Sorry snobs, superhero films are here to stay

Friday, February 2, 2018 
It’s an inextricable part of being a part of “geek culture” or simply being a fan of comic books and superheroes in general. You must constantly contend with the horde of detractors who look down their nose at the genre as being the stuff of juvenile nonsense, or else as being “all the same.” Dear snobs: I have a bone to pick with you people, and I’m tired of all your callous denunciation and condescending dismissal. Since you’re throwing so much shade, I figured I might as well shine a light on just why superhero movies are so good, and so important.

I recently found myself fuming when actress Jodie Foster condemned superhero films, but then again, that’s rather par for the course with these sorts of Hollywood stuffed shirts, who think their Oscar-winning dramas and indie films are inherently superior to anything fantasy or sci-fi – you know, all that silly, cartoonish drivel. Anyway, she claimed that superhero movies have turned Hollywood into “a theme park,” and said it is an example of studios “making bad content in order to appeal to the masses and shareholders. It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population. I don’t want to make $200 million movies about superheroes.” Well, good for you! You don’t have to like the genre, or the format, or the shift in pop culture that has resulted from the wave of comic book-inspired, shared universe films, but to bash it and call it “bad content” is simply ignorant.

Then again, the prejudice is nothing new. Sci-fi got its fair share of hate decades prior, and has only recently been treated with newfound respect. Fantasy still hasn’t gotten there yet, and must still contend with insults (“oh, isn’t that all that silly knights and dragons stuff?”), though Game of Thrones is helping to finally bring the genre into mainstream consciousness, where hopefully, it will get the credit it is owed. But comic books, despite “appealing to the masses” still fill a particular niche within spectulative fiction, and much the same with their film adaptations. For every superfan looking forward to the next Thor film or the Wonder Woman sequel, there’s the sneering forty-year-old who thinks each superhero movie is indistinguishable from the next, or the indie film-worshipping hipster who sniffily remarks that he’s “grown out of all that comic book stuff, thank you very much.”

Now, it’s true that quite often, the masses will flock to a thing simply because it is popular or “the thing to do.” Success alone is not enough to merit the artistic integrity of a thing. A true analysis of its content, on the other hand, will almost always indicate whether a film has such value, and that’s why – pretentious as they are – critics are so important to have. For those who have never seen a superhero film, for example, a well-written review of one could give that person an informed opinion, which will help him or her decide on whether they want to get into this “comic book stuff.” Now, about that ‘content’ part. So much of what dominates the modern box office is a classic case of “all form and no content.” Sure, there’s plenty of CGI. Guns are blazing, cars are revving, things are blowing up, but where’s the story? Is there anything intellectual going on? In many of today’s major Hollywood movies, the answer is a resounding “no.” But one of the reasons I simply cannot abide the misinformed criticisms made by actresses like Foster is because superhero movies hardly ever suffer from this problem. Sure, there’s a lot of focus on form, but that ‘content’ part is just as present. And if you really understand the appeal of comics, you know that it sort of has to be.

Comic book fans know that everything from ongoing sagas to multi-title crossovers are generally built upon plenty of story, with some exceptions (I’m looking at you, Secret Wars). Because movies are adapting this sort of material, they kind of have to follow suit, even if that leaves big studio execs nervous (“My god, an actual plot?! How will the short attention-spanned millennials sit through two hours of this? How will we make money?”). Take a look at the first Iron Man film, or The Dark Knight, or Watchmen. It’s literally all about the story; in fact, if you’re not following along closely, you’ll miss key plot points and likely be quite confused. These films are inherently intellectual, and that’s why their association with modern geek culture is pretty much on point.

The advent of superhero films is also exciting, because they have achieved what most fantasy has not yet been able to on the big screen. They have inspired and exhilarated audiences, giving us stories, action, laughs, and everything from gods to green monsters to aliens to sorcerers. Because of the cross-genre diversity present in many titles by Marvel and DC Comics, these shared film universes are allowed to be mishmashes of damn near everything under the sun. Want a space opera with retro music and ridiculous laughs? Check out Guardians of the Galaxy. Want a war drama mixed with action and a little fantasy? Captain America or Wonder Woman should satisfy that need. How about a political thriller? Captain America: The Winter Soldier. A straight-up epic fantasy? Thor: Ragnarok. A fun, fast-paced, heist movie? Ant-Man. A sci-fi ensemble film that explores artificial intelligence? Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s almost wrong to merely call them “superhero films,” because they’re so much more than that.

And let’s talk about shared universes. Let me point out that this is something that Hollywood had long ago (in a way), and sort of let fall by the wayside until Marvel brought it back. Specifically, take a look at the old Universal Studios monster films. Remember Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, or House of Dracula? Characters from previous films crossed over. Hell, they even combined it with the old Abbott and Costello comedies, with stuff like Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. I actually used to watch those as a kid. The Godzilla films are another example of a shared universe. It also existed on TV – check out shows like Hercules and Xena; the latter was a spinoff of the former, and the two consistently crossed over with one another. There were even plans for further spinoffs and crossovers that never came to fruition.

Not only is the shared universe not a new concept, it’s also an example of doing something fun and exciting with movies. As filmmakers know, movies are about doing something different – different formats, genres, styles, etc. How about found-footage? Pioneered by films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, the horror subgenre never would have gotten off the ground if people had simply dismissed it as somehow “ruining movies.” Other takes on films, like the buddy cop thing, or cyberpunk, or the spaghetti western, were all new at one point, and were given the chance to flourish. I see no reason why the superhero or comic book-based genre should be any exception.

Take an honest look at most of the well-reviewed superhero films out there. No, really. Leave your pomposity at home and bring only your sense of imagination. As you watch, you should not only examine the film for its quality, but you should also try and gauge your actual natural enjoyment of it. If you do like it, don’t try and deny it or find an excuse to dismiss your enthusiasm. Do that, and the cold, snobby cynics win the day. No, we must beat back the tide of pretentious insults by showing the world of superhero films for what it is – something wonderful, exciting, and powerful.
I’m a self-professed comic book reader, superhero movie fan, and yes, most certainly, a geek. For people like us, it’s a great time to be alive. I look forward to catching each new episode of Arrow, and to seeing Avengers: Infinity War when it hits theaters. I hope to see more female-led superhero films, like a Black Widow or Harley Quinn movie. I want to see more sagas and crossover events from the comics adapted to the big screen. I look forward to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange meet Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man meet Zoe Saldana’s Gamora.

There’s nothing wrong with the pure enjoyment offered by these cinematic universes, and it is absolutely not ruining Hollywood. You know what is harming the film industry? Capitalism. Greed. Pursuit of sequel-making and franchise development in place of a good script and solid acting. The presentation of loud, all form and no content shoot-em-up affairs instead of challenging, fantastical stories. But most superhero films are not part of this dilemma (yet), and we must give credit where credit is due. A few days from now I’ll be catching the latest episode of The Flash. And nothing any detractor can ever say will stop me from watching it – and enjoying it.

