Music to Remember By, Part 3: Our Dark Shazamless Days

My playlist of memories continues with Starbucks Music and hazy recollections of the 1970s.

With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part two, I wrote about false memories, driving, and being homesick.

Shoot the Moon, Norah Jones
I still say Come Away With Me is a great album, one of my top 20 even if not my to 10. (If you don’t believe me, listen to the tracks “Seven Years” and “Nightingale”). I think the reason I tend to forget that it’s so good is that I’ve unfairly lumped it in with “Starbucks Music,” because I so often heard “Don’t Know Why” playing in coffee shops.

My strongest memory of “Shoot the Moon” was hearing it in a Borders bookstore in Marin County in 2002 and making peace with being in my 30s. I recognized the song and realized I really liked it. I’d been having a lot of anxiety around turning 30 the previous year. All of my optimism about getting to work for LucasArts had been more or less crushed by the reality of working for LucasArts, and by that point, my follow-up job had either ended or was clearly on the way to its end. My career hadn’t ended up where I wanted it to be, and I was worried that I hadn’t accomplished all the things I’d wanted to accomplish by the time I turned 30. But being in a chain bookstore in Marin County — in many ways the Heart of Whiteness — and hearing a relaxing jazz-infused contemporary pop song, and realizing that I recognized it and liked it: that was somehow calming. I just let all the suburban middle-class whiteness wash over me and take me into its bland but loving embrace.

If the Stars Were Mine, Melody Gardot
This, on the other hand, is the darker side of “Starbucks Music.” I don’t believe in “guilty pleasures” anymore — what’s the point in feeling guilty for liking something? — but I’ve got to say this is a song I’m not 100% happy to have in my music library.

Unlike anything on Come Away With Me, this feels like a song that was specifically created to one day appear on a Starbucks compilation album. I think the stereotypes of Starbucks and PSL basic bitches is marketing nonsense, but this feels like something trying to capitalize on that as if it were a real thing. It doesn’t seem like a genuine piece of music that happened to connect with a certain audience, but crassly designed to hit a very specific demographic of white person.

Still, the reason I keep it is because it conjures such a perfect memory. I was on one of the once-in-a-lifetime jobs I was absurdly fortunate to get with Imagineering multiple times. I was at the Grand Floridian at Walt Disney World, standing on the porch outside Narcoossee’s restaurant, and the weather was perfect and the day was perfect. For the first time, it occurred to me that I could uses Shazam to identify the music playing around the resorts, and I’d end up with a playlist that would always take me back there. (It had actually never occurred to me that Disney licensed the music that played around the resorts instead of recording it specifically for them).

Hearing this song reminds me of one of the only times that I was having the best time of my life and realized it in the moment, instead of after it was already over.

Lady Pilot, Neko Case
This reminds me of driving back from Disneyland on I-5 with my friends. They were playing all Neko Case albums, and it was the first I’d heard any of her music. (And known it — I’d never made the connection she sang my favorite New Pornographers songs). At the time, I thought her voice was phenomenal, but also kind of exhausting — her earlier country-heavy records are pretty spare, and to the uninitiated can seem a little overwhelming. I liked it, but also I was tired and grouchy and felt like I’d spent an hour listening to a woman with a uniquely powerful voice yelling about Tacoma and Deeeeeeeeep Red Bells.

Later, I was listening to Blacklisted and during “Lady Pilot,” everything clicked for me. It was suddenly the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. And it’s still up there with “Dirty Knife” and “This Tornado Loves You” as my favorite Neko Case songs. My crush started there.

(And because I feel like this sounds a little harsh and undermines my huge fandom of Neko Case: if you watch her live singing her own material, she frequently does that thing where she starts belting out a note away from the microphone and then sweeps across it. So she must be well aware her voice is too powerful to take at full blast).

We’ve Only Just Begun, Carpenters
This reminds me of being a little kid in the seventies. I don’t really have any single specific memory, more a montage of being a weird little kid who adored the Carpenters. In my mind, it’s shot like one the Disney live-action movies from the 70s, all fuzzy and amber and set to “On Top of the World” and “Close to You.” My mother used to like to tell a story about me being around 4 years old and sitting on a stool to perform “Sing” with a little microphone, and I crossed my legs and leaned toward the camera like I’d seen singers do on television. Like I said: kind of a weird kid, and that plus the fact that I loved ABBA intensely should’ve been a sign that something was up with me. Just sayin’.

I picked “We’ve Only Just Begun” because I think it’s the most 1970s of the Carpenters songs I loved in the 70s. I only found out within the past few years that Richard Carpenter got the tune from a jingle for a bank, which seems obscenely crass and commercial now, but fit right in with the gestalt of the 70s. It was a different time.

Day After Day, Badfinger
I remember finding out about this song. I felt like it was just part of the background music of the 1970s, kind of like how I know all the words to “Dust in the Wind” despite never owning a Kansas album. Whenever “Day After Day” would come on, I would think how much I liked it, but then forget about it until the next time. I never knew the title or the artist. In fact, because the singer sounds a lot like Paul McCartney to me — and, I would later find out, it was produced by George Harrison, and the band was “mentored” by the Beatles — I always assumed that it was a slightly-lesser-known Beatles song from an album I just hadn’t bought yet.

Years later, I heard the song playing while I was out somewhere — I don’t remember the details, but I do remember the realization that I was living in the future and could just use Shazam to identify the song once and for all. One of the minor mysteries of my teen years was resolved, and gone forever were the days when we had to spend even a moment wondering about pop culture trivia.

Now that I think of it, it’s a companion piece to “Sleeping Satellite” by Tasmin Archer, which I wondered about throughout the early 90s. Once I got identify it on Shazam and instantly get it on Napster (ask your parents), it drained a little bit of the mystery from the universe.

Next time: Our not-particularly shocking, easy-listening finale! Featuring Fleetwood Mac, Morcheeba, and Björk!

One Thing I Love About Knives Out

Knives Out is a movie that constantly wants to have it both ways, and it somehow pulls it off flawlessly. (Spoilers within)

There’s a lot of things I love about Knives Out: its clever structure, its cast full of perfect performances, its ability to perfectly nail the tone throughout, its unapologetic assertion of morality. I thought it was very near flawless, and it was a great reminder of how exhilarating it can be to see a movie that wasn’t part of a blockbuster franchise.

But one of the best things is that it kept me surprised throughout, so I’d consider anything outside of the trailers to be a spoiler for the movie. Please don’t read this (or any other reviews for that matter) until after you’ve seen Knives Out.

The one aspect of Knives Out that I’m going to focus on is the way that it wants to have it all both ways, and it somehow manages to pull it off. Based on the trailer, I thought I knew exactly what kind of movie it was going to be, and I was completely on board.

As it turned out, it was that kind of movie, but it also kept surprising me by changing direction. It’s very funny, but without sacrificing its tension or its emotion. The set direction and the opening shot suggest an old-fashioned period 1970s period piece set in a gothic mansion, but a lot of its tension comes from cell phones and topical references. Many of its characterizations are campy and almost over the top, but it also generates real empathy with the characters. It looks like a locked-room whodunnit, but it also has a car chase (even if it’s “the stupidest car chase”).

And one of the most clever and surprising aspects to me: it wants to be both a traditional whodunnit and a Columbo-style whodunnit that reveals the murderer near the beginning of the story. And they both work!

I would’ve assumed that the two types of story were mutually exclusive. There was a pretty great thriller (at least, great in my memory of 1987) called No Way Out that got its tension from having its protagonist trying to manipulate an investigation that would inevitably reveal him to be the murderer. Knives Out weaves that story in and out of a traditional murder mystery, and it’s fascinating to go back and look at how it manages to pull that off.

The beginning of the movie is brilliantly constructed. It has to set up the plot, introduce the characters, establish the tone as funny-but-not-flippant, establish the characters as extreme but not just caricatures, and put the audience in the role of observers who are given more information than any of the characters and will have to piece it all together. All while keeping things moving and preventing the audience from feeling overwhelmed.

