Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.


Cinematic Interpretations

Let's take a break from politics to talk about one of my favorite subjects, the movies. As a writer, I'm fascinated by the various methods of transition from words on a page, whether from a bestselling book or that hot new screenplay some Hollywood upstart typed into Final Draft on his laptop in Starbucks, to thousands of video screens all over the world. I follow a huge stack of beloved novelists, but I also track the work of such reliable screenwriters as Frank Darabont, Lawrence Kasdan and Steve Kloves. They've succeeded at something I was never able to do, which is break out as a professional screenwriter. That's a triumph, yet one that all too often goes unsung.

But what about those words that can't be shaped into cinematic or televised images? What about movies imported from countries where English isn't the primary language? What about languages spoken by non-English-speaking characters in American movies? Today we're going to talk about the subtle art of turning non-English words into video communication.

Subtitles in movies are almost as old as movies themselves. They evolved organically from the intertitles used to display dialogue between the live-action clips in silent movies. But until fairly recently, the technology used to inscribe subtitles onto moving images made them hard to read, hampering American's interest in and enjoyment of foreign films. I still remember watching The Bicycle Thief in a grad-school film history class. I gather it's a masterpiece but, thanks to the ghostly subtitles on black-and-white backgrounds, I still have little idea what that movie is about other than, apparently, some kid gets his bicycle stolen. Ideally, one should come away from a film viewing knowing more than what he could've gathered from the name of the movie.

Maybe that's one reason the subtitles in Star Wars (1977) are so effective. Keyed in bright yellow rather than the standard white, they're easy for even young moviegoers to take in. Yet for some reason producers' fondness for white lettering persists, albeit sometimes with thin, black borders or wider, black boxes around the white letters. Hey, movie studios: Any chance you could give those plain, white titles a rest for, like, ever? I think many of us would appreciate that. And by the way, subtitles need to be bigger. I know, I know, the middle-aged guy is griping the letters are too small, but hear me out. Titles that read perfectly well on a movie screen are almost impossible for most of us to make out on even an HDTV across the room. I'd love to be able to watch foreign movies on Netflix without having to scrabble around for my glasses.

Better yet, a few recent filmmakers and distributors have gotten truly creative with the banal art of subtitling their movies. Hopefully by now you've seen the Russian vampire thriller Night Watch (2004), but if you haven't, get on that. Its international cut not only subtitles the movie in readable English, it even plays with the layout of those titles to reflect what's happening on screen. They're not just consistent sentences at the bottom of the screen. Instead, they might be red letters that dissolve like blood underwater. They might be revealed in a wipe as a vampire slides across the screen. It's a fun movie, and for once, the subtitles are almost as much fun to watch as the action. It's more expensive, sure, and requires more creativity, but it helped Night Watch and its sequel earn millions in the U.S.

Even American filmmakers sometimes get to play with fancy subtitles in their own, primarily English-language movies. When Egyptians speak their own languages in the 1999 Mummy starring Brendan Fraser, the subtitles appear to be in the Papyrus font. See, papyrus is Egyptian! And they're speaking in Papyrus! And it's Egyptian! Get it? I suspect somebody took a victory lap around the office that morning.

There have even been movies in which the characters appear to notice the subtitles with which they share the screen. In The Impostors (1998), a character hiding under a bed can understand a foreign, non-English-speaking character by simply reading his subtitles. This joke echoes one in Fatal Instinct (1993), in which spies can follow a Yiddish conversation by reading. Other similar jokes include a subtitled horse in Men in Tights, subtitled conversational subtext in Annie Hall and a bar conversation amplified via subtitles in Trainspotting. In both Riff Raff and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, standard-English subtitles are used to clarify characters who are speaking English but in impenetrable accents. And in an episode of the sitcom Green Acres, Lisa (Eva Gabor) is not only able to read the English subtitles when she converses with her mother in Hungarian, she complains they're not accurate: "No, no, no, I said you hadn't changed a bit. We have a lot of trouble here with subtitles."

Sometimes subtitles are used to translate languages that don't even really exist, as when Greedo speaks "Huttese" to Han Solo in that Mos Eisley cantina. This proved so compelling that Star Trek was obliged to up its game. When the opening scene of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was shot, its Klingon characters spoke English dialogue to each other despite the fact that no Terran-English speakers were present. Actor James Doohan, the Canadian who played engineer Montgomery Scott, volunteered to create "Klingon" phrases that sounded plausibly alien but also matched the shape of the actors' mouths as they spoke. In some cases, the English subtitles were then rephrased so the overdubbing wouldn't be as noticeable to moviegoers with any facility for lip reading. A few years later, when the script for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan included an elevator conversation between aliens, linguist Marc Okrand (then working on closed captioning for the Oscars) was recruited to turn the actors' English-language lip movements into a plausible Vulcan sound library. That gig led to Okrand designing the Klingon language for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a task complicated by the need to incorporate the few phrases Doohan had already devised for episode I. Obviously, nitpicky Trekkers would have noticed any possible discrepancy. Interestingly, Okrand complicated his own job by deliberately excluding forms of the verb "to be" from the Klingon language, purely as a private linguistic challenge to himself. Imagine his dismay when the script for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country included an extended riff on Shakespeare's "To be or not to be speech" from Hamlet ("You have not experienced Shakespeare," one alien character boasts, "until you have read him in the original Klingon").

Now it's standard practice for filmmakers to devise self-consistent languages with complex vocabularies and syntax for fictional races and alien species. Consider, for example, the "Dothraki" language devised by linguist David J. Peterson for Game of Thrones. If you find this stuff as interesting as I do, allow me to recommend the book In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent, a fun read by an author who not only teaches linguistics at the University of Chicago but has also earned her first-level certificate from the Klingon Language Institute (an actual thing). She's not to be confused with Marc Okrand, however, whose Klingon Dictionary was featured prominently on my bookshelf until the year I realized it was scaring away potential girlfriends. In point of fact, I only know a handful of Klingon words and phrases, including the standard greeting "nuqneH" -- "What do you want?" Friendly!

