20 Things I Know at 40 I Wish I’d Known at 20

  1. There are very few things worth getting angry about. Casting for the next Spiderman movie is not one of them. Save your anger for things that deserve it.
  2. You need a plan. “Figuring things will just work out.” is not a plan.
  3. If you look for enemies you’ll find them.
  4. The most awesome sound in the world is a baby laughing.
  5. Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid.
  6. Life isn’t about checking off boxes.
  7. People who are constantly giving you unsolicited advice usually have their own agendas.
  8. Some people make different choices than you do. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It just means they’re different.
  9. Shopping for furniture sucks, but if you go with a three-year-old you can build a pillow fort and no one will stop you.
  10. There is an old Polish proverb that says, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Those were some wise old Poles.
  11. You can give people a third or even a fourth chance, but not a thirty-fourth chance.
  12. Always doing what makes others happy never makes anyone happy.
  13. Being grateful is less exhausting than being bitter.
  14. You can’t force other people to fulfill your needs.
  15. Don’t argue with people on the Internet. Just don’t.
  16. The universe is a big, complicated place. Don’t believe people who tell you they have it figured out.
  17. Sometimes it’s okay not to have an opinion.
  18. Don’t ever be ashamed to admit that you sometimes still eat Froot Loops and watch cartoons on Saturday morning (even if it means you have to record them on the DVR).
  19. People who conform don’t change the world.
  20. If your life doesn’t scare you a little, you’re doing it wrong.

There Were Bats: A Review of Dracula Untold

Dracula UntoldThere were bats. Lots of them. I think we can all agree on that up front. I will admit that after the horror (not the good kind) that was Van Helsing, I went into Dracula Untold hoping for the best but expecting the worst. I am happy to report, however, that I enjoyed it a lot. Is it a masterpiece of cinematic art? No. But it was a fun ride. It will probably become one of those movies I’ll watch to the end if I happen to catch it while flipping channels on a Sunday afternoon.

I want to start with a little about the historical accuracy of the movie. I have heard rumblings on the Interwebs that the real Dracula was a horrible murderous psychopath and that the movie doesn’t portray him accurately. Let’s take a step back from that. The real Dracula was also not a vampire, so that kind of throws any arguments about historical accuracy out the window. I’m ambivalent about making him the prince of Transylvania rather than the prince of Wallachia, as the real Vlad the Impaler was, but I understand why they did it.

Interestingly, a lot of the plot hinges on two obscure facts that are absolutely true. As a boy, Vlad and his younger brother Radu were sent to live in the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul as royal hostages, to ensure their father’s loyalty. After Vlad’s father and older brother were murdered (buried alive, if you’re keeping score) by rivals to the throne of Wallachia, Vlad was sent back to rule as a puppet prince and promptly turned on his Turkish masters.

The act of taking Christian boys to serve in the Sultan’s army also happened. It was called the “boy tribute,” devşirme in Turkish. Every Christian household was required to give up one son. It sounds harsh, and it was, but there were mitigating factors. A family that had only one son was exempt, and sometimes, if a family had any wealth, they could pay extra taxes instead, but that was a rare occasion.

Now for the movie itself. Here’s the good and the bad.

The Good

  1. The acting. Overall the acting was pretty solid. Dracula is easy to turn into a melodramatic caricature, but Luke Evans managed to avoid that pitfall and give the role some depth. You can tell when an actor is having fun, even when being serious, and Evans was having fun. Sarah Gadon played Vlad’s wife Mirena, and while her role was unfortunately relegated to “The Wife,” she was allowed her own moments to shine. Charles Dance played the Master Vampire and managed to be appropriately creepy and genuinely scary. The one performance that didn’t measure up for me was Dominic Cooper as Sultan Mehmed. When your hero is Dracula, you need a villain equally larger than life, and Cooper just didn’t pull it off. (That may have been the fault of the script. I’m not sure anyone could.)
  2. The bats. No really. The special effects were pretty cool, especially the “Army of Bats” sequence shown in the trailers. And it’s a lot more awesome to see Dracula turn into a whole bunch of bats rather than just one.

