Splitting Hairs – “Split” Movie Review

*** Warning: This post contains spoilers for the movie “Split”, If you’re planning to see it, stop here and come back afterwards to see if you agree with my review ***

I saw Split today, the new M. Night Shyamalan movie. Having it fresh in my mind, I thought I’d do a little movie review, as I haven’t done one before, and felt that I needed to.

Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s first two movies, Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Every movie he’s done since has fallen a little flat, failing to capture the verve of those two.

Split is a horror/thriller on a par with his later movies. Marginally better, but not by a lot. It’s a shame, because right through the movie I was thinking “Come on M. Night, you can do it with this one, you can make a really good movie.” But as more time elapsed my fears were realised.

Let’s talk about the story. The main character, Kevin, has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), with 23 distinct personalities (called the Horde) brought on by child abuse. Three of Kevin’s personalities, a heavy handed, obsessive compulsive male called Dennis, Patricia, an upright, schoolmarmish woman, and an insecure 9 year old called Hedwig, have taken over the other personalities, fuelled by a belief that a 24th personality, known as the Beast, will come forth with the power to protect them all.

The Dennis personality has been stalking two girls, and kidnaps them along with Casey, another girl who is a survivor of child abuse. Dennis locks the girls away in a room (and later, separate rooms) in his underground haunt, planning to use them as “sacred food” for the Beast.

Meanwhile, Kevin’s psychologist, Doctor Fletcher, who is an expert on DID, is contacted by email by some of Kevin’s other personalities, because they object to what the three dominant personalities have done. Dennis tries to put Dr Fletcher off the scent, but the good Doctor is wise to this, working out that Denis is trying to hide something.

Dr Fletcher has posited that Kevin’s DID personalities can enable physical changes in his body to match each personality (one of the female personalities is diabetic, for example), and that they may be a potential next step in human evolution. It’s a bit X-men, but you get where the director is going with this.

Eventually, Casey, the final survivor, confronts the Beast, who exhibits unusual strength, wall climbing and an ability to shrug off conventional attacks. The Beast identifies that Casey is a victim of long term abuse like he is (she is “pure”, he says), and escapes.

A surprising scene takes place at the end. Via a slow dolly through a roadside diner as the news reports discuss the outcome, a girl at the bar remembers a similar case from years before with a man in a wheelchair. She can’t remember his name and the camera ends on Bruce Willis, who says his name was “Mister Glass”. Anyone who has seen Unbreakable, will remember that Bruce played an invulnerable man who faced off against Samuel L. Jackson’s Mister Glass. So in effect, Split is a semi-sequel to that movie, and the ending is no doubt setting up a proper sequel to Unbreakable. Say franchise, anybody?

So what was it that didn’t grab me about this movie? It was well directed, with Shyamalan’s Hitchcock obsession apparent in his scene compositions and shots, it was edited well with a suitably eerie soundtrack. James McAvoy was excellent as Kevin (although a little over the top by the end), as was Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey. But something was missing.

I think the problem was the script. Only McAvoy’s and Taylor-Joys’ characters have any meat to them, and even then the scenes are almost ham fisted in their approach. As a result the two girls are killed and we as an audience don’t feel the loss. Although audiences can sympathise with Casey’s abusive past and current plight, by the time she confronts the Beast any concern we should feel is lacking. All the amazing pan shots and skillful edits in the world won’t make up for audience emotional disconnection.

While Casey uses her past as a victim of horrific abuse to advantage over Kevin, it never really leads anywhere. Any form of empowerment she has is whisked away by the end, as she sits in the police car and her abusive uncle arrives to pick her up. There is an expectation that she will do something now, but it fades along with the shot. Any potential transformation for Casey, as a result of both her abusive past and the kidnapping she’s experienced, falls flat.

The Bruce Willis scene seems, on face value, more the case of a director who has reached the end of the road, saying “hey, look! This is like a sequel to one of my good movies.” It’s like Shyamalan admitting he is out of ideas.

And Split is not scary. At no point did the dramatic tension get to a level where I was worried about Casey. In fact, many of the outcomes were telegraphed from early on. I expected the other girls to die. I expected Casey to survive, and I expected her abuse to be the reason why she did.

Split was a disappointing return for M. Night Shyamalan. I expected more, I wanted more, I so wanted this to be good. With the exception of that closing scene setting up the sequel to one of my all-time favourites, the movie ended up being purposeless. It had the potential to make some lasting and important statements about child abuse in modern society and the impact of serious mental health issues, but in the end these became mere plot points (and almost tacky ones at that), with any gravity lost by the time of the b-grade horror movie finale.

I’m hoping that Unbreakable 2 will be a lot better. It better be. I don’t want yet another of the movies of my youth being vandalised by a terrible sequel.

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That’s an Online Dating Fail! (Or, Strike One)

I joined a Christian online dating service a week or so back (get the lowdown on why, here). I was contacted by a lovely lady; we emailed back and forth, then texted, then spoke on the phone, and texted some more. We set up our first face-to-face meeting, to have coffee and see a movie together.

Then she went away for the weekend and went silent. I thought I had done something wrong and so I sent an apologetic text (I had no idea what I was apologising for), and she replied with a very nice “it’s not you it’s me” text, advising that she was going through a lot of heavy issues and didn’t want to bother me with them. See you round, and good luck with your ongoing search. I’m trusting she was telling the truth, but maybe I‘m just naïve. We never even got to meet.

 

(“Hah!” says Alpha Girl. “I knew you would bomb! Can I say ‘I told you so’?”

Beta Max shrugs. “Don’t worry, man. There’s plenty more fish in the online sea.”)

 

I’ve read a bit about online dating. I know that on apps like Tinder and sites like Match, some people play the field. I chose a Christian dating site because I’m Christian, and hopefully would avoid that sort of thing.

Being a nest of buzzing insecurities, I can’t help but wonder what went wrong. I was charming, funny, and honest. I’m a fit, late forties student with no job, a blog, and a dream that I can one day write for a living (okay, now I’m starting to see what’s not so appealing about me…). Maybe the age thing and the lack of employment made a difference. I’d like to think that my potential future dream girl would be honest enough to tell me if that were it.

 

(“I’ll tell you,” says Alpha Girl. “People don’t like you because you’re a boring, know-it-all, nerd. I don’t like you. You must have picked up on that by now.”

“Beta Max likes me,” I say.

“He’s an idiot, like you,” says Alpha Girl, smiling.

“Thanks a lot,” says Beta Max, slumping dejectedly.)

 

The Christian dating site I’ve joined is “slim pickings”, to say the least. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of Christian women, in my age range, in my area. I don’t want to join multiple sites as that may make me no better than a serial Tinder dater (no offense to anyone using Tinder, I’m sure you’re a wonderful person who doesn’t fit the stereotypical serial hook up mould).

Maybe I’m worrying as little too much. It is, admittedly, my first failure (possibly, of many). I just have to get back in the saddle and keep trying.

I’ve been told by several of my previous partners that “I’m easy to love”. I don’t know what that means, but I assume it’s positive. I just need an opportunity to demonstrate it. And maybe then I’ll understand it as well.

 

(“So much for your blog not being about picking up women,” says Alpha Girl.

“I’m too depressed to argue with you,” I reply.

“Good. That’s the way it should be,” she says.)

 

I live in Australia, where we use English spelling. I’m proud of my spelling. It’s not American spelling. And that’s okay.

“There is no try. Just do.”

My late-teens son, Padawan Nerd-in-Training, rarely listens when I offer advice. I can see his eyes glazing and his brain slowly switching off the brilliant lecture I have so carefully devised. He’s thinking about the latest Metal Gear Solid or what’s to eat in the fridge.

It’s not that he’s a bad kid – he doesn’t run wild at night, he doesn’t drink or do drugs. In fact it’s pretty hard to drag him away from his games console of choice to get him to go out and breathe fresh air. But he’s at the point now where I can’t really admonish him if he’s done something wrong, or to do chores. He’s a man now, so I have to reason with him, provide evidence to support my argument, plead and beg and bribe, if I have to. Gone are the days when my word was law and he jumped to it.

I sometimes worry that I didn’t bring him up the right way. I think every parent does. There’s no point blaming his mother for not providing him with a regular routine when he was young, or for moving him through five different schools because it was convenient for her to do that. Although I only had Padawan every weekend, I was still a big part of his life and thus an influence.

