The Role of Context

In 1945’s Blood on the Sun, James Cagney engages in what might have been Hollywood’s first ‘martial arts fight scene’. In it, Nick Condon (James Cagney) engages in a ‘judo fight’ with the nefarious Captain Oshima. The fight itself (with the clip here) is kind of neat, from a vintage standpoint, but it pales compared to most anything you might find today, on TV and certainly in movies. Yet audiences at the time ate it up.
                It can be a struggle at times to properly appreciate art from a bygone era. I am acutely aware of this as I study the Transformers series from start to finish (with a panel on the Top Ten Episodes available at a convention near you!). It can be a struggle to keep from watching the show and comparing it strictly to modern standards of art, animation, storytelling, character, dialogue, and all the elements that going into making a show.
                On the one hand, that’s not unreasonable. Just because a show was popular thirty years ago and heralded as good, doesn’t mean we should pretend its still good today. Some TV shows and movies, comic books and music, just don’t age well. Nothing should be so sacred as to pretend it is enjoyable when it really isn’t.
                That said, to solely apply modern sensibilities to appreciating art is to deny yourself a great appreciation and enjoyment of the works themselves. This is where the context of a piece of art comes in. Knowing what the world was like when a TV show came out can help explain how and why it is the way it is. The Mary-Tyler Moore Show comes across as fun and perhaps a little unremarkably so, unless you are mindful that it was broadcast during the Women’s Liberation Movement. The idea of a single woman in the workforce may be commonplace today, but in that era, the themes and issues discussed in the show were positively radical which helps inform elements of the show, and helps to explain why the show is so revered. Hitting closer to home for me, Transformers was a product of the 1980s and the Energy Crisis of the era. As a result, there’s a common theme in the show of the search for energy and the responsible use of it.
                In order to full appreciate art from any era beyond the contemporary, we must divorce ourselves from our modern sensibilities and invest ourselves in the mindset of the art’s era of creation. In other words, we must appreciate art with an understanding of the context from which the art was created.
                There are many forms of context that inform a piece of art. Whether it’s the personal context (where you were in your life when you experienced the art), artistic context (what the work of art meant to the artist who created it), mechanical context (how a work was made and what went into it ‘behind the scenes’), or cultural context (what this work of art represented in that time and place in history), context can help illuminate and transform a work of art beyond merely a mechanical interpretation of the skills displayed in the work itself.
                Art appreciation should not require homework. You don’t need to understand advanced chemistry to appreciate a Jan Van Eyck painting, but being mindful of the lengths he (and other artists of the era) had to go to in order to make the colors for his paints results in the paintings taking on a whole new, breath-taking dimension. Layla by Eric Clapton is an excellent rock song on its own, but it takes on a new dimension with the knowledge of Clapton’s unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend, George ‘Got My Mind Set On You’ Harrison.
                When we judge art, we need to do more than hold it up for comparison to modern art. It is fine to say ‘this piece of art doesn’t hold up to current standards’, but to dismiss a piece of art solely for that as our criteria is short-sighted as well as heartless. Art comes from a time and a place, both culturally and for the creators, as well as for the audience. Keeping in mind these contexts makes appreciation of the art all the more vivid and rewarding.
***
Did you see Star Wars? Of course you did. 🙂

Resolutions

Since it’s now December, we’re closing in on News Years, meaning News Year’s Resolutions.Ah, yes, that hokey time when people say they’re going to make positive changes in their life and…usually fail. But what if you didn’t? What if you could actually make these changes stick? Enamored with self-improvement as I am, I enjoy the idea of making and sticking to resolutions and figuring out what will make a goal – however ambitious or modest – stick until it becomes permanent.

Now, it’s worth noting as we’ve still got a month, that you don’t have to wait until January 1st. You can make all the positive change you want. All you need is a Monday (or Sunday, depending on how you personally start your week). Actually, all you really need is a morning, the start of a new day. Hell, to be truly honest, you don’t even need that. We gravitate towards these perceived starting points because they help give the decision some weight in our minds. So just keep in mind, waiting until January 1st isn’t necessary (this will be important if/when you struggle).

Stop, Do, or Achieve

Goals come in three varieties: Stop doing something you don’t like, start doing something you want, or achieve some milestone.

It seems like achieving a milestone is a different sort of goal but the process is the same. Stopping an activity or starting an activity involve the same process as achieving something, they just are open-ended. They are patterns of behavior that don’t have a defined endpoint. And that’s the first major problem people run into when they set goals.

