Saturday, October 17, 2015

meg myers - sorry

my last attempt at writing about music was kind of disastrous, but I'd like to give it another try. It's not every day that I pick up an album that I thoroughly enjoy. I became a fan of Meg Myers through Pandora, about a year ago. The track that initially got me interested in her was called "Curbstomp" and it played on the Pandora station I created using a few Sister Crayon songs. Appropriately, it shared a lot with them, like the trip-hoppy feel, creativity, and a healthy dose of angst. Check it out below.

"Curbstomp" is from her first EP, Daughter in the Choir which was eccentric (in a good way) throughout. I liked the whole thing, but each track seemed a little "rough" somehow. A trend I noticed was that each verse and bridge was very well put-together, but the choruses needed more "pop". I usually felt like they were not the payoff the excellent verses/bridges deserved. It's still an EP well worth checking out, as it's wonderfully indicative of her talent, and what she is capable of. I was eager to hear what was next. She had another EP come out after that, called Make a Shadow, which was an improvement over Choir in nearly every way. Every one of Shadow's tracks comes highly recommended by me, and in fact 3 out of 5 of them would be released on Meg's first full album, called Sorry. 

Warner Bros. would put out a sneak peek track or two leading up to it, but Sorry begins with a brand-spankin'-new one called "Motel".

I like it. I like it a lot. It's dark, moody, and catchy, and is actually a decent summary of what the rest of the album is like. That's what I think a good Track 1 should do. Meg has a talent for throwing in near-equal amounts of lyrics and vocalizations (your "oh"s, "ooh"s, and "aah"s), and making them play off of each other. In the lyrics, she goes on about feeling miserable and desperate, wishing she could break out of a downward spiral. The chorus repeats "I wanna love, wanna live, wanna breathe, wanna give." After 2 choruses, there's a quote in the bridge from Townes Van Zandt (I never heard of him and had to Google the quote). But it goes like this:
Interviewer: How come most of your songs are sad songs?

Van Zandt: I don't think they're all that sad. I have a few that aren't sad, they're like... hopeless. A totally hopeless situation. And the rest aren't sad, they're just the way it goes. 
I mean, you know, ... You don't think life's sad?... 
But from recognizing the sadness, you can put it aside and be happy, and enjoy the happy side of life.
After this, the song shifts gears. I don't have the musical vocabulary to tell you what it is, but there's a chord change, the key shifts, or something. Not dramatically, but just enough to change the meaning of the chorus; it repeats one more time "I wanna love, wanna live, wanna breathe, wanna give". It's optimistic now; instead of lamenting over a happiness that isn't there, it's like she's choosing to push through the sadness to overcome it. It kind of tells you that this is what the album is about: Confronting and acknowledging the dark and hopeless parts of ourselves, so we can put them aside. It's an uncomfortable ride at times, but it's necessary. Big thumbs up on this track, and for putting it first.

I can't review each song individually because it would take forever, so let's skip to my next favorite. Track 4 is called "Desire", and it's one of the songs that was held over from the Make a Shadow EP (Nothing from Daughter in the Choir was used, not even "Curbstomp"). These days, thanks to them internets, artists are releasing their albums in bits an pieces, leading up to release. It's not just to give us samplers; it's a crucial part of the business at this point. Instead of albums releasing first and the singles (and music videos) trickling out after, the singles are coming out first. It's a lot like what the Japanese model is. It helps introduce the artist to people at a relatively low cost to the label (if they have one). This helps them sense whether the artist can generate a following, and also helps drum up excitement to help with album sales. That's my hypothesis anyway. Give "Desire" a listen below. I wouldn't call the video NSFW, but you might have some awkward explaining to do if someone walks by.

This has to be one of the filthiest things I've heard, outside of that time I shoved a handful of dirt in my ear. It reminds me of Fiona Apple's "Criminal", which came out in 199-gawd-I'm-old. It makes me think of drug needles, cheap motels, and bathrooms that badly need cleaning. And sex. Definitely sex.

It feels like something Trent Reznor could have produced; it's appealing, but I'm somehow unsettled by the fact that I like it as much as I do. It could have fit in with NIN, and the likes of Marilyn Manson, Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple on the radio. Listening to this whole album, you kind of get that vibe; Meg's very influenced by that period, which is appropriate given her age (I looked it up to write this; she actually turned 29 this month). I see a lot of artists trying to re-create the 80s right now, like it's just the thing to do (One of my favorite working bands is new-wave, so I'm not saying it's bad). I think it's harder to notice because the 90s are less obviously-distinctive; the 80s are marked by things like heavy use of synth and glamour. It's refreshing to hear the 90s influence, but I hope the industry doesn't just "shift" to it at-large a few years from now. For now, I'm glad to have this track. I don't know that there's an artistic upside to it the way there is with "Motel". Not one that's obvious, anyway. It really just seems like a well-made description of being, ... I dunno ... filthy? If nothing else, I can say that there are some very well-chosen lyrics, when it comes to being carnal using nothing but words. Particularly, I like "I gotta bring you to my hell / Baby, I wanna fuck you, I wanna feel you in my bones", and "I wanna throw you to the hounds / I gotta hurt you, I gotta hear it from your mouth." I'm not sure what that says about me.