The Bad

  1. The plot. Not all of it. Some of the twists I didn’t see coming. The writers could have made obvious choices at certain points, but to my surprise and delight, they didn’t. Overall, though, the story felt rushed. Plot threads were dropped and never picked up again, and some ideas only lightly touched upon. This is one time I think adding twenty or even thirty minutes to the movie to develop the story and deepen some of the themes would have made it better.
  2. The accents. Movie accents have always been a pet peeve of mine, and in this one they were all over the place. Mirena, Dracula’s chief lieutenant Dimitru, and his son Ingeras all had English accents. Dracula had Evans’ characteristic Welsh accent. The other Transylvanians had pseudo-Slavic accents, which is a problem, because they were supposed to be ethnically Romanian, and Romanians are not Slavs. The worst offenders, though, were the Turks. I’m not even sure what accent they were trying to copy. Sometimes they sounded like Arab terrorists from a low-budget thriller. At other times they sounded like they were trying to dig peanut butter out of their back teeth with their tongues. Someone needs to inform Hollywood that not all people from the Middle East are the same. Personally, in a situation like this, where no one would really be speaking English anyway, I’d prefer the follow the example of Lord of the Rings and give everyone a vague, generic British accent. But that’s just me.

The Bad, however, doesn’t outweigh the Good for me in this case. This is a worthy addition to the canon of Dracula films, and I would definitely recommend checking this one out.

Dragon*Con 2013: No Apologies

This was going to be a recap of my awesome weekend at Dragon*Con in Atlanta, but something happened that put a little damper on my enthusiasm. When I got home, I discovered that some people I know had made comments suggesting I was not being a responsible adult, that I was somehow shirking my duty to my family by going. This is not the first time I’ve heard comments like this. Usually I just shrug and say, “whatever,” but honestly I’m a little fed up. The comments I’ve heard are based on really ugly assumptions that aren’t even remotely true. Hang on. I’m going to get ranty.

The first assumption is that my interests are somehow less valid than the interests of other people. I am a geek, a nerd, whatever, but all that means is that I am passionate about the things that interest me and not afraid to show that passion. You know what? Everyone is a geek about something. Why should I have to apologize or explain my particular geekiness?

If I knew all the stats for all the quarterbacks in the NFL, I wouldn’t be expected to apologize or explain myself. If I wanted to paint myself green and go shirtless to a football game in December, I wouldn’t have to apologize or explain myself. If I went to car shows every weekend or knew all the parts to the engine of a ’64 corvette, I wouldn’t have to apologize or explain myself. I’m not going to apologize or explain myself because I like Star Wars or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Farscape or Babylon 5, or because I like to read books by Jim Butcher or Timothy Zahn, or because I like to write stories about vampires, werewolves, and other assorted monsters.

The next assumption is that I went to Atlanta to goof off all weekend. (Because, you know, it’s nerd stuff, and you can’t take that seriously.) Is Dragon*Con a big party? In some ways it is, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t look forward to having fun with my friends. (By the way, the friends I’ve made since I moved to Charlotte are some of the most incredible, genuine people I’ve ever met, and I will be forever grateful for having them in my life.) But the weekend meant more to me than that. I spent almost four days surrounded by a staggering amount of creativity. I saw amazing writers, artists, actors, costume designers, cosplayers, jewelry makers, woodworkers, t-shirt designers, leather workers, sword makers, even furniture makers. Guess what? Many of these people make a living pursuing their passions. Isn’t that the Holy Grail? To do work you love? These people inspire me.

I also went to panels. Hell, I was on a panel. I met publishers, editors, and other writers. We exchanged ideas and knowledge and contact information. In other words, I networked, just like people who don’t have anything to do with nerd stuff.

The last assumption is that pursuing my passions somehow gets in the way of being a good husband and father. This is the one that bothers me the most. I am devoted to my wife and children. I missed them while I was gone, but pursuing my passions makes me a better person, and I believe anything that makes me a better person makes me a better husband and father. I’m teaching my children that it’s okay to be themselves, no matter what others say. After all, people who conform don’t change the world.

I love my wife with all my heart, and I want to thank her for “letting” me go to Dragon*Con. (“Let” is not the right word. We don’t have that kind of marriage, even though some people think we should, but that’s a completely different rant.)

It has taken me thirty-eight years, but I’ve finally reached a point in my life where I’m comfortable with who I am. I am not going to apologize.

Also, I found Waldo.

Waldo on a unicycle

Wait, What?

