Lights from Salem

Musings and thoughts of a traveler and armchair linguist on his journey through the ups and downs of life.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

2015 Books and Movies in Review

At the beginning of every year I publish a list of all the books and movies I have read during the past 12 months, and give a little micro-review about some of them. This year will probably by titled as “The Year I Finally Saw ‘The Terminator,’ ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ and ‘Total Recall.’” For some of the movies I also wrote some of my predictions for Academy Award nominations, which have since been announced.

* = Among my favorites

** = I had already seen it before I started keeping my list, but I re-watched for the first time since I began my list.

Best movie I saw this year:

Honorable Mentions:
It Follows
Nymphomaniac Volumes I and II

Best book I read this year:
Men in Green Faces

Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer
Good documentary on a fascinating and unbalanced, and ultimately pitiful, individual.

Almost Famous

American Sniper*
Well-told, well acted, not sappy. But still some Hollywood elements, like the handling of the duel subplot between the two snipers.

Auschwitz: Inside The Nazi State*

Babadook, The*
Brilliant, sensitive and very scary horror film. Excellent writing, acting, directing, sound-mixing and cinematography.


Birth of the Living Dead*
Excellent and fun documentary about the groundbreaking horror film.

Bridge of Spies*
Good, but not great. Well acted and well made, but still felt like it was simplistic.

Burbs, The

Crimson Peak*
Beautiful, but not very scary. On some level it falls short. Predictions: Best Art Direction/Set Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Visual Effects.

Devil’s Advocate *
Entertaining, if not particularly profound, film. Pacino is an excellent Satan and is the reason the film is good and not ho-hum.

Good acting and moving. Felt very documentary-like and real. Great Cinematography and Visual Effects

Ex Machina*
Beautiful production values, good acting. But script was lacking. Nothing new brought to the table.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Excellent performances but once was enough for me. Bleak and cold movie.

Ghost and the Darkness, The

Good Shepherd, The**
Detailed, but ultimately dull story. Meandering and rather boring.

Hateful Eight, The*
Not as violent as many of Tarantino’s other films, this one feels almost like a play. Brilliant performances all around, as usual. A commendable modern Western classic. The cinematography was done with the soul of a visual poet.

Hedi Schneider Steckt Fest

Nice dark and macabre love story. Very fascinating.

Hunger Games, The: Mockingjay – Part Two

Ich Seh Ich Seh (Goodnight Mommy)

Imitation Game, The
Well acted story, but also not terribly originally told. Cumberbatch is good, but not his usual great.

In the Heart of the Sea

Surprisingly good and frightening.

Insidious: Chapter II *

It Follows*
Incredible, relentless, terrifying. Well-acted and well directed story and allegory about the loss of innocence. Possibly best movie of the year.

Jurassic World

Kingsman: The Secret Service


Legend of Hell House, The
A good, albeit a non-scary adaption of a non-scary book. Good, but not great.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels*

Mad Max: Fury Road*
Amazing adrenaline rush. A real piece of art. Notable: Art Direction/Set Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Sound Editing.


Martian, The*
Well-made survivor film, hits a lot of human notes. Award predictions: Visual Effects, Sound Effects, Art Direction/Set Direction, Editing, and Best Actor (Damon)

Inspiring to see people push themselves to excellency and beyond to achieve goals that seem to hang only on the fringes of possibility.

Missing, The**

Mr. Holmes
Well made and well acted, but rather forgettable, and kind of depressing.

Navy Seals*
Fun, but bad 80’s music.

Night Before, The

Nightmares in Red, White and Blue *
Very interesting look at the evolution of American horror films.

Nosferatu, eine symphonie des Grauens
Good, atmospheric German telling of Dracula

Nymphomaniac Volume I – Director’s Cut*
Raw and told with a jaded, troubled heart, but a real heart, nonetheless. Beautifully acted, directed and shot.

Nymphomaniac Volume II – Director’s Cut*
The conclusion to a remarkable, brave, dark, raw and human movie.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Boring. The whole thing was an uncomfortable experience, and not in an entertaining way. Bad soundtrack and just bizarre. Which sucks. I had been looking forward to seeing this movie for years.

Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan

Room 237
Entertaining, but a little disturbing in how obsessive it got.

Shakespeare in Love**
Good, sad ending, and well-made but still not deserving of Best Picture of the year.

A near-perfect film situated squarely in a heart of darkness. Lyrical, violent, bleak, and poetic. Easily one of the best films of the year. Everyone puts in a good performance, but in the end, the cinematography and very taunt direction are the stars in this ballad Predictions: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, Actor (Del Torro), Cinematography, Original Score.

Silence of the Lambs, The*
Excellent, and surprisingly not as graphic as I had expected.

Sophie’s Choice*
Beautiful and extremely well acted. Streep embodies the character completely.

A trifle too long, but one of the strongest entries in the 007 series. Predictions: Best Cinematography

Star Wars: The Force Awakens*
Although it doesn’t quite capture the magic of the originals, it is a solid entry, respectful, humorous in the right way and not vulgar in its special effects. Abrams has a brilliant eye, especially in the scene where the solar system is destroyed. Possible nominations: Visual Effects, Editing.

