Hereditary fails by throwing away its own past

SPOILERS FOLLOW.

SERIOUSLY.

People are describing Hereditary as one of the most terrifying movies of all time. I’d say they’re three-quarters correct, in that the first three quarters of the movie were indeed pretty damned unnerving. But then it all fell apart in the last half hour.

For the first hour of so of the movie, most of the tension is derived from having long bouts of nothing in particular going on, punctuated by a tragic and gruesome death. There are hints about spiritualism and a few very slightly creepy elements, but most of the tension comes from the family drama, which is played straight and is both involving and harrowing, and from knowing that bad things are coming (you bought a ticket for a horror movie, after all), but not knowing when or how they will arrive.

Now, this is a horror movie and it works on standard horror logic, which is that the little bad things are just signs or intimations of the Big Bad Thing that will be revealed at the end. For a while, it seems like the Big Bad Thing will be a ghost or a demon. That’s a legitimately creepy possibility, but about halfway through the movie it’s revealed that ghosts at least are already in play. I was too invested at that point to consciously realize it, but in hindsight it’s pretty obvious than anything that’s confirmed halfway through the movie can’t be the Big Bad Thing.

(Unless the point is to fight the Big Bad Thing, at which point, eh, it’s a supernatural combat movie, not a horror movie. Fighting back implies hope, which is the opposite of horror.)

Then there’s the reveal that one of the characters is prone to sleepwalking and sometimes does some potentially awful and dangerous stuff while sleepwalking. I have been around someone who sometimes sleepwalked and would do completely inexplicable things while sleepwalking, and that is also really, truly unnerving. It’s creepy because it sends two questions crawling around the back of your mind: “What might I have done in my sleep without knowing it?”and “What might the people I live with get up to when I’m asleep and they’re supposed to be asleep – but aren’t?”

But then at the end a bunch of previously minor threads come together and it turns out that there is a cult of spiritualists who have been working for some time, Bene-Gesserit-style, to bring forth a demon and assist it in possessing the body of the one of the (few surviving) main characters. Maybe some people found this terrifying, but for me it was a big letdown. For one thing, a lot of the stuff from the very interesting and unnerving first half of the movie simply has no payoff. The family drama basically evaporates as characters are alternatively killed or possessed. Throughout the first half of the movie, a repetitive foreground element is that the mom makes creepy little dioramas as a professional artist, and her daughter makes creepy little found-object dolls (either for fun, or as an aspiring artist – it’s not made clear). There’s loads of potential there, but it doesn’t really come to much, other than one of the daughter’s creations kinda-sorta prefiguring a human tragedy.

So most of the stuff that got me intrigued and engaged in the first half of the movie doesn’t end up driving the plot at the end, and instead we’ve got a coven summoning a demon. And that’s the other reason I felt detached from the ending. A group of feckless, greedy people causing problems by summoning something beyond their control isn’t a horror movie, it’s a non-boring session of D&D. Or maybe just an adventure hook for Trail of Cthulhu. It might be better to say that you could, with thoughtful camera work, sound, and editing, elevate that premise into a horror movie. Unfortunately the makers of Hereditary felt the premise, revealed almost documentary-style, was scary enough on its own. It’s not.

I was also pulled out of the movie when it turned out that grandma’s corpse had been rotting in the attic the whole time, and no-one had noticed. Did no-one on the writing/directing/producing team ever have a mouse die in their house, or hear of it happening to someone else? A thumb-sized rotting rodent can stink up a even a big two-story house for days.

If I’d somehow been called away 90 minutes into Hereditary, I’d probably be lauding it as one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. It has a lot of brilliant bits that are effective because they suggest – but do not specify – potentially awesome realities, but unfortunately it also has a leaden third act that undoes the previous good by explaining just about everything, just not very satisfactorily. It’s like the Original Trilogy and the Prequels in one movie.

TL;DR: Unexplained noises are creepy. Bodies levitating aren’t. And it’s never good to give the audience half an hour to think, “My level 5 sorceror would have done a much better job of this.”

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Fiction: The Memory Stones

This isn’t really a story, just a sketch I wrote a few years ago. I always planned to come back and flesh it out, but that hasn’t happened yet. Rather than let it rot on my hard drive, I’m letting it out into the world. – MJW

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Three Memory Stones stood in the sarsen ring, bent and humped as crones, timeworn as Oracle Hill itself. No one knew where they had come from or how old they were. The Stones had seen entire civilizations rise and set like suns. Or so said the technomancers, but their petty sorceries had not endeared them to the inhabitants of that land and they were little believed. For most folk the Stones were a miracle as subtle and everlasting as air.