A special storytelling challenge occurs when characters speak to each other in a language that isn't English, conveying story points that English-speaking viewers still need to understand. It doesn't make sense to imply, for example, that all the Russian seamen aboard the Krasny Oktyabr in The Hunt for Red October (1990) would speak to each other in Russian-accented English. Director John McTiernan got around this problem in a memorably clever way. On page 15 of a screenplay draft by Larry Ferguson, a Russian character is reading from Revelation chapter 22, verses 12 and 13. McTiernan swaps that passage for Revelation 16:16, which refers to "a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon" (King James Version). Since that place name is the same in Hebrew, English and Russian, McTiernan's camera closes on actor Peter Firth's lips until he says the word, then backs away. At that point, the movie shifts from spoken Russian with English subtitles to spoken English (except in later scenes in which Americans share their environment). Even better, the movie's international cast members speak, for the most part, in their own accents: Sean Connery in Scottish, Stellan Skarsgård in Swedish and New Zealander Sam Neill in — well, Russian. I admit I've never figured that one out.

McTiernan was inspired to do this by a scene in Stanley Kramer's 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg. In that movie, Maximillian Schell plays German defense attorney Hans Rolfe. There's quite a bit of business in early scenes to establish how the plot's trial is being conducted in both English and German, including translators and translation headphones. (Ironically, there's also some business with translation headphones in Star Trek VI.) Soon, however, the camera closes on Schell's lips as he speaks German, then backs away as he switches to English. We know he's actually speaking German, the other characters on screen "hear" him in German, but we get to hear him in English. This saves the audience the trouble of reading hours' worth of subtitles, something American audiences are notoriously loath to do under the best of circumstances.

My wife prefers it when foreign-language films have been dubbed into English. I do, too, but only when that's been done exceedingly well, as in the Disney re-releases of Japanese-language films animated by Hayao Miyazaki. Otherwise, I feel I'm getting only part of the movie, because I'm missing the vocal performances of its actors. I'm an actor who believes the way I say something matters at least as much as how I look when I'm saying it, and I don't necessarily trust another actor to translate that for me. For my money, creative solutions are always the best ones. I hope American film directors and distributors will continue to look for new ways to address these challenges, making the cinema produced by increasingly wealthy and well-crewed studios in countries all over the world more accessible to movie lovers right here at home.

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Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Last Night

I am a lifelong fan of stand-up comedy. Among my earliest memories are the hours I spent listening to and all but memorizing the classic Bill Cosby albums in my uncle's collection. When someone asked me recently what my favorite TV show of all time was, I decided it was Saturday Night Live, from the first-year episodes I watched with my dad to the stellar season that just ended. When I lived in Hollywood, I spent many a weekday night at the Comedy Store or Laugh Factory, dissecting the work of every open-mic performer, from never-seen-again nobodies to the soon-to-blow-up Dane Cook. And so, so many times over the decades, I've thought, I could do that … if only I could get over my terror of performing my own material in front of an audience. To me that phony brick wall behind the mic felt like the backdrop for an execution by firing squad. I never did take my shot, to my enduring shame.

Except here's a thing you need to know about me: I freaking hate it when I find myself limited by things I'm afraid of. It eats at me. I end up daring myself, and once I've done that my brain never shuts up about it. So for over thirty years now, I've been internally chastising myself for wanting so desperately to be heard by the entertainment industry, yet never availing myself of repeated invitations, even exhortations, to overcome my stage fright and tell jokes to audiences thirsty for laughter (and, in some cases, a minimum of two feeble well drinks).

With my fiftieth birthday looming, I resolved to finally put my self-recrimination to end. When I visited Vomity, an unfortunately-named, weekly night of open-mic comedy at Le Voyeur, a club in downtown Olympia, I knew it was only a matter of time before I answered that call to belated action.

Here's how it works. To sign up, one must first follow Vomity's Facebook page. Every Tuesday at noon, host Colt Barton posts a message inviting each aspiring comic to sign up by commenting with his or her name. Then, around midnight, he announces who got in and who's been relegated to the "bump list." If you made it, you perform the following night between 9 and 11. If you're on the bump list, that means you have to sign up again next week. By reminding them you were bumped, though, you guarantee yourself a slot the next week. And that's how it went down for me.

My material was already written. I'd culled it, in large part, from past social-media posts, so I was confident (based on likes and retweets) the jokes were funny to someone other than myself. I memorized it two weeks ago and repeated it out loud under numerous stressful conditions. The Vomity format only gives you three minutes to fill, so long-form storytelling was out. One of my observations from previous Vomity attendance was that new comics tend to space their punch lines too far apart, so I wanted to see how many I could pack in there. I whittled the material down to only necessary words and managed to squeeze in what I hoped would be seven or eight decent laughs. I was thinking of one-liner comics like Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright, though not thinking for even a moment I wield their genius or would emulate their success in slipping from joke to joke every couple of seconds.

I took a risk and decided to dress up for the occasion. Granted, it's a room packed with comics and audience members less than half my age, most of whom show up looking like they were ejected by a tornado, but I donned a jacket and tie over sneakers and skinny slacks. My plan was to stream the set to Facebook, both for friends and to review later in private, and I wanted to look as good as possible. Also, this was a milestone in my life, for better or worse, and I intended to give myself every shot at remembering it fondly.

