Monday, February 8, 2016

6 More of My Favorite Episodes of Improvised Star Trek

If you are long time reader of this blog, you know I am a member of the Improvised Star Trek Podcast.

If you've known me for longer than 15 minutes, I have probably asked you at some point to give said podcast a listen. Maybe you're not into Star Trek, so you don't think the show is for you. That's cool. Trust me when I tell you: this is a show that is great for Star Trek likers, but also for non-likers. It's essentially an office comedy on a spaceship. Theoretically, if you like laughing at some of Chicago's best improvisors, you will like this show- no previous Star Trek experience required.

Now I also understand that at 130 episodes, there is a lot to listen to. Like, a whole, whole lot. It's hard to know just where to get started with an older podcast that has a whole backlog of episodes.

Fortunately, about two years ago, I created this list of my ten favorite episodes of the show.

It's been two years, so I figured it was time to update that blog entry. So, as an addendum to that list which ends at episode 82, here are 6 more of my favorite episodes from episode 83 to the present.

Episode 87: Hamnesia There's a lot of great stuff happening in this episode. This is the debut of Eli Mandel's character Rip Stipley, a notorious Maquis terrorist who eventually becomes part of the regular crew. Rip has a scheme to take over the Sisyphus using hams which is ridiculous and hilarious. The episode also includes one of our best scenes ever in which we parody the famous "Four Lights" scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Episode 95: Operation Brunch This episode is a huge change of pace. It has a small cast, (with special guest Brendan Stallings) occurs on a brunch planet instead of the Sisyphus, and is essentially one long scene instead of a series of smaller scenes. Very different and very fun.

Episode 109: Who Washes the Window Washers One of my favorite things we do from time to time on IST is peer through the holes in Utopian science fiction. Case in point: in this episode, the crew encounters an alien species that seemingly only washes windows. By the end, everyone re-examines their notions of the Federation's economy and what constitutes fair compensation in a post-scarcity dystopia.

Episode 110: Planet Cat I really love that "Window Washers" and "Planet Cat" aired back to back. While washers is probably one of our smarter episodes, "Cat" is one of our sillier episodes. In Planet Cat, new crewmember Ensign Spot (played by Julia Weiss) has to return to her planet to deal with a cruel dictator bent on ruling the universe. This episode is essentially just a series of escalating cat jokes, and it's the best. Find out why Ensign Spot was the breakout IST character of the year.

Episode 121: Nick O'Time Temporal Adventurer Speaking of common scifi tropes: the "time traveler who is not what he seems" is a big one. Eli Mandel plays Nick O'Time and Julia Weiss plays his trusty dog Rusty. This is a shorter episode, but Nick O'Time is one of the best characters to ever appear on the show.

Episode 128: Yesterday Would Have Been a Good Day to Have Died Here's a relatively new one. In "Yesterday," we discover that for once, the crew of the Sisyphus won: they saved the Federation. The only catch is they can't tell anybody about it. The episode is mainly about how the crew adjusts to returning to life as a bunch of losers after a triumph they can't talk about.

There you go. 6 episodes that all make great entry points to Improvised Star Trek, all from the last 2 years. Give a listen, and if you like them, maybe try out some of the other 124 episodes!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Best Books of 2015... That I Read

I set a goal to read 36 books this year, which is 12 more than I read last year. I have read 35 of them, but I figured I'd get a head start on end of year type things and also maybe help you out with your holiday shopping.

Here are my 5 favorite books of 2015. Not all of these books came out this year, but this is the year in which I read them:

Uprooted by Naomi Naovik

When you do these year-end list things, you're supposed to save the best thing for last. Well screw that! The best thing I read this year was "Uprooted" by Naomi Naovik.

"Uprooted" is a thrilling adventure story, contains elements of romance (though that romance is not what defines the endlessly compelling protagonist, Agnieszka), creates an incredible fantasy version of Poland (for all the world-building types out there), tells a tale of friendship, shows the horrors of war... I could go on and on about everything that makes this book successful.

Oh, and there's an evil malevolent forest. 

Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull

Did you think I only read epic fantasy? YOU'RE WRONG! Sometimes I read businessy books and sometimes I read businessy books that aren't terrible. "Creativity, Inc.," written by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, is all about running a creative business. Catmull goes through the highs and lows of Pixar and how the things they've learned can apply to running any creative enterprise.

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin

I don't only read epic fantasy, but I do read a ton of epic fantasy. "The Fifth Season" is another must-read epic fantasy from NK Jemisin who has, over the years, been cranking out great fantasy novel after great fantasy novel. Imagine a fantasy world that is routinely destroyed by natural disasters, has crazy earth wizards, and giant obelisk things floating in the sky. Then, throw in some cool narrative tricks for good measure. That's "The Fifth Season."

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

"Welcome to Night Vale" is already one of the best podcasts out there, and now it's one of the best books too. For Night Vale neophytes, WtNV is a story of a small desert town where every conspiracy theory you've ever heard is occurring at the same time. The podcast is framed as a local radio show. With this book, Fink and Cranor are able to explore the world outside of their radio show, and in fact, outside of the town of Night Vale. Their use of language is particularly neat.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Here's the one that will be on everyone's "best of 2015" list. And it should be. Coates writes a book that is personal, a story of his life, and also a story about America and race. Every good thing you have heard about this book is true and you should read it.

And BONUS! One book I thought was kind of lousy.

The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan

A book about knights riding dinosaurs should be fun and amazing. It's not. It's boring, tedious, and often sexist. Skip it.

There you go! Five books to get for everyone on your Christmas list. I know it's only December 1st, and I promise if I read a better book than these five between now and 12/31, I will let you all know.

Monday, November 16, 2015

That One Time My Anxiety Gave Me Superpowers

This is a story with two important characters.

The first character is my anxiety. Now, everyone has at least a little anxiety. A little anxiety is healthy. A little anxiety is what makes you prepare adequately for a job interview. A little anxiety keeps you from going too fast when you are driving down the highway. A little anxiety keeps you from punching a stranger when they’re leaning against a hand-pole on the El. I don’t have a little anxiety. I have a lot of anxiety. My anxiety makes me show up to work an hour early because what if the bus I take the work catches fire and I have to walk a couple of miles? I wouldn’t want to be late and I definitely read a story about a bus that caught on fire one time three years ago. My anxiety means that when I was 17 and first got my driver’s license, I drove in the slowest lane on the highway and never went over the speed limit… unless my anxiety made me think I was running late for something. My anxiety makes me panic when I hear a phone ring. My anxiety makes me avoid people I know on the street instead of saying hello. My anxiety has me convinced that after the Presidential election next year, the U.S. is going to turn into a Handsmaid’s Tale style dystopia. My anxiety makes me constantly imagine worst case scenarios.

Generally speaking, I have a lot of anxiety and it’s usually not a good thing.

The other character in this story is my wife Chelsea. Chelsea, if you haven’t met her, is a badass. Chelsea is kind, wickedly intelligent, and figuratively and literally strong. She will feed you, house you, and lend you her ear when you are in need, and then go to the gym and deadlift 250 pounds. Chelsea is also a huge nerd who loves Harry Potter so much that she cried when we went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter earlier this year. Chelsea is a badass. A nerdy, nerdy badass. She’s also pregnant with our child who for the time being we are calling “Stormageddon, the dark lady of all.”

So about two weeks ago, Chelsea and I were getting ready for work in the morning the same as we do every morning. I had taken a shower,  gotten dressed, and started to make coffee and breakfast. Chelsea was in the bathroom getting ready to shower. From the bathroom, she said “Sean, I think I have a bloody nose.” This is not a regular part of our morning routine. I opened the door to the bathroom thinking I’d see my wife with a little trickle of blood on her face. Instead, Chelsea was covered in her own blood. It was actually starting to pool on the bathroom floor.

I’m pretty sure this is the sort of thing that would worry anyone, but as a person whose life is ruled by anxiety, I have to tell you, my first thought was “My baby is dead.” Fortunately, I ignored this thought, checked with Chelsea and said “are you okay.” She replied “I don’t know.” I went to turn off the stove, and came back to find her crumpled up on the floor, unconscious.

This was when my anxiety really kicked in. However, this is also when my anxiety gave me superpowers. It was like a switch went off in my head. I spend every waking moment of my life imagining worst case scenarios, and for once, a worst case scenario had happened and I was very, very prepared.

