What story are you telling?

I had a great conversation with my new friend Yoshi last week about journalism… specifically, music journalism. He asked me my opinion of this piece that claims that modern music journalism isn’t about the music anymore… it’s lifestyle journalism, covering the artist more than their craft and output. The article’s writer says that it’s because the writers aren’t qualified to write about music – they don’t have the understanding and training on music – so they write about the easier topic.

This article – and the ensuing conversation – got me thinking about storytelling, agendas and personal narratives.

One thing I always emphasize is how important storytelling is in life. We are wired to listen and respond to stories, and telling stories help you engage with people in a real and (sometimes) intimate way. The best stories have a point and a purpose – to entertain, to make people laugh, to sell in idea or a product. It’s powerful, and there’s a reason Don Draper focused on telling stories during his pitches. It works.

To respond to the point of the article cited above, the reason why music journalism has become lifestyle journalism now is for more reasons than just a lack of music training on the part of the writer – it’s because it works. Lifestyle journalism works because people love stories and want to read about popular figures they admire. We want a glimpse into that life. Another case in point is NBC’s Olympics coverage – the sports are often secondary to the athlete’s stories, because that is what draws the audience in.

What amuses me about all this discussion is that the best songs ARE stories – they evoke a mood, and have a point. Yes, even music such as jazz that has no words. What has happened has music journalists are jest talking about a different story now.

Additionally, it’s easier to frame a narrative and a thesis around a person – Developing that for an album or a musician’s body of work is much harder. A lot of people will be more comfortable and confident in writing about, say, how Myley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball video isn’t as good as Ron Jeremy’s parody than analyzing the chord progressions or lyrical structure . You may have more prestige analyzing the musical choices that Miley made when she created Wrecking Ball, but what audience size will such an essay have?

(Quick sidebar: I studied journalism, many many years ago… and one of the things that was taught was the importance of objectivity and how bias was bad. The thing is… it’s a bunch of baloney. I’m not talking about political agendas, but the most obvious form of bias – selecting what to cover and write about. The line of “what is newsworthy” is never clear cut, and the decision is driven by management. What to showcase, what to report on, what to bury…. bias is part of the process, and it cannot be avoided as long as human beings make these decisions.)

The way we live and present ourselves are also stories, but many people don’t pay attention to this as much as they should. These personal narratives are the stories that people conjure in their minds and they can make or break you. Another words that is used to define this is “reputation.” It proceeds you, and that story is hard to change once its told by your actions and activities.

Personal narratives are all about you deciding the story you are telling, through deeds. What are your actions telling the world? It’s an important thing to understand. What is the point of what you are doing? What is your purpose?

What story are you telling?

Photos: The Computer History Museum

Another week, another cool sightseeing destination. This week was the Computer History Museum, in the heart of silicon valley. If you are a geek, then here’s pictures from the museum covering the gamut of computing devices – from slide rules to smartphones. If you are not, there’s plenty of other sites on the Internet.

Here’s some pics (and a lot more are here):

A visit to Southfork Ranch

I’ve been visiting a lot of fictional places lately.

Last week, I was in Cleveland, where I visited Ralphie’s house from A Christmas Story. This week, I was in Dallas… and my destination was one I always wanted to visit.

Southfork Ranch.

Yes, the home of the Ewings, the oil-barons of the TV show Dallas. I had watched the show when I was younger, rewatched it with my wife… and I was a fan. Not as big a fan as Twin Peaks or Star Trek, mind you… but I was a fan nonetheless.

I even had the opportunity to meet Larry Hagman, JR himself,  a few years ago. His autographed photo hangs proudly in my man cave along with an autograph of Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie).

Well, the visit to Southfork was a must-do, when I realized I had some extra time to kill this week (I’m in Dallas on business). I spent a couple of hours exploring the Dallas museum, the gift shops, the grounds, and (of course) the house. I was amused by the ”delta” between the real world and the show (the producers built sets that don’t really “fit” into the floor plan of the actual Southfork home) and I was impressed by the owner’s attempt to make the house as “authentic” as possible.