Pictured: Me writing that last sentence.
Lord, that's more creepy than I'd anticipated. How about we move on to the next favorite before it gets weirder? Track 7 is called "Lemon Eyes", and is more indicative of the direction they went with this album, relative to the EPs. It's very pop-rock. It has the Meg Myers angst, sure, but it's definitely a departure from the eccentricity that I felt was her signature. The title track "Sorry" has this in common with "Lemon Eyes", I just like "Lemon Eyes" a little more, so I decided to bring that one up instead. You know the drill:

Both it and "Sorry" seem more like they're developed for radio play. I can't prove it, of course. It could very well be the direction in which the artist naturally evolved. It just could also be that the label was  trying to make something more radio-friendly when they created them. "Lemon Eyes" is probably the most upbeat of all of the songs on the album. I'm not one to pay too-too much attention to lyrics, but in trying to find something to say about this song, I gave it a glance over, and most of it goes like this: 
You're so bitter, bitter. bitter, yellow
Settle, settle, got to settle down okay
Listen, you listen, you listen, yellow
It's a killer, a killer, a killer, jealousy
They're very simplistic, compared to the other lyrics I posted; you can say the same thing about the song itself. It's a catchy pop-rock song. It's fairly standard, but it's saved by the relatively minimalist approach to the instrumental section of the verses, and Myers' vocalizations throughout (Again, the "oh"s and "ooh"s). It makes for a catchy punch when the chorus kicks in. Thumbs up again, but this one's not something to write home about. It's something to tide you over until you get to Track 8, "Make a Shadow".

This is another track that they kept from (duh) Make a Shadow . I really feel that Meg hit her "stride" with that EP; it had just the right balance of her strange angst, with the right production to reign it in. This song probably is the best example. On Sorry, with the exception of maybe "Motel", it's the most solidly-constructed song on the album, as far as finding that proper mix. At first listen, the chorus may sound like she's yodeling or something; she's repeating the word "only". It sounds the tiniest bit funny when you hear it the first time, but the song is otherwise well-made. That's kind of the problem I do have with this album: It has a higher percentage of "listen" songs than most albums I buy, but the best parts of it are songs that I'd already heard, and bought. I usually get CD albums instead of downloading singles, because I'm hoping I'll stumble onto something awesome and unexpected. And I did; "Motel" is great, and I wouldn't have heard it otherwise. It's just that with how strong her previous releases were, I think I might have expected a little too much. The new stuff is good, but not as good as the old stuff. It's still a great release; whatever she puts out next, I'll definitely check that out as well. I'm also going to see her live in L.A. in about a month, and I'm legitimately excited.

With her two promising EPs long since released, I was so very glad to see this artist make it to a full album release, on a large label no less. If Sorry wasn't your cup of tea, the earlier EPs might be more to your liking. All links below.

Sample/Buy Sorry on Amazon
Sample/Buy Make a Shadow (EP) on Amazon
Sample/Buy Daughter in the Choir (EP) on Amazon

Sunday, August 30, 2015

on spy comedies

we went to see Spy, because it was one of the few movies in years that my mom actually wanted to go see in the theater. I personally didn't really have an interest.  My comedic tastes are more bitter than most but it's not like I don't enjoy absurd or silly movies. My favorites range from The Jerk to Dogma, from Dr. Strangelove to Ace Ventura. But most modern comedies have a sort of "cheap" feel to me, like they lack a certain sharpness or subtlety. I don't know if writing quality has actually gone down, audiences have gotten dumber, or I'm just getting older and crotchety. Regardless, when I watch a modern comedy, it often feels like keys are being dangled in front of me, like you would to make a baby laugh. A good example would be this scene from The Hangover that I mentioned in a previous article. While it was a good movie overall, I think scenes like this kind of point out what I don't like. Like I said before, you can kind of see the "writing" in Zach Galafianiakis' performance; the hair shake is way overstated, he has his elbow out like a little teapot, he's fat but wearing a tight shirt, and he responds to criticism of his man-bag with absolute, unshaken confidence.

So I was a little skeptical of this movie. Here's the trailer, and if you are not a fan of the type of comedy I described above, it didn't look all that promising. In fact, it kind of looks bad here.

It doesn't help that one of the hardest things to pull off cinematically is a spy comedy. Reason being, mixing serious spy movies like James Bond with comedy typically requires that you do one of two things: (1) Absurd Parody, or (2) Strike a Balance. For option (1), think Austin Powers, or Spy Hard. In these silly-type movies, most of the time, the world is governed by the laws of slapstick comedy. People can be shot multiple times and get up. I've seen some movies actually do this as the joke itself, like it's absurd that the character being shot absolutely will not die. It's not a hard thing to eff-up, because Bond films have ventured into ridiculous territory themselves, and are well lent to parody.

Then there's option (2), Strike a Balance. Movies that try to strike this balance usually turn out "just okay"; think Johnny EnglishGet Smart, or I Spy. These weren't bad movies, but they weren't great either. If you own any of them, it's because they were in the $5.99 And Under bin at Walmart, and they're probably still shrink-wrapped on your shelf. When you venture outside of that realm of slapsticky, Mel Brooks-y comedy and try to do something that strikes a balance, it makes it hard to work in jokes. It's usually because the real world's rules govern the film; if people get shot, they die. You can work humor into that kind of thing in a number of ways, sure, but it's trickier. I think the biggest issue is getting the world of serious intelligence-gathering agencies, and undercover spy work, to lend themselves to gag-producing scenarios. Like there's usually some difficulty in explaining how an all-seeing, all-powerful organization would ever put the (usually bumbling) hero in charge of a mission that has millions of lives at stake.