The Memory Stones would answer most questions put to them, but only for a price—and it was a price the Stones themselves determined. Once you had stepped inside the sarsen circle and asked a question aloud, the Stones would accept your gift, or else extract what they felt was suitable recompense. Ael remembered a burgher from the Last City, so quiveringly obese that two footmen had been required to fetch him down from the saddle of his ‘sarchus, who had asked—no, demanded, booming—how he should invest his fortune for maximum benefit. Ael, crouching in the bushes outside the sarsen ring, had been too far away to hear the Stones’ reply, but she had stifled a laugh when the burgher’s extensive array of necklaces, bracelets, rings, belts, purses, and pouches had been gently but swiftly pulled away from his person and onto the surface of the nearest stone. So laden had he been that the sudden departure of the wealth arrayed about his body had fairly shredded his elaborate silks, leaving him as nearly naked as he was temporarily destitute. The other pilgrims had been unable to contain their mirth, and the burgher had flushed bright pink all over his extensively exposed skin before he managed, with the help of his grunting but carefully blank-faced footmen, to remount his ‘sarchus. Among the possessions lost to him were his spurs, and Ael’s last sight of him was of soft round heels, still reddened by anger, embarrassment, and exertion, digging into the ribs of the ‘sarchus. Despite the burgher’s imprecations and the flabby blows of his feet and fists, said beast lumbered off at a markedly relaxed pace, finally freed from the prick of the elaborate numetal spurs that were already blending into the surface of the nearest Stone.

Some thought to outwit the Stones by stepping into the sarsen circle empty-handed. These usually received only silence, although some had their clothing taken from them, and left the shrine even more thoroughly naked than the burgher. Stories abounded of small valuables vanishing from the halls and manors of such would-be cheats, no matter how many leagues separated them from Oracle Hill. Ael deliberately withheld judgment on the accuracy of such reports; she found them individually unlikely but cumulatively suggestive. Rumors of the Stones relieving other failed tricksters of digits or limbs, sheared through as bloodlessly as a diced carrot, she discounted entirely. The Stones accepted organic offerings on occasion, from the waybread of poorer pilgrims to the silks, wools, and furs of merchants, burghers, and lairds, but Ael had never seen any evidence of the Stones taking a living sacrifice, nor had she seen any body parts in the fascinating jetsam slowly being absorbed into their pitted surfaces. Tales accreted around the Memory Stones even more thickly than offerings, and it seemed to Ael that the truth of those stories varied as wildly as the value of the gifts.

Because of such stories, many people would not dare to question the Stones, lest the cost of their questions prove too dear. As Ael had almost no possessions beyond her shift, sling, and staff, she remained uninfected by that self-consuming strain of greed. Instead she watched, and thought, and made her plans accordingly. Based on offerings accepted, the Stones preferred wood to bread, rock to wood, and metal above all. Shrapnel from the distant Godfall could still be found in certain fields and glades, and Ael let her path take her to such places more frequently than chance or the promise of game might dictate. If she was patient, and the cold light of the sun fell just so, she could fill the pocket of her shift with shards of numetal, still as sharp-edged and oily smooth as they had been on the day that Heaven had fallen. On such days the dim spark of the setting sun would find her on Oracle Hill, sitting in the sarsen ring with fingers interlaced over knees and chin set on fingers, offering one shiny bit after another to the Stones and listening in return to stories of long ago. The accounts given by the Stones were strange and hardly to be credited. They claimed that the seas of the moon were red from rust, not blood, that the Godfall had been conceived by her distant ancestors as a sort of moving palace in the sky, and that in such fortresses ordinary people like her had crossed the terrible distances from other suns. In time Ael curled asleep on the grass, back to the thin breeze that breathed through the sarsen ring. Overhead the sky purpled to black and the ancient stars rekindled, red and gold as ten thousand campfires.

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Monster of the week

TV Tropes informs me that the “monster of the week” concept goes back to The Twilight Zone in the 1960s. I first heard of it as opposed to the “mytharc” episodes in the original run of The X-Files.

From the start of The X-Files, I was a “monster of the week” fan. This was in sharp contrast to most of my X-Files fan friends, who invested very heavily in following the mytharc episodes, and puzzled over them with the same intensity that is by now familiar from Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Westworld, and so on. At the time, it was a fairly fresh phenomenon, at least in that kind of show – but I wasn’t having it. Even though the MOTW episodes usually left a dangling question mark at the end, each one was a complete story that wrapped up satisfactorily. In contrast, it only took about three mytharc episodes for me to decide that the overarching plot was going nowhere fast (this would later turn out to be prophetic). Bottom line, I didn’t give a crap about Deep Throat or Mulder’s sister or the alien conspiracy. I wanted to watch Mulder and Scully do their thing tackling ghosts and psychics and cryptids and inbreeders, and I wanted some damn closure.