The first clever twist is that the audience is set up not to identify with the eccentric detective, but with one of the least likely suspects. The second is the brilliant gimmick of having a protagonist who’s physically incapable of lying.

As a result, it takes a genre that relies on impassive detachment — you assume that everyone’s lying and treat the characters as pieces of a puzzle that the storyteller has laid out in front of you — and turns it into one in which you become personally invested in the main character and the murder victim. Meanwhile, the movie and the characters themselves are all self-aware to know that they’re in a whodunnit, so the analytical part of your brain can keep spinning, putting the clues together and trying to predict what comes next.

By the end of the movie, I realized that while I’d been patting myself on the back for being so clever at several points in the movie, it was at least a step ahead of me, planting red herrings. Not for the mystery so much as the structure of the movie itself. Throughout, I had figured out only as much as the movie wanted me to figure out. I was able to predict just far enough ahead so that I was in sync in the story as all the pieces fell into place.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the special features, commentary, and deleted scenes for this movie, because I’d love to see how it was constructed and I wonder if there were more that was cut out. For instance, one of my minor complaints about it was that Riki Lindhome’s character felt like she was going to play a larger role that never really developed. Similarly, LaKeith Stanfield’s character had some great moments but felt underdeveloped even as an Inspector Lastrade stand-in; was there more at one point, or was this another misdirection?

Regardless, I’m a lot less interested in seeing Rian Johnson do a trilogy of Star Wars movies, and a lot more interested in seeing more of the ongoing Benoit Blanc series. The Maybe B. Blanc Mysteries? As much as I said this was a great self-contained film and a nice break from franchise-driven blockbusters, I can’t help wanting to see more of this from Daniel Craig and Rian Johnson instead of 007 and Star Wars. It has it both ways in so many other respects, so why can’t it be both an independent film and a franchise?

Music to Remember By, Part 2: Driving and Forgetting

Day 2 of the playlist brings repressed memories, homesickness, lots of driving, and feeling slightly more connected to the Japanese people

With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part one, I wrote about the album and the airline trip that inspired the whole thing.

Aguas de Marco, Cibo Matto
If the theme is “memory,” then this was a case of repressed memory, missing time, and possible abduction by Cibo Matto-loving aliens. Recently we were watching a documentary that featured Antonio Carlos Jobim’s son performing “Aguas de Marco,” and it made me want to listen to the well-known original with Jobim and Elis Regina.

Except that wasn’t the original version, or at least it wasn’t what I remembered as the original. After listening to every cover I could find on YouTube, I stumbled onto the one by Cibo Matto, which stuck in my mind as the “real” one. I also suddenly remembered a brief period where I was obsessed with Cibo Matto, and had completely forgotten about it. Like when Obi-Wan says he couldn’t remember ever owning a droid, but then you see him going on all these adventures with R2-D2, except even less exciting and I somehow knew all the lyrics to “Spoon” without any memory of ever hearing it.

I Hear the Bells, Mike Doughty
This is kind of cheating for the rules of the playlist, since I can’t remember exactly when it was or where I was headed. Regardless, I have a vivid memory of being in my car, driving on the most boring stretch of 580 at night, nothing visible out the windows except highway and hills. It was the first time I’d listened to Haughty Melodic loud, without any distractions (and finally rid of any preconceptions that it’d be just like another Soul Coughing album). The music was swelling, I was singing at the top of my lungs, and I would’ve sworn that at any second the car would take flight and launch off the freeway into the darkness.

You Are the Everything/Untitled, REM
I got Green while I was in my freshman year of college in Manhattan, just because “Stand” was popular on MTV at the time. I’m not sure that I’m cut out to live in New York now, and I know for a fact that I wasn’t when I was 17. I remember sitting in my dorm room one night when I was feeling particularly homesick, and when “You Are the Everything” started with its sounds of crickets and frogs at night, it occurred to me that it had been a month since I’d actually seen a tree outside of a planter. That album became one of my links back home to Georgia whenever I started to regret trying so hard to escape Georgia in the first place. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d end up leaving Manhattan to go to school in Athens, Georgia, instead, where I soon got sick of hearing REM constantly.

Which reminded me of the untitled bonus track from Green, which conjures a vivid memory of annoying the hell out of my roommates. We had downstairs neighbors in the dorm who listened to “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction super loud at least four times a day, which in retrospect was lucky for me, since they bore the brunt of all the annoyance that would’ve been directed at me for listening to Green almost as often. The opening drum beat from that untitled song is now combined with the sound of my Mac Plus ejecting a floppy disk as my memory of my year-long audio assault on the poor people who lived with me.

Sweet Thursday, Pizzicato Five
I was taking beginning Japanese language classes in Japantown over the weekends, and I’d always hit the bookstore afterwards to pick up an import CD from Pizzicato Five, Fantastic Plastic Machine, or game and anime soundtrack. I was riding back to Marin from San Francisco on 101, listening to The Sound of Music by Pizzicato Five, and I was enjoying it so much that I drove past my exit and figured I’d keep going north until the album ended. I thought “Sweet Thursday” was beautiful (and still do), but this day in particular was after a class where we’d gone over the days of the week. The phrase “mokuyoubi no asa” (Thursday morning) jumped out at me, because it was the first time I’d heard it as the word for “wood” plus one of the words for “day.” I’d spent all my time learning vocabulary through arbitrary memorization, and it had never occurred to me that the Japanese names for the days of the week had a system just like English, with “sun” + “day,” “moon” + “day,” “Odin’s” + “day”, etc. It suddenly felt like the language would be more accessible and fun if I looked for patterns and similarities instead of thinking of it as something completely foreign and difficult.

Sweet Thing, Van Morrison
For some reason, the two best Van Morrison songs (“Sweet Thing” and “Into the Mystic”) weren’t on his best of collection from 1990. So I heard multiple covers of the song before I heard the original. One was from an album by The Waterboys, and the other was during a live show by the band Poi Dog Pondering. (The first two Poi Dog Pondering concerts I saw at the Georgia Theater in Athens are still the best concerts I have ever been to). One day after classes, I went to one of the used music stores in Athens and finally bought a copy of Astral Weeks. I listened to it on the drive home but didn’t even make it to the end of Baxter Street before I was entranced by it — a flowery word, but I don’t know how to describe it. It really wasn’t like any album I’d ever heard before. I drove around the campus and then around the town to give enough time for the tape to finish, then I rewound it and started it over again.

“And I shall raise my hand into the nighttime sky and count the stars that’s shining in your eye” is still one of the most romantic lines from any song I’ve ever heard.

Next time: Starbucks music, both good and bad! My eternal and ever-evolving crush on Neko Case! And I can’t stress enough how weird a kid I was in the 1970s! You don’t want to miss this one!

Music to Remember By, a Weeklong Playlist

Compiling a playlist that didn’t help me sleep, but did start me on a weird ride though my teens and twenties.

My friend is participating in something called “Holidailies” this December, and while I definitely can’t post every day, I like the idea of taking part informally and writing as often as I can. For as long as this blog has existed, I’ve been fighting against my natural tendency to write 5000-or-more-word rambling essays that even I get lost in. Writing shorter stuff more often seems like a good counter to that, a good way to be less dependent on Facebook, and a refreshing callback to the early 2000s. And as long as we’re doing flashbacks to the early days of blogging, why not start with an unsolicited playlist?

Last night I was on a very late and delayed cross-country flight back home, so I tried to compile a playlist that would help me sleep. My goal was to get a repeat of my experience with The Shepherd’s Dog by Iron & Wine a few years ago.