The old (and new) show shots exteriors at Southfork, and the new show has taken advantage of the grounds a lot more than the original (they even shot the Mexican hotel room that JR dies in IN Southfork, so JR technically ‘died at home’).

Here’s copious amounts of photos taken as I was geeking out over the whole thing. With all these visits to fake/real locations recently, my perspective on things are getting a little blurred…

 

The day I saved Timothy Leary’s life

I realized a few days ago I had a couple of pretty good stories that I had never written up. One, involving Richard Simmons, I will not recount until he passes away (dead people can’t sue). The other, involving the time I saved Timothy Leary from grievous bodily harm… that one I can recount here.

It was many many years ago, at Atlanta’s DragonCon convention. Way back in the early 1990s I was a volunteer providing video production services to the convention (If you have ever attended the convention, you may have noticed they have dedicated TV channels in the four main convention hotels that rebroadcasts panels – that was my idea, way back in 1991). I helped setup equipment, run cables, and basically do lots of grunt work video recording panels. I only did it for a couple of years, because A. I was young and B. I enjoyed it. Once I realized DragonCon was exploiting volunteers/slave labor so they could make a pretty profit, I stopped doing it.

One year (I think it was 92) a big guest was Doctor Timothy Leary. I had read a lot of Leary’s work and by that point he had become a living legend of the 60s and 70s counterculture movement. I was excited to see him, and was thrilled to have one of the best “seats” in the house.

I was on an elevated platform manning a video camera during his panel – it was in one of the big rooms, and for Dr. Leary it that was standing room only. He spoke eloquently about how humanity should evolve, should be open to all possibilities… and how LSD was just one of may ways that we could reach higher forms of consciousness. Though I had never done drugs before (or since), his inspiring words made me consider taking that step. He was a great salesman.

And that lead to what happened when his panel ended.

Leary, who was by that point in his late sixties/early seventies, walked down the stairs to the left of the stage and talked to several people who lingered around. One of those people was a long-haired man from England whose intentions were not honorable. From my position I read the body language instantly – this guy was angry, and was charging towards Leary.

By this point, Timothy Leary and the crowd had moved, and he was standing right next to my platform, and his back was to me as the young man shoved past the person Leary was talking too and started screaming at him.

“YOU KILLED MY BROTHER WITH DRUGS YOU SON OF A BITCH YOU DESERVE TO DIE”

And with that I lifted Timothy Leary up and pulled him up to my platform. I’m 6 foot four, and lifting him up was an easy effort. He didn’t know it was coming, obviously, and as I set him down turned to me, shocked, he smiled. I got a sense that this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened.

I grabbed for my walkie-talkie to call for security as the man continued screaming from below, but before I could get a message out two other volunteers bolted over and pulled the young man away. Found out later they guy had a knife on him.

Timothy muttered “Well, that was interesting. Thank you.” Then he walked down the steps off the camera platform and apologized to people for the interruption. Amazing. HE apologized.

I exhaled, thinking that what happened was interesting in the worse possible way. I went about my business, thinking that was the end of it. A couple of hours later a man came up to me and quickly said “Mr. Leary really appreciated what you did early. There’s a get-together in his room after 8 tonight, and he’d like to invite you to attend.” He handed me an index card with a room number and walked away before I could respond, “You bet.”

When you volunteer at a convention like this, getting to engage with a celebrity guest is one of the big (usually unfulfilled) opportunities. And here I was, getting invited to a private party because I had man-handled a 60s icon.

I was there at 8, right on time.

I was let in, and as I entered I saw that the party had started early. In the very large suite were many of the other convention guests – some big names in TV and film. I also smelled a distinct odor – they were enjoying a little weed along with their cigarettes.