Have an actual Goal

Saying ‘I want to be healthier’ doesn’t mean anything. Healthier than what? Healthier than you are now? Well, how healthy (or unhealthy) are you now? Do you eat hamburgers and tacos for dinner every day? Transitioning to just hamburgers might be healthier. Should you stop there?

When you set a goal, set a defined end point (IE it should have numbers). If you want to be healthier, define what healthier means to you. Is it a person that goes to the gym three times a week? Is a person who fixes dinner at home six times a week? What does ‘healthier’ mean?

The same goes for the perennial physical goals, like ‘I want to lose weight’ or ‘I want to get in shape’. If you want to lose weight, get a haircut. Boom! You’ve lost weight. Get in shape? What shape do you want?

Use specific terms. If you lose weight, when will you know if you’ve achieved your goal? Alternatively, saying ‘I want to lose twenty pounds by this summer’ or ‘I want to add thirty pounds to my bench press’, you suddenly know exactly what you want. And, more importantly, you know what steps to take to get there.

Take Small Steps

If you decide, on January 1st, that you want to lose 20 pounds by the summer, that gives you five months to achieve that goal. That’s 4lbs a month. That’s 1lb a week. Even conservative diet programs will deliver results like that. The same is true for putting on muscle or building strength (or whatever attribute you wish). If you define where you are, where you want to be, and how long you have to get there, you can plot out exactly how much progress you need to regularly make. This leads us to another truth of setting goals.

Don’t Expect Regularity

You’re trying to drop 20lbs by June 1st. Good for you! You start on a nice, healthy diet and the fat sheds off. You lose 8lbs in a month. Then, you lose 2lbs. Then you gain 3lbs! Then you lose 5lbs. All progress, whether its physical or mental or social, is subject to waves. You’ll make great progress, you’ll make slow progress, you’ll regress, and then you’ll bound back again. This is so prevalent that it can literally be tracked. It’s part of how the more successful lifehackers are able to do the seemingly impossible, because they’re able to predict, down to the day it seems, when they’ll struggle and, as such, they’re able to consciously power through it.

Your results may vary, but don’t be surprised if you backtrack a little from time to time, or if your progress fluctuates radically. In the end, you will keep moving towards your goal by keeping on moving towards your goal.

Stay With It

It is consistency and diligence, far more than intensity, that determines a person’s success. There isn’t a perfect diet or exercise program out there; there’s just the one that you will stick to. Time and time again, when diets are compared for effectiveness, they’re always compared in short-term periods, a matter of days and weeks. When compared six and twelve months out, the weight loss is always nigh-identical. You don’t succeed with the perfect plan, you succeed by powering through the troubles and keeping at it. This is part of why small changes are more important than big changes. It’s easier to will yourself to do small things, even when its hard.

Small Changes Add Up

It’s hard to appreciate but a small change makes a huge difference. Say you want to lose twenty pounds by June. You can start by radically overhauling your diet, but if your current diet is crap, you’re really going to struggle. But if you resolve to eat a healthy breakfast for January and February, you can do it. Changing one meal is easier than changing the whole day’s eating. Lunch and dinner can stay the same; but breakfast is what you’ll fix. Give it two months and then in March and April, lunch will be cleaned up. Going into March, you’ll already have the progress and momentum of cleaning up your breakfast. You’ll know what to expect, you’ll have ironed out the kinks, and all with relatively little disruption. Now, changing your lunch will be a little easier. Come May, you’ll clean up dinner. So by the time you’ve reached June, you’re eating healthy for three meals a day. And, odds are, those twenty pounds came off a long time ago.

The Rule of 6s

Six minutes, Six Weeks, and Six Months

Six minutes is how much effort you should look to exert on any major change. If it will take more than six minutes to do, then break it down into smaller chunks. Let’s say your New years’ Resolution is to start cooking at home. Well, cooking is hard and if you don’t have much experience with it, you’ll find ways to set water on fire. So instead of cooking whole meals, start cooking side dishes or start cooking easy meals like spaghetti. Some might say ‘but don’t you want to avoid carbs’ or ‘make sure you stick to whole-grain’ or ‘you’ll save money if you make your own sauce’. All of those may be true, but you can tackle that down the road, once you’re used to cooking. Right now, you’re just building the habit.

Six weeks is how long it takes to set a habit. If you can keep doing something for six weeks, then it’s a habit and it now becomes easier to do than not to do. If you cook dinner at home for six weeks, cooking dinner at home will be part of your routine. You’ll have the energy for it and you’ll just do it naturally.

