January 2018 Resolution Rundown

So after last week’s announcement of a commitment to better content consumption, here’s how January went.

It’s not an hour and a half, but it’s a start.

My playlist is like new music with training wheels. It includes several artists I had on repeat in that fateful year, 2007. Of Montreal, David Byrne, The Shins, and Jack White specifically, happen to have new music out this month. That made it sort of easy.

And yeah, I do use Tidal. Calm down.

These aren’t all new songs, obviously, but most of them are new to me. I tried to keep it modest and well-rounded with a balance of pop, hip hop, and even a little Americana–skip right to Leyla McCalla if that’s what you’re here for. A few of these songs are from my explorations of those Top 500 album lists. Nina Simone, in particular, is a classic artist that was long overdue for more exploration.

Movies and TV

I saw two films in the theater: The Disaster Artist, which was fine, and I, Tonya, which was great.

 

At home, we re-initiated our DVD Netflix account with Ingrid Goes West. It was difficult to watch, but featured solid performances by Aubrey Plaza, O’Shea Jackson, and millennial Drew Barrymore, Elizabeth Olsen. It was nice to see a more sympathetic portrayal of someone with borderline personality disorder, even if most of what she did made her the clear villain of the movie. Movies and art of all kinds are supposed to kind of help us learn how to hold more than one conflicting thought in our head at once, right?

TV is going to be a greater challenge, I think, since I don’t often watch it to challenge myself. We watched the first few episodes of Big Mouth, which we decided not to continue for several reasons, the easiest to explain being that they made Duke Ellington into way too much of a minstrel-y stereotype for no reason. (Like, literally no reason.) I ended up just rewatching Lady Dynamite from the beginning. At least it was just the second time I’d rewatched something, I guess?

Books

Even though I made a big announcement on Twitter that I wouldn’t be buying self-help books this year, there are a couple of exceptions already. The Michael Hyatt book was preordered in 2017 (HA!) and I had to read Unmedicated for work. There’s no way I’m not going to count a book I read for work on my Goodreads challenge.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is one that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. I got it as an Audible book and I highly recommend it, though maybe not on audio if you have a hard time focusing. I bought it in hardcover, too, just to have it around for a reference. Anyone who is interested in storytelling will probably get some value out of it.

I’m calling January a modest success and looking forward to a more artistically adventurous February.

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Climbing out of a content rut

My father is a man who knows what he likes. He loves big red wines, buttered popcorn, and loud movies. And for the bulk of my childhood I could count on the same CDs in rotation in his car: Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (narrated by Dame Judi Dench), the Kill Bill Vol. 1 soundtrack (and later 2), and Dire Straits’ Brother’s in Arms. And when I say bulk, I mean it was rare that you would hear anything else in there whatsoever. For years.

    So when I suddenly realized that I still gravitate toward to the same three or four albums that were on rotation on my iPod in 2007, I had to take stock of my life. Now that grad school is over and I’ve got a fairly predictable schedule, it’s time for me to not rely on the same old crutches that kept me grounded and sane. It’s time to make some content-consumption resolutions.

    Music

    I’m going to kick it off by working my way through some top 100 album lists online in addition to exploring new music recommended by friends and the streaming apps I use. At the end of each month, I will have a 90 minute (or longer) playlist that I’ll share to reflect my exploration.

    Movies

    Watch a new movie every week, and at least once a month let that be a movie in the theater, not the house. I’m doing pretty well in this area and have seen two movies in theaters so far this month.

    Books

    A total of 52 books for the year, aka., book a week, and exploring new genres. While I wish I could commit to a single book at a time, my ideal paradigm is: one audiobook, one nonfiction, one fiction book at once.

