Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What Were They Thinking?
    — “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”


“What Were They Thinking?” highlights products and presentations which just don’t make sense.

On my last trip to Washington DC, the hotel I stayed featured this “Green Natura” product, which referred to itself as “Waste Reducing Exfoliating Body Cleanser” — which is to say, soap with some gritty stuff in it.  Nothing special there.

What was interesting, though, was the text on the back of the box:

This innovative ergonomically shaped “waste reducing” soap has been designed to eliminate the unused center of traditional soap bars.  This soap is cruelty free and contains no animal fat or byproducts.  This carton is made from natural recycled packaging printed with soy based inks.

Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like: a bar of soap with the center removed!

The theory is that as we use the bar of soap, the size dwindles until we get to an small hard-to-use center, which we throw away.  (Well, some people do that.  I usually use the soap all the way down to the chips.)

In practical terms, though, what you get with Green Natura is this second image.  You start with a thin ring of soap and you use it for a couple days, and then the (inherently fragile) ring breaks, leaving you with two or more pieces shaped very inconvenient for use.  Which you… throw away.

In other words, by removing the 25% of the soap that many people throw away after a couple weeks of use (but which makes the bar able to be used in the first place), this “waste reducing soap” encourages you to throw away as much as 75% of the soap they do give you after just a couple days!

I’m not the only person to make this observation, though: here and here and here.

Taking this one level further, though, want to bet that in removing that center 25% of the soap, they don’t remove 25% of the cost, and actually charge you more for the privilege of wasting more?  Looks like you buy this as National Park gift shops at $5 for a 5-pack, but I cannot find it for sale in other places, including on Amazon.  It’s hard to evaluate the relative costs as a result.

So far as I’ve been able to find, there is no website for the company and its soaps.

(Now, I’ll grant that hotels have a special problem here, where guests often only use a bar of soap once, especially if they are only staying one night, which does result in significant waste.  Those little butter pats like Cashmere Bouquet aren’t suitable for an upscale property, so I can see that there would be an attraction to something like this which has inherently less waste.  But for the guest who is at all conscious of what he or she is using, it still ends up looking royally stupid.)
 

Friday, March 26, 2010

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What Were They Thinking?
    — Energy is not Medicine


“What Were They Thinking?” highlights products and presentations which just don’t make sense.


For a while, we were seeing Jetset brand energy drink at the local Grocery Outlet.  They are long gone from there now — that’s how that chain goes — but they were pretty cool because they are intended as mixer, not a nasty tasting soda.  They come in Club Soda, Tonic Water, Ginger Ale, and Original (sort of Red Bull-esque) flavors, so having a “gin and (energy) tonic” was kind of cool.

The weird thing was when I noticed the “warning” on the back:
This product has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.  This product is not intended to diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent any disease.
WTF?  Other energy drinks don’t have this warning, and there’s nothing about the labeling that would imply a health product.  This page says this wording is used for dietary supplements, but this product doesn’t seem to be one.  (Possibly the “Tonic Water” flavor doesn’t actually contain quinine and thus can’t be used to treat malaria, and they just put this label on all the cans instead of just that one?)
 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What Were They Thinking?
    — You Spin Me Right Round, Baby, Right Round Like a Mango, Baby


“What Were They Thinking?” highlights products and presentations which just don’t make sense.

This standup advertisement for Absolut Mango showed up on bar tables in 2009.  It features a cutout with a mango on a wire, so you can spin it around; the mango is whole on one side and cut into cubes (for easier eating) on the other.

It’s a clever enough idea, I suppose.  Give idle bar patrons something to do with their hands and they will imprint better on your product.  (Although, I’m not sure this wa sa great idea for gay bars.  Looks way to vaginal to me.)

The problem is in the construction.  As you can see from the picture, the wire isn’t centered in the mango, so when you spin it halfway around, it blocks up on the side of the cutout.  So the spinner doesn’t spin.

(“But this might just be a one-off manufacturing defect,” you say?  Yes, might be.  But I’ve seen this standup three times, in two different states, and all of them had the problem.  That points to a design flaw.)
 

Monday, March 22, 2010

Caught You!
    — Church of Yoda


“Caught You!” identifies places where people don't quite do the full job with their marketing materials and ads: major typos, Photoshop flubs, etc.

This ad showed up in a local community paper.

Who the heck wrote this, Yoda?

(Okay, I’m sure it’s a case of someone in too much of a hurry or with inadequate computer skills not doing good line breaks.  But still…)
 

Movie Review
    — Armageddon


I watched Armageddon last week, the 1999 sci-fi flick about an asteroid the size of Texas bent on crashing into Earth (and killing us all), with the solution being to recruit and quick-train deep core oil drillers as astronauts to drill a hole in the asteroid and drop a nuke in to blow it up.

Okay, admittedly seeing the the names Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay on a movie’s credits list should trigger the brain into saying “This is going to be lots of stuff exploding and levels of ridiculousness three times what anyone should be expected to endure, so just shut yourself off now.”

But I can’t do that!

Thoughts (and spoilers for every bit of the film!):
  • I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where the high concept was quite so easy to distill: “Roughnecks in space.”
  • If you send up two shuttles, one will crash.  That’s a given.
  • The music (and some of the visuals) in this around the astronaut departure and return was some of the most patriotically manipulative I’ve encountered, to the point that it was almost a parody of itself.  (And let me note that by “encountered”, I mean “noticed” — so over the top that it broke me out of the film to analyze what they were trying to do.  The first film I noticed this with, and still my marker for egregiousness in that department, was A.I.)
  • Why did they even bother having a woman astronaut in the crew if they were going to leave her in the shuttle the entire time?  The only thing she really got to do was to get tossed against the wall when the Russian cosmonaut wanted to hit the equipment with a pipe to make it work.
  • After the (surviving) shuttle overshot its landing by 20-plus miles, it still basically crash landed, since the terrain wasn’t what they had planned on.  So how did it manage to take off again without any issues at all before the bomb blew up?
  • Why do they have to put stupid countdown deadlines into these things?  All that does is tell us “Don’t get your hopes up.  The bomb won’t and can’t go off until the last few seconds.”  Here they had 18 days, and they still set it off in the last half second.
  • What was so special about the drilling depth of 800 feet?  The asteroid was a million miles away when they detected it, and they could only barely analyze details on it anyway.  So why did the hole have to be 800 feet and not 775 (in which case they could have set the bomb off a good 30 seconds earlier)?  And why was 800 feet still the right depth when they were drilling in a completely different location than planned, in totally different material?  (I suppose this can be rationalized as the roughnecks and the shuttle crew didn’t have enough knowledge of the situation to ask the question, and even if the crew in Houston could have revised their estimates in time, would it have made a difference?  At that point, it was “Drill the hole, dump the bomb, and just pray like crazy.”)
  • With radio and video transmission cutting in and out, it was amazingly clear for a good minute or more for Harry to say his goodbyes.  (There should also be a several second delay in transmission times due to the distances.  For dramatic purposes, we can excuse that some and they actually left things hazy enough to not make me complain about it too much.  It would have been a wasted plot point to make a big deal of it.)
  • On the other hand, an extended period of clear video signal sure wipes out the tension from earlier regarding their absolute last chance to remotely detonate the bomb.
  • The repeated scenes of small town America with people costumed right out of a 1950s farm really bothered me.  No one dressed like that in 1998.  See my earlier comment about the music being manipulatively patriotic.
  • The surface of the asteroid was covered by razor sharp spikes of rock.  People were flying all over the place, crashing into the terrain.  Rocks were exploding, creating showers of even smaller razor sharp rock fragments.  And not a single spacesuit got even a tiny puncture.  (One guy did from his helmet being smashed to bits, but that’s not quite the same thing.)
  • Given that the shuttle that didn’t crash overshot by 20-plus miles, how didn’t the second armadillo even find them?
And wasn’t that ending amazing?  At the very last second, the bomb that was dropped in the hole drilled in the wrong place on the asteroid tumbling end over end in all three dimensions (which had ruined their earlier calculations) blew the asteroid in exactly two pieces, sending both of them to pass Earth on opposite sides of the planet (“Missed it by that much!”), and the explosion also vaporized all the other rubble, including the basketball, Volkswagen, and presumably Chrysler Building-sized chunks which were in the rubble cloud stretching hundreds of thousands of miles ahead of and behind the asteroid (which had already destroyed much of New York and Shanghai, and all of Paris), so nothing more hit Earth at all.  What are the odds?

Let me tell you, as a math/comp sci major in college who started as a physics major, the odds are… (calculate) um… (check again) er… (grimace) zero.

Even if we close our eyes to the largest chunk (ahem) of this, that the asteroid itself was exploded enough for the major pieces to miss Earth and avoid the“global killer” nature, the fact remains that huge chunks of stuff were hitting the planet for three weeks before the big one arrived, and had already killed millions.  We saw massive amounts of smaller stuff preceding and following and all around the asteroid; if the shuttle didn’t blow up from the nuclear blast, then neither did anything further away than it, nor did many things closer than the shuttle that were larger.  There would be far more volume of that rubble than the leading bits that had already hit, given a reasonable normal distribution.  Even with the Texas-sized chunk missing, you’re still going to have one the size of Dallas (about 1/1000th the size of Texas) going boom into the mid-Pacific and creating a tsunami that wipes Tokyo, Sydney, and Los Angeles off the map.  You’re still going to have one the size of Crawford, Texas (1/1000th the size of Dallas) leaving a crater where Switzerland used to be.  You’re still going to have Lake Michigan vaporized by something the size of a semi.  You’re still going to have stuff the size of golfballs destroying the Hagia Sophia and the Taj Mahal (since they were both seen in the film).  And what’s more, you’ll have had this happening increasingly for a couple days before the bomb went off (the destruction of Paris was a good demonstration of this, but there would have been several more impacts of that size in the day or two before the bomb exploded) and you would have them coming for 3 weeks afterward, asteroid strike or not.

Global killer, with nothing more than bacteria surviving?  Averted.  Massive climate change that still lasts for a few hundred years?  Right on schedule.  Human population drops from 6 billion to 600 million (and that may be generous), with technology infrastructure and everything we know of as industrial-level civilization destroyed?  Check check check.

But I guess that sort of a slightly upbeat but ultimately depressing ending wouldn’t go over well, huh?
 

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Flash!  Aaahh!  Destroyer of the Universe!


I’m a big fan of tabbed browsing when using a web browser.  I tend to launch tabs for a dozen or more webpages at once — for a weekly calendar I do, currently more than 50 tabs at a shot.  This allows me to go through several pages in a row (I just close one tab and the next shows) without having to constantly pull up a new bookmark.

