Black Mirror, Blunt Teeth

Last week, a friend recommended Black Mirror – or rather, they expressed shock when they found out I hadn’t watched it yet. I finally got around to starting it a few days ago, armed only with the notion that it was some kind of modern-day British Twilight Zone.

The first episode of the first season, The National Anthem, had me hooked within minutes. “I’m not going to fuck a pig,” the Prime Minister declares, faced with a list of demands from terrorists who’ve kidnapped Britain’s sweetheart of a princess. While the premise of the first episode is set up quickly, the remainder of the hour-long show feels toothless. Objections to carrying through the terrorists’ demands center largely around whether the cost/benefit balances out, and the story tips dramatically once the kidnapper starts sending non-essential body parts to local news agencies. I know there’s a limit to what can be accomplished in an hour of anthology television, but focusing on the journalistic side of the ethical conundrum comes at the cost of really peeling back the layers of what it means for a human being to weigh ethics and choose to make the decision to engage in sex with a creature incapable of consent. The idea of a journalist willing to exploit her body and her connections for a story isn’t a new one, and the story doesn’t delve any deeper than that.

Fifteen Million Merits, the second episode, evokes Doctor Who’s Satellite Five, (“The Long Game,” “Bad Wolf,” “The Parting of the Ways”) in that it’s set in a world based around a reality-show model of civilization. Individuals go to a gym and pedal on stationary bikes all day (I admit, my attention wandered a little bit, here) and earn credits, which they spend on things like food – and avoiding erotic commercials. They watch a reality competition called Hot Shots, paying millions of credits to compete. Here, our protagonist (who’s conveniently inherited millions from his dead brother) falls for a girl whose singing talent, he thinks, is enough to get her a ticket out of their mundane existence. Ultimately, the corruption of the system swallows both of them whole.

So far (I’m now watching episode three, The Entire History of You), the show seems to set up intriguing premises without fully examining them. While ambiguity is the stock-in-trade of shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (which, I’d argue, this show tracks with more closely), there’s a difference between being ambiguous and being noncommittal, and I would argue that so far Black Mirror is erring on the side of the latter. It’s less stylized than Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place and while its creator, Charlie Brooker, is quoted as saying “Each episode…[is] all about the way we’re living now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy,” I’m not sure that the episodes so far are really being true to that vision.

Might a government official be coerced into an abhorrent sex act? Might we wind up living in pod hotels and generating electricity via stationary bicycle? Who knows. So far, the third episode seems the most realistic – and its conceit actually echos the basis of my story A Fixed Perspective, available in Short Frictions,

I’m not ready to say that Black Mirror is a miss, but so far, it hasn’t hit that sweet spot where, as an anthology show, it becomes more than a collection of brief conceptual exercises and morphs into something truly iconic.

Here’s hoping it hits that sweet spot soon.

Black Mirror is available via Netflix streaming service.

 

Edit: After writing this last night, I went on to start series 2; one episode into that and all I can say is, HOLY JUMP IN QUALITY, BATMAN! Looking forward to the rest of the second series, and hoping the quality keeps up!

Cleaning Up A Sweepstakes Mess

The first point where I knew something had gone wrong was when I signed into my email and saw a note from the winner of my Short Frictions/Think Geek giveaway.

After a brief sweepstakes entry period, I’d Rafflecoptered for a winner and sent a $15 gift code to a reader who’d faithfully liked, shared, tweeted and retweeted a brief message about the book almost every day. Now, she wrote, she was having trouble redeeming the code. The Think Geek site was telling her it had already been used. Which it hadn’t, because she’d been saving it to shop for the holidays.

My heart sank. I logged into Think Geek and checked the code, and sent it to her again to confirm there hadn’t been a typo, but she was right – the balance on the code was showing up as zero. I really didn’t know what had happened, especially since another code I’d sent out the same day had been redeemed without a problem.

Finally, I decided to check in with the Think Geek team. I’m always hesitant to start talking to customer service. I find it incredibly stressful and frustrating, particularly after some of the experiences I’ve had with other companies this year, but without getting in touch with them there was no way to figure out what had happened.

It took two tries to get a customer service rep to respond on the Think Geek site. I’m not sure what happened the first time, but I spent several minutes typing in an explanation of what had happened and waiting for a response that never came. I logged out, logged back in, and tried again. This time, after five or so minutes, a rep came online and asked me to describe my problem. After confirming she could read and reply to my messages, I explained, and she started to investigate.

My hope was to confirm with Think Geek when the gift card balance had been used, in case there had been some kind of technical glitch; I wasn’t sure if they’d tell me the date and amount of whatever purchase tracked back to the giveaway gift code, but I figured the best idea was to get as much information as I could before I sent the sweepstakes winner an update.

After five or ten more minutes, the customer rep sent a message that far surpassed my expectations: she had added the credit back onto the gift code. I’m not sure if she found a glitch in the sale or if there was some kind of error, or if Think Geek just decided that such a small amount wasn’t worth haggling over (which I’d already decided was going to be my approach if it turned out they couldn’t reinstate the credit, because the giveaway winner had put a lot of effort into spreading word of Short Frictions on social media). But I was relieved that the matter was resolved so easily.

Once I had confirmation from the customer service team, I emailed the winner and let her know that everything should be up and running and she could make her purchases; I haven’t heard from her since, so am assuming everything went well.

