The Lessons of My Uncle

The oldest of my father’s siblings, Tom Rostan, turned seventy a couple weeks ago. The Rostan brood didn’t gather for the occasion, but the event was still marked by nationwide toasts of Crown Royal and similar concoctions. We didn’t think he would last this long.

Uncle Tom

Photo by Cathy Rostan

Tom has lived enough for three lifetimes. He spent most of his existence at sea, serving in the Navy and on international shipping boats. He married several times and raised many wonderful children. He once took a year off to grow coffee in South America.

After decades on the oceans, he settled in Florida with his wonderful wife Angie, but he’s never lost the air of command. I’ve read several of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels, and Dirk’s boss Admiral James Sandecker always takes on the visage of Uncle Tom. When his giant body steps into the room and the mouth opens from amidst his great silver beard to speak in a hearty rumble, you listen. I’ve spent my life listening to him, including when he showed up in Boston on my 21st birthday and got me seriously tipsy on Jameson, Guinness, and Bailey’s while instructing me to try drugs, meet women, live to the fullest.

Landlocked, he’s become an active disseminator of Facebook memes and chain emails. Some are funny. Most are very political in nature. I think readers of this site know my own politics by now, and suffice to say he’s 180 degrees away from me. That said, he will post often post things I truly agree with, and a recent post made me think.

The meme in question bore the caption “Here is a list of everything a human being was born entitled to or was owed by the world.” The list was of a blank sheet of paper.

I’m feeling confident that this did not refer to parental love and a sustainable childhood, and in the broadest sense I agree. I’m speaking as someone with a fair amount of student loan debt, an apartment of his own, and an IRA. After grad school I nearly lost all my savings and worked hard to make sure I could hold on to what was left. I have never felt that I was entitled to anything and never assumed the world owed me a darn thing. Things aren’t perfect in my life, but I stay industrious, I work at both my job and my vocation as a writer with diligence, and I am happy.

That being said, I also know that part of our duty as decent human beings, and I would call it a Christian duty, is to provide help and support to those who need it most and who are thrown everything they can handle by existence. The widow, the orphan, the disabled, those affected by a changed economy our society is still adjusting to must be accounted for in our time.

One of the things that frustrates me the most about 2016 America is the “all or nothing” attitude held by so many. Right now it’s being expressed in devotion to presidential candidates, with so many dripping vitriol on anyone who isn’t their preferred choice. But it’s also expressed in what I see as a refusal to accept that many of the great issues we face are genuinely multifaceted, and two or more of those facets can be equally true.

For instance, as an artist I believe in capitalism and the free market as the best economic system we have: the ability to stand and fall based on public desire and the quality and effort you put into your work. But I also know that capitalism requires some measure of regulation–NOT socialism, but taxes and limitations–or else the gap between rich and poor grows so gigantic that the system collapses. Trickle-down economics, a theory that counted on human selflessness, has proved a failure because human selfishness is a greater urge.

I believe that racism is a driving force in the institutions of law and justice and needs to be seriously dealt with and offenders punished. It is a stain on our character and a burden we must work together to erase. I also know there are countless police officers who truly serve, protect, and risk their lives for their communities. Neither condition invalidates the other.

I know many people, my Uncle Tom being one, who own guns for recreational usage and are pillars of responsibility and clear-headedness. I also know the current laws regarding guns are creating an epidemic of needless destruction and need to be changed.

I struggle with the moral dimensions of abortion in some cases. I also know that it is not my decision to ever make, and that abortion is a legal human right which sometimes is absolutely necessary and needs to be defended. And I definitely know that one’s feelings about abortion should never be used to deny the right…and the right for basic health care…to any woman. Period.

Finally, I am an avid reader of history who has spent much of the past seven months devouring Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization. It has reminded me that all history runs in cycles of certain ideologies rising and falling while the basics of humanity stay the same. What is left today will be right tomorrow and vice versa. And I read these histories knowing we have tried in this country, and mostly succeeded, to create a republic that endures. This allows me to face any political situation with calm and optimism. But I also know that this is a privilege given to me as a white, Christian, heterosexual, cisgendered male and those who do not share these traits have it far, far worse in ways I can never fully understand. This knowledge, as you will see in my post on Yankee Smartass, imposes on me the duty to work how I can for the benefit of others. As a person with a conscience and a follower of Christ, it is an imperative that experience has taught me to take seriously.

My uncle would agree with some of what I’ve written above and disagree with other parts of it. I respect that, because he and I have come from different frames of reference. Instead of dwelling on that, I would like to end with one other story about him.

Almost two decades ago, Uncle Tom came to one of our family reunions with his Honda motorcycle in tow and he insisted on giving me a ride. I’d always been fascinated by motorcycles but at the same time I was nervous; this was when roller coasters still terrified me. Still, I strapped on a helmet, we went cruising through the suburbs, and I remember the care he took with every maneuver, every acceleration, every turn. I never felt unsafe, and by the end of our journey I was overcome with a sensation of powerful liberation.