For a couple years, I used Firefox on Windows, but I increasingly had problems where my entire computer would grind almost to a halt.  Task Manager would show Firefox eating up 99% of the CPU, which would force me to kill it and relaunch.

I eventually switched to Safari on Windows, because I found that it would load a set of tabs sometimes as much as 25% faster.  But I ended up with the same CPU spiking problem.  Sometimes I could painstakingly go through each tab and close it until I cleared whatever the problem process was, but this could take a few minutes and only worked some of the time.

I then switched to Chrome on Windows.  It puts each of its tabs into its own process.  In theory, this allows one process to stall or crash without bringing down the entire browser.  (In practice, though, when Shockwave crashes, it crashes across the browser, on all tabs.  But on the up side, I can reload each of those tabs and it will relaunch.)  I still had the CPU spiking, and while I could then narrow it to a single tab’s process, I still couldn’t identify which tab that was or kill just the one tab; killing the tab from the task manager would kill the entire browser.  But on the plus side, Chrome will remember what tabs were open when you quit (or crashed) and will generally reopen them on next launch, so recovery was that much easier.

I’ve also had some of the same problems on my Macintosh, with Safari.  Not as bad and not as often, but still now and then.

By now, I knew what the problem child was: Adobe Flash.  For whatever reason, seemingly at random, a Flash process will go bonkers and eat up all my CPU.  I don’t know if it’s truly random or something I could predict if I knew more about Flash, but it doesn’t really matter.  The take-away is “Flash has problems.”

This is the core of why Flash is not enabled/permitted on the iPhone and the iPad.  It is simply known to cause problems.  Some reports say Flash issues cause like 75% of browser crashes.  I note that even without it, Mobile Safari on my iPhone crashes now and then (as often as a couple times a day, depending on usage), usually when I’m trying to close a page.  I can certainly picture adding Flash into that would increase the likelihood of those issues.

Fortunately, there is a solution!  Block Flash!

Well, no, preventing all Flash on your computer is a stupid solution, a scorched Earth method.  So much of the web has components in Flash that there are things you simply miss out on, as any iPhone user can tell you.  (But on the other hand, much of it is stuff you don’t really need.  One social networking site I’m on uses Flash to make a bit of text pulse when you’ve got a new message.  Talk about something that doesn’t need Flash!  Not to mention all those website intro pages!  And the flashing noisy ads!)

So instead of outright blocking Flash, we can put up a gate.  This prevents Flash from loading when you open a page, but it also gives you the opportunity to load selected Flash elements, such as to view an embedded video or to show the site’s navigation bar (grrrr).  You end up with a far less cluttered page view as a side effect.

On Chrome for Windows, I use FlashBlock.  Firefox users also have Flashblock.

On Safari for Mac, I use ClickToFlash.

My browser CPU spikes have all but gone away (and when they happen, it’s because I’ve disabled the extension!), and my browser crashes and needs to kill/relaunch the browser have dropped by 90%.  (I now have to relaunch a couple times a week, rather than several time a day.) That’s a massive improvement.

Highly, highly recommended!  Use Flash at your leisure, not at theirs.

FlashBlock is not a perfect solution, though.  I’ve found that some of the Apple movie trailer pages use an embedded Flash player (rather than QuickTime, why?) which won’t play when I click it, so I have to disable the extension, reload the page, and then re-enable the extension.  Similarly, YouTube recently made a change which presents a message falsely telling you to upgrade your version of Flash, but again, what you need to do is disable/reload/enable.  I’m hoping that either these sites or the FlashBlock extension maker will be able to repair these issues.  (I haven’t hit them with ClickToFlash, so maybe there’s hope.)

(With apologies to Queen.)

(Kudos to Daring Fireball for a lot of useful thought on this subject.)



Updated on March 22, 2010
Check out this Foxtrot strip.  Great gag!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What Were They Thinking?
    — Rock Me, Sexy Jesus!


“What Were They Thinking?” highlights products and presentations which just don’t make sense.

This was the front cover of a “Come check out our church” flyer from the Seventh Day Adventists or the Jehvoah’s Witnesses or one of those religious groups that mainline Christianity would love to call a cult but which is too big to get away with doing that.

Damn.  Sexiest Jesus bear I’ve ever seen.  (And short of the blue-eyed ones, probably the most Western European one, too.)  If they’re trying to recruit gay guys to this church, this is a great start!

“So you take your beer in one hand and then scoop under his balls like this…  Hey, you to my right!  Peter, John, Simon, whoever you are.  Eyes on the cup.  Stop cruising Thomas, Phillip, Bartholomew across from you!  Myself Almighty, you’d think you guys were a crew of randy sailors or something!”
 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Movie Review
    — The Hangover


The Hangover is the last of the films I saw on the loooong flight from Sydney to Los Angeles.

The basic plot is that a group of buddies do a bachelor party in Las Vegas.  The next morning, they wake up to find the room trashed, the groom-to-be missing, and none of them can remember what the heck went on.  So they spend the entire next day trying to piece things together via what few clues they can find, leading them to a hospital visit, an impromptu marriage, a stolen tiger, a visit from Mike Tyson, and a run-in with a gay Asian gangster.

Thoughts:
  • There was lots of stuff shown in the hotel room — the beer can pyramid, the suspended bench, etc. — that never got explained or referenced.  Arguably, that was just scene setting, but based on the rest of the film (and the photo montage at the end of the missing hours), they didn’t spend enough time in the room to do any of that stuff.  (But we’re not supposed to worry about stuff like that.)
  • Initially, I thought (hoped) they were going to do a comedy version of Memento, where they recover the most recent activity, which leads them back to the one before that, to the one before that, and so on, with only the stuff that happened just after their rooftop toast finally clicking everything into place.  I suppose that amount of layering would be hard to sustain in a comedy, though.  Pity.
  • Time is the biggest problem of the film, of course.  Anyone who has been to Las Vegas knows that just going from one casino to the next takes 30 minutes because these things are so huge, and that doesn’t change whether you are driving or walking.  Now add in the antics at the strip club, the acquisition of the tiger (including just finding Tyson’s home), and there isn’t enough time in the night for all the stuff to have happened.  (But we’re not supposed to worry about stuff like that.)
  • Speaking of time, could they have made the Sunday morning drive from Las Vegas to the wedding in Los Angeles in the two hours implied in the movie?  Mmmm, maybe, but its a stretch.  Google Maps says it’s a 4.5 hour drive.  Assuming no traffic (and no cops!) and the wedding site actually closer to Riverside, driving at an average speed of 120 mph would do it in a couple hours.  But that’s really really dicey.  (Jesus Christ, would you stop worrying about stuff like that!  It’s just a fucking movie!  And a comedy at that!)
  • The Asian gangster character was offensive.  But no more so than the rest of the movie.  No, I take that back: the recurring pedophilia references for the one character, those were more offensive that the rest of the movie put together.  I was embarrassed for the film every time that running joke reared its head.

What Were They Thinking?
    — Am I Blue?  (Nope)


“What Were They Thinking?” highlights products and presentations which just don’t make sense.

It bothers me when a product name doesn’t match its contents.  For instance, Blue-Touch Dishwashing Liquid, where 3/4 of the line is anything but blue.  I suppose you have to preserve the brand, but maybe the brand isn’t worth preserving when you dilute it like this?

Maybe “blue touch” it’s a phrase reference?  Don’t think so, since the only reference I find is “light the blue touch paper”, meaning to do something which causes anger or excitement.  Contextually, no, doesn’t fit with dishwashing liquid.
 

Friday, March 12, 2010

Movie Review
    — Julie & Julia


I watched Julie & Julia in two approximately equal chunks almost two weeks apart, on the Emirates Air flights from Sydney to Auckland and back again.

(As an aside, I had no problem with breaking the story in two like this.  I often watch movies and even hour-long TV shows in chunks of 10–15 minutes at a shot: a bit with dinner, a bit with dessert, a bit while folding laundry, etc.  My boyfriend is a bit boggled by this; if he can’t dedicate the time to watch the entire thing at one sitting, he’ll wait until later.  I guess I can chalk this up to reading comic books: over the course of 30 years, I am incredibly used to reading a 4, 6, or 12-part story in 22-page chunks, with 30 days between chunks, so I’ve gained the skill of being able to recall sufficient details to re-immerse myself in the story with ease.  See: more proof that reading comics makes you a superior human being.  It strengthens the memory!)

Back to the movie, the story involves a woman deciding on a project to do all the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year (and to blog about it), intercut with a biography of Julia Child as she developed her passion for French cooking and worked on the book.

Thoughts:
  • Meryl Streep is fantastic as Julia Child.  While she initially comes across over-the-top, chewing the scenery, that is apparently how Julia Child was; the character is consistent throughout.  Streep inhabits the role completely, and deserved the Oscar nomination she got for it.
  • I’m not sure what genre you would put this in.  It’s not a romantic comedy; while there is some romance involved in both storylines, there are none of the standard tropes of the genre.  I guess it’s “biography”, but because half the film is disconnected from the bio portion, that’s not a good fit, either.
  • There is a certain amount of screen time given to the idea that this task of doing all these recipes in a year is a challenge, but in the end, the self-imposed deadline doesn’t play into things much at all.  Where is the (artificial) tension attached to “I’ve got 30 recipes left to do and only 7 days!  How can I do it?”  (Ultimately, the answer to this should be “So it takes you a year and 3 days.  Big deal.”  Do you “fail” if your planning 11 months ago missed by a couple days and left you no buffer?  Maybe that’s why they didn’t put that tension into, because it would have seemed artificial.)
  • I suppose that in the 500+ recipes in the book, there are not 365 main dishes, one a day for a year.  There are probably some 100 main dishes, about 100 desserts, 100 side dishes, etc.  So while the movie implied French dinner after French dinner after French dinner, I suspect the reality was more like two meals a week from the book, and maybe a smattering of French side dishes or desserts to accompany more traditional American fare (you know: Italian, Chinese, Ethiopian,…).  That would be much more reasonable, but I suppose it would sap even more tension from the film.
  • After watching this, I briefly had the desire to do the same (without the blog) with one of the cookbooks I have, but then I realized that it’s ultimately a stupid idea.  Where is the value in forcing yourself to cook (and eat) things that maybe you don’t like, that you aren’t interested in?  And more, you don’t master a recipe, much less a technique, by doing it once and then moving on to the next.
  • They did have a couple hits on Julie having troubles conquering a couple of the tasks, and one where the resulting dish was underseasoned, but in general, Julie apparently breezed through most of the recipes, with no spectacular failures (other than the first aspic, maybe).  That drained (strained?) some of the tension out of the film.  At worst, she mastered everything on the second try, apparently.  (Frankly, they missed an opportunity there, maybe, to have something be horrible and they go get pizza — in the restaurant downstairs.  Why put them over a pizzeria if they never resort to it?)
  • There was a little reference to how calorie-filled some of the recipes are, but that was way underplayed, and the concept of eating all the leftovers (since there are only the two of them, usually) was completely missing.
  • If there is one take-away (heh) from this film for every viewer, it should be “Butter”.  I already knew that — via Anthony Bourdain, and before that a “How to pack on the calories if you are wasting away from AIDS” column in the Bay Area Reporter in the 1990s — but it’s something I’m only just now really bringing into my own cooking consciousness.  Reinforcement is good.
In the end, the film pretty much peters out: Julie finishes her year and Julia gets her cookbook published.  Not much tension, not much drama, and no special effects with an alien armada making the souffle drop.
 