I’m putting my foot down – on parasites

Thursday, February 1, 2018
I’ve been a pretty nice guy for most of my life. I was raised to be honest, down-to-earth, and to help those in need. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon how you look at it, I took this to heart and often put others before myself – this coming from someone who adheres to a philosophy of self-love and self-worship. The problem with altruism is that it doesn’t exist, and “fake it ‘till you make it” simply doesn’t apply. The best – or rather, the worst – you can do is to believe it to be real and moral, and to follow it . . . to your inevitable downfall. In other words, being selfless and nice to everyone was incredibly naïve on my part, and I suffered the consequences, but I didn’t learn my lesson right away. Alas, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

I should probably backtrack for a moment and forewarn you: this is a rant, and no, this is not “bitching.” I stand in staunch opposition to whining and playing the violin in the hopes of garnering sympathy and getting a pat on the back. This is mere venting – a way for me to let out anger and frustration in a positive and non-violent way. Pouring my emotions into such endeavors as writing means that I’m turning something negative into something positive. Also, I reserve the right to complain about things in my own space. I seek no sympathetic shoulders to lean on or emotional support of any kind. I’m proud to stand on my own two feet and I will handle my issues as I have all my life, without anyone else’s help. But I digress...

So what am I venting about, anyway? Predictably enough – people. You see, also predictably, it was not long before people took advantage of my kindness and my caring nature. Suffice it to say that when your own mother uses you as a crutch because she can’t grow up and handle the problems she caused, it really is a rude awakening in terms of realizing that the world, as Sly Stallone once phrased it, “ain’t all sunshines and rainbows.” From having to work odd jobs, like going to the store for local senior citizens in exchange for a few bucks, to providing food because my parent landed us in abject poverty, and wouldn’t get a job (I was 14 at the time), to having to explain to friends why I had no furniture and why my clothes had an odor because I couldn’t even do laundry, I did not have it easy, and I learned a harsh but useful lesson. Don’t help those who would never help you. Looking back, I could have taken all that money and taken care of myself. It’s the job of a parent to provide for their kid, not the other way around. I should have done so, but I was young yet.

As I soon learned, I’m something of a shit magnet, as I soon encountered other people who saw fit to take advantage of my generosity and my good nature. When I finally did get a steady job, I recall buying people packs of cigarettes to feed their habits, with promises of “I’ll pay you back!” that, of course, never came to fruition. I remember paying for an entire hotel room for a friend, who was essentially treated to a mini-vacation on someone else’s dollar, and who later refunded me maybe 10 percent of the total price and never bothered to pay any more than that. I remember, very recently, lending a friend some money, only for that friend to show up on the doorstep of my ex’s apartment at a late hour of night, hoping to stay with us because he didn’t have the foresight to get back to his own dorm before the train stopped running, making a racket when I wasn’t even there at the time, essentially causing trouble until a neighbor ended up calling the cops. Oh, and the money? Never got a dime of it back. Go figure!

Oh, and speaking of ex’s . . . well, don’t even get me started! The last one was a good-for-nothing, narcissistic sociopath who didn’t want to work, but sure as hell wanted someone else to make money for her, cook for her, and buy her shit – but she also wanted to tell that person what to do with the money he made; because, you know, someone on welfare, and who fakes disability to collect monthly SSI checks (an insult, by the way, to people who have REAL disabilities), and who can’t spend even that meager amount of money quickly enough on makeup and clothing, is the first person who should be telling a working person who pays all his bills and puts responsibilities first how to manage money. It was, I suppose, an interesting twist on an old adage – she wanted to steal her cake, then have it, and then eat it, too! But let’s not re-open cans of worms, particularly ones that I kicked out of my life five months ago.

You know, I don’t make a lot of money. I work hard, and I do my very best to keep a roof over my head. I’ve been through a lot in life – I’m not whining about it, I promise. In fact, I’m thankful to have been essentially baptized under fire. I gained so much wisdom and experience. As they say, when the body suffers, the spirit flourishes. My spirit is strong indeed. No one can break my spirit. But oh, do they try. And try, and try again. My enemies are nothing if not resilient. If only they would apply such ambition to their own lives, perhaps they wouldn’t have to piggyback off the kindness of others just to get by. These are people who claim to be somebodies. They’re the first to tell hollow, fabricated success stories. And they’re still stuck in the same shitsplat, redneck towns, they’re still stuck in the same ruts, with the same problems, surrounded by the same sycophants who wipe the proverbial tears from their eyes as they complain about how terribly life has treated them. Take it from someone who knows – life is harsh and unfair. Deal with it. Learn from it. Grow from it. I did. The problems that came up in my life were really gift horses in disguise.

I don’t want to say that I’ll never learn. I refuse to believe that I’m foolish enough to continue helping people who don’t deserve it, rather than learning from my mistakes and growing a tougher skin. I can’t be that cynical. I must remain positive and know that I will always be strong enough to rise above the tide of opportunists, bottom feeders, and ne’er-do-wells who try to stand on the shoulders of others so that they can call themselves tall. It’s a sink or swim world, and the problem is, I’ve been handing out lifeboats for years. I’m done doing that. The assholes can drown beneath the weight of all their inadequacies, and all their finger pointing, all their masochistic perpetual victimhood, all the tears and excuses in the world won’t save them. These are people who don’t learn, and as far as I’m concerned, when tragedy strikes for them, it all comes down to the universe putting itself in balance, and the world getting rid of dead weight.

There are so many people who are on welfare because they need it. There are people stuck in small towns, yet working hard to support their families. These are not the people I’m criticizing. I’m criticizing the ones who I know are just taking advantage of the system, and ultimately, of people.

Today, I am awake. I have no more olive branches to extend, no more helping hands to offer. Knowing and dealing with shitty, freeloading people has toughened me, but has not made me a bad person. Helping people who never appreciate it, who grab the money and run, and never look back, has made me grow cold to the false pleas of manipulative people, but it has not made me lazy or apathetic. It has not changed the way I live my life, or the strength with which I overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to take charge and make something of my life. It has only changed my outlook. I realize that selflessness is an illusion; something directly in line with Christianity, a religion known for its tenets encouraging weakness, hypocrisy, and martyrdom.

Now more than ever, we live in an age of people who want to be victims. They revel in it. Brush up on your Orwell, folks, because weakness is strength, lies are truth, and slavery is freedom. These days, the people looking for a free ride climb a ladder of nepotism, bawling their eyes out and wetting their pants as they deal with their traumatic, woe-is-me, middle-class, first-world problems – loudly and deliberately, so everyone pays attention to them. As they climb, they knock down others who seek success by honest and legitimate means, and then claim to be the injured party. But the real kicker is what happens when they meet others who have risen far above where they are. You see, people who shove their heads up their asses aren’t very fond of looking up; when they do, they don’t like what they see. So they try and stick to doing what they’ve always done – they use those people, and then turn their backs. When that doesn’t work, they simply move on to their next source of help or income. They’ll take it where they can get it – but they won’t get it from me any longer.

Fantasy scribes, here's how to write good characters

Sunday evening, January 28, 2018

As I work on my fantasy novel, it occurs to me that one of my strengths lies in how I write and develop characters. Don't mistake this for egoism - I'm just as self-critical of my writing as I ever was, as is necessary for any author. But I wanted to share what knowledge and experience I do have, when it comes to creating interesting and believable characters, with other aspiring writers. Without further ado, here are some (non-pro) tips for how to do just that.