From start to finish, resolving the situation took about half an hour, but I was shocked at how stressful I found it.  As self-published authors, being in charge of marketing and PR is a huge part of what we do – and when something goes wrong, there’s no PR rep to hide behind, no publishing house to help defray the cost of issues like lost prizes and credits. Plus, it’s our name out there on the line. This contest winner was extremely understanding and patient as I worked to resolve the gift code issue, but just as easily could have been someone far less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

I’m lucky enough, currently, to be in a position where I could have afforded to replace the prize if need be – but what if I wasn’t? What if the prize was something bigger, or Think Geek had turned replacing the credit into more of a production?

When you self-publish, you’re taking control and ownership of every aspect of sharing your work. The buck stops with you. Making sure you’re mentally and financially prepared (not to mention knowing you have enough time on your hands) to represent your work to the best of your ability is an important part of being a self-published author. And it’s not something to take on lightly.

Thankfully, in this case, the mess that had to be cleaned up wasn’t a big one. Hopefully (knock on wood) it never will be. If and when future issues arise, no matter what area of self-publishing they might be in, I’ll handle them as quickly and smoothly as possible, and hope for the best.

Cleaning up when something goes wrong is something every self-publishing author has to be prepared for, whether the hitch happens in writing, editing, publishing, art directing or publicity. Be prepared, keep your cool, and think your options through, and hopefully your next hitch won’t throw you for a loop.

 

 

Buy your own copy of Short Frictions on Amazon or Smashwords.

“Jagannath” by Karen Tidbeck

Twitter friend @johannthors1120140705 recently went on a “diet” of all-female authors, and one of the books he discussed on his blog was JAGANNATH, by Karen Tidbeck, featuring moody, Scandanavian stories of the fantastic. Since I had a day full of flights a week or so ago,  and my phone at hand, I decided to write a few thoughts on each short story in the collection.

The first story, BEATRICE, would be at home in the magically surreal worlds constructed by China Mieville. Eerie and infused with steampunk flavor, the piece tells the tale of two love affairs. The first is between a doctor and an airship; the second between a clerk and her steam-powered stove. The conclusion reminded more a little of themes I touched on in my own short story, SWEETHEART, namely the idea of relationships that exist between creatures of unequal power.

The second tale is an epistolary story, SOME LETTERS FOR OVE LINDSTROM. From a daughter to her alcoholic father, these letters paint a picture of their life after the disappearance of the daughter’s mother. This absent maternal figure reminds me a little of a Kelpie, although the creature referred to here is a vittra. I didn’t find this story as compelling as BEATRICE, but I’m willing to give it a second reading to see if there’s anything I missed.

MISS NYBERG AND I is an utterly charming tale that starts with a balcony full of poisonous plants and ends with a tiny creature taking up residence in a young woman’s apartment. Told from the point of view of a writer friend, the story explores how authors fictionalized their lives and the lives of those around them, asking questions about how we represent the lives and adventures of those we love. While plenty of authors joke about including people and events from their lives in their fictions, Tidbeck capture the particular ethical dilemma of creating a future for someone you know in real life.

Next up is REBECKA, and here things get dark. The story of an abused woman who can’t escape the pain her tormentors caused her, who tries to get God’s attention after repeated, failed suicide attempts. Tidbeck’s sparse prose does a service to this stark, fatalistic tale, drawing out the titular character’s anguish and desire to end her own pain in the wake of trauma. Why does God let bad things happen to people, the story asks, and does He ever answer their prayers for solace? In REBECKA, the answer is more disturbing than reassuring. If God doesn’t step in unless it’s to punish, what must one do to catch enough of His attention to be relieved of life’s pains?

HERR CEDERBERG is another miss for me, about a man who builds a flying machine. There’s something here that ties into a metaphor using bumble bees, but I’m not sure of the overarching meaning of the story. Worth a second reading, and hopefully that will uncover hidden depths. One of the frustrating things about reading books by authors in other cultures is that at times one feels as if one may have missed something through a lack of cultural literacy, and this story does give me that feeling.

Recalling both METAMORPHOSIS and a few other Kafka tales whose titles I can’t quite put my finger on, WHO IS ARVID PEKON? gives the reader a glimpse inside a rather unorthodox call center. The titular character fields a number of odd calls, but had one client in particular whose inquiries grow increasingly bizarre. Anyone who’s felt themselves disappearing into a job will recognize the deadliness of corporate culture in this short piece.

(It’s worth noting, by the way, that so far most of the stories are only a few pages long, and the mood of each piece flows well from one story to the next.)

Stories about writing are always tricky, and my feeling was that NYBERG captures the dilemmas of process more aptly than BRITA’S HOLIDAY VILLAGE, about a writer who retreats from the world to finish a couple of projects (sound familiar, anyone?) and instead cross paths with distant family. This is one of the longer stories so far, and part of me wishes there were more depth and detail about the family members. Since I’m reading this on a plane, I can’t look up what a ‘pupa’ is, but I have the feeling it may be integral to the plot.

