saturday night ruminations

Well, the inevitable has happened. I'm currently watching searching for watching Searching For Bobby Fischer, because when I get obsessed about something, I have to find the movie that most closely corresponds to said obsession. I can still remember that time I became obsessed with wood chippers, and couldn't stop watching the movie Fargo. Anyway, there isn't a lot to said about Searching For Bobby Fischer - it's an OK movie, incredibly heavy handed when it comes to its themes, but there are a lot of great actors, and the story remains interesting throughout. Also - how many great movies about chess are there? I've also been watching some master level tournament play. To watch players be able to play up to twenty moves of a match out of pure memory of game theory is astonishing. Over the past week or so I've been racking my brain just trying to remember a few, five or six move openings, and to watch the grandmasters be able to play almost whole games based on theory, is dazzling. There is an almost infinite combination of moves that can take place in a game of chess, it's what makes the game so timeless, there is no solving it. Even the most powerful computers are still unable to play a perfect game. When you watch some of the great games, as you can on Youtube, you can see that there are certain combinations of moves played that can be called no less than genius. The combinations are so complex that it takes an hour of analysis for me to understand what was going on over the course of five or six moves.

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I know all of this talk about chess is starting to get mundane, so I'll try to keep to a minimum from now on. You may have noticed that I haven't been talking a lot about my Couch to 5K routine, that's because I haven't had a lot new to report. I've hit a bit of a plateau at the two mile mark, and I'm hoping that once the snow melts, I will be able to get out on the road and off of the treadmills. Oh, the torture machine that is the treadmill. My knees have taken an absolute beating this winter. It's getting to the point where I have to ice them after every run. I was just not made to run on a treadmill, I have to be out on the pavement, like my caveman ancestors - only those guys were running barefoot, and only ran on grass surfaces. Pfft - hipsters.

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I started reading Kevin Barry's story collection, Dark Lies The Island today. This was one of the books from last year that was highly praised by a lot of the people on internet whose opinions I trust. The first story is a quiet tale of a young man who is trying to muster the courage to kiss a girl. It's written beautifully, and doesn't over stay it's welcome. There's something really incredible about a well written short story, they have a way of sticking with me more than most of the novels I read. Sometimes I want to read something that doesn't waste any time with getting to the compelling content. There are a lot of thick, tome like, literary novels coming out this year, and while I think there are a lot of things to love about bigger, more challenging literary works, it helps to have a palette cleanser like a good short story collection handy.

 

Friday Night Chess!

These posts are getting more and more difficult to get up at night as my attentions continue to be centered on getting better at chess. I'm not sure that writing about chess on a daily basis is the best way to keep an audience entertained, but it may be helpful to mark my progress as a player. I can already see in games with my friends that my play is a lot better. I am doing a better job of getting all of my pieces involved in the game, and I am making less boneheaded mistakes. In all the years I've played chess, I have been completely reckless with my queen, and I'm going to guess that at least 80 percent of my losses due to losing my queen early.Now that I've realized the importance of developing a strong center, I've noticed that the queen serves more as an anchor.  When you get your minor pieces into strong positions it completely opens up the board for for attack. I've never been particularly good at knowing where to play my knights, and now that I've put all my focus on center board control I've come to understand the power that knight can have in a centralized outpost. The second thing I've beginning to notice now that I have a around fifty games played in the past three days is that I am starting to see attack patterns develop in the midgame. In the past I would just mindlessly move my pieces in an attempt to get the quickest check mate possible, often times needlessly trading pieces because I was only worried about maintaining an aggressive posture. This is not a great way to play chess. Now I can see the value of attacking weak pieces, even if those pieces are just lowly pawns, if it means I can gain even the slightest of advantages. The game is a lot easier when you can build up a number of small advantages: whether they be advantages in position or in material. If you'll excuse me the lame boxing metaphor, it is better to be a  technician like Floyd Mayweather, earning points every round while not taking a lot of punishments, then it is to be a George Forman, who wants to get into a slugfest, and opens himself up to losing in a few shots.

Speaking of slugfests - if you go to chess.com to play games, you have the option of watching grandmaster level players play bullet games in which both players have a three minute time limit, and if a players time runs out they lose, no matter what was happening in the game. This forces players to make split second calculations on moves that would take me a good five minutes to figure out. It's really fascinating to watch these players move at such breakneck speeds. I have a hard time keeping up with what they are trying to do, and it would take years of play before I would even attempt to play with such a strict time limit. The games that I am playing now have a 30 minute time limit, and the clock still effects the way I play.

Ok. Enough with the completely novice level chess game theory. I would like to say that one of the great joys in my life is picking up a new hobby and throwing myself whole-hog into understanding the ins-and-outs of it. Two years ago I got really into working out, and now I go to the gym at least four days a week without even thinking about it. Last year I made a point out of reading everyday, and now there isn't a day that goes by where I don't get at least half an hour of reading in. This year I took back up running, and now I'm well on my way to being able to run a 5K this summer. You add up all of these activities with a full time writing schedule and it doesn't leave a whole lot of room for a new hobby. I've already stopped playing video games, and my sports consumption is down about 300 percent from where it was two years ago. These days the only sports I have on are random basketball games, and that is just to have something on in the background while I am writing, or -as of late - playing chess! I'm not sure if chess will become the hobby that basically fills in the rest of spare time I have in a day, but it sure is awfully satisfying to be learning a game that has so much history, and an almost endless amount of strategy and variation in it's play styles.

Learning the principles of chess

A couple of days ago I mentioned that I was starting to play chess again after a very long break. In trying to understand better I did a deep dive on the basic principles of the game on Youtube. Just like every other skill on this planet, Youtube has a good number of videos that will help beginners. I've probably learned more about the game in the past two days than I have in a lifetime of playing with friends and family. I would play my dad as a child, and he would win every single game we played. His advice to me were always vague platitudes like, see the whole board, or, do not bring your queen out early. Meanwhile he was withholding the most important aspects of the game from me. That sneaky bastard!

From what I've been able to discern so far, here are the three keys to playing good chess in the early game:

  1. Control the center squares!

    This may be obvious to people who have played a fair bit of chess, but it is absolutely pivotal to control the center of the board. If you can control the central four squares, your pieces will have more mobility, and, obviously, your opponent will will be forced to make plays on the edges of the board. Most openings in chess center around establishing a foothold in the center of board.

  2. Develop all of your minor pieces early. 

    A solid opening should both of your bishops, knights, as well your rooks involved in the game. I can't tell you how many games of chess I've lost because I went on the attack before I had my army fully developed. There is nothing more discouraging then looking at your board after a loss and noticing that you never played the rook and knight on your queenside. In the name of getting all of your pieces developed early it is also a pretty solid rule that you never move a minor piece twice before you have full development. There are certain exceptions to this rule, but they are few and far between. You should almost never move a pawn or knight twice in the early game. This has been a big change to the way I approach the game, I was definitely guilty of paying a lot of two piece, Queen/Bishop games, which are great when you are playing people who have no clue what is going on, but once you start playing people with talent this style of play will get you crushed.

  3. Get your king to safety!

    Here's another piece of advice that you probably didn't think you needed to hear, but how many games have you lost because you either didn't castle, or castled too late in the game? Generally, if you are getting your pieces in play on schedule, you will usually have a nice castle setup in the first five-seven moves. Castling as early as possible is a good idea for a couple of reasons: it allows is almost always the safest possible structure you can put your King in, and it allows you to have both rooks in play, which is called connecting your rooks. Having both rooks in play in the mid game is extremely important to controlling the board. For new players, the rooks are always the hardest pieces to get into play, and they are absolutely essential.

These are pretty simple concepts that make the foundation of all good chess players. Just getting a decent handle on these concepts has made me a much better player in the course of a single day. There are a lot of other concepts that I am trying to get my head around. I'm still having a hard time with knowing when it is a good time to trade and/or sacrifice pieces. I know that trading minor pieces for a queen is a no brainer, but there are other situations in which I'm not sure if I should be trading my weak bishop for knight, or vice versa. I'm also trying to get a handle on how to play the late game. I've been getting into situations where I should have been able to put a game away far faster than I am now. I'm also struggling to deal with extreme pressure in the early game, especially when I'm playing as black.

The faster way I learn games like chess is to play a lot of games, and adapt to situations as they occur. Once I see a certain pattern emerging in a set of games I am able to learn what the correct course of action is in each stage of the game. The difficult thing about applying this learning style to chess is that every game is different. Once a match gets into the midgame, the sheer multitude of move combinations makes it hard for certain patterns to emerge. This is all a way to say that I fully expect to take my lumps for awhile before I see any real signs of improvement in my game. It helps that I have a couple of similarly skilled friends to play with on a regular basis. It's fun watching each other learn from our mistakes, and make the baby steps that will lead to us being better players.

Roger Ebert - Life Itself

 

When Roger Ebert died of thyroid cancer in April of 2013 I was deeply saddened. As a lover of movies, losing Ebert as a film critic was a big blow. I grew up in Illinois, where Ebert was a big of a celebrity as just about anyone, save maybe Michael Jordan and Oprah. I can remember watching the various forms of At The Movies with Siskel and Ebert as a child, and I was a loyal viewer all the way through the Richard Roeper years until Ebert was physical unable to be on the show anymore. When I get to be around high school age, I started reading Ebert's reviews religiously. When I would discover a director whose movie I loved, I would go back through Ebert's reviews to find out as much about the directors other movies as possible. This is how I found out about movies like Millers Crossing and Barton FInk from the Coen Brothers, or the treasure troth of goodness that is Scorsese's filmography. Ebert's reviews were never too wordy or self involved, but they always got to the heart of what a movie great.

There was a joy for cinema that Ebert couldn't hide in his reviews - whether he was praising a classic film or throwing down the sledgehammer on lazy, sloppily made snoozefest, there was always a playfulness in the reviews. There are plenty of critics who can expertly dissect a film on a shot-by-shot level, and over the years I've come to appreciate that kind of criticism, but it takes a great writer to be able to connect to his audience on a personal level. What made Ebert such a great critic is that his love of great movies was contagious, when he was excited about a movie, it would make me want to rush out of the house and go see that film. To be able to transfer a personal joy for life to your reader is one of the greatest gifts a writer can have, and Ebert had that in spaded.

Around the time Ebert had his first of three painful surgeries to try to reconstruct his jaw, he started blogging on his website, RogerEbert.com. If you go back and read his first posts, you can tell he was a bit hesitant to start writing on a platform that the industry he worked for was so quick to sneer at. In time Ebert's blog would become one of my favorite places on the internet. He would often write at least one blog a week that would connect with me on a deep, personal level. In the years between his cancer diagnosis and his death Ebert would open more and more about his personal life, past travels, religious and political life, and just about any other subject that meant something to him. I was especially fond of his blogs that focused on his travels in different cities throughout the world, as well his love of reading. No matter what subject Ebert was writing about he never came across as a bitter, not about his disease, or people who had wronged him in the past. His work ethic of optimism during his final years, months and even days will always be an inspiration to me.

