Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Content Dump: Artists and Scammers

 Short and sweet post to dump some links to things I've written lately.

First, a brief profile / press release about watercolor artist Scott Campbell.  Scott made it onto my radar from Umbrella Academy, where he did a quick 8-panel illustration for a flashback scene.  The style of the scene immediately charmed me, and gave me an overwhelming sense of déjà vu for reasons I couldn't quiet put my finger on.


After a bit of research I discovered it was because I had seen the art style, after all.  Scott Campbell was one of the art directors for the video game Psychonauts, which I spent several years completely fixated on, and which was one of my first cosplays.  (I won't say which character but I think anyone who knows me can guess.)  To this day, I have Psychonauts camp patches stuck to my laptop bag, and a few purple arrowhead necklaces floating around the house.

The second article is simply a listicle of seven common Facebook scams.  I wrote it up because of the prevalence of these scams; I see them in the Umbrella Academy group I moderate and I see my less-savvy friends fall for them repeatedly.  (Shame me once...)

Things I'm looking forward to this coming month are happily offline events.  I'm vaxxed, waxed, and ready to get my social mingle on.  I got tickets for Labyrinth of Jareth, which unfortunately falls on the same weekend as DomCon.  I'd much prefer to go to the masquerade, though.  The week prior there's the first in-person LARP for my Vampire: The Masquerade group, so I can get some practice in on my costuming!

Also I'm happy to report that my friend who refused to get the vaccine (and personally insulted me in the process) is slowly coming around.  Our relationship remains rocky but we're speaking, and she told me she'd get the vaccine once it was fully FDA approved.  This gives me hope; I'm keeping my fingers crossed for her safety (and the safety of those around her).  

Anyway, my apologies for a lazy and phoned-in blog post, but it is very hot and I am very tired, and I have a backlog of commissions to work on.  So, blog, I will leave you with these pictures of my plants and of my son enjoying his first slice of pizza, and see you in another week or two, probably with my thoughts on how I hated the season 1 finale of Loki.

My desert rose is finally blooming!
 
 
New lizard!
 
Help me, I have too many not enough terraria!

Monday, July 19, 2021

Black Widow Review

As we move into July, things are getting sorta-kinda back to normal!

Being an extrovert with social anxiety makes the mathematics of social "value" complicated, but I'm pretty pleased with myself for finding the balance on either side of the equal sign. After the mess that was 2020, I've sworn I'll never take social outings for granted again.  (Prediction: this feeling will last less than two years.)

One of the things I've been looking forward to the most over the last few months was going to see a movie in theaters again.  Specifically, a Marvel movie!

Well, I went and saw Black Widow at the Alamo Drafthouse downtown with my friends.  We didn't cosplay this one, but the novelty of being back in a movie theater alone made it a wonderful time.

As far as the movie goes, I would give it a solid A- and say that while it's not in my top 5, it could probably snag #6 or #7 on my list of Marvel movies.

Read my review here.


 
Also, Black Widow had enough archery references to remind me to go try archery.  I got a recurve bow back in 2017 but had never used it, fearing failure.  Ryan took me out to the archery range and it turns out I'm not half bad!  Archery is a sport that is easy to learn but difficult to master, making it an incredibly fun sport!  A piece of advice, though: wear armguards.  
 
Nice tight cluster.

One week later, healing nicely.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

2021 Hobbies: Gains and Losses

2020 took its toll on just about everyone, but the fallout is still being felt in 2021.

One of the only good elements of the pandemic and the political upheaval was that it separated the wheat from the chaff in terms of what's worth expending mental energy on.

Being at home all the time allowed me to hone in on which hobbies and habits were the healthiest for me.  For example, I was able to lean in to my writing, particularly my fiction.  Andrew set up up a Fiverr account for commissioned fanfiction, which you can find here.


Another hobby I rediscovered a passion for was RedditGifts, which I'd been involved in since 2013 or 2014, but stopped participating in because of the new baby.

Sadly,  RedditGifts is going to wrap up (pun intended) this year.  I wrote an article about the significance of RedditGifts both within its community and for me personally, and what the "sunsetting" of RedditGifts will look like.  (See the link below.)

In a time when generosity is needed more than ever, I don't really fully understand why RedditGifts is being shuttered, but I have hopes that something new will rise from the ashes.  To be honest that's been my attitude toward most things over the last six months or so.  "I'm sure it will get better and this will act as a springboard for positive change."  2021 has truly been a year of silver linings and making-the-best-of-bad-situations.  

Well, at least it's not 2020, right?

Saying Goodbye to RedditGifts

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

90s Nostalgia: A Millennial Perspective

 One of the major defining traits of Millennials, I think, is the strong generational identity.  It's funny, if you think about it, because the rapidly changing cultural landscape means that not all Millennials can even relate to each other.  On the web, the lifespan of a single meme can be less than a week; trends are born and die in less than the span of a year; the shelf life of any aesthetic is brief.  And there's a huge divide between older and younger Millennials.

Nonetheless, the label of "Millennial" is a weighty one.

Here's some of the major things I think define Millennials, particularly older Millennials, the kind that grew up with AOL CDs and probably had to use a card catalogue at the library at some point:

  • Having used a floppy disk
  • Having had chicken pox (or known someone who had chicken pox)
  • The first, early wave of stupid electronic toy trends (Giga Pets, Furbies)
  • MECC games in school
  • Experiencing 9/11 as a child
  • Identifying "Boomers" as the "parent generation" that sees Millennials as children no matter what and resenting them for it with none of the no-fucks-given chill displayed by Gen X

And, most of all: 90s nostalgia.