Stir of Echoes
Good ghost story and pretty believable main characters. But it could have been better.

Terminator, The*
Still holds up for the most part.

Total Recall
Fun and has re-watch value, but not exactly a classic.

Trip to the Moon, A
Interesting and fun little short and silent film. Good set pieces.

Good, not great. Cinematography was the best part of it.

Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (Generation War)*
Not as good as bad of brothers, and not nearly as expansive (in fact, it is quite simplified), but still well told and recommendable.

Excellent and daring cinematography and very natural acting. A slow burn.

Visit, The
Surprisingly spooky with good and disturbing scenes. Well-acted by everyone.

Water Diviner, The

Amazing acting, inspiring about the drive to be the best.

Bear and the Dragon, The
by Tom Clancy
Takes a while to get moving but when it does, it goes at a break-neck pace.

Beyond Freedom: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj*
Edited by Maria Jory

Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla
by Stephen King

Glossika Mass Sentence Method: German Fluency 1
by Mike Cambell and Christian Schmidt

Glossika Mass Sentence Method: German Fluency 2
by Mike Cambell and Christian Schmidt

Glossika Mass Sentence Method: German Fluency 3
by Mike Cambell and Christian Schmidt

Hell House
by Richard Matheson

How to Win Friends and Influence People*
by Dale Carnegie

Instant Self-Awareness (Talks on Ashtavakra Gita)*
by Swami Shantananda Puri

by Ken Follet

Man in the High Castle, The
by Phillip K. Dick
OK. Meandered and ultimately the a world slip through its fingers.

Men in Green Faces*
by Gene Wentz and B. Abell Jurus
Fast-paced yet subtle, hard to believe this was not non-fiction

Only That: The Life and Teaching of Sailor Bob Adamson*
by Kalyani Lawry

Pelican Brief, The
by John Grisham

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer*
by Patrick Süskind
Very Good – Well paced and poetic in its telling.

Point Man*
by Chief James Watson and Kevin Dockery

Rainbow Six
by Tom Clancy

SOS Help for Emotions: Managing Anxiety, Anger, and Depression
by Lynn Clark

Sum of All Fears, The,
by Tom Clancy

Testament, The
by John Grisham
Very good: Well paced, exciting and ultimately touching

Why Can’t I Fall in Love? A 12-Step Program
by Shmuley Boteach

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Blue Skies

[Author’s Note: Quotations are stated as precisely as I can recall, but are not always exact.]

A friend of mine asked what was going through my mind as I jumped out of a plane. I answered, and this entry is an extended version of that answer.

I was curious to see if I’d feel like I was about to faint again: When Judson, a former Peace Corps volunteer and fellow Germanophile, asked if I would like to join him and a small group to go skydiving, I agreed. It would be the second time I’d ever jumped from a plane.

In the meantime between talking about it and heading to the airfield, I ran into health problems which quickly started to eat up my savings. I considered backing out, but I had already emotionally committed myself, so I made my reservation. The night before the jump I went to a bar and saw two magic 8 balls at the cash register. Why the hell not? I thought. I asked, “Will I die tomorrow skydiving?” and consulted the 8 balls.

“You can count on it.”

“It is decidedly so.”

Well fuck both of you, I thought and went back to see the group I was with.

The day of the jump, I woke up feeling very calm. I had done this before. I don’t really have a crippling fear of heights. I don’t get motion sick. I wore confidence like comfortable clothing, while in the air I could feel electricity of anticipation humming faintly.

I met Judson and friend Desdemona of his who was joining us to jump. Judson’s mother was also along to watch. But it turned out it would be a small group: everyone else had either backed out or had lost interest.

Judson and Desdemona both had some shopping to do on the way there, so we made a stop at an outlet mall in San Marcos. I tagged along, unsuccessfully looked for a bookstore, and was disappointed to discover that the Pottery Barn is not an arts supply store.

Our small group went to a burger joint to get lunch. I munched on some fries but then realized I had no appetite. I doubted I would get motion sick but now did not seem like the time to tempt anything.

That afternoon, while making our way to the airfield, most of what we did was answer questions for Desdemona, who was the only first-time jumper of the three of us going. She wanted an outlet and distraction from a recent tragedy in her life and felt a jolt of adrenaline sounded like a hell of an idea. I was not too focused on what was ahead and felt happy to listen to her and answer any questions I could.

The first time I had gone skydiving in Colorado, where I was surprised to learn that people would do this more than once a day. Once a skydiver is certified to jump on their own, they can go as long as you can pay the pilots to take them up. This time around I watched the experienced skydivers walk around relaxed and with a confidence that I admired, wondering how many times they had already been jumping today. I was still feeling calm, but the electricity was hummed louder and I could feel my nerves started to make their presence known.

“Why is there a crashed airplane out front?” Desdemona asked several people working there, referring to the stripped body of a plane angled into the ground with a welcome sign attached to it. I could not tell if she was joking or legitimately concerned.