Kill your darlings

With the advent of social media, fandom now more than ever has a loud voice, and authors listen. The thing is, the fans are not the writers, and for good reason. I can’t tell you how many times fan support for a particular fictional character has caused that character to overstay his or her welcome (though this happens more often in TV series than in books). A writer keeps the character around because the reader wants more of him or her, but there’s one problem: the character’s backstory or relevance to the plot has come to its natural conclusion, and in the effort to keep that character around, the writer doesn’t know what to do with him or her. We end up with contrived or derivative storylines revolving around this character, or having the character shoehorned into places where he or she simply has no place.

I can easily name two shows I’m a fan of where this happened. In Heroes, a fantasy drama that used to air on NBC, the villain Sylar was a great character, but I felt that his story naturally concluded at the middle of Season 4 (some even believe he should have been killed off in Season 3). Sylar takes control of Peter’s brother Nathan, and Nathan kills himself in order to escape Sylar’s influence. Thing is, Sylar should have died right there and then. It would have given the sacrifice more meaning and served as a fitting conclusion to Sylar’s story. But Sylar came back, and they decided to make him “a good guy.” That plot line was completely unbelievable and not only ruined the character, but essentially disgraced the viewer’s memories of the characters he killed. Nope.

And in Supernatural, the character that definitely overstayed his welcome is Castiel. I’m sorry, Misha Collins is a great actor and Castiel was a great character, but we’re on Season 13 and they’re still trying to find something for this angel to do. Cas supposedly died at the beginning of Season 7, only to return toward the season’s end, in an incredibly convoluted and boring storyline that essentially made Cas’s character that of comedy relief (and, to a lesser extent, a plot device). From Seasons 4 through 6, Castiel served a purpose and had an interesting role in the series. During the seven seasons since then, he has just been an annoying intrusion upon the show that once was supposed to be about two brothers. It’s time to clip this angel’s wings.

But don’t kill for shock value

Now, the reverse is also true. Sometimes, an author will kill off a character whose story is not yet finished, so avoid that, too. Since Game of Thrones became popular, writers suddenly think they constantly need to keep a steady flow of death going in order to shock readers and keep them on the edges of their seats. This simply isn’t true, and leaning too much on murder and death to keep the plot moving also indicates a lack of creativity on the part of the author. And if you’ll take a careful look at George R. R. Martin’s books, you’ll see that many of the major character deaths serve an important purpose or are the results of concluding backstories. The presence of characters like Robb Stark, for example, were no longer necessary as other characters gained prominence. The death of Ned Stark, of course, was crucial to the escalation of events and the driving force behind the plot of the subsequent two books.
R.I.P. Opie!

Writers must understand when and when not to kill. Keep that narrative sword sharp, but don’t swing it too often. One example of offing a character who still had more to give is on The Walking Dead. I speak not of Glenn, or Andrea, or even Merle, but rather, of Maggie’s sister, Beth. The character was really starting to come into her own, and her chemistry with Daryl was awesome. The two were really starting to come off as a badass duo with lots of character development to explore, and then we got a hamfisted kidnapping/hospital storyline that dragged on and centered around Beth, only to result in her death, which barely seemed to affect Maggie in the long run. Another show that killed off too many characters was Sons of Anarchy, so that by the time Season 5 rolled around, most of the best actors were gone from the show, and Season 7, despite having a great finale, was largely a dragged out, yawn-inducing affair revolving around people you just didn’t care about. Oh, and Supernatural – you should have killed Cas and Crowley seven seasons ago, but you never should have let Bobby or Charlie die.

Characters need to learn from their mistakes

A lack of character growth ruins the suspension of disbelief. Now, it’s true that plenty of people in real life don’t learn from all their mistakes – but they often learn from at least a few of them, and your characters should, too. If you’ve written five books and your character has not evolved in any way or learned anything, has not gained any sort of wisdom, or even apathy or cynicism (dejection can technically be a form of growth), readers are going to lose interest in that character, and look elsewhere (possibly, at another book series). I’ll point out some examples of characters who grew and developed, and ones who didn’t.
Rand al’Thor is an example, in my opinion, of a character who doesn’t grow, at least over the course of five books (I haven’t read the rest of The Wheel of Time series yet). The fantasy series’ main character continues to display the same stubbornness, immaturity, and indecisiveness. On the other hand, we actually see growth in the supporting characters, like Mat and Egwene, making Rand’s lack of development even more glaring. Another example is that of Noah, or “HRG” – Claire’s father in Heroes. Instead of developing trust between this father and his daughter, the show continued to put him in positions where he snuck around behind her back or did nefarious things, to the point where it could no longer even be argued that it was for any “greater good” – the writers were simply doing it to create needless drama.

Examples of characters who do grow include Harry Potter, Game of Thrones’ Arya Stark (among others), both Thor and Loki in Thor: Ragnarok, Thea Queen in Arrow, Barry Allen/Flash in The Flash, Katniss in The Hunger Games, and Vin in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. Study the writing behind these characters and learn from it, because that’s how you make the reader or viewer care about those characters, take them seriously, and continue to follow their storylines.

Keep that natural chemistry going

Sometimes you’ll find that you create a group of characters who just get on well together. The dialogue flows nicely and they just bounce off one another with this great, creative, and fun energy. Some of the examples people don’t often mention are the ones most worth noting – one, off the top of my head, is the chemistry between Han Solo and Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They have this father-daughter vibe going on, and it’s quite enjoyable to watch. Rey and Luke Skywalker, on the other hand, have no chemistry whatsoever in The Last Jedi; they just don’t click, and it hurts the story. Look, if you’re working on a puzzle, you don’t force two pieces together that don’t connect, so why do it with characters? Take care to position your characters so that they can play off one another in an effective way. It’s true that sometimes a lack of chemistry can be used for comedic effect, but implement this sparingly, if at all. More often, readers really enjoy seeing two or more characters they like have really snappy, energetic exchanges of dialogue, bonding experiences together, or witty, easy-flowing banter.

One important thing to keep in mind is that if you want your reader to follow a handful of main characters that are always together, you need to make sure they have good chemistry. In Harry Potter, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are all great together, and so were Luke, Han, and Leia in Star Wars. Wil, Amberle, and Eretria were another trio who had fantastic chemistry in The Shannara Chronicles, especially due to a lot of unspoken and subtextual romantic tension; on the other hand, in the series’ second season, Wil and new character Mareth had very poor chemistry, leading us to miss seeing the original three characters together. Be aware of which characters belong together, and which don’t. Also, this is one of the times when you should listen to your readers – if characters get on well with one another, they’ll pick up on that. If they don’t, they usually won’t enjoy reading about them being together, or may instead look forward to seeing one or more of those main characters interact with a supporting character you may not have thought about.

