Mini Movie Review: “Somm” and “Somm: Into the Bottle”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m reviewing these two documentaries together because they’re a matched pair: same director, much of the same cast, and two sides of the same coin.

You should watch Somm first, because it was filmed first, and introduces you to people you’ll see in the next film. It’s not the better movie, though. Somm is the backstage look at a small group of men who are preparing to take the Court of Master Sommeliers “Master Sommelier” exam, a three-part test to award the title and prestige that comes with being a master somm. (It is very prestigious; there are only about 200 Court-certified masters in the world, and ascending to that level comes with cache, swagger, and immediate job offerings all over the world.)

The test is truly difficult. It’s subjective, and it’s broad-ranging. To be a master, you need the skills of a botanist and a historian, along with a sensitive nose and an excellent memory for tastes and smells. It takes a combination of genetics and dedication, then, along with the money and privilege necessary to access the variety of wines you’ll have to memorize before the exam. So, of course these guys are stressed, and not every one passes.

If you already care about the master test, or you are working as a sommelier, this behind-the-scenes look will probably interest you. I learned a few things, watching it.

But Somm: Into the Bottle is far more educational. It brings back the guys from Somm, now employed by various wineries and restaurants, and has them help explain the history and mysteries of wine production. There’s obviously a bigger budget, and the director manages to get into some rare European locations to speak with winemakers whose families have been making wine since before there was an “America”, before the existence of many of the countries we know in Europe today.

I’d have liked to learn more about South American and Asian wines, but they do cover Australia, Europe, and California pretty well. They go over the botany, genetics, and economic/political pressures which make up a wine’s lineage and flavor profile. (War! Infighting between small wineries! Drinking lots of expensive wine!)

I don’t drink much wine, mainly because I could never afford to learn anything about it. I know a couple of things I like (bring unto me your finest Riesling, if you want me to be happy with your wine selections) and a decent amount of history (because, art historian). But knowing wine at the level of masters means knowing everything.

The thing is, I like to know everything. And I don’t like the realization that there’s this whole field which impacts culture and is grounded in history… which I haven’t accessed.

I need to read a few more books.

And definitely drink more wine.

(Both films are currently available on Netflix.)

Movie Review: “I Am Not Your Negro”

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This is the most moving documentary I’ve seen in years. The impact, if you open yourself up to what’s on the screen, is immediate, lasts throughout the relatively-short film, and follows you out onto the street afterward. I saw it a few weeks ago, but I can feel the echo of it around me still.

I was a little concerned, before I saw it, that the entire time James Baldwin’s words or images were on the screen, Samuel L. Jackson’s voice would hover over them. Nothing against Jackson, a great actor who I enjoy, but I went for the experience of Baldwin briefly-revived, and didn’t want that experience diluted. I didn’t have anything to worry about. Jackson did read Baldwin’s words, in places, but his softened his voice and cadence give us narration that was less “Nick Fury” and closer to Baldwin’s “delicate but precise New York writer”. Enough, anyway, that it worked.

Big chunks of the film are in Baldwin’s own voice, from interviews and lectures and if you haven’t seen that man lecture before, go now, go online, go to YouTube, and find him. (Thanks to the internet, he lives on, at least a little.)

The rest is photographs, old and new, and some small clips of Black Lives Matter groups protesting in the last few years.

But what it is, really, is James laid bare, reaching out, reaching forward, to remind us that racism is not gone, not in the past, not even that old. We’re not post-racial, here in America; we are the children and grandchildren of those angry white mothers and brash young white supremacist boys who spit on black children wanting nothing more than a seat in a schoolhouse so they could learn.

Some people reading this are old enough to have been there, clutching their purses which righteous indignation, carrying signs, screaming, spitting, throwing rocks, or worse. That’s not a condemnation of my readers. It’s just a fact — one this documentary reminds you of, softly, crisply, and clearly.

But it’s even more than that. It’s a history lesson. It’s a look at how black men and black men’s bodies were regulated, even as they turned a profit. It’s also a reminder to speak up, to be yourself regardless of the circumstances, to write boldly, to make a mark, to love, to live, before it’s too late. Because it’s always too late, eventually.

Go see it in the theater while you still can.