Ebert mentions in Life Itself that it was his blog that gave him the confidence to write autobiographically. The book is written in a very conventional way. He starts with his childhood, and details the major events of his life chronologically up through 2011, when Ebert had last all ability to speak, eat and drink, but was in a period of remission.

Ebert had a real talent for remembering names and events, which comes in handy given the multitudes of people he ran into during the course of his life. My favorite parts of the book are when Ebert describes the time he spent working at The Daily Illini, and his many trips to London, in which he describes the deep love affair he formed with the ancient city. Hearing him talk about all of the cafes and used book shops he used to frequent is a treat, he is able to describe these places with such clarity that you can see the city transform before you as you read. I'm a sucker for writers who can capture the essence of a city. Ebert mentions the book he wrote about London, The Perfect London Walk in this memoir, and at many times I wish I was reading that instead of this.

This would probably be a good time to mention that I thought this was a good book, but I was expecting something a little more personal than what this work is. Ebert is so eager to talk about the hundreds of people who has met and befriended over the years, both in a personal and professional capacity, that he seems to fade into the background of his own life story. I think Ebert's own modesty is a big reason for this, but I spent a lot of the time reading this book wishing there was less words written on Lee Marvin and John Wayne, and more spent on topics like his struggle with alcoholism, or the time he spent in South Africa as a graduate student. It's almost as if Ebert didn't realize how intensely interesting his life really was.

If a devoted Ebert fan was to ask me if they should pick up this book I would tell them to read his blog instead. I feel like his blog posts do a better job of showing the man who Ebert is than this book did. There was just too much of Ebert talking about friends and people he worked with over the years for my tastes. It's not that these were not interesting people, in many cases they are, but Ebert is in such a rush to namedrop as many people as possible, that we never get a really good feel for any of the subjects of the book, including Ebert. It's not that Ebert completely ignores the major events of his life, but there are only a couple of pages devoted to things like his fight with alcoholism or how he felt about being made a movie critic in the first place.

I can understand why Ebert would shy away from writing a ton of words about his booze problems, there are a hundred memoirs about newspaper men who develop drinking problems, it's about as cliched a story as you'll find in the world of journalism. However, Ebert does spend a lot of time talking about the rich bar tradition in Chicago. He romantically talks about classic Chicago drinking established like O'Rouke's and a The Billy Goat. He also regales the reader with many stories about the kinds of antics his famous friends from the paper would get up to on a Saturday night. Ebert always comes off as a happy observer in the stories, which makes sense given his nature, but you don't get a feel for what is happening to the man which would eventually lead to him joining AA and sobering up. I came to this book wanting to learn more about the man, and what I got was some great writing about other men.

Ebert's writing becomes more personal when he writes about his history with Gene Siskel, and his relationship with his wife Chaz. The book ends on very strong note as he starts to talk about a lot of things that made his blog so great. He explains his very level headed thoughts on the existence of God, and how he feels about death. These are deeply personal looks into the mind of a man who did not appear to fear death, and was able to write about his own mortality with a clarity I found to be incredibly brave. This was the kind of writing I was expecting to find throughout Life Itself. I would have preferred another two hundred pages of these kinds of personal insights, but what is here is golden.

Close to the end of the book Ebert describes his complicated relationship with his own mother. He goes into deep detail describing the adverse affect she had on his early relationships, and implies that at one point she was even able to dissuade him from marrying a women he loved. I found it interesting that he saved this chapter for the end of the book. For a man who had traveled to different continents, written for countless newspapers and magazines, and even had a syndicated television show, Ebert comes across as a reactionary. He was a man who would become famous for his abilities as a keen observer of human nature. This is what made him such a gifted critic, but does not make for an exceptional memoirist.

Game of kings

I just finished watching Twelve Years a Slave for the second time, this time with my sister and dad. I'm not sure I've ever seen a person cry as much during a movie as my sister did in the last few hours. To say that the movie moved her would be to put it lightly. Even though this is the second time I've seen the film, I was still knocked on my ass by a couple of the scenes. I have a hard time believing that anyone could watch this movie and not be at least a little shaken. It is so surreal to see people live in a state of constant terror and agony, while their tormenters are able to justify their actions in the name of law and God. When human decency can be explained away with legalese, society has come to a complete failure. It's the simple way the film is shot that creates a magnifies the atrocities of slavery. It shows that acts of extreme cruelty were so common place that children would play in the same space where a person is hanged. Of all the haunting images in the film, the scene where Solomon is being hanged, and the only thing that is keeping him alive is the fact they have him low enough to the ground where he can stand on his toes, which is a horrible kind of torture. We watch him anguish in this manor for an entire day. In the background of the scene there are other slaves going about there own business. What else can these people do? This scene is burnt into my memory, a haunting reminder of man's capacity for evil.

Twelve Years a Slave is now out for purchase or rent, and I'll give it my whole hearted recommendation one more time.

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I have been playing chess with a friend on and off all day. There are a slew of apps that basically let you play chess online, a la Words With Friends. We've played two games so far, and I have to admit that I've lost both. All though I can honestly say that I lost the second game because I made a hair brained error which cost me my queen early. I rack it up as an unforced error, and in chess these kinds of little mistakes are fatal. I'm having a lot of fun getting back into a game that I spent untold hours playing when I was in high school. When most of my friends were playing Yahoo Pool, I was of the nerds who got to be pretty high up on the Yahoo Chess ladder. I stopped playing around the time that poker become the big game to play both in and out of school, and besides a game or two every year, I had completely left the hobby behind.

Every year there are national chess tournaments that get streamed out on the internet, and it's good fun to watch the games get analyzed in real time. There are computer models out that can predict the probability of a player winning the match based on every move. The longer the matches go the more accurate the probability becomes. The software is also able to show where a player should move his piece on a given turn in order to maximize his chances of winning. Half of the fun of watching these matches is seeing if the real life competitors will make the plays that the computer is prescribing. The other half of the fun is watching a chat room full of chess experts debate the merits of all of the openings, counters, and styles of play. It's kind of like stumbling into a rocket scientist convention, people are using all kinds of jargon you don't understand, but they are so enthusiastic that you can't help but be drawn in, and eventually some nice chap will fill you in on all the details. When you spend enough time watching high level play in any game or sport, you begin to gain a whole new respect for something you may have only dabbled in yourself.

I'd like to get back to playing more chess in my spare time. Now that I am not playing as many video games as I used to, and I have stopped playing fantasy sports, I've been itching to find something to satisfy my competitive itch. I've taken up doing crosswords in the morning, and while I enjoy the challenge good crossword puzzles pose, it's just not the same as matching wits with another person in real time. So I think I'm going to throw myself into this hobby. Perhaps I will even watch a few videos, read a few articles, and try to gain at least a novice understanding on how the game can be played. There's something romantic about taking up a game that has been around for so many hundreds of years. A game that to this day attracts so many of the brightest minds of people from countries all over the world. I would be a fool to think that I could ever anything more than a rote amateur at the game, but I think it will be fun to see just how much I can improve given a little practice.

Bite-sized bits of bliss

I'm having a hard time coming up with something to write about today. This is not an uncommon problem for writers, somedays all one can do is check one's email, listen to a couple of podcasts, read a little, and accept that today will not be the day the Great American Novel gets started. At least not started by me. I'm starting to get into a rut when it comes to going to the gym or writing passionate prose. I blame this prolonged winter of our discontent. There are only so many days of grey skies and frigid temps that I can put up with in a row before the urge to be creative starts to drain. This is precisely why I made the silly goal of writing everyday, come existential rain or shine. If you read any book on the practice of writing, the first bit of advice that is dulled out is that you have to write everyday. There are hundreds of takes on how one should write, or what time a day a person should write, or what kind of environment the writer should be in while writing, but the one indisputable fact is that a writer should always be writing. I can see you rolling your eyes, dear reader. There is nothing more obvious than telling someone that, if they want to get better at a subject, they have to practice said subject on a consistent basis. The thing I want to stress to young writers, and I would throw myself into this boat, is that writing is a skill that requires daily practice, because every day away from the blank page creates a void between the writer and the work that grows exponentially. There are some hobbies that I've picked up over the course of my lifetime that I will always maintain a relative amount of skill at. I haven't shot a basketball in a couple of years, but I have little doubt that i could go to a gym tomorrow, shoot around for awhile, and be more-or-less the same caliber of player that I've always been. It helps that I was never much skilled to begin with. With writing the opposite is true. When I started writing in earnest again this year, I felt like I was completely starting from scratch, even though I had written a bunch of short stories the year before. I had to write for a solid month before I got to a place where I didn't hate every sentence I was writing. Now I just hate every other sentence.

(That last sentence was OK I guess.)

It is not easy for me to have a daily practice. My attention tends to wonder from subject to subject. Last weekend I found myself watching live streams of people playing a video game that I have absolutely no interest in playing myself. I was watching this stream for over an hour before it dawned upon me that, for as interesting as this game seems to be for all of the other people watching, I could be doing things that I had an active interest in. There's a funny bit in the movie Kicking and Screaming (the Noah Baumbach movie, not the Will Ferrell soccer flick) where a group of post college friends are about to head out to a bar. One of the guys is watching a commercial for laundry detergent and refuses to leave until he finds out if they are going to get a stain out of the carpet. His friend rolls his eyes and says something to the effect of, "it's a commercial, of course they are going to get the stain out," but the entire group watches the last ten seconds of the commercial before they go. The image of the entire group intently watching the dumb commercial before carrying on with their day is a perfect analogy for my relationship with the internet. I'm the kind of guy who will do hour long deep dives on Earnest Hemingway's letters to Fitzgerald, then spend another hour watching a behind the scenes video of the making of a Wilco album. My brain has an insatiable appetite for pop culture minutia. I could make the argument that spending all this time consuming the internet like I'm Pac-Man and obscure trivia are my power pellets, is making me a more interesting person, and therefore a better story teller. I could make that argument, but it would mostly be bullshit.

I spend so much time filling my head with other people's voices that it drowns out my own voice - both in daily conversation and my writing. This has made the daily writing challenge all the more imperative for me to find my own voice as a writer. When I am deep into a writing session, it's like someone turns down the giant volume knob on the rest of the world. What's left is a inner quietness in which my thoughts become organized and transcribable. This is as close as I'm ever going to get to meditation, and even if nothing comes of this writing project besides a couple of minutes of serenity in my daily life, it will probably be worth it. The price I have to pay for these bite-sized bits of bliss is a whole lot of self doubt and frustration, but the payoff is always worth it. If you are a fellow writer out there, I'm sure you share a similar feeling.