We didn’t have to wait long before our group was called up.

“Hey! Are you Tristan?” I turned and saw a guy wearing a purple jump suit, a bunch of tattoos and a huge grin.


“I'm Panda! I'm going to be your instructor today! Go pee and get back here!”

Reality started to sink in a bit.

I went to the rest room and then met him to suit up. Panda, who looked like no panda at all, helped me into my jumpsuit and went over the procedures for safely exiting the plane.

“Your first job: Can you have fun?”

“Yes!” I guess, I thought, not feeling too outgoing and already feeling guilty about it. I didn’t want him to think I’d be a wet blanket.

“That’s the most important thing,” Panda said before talking about how to position myself while we were in free fall.

“I'm going to strap you in with four hooks, even though any one of these hooks could hold a car.” He said it so nonchalantly I had to replay it in my head to process what exactly he meant. Throughout the whole process of getting suited up my adrenaline was starting to kick in, and I wondered why some people crave adrenaline rushes all the time. To me it felt all tingly, like how I felt before running in track. Panda was very enthusiastic and looked like he was right at home, and it was hard not to feel at ease around him.

After all getting onto my jumpsuit up and with my harness on, I waited for him to ask me, but he never did. I almost let the question go, thinking, I'll ask on my third jump, and then immediately asked anyway: “Can I pull the rip cord?”

Panda paused and looked at me. “Do you want to?” he said in a tone where I could not tell if he admired me for asking or if he was sorry he had heard me ask.

“Yes.” Is that the right answer? Do I get some cred?

“Alright!” he replied with another jovial smile. He explained where the cord would be, pointed out a pack on the wall with a cord next hanging from it. “Just pull six inches out on that thing that looks like a golf ball. This will be the signal.” He waved his hand in front of my face, and then said he would be on it in case I was to wound up to pull it myself.

We made small talk. Panda told me was from Boston and also that he had 3000 jumps under his belt. I hold him I translated Spanish. Again his tone changed and we could have been chatting at a house party. He asked me for advice on learning Spanish because he and his girlfriend had recently decided to get fluent in it. “Should I get Rosetta Stone?”

“Absolutely not.” It felt good to be in my element before most literally stepping out of it.

A small Cessna plane roared down the runway and stopped near us and we boarded through its little sliding door while the engines were still running. The assistants’ speed at loading us up was intimidating and made me want to withdraw into my shell.

The plane was so small that for a second it was easy to think it was our own private little craft hired out just for our group, despite the few solo skydivers already crammed in. The interior was rough, with just a bench to straddle and bumper stickers about the skydiving life decorating the wall. I got in and crouched down in front of Panda and behind Judson and his instructor. I noticed an altimeter attached to the instructor’s wrist. The needle was safely at zero and somehow this obvious fact was reassuring to me.

Oh Christ, I thought. I'm actually about to do this. I can still back out if I really want to. They can’t force me to go.
I let these thoughts have their say and then tuned them out. Time to enjoy.

As the plane started to take off one of the experienced jumpers yelled out “Hey, one of you guys up front want to be the door monkey?” Some dude squeezed by us and lay down in the foot space by the plastic door, placed his foot up on the wall of the plane, and cozied right down.

Through the small windows I saw the plane leave the runway and the ground started to sink away. The electricity was humming loudly now and my stomach flipped a bit. It wasn’t terror, but the adrenaline was well past kicking in and I was glad I had eaten so little. I was riding this thing out, playing it cool. Panda started to talk to me, going through our safety checks. I noticed the sun glint off of the altimeter strapped to the wrist of instructor crouching in front of me. The needle was climbing.

By now, everyone was started to get excited. The professional jumpers started high-fiving each other. One of the solo jumpers moved to the back of the plane.

“This guy is gonna jump at 5,000 feet and open his chute right away. We are gonna go higher than him,” Panda yell at me over the plane’s roaring.

The solo jumper sat next to the door monkey and got also made himself comfortable.

I took some deep, slow breaths through my nose and fiddled with my goggles. I noticed Judson’s instructor had ear plugs in and simultaneously thought, That’s kind of un-badass and also God, I wish I had remembered to bring those. At some unseen signal the solo jumper got moved to the door and heaved it open. Wind rushed into the plane and suddenly things felt more primal. In a machine there is a relationship to man. But the wind seemed to me like it was reminding me of where exactly we were about to go. The jumper lay down next to the open door and waited for a bit, looking as natural as if he were laying on a couch at home. Then he turned up to us, gave a wolfish grin, flashed the Hang Ten! gesture, appeared to lean back and then just get sucked out of the open door. There and gone. The door monkey closed the door and we continued on higher above the few clouds in the otherwise clear blue Texas sky.

There was little to say and it was almost impossible to hear anyways, so I did a bit of mindfulness meditating, letting my nerves go through me and appreciating how it felt. Panda went through his hook ups strapping me in and pounding off every connection point on my shoulders and hips while he counted. “You are locked in!” he shouted. I was too excited to be excited, but I knew that later the enthusiasm would come, like an aftertaste.

