Solo: A Star Wars Story – Some Thoughts

I’d like to start with the important point, Solo is far and away the best of the Disney Star Wars movie so far. I want to get that out first because I’m afraid of sounding negative in what’s to come. But, basically, the movie was successful as a movie. It entertained me for two hours. It had a coherent story, likable characters, some exciting action and a beginning, a middle and an end. And I suppose I should mention that there are spoilers to follow. Of course, unlike Force Awakens and Last Jedi, Solo isn’t all about the twists and reveals so there’s actually something to enjoy even if you hear a few spoilers.

The movie wasn’t perfect, of course. From a storytelling point of view, it was a bit long and the Enfys Nest twist didn’t really add anything to this story. From a Star Wars point of view, it was a mistake to give Han a love of his life that isn’t Leia and in this story, he should have joined the rebellion at the end, but couldn’t because he doesn’t join the rebellion until A New Hope. These flaws certainly aren’t enough to sink Solo.

The thing that really stood out about this movie, though, was just how competent it was. I know that sounds like faint praise, but it has become rather uncommon. The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and Rogue One were thoroughly incompetent films. Maybe they had lowered my expectations (although my expectations couldn’t have been lower for The Last Jedi and I still hated it), but Solo was much better than I had any right to expect.

One completely irrational thing that took me out of the action a little bit was that Han was too short. I noticed it enough to look it up after seeing the movie and, according to the internet, Harrison Ford is about 6’1″ and Alden Ehrenreich is only about 5’8″. I don’t know why I found the difference so noticeable, but I did.

The music was well done. The score wasn’t nearly as memorable as the original John Williams compositions, but John Powell used the original themes very well. They pushed all the right buttons at the right times.

When I first saw Star Wars in the theater as a kid, Chewbacca was my favorite. I was happy to see him still being awesome.

Donald Glover was cast perfectly as Lando. Unlike Han, it didn’t bother me in the slightest that Glover doesn’t look anything like Billy D. Williams. He had the swagger and the charm and it was everything that I needed.

The Maul reveal at the end didn’t phase me in the least. But, I guess it’s causing quite the stir. It must be because I watched both The Clone Wars and Rebels, so I knew Maul was still out there at this point in the timeline. It did bug me a little bit when they brought him back in Clone Wars, but I got used to it. The only real reaction I had to the scene was acknowledging that they apparently want a sequel to this movie. I think it would be a bad idea to make the sequel about Han Solo again, but if they decided to make it about Qi’ra, I could get behind that.

One of the common complaints I’m hearing about Solo is that it was unnecessary, that it didn’t need to be made. I don’t understand that complaint. Is there any movie that needs to be made? Maybe, in some limited sense, Return of the Jedi needed to be made or a whole lot of people would have been very upset. But, I can’t think of any other movie that needed to be made. The original Star Wars (or A New Hope) didn’t need to be made. Citizen Kane was unnecessary. I’m glad they make movies, write books, perform plays and paint pictures that don’t need to be made.

I don’t exactly know what to think of the droid, L3. I thought she worked in this specific movie. I found her entertaining. But she is completely incompatible with everything I know about droids from all of my Star Wars experience. In all of the Lucas made Star Wars, R2 and 3PO are different from all the other droids due to their connection with Anakin. There’s not even a whiff of droids being an exploited class of sentient beings. They’re just robots that are programmed to do a job. Obi-wan even says something to the effect of, “If droids could think, there’d be none of us here.” I liked R2 and 3PO being special. Chopper, BB-8 and L3 dilute that specialness.

I think that’s all the thoughts I have, at least for now. Solo is actually pretty good. If you’ve been scared off by all the negativity surrounding it, give it a chance.

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Dragon Ball Z is the Greatest Science Fiction Anime* Of All Time

*This essay is strictly about the anime, not the manga. If anyone says, “But in the manga…” I will come to your house and punch you.

As I did a little research for this essay, I searched for science fiction anime recommendations and checked the first five results. There were almost sixty different anime recommended across the lists. The usual suspects were there: Outlaw Star, Ghost in the Shell, Cowbow Bebop, Trigun and the like. There were even some surprising picks, like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Gantz. Yet not a single list included Dragon Ball Z.