For most of my life, I’ve been okay with flying, but there was a period of a couple of years where I would get a severe, morbid anxiety every time I had to get on a plane. Final Destination-style visions of fires, explosions, crashing into buildings, wings shearing off, plunging into the ocean — all kinds of nightmare visions that wouldn’t go away unless I just sat there with my eyes tightly shut and hyperventilated for a couple of hours. At the start of one of these flights, I was feeling too exhausted to panic, so I just closed my eyes and put on some music. It was the first time I listened to The Shepherd’s Dog all the way through, and it was one of the most profoundly, memorably relaxing experiences of my life.

At the risk of sounding like a Sunday School camp counselor advocating a “natural high,” it was better than any experience I’ve had with marijuana, and was even more relaxing than the first time I was prescribed Vicodin. It felt like my spirit floated out of my body, guided by a similarly-floating big-bearded man whispering in my ear but in a way that was neither creepy nor sexual, to a wide stretch of imaginary North Georgia countryside in the summer filled with trees with swings and cicadas and creeks running underneath old wooden train bridges.

As the last song faded out, there was a peaceful silence for a minute and I must’ve fallen asleep, because both the flight and my anxiety were almost over. I won’t go so far as to say that album “cured” me, but the vivid memory of that feeling of relaxation is something I’ve been able to go back to ever since.

Last night’s attempts to “recapture the magic” didn’t work, but they did have another oddly profound effect: conjuring up unexpectedly vivid sense memories of the most significant time I heard each song. It’s been a while since I’ve really paid attention to the music I was listening to, instead of treating it just as background music, so it was surprising to keep coming up with such vivid and specific associations with each one. The first was

The Rain Song, Led Zeppelin
In high school, I got all of the Led Zeppelin albums on vinyl, even though cassettes were what all the cool people were using. All the Zeppelin album covers were weird and varied and maybe even thrillingly blasphemous to a sheltered Pentecostal kid, so it was worth it to get the vinyl and record it to a tape on my friend’s turntable. That had the added benefit of letting me make hand-drawn art for the tape sleeve that mimicked the album.

Hearing “The Rain Song” makes me remember trying to copy the typefaces on Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti, and then putting the tape in my Walkman and lying on my bed in the dark, letting this song wash over me over and over again. I can guarantee you that during the part that starts I felt the coldness of my winter, I would launch into a fit of air drums at least as embarrassingly, earnestly clumsy as the cheesiest caricature of a dorky 1980s teen that you’ve ever seen on TV or movies. This was also the first time I can remember feeling that floating-out-of-your-body transcendence that listening to great music can evoke.

Dreams, Beck
This song is terrible at making me drowsy but does a tremendous job of conjuring up a strong memory. This one is recent: I’d just been laid off from eero, and I was driving alone down to Anaheim for a “screw it, I’m unemployed” trip to Disneyland. As I got through the Grapevine and started going through Burbank, the album Torches by Foster the People came on, followed by Colors by Beck. Hearing those two albums back-to-back, in a car, on the I-5 through downtown LA, felt as much the platonic ideal of Los Angeles as anything in Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” video. It was like a sucking on a pure bullion cube of Los Angelesness. I remember the opening hook for “Dreams” came on as I was passing the Citadel outlets in Commerce, and feeling a sense of freedom and belonging that I never felt in southern California. I thought I could totally get used to living in southern California, after years of thinking of LA as nothing more than an obstacle between me and Disneyland.

Next time: suppressed memories of Cibo Matto! Driving in the darkness with Mike Doughty! Annoying my roommates with non-stop Green! A bilingual breakthrough in San Rafael! Don’t miss it!

E Pluribus Sputum

A begrudging defense of US democracy and learning to move forward in unity with a bunch of bigoted morons.

If I were editing together a sizzle reel for the highlights of Western Democracy, I don’t think I’d be including much from the 21st century. Seeing the US elect a black President was a highlight — especially for the side benefit of seeing bigots in sputtering, baffled rage like the kids in the rich camp at the end of an 80s teen movie. But apart from that, there’s been enough crushing disappointment in my fellow citizens that I’ve often started to wonder whether democracy was a good idea in the first place.

For one example: there was that wave of Web 2.0 evangelists promising to democratize the internet. It was sold to us as a world without gatekeepers, in which everyone has a voice. What it became instead was a world where millionaires handed out super-powerful microphones to any asshole who’d increase “engagement” enough to bump up the artificial value of their publishing platform’s IPO.

Another: all the bans against marriage equality across the US and the rest of the world, in which a bunch of bigots spent decades arguing that it was fair and just to put the rights of a minority up for a popular vote. (Don’t forget: the aforementioned first black President, who’s now frequently championed as if he were some kind of hero of LGBT rights, asserted that he was opposed to marriage equality because of his religion, but believed it should be left to the states to decide. Even though as a constitutional scholar and the child of interracial parents, he should’ve known better).

Next: the citizens of the UK decided to make the Magna Carta seem like a bad idea, by taking the silly, lighthearted, and trivially irreverent idea of Boaty McBoatface and applying it to racist, global-economy-threatening, backwards isolationism.

And then it culminated in November 2016. All of us who’d been raised learning about both the importance of checks and balances in government and the necessity of being a good and honest person in society got to watch tens of millions of people vote for one of the worst people to be President of the United States. Not just worst people for the role of President. Worst people in the United States. And then instead of saying “oh my God what have I done?!” they proudly held up their lovingly selected pile of dogshit and said “Ha ha, suck it, liberals!”

In the time since the election, the initial shock has subsided, and the rest of us have gone from asking ourselves “How could this happen?” to “Where are we supposed to go from here?” Our government and all the other interconnected systems that make our society work are based on the fundamental assumption that functioning adults will show the barest minimum level of civic responsibility. If adults can be so consumed with selfishness and apathy that they’d take their one responsibility as citizens and say “well, screw it, why not vote for the corrupt, incompetent clown?” then what’s the point of any of it?

That’s the mindset I’ve been in for a couple of years now. But recently I’ve grown to appreciate the value of democracy again, and I’ve got Mark Zuckerberg to thank for that.

Last month, a “leaked” recording of an open meeting at Facebook revealed Zuckerberg speaking out against Elizabeth Warren’s pledge to break up anti-competitive tech giants. In it, he delivered his own pledge to “go to the mat” fighting against it. Zuckerberg has had at least a couple of private meetings with Trump since then.

It’s tough to describe the kind of despair I felt after hearing that. I was already feeling the kind of depressive anxiety that comes from being an American with an internet connection in 2019, but this added a new level of hopelessness. For the first time in my lifetime, we have the potential to have a genuinely progressive Democrat in the office of President. It could mean a rejection not just of Reagan-era policy, but of the pervasive white male superiority that’s desperately and cravenly clawing to maintain its hold over the country. And it could all be ruined by some weird asshole billionaire just for the sake of maintaining his own source of immense, unnecessary wealth.

Except for this: the same democracy that lets some racist vote for a sleazy grifter for President of the United States is what makes Mark Zuckerberg’s vote worth exactly the same as mine.

Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, and Peter Thiel combined all have the same voting power as the passengers of a fully-loaded Prius plug-in hybrid with a “Coexist” bumper sticker. Every single asshole in the Trump administration combined with every Republican senator hypocritically supporting them, is no more or less powerful in a popular vote than even the number of black supporters at a Pete Buttigieg rally.

Since November of 2016, we’ve been deluged with thinkpieces imploring us to get inside the mind of the Trump voter, to acknowledge and renounce our coastal elitist bubbles and connect with the heartland that forms Trump’s base, and even to upend our lives and move to “red states” to “turn them blue” again. There’s been so much of this talk, you might even be fooled into thinking that Trump won the election.

He didn’t, of course. He lost the popular vote. By a lot. Even with the proven Republican gerrymandering and proven Republican attempts at voter suppression and proven Russian interference in the election. He lost by almost 3 million votes, which means that Trump lost the popular vote by almost as much as the entire population of the United States when the electoral college was instituted.