Mental illness gets a closer look in REINDEER MOUNTAIN, about two sisters and their mother cleaning out a family home. Here, another absent matriarch – in this case, the family’s great grandmother – appeared as if from nowhere with a sense of being touched by the fairy world. The story talks about mental illness, nerves, anxiety and depression – and worse – being passed down through generations of a family, and how desperately the family tries to ignore the signs when one of their own begins a faster slide into depression and delusion. Called ‘uncanny’ in the book’s introduction, there’s certainly an air of the unusual, here. Taking on the mythic feeling of Nordic folklore, one truly feels the encroaching darkness in this unsettling tale. Family heritage is tied directly to mental illness by an old piece of clothing; it’s ultimately kept as a souvenir of the fantastical occurrence at the story’s climax.

CLOUDBERRY JAM is a fast, fey tale that once again touches on the pregnancy theme Tidbeck brought up in BEATRICE, that of women having unconventional, fantastic pregnancies that lead to odd, not quite human children. Here, the protagonist creates a child for herself, loving and nurturing it until it begins to grow in its own direction. It’s at this point in reading that the mismatched jigsaw of familial puzzle pieces starts to emerge as significant throughout the collection: human oddities, connected by blood and mythology.

With PYRET, Tidbeck strides straight into otherworldly horror. Structured as a report on a mythological creature, this story pressed all the buttons necessary to make the hair on my neck stand on end. The story ends more abruptly than one might prefer, but the lurch it leaves the reader in helps feed a gnawing sense of umease. The imagery Tidbeck creates here is truly chilling.

Next up is AUGUSTA PRIMA, an odd little Alice-in-Wonderland style tale (or maybe i just think that because of the croquet) about beings living in a world without time, and what happens when one of them finds a watch. It feels like the allegory/concept may have gotten a little ahead of the story; more development of the idea would have given the story greater impact. The characters don’t feel as sharply drawn as in some of the collection’s other stories, though the conceit of playing an endless game of croquet in the garden of memory is an alluring one.

With AUNTS, we return to themes of childbearing, family and unnatural pregnancies. Consumption, too, plays a role in this story, where we watch the ritual of three ‘aunts’ who seem to exist simply to eat and procreate in a seemingly endless cycle. Over and over they consume themselves, finally bursting open full of new life, only for the cycle to be repeated again. Attended by three ‘neices,’ in a secret garden, what do the aunts symbolize – if anything? This story seems to take place on the fringes of the world created in AUGUSTA PRIME – an added wrinkle of complexity that makes me want to go back and look for other connections to other stories.

With JAGANNATH, the final story in the collection, Tidbeck’s theme of unnatural reproduction is turned inward. Now we see from the perspective of a great mother’s offspring as they watch their caretaker, a “mother creature” that protects them from an unspecified disaster out in the real world, run down – along with their entire way of life. Dystopian and claustrophobic, JAGANNATH takes place in an isolated and self-contained environment that would be at home in Margaret Atwood’s MADDADAM.

I’m not typically a fan of author’s notes and afterwards, but in this case reading Tilbeck’s final notes was highly illuminating. She discusses her process in terms of the language she uses, the curious mash-up of British and American English, and how she chooses which phrases to translate from Swedish and which words must remain in her native tongue. As someone who struggles with speech patterns thanks to five years spent living abroad, it was fascinating to read how another writer deals with the challenge of locating her stories in a place where a hodgepodge of languages and dialects create their own distinct flavor of storytelling.

JAGANNATH isn’t a hard read, or a long one, clocking in at 134 pages. It took me two airplane rides to finish it, including writing these thoughts on my phone. It’s atmospheric and linguistically engaging, and the writing itself shows an artfulness.that often feels missing in newer works. By the end of the book, the stories do feel as if they often don’t quite end, instead lingering, like the concept of liminal sun mentioned in Elizabeth Hand’s introduction.

Moody and dark, the stories nonetheless hold hope for those who want to believe in an onionskin otherworld. Tidbeck has a novel coming out soon, and it will be interesting to see what she does with the longer form.

Some authors you might also enjoy:
Julian Barnes
Margaret Atwood
China Mieville
Franz Kafka
Charles de Lint

 

PS – now that the holiday shopping season is here, would you like to check out my collection of short stories, SHORT FRICTIONS? It’s currently available on Kindle and other e-readers.

Stretching Your Writing Limits

This is going to be a bit of a ramble. I hope you don’t mind, and would appreciate your thoughts at the end via comment.

For the last year or do, I’ve been working on an ambitious project: a series of novels spanning epic concepts of philosophy, religion and mythology, with my friend @sareliz. Both of us wrote first drafts of two chunks of narrative last November as part of NaNoWriMo, then earlier this spring I knocked out a 50K first draft of a third book. As I’ve chipped away at rewrites, however, I’ve become more and more aware of one simple fact: in order to be true to the reality of my protagonist’s world, things are going to have to get a lot darker and more brutal than I ever anticipated, which is going to require a metric f*ckton more research than I’ve done so far.

The book isn’t supposed to be gritty or hard-hitting in a way that features depictions of extreme violence or torture, so there’s also going to have to be a balance stuck between realism and the fantasy world of the series. The more I research, the more I question: can I do this? Have my ambitions gotten ahead of my ability?