Sympathetic villains vs. dark overlords

A lot of people say that fantasy has a lack of good villains becuase of the “dark lord” problem. Star Wars has the Emperor, The Lord of the Rings has Sauron, Harry Potter has Lord Voldemort, so on and so forth. It’s often argued that the more interesting villains are the ones with which the reader can sympathize; i.e., every well-written villain is, in his or her own mind, the hero of his or her own personal story. Certainly, Darth Vader thought he was doing great things when he joined the Dark Side to try and save the life of his wife Padmé, and Game of Thrones’ Lannister family seemed despicable at first, until Jaime lost his hand and was shown to care about his children and other characters, and Tyrion, despite being a drunk with a love for prostitutes, went through hell and came out of it a wiser and more respectable man. Whether it’s a sympathetic villain or one who finds redemption, readers and viewers are really drawn to these types of stories. On the other hand, purely evil dark lords are poorly conceived, cardboard cut-out characters that often just exist to move the plot along and give the hero something to fight against. They’re not characters that will please the reader or viewer in any way, right?

Wrong. At least, sometimes that’s wrong. You see, there’s a reason why horror films are so successful. Most people have an innate fear of the unknown, and that’s why The Exorcist scared more people than any gore or slasher film. It’s why demons and zombie plagues are so unsettling – they stem from something the characters of the show, film, or book often don’t understand and are afraid of. If you can take that fear and embody it in the form of a menacing, shadowy enemy, you’ve potentially got a great character. But you have to sell that fear – you have to make it work. The Lord of the Rings is great, but the menace of Sauron is not felt enough to make the character anything more than something to simply be overcome; to be beaten. Lord Voldemort, on the other hand, is an effective “dark lord,” because we constantly feel his presence through other characters and in the narrative itself. Harry literally has a scar from an encounter with Voldemort, and most of the main characters are absolutely terrified to speak his name. Even Voldemort’s followers are scared to death of him, and many actually seem to kneel in fearful worship of him. This is all great set-up for Voldemort’s actual true appearance in Book Four, and when he finally is introduced, it really shakes the reader because it’s been built up so much and so effectively.
The only scene from the films where Voldemort had the right kind of eyes.
Both sympathetic and “dark lord” type villains can be fantastic, if they’re well-written and the author has an understanding of what does and doesn’t make them work. If you’re writing a sympathetic villain, or one who will eventually be redeemed, give that character traits the reader will be able to identify with on some level; desires, regrets, trauma, pain, etc. Make that character care about something or someone, and be sure to give him or her the same range of emotions as the hero – it’s how a villain uses (or misuses) those emotions that make him stand apart from the protagonist. On the other hand, if you’re writing a dark, malevolent villain, give him or her a lot of early set-up, make sure the reader experiences the character’s evil through the eyes of other characters at least sometimes, and develop an aura of terror by not telling the reader everything. The less you know about a character like this, the more you question and feel uncertain about him or her, which can make well-executed scenes featuring this kind of character extremely nerve-wracking. This is one reason why Voldemort was more disturbing in the Harry Potter books than the films: in the books, he had glowing, red, snake-like eyes, and that made you think – how did he get this way? What’s behind those eyes? Whereas, in my opinion, his human eyes in the film adaptations sucked the fearsomeness right out of him.

Sometimes, a villain can even be both – he or she can start out as mysterious and menacing, and become sympathetic later, but be careful with this – it still has to be believable. A good example of this is Sylar in Heroes; throughout much of the first season, we see him only as a man in shadow who cuts people’s heads apart and does something – we don’t know what – to their brains. This is exactly the type of thing you want if you’re trying to make viewers or readers clutch the arms of their chairs and wonder what plans this character has, what drives him, and where he will appear and what awful thing he will do next. Of course, when we finally do meet Sylar, we eventually sympathize with him on at least some level. It’s a mark of good writing when the reader or viewer cares almost as much about the villain as the hero, whether that care manifests as an obsessive fear, or genuine concern. Tap into one or both of those feelings, and you’ve got a good antagonist for your series.

Neither damsels nor sexpots

It’s an understatement that fantasy fiction in particular has a major woman problem, though today, many writers are course-correcting and either improving old female characters or writing fantastic new ones. Nevertheless, women are so often poorly written or objectified in fantasy novels, series, and films. In the 60s and 70s, the most common trope for a female character was that of the damsel in distress, a beautiful lady always trapped or in some dire situation and waiting for the brave man to come to her rescue. This permeated much more than just fantasy – everything from Western films to action movies capitalized on this concept.

Then, in the 80s and 90s, we very much had the opposite. The woman did not necessarily need to be saved, but she was just there to titillate the reader or viewer, or the other characters. She was often a scantily-clad, mysterious and seductive sexpot, making the boys argue over her as though she were some sort of prize to be claimed or won, and causing all kinds of idiotic, macho antics and acts of bravado in her name. She herself had few, if any, actual character traits and really served no other purpose in the story. The original Star Wars trilogy managed to adhere to both of these tropes – Leia was a princess in need of Luke and Han to rescue her, and by the time Return of the Jedi rolled around in ’83, one of the most famous scenes had her barely wearing any clothes.
Indeed, the sexpot character isn’t just an issue that arises in books. In TV and film, we often get women who are just there to be “eye candy” for viewers. Megan Fox is an example of this. Her character in Transformers is mainly just there to show off her body to the film’s target teenage audience and to create sexual tension. Her actual character is vapid and without any narrative purpose. Even though the damsel in distress trope has more or less been relegated to the stuff of decades’ past, the sexpot one still prevails, and many fantasy stories are full of horny nymphets and tempting seductresses who have no other identifiable character attributes beyond that, unless it’s to blow shit up or kill people (see the Resident Evil films, the Underworld films, and Catwoman in Batman Returns), prancing around in a skin-tight or scantily clad outfit and staring daggers with her sexy, heavily mascaraed eyes while doing so.

Dear writers: don’t perpetuate this degrading, objectifying problem. Women are not simply “things” to be disregarded, sidelined, or used for the arousal of men – even when writing lesbian characters, authors miss the point entirely and use this as an excuse to write sex scenes meant to titillate readers. Bad, bad, bad. Instead, develop and write a fully fleshed out (no pun intended) girl or woman with any and all of the sorts of traits and emotions you would give to any character of the opposite sex. And women should not be carbon copies of one another, either – that’s also quite disrespectful. 

Game of Thrones is an example of a series that does an excellent job of portraying all sorts of wonderful and sympathetic female characters, with varying personalities and who come from different walks of life. Brienne of Tarth is defined not be her sexuality, but by her loyalty, her need to carve out a path for herself in a patriarchal society, etc. Arya is defined not be her sexuality – in fact, nothing remotely sexual ever happens to her or has anything to do with her – but rather, by her need for vengeance and her desire to attain a sense of belonging. That’s right, your women can be good or evil! They can do great or despicable things, like any other character, but please, don’t make them two-dimensional. Don’t make them dependent upon any man unless there’s a very good reason for doing so, and don’t make them sex objects.