According to Google, science fiction is “fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets.”

Let’s see:

1) Capsule Corporation

2) Goku, Vegeta and Piccolo are aliens

3) The first part of the Frieza arc sees our heroes fighting off multiple alien invasions

4) The second part features the heroes traveling in space to another planet and fighting an alien tyrant

5) The Cell Saga kicks off with the time traveling son of one of the main characters warning about killer Androids

How is this not science fiction? Dragon Ball Z is credited with popularizing both shonen anime and anime more generally in the West, but it’s never really discussed as perhaps the most successful science fiction anime.

One of the reasons that DBZ isn’t talked about as a science fiction anime (despite its obvious sci-fi elements and influences) is because of how fluidly Akira Toriyama made the transition across genres. Dragon Ball went from screwball adventure comedy to action comedy to straight up action without really losing a step. There were purists who complained at the time, but they were easily drowned out by the legions of new fans which joined the franchise each time it shifted genres.

By the time Dragon Ball ended, Goku was the strongest warrior on the planet after years of training and practice. The leap to space as the next threat was kind of the only place that the series could go. Fortunately, Toriyama had already sowed the seeds for this transition by giving Goku a tail. It’s common knowledge that Goku is based on Sun Wukong from the Chinese myth Journey to the West and that his tail is derived from Sun Wukong. Toriyama used that element to seamlessly transition Dragon Ball into science fiction by giving Raditz a tail, and making that the defining physical feature of the Saiyan race. When Raditz arrived and told Goku that he was actually an alien,it was shocking, but also made sense- of course Goku is an alien, that’s why he’s so much stronger than everyone. Taking the series into space was the next logical step. Goku was the strongest on Earth. The only challenge left for him was in the reaches of space.

Lest we forget, Namek has some truly sci-fi elements to it. It was a planet with three suns, populated by a race which didn’t eat or have women. With the exception of Krillin and Bulma, the entire cast of characters on Namek was non-human. Sure, they all fit into a similar humanoid form, but that’s no different than what Star Trek and Star Wars have done for decades.

And then there’s the Cell Saga. The idea of sentient machines and artificial humans have been a staple of science fiction forever; Isaac Asimov was writing about the Three Laws of Robotics back in the 1940’s. Robots have been a fertile source of storytelling, and the shift to robots again made perfect sense for the series. After defeating Frieza, Goku had established himself as the most powerful warrior in the universe. The only challenge left for Goku were machines designed to kill him. In Cell’s case, it had to be an android from the future. Again, Toriyama built on a feature from Dragon Ball to make the story work. When Trunks comes back and mentions the Red Ribbon Army, the audience could recall Android #8, an otherwise minor character which established the entire line of android production that culminated with Cell. Throw in some mumbo jumbo about timelines and fatherhood, and you have one of the clearest examples of science fiction in manga.

The Androids premiered in Dragon Ball Z in 1992, just a year after a movie about another time-traveling hero from the future who came back to save humanity premiered. I’m talking about Terminator 2, of course. Terminator 2 has time travel and killer androids and is clearly understood as science fiction despite its popularity. Dragon Ball Z had these same elements, but is never considered science fiction. That’s a testament to Toriyama’s skill. He completely changed the rules of his series so many times, so effortlessly, that many of his readers never noticed, myself included. This essay was originally going to be about the Cell Saga, and as I was writing I thought, “Huh. Cell is an android from the future. Why don’t we talk about that more?” I hope that we can start looking at Dragon Ball Z for this underappreciated element of its legacy.

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So What Happens if Donald Trump Doesn’t Concede in 2020?

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When I learned that Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon after he resigned, I was angry. It seemed like a very clear example of the powerful and politically connected getting off without punishment. The Mueller investigation of President Trump has given me an occasion to think more about that decision, and where we find ourselves politically in 2018.

We take the peaceful transition of power completely for granted now. Power changes between Republicans and Democrats quite frequently, and there’s little, if any, violence. However, when Thomas Jefferson won the Presidency as a member of an opposition political party, people didn’t know if power would be peacefully transferred. It was, and it’s a tradition which presidents of all political parties have followed ever since.