This story story, currently planned as the first novel in the series, involves a reporter who travels to a corrupt county to look for a friend and colleague who’s gone missing. As part of my research I’ve been reading about reporters in war zones and oppressive regimes (which plays into another aspect of the series’ overall plot), and with each article I read I realize that the draft i have so far actually features what could be called “danger-lite.” Terrifying things happen to journalists who travel abroad to investigate corruption. They are beheaded, jailed, tortured, ‘disappeared’ and more. The citizens of the countries they investigate are far from immune to brutal treatment, too: look at the kidnapped/murdered Mexican teachers, girls kidnapped and sold into “forced marriages” by Boko Haram, and activists murdered by drug cartels. Even in America, police Senn able to act with near impunity when out comes to summarily executing American citizens in the street.

While there are certainly overlaps in how oppressive regimes the world over treat their citizens and their media figures, (Pakistan and Myanmar are currently in the spotlight on this issue) specificity is key in writing what you don’t know, perhaps top an even greater degree than when writing what you do know. After all, I might take poetic license if I’m writing about a bar in Buffalo or a subway route in New York City, but that’s an informed choice. Blundering the details in a novel about another country or another culture just comes across as lazy ignorance.

Even the small chunks of reading I’ve done so far have highlighted my own ignorance while at the same time pouting my research in stark contrast to lived experience. Reading books like THE BRIEF WONDEROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz, being immersed in a world where a revolutionary leader reigns over the lives of citizens with sadistic whim, is nothing like living under such a regime. ‘They’ say to write what you know, but what chance do I have (thank goodness) to understand the lifestyles of people in those circumstances with any degree of accuracy in fiction? How does someone like me write inclusive, relevant, diverse novels on topics like this without fucking it up royally?

The only answer I have is research.

So I’m trying. Really hard. I’m reading what I can, trying to get a feel for both the human, day to day lives of people living under the repressive circumstances the story needs to portray, but also trying to gain more knowledge of the truly horrifying acts oppressive governments can subject their citizens to. At the same time, Itry to find a way to retain the ability to see the monsters responsible for these reprehensible acts as humans, with motivations that made sense to their own internal logic, because it’s a rare human being who sees themselves as a villain, no matter how vile they might be. I try to think of ways i can portray the horror of human suffering at the hands of others while being honest but while avoiding graphic depictions of circumstances that don’t fit the tone of a series of fantasy novels. And then I question myself and start to feel paralyzed. And then i remind myself I’m still working on a draft. There’s always time for another rewrite.

There are bright spots in my research. My trip to St. Martin last year and the one i just took to St. Thomas both informed me on climates, terrain and cultures that will also figure in to the stories my cowriter and i will be telling. And I keep reminding myself of the importance of this, whole trying not to get to bogged down in the details. But when a simple hike through a national park demonstrates that you’ve completely miscategorized your story’s setting, how can you ever know when you’ve researched enough to get on with the writing? And even writing  this, I cringe, because I feel like I’m wading into waters where it would be so easy to give offense.

They say to write what you know, but it’s also critical that writers be willing to learn what we don’t know so we’re can write accurate, diversity populated fiction in terms of our characters, settings and cultures. Whether it takes the form of readings, conversations or traveling, the only answer to this conundrum is research.

Oh, and asking for recommendations. Anybody got any suggestions on trying material or media I can consume? Please leave them in the comments. Your thoughts would be very much appreciated.

“That Said…” #2: The Parent Trap

Just about this time last year, Matthew Lyons took a look at the redemptive qualities of Spice World, the Spice Girls movie. This year, he’s decided to focus his attention on Lindsay Lohan’s remake of The Parent Trap. I’ll admit, I’ve never been a big Lohan fan, but by the time I finished reading this I wanted to give the remake a try. It’s streaming on Netflix, at the moment, if you find yourself similarly inclined.

 

 

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THAT SAID #2 // TWO LOHANS ARE (QUESTIONABLY) BETTER (WOULD WE SAY “BETTER” HERE?) THAN ONE (EXCEPT ONE MIGHT STEAL LESS STUFF AND DO LESS DRUGS)

The Parent Trap, 1998

In the words of the prophet Method Man (also known as Mister Mef & Tical, praise be unto him): Konichiwa, bitches.

I’m back.

Ain’t I just.

You know, I’ve seen a lot of shitty movies over the past ten months, and I have to say, I’ve loved a whole lot of them.  But one recent viewing stands out as something that I just can’t get over: The Parent Trap ’98.

Now, this one holds a special and strange place in the hall of shame, because I wasn’t the one that picked it out.  No, this was the selection of my otherwise lovely and tasteful wife.  It was on Netflix, it was easy, fine, whatever.  I thought it was going to be a bit of fluff while we ate dinner, but you know what?

When we got to minute forty-five, I was fucking hooked.

And, look, it would be easy to lament Lindsay Lohan’s career trajectory, her battles with the law and with sobriety, all that.  Pretty much everyone in the world has snarked and snarked about that until they could snark no more.  I’m not going to do that… any more than I already did in my headline.  (What do you want from me, I get one good one, I’m done now, promise).  The fact of the matter is that, for as shitty and sarcastic and holier-than-thou as we all like to act about her (yes, even you, don’t lie to me, I can read your goddamn mind), everyone actually laments Lindsay Lohan’s fall from grace largely due to the fact that there was real grace there to begin with.

But (much, much) more on that later.

Let’s get our facts straight before diving into the reasons you should love this movie as much as I love this movie, shall we?

