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.

It’s Complicated: A Review of Untangling the Knot

THE BOOK: Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity
Edited by: Carter Sickels (2015)


NOTE: This book is published by Ooligan Press, an educational press where I currently am working as a graduate student in publishing. This review is part (my interpretation of) homework and part my own effort to feature a more diverse range of voices and topics on my platform.

A classmate retold me a quote she had heard (and tell me who said it if you know) about the Caucasian response to Beyoncé’s Formation video this week, which I will paraphrase:

Her video is like going to someone’s birthday party. You can eat the cake, but it’s still not your party.

This paraphrased quote can be applied to Untangling the Knot in many ways. Reading books about queer identity, particularly outside the two-men/two-women binary, always reminds me of how little I actually know about the multiple forms of kinship and lifestyle that exist in our world. From the beginning of this collection of twenty-five essays, it becomes clear that the seemingly lynchpin issue of marriage equality isn’t the panacea that many of us have lulled ourselves into believing it is.

With marriage in the spotlight…who falls through the cracks?

Ben Anderson-Nathe’s essay, the first in the collection, establishes an ongoing theme throughout the rest of the essays. We Are Not “Just Like Everyone Else” points out the long history of kinship networks that queer people have established to protect and care for one another and to raise children. Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis points out the risks of sidelining domestic partnerships as well, calling up examples of elderly LGBTQ folks who have formed partnerships in order to extend rights and care for one another in their old ages.

The institution of marriage itself is a complicated sticking point for many of the writers, including Ariel Gore, who struggled against a system who viewed her sexuality equally (if not more) damaging as her ex husband’s violence toward her and their children.

Child abuse and teen homelessness is another issue. The legal right of gay marriage doesn’t stop families from turning their queer offspring onto the streets to face uncertainty, violence, drug abuse, and disease. Ryka Aoki and Everett Maroon draw attention to the lack of resources and allies available to many kids who are neglected or abused due to their sexuality or gender.

Healthcare is another major one: the right to visitation, the right to health insurance and access to treatment, the right to advocate for loved ones. These are important things to have when navigating our complicated medical system, and ones that I, for one, have taken for granted. Even for those writers who do choose to embrace marriage, healthcare struggles are revisited time and time again, often through the lens of cancer diagnoses. In essays by Chelsia A. Rice and Meg Stone, marriage, and the benefits it brings, is shown to have the power to save lives.

It’s impossible to summarize everything that’s dealt with in this collection, partly because a lot of it is outside my experience (these authors express the issues better than I ever could) and partly because it’s such a detailed and nuanced topic. I’d recommend adding it to your collection and giving some of the essays a look…and then later another look.

Even if the topics are confusing, new, or foreign to you, reading these essays may help you recognize opportunities to be an ally, to help others gain access to what they need to live, and to show sensitivity to people who experience life in a completely different, and often more challenging, way.

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Excision & Under the Skin: Not for Beginners


If the two names of the films I’m reviewing on their own don’t give you the creeps, then you can probably watch these movies. Maybe even WHILE you’re drinking. Maybe even without gagging!

Both try to scare off the viewer in the first fifteen minutes (or in the case of Excision, the very first scene). For a hardened horror-watcher, I felt that internal dare…the compulsion to stay with the repulsive because they are NOT GONNA BEAT ME DAMMIT.

But man, after months of phasing in slow-burn true crime documentaries and watching It’s Always Sunny reruns on repeat, I’d gotten a little soft. Do I even horror anymore?

The Beer: Portland Brewing Raise the Roost Belgian-Style Red Ale

ABV: 6.2% | IBU: 30

Portland Brewing Red

This was a perfect pre-Valentine’s day flavor. It had a spicy mulled-wine nose and a palate that briefly reminded me of conversation hearts–something sweet and citric-acidy. As often occurs with American-made Belgian styles, it was more of a parody of a Belgian than very true to style, but thankfully the hops on this were restrained enough not to completely pull it off track.

The (First) Movie: Excision; 2012

Man, I used to be able to watch anything while I was eating. But watching Excision with a bowl of broth and noodles turned bright red with homemade chili oil was not a good plan. From the first shot, watching this movie was like watching a series of blood-soaked tampons wrung out in front of me. Probably worse, tbh.

Yeah, I warned you about the graphic imagery.

AnnaLynne McCord plays Pauline, a young woman who is discovering sex for the first time…and discovering the unfortunate fact that what really gets her off is fountains of blood and dismembered human corpses. We know this because we get to see the vivid teenage fantasies that play out in her head in montage form. Hooray.

excision fantasy scene

She also has high ambitions of being a surgeon, which gives the viewer the brief impression that she might have some type of higher-than-average intelligence. That this will tell the story of a cool and collected monster who carries out her plans with precision and skill.