I quickly sat down at a couch in the living room, and there – sitting across from me, on the couch opposite mine – was Timothy Leary. He recognized me, and smiled. He looked like… well, I hate to say it, but… Yoda. He looked like Yoda. Smiling, wise… peaceful.

And then he looked down. At the coffee table between us. I did, too.

There, on a dish, were four sugar cubes.

I looked at him, and he looked me. A moment of decision had arrived. And then…

There was a loud knock on the hotel room door.

Police.

I looked over, and saw someone had opened the door to one of Atlanta’s finest, who did not look interested in joining the party. After he introduced himself, he quickly declared “There’s been numerous complaints about noise in your room, and if you people are going to have a party you need to keep it down.”

I turned back to the table and… the sugar cubes were gone. Leary had snagged them off the table in a moment, like a flash. He’d done this before.

I laughed, quietly – the moment had passed.

 

For a while, I wondered… would I have done it? Would have gone on a trip with Timothy Leary? For many years I shook my head at the possibility, thinking “absolutely not.” That was my conservative upbringing talking. Now… Now, I smile ruefully at the lost opportunity.

Ah, well. Such is life.

Photos: 2014 Joelanta Action Figure and Toy Show

I just came back from the Joelanta action figure and toy show, which took place this weekend in Atlanta. As I had just returned from a long business trip early that morning, I didn’t have a lot of excess energy to spend so I was only there a couple of hours. It was just enough time to check out the sales floor, marvel at the custom-built action figures, and be amazed at the huge 16th scale dioramas that had been set up – My favorite as the one based on The Walking Dead.

If you are a toy collector in the Southeast, Joelanta has always been and continues to be a must-attend (now two-day) show. Here’s some pics:

 

How to fix Star Trek’s biggest problems

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the direction the latest Star Trek film, Into Darkness took the franchise. I won’t rehash my opinions here so, in summary: “big explosions plus weak characters and story” is not what I watch Star Trek for. I watch and enjoy good Trek because it’s about ideas, the human condition… and it’s about hope.

I’m also very aware that criticism is easy, and creating is hard. I admire the effort that went into the new film, and I can see it was considerable – I just don’t admire the results. But I also think that Star Trek as a franchise has some big problems. Many of the die-hard fans are unhappy and disliked the film. It appears that Into Darkness didn’t bring many new fans to the series, unlike the preceding film. And Star Trek’s respectable but not amazing box office may indicate that the public isn’t buying into the new direction.

So, in the spirit of optimism and in a (very small) attempt to suggest a new course for the franchise, here are my ideas on how to fix Trek’s biggest problems.

Tease the past, don’t revisit it

Enough with Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise. Yes, I’m serious… it’s over. Stop it. If you continue to retell episodes of a nearly 50 year old TV show people will (perhaps rightly) view it as a rehash and many will reject it wholesale. Let’s be honest… do we really NEED more stories with these characters? We have had three live-action seasons, one animated season, nine movies, hundreds of novels… to quote a very popular song,  “Let it go.”

Now, I’m not saying that the right person can’t do an AMAZING new story with these characters… I’m questioning if there’s a good reason to do so creatively. And perception is a big issue, too. If you run Star Trek, you want to increase your audience with every new outing… that’s capitalism. More customers = more money. You can’t keep selling the same product to the same customers, and that’s the risk if you stay with the classic crew.

Keep the core of what makes Trek good and leap forward, with a new cast and crew. Have sly references to the past, but don’t wallow in it. Basically, do the same thing the new Doctor Who has done – tip your hat at what has come before, but don’t be limited by it. Another good example of this idea, applied, was Sci-Fi channel’s Battlestar Galactica remake. They used concepts and the basic premise from the original but didn’t rehash what had gone before. Instead they created new characters, new situations, and went to places the original never dared go.