We reached our altitude.

The lights over the door flickered and the door monkey hit the switch. Once again wind rushed in.

You’ve done this before. Don’t chicken out. As a game, see if you can avoid screaming this time.

Judson slid down the bench to and waddled over to the door with his instructor fastened tightly to his back, put his arms on his shoulder straps as we had all been instructed, and put his feet over the side out the door. He yelled something that sounded like “Cowabunga!” over the screaming wind and his instructor pushed out of the plane.

I still had a few seconds before I was up. My survival instincts started to kick in and lap up ever second before Panda gleefully yelled out, “Ok, you ready for this?!” I screamed hollered out a “Hell yes, let’s kick its ass,” or something else that would have immediately sounded stupid to me had I been in any state of mind to be very self-conscious.

My mind started to overload, racing with its second-guesses and anticipations.

We started to slide down the bench and my mind slowed down, digesting every second and my survival instinct started to rebel against me.

Just move forward, bit by bit.

I went into automatic mode and focused on the movements in front of me, one by one, not focusing on the anything other than one second ahead of me. We crawled over to the door and I sat down to hang my feet out of the plane.

I can still back out. I'm not going to. But you can. Fuck THAT! I'm doing this!

I looked two miles down.

Just sit.

This is so unnatural.

Everything rational inside of me is fighting what I am doing. I have no control now but my body is screaming for something to control.

I grab my shoulder harnesses just so. My arms want to fight and grab for the door and cling and refuse to budge, like how a how a cat would cling spread eagle if it was stretched over a sink over a sink of water (Note: No, I have never done that to a cat, so don’t ask!).

It’s not to late to back out! I can’t believe I'm doing this, this is so unhealthy.

I lean back onto Panda’s shoulder like he told me to.

Maybe something will happen. Maybe the plane will break and --

The floor fucking disappears. Everything is gone, replaced by blustery wind and the roar of air. Even the plane out of earshot.

Freefalling. A have no fucking idea which was is even up. We are tumbling and I give an involuntary scream that starts as terror and then feels triumphant.

I am going to enjoy this shit out of this!

And it’s not hard. This is primal. We go on down and I look around checking out the clouds from above, looking briefly for Judson or Desdemona but nothing is visible except the blue sky and the brown horizon. We do nothing fancy, no rolls or flips or headstands, although any of that would have been great. There is a family of clouds hundreds of feet below us. We sideswipe the wisps of one of them and then it is gone like it was never even there. I realize I have to shut my mouth because it is so windblown I can’t even swallow.

But in the rush of it there is something that is also very calm. And for something so extreme it feels natural. I don’t know if it feels natural to only certain people who live for this, but I suspect not because when you are at the mercy of the world’s elements, you are reminded you are really part of it. The world’s deadly side is also a side that welcomes you in, like a yin and yang. It’s a romantic thought, and one that comes after contemplating my jump, but I wonder if people who live on the edge also need a bit of hopeless romanticism in their personalities to really appreciate the lifestyle they have.

Panda waves his hands in front of my face and I am disappointed that it is time to pull the cord. I'm having too much fun exploring the sky. But by God I don’t want to lose my chance to try this, too. So I reach down to the cable with the golf ball on it and tug, hoping that my adrenaline doesn’t rip the goddamn thing right out of his pack. But it takes very little effort and suddenly the chute opens with an explosion above us. We jerk abruptly like being belted in a vehicle that has made an unexpected jolting stop at full speed. I don’t even think to look up. I could not say what color the fabric is. It opened, and that is enough.

Panda asks me how I'm doing, and all the nervousness I had in the plane is filtering out of me. The enthusiasm has already been taking over. I'm great, I say, and it’s true. And least, I think so. Everything has gone so fast I'm still catching up mentally. Panda starts pointing out landmarks over an almost empty that fades off in every direction. I have no idea which direction is which. He asks me if I want to fly this thing.

Why, yes. Yes, I do.

He gives me some very basic instructions on how to fly the chute (a rectangular one that allows you to glide, not the round military style parachutes that drop you like a bag of hammers). I yank on one of the handles and we go into a spin. My head feels like it is being crushed I get nervous that we are going to flip but we never do. The blood comes back down from my head. He points out the landing spot.

“Alright, we are half a mile up,” Panda alerts me.

I am used to measuring distances in running, and to me it looks like we are still two miles up.

“Wanna spin left this time?” he asks

Sure do! I yank the handle again and we do exactly the same thing. Again my head feels the pressure from all the blood rushing to it.

Then we slow down and Panda takes over and says he is going to make our approach in for landing, explaining wind direction and other details that are too much for my brain to absorb at the moment.

We steer one down to the patches of grass and I recall how Desdemona’s instructor said he got caught in one of the cracks in the dirt last year and ended up with a broken leg. Panda tells me to lift my legs so he can touch down first. I get them into the air as high as I can and ignore the brief discomfort.