The thing I miss most from my sports writing days, was having a reliable subject to work with. You cover enough sporting events and eventually you fall into groove. When you are writing game recaps the outcomes may be different, but the story stays the same. That's also the bad thing about writing about sports, no matter who the players are, or how the statistics are valued at a given time, the story will still be Team A beats Team B. But - no matter how tedious the repetition was - even if I was stuck covering the local high school basketball beat for a small town paper - I would still find myself getting to the place where I was in the eye of the hurricane of my own consciousness. Getting to a state of peaceful nothingness through total concentration is a mysterious and wonderful thing. It's what we are all chasing, and I count myself lucky to have found my own route to it. All of that repetition eventually started to make sports seem meaningless, but the writing always felt meaningful.

Every day that I spent away from my keyboard in the past couple of years felt like I was drifting further and further from my own little island of happiness. What can I say, I was at a point in my life where I didn't want to do the hard work of making myself happy. I would have a day like today, where the words were just not coming, and would give up. No matter how miserable I got, or how much I started to hate myself, I was content to be lazy. I still feel the pull of that person when I'm having a tough day, and the last thing I want to do devout a lot of mental energy into a practice that often seems like it's fruitless. The doubt monsters will be quick to say, "You're not going to be a famous writer. This isn't gong to bring you riches. What's the point?" That's when I have to look back to all of those little moments of inner peace and realize that it is the writing itself that is important. The process is its own reward, don't anyone ever tell you otherwise.

The Oscars, a thing that happened

Well I'm coming at you fresh off of watching the Oscars. There were not a whole lot of surprises when it came to winners, 12 Years a Slave took the show's top honors, Gravity won for just about every technical award possible, Cate Blanchette won for Best Actress, and Matthew (Wooderson) McConaughey won for Best Actor. I wasn't a huge fan of Ellen's hosting, especially the pizza bit that just wouldn't die, but overall the show ran as smooth as one could expect. The two awards that I was happiest to see given out were Lupita Nyong'o for Best Supporting Actress in 12 Years a Slave, and Spike Jonze taking home Best Original Screenplay for Her.

I mean just look at this reaction. How can you not love that? You see a lot of jaded people at these kinds of award shows and to see this kind of unabashed pride and happiness from a winner is pretty cool. I felt the same way about Jonze during his acceptance speech. I thought that Her was an amazing story, regardless of what medium it was intended for.

I've been harking on this for awhile now, but the only thing that rubbed me wrong about The Oscars this year was the Academy's compete failure to recognize Inside Lleywn Davis for being the brilliant movie it is. For the Coens and Oscar Isaac to be snubbed is a little silly in my opinion. Still, you have to give a lot of credit to the voters for recognizing the two movies that best exemplified what movies are capable of: Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.

...and just to get this bit of snarkiness off of my chest, I was also happy to see that this years Oscars didn't turn into the American Hustle awards. I enjoyed American Hustle, but I was a little worried that the safe movie would win a bundle of awards, and to the Academy's credit, the better, riskier movies took home the big prizes.

Was anyone surprised when McConaughey once again dusted off his Wodderson impression for a major award acceptance speech? I certainly was not. I wonder if this Oscar win is the pinnacle of the McConaussance? I mean after these last couple of episodes of True Detective are over, and Matt takes home an Emmy, will that be the end? I certainly hope not. I think the world is a better place when McC is taking on challenging roles. I hope that his collaboration with Christopher Nolan is a smashing success and he gets the kind of financial freedom to champion projects in the same way that Pitt and DiCaprio do now. I'm in favor of whatever it takes to keep getting him roles that push him as an actor. No more rom-coms please. I have this dream that someday we will think about McConaughey in the same way we talk about Daniel Day Lewis, only DDL could never pull off a role as subtle and complex as Wooderson. Search your hearts, dear reader, you know it to be true.

Not much else to say about the show, other than It would be really great if we could get the ceremony itself to be an hour long, instead of the four hour death march that we all went through tonight. My proposal is that we keep the big awards, Best Actor/Actress/Director/Screen Play/Picture and parcel the other awards out over the course of a week. We could have a winner get announced every night on Kimmel, or any of the other Late Night shows. That way the people who win awards like Best Editing or Best Wardrobe design would get a chance to actually be interviewed, and have their voice heard instead of being given 20 seconds to give an acceptance speech so we can get back to Ellen's ongoing pizza joke bit. This will probably never happen, because it's such a huge ratings draw for ABC, and I realize that for a lot of people this like the Super Bowl. I just think a shorter show would be a lot more enjoyable to watch.

So that kind of wraps up last year in movies. I'm looking forward to a lot of these films coming out on BluRay/download. I have a heard time believing that this year will be nearly as good as 2013 was for cinema, but I guess I will just have to wait and see if the medium will continue to push forward, or if it will fall back into the relative drudgery of the last four years. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Looking Back

It may be  March, but winter still has Northwest Illinois held firmly within her grasp. I’ve been bundled up for most of the day checking out the first quarter of Roger Ebert’s memoir, and it is a pleasure to be reading him again. Ebert was able to remember the moments of his early life with a level of detail that I find staggering. I have plenty of stand out memories from my own past, but I struggle to remember the names of a lot of the people in those flashbacks. Perhaps if I ever decide to write a memoir of my own I will try to get in touch with the people who had a memorable impact on my own life.

I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about my childhood, perhaps because it was not all that memorable. The memories that really stand out include the time I woke up and saw a bat sleeping on the door beside my bed, the time I was roughhousing with some friend and got pushed onto a piece of plywood that had nails sticking out of it, and I got a couple of teeth kicked out when my friends and I started a fight club. I can also vaguely remember being by far the worst player on a little league team that happened to win the city championship.

Oh boy was I terrible at baseball. It didn’t help that I had little interest in the sport to begin with, and that I would kind of wander around right field when the other team was up to bat. When I was up to bat I would cower in the furthest corner of the batters box and just pray that I the pitcher would walk me before I was put in a situation where swinging would be absolutely necessary. Every at bat was a concentrated dose of terror. When one of my coaches asked me to step into a pitch in order to draw a walk, I decided I was done with baseball.

There are a lot of unpleasant memories from my childhood that I would rather not talk about right now, but it does bother me how they take up so much of those early childhood memories. It would be nice to have more memories of time spent with family members who have since past away. It would help if I had more pictures from my childhood but my father never owned a camera and I would only stay with my mother during the summer and on weekends. I still have pictures of a time I went late night fishing with my late Uncle Mike. I was probably nine or ten years old, and not only was it one of the only times I’ve been fishing, but the there was also a thrill to being out so late with someone I really didn’t know that well. In the pictures I am holding a pretty good sized catfish, and I remember freaking out that the fish was going to some how come back to life and attack me.

There is another memory in which my sister and I were watching cartoons late into a stormy night, when cars pulled up to the house that my parents were constructing on a neighboring lot. After what felt like hours, people got out of the car, went into the unfinished house, turned some lights on, and after a couple of minutes got back into the car and left. As you may imagine this really freaked out my sister and I. We ran upstairs to tell my mom what happened, but in her sleepy state she told us not to worry about it, but we were already well beyond, “not worrying about it.” The country property my mom and stepdad owned at the time had a very long driveway that connected to the highway. For the rest of the night my sister and I would watch for cars heading down the highway, in mortal fear that one of them may turn on to the driveway. No one ever did, and when we talked to my mom about it the next day she was upset that we didn’t walk to the other house and turn the lights off. So much for being babied.

Most of the other memories from my early childhood involve watching TV and playing video games, and are the same shared memories that everyone my age can recall. I remember that I was especially drawn to old, Nick at Nite shows like Get Smart and Bewitched. I can also remember with startlingly clarity playing the first Mario and Mega Man games on my Nintendo, and playing games like Pitfall on my friends Atari. I remember that the first movie my parents took me to see in the theaters was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s, and almost not being able to handle the immensity of the cinema experience.

My memories start to clear up once when it comes to the ages of ten on. I have fond memories of middle school. Back then I was living in a town that was just large enough to have a diverse public school program. There was never a hint of racial tension between the black and white kids, and it would only be later, when I moved to a smaller town that I would here racial slurs for the first time. My parents moved to a smaller town because they wanted to raise us kids in a safer environment, but it was at the smaller, “better” school that I first experienced hatefulness. Sure, I got bullied a fair bit when I lived in a larger town, but these were equal opportunity bullies. Moving to a small town and meeting kids who were small minded, entitled - and in some cases - cruel hearted that marked the end of my childhood. Most of the kids were friendly, and incredibly kind, in fact I am still close friends with a number of them. But t there were a couple of kids whose actions were so full of hate and pettiness that it shook me out of childhood and put me on the jaded path towards becoming an adult.

and the award goes to

Is today really the last day of February? How is that even possible? I remember writing the last post of January at the beginning of the week, or at least that's what it feels like. It's amazing how much faster time moves when you are actually working towards a goal. I can remember a time, not too long ago, when days would drag by. Now I wish that there were more hours in a day.

I wish the weather felt a little more like Spring. Now that we are about to start March it would be nice to spend a couple consecutive days about freezing temps. There has been a recent rash of vacation pics popping up in my social network feeds, and I have to say, I'm getting a little jealous. A couple of weeks ago there was a 5K ran in my hometown, and as much as I wanted to test my own newly gained runnings skills, I didn't feel up to running long distances with the temperature close to zero. That is not what I signed up for when I started training. I'm more than happy to stay on the treadmill until the snow melts, thank you very much.

One thing I'm really looking forward to in March is the release of a number of excellent albums. Some of my favorite bands are about to drop new LPs, and just from the few advanced copies I have from bands like Real Estate, The War on Drugs, and the Cloud Nothings, I can tell you that it is going to be a  good spring for indie rock. I look forward to seeing which new bands break through this year. It is usually in the Spring when labels will push new artists, so they have material that can be toured on during the summer festival circuit.

I've also been listening to the new albums by St. Vincent and Beck quite a bit. Both are fantastic in their own ways. The new Beck album, Morning Phase, is a confident, slowed down look at an aging artists life. It shares some of the things that made Sea Change a masterpiece. I don't think Morning Phase is a masterpiece, but it is a really well made record that I love having on in the background while writing. It's good to have a handful of albums that I can swap in and out while I'm working, so maybe that makes me a little more biased towards this. But isn't every review subjective?

I am completely smitten with the off kilter pop sensibilities that Annie Clark brings to the St. Vincent albums. Her songs never go in the directions that you expect them to go in, there could be a simmering synth or skuzzy guitar solo around any corner. It makes the first listen to her albums really exciting. There is a high level of production sheen on all of the tracks that, surprisingly - works perfectly with the playfulness of the arrangements. Ms. Clark is one of my favorite musicians in popular music, and my only hope is that her fame and success takes off like a rocket ship.