10,000 Miles on a Scooter — 22 Months — 10 Questions


As of about February 1, 2010, I have ridden roughly 10,000 miles on my scooter.  Here is a series of 10 Questions people might have about scooters and riding them.

1. What do you ride?


Kymco People S scooterI ride a royal blue Kymco People S scooter.  It is a bit different from many scooters, with a somewhat wider front (better wind blocking), a windscreen, a larger seat, and a bigger front wheel.  And the design doesn’t look like a Vespa knock-off (which I liked).

I have three helmets: a full-face with a hinged front (silver), a 3/4-face (silver), and a “skid lid” (black, for summer and buddy riders).  I have also added a Givi trunk on the back, which gives me a good amount of storage (but especially because only the “skid lid” helmet will fit under the seat, so I need it to hold the helmet when I park).

The engine size on my scooter is large enough that I can take it on pretty much any roads I need to.  Not all scooters at this lower end (especially 50cc engines, of course, which are limited to city streets) are able to actually deal with highway speeds, but mine can maintain 55–60 mph much of the time.  (I slow down on steep hills, and I’ve had it above 70 on descents.)  Basically, I just stick to the right-hand lane most of the time and cruise along right about at the speed limit (as opposed to 10 mph over it as many cars prefer to do); so long as I don’t impede other cars, I’m generally fine.

2. When and where did you get it?


I bought my scooter (which I have named “Donny”) in mid-April 2008.

Prior to buying the scooter, I spend a couple weeks checking out models at various dealers around the city (and even down in Kent, 30 minutes south of home; at the time, I was gong down there once a week, so it was reasonably convenient).  It seemed that every time I turned around, I was finding out about yet another scooter brand.  In addition to just checking out looks, visiting the dealers was important for physically sitting on the different models, to imagine myself riding one and seeing how they felt.  I settled on the Kymco becasue it felt bigger and more stable than many of the comparable engine size models.

Ultimately, I bought mine from Interbay Scooters in Seattle, on the recommendation from my manager, who had bought his from Interbay as well.  Some scooter fans I know don’t like Interbay (or didn’t; they have since closed when the owners retired), but I have had good relations with them and good service all along the way.

3. Why did you get it?


Remember the summer of 2008?  Remember the gas prices in the summer of 2008?  Between $4 and $5 a gallon?  In March of that year, I could predict that was going to happen, as prices were already climbing and they always jump further for the summer months.

My car gets about 15–18 mpg (it’s a small SUV, and never was high on the chain of MPG anyway).  About a year before this, I had done a rough calculation that each 5-mile trip to Capitol Hill and back (“to the bars”: shorthand for any in-city round trip further than the 1/2 mile to the grocery store, including the 6.5-mile trip to work) cost me about 2/3 of a gallon of gas.  When gas crossed $4 a gallon, that closed in on $2.50 a trip, which equates to “a beer”.  This meant that I started to evaluate whether trips were “worth” it; going for just one beer would double the actual price of that beer due to the overhead of just driving there and back.

My manager and several co-workers rode scooters and motorcycles, and the cognizance that they got really good gas mileage (like 4 times what my car got) made me ask more questions and start to do some research.  Our building at work has a large concrete area out back where the scooters and motorcycles park, and it turns out that parking is free, which beats the pants of the (subsidized) $90 a month I was paying to use the garage.  In other words, between gas and parking savings, the scooter would be paying for itself.  Saving money is good.
And of course, what boy hasn’t wanted to zoom zoom on a motorcycle, at least a little?

While I did some shopping around to look at different models and read tons of online reviews, my manager let me get some riding practice on his scooter a few times, just in the parking lot across the street from our building, down an alley, and around the block.  It was enough to make sure that I could handle a scooter and actually would want to.

4. Why didn’t you get a “real” motorcycle?


Yes, that’s the way some people phrase the question.  To them, “scooter” equates to “moped” which equates to “bicycle that you can cheat with,” I think.  At a minimum, they see a scooter as a “toy” motorcycle.

Without getting too defensive, such a question is generally clueless, although there is a germ of truth in the idea.

First, there is a legal definition of a “moped”, as defined by engine size (under 50cc) and speed (under 30mph).  Almost nothing you see on the streets that you would identify as a “scooter” falls under that definition.

Most scooters that you will encounter are in the 49–150cc range.  49cc scooters are appropriate for in-city use, topping out their speed between 30–40 mph (slower with more weight and uphill, of course).  I have been told that 125cc and above are allowed to go on the freeway and highway, although not all are appropriate for such; some really don’t have the power to sustain highway speeds, and some are small or light enough that they just don’t belong in traffic at that speed or are prone to wind issues.  But scooters go up from there: 250cc, 500cc, 650cc, just as big and suitable for traffic as any motorcycle.  (In fact, some of the large scooters end up looking not too far off from the larger engine motorcycles used by the police.)

There are few practical differences between a scooter and a “motorcycle”.  (When you say “motorcycle”, think about the visual and physical differences between a cruiser and a sport cycle, yet they are both “valid” motorcycles, right?).  Most (but not all) scooters are automatics, and most (but not all) motorcycles are manual.  Scooters generally have the gas tank under the seat, except that the larger ones have the tank between the riders legs (like a motorcycle).  Handlebar controls and displays aren’t notably different.

Ultimately, the biggest differences between a scooter and a motorcycle are (a) the physical floorboard that scooters have, which encourages a standard seated posture vs. the leaning forward or reclining back postures of sport and cruiser cycles.  (If anything, having a posture between the other two should help prove scooters are part of the larger motorcycle continuum.)  And (b) scooters have a physical cut-through from side to side which motorcycles do not.  (Which can actually be seen as a safety feature, reducing the risk of leg injuries and being trapped beneath a fallen vehicle.)

So, having argued that a scooter is a “real” motorcycle, why did I choose a scooter over another type of motorcycle?  Why didn’t I want something more traditional for a leatherman?  Ultimately, the answer lies in my goal for getting the vehicle — primarily for in-city commuting, to work and the bar and other short hop locations — plus the influences I had around me from co-workers, most of whom rode scooters rather than motorcycles.  Oh, and the price: scooters with small engine sizes are priced less than motorcycles.

One final note is that my initial intent was purely for in-city commute riding, for which I was initially looking at the 49cc options — lighter and cheaper — but I was advised to get at least a 125cc due to the greater power and options it would give me.  As I was told, “Get the bigger one, because in two months, you’ll want it.”  And that was very true.

5. Did you need a special license?


You need a Motorcycle Endorsement for scooters over 50cc (in Washington state; laws may differ elsewhere).  This isn’t a separate license, but an add-on to a regular motor vehicle license.  Obviously, it’s hard to get that endorsement before you get (and get used to) your vehicle, so like with auto licenses, you pass a written test and you can get a temporary permit.  (This shows as a letter on your license, which means you get a new picture and new license, $15 please.)  This allows you to ride the vehicle for three months, but with a couple reasonable limits: no riding after dark, and no passengers, both of which take a level of skill that brand new riders do not have.

(No, of course I didn’t strictly adhere to those limits.  Before the three months was up, I had ridden after dark a few times and with a passenger once.  But those were after a solid two months or so of riding on a daily basis, and I was really careful.)

The recommended path to a endorsement, and the one pushed by the state, is to attend a riding course, typically two 8-hour days on the weekend and about $100, where you can either use your own vehicle or they will supply one for you.  Once you successfully complete the course, you automatically get your endorsement.

The classes are popular.  In spring of 2008, ramping up for the summer and with lots of people on two-wheeled motorized vehicles for the first time, the classes were packed.  Want to take one?  You get your choice: register for one three months from now (which you’ll notice is after the permit would run out), or pay $300 (triple) to get in one only a month out.

You know something?  I’m cheap, my weekends are busy, and I’m a believer that I can do it myself, so I said “Fuck that” and decided to ride the scooter as much and as often as I could.  I rode it to work every day (except one day when I needed to take the cat to the vet).  Once it got light enough later in the evening, I rode it to dance practice, and by June, even to dancing (although, yes, it was twilight and beyond when I would get home, shame shame).  I also rode it to Kent once a week (15 miles, half of it on the freeway; riding to work also had a short stint on the freeway, depending on the route I took).  I even rode all the way to Union once (50 miles each way, plus a ferry trip).

In short, I got lots and lots of experience, riding on all kinds of surfaces, in all kinds of weather, at all speeds and traffic levels.  I also prepared for the riding test bywatching YouTube videos of tests and finding where the test was done locally so I could practice the course (as best as I could figure it).

The course involves tight cornering, straight driving, fast braking, and dead slow weaving in and out among cones.  It was revealing to watch others take the test before I did.  (People had arrived as much as an hour early, so I was like 20th that morning.)  Some were massively unprepared for the test (both scooter riders and those on standard motorcycles), to the point I wondered if they were trying to take the test with mere hours of riding under their belts.  The cones was especially difficult for many people.

So how did I do?  100%.  Aced the test.  (I braked a bit too hard/too fast for my own tastes in that piece of the test, but it was still fine for the test monitor.)
Guess there’s no harm in being cheap and busy and practicing a lot.

6. What about insurance?


Yes, insurance for a motorcycle or scooter is required by law (although you don’t have to show proof of insurance to get your endorsement or vehicle license, I think).

Remarkably, it’s both easy to get and cheap.  I got mine via Geico (they do my car insurance as well).  First year was something like $165 for the year, and then it dropped to like $120.  $10 a month!.  For a year.  Damn!  My car insurance costs that much for a month!  (Actually, it also dropped a little last year, but still….)