And then we touch down with a thud. “Fuck!” I holler as my tailbone hits down first. Nothing broken, and not a bad landing, but I have literally landed on my ass. If anything though, it's funny, and facts being facts, I am alive and unharmed. I had no doubt in Panda, but still, I am alive. I only wish everything had lasted longer.

Panda asks me how I'm doing and I am quite fine. I sit still for a moment to see if nausea or lightheadedness seizes me the way it did five years previously when I jumped. But nothing sneaks up. I get to my feet, woozy from the adrenaline but otherwise quite stable. Panda unhooks me and gives me a high-five.

“You’re a natural!,” he says with that huge grin of his.

Excellent, I think. I am already looking forward to going again.

Judson and Desdemona land safely, although Desdemona looks a lot like how I did when I first jumped: stunned and weak at the knees, so Judson and I walk her back to the sitting area patio where she could get some water and while she process her experience. Judson’s mom greets us in the sitting area and shows us some of the videos that she has taken of our landings.

Afterwards, we stripped our jump suits off and each got an envelope to prove we had successfully gone skydiving. Panda suggested I hang it prominently in my bathroom, since that is a location everyone will eventually have to go.

We climbed into Judson’s car and suddenly it was like any other Sunday afternoon again. We passed the decorative plane sticking out of the ground and headed back to Austin, talking about how it felt and if we would go again. Judson definitely wants to. I do, too. Again and again. Desdemona still sounds wind-blasted and said she can take it or leave it, but who knows. I felt exactly the same way after my first jump.

But now something inside of me felt different. I never considered myself a thrill seeker, but rather more of an explorer. Yet, there certainly is an intense side to my life. It doesn’t have to be expressed through extreme sports, but balance is important for everyone to find in their life.

What I noticed though was not how intense the solo and professional were, but to for want of a better expression, how down-to-earth and warm everyone was. Professionalism and playfulness abounded amongst the few experienced jumpers that I spoke with.

The rest of the day felt very quiet and calm. I didn’t want to go speeding down the road with my hair on fire. Instead, things had a subtle vibration to them, like music was playing that only I could hear.

I hope this message finds you well and for you to have, as Panda wished me, “Blue skies!”

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Project Berlin

When I was in college I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. This should have come as a surprise to no one, and as it turns out, by the time I was diagnosed I was busy spinning so many plates to keep myself together that any surprise remaining in me was half-hearted at best.

I've debated about whether I should elaborate on this in some other entry, but this story is not about what I went through back then.  It does, however, set the scene.

I set out to attend a four-day Polyglot Gathering in Berlin, Germany in early May.  I also gave myself another week to spend in Germany on my own.  As much as I love traveling and living abroad, the process of actually going abroad is slightly terrifying to me, like the professional skydiver who is afraid of heights or public speakers who will admit to having stagefright.

The plan was to spend four days at the conference.  After that I had some very loose notions of what I would do in Germany, but I also went to run a test of sorts on myself and to see how open I could be to what life has in store:

I was going to go in with a vague idea at best, and with no preparations beyond that (such as no pre-arranged places to stay) just to see how life would fall into place if I took my hands off the wheel.  Instead of planning for everything to overcorrect the mild but constant drone of anxiety that accompanies me every waking minute, I stopped tinkering to see what would arise spontaneously.  This was my experimental project, such that it was.

I hope that my new friends and acquaintances will read this and some of my other entries, but for those need a definition of this funny sounding word, a polyglot is a person who has a fluent handle on several languages.  There is no real set number on how many qualify - some think it is three, although I personally won't consider myself one until I can speak five languages.  I also am not even going to touch the question of what counts as fluency, since that is beyond the scope of this entry.

I don't recall the numbers now but there were several dozen countries and languages represented.  Other than English, almost everyone spoke German, which somehow surprised me, although in a crowd of polyglots, German would be one of the major languages learned first. Naturally the other biggies were represented, too: Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese and many others that would be two numerous to list here.  But there were also smaller (yet just as precious)  languages to be heard: Welsh, Irish, Icelandic, Danish, Finnish, Hungarian, Basque, Navajo, and at least one dialect of Sami (also known as the Lapp language, although nowadays Lapp is considered a politically incorrect and insulting term in those cultures).

Additionally there were some constructed languages gracing the crowds: Esperanto seemed to be spoken about as widely as Italian or German. There were two people who had knowledge of Klingon (I've also studied it, but now can only vaguely describe the features of the language) and Toki Panasonic (which I've also flirted with.

For myself I only speak English, Spanish and German.  I also included Esperanto, Norwegian, French and several others on my name tag but I am not yet fluent in but have studied.  I marked them as such out of the hope it would start connections along the lines of "Oh I studied that one as well for a summer, etc" but instead it caused confusion and left me feeling slightly misleading about what I could speak, so I simplified my card to just ones I could function in currently.

Most people spoke at least three languages, although a few spoke just English and their native language.  Weighing in at three myself, I was certainly on the lower end of the numbers spectrum. The majority of people could probably handle about five languages, and there were a few who spoke around thirty.