I don't know what it is about the 90s that so enchants all Millennials.  I think a big part of it was the golden age of Nickelodeon.  I'm no exception to the 90s nostalgia, or the fond memories of Nickelodeon.  But not all Nickelodeon franchises live up to their reputation.  Some are decent (Are You Afraid of the Dark? holds up well, although the Wiki is a hot mess) while others are absolutely unwatchable (just try and get through an episode of All That without cringing into orbit).

Anyways, being a Millennial myself, I decided to revisit a couple of my favorite franchises and write an article on my discoveries.

First I took a look at the Klasky-Csupo studio (the one that brought us Rugrats and The Wild Thornberries), and discovered I have surprisingly strong opinions about their later work.  (Dear Klasky-Csupo: please stop rebooting Rugrats.)

The Klasky-Csupo Crossover No One Asked For

Next I compared two of the most "wholesome" Nicktoons, Doug and Hey Arnold!, both of which I didn't like much as a kid.  As an adult, one was worse than I remembered, and the other was far better.

Why "Doug" Is the Worst Nostalgic 90s Cartoon (and "Hey Arnold!" Is the Best)

I hope these two articles take you back, as they took me back, and give you a brief glimpse into some of the more meaningful aspects of the cartoons that no doubt affected the way the Millennial generation has processed the confusing history that's shaped it.

Monday, May 31, 2021

On the Razor's Edge Between Invincibility and Vulnerability Lies the Breathtaking Strength of Human Perseverance

As May draws to a close, I'm finding myself productive but dogged by a general malaise.  

All things considered, I should be happy, because there's a lot to be happy about and a lot to look forward to.  For example, I recently binged the show Invincible and absolutely LOVED it.  (It's not going to take over Umbrella Academy as my dysfunctional superhero show of choice, but it holds its own.)  I ended up buying all of the comics, which is over 3,000 pages (or, if you just want to measure compendium thickness, about six inches).

In fact I ended up writing a review I'm pretty proud of.  

Read my review of Invincible here!

I've been keeping up with my writing, mostly.  It's a hodge-podge of passion projects, e-mails with writing partners, reviews for the GGG website, and, of course, the occasional obligatory press release.

Like this one about Netflix's upcoming Geeked Week.

Writing aside, now that I'm fully vaccinated, my life is opening up again, allowing me to socialize with other vaccinated friends.  I reconnected with Benedetta from my journalism program, for example, and went to Kevin's birthday pool party.  I went with Jonny out to Johnny's bar (although, we sat on the patio; we're still too shy to actually eat indoors).  

I even went to Vegas with Chris and Tevin from the Dragon and Meeple.  While I was there, I visited Ekho and Ken, who I haven't seen in three years, since they moved to Nevada, and I'm eagerly looking forward to visiting them a second time before the year's end.

Since my birthday fell on Saturday and because I share that birthday with Tony Stark, naturally, I insisted on going to Marvel's STATION, which is located inside of the Treasure Island casino.  I even remembered to take pictures this time!  Here's a select few:


(Captain America's bike from Avengers: Age of Ultron.)

(Hawkeye, indisputably the best Avenger.)



So what's with this grey sense of dread looming over me?  I mean, I look happy in all of those photos.

I guess part of it is the awareness that what happened with my friend a few weeks ago has probably effectively terminated our 10-year friendship.  I'm really not sure how to come back from it.  Because she doesn't want to get vaccinated, I don't want to physically be around her.  More importantly, on an emotional and psychological level, her reaction implied a level of personal disrespect I really can't abide.  I've been trying to prune my friends down to only the best, which usually only means removing people from social media when their posts bother me.  But this is a real friendship and having it end so abruptly and cruelly has really done a number on me.

Aside from that I've felt a little overwhelmed with the house, because Calvin is fully mobile and so long as he is awake, I really can't get any work done.  


This means I only have about three hours in the course of the day to manage chores and writing.  It's cutting into my writing productivity severely and that's causing me a great deal of anxiety, since usually, I lean hard on my personal sense of fulfillment from creative work to put me in a good frame of mind.

I'm trying to balance out a lot of little things (personal finances, health, house management) and all those little things have left me wrung out.  (If only there were a metaphor for this, maybe one involving, I don't know, camels, and straw?)

(Oh, look, an Invincible meme.)

The anxiety from work is temporary, of course, because Calvin won't be a toddler forever.  But the disruption to a close friend could be, and it's also given me a deep sense of distrust toward all of my other friends, and doubt about what things I can rely on in my life.

I think this is one of those "the only way past is through" kind of situations, but I've always found those to be the most frustrating because I'm naturally very controlling in most aspects of my life and want to feel like I have power over future outcomes.  Alas, if there's anything 2020 taught us, it's that we're a lot less in control than we think we are.  And that the best way to come to terms with that isn't trying to forcibly wrest control from the universe but to come to terms with the things we can't change and make peace with them.

So, I'm trying to focus on the things I can control and let go of the rest, and, if I can't trust the world, to trust in my own ability to respond with grace to whatever it throws at me.

Friday, May 14, 2021

How Movements Gain Traction

 Today's post is the usual article dump.  (Links at the bottom of this post!)

One thing I'd like to emphasize, though, is that these two articles were pretty difficult to write.

One is about the history of Star Wars Day (aka, "May the Fourth Be With You"), a fan holiday that exploded in popularity and led to an actual, official holiday in the span of only a few decades, and the other is about a new cryptocurrency.  Now, I'm not a big fan of Star Wars (I've only seen the six "main" movies and none of the shows or new movies), and I'm also not very polished on what crypto is or how it works.


But that's not why it was hard to write these articles.  I did my research.  In fact, I put a lot of effort into these articles because of my lack of knowledge and interest for the subjects.  The result was, in my opinion, a couple of solid pieces about recently popular movements that have pretty fascinating backstories.