This is an objectively bad movie. It’s a shameless cash-in on a movie that was done forty (forty? Something like that. Going to run a fact check on this… or maybe not. See if I remember to put it in the side notes.) years before, and had, in the interim, lodged itself securely in the hearts and minds of the Disney-watching public. It may be one of the first remakes that everyone loves to lament now.  It may have been the first.

They use the word “actually” like most action movies use the word “Fuck.”  I’m going to go through and count how many times.  See if I don’t.

Parts of it feel cheap and shoehorned, it has like five or six logical endpoints before the actual finale of the movie, and the whole thing is just… it’s just fucking riddled with the in-your face sensibility of “EH? EH? YOUR PARENTS LOVED THIS SHIT WHEN HALEY MILLS DID IT, SO HOW BOUT WE ALL PLASTER ON A BIG OLE SMILE FOR DIRTY UNCLE WALT AND SUCK IT DOWN AGAIN, HUH?  NOW SAY THANK YOU”.

…ahem.

They did this a few years later with Freaky Friday, which I might do at some point in the future.  Lindsay Lohan’s in that one, too, now that I think of it.

And, yes, it is filled with the kind of nudge-nudge-wink-wink that at least acknowledges that it’s a remake.  But it doesn’t make you feel cleverer for it.  It doesn’t make you feel in on the joke, it just feels like the movie’s waving its ego in your face.

Also, and this is just a shitty nitpicky little thing, but instead of British Haley Mills doing a passable American accent, Lindsay Lohan’s British accent is remarkably bad.  I mean, downright terrible. YES, I GET IT, SHE WAS ELEVEN YEARS OLD AT THE TIME, SHUT UP. THEY PUT IT IN THE MOVIE, IT’S FAIR GAME. READ THE MANIFESTO.

Like I said.  Objectively bad movie.

But aside from the accent, you know something?

Lindsay Lohan kills it in this movie.

it’s easy to forget that, beneath the trainwreck of a human being that she’s become in the past ten years, there is an actress there who got to where she is (was?) by being sharp, bright-eyed, energetic, enthusiastic, smart as a whip, and not entirely a terrible actor.

She murders it in this movie.  She makes the movie.  Not even kidding.  Her acting is actually acting.  When was the last time you could say that about an eleven year old?  For example:

She takes the time to differentiate the twins, Hallie and Annie, not just in accent, but in mannerisms, facial expressions, and general posturing and bearing.  She’s good enough in this movie to make us forget that this is one little girl playing two little girls, and not twins playing, well, twins.  For anyone, that’s not nothing.  For an eleven year old, that’s fucking remarkable.

She’s precocious, she’s identifiable, she’s emotional, she’s not cheap about any of it, she doesn’t mug at the camera, and she ultimately comes off like she always gives a shit, which is hard to do when you’re in basically every last scene in the movie.  She gives a shit about not just doing a good job, but acting the best that she can.  Which in turn makes we the audience give a shit.  She develops and fosters emotional investment here.  Again, not easy.

But the real nuance in her dual performances comes when the twins switch so they can each meet their respective long-lost parent.  Because then not only do you have Hallie and Annie, but you have Hallie-as-Annie and Annie-as-Hallie.  You have one little girl playing two little girls who are subsequently playing each other.

The levels of that are remarkable.  It’s worth paying attention to, because she flips those little mannerisms, those little touches for each twin, and spins them.  They’re there, but you can actually see her trying to suppress them as her respective characters. It’s fascinating.  She does such a wonderful job in this movie, and you didn’t even notice, did you?  You were too busy getting shitty and snarky and you totally missed the great thing that was happening on your screen.

I feel sorry for you.

That’s not to say that the rest of the cast are slouches or slumps or slackers, though.  No, fact is, I’d be hard pressed to find anyone in this movie who phoned it in.  (Maybe the guy who played Grandfather, but at this point, I’m starting to think they just pulled an old British man off the street and told him to say wizened, doofy old British man things at the cute little redhead while they filmed it.  Could have gone terribly, terribly wrong, in retrospect.)

Dennis Quaid, Natasha Richardson, Lisa Ann Walter, Elaine Hendrix, Simon Kunz, holy shit, all of you.  Everybody in this movie put so much into their roles, and for what?  For a remake of a mediocre kids’ movie from the early sixties?

EVERYONE IN THIS MOVIE IS A TRUE BELIEVER AND I NEED YOU TO APPRECIATE THAT.

Dennis Quaid: how the hell charming is this guy?  And, worse, he knows it, too.  He’s so intensely aware of his own charm and that is exactly what makes him more charming.  He’s earnest, he’s loving, and even a little rambunctious.  He’s just doing the best job that he can, and it might not be perfect all the time, but holy hell it’s good.

Natasha Richardson: Come on, now.  You can’t watch this movie and tell me that there’s not a single part of this woman’s performance that doesn’t remind you of your own mother (or, barring that, the idealized mental version of “Mother” that you’ve got in your head).  She’s the platonic ideal here – smart, beautiful, kind, loving, understanding, but vulnerable.

Also, seeing these two acting together, I actually buy that they were a couple who got divorced after a whirlwind romance and birth of twins and haven’t seen each other since.  They’re awkward but affectionate, they’re friendly but standoffish.  They make it real.

Lisa Ann Walter:  I have to admit, I fell a little bit in love with Chessy while I watched this again.  I mean, I was thirteen when this came out, and I refuse to believe that this had zero influence on my taste in women later in life: smart, brassy, clever, quick-witted brunettes who know how to cook.