I mention the electoral college because the Republicans only “won” because they manipulated an inherently un-democratic system to appoint their candidate President. Ironically, it was a system included as a concession to states panicked about a too-strong federal government that would ignore the representative branches, ignore states rights, and govern by fiat. In other words: Trump is in office because the GOP manipulated a system that was intended specifically to keep people like Trump from ever being in office.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of chuckleheads insisting that focusing on the popular vote, or complaining about the electoral college, are all just the bitter grousing of impotent liberals. But that’s one of the biggest lies of all. It suggests that the political theater that the media focuses on is the most important part, and that it’s all a game of strategic machinations and counter-machinations where the end goal is to “win,” not to govern fairly and justly.

And more simply: it suggests that Trump has the mandate of the people, which is just objectively false. Even if you ignore the popular vote. Even if you accept the ludicrous idea that the 85% of the US population living in urban areas is somehow less American than those in rural areas. Even if you accept Trump’s hilariously bullshit and deliberately misleading “Impeach this” map. Even if you accept the more accurate “Land doesn’t vote, people do.” visualization that still shows areas as uniformly either red or blue.

But it’s important to remember that Clinton didn’t “win,” either. As embarrassing as it is for Trump that he still lost the popular vote even with so many people keeping their thumb on the scales for his benefit, it should be embarrassing to Clinton that she didn’t win by the largest landslide in American history. Trump was repeatedly caught on video and audio saying racist and misogynist things, and was recorded at a rally openly mocking a disabled person. If over 60 million people can see and hear all of that and still not want to vote for you, you don’t have the mandate, either.

The real winner of November 2016 was apathy. The idea that either the system was working as intended and was just inherently unfair, or that the system was irreparably broken and not worth even trying to fix. For eight years, there were a lot of people heavily invested in telling us that having a left-of-center black President was radical. For the past three years, there’ve been a lot of people heavily invested in telling us that the nation is irreparably divided in ways that it hasn’t been since the Civil War.

I’m skeptical.

Although I’m backing Elizabeth Warren for as long as possible, it was Pete Buttigieg who knocked me out of my sense of despair and convinced me that there was a way out of the current mess. His most insightful observation is that this is the end of the Reagan era of politics, and good riddance. It’s been in effect for most of my lifetime, so I’d started to think that it was just the way America worked, instead of a deliberately constructed system of media manipulated and reinforced complacency that indicts Obama and the Clintons almost as much as it does the Bushes and Reagan.

Buttigieg’s other most valuable insight is that people knew full well who they were voting for. A lot of people — including me — who were trying to make sense of the 2016 election spent at least a year afterward getting flustered at news stories and showing them angrily to suspected Trump supporters, asking “Do you see what you’re responsible for? Can you understand what you did?!” As if they’d somehow just missed the news. It’s a lot like trying to punish a dog by rubbing its nose in its mess, as if a dog, of all creatures, wasn’t already aware of what shit smells like.

The reality, I believe, is that individual people are as “purple” as voting districts are. Maybe I’ve just been extraordinarily lucky, but I’ve encountered very few people who were actually gung-ho pro-Trump. They were well aware of the thousands of things that make him unfit for the Presidency, but they believed — incorrectly — that either it didn’t matter or that there were other issues that were more important.

I can’t stress enough how wrong that was. No matter how much people might want to insist that we don’t know what’s in their hearts, that people contain multitudes, that politics requires compromise, etc. ad nauseam, the fact remains that there was an objectively wrong choice in November 2016, and they made it. They want to suggest that there’s a moral equivalent between my voting for Clinton despite having issues with some of her opinions on foreign policy, and their voting for Trump despite his bragging about sexual assault and holding rallies promising to build a wall to keep out brown people. Nice try, but no.

But at least it’s a start. To think that around half of the people in the country who cared enough to vote saw a campaign based on lies, bullying, fear, and bigotry, and said “yes, that’s what we’re all about,” suggests that the US is irreparably doomed. To think that people saw a campaign based on lies, bullying, fear, and bigotry, and gave an exasperated shrug, at least suggests we can get better.

Whatever the plan is, it doesn’t work unless it works for everyone. That means rejecting any idea that doesn’t make the process as democratic as possible. Obviously, that means a flat rejection of any President who brazenly admits he doesn’t work for people who didn’t vote for him (spoiler: he doesn’t work for the people who voted for him, either), and tries to act as if Californians and Puerto Ricans aren’t US citizens. It means a flat rejection of legislators who are more preoccupied with stuffing judicial appointments with as many people of their party as possible instead of actually legislating. It means rejecting anyone who tries to suppress or manipulate the vote. It means eliminating the electoral college. These are all the basics, and anyone who suggests it’s “partisan” to support democracy is selling you a bold-faced lie.

The more complicated part that people like me have to realize is that it means including everyone, including the irretrievably broken assholes. The bigots screaming racist shit at a Trump rally need to be part of it, so we can assert that they are in the minority. Divide and conquer is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it’s depressing how often we still fall for it. Not just from the obvious sources like the Republicans who rely on it to stay in power, but anyone who profits from your “engagement.” But if we continue to believe the bullshit narrative that we’re a nation divided, with elites in the big cities having no idea how good honest folk in Trump Country live, then we’re essentially ceding half of the country over to self-interested grifters.

One of the insidious ideas that’s been floating in the American consciousness ever since Reagan and his followers farted it out is that being patriotic or pro-America is a “conservative” idea. I mean, I’m sure that people have been calling each other “un-American” for as long as the country’s existed, but at least in my lifetime, it was during the 80s that liberals stopped arguing against it. So all the grossest representatives of white America would wrap themselves in the US flag and wave sparklers around and insist that only they represented true American values, while liberals couldn’t figure out how exactly to promote globalism, diversity, peace, and equality as being somehow not mutually exclusive with patriotism.

It seems like we were so eager to show how chauvinistic and militaristic we weren’t, that we stopped defending the trademark, and we just let astoundingly hypocritical politicians and redneck assholes (and sometimes, both) take it over. “America, Fuck Yeah!” became a joke, along with schmaltzy displays of patriotism. It’s only by insisting that patriotism is somehow partisan that you end up with the disgusting spectacle of the President of the United States telling US Representatives to “go back where they came from.”

Instead of pointing and laughing at the hypocrites and rednecks, we should’ve been showing the right way to do it. Insisting on a version of America that works for everybody, and to listen to people when they tell us over and over that it isn’t working for them. Demanding that we all share what we’re entitled to, instead of being treated like special interests. If there is anything good to come out of this nightmare, it’s that maybe more people will be knocked out of their sense of complacency and finally be forced to admit that the system hasn’t been working for people who aren’t straight, white, and upper middle class.

On a more practical level: the podcast Majority 54 with Jason Kander is entirely devoted to the idea of restoring our democracy and rejecting the lazy idea that we’re a nation hopelessly divided. It’s a good slap back to reality for those of us who’ve spent too much time being influenced by Vox headlines and Twitter threads.

There’s also Represent.us, which is drawing attention to the problem and asserting that democracy is not a partisan concern, no matter how much the GOP would like to insist that it is. And via Fair Fight, Stacey Abrams is campaigning for free and fair elections.

It’s appropriate that the shithead currently acting as President has a history with the WWE, because this is in a lot of ways the kayfabe administration. Everyone spreading a lot of bullshit that they know is a lie, the only truth being that there’s a lot of money in getting people wrapped up in the spectacle and eager to scream at the heel. I still say voting us into this nonsense was inexcusable, but I have to believe that there’s a viable way out for all of us. It sure as hell doesn’t mean that we have to like or respect or even empathize with each other, but we do just have to share and do the barest minimum to act like responsible adults.

The Magnificent Two Plus Pillboy

I just need to talk about how much I love The Mandalorian

I just finished watching Episode 4 of The Mandalorian, “Sanctuary,” and I don’t have much to say apart from damn I am loving this television show.

Just when you think they’re going to go full-on Lone Wolf and Cub, they dive right into the Seven Samurai, and fair enough. It’s TV law that every episodic series needs to have a Christmas Carol episode, with an exemption for Westerns as long as they do a version of Seven Samurai.