If you’re anything like me as a parent you agonise over everything you do and say, worrying that the latest advice or scolding you give is going to traumatise and have them in therapy in their later years. I must admit, it is very convenient for me to blame my parents every time I cry when I see a soppy movie.

But although we like to think we are the be-all and end-all, that’s not the case. The simple fact is, although we are major influences on our children, as soon as they get to school (or day care) they are exposed to friends, peers, teachers, all sorts of role models whom they learn from. Over time, they have a gamut of influences, many of which we have no control over. That’s not to say we still don’t worry about our own input, but there are many other factors at play.

And don’t get me started on the influence of the internet. Some days I’d like to blow up all the servers in the world and return us to a technological dark age, to stop the crap that kids and teenagers can get access to. Other days, it is the most valuable research and communication tool ever created (I couldn’t be a blogger without it). We take the good with the bad.

There is no perfect way to raise kids. We try to do our best. Sometimes we f*ck it up (I do, often). There are things we wish we had never done, things we should have done better, guilt that will follow us until the end of our days (unless you’re some kind of sociopathic parent who really doesn’t care at all).

So, I guess I should stop worrying. Padawan still comes to me for advice (he just doesn’t like it when I offer it). He chooses what he uses and what he doesn’t. That’s how free will works.

If only he’d just do it my way…

 

(Yes, I use English spelling. Get over it.)

J’aime Mon Chien

I started this blog to publish some of my uni work (to find how that turned out, refer here), to encourage me to write, and as a catharsis for my generally sombre and depressed state of mind. I wasn’t worried about traffic or who actually looked at it. It was like a daily therapy, allowing me to talk about my life and the things I like to do, to vent about things that annoy me, and the things I miss in life.

Take my dog for instance, a little black rescue mutt (whom I shall refer to as Black Doggo, as I like to think of him as a little pirate) that my ex-wife and I acquired about six months before our break up. She got Black Doggo in the breakup and I haven’t seen him since. I think she may have gotten rid of him, but can’t be sure as we haven’t spoken in over two years (except via divorce lawyers) and my emails and letters have gotten nil response.

That little dog was originally acquired as my ex-wife wanted to walk more to lose weight. From the very first day (as I suspected), I became the one who walked Black Doggo, looked after him, took him everywhere. Because he was little (about twice as big as a Chihuahua), he conveniently fit nicely in my small car (my version of a handbag, I suppose). I would take him on long drives on weekends, walking along the beach, visiting parents and friends (a convenient substitute for my ex-wife).

I heard Joe Cocker’s You are so Beautiful today, and it brought tears to my eyes as I thought about Black Doggo. I will write to my wife again and ask if she still has him and whether I can take him off her hands. I’m not allowed to have an animal where I live at the moment, but I think one look at his cute little face and any “objections from management” might be lifted.

I’ve only owned one other dog, a German Shepherd rescued from RSPCA death row (once again acquired by an ex-girlfriend, then left with me indefinitely). I had her (the dog, not the girlfriend) for ten wonderful years until she died of cancer. I cried like a baby as I carried her body from the vet’s to my car so I could bury her. I don’t think people in the waiting room were prepared for such a display of emotion from a man (this is Australia, after all).

It’s amazing the attachments we form with our animals. Often they are more valued to us than the attachments we form with other humans. It’s a fact that companion animals can help people living with depression and other mental illnesses*, by reducing anxiety and stress.

Dogs are incredibly loving and giving, they never hate (unless cruel owners teach them to), and are always there for you. Based on my track record with human partners, I’ll probably be at the end of my allotted time, lying in my death bed with a dog by my bedside.

And that’s okay with me.

 

*Don’t believe me? Check out the links below. And, yes, my spelling above is English, not American. Don’t hold that against me.

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/p/pets-and-mental-health

http://au.reachout.com/pets-and-mental-health

http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/07/cats-dogs.aspx

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/danielle-hark/pet-ownership-health_b_3187960.html

A Song a Day…

Today was Australia Day. And despite the inclement weather, most people were out celebrating (or protesting) and having fun (or protesting). I, however, stayed home and recorded music (which is my way of having fun).

I haven’t been able to record any music on account of my recording gear being stowed in several boxes (stored under numerous other boxes). Today I decided to drag my piecemeal studio out and set it up, so I could record a song and then put it all away.

Yes, it would be nice to leave my gear set up, however I have a tiny room and no spare space. Think of a broom closet, then halve it, and that’s my room. A bit like Harry Potter under the stairs, but without the stairs, and smaller.

It took me about two hours to unpack and set up (cables, cords and more cables). Once I had everything ready to go, I plugged in my guitar and noodled for an hour or so (as you do). Then it was time for lunch. I didn’t get anything started until well after 1:00pm.

I chose a song I wrote for church, that I’ve played to the congregation a few times recently. Why? I don’t know, it just took my fancy. I have about a hundred other tunes I could record, but I’ve decided I’m going to record Christian music for the next few months, until I have an album’s worth. Maybe I’ll release it.

Recording is a lot of work. Aside from the manual labouring to set up, there’s also the recording and multi-tracking of parts. I use a program called Samplitude that I’ve used for years. It’s not the latest thing, but it supports 24-bit digital recording. I also use a Yamaha USB Audio Interface to carry instrument signals to my laptop. I use Tannoy 60 watt nearfield monitors for mixing and mastering. Guitars and bass run through a Pod Line XT foot pedal unit I’ve had for years. For microphones, I use trusty Shure SM58s (I have a proper condenser mic but no space to set it up).

So, I smashed out a song called “Pray” and layed down some vocals. It sounds pretty good. I do tend to be a bit lazy with my recordings – it it’s okay, it’s good enough. Makes my tracks sound alternative, not so polished.

By 9:00pm I’m finished packing everything away again (why do they never fit in the boxes when you try to put them back? Grrrr…). I’m not sure when I’ll get the chance to record again; lots of commitments with study, reading, assignments and the like.

But it’s nice to know that I can. Even if it takes forever to get set up.

It’s been a long road back. But it’s a start.

Man of Steel – Superman for a pragmatic generation

I watched Man of Steel the other day, the underrated and divisive Zack Snyder film that reintroduced Superman on film and was the start of the celluloid DC Comics movie universe (known as the DCEU). It had been a while since I’d last seen it, so I thought I’d write a review (as you do), even though it’s somewhat late (like four years).

Henry Cavill stars as Clark Kent/Superman, and aside from being a good English actor who can do a decent American accent, he’s also built like the proverbial brick sh*thouse (Aussie slang meaning he’s big). Apparently he worked out solidly for six months before filming and put on about forty pounds of extra muscle. He’s the first Superman (sorry, Chris Reeve), who has the actual size and build to match the character in the comics. Clark is rocketed to Earth to escape his home planet Krypton’s destruction, grows up with human parents who teach him right and wrong, and eventually defends the planet from an invasion by Kryptonian criminals who survived the extinction of their world.

Amy Adams does a fantastic job as Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Lois Lane, and Russell Crowe is suitably stoic as Jor-El, Superman’s Kryptonian Father. Kevin Costner plays Clark’s human father, stealing his scenes in some deeply emotional flash backs with young Clark. Diane Lane is ideal as Martha Kent and Lawrence Fishburne redefines the role of Perry White, a role he was obviously made for. Michael Shannon plays General Zod, who wants to return the Kryptonian race by converting Earth into Krypton.

Now I know almost everyone loves Superman: the Movie and Superman 2, and for many people Christopher Reeve is the definitive Superman. I loved those movies when they came out, however there were some non-comics things that irked me about them even at a young age. For example, in Superman: the Movie, Superman turns back time by spinning the world backwards, undoing a major earthquake, saving Lois Lane from death and basically meaning he could do literally anything. Mario Puzo, who wrote the original script, advised that time traveling was not in his script, it was added by other scriptwriters later. And it was not a good choice. In effect, it demeaned the value of the characters and the movie itself, by being a deus ex machina plot device. In Superman 2, Superman loses his powers to a Red Sun Chamber in the Fortress of Solitude, so he can have a good time with Lois Lane, then gets them back when he needs to save the world, then reverses the chamber to take away the Kryptonian supervillains powers, whom he then throws into the freezing arctic waters where they die (who says Superman doesn’t kill – I guess it’s convenient in movies). And don’t get me started on the stupid cellophane “S” he uses as a weapon.

