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Thursday
Jan302014

On expensive socks...

I spent $14 on a single pair of socks yesterday.

While I do not skimp on dates with pretty girls and the like, I resist spending unnecessary money on myself. I taught myself to cook to save on meals, I only buy generic brands and you better believe I put water in an empty shampoo bottle to get a little more life out of it. So, what would justify such expensive socks?

Shamefully, I am slowly becoming a runner.

You know what I mean, one of THOSE runners. I’m becoming one of those runners who wear nothing but reflective gear, weird fabric sleeves on their arms and legs, obnoxious sunglasses and ostentatious shoes.

I have long loved running and have regularly engaged in it for the past decade. As my metabolism begins to wage war against my waistline, I have used running as a primary defense. Like a calorie cavalry…

However, I still would never have spent $14 on two thin slabs of fabric attached to my feet.

Last year, on the whim of a particularly strong run and a whispered New Year’s resolution, I ran my first marathon. Like an idiot, a crazy idiot, I ran 26 miles without stopping. Training for only eight weeks, I finished the sucker and haven’t shut up about it since.

As time passed and my running schedule grew ever sporadic, I felt an urge to do an insane thing and I decided to try my hand at another foolish feat of fleet-footedness. So, I’m currently in week five of training for the May 4 Vancouver Marathon.

It turned out that I didn’t hunger for another free T-shirt and more professional pictures of my accomplishment that I can’t afford. Rather, I grew nostalgic about how I physically felt during the training. With a set schedule for when I would run and how far, it ensured that I would get more than enough exercise and feel way less guilt about eating pizza.

More than anything, everything feels great. From my mind to my body, getting so exhausted can only mean good things to relax my busy self. It helps everything make more sense and will hopefully aid me in aging gracefully.

However, as I feel more compelled to do this, I want to train more responsibly and optimize each run. I was extremely proud of finishing the first marathon. Unfortunately, I am nothing without challenges. I finished one, but how can I do better? This is my personality and most of what makes me insufferable for long periods of time.

I’ve begun worrying about pace speed, shoe-life and how many calories to eat while I venture out on anything over 12 miles. Instead of just doing the thing, which I focused on last year, I want to do the dumb thing well.

And with that decision to optimize this increasingly important exercise comes very stupid corollaries. Like spending $14 on socks.

Of course, you should assume I can only do this through the gift of bachelorhood and the curse of being without a family. After you turn 30, it seems your Facebook page becomes full of either baby pictures or bragging about running marathons. At least I picked the least expensive choice.

 

