also attest. No one wants to be edged out by peroxide-nosed, Hawaiian t-shirt-wearing idiots who stumble around cluelessly, impervious to how they are impacting those who have to live here.

On the other hand,  tourism is a relatively "clean" industry, and one that can revitalize a community. I took a long bike ride along the Great Allegheny Passage, part of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and was amazed at how this tourist attraction had revitalized a region with unstable industry. The guy who shuttled us back to DC told us how he had been a machinist before, but kept losing his job due to cutbacks. Now he works long hours in the summer and lives comfortably off the proceeds all winter long. In a cafe, a woman, noticing our embarrassing biker shorts, approached us and asked if her son could set up a cooler to sell drinks on the trail--would people buy them? They sure would, we said confidently, because we had eaten some of the most over-priced sub-par food of our lives with grateful abandon because it wasn't PowerBars and it was located just off the trail. Tourists are suckers. Hungry suckers.

No wonder The Islands of Puerto Rico so touchingly appeals for tourists to come back Post-Maria: "Thank you in advance for your interest in visiting Puerto Rico and supporting our recovery by simply vacationing on the island.  A great vacation in Puerto Rico, helps thousands of families relying on tourism dollars to feed their families and hold on to what they have left.  Tourism has helped the economy bounce back from such a devastating disaster.  If you’re a repeat visitor, we appreciate your continued support. Puerto Rico is still as enchanting as ever…your visit is a gift to yourself and to the people on the island.   Thank you!!" (Orange bold in the original). Even cruise ships, the most touristy of all tourism, can be welcomed and courted by eager locals, as we were when we visited Nanaimo on a cruise--the city chartered buses to pick us up and transport us in a loop with several shopping and tourism stops. And, at each of these stops, friendly high school or retired volunteers cheerily gave us advice. One nice young lady sympathized when I told her I had a wedding shower right after my visit and gave me several suggestions where I could buy some British Columbian lingerie.

And this is just the economic side of it. I genuinely believe in Rick Steve's "Travel as a Political Act" philosophy, which became ingrained through constant childhood exposure to those PBS specials that invariably end with Rick getting sloshed with some locals in a pub while attempting to speak a few phrases in their native tongue. Bless you, Rick Steves. Even without wetting the whistle, I've had literal perspective-changing travel experiences by hanging out with other high school kids in Taiwan (more on that below), or discussing politics with an Egyptian woman who participated in the Arab Spring, or watching a curator at the Hermitage museum tear up as he described planting tulips in a garden that had grown cabbages during the Siege of Leningrad. Actually being in a place, talking with people is the greatest anecdote to small-minded isolationism.