Six months is the goal. Six months is how long you need to maintain a habit for it to become a lifestyle. Do a thing for six weeks and it becomes harder to not do than to do. Do a thing for six months and it will take active effort to not do. It will be a part of who you are.

This is why, if you don’t exercise, but you want to start going to the gym, don’t start with crossfit. Don’t start with some insane workout program. Start with something easy. Go hop on the exercise bike for ten minutes, and then do some of the weight lifting machines, and call it a day. No, it’s not the most efficient routine, but it’s not the routine that matters; it’s the habit. It’s the lifestyle. Once going to the gym is a habit, or just part of who you are, THEN worry about optimizing it. Then worry about whether your training is truly effective. But don’t try to have the best routine ever while you’re still trying to just get off the couch.

Think about where you want to be in six months, not two weeks. Don’t focus on the short-term but on the overall objective. Knowing where you want to be, and how long you have to get there, will help you set the small steps necessary to get there.

 

Happy Training!

Raising Hair

I’m balding.Runs in the family. There’s not a lot I can do about it; it’s just one of those things. I’ve taken some steps to fight against this depressing reminder of age, mostly in the form of keeping my hair extremely short so as to draw less attention to the hair that’s thinning faster than the coastline. Still, as time has gone on, I’ve been unable to ignore the glaring hairless patch on the back of my head growing larger and larger. Clearly, it was time for me to embrace my fate and accept that I had become simply too cool for hair.

Just like I make all major decisions, I went decided to address this without the slightest bit of research or forethought. I just walked into the barbershop and asked to get my head shaved. I didn’t even go in specifically to get my head shaved. It wasn’t my plan when I woke up that morning, or when I was out running errands, or even when I walked into the barbershop. Sometime between my name being called and walking to the chair, I thought “Yeah, why not?”

In hindsight, I suppose I should take comfort that the barber didn’t even question this request. She didn’t say ‘are you sure’ or anything of the sort. All I got was ‘you got it’ and off to the races.

My initial reaction to getting my head shaved was uncertainty. It was really weird to see myself in windows and mirrors and process that it was me that I was seeing. My self-image is that of hair and I envision myself still with (admittedly short) hair. Hell, in my dreams, I still have hair. Of course, in my dreams I’m also in my early twenties and can shoot fire Sent from my iPad Even now, more than a week later, I will catch myself off-guard when I walk into the bathroom or walk by my car and spot a hairless dude where I should be.

Thankfully, the general reception of my new do has been positive. That or people are just really good at pretending I don’t look like a dork. Everybody at work has said nice things, including comparing me to Sean Connery (which I do not believe for a second). My friends, fellow students and instructors at the kung fu school, everybody seems to like it. So, okay, I’ll keep it.

However, this brings me to my current conundrum: How does one maintain a shaved head? Given that my hair isn’t completely gone and continues to return like a thief who steals food from the office refrigerator, GARY, I need to find a way to keep it at bay. I decided to tackle this with my usual forethought and meditated care.

Now, I’m not saying that I have scrape marks on my scalp from a shaving razor. I’m saying that ninjas whom I fought while trying to rescue a box of puppies from a volcano cut my head and it looks like cuts from a shaving razor (gets your facts straight, Gary).

I’ve also tried an electric razor, which I found to simply be an electronic and futuristic way to get blades caught on hair that laughs at your pitiful attempts to shave it. I’m hesitant to go back to the barbershop, as I don’t really plan to get anything styled, just cut again. So I find myself with quite the interesting cosmetic issue.

Needless to say, the saga will continue.

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving!
And I don’t mean that ironically, or insincerely. I genuinely mean that: I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving (unless you live in another country, in which case…uh, happy Thursday?). And yes, I’m aware of how historically inaccurate, to the point of being almost laughable, the origins of that holiday are. And I still mean it.

It’s become a little fashionable of late to poke holes in the established traditions and practices of our society and our culture. Not without merit, either. Human history, and definitely American history, has a long tradition of glossing over inaccuracies, fallacies, and straight-up lies, all in the name of maintaining a good front. The Thanksgiving holiday is a great example. The Pilgrims weren’t the first colonists on the American continent from Europe, nor did they so much as settle a single field (they took over lands that were largely left unpopulated due to a rampant plague that had wiped out large swaths of the native population just years prior). No, the origins of Thanksgiving as a holiday and an observance are mostly rooted in racism, jingoism, and consumerism. As is most of modern life. And just like most of life, how it came to be here isn’t quite as important as it being here now.