I called 9-1-1. I described what had happened and they sent an ambulance to my apartment. While we waited, I managed to get Chelsea into the shower (she had regained consciousness but was still very woozy) and washed the blood off. We put her in some pajamas, and then got her on the couch. The EMTs arrived and checked her out. She was still very out of it. They told us we should get her to an emergency room ASAP. They brought her down to the ambulance and set her up. While they attached bags of fluid and whatnot, I emailed my boss and her boss to let them know what was going on. Or most of what was going on, anyway, since we didn’t even really know what was going on. I got in the ambulance and we went to the ER.

When we got there, the doctors, nurses, and residents gave Chelsea cold packs for her face. It turned out she had passed out twice and landed on her face both times, smashing her nose and her mouth. This was a weird relief because it meant she hadn’t landed on the baby. They determined she was dehydrated, this is what had made her pass out, so they hooked up some IV bags and started pumping her full of fluid. We waited as they did EKGs and blood tests and whatnot. They did an ultrasound.

Stormageddon was fine (she even started kicking a little). Chelsea was fine too. After 4 hours in the ER, we were discharged. We stopped at Jewel to get gatorade and headed home. Chelsea set up on the couch while I washed the now dried blood off of the bathroom floor. I went to work.

I walked into the office and my boss said “What the hell are you doing here.” It was at about this moment that that anxious part of my brain turned off just a little and I thought “what am I doing here?” I’d been running in worst case scenario mode all day. Somehow, I’d felt a need to get to work because if I didn’t wouldn’t they fire me?

I went home and spent the rest of the day with Chelsea.

The thing I want to emphasize here is that anxiety sucks all of the time but it isn’t all bad. I’m a writer and being overly analytical makes me really good at that. It makes me good at comedy too, which is my other big passion. It also turns out that it makes me exactly the guy you want around when a worst case scenario actually happens. When you pass out and smash your face on the ground, I’m the guy with the super power you need.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"The Moment" or "Being Young and on Fire"

Over the weekend, Chelsea and I headed to NerdCon: Stories. NerdCon was (and will continue to be) a convention for Storytellers. It was organized by Hank and John Green, the Vlogbrothers who are famous for... vlogging (also about a million other things including writing best-selling YA novels and running massive annual charity events and writing Harry Potter-themed punk rock songs) and Patrick Rothfuss who wrote "The Name of the Wind" which is one of the biggest and biggest-selling fantasy novels ever. I went to NerdCon because the guest list was loaded with people whose work I admire from best-selling authors to vloggers to comedic musicians to podcasters. I thought I might have fun (I did) and I thought I might learn some things to make my own work (writing, podcasting, performing, humaning) better (I did.)

So the big closing event for NerdCon was a performance of "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" by some of New York's  Neo-Futurists (they started in Chicago and there's a group San Francisco too), all of whom have also been involved in various ways with the podcast "Welcome to Night Vale." If you've never seen TMLMtBGB, it's a 60 minute performance in which the actors attempt to perform 30 small plays. The energy of the show is frenetic, the pieces are often raw, and emotional, or absurdist, and funny or... about a hundred different other things depending on when you see it. It's a great show, and if you get the chance, you should check it out.

This is a show that's normally performed in small to medium theaters to relatively intimate audiences. At NerdCon, I'd say there were probably around 1500-2000 people in the crowd. And that crowd loved the show. Like, full on, standing-ovation loved the show. My guess from looking around is that a huge chunk of the audience were teens and twenty-somethings involved in the arts, and that for a lot of them, this was "the moment."

Here's how the moment works. You're a youngish person and you have a vague notion that you want to do something artsy with your life. Maybe you'll get an English degree and become a teacher who does poetry jams on the weekend. Maybe you'll get a communications degree and become a copywriter who also does small community productions of Shakespeare. You know you want some art in your life but you don't know exactly what.

The moment is when you see something that crystallizes in your mind exactly what it is you want to do with your life. You see something that inspires you so much, that seems so amazing, that you think you're seeing a real life magic trick. Days after you see it, you can't stop thinking about it, and eventually, you become SO obsessed with that magic trick that you just HAVE to learn how to do it yourself. You drop all of your other possibly practical plans and you set yourself along the path to become a magician.