The reason it was hard for me to sit down and get it done was because one of my closest friends got radicalized into a totally unrecognizable person, and it's put me into a very bleak mood.  The last few weeks have had a gloomy shadow of depression over them that's made nearly every part of my life into a chore, even the parts I usually enjoy, like writing.

I'll make a long story short:

The friend in question (whose name I won't give on my blog) has been one of my best friends for about ten years and was in my wedding party.  She is like family and I love her.

I've been posting lots of pro-vaccination memes to my Facebook page, mostly because I just got my second shot and I'm excited about it.  (As of this post, I am pfully vaccinated.  That's a little vaccine pun for you.)

Anyways, out of nowhere, (or perhaps in response to all of my Facebook memes), my friend sent me and my husband an e-mail with a link to a full-length film called "Pushback: The Day The World Stood Together" with the note "All I ask is that you view it to get the other side [sic] view."

You can pretty much skip to any part of the film and find something to be offended by.  It's chock-full of anti-vaxx rhetoric founded on bad-faith arguments, misrepresentation, science denial, fear-mongering, and outright lies. The central thesis seems to be that "the government is trying to control us."  But it's also full of contradictions.  It's what I call a "scattershot" conspiracy, the kind where you can pick and choose what parts you like: maybe the pandemic is manufactured or was planned, or maybe it doesn't exist at all; maybe the vaccine was rushed or doesn't work or does work but with "side effects."  It's inconsistent fear-mongering designed to rope in the largest number of people possible.  Like a horoscope, it uses vague language to appeal to a large demographic who, if they are already inclined to believe it, can find a part to latch on to (and ignore the rest).

Adding insult to injury, both me and my partner are microbiologists, whereas our friend is in the entertainment industry, meaning she's potentially a super-spreader.

After she sent me this, I waited a few hours, then sent her back a very short and blunt e-mail telling her that it was dangerous propaganda, that it was harmful to vulnerable populations, that I personally was horrified by what I saw, and that I didn't think it was "another side" or a "difference of opinion" because it was outright science denial. I told her that, to me, science denial, like racism, is absolutely indefensible. It's a "hard limit." I can't abide it.

Her response was to delete me from her social media entirely and then e-mailed my partner (not me) that it had been nice knowing us

My partner e-mailed her back saying that, whatever I said that upset her, we're two separate people, so he would like if she didn't treat us as a single entity. Furthermore, he doesn't understand why she's severing such a close friendship without even picking up the phone to see if it can be salvaged. She replied back saying "Toni's mind is made up."

Fun fact about her using the feminized version of my name: it isn't even my birth name.  About a month ago I posted on Facebook that I'm a big enough person to admit that seeing my name misspelled as the feminine version is one of my absolute biggest pet peeves (and, frankly, insecurities), and that I take it very personally, especially on social media, where you can see how my name is spelled.

This was not a typo. She did it on purpose to be petty and hurtful.

She has never, ever been cruel to me.

My partner asked her several times if she would be willing to meet him in the park for coffee or something to try to talk things over, especially regarding this documentary.

Her response was, "On May 15th I'm going to a Pushback rally in Denver."

Not sure what she's pushing back again since, at the time I'm writing this, Los Angeles has opened back up and mask restrictions are being lifted in response to everyone getting vaccinated because it's the ethically correct thing to do.

She did eventually send me an e-mail stating her concerns over FDA approval and the idea that the vaccine is still being "tested."  I asked where she gets her news and she avoided answering, so I think her conspiracy-minded thinking goes deeper than she's willing to admit.  

"People have died from the vaccine," she stated.  Which is technically the truth, in the same way that people die from shark attacks and hang-gliding accidents, but she's one of those "I refuse to live my life in fear" folks and I feel like she should recognize that obviously, Covid has a MUCH higher death toll and long-term side effect issues than the vaccine does.

But it's not really about the vaccine.  It's about some personal sense of control and obstinate self-interest.  After all, if it were only about medical concerns, she could be convinced by talking to her two microbiologist friends.  If it were only about "side effects" she never would have made it personal.

I was hurt by her passive-aggressive remark and it's not for the reason she thinks.  It's not because I'm that upset that she misspelled my name.  It's that she did it out of anger, to hurt me.  That has nothing to do with the vaccine.

Anyway, I'm trying to keep my chin up and focus on the things in my life within my control.  

And so, to that end, here are two articles I wrote recently:

 The History of Star Wars Day

Chain Cryptocurrency: Integrating Crypto with Gaming

Thursday, April 22, 2021

WonderCon Coverage

Well, there's finally some light at the end of the tunnel.  I got my first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, and I'm so relieved to finally be protected.  It's been over a year and it's been an absolute drag staying home from everything.

One of the things I miss most is Comic Cons.  In previous years I attended a couple a year, wearing multiple cosplays during the course of the weekend.  I've got my fingers crossed for a possible in-person Los Angeles Comic Con, and I'm working on a few outfits for it.

I assume that's what the stimmy checks were for... right? 

Anyway, in the meantime, Cons have gone virtual, and I got a press pass for WonderCon, which was awesome but also very strange because since everything was online the press pass didn't do anything much, aside from motivate me to write a number of articles covering WonderCon.

So, for my writing this April, I humbly present the WonderCon preview article and the WonderCon after-summary article I wrote, along with two more articles on a couple of my favorite panels:  

None of these articles are necessarily my best work but I still felt proud just to get them out, because this month, all of the isolation of the last year finally caught up with me and I got into a really bad depressive slump.  I ended up back on my anti-depressants (boo!) but hopefully this is only temporary.  Like I said, there's some light at the end of the tunnel.

I've had a few private writing commissions and have been readying my newest cosplay, which is a WWII-era sergeant's uniform that will double as a pre-Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes as well as my Vampire: The Masquerade character, James "Dapper Jimmy" Donahue.  I've been LARPing with a group for a year on Discord but it's just not the same as getting to dress up and go out.