Of course, when you think about it, a collision in a car is going to do a lot of damage to the car, and to whatever you hit, perhaps fatally if that’s a person.  My scooter weighs, what, 300 lbs?  Probably weighs 1/8 of my car, cost 1/8 of my car, and would only do 1/8 the damage if I hit something.  Although 1/8 fatal might still be fatal, I guess.

7. Are scooters safe?  Have you had any accidents?


Erm, um, well…  That depends on your definition of “safe”, doesn’t it?  I have had no injury worse than a sprained wrist (knock on wood).

About six weeks after I got the scooter, a motorcycle rider waiting for the same Southworth-Fauntleroy ferry as I was told me “There are only two kinds of motorcycles in the world: those that have been dropped, and those that haven’t been dropped yet.”  (I had dropped mine earlier that day, pulling into a gravel parking lot.)

As best I can recall, here are my scooter boo-boos:
  • April 2008: made too tight of a U-turn; dropped it rather than hit a parked SUV
  • May 2008: parked on a downhill sloping cobblestone street; couldn’t hold it up when I took it off the stand
  • June 2008: pulled into a gravel parking lot
  • August 2008: a woman hit the parked scooter in the QFC parking lot and knocked it over
  • October 2008: went down on wet pavement while riding, avoiding a car blindly changing lanes; abraded my leather jacket and scraped my elbow
  • March 2009: another too-tight U-turn (and I may have been tipsy, shame one me)
  • March 2009: someone backed into my parked scooter in West Seattle and knocked it down; I got a small insurance settlement on that
  • August 2009: miscalculated the slope of my steep driveway and tipped over from parked position; sprained my wrist trying to stop the fall (and I’m still having problems, 6 months later)
  • December 2009: hit black ice while riding; wrenched my shoulder
So while I’ve had my share of dropping the scooter, my worst injury has been a sprained wrist (which is still bothering me know and then, five months later), a total of a few hundred dollars in mostly cosmetic damage to the scooter, and no damage to other vehicles/buildings/people.  (It’s hard to compare to the car, since you can’t “drop” it in the same way.  But if you count bumper taps on up, on my car I’ve been living with a crushed bumper corner for 4.5 years and a slowly growing crack in the windshield for 4 years; fixing those would be over $2000, so I haven’t bothered.)

8. What is great about riding a scooter?  And specifically your model?


Where do I start?
  • No cage.  Motorcyclists sometimes refer to cars as “cages”, to indicate that the people in them are stuck in a box.  This is very true.  Not having the roof, the doors, the hood, and the backseat/trunk/tailgate around you increases what you can see immensely.  Did you see that house over there?  How about the raccoons by the side of the road?  Did you get a look at the flowers down that hillside past the guard rails?  See how cool the shadows of the telephone poles are?  Did you catch those clouds racing by overhead? You miss massive amounts of stuff just because the cage of the car blocks your view.
  • Sounds and smells.  You can smell the rich aromas of the coffee roaster or the bakery with no rolled-up car windows in the way.  (Okay, you can smell the dairy farm, too.)
  • The freedom for small jaunts.  Ever feel guilty that you’re firing up the SUV to go a mile to the store for milk and butter, because it would take an hour to walk, but you need just that couple of things?  (You should.)  Much less guilt on the scooter.
  • The freedom for pleasure trips.  During the height of the gas prices in 2008 (and they are creeping up again in 2010!), driving somewhere just for a jaunt, a Sunday drive, was expensive and thus not to be done.  Riding a scooter for a 4-hour round trip?  It cost me like $20 including two ferry fares and an ice cream snack.  Even my trip to Vancouver in August 2008 was only like $30 in gas.
  • Parking.  Ever drive around for 20 minutes trying to find a space, and end up paying through the nose for a garage or pay lot?  Now try it on a vehicle that takes 1/3 the space of a car (1/4 the space of an SUV).  Oh look, there’s a fractional space now, and it’s right in front of where you were going!  Any time cost in putting on coat and gloves and helmet are made up on the arrival end by parking being way easier and needing to walk less far after you park..
  • The cost of gas.  Actually, the cognitive difference in the cost of getting gas.  Even putting the gas mileage difference aside, when filling your tank costs $5 or less and takes only a couple minutes, it feels very inconsequential.
  • The cost of the ferry. My mother lives on Bainbridge Island, a ferry ride away.  For the past several years, I have done walk-ons to visit her, having her pick me up at the dock.  Here's how things stack up in peak season: car and driver is $14.85 each way; motorcycle and rider in $6.45 each way; walk-on is $6.90 to Bainbridge, no charge returning.  In other words, for a one-way trip (I could always ride down to Gig Harbor and back up I-5), a motorcycle is actually cheaper than walking on, and it's about 40% the price of driving a car, so it is instantly a lot easier on the wallet to visit Mom or go to her vacation home near Hood Canal.  And what's almost better is that motorcycles (and bicycles) load on the ferry first (or they can squeeze you on at the end; and they unload first, too!), so there's never a worry about not getting on the next ferry when visiting on busy holidays.
Is there anything specifically cool about my Kymco People S scooter?  That’s a lot harder to sum up.  It’s always easier to name things you don’t like, and even things you do like can have a negative angle to them. Is the larger size and non-“Italian” styling of my scooter, which makes it look more like a full motorcycle and less like a Vespa wanna-be, “cool”?  Do I mention the power converted plug under the seat, which I can use to charge a phone or laptop while ridin (finally used it just the other day)?  Do I mention the windscreen, which not all scooters (or even motorcycles) have, but which makes a difference riding and highway speeds and in keeping the Seattle rain off me while riding?

I definitely make mention of storage space, since there's more than you might expect.  On that trip to Vancouver, I took clothing for the weekend — including boots and some leather gear and toys — and a laptop and other needs with me, getting them all stuffed under the seat or in the helmet-sized trunk (which I can detach and carry like a suitcase).  If I were to lasha carry bag on the seat behind me (which would do double duty as a back support), I could do a week-long trip or carry a tent and sleeping bag for camping.

Makes you think about the volumes of wasted space we lug around in cars.  (Which was one of the stoppers for me years ago when I got my current car: I liked little pickups, but somehow the open nature of the truck bed made me that much more aware of the typically empty chunk of metal I would be dragging around everywhere.)

9. What is less-than-great about riding a scooter?

  • No phone!  No boat!  No motorcar!  Not a single luxury!
  • More seriously, no heater.  It can get damn cold when the weather dips below 40!
  • No defroster for the inside of the helmet when it fogs up from my breath.
  • No windshield wiper for the face shield on the helmet.  This can get nasty on a rainy night.
  • No radio or CD player.  I can’t listen to that new CD I bought or enjoy listening to radio hosts jabber in the mornings rather than playing music (okay, that’s a whole ’nother rant).  Driving by yourself is already a solitary activity; riding a motorcycle without tunes is three steps beyond that.  I do have speakers in my helmet that I can plug into my iPhone, but even at top volume, I get little more that a hint of the song when I’m moving (and less than that when I’m on the highway).  Maybe if I can get some powered helmet speakers…
  • Can’t use the cell phone.  Okay, maybe that’s not really someting bad, now that I think of it.  Except for those times when it would be really good to make a quick call, to tell someone my ETA.  I’m sure there are hands-free Bluetooth solutions out there, but my need to use the phone while on the road is infrequent enough to not warrant the cost.  (Aside: a couple years ago, with my old flip phone and driving on city streets in Vancouver, I did wedge it into the helmet to make it a hands-free device for the duration of the one call.)
  • Cost of parking.  While parking for a scooter is fairly easy to find, you still usually have to pay full price for it, even though you are only using 1/4 to 1/3 the space of a car.  For parking garages, that’s really dumb, although a handful do have a dedicated motorcycle parking area and a reduced price for such vehicles.  There was talk a couple years ago about ways to fix this in Seattle, with some permitting sticker, but I think the impetus evaporated.
  • Design flaw in the system: Gas Gauge.  The fuel display is totally whacked.  While I get 100+ miles to the tank, the gauge sits on Full for the first 40 miles and then starts dropping, so that the 1/2 tank mark is really about 1/3 of a tank left and so on.  You can actually visually watch the gauge very slowly drop through the last 1/4 tank when you’re on the highway.  I’ve learned to adjust to this, but how hard is it to make a gauge reflect reality?
  • Design flaw in the system: Speedometer.  Speaking of reflecting reality: the speedomter is always about 5 mph faster than I’m actually travelling, so you have to know how to mentally adjust to get the true speed, and then its an approximation (although isn’t is always?).  A more significant design flow, though, is that the speedometer has an inner circle for miles, in red, and an outer one for kilometers, in white, but only the white circle lights up at night, so you have to know how to convert kilometers to miles (or memorize dial locations) in order to check your speed. 
  • Design flaw in the system: Speedometer Cable.  In August 2008, the speedometer cable broke and had to be replaced, and it took Interbay two months to get a replacement.  Then in August 2009, it broke again and I had no speedometer for another month.  Since that also controls the odometer, my scooter shows about 1600 miles less than I’ve actually traveled.  Should I expect this to fail again in August 2010?
  • Design flaw in the system: Parking Lights.  The parking lights for the scooter are apparently too high voltage (or whatever) for the scooter’s electric system, and they started causing starter issues (I would have to try two or three times) in December 2008, and the battery itself failed in September 2009.  Interbay replaced the bulbs with dummies, which should prevent the issue, but I lose my parking lights as a result.

10. What other thoughts do you have about scooters and riding them?


Our society is so heavily car-oriented that if you are a regular driver, it takes a huge leap to get out of that mode and into walking, bus, bicycling, or even scooter/motorcycle transport.  Take that jump!

The scariest thing with riding a scooter was the first few times I got on the freeway.  You really have to have a sense of bravado and self-invulnerability to do that, to allow you to not think about the speeds and the other vehicles and the concrete barriers.  Channel the comic book men-without-fear: Green Lantern and Daredevil.  (As opposed to the Men Without Hats.)

One of the biggest concerns that people have is “crazy other drivers”, that is, car drivers who either don’t see/react to people on scooters and motorcycles (and bicycles), or who actively try to cut us off, make us crash, whatever.  I have experienced a couple cases of unaware drivers.  The one who cause my crash in October 2008 was coming off the freeway (and thus probably going over the speed limit) and rapidly crossed all the lanes of traffic; I doubt that he ever saw me and even if he did, I’m sure he didn’t know I went down  And I’ve had a couple times where a car will pull just past me on the left and stay in that lane, where I’m probably in his blind spot; he won’t speed up to see me, he won’t slow back down, and he doesn’t change lanes, although I have to assume he plans to and thus need to be extra guarded.  In general, though, Seattle drivers have been sufficiently courteous, giving me enough room to ride and not generally cutting my safety space or otherwise being badly aggressive.  (People who know Seattle drivers know that they can be, if anything, too polite, to the point that they will hamper both their own and other people’s driving in an effort to let other people have the road.)