A few days before the big event, I searched the web for first-timer tips. Experienced comedians had differing advice, but they all agreed on two things: You will absolutely, positively bomb, Enola Gay, so don't you dare record your set for posterity or even invite your closest friends. I invited my wife to both attend and stream my set, and I found out hours before that my sister and brother-in-law would also be there to witness my debut. Well, whatever. Go big or go home and never show your mug in a comedy club again, am I right?

Probably not.

Andy Kindler: "My first performance on my own … was horrifying. I remember telling the crowd it wasn’t going well. They knew that already. I will admit to quietly sobbing in the car on the way home." So that can happen. And of course then you go home and off yourself, and you don't even bother leaving a note because all your friends saw the Facebook stream and know exactly why it was time for you to jump off a cliff.

Except that's not what happened to me. I'm proud to say I did face my fears. I hopped up on stage, grabbed the mic and did my three-minute set. Not, maybe, in the order I memorized it, but every joke found its way in there. I even managed to get about four or five decent laughs, a decent ratio for the room I was in. Several comics were lucky to get a few pity laughs. Others, including Sam Miller, headliner Bo Johnson and nineteen-year-old (!) Anna Eggleton, slew the room. I didn't kill; I didn't bomb. You can see for yourself. Try to ignore the glare off my head, okay? I know it makes me look like Reddy Killowatt in a suit, but it is what it is.

Video: Carv Does Stand-Up

I notice as I post this that the URL includes the phrase "feedback_reaction_generic," which seems about right.

So will I do this again? Y'know … maybe. I feel I brought no shame upon myself or my tribe, and few other comics seemed to know it was my first time performing my own material. I consider that a win. Also, from my perspective, that three-minute set felt exactly like, "Thanks, Colt. Hi. I'm Christian Carvajal." Everything else was a blur. So maybe it'd be fun to try it again when I'm calm enough to be present in my own mind and body, not floating out there in a galaxy of terror squillions of light-years away.


Meanwhile, plans continue for public performances in which I've grown more confident and comfortable these last few years, namely author appearances. I'll be reading from and signing my new book of short stories, called C Is for Collection. By then I might even have some new jokes! You can catch me Wednesday, June 13 (the day after my birthday) at 6:30 p.m. in Tacoma's King's Books, or the next night at 7 p.m. at Browsers Bookshop in Olympia. Or, thanks to the magic of the interwebs, you can simply dodge the whole process and order it now. Yes, today! It won't arrive signed, of course, but maybe you can buy me a drink or something and I'll throw in a free copy of Lightfall for your trouble, assuming you don't have one already. Pretty fair, right? I know. The word heroic gets thrown around a lot these days, y'know, but every once in a while you kinda have to admit it's justified.

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New Book C Is for Collection Coming June 5!

Mud Flat Press is proud to announce the release of C Is for Collection, comprising 21 stories by yours truly, arriving June 5. It includes tales about a child with a secret, a silicon deity, a monster on the loose in medieval Paris, the inventor of time travel and a custom-made afterlife.

After publishing novels about religion and marriage, I was well into writing a book about politics. Then America went banana boats in 2016, so I had to put that novel on hold till the country got saner than satire again. While I'm waiting and slowly chipping away at Novel Three, I decided to publish my first story collection, including stories I wrote over 35 years, and get that out in time for my 50th birthday.

I'm excited by this opportunity to review where I’ve been, look ahead to the future and share that with a community that’s been incredibly welcoming to me as a writer. C Is for Collection will be available in trade paperback and all e-reader formats. You can purchase it directly from Amazon or at many South Sound booksellers including Browsers Bookshop and King’s Books. I'll visit both locations in mid-June as part of a regional reading and signing tour.

Watch for further updates over the next two and a half months!

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Silent Sky‘s Closing Night

(Written September 16)

I have a lot to say tonight, on two different subjects. It was our closing performance of Silent Sky, and yes, I do tend to gush at moments like these. Je ne regrette rien, Gentle Reader.

Part 1: On Producing Silent Sky

Producing a show this big was a first for me. In eight years of college, I don't remember ever once hearing a lecture or reading a book about how to be an executive producer. I made it up as I went, tried to follow the film model when possible and remained determined to admit when I screwed things up. I learned a producer needs to trust her or his creative team to do the creative work the way they know best; your job as the producer is to smooth the path before them and make sure the flow of money and lines of communication remain unimpeded. I learned one may argue with doubters but never with the calendar. I learned the sincerest compliment is often a paycheck. And I learned, sometimes the hard way, a path toward success for Silent Sky.

I mention that because several people came up to me tonight and expressed sincere interest in porting our production to other spaces. As tempting as that may be, I gave them as soft a no as I could manage. It's not that I don't believe anyone else should produce Silent Sky — Oh, my, no, you most definitely should. It's so important for so many reasons that this singular script become part of our regional- and community-theater canon. But not our production. No, your Silent Sky needs to be local, and it needs to be offered from your heart, and it needs something very particular to this story.

I trusted my gut on this one, and I'm so glad I did. I knew this script needed a female director. Maybe not every year, maybe, but this year for sure. Then I went further, and in so doing, I learned something crucial about Silent Sky. Since you might produce it elsewhere, I will give you that lesson for free.

Silent Sky needs women. Great women. Brilliant women. Artistas, if you will.

What you want is to find a female director with enormous skill and a big heart. It doesn't matter if she's a science geek, but it'll be helpful if she's a sister. She needs to be able, as Deane Shellman did so gracefully for us, to convey complex ideas via magical images and sounds. Then, rally female designers to what is now that director's project. I don't mean one or two female designers. I don't mean a few. I mean your entire design staff should be women. Because to this day, even in our relatively liberal field, it's still all too common to see an all-male design staff but rare to see an all-female one. The latter should be and feel no more unusual than the former. As Gunderson points out in her script, "We need a model." We need everyone who does theater to see, and on a regular basis, that talent has no gender.