And, for the record, my falling a bit for Lisa Ann Walter should not at all mean that my wife has anything to be jealous about.

Just kidding, she totally does.

Elaine Hendrix: Okay, talk about Platonic Ideals.  Whoof.  I gather from Ms. Hendrix’s twitter feed that she’s actually a super kind of thoughtful woman, but holy fuck does she play a huuuuuuge bitch in this movie.  She’s the worst.  The absolute worst.  And I suppose that’s kind of the point.  She absolutely owns every scene she’s in as the Wicked Future Stepmother.  She dominates, but she gives everyone else room to be funny and heartfelt, too.

Simon Kunz: Come on, Martin was charming, wasn’t he?  Identifiably sweet, and hey now, butler got moves.  I’m not entirely convinced of the romance between he and Chessy there at the end, but whatever.  That was just for flavor, anyway.  The real point of him was the friendship between he and Annie, and I believed the hell outta that.

A quick note, here at the almost-end, about the music – the music in this movie is actually really good.  I mean, sure, a lot of it is boilerplate family movie stuff (Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, etc), but every now and then it’ll pull a Linda Ronstadt or Bob Geldof or Dusty Springfield into the scene and it just pulls the whole thing together.  Astounding.

One last thing before I’m done:

In the past few years, I’ve been paying attention to the use of color in costuming choices to signify unspoken connections (or lack thereof) between characters, and this movie just kills on that angle.  Blame Mad Men.  Seriously, it’s a huge element in that show, and while not so incredibly pronounced in this movie, it is verifiably there.  Whoever costumed this movie (hold on, I’ll look… Penny Rose.  She’s done the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, that Lone Ranger thing, and… really?  She costumed Pink Floyd The Wall?  Shit, okay.  She’s pretty good at this stuff.)

I don’t want to spoil it, so instead I’ll say go watch the movie and keep your damn eyes open.  I’ll even give you a hint: pay attention to the use of colors in different characters’ wardrobes in any given scene.  Especially pay attention to blues, greens and yellows – really, pastels in general.  They’re there – often subtle, but they’re definitely there.  The harmony exists, even when you don’t think it’s there.  It draws them together, it drives them apart, and it tells the story well enough that you could maybe watch the movie with the sound off and still get it.

Look, I’m aware of the ridiculousness of this situation.  A nearly 30-year-old man telling you to spend your evening watching Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap?  Come on now.  But I’m serious.  This is one of those movies, that if you go into it with an open mind (and, who am I kidding, an open heart, too), it’s going to surprise you.  Lindsay Lohan nails it, the supporting cast is phenomenal, the music takes you by surprise, and the costuming is just ace.

I know it’s ridiculous, but:

Go watch The Parent Trap ’98, right now.  Go.  It’s on Netflix, what are you waiting for?

You’re welcome.

Side notes:

- 1961 for the original, 1998 for the remake. 37 years interim. RESEARCH, DAMMIT.

- My wife disagrees, but I thought that when Dennis Quaid smiles and so easily says “Them.” at the conclusion of the camping trip was just so fucking perfect.  Like, of course he’s gonna choose his daughters over your skinny ass, you daffy, greedy broad.  He’s Dennis Quaid.  He’s the best.

- Wait, what happened to Meredith’s assistant?  I think his name was Gareth.  He was in that one scene where Meredith openly villain-monologues, in front of Dennis Quaid and Lindsay, how much she hates Linsday, and they both share an evil laugh together.  He wasn’t in the movie before or after that.  Where the fuck did that guy go?

- Apparently the final “actually” count is 23. 23! Jesus hell.

- Look, I know it was probably just two little people in masks wearing red wigs, but the choreography on that fencing match was thrilling. You know I’m right.

- Every grandpa in the world should smell like peppermint and pipe tobacco.

Matthew Lyons is a writer living in New York City with his wife, where he works in corporate advertising to support his pathologically unsafe spending and drinking habits. Most recently, his mad, whiskey-fueled ramblings have appeared in Maudlin House and Bastion Science Fiction Magazine. He is unquestionably a danger to himself, others, and his marriage, and he must be stopped at all costs. Join in the fight against this monster at twitter.com/goddamnlyons

Your Health, Your Advocacy: What I’ve Learned About Communicating With Doctors

Image by caroline_1, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

Image by caroline_1, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

Recently, a friend posted this piece about doctors who “came clean” regarding the state of their ability to interact with patients during the course of treatment. It confirmed a few things I’ve learned over the course of the last year, and while I’ve wanted to write something about this for a while, it’s the piece that pushed me over the edge.

For those who don’t want to read the full article above, I’ll summarize: doctors are overworked and exhausted, drowning in medical administrative work, and this affects their ability to take a holistic and thorough approach to patient care. Patients who advocate for themselves often find that they ultimately reach diagnoses their doctors might not originally have reached.

There are two prominent examples of this in my own life.

The first example in my life where advocating for myself proved critical in receiving a correct and complete diagnosis has to do with the back injury I suffered earlier this year. I say “back injury,” but as it turned out there was a second issue that my doctors initially missed. (And I’d like to say here that I am extremely impressed by the service and treatment I received from my doctors; they were empathetic, consummately professional and fantastically coordinated in their treatment plan, and I would recommend them without reservation to anyone in the Manhattan area who required an osteopath, pain management specialist, or physical therapist. Drop me a line if you need their information.)