Here's an example: In I Spy, Eddie Murphy's character is worked in because he's a professional boxer, and the rich villain happens to be sponsoring his next fight. The US Government needs Eddie's help in order to get close. Other movies will sometimes have the NSA or CIA (or whatever) get wiped out (or captured, or otherwise incapacitated) by the villain, except for the hero, who was on a coffee break or something. They usually have a low-level position and are now the only one left who knows what's happening and is in a position to do anything about it. Some films have actually actually pulled it off, but it's rare. One that comes to mind is Spies Like Us with Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase -- See it if you haven't. It's directed by John Landis, who did Coming to America and Trading Places.

My hopes weren't all that high for Spy for all of the above reasons. The title, even, seemed like a bad indicator. But those low hopes were quickly raised after we sat down and I saw, in the opening credits, that Paul Feig wrote and directed this movie. It was like when my sister dragged me to a pre-screening/panel for the show Community, because she loved Joel McHale (she won a Facebook contest to get in). I had little interest in the show, but minutes before panel started, I found out that Dan Harmon created it. I freaking loved Dan Harmon's work on Channel 101, and AcceptableTV. He does great, off-beat, clever comedies, and Community is actually a great show. So the talent behind the talent is usually a saving grace.

For Spy, if you don't know who Paul Feig is, I'll try and help you remember; you probably know who he is. He has bit parts here and there, but is most known for directing Bridesmaids, creating Freaks and Geeks. He also played the skinny counselor in one of my favorite movies of all time, Heavyweights. He blows a microchip and saves the dance with boogie fever. You owe it to yourself to see this movie; Judd Apatow was involved in writing it, and Ben Stiller plays an over-the-top fitness nut who buys and manages a fat camp. It's a live-action 90s Disney movie, a sub-sub-genre which brought us The Mighty Ducks and Cool Runnings. Here's Paul Feig's biggest scene in that movie:

So my expectations immediately went up. I was less familiar, however, with Melissa McCarthy. I'd heard her name before, and have since come to learn she's actually Molly from Mike and Molly. The only person from that show I know is Billy Gardell, of whom I'm a fan through his stand-up career. I don't really watch the show but I've heard it's good; that's all I can really say. Luckily, she carried the movie just fine, and the movie itself was surprisingly entertaining. It does aim for that real-world action feel, but somehow pulls off its comedy shenanigans very well. It suffers a lot of the balance problems I mentioned earlier, but the humor is good enough that you focus on that instead. Without spoiling too much, the way they explain our unlikely heroine being in charge of an important mission, is that she's got a personal investment, and the agency (I think it's the CIA) needs an unknown agent to keep their profile low.

A brief, spoiler-free summary tells you that the movie is about Melissa McCarthy being sent on a strictly-reconnaissance mission, but circumstance and chance happenings keep pulling her deeper into the case. She continues to go undercover and gains the enemies' trust, until she's working side-by-side with them. That's more or less how they keep the action rolling and explain how a low-level agent keeps getting involved with tracking down nukes. And it works. It's just enough of a plot to string together the gags and jokes, which are really where the movie shines anyway. It's both well written, well cast, and well acted. I don't want to give away the best jokes, but I will say that Paul Feig has a talent for writing comedy that speaks to the part of you that feels "uncool". There's a running gag where McCarthy's character, Susan, gets an incredibly lame fake identity every time she gets transferred to a new location. Almost every one of them is a lonely cat lady who has big glasses and an awful perm. As I write this I'm realizing it sounds horribly hack-ish, so you'll just have to trust me -- it plays well on screen. Melissa McCarthy and the rest of the cast just make it work.

"Trust me"

So it does go the Get Smart route. The movie, more or less, takes place in the real world, but the characters and situations are the weirdest the real world is likely to ever, ever produce. Jason Statham plays an over-the-top badass spy the way you'd expect someone like Rob Corddry to (Think about how he acted in Harold and Kumar 2 or Hot Tub Time Machine). But the fact that it's a badass like Jason Statham actually playing the part makes it so much funnier than if they had gotten a character actor. He's amazingly fitting for it; not every "tough guy" can lampoon his own acting style, make it work, and is actually willing to do it. Jude Law plays the suave English gentleman spy the same way. They could have just gone with an unknown character actor and not missed a beat, but they went with a guy you could actually see playing that character in a Hollywood movie, and it helps make the movie more convincing. That these two actors got on board really speaks to how well the script was written.

So yes, you should definitely go see this movie. It's not every day a spy-comedy get it right. The promo materials don't do a good enough job of telling you how funny it actually is. You'll laugh; I promise. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

i got my first smartphone (in 2015)

i guess i forgot to ask what day it was, for the last 8 years. This is the phone I've been using until about 2 months ago:

The LG Cosmos 2. Selling point? Buttons. 
As a person who can assemble a computer from parts, and make it work, it kind of confused people for a long time that I didn't own a smartphone. My reasons were many, and complicated.  
First and probably foremost, I was too cheap for the data plan. I just hated the idea of adding a new monthly bill to my expenses, on top of things like rent, cable and such. I don't consider my self cheap (I really don't) but I'm careful about spending money I don't have to; it feels wasteful. Things like social media access on-the-go just didn't seem worth it. I'm not active enough on Facebook or Twitter to warrant constant checking up, and I prefer taking all of that stuff in at once when I get home to my desktop PC anyway.

I also am a little bit stubborn, meaning peer pressure will often increase my resistance to something. I don't like how people depend on their phones right now. The convenience of things like GPS is starting to cause us to lose things like our ability to navigate on our own. I didn't like that sort of societal change, and was definitely hesitant to hop on the wagon. A similar peeve of mine is when you're at a family event with people you haven't seen in a long time. Say, you have four of them are sitting on a couch. What are they typically doing? All four of them are on their phones, not talking to each other. I hate that.