Good examples to follow are, thankfully, available today, as books, shows, and films slowly improve in this area. See Gal Gadot’s fantastic take on Wonder Woman, see Rey in the new Star Wars trilogy (she’s one of my absolute favorite characters), see Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, see Eretria in The Shannara Chronicles, read about Hermione in Harry Potter, read about Shallan in The Stormlight Archive, read about Katniss in The Hunger Games, read about Lizbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and watch/read about Daenerys, Arya, Brienne, Missandei, and Cersei in Game of Thrones

The future is here, and in most good fantasy fiction, women finally matter. Make sure your writing is reflective of that.

Beyond “The Exorcist”: Demons reinvented

Sunday morning, January 28, 2018

You’re using a Ouija board or taking part in a séance. Something goes horribly wrong. Things in the house start moving of their own accord. Someone gets possessed. They start levitating and muttering in ancient languages. A brave exorcist arrives, and after a struggle, sends the demonic entity back to Hell and saves the day. Sound familiar? Most noteworthy demon-centric horror films have followed this basic outline, and most, if not all, have had strong elements of, or ties to, Christianity. My previous blog post talked about changing things up and doing different types of films and stories, and this post is very much in a similar vein. Also, at the time of writing, it’s almost Sunday, so I thought it adorably ironic to delve into the occult.

The concept of demons has existed since time immemorial. In Jewish folklore, you’ve got the shedim and the dybbuk. In Christian Biblical apocrypha, you have Azazel, Lilith, Mammon, and Abalam, to name a few. The Central Africans fear a demon named Mbwiri, while the Slavs and Poles have Czort. The Egyptians despised a snake deity named Apophis, while the Persians dreaded the demonic Azhi Dahak. Even modern folkloric creatures have demonic elements and attributes, including Slender Man and Zozo, both of which are often associated with Ouija boards. Point is, there is no one way in which to do a demon series or movie, and there is no one, single culture or lore that one must pull from in order to do it.
Why, then, do we get the same story rehashed a thousand and one times? It’s almost always about possession and exorcism, with the victim usually being an attractive young woman, and the savior almost always being an old, white, male priest. I mean, talk about a lack of representation. You might as well have Donald Trump playing the exorcist and Paris Hilton playing the possessee. *holds up hand in the form of an ‘OK’ sign* “I did not fail to exorcise the demon – that’s fake news. Fake news, folks! I had to pull the demon out of her, you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. These demons are very bad! They’re bringing crime, they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing rapists . . . ”

But I digress. Anyway, how about shaking things up a little? What if the exorcism fails, right at the beginning of the film, and the priest is brutally killed? Where do things go from there? That would be interesting. What if the possessed victim seeks help, only to discover that there is no God? How about a horrific mass possession that takes place in ancient Persia? What about a western film, where a deputy is possessed and a former outlaw has to save the town? What about a film where a guy or girl is inducted into a demonic cult? Speaking of cults, how about a film that actually explores the ludicrous idea of the Illuminati, in which our politicians are actually inhabited by malevolent spirits from Hell? That would be fun to explore. Here are a few more ideas for how you can reinvent demons in a series or movie:

Aliens are demons

Some people who believe demonic spirits to be real, also believe that they and aliens are one and the same. This is a rather intriguing line of thinking. After all, in most mythology, lore, and religion, demons are, by definition, extraterrestrial. The idea that UFOs are demonic, and that we must fear not what is beneath us under the earth but rather, what is up, in the sky above, is something that is potentially terrifying, and takes the idea of alien abduction out of the realm of sci-fi and into the realm of horror. And think about it. There’s some evidence to support the idea that the ancient Egyptians believed in aliens yet worshipped them as gods, and in the Bible, it’s said that demons, like Baal, saw themselves as just that – gods and idols to be worshipped. Don’t believe me? Read about the Midianites and Baal-Peor (Belphegor). According to scripture, God was so freaked out by the demon-worship that he ordered Moses to collect an army and completely wipe out Midian.

You could take this sort of Biblical material and use it as a backstory for a demonic, alien abduction or invasion. And there is something inherently similar about aliens and demons in popular culture – see, for example, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which essentially had people being possessed by extraterrestrials, sans the religious and occult elements. Even H. P. Lovecraft toyed with the idea of aliens-as-demons: see the byakhee, of the Cthulhu Mythos. There’s no reason why we can’t bring the concept into the modern era.

Demonic mass conspiracy

This is actually an idea I’ve had for my own book series (aside from the fantasy series I’m working on). Basically The X-Files but with demons, this would use the idea of a mass intergovernmental conspiracy as the main narrative jumping off point. We certainly have enough real-world, batshit crazy conspiracy theories to pull from, so I’m rather surprised that no one has examined this idea already. You could have the Vatican be in on it, too, if you want to include religious aspects. What if the Illuminati exists and has demonic origins? What about those theories of tunnels and underground cities beneath the Ozarks? That kind of dark, isolated area has the perfect potential to be a breeding ground for all sorts of nasty Hellish entities. What if the Big Banks and capitalist politicians are demonic? Suddenly, Mike Pence’s leering grin takes on an even more sinister presence, and you also have the opportunity to make social or political commentary.

Have you heard about targeted individuals and electronic harrassment? It’s yet another nutty conspiracy theory that has tons of support online, especially among certain members of the YouTube community. Basically, it’s the idea that the government is perpetually spying on, controlling, drugging, psychologically manipulating, and electronically assaulting everyday people. Some supposed T.I.’s (targeted individuals) even believe that demons are behind it, and simply using governments and corporations to get this done. Well, there you go! Sometimes it takes a lunatic to birth a really exciting and creative idea! After all, something rooted in a real-world delusions or folklore always has more potential to be truly unsettling or horrific, if you ask me.

Do Robotic Demons Dream of Electric Goats?

Some 10 years ago (or more), I saw a movie called Pulse, which was about evil spirits that used technology and electronics in order to torment people, taking their souls and pulling them into this Hell-like kind of cyberspace. The movie itself was kinda lame, but the concept was fantastic, and even after watching the film and kind of sighing at the lackluster acting and the PG-13 “safe” feeling it had, I was mildly unsettled at the mere idea that there would be something evil or inhuman watching or contacting you through the computers, phones, and electrical systems upon which you depend. I also saw a story once, on one of those Unsolved Mysteries-type dramas, in which a woman claimed that demons were traveling along electrical wires and manifesting in the form of lightning bolts, and that there were more of them around, and they were stronger, during a storm. Either of these two ideas can form the basis of a really disturbing movie or series.

Think about it. Someone puts in their earbuds and listens to a distorted sound in a video online, and it scrambles their brain and lets a demon into their body. A possessed stalker torments a young woman by appearing to her using the camera in her smartphone, and can turn that phone on to find and track her location, or just to listen in (wait, doesn’t the NSA already do this? They’re demons!!!). How about an interesting twist, where demons appear beneath streetlights or whenever you shine a flashlight or turn on a computer screen, and the only way to get away from them is to be in total darkness? What about robots or androids? What if someone thinks it’s artificial intelligence, but really, it’s an evil, inhuman intelligence controlling them?