Watch the trailer on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNUYdgIyaPM

A tiny contribution to (the exquisite! corpse of) Uncanny Magazine’s Issue 15

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Cover by Julie Dillon

Last month, Uncanny Magazine editor Michael Damian Thomas came up with a creative way to put off writing an editorial for Issue 15. He called it The Uncanny Magazine Exquisite Corpse Editorial — and I got to contribute a sentence to it!

In his introduction, Thomas explained…

The Exquisite Corpse was an old Surrealist game where you build off of what the previous person created, but you never see the whole. In this case, each writer only read the previous sentence before writing their sentence. Then their sentence and only their sentence was passed to the next person, and so on. On that note, enjoy this editorial by nearly 40 writers!

You can read our collaboration here.

The first half of the magazine is already online, free to read, here.

You can also subscribe to a full year at Weightless Books or Amazon, plus buy single issues from those retailers, Kobo, and Google Play.

Catching up has an order of progression, doesn’t it?

I knew that moving would help me by reducing the amount I had to pay each month, which would reduce my stress, let me spend less time chasing new work, and more time on the tasks and chores that are necessary for a functioning life. I was right about that, and more — I’m sleeping better, for one. (A lot better, actually.) And I’m managing the day-to-day tasks in a way I wasn’t able to before; keeping up with what’s due now is a novel feeling I’d like more of, thanks.

What I didn’t realize is that, five weeks later, I’m still getting caught up. Not with the immediate tasks, because I’m doing okay there, but with all the things I’d put aside because it felt like I didn’t have the time or brain to even consider them. I was, as they say, all out of spoons. I was surviving, and barely at that. So, paperwork? Getting back to someone I was already late to reply to? That project or idea I’d wanted to start back in December? That stuff, I didn’t remotely have the capacity to tackle.

Now I do. So, I am. But it’s a weird feeling, to be catching up and behind at the same time, because for me, that usually came with a crushing amount of stress and fear and avoidance. (Yeah, I avoid people when I think they’re going to be mad at me. I know why, I’ve had therapy, and I’m much better about it these days, but at my worst, it’s still an issue.)

I got through February doing almost everything February required. Schoolwork? Done. My apartment? Unpacked, organized, and currently clean. (Even the bathroom, the place most people put off tidying until the very end.) I also got around to sleeping regularly, spending more time with my son, and even joining a gym to get the exercise I desperately need. HUGE IMPROVEMENT, clearly.

My goal for March is to stay caught up, finish the things that were due in January, and maybe even start on December, while staying caught up with the now. For the first time in a long time, I think it’s possible.

Some day I will talk about my first 5 years in Ithaca (because it’s been 5 whole years, now) as the hardest and most useful time of my life. It’s been both, mostly because I struggled to not just get what I wanted, but to be who I wanted to be. I had to grow up, in a way I wasn’t even aware of before I moved here. I think I did.

I’m not quiet where (or who) I want to be yet, but I see it clearly, and I know what I have to do. It’s just a matter of staying on this path and continuing to put in the effort. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, after all.

I know that I can do the work, given enough time. I know I will. I know that whatever knocks me down, I’ll keep getting up and getting back on track, trying to do the right thing, even if I’m the only one who sees it. I’m a much stronger person than I ever was before, because of the last 5 years. I might even be a grown up.

I like that.

Updated: MOVING MOVING MOVING (Hey, I’m moved in!)

Updated Feb 15, 2017

hello

(This is Licorice, the neighbor’s cat. She is very friendly.)

 

We’re moving at the end of the month now! I had my first class of the new semester this morning, and then I picked up the keys to the new apartment, and have already taken over a carload of stuff.

If you didn’t already know… I was supposed to stay in my old apartment until summer, but the strain of balancing overworking myself to pay the rent plus school, parenting, relationship, writing, and managing last year’s health issues meant I was constantly stressed. My previous landlord wanted to do something else with the space, so when he asked if I’d consider moving out now, I jumped on the opportunity. I found us a (smaller but still nice) much cheaper apartment closer to the edge of town. There’s no downside to moving, and a few big reasons to go ahead:

My new place is about $500 a month less, closer to Logan’s school, and mine, so it’s be great for both of us. Plus, we’re living very close to my significant other, the last step before we can be certain living together will work for us. The short-term hassle of having to scrape up rent/deposit/moving expenses before I get back the deposit on my current apt, and having to move, was totally worth the long-term gain of not being behind on bills every month, worried and unable to spend time on anything for myself.

I’m hoping that I’ll be able to balance a reasonable work schedule with a little more family time, and a chance to get back into a regular writing routine.