The main thing is to maintain momentum with regards to my writing and my other hobbies.  In that sense I think I'm doing okay.  This is doubly hard not just because of the pandemic but because of a very, very mobile toddler.

By next month I'll be fully vaccinated and so I'm hoping to have a semi-normal birthday in May.  Fingers crossed.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Enjoy "Poison Gardens" At Your Own Risk

Any formatting errors on this blog are my own.

Recently I’ve seen a fair number of posts circulating on social media, alongside articles like this one, about the Alnwick Poison Garden. Filled with 100+ toxic plants, the entrance of this garden is flanked with enormous black iron gates decorated with skulls and crossbones, and a dire warning to any who are entering it on one of the guided tours. The Alnwick Poison Garden, located at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, England, was a filming location for the first two Harry Potter films, and brings in over 800,000 visitors a year.

Sounds awesome, right? Maybe in concept. But “poison gardens” have long been a thorn in my side (sorry for the gardening pun), and it’s time we talked about them. 

Here’s the reality: a so-called “poison garden” is basically a haunted house for people who are really into cottagecore.

First of all, let’s be clear about the “history” of the Alnwick poison garden. Conceptualized in 1995, it was officially open in 2005. Supposedly, the duchess was inspired after a trip to Italy, where she viewed the Medici poison garden. But the Medicis didn’t have a “poison garden.” They had a regular garden whose main purpose was to create compounds for perfumes. Planted by Catherine de Medici, the garden got its sinister reputation from the French, who viewed Catherine (an Italian) with suspicion and thought she engaged in witchcraft. Their evidence of this came, in part, from her perfume garden.

Like all gardens, the so-called “poison gardens” of today are not some kooky, insidious medieval garden that a court wizard designed to usurp the king in a convoluted, Disney-esque plot to rise to power. Which is not to say gardens in medieval times wouldn’t have included narcotics and herbs to be used for medicinal purposes. But the Alnwick garden doesn’t resemble what a medieval herb garden would look like. Sure, it has opium poppies, and belladonna, both items traditionally used for pain relief and cosmetic purposes. But other medicinals, like St. John’s Wort and witch hazel, are absent. And many of the garden’s “poisonous” plants include ones that aren’t actually poisonous at all except under specific circumstances. For example, the castor plant (which can be found at Alnwick) is a source of the deadly poison ricin, but also the source of harmless castor oil. And rhubarb (a plant you probably associate with pies and which cannot be found at Alnwick) has poisonous leaves.

Some of the plants at Alnwick are pitifully common, including foxglove, hemlock, and laburnum.

 Purple foxglove can be seen on the left, or in your Grandma's flowerbeds, probably.

Oh, the garden also includes cannabis. Whether or not D.A.R.E. was involved in the planting of that one, we can’t say, but it explains why all the tours are guided. Don’t want any 13-yr-olds plucking “souvenirs.” (As an aside, the Alnwick Garden is quite proud of its “drug education” angle. It also grows coca, from which cocaine is derived.)  

 If you want to see a marijuana plant outside of a cage, just go look in your Uncle Roy's garage.

What the garden fails to accurately represent is just how many plants are poisonous. It’s somewhere between “most” and “all.” If you have houseplants, you might very well be keeping a poisonous plant yourself without even realizing it. Some examples of outrageously popular, and outrageously toxic, household plants include peace lilies, pothos, and caladium. If you’re an outdoor gardener, you might have oleander, or azalea bushes (they famously killed Sparky!). In my own home, my two prized plants are both toxic. One is a 30-year-old croton, whose leaves can cause vomiting and diarrhea, and the other is gout stick. You’ll note that it has a whole subsection on Wikipedia about its toxicity, including the line, “...ingesting as few as three untreated seeds can be fatal to humans.” I got it at Lowe’s for seven or eight dollars and it hangs out on my front porch, popping off three seeds every 90 days or so, doing its plant thing with a total disregard for whether or not it might end up killing Sparky.

Ultimately, if you take away the gate, then the Alnwick Garden looks pretty much like a normal garden. This is great marketing. Whenever people talk about the "poison garden" they always share pictures of the gate or of the little plaques next to the plants, not the garden itself, because the truth is, a lot of poisonous plants look benign or unremarkable, which is why you should never eat a plant if you aren't 100% CERTAIN about what that plant is.

 

"Don't tear up the garden" is good advice for any garden, really.

And despite the intrigue that surrounds Alnwick, it’s by no means the only so-called "poison" garden. There's one at Blarney Castle and, arguably, one on my front porch. Alnwick is mostly unique because of its creepy black iron gates.

Like a haunted house, poison gardens sacrifice authenticity for spooky, over-the-top camp. And that’s a shame, because plants don’t have to be deadly to be interesting. There are some plants with truly fascinating properties (for example, giant hogweed) and wild histories (saffron, for one), and the garden could have opted to focus on and promote that instead of going for the more shallow and less accurate “dEaDLy tOxiNs!” angle. (A note: the garden does, in fact, have giant hogweed, one of its lesser-loved plants. Unlike the marijuana, it isn’t kept in a cage, though it probably should be.) 


This is an actual gardener working with hogweed.

The most groan-worthy part of the Alnwick poison garden marketing comes from its own website: “Visitors are strictly prohibited from smelling, touching, or tasting any plants, although some people still occasionally faint from inhaling toxic fumes while walking in the garden.” First of all, you are typically prohibited from touching or tasting plants in a botanical garden. Second of all, what “fumes?” Do they have a Gasoline Tree? I’m curious which particular plant or fume is causing people to pass out. Third, how is it that these potent toxic fumes are remaining within the confines of the gate in an outdoor, open-air garden? It’s remarkably telling that to enter this oh-so-dangerous area, it requires no health waiver whatsoever, and costs £13.00 (£5.00 for kids).