There were simple technical reasons too, like the fact that physical, raised buttons are much easier to type with. I really only used my phone as a phone to boot. I also had a Playstation Vita that I was using as my MP3 player at the time, which was eliminating my need for such a device. But my favorite thing about the phone was that I could literally do whatever I wanted with it. No kid gloves. To demonstrate that last point when asked, I would often whip the phone out, and fling it upward so that it would spin really fast, and land back in my palm. As the observer would habitually tense up at the thought of dropping a phone, I would catch it (or not; it didn't matter) and say "Can you do that with a smartphone?".

Didn't think so

But I couldn't deny the world was and is changing. I mentioned that I resist peer pressure but that's a bit of a half-truth. I don't just dig my heels into the ground to avoid change, for its own sake. I wait until changing makes sense to me. There were reasons I finally switched. Like I said, the world is changing, and people now text you assuming you can see their last few messages all on one screen. Smartphones display their texts in a sort of "IM" window, where my slider phone required me to individually open, close, and re-open messages, like emails. Often, I would receive a text while I was replying, which would interrupt me, save the draft, and show me the next text. I would then have to start writing back to that text, or navigate back to my draft, depending on whether my response was now changed. In person, I would actually try and remind people that I had this limitation and it made a lot of busy work, if they didn't send their texts in one bulk message. Requesting that everyone text you, and only you, a specific way is a really good way to annoy them.

People also now expect you to be able to do a lot of things that you can (usually) only do if you have a data plan. You're expected to be able to find any location, provided they text you the address. This is even if you're not at home to print directions, a situation that arose more than once as an issue. I would be out with friends or co-workers, and we would decide to continue our evening at a new location. Everyone knew how to find their way but me, and people had to resort to giving me turn-by-turn instructions in person, and hoping I could remember them. You're also now expected to have a camera on you at all times, though this came up less often. This was more about me noticing that people were able to take pictures of whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and personally admitting it could be useful at some point, even though I'm not the photographing type. It's helped me do things like take a picture of the serial number on the back of my TV by reaching around, for when I call customer support.

I was also getting tired of carrying the Vita around. It's big, clunky, and kind of embarrassing to cart around to work and the gym, to use as a player. I mean, look at it:

It's great for games though

Times were also starting to come up where I'd have to ask someone else to use their phone to Google something. This, like many of the other problems, would prompt people to ask why I didn't have a smartphone, and I was getting tired of listing everything above. While I wasn't in a rush to get a smartphone in my hands and combine Facebook, Youtube, games, GPS, alarm clock and the kitchen sink into one device, I finally decided it was time. So now I have this nifty device: The HTC One Remix (16GB), brought to you by the good people at Verizon. They gave it to me for free as long as I promised to stay with them another two years. 

I guess they added record scratches. Re-re-re-remmiiiiiixxxx!

Sorry, awful jokes are my specialty. I picked this phone at random, as Verizon offered a few models for no cost, with a two year plan. The others were a 32GB Sony Xperia, and the 8GB iPhone 5c. It's nothing special to have a smartphone these days, but I do think there's some writing fodder in making that switch in the late-ass year of 2015. What did I learn? I learned that I'm a stubborn jackass who needs to give things a chance. Seriously, I took to this thing as fish to, like, a million waters. Even though I knew these things were designed to be as convenient as possible, I'm still amazed at how quickly and easily it swallowed my life and established what is probably going to be a lifelong dependence.

I got it all. Whutcha need? Cat videos? Bill paying?

It took me a single day to get all of the apps I'd been curious about, upload all of my music to it, and move a few settings around to make it tailored to my preferences. I wound up adding an $8 16GB mircoSD card, for a total of 32GB. My music almost filled it up initially (because of the OS and whatnot already taking up several gigs) and left no room for apps. Now, I can't really see myself running out of space. I know the Galaxy S6 series has no option for SD cards; I'd be screwed if I didn't have that option. By day 2 I was using it at the same level of habit and expertise that I am now, after 1 or 2 months. I caught on that fast.

Getting it set up was just part one, though. Aware of the fact that the Google Play store is loaded with popular and useful apps, I began hunting for junk to load onto it and see what all the hubbub was. I began with the obvious stuff, like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Then the slightly-less obvious stuff like The Weather Channel (it's been crazy-useful this summer; humidity is a killer), Rosetta Stone (if you have a subscription, you can use their app), mobile banking and Instagram. Then the completely frivolous stuff, like games; I tried The Room which is a great puzzle game in the vein as Myst, and a basic Spider-Man game, because Spider-Man! I now have a healthy amount of games, apps, music, and other fun junk, and use the thing constantly. I even got the mobile version of Katawa Shoujo on it, after a bit of reading on how to do that; it involved using a file manager program to install it manually, since it's not on the Play store.

Initially, people were strangely proud to finally see me upgrade. I was also quickly drawn into catching up on all of the stuff people had practically forgotten by now, like Words with Friends. In some ways it's like getting to a party that's starting to wind down, and in others, it's actually re-kindled their interest in those apps. It's also made integrating many aspects of my life incredibly easy. I was wary of having all of my important stuff in one place, but I can't deny the absolute convenience of it.  Having a calendar on me at all times makes it really easy to make sure I don't forget things, as long as I create a reminder. Having mobile banking makes it harder to forget when to transfer rent, because I don't have to be at a PC to do it. If a Facebook event suddenly changes (like, as I'm on my way to it. That has happened before), I know about it. If I'm getting dinner with co-workers or friends, and we're going somewhere afterward unexpectedly, I can look up how to get there.