Originally published in The Issaquah Press

Wednesday
Dec042013

In Defense of Year-End Top 10 Lists

Anyone brave enough to follow me on Twitter knows this time of year finds me constantly linking to Top 10 lists and weeping over my gratitude for them. 
Conversely, this time of year also seems the time when many writers of these lists huff and puff about creating them or detractors cry foul on 'lazy editors'. 
I want to say the following to you lucky few who drown in the best books, movies, television and movies: you are performing a cultural service and you should be damn pleased with yourself. 
Especially since I started moving all over the country, where friends are hard to find and time passes slower than a Hulu commercial, I have needed a strong connection to popular culture. I get lonely. Keeping up with modern books, movies, music and television allows me to be a part of a national/global conversation even if no one asks for my opinion. If it sounds sad, then well, it's probably sad. I choose to think of the onslaught of media as the exciting rush of new information, a tool to learn better story telling and sampling data for a cultural timeline. 
If I want to get personal about it (and YOU KNOW I want to get personal about it) some part of this fixation comes from my dad's utter refusal to accept new anything. I love the man, but he still refuses to listen to any song made after 1979. He will only see a movie if it guarantees breasts. And he mostly spends his time rereading all the books he's read for decades. As a child I always found it pretty sad. So, in some weird vow to never become that or to revolt against his comfort level, I have  turned into this fiend who devours new things and writes his daddy issues in a post about Top 10 lists. Hurray! 
I keep vigilant, but as the old saying goes, "Don't be stupid." All my podcasts, review trolling and Twitter will never show me everything that might make life complete. All the McSweeney's, NYT book review and Netflix can only show me so much. My pirating search filters get clogged. My Spotify gets spotty. My SEO gets SOL.
In come the annual Top 10 lists. 
Sure, they don't catch everything as many good things slip through small cracks. Still, the lists serve as an excellent way to see what I have missed in the previous year, gauge how my opinions stack up with those I respect and plan the next three or four cold winter months. 
Culture writers, you give me a gift in these. Let my words stand as the voice of all struggling journalists with big dreams and bad friend-making skills who moved too far away from home. Let them stand while I say, "Thank you."
I understand the hollow act of listing, writers. It seems unconscionable and almost sleazy to arbitrate some point system that ranks one piece of art over another. I get it. I hate star ratings and number scores and everything, too. I like puppies and think more money should be spend on education as well. We have a happy life together full of agreement. We love kale. We hate this season of Homeland.
However, this is the holiday season and you should treat it as such, writers. Don't get bogged down in the minutia of what goes where and what is left out. Take a page from many of the greats who choose to list only a top five or as many as a top 25, however many they feel the year demands. Take a tip from these who flat out say the numbers mean nothing and one piece does lift above others. Have fun. You enjoy this job, presumably, and you get to list what you enjoyed most while working the job you enjoy. Do it for posterity. Do it to swab the cheek of civilization. Do it for me. 
Tuesday
Dec032013

Movie Review: Nebraska

At this point, I haven't lived in the Midwest for a year and a half. This has led to a wealth of emotions. While peppered with nostalgia, I have mostly felt a sad relief that I find hard to describe. Alexander Payne's newest movie Nebraska comes pretty close to expressing it.
The movie stars longtime character actor Bruce Dern, who most people recognize from his apparently illustrious career and I recognize as the military guy from the Tom Hanks classic The 'Burbs. Dern is an old, confused man who believes a mailed marketing blitz will guarantee him a promised million dollars. Will Forte, who I have long loved from his voice work on Clone High to his years on SNL, plays Dern's son who agrees to drive the old man to Nebraska. He knows the scam is a scam, but hopes for a chance to bond with a distant father and a chance to get away from seemingly stagnant Billings, Montana. 
I didn't last a year in Lakeview, Oregon. It was my first newspaper job in a minuscule town of 2,500, where once five sawmills dominated the landscape and only one survives employing limited-time workers. For the most part, the people were earnest and had a pure vision of their purpose in life. Through circumstance, culture, history or economics, that vision has left them in a limited position with small chance to propagate the lifestyle for many more generations. This circular, depleting corner of civilization could very well evolve, finding  a new way to survive well into the future. However, that process  was only on its first legs when I spent 10 months living there. 
I did not love Nebraska, but I did like it a lot. As Forte carts Dern back to the old homestead in Nebraska, the story makes interesting turns only to unwind in a very conventional way. Still, moments exploring the quiet, aging, middle American lifestyle sing of days past, dreams lost and a left behind culture. 
While I never saw The Descendants for some reason, I rather enjoyed About Schmidt, Sideways and especially Election. While Payne's previous works do slant a bit too cynical for my taste, here's the rub, I found Nebraska overly sentimental. It did not insult with its kindness, but it did stretch believability for the sake of audience appreciation. 
I saw Nebraska in a loud theater of upper middle class 50-something couples full of Thanksgiving leftovers and still drunk from Black Friday shopping. The movie's biggest problem is that it was overly designed to appeal to that crowd. Just below its surface lies an personal, real story of a son's search for his father and his fathers search for meaning. Unfortunately, the screenwriter held that story captive in exchange for a focus on entertainment. This left the movie diluted. Really good. Not great. 
Nebraska the movie succeeds most at portraying Nebraska the state. Shot in a stark black and white, the film crafts the culture not as a setting, but as a character all its own. It is integral to the story and Payne does an amazing job transcribing that to the audience. Dern and Forte make the movie by respecting that surrounding. To understand the story, to understand the many characters, to understand the wish of a million dollars and the need to support a father to see its end, Payne knows you need to understand Nebraska.
Thursday
Aug222013

My vision for the next generation


New consoles. For this we have waited longer than two presidential elections, three Olympics and a reboot of the Spider Man movie franchise. Now an updated generation of (hopefully) top tier hardware will make us (hopefully) happy.