There’s also a little bit of Shane in there, too; or was it Hud? I haven’t actually seen either, but only know enough about them to make vague references to them and hope they work. One of the things that’s so brilliant about The Mandalorian is how well it incorporates all of those references without feeling derivative.

I was being dismissive about the series doing another take on The Magnificent Seven, but there are two things about The Mandalorian that make it work: first, it tells the story so matter-of-factly and un-self-consciously that it doesn’t feel like derivative pastiche or even respectful homage. Instead, it feels like it’s just a part of this heritage of storytelling that effortlessly jumps across genres and cultures: Western, Samurai, “space opera,” Japan to the US to Italy and back to Japan again. It still feels like a series from the late 1970s that couldn’t possibly have existed until the 2010s.

The second thing that makes it work is a seriously bad-ass take on the AT-ST. Yes, it was jarring to see super-tough heroes immediately freak out at the suggestion of an AT-ST, considering everyone in the audience saw a montage of dozens of the things being taken out by tiny, marketable bears with twine and tree trunks. But if you ignore that, it was a great way to bring in the Star Wars nostalgia by turning it into a fantasy element. It had been turned into a monster with glowing red eyes, changing the story into a classic one of noble villagers fighting off a giant bear, or a dragon.

One remarkable thing about The Mandalorian is that every episode has gotten an audible reaction out of me at least once. Usually I watch television and movies with as much detachment as I can manage; even things that make me cry still engage my brain at the “hey, that’s clever” level instead of making me genuinely emotionally invested. But in this episode, I audibly gasped at two points: once when the baby spit out a frog after all the village kids laughed at him, and again at the end when an assassination attempt failed.

The latter of those scenes is a familiar fake-out, and in fact is one that the series has already done in the first episode, and it’s filmed and edited in an extremely predictable and even cliched way. (A shot rings out, birds fly panicked from the trees). But because of the confident, straightforward storytelling that this series excels at, I thought of it as “old-fashioned” instead of “cliched.” It evokes old TV westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke not just with style or premise, but with overall sensibility: earnest stories with no sense of irony or self-awareness. And then The Mandalorian adds laser blasts and jet packs and aliens and Werner Herzog — and clever twists on the western like the gambler with a life-saving playing card in his breast pocket, or stubborn droids replacing spooked horses — which all dance across the surface of it to make it feel alien and fantastic.

The Mandalorian continues to be everything I could’ve wanted from a Star Wars TV series. It fills out the universe and shows us elements that have been hinted at but never realized. And best of all it’s so well written. Completely accessible to everyone who’s going to want to watch a show like this, but it never panders or stops to explain every detail. It’s wonderful to see a Star Wars story told with some trust that the audience will be able to keep up. I hope they keep up this caliber of skillful storytelling, but even if they somehow whiff the ending, what we’ve seen so far has been some of the best Star Wars since the early 80s.

And in case I’m reading this years from now and fail to understand the title: this episode had Eugene Cordero playing one of the villagers, and he also played Pillboy on The Good Place.

One Thing I Don’t Like About Rogue One

Remembering the brilliant production design of Rogue One means being reminded of all of its story problems and what almost feels like a smear campaign against its own protagonist.

This post has spoilers for Rogue One.

I don’t want to make a habit of this, because half of the premise behind “One Thing I Like” posts was to spend more time praising things I love instead of criticizing things I don’t. But recently I was reminded of just how brilliant Rogue One‘s production design is — possibly the best of the entire Star Wars series — and I started to write a post praising it.

When I began re-watching the movie for the first time since 2016, I didn’t even make it past the first scene before I was reminded of how much the story annoys me.

Rogue One opens with a flashback to our protagonist as a child, spotting Imperial ships arriving in the distance. She desperately runs back to her family farm to warn her parents. She breathlessly reaches the door and runs inside… only to be immediately shut down by her mother, who says “We know.” This movie refuses to let its protagonist have even a single moment’s worth of agency in her own life’s story.

The whole Star Wars franchise is built on a story about a guy whose dad was famous, so the problem isn’t that Jyn Erso’s story is driven by her father’s work on the Death Star. The problem is that her father works on the Death Star, decides to betray the Empire by sabotaging it with a hidden weakness, leaves a message for Jyn telling her what the weakness is and how to exploit it and even how to find the plans, and then tells her in person that she has to get the plans. She’s a character who’s robbed of any personality and not allowed to have any story arc.

The only thing she does of her own volition is in a scene that shouldn’t even exist. The movie presents the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars as a bunch of bickering politicians who, when presented with a way to defeat a weapon that could destroy entire planets, choose instead to just give up. And Jyn’s one attempt at heroics is to deliver a couple of lines with vapid observations about having hope. And she still fails.

I understand that it’s ridiculously complicated to navigate the too-many-cooks nature of Hollywood blockbusters and deliver something that feels like an organic story, and that’s even without billions of dollars and tons of stakeholders involved. And I know Rogue One in particular is notorious for having been extensively re-written and re-shot. It’s easy to play armchair screenwriter and pick apart a movie without being aware of all the parts that were in motion that led to certain decisions.

But that would be an excuse for my other problems with the Rogue One story. Like how it’s bafflingly, stupefyingly off tone in the final act. When I heard the premise of the movie — a bunch of Rebel spies getting the plans for the Death Star — I was imagining a cool James Bond or Mission: Impossible style spy movie set in the Star Wars universe.

Instead, they decided to make a movie that’s literally about a bunch of people stumbling across a beach to get an eight-track tape from one place to another. There are space battles raging overhead, and the movie expects us to thrill as our main characters retrieve a file from a database! Elsewhere, a man bravely struggles to untangle a cord!

But really, fine. I may disagree completely, but I can at least understand someone wanting to make a WWII- or Vietnam-style rag-tag-band-of-misfits war story instead of a spy story. It feels harder to give a pass to what feels like the movie wanting to be about literally any other character than its dumb old girl protagonist.

It feels like when a bunch of boys would start playing with their Star Wars toys and resent having to include the Princess Leia figure, so they just made a token gesture of including her in all the scenes with their rad new Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikkelsen figures, until they can get to the last part where Darth Vader totally flips out and slices up a bunch of dudes like a total bad-ass. Or as if the last draft of the script were vetted by the men on the internet throwing tantrums over the character of Rose Tico in The Last Jedi. Or Neil LaBute.

Why does the character of Galen Erso formulate and deliver the entire plan from start to finish, leaving Jyn nothing to decide or figure out? Why couldn’t he have been just a bad guy, and Jyn chooses to exploit her knowledge of his work to find the weakness that saves the Rebellion? If they’re dead set on keeping him a good guy, why couldn’t they have kept his reveal hidden until the last act, so Jyn’s forced to try and help rescue him while believing he was evil and betrayed her and her mother?

Why does the character of Cassian Andor even exist? I get that they’re trying (for some reason) to introduce some kind of moral ambiguity to the Rebellion, but there’s no real conflict between him and Jyn apart from the stupid “you tried to kill my dad!” It just seems as if the filmmakers couldn’t trust Jyn to lead the mission by herself.

There’s even a moment where the Rebels have to fake their ship’s call sign to the Imperials, which gives the movie its title. And they don’t even let her do that much; she just glares at the pilot until he does it. They gave it to the one character who should’ve been a macguffin who was instantly forgotten.

Rogue One‘s script is a mess. But the movie made a ton of money and has Darth Vader flipping out and slicing up a bunch of dudes, so nobody complains about anything except for the uncanny valley that Tarkin and Leia fell into. I think what frustrates me so much about it is that the rest of the movie looks so good, and it just nails the look and feel of 1977 Star Wars silently and seemingly effortlessly.