The rest will take care of itself. With much stress and little sleep, perhaps, but I promise you one day during tech week you'll look up and find yourself beyond the earth's gravity. It'll happen. Enjoy the view.

Part 2: The Meaning for Me

Directing and yes, producing, it turns out, are a lot of work, especially if you do those jobs correctly and with all your heart. And why would you do a job like that any other way? The object of the game is to find that charge of electricity you felt upon first hearing or reading that story and take a good look at it. Ease it out into the light. Name exactly what hooked you, then make that hook the focus of gravity for your own production. I can't and won't speak to what hooked Deane on this story. I can only tell you what captured me. Because just as Laughing Stock was my love letter to the theater that rescued me from loneliness, just as The Credeaux Canvas was my farewell to youth, my instigation of Silent Sky should tell you something about who I am on a very deep level.

Like the heroes of that story, I find a joy in learning I'm wrong about something. It's embarrassing, sure, but yesterday I didn't know what the truth was and now I know one thing it isn't! How amazing is that? Yesterday I imposed my wishful thinking on the world; today it told me its own truth — and entrusted me with the revelation! "You were perfectly wrong," Henrietta Leavitt announces, and her colleague cries, "I was!" — not with anger, nor resentment, but happily! That's part of what I find most persuasive about the scientific method over other ways of analyzing and interpreting the world. A good scientist understands it's better to know a less-than-optimal truth than to bank on vestigial fantasies. She knows graduating from the latter to the former is a moment worth celebrating rather than grieving.

Oh, and then there's that closing monologue. I fall in love with it every time I hear it. "A telescope named Hubble," says Leavitt, "with wings set for space, shows us how vast and beautiful it all is … Because wonder will always get us there — those of us who insist that there is much more beyond ourselves. And I do." And I choke back tears every night because Gentle Reader, that is my heart being spoken from that stage, by an actor who is not me, directed by an artist who felt that truth, too. And it means I'm not the only person who takes heart from that lesson. Lauren Gunderson does. Henrietta Swan Leavitt did. And I know from all the smiling, tear-streaked faces in the theater that our idealism has touched something in a hundred hearts each night at OLT. The audience members believe in that future; they just needed to be reminded of it. Hope is not lost, my friends. We may trip over our foolishness sometimes, we humans, but we do still have a calling. We are made of star stuff, Sagan reminds us, and there is something within us that looks up into the night sky and longs to go home there again.

Yesterday a machine made by earnest minds and begrudgingly rendered tax dollars met oblivion in the atmosphere of Saturn. Along the way, though, it sent us this photo.

Look at that pixel. It's the earth-moon system. It's you and me. It's everyone, in fact; all our stuff, all our art, all our music, all our wars, all our feelings, all our corpses, all our dreams. It's a stunning reminder of our fragility, our lifelong dependence on each other, and the ocean of silence and cold in which we swim. We are not merely a species. We owe each other and the universe — call it God if you like — more than that. We aren't just family. We are one. We are one tiny dot of desperate yearning but we are infinitely precious. Intelligence is the greatest thing the cosmos has yielded to date, and something tells me ours is not the gold standard for intelligence so it behooves us to get out there and mingle with our siblings. They have much to teach us, perhaps art and stories to share with us, and heaven knows we have much left to learn.

Last night I looked through a telescope at the Andromeda Galaxy. I gazed across two and a half million light-years of intergalactic space at the waltz of a trillion stars. I imagined them accompanied by all their associated worlds. Most were barren, of course, others spattered with life so primitive it could barely be said to deserve the title. Yet I find it impossible to believe I wasn't also looking at civilizations — starfaring species, perhaps, living and dying on the whims of supernovae and calling to each other dimly across the night. We will never meet those species. Their families and ours will have passed long before our galaxies collide four billion years from now; our sun will, in fact, be in the process of puffing itself up for a turgid, crimson swan song. All of that knowledge, all our music and art and beauty and emotions, will have come and gone long before that collision. So will theirs. Life is precious. Intelligence is a gift. Like all beautiful gifts, it comes with a responsibility to cherish and protect it.

The trick, I think, is not to waste energy seeing God as other earthlings do. We have a valueless tendency to lasso God down to our level, make him fallible and petty and vindictive like ourselves. It's a shame we ever feel that drive to domesticate the ineffable. No, I think the path forward is to see the earth as God does: a pixel in the whirlwind, a sputtering spark in a vast, frozen darkness, an embryo of life in the worthy throes of struggling to be born.

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Pull It Together, America

Call me crazy, call me a misty-eyed nostalgic, but I believe there was a time in this country, a brief, delightful summer, when liberals and conservatives mostly got along with each other.

Then political action committees happened. Then the internet happened. Then FOX News happened. Then we all learned how to "unfollow" or even "unfriend" anyone with whom we disagreed about pretty much anything. But back in the long-dead halcyon days of, say, 1990, we tended to get along — even in the same actual, physical room. Now we can barely stand acknowledging each other's existence. Our current president offers a platform based solely on undoing everything the last president did, regardless of whom it deprives of health care, where it leaves our country in relation to its international partners or how many campaign promises get shredded and tossed in our faces. Now voters tell you, not which candidate they're happy to support, but which candidate they're desperate to destroy. There are liberal hate groups now, and liberal would-be assassins. I never thought I'd see that day. I'm not sure I thought we meek liberals would inherit the earth, exactly, but I assumed we'd stay meekly nonviolent.