This preference has shaped a lot of my subsequent TV consumption. Even in shows where there is a central problem or mystery to be solved, like Veronica Mars, Person of Interest, or even Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – probably my three favorite shows of all time – I tend to enjoy the “mystery of the week” episodes more. If a show evolves from MOTW to more serialized storytelling, I often jump ship. I’m naturally drawn to picaresques, and I don’t particularly like the feeling that the show has me locked into a big commitment. It’s a strong testament to the quality of Person of Interest that I stuck with it as it evolved from almost entirely MOTW to almost entirely serialized over its five seasons.

It only recently dawned on me that this entertainment preference might have implications for my roleplaying.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The campaign that has taught me the most about all aspects of being a GM is, unsurprisingly, the one that has been running the longest. I’ve been running a Star Wars campaign with my brothers since the late 90s. None of us know the precise point when we started playing our three regular characters exclusively together and in a serialized fashion, but I know when I started keeping a detailed log of our evolving campaign: January, 1998. By that point I was in grad school, Todd was in college, Ryan was in high school, and it was getting sufficiently tricky to coordinate our schedules that we basically could only play at the holidays. Twenty years later, the campaign is still going, with the occasional missed year made up for by the years in which we could get in both a winter and a summer session. My log now runs to almost 100 single-spaced pages.

The big lightbulb from that campaign went off over my head about a decade ago. By that point I had a bunch of factions in play: the Rebellion, the Empire, the Hutts, a rogue Dark Side warlord, some ancient Sith (thank you, carbonite time machine), and the PCs and their allies in the fringe. With so many factions and shifting alliances, the story was basically self-generating. I could introduce a single new element – a person, device, location, event, whatever – and then watch the pinball bounce off of all of the in-game elements. It wasn’t hard to run as a GM, because each faction could behave fairly stereotypically, and yet with so many pieces in play, results would often emerge that were unforeseen even by me and that posed new challenges for the PCs. Like the Hutts teaming up with the Sith against both the Imperial remnant and the New Republic after the Battle of Endor, to pick just one of many examples.

My brothers and I have gotten so much memorable roleplaying out of that campaign that it became my mental model not just for a successful campaign, but increasingly for successful roleplaying full stop. It’s why I started the Dinosaur Island campaign with geography and with 10 sorcerors, all of whom wanted somewhat different things. All I had to do was drop the PCs into the mix, and whammo, insta-plot. I’ve done similar things in other D&D and Star Wars campaigns.

Now I’m not so sure that was a good idea.

London’s 5th-level Chib thief, Chumpum, a.k.a. Chummy, jacking a donut.

The problem is that London and I have lots of characters that we like, but almost all of them are locked up in one campaign or another, embroiled in momentous events, in a way that has become an impediment to further play. Our interests and enthusiasms naturally wax and wane and now if we come back to Star Wars, the option is not “dust off our Dark Empire characters for a quick one-shot” but “try to remember and get re-invested in a massively complicated ongoing story that we’re squarely in the middle of”. Those are two different Saturday afternoons, with two different activation energies.

The result is that we don’t finish campaigns, we start new ones. This is not all bad! It allows us to try out new characters, settings, and kinds of play. But inevitably, each campaign accretes enough stuff – NPCs, events, ongoing chains of consequences – that those particular PCs can no longer escape the gravitational pull, and we just abandon them, endlessly orbiting the event horizon of their respective black hole, theoretically playable at any time, realistically doomed to spiral into oblivion.

Just this week, London and I have been discussing this phenomenon and we finally asked ourselves, “What if we just didn’t let that happen?” We’re good at getting campaigns up and running – maybe too good for our own good. What if we ran a group of characters through a series of one-shot adventures instead? Without an overarching plot to keep track of (and not screw up), we could trade off GMing duties, which would help us play more when one person is all in but the other is at maybe 75%. And we’d try to end each session with as little leftover baggage as possible for the next person to deal with – just like most of the roleplaying I did back in high school and college, before scheduling constraints forced me to narrow down to a couple of long-running campaigns, and eventually to just one.

So we’re giving it a shot. Solo: A Star Wars Story got us in the mood for some Star Wars in the low-powered, “wrong place at the wrong time” mode. So we made up some characters and we’re three sessions in. Hopefully we’ll keep this group lean, mean, and unencumbered by any overarching plots. Fingers firmly crossed.