Medieval illustration of a Christian scribe wr...
Image via Wikipedia

Further empirical proof writers do not think like normal people. The following are actual excerpts (more or less) from conversations among my writer friends. Yeah, I know.

***

“I used a wooden pencil in a story I wrote to stake a vampire.”

“Did it work?”

***

“Lately I’ve been doing a lot of research on hobos.”

***

“I made the mistake of reading The Strain right before trying to go to sleep. When the ice maker made a noise in the kitchen, I freaked out. So I jumped up and grabbed the Samurai sword next to the bed.”

***

“Sometimes I think I’d like a monkey tail.”

“Like, in a jar?”

“No, on my body. Then I could pick up things with it.”

“Oh, ’cause I could get you one in a jar by 3 p.m.”

There’s Always a Story

I love the way Southerners talk, and by that I don’t mean accent or dialect; I mean the way we talk. It was one of the hardest things for me to get used to living in California. In conversation, Californians, even the laid-back surfer-dude types, are generally very direct. They like to get to the point. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but for me, having grown up in South Carolina, having internalized the inherent rhythms and inflections and other unwritten rules of Southern conversations, it sometimes comes across as abrasive or rude. I have to work at not being offended.

I became acutely aware of the issue when I worked as an attorney in California. When I started my first job, the firm was already involved in a large case. Our client, Big California Company (BCC), was being sued for breach of contract by a small company based in, of all places, South Carolina (Small South Carolina Company, or SSCC). BCC, a producer of consumer goods, had an agreement with SSCC to make components for one of their products, but at some point, the relationship soured, and BCC pulled out of the deal. In reading through the documentation, I pinpointed that exact moment. Representatives of BCC went to visit SSCC’s manufacturing facilities. They came in, guns blazing, ready to get down to business. The owner of SSCC perceived their behavior as obnoxious and arrogant. The meeting did not go well, and things quickly went downhill from there. It was all just a misunderstanding, a cultural mismatch. I tried to explain that to my colleagues, all California natives, but none of them got it, and in any event, everyone was so invested in the litigation at that point that no one wanted to be the first to blink.

At the next firm I worked at, one day I gave what I still believe to be a well-reasoned and accurate explanation of a legal issue to one of the senior partners, also a California native. After I was finished, he said, in front of others, “Matthew never answers a question with ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ There’s always a story.” What he meant disparagingly, though, I took as a point of pride. As Southerners, we can’t answer a question without rambling through the weather, Saturday’s football game, at least three decades of local history, someone else’s family tree, and what we had for lunch. There’s always a story.

I think the fact that storytelling is so ingrained in the way Southerners talk is part of what made me want to be a writer. I also think that it’s an enriching and fulfilling way to look at the world, to know that there’s always a story, and that sometimes, those Californians miss out in their race to get to the point.

Things I’m Giving Up for Lent

It’s Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season leading up to Easter. I grew up in a Baptist household, and the idea of giving something up for Lent was never really emphasized, though I had Catholic and Episcopalian friends who did it. As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that it has become a more ecumenical practice, and I have a lot of friends, Catholic, Protestant, and otherwise, who give something up.

Because Lent is meant to be a time of reflection and preparation, one of the reasons that people give up things is to free themselves from distractions that would get in the way of becoming closer to God. It is with this goal in mind that I’ve decided to give up a few things this year:

  1. Trying to make people happy who are determined to be unhappy.
  2. Feeling bad about offending people who are looking for ways to be offended.
  3. Apologizing for not making the decisions other people think I’m supposed to make.

We’ll see if I can last until April 4. If so, I may go longer. Wish me luck.

Idiot-proof?

Things have been a little slow around here because we’re currently in the middle of a massive cross-country move.  We’re leaving Southern California and moving to North Carolina.  This has been a long time in coming.  While we don’t regret moving to California ten years ago, we realized a few years ago that California can’t give us the life that we want.  So we started taking steps to leave.  Last week, one of the last pieces of the puzzle finally fell into place when we sold our house.  Immediately, we were confronted with a reminder of why we’re leaving.

But first, a short (I promise.) lesson in property law.  Way back in Ye Olde England, the rule used to be strict caveat emptor when it came to buying real estate.  The seller didn’t have to tell the buyer anything about the property.  It was the buyer’s job to find out if anything was wrong.  The English imported that rule to the colonies, and up until the turn of the twentieth century, it was pretty much the rule in every state.  Today, most states require the seller to disclose major problems, but California goes farther.