So it's a pretty big life change, for something so incredibly small and simple. I'm no less stubborn, to tell you the truth, but it's nice to finally join the 21st century. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some butter to churn. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

there and back again (or "don't just live with it")

this one's going to be pretty personal. I'll be keeping my normal 'funny' tone, but I'm not leaving any of this story out. I want this particular article to be helpful to people, and to do that, I need to keep it honest.

When I was sixteen, I became obsessed with the idea of  what I'll clumsily call forgiveness. I started to engage in endless loops of "positive" thoughts to negate what I believed were negative ones. As just one of countless examples, I would repeat to myself (in my head) that I hadn't sold my soul to the devil. Why would anyone need to think that? Because when I was very young, I'd written out a contract (probably in crayon) saying I would. I did it because I saw Homer Simpson do it in Treehouse of Horror IV, for a donut. Most people probably can shrug that sort of thing off as childhood shenanigans, and forget it ever happened.

Not me.

I obsessed over it and everything like it that I could remember from my past. From silly stuff like that, to real things I had done every now and then as a child, that I now realized were kind of mean or selfish. I couldn't begin to tell you what brought on this "pattern" of thinking, as it's not the sort of thing I was ordinarily afflicted with. Despite the fact that I was feeling constant guilt, I can tell you in all honesty that I was a well behaved child and teenager, maintained good grades, was never outright mean, and never got into trouble. To the point that my parents actually "wished" I would get into more trouble, if it meant I was doing something. Like Smalls from The Sandlot. But I was a bit of an arrogant smart-alleck too, and engaged in all of the little misdeeds a young person is wont to do.

Like watching the 66 best horror flicks I've never seen

I began to confess every little thing I'd ever done to everyone, and also approached people for forgiveness who I'd felt I'd wronged, going all the way back to elementary school. I would approach them, and ask if they remembered "that one time" I made fun of them, lied to them, and stuff like that, hoping that I would eventually find "the one" thing that was making me feel this way. I began to seek out religion once I ran out of people to apologize to, because I still felt lousy, and I didn't know what else to do. So I began going to church (I'm Catholic by birth but was raised "nothing"). This helped in small doses, to the point where I went on a weekend retreat with the church's youth group, and actually had a pretty meaningful time there. I came back feeling as good as I ever had, like I'd found a huge dose of relief. But for some reason the "thought loop" was still there.

The repetition of thoughts turned to a sacrilegious nature (general curses against God), before I ever started going to church, but they continued to worsen even after the retreat. The thoughts were no longer as simple as "I don't like" this thing or that thing. Instead, it felt like each and every thought was making God (or whatever) increasingly angry at me, because he was always listening. To be clear (so that nobody gets the wrong idea), I want to repeat that this happened before I ever started going to church. Religion isn't what "screwed me up". More on this part later because it changes to a more positive tone, but we have to tell the rest of the story to get there.

I continued to obsess over whether every little thing I said, thought, and did was ethical. To the point where it was no longer a matter of dealing with these negative thoughts as they came up. Months of this turned into years, and the thought loop became self-sustaining. Whatever thought I was hoping to keep out of my head was exactly what would pop into it. It was something I kept to myself for a very long time, walking around and going about my business, and battling it at the same time. My brain was divided into this thought loop, and all of the other stuff I was responsible for as a growing young adult. I was exhausted all of the time from fighting it. A coping mechanism I developed over time was that I'd avoid doing things. I would have an "unacceptable" thought, and try to fix it with behaviors; usually giving something up. Anything from stepping on a white tile instead of a black tile, to not eating the last bite of a meal. From there it went to everything. Anything. No fabric softener in my laundry today. No undershirt today. Stop playing that video game right now, before you reach the next save point. Do not use the word "very" in a sentence today. Find a synonym. The problem grew, and grew, and consumed my life.

Like a good book, except it's the most awful thing ever
Sometimes I would get "stuck". That is, my coping mechanism of avoidance met the wall of responsibility. I'd very seriously decide to not do something (for this one example, we'll say shopping at Target within the day) and that would seem to calm me down. But then I'd find out my mom would need me to go to Target with her, to help with the groceries. Instances like these put me in a huge bind. I would scramble for something else to do, if I couldn't duck out of going. Change my socks, change my shirt, or whatever. Anything that my twisted sensibilities could live with. This was when I began to recognize this ... thing as obsessive compulsive disorder, based on what I understood about OCD. But still I carried on with my life. If age 16 was the genesis of this, then I've been living with it for about 12 years now. At no point during this time did I ever seek psychiatric help, and only ever told a few people about it. I lived with it through my last 2 years of high school, my 3 years of junior college, 3 years of university, and the first 3-4 years of my "working" life. I'm 28 at the time of writing, and recently hit a wall. The story continues, but first, let's talk about OCD a bit.