Posted in Big Ideas, roleplaying, Star Wars | 3 Comments

DIY notebook sheath

Inspired by the DDC Stuff Sheath. But dumber.

My intent here is not to take money away from DDC. I actually had a use in mind for this when I made it.

I have mentioned here before that I’m typically a front pocket guy. About all that I typically carry in my back pocket is a handkerchief, and maybe the odd receipt. But then on the cusp of 2018 I thought it would be nice to have both a yearly planner and my current EDC notebook on me at all times. I didn’t want to cram another notebook into my front pockets, and I didn’t want to subject a notebook to the unpleasantness of a back pocket without some protection, and I didn’t want to spring for the DDC Stuff Sheath until I knew if I could tolerate having a notebook back there – and until I knew if the notebook would survive, sheath or no sheath. Hence this zero-cost option, fittingly made from a Field Notes shipping envelope.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Posted in EDC, Field Notes, notebooks | 2 Comments

2017 in notebooks

I mentioned in a recent post how I got addicted to Field Notes this past summer. Here are the books I used in the second half of 2017.

Top row are monthly/bimonthly EDC books:

Bottom row are travel journals:

  • Solar eclipse (August): Blue Wednesday
  • SVPCA (September): Campfire “Night”
  • Vienna (November): Campfire “Dawn”

The idea to write the monthly calendar on the notebook cover is not mine. I picked it up from someone in the Field Nuts group on Facebook. I use it to always have a calendar available at a glance, and to track carpooling. When books have busy covers, like the Workshop Companion I used for December, I write the calendar on the inside cover:

If you really want to go down the Field Notes rabbit hole, check out the Three Staples blog, and the mega-encyclopedic FieldGuide created by Oklahoma anthropologist Rhonda Fair. Be careful out there! And have a happy New Year.

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My EDC, Part 2: Wallet

This isn’t my wallet, but mine was virtually identical, down to the hand-tooled decorations.

Thirty years ago, in 7th grade shop class, I made a nice hand-tooled leather bifold wallet with sewn edges. It was totally sweet, and also a total George Costanza back-breaker. The subsequent three decades have been a long war of attrition between me and wallets.

I have two major beefs with wallets. The first is that I’m a front-pocket man. The only things I put in my back pockets are handkerchiefs, shopping lists, and the occasional receipt. A lot of wallets are not designed for front pockets, and most of those that are, are tri-fold designs.

Which leads to my second beef: IMHO traditional wallets are fundamentally stupid. All you need is a sleeve for your bills and cards. But most wallets have crap-tons of extra pockets and slots and holes and dividers and other folderol, AND then you take this stupid over-built thing and fold it over two or even three times. The result is that a huge chunk of the thickness of most wallets in actual use is the wallet itself, not its contents. It’s like the space shuttle – most of the tonnage that the shuttle system lofted to orbit each flight was the orbiter itself. Well, bump that. For me a wallet is just a means to an end, and the more it gets out of the way of the contents, the better.

Oh, screw this noise forever twice.

(I realize that I may be pissing off the people who are as dedicated to wallets as I am to notebooks. If so, may peace be upon your pocket leather fetish – to which I am not wholly immune, as will eventually be revealed – and may a thousand gardens grow.)

Some of you are probably wondering why I didn’t just go with a money clip. There are two reasons: first, I never completely trusted money clips to hold all my stuff securely, no matter how many positive testimonials I read. But more importantly, I discovered the Chums Surfshort wallet.

I got my first Chums wallet back in 2015 before going out to southern Utah to look for dinosaurs. I knew I’d be living out of a tent, and I couldn’t leave my cash and cards there, nor could I have them knocking around in my backpack. Partly because my backpack tends to get filled up with rocks (deliberately collected) and sand (incidental), and partly because I need the security of having my necessary shit physically on my person. I don’t carry a lot, but I want it in my pocket, just a reassuring pat away, all the time. So I was looking for the cheapest, most minimal thing I could find to carry the bare minimum of cash and cards. That first Chums wallet was basically just a nylon envelope with a zipper, with a single internal compartment. No extra slots or dividers, nothing folded back on itself, but with the security of complete enclosure, unlike a money clip.

The new Chums wallet – only one layer of nylon dumber than the original. I don’t keep my keys on mine.

When I got back from the field, I thought, “Hey, wait, why should I transfer my stuff from this little thing to my bigger, dumber wallet?” So I used that first one as my only wallet for two years, until I finally wore a hole in it. I replaced with another, nearly identical, except the new one had a clear plastic window for an ID and a single internal divider. The internal divider only slightly offends my sensibilities. On the downside, it is an extra layer of material. On the upside, it’s only a single thin layer of nylon, and it let me separate my used-all-the-time stuff (cash, debit card) from my use-only-rarely stuff (ID, insurance cards).