Man of Steel is a much more mature take on the Superman story. There’s no time travelling saves, no made up superpowers – in fact this version is probably the closest to the comics the movies have ever been. Man of Steel was pitched by Christopher Nolan (my all-time favourite director, who co-wrote the script with David Goyer) as a first contact movie, which makes a lot of sense. After all, if a guy like Superman was to appear and we found out he was an alien, what would people think, how would they react? They might not necessarily cheer him on at first and would probably be scared. Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS), the much-maligned sequel (which is a lot better than its critics suggest), addresses some of this in the news reports and interviews that feature as backdrops to some of the main Superman scenes in that movie, and includes the political and religious implications of a Superman.

Man of Steel has a serious and dark tonality. I like comic book movies taken seriously. I love the Marvel movies, but I understand that Warner Brothers was looking for a different tone when they launched the DCEU. One thing you notice when you watch Man of Steel is that almost every scene is filmed with handheld cameras, and the digital grading used washes out the primary colours, so that it appears more realistic looking – almost like a documentary. This is the effect that Snyder wanted. It’s not to everyone’s tastes, but it certainly makes the movie look much different to the standard superhero fare.

Man of Steel contains some of the best high-powered superhero fights committed to celluloid. The Kryptonian attack on Smallville is a standout. The impact of super-strength and super-speed on human soldiers and the town is convincingly portrayed, and Superman shows he can fight with the best of them (whereas previous Superman movies have shown the titular character as easily outclassed when he doesn’t have his powers, you can imagine a powerless Man of Steel Superman holding his own).

I like the fact that Lois Lane knows Clark’s identity from the start. In fact, many people in Smallville know he’s got powers. It makes more sense considering he is seen doing things a normal man can’t possibly do. Following up eyewitness accounts is how Lois tracks Clark down.

*** SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen the movie, but want to, don’t read any further ***

One of the things that made the movie so contentious, was the ending. After defeating the Kryptonian invaders, General Zod and Superman duke it out in Metropolis, destroying multiple buildings and a satellite. The Superman most people know should have tried to take the battle away from the city to prevent property damage and possible loss of life.  The explanation is that this is a brasher, younger, inexperienced Superman, who makes mistakes. Of course, Zod had threatened to destroy all humans at this point, so it’s quite possible Superman may not have been able to take the battle elsewhere, even if he wanted to.

Another thing that irks many viewers (especially those who prefer Chris Reeve’s Superman, despite the evidence in Superman 2), is Superman’s choice to break Zod’s neck, when Clark finds he has no other way of preventing Zod from incinerating some civilians. Yes, the comic book Superman has killed supervillains in the past (in fact, a parallel General Zod and Kryptonian villains in a storyline where they had destroyed an alternate Earth and threatened our Earth – it did send Superman a bit crazy, though). A lot of people make out that it’s some easy thing, but if you watch the scene you can see the impact is clear – Superman has not only killed a man, he’s killed the only other member of his race. Now he is truly alone. Luckily Lois is there to pick up the pieces, otherwise Clark may have ended up a basket case.

I haven’t mentioned the music. Hans Zimmer is not known for generic movie soundtracks. The Man of Steel soundtrack is a standout. Yes, I know the John Williams Superman theme can’t be beat, but Zimmer’s take is weighty and resonant, and in keeping with the current version of the character.

So take a look at Man of Steel again. It’s a lot better than you might have been led to believe.

And if you watch the sequel BvS afterwards, make sure you check out the extended edition Blu-ray, which includes a lot of scenes deleted from the original theatrical cut and provides much additional context and motivation for the characters.

Man of Steel presents a Superman for a newer, perhaps more pragmatic, generation. And it does it well.

The Music of Hope

(“Will you stop that racket,” cries Alpha Girl.

“Nah, turn it up, bro,” says Beta Max. He is quickly silenced by a sharp look from Alpha Girl.

I kick the door to my room shut and keep playing my Telecaster. The distorted notes flicker, whine, twist and turn, each fingering and bend, precise and emotion-filled. I am in heaven.)

 

I love my music.

I’ve been playing guitar for around 25 years, and not long ago I gave my original old Aria acoustic to a friend and updated to a Takemine. It sounds wonderful and I’ve written about twenty songs on it since I got it.

I play guitar every day. Most of the time I just noodle (jam with myself on chords and scales), but often that noodling will develop into a full-fledged song, so nothing goes to waste.

I originally had eight guitars, but after my breakup I got rid of everything bar an acoustic, my Fender Telecaster and a Jackson Bass. I figure, you only keep what you need; excess for the point of excess is wasteful. I also got rid of two guitar amps and kept one, my 100 watt Peavey Transtube twin-cone.

Sometimes I wonder why I used to hang on to all the gear I did. I guess I was a bit of a hoarder.

I did the same with my CD collection. I had around 2000 CDs. When I moved out I got rid of most of them (I had them on iTunes, anyway) and only kept the ones I felt I would listen to regularly in future – I kept less than a hundred. I also went through and deleted a fair few albums from my iTunes to free up hard drive space.

You may have guessed by now that I really love my music. I’ve been a muso for so long I don’t think I really thought of myself as anything else, even when my full time day job overtook the music side of things. Now I have time on my hands, and the music is at the forefront again. My recording gear and electronic drum kit are still in packing boxes, but eventually they will come out again, when I find my own place. Maybe sooner. I cut the recording gear back considerably when I moved out, as well.

 

(“Did you say you’re moving out?” says Alpha Girl, her grin as wide as can be.

“Nope,” I reply. She returns to grumpsville.)

 

There is a change in the air. I’ve been working my way through an emotionally draining season of ups and downs, highs and lows. But I think things are getting better. God gives me hope.

And hope, along with my music and my writing, is what keeps me going from day to day.

Proud to be a Bookworm (or Books Make My World Go Around)

(Alpha Girl is reading a magazine on the lounge; she flicks the pages back and forth cursorily, uninterested in the content.

“Bored?” I say.

“I am now that you’re here,” she says.

“How about reading a book?”

“I don’t want to turn into a book-loving nerd like you.”

“At least I don’t get bored.”)

 

Don’t you love the smell of a new book? I do.

I am a big user of The Book Depository (henceforth referred to as TBD), an online book service based in England (this is not a paid endorsement). I love the fact that they have free postage. I resent the postage charges overseas online companies charge. It’s just my thing.

I just received a few books in the mail today (delivered to the doorstep, so that I don’t have to leave the comfort of my home – I’m so lazy). I’ve only had books go missing once in the ten years or so of buying books from TBD, a quick email and new copies were delivered. Did I mention great customer service? (Okay, now I’m starting to sound like an advertisement.)

Back to the books. I am an avid reader. I read about 50-60 books a year – novels, Uni textbooks, short stories, autobiographies, histories; all sorts of stuff. I also love graphic novels. For those of you unfamiliar with the graphic novel: it is a complex and adult-oriented story told using sequential art. Okay, a comic strip. But not the type read by kids. Graphic novels cover a gamut of themes and genres and can be amazing pieces of visual storytelling. Check out Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen or Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, if you don’t believe me.

I recently finished a great book by Justin Cronin – The Passage. It’s a best seller, so it’s possible you’ve read it too. It’s an unconventional post-apocalyptic vampire thriller. If you haven’t read it I suggest you try it out – it’s very well written, and full of character and intensity. I just received the sequel, The Twelve, through TBD.

A favourite writer of mine is Patrick Ness. He writes young adult fiction, but his kinetic stories are incredibly emotional and surprisingly deep. Try out his Chaos Walking trilogy (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer and Monsters and Men), which is a commentary on racism, misogyny, genocide and terrorism, all disguised as a teenager’s book. Gripping stuff. I was so taken with these books, I immediately gave them to a friend because I wanted someone else to experience how I felt about them.

I love books, and I’m proud to be a bookworm. No doubt I’ll chat some more about them in future.

What’s your favourite book?

 

(“You are such a nerd,” says Alpha Girl.

“Because I love books?” I say. “If that’s the case, I’ll be a nerd, any day.”)