There is so much more you can do with this, and I think that because technology today moves at such a rapid pace and many people don’t fully understand it, there’s so much room there to do something that scares the shit out of people. These are just a few ideas to get someone started, but come on. How is something like this not worth exploring? There are so many horror fans out there, and so many of them rightly complain that horror movies have gotten stale, boring, and predictable. When’s the last time a demonic film made someone feel really nerve-wracked or ill after seeing it? Maybe it’s time for demons to get born again.

When not in Rome...

Saturday, January 27, 2018

It all began about two weeks ago, when I saw this commercial for a film called Darkest Hour. I don’t claim to know precisely what it’s about, but I do know that it’s a war film – specifically, World War II. It’s one of several movies centered around this specific war that are out right now. And we just had Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk come out last summer. Look, I’m not knocking these films. War movies – and most 20th century period pieces, for that matter – aren’t really my thing, and I’m sure these films were well-made and deserving of awards, praise, etc. But it got me thinking: why is every damn war drama about World War II? And why are more ancient wars almost completely disregarded on the big screen? The exception to this, is, of course, the Roman wars and battles, which begs another question: why are other old societies and empires never given the spotlight?

The recent success of the TV series Vikings, on the History Channel, is something of a rarity. Very few shows or movies have or will chronicle the many sagas surrounding Nordic people and their history and culture. Even fantasy-centric takes on such material, like the attempted adaptation of Beowulf, were ultimately scrapped. I refuse to believe there’s not an audience for such a program, if the success of Vikings is any indication. Most series and movies set in ancient times, however, have opted instead to focus on Greek and Roman history, mythology, or cultures. On TV, we’ve had Rome, Spartacus, Xena, and Hercules, while on the larger screen we’ve had 300, Gladiator, Pompeii, Ben-Hur, Clash of the Titans, The Immortals, Troy, Agora, etc. How many well-known movies about Nordic history or mythos can you think of? And low-budget flops don’t count. The closest thing that comes to mind is a Viking-sci-fi crossover movie called Outlander (not to be confused with the completely different book-based TV series of the same name). And I suppose you could count Marvel’s Thor movies, though they have very little to do with Norse mythology.

Meanwhile, Aztec and various Middle Eastern histories and mythologies are totally disregarded. We live in a world with such a rich history, and myriad wars, epic events, and fantastical legends that changed and shaped society, yet we barely tap into any of it in movies. I can’t tell you how many WWII movies I’ve heard about over the last decade alone. Eventually, they all blend into one another for me and have this look and feeling of utter sameness. Look, I understand that WWII affected the world on such a huge level, and in such a profound way, but it’s time to let it go. There are only so many more stories you can do based on that specific time period before people start to roll their eyes. Moreover, it’s my personal belief that it’s easier for directors and screenwriters to do films based on WWII and other recent wars, like the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, than to explore more creativity and a larger budget, and do a film about – oh, I don’t know – China’s Battle of Red Cliffs, back in 208 A.D.; or the Battle of Kadesh fought in what is now Syria, during 1274 B.C.; or the Battle of Svolder, an epic naval conflict that took place toward the very end of the Viking era.

There have been quite a few movies about the Greek and Roman gods. As I recall, there were even two different Hercules films by two different studios released during a single year. What about the Persian gods? How about a film about the Celtic druids? Or a film about Aztec gods? Let’s get really daring and do one about the deities of Maori mythology! And I would love to see anything Nordic and fantasy-based, like adaptations of The Nibelungenlied or Beowulf, or the Valkyrie or the actual events of Ragnarok. And what about a movie based on Egyptian mythology? You know, one that doesn’t use white actors to play Egyptian people?

I really think the source of the problem is a lack of imagination. You can’t just take something directly from the history books and turn it into a screenplay, so it does take creativity and talented writing and direction to do something that breaks the mold and pulls from influences other than those that currently spin around in a perpetual cycle of repetition. For Hollywood, which pushes derivative sequels and demands movies centered around guns and big explosions, that’s just too much to ask. It’s one of the reasons why there are countless books on Aztec culture, Native Americans, African mythology, and Norse epics, but hardly any in a screen-based artistic medium. And, just as with the mega-franchises that dominate theaters, audiences have been trained like dogs to lap up all the “award-worthy” WWII dramas, and why they only consider fantasy works with ties to Greece and Rome to be palatable.
Even when there are signs that things are changing, that change is very limited. Marvel, for example, has at least introduced small elements of Norse myths to people via Thor, and is beginning to explore African culture with Black Panther. DC’s Wonder Woman, to its credit, at least explored the first World War instead of the second, though there have been countless movies revolving around that one, too. Upcoming live-action adaptations of Disney’s Mulan and Pocahontas will at least feature histories and cultures other than those that we’re used to seeing – hopefully they won’t be watered-down, family-friendly affairs. And I’ve heard something about The Chronicles of Anatta, an ancient China-based time-travel film, but given American audiences’ unwillingness to accept anything a little bit different or outside their comfort zones, it may very well tank at the box office.

Look, I’m not any kind of movie buff, and I’m not bashing well-done WWII and Vietnam War dramas. But I am arguing that we ought to change things up a little and try something that hasn’t already been done 100 times. You can argue that Dunkirk, or The Hurt Locker, or All Quiet on the Western Front are great movies, but you cannot argue that there haven’t been hundreds of movies centered on these types of wars, as opposed to more ancient ones or those not having to do with America.

Unfortunately, nothing will change in Hollywood until people ask for it, because greedy film studios have to be sure it will make money before they greenlight it. Such is the dilemma in today’s capitalist society. Perhaps this is yet another reason why books are so important. Authors have the freedom to write about anything, including any historical periods, and may draw from any mythos they choose. For those of us who want to experience the wars of ancient Persia or Egypt, or know more about the pantheons of the Aztecs or the Slavic pagans, we will have to depend on literature to sate those cravings, until the day comes when we see such material on the big screen. The question is, though, will we ever?

The long musical road into Hell

Saturday, January 13, 2018

One of the interests that has long defined me is my deep appreciation for heavy metal and its subgenres, especially black metal. It might, therefore, surprise you to know that as a kid, I had absolutely no interest in music at all, and I didn’t even know metal existed. Before you tell me to be ashamed of myself, though, I should explain that I was simply not exposed to this music, due to a conscious effort made by my very strict Byzantine Catholic family to restrict my freedom to explore the genre.

Unlike a lot of metalheads I know, I did not have the advantage of being raised in a household where classic rock was beloved. There were no vinyl records, no stories from either of my parents of epic rock concerts they attended as teenagers, and no means by which to hear any sort of rock or metal even by chance. Instead of the Rolling Stones and the Doors, my mother listened to the Beatles (admittedly, not bad music by any means) and really lame stuff like Rod Stewart and Bon Jovi. As for my stepdad, he opted mostly for country music; after all, his family came from a rural Pennsylvania background.

I think on one occasion, I may have turned the radio on as a kid and heard a song that was mildly interesting to me at the time. I think it was a Kiss song (worry not, I don’t like Kiss), and I remember my mother almost coaching me to “not like it.” I’ve got to hand it to her – that was pretty crafty on her part. Rather than freak out and yell at me to “turn off that loud rock music!” like so many parents did to their kids in the 70’s and 80’s, she sort of used psychology to convince me that what little of it I heard was just “loud and silly.” Remember, I was like four or five at this time, still a very impressionable kid, so how could I have known better? Anyway, if, as a sometimes bratty kid, I wanted anything to “rebel” over, it was, at that time, so-called “violent” kids cartoons and TV shows. At least, that was the big thing that parents in suburban New Jersey were worried over. Ah, the 90’s, right? Such first-world problems.