I had forgotten the effect of such an event. But like clockwork, I watched all the announcements live and followed press briefings like they were Buzzfeed's Breaking Twitter account. The promise of something new feels like not just another video game console, but seeing the evolution of a pastime I've kept since my father bought me an Atari 2600 when I was five years old. This is the stuff of personal history. This is planning friendships. This promises repose after the daily hustle.

The last pass this cycle made, I caught a whiff of the Wii's Kool-aid and spent the first year of its lifespan convincing myself I enjoyed it. Sure, I did to some extent, but with the realization of Xbox Live, the 360 became my home console. Then a PS3 gave be a blu ray player and some wonderful exclusives to complete the dream.

Here we are again. I am older, more world weary and in a worse financial position due to the magic of student loans. Because of these considerations, I find this next generation horse race a more serious affair. I want a box that will fulfill my gaming desires, entice my tech fetish and also allure my friends with the same siren song. As I now live 2000 miles away, it is imperative to keep the console conversation with friends lively and constructive, else I choose wrongly and am stuck with a lonely system while my better halves delight in their wisdom.

But what do I want in a next generation console? What do I want that has been trumpeted by the big players and conceptually represents the future. I want things, but I also don't know what I want because it isn't my job to inspire 'want'. That's for people who earn far more than myself.

This is next gen. No playing around here. We might not see another chance at this until Spider Man swings his way around again.


•••••


First, evolution begs speed. I'm not speaking of Sonic the Hedgehog and more driving franchises; I speak of a snappy user interface experience. I have grown increasingly aware of how long everything takes on current systems. Moving through the cross media bar or sorting through the xbox's... boxes, takes milliseconds more than it should. It adds up to an unfriendly experience.

In 2005, when blades where sharpened by the first of this generation, the vast majority of the public was not seeking the fastest handheld computers in the land. The speed of phone UI is the most instantly noticeable feature while video game software has far outpaced the infrastructure. Next gen console switching between modes, games and media should echo modern technology.

Additionally, loading should not exist. I understand there will be new games that are larger and will lead to parallel UI experience, but the industry should strive to abolish this abhorrent waste of time.

Second, MS and/or Sony should develop social features smartly. Remember the first Facebook and Twitter apps on current gen? They were slow and useless. I don't want that. Please, no that.

It surprises me that I even want some social element, but the more I thought about it, the better ideas I developed. I would love a uniquely devised stream concerning those I have as MS/Sony contact. The stream would give a full and editable account of what games these friends have played, what achievements/trophies they earned, what content they uploaded and any open invites to co-op/multiplayer. Not everyone would appreciate this, but anything that adds to the conversation with my friends or lets me in on their experiences means more personal value.

Third, though I see both sides of the Internet's anger against Microsoft, I do think Microsoft had good intentions hidden somewhere in the call for an constantly connected console. We can debate the rights issues forever, but more than anything, the company's plan to use remote servers for additional processing is inspiring. This is what makes Google voice search so impressive and will eventually lead to it as a standard. Though every developer would not take the advantage, the idea that an incredible resource of dedicated processing could be available for game production could have had redefined the lifespan and performance of the Xbox One. Sure, Microsoft will still offer those servers, but splintering the audience into those that will connect the consoles and those that won't leaves devs in a lurch on whether to use that extra power.

It was a startlingly fresh and interesting idea that MS did not know how to sell.