What I'm saying is, I think a lot of those kids are going to move to New York or Chicago to try to learn to do what the Neo-Futurists did in Minneapolis last Saturday night.

It was sort of neat to be a now 33 year old in that auditorium watching these teens and twenty somethings having their moment and remembering my own (seeing Carl and the Passions do an incredible Harold at the old ImprovOlympic back in 2003) and remembering what that felt like. It's exhilarating. It feels like your mind is on fire in the best way possible. If I could bottle that feeling and sell it, I'd be a billionaire.

It's also weird to sort of juxtapose that feeling with how I feel now watching a show like that. Because I did have my "moment" and I did walk down that path to become a performer. When I see a really, really good show now, I enjoy it in a different way. I get how the magic trick works now, so my feeling is less one of wonder and more one of enjoying good craftsmanship. Oh, look how they did that. That's smart. I wouldn't have thought to do that. That's good. I would do this slightly differently. I know a guy who does that exact thing. I've never seen someone do x so well!, etc. etc.Young artists are inspired by great work. Older artists deconstruct it in their heads. They are two different, but equally good ways to enjoy a thing.

There are times when I miss being that young, and having that feeling. I sort of have to remind myself that in addition to those feelings of clarity and purpose I was also depressed and anxious all of the time. I have to remember that my life now is so, so much better than it was then. It's more stable. I'm more capable. I'm happier.

But every once in awhile, when I can see someone having that moment? God, I miss it like crazy.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Words as Weapons

The other day, I got into an argument with some people on a comments thread.

Which... my bad. I ignored the golden rule of the internet.

"Don't read the comments." -Golden Rule of the Internet

The problem is I sort of can't stop thinking about this argument because it was about words.

See, I'm sort of obsessed with words. I have to be. I'm a writer, and a reader, and an actor, and a podcaster, and all of those things involve words.

If you read a lot of fantasy novels (and you should read a lot of fantasy novels), magic systems frequently involve words. "Harry Potter" for instance has magic words like "expecto patronum" or "wingardium leviosa" (which makes this former student of Latin's heart flutter a bit). Ursula LeGuin's "Wizard of Earthsea" has a magic system that works by knowing something or someone's true name. The idea is that everything has a secret name and knowing that name gives you power over that thing.

To me, both of those are pretty cool. We use words to define reality. Naming something, having a word for something, allows us to communicate with each other about that thing and understand said thing better. So it makes sense to apply that principle to magic too. 

Back to words. We have words for lots of things. We have nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, gerunds, prepositions. We have words for colors, animals, plants, buildings, planets, and people.

We use words to describe and define people. You have a name which defines you as an individual. You also have other words that describe groups you belong to like male, female, black, white, Irish, Polynesian, actor, lawyer, etc.

This is where words can get tricky. The words we have for people are very powerful because they form the basis of their identities- how we think of ourselves. I am a white, straight, cisgendered male from Massachusetts who lives in Chicago. I am a writer and a husband and a soon-to-be father. I am strong, smart, creative, kind, and funny.

I use all of those words to give my life structure and myself power. That's what these words are for. This is sort of the... light side of the force when it comes to words. 

However, there's a dark side of the force when it comes to words too. Words can be weaponized. They can be used to insult individuals, to harm them. They can be used to support and enforce institutional oppression. They can be used to stifle dissent.

This is why I got into an internet fight. I was writing about Frank Miller's "All-Star Batman," and I referred to an infamous scene from that comic that I found (and find) objectionable. In talking about said scene I used the term "the r-word" instead of using the word itself. 

It was like I lit the beacons of Minas Tirith and internet trolls answered.

"Ugh, I hate censorship."
"Just say the word."
"It's not offensive if you don't mean it to be. It's the intention that matters."
"Everyone is too sensitive these days! You can't say anything without offending people." 

Most of these comments are pretty dumb. Like, Censorship Guy was clearly of the school of thought that me saying "I don't like it when people use that word" qualifies as censorship as compared to like, actual censorship when books get burned and people get thrown into prison for expressing their opinions. For that guy, censorship is anytime a person uses their own free speech to criticize him or people he likes.