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I don't know if you guys have heard, but the Oscars are this weekend. There are a lot of years where I could care less about The Academy Awards, but this year there are a lot of movies that I really loved, and hopefully some of them will be awarded.Right now the odds on favorite for best picture is 12 Years A Slave. I would have no problem if this film took top honors. As I wrote in the past, 12 Years A Slave tells an important story, and it tells that story exquisitely. I find it interesting that the film people are saying has the best chance to beat it for best picture is Gravity. This best picture race feels a lot like the year The Hurt Locker beat out Avatar for the big prize. I can see why Gravity is getting so much love, there have been few movie going experiences more exciting than getting to see it in IMAX 3D.

If the 12 Years a Slave wins best picture it will mean that more people will see the film, and even though there were other films that I enjoyed more this year, I am more than happy to see 12 Years win if it means the film gets more exposure. This feels like the kind of movie that they should be teaching in high school US history courses. A lot of what I read suggests that the Academy will give Gravity's director, Alfonso Cuaron, the award for best director over Steve McQueen. This will be the Academies way of showing that it appreciated both films on an equal level. This makes a lot of sense to me. Both of these movies showed the best of what Hollywood is capable of, and they did so in completely different ways.

The only thing that rubbed me a little wrong about the nominations for the Oscars was the lack of love for Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that is right up there with The Wolf of Wall Street and Her as my favorites from 2013, but I have to give the Academy credit for getting the right people nominated this year. Although, to be fair, there were so many can't miss performances this year that it would have been difficult to screw things up. Don't worry people of the  Academy, the internet will still be mad at you no matter who you give the awards to this year.

The Martian - Andy Weir

Today could be summed up in dodge speak:

Wow.

Much Reading.

Such, The Martian.

Much amaze.

Which is to say, I just finished Andy Weir's fantastic first novel, The Martian today. It was the kind of reading experience where you completely lose track of time. I remember eating lunch, picking up the book, and the next thing I knew I had read the last 150 pages. When I finally put the book down it was was dark outside. This is the kind of book that just begs to be binge read. You've been warned.

Almost all of the preview coverage I saw for The Martian included comparisons to Apollo 13 and Cast Away, and as much as I hate to directly compare one work of art to another, in this case the analogies are perfect. If I had to give a one sentence review for the book, that would be it. If that's what you were looking for, I just saved you a whole bunch of reading. If you want to know more, be my guest!

The Martian is a book set in a not-so-distant future in which NASA has successfully sent men to Mars and back. On the third manned expedition, a six person team is sent. During their first couple of weeks on the Red Planet there is a strong storm that forces the team to abort their mission and head back to Earth. In their mad scramble off of the planet, one of the crew members gets knocked out. After a frantic search by the rest of the team the missing member is left behind under the suspicion that he has died. It turns out that our hero, Mark Watney is in fact very much still alive, and this is where the novel begins. Watney was the team's chief engineer/botanists, which turn out to be invaluable skill sets for surviving alone on a planet 55 million kilometers from help. 

The true joy of this book is in following Watney's daily log, where the amiable astronaut chronicles his daily actions and ruminates about what he needs to do to survive. The storm that has left him stranded has also knocked out all communications with Earth. Watney knows that the next manned mission to Mars is not for over a year, and given the amount of supplies at his disposal, he will not have enough food to last. Given our protagonists skill sets, he is able to think of a way to stretch out the supplies as long as possible. This becomes a running theme throughout the novel - which is - how they hell do I survive? Survival may not be the most nuanced theme in the world, but it is an incredibly powerful one.

Mark Watney is a funny, inventive, and quick-witted character who you can't help but care for as the book races along. You don't get much, if any, of his backstory. It's in his daily logs and actions that the character is flushed out. The longer into the novel you get, the more you begin to feel the weight of the isolation that Watney is feeling. You begin to understand the toll that prolonged loneliness would have on a person in his situation. The only thing he has to keep him company on Mars is a datastick filled with things that his other team members left behind, including: bad 70's sitcoms (Three is Company, The Dukes of Hazard), Disco Music, and Agatha Christie novels. If I was stranded on another planet with only these those things to keep me entertained, I would probably just take off my helmet on the surface and die the same kind of death that the villain in Total Recall experiences. It beats having to listen to Abba.The way in which Weir is able to talk about the complex formulas and techniques that one would have to know in order to solve complicated tasks on another planet is both believable and extremely interesting. This is an extremely tight novel. All of the plot points fit together like so many pieces of a giant puzzle, one that is thrilling to see come together. Weirs ability to create likable characters and believable action is the resin that holds all of the pieces together. 

It's hard to talk about many of the plot details in the book because most of the fun of reading it is seeing how Watney is able to solve each puzzle put in front of him. What I can say about the plot is that it stays razor focused. Too often with stories like this, writers feel the need to add an extra layer of drama into what is already a riveting read. I was amazed to learn that this is Weir's first novel. There is a confidence in the plotting that I would expect out of someone who has been writing books like this for yearsI have a friend who almost exclusively reads nonfiction. One of my favorite things talk about with him is what kind of novel it would take to catch his interest. This is the kind of hard science fiction that feels so close to reality I found myself thinking - yeah, I can see this happening in the next decade or so. Who knows, perhaps if an expert read this they would be able to point out a hundred little inaccuracies, in the same way that Gravity was torn to shreds by astrophysicists, but who cares? The writing feels authentic, and it creates a story premise in a genre rife with stories about men on Mars. 

I can see a film adaption in which Watney has a family waiting for him at home. We would get a good twenty minutes of his wife tearfully watching coverage of his perilous quest for survival on CNN. I can already hear the Aerosmith/Bon Jovi song in the background when I think about the scene in which the two embrace, right before he is set to launch. Thankfully, none of this is in the book. It's Weirs dedication to keeping the plot moving that makes the novel so hard to put down. This is the story about a man trying to survive a desperate situation - nothing more, nothing less.  I found The Martian to be well paced and pitch perfect when it came to its characters and tone. There is a level of craftsmanship in the writing that is very impressive for a first time novelist. I look forward to seeing what kinds of worlds Weir decides to explore in the future.

The Americans

When The Americans debuted last year it was a promising new show for FX, it mixed the the suspense of a Cold War era thriller with the nuance of a family drama. The first season laid a fantastic foundation for the series, and it ended up on a lot of critics best-of lists at the end of the year. I really enjoyed the first season. I thought that both of the lead performances (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys) were excellent, as was the supporting cast. The writing isn't always of the caliber of the more prestige shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, but the writers have a very deft feel for pacing, which is important given the balance between cold blooded espionage and passionate family value that plot is so reliant on. The show also does an excellent job in capturing the Cold War era; both in the incredible wardrobe (the wigs are amazing) and set design, and the superb soundtrack.

The basic plot of the show is that two Russian spies, Elizabeth (Russell) and Peter (Rhys) Jennings have been paired by the USSR to work as a spy couple inside the Unites States. Over the twenty years they have worked in the United States they have had two children and have tried to assimilate as much as possible to life in the US, both for the work and for the sake of their family. Here-in lies much of the drama of the show, as we learn more about the two main character's lives, we see how difficult it is for them both to live down the lies that they have to tell themselves and others to be able to effectively do their jobs. During the first season the stress fractures that develop in the Jennings marriage and our two Russian spies have to find a way to effectively serve the mother country, and be there for their children, all while trying not to be killed by US agents.

When you watch The Americans you always get the feeling that Peter and Elizabeths lives are hanging by a thread. The couple two are always at odds at one another, but show has a way of making it clear that the two desperately need each other to survive. It's a really compelling dynamic. Imagine getting thrown into an arranged marriage, shipped to another country to commit acts of covert war, and only have this relative stranger to rely on. There's a bond that forms between the two that is stronger than love in a lot of ways - a bond made of respect, trust, and need - but neither is sure if they are actually in love with each other. This nebulous connection creates a strain on their relationship strong enough that, by the end of the first season, the two decide to separate - a separation that doesn't last for reasons that I will not go into here.

Did I mention there is also a lot of crazy action sequences and more Cold War spy tropes than you can shake stick at? When I think about classic spy novels I think about things like dead-drops, bugging an embassy office, sleeping with a mark for information, and shadowy figures their pray. The Americans is like a college level survey course on these topics. The action sequences in this show are as good as you are going to see on TV, both Russell and Rhys are believable as bad-ass Russian spies. They also are believable as a husband/wife duo who have absolutely no idea how to justify their life of crime with their domestic life. There are times when either person has to sleep with a mark as part of their job, then come home to their significant other. The show doesn't just sweep the repercussions of a lifetime of planned infidelity under the rug, and the performances capture the weight of this sustained double life.

The premiere of season two was tonight, and it seems like the how has stayed on course from where it left off at the end of the first season. There are a still a hundred plates spinning, and one wrong move could get the Jennings killed. The first episode made it clear exactly what is at stake for Peter and Elizabeth, especially when it comes to the safety of their two children. I like that this show is able to have amazing action set pieces and sexy rendezvous without the show ever feeling like it is going for cheap thrills. Every bullet shot and every infidelity comes with consequences, and that gives The Americans a dramatic weight that grounds it. No matter how many wonderful wigs and disguises the Jennings put on while in the service of the KGB, we know exactly who they are. They feel real in a world where nothing is supposed to be real. I mean that as high praise.

You can check out the first season of The Americans on Amazon Prime Streaming, or on Blu-Ray. The second season is currently airing Wednesdays at 9PM CT.

 

When the lights go out

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpdcKmaHk_s We are almost two months into the year, and this daily writing adventure is starting to to hit its stride. When I sit down to write there is no fear that I'm going to fall short of 750 words to say. Once I get the old fingers warmed up the words start to gush out like I struck oil, and the hard part can often be getting myself to a point where I feel comfortable stopping. As I was telling a friend the other day, the hard part is no longer getting words on a page, it's getting good words on a page. This is an obvious, if not important, distinction. In the past couple of weeks I've been reading a lot of writing centric blogs, and there is something to be said about a well thought out blog who’s authors post regularly and stay on point -

-Hm. Speaking of staying an point, it would seem that the power has gone out in my neighborhood and I now have approximately an hour to write this before the battery in my four year old Mac Book Pro runs out. How exciting to have this new challenge heaped on my lap. I can honestly say that I am writing by candlelight just like the great authors of yore - except I’m also typing on a backlit screen, but close enough!

-So where was I? Oh yes, staying on point. I’ve never really had a stated goal with this website other than to write everyday. Things have been going pretty swimmingly on that front, but when I look back on the material I’ve been putting out over the last couple of weeks I can’t help but cringe a little at how scattered each post is. This can be attributed to my writing these posts at the end of the day, when I’ve spent hours scouring the internet for every last morsel of news I could find, and feel the need to use this space as a venue to have a show-and-tell of sorts. There is usually at least one news story that gets me riled up enough to want to talk about in a place that does not limit my output to 146 characters - or however many characters Twitter allows, you’ll have to excuse me for approximating, but I have no internet, from the power being out and all. I often wonder what my writing would be like if I took a long break from being online. I imagine that the writing would be a little bit more focused if I wasn’t jumping back and forth from my text editor to Twitter to the NY Times website to Facebook to Grantland to… you get the point.