Lost in the Crowd

Have you ever been in a crowd of people and still felt lost?

I attend church regularly, every Sunday. I play songs for the congregation, listen to the week’s message, pray, socialise. It has become a highlight of my week.

But I always come away feeling sad, less downbeat then when I got there. This is not the fault of the service or the group; sometimes when you’re in a crowd of people you know, you can feel more isolated than ever, and the joy of the event can only serve to remind you of that.

A few years back, before I became Christian, I fell on very dark times and attempted to take my life. It’s not a story I’m proud of (although when I think about it, it is a somewhat black comedy of errors). Suicidal thoughts are something that many people with depression face every day.

Over the many years I’d been depressed, I’d contemplated suicide many times, but had never taken active steps to take my life. I think this is how it is with many people – it is certainly no small decision to make. Looking back, I’m so glad I failed, because it taught me how precious life was and how difficult it should be to try to throw it away.

Nowadays, when I am at my loneliest, I turn to God, to faith and hope and the love that exists in my life, even though I may sometimes be too deep in my dark thoughts to see.

I’m not going to preach to you about finding God. I believe that God finds us all, especially when we need Him most – that’s how He found me.

But if you’re alone, even if you’re in a crowd, and you feel there is no way out – talk to someone. Phone someone. Let them know how you feel. You’ll be surprised at just who will listen. And who will care. And just how many identify with how you feel.

Don’t get so lost in yourself, whether in a crowd or in your personal darkness, that you can’t find your way back to life.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44, with around 2,500 people dying by suicide every year. That’s an average of eight people every day. For every suicide, there are tragic ripple effects for friends, families, colleagues and the broader community. https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/suicide-prevention

Lifeline is a national charity providing all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. https://www.lifeline.org.au/

Death by suicide is highest for men aged between 45 and 54, and those over 80, although attempted suicide is more common in women than men. https://www.sane.org/mental-health-and-illness/facts-and-guides/suicidal-behaviour

Feeling suicidal, or know someone who is thinking about ending their life? Sometimes it can feel like it’s too hard to go on, and you’re giving up hope. Remember that suicidal thoughts are just thoughts – you don’t need to act on them. You can get control back. There’s info here on how to do it, what to do when you feel this way, and how to help someone. http://au.reachout.com/tough-times/somethings-not-right/suicide

When Good Dungeon Masters Go Bad

(“You’re ranting on that blog-thingy, aren’t you?” says Beta Max.

“Yes,” I say. “About the perils of unprepared Dungeon Masters.”

“The what? The tennis masters tournament?”

“No, the……yes, the tennis.”)

 

As you may know, I’m a nerd and proud of it. Not an over the top nerd, but one nevertheless. Every once in a while I get a chance to play a game of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D)*, sometimes as the Dungeon Master (DM)**, sometimes as a player character***.

Have you ever played a game where the referee just doesn’t know what they’re doing? In D&D, it’s the type who rolls up (pun intended) to the game with no preparation, no rule books, no dice and very little clue. I experienced a game like that the other night.

The DM had the adventure “all in his head” (the first danger sign), hadn’t brought any dice, pencils, books or materials to help him run the game, instead relying on his players to supply everything (the second danger sign). Throughout the game he would constantly reference Pathfinder**** rules (the third danger sign), wasn’t sure how the various D&D rules worked, asking his players for clarifications (the fourth danger sign), and would provide routinely easy challenges and overly large treasure hauls (the fifth and final danger sign).

You might be saying “that’s fine with me”. After all, some of the best adventures are often ad libbed, and if everyone’s having fun, then what’s the problem? Well that’s the thing. If the game is dragging to the point where people are checking their phones often and are saying “that was easier than expected”, then you know something’s not right (aside from the rule gaffes and absence of materials, I mean).

D&D is about having fun. It’s about fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants challenges and escapes. It’s about edge-of-your-seat dramatic tension as you wonder whether you’ll survive. It’s about the feeling of relief when you do. It’s about bizarrely humorous situations that naturally arise during the course of play. It’s about experiencing the wonder of battling and living in a fantasy world. It’s all these things that make for a great D&D (or other RPG*) game.

I have six basic rules I ask of DMs:

1 – Be prepared, but be flexible as well (those pesky players can basically try anything, y’know).

2 – Know the rules of the game you’re playing. You’re the DM, for Pete’s sake (and know what game you’re playing. That’s always a big help).

3 – DM honestly and fairly (if you’re making it up as you go along, please make it at least look like you know what you’re doing. And don’t play favourites, just because they know the rules better than you do).

4 – Involve all of your players (if they find their phones more interesting than the game, that’s a subtle sign to amp it up a bit).

5 – Learn from your mistakes so you can make the next session even better (read the rules, bring the dice, draw a few maps, bring along an adventure with some meat on the bones, as it were).

6 – Every game should be fun for you and the players (should be rule number one. If you as the DM are not enjoying yourself then you may need to prepare a little better. See rules 1-5).

Use this wisdom well.

And hopefully my next game with you will be better.

* For those of you who don’t know: D&D is a fun role playing game (RPG) played with dice but no board, where players become characters in a fantasy adventure, fighting monsters, gaining treasure, etc. There are lots of different RPGs, with different themes, rules and settings. Haven’t you read my earlier post Real Men Play D&D?

 ** The DM is the referee who adjudicates the adventure and controls the non-player characters. Just like at the tennis or the cricket. Except more hands on and with more power, death and destruction.

 *** The player character is the role undertaken by the player – it could be a fighter, a cleric, a wizard, etc. I told you, it’s a nerd game.

 **** Pathfinder is a fantasy role playing game originally based on D&D 3.5. The new D&D 5.0 and Pathfinder have diverged sufficiently to have various differing rules. You don’t really care, do you? Fine.

There is no try, just Kung Fu

(“Are you dancing again?” says Alpha Girl.

“No”, I reply, changing position slightly and moving my arm into a palm up Tan Sau block. “I’m practicing Wing Chun Kung Fu.”

“It looks suspiciously like dancing.”

“Would you like to join in?”

“Only if I can beat you senseless.”)

 

A few weeks ago, I started Wing Chun Kung Fu. It’s something I’d wanted to do for a long time but had never gotten around to. Now that I was a student of leisure with some time on my hands, I could take the plunge.

I contacted the Sifu by email, who advised to attend on a particular day to try it out. I went to the address on the website, only to be confronted by a worksite where the building used to be.

A quick mobile phone call and Sifu advised I was at the wrong address, that Google was, heaven forbid, wrong.

I drove to the new venue, which turned out to be his backyard – a concrete slab and car port, with various bits of martial arts equipment lying around. Sifu was a middle-aged, laid back fellow, with a pot belly and a glazed look. Not Bruce Lee, then.

My initial concerns were alleviated when Sifu started demonstrating some of the techniques I was to learn. Suddenly, he became a different person, like when Yoda started fighting Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones. He worked his way through numerous open palm and closed fist blocks and strikes, leg kicks, explained balance and stance. The focus was on not using muscular strength. (which is why he looked so laid back and unfit – turned out it’s all just a front…)

This was all new to me, of course – not using strength in a punch was something that took time to get used to. The idea was that the lowered shoulder, the angle of the arm and the low, balanced stance was used to deliver the attack or block, utilising the skeleton for power, rather than the arm’s muscle. It was surprisingly effective (as one would expect from a 3000 year old Chinese martial art – they’ve had a while to get it right).

I asked about belts (most martial arts have grading systems where you progress from one belt to the next, with black being one of the highest grades), and Shifu advised me Yoda-like: “No belts. You simply…do”. Fair enough. Who was I to argue?

So, I’ve been going for about five weeks now. I’m not an expert by any means, but I’m glad I made the effort to start.

Who knows, in a few years I may be Bruce Lee’ing and Kung Fu Panda’ing with the best of them.

 

(“So is this going to make you some kind of invincible street fighter?” says Alpha Girl.

“No,” I say. “But I should be able to defend myself and get away from a fight safely.”

“You don’t need any training to run away,” she says as she exits the room. “You’d be used to that by now.”

Always has to get the last word.)

Apple iTunes Bunnies Don’t Jump, They Just Annoy

(“Aghhh!” I cry. “This software is making me thirsty!”