That impression is overwritten when we watch her give up on a math test and loudly tell her teacher, “I don’t even need math to be a surgeon.”

So no, it’s not that kind of movie either.

The way the script shifts audience sympathies violently from one character to another is, I think, the most laudable aspect of the film. Since she’s the protagonist, the viewer is called to sympathize with Pauline the most often. And it mostly works. I mean, she’s just a teenager. Her mother is controlling and humorless. Her father is oblivious. Her sister, the only person who loves her and sticks up for her, is dying of cystic fibrosis.

One heartbreaking scene shows Pauline listening at the door of her parents’ room as her mom rants about how, no matter how hard she’s tried, she finds it impossible to love Pauline. This isn’t followed by zooming in on Pauline’s hollow eyes or conniving grin. It’s followed by a scene of an inconsolable daughter weeping alone on her bathroom floor. Yikes.

Problem is, though, Pauline’s mom turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic as well, in spite of her coldness. She’s got one daughter that she can’t relate to at all and another one who is dying.

The run-of-the mill people who avoid and sometimes bully Pauline aren’t terribly hard to relate to either. Pauline is hard to like. She asks her health teacher whether or not you can get STDs from a dead body. She threatens classmates that she doesn’t like and even when she reaches out to make friends with the girl across the street, it comes off as robotic and insincere (and in light of what happens later on, probably is). You can also practically smell her b.o. through the screen.

But the director does a great job of playing on the viewer’s sense of justice and morality, swinging you to Pauline’s team, then away, and then back again until the final, horrifying sequence where you just don’t know what to think anymore.

Is it a recommendation? Meh? I guess if you’re looking to see how dark you can go. When I put this one in my DVD queue over a year ago that’s the mood I was in. The acting and writing is solid. And there’s a John Waters cameo if that tells you anything. It’s just a lot.

Second movie: Under the Skin; 2014

I was a little more prepared for this film, and it was less gritty than I expected. I also read the book a few months ago and thought I knew what I was getting into. Man was I wrong about that.It was more the emotional violence that made this one hard to watch at times.

While the novel is a pretty transparent morality tale about harvesting and eating animals, the film is more art house than Upton Sinclair. However, just because we don’t see human men shaved, corralled, and de-toothed like livestock being fattened for foie, their destruction is eerie in a completely different way.


Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in a stolen woman-suit (skin…she’s under it) who lures horny dudes into a black room where they become stuck in a mysterious black goo. And eventually, we find, their innards are harvested and collected in some sort of sluice.

The soundtrack does WORK in this film, notably absent in ScarJo’s most sociopathic moments: most memorably when she watches a couple drown in a violent surf and then leaves their screaming infant on the beach to die of exposure. It’s realistic enough for me to wonder how the actors who played the couple (and I think a dog also?) survived the waves in real life. The entire scene made me sick to my stomach.

When she gets back to her work of man-harvesting, though, the music seeps back in like that same black goo. And when we see how the innards are harvested, when in a flash nothing is left behind but an empty sheath of skin, there’s a hard rim-shot like a fake shooting in a high school musical. Which makes you wonder if sound is even a real thing in the context of the world we’re seeing (shudders).

Eventually, the anti-hero/ine seems to become curious about and then sympathetic to the humans she is capturing. And ultimately, that is what brings her down. Or burns her up. You know, whichever.

Bottom line: if it’s your first foray, maybe pick a different double feature.

All Amped from the Transmit Culture Panel and Trying to Keep the Buzz Going

diversity in childrens lit

I was pretty much born an angry feminist and have had to reel it back a lot over the years (for the sake of my blood pressure). In second grade the boys wouldn’t let girls play kickball with them, so I lined all the other little girls in my sphere of influence along the kickball court and yelled, “Girls are as good as boys!!!” at them until they let us play (or at least I think that’s what happened…maybe we just broke up the kickball game into a pandemonium of playground-chasing).

I was always disappointed that there were so few girls in books like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. And let’s be real; I was even more disappointed in the fact that the only girls in the Bible who were really important were just important because they gave birth to important babies.

Drove. Me. CRAZY.

So just imagining trying to grow up as a black, hispanic, Chumash, Asian American, or basically any non-white kid with nearly zero representation in my favorite books and movies? Fricking infuriating!

I might even have decided that reading was no fun and given up on it. I don’t know if I would have been as cool as Marley and started a national movement.

At least in California elementary schools like mine the librarians made an effort to find books like Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Skirt, Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry and others that center on non-white, female characters. But what about the kids in less conscientious places? And why just a couple tokens for other ethnicities?