See, a person with OCD usually recognizes that what they're thinking is not rational, but understanding this fact doesn't relieve them from it at all. You have to perform your compulsions, while simultaneously knowing it makes absolutely no sense. That's a special kind of torture. The classic example symptom is washing your hands over and over (I never developed this particular symptom). It's accurate in most ways, but what most movies and TV won't tell you, is that the compulsion is usually the person's way of preventing bad things from happening. They isolate general fears into something they can control, in an effort to protect themselves. Often times the line of logic is "If I don't wash my hands, someone in my family might fall gravely ill. I have to keep doing this, because it's right". I can't speak for everyone in the same position, but I was usually expecting God, the universe, poetic justice, irony, or whatever, to act on what I was thinking. Retaliate, so to speak. That is, the one time I don't perform some kind of coping action is the one that'll be the last straw, and something awful happens. Most of you have experienced a thought pattern like this before. Have you ever held on to a sales receipt, just in case? Because you're afraid this is going to be the one you need, even though none of your stuff has ever broken within the return period? It's like that. Just intensify it by 100x. Then throw in the kind of guilt that comes from murdering someone with your thoughts. I was never dangerous to myself or anyone else, but in my head, every little thing I did held a real life-threatening consequence, and came with the corresponding guilt, frustration, shame, and anger.

Aunt Cheryl's life depends on this!

Dealing with that kind of stress takes a toll on you, to say the very least. For a while I actually prided myself on being able to "take it" for so long. But 2 months ago, it finally got to a point where I couldn't live with it. The dual-life exhaustion I felt in college continued to eat at me. When I would hit walls like described above, I could usually retreat into avoidant behavior. But jumping through those hoops stopped working for some reason. I think I just became exhausted to the point of not being able to stay "one step ahead" of myself anymore. I reached my limit around the time my (maternal) grandfather fell ill. He was sick for months and months, until finally passing away. It was an awful situation for the whole family, especially my mother and her siblings, who cared for him 24/7. He lived in my parents' house, unable to leave his bed as he slowly declined. It affected all of us emotionally and psychologically.

Like I said, to deal with OCD the way I did, you need to be on your game, and ready to "dodge" anything. I was already nearing a tipping point before any of this happened. Push came to shove, and the issue built up like water at a dam, finally overflowing. I had what I can only refer to as a crisis. I was at work one day and just got ... blocked. The thoughts were happening like they always did, creating a list of "things I wanted to do today but can't now". That day, my workarounds had just stopped being enough. I couldn't complete any of my daily tasks without believing, honest-to-goodness, that some vague, awful thing was going to happen as a result.

This -- This was life for me

I did the only thing I could think to do: I ran. I ran outside and immediately called a counselor I'd met at that church retreat, whose number (by chance) I hadn't deleted. She knew I was in crisis mode, and gave me the directions to a mental health clinic. I took the day off, and immediately made an appointment with a therapist. The day off became an unexpected 2 week vacation, which became an unexpected 2 month leave of absence. I live on my own (with roommates), but immediately shacked up with my parents for a few weeks while we figured it out, and waited for my appointment(s) to come. That was why the initial 2 week vacation happened. It was awful. I lived with this issue at it's most "red hot" for a couple of days, completely alone in my parents' house (they both work). Getting dressed in the morning was a problem. Walking to the kitchen for breakfast was a problem. Sitting down was a problem. I was locked down in just about every way possible. It's a terrible feeling, to be a free man in prison, so to speak. I am lucky enough to live in good health, in a time and place where I could conceivably walk out the door and do anything I want. But I couldn't. I couldn't do anything, except hope that getting treatment really would help.

I was skeptical about getting help at first. In my head, the problem was ethical, not clinical. That is, the sacrilegious thought loop was something I created, and was responsible for. Any consequences of it were my fault, and my fault only. If there really is an afterlife, then keeping myself in good standing with God is way more important than living the next 40-50 years comfortably. When it came to therapy specifically, I also thought little good would come from just talking about my feelings. Not to mention the drugs that would likely be involved, which could turn me into a zombie. On a less significant note, I also have a very sharp wit (or tell myself that) and didn't want to lose it. I have some artistic outlets and didn't want to lose my fuel for them. Lots of what I do, and even pride myself on, came from being in constant pain. I draw, write, and so on because there's some level of frustration present in me.

It Fuels My Genius!!

But I was out of options; I flat-out could not take it anymore. I met with the therapist, and explained this issue to her in the best terms I could. This is harder to do than you might think. Try standing in the middle of a tornado, and trying to explain to someone via cellphone what it "looks like". I'm okay with words, though, so it went well. She referred me to a psychiatrist, which was also my first exposure how mental health care procedure works. A therapist is generally limited to talking with you about your issues and helping you work through them. For a proper clinical diagnosis, as well as the getting your hands on any meds, you need a psychiatrist. I didn't know that. This took another week of simply waiting around at my parents' house doing nothing, while it felt like my world was collapsing. I still couldn't perform the simplest of tasks, was not sure if I'd be allowed to keep my job (like I said, weeks turned into months), and had no idea where my life would be going from here. I had no idea if I'd ever be able to function in society again. There was a while where I had very real fears of having to be committed, becoming a "crazy homeless person", or moving back in with my parents and becoming a shut-in. Once I was able to see him, the psychiatrist diagnosed me with general anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive personality disorder. He has a short list of other related disorders that I probably have, but according to him, they all fall under the anxiety umbrella.

I've been taking the prescribed meds and going to therapy now for about 2 months and I gotta say ... It's working. I'm currently on an antidepressant (Prozac to be exact). I never considered myself depressed proper, but over the years I had done some research, and knew that antidepressants are usually prescribed for OCD. I was expecting that. But he also gave me a supply of an anti-anxiety med called Klonopin, which he described as "beer in a pill". I'm guessing it activates the same relaxation area of the brain that alcohol does, but without any of the other effects. I don't walk around feeling drunk or anything. The Klonopin is just taken as needed to relax me; the Prozac is the primary drug in my treatment. He has to prescribe the Prozac incrementally, because you can't just start at 100% of the textbook-recommended dosage. They needed to make sure it worked properly before going all-in. It did bother me to be out of work for so long while the dosage slowly went up, but I get why they had to do it that way. Antidepressants are slow to act, and I had to wait a week or two for each (small) increase. [Update: As of October 2015, we're at the tail end of this phase. I'm currently up to 60mg a day, and the textbooks recommend 60mg to 100mg] As the dosage increases, I do feel better and better, and the thought loop feels like it's being broken apart and slowly fading away. Like the part of my brain where this thought loop resided is being "silenced" and I'm finally left with my natural brain. The one I had before I turned it into a tool of self-degradation.