 Beta max picks up on the joke and does the George Costanza version. “This software…is MAKING ME THIRSTY!”

 Alpha Girl sits on the lounge reading a magazine. “Can’t you two go be thirsty somewhere else? Especially you, Steve. New Zealand, perhaps?”)

  

If there’s one thing that irritates me a lot, it’s iTunes.

I’ve been an Apple user for about 15 years or so. I’ve seen their products improve over time, and I’ve seen iTunes (the program that allows you to update songs and data and backup your iPod, iPhone and iPad) evolve. I really like Apple products, for their durability, simplicity and ease of use. But iTunes…

iTunes was originally designed just for updating iPod, the first digital music player. It was simple to use, as it was only meant to load songs onto that device. When the iPhone and iPad showed up, iTunes was asked to do more and more. Various additions were made, making it more complicated for the average user. Over time, iTunes has become a bit of a clunky mess (apologies to the Apple software designers – I understand you have to work with what you’ve got).

Over the years I’ve had numerous problems with iTunes, and the latest is it won’t allow my devices to sync (a process that allows you to back up and update). I’ve read the online forums and used their suggestions i.e. reset devices, reboot computer; all to no avail. I’m now trying to download iTunes to reinstall it. Four times it has failed to download. My internet connection is good, but it keeps failing.

I don’t have that much hair left to pull out. I’m vocalising my frustration with very un-Christian language.

I’m now at a loss as to what to do. iTunes will play music on my laptop, but won’t update my devices.

Maybe I should just buy a new laptop, but that seems a little extreme for a fix (it’s also not a financial option).

If anyone has a suggestion, I’d love to hear it.

 

(“Have you tried turning your computer off?” says Beta Max.

“First thing I tried,” I reply. “Switch off, switch on. It’s the IT fix-it mantra.”

“No, I meant just leave it off,” he says.)

Stupid Boy

(“Lord, I’m stupid,” I say, face palming.

“So, you finally agree with me,” says Alpha Girl.)

I started this blog to force me to write as much as possible. I want to be a real writer, after all (a poverty-stricken writer, more than likely, but a writer, nonetheless). I also wanted to post some of my Uni discussion thread posts, as I had received good feedback on them.

I’ve just now realised that I can’t post my Uni threads. The reason for this is that my Uni posts are being gathered into an assignment due at the end of the course. The assignment will be submitted via the SafeAssign checker software, which searches the web for similar articles, to prevent plagiarism.

So if my Uni posts are on the web, I will actually be plagiarising myself. At this point you may laugh out loud, if you wish.

I wrote to my lecturer, who recommended taking down the Uni-related blogs. This is not such a bad thing, as I currently have enough non-Uni related blogs to sustain a viable site.

But either way, I’m still stupid.

(“Why is she always so negative,” I ask Beta max.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “She’s like that with me, too. It just means she likes you.”

“I’d hate to see what she’s like when she doesn’t like someone.”

Beta max shivers. “You don’t ever want to experience that.”)

Dark Blue is not my Favourite Colour

Not every blog I post has to be funny, I reminded myself as I typed.

I went for a drive into town, then a seven kilometre walk, accompanied by my iPod. Through it all I was deeply melancholy – the wretchedness you feel when you fixate on your past and realise just how crappy you were. It was triggered by a conversation about my soon-to-be ex-wife, who I heard was very sad. “I never wanted her to be sad,” I said. “I just wanted her to move forward and find happiness with someone else.” The irony was not lost on me.

As I walked glumly from block to block, to a despondent soundtrack (why is it that when you’re down only unhappy songs play? My iPod appeared to be sensing my mood and saying “hey, this next one will make you feel even worse than the last”, like some sadistic, lonely hearts DJ). As I visited book shops and coffee houses on my own, I longed for company. One of my best mates lived nearby, but I didn’t want to lay my troubles at his door.

My despair was only reinforced by every couple I saw. I found myself missing my wife profoundly, knowing that I shouldn’t, that our break was irreconcilable. She hadn’t responded to my conciliatory email attempt. Some pain was too great to dismiss.

There was a time when I loved shopping (yes, you heard right – a guy who likes shopping) and I knew the only reason I enjoyed it so much was because of the people I shared the experience with. I liked to buy gifts for those I loved, not because I was trying to purchase their affection, but because making them happy made me happy.

When I got home I was relieved, because I knew I had people there, and if I stayed by myself much longer my thoughts would drift to “unpleasant personal endings” (been there, tried that, luckily didn’t succeed, let’s move on).

I’ve suffered from depression most of my life. I’ve done the anti-depressants thing, been to therapy (still in it, thanks), tried the self-help books. The Good Book always inspires. But the best solution for me was always having someone to care for, someone to share with, someone to love. I know God challenges us every day, and these trials are seasons we endure, seasons that eventually pass (even if they sometimes last years). Alas, that doesn’t make me feel better.

I know my wife will never read this, never know just how sorry I am, how sad I am that I hurt her. Maybe it’s better that way.

In many ways, this blog is my catharsis. It’s a place where I can live a somewhat humorous alternative life, an escape from my pervasive dark blues.

But not every blog I post has to be funny.

(Three million Australians live with depression or anxiety every day. beyondblue provides information and support to help Australians achieve their best possible mental health. https://www.beyondblue.org.au/)

Finding Disney (or, feeding the beast with two ears)

Did you know that Disney is the world’s second largest media conglomerate in terms of revenue, after Comcast? (Thank you, Wikipedia. For a site that’s 72% accurate, you’re okay with me.)

I remember a time when Disney was home to saccharine kid’s movies and animated classics. I remember a time when I used to watch the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday night, replaying their catalogue of old movies in two parts, once a week. There weren’t that many Disney products around at the time, aside from a glut of lunchboxes, books and viewmasters (those 3D viewer thingies with the round picture wheels – remember them? Probably not). Disney was just a struggling movie company with some interesting theme parks.

In the 90’s Disney went a bit weird (falling stock market share prices can do that to you) and started making sequels to everything they owned. Suddenly there was a glut of direct-to-video sequels to their most popular animated movies. These were inevitably lame and seemed like cash grabs by a desperate company (if you look for them on DVD shelves now you probably won’t find them – Disney has much better movies to sell you now).

 

(“Sounds like you have a problem with Disney,” says Beta Max.

“I’m getting to that,” I say, waving him away.)

 

Disney’s studio arm took off in the later part of the noughties, after good deals with Pixar and a few good movies of their own (although it was mostly on Pixar’s coat tails). From there the entertainment conglomerate acquired numerous business arms ending with the wholesale purchase of Pixar (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, etc.), Marvel (Avengers, Iron Man, etc.) and Lucasfilm (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc).

So what does Disney own, now? Here’s a list:

  • Walt Disney Studios (making cute, fuzzy animated and live action movies, as well as adult movies – not porn! Like, normal movies for adults)
  • Disney Music Group (no doubt cute, fuzzy music)
  • Disney Theatrical Group (cute, fuzzy ice-capades and stage shows)
  • Disney-ABC Television Group (the television network)
  • Radio Disney (umm…cute and fuzzy radio?)
  • ESPN Inc. (the cable sports network. Not so cute and fuzzy.)
  • Disney Interactive (cute and fuzzy computer games)
  • Disney Consumer Products (all those cute, fuzzy toys, and other crap)
  • Disney India Ltd. (cute, fuzzy, Bollywood blockbusters, no doubt)
  • The Muppets Studio (those cute, fuzzy puppets)
  • Pixar Animation Studios (those cute, fuzzy, ground-breaking animated movies)
  • Marvel Entertainment (those cute, fuzzy superhero comics)
  • Marvel Studios (those cute, fuzzy superhero movies and animation)
  • UTV Software Communications (more computer and ICT stuff, possibly not cute and fuzzy)
  • Lucasfilm (those not so cute, but fuzzy, Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies beloved of my youth)
  • Maker Studios (a huge YouTube content maker, not really cute and fuzzy at all)

So why does this annoy me? Because three of my favourite franchises – Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar – are now owned by a giant mouse, known for creating crap sequels. (Yes, this rant is all about a big company potentially ravaging my youth.)