That joyride is impressed on my mind and is recalled every time I think of Uncle Tom. It was, in its way, an act of love, and he has always, no matter what his port of call or current aim is, given boundless love to his family and friends and made them feel it. He is no different in this from my father, my mother, my aunts and other uncles. He taught me that the power of love is enough to create something that lasts. It can be a memory. It can be a legacy that affects a multitude.

I try to live my life with that love pulsating through every inch of my being, and to use it to understand others, to support others, to demonstrate that even if their lives and beliefs are different from mine, I truly think those beliefs are meaningful and I know their lives matter and they must have chance to live them to the fullest of their potential. I can do no less. I have an example that guides me.

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Top Ten Movies of 2015 – and More

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Hello everyone! I got caught up in writing the first draft of my novel, currently 206 pages and counting, and my work here got a little pushed to the side, but there are now many ideas that don’t fit in my other media which I need to explore.

One of the pleasures of 2015 was writing regular film reviews for The Addison Recorder. I don’t know how many people read them, but it was wonderful engaging with cinema on such a level and feeling that engagement shape my own fictions. And with the year over, it is time to make the first of these lists I feel really accurate setting down since 2008, when I was again spending almost every week at movies, searching for something I couldn’t fully put into words that I wanted to shape me.

2015 was a topsy-turvy year for America, and I don’t want to say that cinema reacted specifically to that because films like these were developed for years, but I was moved by how many terrific films spoke to some recurrent themes: the triumph of the human spirit. The capacity to do the right things in the face of opposition. The confrontation of our ability to change.

There was an additional quality this year that was summed up by my fellow writer/artist Leigh Yenrick, who saw half the films on this list with me (and who I thank for joining me in some heady emotional waters…I owe her much more joyous pictures in the future). The themes of 2015 came across all the more because, as she put it, there were so many simple stories that were incredibly well-told. Almost any human being can relate to the visceral excitement of a car chase or the perceived comfort of everyday married life, but when the stories surrounding these are told by people who have poured thought, emotion, and the hard and necessary work of construction into them (for both the story of a film and the making of a film require juggling a Whitmanian multitude of parts), we as an audience receive the rare thrill of experiencing a new perspective, deeper understanding, and a sense that the world is not the same for us after leaving our seat, that we have new standards and expect more, from film and from life.

Introduction’s over. Some of these films are on Redbox, Netflix, and HBO GO/NOW. Some are still in theaters or will be back in time for Oscar. Let yourself have an experience. Without further ado…

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Thankfulness in 2015

From Chicago to Paris to Syria to a bit of airspace, in practically every corner of the planet, there is a lot of tragedy and sorrow, so many of it seemingly needless. There is much debate, much confusion, and so many honorable voices struggling to be heard amidst an overpowering shout of ugliness. This morning, it might be reasonable to wake up and, even if you are one of those fortunate to be with a truly loving family and a table full of food, ask what there is to be thankful for in a tumultuous age.

I am the last person to deny that there are scary and threatening elements in our world and many problems that need to be solved. But I believe that we have the capability to solve anything, and that there is so much to be thankful for.

To illustrate why, I’m going to talk about two experiences I had in less than twenty-four hours when I was in New York City last month for New York Comic-Con. I’d meant to write about these a lot sooner but family visits, deadlines, and NaNoWriMo delayed me a bit. Now, I think it was providential that I can share these stories at a time when people may want or need to hear them.

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Giant Essay

I begin this long-overdue essay on an airplane full of families, traveling from Chicago to New York clearly having left, or going towards, a spot of the same purpose, the mothers lovely and modest, the fathers wearing yarmulkes and carrying Borsalino hat boxes, the children rambunctious. It is the sort of situation that John Allison could make enterprising sport of and make it well.

John Allison is the English writer of the long-running web comic series Bad Machinery/Scary-Go-Round. In 2011, during a self-described “crisis of confidence,” Allison created a potential new series entitled Giant Days and self-published an issue. The story was a hit, two more issues followed, and in 2015 Boom! (my own publishers in the matter of full disclosure) picked Giant Days up as a six-issue miniseries. Again, response surpassed expectations and the run was doubled to twelve…which necessitated the hiring of a new artist as Allison’s collaborator, Disney storyboarder Lissa Treiman, was unable to continue due to other projects. This halfway point of the Boom! Box series seems a good point to talk about Giant Days, because I happen to think it is the finest monthly title in comics right now and moreover a book that people can learn from.