Yes, the Chums wallet is not fancy and it is not going to impress anyone. I’m cool with that. Anyone judging me by my wallet is voluntarily joining the “values too alien for me to care about” category, so that’s a self-correcting problem.

Anyway, I was perfectly happy with my minimalist nylon zipper pouch, until an even less obtrusive solution presented itself. But that will be a story for another post.

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My EDC, Part 1: Notebooks

Artfully posed memo books. Because that’s what we notebook victims do.

The first in a series of unavoidably navel-gazey posts on the physical crap I lug around (EDC = Every Day Carry). Read at your peril. 

I started carrying a planner back in 2007, when I was an instructor at UC Merced. With all of the classes I was teaching and meetings I needed to attend, I finally had to get organized, so I picked up a pocket-sized Moleskine planner. I used the little Moleskines for seven years, one per calendar year, and I got a reputation for being the one person in every meeting with a little black book.

(Before I get any farther, I should address the big digital elephant in the room. No, I don’t keep my calendar or notes on my phone. I’ve tried, didn’t like it. And now there’s a raft of studies showing that, hey, whaddayaknow, when people write stuff down they remember it better. But that’s just post-hoc justification – I was already recommitted to longhand analog before those studies were dreamt up. I cast no aspersions on anyone else’s method – if your phone note app thingy works for you, great! May peace be upon your digital organization system.)

So, seven years before the mast of the good ship Moleskine. Then in late 2013 I backed the first Passion Planner on Kickstarter. I had come to the conclusion that the format of the little Moleskine planners was too restrictive. I needed schriebensraum, and inspiration, and the Passion Planner supplied both in sufficient but not overwhelming doses.

I used Passion Planners semi-religiously until this year. I liked the structure of the Passion Planners, but in the end the form factor didn’t work for me. I need something with me all the time – in line at the grocery store, sitting in the drive-through at In-N-Out Burger, scribbling blindly in the dark in a movie theater to nail down that one elusive thought before it flits away (seriously, I have done this, and recently). That’s one thing the Moleskines had over the Passion Planners: they were small enough to fit in my pocket, so I was literally never out of the house without a notebook. I had to remember to take the Passion Planner with me – it didn’t fit in my pocket and therefore wasn’t reflexive, not part of my EDC – and that was the ultimate downfall of the Passion Planner for me.

Choosing to jump ship from Moleskines to Passion Planners was deliberate. Abandoning Passion Planners was less intentional. I didn’t consciously think, “Hey, this isn’t working, I need something else” until that something else came long and lit the light bulb for me.

A Cherry Graph I gave to Vicki, upgraded with a Kamala Harris sticker. Yes, that is a thin veneer of real wood duplexed to the paper cover.

It was another Kickstarter that did it, the one this past summer for Mouse Books. In one epic fit of web-surfing on the evening of June 19, I discovered Mouse Books, which led me to Field Notes, which led me to the bullet journaling community. And at that point I stepped back from the edge. Never went full bullet. But I realized that tons of folks were using pocket notebooks to create their own daily planners and logs, and I figured that might just be the key. Pocketable, so I’d always have it with me, with adequate room to plan each day, and more flexible than either of the canned planners I’d used before. I ordered some Field Notes from Amazon and I was off and running.

(The most important things I did keep from my brief survey of bullet journaling: putting the index at the front of the book and only filling it in as pages get used, and using little arrows to show which tasks have been migrated forward to another day, another page, maybe even another notebook.)

And the cult has absorbed me completely system is working wonderfully. I’ve only missed one meeting or appointment in the last six months, an item from my work calendar that I forgot to transfer into my EDC notebook. At this point my Field Notes usage has expanded to the following:

  • one book as a combination daily planner and log for each month, which is part of my EDC;
  • one that lives on the kitchen counter, specifically for grocery and other shopping lists (Sweet Tooth are perfect for this, with their perforated pages);
  • one for every big trip I take, as a travel notebook;
  • one for every important committee I’m on at work, to keep meeting notes;
  • one for every major strand of my research;
  • one for a fitness journal and calorie counter;
  • one on my nightstand, for thoughts of opportunity.

In fact, if there’s one problem with Field Notes, it’s that their quarterly editions and frequent sales and the constellation of sweet FN-related merch is threatening to bankrupt me.

For example, my Christmas haul.

Next in this series: my long vendetta against wallets.

Posted in EDC, Field Notes, notebooks | 2 Comments