Now, all this isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t enjoy a poison garden. It’s just that the whimsical over-dramatization of the poison garden comes at the cost of actual education. If you’re botanically inclined, I implore you - stop pitching the concept of a “poison garden” and start pitching the concept of simply, “a garden.” Putting a black metal gate covered in crossbones over the garden is appealing only in the shallowest of senses. The plants behind it bear interesting and complex narratives. If you’re someone with an interest in botany, do yourself a favor; take “poison garden” history with a grain of salt, and do some additional research. As is the case with many tourist traps, the most insidious element of a poison garden is probably the gift shop prices, and the true history is far more nuanced.


All gardens are hardcore.  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise!

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Seven Questions for an Artist in Lockdown: How EDM Duo “Little Big Monsters” Exemplifies the Need for Creativity in Times of Conflict

For three decades, the duo Daft Punk was a household name for the genre of EDM, producing hits like “Get Lucky,” “One More Time,”  and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.”  Their announcement that they were breaking up in February 2021 felt like yet another devastating cultural loss in the midst of the current pandemic.

But from the shadows, other duos sit poised to take on the Daft Punk mantle, to fill the vacuum they’ve created.  Daft Punk hasn’t released an album in eight years; perhaps it was time for them to move aside for other artists to help the genre of electronic music continue to evolve.

What does artistic evolution mean in a time when the artists themselves can’t even leave the house?

I sat down with one of the Daft Punk legacy hopefuls, James Patton, member of the emerging EDM collaboration Little Big Monsters, and head singer of Brazilian alternative rock band Clashing Clouds.  Along with lead guitarist Bruno Menescal, James has big ideas for what’s next for electronic music.  More importantly, he shared his vision of inspiration, production, and creativity in the time of lockdown.

This is the story of an artist’s journey to evolve in a time when much of the world has come to a grinding halt.

 

James, left, and Bruno, right.

Q:  So, tell me about Little Big Monsters.  What’s the story behind this collaboration?

A:  When the pandemic struck, like everybody else, we were shocked, and had to put everything on hold.  Me and the leading guitar player, [Bruno], who is a very good friend of mine, decided to keep on making music remotely.  When we started, we were just joking around.  We are big fans of the eighties and nineties, and we were messing around with that aesthetic.  But then it started to shape up and we ended up with some songs we actually believed in.  We decided to push it forward.

Little Big Monsters is made up of me and Bruno [the lead guitarist of Clashing Clouds].  But we also have a really good producer behind us from Dubai, Rami.  And we also have this ghost singer who will appear in a few songs, called Ventura.  Ventura is just basically… a ghostly member.  It has no gender, no face, it’s just someone that’s going to be singing with me, mysteriously, like from the shadows.

I’ll be very honest with you about Ventura: life is crazy.  My life is like a cartoon.  Crazy things happen all the time and I gave up trying to control how they happen.  I just go with the flow.  There was a song, one specific song, that I liked a lot.  Bruno wrote the guitar line and I was listening trying to come up with lyrics, or a melody, and I couldn’t.  I got stuck.  I had a bassline and the synthesizer.  It was a beautiful song, but with no lyrics, and I could not get through to them.  So I decided to look up people who could sing.  I sent it to a few people and Ventura was one of them.  Ventura sent me back lyrics an hour later.  And I had this beautiful, beautiful song.  It wasn’t me singing, but I didn’t care.  I just wanted this song to exist.  That was enough.  That’s how Ventura came on, and how Little Big Monsters started.

I’ve always wanted to have an electronic music project.  I was just not skilled enough to do it.  I needed time, and I needed a reason.  And then the pandemic struck and I was unemployed, stuck at home with my computer, so I was like… time’s now.  If I didn’t do it, I would go crazy.  So it was a therapy and at the same time a project.  I was like, “Man, I’m making songs every day, and they don’t make any sense if they stay in this computer.  I have to put them out there.”

When James discusses working with others, his features become more animated.  Always quick with self-deprecating quips, he is equally generous with compliments.  He describes, without hesitation, his collaboration partner Bruno as “angelic,” his guitar riffs “beautiful.”  Unsure of whether to call themselves a duo or a band, he eventually settles on calling them a “team,” including Ventura and the producer.  He praises Ventura’s voice and lyrics, even suggesting a hint of good-natured jealousy.  There’s an almost desperate, eager need to connect with others, and this need is easy to trace back to the fact that James has been living in quarantine since the start of the pandemic.  He has not seen Bruno physically in over twelve months.

Q:  Where did the name Little Big Monsters come from?

A:  The name came way after we already had the project.  We talk a lot about issues we all go through, like sexuality, social phobias, social pressures… and anxiety.  I would say that’s the root of everything we talk about, because that’s the life we have, you know?  We kind of orbit around anxiety issues: what causes them, and what makes them worse.  And “little big monsters” is kind of like a joke.  When we have to explain what we go through on a daily basis, it may seem like a little thing, but it’s actually kind of huge to us, personally.  There’s a difficulty, a dichotomy, we have in explaining to others what we’re going through and how we feel, when they haven’t gone through something similar, because they don’t have our frame of reference.

Q:  What’s your experience of being an artist during lockdown?  How does being in quarantine affect your process?

A: Oh my God, if you were to open the Google Drive between me and Bruno, you would be amazed.  Every time we have an idea we just drop it in the Google Drive.  We kind of work on each other’s pieces and - it’s like creative spam!  In a week, we can put down ten or more different ideas.  Sometimes just a riff, sometimes a full song with lyrics, bassline, drums, everything.  And sometimes I listen to them and I’m like, “Okay, from the ten songs you put out there, I like this one.”  That’s how we filter ourselves.