Lastly, I want new functionality. Now, I'm not even sure what that means, so don't expect a definition. Creativity is bursting around new technology. Between delivery systems like Steam and user inputs like the Oculus Rift, it is a beautiful mix of innovation and a skeptical audience. As game designers master storytelling in greater numbers, leaps should also be made in mastering how players take part. I am excited for this future, I only wonder how it will look.


•••••


The big three now deliver to a post-marketed audience. The public is savvier than past fools like myself, who actively believed in the promise of what the Nintendo Wii and the Kinect could bring. Still, hope defines the upcoming generation. Above all, hope makes these speculative times exciting.

It cannot be ignored that recent history is not so easily forgotten. Gimmicks and marketed promise can no longer keep this industry afloat; functionality and proof of concept should define success in the future. Look at the Wii U. My boredom with tired franchises and disbelief in Nintendo developing capable use of that new controller seems to reflect the console's dismal sales numbers.

Though it is optimistic for me to hope, it is realistic for me to expect. We experience the world and its direction together as video game enthusiasts. An industry would not exist without us and that should inspire activity. These boxes have never solely been pure consumption. They hold a place in the zeitgeist, in our social lives, in our conversations and in our hearts. So what do you want in your new consoles?

Monday
Jul292013

Why haven't you watched: League of Gentlemen

 

Netflix finally brought back the entire series of the League of Gentlemen. 
In my personal estimation, this insanely dark British comedy that lasted for three season beginning in 1999, is an under appreciated gem. It not only stands up with the classic English fare like Spaced, Black Adder and even Fawlty Towers, but I argue that it is an immaculate undertaking of comedy that stretches bleak portrayals of macabre life into fun house mirrors of hilarious distortion. I have heard little love for The League of Gentlemen on this side of the pond and that should change. 
Written and mostly performed by the three creators, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reese Shearsmith, this show is contained in the fictional town of Royston Vasey. As you would expect, this is a idiosyncratic village full of crazies. Each season highlights a rough arc and dredges up new characters to play some integral or sidelong role within it. 
I remember seeing commercials for League of Gentlemen on Comedy Central in 2000. I was immediately put off by what I saw and didn't seek it out until much later. The word for it is: grotesque. I've seen it in other British comedies, but this show more than any other bathes in the grotesque levity of make up, masks, wigs and personalities. Most every character has deformities and while that isn't the joke itself, it creates an atmosphere of heaviness which is used to fantastic effect. 
I would not call the show perfect. Especially during the first season, when the laugh track is most frequently, and bewilderingly, utilized, there are plenty of broad, easy jokes. However, the ethos of this show's character seems to focus on quality out of quality. The sheer number of jokes that range from exploding animals to long monologues ending in visual punchlines, allows the lesser ones to evaporate as true winners dominate through the story. 
I call it dark and, boy, I mean dark. I hold my recommendations for this show depending on the company I keep. This is a show that displays regular gore, black face, perversion and death. What makes it worse, and better, is that it does not treat most of these things lightly. Instead, intense, depressive situations are created that actually work out of the silly characterizations. These push the viewers head down into the murk of a dilemma. Either it is hilarious or it is one of the saddest things you have seen. Even when you land on the side of sadness, the show will deliver a worthwhile payoff, sometimes seasons later.
Personally, I feel like the genius of the League of Gentlemen is contained in the characters. The show still surprises me by the scope of roles that are written and performed by these three. Again, some falter, but they bring quantity and the vast majority are successful. Situations, characters and the town evolve as the show continues and the writers' reluctance to rest on laurels makes it great. 
It contains moments of surpassing brilliance and gets better with each season. The distracting laugh track is scrapped in the third season, which also affords the writers to script the most concise and interesting arc of the whole series. By then, the community of characters is recognizable, with histories and weaknesses.
The League of Gentlemen also has Papa Lazarou. This is important to the world. 
In summation, you should watch it, provided that you enjoy the darkest of comedy. It is a masterpiece of experimentation and acting nuance with plenty of snark along the way. 
So, do that. Do that watching thing. Before Netflix takes it away from me for another three years.