To me, the most subtle and most interesting aspect of the whole gathering was that while you could argue that some or most of the world's best language learners were all at this gathering, there was an atmosphere of just common air.  There was practically no arrogance at all, no ego of who spoke more or who spoke best.  There was no competition in who knew the most languages, and if there were any geniuses or prodigies in the crowd, you would never have noticed.  Everyone was absolutely normal and average (or as normal and average as you can expect of out lovingly obsessed language geeks, one of which I am proud to be).

There is the idea that to speak a large number of languages, or even one or two more languages in addition to your native language, you need to have a superior brain, but this in fact false, or at least mostly so.  Certainly there is talent and some have more talent than others, but most people who learn something well do it because they love or because they need it.  And many people will probably not learn six or eight languages or more because they "need" them.  When you get to that point, it you have the mark of a language lover.  And it is a lot of work, too.  It can be very enjoyable, but it is still work.  However, it is fun work.  And that is what the folks at this gathering understood.  So if you told a polyglot they were a genius, they would probably be a little confused by that remark, since they know how much energy rather than the acute lack of cerebral magic it takes.  And I think everyone at this grasped this innately by this point.

It was also touching to see how many Americans were present - not a lot but not a few either - breaking the ever-more-outdated stereotype that Americans are monolingual.

For me, one of the most interesting sessions was a two-parter about life as an interpreter, presented and taught by Lýdia Machová (you can find more information about her and her language mentoring in both English and Slovak).  I already do some interpreting on the phone but it was fascinating to see an experienced and trained interpreter with years of professional experience talk about working at huge gatherings and speak about some of the pitfalls that can happen, like when some kicks the cable to the microphone and kills the audio, or if a doorknob falls off the interpreter's booth and the maintenance worker decides to drill it back into place while you are still at work.  The next day included interpreting exercises which proved to be so demanding (and fun) that it whet my interest to learn more about this art and profession.  I still prefer writing however, which means I am more inclined to translate.

The people themselves were wonderful and I made some new friends from around the globe.  One of the first people I met was Cristina, a woman from Norway, and while walking around in Berlin in the 50 F degree weather (10 C) she commented on how hot it was, which I knew to be true for her but I still thought that was a mild tragedy. She probably thought the same about me for saying that in Austin it was getting up to 90's F (30's C) and that I thought that was decent weather.  This conversation proved not to be the strangest one we would have but certainly be beginning to many interesting ones.

And interesting conversations were to be had in several languages, indeed.  German has been near and dear to my heart for many years, but I found my practice lacking in America, as I focus more on Spanish for my job.  My goal is to move to Germany to at least study translation in a grad school program, and possibly to move there long term.  So if there is anyone who reading this who has advice on how to apply for school in Europe, I would love to hear from you, please.

Other languages I found a rekindled interest in were Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch.  Now, these were all languages I have near the top of my to-learn list, and it doesn't hurt that they were all spoken very very pretty women at the Gathering, but meeting people to speak them with and to see it was possible (which I always knew, to but to meet people who've accomplished it helps) was a great inspiration on its own.  In fact, on my way home I ended up speaking with a new Russian friend in Norwegian on a chat feature on my phone.  I didn't really even know I could converse in Norwegian beyond "I've studied it for a little bit but I've forgotten almost everything."

In one memorable instance I wanted to test the melody of a Dutch sentence with Hannah, a woman from Flanders.  I've been told the sentence "I have a rusty razor that needs to to be sharpened" gives a fine concert of throat explosions when rendered into Dutch, and so I asked Hannah to please translate it for me without bothering to tell her why I wanted to hear it. She gave me a bemused look and then started translating it before pausing and asking "But, wouldn't you just buy a new one?" The answer was so disarming I decided not to worry about the translation.

So for my next gathering, I'm planning on adding Dutch and Norwegian to my list, and possibly Finnish and Swedish too, in addition to maintaining my German and Spanish.

I'm afraid of leaving some languages out, since I always met some nice Poles and French speakers...but I've known for ages that my To-Learn List for languages would be a week long.

The Gathering was only four days, with a couple of book-ended activities that were fun, but after the four days it was time to say good bye to almost everyone, and I found myself with a few new buddies to speak with from around the globe and to look forward to meet again.

Myself, I still had plans to stay in Germany for another week. I didn't want to travel so far for just four days, so I took almost two weeks of vacation.  And that is where I took a bit of a leap of faith or whatever you want to call it.  I knew I'd be nervous about what I would do, where I would stay, what I would eat, and all those other things that my mind grasps at like sand going through your fingers. So I kept to my project of planning only the bare minimum and see what would happen.

I had planned on visiting a few friends in Germany, but that all came quickly undone: two had important engagements they couldn't get around and one of them had fallen ill and needed to be with her family.  I toyed with the idea of going to Prague but it was harder than I had expected to get in touch with my friends there (and one of them was out of town anyways) and, quite frankly, after four days of hundreds of people, I needed time to decompress and recharge. So I booked myself a single room in the hostel I stayed at for the conference and started wandering around the town, taking pictures and running into Russians (I'll get back to that).