Initially, it was clear that I had a back injury, and as the horrific pain (I’m talking a legitimate 9 on the pain chart, only because I wasn’t passing out) I experienced started to diminish with treatment, I was sure something else was wrong. There was a second source of pain, which hadn’t been clear from the start. I was shown a diagram that demonstrated how the pain could be connected to nerve issues in my back, and we attempted treatment to address that source (which helped, if only slightly). Finally, after shuffling between two doctors (different specialties within the same practice) insisting there was something wrong in my hip, I was sent for another scan. What did it reveal? Additional issues. With my hip. Had I not kept insisting something more had gone wrong, the second issue might not have been discovered or treated, and I would still be in a fantastic amount of pain every day instead of the dull ache that currently intrudes on my day to day life.

The second example is a little more detailed and a little more personal.

I’ve largely avoided posting at length about personal mental health issues on my blog; apparently this is the issue that pushes me over the edge in that regard. It’s that important to me that people understand the critical nature of advocating for their own treatment. So here goes.

I’ve battled depression and anxiety for many, many years, beginning in my mid-teens. I’ve been on and off so many medications that in recent years I’ve had to go back and check records to determine what I’d already tried, because for over fifteen years, nothing worked. Or rather, medications and herbal supplements might briefly take the “edge” off a battery of symptoms I won’t get into here, but crushing depression always came back, and the coping mechanisms I was able to use tended to be self-destructive and insufficient. I would push forward with various doctors and medications as much as I was able, in short spurts, then despair and retreat when it became clear that I’d just spent months trying out a new treatment option that was ultimately unhelpful.

Just over a year ago, that changed. I had finally found an excellent cognitive behavioral therapist, who had recommended me to an excellent psychiatrist, and was seeing both concurrently, but as the stress of the holiday season set in, my symptoms started becoming more and more pronounced. Frequent, severe panic attacks were the least upsetting of my symptoms, which (if you’ve ever had a panic attack, you’ll know) is really saying something.

Through conversations with friends whose mental health experiences sounded similar to mine, I decided to start tracking my mood with a simple chart: every day, I checked off a box that indicated whether I felt depressed, “elevated” (i.e. more energetic/focused/productive than usual) or neutral. I tracked what medications I was taking, how much sleep I was getting, my alcohol intake, whether I had panic attacks, and more. On a daily basis. For three months. And saw a pattern starting to emerge. And rather than looking like a straight line with a few dips during depressive episodes…it looked more like a series of hills and valleys. The valleys were deeper and the hills weren’t as pronounced, but they were there.

Armed with these charts, I went back to my psychiatrist and we started having a new conversation. We started looking at different types of disorders and categories of medications. I brought up treatments that other friends had mentioned, and in an interesting turn of events one medication that had helped them wound up being the same thing another family member took (for a different reason). My doctor agreed that we would try this new treatment option.

And unlike the antidepressants I’d taken on and off for over fifteen years, the new medication worked.

I don’t mean like, “took three months to build up then gave me moderate relief,” either. I mean, two weeks after I started titrating up this particular medication, I was already feeling better. Within a month I had cut down significantly on separate anti-anxiety medications. Two months in, when my back went out and I found myself lying in bed for the better part of four months (before I could undertake even limited/minimal physical activity), I was stunned at how well I was able to maintain a positive outlook (with obvious, justifiable, and normal bouts of self-pity and sadness).

I felt like myself again – the self I hadn’t seen much of and had been trying to get back since things started going south in my mid-teens. Coupled with regular CBT sessions, the new medication brought me back to a place of emotional equilibrium, of being able to step back from situations and consider things from a more objective viewpoint without flying off the handle or melting into an emotional puddle. I let go of my self-destructive, unhelpful “coping” mechanisms, and didn’t miss them.

And none of it would have happened if I hadn’t taken an active role in figuring out what was going on, and advocating for myself with a doctor who, while (again) extremely competent, would not have had the information she needed to help make an accurate and overlooked diagnosis. Furthermore, a few months in, when I was feeling kind of physically gross, a friend mentioned that the medication I’d started taking could result in depleted amounts of a necessary vitamin, and I went to my Primary Care Physician to request a blood test. It turned out my vitamin levels were low, and I started taking supplements. Probably not life-threatening, at least in the short term, but if I hadn’t sought out that information and brought it to my PCP’s attention, I wouldn’t have known – and after taking the vitamins for a short while, I again felt an improvement in my day-to-day physical activities.

Finally, a third example, from the life of a friend who has recently gone through a heartrending and difficult experience: in the aftermath of her ordeal, she had a gut feeling that something was still wrong, but nothing showed up until she insisted the doctors perform a specific scan. When they did? They uncovered an issue that could have put her life in danger further on down the line.

What I’ve learned from my experiences and those of the above friend and others is this: we are all the best advocate for our own health. We are the ones who, barring actual cases of hypochondria, know when something is wrong. (And even a hypochondriac knows something isn’t right, it’s just that they think it’s something physical instead of mental. The signpost is still present.) It is our responsibility to both communicate with doctors about our concerns in a firm and informed manner, and in a way that helps guide them towards correct diagnoses and effective treatments

This doesn’t mean running off to Google and arriving at the doctor’s office with stacks of printouts from WebMD. It doesn’t mean insisting “I have XXXXXX disease because such-and-such.” It does mean doing some basic research, talking to others, keeping records of our own fluctuating bodies and minds, being aware of our own “normal” and our own “abnormal,” and in some cases, leaving the care of one medical professional for the care of someone who will listen to what we have to say.