When you read a lot of books that give advice to young writers, one of the first bits of wisdom imparted to would-be scribes is to seek isolation when you write. The idea is to find a place where that is isolated enough that you can hear your inner voice, and not be distracted when you work. I’m not sure how much I believe in that. I mean, Most of the great writers of the 20th century lived in cities, and many worked journalism jobs that required them to rush work out in a noisy news room, under deadline, with at least one editor screaming at him/her to turn in their copy ASAP. At least that was my experience, and I believe I did some of my best writing under those conditions. Where the advice does ring true is when I’m not under the pressure to get work done, and don’t have that level of focus that only a great sense of urgency can provide. When I ‘m working on a short story or essay that is not under some kind of deadline it is all too easy to peck away at it, little-by-little, in between generous breaks to check the vast wastelands of social media to make sure I’m not missing out on some urgent bit of news.

The obvious problem with this routine is that the whatever work I get done is often times an uneven mess, that needs a lot of rewriting before it is even close to being publishable. That’s also why a lot of these posts end up being shot up with typos like so many bullet holes through a wall. As much as I enjoy a stream of consciousness writing session, I realize that it is no fun to read a random wall of text that is strewn with bad grammar, and if I’m going to embark on a project that involves publishing material for public consumption, it behooves me to put out a more focused, polished product. It’s for this reason that I so zealously guard all of the first and second drafts of material I plan on sending out to literary journals/websites, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put out a product of lower quality on a website that bears my own namesake. In the future I am going to make an effort to  do a couple of passes on these posts before I send them out.

-Just called the power company and it looks like the power may be out for another couple of hours, which is exactly how long my computer says the battery is going last. I’m astonished at how much longer the battery lasts in this thing when the internet is turned off, maybe the whole answer to to my - how can I get serious work done when there is so many amazing things happening on the internet at any given time - problem is to drive myself out into a remote place everyday and just write until the battery dies. I don’t know, that seems like a lot of work. Perhaps a better idea would be to go to a coffee shop and not ask for the wifi password; now that I could do. One thing that thrills me about power outages is, for those first couple of minutes, I feel like something catastrophic is going down and it’s time to put all that knowledge I’ve learned from Survivorman, The Road, and The Zombie Survival Guide to good use. The first thing I need to do is fill my bathtub with water, then I’ll go to my neighbors house and borrow one of his guns because I am a liberal sissyboy who doesn’t believe in owning a weapon. It’s about at this point in my  thinking process when it dawns on me that there is probably just a power line down somewhere and I should probably just grab my tablet and get some reading down while there is nothing too distract me, or in this case, get some writing done.

-And, almost on cue, the power is back on. So much for two hours, that was more like fifteen minutes. Well, it’s been fun people. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have another power outage and I’ll have another, somewhat coherent post for the site. Now, back to that sweet internet wasteland.

Remembering Harold Ramis

I was deeply saddened when I learned that Harold Ramis, one of the greatest comedic minds, had passed. Ramis was responsible - either as a writer, director, actor, or all three - for many of the all-time great movies: Animal House, Caddy Shack, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Stripes - to name a few. In a lot ways Ramis created the modern language of humor in film and television. He helped shape the sense of humor of millions upon millions of young people.  A couple of weeks ago I decided to live tweet the movie Groundhog Day, and it is just insane how many jokes Ramis could fit into a script. You can go back and watch so many of his old movies and still crack up laughing at jokes that you've heard twenty or thirty times before. There are a lot of comedies that do not hold well, a joke that worked in 1985 is not always going to hold up in the jaded, I've heard it all before, internet age; but the Twinkie bit from Ghostbusters will always be funny. The scenes between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray in Caddyshack will always be funny. Some writers are able to see down to the core level of the human condition and find the things that connect us. Ramis was one of these writers. He made jokes that resonated with people regardless of their background and upbringing. This is a rare gift, and Ramis used it to brighten up the lives of millions of people. 

He also wrote characters that were incredibly easy to love. He made characters that were outsiders seem cool. His stories always glorified those people who saw life differently from the crowd. These days there is a certain coolness for being different from your peer group, but that was definitely not the case in the 1980s. The real genius of those early films was how Ramis was able get the viewer to empathize with the characters who were nerdy or uncool. The best way to remove a stigma on something we don't understand, hence fear, is to be able to laugh at it, to disarm it. In Ramis movies we laugh at the oddballs, and in doing so we realize that these people are not so different from ourselves, and that makes them likable, and worthy of our compassion. The oddballs in his films were not to be looked down upon, they may have been goofs, but they were also heroes. As someone who grew up as a bit of an oddball, having these kinds of characters to champion was a way to tell myself that I was OK. That there was nothing wrong with me. 

Rest in peace Mr Ramis - you will be greatly missed.

Life is short, let's get as many laughs in while we can. 

-

This weekend I was craving deep dish pizza, and on Sunday night I ordered one from my local pizza establishment, and went to town. You know that feeling when you eat so much that it physically hurts to do anything but lay in the fetal position? Yeah, that was me last night. You would think that eating to the point of pain would dissuade me from having another four pieces of pizza for lunch today. You would think that, and you would be wrong.

I'm telling you about this pizza crime as a way to explain how poorly I ran today. There's nothing quite as a disconcerting than feeling a two pound ball of pizza sloshing around your stomach as you are trying to distance run. I made it about a mile before before I started to burp up pepperoni flavored remnants of this weekends gluttony. I felt absolutely awful. I don't think I've ever sweated so much in my life. It was just a generally awful experience, and a reminder that sometimes you have to say no to pizza - sometimes.

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I started reading And Weirs new book, The Martian today and it has instantly grabbed my attention. The basic outline of the plot is: in the future we are able to send men to Mars, on one of the missions to Mars things go haywire and one men gets stranded on the planet with limited resources to survive on. I'm not that far in, but the story is told through log entries, and the protagonist, Mark Watney seems to be a very likable fellow, and it is fascinating following his process on how he plans on staying alive long enough to be rescued.

I decided to read this novel now because it kept bubbling up in discussions on the book sites/podcasts I follow. I've managed to not have the book spoiled for me, which is a blessing. I know the basic pitch of the book is Cast Away meets Apollo 13. From the little I've read I can see those two movies being touchstones for the plot. I can also see why there has been so much discussion about the book on the internet, and can't wait to put some good time with it.

The view from the rail

Here is another late post - so it goes. Today I had the opportunity to play poker with some old friends. I've mentioned this in earlier blogs, but a lot of the memories I have of high school are warm spring nights playing poker in a friends garage, pretending that we were all on the verge of being the next Chris Moneymaker. These days I hardly ever play cards, because I've come to the realization that I can not afford to gamble with money I don't have - I realization I hard to learn the hard way - but it is still fun to get together with friends and play for fun. I love the psychology of cards games. You spend enough time with a group of card players and eventually you'll see each of the players ticks, and if you are good at reading paper - a skill that I have never fully developed - you can use these reads to great advantage.

It was around the time I was starting college that the poker boom had really come into full stride. Almost every person I knew had started playing a weekly game, and every time I would go to my schools computer lab there would be two or three people playing poker online with real money. It got to be such a big deal that the school had to block all online poker games, I remember writing my first investigatory piece for the schools paper about how the poker boom was affecting peoples lives. I felt like a qualified person to write the article because, at that time, I was playing somewhere between two and four hours of online poker a day. Every time there was a long break between classes I would go to the computer lab and play, often times I would play in six games simultaneously, trying to win as many hands an hour as possible. Somehow this seemed like a good idea for me at the time.

Like so many people my age, at the time I thought playing online poker was a gateway to a better a life, a shortcut from having to do the hard work that it takes to get ahead in life. I thought all the work that I would have to do is buy a couple books on poker, learn some basic poker concepts like pot odds, implied pot odds, and show down value, and I would be playing like the pros in no time. I wasn't a complete idiot, I knew that the best online poker players were math wiz students, many of which had gone to prestigious universities like MIT and Yale, but with enough practice surely I could build enough skill to make online poker a steady source of income. There was an obsession that set in for a couple of months where I would play every hour that I was not either sleeping or in class. My grades started to suffer because I was not putting enough time and attention into the coursework, and - try as I may - I never really got better at playing online. If I had to guess, I'd say I probably ended up losing somewhere between $400-500 dollars in the months that I played. I just didn't have the traits necessary to be a great player. It was a bitter pill to swallow. What was even worse was how far I had fallen behind in school, playing so much poker during those years probably cost me a years worth of progress in school. It's embarrassing to even think about now. All things considered, however, I think I got away from the poker boom pretty clean.

There were a couple of friends who never got the message. They were not destined to be the next Phil Ivey or Daniel Negreanu, they were just destined to lose thousands upon thousands of dollars, and ruin there lives. There was a person who came to our friends weekly game and would lose hundreds of dollars in a game that must of us would pay $20 to play. I am not exaggerating when I say that I never saw this individual end a night with more money in his wallet than he came in with. I was not there for this encounter, but multiple people have told me that it got so bad his wife drew up divorce papers and told him he could either get help, or he could sign the papers and get the hell out of their house. I haven't seen this person in years but from what I heard they are still playing cards.

Everyone in poker has their "bad beat" story. A tale that usually involves the subject getting unlucky in a hand of cards and losing a large sum of money. My bad beat story happened a couple of years ago at a Casino. My friend and I had been going to the Casino every once in a while as a way to blow off steam. I had learned by then to never play with more money than you are prepared to lose at any given moment. My friend and I played almost all day, and I was probably playing the best poker I've ever played in my life. I was picking up tells on players at the table, to the point where I knew when most of them were bluffing - or lying about the strength of my hand - or when they had a better hand and I needed to fold. I was also getting extremely lucky with the cards that I was getting, which never hurts. After playing for around six hours I was sitting on $700 worth of chips, which wasn't bad considering I had bought in for around $100. The bad beat happened when someone form another table came over to start playing with us. This person had around the same number of chips that I had, and on the third or fourth hand played after he sat at our table, we got ourselves into a heads-up situation - meaning it was only him and I in the hand. I don't want to boar you with the specifics of the and so I'll just lay it out as quickly as possible - in bullet points!

  • My hand was two queens
  • His hand was 4 - 6
  • I made a big bet before the flop and he called, hoping that I would have the kind of hand I had, and would overplay the big pair - which I did.
  • The flop came 3-5-7, giving him what's called the nuts, or the best hand possible.
  • In my overconfidence I continued to bet into the other player, thinking that he would eventually fold whatever hand he had, because it was unlikely that he would have played cards that gave him a good hand with the 3-5-7. In essence, he had trapped me. He had outplayed me.