But definitely not all tourist experiences get at this ideal. So if you're looking for some lists, here are 7 suggestions to make your travel more meaningful, less exploitative, and kinder and two for if you decide to stay home.
  1. Go to Off-hype Destinations Remember when Iceland was quirky and cool? I do, partially because I love that Walter Mitty movie. I had a friend who spent New Years in Iceland, with an Icelandic family from a cheap Icelandic flight because Iceland was trying to get its tourism off the ground. But now Iceland has become hip and is flooded with people doing dumb things. Hyped up places always are. New Zealand, too, used to be a remote outpost for bird watchers and other nature nerds, but then became victim of its own popularity as it has tried to provide trails and accommodations for casual travelers. So why not try somewhere the herds (even the hipster herds) are Instagramming less frequently? Sub Vietnam or Laos for Thailand or Portugal for Spain or Italy.
  2. Go Off-season Locals don't hate you, but they may hate a TON of us. By traveling in off-peak times, not only are you not crowding up favorite summer beach restaurants, but you're providing some needed smoothing to the local economy. Remember that machinist who shuttled us home from Pittsburgh after our bike ride? I bet he would rather work into September and start in April than get all of his tourism money in one frantic summer period. Going off season makes tourists less annoying and decreases our impact on fragile environments, whether that comes in hiking a popular route (but, you know, be safe. Don't try to solo-hike a 14k mountain at the end of the season) or causing massive congestion from idling buses. Also, you know, usually flights and accommodations are cheaper off season, so...win-win.
  3. Yeah. You culturally and environmentally sensitive badass.
  4. Visit big cities. Cities get a bad rap. But major destination cities like New York, London and Singapore can easily accommodate tourists without much impact. People living in Queens don't really notice or care if there's an elevator full of people going to the top of the Empire State building. Small or mid-sized cities, though, like Venice, can easily become overwhelmed by swarms of tourists and would appreciate you going off season, like April, or finding a substitute for at least part of your trip, like Verona or Padua/Padova.
  5. Stay put. I remember the flight home from my first international trip, three weeks in Kaohsiung Taiwan as part of a cultural enrichment program...for the Taiwanese kids. On the way back, my seat mate told me how he had just finished a whirlwind trip through Asia, checking off countries over the course of days. I told him how mostly I had stayed in Kaohsiung and the local areas, but I had been invited to a wedding for a friend of my host family, I had gotten to sit in on calligraphy lessons with the other high school kids, and how we had gone to a water park and the short-length women's swimsuits there that baffled me. I was a little jealous of his skimming trip, but as I've gotten older, I think I prefer the other kind of travel, one that is less intent on scratching countries off my map and more on spending time getting to know a place and its people.
  6. Pair high-low. In the fashion world, pairing, say, Burberry coat with Forever 21 boots (or, in my case, a Target swimsuit with some gas station flip flops) is a clever way to maximize fashion and minimize cost. You can do the same thing by combining Very High tourist attractions with Very Low accommodations and eating. Here's the thing about big tourist attractions: everyone knows that they're for tourists. That's why the tourists are there. There aren't going to be any Frenchmen and -women frowning disgruntled at the base of the Eiffel Tower grumbling, "Sacre bleu, this used to be such a quiet little meeting place." Big tourist sites know what they are and are built to accommodate the crowds. Adding a few more tourists to them doesn't make much of a difference. They're like the Big Cities of #3. Restaurants, local hotels and mid-sized attractions, however, can be easily overrun by tourists. The saddest place this mid-level crush happens, for me, is churches. I adore visiting the great religious sites of where ever I go, but I always feel a little uncomfortable when tourists squirm around the edges of worshipers, taking pictures and then stumbling out into the sunlight. But even churches can do the high-low pairing, having "visiting hours" and hours that are reserved for devotees only. When I lived in Austin, knowing that SXSW would happen let me know to either avoid downtown, get out of town or just join in with the crowds. I knew where and when the out-of-towners would be here and could plan for them the same way you would, say, the scorching weeks of August in Central Texas. Having designated places and times for tourism helps locals know what to expect and lets them plan accordingly.
    Image result for quito church
    What's the seating capacity?