I give full freedom to the others to work with me on the songs.  I say, “Whatever comes to your mind, just give it a try.  If you can come up with something good, just let me know.”  And I’ve been surprised - no, not just surprised.  Overwhelmed.  I was listening to Ventura’s lyrics, and I was like, I can’t believe it, this is really, really cool.  It was almost like a religious experience… an epiphany.  It’s magical.  It fills you up with something.

Something that would take nine months can now take just two weeks.  We’re actually making more progress in this situation than we were with the band, back when we were actually seeing each other and practicing every week.

I’m having a lot of fun moving this project forward, because it’s a new situation, mainly because we’re doing everything remotely.  Look - I’m a poor Brazilian guy, and I don’t have a lot of resources.  I have friends who have amazing home studios and everything.  But all I’ve got is a microphone, that’s this baby here. [He holds up his “babies” one by one for me to see.]  It’s faulty but it works.  And I’ve got my headphones, a recorder, and my old PC.  So… That’s pretty much it.  I’ve got my guitar, a couple of acoustic guitars, and they’re not very expensive.  But the thing is - it may sound like a dreamy thing to say, but - if you want to do something, if you’re passionate about something, you’ll face limitations like everybody else, but you can get by.  You can get around with creative solutions.  I record everything at home.  Obviously, the sound isn’t as good as it would be in a studio.  But that’s not what I’m aiming for right now.  I don’t need brilliant quality or technical beauty.  I just need the song.  And the song can be made this way.  So that’s what we’re going for.

James’s vision for Little Big Monsters is a 12-song album made up of 2 serialized EP releases.  When I ask about performing the songs live, he eagerly describes his experiences both performing with Clashing Clouds, and enjoying the musical performances of others, mentioning Radiohead, Kin, The Cure, and of course, Daft Punk.  His excitement over the idea of performing Little Big Monsters’ dance music with a full, live band turns morose when he realizes it’s only a dream.  But he catches himself.  His dreams, he says, “are plans, too.”  He sees lockdown as a time to shore up one’s ideas, with the intention of having them ready to go when quarantine finally ends.  He firmly believes in being patient because he thinks the payoff is just over the horizon; he thinks there’s a new world ahead of us, and that things will change.  For the better.

The delightful contrast between his stubborn optimism and personal frustrations and anxieties while in lockdown feels like someone personified lockdown and put eyeliner on it.  Despite not being able to leave the house for a year, James is still made up like a rockstar, something he’s clearly doing just for himself.  And perhaps to maintain his creative mindset.

 

In the background, guitars and fairy lights create a musical ambiance in a bedroom-turned-music studio.

Q:  Let’s get specific for a moment about the music.  What’s your favorite lyric and what does it mean to you?

A:  There’s a song called “Dear Brain.”  That’s the second song to be released.  I would say by the beginning of April,  maybe the end of March.  It’s a song that tackles anxiety.  I’ve been dealing with anxiety for the past twenty years.  The chorus goes like, “Dear Brain, what’s with you?  What’s the deuce when I can’t let you loose for a sec?  Who are you with?  Can you just shut the fuck up and put me to rest?”  It’s the feeling I have every day when I go to bed, if I don’t have medication.  I don’t even remember what it feels like to sleep normally, something that people take for granted.  The whole world, they sleep.  And I can’t.  And the song is about that.  Whenever I try to fall asleep, to take a nap, I have a panic attack and it hurts me, physically… it’s hard to explain, even for me.  But the song is very meaningful to me because I think it’s quite relatable to people that suffer from that.

And also, the thing is - well - that’s - it’s just - [stammering].  The song is kind of hard to talk about actually.  I didn’t realize that until now.  The reason it is personal is because a lot of people go through something like this, and I’m pretty sure you can relate to something you’ve been through.  Because it’s about how the world sees you.  And it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to suffer from anxiety to identify with the song.  The song is about having issues the world doesn’t understand.  How the world minimizes things that are actually huge, to us personally… you know, little big monsters.

What you might find striking, after hearing all this, is that we have a lot of vibey, dancey songs.  We have this concept that I came up with Rami, the producer: a heaven and hell theme.  We’ll release a “heaven” song, and then a “hell” song.  But I’ll give you a spoiler: we’re never talking about heaven.  [laughs]  It may sound happy, yeah, but in general it’s not.  Not that we’re pessimistic, but we like the idea of embracing the problems so that we can get over them.  I don’t see a reason to be overly happy.  2020 was a freaking hard year.  I wouldn’t be able to write anything happy.  So the best thing, I think, was to write songs about your wishes but not necessarily [set to] dark or sad tunes.  We have the heaven songs and the hell songs, and they’re the same songs.

“Dear Brain” is very modern-sounding.  We jokingly call it “Tim Burton track” music.  You have a kind of a dark, eerie, somber sound to a very modern beat.  And the lyrics are very straight-forward.  There’s no in-between.  It’s just - we’re talking about shit, real shit.  You hear it, and you know it.  There’s no need for interpretation.

Sometimes the songs come out fully formed.  Like “Dear Brain,” for instance.  It felt like I was just venting out, honestly.  And obviously there are minor technical corrections to be made.  But we don’t change things due to aesthetics.  If we change something, it’s because of the information contained in that material, to make it more specific or direct or poetic.  We’ll never change something because people might not like what we’re saying.  I don’t care.  Honestly.  Sincerity above everything.  If it wasn’t like that, why would I bother making it anyway?