And just like that, i was out of $700 and a whole lot of pride. I'm not sure why I put all of money on a hand that could have been beat by so many other hands. It never occurred to me in that moment that the other player very well could have been playing two kings or aces, or perhaps could have caught three of a kind on the flop. These are mistakes that I would never make under regular circumstances, but the allure of winning another $700 blinded my better judgement, and it was in that single hand that I gained a whole new level of respect for how dangerous poker can be, especially when played for high stakes. That was the last time I have played poker for for stakes that large.

I don't want to come off as anti-poker in this piece, or make it seem like poker is a game that is just based on luck, and everyone who plays is doomed to lose all of their money at some point. There is a huge amount of skill that is exhibited by professional poker players, and I still find it fascinating to watch them play and discuss the game. Their understanding of high level game theory as well as their ability to make incredibly difficulty statistical calculations in the heat of the moment is almost other worldly. Watching professionals put their skills on display in $500,000 cash games is like spellbinding. They are able to make impossibly hard decisions with enough money at stake to buy several homes, it's almost sociopathic how easy some of these players make it look. I was looking up some information on a high stakes game that is played in Macau, China between elite business owners and professional poker players and I came across an article about a player winning $25 million in one of these games. Twenty-five million dollars! That's buy a yacht or small island next to Johnny Depp's small island kind of money.

Most poker players will tell that the most exciting part of the game are those moments in which you are standing on the precipice of disaster, where one false move could mean a harrowing plunge into ruin. This is not unlike the thrill seeking behavior that is exhibited in many kinds of addiction. It's what makes gambling fun. Even when I was playing for $10 today there were moments that got my blood rushing. Most of the other people at the table were playing with more chips than me, and I knew that if I wanted to keep playing with them there would be a moment where I eventually had to risk all of the chips in front of me. I waited for the moment that gave me the highest statistical probability of success and went all in a couple of times over the course of the afternoon. I'm happy to say that I did not suffer any bad beats and at the end of the day I walked away with double the money I bought in for. The real victory, however, was knowing that I would have had a great time hanging out with my friends whether I had won or lost.

I have a very healthy fear and appreciation for the game now. I realize that there are those people who are able to maximize their chances of winning money consistently at poker, but their skills are on such a higher level than my own that it would be fool hearty to think that I could play on their level. Even the most skilled pros go through streaks where they lose most of the money in their savings accounts, and it's not unheard of for even the best players to have to go completely broke - or bust as they call it. In fact almost all of the big name players have gone bust at some point, sometimes multiple times. To think that even the best pros eventually go bust, is enough proof that I made the right decision by putting all Rounders dreams to bed. I still appreciated all the things that make poker great; the split second calculations, the attempt to read the player sitting across from you, the idle chit-chat between hands, and - more than all of that - the morphine drip thrill of winning a hand in which you put everything at risk. The difference is now I appreciate all of these things from a safe distance, on the other side of the guard rail, safe from the edge of the cliff.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

I just finished reading Jennifer Egan’s brilliant novel/short story collection, A Visit From the Goon Squad. To be honest, I’ve been left dumbstruck by how great it is. I’ve spent the last twenty minutes pacing around my house, thinking about the book - I’m sure my neighbors are wondering what is going on over at the Jacobs household. Part of me wishes one of them would come over, I would drag them in the front door before they even had a chance to ring the doorbell, sit them down on my leather couch and unleash and explain to them how brilliant a work of fiction Goon Squad is. I’d tell them that in this one book there is everything that is beautiful and life affirming about the art form. I would try to find the right combination of words to eloquently express how this book has affected me on a deep - as in seven stories underground, double reinforced concrete, bomb shelter - level of my being, but I would probably just end up sounding like an insane person. I can see the blank stares on their faces that are silently screaming, “Please don’t kill me! Please don’t bury my remains under your back porch!”

It’s funny how life works. I spent most of the day cleaning around the house, the entire time thinking that I would have absolutely nothing to write about today, picturing other writers doing menial tasks around their own homes. Just imagining Hemingway wandering around his Paris apartment wearing a smock, swifter in hand, is enough to make me giggle. Throughout the day I was taking little breaks to read a chapter or two from Goon Squad, until it got to the point where I had to put the books down if I wanted to get any real work done. After I finished dinner, I grabbed a drink from the fringe, wrapped myself up in my favorite blanket and binge read the second half of the book. It was one of the more powerful reading experiences I’ve ever had.

The stories Egan has crafted hit me with the power and skilled precision of professional boxer. There is a dizzying display of genius at work in these stories, and in the way they all interlock with each other. You are introduced to a couple of characters in the first chapter, and every proceeding chapter pulls back the camera to reveal other characters who are in some connected to characters we’ve met in previous chapters. Every chapter has its own self contained narrative arch, but there is an overall arch that is very consistent with what you would expect out of novel. The structure made for a wholly unique reading experience for me.

So what is Goon Squad about? I’ve been wracking my brain to find a clean plot description for everything Egan has packed into this one work. The backbone of these stories is Rock and Roll - it’s about people who play music, people who work in the music business, children of people who play in bands and run record companies - all of the characters in this book have had their lives shaped in some way by music. To be clear, this is a book about people lives, and not about the actual making of music. Most of the stories are told without a single instrument being played. In my opinion the best chapters have next to nothing to do with music, no instruments are being played the characters, no albums are being sold.

My favorite story in the book is about a man who goes to Naples to find his runaway niece. Here is a man who is unsure of his love towards his wife. He is an art history teacher who is looking back at his life with regret. He is Italy because his nieces separated parents have paid him to find their daughter. The daughter, Sasha,  has run away before. She grew up in a hostile domestic environment and has spent her late teens bouncing around continents, from new life to new life. The uncle, as it turns out has spent days in Naples actively not searching for the niece. In many ways he is just as lost as Sasha. He, the art history major in a time of self crisis, spends a day going to see the statue of Orpheus and Eurydice, and is so moved by the piece that he ends up wandering the streets of Naples in a stupor, eventually bumping into Sasha by accident. The story cuts to an earlier time when the uncle recalls taking Sasha swimming in Lake Michigan when she was a small child, and how she would grab onto him as they went into the water, holding onto him for dear life. This leads back to two characters in the current setting, and there is a moment that created such a visceral, empathetic response out of me that I had to put the book down and get a glass of water before I could keep reading. It was like being punched in the gut. This has only happened to me a few times in my life, to be moved by art so beautifully and expertly executed that it was almost too much bear.

Egan has lovingly crafted a group of people who live in a world of consequences, and with every new person introduced that world expands. By the end of the book it feels like every character has had a chance to tell their story. It’s amazing just how much I ended up caring about all of the people in this book, it would have been so easy for a character or two to have ended up feeling a little flat, but Egan doesn’t let that happen, she puts writes her characters to be imperfect and unpredictable and sets them in motion. We get to see how the poor decisions of a father has affected his children. We see how these people cope with death. We see these characters live down decisions they’ve made. We are given first hand looks at how families and friendships evolve, and sometimes deteriorate, over time. Egan isn’t concerned with making judgements about characters decisions in the book, she is simply interested in pointing out the constellation of reactions that spawn from every action. It’s so easy to lose track of the web of personal connections that constitutes our lives, and how we make - or don’t make - decisions everyday that affects lives of people we love the most. A Visit from the Goon Squad is a reminder that life is a beautiful, tangled mess of connections and missed connections. There is an emotional resonance here that I have found in few other works of fiction.

In the past two weeks I have read this novel and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, two books in which the authors wring every last bit of emotionally juice out of their talents. These are two books that I would recommend to anyone who has felt jaded about their lives. I’m at a point in my life where I needed to read books that are as bold and heartfelt as these. There is so much courage and vulnerability in these works. It’s books like these that make me feel OK about going to places in my own writing that I would have never attempted to reach in the past, and for that I will always be grateful for writers like Egan and Diaz.

A fool's love

I got into a lengthy discussion today about the merits of chasing a creative life well into adulthood vs. starting a family and settling down. My contention is that it's perfectly feasible for some people to both have a fulfilling creative life - in any of the arts - and also start a family, but that is just not something I see for myself at this stage. I spent far too many of the last ten years trying to suppress the feelings I've had about writing out of fear that I would somehow be looked at by society as a failure. This is without a doubt the biggest regret of my life so far, to let fear stifle my any creative ambitions that I've had in the past decade. In a lot of ways I feel like I'm just now emerging from a waking nightmare, and now I'm trying to get my life back on track. I was asked what would happen if I met a girl that knocked me off my feet, and I really didn't have an answer for that. I'm just now back at a place in my life that I would even imagine going up to a girl I found attractive and striking up a conversation. This is what happens when you don't take care of your mind or body for a decade, you find yourself completely out of touch with the opposite sex. It's also not something I spend a lot of time thinking about between marathon writing and reading sessions. I've spent the last couple of years living an almost monastic lifestyle.  It's been a very slow, arduous process getting back into the grove of being a sociable human being.

I'm a bit of a romantic, so of course I would like to eventually be in a sustainable relationship with a brilliant, beautiful woman. I've been told by many of my girl friends that I need someone who can call me on my self involved bullshit on a daily basis - and I couldn't agree more. The problem is that I really have no idea what I'm looking for in a significant other. I've been out enough in the last couple of months to know what kind of person I am not looking for, but I have yet to meet someone who has knocked me off my feet, so to speak. This probably has more to do with my own self-consciousness when I'm in public than the relative quality of women in my geographical dating pool. It's not as if I think I'm a great catch. I'm the kind of guy who says things like geographical dating pool.

What gets under my skin is when people who are married and/or have kids tell me that they would love to do more creative things but can't because they have real responsibilities now. It's the tone in their voice when they say, "real," that bothers me; as if they are dressing me down for not making the same life decisions they have. In my small corner of the world it is almost a social norm to be married and to have at least one child by the time you turn 25. When I tell people I am working my ass of to become a better writer I get a lot of patronizing stares and dismissive responses, as if I told them I was training to be a Jedi Knight. This isn't something that I have to deal with a lot, but it's becoming more and more of a thing in last year or so. These tend to be the same type of people who post endless photo streams of their children on social media and have really pithy, canned status updates.

When I decided that I was going to throw myself into creative work full-heartedly I knew that I would have to have a develop a thick skin. The first couple months of writing have been up and down. There are days when the writing goes so poorly that I want to throw my computer against the wall and be done with the whole process. There are few people in my personal life who can relate to the difficulty of trying to produce creative work on a consistent basis. Most people can't fathom how I could go an entire day without getting any writing done, because they have jobs in which - no matter how shitty their day is - there is always a tangible product made or service fulfilled when they punch out. It's such a blessing to have a couple of close friends who are constantly supportive of what I am trying to do, and to live in a era where I can talk with dozens of people online about my work.