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Summarizing Giant Days fills me with pleasure because, while there are a few small ongoing threads (which thankfully carry over from the original self-published work, itself summarized on the first two pages of the Boom! Box #1), Allison rejects arcs in favor of complete stand-alone stories. The setting is a large university in England, and the three protagonists are young women, just past or on the verge of 18, who meet during their first week of school and become the closest of friends. Daisy Wooton is so intelligent she skipped a couple grades, but she was also raised by her grandmother in the tiniest provincial town and has a lot to learn about real life. Esther de Groot was the head girl of her public school, but her intelligence can be subsumed by her flair for drama and excitement, qualities her considerable beauty helps along. And Susan Ptolemy is the “human common sense silo,” a practical soul who got into college through extra-hard work, and who mixes a running stream of good advice with a readiness to fight and bend the rules in the name of righteousness. Their physical appearances are as different as their personalities.

All this being said, one of the joys of Giant Days is that Allison has never needed to dwell on their differences in looks, class, perceived social groups as John Hughes would have done: instead, from the first issue, he stresses what the women have in common, and how united each has strengths that make up for the others’ weaknesses and two can lift the spirits of a downtrodden third. Right now in the comics world, much is being said, and necessarily so, of the need for greater diversity, especially in the realm of female characters. While books from Ms. Marvel to Bitch Planet brilliantly rise to fill this duty, most titles are planted firmly in the realms of sci-fi and superhero. Giant Days’s setting and tone makes its depiction of female friendship and solidarity all the more relatable and inspiring.

Allison’s storytelling, in support of this, does not shy away from real issues faced by women (and humanity). The self-published run can be seen as a prologue, with plots detailing the women taking their first steps towards identities away from home and helping Esther deal with a break-up. Allison illustrated these issues himself (more on this later) and the partnership with Treiman seems to have helped free him to concentrate on tackling deeper themes. #3, one of the finest issues, follows what happens when Esther comes in third on a website’s list of “Fresh Meat: The 25 Hottest First Years” and the university does nothing against the creators, prompting Susan to lead a vengeful counterstrike. The issue is an outstanding denouncement of masculine culture and public apathy towards it, but Allison goes a step further by showing how Susan’s near-misandry can be equally unfair. Following issues find Daisy exploring her sexuality for the first time, developing a crush on a female classmate, getting her heart broken, and trying to determine who she is attracted to, a quest treated with the utmost understanding. Finally, Esther and Susan both engage in sexual relations and there is no titillation or condemnation involved. Allison’s empathetic tone makes me eager to see what subjects he will tackle in the future.

Not to say that Giant Days is serious. It’s may be the funniest comic book on the market. Allison has a magisterial gift for dialogue, timing, and one-liners, and he gives each character a distinctive voice. Moreover, he offers the women two superb foils.

Giant Days

Ed Gemmel is a nerdy spirit animal: a shy, funny, more-charming-than-he-thinks literature student who can’t work up the courage to tell Esther he loves her, and who as time goes on reveals a true depth of character and respect. The fifth central figure is a testament to a writer understanding their material. At the conclusion of the self-published stories, Allison created Eryn, who seemed poised to be a series regular. Eryn was funny but came across as much the same person as Susan while lacking Susan’s can-do attitude. For the Boom! Box continuation, Allison abandoned Eryn and replaced her with McGraw, the transfer student with a singular moustache who has a long-standing connection to Susan that gets explained issue by issue. McGraw is the booster rocket of Giant Days, a man of supremely dry wit, resourcefulness, and philosophy in contrast to the ridiculousness of Ed, but who also proves to be a soulful feminist with a chivalric devotion to Susan.

Now a word must be said about Treiman’s art. Allison’s original drawings were charming and suited to the material, but Treiman is a wonder. She builds off the fantastic strokes Allison hinted at in his art—Daisy’s yogic flying and the surreal world of the Black Metal Society—and creates a vibrant world full of every color under the sun and curvy, expressive lines which make people and landscapes want to leap off the page and into your own existence. It is art that transcends reality and simultaneously fits perfectly with the storytelling, capturing the exuberance, the sense of discovery, and yes, the giantness of being out on your own for the first time. Treiman’s art is also integral to the storytelling. Every issue begins with a single-page panel of our heroines in a particular setting, and that setting kicks them into whatever adventure they set out on. If Daisy, Esther, and Susan look comparatively small against the background, by the issue’s end they are in a new setting and looking larger, more dominating. Treiman is also good at recurring motifs in the series as a whole or in particular issues. Esther’s trademark wink is a sign of insanity or bad jokes to come. On a more poignant note, #4 involves two moments, in flashback and the present day, in which Susan and McGraw both express a longing for something from the other, and there are two panels which find them in the same pose but on opposite ends, one extending a hopefulness, the other unsure, deciding. It’s the sort of forethought a great comics artist needs to have. Treiman’s loss is going to be felt, especially since #6, her finale, had a story which finally took the women off campus and put them into a very different locale where their friendship still carries the day…it made me wonder what Treiman could have done with new settings and characters. But I am confident the series will continue in strong hands.