It wasn't the best, but I'll take it

See, back when I was a teenager, I had this general feeling of what I only-now have the perspective to call anxiety. As far back as I can remember, it's an issue I've had. I'd always had general fears of moving from one school grade to the next, for instance. I was timid by nature, and was afraid to do a lot of things most people don't think twice on. We're talking simple stuff like asking a store clerk for help. My guess is growing up was starting to pack on more and more responsibilities, which exacerbated it to a tipping point, and I've been on a downward slope ever since. I considered my brain my most useful asset, and tried to use that to understand what was happening. I delved deep (we're talking deeeeeep) into my own brain to try and figure out why I felt this way. And I dare say that's when it became the real issue that I've had for so long. I began to create and cultivate a part of my brain, dedicated to figuring it out. I distinctly remember, at several points, having the option to stop thinking about it, but choosing to dig deeper and deeper into my own consciousness, to use brain cells I seldom ever used, to try and fix the problem. That's how I dealt (and deal) with problems. I think and think, until I find a solution. That was really stupid.

See, in addition to a general feeling of anxiety, I also had a habit of assigning guilt to myself. This was mostly an egocentrism thing, like how kids often believe something is their fault, when it isn't. These two "quirks" combined led me to believe that I was nervous and/or guilty all the time, because I'd done something wrong or was simply a bad person. So naturally, I tried to correct it to make myself feel better. All the apologizing I did back in high school suddenly makes sense, but at the time it only helped in small amounts. I would apologize to someone, and feel better for maybe a day before I came back around. So then I went with the religious approach. It began with prayer, which would also only help me feel better for short bursts. But that's because I was probably doing it wrong; it was less prayer, more CYA. I started attending church as I stated, and also went on that retreat when I was 18 -- That actually did give me some enlightenment. For the first time since it had started, I felt forgiveness that felt legit. But joining a religion proper was never something I had intended to do. So I was a bit lost on "what to do now". I felt good, but I think by that point the "damage" was already done; the thought loop had already been created a couple of years prior, and was there to stay. I continued with life as usual (since I had a college degree, life, and finding a job to worry about). It took almost 10 years, but the loop continued to eat at me, and I was back to the same level of misery as I was in high school.

Because that part of it was probably chemical. That retreat did help me in a very real and meaningful way. In fact I would never steer anyone away from religion or spirituality, because to anyone, they are amazing things to pursue. I recommend them in a very serious way, and hope to move back in that direction myself, once the "dust has settled".  But I'm going to throw this out there as a possibility: just like you can't pray "the gay" away, you probably also can't pray away a chemical imbalance. I'm also coming to the realization that God likely doesn't blame people for having one. It's just that at the time, in my own self-created torture chamber, I couldn't realize that.

So we've told the story, but now we're getting to "the point". Today, things are good. But I know there are millions out there who are dealing with something like this. Maybe not OCD, maybe not anxiety, but something mental health-related. When you have a problem like this, no matter how hard you think about it, try and cope, and whatnot, you can't get rid of it. If your place of worship (if you have one), family and so on are supportive but something just still feels "wrong", you need to look into clinical help. If you have health insurance (I think it's a law now, right?), look into what options they offer for mental health. Don't have insurance? Reach out to someone who can help you find an option you can afford. They do exist. Your physician, at the very least, should be able to point you in the right direction.  You can't fight something like this alone. Still can't do it? Fine; I'll get you started:

I think most would agree with me if I said there's a stigma surrounding mental health issues, currently. I had my own prejudices against getting therapy, like many of you might. Including but not limited to:

*not wanting to be labelled "crazy"
*general shame about it
*not believing it will help
*not wanting to be on meds
*not wanting to have to explain it to anyone who finds out
*not wanting anyone to find out, period
*believing you can handle it yourself
*not wanting to affect your "record" (background checks and such)
*thinking you'll "scare away" your family, friends, and everyone else

Lots of times, as a joke, if you have a comment that comes off as whiny, off-color, or even just disagrees with someone, that person will tell you that "you need therapy" or "you're crazy". They don't mean it literally, or to be mean, but it's phrased in such a way that it implies that having a mental health issue is ... I don't know. I'll clumsily say "gross". Like how lots of people (myself admittedly included) will call each other "gay" as a put down. People use the word "crazy" the same way. Either way, it's meant to create shame or embarrassment. This is a stigma that's gotta go. ASAP. Shame and embarrassment should not be keeping people from getting the help they desperately need. I spent 12 [expletive] years dealing with this problem -- that's way way way too long. 12 years of unnecessary pain, countless missed opportunities, and more than a few tests of the patience of my family and friends. I missed out on a ton of amazing things you're supposed to have in young adulthood, and I'll never get those chances back. If you have a problem, don't wait like I did. Get help now. It's not (always) like a physical illness, where people can clearly see something is wrong, and will ask you why you haven't seen a doctor yet. You have to be the one to tell someone, call that number, or stand up and walk down to the office.