Mini Movie Review: “Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives” (documentary)

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives
Documentary, 2015.
3/5*

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives doesn’t intend to teach you much; it’s basically a love letter to Adrian Bartos and Robert Garcia, who hosted “The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show” from 1990 to 1998, on the Columbia University radio station, WKCR. (You can learn a lot more from this NY Times article.)

I watched this documentary on Netflix over the weekend, and I liked it enough to recommend it, with some warnings: This isn’t an entry-level rap documentary. If you don’t already know the fundamental difference between a DJ who makes music, and a DJ who talks between playing tracks on the radio, this documentary won’t be for you. If you don’t already know the difference between rap and lyrical hip-hop, this won’t explain it. If you’re not intimately aware that the 90s rap scene in New York was unlike anywhere else in the world, well… you get the idea.

Stretch and Bobbito were the gatekeepers of, and introduction to, a whole generation of rap music, discovering (to name a few) Jay-Z, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., and Ol’ Dirty Bastard before they were signed. They showed a light on now-legendary artists before they got airtime anywhere else, elevating the careers of Cypress Hill, Eminem, and the Fugees, among others. If you understand the gravity of these events, then this movie will bring together dozens of names, familiar — and fading — artists who’re happy to recount the moment where the radio show changed their lives. You’ll get to see and hear freestyling clips from a range of artists, mostly unrecorded anywhere else.

There’s a lot of clips, some laughs, and a few quick moments of secret lore that are well worth watching, but the documentary avoids exploring the relationship between the two men behind the show in any real depth. We hear that Stretch didn’t like Bobbito getting all of the credit, and both of their musical tastes evolved in different directions, but that’s it. These two were important to the history of rap music in a big way, and yet… we don’t know any more about them than we did at the beginning. We just know that everyone loved them, because they assembled a bunch of people to say that, and no one who didn’t.

So, don’t watch it to learn anything about the show’s creators. Watch it for over an hour of largely-unseen video of some of the greatest rappers to come out of New York in the early 90s. It’s worth it for that, I promise.

“You’re gonna need LOTS of glue!”

When I was a kid, growing up in Central California, there was a series of PSA-type skits that were shown on TV. They were usually a minute long, and the two puppets who starred in these spots, Charley and Humphrey, related life lessons by example. Humphrey, a confident bulldog in a natty cap, would do something selfish or short-sighted, sure it would all turn out fine in the end, and his friend Charley, a horse wearing a captain’s hat (for no reason that was ever explained), would explain how it could go wrong.

And then, because learning, kids, what Charley foretold would come to pass, and Humphrey would be stuck trying to correct his mistake, while Charley rolled his eyes and broke the 4th wall to give the viewer his best, “You know better than that, right?” look and tell us the moral of the story.

Charley’s high horse was ever so high.

They stuck with me, and years later, I still remember this one verbatim:

What I mainly learned is that passive aggressive relationships are taught as the norm in so many more ways than we realize. The lesson of this episode isn’t just not to take things without asking — it’s that if you screw up, you’ll not only be in trouble for what you did wrong, you’ll also be soundly mocked by the people you thought cared about you.

I wonder about why Charley had to be right about everything, morally superior, certain he knew the rules and ha haHumphrey, told you so. I wonder if it was Charley who taught Humphrey that he had to take for himself because no one, not even his best buddy, would be there for him if he needed something (like a light to read by)… or if Humphrey grew up learning that lesson, and hung out with Charley because it wasn’t happy, but it was familiar.

I wonder if either Charley or Humphrey ever found someone else who loved them enough to teach them how to be caring, and kind, and thoughtful, without bullying them into it. Humphrey, at least, seemed genuinely upset when he did the wrong thing.

Charley — too wrapped up in the expectation that everyone else will see his inherent rightness and follow along with whatever he says — probably wouldn’t have changed. Humphrey wants to be loved, wants to do right, but Charley expects to be loved and seen as right, so he’s never really interested in Humphrey’s thoughts or feelings, only the appearance of being superior.

Poor Humphrey. I really do hope he found a better friend after all.

10 things that made my 2016 (a little) better

For most people, 2016 was a fucked up, miserable, factually terrible dumpster fire of a year. Icons died, racists thrived, and everywhere you looked, someone else was telling you not to be so upset, not to take it all personally, and not to worry because they were still getting what they wanted out of life, so that must mean you’re overreacting…

No, you’re not.