Too bad we couldn’t get the guy behind the new Galactica to consider coming back to Trek…

Have real alien aliens

I’m tired of seeing aliens who have ridges on their foreheads and body paint. As much as I dislike the movie Avatar, what that did was tell us a story about an alien world where the environment was ACTUALLY ALIEN. Yes, a huge amount of CGI would be needed, but if you are going to make Trek new again, then you need to move away from the look and limitations of a TV show makeup budget. Have alien cultures, alien bodies, and alien minds. Create new cool races that captures the viewers imagination. Don’t just add piercings and think it’s “edgy.”

Bring back the moral issues, but with subtlety

Good Trek always provoked viewers, making them consider the right or wrong about particular issues. Religion, class structures, terrorism, genocide, what it meant to be human… Have moral issues be part of the fabric of Trek, just don’t be heavy handed about it. Viewers don’t want to be preached to, and if you do that you’ll turn off viewers. It’s a fine balance, and one that Trek hasn’t always made… But it’s still worth striving for.

Kill the prime directive 

Imagine a Star Trek universe where crews actively interfered with other cultures, trying to enforce their worldview on alien worlds. Again, sounds like the original Star Trek, right? Well, the idea of the Prime Directive (invented in the original series, but beat to death in subsequent shows) kills that opportunity for drama and prevents good stories from being told. Kirk ignored it, and the creators of new Star Trek should ignore it to.

You can even have stories about how the Federation USED to have the Prime Directive, and then Something Happened to make them abandon it. An “interventionist” Starfleet? Like I said, it opens up opportunities for some interesting stories.

Be bold (and be on cable)

Have gay characters on the show, portray evil in stark terms, show non-traditional families – Star Trek can and should explore more of that “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” It’s easy to be risk-averse, but that way results in weak characters and melodrama. Sometimes, telling a good story means some risk-taking.

We have seen some incredibly bold storytelling on shows like True Detective and Breaking Bad – Do some of that. Break new ground and expand the universe of Star Trek in new ways. Example: Discuss how the economy works in the future. Is it a true utopia or is there an underclass we have never seen before? Shake up expectations and conventions.

Telling quality stories in bold new ways will bring new viewers to Trek. That probably means that any new Star Trek should be on cable. You don’t have to have monster ratings to be a successful cable show, and you are able to have more creative freedom, the type of freedom that makes for great drama and exciting television.

Stop trying to be sexy

Stop having women be sex objects – have them be smart beautiful women. They don’t have to be in charge of the ship, they just have to be good well-rounded characters. As progressive Trek has been over the years, so many of the female characters were thin and mainly there for set decorating. Change that, and stop trying to titilate the audience. Just tell good stories, and let the characters play their part.

Hire futurists and technologists

Reimagine the future of Star Trek. Look at where technology trends are going and extrapolate them. Wearable computers, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, robotics… Don’t be limited by the past (somewhat archaic) views of the future that has come in previous Trek. Show us a really cool new future.

Hire SF and fantasy writers

The original Star Trek series hired a LOT of SF and fantasy writers. It should do that again. Imagine a Neil Gaimen or Neal Stephenson writing scripts for a new Trek series. Or someone like Stephen King. Heck, just hire John Scalzi or a half-season run.

No offense to the current writers of Trek, but I think that Trek needs some new ideas, and SF authors are chock full of them.

Bring back wonder and hope

Finally, Star Trek needs to make us widen our eyes in wonder. Show us amazing things, truly alien worlds and new civilizations. The success of Avatar shows just how big a movie can be if it presents such a world to viewers. Don’t just showcase huge vistas of destruction – present us with beauty and awe. Make us want to GO THERE – which is what makes Star Trek so important. It has inspired generations of viewers to become scientists, engineers and astronauts… Because Trek showed a future where we didn’t destroy ourselves, where we reached out and started exploring the dark unknown.

Trek should continue to inspire the next generation. And it can do it by seeking out new frontiers, tell new stories… and boldly go where Trek has never gone before.

That way lies the future.