  7. Respect and support necessary limits.  Even though I've talked a good talk about how we shouldn't be pumping the breaks on tourism, I still believe that there can be meaningful limits and restrictions that will make everyone's experience better off. I'm from the American West, within a day's distance of six national parks, and from the Desert Solitaire days of my youth, I've been totally okay with the idea that some places can issue limited permits or set quotas or tell you to GET OFF THE CRYPTOBIOTIC SOIL! I'm okay with imposing these kinds of limits on environmentally sensitive areas to support the ecosystem and for cultural and social sites as well.The Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, so I'm okay with reserving a couple of months in advance, refraining from flash photography, and watching an informative video in a microclimate-stablization room. Which brings me to...
  8. Image result for Scrovegni
    Permit required
  9. Be Prepared. One of the hallmarks of an Ugly Tourist is bumbling. Again, because of my own outdoorsy tourist backyard, I'm used to seeing the terrible fallout of unprepared folks skylarking by themselves around the desert with no water and no communication. The same thing goes with all tourism--it pays dividends to do a little homework before traveling. I'm not saying you need to be fluent in Mayan dialects before going to Ecuador, but it wouldn't hurt to be able to understand a phrase or two in Spanish. Knowing what it meant when my classmate held my hand in Taiwan, or why Moroccans like their current king much more than the last guy helped me out of some sticky cultural situations. But sometimes the preparation is physical, too. Look, relying on the kindness of strangers (or just figuring out how to get tampons at a Czech drug store) is one of the charms of traveling, but don't make yourself a risk to yourself or others by getting airlifted off a mountain or arrested for drug charges abroad.
  10. Invite tourists to your home. Maybe you want to learn more about other cultures and experiences, but you don't want to travel. Welcoming study abroad students or renting an AirBNB room or even just welcoming friends of friends to stay for the weekend can be a tourism-in-reverse experience. I remember in junior high, my parents hosted an actual Italian opera student at our house (per my cousin's request). I have a vague memory that she ran up phone bills, but it was a remarkable experience for me. She made us real pizza and even visited my 7th grade choir class to teach us about singing from the diaphragm. It was remarkable experience for me, one that was repeated with Geraldine, my sister's foreign exchange partner, and the stream of international students my friend's family hosted. Even without formal programs, you could, as one of my friends always did, host Thanksgiving with Indian (the subcontinent) graduate students or invite a recent immigrant family for a potluck. And bringing someone into your home can be a great way to get to know their culture while revisiting your own with new eyes.
  11.  Find the tourism around you. Okay, if you're really determined to stay home, don't let that discourage you from being a tourist. Fight the adage that people from the West Coast are more likely to see the Statue of Liberty than the Grand Canyon while people from the East Coast do the same thing in reverse. Many people can live years in their hometown without discovering the attractions and pleasure that tourists would catch on the first week. And because I'm a fan of prioritizing people over pictures, may I recommend especially engaging with cultures of your home? I live in Houston, which is extremely diverse, but Texas is, itself, a fascinating culture as well. So I am honored that I was invited to a Tet celebration lion dance (even though I didn't understand anything people around me were saying and I was seated right next to the cymbal section of the band), but I'm also awed by the experience of attending the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and visiting the world of dairy cow competitions and sheepdog trials and drugstore cowboy apparel. In an increasingly divided country, this kind of tourism, too, can be a political act.
So there you have it, another travel list. So where does this leave me and Croatia? It's still on my travel list--I'm all kinds of prepared and I'm willing to pair the freakishly trendy Dubrovnik with less popular nearby destinations (one of my friends just finished hiking Bosnia, which looked amazing)--but I don't need to go right now that it's blowing up the Instagram. There are plenty of other adventures that I'm considering like hitting the Baltics instead of the Balkans (Slavic culture? Check. Boundaries of clashing cultures? Check. Communist history? Check.) or going back to Puerto Rico to spend some quality time in a place that I've already "scratched off' (and a tiny one at that), but that has deep personal and family importance to my husband. Let's not give up on the transformative power of tourism for all parties.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Three Horror Movies that Stuck the Landing, Three that Wiffed It and How They Could Have Been Better--Nothing But Spoilers