Icons matter because they tell us we live in a world where our aspirations are possible, and politics matter because the choices politicians make affects every bit of our existence, and racists matter because their willingness to be vocal and noticed in major ways means that a) racism never really left*, and b) they think society is swinging back to the old, oppressive, whites-first, straight people first, ablebodied people first, and especially, aggressively, men first, ways.

* I know it never left. That’s obvious to anyone who isn’t white, and to anyone who spends any time with and caring about people who aren’t white, or even actually listening to the white racist folks all around us. But a lot of well-meaning people convinced themselves that we were living post-racially, and need the reminder that the fight for equality, in this way especially, is not nearly over.

We need to see the awful, horrible, bits of 2016 so we can fight against them. Dismissing the people who are upset about this year because it’s not been horrible to you, yet, just means you have enough privilege to have avoided what a lot of other people are going through, and you’re a selfish jackass.

But.

Recognizing that the world has been on fire doesn’t mean you can’t also appreciate the cool sips of water you manage to find in between the flames. Seeing and holding on to the good makes it possible to survive the bad, and maybe even fuel the fight against it. My 2016 has been hard not just for the larger, global reasons, but for very personal ones that mainly affect… just me. I struggled. I hurt. I was afraid, and I still am.

But… I found good in the year, too. In no particular order, here’s 10 things that got me through:

arrival_movie_poster

1. Arrival. I’d read the Ted Chiang story several times before, and the movie is not quite the story — which was itself, brilliant  — but in its own way, as a translation of Chiang’s story (which is about, in part, translation)… it’s beautiful. It said things to me that I needed to hear. I got to see it just a few weeks ago, in a mostly-empty theater, at a Sunday matinee, with the love of my life, and it was a perfect couple of hours. It was a moment I needed very badly just then, and I’m so grateful I got it in exactly that way, with that person.

2. Destiny. Yes, the video game. I stumbled on the free trial at the beginning of December, found out a couple of writer/agent friends were also playing, and jumped in. I love it enough that I was given the full copy as a gift a week later, just because my happiness was obvious. The game is gorgeous, the voice actors are recognizable in a way that adds to the game (rather than distracting too much from it) and I’m good at it. When I do well, I get prizes. Yay!

I also like that it’s very mission oriented, which for me means that I can play through a mission or strike in about 20 minutes, and then I have to pause. I might have to go talk to someone to get the next mission, or turn in my engrams (they’re like… virtual carnival tickets) to get my loot, or dump stuff I’ve got too much of, but it’s a moment for my brain to think, “Ok, that’s done.” I play one mission, and then I go do other things. I’ve had favorite games before that easily lent themselves to day- or week-long binges, and if I did that with Destiny, I’d feel so guilty that it’d ruin the game for me. This is a self-indulgent fun that doesn’t interfere with me actually accomplishing things, and that’s exactly what I needed from it.

I need fun. Plus, the game devs have a lot of fun with the game. This trailer, for a new racing bike option in the latest update, is exactly what I mean.

3. The support of people I mostly know online. Other writers, fans of my fiction, students of my workshop, clients, and people who just like what I have to say have been a constant source of happiness this year. From virtual hugs to holiday cards to emails and tweets — it’s all a reminder that I am part of a larger community that cares about my well being and wants me to write more, to succeed in life. Even though I didn’t get out to any conventions this year, and won’t for at least part of next year; even though I don’t live in a big city, and often feel cut off from the writers I’ve gotten to know… I’m not entirely absent from their thoughts.

I appreciate you all, so much.

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4. My son. I rarely post about him publicly because I generally think that’s a very bad idea, but I will say that he’s doing well. He’s taller than me now, which is something we’re both getting used to, and he’s trying to find his way through those awkward teen years that’d have been difficult even if he didn’t have a serious speech disorder and an an absent father and a mother who doesn’t make enough money to do much with him. He could be an angry, selfish, terrible kid… and he’s not. He struggles, but he learns, and he is kind when I need him to be, and he loves me without reservation. As hard as it has been to figure out what he needs and how to give it to him, and as much as I sometimes resent people who have it so much easier, I’m very lucky to have this particular child. He’s a good person, and I don’t ever want to let him down.