As fantastic as Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are, there are still definitely props and effects shots that feel like they were the best the filmmakers could do with the available tech and budget. The prequels and special editions all feel like a billionaire’s over-reaction to those limitations. Things don’t look better, necessarily, just busier, shinier, heavily green-screened, and computer-generated.

What’s so great about the production design of Rogue One is that it went all-in on the aesthetic of 1977 with the technology of 2015. Somehow, even more than the new trilogy, they nailed the look of all the weapons, goggles, control terminals, and displays. It makes it feel like a true expansion of the original movies. Almost nothing in the prequels ever felt solid or substantial; characters always felt as if they were floating inside a computer, like the full-motion video sequences from early CD-ROM games. The look of Rogue One actually seemed like there was a real galaxy of fantastic stuff just outside of frame in the original movies.

I’ve only seen the first two episodes of The Mandalorian, so it’s probably too early to declare it the savior of the Star Wars universe. But things were looking pretty dire for a while there. You could get the look right or the tone right, but not both at the same time, and not both in something not intended for children. Now maybe things are looking up, and we can see more of this galaxy explored, new stories, new locations, and maybe even women can do things too.

I’ve got a good feeling about this

Gay nerds in love in space!

On October 4, 2019, I got engaged to my boyfriend at the new Star Wars land in Disneyland. As recently as 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought any part of that sentence was possible.

When I say I didn’t think it was possible, I’m not just talking about the obvious fact that for most of our relationship, California has been under a bigoted ban against marriage equality, initiated by a bunch of homophobic Mormons and opportunistic Republicans. At this point in my life, I’ve finally learned not to let other people’s bigotry get in the way of my own happiness, so the less time spent thinking about those a-holes, the better.

Instead, I mean every aspect of it seemed like something I’d never get to see. Which is probably best illustrated if I back up a step to explain how the whole idea started.

Disneyland’s a popular place to get engaged, so I’d always had it in the back of my mind as a maybe-some-day possibility. When they announced a Star Wars land where you could actually go inside a full-size Millennium Falcon, that seemed even better. I’d been wanting to get married and fly off on the Falcon ever since I was nine years old and saw The Empire Strikes Back and its very confusing romantic scenes between Han Solo and that other person.

We went to Disneyland twice in June, at the end of the month for my birthday, and earlier in the month to take advantage of a reservation against the insane crowds that never seemed to materialize (yet). While there, I was trying to get a feel for the logistics of popping the question, and I wasn’t having much success. They move people too quickly through the queue for Smuggler’s Run, which is good for wait times but bad for once-in-a-lifetime romantic gestures. And Plan B, surprising J with a ring while we were posing for a photo in front of the Falcon, lacked any sense of privacy.

Worse than that, though, was that it seemed very selfish of me. I’m the one who’s had a lifelong obsession with Disney parks. J’s a fan, but not as into them as I am (because I’m not sure it’s even possible to be as into them as I am). And I’m the one who was such a Star Wars nerd growing up that it’s the entire reason I moved to California. Naturally I’m predisposed to fall in love with the idea of a Star Wars land in a Disney park, but for a proposal, it’d be better to pick a location that’s special to the both of us.

During that second trip at the end of June, it started to become a place that was special to the both of us. We had a great time. (Especially surprising since we didn’t get a great first impression earlier in the month). And as we were headed back into Galaxy’s Edge for a third time, I thanked J for indulging me with so much time in Star Wars land over our vacation, and he replied with something remarkable: “I’m not ‘indulging’ you. I like Star Wars at least as much as you do.”

And then he added “I even like the prequels.” Which is troubling, granted, but I know that mixed marriages can work. What was even more startling was realizing how astoundingly dense I’d been. Not just realizing that I’d been living with another Star Wars fan. I’d spent so many years — decades! — feeling like I had to apologize for or make excuses for the things I loved, that it had gone past being self-deprecating and had turned into something I do reflexively, like a verbal tic.

In my defense, even working at LucasArts, I felt like I’d get made fun of whenever I outed myself as a Star Wars nerd. So even though Disney had spent billions of dollars to build a place catered specifically to Gen Xers like me who’d tear up at the sight of a full-size Millennium Falcon, I was locked into thinking of Star Wars as my own weird little nerdy obsession. And that mindset, once it takes hold, is pervasive. If it were just about a bunch of movies or theme parks, it’d be trivial. But for me, the constant feeling of being weird and other had taken over completely. It affected how I think of everything, both insignificant and significant.

One of the things that was hard to get used to when J & I started dating was that so much of my sense of humor was based on being sarcastic, and tearing things and people down. I had to get used to the idea of just trying to be kind instead of always trying to be clever. After nine years being more supportive and unapologetically enthusiastic about the things that make us happy, I can’t say I miss the days when I felt like I always had to have a snappy comeback or defensive explanation at the ready. I finally realized that we were a couple of big gay adult nerds in the middle of a playground built for fans of movies about space wizards, and I was with someone who shared my enthusiasm for big gay nerdy stuff without any need for qualification or judgment, and it seemed like the perfect place to get engaged to the perfect person to get engaged to.

The next step was to start the next phase of our relationship based on an elaborate lie. Neither one of us wear rings, and I had no idea about ring sizes or how to measure them. So I just took a wild guess about size and ordered a plain ridiculously cheap ring off of Amazon. (This will factor in later). I figured that since the ring wasn’t going to impress, I’d have to work harder on the presentation.

Since J really enjoyed the datapad games in Galaxy’s Edge, I thought of a scavenger hunt that would lead to the ring. I contacted my friend and former boss (and guardian angel who’s been directly or indirectly responsible for the highlights of my career), who works with Imagineering, and asked if there were any way I could get mocked screens into J’s datapad app. Since that isn’t possible for obvious reasons, he came up with a better suggestion: 3D print something that looked like a Star Wars artifact to hold the ring, “discover” it at Dok-Ondar’s antiquities shop, and then give it to J.

That’s the point where the scope of the project exploded. I’m glad that it did, in retrospect, but it did end up taking the better part of a month. I knew that I wanted it to look vaguely Star Wars-y, and I wanted it to light up when opened. I started by trying out variations on the Jedi Holocron, but I couldn’t find a model that opened in a way that I liked. (And I wanted to avoid the possibility of its getting confused with the ones on sale in the store). Then I looked at various puzzle boxes on Thingiverse, but they all required narrow tolerances and complex shapes that I’d need a CAD tool to be able to modify, and I wanted something more personalized. So I ended up scrapping the puzzle box idea and just making a simpler box in Blender that just twists open.

I wasn’t looking forward to having to wire up and solder a bunch of LEDs and sensors, so fortunately I didn’t have to. Adafruit makes a neat board called the Circuit Playground, and it comes with LEDs and several sensors attached. After a good bit more experimentation, I settled on a design with the main board at the base, soldered to a smaller LED board (called the NeoPixel Jewel, if you’re curious) just underneath the ring holder.

The board in the base responds to motion, pulsing a slow purple (one of J’s favorite colors) when it’s left alone. When you pick it up, it starts to pulse in a rainbow pattern, both because it’s pretty and appropriate for a proposal during gay days, and because Adafruit makes rainbow LEDs super easy to code. Capacitive touch sensors are wired to the ring holder, so when you touch the ring, both LED boards light up with a brighter, constant rainbow pattern. It all ended up being a lot simpler than I’d originally intended, but it soon became apparent that what I’d originally intended was way more complicated that necessary.

After I’d printed and assembled the box, I was fortunate yet again to have a co-worker with a lot of experience designing and painting 3D prints. He introduced me to the dry-brushing technique. Considering that I’d never painted anything like this before, including miniatures, I’m pretty happy with how much it ended up looking like aged bronze. The hardest part of the whole process was having to do it at work, to keep it a secret. Actually, keeping it a secret from J was the hardest part overall, since every time I made a new development or learned something new, he was the first person I wanted to tell about it.