Literally this entire post is spoilers. There.

 There are many things that can cause disappointment in a horror movie. Cheesy acting. Gross-out cheap thrills. Bad special effects. But the one that always slays me (no pun intended) is when a movie is saying really interesting things and then falls completely apart in the last ten minutes, not because the monster looks disappointing to what you imagined (they often do), but because of a lack of thematic consistency. A good horror movie is always about the monsters that we experience in real life as much as those that lurk on screen; great horror movie finishes the job it started with some internal consistency.

Here are three horror movies that really stuck the landing, in no particular order, chosen at more-or-less random from my Saturday morning nap. I could have found others, but these sprung to mind as having particularly satisfying endings:

Night of the Living Dead

Theme: The individual, no matter how competent, is no match for the brainless masses.

Plot bearing this out: When a microcasm of personalities is trapped in a farmhouse, faced with the leagues of the undead, a power struggle for who gets to decide what to do breaks out. But despite a war of personalities inside, the thread outside is without personality. They are pajama-clad, naked, decomposing corpses with zero plan or coordination. And they're winning.

Nailed it: Although our hero, through his wits and courage, manages to survive the night, when the day dawns he is mistaken for a ghoul and shot in the head. And what gets him? A posse of slack-jawed yokels, roving through the countryside, shooting anything that moves, perfectly mirroring the mindlessness of the undead horde, and just as efficient.

A Quiet Place

Theme: It is really hard to protect and nurture family in the face of danger.

Plot bearing this out: Well, the characters right out say it, but even then, from the beginning, it is clear that children, from unborn infants to surly teenagers, are a liability in the face of a lurking destruction that confronts them all. But for all that, children are also a reason, the reason, to keep surviving. An elderly man whose wife is killed commits suicide in a scream. The Abbotts, on the other hand, teach their children not only how to survive in this new world, but how to care for each other in the process.

Nailed it: There is no more "protect and nurture" image than that of brother cradling baby while mom and sister double-team tormenting and shotgunning monsters to obliteration. The family has finally become able to be on the attack, not just sneaking around surviving, but becoming active heroes to actually save the world, which leads to...

10 Cloverfield Lane

Theme: You are stronger than you know, and you can fight harder than you think.

Plot bearing this out: Michelle survives, in order, a car accident, a madman, and freaky-deacky aliens. But all along the way, she doubts whether it wouldn't be easier just to stop fighting and die--or just settle into a banal comfort. After all, board games and tinned food isn't all that bad, especially when you're the favorite, right?

Nailed it: After doing whatever it takes to escape and just survive, Michelle, screeching down an empty road to get the heck out of dodge, hears on the radio that there are more monsters--and survivors-- down another road. She continues on her safe path a moment, then puts it in reverse, and goes speeding into danger to use her new fighting ability and confidence to help others.


And now for some horror movies that were doing so well, until they sucked it up in the last ten minutes or so. Again, just for emphasis, I don't mean "the monster was a little disappointing after all the hype" (1408, The Ritual, etc.) or  even "it was internally consistent, but I wasn't wowed by their particular level of insight by the end" (Mama, Cabin in the Woods). This is full-blown "Wow, this movie is saying some really important things...oh, wait, no they just ruined everything."

The Last Exorcism

Theme: That classic of Greek theater: the hubris of man in the face of supernatural forces he doesn't understand.

Plot bearing this out: Rev. Cotton Mathis thinks his parishioners are patsies and has an even lower opinion of the folk to hire him to before exorcisms. In this mock documentary, Mathis gleefully lets the crew into his use of stereos, special effects and other modes of hoodwinking hillbillies as one last "screw you" before leaving the church. But this time Nell seems actually, factually possessed.

How they screwed it up: Literal Satan-worshipping hicks. Literal everybody dies. Literal "shaking found footage that you are supposed to believe was somehow saved so you can watch this film now" (THEN WHO WAS DOING ALL THE EDITING UP UNTIL THIS POINT?!)

How it should have ended: 2/3rds of the way, Mathis starts hearing voices telling him that if he literally sacrifices himself, the girl will be released. He doesn't know whether the voices are angels or demons, but he knows it doesn't come from the stereo. He kills himself in a ritual that does not look anything Southern Baptist, and dies horrified to think that he might be dragged down to hell, now that he is more convinced of the reality of the concept. The crew, mortified, tries to stop him, but it's too late. They have to struggle with their journalistic integrity and the horror of what they have witnessed. They're going to complete the documentary and dedicate it to his memory.

Lights Out

Theme: Mental illness affects whole families.

Plot bearing this out: A young woman, estranged from her erratic mother, comes back home to protect her half-brother when it becomes clear Mom isn't taking her pills and her "imaginary" friend is showing upr. She first tries the usual, real-world courses of action, talking with CPS, that sort of stuff, but then it becomes clear that "Diana" is more real and more powerful than she expected, responsible for killing both her dad and her brother's dad out of jealousy. Diana insists on dominating her mother, pushing out any time, energy or attention for the family.

How they screwed it up: The only way, the mom concludes, is to kill herself. Wait, wait! While I was in favor of the selfish person self-sacrificing in The Last Exorcism, this is a terrible, even dangerous, way to end a movie about mental illness. Even director Sandberg realized in retrospect that he was telling people with depression that shooting themselves was the only way to protect their families, and he regretted it.