5. The Affordable Care Act. It saved my life.

6. My bullet journal. My person has been using this system for a couple of years. He would show it to me when I asked, but never pushed it on me. Never insisted it would change my life, or anything like that. It just worked for him, and he, quietly, like he does, went on using it. Earlier this year, I finally said, “I think this might work for me, too. Can you explain it to me?” Right after work, he came over with a new Leuchtturm 1917 journal book, and walked me through exactly how to make bullet journaling fit what I needed it to do. I’ve been using it ever since as a combination diary/to do list, and it’s helped me keep days sorted from each other, plus let me look back and see how much I really am getting done, on days where I feel like I’m slacking. I feel more organized and I’ve kept on top of things I know I’d otherwise have forgotten.

(Want to try it? Start here.)

7. Deciding on life plans for the next couple of years. We sat down  a couple of times this year, and talked through what we all needed (he, and I, and us together, and us with my son) and outlined the future. I’m making some big changes, and following through on some old plans. Right now, life is still hard, especially financially, but if everything goes according to plan, that’s going to change soon enough. Where I am in a couple of years should be dramatically different from where I am now, and I can’t wait.

8. My ADHD medication. If you need help to keep your brain, or body, functioning, there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone is different, and while celebrating our differences is important and good, it’s also okay to realize that some differences might be keeping us from living — or thinking — the way we want to. As much as it’s acceptable to get a cast put on a broken leg, it should also be acceptable to seek medication for a disorder like ADHD, if it’s serious enough to impact your daily life. In my case, having ADHD is like trying to juggle a dozen different thoughts at any given moment, and forgetting half of them when I try to focus on any one. With the medication, I can hold on to a train of thought for long enough to act on it, and I stop doing things like burning food I suddenly forgot I was cooking. It doesn’t give me super powers, but it makes a big liability into a small one, so rather than trying to run a marathon while also being chained to an anchor, I’m trying to run a marathon while also feeling a bit lazy and wearing uncomfortable shoes. Things become possible, but I still have to do the work. Which, I think, is fair.

9. My midnight trip to Columbus, OH. I snuck away to join my person in Columbus, OH, for a day of touristy reminiscing about where and how he lived when he was younger. It was my only real adventure this year, a sudden, spontaneous, whirlwind of travel that involved more time on a bus (there and back) than we were actually in Columbus, but it was totally worth it.

10. My partner, my buddy, my love, my person. He knows why.

I hope you had people and moments in 2016 that were worth remembering, even as we celebrate this year finally coming to an end.

 

Changing Plans (for now)

After several months of working to build my freelance side gig into a reliable full-time business of my own, I was nearly to where I could at least pay my usual expenses without too much help, and on track to inch my way forward into financial stability. I was so close! I started making plans again. I felt hopeful, even with the rest of 2016 grinding us down.

On my birthday, at the end of November, I was mistakenly hit with a direct debit from my checking account for almost $1000. Because of that, I was hit with bank fees for everything that was paid out of my “overdraft protection” for the next two weeks, while I scrambled to make up the missing funds. I’ve done all of the paperwork and phone calls and I’m trying to get it back, but it turns out the payment — to my student loans — can be both accidentally taken and irretrievable at the same time. They’re investigating, they said, and I may get it back, in 90 days or so.

They’ll let me know.

Because of this, everything else fell apart, like I was juggling a dozen eggs and then someone sped up the music, until I couldn’t keep time with it anymore, and the pieces I was trying to balance suddenly crashed to the floor. I worked harder than ever, but it wasn’t enough, and ended the month with a cold that I am pretty sure was brought on by lack of sleep, and stress.

I don’t feel right yet, but I have to keep going.

Due to the unexpected financial problems I’ve had this month, I’ve decided not to attend any conventions until at least Fall 2018, or do any kind of travel. (This means I won’t be able to be at Boskone this February.)

I do miss everyone, and I do feel lonely and isolated here sometimes, since it’s just me and mine and we’re not tapped into the same kind of writing community I’ve gotten out of my FB/Twitter/convention relationships with other writers. But, as tempting as conventions are, I am still behind on rent and bills. I’m still worried every day, and that interferes with my work.

And, I’m not writing regularly because of all the stress — it turns out, I need to know my son is safe and my life is relatively stable before I can be “selfish” enough to write, since that’s a thing I do just for me.

I know me, though. I will get my money, my life, and my writing back on track, consistently. Then I can focus on getting back into the world.

I hope to see you all, out there, soon.