Because at the end of the day, all of the work is a visual translation of Allison’s unfailingly terrific writing, a counterpart to his deep, witty, and eminently empathetic storytelling that respects the importance of everyday problems and celebrates the bonds with others that help us overcome the worries we face every month, every day, every year. Giant Days is tremendous, addictive reading, and I wouldn’t trade my well-worn issues for a Harry Nilsson vinyl reissue and a Magic: The Gathering starter deck.

Photos from Paste and Smart Overcoat.

On Christian Marriage

This has been a year of weddings. Four of them, and shockingly none involving my family. I have never been to a terrible wedding—all of them have been beautiful and memorable—but the one I want to single out was unique as my first Episcopal wedding since I joined the church in 2008.

Chapel of the Transfiguration

Camp Mitchell is a summer camp the Episcopal Church runs in the middle of Arkansas, on top of a mountain named for a Frenchwoman who disguised herself as a cabin boy to explore America with her captain fiancée. He only found out when she got terminally ill. Today, Petit-Jean’s mountain is the high point of what one could describe as “the heavenly country of all the angels and saints,” looking out over a valley of lush plains, farmland, and rivers that glisten in the sun. Jane spent her youthful summers there.

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I Can’t Get Started

I spent eighteen-plus hours of Labor Day weekend in the back seat of a car going to and from Arkansas. For a major portion of the journey I had my iPad and notebook on my lap, while one of my traveling companions had a giant artist’s sketchbook in which he wrote rough sketches of characters and dialogue punctuated by suggestive illustrations.

Both of us were preparing to tell stories.

A friend of mine said to me the other night that she found creation a daunting task because (and I agreed) every story begins with an infinite amount of possible choices and the writer has to narrow them down to the best possible box that a reader or actor or artist could lose themselves in and dissect from top to bottom. Over the years I have worked hard on my method of the work that goes into stories before writing the first draft, and since I firmly believe every new tale is better than the last, I have to think the method is working. Everyone has their own method, such as the cartoonist-in-the-margins stylings of my traveling companion, and none is better or worse than the other, but I offer this as help for those who feel that they can’t get started.

(Optional soundtrack here)

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The Wrong Kind of Focus

Image from Dreamatico

Image from Dreamatico

My mind is an interesting one.

Right before I moved to Chicago, I spent a day with some of my best friends from college, and they told me they thought I might have some degree of Asperger’s syndrome…a suspicion my parents confirmed later on, telling me I was tested for it as a child. If this is true, it is something I welcome. My brain has intertwined tendencies, one dominating over the other depending on the day, to both focus on things and scatter itself through fields of information, and this has allowed me to absorb a wide range of knowledge AND settle down to tell long-form narratives.

My mind also gets me in trouble, in that I can be overcome with the most intense depression.

I have never been clinically diagnosed with depression. But there are times when I have what I once called manic episodes, but, not wanting to use that language, instead refer to as “the wrong kind of focus.” Something will trigger what I perceive as a problem and my mind fixates on that problem in a desire for solutions, realizes it cannot, and destroys my sense of well-being.

This misguided focus is rooted in a common lie every one of us tells ourselves, to quote Donald Miller: that life is a story about us. We can easily convince ourselves that if a person or group we are close to is angry or sad or simply having a bad day, then it has to be our fault in some way, that we offended or hurt them or let them down. For me, there is no greater fear than hurting another person, and the possibility that I did is often my greatest motivator for a poor focus.

My most recent episode was at a party with many old and new friends. I had been been enjoying a few drinks (Alcohol is definitely an aid to manic episodes as it weakens my intellectual stability.) and was in a marvelously good mood on a warm summer night. Then a person I greatly respect said one thing that snapped my brain to attention. This person clearly meant nothing personal by the remark and was in no way angry at me. But in that moment my good mood vanished and I thought of myself as a sad, worthless excuse for a human being who hurts everyone he meets.

I left the party soon afterwards because everyone else was in a great mood and I refused to let myself bring other people down. I ended up (naturally) calling my parents and sobbing for half an hour.

Twenty minutes after I was home, I was alright again, and the only thing that made me upset was that I let myself ruin a wonderful night.

That’s the last thing. This has happened to me enough to recognize the pattern over and over but while I have worked to reduce its frequency, it has never gone away. My mind will snap every month or two for a little bit under the pressures of doing so much and trying to maintain a positive attitude through it all.

I don’t think it will ever stop.

I write this because I have so many wonderful and brave friends who have shared their emotional upheaval with me and others. We all deal with our own little demons. And maybe there is someone else out there who has this same pattern of picking up the wrong kind of focus, and I want you to know you are not alone.