I think some of the blame has to be laid on lobbyists and other paid extremists who tell us compromise is an act of surrender. It isn't. It's how this is all supposed to work. You want something and I want something, and each of us gets as close to 50% of what we wanted as possible. And conservatives, your party is pushing you to want what a greedy billionaire would want. They do so by telling you it's all to your benefit, but of course it isn't. There's no way the estate tax or slashes to Medicaid work in your favor. You never win that one. Sorry. They aren't doing it for "the American people," they're doing it for very rich people. And since almost any reasonable, factual analysis of the world around you would tell you that, they must pretend facts don't matter at all, that there are no facts, only "good news" and "fake news." Listen to them closely; note how many times they say "clearly," followed by something that is clearly untrue. It's become a running gag, and I'm sorry to say the joke is on all of us, even conservative base voters.

It doesn't have to be this way. You and I may disagree on abortion, for example, but I can understand why you feel the way you do. If you believe life begins at conception, then we allow a million prenatal murders each year. I can see why that'd send a reasonable person into hysterics. If I believe differently, then it seems to me the burden is on me to make my case as reasonably and persuasively as I can. You and I should be able to stand in a room together and talk about this because I understand you're trying to keep the blood of babies off our hands, and perhaps when I remind you of prenatal development you can see where I might be coming from, too.

But that's not how things usually work anymore. Our last election was fought between two candidates that most of us disliked. I despised yours, you loathed mine, but we weren't altogether crazy about our own. I could defend Hillary Clinton all year, and God knows I feel like I did, but even I get why she struck some people as shady. I found myself advocating for her in much the same way I'd recommend the flu over hemorrhagic fever. Perhaps you felt the same way about "your" guy. But each side did offer moderate, intelligent candidates, friends. We ignored them because the 24-hour news channels found them less interesting than the ever-controversial Clinton and Trump.

I don't want to play this game anymore. I got 5300 words into a third novel, this time about politics, then had to set it aside indefinitely because I literally have no idea what the country will look like in two years. I don't want to write and edit and sell and promote a novel only to find it irrelevant the day it's released. So friends, I want you to help me find a reasonable place in America again. Maybe the left's best candidate shouldn't be a dynastic power player or a democratic socialist. Maybe it should just be someone who makes a clear case for being kind and welcoming to as many different kinds of Americans as possible. Maybe you can talk your party out of an agenda based purely on "I got mine, screw you." Perhaps I can work harder to help you see that the way to improve your life is not to worsen someone else's, especially if that someone is already poor, gay, trans, a Muslim, a person of color or any combination of the above. Maybe I can remind you of people like my brother, a fiscal and, to some degree, social conservative who simply thinks it's unfair to expect the entire country to behave like either Georgia or Washington state. Maybe I can remind you of me, an agnostic, gay-friendly gun-regulation advocate who yes, dug Bernie but also likes sweet tea, old churches and even the occasional target-shooting excursion. Maybe you get to keep all your guns; maybe I get a national registry, reasonable waiting period and a safe to lock them in. Would that be so awful? Isn't that how every one of us might feel like a valued citizen of these not-so-United States we all call home?

So pull it together, America. Let's stop yelling about how we feel at each other. Instead, let's discuss what we think. You tell me your reasons and I'll tell you mine, and let's understand that in this game, winning should happen on the 50-yard-line, not in either extremist end zone. (Yes, that's a sports metaphor, because the right has no monopoly on either God or the NFL.) Let's be grown-ups again. Let's be kind to each other again. Let's stop thinking and talking and posting in memes. Let's purge exaggerated, bias-flattering, fight-or-flight-response nonsense from our news feeds, not each other. Let's turn off any commentator who says anyone who disagrees with him or her is an idiot. Let's do what liberals always pay lip (and bumper sticker) service to doing: Let's coexist. Strike that. Let's go bigger and better: Let's co-succeed.

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On Success

After a long conversation with my mom the other day, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of success. Sometimes it's happening to us and we don't even notice it.

Forty years ago, a silly space opera hit theaters. Little did I know it'd be one of the pivotal events of my childhood. On the heels of Ray Bradbury's S Is for Space, it set me on the path toward being a professional storyteller. And I am. I tell real stories; I tell stories I made up. Every April I get to tell the IRS I write for a living...and I'll pay them when I can. It's not the best-paying job in the world, at least for folks who aren't Ray Bradbury or George Lucas, and that makes it harder for me to see when I'm succeeding day to day.

Thirty years ago, I was utterly lost. Two years out of high school, I was still paying heed to a religious sect that forbade me from going to the college I so desperately needed. Instead, I knocked on doors as a full-time evangelist. Yes, me. I honestly can't tell you how many Watchtowers I distributed, but I can tell you for sure it was more than the number of OLY ARTS I've distributed. My mom's patience was running out, though, and it wouldn't be long before she paid a visit to East Central University to enroll me behind my back. I gave her hell for doing that...but I was only playing the role expected of me by our moral "superiors." I knew she was right and all my other authority figures were wrong. You can feel that sometimes.

ANY success I've had in my adult life was the direct result of her act of rebellious frustration. Rebels are important; they certainly have been to me.

Twenty years ago, I was graduating from SIU-C after three of the most difficult years of my life, less than two months before I filed for divorce. Graduation is a success no matter how you slice it, especially for an ex-Witness trailer trashbag from Crowder, Oklahoma, but all I could feel was relief. I escaped. I escaped Illinois with my MFA, I escaped Crowder, I escaped a foolhardy marriage, I made it all the way back to L.A. and earned work in the entertainment industry. Simply braving the freeway was one of the greatest achievements of my life. I had a serious driving phobia back in those days, and merging onto the 110 felt like diving into a tank full of sharks. I arrived everywhere dripping with flop sweat. It was like that EVERY DAY. People tell me I was brave for trying to "make it in the big leagues." I wasn't. That was something I just had to do. The brave thing I did was arriving where it might happen.