I've talked to a lot of older people who regret not chasing their passion when they were my age. It's not that they regret having their children or being married, but there comes a time in everyone's life when we realize that time and attention are finite resources, and some people do not have a full grasp of this concept until they are already knee deep in the cement of their own lives. I'm getting to the age where I can start to feel cement harden around my own legs. There is now a fire that burns inside me whenever I sit down to write, a sharp sense of urgency. There is some truth about the world that I desperately need to expose, and it's something I think about with every waking breath. This is why, when people ask me about marriage and children, I have nothing to offer other than a shrug. You might as well be asking me about when I plan on landing on the moon.

I desperately want to make a connection to the world through my writing in the same way that most people are desperate to find that sort of connection in a significant other. It's been years since I could say that I had a zealous passion for anything, and the only thing I can think about is the process of writing, because I am terrified that the even the slightest distraction will extinguish this newly kindled lust for life. Maybe someday I will meet a girl who inspires the same kind of feelings that I have for the written word, but until that day comes I am going to keep my head down and continue the hone the craft that I feel I was put on this Earth to do.  You can call it a fools love, but it burns with the same ferocity of any Shakespearean romance.

Reflections on a small town

Today I want to talk a little bit about an essay I read over on The Rumpus. The title of the essay is Notes From Freedom County and it is written by Joseph Osmundson. The essay is about a Mr. Osmundson’s reflections on the town he grew up in - Arlington, Washington -  which is a small town 50 miles outside of Seattle. He spends some time talking about the town’s history, and how it is slowly becoming a de facto suburb for Seattle. He reminisces about his childhood when the town had the same kind of other planet feel that so many small towns in America have - as if the town was a universe onto itself.

Being from a small town myself I can identify with a lot of the stories he talks about in the piece. I too have grew up in a place where high school football games were - and still are-  the biggest thing going on a Friday night. Most of my friends growing up were the sons and daughters of farmers, and there was nothing cooler in high school than having a big truck. The two biggest differences from Osmundson’s life and mine are that he ended up making his way to New York City, and that his home town has basically been annexed by upper-middle class commuters from Seattle. The town I live in is almost a mirror image of what it was when my family moved here 16 years ago. There has been no modernization in the infrastructure. It’s still the three church and a bar, blip on a map that it has always been.

A couple of years ago one of like eight buildings in the downtown collapsed. To this day no one has come to clean up the rubble. It’s just sitting there in a neat pile. It doesn’t block the sidewalk, or bother people in any way. It’s just become another part of the town’s landscape. There have been a couple of efforts by the citizenship to have the town do something about the rubble. I’d like to think that the rubble hasn’t been moved because the city doesn’t think it will make a difference. Either that, or the city is plum out of money after building a new library where the old mechanic’s shop used to be. My town is like a ouroboros, there is no birth nor death. The faces may change, but the town stands eternal. This is mostly do to the fact that there is no city encroaching, nor is there any new business to dump money into the community. The town will always exist as a place to nurture the sons and daughters of farmers. It’s tallest structure will always be a water tower.

I used to feel suffocated by such a small existence, but as I get older I have come to appreciate the distance I have with the rest of the world. I’ve talked before about how hard it is to have conversations with other people about the kinds of pop culture I care about. Unfortunately their are not a lot of people in this town who want to have long discussions about George Saunders or  Lena Dunham. But I live in an age where I can go online and have fifteen simultaneous conversations on any number of authors, writers, TV shows, etc. What I can’t find online or in a larger town is the wonderful feeling of isolation when I go for summer runs out into the country, or the perfect stillness around me when I write in the evening. I’m not sure this is a place I want to live the rest of my life in, but I can understand how one can look at small time life with a kind of earnest nostalgia.

When I talk to people who have lived in cities their entire lives there is always a look of wonder when I tell them that I still live in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. They ask all the usual questions: What do you do? Aren’t you just bored all the time? Do you guys even have the internet out there? I just smile and answer the questions politely. What I try to express is that that we live in an age where cultural relevance does not necessitate geographic location. I can still wake up and read the New York TImes, and I can still watch The Daily Show and Colbert Report before going to bed. I note that the biggest difference is that instead of being a cab ride away from a museum or auditorium, I am a bike ride away from total isolation. As a writer both lifestyles have their perks.

There are some things that really bother me about living where I do. I am a far left liberal living amongst a throng of ultra conservative Republicans, but that has yet to ruin any friendships or - knock on wood - get me into any bar fights. Every once in a while I have to put up with a local restaurant playing Fox News on their TV’s, but it’s an annoyance you learn to live with. As for not having a ton of recreational venues in the area, it really doesn’t bother me. If I really get the urge to immerse myself in culture I can always drive the two hours into Chicago. That urge does not strike me often. Like I’ve mentioned before the biggest drawback of being so far away from a city is that it is hard to see the bands and authors  I love live.

There’s a day coming soon when I will move on to a bigger city, if for no other reason than to be around other writers and creative types. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. When I move to another city it will probably be a place that still has a lot of the feel of a small community, perhaps a college town, perhaps a smaller Midwest city.  No matter where I end up, I will always consider myself a small town guy, which is probably why I found Osmundson’s essay so powerful.

Shop Closed - Gone Reading

I have a dark confession make. As of this writing I have only read 2.5 books in 2014, compared to the six or seven books I had read at this point in 2013, that is embarrassing. Sure I’ve been busier with writing and at the gym, but there have been plenty of nights where I could have read, and chose to do something else instead. Let’s not even talk about the House of Cards weekend. I’ve felt guilty about the nights that have been spent at bars or at the movies instead of on my couch, under a comfortable blanket with a good book in my hand. I spent so many nights last year reading it feels like I’m cheating on myself by trying to have a social life.

The goal for the rest of February is to read through the books that have been sitting on my nightstand for the past couple of weeks. Now that I’ve had a couple of weeks to cool down on Stephen King’s errant Twitter remarks about the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen situation, I am going to finish the second half of my reread of On Writing. I’m also going to plow through a copy of Zadie Smith’s, Changing My Mind, which my sister is letting me borrow, and A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. I’ve read the first two chapters of Goon Squad, and look forward to spending some quality time with it in the next couple of days.

 On most nights I try to fit in about an hour of reading before bed. Last year I had no problem staying awake and reading 200 pages or more before sleep overtook, but this year has been a completely different story. On nights where I run a couple of miles and spend an hour or two writing, I am ready to fall asleep almost immediately after getting into bed. This has been a bit of a Godsend to be honest, for years I’ve had a terrible time getting to sleep because of how much my brain would race with a million little anxious thoughts. It seems the best cure for insomnia is just to completely wear yourself out throughout the day. It's 7:30 right now, and I am already exhausted from the two mile run, 10 mile bike ride, jump roping and wind sprints I did at the gym today. (Humblebrag?) I can hear my bed calling to me already, and it has the most sultry, alluring voice I've ever heard. My newly found, healthy sleep habits has left me with a bid of a conundrum as to when I’m supposed to read. I’ve already cut out almost all live TV out of my life. The only show’s that I am actively watching are True Detective and Community. I still spend entirely too much time browsing the internet at night, and my podcast feed is out of control. Last night I listened to a 3.5 hour podcast instead of reading, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I think there is a part of me that needed a little break from the constant reading routine. It’s not that I found I find reading every night to be a monotonous grind, far from it. But even with the most pleasurable activities, there’s nothing wrong with taking a couple of weeks to catch you breath before diving back into it. Hm. I just realized how that last sentence could be construed. I regret nothing. The obsessive in me gets really stressed out when I fall behind a goal I’ve set. Everytime I go to Goodreads I get stressed out when the yearly book trackers says I’m X percent behind schedule. It’s a completely ridiculous way to go about living a life, but it’s also the spark that has lit the fire under my ass to improve the aspects of my life that I thought were subpar. The thing that I have to remind myself everyday is that there is a balance between obsession and apathy that I need to reach if I want to sustain these lifestyle changes. It’s just as harmful to try to do everything as it is to do nothing.

The great thing about books is that they are not going anywhere, and I don't have to worry about people spoiling the books that are in my backlog. I can read them at my own pace. I'm sure there will be weeks where I finish a bunch of books, and even if I don't end the year having read 51 books, it's not the final number that counts, it's how the books enrich my life that matters. The funny thing is, just a year ago, I would have never had a second thought about how much I was reading. i would have been happy to finish a handful of books in my spare time throughout the year. It feels like my brain has been rewired to want to consume as much literature as possible. It's become a ravenous animal that gets hunger pains when I go more than a day or two without reading. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a very hungry animal to go feed.

House of Cards - Season Two

Now that I’m a couple of days removed from watching season two of House of Cards, I have formed two definitive thoughts:

1. This series remains a perfect fit for Netflix’s delivery model.

2. This series should be better than it currently is.

I don’t think I’ve ever watched a show that is so watchable, to the point where I can watch an entire season in two days, and also be so empty thematically. The only show that had a similar effect on me was the first three or four seasons of Entourage. Has there ever been a show that is more watchable than House of Cards? It’s a lot of fun to watch a show that is set in the world of politics, where we see the most powerful people in the world interacting with each other, and every scene is filled with luxury cars, high end couture, and more Mac products than you will find in any Apple Store. There is also an expert level of cinematography at display here, the scenes are all expertly shot and it’s a real joy to just watch the show. This isn’t something that you usually think about when you talk about the quality of a show, but when it comes to bingeing on a series, the cinematography can make a big difference. Shows like House of Cards and Breaking Bad look gorgeous from scene to scene, and it makes the viewing experience that much better.

If you watched the first season and fell in love with Kevin Spacey’s performance as Frank Underwood, then I am reasonable sure that you will at least like season two. Spacey is still magnificent as the caricature of a corrupt politician. He still hams it up, and constantly breaks the fourth wall to great effect. The show is always at its best when Spacey is on the screen, and I would say even more so this year than last. Frank Underwood moves throughout the story like a highly destructive hurricane, destroying lives and wreaking havoc in Congress without even a hint of remorse. You can see that Spacey enjoys playing the character, and it’s a pleasure to watch such a great actor so fully commit to playing, what amounts to, a supervillain.

The first issue I have with this series as a whole is that there is not another character on the show that is nearly compelling as Frank Underwood. I say this with no disrespect to Robin Wright or Michael Kelly, who I think are both great, they just don’t have interesting parts to play in the show. One of the big changes this season is that Robin’s character,  Claire has a lot more screen time. It’s never a bad idea to give an actress as talented as Robin Wright more to do on a show, but the quality of writing in these scenes is much lower than the writing in the main plot. The same holds true with Michael Kelly’s character, who is about as flat of a character as you are going to see on TV. How the writers could not come up with more interesting things for Kelly to play off of is beyond me. I found myself feeling bad for Kelly during some of the scenes he was in.