    TV

    I try to prioritize reading, but in times of stress I would definitely turn to television. To self soothe, I would always watch the same things: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Archer, Arrested Development. I’ve promised to try watching one new show each month, if for no other reason than to possibly have an easier time making conversation with people. Or to annoy myself so much with the selection process that I decide to pick my book back up instead.
    I’ll be updating here as I go with book and movie reviews as well as playlists. Probably not TV, though. And soon there will be some non-consumption creative goals to share as well, though I’m not quite ready at the moment.
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    The Map is Not the Territory: A review of “Come As You Are”

    Warning: I’m going to talk about vaginas, penises, arousal, and other sexual things.

    If you’ve ever looked at your sex life and wondered, “Oh my god, what is wrong with me?” this book is for you. (Btw, the answer is: probably absolutely nothing. You just think there is, and that’s the real problem.)

    Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. is so much more than a sex book. In its 300-some pages of well constructed chapters, notes, and appendices, it manages to do away with a wide array of harmful myths about sex, encourage radical self acceptance, and teach mindfulness and stress-management techniques that help with basically everything. While the book is mainly written for cisgendered women in monogamous relationships, Nagoski shows how her studies have been helpful in the sex lives of hetero and homosexual couples in a range of ages, and the principles are heavily applicable to all humans. After all, as you learn in the early chapters, everyone has the same partsjust arranged differently.

    The premise of the book rests heavily on the “dual control” model of sexuality and the brain, which is explained by the author pretty clearly in this comic (fair warning: if you click around on that site it can get pretty explicit). It gives a really useful framework of sexuality as a set of “on” and “off” switches, or as things that hit the “brakes” or the “accelerators.” She brings in several different women who have sensitive brakes with non-sensitive accelerators, or vice-versa, or any other combination. It becomes abundantly clear how important context is for sexual desire to healthily flourish (and despite this brake vs. accelerator metaphor, desire for sex is not a “drive”).

    Why I think everyone should read this book is because of its effort to correct harmful myths we’ve all come to believe about what is “sexy” and how someone should be as a sexual person. Nagoski talks about how the myths come from pop culture, from the ways in which we grew up, and from our early experiences of love, affection, and sex. A phrase that keeps popping up in my life over and over is “the map is not the territory.” And synchronously, she talked about this very concept in one of the concluding chapters of the book:

    But perhaps the biggest challenge is that when the map and the terrain don’t match, our brains try to make the map true, forcing our experience into the shape of the map. “No, no, this is the trail,” we say as we stumble through the thicket. “It says so on the map.”

    We find this recurring problem in so many parts of our lives, and our sex lives are no exception. To that point, a major-major PSA that everyone should know is that non-concordance is a thing. That is to say: Genital arousal and sexual desire often don’t match up.

    In fact, for people with vaginas, only about 10% of the time that a vagina self-lubricates does the person find the stimulus actually sexually appealing. It’s about 50% of the time for people with penises (which is still not actually that much if you look at the situation objectively rather than subjectively). Because we’ve come to think that these physical signs are really what matters, and because we can be so out of touch with what we actually want as people, we culturally buy into this myth that if a vagina is “wet” or a penis is “hard” then the person really wants to have sex. It should be clear how this lie plays into sexual assault and abuse. There’s really nothing that beats clear communication and a safe, healthy sexual context where people feel like they can express what’s happening in their brains instead of fumbling for misleading genital cues. And this is actual science, not just my opinion as a feminist and former sexual assault victim advocate.

    For my part, I found Nagoski’s chapters about creating a proper context for healthy sexual desire to be really useful just for day-to-day happiness. Everyone talks about how stress should be “released” but rarely do we really look at what that means. Nagoski explains stress as something that is cyclical: it’s instigated, it builds, and if there is no completion of the stress cycle, it just continues to build until it damages us. In the modern world, we have a lot of chronic stressors that take us to that second part of the cycle, but unlike the “acute stress” of physical danger, there is often no escape from the predator or vanquishing of the enemy. Activities that “release stress” are simulating the relief you feel when you realize that you’ve run inside and locked the door before the rabid beast can catch you. Crying instead of repressing your feelings of sadness, roaring through a workout after a frustrating day at work, and jumping sky-high when Pennywise pops out of the storm drainthese are all ways to complete the stress cycle. And I’m finding that this really practical approach to stress management is making my life better in many ways (and a lot of those ways are not-NSFW).