Did I succeed in Los Angeles? To this day I don't know. I worked for Warner Bros. I passed that shield every day on my way into the office. Can you say something similar? I was on network TV dozens of times and appeared on screen in big-budget features. For a week, so I'm told, I was the writer of Terminator 3. I attended movie premieres and hobnobbed with the stars. But I was only a credited performer in two indie projects, neither of which I'd ever show you on a dare. My video-directing project collapsed into ignominy when my editor couldn't put her bong down for half an hour straight. But I did have my writing produced and performed on Sunset Boulevard. I had lightning shoot out of my eyes on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And when I left Hollywood for good in 2004, I knew I could hold my head high after all those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I could do that because, while I never really "made it," I also never lost my integrity or ability to tell a story in a meaningful, from-the-heart way. I never once created product; I told stories. And oh, my friends, the Hollywood stories my Hollywood accomplices and I could tell you.

Ten years ago I arrived in Washington state and auditioned for my first play here, TAO's Taming of the Shrew at the Minnaert Center black box. I made my first Pacific-Northwestern friends and earned a job teaching remedial algebra at Olympic College in Shelton. I started work on Salvation, the novel renamed Lightfall for publication in 2010. Sounds pretty good, right? But I was a lonely guy earning minimum wage, living with his mom at age 39, with no romantic prospects in sight, angry and so, so depressed from what felt like a life going nowhere. I told someone at a PARTY for God's sake that I'd been a disappointment to everyone who ever cared about me. What I didn't know was my life was about to take off like an Independence Day rocket. The seeds had already been sown. I was months away from my first date with Amanda (also my first date in Washington). And though Lightfall would come to feel like a nine-hours' wonder, breaking my authorial spirit for years, it would actually lead to writing jobs at the Weekly Volcano and Cengage Learning. Those would in turn prepare me for Chegg, then OLY ARTS.

I don't know if I'm a success. I look at my sister and brother-in-law's restaurant or my brother's inauguration at Valdosta State University and I'm not always thrilled by the comparison. But I have two novels and at least a dozen short-story publication credits to my name, I've written for a national magazine, I have loyal readers and a thriving marriage. I get to travel and see parts of the world no reasonable person would've predicted for my life thirty, perhaps even twenty years ago. I read the other day success can be defined as stumbling from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm. If that's true, then yes, I suppose I really am a success. For no matter how bad things may seem sometimes, I can still feel the fire inside me burning. I have stories yet to tell and opportunities to tell them. And my goal for the next year or so is to keep telling your stories with you. Success, it seems to me, is never really a solo enterprise. You and I, we're in this together.

Let's be successes. Let's never, ever, never, NEVER give up.

"Let me tell you something you already know," a fighter once explained. "The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place; and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you permanently there if you let it. You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done. Now if you know what you are worth, go out and get what you are worth; but you gotta be willing to take the hits and not pointing fingers, saying you ain’t where you want to be because of him or her or anybody. Cowards do that..."

And that ain't us. I know it ain't you...and I know it ain't me. Not for long. Not now, not ever.

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3 Impossible Questions

Given that it's mentioned in the Fishnapped! program, I believe I can safely announce this now: A play I'm in the latter stages of writing, called 3 Impossible Questions, will be the fourth play in Olympia Family Theater's next mainstage season. It adapts fables from all over the Islamic world and introduces Western audiences to a beloved figure in many of those countries: Mullah Nasreddin. Nasreddin is a sort of wiseacre imam who teaches via riddles and paradox. I compare him to Bugs Bunny in American popular entertainment. For folks who think of Muslims as humorless, especially with respect to questioning Islamic beliefs and traditions, his popularity will come as a shock; but he appears in comic books, TV cartoon shows and bedtime stories all over the world.

I've had a wonderful time getting to know Mullah Nasreddin (as I also spend time with the congregants at the Islamic Center of Olympia), and I look forward to helping introduce him to you. This show will be directed by Ted Ryle, and it's my debut as a full-length, professional playwright. (I've had short plays produced in four states.) Look for exact dates and audition notices as we get closer to Questions' early-2018 run, insha'Allah.

Incidentally, my Muslim friends know I'm agnostic and are absolutely fine with it. One of them, in fact, likes to introduce me to other congregants at the mosque as "Christian...who isn't one."

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OLY ARTS, Spring 2017

Often when I'm directing a play, there's a moment early on when I take stock of everything that has to happen and think, "Hm. There's a good chance this may not come together. It's too much." But then opening night, as the cast and crew accept their justly earned praise, there's me in the back of the house smiling quietly to myself because I see now the enormity of what we've accomplished. We built and decorated a room including furniture, we built or found costumes and props, we generated print and video content, we learned 80 pages of material so well we have actual emotions about it...It's easy to lose sight of that gestalt "when your head's down over your pieces, brother."

So it is with OLY ARTS. When Ned Hayes recruited me to be the editor of that publication, we had less than two months to hire a staff while creating a brand, a media kit, an entire website including a functional calendar, a social media presence, a weekly newsletter and not one but two print publications. (The first was a 12-page demo edition seen only by advertisers.) It seemed impossible--but then we got to work and forgot how impossible it was. Then, seeming days later, it was finished and holy...We actually managed to pull this off! Look at everything we got done! When our first official issue of OLY ARTS rolled off the printers in the nick of time for Lakefair 2016, we were so proud and excited we couldn't contain ourselves. Look at it: 16 whole pages! With advertisements, some of which we hadn't given away free in order to build business relationships!

If you have one of those copies, keep it; it's a collector's item. We "sold out" the entire run of that issue, but it wasn't easy. No one knew what we were trying to hand them. Several venues didn't want to let us in. I encountered residual bitterness from years as a theater critic. Here we were, though, hawking a magazine that looked like a real, honest-to-Dionysus arts magazine. Now the question that loomed, it seemed, was this: Could we possibly maintain that level of quality issue after issue?