The fact that we don’t prosecute former administrations is one of the reasons that we don’t have violence and politicians voluntarily relinquish power. If you thought that leaving power could potentially end up with you in prison, why would you leave power? Presidential administrations have therefore gotten away with a great deal of bad actions, but the alternative isn’t good either- presidents clinging onto power to avoid prosecution.

Which brings us to the Trump administration. There is a very real possibility that the President, or at least people very close to him, broke some laws. While the Mueller team recently informed Trump’s lawyers that they don’t think they can indict a sitting president (according to Rudy Giuliani, so have that grain of salt handy), that says nothing about what they can do after Trump leaves office. Between now and Trump’s presumptive defeat in 2020 (or not, actually; this scenario still holds if Trump needs to leave because he’s reached his constitutionally mandated term limit), Mueller will issue a report, so that Trump and his team will know EXACTLY how the Feds will be coming for him the moment he leaves office. So the question becomes, if you’re Trump, why would you leave office?

Before we discount that possibility as too wild, let’s not forget that there were serious concerns in 2016 that Trump wouldn’t concede if he lost to Hillary. His refusal to concede then would have been about pure ego. It is not outside the realm of possibility that this man, facing indictment and prison, would refuse to give up power. And we have absolutely no mechanisms for dealing with that.

I now understand why Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. As much as it may have been a favor to Nixon, it was also about preventing the American political process from turning down a potentially dark corner of politically motivated prosecutions, and the inevitable response to cling to power. Barring some similarly despicable yet potentially necessary action from the next president, Trump could be looking at criminal prosecution in his 70’s. It’s dangerous to think that we know how he’ll respond to that when the clock on his immunity starts ticking.

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One Space or Two?

In November of 2017, I got a new job and it led to what felt to me like a major change in my writing. The new job has a one space after a period standard. Up until I took the job, I was a two space after a period kind of guy. Prior to November 2017, all of my posts had two spaces after every period. Since, they only have one. It was a difficult change to make, but I seriously doubt that anybody noticed.

Now a new study, which seems to be the first study done on the topic, says that two spaces after a period is better and people are flipping out. I had no idea the number of spaces after a period mattered so much to people. I used to be a two space guy because that’s the way I was taught to type. It became automatic, hit the period, then hit the space bar twice. I didn’t think about it, it just happened. And I certainly didn’t care about it.

In fact, I never really bothered to question why people used to be taught to use two spaces, but now they are taught to use one. I guess if I had thought about it, I would have guessed that people used two spaces as a way of setting off their sentences from each other. And I would have guessed that the change was about efficiency. With fewer spaces, we can fit a few extra words on each page and hopefully save paper by having a few fewer pages per document. From what I read, I apparently would have been right about the two spaces, but wrong about the one space.

From what I read, the argument for one space has to do with modern fonts. Typewriters had the same width for each character, but modern fonts don’t. On a typewriter, an I and a W take up the same amount of space, but that’s no longer true with new fonts. Each character only takes the space that it needs. So, according to the argument, two spaces are no longer necessary. This honestly makes no sense to me. A period is about as small as a character can get. On a typewriter, it must have had extra space built in, so one would think that the second space would be superfluous since there would already be extra space after a period. With the new fonts, there is no extra space, so the second space seems necessary. But since no one had every really studied it, I guess both arguments were just appeals to tradition and rationalizations anyway.

The new study says that people can read faster with the second space after a period. It’s not a huge difference, but it is measurable. An extra, albeit subtle, signal that one sentence is ending and another beginning is helpful. I think that’s kind of neat. But I still can’t get myself too worked up about it. Two spaces after a period was a surprisingly hard habit to break. It took me a couple of months to get it consistently. Now that I’m comfortable with one space, I’m not going back. That is, unless my boss tells me we are changing our standards at the job. I’m comfortable with whatever.

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Music Collecting – Gospel

I am not religious, but I love Gospel music. It’s funny, I find religion interesting, I just don’t have any religious feeling. The only time I come close to understanding what people get out of religion is when I’m listening to Gospel. I’ve always wanted to attend a black church just to listen to the music. I never do it, though. I’m sure they would be friendly and welcoming. I just feel like I would be misleading them to go without any intention of listening to their message or believing in any of their doctrines. So, I get my Gospel fix through records.