James grows surprisingly open with me in the course of our interview about the “little big monsters” that he personally faces.  All of them - insomnia, anxiety, an abusive past with his father - have clearly grown with him in quarantine.  Now too big for the small home he’s trapped in, he’s chosen to face those monsters through his music.  Daft Punk, he says, took the genre of EDM and breathed a new life into it.  He hopes Little Big Monsters can do something similar.  Artists in 2020, he notes, are operating under unique circumstances and facing unrelatable challenges, which in turn may seed exciting new developments… in every genre.  He acknowledges that many of the conflicts of 2020 as well as the technical challenges of production may cast a shadow over the art itself.  Nonetheless, he feels every cloud has a silver lining, and that it would be an oversimplification to call something purely “good” or purely “bad.”  This is, in so many words, the “heaven and hell” theory he and Rami came up with when they discussed their release schedule.

Q:  Are any of these darker issues difficult to talk about in the songs?

A:  There is one song specifically, called “Scarecrow,” that I had a hard time with.  I was kind of depressed for a while.  But it was a temporary thing, because it was like a healing process in the relationship I have with my dad.  And the song is ultimately about him.  I had an abusive father when I was a child, and I still have my dad.  We’re actually living in the same house, which is insane, but due to the Covid situation, I decided to stay with him.  We’re a very small group, just me and my mom and my dad, and I want to be around, you know, just to make sure everything is okay.  And I could never actually talk to my father about my childhood.  I just can’t.  So the way I found to actually forgive him for the things he’d done was by writing this song.  It was a very complicated thing to write, but I felt like I needed it, and I wanted it.  I felt that somehow, maybe some people out there go through the same thing, and they probably have the same problem I have: a hard time in actually facing that person.  It gets to a point where you wouldn’t want to have this old man feeling guilty for something he had done, and something I’ve already gotten over.  I don’t want to cause more pain.  I have to stop that cycle.  But I don’t want to be left with this grudge, this heavy feeling on me, either.  So I talked it into the song and I was relieved.  I was free from it.  It was a very rewarding experience.  It was painful but it worked.

Working on these songs can be difficult because I'm not only a perfectionist, but also struggle with self-esteem issues and stuff.  You know, everybody does to a certain extent, and I have a very hard time finding the stuff I make actually good enough.  And the fact that I have people like Bruno by my side helps me a lot because I trust him.  He’s like a brother.  And we are very different.  I consider him to be a person I can sort of outsource my criticism to.  If he says it’s good, I might not think that, but I’ll go with him.  If it was up to me I never would have released anything because I would hate everything.

We have one song that talks about love, but it’s about the feeling I’ve had, and Bruno, that we’ve all had during the pandemic, being away from the things and the people that we love but knowing that we’re going to meet soon enough.  Sooner or later.  That’s even the name of the song, by the way.

And it’s about self-esteem too.  By being stuck here, in this lack of social life that we’re enduring right now, it’s taking a toll on a lot of people and undermining their self-esteem.  I’ve seen a lot of friends get depressed, and every day there are more complaints and more people are feeling like shit.  And this song was just a message to basically tell people the concept that… well, “Life is beautiful and so are you.  And sooner or later, I’ll get to you.”  This is a message I would like to send all my friends and to everyone out there.  And it may be taken as a love song, even though it’s more of a general idea on loving.  Not love.  You know?  It’s a broader vision.

 

Despite the fact that no one can see him sing, James still dresses the part to help him get in the mood to create music.

Q:  Are all the songs in English?

A:  Yeah.  So far. [laughs]  There’s a reason for it, though, actually.  I told you, I’m a poor guy in Brazil, so why the hell am I writing songs in English?  That’s kind of weird.  But basically, when I started working at18, I met this Irish guy and he invited me to work in this pub.  His pub was basically the pub, and himself.  So he needed to take some time off, so he was looking for someone to mind the pub.  I didn’t speak any English back then, just a few broken words.  By being there, at that point, all my life experience was based on being around the places I grew up, the favela.  I’m not saying that favela people are small-minded but we are kind of encapsulated in this ecosystem of the favela itself.  And just like the people in any other country, I think, poor people, we’re trained to think there is a limit.  You can only go so far.  And then all of the sudden I was there in the middle of a bunch of foreigners and I had to make an effort to learn the language so I could speak to them, and I was learning about new cultures and that’s when I actually started learning about music in a different way.  And I was introduced to so many different bands and so many different genres.  I was just like, blown away.  I didn’t even know those things existed.  And they were accessible.  And since most of my musical culture originates from this experience, I believe I naturally grew with the idea that the music in my head is connected to English language.  Not saying that I wouldn’t want or am not able to write stuff in Portuguese; I just don’t feel that’s my thing.

Waxing philosophical, James comes to the conclusion that his music - and, indeed, the art made by all artists - can be traced back to a need to express one’s feelings to a broad audience, to connect with them.  When the project began, he described it as heavy.  Working with others, he feels that some of the heaviness has lifted… both emotionally, and literally.  Bruno was a breath of fresh air to his darker ideas, giving the music a lighter touch.  Now, it’s coming together as a 12-song album designed to explore the human psyche in a relatable way, set to a poppy baseline, dreamy guitar riffs, and ‘80s-inspired synthesizers.

I didn’t want to have a dark, weird, sick project,” he confesses at one point, but admits that this is easier said than done.  Psychological issues can’t be run away from, and he finds himself unable to describe any reality other than his own.  Being isolated from his bandmates has emphasized his need for them.  Working with others, even remotely, has offered him a new perspective.  Ultimately, quarantine has underscored his need as an artist to create art, as well as his need to have the art consumed, critiqued, related to, and interpreted by others.  This rings true of all creative types, he thinks; art is a way of expressing oneself, and shaping issues into manageable, bite-sized pieces.

Our interview ended on a note of hopefulness.

Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to tell people about your project before they listen to it, or any words or wisdom you have for other artists who are struggling to produce while in lockdown?