Once the thing was built, I just had to figure out the logistics. My friend put me in contact with someone who works at Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland, and she was absurdly, preposterously helpful. She helped come up with a version of the proposal that would fit in with the park’s overall storyline and how to incorporate the cast and the character of Dok-Ondar himself.

Finally, to explain to J why we had to be at a certain place at a certain time, I made up the story that we were helping to playtest an early prototype of a new interactive game in Galaxy’s Edge. I said that because it was such an early prototype, I’d been sent a bunch of static screens that would later take place of the Datapad app.

For the past few years, we’ve been going to Disneyland to spend the Gay Days weekend along with a bunch of friends. I asked a friend to be my accomplice, taking the box from me and sneaking it into Dok-Ondar’s ahead of us, and then the plan could start.

The first screen was presented as a message from an explorer who’d spent almost nine years (how long J and I had been dating up to that point) looking for a rare artifact (named after the place where we had our first date). He’d traced it to Batuu and said it would probably be in the hands of someone who dealt in rare antiquities. That obviously led to Dok-Ondar and the next screen. (As long as I’m describing everything, I should probably admit that I was super nervous, so I rushed through the “game” part instead of letting J do it at his own pace).

The next screen told us to go to Dok-Ondar’s and look for an artifact with a certain symbol on it. (Nerd sidenote: I put in a pattern of two-rings all around the jewelry box and again on top, assuming I’d say it was supposed to represent the twin suns of Batuu. I was reminded at the last minute that the fiction says Batuu has three suns, so I had to change the text to say the twin moons. I may have bought an engagement ring that didn’t fit at all, but at least I got the number of suns on a made-up planet right).

As we headed to Dok-Ondar’s, my heart sank into my stomach when I saw a line of guests waiting outside. I’d been worried that the store would be too crowded to pull this off — we wouldn’t find the box, or it’d be taken by another guest by accident, or it’d just be too loud and chaotic and ruin the whole thing. But right as we came up, I got a text message from my accomplice saying we should talk to the cast member at the door. I told them our names and that we were looking for an artifact, and they let us in. The cast had actually started a queue outside the store so we’d have the place mostly to ourselves for the proposal!

Once inside, we both set off to look for the box. While J was searching the shelves, I went to the counter and pointed at a glowing box behind it. “I found it,” I called out, totally cheating. J came over and we checked the next screen.

It said that Dok-Ondar probably had no idea how valuable the box was, so we could get it for a steal. I held the jewelry box up to Dok-Ondar and asked him to appraise it. He spoke a few words in Ithorian (!) and the Cast Members translated it for me: “It’s only valuable if you give it to J.”

So I gave it to J. He opened the box, and it began to pulse with a rainbow light. Then my choice of a less-expensive, nondescript “placeholder” ring came back to haunt me: it wasn’t clear that it was an engagement ring. It looked just like a Star Wars-y machine part or something. It didn’t help that I’d set J up for a puzzle hunt. It also didn’t help that I didn’t get down on one knee or anything, which is something I’d resolved not to do a long time ago, since I feel like it’s an outdated part of the ritual that sets up a weird power dynamic when you’re supposed to be entering into an equal partnership. Whatever the case, the thing I’d planned to be the big reveal wasn’t quite.

J was still figuring out what to do with the ring, so he put it on his index finger. I pointed to his ring finger and said, “It works better if you wear it on that finger.” He said, “But that’s where married people wear a ring.” I said, “So will you marry me?” He said yes, and the cast members cheered.

Afterwards, some super-nice operations cast members took us to the Smuggler’s Run ride and gave us the VIP treatment by letting us use the FastPass queue. Then they took our picture in front of the Falcon, and escorted us into Oga’s Cantina for a celebratory drink. (My friend and accomplice bought us a round, but Disney let us in without a reservation). It was all a big wonderful blur, and we ended up spending most of the rest of that day in Galaxy’s Edge, too. Everything from that weekend after the proposal is now jumbled together in my memory, but I know I built a droid and named it R3-X4 in honor of the date. And that night we watched the fireworks going off over Dok-Ondar’s shop as if in celebration.

In all, it turned out even better than I’d hoped, and even better than I imagined “get engaged at Disneyland” would go after years of having it as a vague some-day possibility. I’ll always be grateful to the friends that helped make it happen, and to all the cast members in Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland who went out of their way to make the engagement of a couple of strangers into something unforgettable.

One Thing I Love About The Mandalorian

The first Star Wars live-action TV series gets so much right that it’d be a shame not to notice its amazing soundtrack.

It feels like I’ve been looking forward to a live-action Star Wars TV series for decades now. Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated Clone Wars series is one of the most original and brilliant things ever to come out of the Star Wars license, but it was deliberately small in scope I’ve heard good things about the animated series The Clone Wars and Rebels, but both are hamstrung by some insistence that animation is for kids. I believe people when they say that The Clone Wars series got really good, but I also have to point out that early episodes still had Jar-Jar.

There’s so much potential for smaller, more deliberately-paced stories in the Star Wars universe, it could be surprising that it’s taken so long for anyone to make a non-juvenile take. After seeing the first two episodes of The Mandalorian, though, I no longer find it that surprising. It seems like every detail and choice in tone demonstrates how badly this could have gone wrong.

The overall tone is like a 1970s Western — or rather, our memory of what they were like, since the reality is that they were painfully slow-paced and dull to 21st century audiences. It’s as if the makers of Wild Wild West had chosen to do a sci-fi sequel, inspired by A Fistful of Dollars. And instead of presenting it as a theme or re-skinning, like Firefly‘s HEY LOOK WE’RE MAKING A SCI-FI WESTERN approach, I think The Mandalorian does it a lot more subtly and “holistically.” It uses storytelling techniques from 1970s Westerns — like montages, long sequences without dialogue, and even end credit sequences over still frames of painted concept art — that make its setting and tone seem an integral part of the story, instead of just a clever pastiche.

That includes the series soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson, which is one thing I love about The Mandalorian (that I’m choosing to write about). This is a work that acknowledges how crucial music is to the Star Wars experience but doesn’t just mimic John Williams’s soundtracks. It also doesn’t fall into the second most obvious trap, which would have been to mimic Ennio Morricone or any of the other iconic western movie and TV soundtracks. The music never seems to be trying to capture a style, but trying to capture a feeling or a concept.

Because so much of The Mandalorian‘s second episode happens without dialogue, it allows the music to come to the forefront. And while the soundtrack doesn’t borrow themes directly from the Star Wars movies, it does use a lot of the same ideas. At least, it seems that way to those of us whose knowledge of classical music is limited almost entirely to John Williams’s soundtracks. The Mandalorian doesn’t have an opening theme song, but in the second episode, the leitmotif for the character of The Mandalorian starts to become more recognizable as a replacement for the main theme. That reliance on characters’ having their own recognizable themes is an integral part of what makes a Star Wars soundtrack.

Throughout the episode, the action sequences are scored with heavily percussive, almost chaotic sounds. It sounds alien, first off, asserting that this isn’t just a conventional Western. But it’s also evocative of the music in Star Wars as the Tusken Raiders attack Luke Skywalker, without being a direct imitation. Even more than that, though, was how much it reminded me of the music in The Planet of the Apes. None of it feels to me like a direct reference, but is instead part of the overall tone and setting of the series, planting it solidly in the realm of late 1970s science fiction.

The music is one perfectly-realized detail of many in the series. And all of the details are working in tandem to make it feel as if it were an inextricable part of the Star Wars universe that’s been sitting in a Lucasfilm vault since 1979. (Even though the seamless effects work and puppetry would make this series impossible before around 2010).

Göransson himself seems like the kind of musician who could only exist in the 21st century, though. His entire career and body of work are super-exciting to me, because it suggests a media environment where genres are irrelevant, and it’s all a huge cross-cultural mash-up. If you haven’t listened to the episode of the Song Exploder podcast in which he talks about recording the soundtrack to Black Panther, you absolutely should.

Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is a murder mystery nested within a murder mystery nested within a defense of murder mysteries as a literary genre

Paperback cover of Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie Murders gives the whole thing away in the first two paragraphs. And by “the whole thing,” I mean “my own reductive interpretation of what the novel’s overarching meaning is.”

If the image isn’t already a bit of a cliche, it’s rapidly becoming one. It seems lifted from advertising targeted at Women of a Certain Age (basically, over 29), selling them the ultimate luxury of just getting to relax for a couple of hours. But it’s still a perfectly concise way of establishing the whodunnit as a guiltless pleasure.

The protagonist and narrator of the book has settled into her apartment on a rainy night, equipped with a bottle of wine, a pack of cigarettes, and a bag of Doritos, ready to read the manuscript for the latest in a line of formulaic murder mysteries. “What could be better?” she asks.

Our hero has every right to be jaded about this book, since she’s edited every book in the series, she’s got a contentious relationship with the author, and she spends her entire life immersed in a publishing industry that categorizes every book as either a trivial entertainment or a life-altering masterwork, with little in between. But she remains a fan. And being intimately aware of all the tricks and gimmicks doesn’t ruin the appeal of them, but adds to their charm and the pleasure of working out their puzzles.

When I was looking for book recommendations a while back, that kind of comfortable, familiar, and engaging reading-for-entertainment was what I was hoping to find, having exhausted all of Agatha Christie’s books (apart from the Miss Marple ones, which I never liked) back in high school. Reviews of Magpie Murders made it sound perfect: a pastiche of Christie and other’s traditional murder mysteries, from the author who created the Midsomer Murders TV series. All embedded in a clever meta-fiction, in which the mystery novel gives clues to solving a larger mystery in the “real world.”

Even the positive reviews of Magpie Murders tend to describe it terms of pastiche or mimicry, and the novel would’ve been a virtuoso achievement even if it had been just that. The book changes voice seamlessly and effortlessly, not just between characters and not just between styles of writing, but between different qualities of writing. Trying to mimic both a pretentious and self-important author and a well-meaning but talentless writer is to me the literary equivalent of an actor doing a character with an accent trying to mimic another character with an accent, all through a ventriloquist dummy. But Horowitz fearlessly adopts different voices for entire passages, on top of including clues and red herrings for multiple murder mysteries, and an additional layer of anagrams, acrostics, puns, and allusions throughout.

And because the book is a murder mystery narrated by a character who edits murder mysteries, Horowitz frequently draws attentions to the book’s gimmicks and puzzles and explains how they work, but somehow, they still work. It’s much like a magician who explains sleight of hand and misdirection to the audience, and then immediately pulls off the trick anyway.

But as impressive as Magpie Murders is just as a smart and confident recreation of traditional murder mysteries, I think there’s an additional layer to it: a recurring assertion that there doesn’t need to be an additional layer to it.

It’s a love letter to mid-century murder mysteries, but it’s also a self-aware defense of them that rarely comes across as self-aware or defensive. Horowitz acknowledges all the tropes and criticisms and limitations of the genre, either directly or indirectly. Then, he asserts that those criticisms are either irrelevant or miss the point entirely, because they underestimate the skill and artistry that goes into writing a good murder mystery and why they’re so beloved by their audiences. They needn’t be life-altering works with profound insight into the human condition, but that doesn’t make them pointless garbage, either.

Part of what impresses me is that it could’ve all gone so horribly. Descriptions of Magpie Murders make it sound like the literary equivalent of the Scream movies: deconstructions of a genre that still work as well-executed and entertaining examples of the genre. As much as I love the Scream movies, they are full of that late-90s self-aware pointlessness, not really saying much about horror movies apart from “we get it.” The only gratuitously self-aware bit in Magpie Murders is the repeated reference to Midsomer Murders, which comes across half as Horowitz’s wink at the reader and half as an acknowledgement that he’s aware of the similarity in the titles but it’s given that title for a reason.

The story-within-a-story gimmick the Scream movies introduced with Stab in the sequels took the self-awareness even further, and it’s the perfect example of something clever from the 90s that now seems insufferable. It’s a defensive crutch, more concerned with letting the audience know that they’re in on the joke than with saying anything meaningful. But I don’t get any sense of condescension in Magpie Murders to the Atticus Pünd half of the story; if anything, the book feels like a love letter to that type of story written by an unapologetic fan.

The examples of “bad” writing in Magpie Murders are used in a subtly but significantly different way. One example of clunky an amateurish writing isn’t mocked, but instead is given some amount of sympathy from our professional editor protagonist, who suggests that writing talent is less of an innate gift and more of a skill. The other passage get a much harsher treatment, because it’s a pretentious and overblown attempt to mimic an “important” writer, written by someone who’s sneeringly dismissive of murder mysteries as trite and pointless. It seems to have little sympathy for the affectations of authors striving to make Great Art. Instead, the entire novel has a recurring theme praising the virtues of well-organized, readable, and accessible fiction.

At the beginning of the book, Ryeland (who seems to be speaking for Horowitz here, at least) acknowledges the life-changing power of books — but she includes Never Let Me Go and Atonement along with the Harry Potter novels, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and 1984. Some led the reader to a profound insight, some had cultural significance, and some were considered just popular entertainment but still had a huge impact on readers’ lives. It’s a rejection of the idea that the power of a book consists entirely of what a great author embeds within it. It says that the real power of a book is the result of a combination of author, a moment in time, and a reader’s interpretation.

Granted, all of that is itself a reductive interpretation from someone who’s always hated the Art vs Entertainment argument. Several times over the years — too many times — I’ve gotten in arguments with people who use “entertaining” or “a fun read” with a dismissive sneer, and who insist that a work has to be “challenging” to have any merit, and that accessibility is mutually exclusive of importance or significance. I say that art is ultimately communication (even if the idea being communicated is “interpret this for yourself”), and I’ve got little patience for pretense and artifice. So I might be reading too much into this overarching theme of taking the hot air of literary snobs. Even if that’s the case, I think Magpie Murders still stands out as an ingenious and expertly-written example of detective fiction.

Even though I did totally predict the murderer right away. Which leads me into a final couple of observations which are in mild spoiler territory. Please don’t read the rest of this until after you’ve finished Magpie Murders.

First: all the focus on anagrams and acrostics and hidden clues has left me with the nagging feeling that there’s an additional layer to the book that I’ve missed and am too dense to pick up on. I purposefully read without trying too hard to solve the puzzle in advance, and I definitely don’t have the patience to go back and look for more anagrams or common themes in the names of characters. But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to be found in “New Game+” mode.

Second: I loved that the elaborate years-long puzzle throughout the series of books was revealed not as a momentous stroke of genius, but a vulgar prank by a snob who died unsatisfied because he was never able to appreciate his actual talent. It rises above the whole argument and leaves literary snobs to their own insecure futility.

Third: There seem to be a couple of threads that were left hanging; I’m fine with them being red herrings, but I wish there were a definitive resolution to them. And if there was a definitive resolution, I was too dense to pick up on it. Is there more to Andreas’s past at the school? What was in the photos that were mentioned and dismissed by the “real” vicar’s wife? Is there any significance to the fact that Conway created pseudonyms for so many characters but left the name Jack Dartford unchanged? What about the mentions of pedophilia that never get a follow-up? Is there an additional significance to the final paragraph, or is it just a metaphor? In the beginning of the book, Ryeland says that real life doesn’t offer all the tidy endings that fiction does, but this is also a book in which the villain sits quietly while the protagonist explains the whole sequence of events, so….

Fourth: I’m happy with my interpretation of the book as being a celebration and defense of reading murder mysteries gleefully and unapologetically without being concerned about their literary merit. But I also appreciate that the last paragraph adds “…in moderation.” Horowitz seems to suggest that he doesn’t want Ryeland getting so wrapped up in fiction that she neglects to live her life. Ultimately, he seems to acknowledge the value of a great book but treats the publishing industry as shallow and self-important.