This does not mean I was a hermit, though. There were a few other people who stayed late after the conference that I did some sight-seeing with while they stayed in town. It also happened that Julia, a friend of mine from when I studied in Germany, suggested I meet up with Heike, her old roommate, who now lived in Berlin.  I wrote Heike a Facebook introduction to which she replied that she would love to meet up.  She suggested I join her roommates, friends and herself to watch a soccer game at a bar.

I personally find sports dull to no end, but I didn't exactly  want to say that, so instead I said, "Sure, sounds great."  Heike met me at the subway station to take me to the bar, and asked me if I enjoyed soccer.  She seemed nice enough and I didn't really feel like making shit up so I said no, which she laughed at and said she didn't really either.

The start of a beautiful friendship!

But indeed watching the game was fun.  By which I mean it was fun to see everyone sitting outside the bar watching a TV through and drinking mugs of beer that make American glasses look like samplers.

Heike then invited me back to her place with her friends to have some Riesling wine, which was from the region that the two of us (as well as Julia, my friend who put us in touch) all studied in.

So really, I have Julia and Heike to thank for making the second part of my trip so culturally enriching.  Heike invited me to an old GDR cinema to watch a movie and to a barbeque her neighbors hosted.  She also introduced me to the German tradition of watching crime shows on Sunday evening.  Unfortunately for her, the mystery had a major twist itself when it turned out the bar was showing the wrong show.  So I think I was only half-introduced to this German tradition.  Does it count if the show is not correct?

I met up and got breakfast with another old friend, Anna, who I first wrote about in this entry, and also met up with a penpal of mine, Gregg, an American polyglot who has amassed knowledge of a huge number of languages and yet was still humble and down-to-earth about his usage of them.  While walking around the city we passed a Japanese restaurant that had an English/Japanese advertisement and I asked Gregg if he could read it. Instead of bragging or bluffing or just reading the English and saying he was reading the Japanese, he merely pointed out the characters he could understand, told me what the meant, and said that the rest of them he could not read. And yet in the course of our trip in addition to English, he moved gracefully between German with passersby and French on his phone, and told me stories of his in-laws whose language he had to learn as well because they speak a dialect of German so unique that it has since been deemed its own separate language in the Germanic branch.

The vast majority of my trip was one of quietness though. As Heike was at work and my other friends were busy, I busied myself by not being busy at all.  I wandered over to river banks and drank pints of beer while I read my book, and sought out Döner Kebabs to dine on. On one particular evening I decided to visit a park I had heard about; Treptower Park.  I thought this would be a nice and spacious place to meander and take some pictures of a monument I had heard about.

What I did not know was that it is full of Soviet memorials for those lost in the war and particularly in the taking of Berlin.  I also didn't consider that the week I was there they commemorating the end of World War II and so the park was far from empty.  Instead there were thousands of Russians standing in droves, shouting chants, holding flags, looking at the memorials and laying thousands of beautiful flowers and wreaths at the bases of the statues.  So indeed I got my pictures.

I also got myself promptly lost while trying to find an abandoned and haunted-looking theme park called Spreepark.  Somehow I completely lost it, finding instead only a bus and train stop that looked plenty haunted itself.  I then promptly ended up getting my own self lost trying to get back to my metro station, or so I thought.  It turned out I wasn't lost at all, I was just confused, which amounts to the same thing when you boil it down.

My last day in Berlin were spent visiting two more friends from my Trier days, Maren and her boyfriend Micha, and then sight-seeing in the evening with Heike where we visited one of largest protestant cathedrals in Berlin and went to the top of the Fernseherturm, the tallest point in Berlin. Heike and I finished off the evening by going dinner at an East-German style restaurant.

My experiment had been to see what would happen if I took my hands out of the mix of planning and just let things fall into place, and things indeed worked out quite nicely during my trip.  It was inspiring to see that life has its way of working out, as it tend it tends to do.  Space was filled plenty and in a better way that I could have planned for by myself.   Even though the hum of anxiety drones on in the back of my life, there comes a point when it just becomes part of the soundscape, the way the sound insects chirping outside is no longer noticed when you stop focusing on it.

As to the Polyglot Gathering, I am definitely going to do everything in my power to go next year and see some of most wonderful and interesting people the corners of the world has to offer. 



The morning I woke up to leave Germany, I got a text from a friend directing me to a news article which reported that the skeleton of a young woman was found at the bottom of a cliff in Trier.  This struck a chord with both him and me because this person proved to be Tanja Gräff, a student at our University who had had suddenly vanished seven years prior during a summer party during her first year there, which had also been our first year there.  Even though I had never met her I had wondered from time to time what had become of her, although I don't think anyone was surprised to see that it had been a fatal outcome.  According to the articles I read, even her mother had known in her heart that Tanja had died, but at least there will finally be some closure.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Tristan's List of Books and Movies from 2014

Being the somewhat compulsive list maker I am, I keep track of what I've watched or read throughout the year.