Thanksgiving as it is today exists as a holiday in which we observe and are mindful of all we have to be thankful for. That or Black Friday Eve, but that’s starting to get push-back from consumers, so never mind. The point is, however the fourth Thursday of November came to be Thanksgiving, it is and that isn’t all together a bad thing.

Negativity and Pessimism are kind of popular things right now. As said at the start of this post, it’s fashionable to poke holes in beliefs, in observances, even movies and TV shows. Nitpicking fiction is practically a profession for some people. So it’s with all the more fervor that I believe we could use the chance to take a day to be grateful.

And be grateful. Everyone has something to be grateful for. If you’re reading this, you obviously have access to the internet, which right there says a whole lot about what you have to be grateful for. A computer or smart phone, wi-fi or internet. Hell, we can get even more basic and talk about having electricity. Or how about literacy?

I disdain lowering the bar to feel better about life, because life can suck. And I hate the palliative ‘at least you have both your arms’ sort of dismissal of life’s hardships. Saying ‘don’t be sad because someone else has it worse’ is equal to saying ‘don’t be happy because someone else has it better’. Everyone’s got problems. Some might be more substantial than others but even down that route lies madness. Nothing good will come from trying to quantify and compare pain like there’s some kind of praise for enduring more or worse hardship.

No, I say embrace the holiday. However we came to be celebrating Thanksgiving, celebrate it. Eat well, or at least as well as you can. Be around those you love and who love you. And if you can’t be with them, think of them. Have a great day and enjoy yourself.

At the end of the day, life is good and we have a lot to be thankful for, big and small.

Happy Thanksgiving.

November 9th

When this goes live, I’ll be turning 35.Way back in 1980, at about 6:15pm on an otherwise unremarkable Sunday in Florida, I was born. One aspect of my origin story that I particularly like is that the Dolphins were playing that day and, had the nurse come into the waiting room at a different time, I might have been named ‘TOUCHDOWN!’. The Dolphins would go on to defeat the Los Angeles Rams, thanks for asking.

 

In a lot of ways, I’m surprised I’ve lived this long. An artistic type with Depression has become cliché but I’ve genuinely been fighting it my entire life. And I do mean ‘fighting’ and ‘entire life’. My first depressive crash happened when I was five. That I would survive the next thirty years is something I’m quite proud of. I mean, I am fully aware of how fortunate I am. I have friends who have grown up in poverty, in abusive households, in war-torn hellholes, etc. I had no such struggle. Actually quite the opposite, I’ve been quite advantaged by being a straight white male in the United States. But I feel it would be a little disingenuous to ignore that a part of who I am that actively works to undermine everything I do. So yeah. Making it to thirty-five is not a trivial milestone for me.

 

So where am I now? What’s the state of all things RVA?

Well, for starters, I think I’m finally getting things back into alignment with this website. There have been a lot of false starts and hiccups with this thing, but I’m hoping to finally be making some headway with productivity. I’ll go into more detail another time, but for starters, I’m going to start releasing new fiction again, starting in January. Rather than run stories like Red Moon Rising which are independent from my printed work, I’m going to be writing stories connected to my novels (which right now is Rhest for the Wicked and Samifel). Next year, I will be releasing the fifteenth anniversary editions of the Crossworld Saga, so there will be some Crossworld short stories too. Original works will appear as well.

Stories like Red Moon Rising and APT Responders are not getting shelved, but I still haven’t found a format for them that I like. The longer serials I was experimenting with earlier this year just weren’t clicking with me, or most readers. Yet going back to the shorter, daily serials is just unsustainable. Still, rest assured, Neo-Romance, Deadman, Self-Alignment, Epitaph for a Memory, all of those stories will be back, and hopefully sooner rather than later.

 

I’m also going to start sharing snippets of my panels. In February, I’ll be at Katsucon as part of the Japanese Cultural Institute, followed the very next weekend at MAGFest. I’m going to share excerpts from the panels at both those conventions, just so people can get an idea of what the panels are like and what sort of subject matter I tend to talk about. Plus, while I prefer fiction, writing nonfiction is fun all its own.

 

Outside of my birthday, for me, November is about Thanksgiving (that holiday after Halloween and before Christmas that more and more people are marginalizing, if not eschewing entirely). It’s one of my favorite holidays because, whatever dubious historical origins it may claim, it is a holiday about being grateful for what one has, in every sense of the word. 2014 was a terrible year for me and 2015 has been so very good to me. And for that, I’m grateful.

 

And, right now, 2016 is on track to be a great year. Thank you for hanging in there with me and I hope you enjoy everything that’s in store.