     

    An Attempted Podcast Murder: A Review of Kathleen Barber’s “Are You Sleeping”

    Full disclosure: I got this for free from NetGalley. I probably don’t need to disclose that because this isn’t a glowing review.

    An intriguing premise: Josie Buhrmann, who has changed her last name and moved to New York to escape bad memories in her small town, has to face her past when it’s turned into a hit podcast. As a HUUUGE true crime podcast fan, I was ready to read something showcasing modern tech and storytelling in a book. But then the predictable happened: my “insider” knowledge led me to be extremely critical of this book.

    But seriously.

    are you sleeping cover

    A go-getter “journalist” (annoyingly named Poppy Parnell–uuuugh too much Harry Potter, everybody) who runs a conspiracy-driven true crime site magically gets the funding to create this week-by-week investigatory podcast. Please. We know you only get that kind of funding if you have worked for Ira Glass. And she is so much ruder and more invasive at Josie’s mother’s funeral than Sarah Koenig would ever dream of being. At one point, she shoves her arm through a closing door and pushes her way into Josie’s aunt’s house, you know, as you do to extremely traumatized people. She’s supposed to be an unsavory character, but it made me wonder if the author has ever listened to any true crime podcasts other than the first season of Serial. I can only think of one podcast host who might do something like that, and even he hides behind his computer and has a multitude of haters. And also he has a Patreon, not a corporate sponsor.

    Also, the murder victim is Josie’s FATHER, who is a philandering college professor, not a pretty teenager with her whole life ahead of her. We are shown every (extremely short) podcast transcript and at no time does Poppy follow rule number one of any ID Channel episode or true crime Netflix documentary or podcast series: make people sad or at least interested in the fact that the victim died. I barely know anything about Josie’s dad. I think his name was Chuck?

    My most petty complaint is about the use of social media as a storytelling tool (something that I normally give all the chances to because I think it’s so integral to modern fiction). Imaginary Reddit is used well, but the other interspersed “real world” social media conversations are supposed to be from Twitter. All the real down-and-dirty talk about true crime cases happen in secret Facebook groups. I recently had to leave one where one of the killer’s survivors was actually posting in the group and I bailed because they were extreeeeemely nasty and victim-blamey to her. Her being the survivor of a serial killer. This book thought it was getting real with a few fake mean-Tweets though. Cool.

    As far as the actual content and story go, it would have been a better decision to double down on a literary fiction, character piece. I got the impression that the author was attempting to create sympathetic characters, but these attempts were dampened by the attempt to create a gripping thriller. As it ended up, the characters were well-defined but somewhat uncanny like realistically drawn cartoons, while the suspense was almost non-existent. If anything, I was just impatient for them to reveal which of the only possible three scenarios could have been the real cause of Chuck’s death. Also, they cut away from the only sex scene at the last minute, so it doesn’t even have that going for it.

    Ill Will by Dan Chaon: Don’t Trust Your Memories

    Full disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book from NetGalley.

    My first exposure to Dan Chaon was through a disturbing short story called The Bees, and it freaked me out so much that I was very excited to find out that I’d been approved for an advance copy of his latest novel.

    Dustin is a psychologist whose past creeps up on him at the worst possible moment: concurrent with the death of his wife from cancer and the coming of age of his two sons. His adopted brother Rusty, who Dustin testified against as a 13 year old, is exonerated for the murder of their parents and released from prison. At the same time, Dustin is pulled into a mystery by one of his patients, and former police officer, Aqil.

    Young men have been mysteriously disappearing only to have their bodies found days or weeks later washed up on the shores of rivers. Police say they are drunken accidents. Aqil is convinced the ill fated young men are victims of a serial killer. Dustin, as he follows the clues Aqil presents to him, hardly knows what to think, but he can’t stop his plunge into the conspiracy.