How it should have ended: Like many of the best family dramas, young Rebecca should have been threatened by the possibility that her mother's demons would become her own. Diana shows up at Rebecca's apartment and starts making demands. After all, the mom's middle-aged and if Diana wants to live forever, she's going to want to find a new host. Rebecca's obnoxiously loyal and long-suffering boyfriend, and her half-brother and, in a scene healing a scarred childhood, her mother, all intervene to trap Diana and incinerate her. Rebecca has greater empathy for the struggles of her mother and regrets not being able to have rescued her years ago. Her mother, for her part, regrets not being more open about Diana instead of trying to "protect the children."


Theme: Guns are bad.

Plot bearing this out: Old widow Winchester spends her not-inconsiderable fortune building a mansion to appease the dead who have been killed with the family rifle design. Major plot points all center on what happens when a gun ends up in the hands of, respectively, a depressed person, a child, a drug addict, and a really, really angry young man. There are smaller glimpses of the wider impact of gun violence with slavery and colonialism. It's none of it good.

How they screwed it up: Which is why it's weird that the solution is to literally shoot the ghost. With a gun. With a bullet.

How it should have ended: Surely creative types could come up with something better than a literal magic bullet. Me, I'm in favor of some ghost-on-ghost violence. Sarah Winchester releases some of those other angry spirits, ideally some of the ones who would have beef with a Confederate ghost and they end up endlessly tormenting him in some nice locked up room that includes architectural elements from both/all of their lives. Or maybe being confronted with a grief just as powerful and real as his own, evil ghost Ben decides that he doesn't have the monopoly on anger and just passes on.

And there you have it. Don't take us most of the way down an interesting premise and then ruin in the last ten minutes. Yes, there are other things you can do to stink up a movie (both poorly reviewed Winchester and the superb A Quiet Place have too many unnecessary jump-scares), but since we're going to be replaying the end of a scary movie in our heads for days, make sure that it's something worth sticking in there.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Some Ramblings on Evil, Halloween Movies, the "Great Physician," and "This Political Climate"

Image result
[This movie poster is misleading, because there's far more naked ugly ladies and goats and other early Colonial goosebumps and (fun fact!) the dialogue comes from actual transcripts of witch hunts!]
One of the most spiritually meaningful R-sie movies about Colonial America I ever saw was The Witch, or as I like to call it The VVitch. All kinds of spoilers here that don't matter to the enjoyment of the film, but the general plot is that a family, exiled from the settlement, because of their father's heterodox ideas, finds themselves on the edge of a dark forest. A literal witch literally steals and literally eats their baby, which is bad news all the time, but this dumb family blames their teenage daughter, who does regular teenagery things like tries to scare her annoying siblings. But everything she's done becomes interpreted as witchcraft and one-by-one everyone in her family begins to turn against her.  But the main thing is that everyone --total spoiler--dies horrible deaths and the teenage daughter, alone in the woods, with nowhere to turn uncertain whether there are witches says aloud that she wants to sign in with the devil and join the witches. Which she does. (Or "Witch she does"?)

The striking thing for me is that this stupid family is right; there are witches. It's just the witch is in the woods and not in the home. Let that sentence sink in a little: the witch is in the woods and not in the home.

There is a lot of awful and a lot of evil in this world, but it comes from Lucifer, "our common enemy," and not from each other, per se. It's not popular to talk about Satan and there's shaky doctrinal bedrocks on the topic, but here's my own take on it, informed, at least, by Mormonism. When you watch movies like The Possession of Emily Rose  ("Possession is 9/10ths of the law!"), you think of evil spirits possessing people as contortionists who love speaking backwards in Latin and freaking out people in remote areas. But if you saw a possession like that, it would be pretty hard to deny that something supernatural was happening and then it's a natural progression to believe in supernatural good (e.g. God). More likely, evil spirits lead people to thinking, "I'm smarter than she is," "That's none of my business," and "There's nothing wrong with what I'm doing." They are not insignificant thoughts. These kinds of thoughts, building on each other, lead to everything from great acts of depravity to everyday snotty brattitude.