Now I’ve seen the latest movies from each of those three, and they are still pretty good. This is because Disney has left them alone to do their own thing. But how long until Disney gets their fingers into each and starts stirring (that’s a horrible image, I know). It’s not that I hate Disney, I just don’t believe that one company should own so many good properties. Especially one that’s been known in the past to do some pretty silly things with their properties, all in the name of profit.

Last year Disney cracked six billion dollars profit from its movie properties alone (that’s not counting merchandising), a feat only achieved once before by Universal. This year they look set to do even more (by way of comparison, the Disney company brought in $55.6 billion gross/$15.7 billion net profit overall, last year).

Disney is sometimes accused of influencing and moulding young children into future consumers of their products. There is a saying that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. And you know what they say about big ears. Yes, that’s right – “my, what big ears you have”. So I guess Disney has the biggest ears of all. (That sounds like crazy talk, I know. It must be because I’m writing this late at night and I’m a bit gaga.)

I just want my favourite movie franchises to be good. And I fear we may be feeding a beast that will one day consume the entertainment world. Monopolies are not a good thing, despite what the board game tells you.

Beware the big ears (like Big Brother, but with like, big ears. Sorry, it’s late.)

 

(Beta Max enters the kitchen, yawning. “Are you still up? Go to sleep, man.”

“I’ve finished my rant,” I say. “My work is done. Now I can rest.”

“I hope it was worth it,” says Beta Max.

“Disney makes around $30,000 per minute. I make 3 cents per minute. No, it hasn’t been worth it at all.”

“Bummer,” says Beta Max. “Just can’t win with those odds.”

“Exactly, my friend. Exactly…”)

The Ballad of Long Term Systemic Gym Junkie Injuries

(I’m just finishing my fifth set of weighted pull ups – that’s where you hang a 20 kilogram barbell from your belt and do correct form pull ups from a suspended chin up bar – when Alpha Girl enters and stands with her arms crossed. “You sweat a lot,” she says. “And do you have to grunt so loudly?”

“Could you go and bother someone else?” I say. “I’m pretty exhausted.”

“You look like you’re in pain.” Is that concern I sense? Can’t be.

“A bit. I have a long term tendonitis injury in my left elbow, and it hurts every time I work out.”

“So you’ve hurt yourself, and you keep making it worse?”

“Well, sort of. I have rest days and -”

“Your elbow injury is getting worse.”

“I’m looking after it.”

“Why are men such idiots?”)

Anyone who works out at home or in the gym on a regular basis will know what sort of short term damage you can do to yourself, if you’re not careful. Strained and torn muscles and ligaments are part of the game, but can generally be avoided if you stretch and warm up properly before starting your sets.

About two years ago I was working out with a mate who was much bigger and stronger than me. We were doing one of my favourite exercises, the aforementioned weighted pull ups, and I was lifting the same weight he was (as you do). I felt a twinge in my left elbow, but ignored it (as you do). I kept going, not wanting to show any weakness (as you do).

Over the next few weeks the elbow got worse. Being a man, and a stupid one at that, I chose to think it was just ligament strain, and that it would heal with a week off (as you do). I got back into training and the injury got worse. Eventually I went to the Doctor who gave me pain killers, a support bandage, and a recommendation that I stop training altogether for six months. After considering this for all of five seconds (as you do), I wore the bandage for a few weeks then took it off as I believed my left arm wasn’t getting the workout it needed (as you do).

Every gym junkie has their preferred approach to training. Many do 5-10 sets of 5-10 reps (repetitions) per body part (chest, back, legs, arms), exercising a different body part each day (a split routine). This can include supersets (my preferred option, whereby you do supersets of 2-3 different exercises for the same muscle group each set), drop sets (where you start with heavier weight and drop the weight back continuously as you go until you’re exhausted), circuits (multiple types of exercises for an all over body workout, moving from one machine to the next), and so forth.

Most sane people work out around three days per week. Body builders can work out five days per week, and if they have a competition coming up this can be stepped up to twice per day over that week (generally you would need steroids to recover from such intense workouts – my apologies to anyone who is competing who says they are not taking steroids).

I currently train for about 1.5 hours a day, four days per week. This includes a body split with a changing mix of supersets, followed by a tabata (a 4-minute intense cardio blaster) and/or jogging/walking circuits with push ups and lunges after each lap. My workouts tend to keep me lean with reasonable mass, but not huge body builder size.

One of the most important facets of training is having perfect form. This is where the exercise is done strictly, not rushed, using precise form so that the muscle is hit to maximise micro-tears in the fibres for optimal regrowth. Along with this is the need to eat right (lots of protein for muscle building, along with complex carbs for sustained energy) and sleeping right (good rest for recovery). This is, of course, oversimplifying things, but I didn’t want this post to go on forever.

(“That would be a first,” says Alpha Girl.

“Just go away,” I say.)

Anyone who has been training for any amount of time inevitably becomes a backseat expert (as you do) – you read a few fitness magazines and suddenly all of your advice is golden. Despite the threat of constant joint pain and crippling rheumatoid arthritis for the rest of your life, the basic formula is: Training = good, six months rest = evil.

But I had to do something. My neanderthal gym brain was telling me “must…fix”.

I finally started ultrasound therapy on my elbow, which is showing some promising results. I’m still working out regularly, so the improvement is slow. But at least it’s a start.

The moral of this story? Even a stupid gym junkie can use his brain. Sometimes.

(“Are you sure it’s getting better?” asks Alpha Girl. “I wouldn’t want anything to prevent you from getting a job. Or even better, moving out.”

“For a moment there I almost thought you cared,” I say. She smirks and exits.)

(English spelling, not American. Just so you know.) 

The Muso Who Said: No More! Or was it no, more…

(Alpha Girl walks into my bedroom, screams and says “What are you doing?!”

I immediately freeze mid-action. She wrinkles her face up like crumpled newspaper. “Were you…dancing?” she says.

“Um…no,” I say. “I was just…head banging…to…” Awkward silence. “Metallica’s new album on my iPod. They’ve done this dance/funk/metal crossover-type thing. Yeah, it’s all the rage.”

Alpha Girl, always the suspicious one, tilts her head to one side, eyes me intently and scans the room for incriminating evidence. “Metallica, eh?” she muses.

“Yeah…they’ve gotten really experimental, lately”, I lie.

Alpha Girl walks over, yanks the earbuds from my ears and places one near her own. She immediately guffaws. “I can’t believe you’re listening to Taylor Swift!”)

 

I have been a serious musician for about 25 years or so. I play guitar, drums, bass, keyboards and sing. I write my own music and have made seven albums. (And, yes, I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to my music – so, sue me.) I have very broad musical tastes; I like metal, punk, jazz, pop, funk, rap, classical, and opera, to name a few styles. But in all my time as a serious muso, I have never, ever admitted to liking the music of Taylor Swift.

So what’s so bad about Taylor Swift, you say?

We so-called serious musos have an unwritten rule. We are not allowed to like rich, attractive, mainstream musicians (especially when they are squillionaires at some ridiculously young age). It’s just not the done thing. The reason for this is because most serious musicians tend to be poor, unattractive, alternative and poverty-stricken.

It’s called tall poppy syndrome, and we’ve all been guilty of it at some point or other. Musos are the worst. If we feel they didn’t do the hard yards like we did, they can’t possibly make good music.

But a few months back I actually got my hands on a copy of Taylor Swift’s album 1989. And because I’m an eclectic music listener, and tell anybody who will listen that I can find the good in almost any song (I can’t help it, I’m fair), I decided to give it a spin.

And I have to admit, I was pretty impressed.

Swift puts a lot of herself into her songs. (And yes, I know most of them were collaborative efforts, but that’s okay.) She sings self-deprecatingly about how she can’t keep a boyfriend, that people put her down for being who she is (Shake It Off), and that she’s a little left of centre field (Blank Space). She sings deeply and emotionally about relationship breakdown (Clean). And she writes some of the catchiest tunes you’ve ever heard (listen to Style and Bad Blood, if you don’t believe me). She presents as incredibly vulnerable and intimidating at the same time (must be her height and all that money). Swift is also a damn fine singer.

I love musicians who write personal and semi-autobiographical material. I’m guilty of it myself. It’s why I love John Lennon, Ed Sheeran, Birdy, Eminem, Jewel, John Mayer, Kate Miller-Heidke, Missy Higgins, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, Regina Spector, Adele, Death Cab for Cutie, George Michael, to name a few.