Any of the West Coast, South, and Southwest cities are great for scooters pretty much year round, given the usual lack of snow.  The hills in Seattle (or San Francisco) make scooters that much more attractive over walking!  I’ve been surprised, though, to not see nearly the number of scooters that I see in Seattle when I go to Vancouver or San Francisco.  Those cities should be just a scootered up as we are here.  (Amsterdam and New Zealand, on the other hand, there are a couple places which have embraced scooters.)
I participate in events from the gay scooter club, Sqream, including a few in-city rides a year and one or two longer ones.  It’s great to have that added level of support, and none of the people I’ve met in the club are people who overlap into other activities in my life (which is both refreshing and little weird to realize that there are a bunch of other circles in the gay community which apparently never intersect with mine other than in this way.

I have this increasing itch to upgrade my scooter.  The car will be paid off in less than a month.  I expect that I’ll (try to!) wait until at least fall, maybe early spring next year, though.  Larger scooter, or full-on motorcycle?  My boyfriend rides a sport cycle, I see myself as much more of a cruiser man.  (Fits that leather image better that a sport bike.)

Between lower gas costs and free parking at work, but including the cost of jacket, gloves, three helmets, and insurance, the scooter will have roughly paid for itself by the time it is two years old.  That’s a good deal!



Updated on March 15, 2010
Added moped definition, made a couple other changes.
 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

New Zealand 2010: Aftermath


Jet Lag


All my travelling life, I’ve never had much issue with jetlag.  Back and forth across the United States has only been a problem when I’ve had to be up for something early on the East Coast.  (Last summer in Washington DC, I was on the hook to teach an 8:00 am line dance workshop.  That’s 5:00 am West Coast time.  I don’t get up at 4:30 am for anything other than 7:30 am flights, and then I only have to be barely conscious.)  Even the recent trips to Europe were doable, adjusting in a couple days.

New Zealand is 20 hours ahead, or 4 hours behind, and only 3 hours behind since they are on Daylight Savings Time right now.  In theory, that should be no worse that East Coast to West Coast travel, but I’ve had a bitch of a time getting back in synch with Pacific time.  The first couple nights home, my sleep patterns were wonked, and I’ve still been having odd sleepiness for a week since returning.  Much worse than I expected.

Roundabouts


Especially in the mid-size cities (Rotorua, Taupo), traffic lights were not very common.  Large intersections were dominated by roundabouts, instead.  (And here I mean the large roundabouts which serve to actually direct traffic, as opposed to the small ones we get at some regular street intersections in Seattle or the ones with several traffic lights all around them like Logan Circle in Washington DC.  Those only serve to slow traffic down to a crawl; hates them, we does.)  For the New Zealand roundabouts, you slow as you approach the entrance, look right (for incoming traffic), and then enter, go around, and exit… without stopping at all in many cases.  Traffic flows right on through.

They have put some of these in here in Washington in Snohomish and Kitsap counties, and oh, what howling there has been.  Anything different is evil, I guess.  Me, I’ve been paying attention to how much time I spend at stoplights on my way home for the past week, calculating time lost as I decelerate to a stop, wait for the light to change, and wait for traffic to allow me to accelerate back to a cruising speed.  It’s just anecdotal evidence at the moment, but I find that I have to stop or significantly decelerate for just under half the lights (and there are some lesser ones that almost never change, so some are stoppers 50% or more of the time).  And with time spent to come to a stop and come back to cruising speed (about 12 seconds with minimal car traffic) and time spent waiting or dealing with slow-to-move traffic, I’m hitting an average of about 35 seconds spent per light I stop at, or about 16 seconds per light overall.  (As much as 3 minutes of dead time in a 2.5 mile stretch of Rainier Avenue.)

I’ve also tracked stop signs a couple times.  Usually having no more than one car to wait for, these come out at an average of under 12 seconds each.  None of this takes into account left/right turns vs. straight ahead, time of day, weather, etc.  All in all, with probably under 10 seconds delay per roundabout (half that for decelerate/accelerate, the rest for when you have to wait for cars), with my handful of data points, roundabouts look very attractive as replacements for half or more of the signals outside urban cores.

Souvenirs


When I got back and laid out all the souvenirs on the bed to show my boyfriend, one of my cats (Miss Mona) was also there.  I got out he little kiwi — about the size of a songbird — and set it on the bed.  Mona came over, sniffed once, and proceeded to try to eat it.  I took it away, set it aside, and she went for it again.  Literally, just about unhinged her jaw and tried to eat the thing whole.  Guess it was convincing enough for a cat.

Guess I’ll have to keep it at work!



Updated on March 18, 2010

Airline Safety Videos


In recent years, many airlines (the ones that have entertainment screens viewable by everyone on board) have taken to doing their safety announcements via video rather than live.  Of course, those of us who have flown many times ignore them just like the live ones.

Virgin America has gone to the next stage and done an attractive animated version of their presentation.  This has two benefits: first, they can expect even the most jaded traveler to watch it once, just for the novelty.  And second, they can put some humor into it, especially via the art, without needing to have the flight attendants crack jokes and such, which again will encourage people to watch it at least once.  Here is their video:



Virgin America also had an animated video of Richard Branson, but I can’ find it online.

V Australia has also done theirs in animated form.  In this case, computer animated.  And if I dislike the weird character models used in movies like Up, I outright fear the ones used in this video.  They look like they haven’t slept for two days and have been on a meth-influenced crying jag, and when they smile, they look like they are trying to frighten young children.  Worst.  Models.  Ever.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Movie Review
    — Waking Life


Waking Life was an experimental animation film from 2001 that I thought I wanted to see.  Thanks to Netflix, I finally got it.  Unfortunately.  “Experimental” means “fucking weird”, of course.

A one-word review: “Queasy”.

The trailer makes it look interesting and implies a narrative much more cohesive than actually exists.  In reality, the plot can be summed up by “A guy is dreaming and slowly comes to realize that.  Along the way, he dreams about people expounding on philosophy.”

Yeah, it’s just about that exciting.  Frankly, any movie that references existentialism and quotes Kierkegaard and Thomas Mann — and not just uses their words but directly says stuff like “Thomas Mann wrote that <blah blah blah>” — is clearly not intended as either entertaining or educational.  Masturbatory, maybe.

There is a really narrow audience who gives a shit that you can quote Thomas Mann, but there’s a broader audience who would rather you present those ideas to us as ideas rather than as quotes, and as dialogue rather than as monologue.  Talk to us, don’t preach at us.

So to expand, this movie is a bunch of disconnected monologues about philosophy and dreaming and the meaning of life, where one character expounds on some deep matter to an ostensibly main character who mostly just sits there and nods.  (As opposed to me, who would have nodded off if I were just sitting and watching rather than ironing clothes as I watched.  That shit puts me right to sleep; maybe it’s a defense mechanism to prevent me from having to struggle to decipher what is being said.)  Each monologue is software animated by a different person, which results in some bizarre and sometimes jarring art styles.

For the first half of the movie, neither the viewer nor the main character has a grasp on what is going on.  (Well, the viewer has the title to go by, which leads you to get that it’s all a dream before the character does.)  Eventually the character understands that he is dreaming the whole thing, including the bits where he thinks he is waking up, and then then he starts to say what the viewer is thinking: “What the fuck is this?  What does this have to do with anything?”

(There is a truism in comics — where the writer often has much more control over the final product than is usually the case in film — that if the characters start to say that the story is stupid, then the writer agrees.  I felt that way with Waking Life.)

I’ll spoil the ending right now (highlight to read):
The lead character doesn’t wake up, and nothing is resolved.  Maybe he’s dead.
Now, in comics, sometimes a crap story can be saved by cool (good, innovative, intriguing) art.  Does that happen here?

Hell no.  The entire film is rotoscoped, with underlying video used as the basis for the animation.  The computer software they use for this does interpolation, so they can (for example) draw the curve of a character’s face in two key frames and have the software map that curve through the intermediate frames.  This saves an immense amount of work, of course, and sometimes it produces great work (but too few frames interpolated and it becomes jumpy).  But they also tend to use interpolation for all the static elements in a scene, individually.  This wall, that wall, the floor, each table… all their own layers, interpolated.  (Compare to the minimalist work with static and even reused backgrounds don by Hanna-Barbera.)  And since the video is from hand-held cameras, the viewing point moves throughout the scenes, which means that the view of each static element changes a little all through.  The result is that each static item in the scene “floats”, moving independently of all the others.  Result to the views: nausea.

Now, any individual one of these monologue scenes — ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes — as a self-contained bit can be quite interesting.  But string them together, with art styles changing throughout and no graspable narrative from one to the next, and you end up with a jumbled mess that doesn’t build to a value greater than the parts.

Now, I’m sure some people would try to defend this entire process, saying that the art styles and the floating animated items and the minimal narrative work in concert with the dream nature of the plot, and I can’t really disagree on that front.  It is all very dreamlike.  (Although I’ve never in my life had lucidity in dreams sufficient to sustain several minutes of philosophy monologue.)  The problem with is that “experimental” goes fine for 10 or 20 minutes, maybe, but this film is 100 minutes long.  Intellectual curiosity fades into boredom quickly, and allows the nausea-inducing animation to rule.

Queasy.
 

Monday, March 8, 2010

Movie Review
    — 500 Days of Summer


500 Days of Summer was another of the films I watched on the nasty long plane flight from Los Angeles to Sydney.  I remember when it came out, I was mildly interested, but since it was apparently a romantic comedy, I knew I would wait until it was available on video.  These things almost always work just as well on a 10" screen as they do on a huge theater screen.  This one is no exception.

Stylistically, I found the film interesting.  It eschews a standard linear narrative for one which starts halfway through the titular 500 days, and then plays at being sort of two storylines
from there, one advancing from Day 1 to the starting point, and one advancing from there to Day 500.

Also, the film is pretty honest, telling you right off the bat what’s going to happen and that marriage and “Happily Ever After” are not in the cards.  Of course, being jaded American movie viewers, we don’t believe that, both because we want that ending to happen and because we’ve been lied to enough in the past that honesty isn’t trusted.

Unfortunately, the movie also stars Zooey Deschanel, who I’ve seen previously in Yes Man and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and found unmemorable in both of those.  (I remember her scooter in Yes Man, though.  What does that say?)  Here, she’s just… flat.  Of course her character here is also flat.