    This is a story for someone who likes both true crime stories as well as psychological horror. Some people like to use “thriller” as a euphemism for literary books with horror elements, but I don’t want to do that. Horror shouldn’t be a bad word. Ill Will incorporates depictions of the Satanic Panic of the 80s both during the time that it was happening and during the fall-out. Dreamlike sequences unfold in three places at once, realistic and non-sensationalized depictions of heroin use and physical injury are at once tasteful and cringe-inducing, alternate realities converge to throw the reader off the scent of what might or might not have happened.

    Chaon hammers hard on the theme of unreliable memory. “This was the thesis of my dissertation, in some ways,” Dustin narrates, “that experience is so subjective that multiple things actually do happen. That we can’t experience objective reality.”

    Outwardly, Dustin’s career is damaged by his participation in repressed-memory-retrieval and a resulting lawsuit. Inwardly, Rusty’s release from prison causes him to question everything that he remembers about the night his parents were murdered. Did he even see Rusty there that night? And if Rusty is not the killer, who is?

    What might on the surface seem like a typical whodunnit turns into an eerie, non-linear nightmare. There were entire chapters where I couldn’t be sure whether a particular character actually existed or not. There are large missing pieces that are presented just completely and incompletely enough that the imagination rushes in to fill the vacuum. Like any good scary piece of fiction, this lingers.

    My only complaint is technical: sometimes the format of the book changed into something slightly avant-garde that included two to three columns of separate stories all running at once. The content itself was excellent and the format was in keeping with what I perceived to be the book’s intended effect, but unfortunately due to it’s being turned into an image for the ebook format, I had trouble seeing the very small type.

    Other than that, I can strongly recommend Ill Will, especially to fans of psychological indie horror films like The Pact and Resolution. For avid readers, if you liked Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, but want more chills and a less neatly tied-up plot line, you’ll really like this.

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    Review: The Wax Bullet War by Sean Davis

    the wax bullet war cover

    The Wax Bullet War: Chronicles of a Soldier and Artist tells the kind of story that seems to be swallowed up whenever it surfaces: an infantry soldier’s experience in Iraq and his return to life in the US.

    Describing an attempt to entertain himself while convalescing after he was injured in an IED explosion, Davis recalls:

    One day, on the local news, the anchorman reported that three Fort Hood soldiers had been killed in Tikrit, and then abruptly cut to a story on how Halle Berry’s husband was challenging their prenup…Every channel reported nothing, and the only mention of our men and women in combat came in the form of one or two sentences spoken out loud or just scrolled across the bottom of the screen. The war and its casualties had become a footnote to pop culture.

    Davis was raised by his father, who worked in the logging industry, and supported himself through high school before enlisting in the army during the Clinton administration. He approaches life experiences with knowledge of classical literature, lessons, a knack for allegory and a love of art, specifically painting.

    Sean’s story truly begins on September 12, 2001, when Sean leaves his dead-end job cleaning up roadkill to re-enlist in the National Guard. He and his fellow Oregonian soldiers find themselves in a complicated war that constantly calls on their senses of judgment and morality.

    The infantryman of today desperately tries to make friends just as much as he tries to make people dead. I spent more time saving children and deciding who not to shoot than shooting and getting shot at.

    Sean finds camaraderie with the fellow Oregonians in his unit, only to lose one of his friends in an explosion that also leaves him profoundly wounded. When he returns, he’s met with people who want to use his story to further their own agendas, survivor’s guilt and PTSD. The rest of the book recalls his low points with self-medicating and toxic relationships, and then his attempts to get himself back together and to recover his artistic pursuits. What finally helps him the most turns out to be a promotion and another tour searching for survivors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

    Sean’s writing shows sensitivity and compassion, and this insightful, nuanced memoir is one of the more impressive feathers in Ooligan Press’ cap. If you want to know more about Sean, you can learn about him on his candidate’s site, as he’s currently running for mayor of Portland.