My collection includes forty-three pieces. I feel like I’ve missed some, but forty-three is what I found. There’s not a bad one in the group. That has to be some combination of luck and conservatism in my choices. Luck is just because in most types of music, I run into established classics that I don’t like. That hasn’t happened with Gospel. Conservatism just comes down to the way I select my Gospel recordings. I always have a reason for my purchases. I’ve never picked a random title because I liked the cover or anything like that. It’s also the only part of my collection where I don’t have any freebies.

My Gospel collection can really be split in two. I have a group of classics and a group of Sacred Steel. The classics are things like Mahalia Jackson, Rosetta Tharpe, the Soul Stirrers and the Dixie Hummingbirds. I really don’t see how a human being with functional ears can not like these. They are that good.

Sacred Steel is almost as good as the classics. It’s something that Arhoolie Records started putting out in the late nineties. I read a review back then, I think in a blues magazine, of this new Gospel music. It came from a few churches that couldn’t afford organs or pianos for their music. So, they bought steel guitars instead. I like steel guitars, so I gave it a shot and fell in love with it. In a lot of ways, it is like traditional Gospel music. But the steel guitars don’t just act as accompaniment. They are lead voices, too, and often just as gritty and ecstatic as the singers. Robert Randolph is the most famous musician to come out of the Sacred Steel tradition. If you don’t know it, it is absolutely worth your time.

Gospel certainly isn’t one of the biggest parts of my collection, but I had a lot of fun going through it. It seems that most of the Gospel artists could have made it in more popular genres from Blues to R&B to Rock & Pop. They stayed in Gospel because, for them, it’s a calling. As a result, there’s just so much passion in the music. It’s truly wonderful.

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Some Way Too Early Thoughts About Star Wars – Resistance

Disney and Lucasfilm just announced a new animated series set to debut in the fall called Star Wars Resistance. It is set just a little before The Force Awakens and will follow a pilot named Kazuda Xiono working for the Resistance against the First Order. Apparently it will also feature characters from the movies like Poe Dameron, BB-8 and Captain Phasma. It’s being made by Dave Filoni and other veterans of The Clone Wars and Rebels.

I’m trying hard to reserve judgement until I actually see the show, but it’s tough. On the one hand, I loved Clone Wars and really liked Rebels, so Dave Filoni has built up a lot of good will with me. On the other hand, I’m highly skeptical that anything good can be made in the giant trash compactor that is the J.J. Abrams version of Star Wars.

On the good side, Dave Filoni has demonstrated an ability to plot stories and develop characters. Both of those things were missing from The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, so there’s reason for optimism that Resistance can correct some of those flaws. It should be visually interesting. Both of Filoni’s previous shows have delivered in that area. This is supposed to be in an anime-inspired style. I’m looking forward to seeing the dog fights. And, perhaps most importantly, there is no coherent way to put Luke Skywalker or Han Solo into this show. The Disney movies have so thoroughly messed them up that we’re all better off without them.

I’m nervous that the bad side is stronger in this case. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any coherent way to keep Leia out of this show. Granted, the new movies didn’t treat Leia as badly as Han and Luke, but that’s mostly because she was almost completely sidelined. If you actually think about what happens in the films, there’s no way for her to look good. The choice of already established characters to feature in this show is unfortunate. Neither Poe, BB-8 nor Phasma are even a little bit interesting. Poe and Phasma are straight up incompetent and kind of annoying. Maybe the show can retrofit them somehow, but if it needs to stay consistent with the movies, that’s going to be tough.

But the worst thing, the thing that makes me most nervous of all, is the setting. The new movies have been lousy for lots of reasons. (I don’t have time to go into all of them here. Maybe after Episode IX (If Episode IX is as bad) I’ll write a book-length post about everything wrong with the movies.) But as a lifelong Star Wars fan, the most unforgivable problem is making these movies a continuation of the events of Return of the Jedi. It doesn’t make any sense at all to even have a First Order and a Resistance. If we try really hard to make it make sense, the only way is to assume that everyone we cared about in Jedi is unimaginably, colossally stupid. And I mean everyone from Han, Luke and Leia to Lando (whatever happened to Lando?) to Admiral Akbar and Mon Mothma to Wedge, R2-D2 and C-3PO and probably even Yoda and Obi-Wan (Luke would have asked for their advice, right?). They made the Allies peace after World War I look wildly successful. They apparently didn’t even suspend the Storm Trooper program or decommission any of the Empire’s war machine. This new show is going to be about the Resistance fighting the First Order, two things that don’t make sense. How can the show be expected to make sense? I hate the idea of a show where we need to ignore the basic premise to make it work.