Is she playing that character really well?  Is she just paying herself?  Did she flatten the character more than was in the script?

Does it matter when you just want to tell the guy moping over her that he can do better?
 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Movie Review
    — Fame (2009)



I got to watch the recent remake of the early-80s musical film Fame recently, on the flight back from Sydney to Los Angeles.  And my first reaction was “Why did they bother?”

This site has a good summary of the original movie, what worked about it, and what resulted from it.  I only saw the original for the first time a couple years ago, via Netflix.

I suppose the answer to my first reaction should be “Why wouldn’t they bother?  This was a transformative movie in the 1980s, so it could be again.”  (To which your response should be “Yeah, sure it could.  Suuuurre it could.  That trick always works.”)  The real answer, of course, would be “Everything old is new again.  Here’s a former majorly successful property that isn’t bringing in any money.  Let’s bring it back!”

Fame is hardly the first 20–30 year old “property” to be brought back in recent years.  And after all, if you see this as a movie intending to attract teens to the performing arts, then it needs to have today’s sounds, today’s dances, and today’s problems in it, not the ones from 30 years ago.  The movie needs to be relevant to have an impact (or so the theory goes).

So why/where does it fail?  That’s hard to say.
  • A portion of the failure is on my part.  Now in my 40s, I’m distanced from the kids and the issues in this film.  (In comparison, although I only saw the original a couple years ago, more of what that set of kids dealt with was part of my life than what these kids did.)
  • They failed with the big dance number.  In the original, it spilled out into the street, dancing on cars and the like.  In this version, it is confined to the lunch room.  That betrays a conservativeness which takes some of the power out of the scene.  (And maybe it betrays a budget limitation, too.)  In the original, the kids were so full of excitement and possibility that they overflowed right out of the building; in this, regardless of dancing on the tables and such, they were still constrained by the realities of their lives, confined by the walls, bowing to the expectations that they stay in the building.
  • While Naturi Naughton was a fine singer, the title song was reserved for the closing credits, so we never saw her sing it and it lost power as a result (original).  And while I wouldn’t have wanted “I Sing the Body Electric” as the big closing song (okay, a few lines of it somewhere in the movie would have been great), that song had more power than what they did use.
  • The new film is only 107 minutes long, or 123 for the “extended version” (more dancing, I think; it was the theatrical release on the plane).  The original was 134 minutes long, a bit more than 25% longer.  Take each scene and make it 25% longer.  25% more song, 25% more dance, 25% more characterization.  You chop the length, you chop the power.  Several plotlines got abbreviated, forcing us to invent what comes next with the kid whose mother doesn’t want him in the school, or the one whose money got stolen.
  • Too much story.  This ties back into the previous item, but they are covering four years of the lives of these characters.  27 minutes a year.  (Closer to 20 minutes a year, since the first 20 minutes of the film is before the year starts.)  The means you get just snippets, snapshots of the characters, with little taste for their growth or their daily lives at the school.  While it showed that some wash out and some move on to other performing tasks instead of graduating, for most of the characters, that was just too much time shoved through a little pipe.
In the end, I can’t quite decide: did the movie fail (in comparison to the original) because it reached too high, tried to do too much, and couldn’t match what it was being compared to?  Or because it didn’t reach high enough, because it was too constrained by budgets and time limits and the like?



Updated on March 5, 2010
Two more things occurred to me last night with this:
  • Where were the older students early in the film, and the younger ones later.  The the High School for the Performing Arts just take in one class every four years, and hope enough stay through to the end to pay the bills?  Doubt it.  Not that I expected them to focus on characters across the age range, but just clear indicators of students from other years would have been good.  (Of course, this isn’t unusual.  Consider most any high school-based show — Glee, early Smallville, whatever — and they focus just on kids from one class, as though they were the entirety of the school population.)
  • I think they missed an opportunity to connect this to the original film by not recruiting at least one member of the original cast to be one of the teachers in this film, or at least to have a minute or two as a guest lecturer.  That would have served both (a) a way to bring in fans of the first movie, establishing continuity and providing a path to refresh the property again in a few years, and (b) would have shown what career paths exist for graduates of the school.  This could have also added some poignancy to the storyline for the kid whose mother runs a dance studio: no matter how lofty your dreams, sometimes you will have to be the one who teaches, who supports the dreams of others.

The Landmark Forum almost destroyed my relationship!


In fairness, maybe that title should perhaps read “Attending the Landmark Forum twisted me up so much that I nearly destroyed my relationship!”  Isn’t nearly as good of a headline, though.

Preface


This is going to be a really long blog entry, so settle down for a bit of a read.  And about 2/3 of the way through, it gets pretty ugly.  But that’s also a couple months in the past as I write this, and I’m largely past this.  So thanks in advance for stunned expressions of sympathy.

How I Heard About the Landmark Forum


Since shortly after meeting my boyfriend in September 2008, he had been nagging me, um, pestering me, um, urging me to take the Landmark Forum.  For whatever reason, he thought it would be “good” for me, that it would help me “open up” when talking to him.  Obviously, he has been through the Forum or similar programs before, and he has also put his kids through the young people versions of it.

I tried to dodge the issue for months.  Why would I want to take this workshop?  What would I get out of it?  What should I expect it to be like?  All I got from him (and a couple other people) were frankly crap answers: it would “open up new possiblities in my life,” it would “help me be present,” it would “enable breakthroughs.”  (What does any of that mean, when you don’t have a context to interpret it from?)  The Landmark website was of about the same amount of use: lots of jargon, nothing concrete, and nothing descriptive.

Research: What is Landmark?


Oddly, the Internet seemed reasonably silent on the matter when I did research a couple times.  (Hmm, I didn’t find this page in prior searches.  Or this one.  Or this one.  Maybe my searches had been too narrow before?  I think I had been searching with terms which may have limited my results.)  There were a handful of sites with pretty negative descriptions of behaviors attached to the Forum workshops — sessions lasting until 1:00 am, participants not being allowed to use the restroom (or being followed if they did), people having crying jag breakdowns, people being encouraged to call their family members at 3:00 am and apologize for decades-old slights, presenters verbally berating workshop participants, and so on — but almost nothing describing the actual workshop.  (Oh, and then there were the cases of nervous breakdowns and attempted suicide after taking the Forum.  Yeah, that make me thrilled!)

After having taken the Forum, my best guess for the perceived lack of researchable content: partly caused by people people scared silent due to the legalese in the paperwork you have to sign before taking the workshop, and partly there being very little to actually describe.  More on that along the way.

Myself: Will It Work For Me?


I’m a Virgo, and beyond all the other stereotypes for the sign, that parlays itself into a need to understand, to know “why”.  If you can’t — or won’t — tell me why something is important or valuable (or in reverse, why something is bad), then I will either dig for the information or I will discard what you told me as unuseful.  (This reaches its height for me with opinions which just “are”: if you can’t/won’t explain your opinion, if you won’t defend it, if you refuse to even try to answer “why”, if you won’t spend the effort to let me understand it, then it is a useless opinion and I will ignore it.)  So that’s the root of the issue I had here: what is the Landmark Forum, what should I expect to get from it, do I need what I should expect to get from it, and thus should I pursue it?  When the answers to the first three of those are “I can’t tell you what it is,” “I can’t tell you what to expect,” and “It doesn’t matter if you need it,” it should be no surprise that I had a difficult time developing any answer other than “No” to the fourth one.

Every time that my boyfriend brought up taking the Forum, I tended to shut down.  This was because I had nothing positive I could say about the idea.  I didn’t want to attend, and I couldn’t see any reason why I should attend, and he couldn’t provide me with any reason my Virgo-self could accept as a reason to attend.  For him, of course, this was just more proof that I needed to attend it; I was “afraid” on some level.  (Is it “fear” when I want to speak from fact and not emotion, when I want to provide a reason for saying “No” other than “I don’t want to”?  I don’t know, maybe when you delve down several levels of “why” you get to something you could pretend is “fear”, for lack of a better term.)  He offered to pay for me to attend.  I eventually agreed to attend one of the Introduction nights, a three-hour preview of the Forum, to learn more of what was up.

Unspoken in all his prodding, but very clearly there to me, was a threat to our relationship.  “This is so important to me that if you don’t do it, I don’t know that our relationship can continue.”  We are warned abundantly about “If you love me, you’ll do XYZ” relationship manipulation; is this any different?  Sure feels similar.

What Does It Cost (Money and Time)


Adding to all this mess was the time commitment required (and the “money” and “mind” equivalents of it): all day Friday, all day Saturday, and all day Sunday, plus an additional Tuesday evening.  And “all day” here means 9:00 am to 10:00 pm — 13 hours!  So attending this would steal a day of vacation from me and completely wipe out every bit of my weekend, including my usual Friday night country-western dancing and all the housework and just relaxation-from-work that comes with the weekend, plus an organization board meeting I would have to skip.  So now you’re talking $400 for the Forum, plus the $250 (post-tax) income loss tied to the vacation day, plus all the stress components tied to the lost weekend, plus the pleasure and health component of losing my primary hobby and weekly exercise and social activity.  That raises the bar that Landmark needs to exceed to be a “success” quite a bit.

Stepford Intro Night


I took the intro night in October.  The woman running it was not the one who would end up as the presenter for the course I eventually took.  The roughly three-hour session mirrored the eventual landmark sessions, where we listened to the presenter talk, and then discussed a topic with the person seated next to us.  (In this case, that was my boyfriend.)  Most of the session was harmless enough, I guess.

Toward the end, of course, they shifted into sales mode.  One of the graduates or volunteers runing the session came over to sit with us and said some inane stuff about “What brings you here?  What session are you going to take?” and so on.  And since I still had no reason to take the Forum other than that my boyfriend wanted me to and would pay the registration fee for me, that’s pretty much what I told her.  And we sat there for a couple minutes, nodding and blinking, me trying to find something of substance to say to her.  (What I really wanted to say was “Go away, you Stepford wife freak.  If this is what the Forum will turn me into, I really don’t want to take it!”  Probably wouldn’t have gone over well, though.)

Finally, Some Usable Info Comes Along


A night or two before starting the Forum, I talked to another friend who had gone through it (several years ago).  He said that, knowing me (since we share some traits), I would either really like it or really hate it.  (Guess which one it ended up being!)  He told me more about what I should expect to experience at the Forum than anyone else had: a series of “listen to the presenter” sessions followed by directed chats with the person sitting next to you, with periodic breaks during which you might have a small “homework” assignment and after which you should sit next to someone different.  (He also said to avoid sitting next to the people with black bars on their badges, since they were graduates retaking the Forum, and were apt to be overly earnest in a way that would undoubtedly annoy me.)  He also said that I would probably not enjoy it much until the end of the second day or start of the third day, when things would start connecting for me.  This was useful advice, encouraging me to push through the presumably boring, tedious parts to come, that the content and mindset should change eventually.