Flash-forward ten months. Now when the spring 2017 issue arrived, I was so busy stuffing it into our new downtown office that I barely snapped a look at the cover. ("Yes," I thought, "it's bright green. That should move.") Then came Arts Walk. Our distribution team handed out many thousands of copies, a much easier job this time because people came asking for them. Olympia knows us and likes us now. I was told people read the issues cover to cover. We're entirely advertiser-supported, including the five podcast episodes we produce every week (84 to date). Our advertising and business managers, new acquisitions since the summer edition, are both aces. Not only is our spring issue over twice as long as the Lakefair 2016 issue, I'd say it's at least twice as good--but we produced it in less time.

As crowds gathered for Procession of the Species, I saw hundreds of people reading their copies and showing each other photos and articles. Ned drove past Starbucks and saw a line of people absorbed in OLY ARTS as they finished their lattes and Unicorn Frappuccinos. One woman told me she noticed my writing and would look for my books. That's good for us, it's good for local business, and it signifies an important fact about our publication: It gets read. I walked around downtown Olympia after the Procession and, of the thousands of copies we gave away in two short days, I found exactly two lying in the street. Instead what I saw was copies rolled up and tucked into back pockets. People kept OLY ARTS as an ongoing entertainment reference. When I offered a copy to one guy, he said, grinning, "I already have one sitting on my coffee table at home."

So this is me expressing gratitude to everyone who contributes to OLY ARTS, from our writers and photographers to Tabitha the ad champ to our outstanding distribution team to, of course, publisher Ned Hayes. I can look around and see what we've accomplished now. I see the house we built rather than the rough spots I need to find time to sand down. Our writers already have their assignments for the summer issue, our sixth print edition, coming just in time for Lakefair 2017.

If you'll excuse me, I need to get to work. I have four new articles stacked in my inbox, and those need to be edited and posted this week. Tomorrow's StoryOly podcast episode is edited and ready to take live, but I've barely started Thursday's installment of Sound Stages. With a well-deserved mini-vacation coming next week, I need to make two of everything by Sunday, not to mention ensuring our employees get paid. Duty calls...but oh, what a thing we've all managed to build here, and what a community we've built it to serve.

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Why It Happens

This morning my wife told me a story about a woman who discovered the profile of a guy she was flirting with on an online dating site was a sham, designed for the goal of exploiting women like her. Basically, the guy pretended he was someone else in the hope of soliciting nude pics and/or sexual hookups. My wife asked me why guys do that. It's a tough question to answer. See, I abhor guys who do that. And if I'm able to explain it, doesn't that mean I sympathize with guys like him, people who are basically sexual con artists?

Well...I think I do know where some of this comes from. But please, please understand and believe me when I say I'm in no way endorsing this behavior. If you're a guy who sends unsolicited crotch pics to women, you're on your own, dude. Not only do I find such behavior boorish, I'd be shocked if it even achieves senders' goals. I can't imagine a blushing bride recalling, "I was sitting at home minding my own business, when Joey here sent me a photo of his penis. I mean, I barely knew him! He was just some guy who worked on the other side of my office! But the moment I saw that photo, I called my mom and said, 'Well, Mom, start planing a wedding, 'cause this is the one.'" More to the point, can the reciprocation rate possibly be worth the risk and trouble? This is the kind of thing that should get more guys fired.

What I do know is this. Growing up, I somehow absorbed the notion that a man's true value was measured largely by his ability to get laid. I didn't act on that, mind you; I was still one of Jehovah's Witnesses back then, and I took their anti-premarital-sex policy seriously. But I did assume all my high-school friends were shagging each other all the time when I wasn't around, and I understood all too well it made them cooler than me.

In college, I was no longer a Witness. Instead, I was a serial monogamist. When I made a relationship agreement, I stuck to it. But as my "number" increased, however slowly that happened, I felt better about myself. I was never the handsomest guy on the block, or even in my own house, though, so I had to learn "game" to land those first and second dates. I developed a comedian's patter and a knack for the unexpected but memorable romantic gesture. Yeah, I did okay on that front. I'm not bragging. I'm sure most of the other guys in my circle posted higher numbers. I'm just saying I did well enough I could feel relatively okay about myself.

Now. Let's go darker. Imagine there's a guy with my looks, or lack thereof, and no game. Imagine a guy who possesses no special wit, no creativity, no career to keep his wallet full of spending cash. Imagine that guy's social life. Imagine a guy--I don't know, maybe this is tough for some people to envision. Imagine a guy who has very little prospect of having sex with another person in any given week. Or month. Maybe even the next year. Understand that this guy's sense of self-worth, his own self-perceived value as a human being, comes largely from his ability--or lack thereof--to have sex with another person. I'm not saying he should use that metric to judge himself. I'm saying he does, because his culture's spent decades making sure he felt that way. If you were that guy, how would you feel? I'm not trying to get anyone to empathize with a sexual predator. I'm just saying I believe I might understand. I don't approve. I don't condone. I have no interest in further normalizing any of this. I'm just saying I think it's what's at the root.

See, a lack of self-worth is an intolerable situation. It can't be borne. We'll go to vast lengths to make that go away. We'll do stupid things, crazy things, to feel any kind of better about ourselves. If you don't think that's true, consider all the crazy things we do to lose weight...gain hair...lose hair...lift our breasts...hasten our erections...minimize wrinkles...maximize dental whiteness. We spend significant fractions of our few days on earth making ourselves look better. And we can say, "I'm not doing it for you, I'm doing it for me"--which is true. Sure. It is. But when I do it, I'm doing it at least partly so you'll help me feel better about me, by complimenting me, looking at me favorably, perhaps even sleeping with me. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't care how much hair I've lost. I'd lose only enough weight to keep myself out of immediate heart-attack danger, and that'd be fine with me.