And more importantly: what about the non-literary, fun books and comics that actually make kids want to read in their free time? The ones that, I don’t know, little boys might even read?

Last night Ooligan put on a panel about this very issue featuring literary agent DongWon Song, Multnomah County librarian Alicia Tate, and founder of Portland Youth Poet Laureate Project S. Renee Mitchell. One of our alumni and founder of Believe in Wonder, Brian Parker, moderated. They covered the lack and the need of diverse books both to act as avatars for kids from different cultures, as well as make the mainstream more familiar with and hopefully sympathetic to other cultures.

(Because <ahem> diversity isn’t just assuming everyone should be the same because we’re in a “post-racial society.” I don’t know who decided that was a thing but they could sure benefit from reading a fricking book or two…that isn’t by Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly.)

“Diverse” in our conversation meant both books with central characters of color as well as books written by authors of color. Brian brought up a question that I personally would have been too afraid to ask. He said that one of his white friends said they were too scared to write black characters into their work. The friend sitting next to me and I shared a look…it was exactly what we had been thinking.

“Well, I think that’s silly,” Alicia Tate said.

“That’s just lazy,” DongWon said. “Writing is a hard thing to do…You’ve got to do the research to write a good book anyway, you can do your research about this, too.”

(I’ll just interject that DongWon is my editing teacher and I’m sure you can imagine the necessity of stepping up one’s game in that class.)

One of the most important things here is that all young people are able to see themselves as the hero of the story — of many stories in fact. That they have multiple people in literature and film and art to relate to that don’t just play a subordinate, supporting position.

For me, personally, this issue is important for two reasons.

First of all, my aspiring author friends can’t find homes for their stories. One friend in particular told me that she’d been turned down by 70 agents because nobody can “place” her book, a common problem for authors of color. She’s a great writer and one of the most interesting people I know, and writes about issues informed by her travels as a consultant for NGOs in Rwanda, Egypt, Europe, and America. Yet despite her skill and experience, there’s apparently no place for her writing.

The second reason is I’m tired of stories like my friend’s losing priority to tiresome suburban angst. I no longer want to live in a country where Jonathan Franzen is the pinnacle of modern literature. These books are about as enthralling as eavesdropping at brunch in Lake Oswego. Or at Sambo’s in Santa Barbara. You guys, it’s still called Sambo’s.

Currently, about 80-90% of the publishing industry is white and female (the other 10% are dudes in the high-paying executive positions…looool…just wait). So I’m not really breaking any ground in my chosen profession. So when I got called on to ask a question, I asked what I could do as part of that majority hunk to promote inclusion and diversity.

Alicia said, “Say YES!” She also said that once I’ve got more influence I should really promote diverse books to booksellers and libraries.

And DongWon said that I should be prepared and open enough to say yes when stories that aren’t about me and my own experience come across my desk. And in order to do that I should be as widely and deeply read as possible.

“It might not be something that you can relate to,” he said. “But thousands of other people can.”

And that’s something that, even though I’m no big wig, I can start now. For my writer friends, for the kids who need someone to emulate, and for all the readers out there starved for new perspectives.

I hope you’ll join me.

Columbine by Dave Cullen; Finding the Truth in the Midst of Violence

Make no mistake, planet earth has always been a rough place to live. With no lag time in our receiving bad news, however, the roughness seems particularly acute.

We watch bleeding, terrified people flee from their smoldering homes, theaters, or campuses. We get the newly released, formerly repressed footage of police shooting unarmed teenagers uncut and unsolicited. We get inundated by the latest horrifying thing a politician said repeatedly until we wonder…what is the real news that this noise is keeping me from noticing?

In 1999, most of us could only access a mainstream narrative, which did not have many more scruples than Gawker.

It was in that limited world that my sweet 6th grade band teacher quieted our rowdy class to explain that two boys in Colorado had taken guns to their high school, killing thirteen of their classmates.

The story woven from there shaped how we proceeded in middle and high school, especially how we treated the outcasts and the bullied…like they could snap at any moment. Any retaliation or act of self-protection provoked fear and rumors. Weirdos couldn’t stand up for themselves without fear of even harsher punishments. Some got submissive. Some got kicked out. Some got probation or worse.

And I challenge you to find a high schooler who hasn’t sat through a lockdown or experienced threat of a shooting attack or bomb threat.

Before many of us became nearly numb to mass shootings, this one event shaped the narrative. And every act of terror or mass shooting that followed is compared to this.

THE BOOK: Columbine by David Cullen (2009)

columbine by dave cullen
The absurdly sensationalist blurb on the front is not representative of the rest of the book.