That being said, I’m sure I’ll at least watch the first few episodes of Resistance. I owe Dave Filoni at least that much. I just have very little confidence that I’ll make it beyond that.

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Stop The Normality

President Trump and French President Macron had a meeting and a joint press conference followed by this presidency’s first state dinner. That is such a normal thing that it’s barely worth a comment. Two heads of state get together, discuss things, tell the press about it and have a fancy party. It happens all the time, all over the world. But it bothers me that Macron participated. Every time a world leader meets with Trump, it helps to normalize his presidency.

I shouldn’t single out Macron. Others, like Japan’s Abe and Canada’s Trudeau, have met with Trump. Those meetings bothered me, too. But this being an official state visit just feels bigger. By being invited, Macron was given an opportunity to make a statement. Trump has pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, tried to take basic health care away from millions of Americans, tried to ban refugees and law abiding people from entering the country, has given every indication that he wants to end the Iran Nuclear Deal, praised dictators and antagonized the whole Arab world by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. That’s just scratching the surface, but you get the idea. Macron’s statement by accepting was, that’s all normal.

The fact of the matter is that nothing about Trump’s presidency is normal, or good. I understand that the United States is deeply entangled in international politics. We have the world’s biggest military and economy. It would be impossible to ignore us or give us the silent treatment. But that doesn’t mean other countries need to treat this administration normally. The rest of the world should be showing their disapproval wherever possible, and that includes dinners and photo ops. As I said, nothing about Trump is normal and everyone needs to stop acting like it is.

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Music Genres

I’ve always had a bit of a problem separating things like music by genres. In a recent piece I wrote, I made the statement, “I tend to think of all worthwhile American music as being a type of blues.”* I knew when I typed it that the statement would bother some people. People have a way of strongly identifying with the art that they enjoy. Saying that I’m a Blues** fan, you’re a Country fan, and she’s a Hip-hop fan isn’t just describing what type of music we enjoy. It’s making a statement about who we are as people and that bugs me.

When I was young, I never even thought about genres. Growing up, I regularly heard my dad’s music, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Stones, etc., and my mom’s music, Simon & Garfunkle, The Beatles, Show tunes, Itzhak Perlman, etc. I heard Def Leppard and Run DMC from my older brother. And I heard Michael Jackson, Van Halen and Madonna on the radio. When I started playing an instrument, my parents got me Horn music like Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. And with all of that, it never occurred to me that any of it was separable. It was all just music. I knew that Strauss’ horn concerti sounded different than Herman’s Hermits Greatest Hits, but not in any classifiable way. They were just different songs.

I’ve never managed to get over the feeling that music is just one big, inseparable thing. Unfortunately, I’ve had to learn to talk about genres in order to have conversations with other people. It started with Classical (Not that Classical is a good descriptor at all, but it is the most common word for everything from Bach to Ligeti). As I played and studied it, I was forced to wall it off into its own thing. Of course, there is no one sound or structure that all Classical music has in common. Nor is there anything that is exclusive to Classical music. Classical just became music that I might play on my horn.

Jazz was the next separate genre for me, and it was kind of the opposite of Classical. I was in pretty much every ensemble I could be in as a student, but they wouldn’t let me in the Jazz band. Apparently, the horn isn’t a Jazz instrument (I’m glad no one ever told Julius Watkins or Tom Varner that). So, Jazz became the music that I don’t play on my horn. I know that seems like an odd way of defining a genre. Most people would probably say that Jazz is music that is improvisational and swings. Except when it doesn’t swing or isn’t improvised. All I know is I resisted Jazz for the longest time because they wouldn’t let me play it, which is sad because I love it now. Whatever it is.