He also said that one of the best things he got out of the Forum was, having taken it with his now-ex-wife, that they at least have common language from which to communicate with each other, which probably helps them have a better relationship (for their kids) than many divorced couples have.  This gave me hope for having some benefit come out of things, regardless.

Cease & Desist?


Now here’s where I have maybe tread lightly.  What can I tell you about the actual Forum and what can’t I?  I think that so long as I don’t (a) badmouth Landmark without concrete examples to contexutalize my statements and (b) so long as I don’t discuss the ideas (“technology”) in detail, I should be within legal, journalistic grounds.  (I won’t be surprised if I get a Cease & Desist letter from them on general principles, though.  Then again, now that I am finding more articles and essays with a negative projection of the Landmark Forum out there than before, maybe not.)

Friday


As directed, I arrived early for the session, in order to register and get situated.

One of the first things the presenter (a Bolivian woman) did was to tell everyone that if they didn’t want to be there, they should get up and leave, that Landmark would give them a full refund.  A half-dozen people left right then and there.  While this was initially surprising — and massively tempting to me — it’s probably also a good idea, since it prevents people who are going to have a bad experience from disliking it even more and thus badmouthing Landmark.

Early on, she basically told people who wanted to figure out what they were going to get from the Forum, how it worked, etc. (like me!), to just stop it.  I don’t recall the exact phrasing she used, but the gist was that that if you don’t “get” it, if you try to analyze it, you’ll hamper your success.  If you’re confused, that’s okay, because it leaves you open to their message.  (Great idea.  Fails utterly for someone like me who can’t, won’t, and doesn’t want to “let go” of analyzing things.)

We took a break around lunch time, another in mid-afternoon, and one around dinner time, leaving at around 10:00 pm.  At each break, we were supposed to do some “homework”, which varied from thinking about an issue to talking with another Forum participant to making a phone call to a friend or family member.  While I did think about the assignments, other than the ones I could do by myself, I didn’t actually do them.  I didn’t particularly want to engage with other attendees (in general, I’m a private person and I neither want to know a strangers issues nor burden the, with mine), and I sure didn’t want to call up someone else and intrude on them with this stuff.  I was much more interested in getting food, getting coffee (so I could stay away for hours of sitting on my butt), and trying to clear the Landmark stuff out of my head.

I think the only major piece of “technology” that they presented on Friday was dubbed “Rackets”, a jargon term for how we limit ourselves.  “I can’t”, “You don’t understand”, and so on.  All very true, and mostly stuff I got in my high school college-prep English class 25-mumble years ago, just by another name.

We were there for for 13 hours on Friday (including breaks).  Out of that, I would say about 90 minutes of it was actual content.  The rest was chit chat from the presenter, one-on-one discussion with other attendees, listening to attendees on the mike talking about their issues (for as long as an hour each), and some talk about Landmark’s kid and teen versions of the Forum.  (By end of day Saturday, I was aware that this last was really a form of advertising for their other programs — an infommercial, if you will.)  Astoundingly, the presenter said that Landmark has cut down the length of their programs in recent years, that they used to go until 1:00 am or even 3:00 am.  (Jesus Christ, I would walk out before that.  Or maybe just fal asleep.)

In the one-on-one discussions, some of the people I chatted with were likewise uncertain that they wanted to be at the Forum at all.  It was good to have the chance to talk over some of my concerns with others who shared them.  (I wonder how many others were actually also uncertain.  I tended to sit in end or back row chairs, mostly so I could get up to go to the toilet when I needed to with minimal disturbance, but I suspect that those more certain of their intent at being at Landmark would also take the front row and center chairs, and thus buffer around them with similar minds.  And thus, those of us who were more margnal would naturally tend to be out on the, um, margins.)

After each of the three breaks, when we came back, there appeared to be fewer chairs than before.  At first, I and some others figured that they had set up more chairs than they needed for the number registered and were just paring that down.  (There’s probably some truth to that.  A certain percentage won’t show at all.)  And some of the removal of chairs was likely just to force people to sit next to one another rather than leaving personal space.  But the cynic in me says that after the first break, those shouldn’t be issues, since you should be able to optimize the seating once.  If chairs keep going away, that means some people aren’t coming back from the breaks.

During one break, I visited the Fremont Vintage Mall, an underground antique mall (the sort where a couple dozen people rent out areas for their stuff to sell).  I found a bunch of tiki stuff and took pics to show my boyfriend.  (As expected, he has most of the stuff, but not all of it.  I bought him a genuine tiki mug — “genuine” here meaning “with a handle” — which I hope he doesn’t have, and a couple weeks later, went back and got him a cool resin ashtray from Hawai’i which had the state name and the tiki in relief; both to be Christmas gifts.

The evening’s homework had a couple parts, including making a phone call to someone you have been “running a racket” on and writing a “practice letter” that would accomplish the same thing.  Needless to say, I had no interest in doing such, and didn’t do them.  (Yes, I’m sure I jeopardized my ability to get the full benefit of the Forum.  So be it.)

Friday Night


When I got home, my boyfriend wasn’t there.  We was still out at the bar, finishing up country dancing and socializing afterward.  (Grr.  I called when I left the site to see where he was, but got no answer.  Would have liked to have had a beer and maybe even a last dance of the evening.)  When I got home, I had to sit down and crank out an event poster for a club I’m in (which I should have done the previous week, probably); this took about 90 minutes to do, so I didn’t get to bed until 12:30 am or so.

Saturday


Saturday didn’t start off on a good note.  The weather was clear and right around freezing, and I was riding my scooter (as I do year round unless I have to use the car).  Going up Columbia Drive, I hit black ice on a curving hill and went down.  Thankfully, I was wearing leather chaps (more for warmth than protection, I thought!), and since you slide on ice, I was physically reasonably okay, and with only a couple small scrapes on the chaps and jacket.  The scooter ended up with a bent right mirror (again), a bent right handlebar tip (again) which I now have to manually counter-turn to release the throttle, and the right front blinker stopped working (again, but has since come back; damaged connection, probably).  I quickly righted the scooter and got on my way again, and even made it to the Forum site on time.  But all day, I had pain in my left wrist (which I had sprained back in August), my neck, and my right shoulder.  (It took over a month for the shoulder to get back to normal.)

The amount of content for Saturday was a little better, maybe as much as double what there was on Friday (ooh, maybe 3 hours out of 13 this time!), two or three more concepts (“technology” — retch) useful for self-analysis and self-realization.  Stuff like the difference between what actually happened with an event and the stories we build around that, until we convince ourselves that the stories are what happened.  Again, nothing I hadn’t been exposed to before (and used for myself to some degree), just presented under a different name and with different intent.  Never hurts to revisit and reinforce good techniques, of course, and I figured I could at least get some value out of an otherwise lost weekend.

Of course, I still didn’t want to be there, so I was resistant and cynical and under-participative.  (This is what happens when you are cornered into attending something rather than wanting to do so, when there’s no “organic” reason for you to do it.)  Some of the other people were feeling similar, via the one-on-one discussions; one guy I was paired with after lunch apologized midway through that session and left the Forum.  (I can’t help but think that my own dismay pushed him over the edge.  And more power to him for leaving then; wish I had, since I might have avoided what was to come that evening.)

The late afternoon and evening portions were about 2/3 occupied with attendees on the mike, working out their problems in front of everyone else.  The format started to take on a “rubberneckers at the car wreck” feeling, as the person would say what they were going through, the presenter would twist it around, the person would refocus on some event from years ago (even childhood) that was holding them back, and then we’d have 20 minutes of stammering and flailing as the person tried to have a “breakthrough” to get past it, desperately wanting the presenter to actually guide and coach them, but she wouldn’t.  (Should wouldn’t explicitly, anyway.  I’m aware that she was coaching via very subtle guidance, but it felt agonizingly drawn out when you had to sit there and watch it happen.)  Sometimes, the “answer” was painfully obvious to us in the audience.

What was most amazing/appalling about these on-mike cases was the issues they brought up.  Marital separation and divorce showed up almost every time, along with references to childhood abuse, sexual abuse on a family member, and so on.  (One woman merely wanted to change careers and open a store, bless her.)  One guy had taken the Forum multiple times, trying to get past his issue; all I could think was “Guy, maybe you should see a therapist instead of taking this thing over and over.  It ain’t working for you.”  This repeated evidence of traumatic situations people were trying to deal with via the Forum served to reinforce the idea that there should be a genuine need to take the program, and thus wormed into me that I was somehow lacking because I didn’t have a personal tragic situation to compare.  Maybe that was why I was so disengaged from the Forum, and thus maybe I need to dig for one, even to potentially blow up a molehill into a mountain if that’s what it would take to feel like I really was supposed to be there.  (Yeah, let that idea sink in a while.  It will come up later.)

The other third of these afternoon and evening sessions was an increasing amount of “infomercial”, advertising Landmark’s other programs under the cover of describing how the presenter came to Landmark and how fantasticly kids and teens respond to the Forum, and so on.  Increasingly obvious advertising, to a cynic like me.

Saturday Night


Here’s where it gets hairy.


After the increased level of annoyance and anxiety I was having with the Forum, I really really needed something to clear my mind.  Some socialization that had nothing to do with (no discussion of) the Forum.  Some alcohol, to numb the brain.  Maybe some hot sex.

So what greets me when I get home at 10:30 that night?  My boyfriend, ready to go out for drinks?  Nope.  My boyfriend, looking sexy in leather gear with a bottle of beer in one hand and lube in the other?  Nope.  My boyfriend, in his PJs, in bed.  So much for anything of what I needed (wanted), I thought.  Could I have asked him to get dressed and go out for a beer with me?  Probably, but he tends to be very directed, so if he is in his PJs and in bed, he’s done for the night.

So I got undressed and went to bed, and lay there awake, unable to sleep, mulling over the Forum and how much I hated it and how much I wanted to just bag the whole thing and how that would let down my boyfriend’s faith in me and how not finishing the Forum would destroy our relationship and how I couldn’t bear to lose him and how I wanted to cry and how slitting my wrists to commit suicide would feel.

That’s right: I was so fucking upset that I considered killing myself.