I also love musos who tell stories in their songs, like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Prince, Foo Fighters, U2, Duran Duran, Queen, Alice in Chains, Biffy Clyro, Dream Theater, Fall Out Boy, Hard-Fi, Harry Connick Jr, Jimmy Eat World, k.d. lang, Linkin Park, Rise Against. Like I said, I have broad musical tastes.

And I’m not afraid to admit I like Taylor Swift.

Great album, Ms Swift. You have yet another fan and more cash to add to your squillions. And from what I understand, you’re also really nice to your fans, so I can’t even criticise you about that. DOH!

 

(“You like Taylor Swift, Mr oh-so-serious punk metal muso,” teases Alpha Girl. “Where’s your street cred, now?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say.)

The Last Chocolate Cowboy

(I hand the box of chocolates around. Beta Max takes a moccachino caramel toffee with whipped orange mallow and dark chocolate swirls. Hmmm, I think. I really wanted that one.

Alpha Girl hesitates before choosing. “So why are you being so generous?” she says.

“I just wanted to share,” I reply. “Something wrong with that?”

Alpha Girl grabs five chocolates from the box, watches my eye twitch slightly. “These ones are your favourites, aren’t they?” she says, her eyes glinting malevolently. “I’m going to enjoy them so much…”)

 

Chocolate! I’m not a huge chocolate eater, but when I have some I like to take my time to enjoy it. Of course, I share with others because it’s the right thing to do. But deep down, there’s that niggling selfishness to keep it all to myself, so I can stuff my face silly.

I’m not the sort of person who hoards food. I’m more than happy to share anything I have with people around me, whether they’re horrible to me or not.

 

(“Hey!” says Alpha Girl. “Is that some veiled reference to me?”

“No,” I reply. “I don’t need to disguise anything I write about you.”)

 

Chocolate is one of those things that most people just can’t get enough of. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t like it (hold on, I remember some crazy weirdo on a train once who didn’t, but I think their mind was on other things…)

Apparently it’s been around for about 3000 years or so and was used by the Aztecs. There’s nothing like a bit of chocolate after a busy day flaying people alive and cutting out their hearts.

I’m a dark chocolate lover; I like the bitterness mixed with the sweetness. Others prefer milk chocolate, white chocolate, blended chocolates – in fact there are so many types of boutique chocolates now, I’m not sure if they can be called chocolate any longer.

Apparently eating a little chocolate every day is good for your gut bacteria. I prefer that argument to the one about causing obesity. I’m not a fan of eating lots of chocolate (unlike my father, who enjoys his chocolate in bulk, and preferably in his stomach as soon as possible), but I guess there’s a time and a place for everything.

 

(“Man, I love chocolate,” says Beta Max, as he grabs another from the box and stuffs it unceremoniously into his mouth. “I could eat these all day.”

“As long as you leave some for me,” I say. The chocolates diminish along with my hope.)

 

Yeah, chocolate is mighty, fine stuff. But then I’m preaching to the converted, aren’t I?

Angry Birds – or “I’m on a good thing here…”

I visited one of my good mates the other day (whom I shall refer to as ‘Surfer Dude’), and was greeted by his wife (forever more to be known as ‘Master Artist’, or MA for short), who was engaged in conversation with a fuming man (whom I will refer to as ‘Angry Bird’).

After venting enough steam to run a power station for a month, Angry Bird left. MA explained that he was an old friend of Surfer Dude’s; he dropped down every month or so to pick up his mail (Angry Bird had used their address for this purpose for many years). He had just returned from a long yacht trip up the coast with a friend, who had unceremoniously dumped him on a remote beach when the two of them realised they couldn’t be on the same boat together without killing each other.

Angry Bird had an anger management problem; his temper would rise to the point where he would lose it – almost having a psychotic break. This issue would often arise when he recounted events that made him upset, as he had while talking to MA earlier.

MA explained that she had been a bit worried about his rising ire and that she had prayed for Surfer Dude to come home from the beach. I had knocked on the door, effectively answering that prayer.

“I’ve never worried about him before,” MA said. “I didn’t think he would hurt me, but I was a little concerned.”

“If he’s using this place as his home address,” I said. “It might not be on the up and up.”

“Angry Bird isn’t the kind of person who would do something dishonest,” said MA. “He’s a very intelligent man who goes out of his way to help people.”

Surfer Dude arrived home not long after. “Yeah, the address thing is obviously dodgy,” he said.

 

(Alpha Girl looks over my shoulder as I type. “So what’s this about?” she says.

“Friends who take advantage,” I reply.

“Hah! You’re no expert on that,” she says. “You don’t have any friends.”)

 

So what’s the point of this story?

Have you ever had a friend who has stretched the friendship just that little bit too far – taken advantage of you in some way? It could be stealing your world-changing idea and making millions, or building their motorcycle in your front room, or turning up on your doorstep after a decade away looking for a place to stay and asking you to change their colostomy bag.…

I’m talking about people you consider good friends, people you would bend over backwards for (so, no, not your Facebook friends).

Now’s your chance to blow off some steam – share your experience in the comment box below (but don’t use any real names).

Go on, you know you want to.

 

(Alpha Girl frowns. “That’s it? You’re getting readers to write the blog for you, now?”

“I call it ‘writer/readers Hanging Out about not so Positive Experiences’ or HOPE, for short,” I reply.

“More like ‘writer Suggests High-minded Idea Terribly’,” she says. “Or SHIT.”)

Sting’s “57th & 9th” – a review through the eyes of a jaded muso

I picked up the latest Sting album, 57th & 9th, the other week. I play it when I work out, so I’ve had the opportunity to listen to it a number of times. I’ve deliberately not read or listened to any reviews so I could provide a balanced viewpoint in my own. It should be noted I’ve been a Sting fan all my life, so please bear that in mind as you read this.

The first thing that struck me when comparing 57th & 9th with Sting’s previous material is how stripped back it is. His recent reunion tour with The Police has been an obvious influence. I saw Sting playing live on TV the other night and he had a three-piece backing band supporting him as he played bass, rather than the large ensembles he usually tours with. The material on 57th & 9th has a leaner production and drier mix than previously (tighter, less involved arrangements and less reverb, for those not in the know).

The first time I heard this album I was in two minds. Part of me wanted to love it, and part of me felt it was a little…dull. Sting’s previous compositions tended to be slow and methodical, with sprinklings of odd time signatures and well crafted, intellectual and literary lyrics. That remains the case on 57th & 9th. There is an underlying poignancy to this album, the passage and inevitability of time a common theme in many of the songs.

The more upbeat material, I Can’t Stop Thinking About You, musing about old age and the search for love, and Petrol Head, with its speed-driven biblical allusions, break up the plodding feeling this album can have. In 50,000 Sting responds to the loss of Bowie while pointedly reflecting on his own fading star. One Fine Day is a catchy environmental song, where Pretty Young Thing is a period piece love story. One of the more potent songs on the album, Inshallah, tells about the plight of Syrian refugees fleeing from conflict, through the eyes of a father. If You Can’t Leave Me is a dark tale of possession, insecurity and self-doubt told in 7/8 time. The album is capped with The Empty Chair, an affecting tale of a prisoner separated from his family.

This time around Sting has written much of the material with co-writers from his backing band, and there’s a familiarity and leanness that is reflected in the songs. Perhaps age has mellowed him, making him a little less of a control freak than his various biographies would imply.

I liked this album. It’s mature, thoughtful, song writing that deeply resonates with me. If you give 57th & 9th a try I think it may with you, too.

The Perils of Christian Dating (or “ask questions first and shoot after you’re married”)

(Alpha Girl reclines on the lounge and eyes me venomously. “So when are you going to get out and meet someone? I know it’s hard, you being a loser and all, but other people do it.”

Beta Max thumbs his Xbox controller and nods. “She’s right you know. You’ve been a hermit for too long, man.”

Through artful manipulation of multiple controller buttons I eliminate his on screen avatar, turn and smile at them both. “I’ll have you know that I’ve thought about that. I’m writing a blog about it later.”

Alpha Girl rolls her eyes. “Now you’ve started that blog you’re in the house even more than you were before. If you get out and meet a girl maybe you could move out. Or get a job. Or both.”