Anyway, my genuine interest in music did begin to manifest slowly over time, though I wouldn’t recognize it for what it was until years later. When I was eleven or twelve and living in the Pocono area of Pennsylvania, I remember that I would sometimes jump in the car with my stepdad to do grocery trips. In addition to country music, he would kind of listen to whatever was on the radio, and occasionally, something good came on. I would know because I would feel myself responding to the music in a way that I never had before. Call me a poser or whatever you wish, but at this time, a song that really jumped out and grabbed me was “Fine Again” by Seether. I had no idea what the song was called at the time or who sang it, I just knew that I liked it, and I would actually get excited four years later, when I rediscovered that song. Other songs I enjoyed were “Even Flow” by Pearl Jam and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. And don’t fault me for liking the singles – that’s what was on the radio at the time!

Eventually, I returned to my hometown – Garfield, New Jersey – and by this point, I was fourteen years old. This was the point at which I really pursued an interest in music by choice, and just as with those few songs I enjoyed on the radio in P.A., it came about as pure happenstance. A friend’s older brother was really into the goth and nu metal stuff (I know, I know), and started talking about all these crazy-sounding bands I had never heard of. Slipknot, Mudvayne, Linkin Park. What was all that stuff? I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Perhaps conveniently for me, the peaking of my fascination with rock and metal coincided with the sudden popularity of a little website called MySpace, but I should mention that even one year prior to that, I had a friend – whose screen name was Stupidguy – on a forum called Proboards that also mentioned bands like Linkin Park, as well as System of a Down and a few others.

So I made my first MySpace page, and I started checking out some of these bands. One thing led to another, and soon I found myself listening to the heaviest, screamiest song I had ever heard in my life. It’s almost adorably mainstream compared to a lot of what I listen to now, but I remember it was the song “Fixation on the Darkness” by Killswitch Engage, and I listened to it with headphones on a computer in the Garfield Public Library (since I had neither Internet nor a computer at home). Ironic, that a place known for being quiet was where I was first exposed to loud music. Also, I don’t know if it’s incredibly lame or incredibly awesome that I can trace my personal metal origins to a library. Anyway, by this time, two of my friends were also into this music, and I started exploring further and further. Again, as I did not have that classic rock kind of upbringing, I didn’t really know where to start or what to look for, and as a result I ended up hearing a mishmash of everything.

By the time I was fifteen, my friend and I were going to this Internet café (remember those?), where I would take this little .mp3 player and download music from a site I think we all remember – Limewire. I was also borrowing metal CDs from the library, including stuff by System of a Down, Marilyn Manson, Linkin Park, Slipknot, Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall, and the Headbangers Ball CDs. Now, I have to stop and underscore the importance of the Headbangers Ball volumes, because that’s where I heard my first black metal (as well as pseudo-black metal). Specifically, it was Satyricon, along with the so-called “black metal” bands Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir. Don’t knock it, either. Bands like this were the gateway into the deeper and more underground stuff for a lot of teenagers at the time, and if someone like Dani Filth led someone to eventually discover the classics like Mayhem and Emperor, then I suppose it could be argued he contributed something to music after all!

I’m not going to trajectory this entire thing, because then this would be a very long blog post. I’ll just say that my interests continued to evolve and grow, and it eventually led me into the abyss, the utter cesspool, that is black metal. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. As for classic rock? Well, my love for that is owed largely to a TV series called Supernatural. It was here that I first really sat down and listened to AC/DC, Kansas, The Rolling Stones, Blue Oyster Cult, and Led Zeppelin (even though their songs have never been played during the show; I don’t know why). However, my journey to the joyous, ear-destroying Hell that is black metal did not begin with rock music. Honestly, I’d have to grudgingly thank nu metal, which was the big, vapid music of the 90’s just as hair metal was in the 80’s, for first exposing me to the genre as a whole. Say what you will, but if I had never heard Slipknot or Mudvayne, I would never have heard Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, or Darkthrone. I know how crazy backwards that is, but sometimes it’s just the way things go.

So where am I today, musically speaking? Well, I can tell you that I’m not a black metal elitist. It will always be some of my favorite music, and yes, it has a deeper and more powerful (re: spiritual) meaning to me than other genres, but make no mistake, I listen to a broad range of ear candy. When I’m not blasting some Satanic Warmaster or Void Meditation Cult, I listen to genres including hard rock, classic rock, southern rock, some country, classical music (I have to be in the right mood), folk music, and even some electronic music, depending on what grabs me. And yes, I do listen to some softer or more poppy 80’s and 90’s music on occasion. I also listen to numerous other subgenres of metal, including folk metal, Viking metal, melodic death metal, etc.

So what’s been in my playlist as of late? Well, I really dig Halestorm, and I don’t care if people think they suck, or they’re “everything that’s wrong about rock and metal,” blah blah blah. I think they’re an incredibly talented band, and Lzzy is awesome (those fucking pipes, man, she can really sing and scream!). I’ve also really been digging the song “Judas” by Fozzy. I like this band called Cellar Darling, fronted by Anna Murphy, one of the vocalists originally associated with folk metal band Eluveitie. As for lame 80’s stuff, I’ve been hitting the replay a lot on songs like “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls and “One Thing Leads to Another” by The Fixx. I’ve been listening to European folk music including stuff by Faun, Wardruna (Einar Selvig has actually done a lot of the music heard in Vikings), Solstafir, and Vinsta. As for black metal, I’ve really been enjoying the new Watain album, Trident Wolf Eclipse, and Thantifaxath’s new EP, Void Masquerading as Matter. Plus I’ve been crazy about this Ukrainian groove metal band called Jinjer. And, Lacuna Coil is my absolute favorite band of all time, so I always listen to them on a pretty regular basis.

I hope this post has explained a little bit about the path that led me to discover the music I so enjoy, and anyone who thought they could pigeonhole me as some sort of zealous black metal maniac will likely be thoroughly surprised after reading this. It’s true, black metal is something I’m incredibly passionate about – it’s part of my overall lifestyle and worldview, and to say otherwise would be to drastically understate how it moves me down to my very spiritual core. But I am also someone who enjoys music as a whole, even if I scarcely gave it a second thought during my childhood. Some passions, after all, come later in life. This post was meant to be a small window into how I got into music and some of what I enjoy today. Now, I think I’m going to go listen to some of it.

Food, health, exercise...goals

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to live in a middle-class household (before we fell into poverty, anyway), with parents who believed in good, home-cooked meals. Eating at Burger King or even at a restaurant or diner was considered more of a rare “treat,” as the normal thing to do was sit at the kitchen table and have a hot meal. Usually, the dishes revolved around meat (beef stew, chicken, meatloaf, spaghetti with meatballs, lamb chops, etc.), but there was always a side of fresh vegetables, and care was always taken to make sure I got three round meals of healthy food a day. Snacks were very limited, and other than soda, I hardly ever had anything sugary.