Journalist Dave Cullen was a resident of Jefferson County (aka Jeffco) on April 20, 1999. He was one of the first reporters on the scene when word broke that a massacre was happening at Columbine High. His book, researched over ten years, was something of penance for his being complicit in creating harmful myths.

“To avoid injecting myself into the story, I generally refer to the press in the third person. But in the great media blunders during the initial coverage of this story, where nearly everyone got the central factors wrong, I was among the guilty parties. I hope this book contributes to setting the story straight.” — Cullen

Cullen debunks a number of these myths in his book. I’ll present two below.

Myth: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were bullied goth kids who targeted jocks during their rampage.

As terrified students poured from the school, passing through the frozen police perimeter, members of the media intercepted them, putting microphones — and words — into their mouths. Were the shooters bullied? Yeah I heard something like that. Were they members of this “trenchcoat mafia” we keep hearing about? Yeah, I think so. They were wearing dusters after all.

There was a “trenchcoat mafia” at Columbine high school, but Dylan and Eric were not members (though they were casual friends with a few of the guys in that social circle). They weren’t goths. They both had jobs at a pizza place where Eric was promoted to management, as well as a number of friends. They went to school events and actually liked sports. Until a few months before the massacre, they got decent grades. Dylan went to prom, with a date, the Saturday before the attack. Girls loved Eric, and even on the morning of the massacre, a car full of girls had driven by him on the street, honking and waving.

As far as targeting goes, Eric Harris never intended to just be a school shooter. A number of ineffectual bombs were found inside the school and inside the boys’ cars. Eric and Dylan’s journals later demonstrated that the plan was to kill as many people as possible. Eric Harris wanted to top Timothy McVeigh, and the boys’ chose April 20th (it was first April 19th) partially as an anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Cullen quotes one of my old UCSB Professors and terrorism expert, Mark Juergensmeyer, by calling the intent of Columbine “performance violence.”

“Terrorists design events ‘to be spectacular in their viciousness and awesome in their destructive power. Such instances of exaggerated violence are constructed events: they are mind-numbing, mesmerizing theater.'” — Cullen, quoting Juergensmeyer

The big bombs didn’t go off. The smaller bombs only worked to add to the oppressive noise inside the school. In spite of 13 deaths, things didn’t go Eric’s way in the end. He isn’t remembered as a terrorist. He’s remembered as a school shooter.

Cold comfort.

Myth: The girl who said “yes.”

There was a girl in the library, shot by Dylan Klebold, who said “yes” when he asked her if she believed in God. It was not, as most people thought for years, a girl named Cassie Bernall. Unfortunately, Cassie never had a chance to speak that day before Eric Harris killed her.

Craig, another boy who had been in the library had mistakenly told authorities that Cassie was the one who bravely confessed her faith before being shot to death. It was a story he, a Christian, took as a silver lining to the worst day of his life.

When detectives brought Craig back to the library to try to determine what had actually happened, he pointed to the opposite side of the library to where Cassie had been hiding. Valeen Schnurr had been the one who told Dylan that she believed in God, after he had already shot her once. Less intent on murder than suicide, Dylan lost interest in Val and walked away without attempting another shot. Val survived the attack.

The national media’s attention had largely drifted away from Columbine before investigators confirmed Val’s story. Val and her parents didn’t want to hurt the Bernalls, who clung to the story of their daughter’s martyrdom as a way to pull through the trauma and loss.

The story helped the Bernalls, as well as Christians around the country, deal with the tragedy. The story ultimately hurt the actual girl who said “yes.” When Val would try to talk about what had happened at her own church, she was received coldly, and questioned repeatedly. People viewed her as a copycat, and it only got worse when She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall came out as a book.

“Whether they meant it or not, by printing that book, they called me a liar. And that’s humiliating…Surprisingly, it took longer to forgive them than Eric and Dylan.” — Val Schnurr

After reading about this confusion, I checked out the Amazon page for She Said Yes, and it’s full of 1 and 2 star reviews by some very angry readers (who I assume cavalierly took to the Internet after reading Cullen’s book). I strongly disagree with that tactic. Val has forgiven Misty and Brad, and in the end, these parents lost their devout daughter who may very well have stood up for what she believed in if she hadn’t been blown away first.

My takeaway is that this high-profile mess-up was a case of greed run amok on the part of Pocket Books Publishing. The publishers didn’t want to wait until the misunderstanding had been completely worked out, nor did they alter the title or other defining elements to reflect the truth. It’s an important thing to remember that even if something seems like a “white lie,” there can still be harmful repercussions.

So what?