Only for a couple minutes, but that’s a couple minutes that will stick with me for the rest of my life.  (As did the couple minutes where I considered that during my senior year of college, over 20 years ago.  Burns strong in the memory even now.)

Instead, I got up and went into the living room and read a couple comic books.  Couldn’t sleep.  Grabbed a blanket and curled up in a ball on the futon in the second bedroom.  Couldn’t sleep.  Got back in bed.  Couldn’t sleep.  Finally drifted off somewhere after 2:00 am.

No, I didn’t wake my boyfriend and talk all this through with him.  That’s not how I work (see above); I don’t say something until I’ve worked it out for myself.

Sunday


Despite my issues from Saturday night and ever increasing depression about the whole thing, I nonetheless dutifully went back on Sunday morning.

I’m sure it goes without question that I was inattentive, reluctant to fully participate and communicate, and so on.  And frankly, the Forum did nothing to improve on my attitude, since Sunday was even more content free, roughly a 50/50 split between infommercial advertising for their other programs (including pushes to sign up for the advanced class now, at a savings) and more rounds of people airing their personal disasters and personal breakthroughs at the mike for 30–45 minutes at a shot.

During the couple bits of one-on-one discussion with those next to us — to discuss our “homework” from the night before — I was pretty painfully honest about things that were going on with me, including the previous night’s suicide thoughts.  One of them asked my why I hadn’t just left, and another suggested that I should get up on the mike.  (Not on your fucking life!)

Self-Analysis


So why was I sticking it out?  Why was proceeding with this worth depression and contemplating suicide?

My conclusion is that one of the things that drives me in all facets of my life is “personal honor”.  That is, more than being right or being happy, what is important to me is my word that I will do something, see something through, complete something.  It doesn’t matter if it is something tiny or something grandiose, and it doesn’t really matter if anyone else thinks it is important or thinks I need to finish it.

Mind you, I don’t get fulfillment from finishing tasks and projects.  Nor do I get it from kudos about doing a good job.  What drives me is that I said I would do it.  Tasks can linger for months and years, but so long as I haven’t given up on them, then I haven’t failed.  (Someday, I will finish the next issue of that comics fanzine; the last issue came out in 1995 or so.)

I can see aspects of this in several places in my life, in things that I have tried to accomplish several times over the years, but never succeeded with — but because I am still trying, or still have it in my head to keep trying, I haven’t failed.  I just haven’t succeeded… yet.  (Yeah, I’m sure a therapist could have a field day with me.)

As an result of this, I will claw mightily to hang on to things I have taken on, even long past where anyone else thinks I should.  Letting go of things like this is very hard for me, although I’ve had some success over time in disposing of back-burner projects which I’ve eventually admitted I will never manage to deal with, and have managed to not feel that I’ve lost “honor” as a result of dropping the task.  (And I’ll also admit here, this was a useful bit from the Forum: admitting when “someday” really means “never” is a powerful tool.  Of course, again, I had hit upon the concept myself a while ago; the Forum merely reconfirmed it.)

In the case of something like this disastrous experience with the Landmark Forum, the real task is not finishing the Forum, it is finishing my promise to my boyfriend to do the Forum.  And that’s why I could not walk out: I would lose honor with myself by not fulfilling my promise to him, regardless of what his reaction might be.  (That’s also, perhaps, why I am reluctant to make “promises” to people.  Whether it’s “Promise me you’ll call” or “Promise me you’ll never embarrass me like that again”: I can’t make that promise.  If circumstances arise that cause such to fail, then no matter what the outcome to you or to us, I will have failed me, and that’s the worst thing that could occur.)

Anyway, back to the Forum…

Sunday Night


After the dinner break, previous graduates were invited to attend the evening session.  I guess this is so they can embrace your breakthrough, or so they can be there to support you in it and push you through (or in some cases, maybe just so they can see you haven’t wasted their money).  So my boyfriend met me for dinner, with the intent to attend the evening session with me.

Over Thai food, I let him know just how horrible of a time I had had, and how I had quietly seethed the previous night about him being ready for bed when I got home, and about the suicide contemplation, and a host of others things.  Several times I had to shut him down when he tried to defend his actions or downplay my concerns; this was my time to talk and no matter what he thought about the events, the “truth” I had to deal with was what I had to deal with.  Whether distorted in one way or another, my feelings had validity which had to get out so that they could then be dealt with.

Bless his heart, when we were done with dinner and heading back to the Forum, he told me I didn’t have to go through the rest of it, that he could see how depressed and angry I was, and that my attending the rest of the Forum that night (and on Tuesday) wasn’t going accomplish anything positive.

We then left and headed to the bar (actually, I headed to my office to pick up some work stuff and then met him at the bar), had a couple of beers, and went home.

Aftermath


The next two days (Monday and Tuesday), I called in sick to work.  I was still so wound tight and angry about the weekend that I didn’t trust myself to engage well with other people.  (Is that “playing hooky” or is it a “mental health” day?  I say the latter.)  And since some knew I was going to a weekend “conference”, I didn’t want anyone to ask me questions that I might end up having to answer, with all the emotions that would resurrect.

I have avoided talking further about my experience with the Forum with anyone other than my boyfriend, and not even with him since that Sunday.  I think he knows that it is a subject to avoid, big time.  It took a month for me to start writing this lengthy blog post, and over two weeks for me to write it, a section at a time.  And then another 6 weeks (including two weeks out of the country) to edit and revise it to where it will be able to be posted to the blog.  (I will eventually revise it again and put it up as a regular article on my website, and revise this blog post to be a pointer to that page.)

In late January, my boyfriend made a comment about someone opening up “possibilities” in his life (that’s a jargon term from the Forum), and I instantly bristled.  When I made an edge-tinged comment back about “Just don’t say it as ‘inventing possibilities’,” we almost had a little spat about whether I was “afraid” of the Forum, with him saying that he knew it wouldn’t work for me going in because I had made my mind up ahead of time.  (I stopped short of saying “Then why did you waste your money?”, but I sure thought it.  I wanted to add “And why did you put me through that?”, but that’s not completely fair; he didn’t envision quite the reaction I would have.)  Regardless, all hints of Landmark’s jargon and directions are obviously going to be very raw for me for months and maybe years to come — you don’t get past suicide thoughts just like that.  I think I’m going to have to develop protection modes to deal with it, like just leaving the room when subjects too close to that come up.  So yeah, maybe I am afraid: afraid that I will lash back at even reasonably innocent connections to Landmark that come up.  (In fact, I found myself doing that earlier today.  I read this article on ex-gay conversion therapy in the UK, and found myself getting irritated when I came to the last few paragraphs, as they hit too close to the experience I had with Landmark, with all the feelings of being inadequately fucked up that I got from doing the Forum.)

As noted or alluded to earlier, I will have taken away from this experience three things:
  • A refresher on some methods for examining how and why things go wrong, both for myself and for others, including some shorthhand terms for those methods.
  • An even deeper distrust for group programming, organized religion, and other programs which try to mold how people see themselves and the world.
  • Hopefully the ability to say “No, and fuck no!” when someone tries to badger me into doing something that I really don’t want to do and think may even be bad for me.

Is Landmark a Therapy Fad?


I encountered a fair number of gays and lesbians during the Forum, some solo and some couples.  As a rough measure, and since there were a lot of people I never interacted with at all, I would say that well over 10% of the attendees were queer, higher than random population sampling would lead to.  What would cause this?  Are queers just more fucked up than most people?

As I think back to the early 1990s in the San Francisco Bay Area, I remember that being in therapy was a huge fad at the time.  You just weren’t a full-fledged queer unless you were forking over money to someone once a week who was trained to ask you about your relationship with your parents and such.  At the time, my joking comment was “I already know I’m fucked up, I don’t need to pay someone to tell me,” but my real thought at the time was “I don’t think I have any problems that warrant seeing a therapist.”  My opinion in this matter hasn’t changed in the past nearly 20 years.

While that fad eventually went away, does this weighting of the attendees toward queers indicate that it’s either back or has shifted from solo therapy into group?  And does it imply an inherent searching for something on the part of queers — either searching for something to give meaning or explanation, or searching for something to “fix”?  Does it indicate something about gay culture that makes us into perpetual victims, where the more success the community has, the more individuals look to find something else to blame for holding us down?

(Now take that idea and run it through the sieves of women’s issues, black issues, or Jewish issues.)

Recommendations


As I said earlier, I’ve tried to be as fair as possible in this toward Landmark Education and their Forum workshop.  The bulk of the “blame” for my bad experience has to lie with me, with what I brought (or failed to bring) to the table and how I reacted to it.  I have no question that the Landmark Forum can have great value for some people.

(Then again, I also think that the concept behind ex-gay conversion therapy has value.  There unquestionably are people in the world for whom accepting homosexual urges at all, much less embracing them to partake of the “gay community”, is a mentally and spiritually “painful” concept.  Without judging those people and what causes the difficulties they have with that, counseling of varying degrees can be invaluable, and some of that counseling could and even should be on how to control those urges and move into a place when the mental and spiritual pain is minimized.  In other words, on how to not be gay.  God knows, if you don’t want to be gay, I don’t want you to be gay, either.  [fantasies about hot construction workers aside].  After the concept of such “counseling”, though, you get to the implementation of that counseling and therapy, and that’s where my support for the ex-gay concept goes away.)

(In no way am I saying that I equate Landmark to ex-gay conversion therapy, of course.  I’m only trying to connect the ideas that (a) there are people it is meant to serve and people it is not meant to serve, and (b) even for people it is meant to serve, how it is run may not be right for all people.)

At one point during the weekend, where they were suggesting that we invite friends and family to the Tuesday night final session/sales pitch (which is what it would have been, I’m sure), and my first thought was “There’s no one that I hate enough to wish this on.”  And then I thought of my ex.  (>ba-dump ching<)  More seriously, although that was at a point in the weekend where I was very angry and depressed, I was still able to think of the pieces where I saw value, and which people I knew who would probably thrive on the interactions with other people, the group sessions listening to others working through their problems, possibly the issues that I knew they had, and so on, and I could see the Landmark Forum (or similar series) being perhaps just the thing those people could use.  My ex is one such person.

But it’s 100% not for me.  I definitely won’t go out of my way to recommend it to anyone.  And I would strongly (strongly!) recommend going into it only with the belief that it can help you and with some idea of what it can help you with.



Updated on May 22, 2010
My boyfriend broke things off with me at the end of March, connecting with someone else, someone whom he said was more “emotionally available” and who could give him what he needs.  It’s hard not to think that my failure to complete the Landmark Forum played into this.

So maybe I need to change that title:
The Landmark Forum DID destroy my relationship!