Everyone is Too Sensitive Guy is probably someone who's never been made to feel subhuman over time by a thousand societal slights large and small. That word is offensive. It's meant to offend. That is what the word is for- offending. Sorry, Everyone is Too Sensitive Guy.

Just say the word guy? I don't even know where to start with that guy.

But Intention Guy. Let's talk about Intention Guy, because there are tons of people out there who think like that guy, that meanings of words are... meaningless. It's a seductive argument. 

Let's dismantle it.

Think about when you say a word to a person. There are a few things that make up that word:

1. Your intent (Good job, Intention Guy!)
2. The actual meaning of that word (Sorry, Intention Guy! Word meanings do actually matter.)
3. The context of your immediate situation
4. The broader cultural context.

There are bad words. There are weaponized words. They are words that were created to do harm.  I don't use the r-word because that word is a loaded gun. It was designed to hurt individuals, and also a whole group of people. That whole group of people- people with special needs- are a group that's generally been treated very, very poorly by society. When you say that word (and I have to be honest, when I was younger, and dumber I did use that word- often) you are contributing to the systemic oppression of a whole group of people.

The purpose of a gun is to kill. Guns were created to kill people or animals. That is the meaning of a gun. You can certainly use a gun for other things. Guns can be paperweights, I guess. They can be props or decorations. But their purpose is to kill. If you wave a gun around in a room, even if you have no plans to pull the trigger, or the gun has no ammo in it, it's still an instrument of death. You don't get to say "oh this gun isn't a gun. It's actually a potted plant. That's what I intend it to be." You might still elicit reactions of fear, or anger. Your intent matters, but the meaning of the gun matters too, as well as the broader context of guns as part of our culture.

So if you use the r-word, or a sexist slur or a slur for minorities- even if you have no intention of insulting those groups of people, you're still waving a gun around. You are still hurting people by creating a situation where the oppression of an entire group of people has been woven into language- and woven so deeply that you don't even think about it most of the time. 

I don't use the r-word because I don't want to contribute to a world where some people are treated as second class citizens. I want the language that I use to lift people up, and empower them the way that it's lifted me up and empowered me. I want my words to be tools, and if I'm going to use words as weapons, those weapons will be aimed at destroying oppressive systems and not reinforcing them. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

All of the Times Brad Bird Has Made Me Cry

I'm a weeper. I'm a bawler. I'm a crier.

I cry... a lot. I cry at weddings. I cry at funerals. I cry when I think about how much I love my wife. I cry when I think about the 2004 Boston Red Sox (as "At Last" by Etta James plays in my head.) I once started weeping in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto apropos of pretty much nothing. I cry during movies. Oh gods above and below do I cry at movies. And no one's movies have made me cry more than Brad Bird.

Who is Brad Bird? He's a director. He's directed some live action films (Tomorrowland. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) but mostly he's directed animated movies. I have cried during every single animated movie that Brad Bird has ever made. Here are the three Brad Bird animated movie moments that made me cry the most:

The Iron Giant- "You are who you choose to be."

"The Iron Giant" is the best animated movie that you've never seen. It came out in 1999 and it tells the tale of a boy named Hogarth and a giant alien death robot, the titular Iron Giant. In the film, the Iron Giant struggles with what it's been built to do, namely to be a weapon and to kill, and the values that Hogarth tries to instill in it: to protect and to love. The theme of the film is that you are who you choose to be, and in a society that values violence ("When the only tool you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail",) you can choose another way. In the climactic scene from the film, the Giant sacrifices himself to save Hogarth, and the small town Hogarth lives in to protect it from a nuclear missile that has been fired at him, choosing to be Superman, instead of a gun.

The Incredibles- "I'm not strong enough."

In Bird's first Pixar film, "The Incredibles," superheroes have been driven underground by the government. When a new threat arises (Syndrome, a former wannabe sidekick turned archvillain), Mr. Incredible returns to action. After getting captured by Syndrome, Mr. Incredible is saved by his wife, Elastigirl, and his children, Dash and Violet. In the climactic scene of the film, Mr. Incredible begs his family to stay hidden, because even though he has super strength, Mr. Incredible acknowledges that he lacks to strength to deal with the pain of losing his family. Elastigirl tells Mr. Incredible that they are stronger together, as a husband and wife, and as a family. When the Incredibles act as a team for the first time ever, they are able to overcome Syndrome's evil robot (Bird does seem to really like classic, 50's style scifi robots.)