Seventeen years later, the Columbine attack can seem like small potatoes compared to Virginia Tech, San Bernadino, Sandyhook, and others. While “performance violence” is easily applied to the behavior of Isis and Al Qaeda, attention-seekers everywhere, including here in the US, now see mass murder as a very viable option. Mass murder is occurring from one end of the country to another, and we need carefully researched facts if we’re going to reduce occurrences.

The blame game that followed Columbine spun out of control far before the facts were analyzed. It’s not just about how easy it was for Eric to get a gun, though all he had to do was ask his older friend to get them for him at a gun show…no ID necessary. It’s not just about police negligence, though Jeffco covered up of the fact that there was an unsigned affidavit to search the Harris’ house months before the massacre. It wasn’t just glorifying violence in the media, in spite of the rampant inspiration and comparisons the killers drew from pop culture. It wasn’t just Dylan’s depression, though his misery barely registered with the adults in his life before he made an extremely harmful decision. It wasn’t just Eric’s psychopathy or God complex, though I happen to think that was the most powerful factor of all.

Ultimately Dylan and Eric are to blame for what happened at Columbine, but nothing in our atmosphere happens in a vacuum.

Debunking rumors and thinking in a nuanced manner is difficult and takes more time than most people are willing to spend. Detaching from a popular narrative you’ve believed for years is even more difficult. And the Columbine massacre, like all these other acts of mass murder happening under our noses day after day, wasn’t a result of any single elements listed above. It was a toxic cocktail of all of them.

Resolution: don’t let the internet tell me who to be (and don’t capitalize it either)

Most of this past year was spent trying to figure out, both for myself and clients, how getting attention online “works” and how to leverage that to make money. For business purposes it still matters, of course, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. I can’t close my eyes, put my hands over my ears, and refuse to acknowledge the value of marketing. I’d never make money again.

As I mentioned in my last post, I went through “analysis paralysis” around September regarding what this blog should be all about. Niches are mandatory for bloggers and businesses. I didn’t need to go to grad school to know that envisioning your audience as “everybody” is one of the stupidest moves you can make.

I loved writing this blog when it was “Craft Fear” because of the ability to indulge and mix together my two favorite hobbies. However, I was also wanting to explore my career quest along with countless other interests.

Should this be a book review blog? A publishing blog? A “help-me-I’m-in grad-school” blog? Or should I stick to the movie + beer format?

Looking honestly at my Instagram account over the last couple of years, in addition to the exquisite portraits of my hound and some special moments with my family, I see a lot of empty consumption outweighing my creativity and production.

This isn’t about drinking too much alcohol, though, it’s about acting automatically when it comes to things that should be approached with thoughtfulness. It’s watching the same shows over and over again on a loop just because it’s a habit and I don’t want to try new things (or, heaven forbid, watch what everyone else is watching at the moment). It’s setting my “Goodreads Challenge” at 75 and then ripping through a bunch of books I won’t really remember and don’t really care about.

It’s like I’m consuming films, books, drinks, concerts, work outs, and other life experiences and then throwing them over my shoulder like partially picked-over chicken wings.

What a waste.

So in an effort to rectify this shortcoming, I’m breaking out of my niche without burrowing into a new one. I want the movies I watch, the books I read, the places I go, and the events I attend to be more than wasted chicken bones and empty beer cans. This blog will be a tool in commemorating what I read, watch, witness, and experience.

Potential colleagues and clients, you are welcome to read my blog. You may see a lot of industry-relevant posts, or you may see me talk a lot about hop balance and werewolves. I might talk about politics sometimes, especially if I’m reading non-fiction. I will make an effort to be balanced and thoughtful, and not to use too salty of language. But I honestly doubt we’ll have fun working together if those things are deal breakers for you.

But here’s what I will not do:

  1. Try to berate you into agreeing with me, all the while knowing that my tone is only making you want to do the opposite.
  2. Hide my true convictions behind vague slams and attempted satire.
  3. Limit the scope of what I’m writing for the perceived sake of making Google like me better.
  4. Scream my lungs out into the echo-chamber of whatever is frothing everyone up this week (although I might post some links from time to time…but only if they’re amazing, and mostly if they’re funny).

Hopefully this will bring a sense of freedom to my posts. Ultimately, this whole thing is an effort to bring more meaning into my own life, but hopefully it can help bring some more to those of you who read what I right as well.

Take as many selfies as you want. Don’t take selfies. Be on Facebook. Don’t be on Facebook. No matter what the latest psuedo-scientific article on social media and the internet says, it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is what you create and what meaning you draw from those things that you actually do.

Make 2016 count. Only you can know what that means.