Things stayed this way for a long time. There were essentially three genres: stuff I played, stuff I didn’t play and everything else. It wasn’t until I started working in a record store that I had to learn everything else. If a customer wanted something, I had to know which section of the store to look in. I learned that Blues meant the artists that were shelved over near the office. And Gospel/Religious meant the artists next to that, then Country next to that. Pop/rock was on the back wall, R&B was near Rap/Hip-Hop and Reggae/World Music. Then we round that out with Jazz, Classical, Folk, New Age and Easy Listening.

I learned it for the job, but I never found the labels at all satisfactory. There’s the blatant racism in keeping all of the black artists separate from the white artists. But aside from that, genre labels just don’t give worthwhile information. If I tell you that Bessie Smith and Buddy Guy are both blues artists and Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Smith are both jazz artists, I’d be correct. But that’s hugely misleading because Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong sound a lot more alike than Bessie Smith and Buddy Guy, and Jimmy Smith and Buddy Guy sound a lot more alike than Jimmy Smith and Louis Armstrong. If the genres won’t tell me what the music actually sounds like, what’s the point?

As far as I can tell, the point, as I hinted at in the beginning, is to allow people to separate themselves based on their preferred music genres. Genres seem to create little musical bubbles that people can stay in. It’s like the social media echo chamber except it predates social media and it makes me uncomfortable. It’s very claustrophobic. When I listen to music, I want to stretch my ears. I can’t do that in a bubble, no matter how big that bubble is.

So, even though I’ve had to learn all the genre labels for various reasons, I still don’t really hear them. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two types of music, good music and boring music. Any other labels just get in the way of my enjoyment.



*I know that I’m currently cataloging my record collection and splitting things by genre. The site I am using forces me to use genre labels, it won’t allow an entry without one, so it’s just the easiest way to do it. I may not like it, but sometimes I have to go with other people’s structures.

**Blues is a bit confusing because the word can be used as a genre label, which is what I’m talking about here, but it can also refer to a musical form. That form can be found across genres, from Classical to Jazz to Folk to Country and pretty much any other genre you can think of.

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Some Thoughts on Art

“My sister is always talking about God and heaven and how Jesus has a mansion waiting for us after we die, so I asked her: if heaven is so great, what’s the point of living here on earth?” she said.

“Let’s just cut to the chase,” I responded. “What’s the point of living, period?”

That’s just one version of this conversation, which I’ve had with surprising frequency over the last few weeks. It goes beyond a sense of ennui and restlessness, even beyond the typical navel-gazing of existentialism. “What is the point of this?” is the euphemism we use because the alternative is too difficult to say out loud: What is all of this pain for?

Acting wasn’t on my bucket list, and yet a confluence of opportunity and availability has given me the chance to play Frederick Douglass on stage (you can learn more about it here). I’ve only been doing it for a couple of months, but I’ve already learned that acting is not about pretending to have an emotion; acting is the ability to summon the real emotion at will, and to speak and perform through that emotion by connecting feeling, language and movement. I have most of the language down (as it turns out, learning lines isn’t that hard), and I’m understanding the movement better. The emotions though, that’s where I keep running into problems.

I was discussing this with my director during rehearsal. He was the one who told me that acting is having the emotion. As he was talking, I closed my eyes and began breathing deeply. I imagined myself breathing in his words, trying to take in the message like oxygen, making them critical to my life. I listened, and I started to understand what he was saying. Connecting the language and the movement to the feeling, that was the key. I had to find my feelings.

The only time I feel most emotions is when I’m high. I used to think that smoking weed heightened my experiences. I was smoking with my ex once, and we’d bought a bunch of candy to eat. She started eating before I’d filled the pipe. “Why are you eating it now? Don’t you want to wait until after we smoke so that it tastes better?” I asked. “It tastes the same to me either way,” she said. I thought that everyone’s experience was the same as mine- that jokes were funnier, food tasted better, sex was more enjoyable after smoking.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that weed wasn’t making things better for me. It was allowing me to connect with a range of emotions that were locked away behind a concrete wall for most of my life. Things felt and tasted better because I could fully experience the sensation of enjoying them. This worked in the opposite direction too- if I smoked when I was anxious, it didn’t suddenly cheer me up. Instead, I became much more anxious as my inebriation tore down the wall around my feelings.