On a side note, you should also get some exercise. It went a long way in helping me. Years before I got therapy, the symptoms of it were dramatically decreased when I took up regular exercise habits, and when I took a pause, the issue went back on the rise. I think I also stopped drawing around the same time, incidentally. So yeah -- get up off your butt and go for a jog. Join a health club if knowing you're paying for it motivates you to go. Do what you have to to make it happen. You know your habits and what excuses you make better than anyone else does; work around them. Make sure the workout is in your range of do-ability (whatever it is), but make sure you build up a good sweat. A real one; this will release endorphins, which are crucial.

I'm not back to 100% just yet, but we're very, very close. And that's why I want to write this. If even a single person comes upon this accidentally and finds the last push they need to get some truly needed help, then I'll write it. Do it for yourself, and for your family, and for your friends. But mostly yourself. You live once, and you can not spend it in misery. It's a gross misuse of the gift of life. I also want to help de-stigmatize mental illnesses. I don't know how I plan on doing that, but writing this and getting it under as many pairs of eyes as possible is a start. If you found this article meaningful, I ask that you please share it.

For the first time in a long time, I don't just see an amorphous blob of self-created obstacles when I think about the future. I'm still the same , critical, "strange little creature" that I've always known myself to be, and loved being. The meds and therapy haven't changed that. I always fancied myself a poor man's Dr. House, and still do. But that black rain cloud that lived inside my brain? It's breaking up. I've never liked bright, sunny days; I'm a rain person. But today ... I can deal.

Happy 4th.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

screw sunsets

i was walking my sister's dog because i was bored. It was a Sunday so boring that it was giving me an existential crisis, and I needed to highlight it with something. That day was one of the 4 days a year that it rains here in Southern California, and incidentally I had washed my car the day before.

Tire spray and everything...
It wasn't just one of those days where the rain comes so lightly that it looks like a single small rain cloud that passes by. Like where you can avoid it literally by crossing the street. This was the real deal. There were enough clouds to actually block the sun (helped by the fact that it was about 5 PM). No; scratch that, the sky was cloud. It was a gray kind of day. If it was a wizard, it would be Gandalf the Grey. If it was a trashy sex book, it would be 50 Shades of Grey. If it was a recalled California governor, it would be Gray Davis.

With his Grey Hair

Having done the Netflix equivalent of eating myself sick that day, some leftover animal part of me (that evolution forgot to sweep up) shouted "the hell with this!" and I grabbed the leash. I was wearing shorts, a V-neck, and had grabbed my thinnest jacket. The temperature outside had reached around 60F. Out here, an outfit like that is crazy talk in that kind of weather. Suicidal even.

Get into the cellar!

We didn't get far before I had an important realization. We got outside of the apartment complex, and were a few blocks out. The sky was grey, it was cold and raining juuuuust a little bit. My jacket and hair were wet, my glasses were flecked, and breathing through my nose was quite refreshing. I live where Santa Ana meets Cost Mesa, and a few corporate high-rises can be seen from the residential streets. I was gazing at the hazy red safety lights at the roof of one of the buildings, and in the midst of everything I just wrote, I had a thought. I think in complete sentences, and what scrolled between my ears was:

"I think this is that feeling people say they get, when they see a sunset"

The time-honored standard for a moment of nature-induced, euphoric serenity is a sunset. The kind where clouds are make the sky look pink and orange. It makes some people emotional, makes them feel glad to be alive, makes them contemplate their place in the universe. Others will put the thing on Instagram. Countless peoples' Facebook posts will try to convince you that this is where it's at, and the best places on Earth require sunscreen. These people are not your friends.

Pictured: Bullshit

They are liars, charlatans, aaaandd... maybe criminals, you never know. Whenever I see a sunset, it just looks like the sky to me, same as it always was. It happens once a day. I'm a strange little creature, admittedly. Friends (around whom I'm comfortable enough to complain honestly) know that I love cold, wet weather. Part of it is a holdover from my days as a 240-pound 'whatever-this-is', whose internal temperature would reach discomfort before the hat even dropped. Another part is my curs├ęd sinus cavities, that crave cool moisture.

The fact that I don't usually share in peoples' enjoyment of the sun had me worried for a while, like there was something about the "normal" human experience that I was missing out on. Not just when it comes to admiring the sky, but in just about every facet of life. It's a fear I have a lot actually; that I might be "defective" in some way, and am not processing the normal human joys that I always hear so much about. I wonder if I'm less healthy or functional than most, because it certainly would explain a lot.

But when I was out in the cold, some part of me understood that this was probably that feeling that all the hype was about. I was capable of feeling it too, but a different trigger was required. So I felt something significant that day: I felt like a person instead of a handsome, handsome robot. It felt something like this, except I'm not gangly:

Every part of it was great. We crossed the street and walked through the park, walked up a few more streets and even found a school that I didn't know was there. I've lived here for years and had no idea. It's just a school, sure, but it felt like a discovery. Even coming home, and peeling off my now-soaked jacket and socks, was strangely euphoric. The dog was wet and consequently smelled bad, so I took the opportunity to bathe him. That was fun too.

As far as what I'm exactly supposed to make of it, though, I'm not sure. For all the rambling I can do about how satisfying and rare it was, I'm at a loss for what else to say about it. The best part of it is I'm not as different as I thought, which isn't always something to be excited about, but I'll take it in this case. In the face of all those anxieties I just "admitted" to having, I can honestly say: It beats the hell out of a sunset. 

Can't find it?