A:  No matter how small you think you are, no matter how poor or broken or limited you are, you have to remember that those thoughts are not necessarily compatible with reality.  You can do pretty much anything you want with your life, and you’re free to choose.  You don’t have to follow any standards that the establishment tells you to follow just because, you know?  You have to question things.  And you have to do what’s better, what’s best for you, and believe in yourself… I don’t want to be cheesy and be like, “Just follow your dreams, honey, and everything will be fine.”  No, it’s not like that at all.  You have to acknowledge and know who you are, know your issues, and embrace them.  Don’t fight them.  Embrace those issues and understand why, the mechanisms and dynamics of them, so that you can actually really deeply know who you are, the flawed self you have.  Like I’m flawed, we are all flawed, there’s no such a thing as the image people sell: always happy, always perfect.  Those internet coaches telling people that everything is fine if you think or meditate - fuck that shit!  It’s not like that at all.

But.  What I’m telling you, it sounds dark but it is not, is that it’s okay to be sad.  It is okay to feel hurt.  You have to feel hurt to grow out of it.  If I could summarize everything I’ve just said in one single phrase, it would be: It is okay to be sad.  As long as you know that, then, that’s when you start getting out of it, and that’s when you know the path to your own happiness.

In the course of our hour-long conversations, James never stopped smiling.  It was an impish sort of grin, and it broadened when he spoke about his influences and his bandmates.  He also spent the whole time chain-smoking.  In some ways, he struck me as a manifestation of his music: both light and dark, anxious and hopeful… heaven and hell.  The oxymoron in the name of his collaboration, “little” and “big,” became apparent to me as we spoke.  Little hurdles can be made bigger and seem insurmountable, while at the same time, big ones can be made little.

The central takeaway from our talk was that, from conflict, passionate, meaningful art can emerge.  Everyone has monsters… but in taming them, harnessing them, and training them, they emerge as something beautiful.  Big monsters can be made little, even cute, helpful, or inspiring; big monsters carry a bold message, and translated, that message can say something truly meaningful.

Preview a rough copy of the first song by Little Big Monsters for free on Spotify, and follow their Instagram here.  

The official release is scheduled for March.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Phase 4 is Awesome So Far: Recap of Falcon and the Winter Soldider Trailer

I've been a fan of Marvel for decades, and it really is the gift that keeps on giving!  WandaVision has blown me away; it took two characters I didn't care much about and it really fleshed them out (or, in Vision's case, synthezoided them out).

As WandaVision wraps up next month, Falcon and the Winter Soldier will take its place.  A new trailer was released during halftime at the Super Bowl last week.  I'm tentatively excited, although it seems more action-based than psychology-based.  The inner workings of Bucky Barnes is definitely one of my favorite tropes to explore.  Also, Sam Wilson, brilliant counselor, continues to troll Bucky for some reason.

Nonetheless I'm excited and I wrote a quick little recap of the trailer, which you can read here (and watch the trailer for yourself!)  If Falcon and the Winter Soldier is half as good as WandaVision has been, I am THERE for it!

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Heraldry and Coats-of-Arms

I recently wrote an article analyzing the meaning behind the Umbrella Academy's coat of arms through the lens of medieval heraldry.

Read it here: What Medieval Heraldry Tells Us About the Umbrella Academy and the Sparrow Academy!

I don't have much more to say because I recently cut the tip of my thumb off while mincing ginger.  Ginger is only one letter removed from "finger," has the precise consistency of a human finger, and comes in units called "thumbs," so really, I should have been more wary.  But although typing is prohibitively difficult at the moment I wanted to write a brief note on heraldry.

Heraldry has been an interest of mine for a while, probably because my own family has a coat of arms, including a crest and a motto.

The blazon of our arms is sable, two pales argent, or chief, as seen below:


The crest on top is a vert cockatrice, representing invincibility in combat, and our motto is "Dum Spiro spero," meaning, "while I breathe, I hope."  It would be easy to interpret this as a hokey "live, laugh, love" kind of phrase, but when taken in context with the aggressive military signaling of the blazon and crest, it's meant to be interpreted as more like,  "you'd better hope I'm dead or I'm gonna keep going."

(This is actually pretty much the meaning behind all Irish mottos, though.)

Friday, January 22, 2021

WandaVision, the first canonical TV series in the MCU, strikes gold!

Hello, blog!  Two days ago, we said good-bye to the Trump administration and hello to Joe Biden.  I don't want to get my hopes too high, so I won't, but I will say that I feel a deep sense of relief that we experienced a peaceful transfer of power (January 6th insurrection notwithstanding) and that things can hopefully not get worse.

On the negative side, my Anxious Knitting™ productivity has severely decreased.  I guess I'll have to wait for another fascist leader before I can finish this afghan.

My writing has been wholly unaffected.  I'm currently sitting on a few commissions, and still writing weekly spots for the Grand Geek Gathering.

My latest post there is about how WandaVision, the new Disney+ Marvel series, ties into the comic line "House of M," with a broad look at some of the Easter eggs and hints within the series.

You can read the article here.

Special personal blog bonus: this may be a stretch so I didn't include it in the article, but if one checks all of the watch faces in the first episodes, one might possibly be getting a hint at the eventual introduction to mutants in the MCU!


A new episode of WandaVision is on today and I'm looking forward to is, as I am looking forward to many things this year.  (I'm taking juggling lessons!)

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

2021 Offers Hope (and Streaming Services)

 Happy 2021, blog!

While many have scoffed at the idea that this year will be better, I truly believe it will.  (It could hardly be worse than the dumpster fire that was 2020.)

I'm looking forward to ongoing writing projects, an end to the Trump presidency, a Covid-19 vaccine roll-out, and a couple of really great new Marvel shows coming out.  In the meantime, I recently finished Pixar's latest movie, Soul, and wrote a quick little article about its mechanics and plotholes.

Check it out here!