A lot of people don’t have that luxury today. I meet more and more people who claim to have grown up eating fast food almost constantly, whether it’s ordering take-out every other day or being a frequent visitor to the McDonald’s drive-thru. I can’t imagine how unhealthy that must make a person. It’s unthinkable that a child or teenager can’t have access to nutritious meals, but that’s what happens to many people in that age group, every single day. We lost our relationship with food - in the hunter-gatherer sense - long ago, but the problem has worsened in the past couple of decades, with cooking diminishing in favor of shoveling processed crap down our gullets or tossing something in the microwave because we’re too lazy to prepare something the old-fashioned way (I’m not being hyper-critical - I myself am guilty of this at times).

I understand this problem - even moreso when it stems from being poor. When we lost the house we had in Pennsylvania, we ended up returning to my hometown in Garfield, but with absolutely no money left. This is meant neither to exaggerate nor to complain, but things got so bad that I would often not eat a single speck of food for nearly two weeks at a time. Our cabinets were absolutely empty, and what we did eat was from food pantries or the kindness of neighbors. There were times when I had to eat a packet of salt just to get some energy, or take candy from the bowl in a bank because it was the only thing I would eat for the week. Point is, not only did I not have good meals during this time period, I was not even able to have fast food, unless my friends helped me get it. Suffice it to say my health was not great around this time.

Fast forward to today, and I have a good job that allows me to eat! Things are still tight, of course, but I am able to cook my own food in the way that I choose, and I take full advantage of that ability. I’m not the best cook, but I try my best. Thing is, I know what it’s like to have to budget - hell, I know what it’s like to have no money at all. And yet, I encourage everyone and anyone my age to try their best to opt for cooking fresh food, rather than going to McDonald’s or some other similar place. It is possible to grocery shop on a shoestring budget, and if you can teach yourself to prepare a few meals, that’s to your immense advantage, in terms of health, knowledge, and experience. Believe it or not, cooking is a skill that is still important to our survival. Absolute dependency is never a good thing, and believe me, the system in today’s American society is designed to keep you in need. The way to beat that system is to become as autonomous as possible, and this certainly applies to how and what you eat.
Don’t think that I’m some health freak or that I’ve got things all figured out. I’m giving myself advice just as much as anyone else, because while I do cook on a regular basis, I fall short almost as often. Some evenings, I’ll come home from work feeling so dead-tired that I just can’t do it. I mean, it’s a whole process. Take all the ingredients out of the fridge, oil up the pan, cook the main course plus the sides, so on and so forth. You know, if I want to cook up chicken breasts with onions and parsley, with sides of white rice and broccoli, that’s a lot of work, and involves having two or three pans and pots going on the stove at once. Sometimes I’m just too exhausted to bother, and I just nuke something in the microwave or make a sandwich (and everyone knows how healthy deli meats are, right?).

The other part of this is that you can’t just eat in accordance with the food pyramid and expect everything to be perfect. Exercise is also a big part of it, and that’s also an area in which I struggle. My job is largely sedentary; I basically sit in front of my laptop all day, putting up an online news publication. And afterward? I work on my long-term goal, writing my book, which also involves sitting. Drawing, another hobby, involves sitting as well. The only thing I enjoy doing that involves being active is hiking, and that’s something I only get to do about two or three times a month. To remedy this, I’ve been trying to use the little gym area in my building more often - mainly, the treadmill.

As goals of being healthy and/or losing weight are often difficult ones, I’ve decided to list a few tips that have worked for me personally. I’m not an expert on this by any means, and I’m still trying every day to improve my lifestyle in terms of physical activity. So take the advice that follows with a grain of salt (just a grain, because too much salt is bad for you).

Kick most of your vices . . . but not all of them

There are so many things that are bad for us. Too much red meat, soda, too much coffee, fast food, energy drinks, cigarettes, alcohol, etc. It’s important to kick most bad habits, of course, and as with anything, we should always practice moderation. That being said, I’m of the opinion that getting rid of all your vices may actually hurt you, because you don’t get that dopamine jolt you feel when you do something that you look forward to and enjoy. This causes unneeded stress, and when you’re trying to stick to a diet, quitting all the “bad things” cold turkey can really cripple your morale, not to mention suck some small (but nevertheless important) joy out of your day. Personally, I still like to drink alcohol, since a.) I don’t have a problem with it, and b.) I’m not genetically predisposed to have a problem with it. A little responsible drinking, plus trying to stick to eating better, is a nice balance for me, and I feel that I ultimately benefit from making this compromise with myself.

Don’t vilify meat, but don’t make it your only food, either

Obviously I’m not a vegan, and I could go into why I actually think it’s perfectly natural and important for people to be meat eaters, but that’s another post for another time. (And no, I have nothing against vegans or vegetarians). Again, though, moderation is key, and just because I support being a carnivore, this doesn’t mean that you can get away with eating nothing but red meat and still be healthy. In fact, doing such a thing might very well kill you. Epic Meal Time is a very entertaining YouTube channel, but using it as an eating guide could very well land you in a hospital. Now, it’s true that eight times out of ten, meat is a very appropriate main course, but always throw some vegetables in there. Cooking a steak? Try adding some huge portabella mushrooms, and don’t forget some onions. How about topping it off with some parsley? Steamed carrots or broccoli are always good sides, with the former being especially good in stews. And don’t forget that fish and poultry are excellent alternatives to red meat, and are much healthier choices. I would even argue that things like steak and pork should be eaten rarely, with chicken or fish taking precedence. Especially fish. I eat everything from pickled herring to salmon and tilapia; octopus salad or shrimp rings; tuna sandwiches or sardines in tomato sauce. So definitely prioritize seafood, and don’t be afraid to have the occasional meat-free meal, either.

When you can walk, walk

Look, I know a lot of people drive, and those who don’t usually rely on public transportation or Uber. But if you can get somewhere by foot, it can only help you to do so. If you’re going somewhere that’s two to four miles away, and you feel like you need some exercise, you can walk it - especially if you’re in your 20’s and in fair health. Unless the weather outside is hell, there’s no excuse not to hoof it. Lately I’ve started to fall into the trap of Ubering to nearby places, due to the sheer convenience of it, but that’s mostly because it’s been damned cold, windy, and icy out. Now, though, the weather is moderate in Chicago, at least until next week, so you can be sure that I’m going to take advantage of it and try and get more exercise. Whenever you have the chance to do the same, take it.

I hope these suggestions help. Remember that you don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I’ve seen people who genuinely enjoyed eating meat become vegan, and change from being happy, easygoing people into those who are constantly nervous and stressed out. I’ve seen guys who like to have a cold beer quit drinking entirely, and stare longingly every time they pass a bar or see someone else having a drink. You do yourself no good if your diet or lifestyle change is making you downright miserable. Remember that mental and emotional health is just as important as physical health. Balance and moderation are essential. I’m still struggling to get it right, but damn it, at least I’m trying.