I haven’t been able to access my feelings without being high, until I was listening to my director talk to me. I was able to finally touch the feelings that had so much protection around them. I burst into tears because all I found was sadness. A deep, endless sadness, built up over thirty years but hidden away from even myself. The kind of sadness that recoils from the touch, but desperately wants to be touched all the same, and lashes out and yearns in random, alternating moments. It felt impenetrable, and sobbing uncontrollably did nothing to lessen it.

“How am I supposed to act,” I asked, “If the only thing I feel when I find my emotions is sadness?”

Many years ago, a therapist taught me that anger is a secondary emotion, a response to an event which causes a primary emotion, usually something like pain, loss or sadness. Anger is almost a defensive measure in that sense, transforming the coldness and lethargy of hurt into the heat and kineticism of rage. Anger has been my defense mechanism of choice for most of my life. It was too difficult to deal with the sadness; lock it up, throw away the key, and post anger as the guard to the door. Weed took out the guards, and cracked the door open, and every once in a while, something other than sadness would sneak out into the rest of me.

Now, I’ve discovered that art does that for me as well. I listen to music so often and so loudly that I’ve damaged my hearing, but that’s a small price to pay to be able to engage with my emotions when I’m listening to a song. I discovered about two years ago that singing makes me feel better when I’m angry. Learning how to act has been an experience in learning how to climb over the wall I’ve built, and it has begun to affect how I interact with art in other ways too. I cried last night while working on a story. I cried this morning while reading the introduction to a collection of short stories.

There was nothing sad about the story I was writing or the book I was reading. Art has given me a way to access parts of myself, and that means moving through a great deal of sadness. I’m okay with that; I’d rather be on the verge of tears while watching television than trying to contain my own wrath. Yet there’s still something beyond the sadness, and that’s the hurt. And beyond the hurt are all of those positive emotions that I want to be able to feel. Before I can do that though, I have to ask the questions which I’ve heard from others too: Why have I been hurt? What did I do to deserve this hurt? How do I stop hurting? And what is all this hurt for?

Back in high school, I wrote in my notebook, “What is the meaning of life?” One of my friends saw it and wrote back, “Life has no meaning, idiot. It’s up to you to give it meaning.” That goes for the hurt we experience as well. There’s no point to it, or lesson or grace in pain for its own sake. People hurt each other, and an indifferent universe hurts us too. These things just simply happen. We can connect that hurt to an experience though, and make that experience into something beautiful- words on a page, or music in the air, or movement on a stage. Art is our conversation with ourselves and each other, our connection to the depths of our own experience and the breadth of human existence. You don’t need pain to create art (that “tortured artist” trope is ridiculous), but art comes from our attempt to make sense of the pain. Art doesn’t provide a point to the hurt, or to living in general. But maybe it provides us with something better than an explanation: a lovely way to deal with the hurt.

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The Wall

My name is Jam Stunna.

I was born Jamil Rashad Ragland on October 21st, 1985. Names are a funny thing, because they determine so much of who you are and how the world relates to you, yet you have almost no say in picking your name. Your parents say, “You’re a Jamil,” so I’m a Jamil. I went by that name exclusively, until 2003. I was playing a game with my brother, and after performing a particularly impressive move, he said, “Damn, Jam Stunna!” As soon as I heard it, I said, yes. That’s my name. It’s the name I use in every videogame I play competitively. I had the chance to choose who I would be known as to my opponents.

Why videogames though? Why not chess or bowling? I have no idea. My love for videogames began before I can remember. My parents told me the story of renting a Nintendo Entertainment System from Blockbuster (yes, I’m now old enough to be able to tell stories about practices and places which no longer exist), and spending hours playing Super Mario Bros.  When they came to a level that they couldn’t beat, they handed me the controller. I was two years old.

Videogames have always been a part of my life. For Christmas in 1991, all I wanted was a Super Nintendo. My brothers and I knew that the big box wrapped in gold paper was it. Our mother compromised with us: we could open one present at midnight. The golden box was chosen, and we stayed up until 4:00 AM playing Super Mario World.