Ratatouille- "Discovery and defense of the new."

"Ratatouille" is a film about rats and cooking... it's also about art and artists. The movie is summed up in an emotionally powerful review of the restaurant in the film, Gusteau's, by the dreaded critic, Anton Ego. After eating food (cooked by a rat) that recalled his childhood, Ego delivers a powerful review in which he champions something different... something new.

Friday, July 31, 2015

"In Which I Try to Convince You to Watch a Children's Cartoon Show" or "Watch Steven Universe"

I'm a 33 year old married man with no kids who likes to read comic books, read fantasy novels, and watch movies where giant robots fight monsters from other dimensions.

What I'm saying is you really shouldn't be surprised by the blog you're about to read in which I try to convince you to watch a children's cartoon.

So why should you watch "Steven Universe?"

1. It's a great homage to stuff you probably already like. Are you like me? Did you grow up watching poorly translated Japanese cartoons like "Voltron" or "Sailor Moon?" Did middle school you think "The Simpsons" was the funniest thing in the history of things? Well, then you might like "Steven Universe" which is both a parody, and a loving homage of things that kids who grew up in the late eighties through the nineties really loved.

2. Do you think traditional gender roles are sort of bullshit? You do? Well so does "Steven Universe." Steven Universe is a young boy who is half human and half gem. "Gems" are badass alien fighters with cool weapons, and superpowers who fights monsters. Oh, and gems are all female except for Steven (on account of him being half-human.) All of the "action" characters in this show are women. Oh, and in addition, there are all kinds of female characters on this show. Pearl is disciplined and controlled. Amethyst is wild and loves to party. Garnet is cool, and also built like a brick shit house. On the flip side of the coin, many of the shows male characters are emotionally available, and nurturing- roles men aren't always allowed to play in society or in entertainment. Steven himself loves and looks up to the Crystal Gems (his warrior caretakers), but also spends most of his time... caring for people- trying to make sure their needs are met. The show also features characters who are gay, straight, black, white, and everything else. It's like if "Sense8" was a kids' show.

3. The songs.  Good lord, the songs! There's a song every third or fourth episode and I love them all. Here's one of my favorites: "Giant Woman" in which Steven sings about how he wants Pearl and Amethyst to merge into a larger, more powerful  gem.
Catchy as hell right?

4. It revels in its weirdness. This is a weird show. The gems are literally sentient stones who project holographic bodies. On one episode, they fight an evil breakfast. On another, they fight a possessed mascot for a french fry restaurant. The show knows it's weird. There's an even a character named Ronaldo who runs a blog called "Keep Beach City Weird," chronicling all of the weird stuff that happens in Beach City (where the show takes place.) Oh, and Steven's mother, a gem, had to die to give birth to Steven because she became Steven. Is that confusing as hell? Will it make sense to you after you watch the show? Maybe?

5. All of the characters are deeply, profoundly flawed. Even though they're often weird aliens, every single character on the show is flawed in a very profound way. They make mistakes, often bad ones. The whole second season of the show has featured one character slowly breaking down as she admits her own emotional trauma before trying to build herself back up again. The characters don't always get along with, or like each other. But "Steven Universe" uses its characters flaws, and mistakes, so, so well, and it's so much more satisfying when the characters come together and triumph because it feels like they overcame something real, learned lessons- just like actual people.

6. It's action-packed. Between "Avatar: the Last Airbender" and "Steven Universe," I have to say that most of the best action sequences I've seen in the last few years or so were on kids' cartoons. The action scenes in "Steven Universe" are just off-the-wall, clawing the edge-of-your seat awesome.

7. It's funny. Remember when I compared the show to "The Simpsons?" The humor reminds me a lot of that show. Or, it reminds me of "The Simpsons" back when Homer and the gang were in their heyday. It's really, really funny.

So, there are seven good reasons to watch "Steven Universe." Give it a try.