But think about how dramatic these possession movies are. What if you lived a life of such kindness and generosity that a snide comment or a selfish act would be as unusual as walking up the side of the walls backwards on your hands and knees? What if you assumed that when someone did something snotty, it wasn't because they naturally were a snot, but because there was some circumstance or influence making them act like a snot? Would you be as eager as a scare-night exorcist to help them and heal them?

Christ fashioned himself as the "Great Physician," but many people in politics, religion and culture are looking to be executioners, cutting others off forever. Executioners do their job behind a mask, never closer than an axe's length, while a physician stands close, even TMI-close, to the body of the sick. That was the great downfall of the family in The VVitch--once they let themselves think that no one else could be a witch beside their daughter, their daughter had to be the witch. They cut her off. And while attempted filicide aside, this young woman finds no other choice than to become what she has been made into. There's a classic stalker-management book called The Gift of Fear that describes how to deal with a spoken threat after someone loses their job. Instead of calling security and having them publicly dragged out by armed men, you sigh and say, "I know you only said that because you're upset right now; you're too good of a person for that." (They also recommend firing people on Friday afternoons, so they have an entire "normal" weekend to process their feelings instead of stewing at home alone--pro tip!) The idea being that when you make someone the Bad Guy, you escalate the situation and make it difficult for them to back down. In fact, it may increase the stakes for them--they already have a blot against them, so why not go whole hog? When you're a physician, you anticipate someone getting well again; when you're an executioner, you're only waiting for them to stop twitching so you can go home.

And the ironic thing is that I think this family could have taken the witches if they hadn't been fighting each other. They never thought to look for the witch outside their family and instantly forgot all the good their daughter had done before this witch hunt began. I like to imagine an alternative ending where the family says "Hell, no" (pun intended), gather their pitchforks, and drive out that witch. Probably wouldn't have been as good a movie, but it's what we need right now. There's enough sorrow, suffering, pain and sickness out there that we need everyone. We can't afford to look for witches in the walls of our homes.

Friday, July 28, 2017

DIY animal bookends

Okay, so here I give back to the Internet, but this is more of an apology to Krystian because this took longer than I meant it to be. I thought I'd do this with my 10-year-old niece when she was visiting, but it took a lot longer than I thought.

It started simply enough with three dollar store toys--two deer and a polar bear. The polar bear split nicely in two with a little effort and a pair of scissors.


Once the bears were split, that's when things got hard mostly because my first kind of spray paint never seemed to dry in the Houston humidity. So maybe not the primer and paint in one for this. Then, after much shame, I just got the regular kind, which worked great. Or maybe it's just better drying outside than in the garage.

Anyway, about a month of neglect later, I spray-painted the things, but it was okay because in that time our neighbors had replaced their fence! This means SCRAP WOOD! Just what I had been looking for. I also would have taken river rocks, but this is Houston, I didn't want to steal from anyone's landscape.

I cut up some fence-post ends and 2x4s with my reciprocating saw and stained them with one of those awesome stain wipes I was telling you about. Then, when they were dry, I glued my animals on.

The deer looks very handsome, but also a little like a trophy. I wonder if I should put a plaque on it.

If you're worried about the wood being heavy enough, you could always drill a hole in the bottom and weigh it down with marbles, Pinewood Derby style. Or you could just glue some washers on the back. Personally, though, I find the pine is heavy enough as is.

The bear had to be glued in two places--the bottom and the side, and the 2x4s also had to be glued in an L-shape bookend. I quite like this one, though.

Krystian says it looks like a wiener dog bear.

DIY wood poster hangers

I've been doing a lot of DIY lately because
  1. Summer
  2. I now own a house
  3. I am cheap
Because of this, I spend a lot of time Googling and Pinterest-searching DIY projects that I think ought to exist. Usually they do. Sometimes they don't. When they don't I have to do my darnest to make it up.