That Super Nintendo was also the site of one of my most crushing defeats. We eventually got a little game for it called Street Fighter II. Until then, the only chance I had to play it was in a barber shop near Kent Street in Hartford. My father would take my brothers and I with him when he went to visit his friends, and we would run to the barber shop, quarters in hand, to play Street Fighter II on the lone arcade cabinet in the shop. The adults beat us without mercy- losing meant that you went to the back of the line, so no quarter was offered. I couldn’t get enough of it. When I finally got my hands on the cartridge for my Super Nintendo, I practiced obsessively. I played the arcade mode over and over again, trying to beat the game as fast as I could on the hardest difficulty. I sparred with my brothers and friends, and became the best Street Fighter player in my neighborhood. No one could touch me.

And then my uncle from Georgia showed up.

Eric was the cool uncle. He was in his twenties, tall and thin like a blade of grass. I thought his accent was funny, and it made his jokes even funnier. He’d come to visit for a couple of weeks, and one afternoon I introduced him to Street Fighter. He’d never played the game before, so I was ready to show him all sorts of neat tricks I’d learned after hours of playing.

He beat me without me even laying a finger on him.

As the announcer called out “Perfect!“, I was dumbfounded. How could this happen? I was the best! Not only had I been defeated, I’d been embarrassed. Double-perfected by a man who had never played the game before. I swore that such an affront would never happen again. I played and played and played, but my rematch against my uncle never came. He’d wisely taken his W and retired from Street Fighter with a 100% winning average.

I learned that day that there’s always someone better, but I would be reminded of that lesson again just over a decade later. I’d shifted my competitive focus away from Street Fighter and towards Super Smash Bros. instead. I was even more relentless in my practice for that game. I went online to message boards to read about advanced strategies, watched match footage, organized round robin tournaments in my college dorm, and played almost nonstop. When I arrived at my first tournament for Super Smash Bros. Melee, I was ready. I knew I was going to win.

And then I ran into Cort.

He was the best player in Connecticut, and one of the best players in the country. He proceeded to four-stock me, the functional equivalent to the whooping my uncle had given me in Street Fighter.

I’ve only won one tournament in all my years of competitive gaming. I’ve never beaten anyone of note. I’ve never traveled farther than NYC for a tournament. I’ve never made it out of pools at a major event. I’m what they call a “pot monster,” someone who shows up to a tournament with no realistic chance of winning, who is basically just contributing their entry fees to the haul of the eventual winner.

But that doesn’t matter. Of course winning is important, but the challenge, the opportunity to learn, is more important. Yesterday I couldn’t do this combo, but today I can. Yesterday, I didn’t understand frame data, but today I do, Yesterday, I didn’t know what 236H meant, but today I do. Every day I can improve, and that improvement translates into wins. When I lose, I can clearly see why. My opponent was better than me. They executed better than I did. They understood the matchup better. They had a better game plan. I can go home and work on that, and do better tomorrow.

When I ran into Cort at that Smash Bros. tournament, he was like a wall. I’m proud to say that when the challenge presented itself, I chose to try to scale that wall. I lost, but I went home and practiced, and improved. So much of everyday life feels mired in mundane inanity, and maybe videogames belong in that category too, but I don’t feel like they do. I can’t be the best registrar, or the best journalist, or the best legal assistant. I can be the best Smash Bros. player, or Dragon Ball FighterZ player, or Street Fighter player. That doesn’t mean I will be, but when I run into that next wall, I will have the choice to run away and give up, or try my best to scale it.

And I won’t do it alone. This journey has introduced me to the best people I’ve ever met. DarkDragoon, Trademark, _V_, AxelSlam, Cort, milktea, thumbswayup, JV Smooth, AOG, Flaco, Handsome313, Marjeezy, Brookman, LessThanThree, AwsmSean, Silas, Mr.GaryPhil, Prince of Fire, Manny, OtakuChin, Vyers, Minato, L-W-X- those words sound like random nonsense to many people. But to me, those are the names of my friends. Those are the people who have known me the longest. They’ve watched my son grow, from swinging in a bassinet while we practiced wavedashing and link combos to watching him win his own matches in tournaments now. We’re spread around the country, and even the world now, and we’re still united by the love of the game which grew into our love for each other.

They’re the people who know my real name.


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