In my own experience, I found I received better responses and care when I brought facts to my doctors’ attention rather than pointing them in the direction of a specific diagnosis (or making suggestions of potential sources of discomfort, rather than end-of-line diagnoses), and this makes sense: by presenting my own “diagnosis” as fact, I would narrow the scope of what my doctor might look for. Walking into mental healthcare professional offices and repeating a diagnosis that I’d been given at age 17, for which no treatment had been effectively found, resulted in doctors looking for solutions to that problem. Walking in and saying, “I don’t feel well in X, Y and Z ways, and here is some raw data I’ve collected, what do you think?” resulted in a real dialogue about me and about my health, without (to as large a degree as possible) the baggage of what had turned out to be a years-long incorrect diagnosis.

It’s not always easy to speak up when you feel your doctor may have overlooked something, but if they’re a good doctor, they’ll be glad you did. If they’re not, or if they’re dismissive, or otherwise make you feel as if you’ve done something wrong by advocating for your own treatment? Then you know it’s time to look for a new doctor. Looking back, the doctor who had made the first incorrect diagnosis about my mental health disregarded the most important question I asked her, and while I can hardly blame my 17-year-old self for letting the question go, if I’d known more at that time in my life I would have looked for a second (and third, and fourth, and…) opinion.

If speaking up on your own behalf is not something you feel capable of doing, then bringing along a friend or relative who can advocate for you is another solution to this problem – but it still relies on knowing yourself, knowing your body and mind, and being willing to communicate with another person about your thoughts and feelings in an open and frank manner.

Have you had experiences where advocating for yourself with a medical professional resulted in learning that your gut was right when it came to your diagnosis? If so, and if you’re comfortable sharing, I’d be interested in hearing about it in the comments below.

Four Reasons I’m Obsessed With Apple Cider Vinegar

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Every so often, I’m reminded of just how accessible – and cheap – some really useful products can be. Recently, I’ve seen a lot about Apple Cider Vinegar being more useful than I usually give it credit for. Not only is it great in foods, but it also has several applications as a beauty aid and household cleaner. Here are four reasons I’m currently obsessed with Apple Cider Vinegar.

1. Delicious, Healthy Beverages
Earlier this year, I saw a drink in Whole Foods called “Switchel.” It looked good, but not four-bucks-for-a-bottle good. The other night, I ran across a recipe for it online, tried making some, and HOLY COW. Mixed with seltzer, it’s like amazing sour-sweet ginger ale. Check out this recipe. I’ve been making a small batch every night and bringing it to work with me. It’s a nice wake-up bevvy for when I’m trying not to OD on caffeine!

2. Hair Conditioner
Long ago, my sister hooked me up with some samples of Paul Mitchell shampoo. Loved it. Couldn’t afford to buy it for myself, so started getting the store version at Harmon Face Value in Chelsea (the discount branch of Bed Bath & Beyond, for those who haven’t been). When I moved, I had to stop buying it there – but I found a version in the “Generic” line at Sally’s Beauty Supply. Sadly, the Sally’s version seems to irritate my scalp. I figured this out the other night and, since my back was killing me and I didn’t want to drive an hour round trip to the nearest salon store (I told you I lived in the country now), I started googling basic hair cleansers. Guess what. Apple Cider Vinegar, while not a substitute for shampoo, was listed as a conditioner that stripped out chemicals and helped restore a healthy shine to one’s hair. I tried it out and was impressed with the results, then tried it again a couple days later (with a different shampoo) and was delighted.

3. Toner/Astringent
Even though I’m not an adolescent any more (sob!) there are still times when my skin acts up, and the other night I started to feel one of those awful under-the-skin zits that aches and hurts and is impossible to squeeze or pick out (yes, I’m being a bit graphic, it’s fine). On a whim, I googled Apple Cider Vinegar and zits, and — you guessed it — swabbing a bit on the irritated skin would supposedly help clear up my complexion. I’ve been doing that for three days now, and not only does the underskin zit seem to be subsiding, but the vinegar helped keep the spot from getting irritated and soothed the pain enough that I didn’t have the impulse to pick at it.

4. Bug Traps
Last summer, I had a fruit fly problem. I took to Twitter to ask for suggestions in how to get rid of the little buggers, and was told apple cider vinegar might be the way to go. I followed my friend’s instructions: set out a dish, fill it with ACV, and stretch some plastic over the top, secured with a rubber band to keep it sealed. Then, I took a toothpick and poked holes in the stretched plastic wrap. Leaving the dish out for a week, I noticed the fruit flies would crawl inside – then presumably be unable to get out. The number of fruit flies floating in the dish crept up and up, until finally my fruit fly problem was taken care of. Success!

So there you have it. Whether aiding digestion, making my hair shiny and gorgeous, clearing up skin issues without harsh chemicals or keeping fruit flies out of my kitchen – not to mention all the other uses I saw for it online – Apple Cider Vinegar is my new go-to cure-all.