Now, while I'm waiting for some wood glue to dry, I've decided it's time to give back to the Internet. I don't think anyone is going to find these, but they might.

So first project came because I found some awesome vintage style posters, but then when I looked up poster hangers, you get something like this. Look, you don't have to follow the link, I'll tell you:

Includes: • Two 29" half round oak dowels • Pre-attached cord and nail for hanging • Easy-peel adhesive for mounting your favorite Cavallini wrap • Mounting instructions

And it's $15. Plus $7 shipping. F-H-no! They are charging you $15 for DOWELS!
quarter-inch molding

So I went to Home Depot. Or Lowe's. Something like that. I got these sweet quarter round moldings for a couple bucks. Then I measured out my posters, added an inch for overlap and cut them and stained them. Because I was going with more of a "gentleman naturalist" vibe than "seventh-grade bio class," I used a mahogany stain. 
Staining the wood
Specifically, I used this kind of finish, which rocks my socks off--stain in a WIPE. They include gloves, which I used, but you can also just stick your hands in a grocery bag, if you're going to be doing this not all in one day. When you finish, turn the back inside out--viola! 

Be careful to glue evenly as possible

Then, instead of easy-peel adhesive, I just used glue. Wood glue because I love it, but I think you could use a good dose of Elmer's to the same effect. I did most with the second flat side AWAY from the main picture (so flat side top on the top and bottom on the bottom) to give it a smoother look, and to insert the hooks later like this:

Flat side down on the bottom

 But for the map, I wanted to be able to keep a pencil there. Lets guests mark where they're from that way:
Flat side up on the bottom

 On the top, I put in screw eyes on the top flat side and tied on twine. For a step more steampunk, you could use copper wire.

 For a more rustic look, I skipped the screws, and just tied the twine to each end.

 And here's the ones with the screw eyes:

So there you have it. Three portrait and 2 landscape posters hung (and enough extra hangers for 2 more posters, when I find more I like). Whole project cost me around $24, including extra screw eyes and LOTS of extra stain, which you will see in all of the next projects.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Processing the Election, Hillbillies and Two and a Half Men

Well, we guessed wrong.

The only questions were whether it would a close election or a landslide, and whether Trump would concede, and what to do with the angry people when he didn't concede, and how Clinton would start a presidency with such ill will. We didn't anticipate this.

We didn't, in fact, a Trump candidacy. I feel as though the whole nation is now as blindsided as the GOP was when Trump starting picking off establishment Republicans from Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz (man, did I just write Cruz was establishment? weird...). How could we not have seen this coming?

The "it" book of the political season Hillbilly Elegy is part biography, part political commentary and does a good deal to describe the hidden America of migrants from Appalachia who settled into the steel towns of Ohio and Pennsylvania, then got lost as a changing economy made it impossible to get a good-paying job without a college degree. The book is lauded from across the political spectrum as it comes to a variety of conclusions about who these people (read: voters) are: Democrats let working class voters down; "personal spirituality" fails to provide the safety net organized religion does; the information economy leaves undereducated people in the dust; drug treatment facilities are under funded and arrest drug users does nothing to help them or their families; etc. For many people, this is the first time someone from the so-called hillbilly culture has let them into their world.

I'm not the first (hundreth) person to point out that we live in a cultural echo chamber, but this election has reminded me of what I called the Two and A Half Men blinder. Two and a Half Men for those of you who don't know (my likely readers), was a profane and insane sitcom that I could only stomach for fifteen minutes, once, at the gym. It was also the most popular show in America. I didn't get it. I literally did not know a single person who watched the show. And I asked around.

Alternatively, all my friends, and I mean all of them, watched 30 Rock. Even the people who bragged about not watching TV had seen a few episodes. And while 30 Rock did okay for itself, it was notorious the "also-ran" of ratings. Talking with my friends, I would have thought 30 Rock would be the most popular show on TV--it was funny, smart, politically aware, but not too preachy.

Two and A Half Men should have predicted this election. We should have been more aware that "our" America isn't just ours.