We had to disclose that we lived in a condo.

Really?  I’d love to see the lawsuit that resulted in this particular disclosure being included.  “Plaintiff began to realize something was amiss when he noticed doors to which he did not have keys.  He became even more suspicious when he saw other people using these doors to enter and exit the building.  These observances led Plaintiff to believe that there were large areas of the building to which he did not have access, but others did, and that in fact, he was not living in a single-family dwelling, but a condominium.”  I’m sure it’s the same guy who’s responsible for the “Warning: may contain nuts” label on packages of peanuts and the “Warning: may cause drowsiness” label on sleeping pills.

And what does your cigar mean, Dr. Freud?

I’ve been having a recurring dream for several years, now.  Well, it’s not exactly a recurring dream, because it’s not the same dream every time, but the theme is the same, so I guess it’s more of a recurring dream motif.  Anyway, in this dream, I’m back in either high school or college, and it’s the beginning of the term, which means new classes and a new schedule.

For the most part, everything is perfectly normal.  I don’t fly.  I’m not in a compromising state of undress in a public place.  Nothing like that.  The problem is that I keep forgetting to go to one of my classes.  It’s like I have a mental block.  I have trouble even remembering that I’m taking the class, let alone remembering to attend or to do any assignments for it.  The funny thing is that the subject of the class isn’t always the same from dream to dream.  I’d say that more than half the time, it’s a math-related class like Calculus or physics (a subject in which I have never taken a class in real life).  Sometimes though, it’s a language class like Russian or German.  Other times, it’s been a psychology class (!) or an English literature class.

Since I have this kind of dream on a regular basis, it must mean something, but I’m not sure what….  Wait, should I be doing something else right now?

I Am Not Impressed.

I was at a bar convention last week taking care of those annoying continuing legal education credits, and I have something to say to those guys in their 20s and 30s I saw wearing bow ties with their suits.  Please stop.

You may think it makes you look cool and “old school,” poised to go all Atticus Finch at a moment’s notice on perpetrators of injustice.  It doesn’t.

It comes across as exactly what it is–an affectation.  At best, it makes you look like you’re trying to be something you’re not.  In other words, it’s the legal profession’s equivalent of driving a Hummer.  At worst, it makes you look like a brown-noser.  While stroking the senior partner’s ego by dressing like him may have short-term benefits, it’s going to cause your colleagues to resent you, and when that same senior partner gladly pushes you in front of a bus to save himself, no one is going to come to your rescue.

When you’ve practiced law for thirty years, you’ll have earned the right to wear whatever you want, and then you can put on the bow tie.  Until then, for the sake of everyone, maybe you should put less energy into trying to look like a good lawyer and more energy into trying to be one.

The Sing-Along Post–If You Can

Booking Through Thursday

What songs … either specific songs, or songs in general by a specific group or writer … have words that you love? Why? And … do the tunes that go with the fantastic lyrics live up to them?

This is an interesting question for me, because I’m not really drawn to songs because of their lyrics.  What attracts me is the way they sound–the way the melody and the harmonies interact. For example, my favorite genre of music is Celtic.  I am all about the fiddles and bagpipes, but I especially like artists who take traditional melodies and do new things with them, such as Natalie MacMaster, Leahy, and Shooglenifty.  Of course, most of their music is instrumental, but when there are lyrics, they’re usually in some form of Gaelic. I still like them because of the way they sound. This is a video of a song called “Sleepy Maggie” by Canadian fiddler Ashley MacIsaac. The woman singing in Scottish Gaelic is Mary Jane Lamond.

I don’t know Scottish Gaelic, so I have no idea what she’s saying, but it sounds cool, doesn’t it? Half of the music I own with lyrics doesn’t have them in English. I have songs in every variety of Gaelic there is, in addition to Welsh, Swedish, German, Russian, Farsi, Urdu, Latin, and Zulu. Here’s another example, a song called “Allahi Allah,” from a group called Niyaz, which takes 14th-century Sufi poems in Farsi and Urdu and sets them to music using traditional Middle Eastern instruments remixed electronically. I think this one is in Urdu. Needless to say, my Urdu is a little rusty.

So I guess I regard the human voice as another musical instrument, albeit an extremely beautiful one with unmatched versatility.  I guess I also have oddball musical tastes.