The problem, I think, is how we treat sex in western culture. By creating and insisting on a complex code of rules and taboos and thou-musts and shalt-nots about it, we all but ensure it'll be central to our feelings of value. I can understand that set of rules in a world where sex runs a high probability of inciting pregnancy. In that world, yes, one needs a system of cultural rules to ensure guys stick around and help care for little humans. But in a world with effective, affordable contraception and meaningful sex education and yes, safe first-trimester abortion as a kind of last resort, that approach makes less sense. In that world, sex doesn't have to be as dangerous as it is in our world. It also doesn't have to be as venerated.

I know this sounds crazy, but maybe what we need is a world that doesn't find sex all that special. We need a world where women feel valued for their brains, absolutely, but we also need a world where the amount of sex a guy is able to have or the number of sexual partners he acquires (whether through seduction or something uglier) has no bearing on how we feel about him, nor on how he feels about himself. Gandhi wasn't amazing because he was a stud muffin. Hedy Lamarr's sexual attractiveness wasn't the most interesting thing about her. We don't need to live like this. We just do.

I hope I've made it clear I'm sex-positive. I think sex is natural and fun and good exercise and often hilarious, even for two people who may not be each other's true loves for life. I'm in favor of people dressing or undressing however much they want, whenever they want, and I don't consider exposed skin a sexual invitation. I don't think a culture of puritanical clothing ends sexual desire. I'm not even convinced it's any safer for women. The problem isn't how we enforce rules against sex. It's not that we don't have enough sexuality in our culture. The problem is we act like it's the brass ring of male existence, so of course our male culture demands women present themselves as sexually attractive--and available, for me but not for him (because even if you sleep with both of us, that wouldn't raise my value relative to his). It's appalling. It creates so much risk and mistrust and ugliness. But I have to let you know, this doesn't happen because men are generally happy or fond of themselves. In fact, I think the opposite must very often be true. And while that isn't as sad as rape or sexual harassment--not by a long shot, of course--it's still no sunny afternoon at the beach.

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A Slightly Longer Time Ago…

"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." says the familiar graphic, and then we're back in the Star Wars galaxy. Everything feels a bit different, except nothing has changed.

I have no interest in spoiling Rogue One for you--that's the full on-screen title--because its pleasures deserve to be discovered in situ. What I will say is we know the plot already, for the most part, assuming we've seen a heist film like Ocean's Eleven or a Mission Impossible before. That's not where the special treats lie. Rather, this is a basket of Easter eggs for fans both casual and obsessive. We're talking deep, old-school geekery here.

The movie has two flaws, both of which are significant but neither of which are utterly damning. One is the repeated use, dare I say overuse, of cameos from the Holy Trilogy of 1977-1983. ILM deploys cutting-edge effects wizardry to make this happen, and it works more often than not. Still, I bet there will be at least one occasion, perhaps in Jedha City, when you find yourself wondering, "Was that callback really necessary?" The other flaw, at least as many viewers will perceive it, is the pacing of the first hour. I should point out the original Star Wars is paced rather slowly in its own first hour, more like a Western than an action movie, but The Empire Strikes Back accelerated the pace to a clip seen as impatient by critics of its day but expected by popcorn blockbuster audiences now. Let's be gracious and call the pace of Rogue One's first two acts "leisurely."

I don't want to mince words here: The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite movie of all time. I couldn't tell you how many times I've watched it, but I can promise you that number will go up. Empire expanded on its fairy-tale predecessor by enriching the dialogue, finessing the cinematography, and upping the stakes for its characters. At the age of 12, I perceived the movie as more "grown-up" than "A New Hope." And when Return of the Jedi was released three years later, I loved it, of course, but recognized it as a retreat to Toys 'R' Us immaturity. In The Force Awakens, cowriter-director J. J. Abrams nailed Star Wars' wide-eyed innocence. Rogue One steps deep into Empire's moral complexity and more stylized cinematography. You might expect, then, that I enjoyed Rogue One even more than the giddy degree to which I loved The Force Awakens, but that wasn't the case. Both films are deeply entertaining, but I suspect I'll rewatch The Force Awakens more often. You may disagree, but I found Rogue One rewarding, exciting and tense without always

It's a war movie. People get killed. Actually, a lot of people (including nonhuman people) get killed, though I don't recall a single drop of blood. The good guys don't always hold the moral high ground. The baddies are at times sympathetic. I admire that. Is that Star Wars? Is it a family film? I don't know. I suspect we'll be debating that for years.

Because the rest of Rogue One is so Star Wars! If you love this stuff at all, the last half hour will make you wriggle in your seat. I heard grown men gasp and commend the action on the screen. (True confession: I was one of them.) The last word of dialogue and crash to end credits earned a round of enthusiastic applause. Online chatter from critics and fans alike would have us believe Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie since 1980; I'm afraid I can't go that far, but it is very, very good, in exactly the Empire vein adult fans have been craving. I don't think there's any denying this is a better film all over than Return of the Jedi. Without all the clumsy fumbling of Episode III's final minutes, Rogue One transitions perfectly into Episode IV--so neatly, in fact, that the Holy Trilogy can now be said to comprise four films.

There are three characters at least that you'll fall in love with, including protagonist Jyn Erso (played impeccably by Felicity Jones). Rogue One's scale and spectacle are jaw-dropping, its action scenes tense and geographically clear. I'll happily buy it on video and pore through every arcane bonus feature. It seems clearer than ever that Star Wars is in good hands at Disney's Lucasfilm, respectful of fans but eager to please the movie masses. Grade: A-.

Now bring on Episode VIII !

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