This brings me to the main problem I have with the show, which is that the writers did not seem to know where they wanted to take the show outside of Franks storyline. The show tries desperately to keep viewers interested by having a series of shock moments that happen throughout the season, starting with a huge spoiler in the first episode. While this is an effective way to keep viewers excited to see what will happen next, it does not make up for a lack of meaningful narrative from one episode to the next. The show is relying on too much cheap thrills, and it’s starting to feel like 60 million dollar soap opera with stars playing the lead roles. Throughout the season I kept trying to find a character to root for, or some meaningful moments that occur between two characters, but I was always left wanting. As it raced towards its, by then painfully predictable season finale, I found myself paying less and less attention to any scene that did not directly involve Frank Underwood. If anything, I felt like the show’s quality took a precipitous dive in quality around the fourth episode and there are even a couple moments that happen later in the season that I found cringeworthy. Almost all of the blame for these bad moments was on the page, there was no way the directors or the actors could have made the material work.

I have this tendency to want to compare every new show that comes out to my other favorite shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, etc. What made House of Cards so exciting was that it showed a lot of the same qualities as these other prestige series. You have an absolute knock out lead performance, with a strong supporting cast and incredible production values. What the other shows have that this one is missing writing that makes all of the characters feel three dimensional and not just 2D tropes that are only in the script to serve one purpose. This is what disappoints me most about House of Cards, and what serves as a reminder to the importance of good writing in any medium. There was an interview I watched where Bryan Cranston was asked about what kinds of roles he is attracted to and I thought his answer was telling. I kept thinking about his response while I was trying to get my thoughts together for this review. The gist of the answer is that a production that has bad writing is DOA, and I would extrapolate that answer to say that a production with mediocre writing does not have a chance to be great.

Yet, for all of these problems, I still watched the entire season in two days. There is no denying the allure of the show’s production, and the gravitational force of Kevin Spacey’s charisma. This show is mostly about the clever ways in which Frank Underwood gets around obstacles thrown his way, and even if I wasn’t particularly interested in what obstacles the writers came up with for this season, it was still a pleasure to watch Frank bulldoze through them. I’ve had this feeling about the show that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until today. It’s the same feeling I get when I use cheat codes in video games like Grand Theft Auto and spend five or ten minutes running around, destroying everything in my wake and just generally creating mayhem. It’s a lot of fun to do for awhile, to play the game without rules and be free from all consequences, but eventually it all becomes meaningless. Eventually we need actions to have consequences if those actions are to derive any kind of meaning. House of Cards does not seemed to be concerned with the consequences of it’s actions, and while it makes for a compelling, easily binged upon viewing experience, I don't think it's a meaningful one.

What did you guys think?

50 Posts

My, my, how the time flies. It seems like only yesterday I started up this blog with the intentions to kickstart my writing habit, and now here we are, 50 days into the year. I'm not sure I've ever gone this many consecutive days of writing at least 750 words a day. I can honestly say that I'm starting to feel stronger as a writer for having put in such consistent practice. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, but I'm starting to believe that it will be possible to keep this up for an entire year, emergencies aside.

For the next fifty days I want to make a side goal of writing at least one post that is at least a full scene of a short story, if not a full first draft. I really want to start stretching out my limitations as a writer, and expose my weaknesses, in order to continue to improve. I would ask that you all take mercy on me, a lot of these first sketches are going to be pretty rough. When I put out a short story it is usually on its third or fourth draft, but these will be completely raw. I want to get into a mode where my mind is constantly cranking on new ideas, and this seems like a good way to make that happen.

So, with all this in mind, here is something I worked on today. Enjoy.

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Rebecca’s phone alarm went off for the tenth time at 6:30 AM. Her eyes opened with effort. She reached over and turned off the alarm. For a couple of moments she laid in bed, staring into the morning glow of the bedroom. She knew that in half an hour she needed to be showered, dressed and out of the door if she wanted to get to school in time to set up her daily teaching plan. Today marked the half point of the school year at Jefferson Middle School, and the last thing Rebecca wanted to do was get up and deal with an endless barrage of first graders screaming, crying, fighting and pissing themselves for 18 more weeks.

It was the urinating that really kept her up at night. She had no idea how much errant piss she was going to have to deal with when she started teaching. It was certainly not what she had signed on for. It seemed like at least once a week one of her students would have “an accident” and she would have to do her best to compose herself as to not freak out the pour kid any more than they already were. She had to put on a smile, say that everything is OK - although they both knew that not to be the case - and get the kid into a bathroom. Then she’d have to go to the kid’s gym locker to fetch a pair of shorts for them to wear until the front office could call the students parents to bring a pair of pants to the school. In Rebecca’s opinion it should have been mandatory for all students to have an extra pair of pants in their locker in case of accidents.

What she wanted more than anything was a day off, where she could make her fiancé Kevin a nice breakfast when he got home from his job. She wanted to tell him how much she regretted taking this job, and how everyday felt like a grueling slot through the depths of her own personal hell. Kevin got home around eight, well after Rebecca was off to work. He would take a shower, put in a microwave dinner, watch a couple episodes of Sports Center and pass out, sometimes on the couch, sometimes in bed around 10 AM.  By the time Kevin woke up, Rebecca would be reading a book, or on the couch watching whatever was the most innocuous thing she could find on TV and the two would exchange pleasantries for half an hour or so before he would get ready to head back into work, while she got ready for bed.

Kevin worked the graveyard shift as a security guard for a local warehouse/distribution center that online retailers used to store their product to ensure fast and reliable shipping. It’s the kind of place where you could find a bind full of pink, plastic dildos next to a shelf of newly printed Kings James bibles. Kevin spent most of his nights listening to sports talk radio stations that he would occasionally call in to when he wanted to express how spoiled and entitled he thought the modern pro athlete was, and that maybe these multi millionaires should work a couple of weeks of real labor before they complain about their contract situations.

The only real moment of excitement Kevin ever had on the job was when he had to chase down a couple of juvenile delinquents who cut their way through the compounds security fence, picked the lock on one of the warehouses side doors and starting sneaking around, looking for something to nab. Kevin saw this all unfold from one of the eight monitors in front of him, called the authorities, grabbed his nightstick, jumped into his golf cart that had the word “security” written in big blue letters on the sides, and set chase. The sound of Kevin’s cart in the almost empty warehouse was thunderous, its whiny motor's sound echoed off the walls of the cavernous building, and the two young thieves grabbed what they could get their hands on and scrammed long before Kevin could catch up with them.

The security cameras would help the local authorities identify the wrong doers, who ended up being Freshman at the local high school. The items stolen included a box of AA batteries, two copies of the newest issue of Men’s Health, a waffle iron, and three blender bottles that are used by weight lifters to easily mix nutritional shakes before and after workouts. Both youths were given a year of probation, 200 hours of community service, and have been on their best behavior ever since. Kevin was given a $100 bonus for his vigilance, which he used to buy him and Rebecca two tickets to a Bucks/Heat game.

The only time Kevin and Rebecca got to have any meaningful contact with each other was on the weekends. They did their best to make the most out of their time together. They would get a hotel room in Milwaukee, eat a nice restaurant and make love until the sun came up. They had always been a passionate couple, and in their relative youth that fire still burned intensely. Some weekends they would stay home and watch entire the entire series of a show on Netflix, only taking breaks to eat and compare notes on the show. Their favorite past time, however, was complaining about their jobs. Neither one of them expected their professional lives to unfold in the way it had. When the couple met at the University of Wisconsin five years ago they were both on track for careers in prestigious fields: Rebecca as an editor in a major publishing house, Kevin as a lawyer.

It wasn’t a complete a shock when Kevin failed to get into law school after completely his undergraduate classes. His grades were middling at best and he never really had a deep passion for the law, it just seemed like a sensible profession for him to strive for. It was not in Kevin’s nature to passionately pursue a career, he was always content with working side jobs in college and could have worked in a 150 degree smelting plant without complaining. He always had the disposition of a monk and if it was left up to him, they would both be in a tiny apartment living an almost monastic life. Rebecca loved how calming it was to be around him, and how these qualities would probably make for him being a fantastic father someday, but she worried about his lack of long-term goals.

The bigger shock came when Rebecca’s resumes to HarperCollins, Doubleday, Little Brown and twelve independent prints were all met with gracious rejection letters. She didn’t get one interview. This set Rebecca scrambling to get a teachers certificate in some attempt to salvage the next five years of her life. She knew that her mother could get her a job teaching JMS, because her mother was the Superintendent of the school district, had been since she was in high school. The idea of moving back to Jefferson was not one met with excitement, but they had been offered a place to stay; the house she grew up in. When her father died of lung cancer four years ago, Rebecca's mom moved into a smaller apartment and rented the house out as a secondary source of income. Now her mother wanted nothing more than to have her only child move back into the area and take on the profession she always knew Rebecca was destined for.

For Rebecca, this was like being sucked into a reality she never wanted by her mothers gravitational vortex. What other options were there? It was like the two of them had jumped off a cliff and the only soft landing was back into her mothers arms. Maybe this is why she had a recurring dream about endlessly falling through the air, picking up velocity, and - after what felt like an eternity - she could see the Earth become visible from below. She would always wake up just before making impact with ground, in one of the many cornfields that engulfed Jefferson. She would wake up in the middle of the night, realize that she was alone, and it would take her at least twenty minutes to get back to sleep. She would have this dream at least once week. Some nights she dreamt of urine. Some nights she did not dream at all. Most mornings, when she got up, life was almost too much t0 bear.

On that particular morning Rebecca called into the school’s office and told Liz, the secretary, that she had come down with a bug and would not be able to make it in.

“Aw, that’s too bad darlin,” Liz said. “You stay home and get better, if you need anything just call. I can come over and a check up on you over lunch if you want.”

“Oh no, that is hardly necessary,” Rebecca responded, fainting the best fake cough she could muster. “It’s nothing major, I just don’t want to get any of the kids sick. You know how easy these bugs can get passed around, especially this time of year.”

“Ain't that the truth doll!” Liz said. “This time of year my job consists mostly of keeping track of which kids are out sick and trying to find ways to get  them all their homework so they don’t fall behind. You just get back to bed, we’ll have someone come in for you. Get better!”

“Thank you so much Liz. I’ll be in touch.”

Rebecca hung up the phone and got out of bed, not feeling the least bit guilty for taking a personal day. She hopped into the shower singing The Rolling Stone’s “Satisfaction.” Her plan was to drive to the local coffee shop, grab a latte, and get back with enough time to cook Kevin his favorite breakfast: pancakes with two over-easy eggs and four strips of bacon. She wanted to tell Kevin that this would be the last year of her teaching third grade English for JMS. She was going to go back to school to get her MFA. She was going to make herself an invaluable asset for a publishing house. She would was willing to do whatever it took to get her out of that God forsaken classroom that always smelt like cleaning products and the faintest hint of urine. She would tell her mother that she loved her more than anything, but she had to try to make a life for herself. When Rebecca got out of the shower she felt her soul cleansed of the last couple of years’ existential stench, and ready for a fresh start.

She had her fill of falling, it was time to get back up.