“Yeah,” says Beta Max. “Don’t forget to come over and play me on Xbox, though.”)

 

Two years ago I broke up with my wife. Around the same time I resigned my job of twenty plus years. It was more than a mid-life crisis – really a case of kicking myself in the balls for an extended period of time. Since then I’ve done a lot of soul searching, complemented by much self-loathing and despair. Aside from a good dose of psychological therapy, I also found comfort in God. I became a Christian, found a great church run by a good friend, and started getting my crappy life back together.

It’s been about ten years since I’ve been on a date with anyone other than my wife. I find that I’m struggling to work out how to do it, especially in light of my new found status.

I’ll lay it out for you: I’m mid-forties, fighting fit with a great gym bod (so I’m told), I’m reasonably good looking, reasonably smart, reasonably lovable, have no home, no possessions and little money (those last ones hurt), and have Christian values, so sex before marriage is off the table.

 

(“I thought your blog was to improve your writing,” cries Alpha Girl from the kitchen. “It’s just an excuse to meet women.”

“Whoa,” I reply. “That is not the reason – I’m providing context.”

Her head appears around the door. “And you thought I couldn’t get a rise out of you.”

Touche.)

 

So how do older Christians find someone to date? I guess I could meet someone at my local church. The ladies there are lovely, however all of them are either 1) too old, 2) too married or 3) both.

I spoke to a charming woman who told me a long story about meeting her husband via a Christian online dating service. Now I dabbled in online dating a few years back when my girlfriend (who later became my wife) and I split up briefly. It was a pretty depressing affair that sent me running back to her to propose (details? I went out with thirteen women in three months and none of them were a patch on her).

I can’t really hang out in clubs anymore because the average age of club goers appears to have dropped to that of teeny boppers, making me feel like a freaky old grandpa stuck in a literal twilight zone.

There’s another problem. Possibly the biggest (not that – get your mind out of the gutter).

I cannot read the signals that women give off. You know what I mean – when someone is interested in you they give you a few subtle signs and whammo, you know they like you. I am completely unable to spot these signals. Example: I remember a party some time ago where I sung an impromptu duet with a gorgeous girl. She told me how cute I was and I told her what a great singing voice she had. It wasn’t until after she split that I realised the error of my ways.

 

(“You pick up on my signals easily enough,” says Alpha Girl.

“Contemptuous disdain is one I can’t miss,” I reply. “Oh, a tautology. I’ll need to write that one down.”)

 

This has never really been a problem for me in the past. The women I’ve gone out with have expressed themselves in no uncertain terms (that is, hit me over the head with a pile driver and literally jumped me on the spot). This is what I like to call the “shoot first, ask questions later” approach.

Of course, being a Christian complicates things a bit. Since we’re going to get to know each other first (the “ask questions” component), and we’re not going to actually do the “shooting” bit, I have to learn how to interpret the signals to know if a woman likes me.

Having been blind to these signals for so long I’m concerned that I’m going to miss the love of my life unless she has a blazing neon sign attached to her head saying “It’s me!” In fact, I’m a bit worried I may have met her already and never recognised her because she didn’t have that aforementioned flashing sign on her.

So I’m praying for some pretty big signs. And a pair of big eyes so I can see properly.

And an eventual cure for my semi-patented disability.

And a woman who recognises the love in my heart. A woman who doesn’t care about a big bank account – and no, that is not a euphemism.

Here’s hoping.

 

(“I think I’m going to vomit,” says Alpha Girl.

“Didn’t like the sentimentality in that last line?” I say.

“No. I just don’t like you.”)

Real Men Play D&D (when their girlfriends aren’t looking)

So, I’m a nerd from way back (you wouldn’t know it now, I’m fit, healthy and a wee bit trendy). I have, however, accepted my nerdism and embraced it (to those still struggling with coming out as a nerd, I strongly suggest you take a good look at yourself and get over it. Don’t you know that geeks are in?).

Like many young nerds, I played Dungeons and Dragons, a tabletop fantasy role playing game and glowing beacon for nerdity everywhere. Now some of you reading this blog (if there are actually any of you), may be wondering just what this D&D thing is.

(Alpha Girl smirks as she sees me reading a copy of the D&D Player’s Handbook. “You are such a geek”, she says.

“But a well built one,” I reply.

“No amount of weight lifting is going to change the fact that you are lame.”

“And no amount of nastiness is going to change the fact that you can’t get a rise out of me.”)

A role playing game allows the players, gently guided (read: slaughtered) by a “Dungeon Master” (yes, it’s a stupid name), to take on the role of a character living in a sword and sorcery fantasy world. They fight monsters, grab treasure and generally live an impossible existence far more exciting than their real lives. The game doesn’t require a board, as it takes place in the imagination of the players. There are, however, large numbers of accessories to visualise the game (including miniatures, for the less imaginative).

D&D was the first fantasy role playing game. Created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974, it became the template for a plethora of RPGs that followed, both tabletop and electronic. Since the original incarnation there have been multiple versions/updates – the latest is Fifth Edition, called “5E” by its fans, for short. 5E was released two years ago and has been responsible for a resurgence in D&D’s popularity. Indeed, tabletop RPGs have entered a new renaissance, with electronic PDFs of old and new games and supporting materials sold online via sites like www.drivethrurpg.com.

But what does the game mean to me? I’m glad you asked. Let me take you back to 1981, when a skinny young kid came across a copy of Basic D&D in his local games shop. He took home the strange pink box (yes, a horrible colour, even then). “This game hasn’t got a board,” he said to his mum, feeling he’d been ripped off in some way.

I was the first guy in my school to own a copy. I played it with my friends, who had never heard of a game like this before. They were all slaughtered in the first room of my first dungeon (I had yet to learn that it’s was a good idea to have some players survive so that they might want to play again).

A year later I moved on to Advanced D&D, a more complicated, definitely more expensive, version of the game. By this stage I had tempered my Dungeon Mastering lust for player character doom with some compassion, so some of them managed to level-up – that is, advance in rank so that they could take on bigger, better and more dangerous monsters and dungeons. And possibly die a more horrible death.

AD&D was responsible for a vast improvement in my mathematical ability, due to ridiculous experience point calculations. AD&D, along with other nerd-like things, such as comics and Star Wars, helped forge in me a fevered imagination and creative bent. And a joy of writing.

(“Wait a minute,” says Beta Max. “Are you saying that this game makes you magically good at maths?”

“Not magically, but with a bit of work, yeah,” I reply.

“Oh,” says Beta Max. “For a minute there I was interested.”)

Even my son (a padawan nerd-in-training) has started playing. I harped on about the game for years and he finally created his first character the other week (a Half Orc Paladin who communicates in grunts and gestures and has a penchant for physically throwing his protesting Halfling Rogue comrade into battle). Needless to say he loved his first game. (Told ya so, son!)

Nowadays, I play D&D every week or two. It’s surprising how many “gamers” are out there. You probably know one. They may even outwardly look like a “cool” person. But don’t be mistaken: they are a nerdist in disguise.

I say embrace your inner geek. Don’t you know we will inherit the Earth?

Play on, fellow gamers.

(P.S. Lots of women play D&D as well. Ignore that stupid title, it’s supposed to be a joke. English spelling as well, haters!) 

 

So…why a blog?

Good question, I ask myself.

I’ve recently enrolled in two writing courses for Uni. I’ve written for work in a business capacity for years, and I wrote short stories in my youth. I guess I thought I should do something now that I’m semi-retired (that’s a nice way of saying unemployed).

I’ve been posting my assignment answers to the course discussion board, and some of the readers have been amused. So I thought maybe, just maybe, I could give blogging a go. Why not? The worst I could do is crash and burn. And it’s not like many people would notice (my guess is the traffic for this site will be one hit – by me).

And here I am. Ready for the big wide world with not a lot to say, but a hankering to say it anyway. (Oh, I should mention I’m a musician and composer – I love stuff that rhymes. It doesn’t have to be a good rhyme.)

I’m not political (much). I’m not charismatic. I’m not even a very good writer.

But, hopefully, I (that’s my one hit on the site!) will get a kick out of this.

And if I don’t, I’ll have a neat little online collection of blogs. Maybe I can self-publish them one day. Or not.

Welcome to my dreary little world!

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