For 2014 was a good year for movie watching, and there were some real ringers to be had.

For books there was less of an outcome, but most of the books I read were extremely dense and demanded more attention, time and energy.  

As usual, I've put in some reviews where I felt appropriate.

(*= a movie I've seen before 2014, but not before I started keeping a list of everything that I've watched)

1. 12 Years A Slave (Interesting story, well acted, beautiful scenery. But felt heavily abridged.)

2. American Hustle (Good, but not great. Very well crafted film, strong in every way other than it simply didn’t hold my interest like I had hoped.)

3. Babadook, The (Brilliant, sensitive and very scary horror film. Excellent writing, acting, directing, sound-mixing and cinematography.)

4. Bad Words

5. Balada triste de trompeta (The Last Circus) (First half was very good. Second half was a mess.)

6. Batman*

7. Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Excellent and well executed dark comedy.)

8. Brokeback Mountain *

9. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Good, but not as gripping as hoped. Herzog shows his brilliance, but some of his monologue is a bit over-the-top.)

10. Changeling (Slow going at first, but amazing plot twists. Annoying score.)

11. Closer – 2004 (2014) (Good - Very well acted. At times difficult and disturbing to watch.)
12. Day of the Dead (Dark, bleak, but still interesting.)

13. Dial M for Murder

14. El Juego de Arcibel (Very Good – Simple but well-told and well-acted story about fighting the system. Good make up effects, too.)

15. Emperor (Trite Hollywood fare. Tommy Lee Jones is good, and acting is fair overall, but as a whole the movie is nothing special.)

16. Fifth Element, The*

17. Forces Spéciales

18. Fright Night

19. From One Second to the Next

20. Gang Wars (aka The Devil’s Express) (Schlocky, but entertaining)

21. G.I. Jane

22. Godzilla – 2014 (Good effects, fun story, good editing, kept the pace for a monster movie.)

23. Gone Girl (A near perfect (and perhaps superior) adaption. Cinematography and score are especially excellent.)

24. Guardians of the Galaxy, The (Fun, good but nothing new or fresh.)

25. Hard Candy

26. Her (Very Good – Touching look at how we perceive others. Strong performances all around.

27. Hobbit, The: The Desolation of Smaug

28. Heart Machine, The – (Very good – Interesting love story. Surprisingly touching and good acting.)

29. Hot Fuzz

30. House of the Devil, The (Very Good – Atmospheric, and good at capturing the look of 70’s films. Surprisingly violent. Excellent cinematography, score and editing.)

31. Hunger Games, The: Catching Fire

32. Hunger Games, The: Mockingjay – Part One

33. Imitation Game, The (Good – Well acted story, but also not terribly originally told. Cumberbatch is good, but not his usual great.)

34. Interstellar

35. Into the Abyss (Very Good – Another fine documentary by Herzog. Stark and bare.)

36. Jack Reacher

37. Kill the Messenger (Good – Good performance by Renner)

38. Lone Survivor (Very good – Exciting and sometimes hard to watch. Fascinating look at modern warfare.)

39. Million Ways to Die in the West, A

40. Mummy, The – 1932

41. Night of the Living Dead - 1990* (Good - Perhaps unnecessary, but still good and entertaining remake. Has some power to it.)

42. North by Northwest

43. Oculus (Good - Actually scary and suspenseful. )

44. Passion of the Christ, The *

45. Platoon

46. Predator*

47. Psycho – 1960 (Good – Well done, but as I’ve seen it before (just not uninterrupted) as well as how famous it is, it’s lost a lot of its power.)

48. Rear Window – 1954

49. Relic, The

50. Sadist, The

51. Scrooged

52. Sleeping with the Enemy

53. V/H/S (Good – Shocking, frightening, surprising, creative.)

54. We Were Soldiers (Very good – Excellent and powerful war movie, probably one of the greatest
      portrayals of battle ever shown on film. Should be on the list of all-time greatest war films.)
55. Wolf of Wall Street, The 

55. X-Men: Days of Future Past

It was a good year for reading about the Navy SEALs and for reading about spirituality.  I don't see a relation between the two.

(* = books that were the best I'd read this year.)

1. “Art of Living, The: Vipassana Meditation As Taught by S. N. Goenka”* by William Hart 

2. “Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learner”* 
     by Michael Erard (Very good, interesting and inspiring, but heavy on psychology.) 

3. “Butterfly Effect, The: How Your Life Matters”* by Andy Andrews (Short but good and to the point – Thank you Dad) 

4. “Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight”* by M. E. Thomas (Good – Interesting portrayal of a possibly misunderstood part of the population.) 

5. “Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior” by Rorke Denver and Ellis Henican 

6. “Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass” by Stephen King (Good; a romance story, the weakest link so far though.) 

7. “Dasbodh: Spiritual Instruction for the Servant – Spiritual Discourses Between a Master and Listeners” by Saint Shri Samartha Ramdas 

8. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway (OK. Gimmicky but subtly effective.)

9. “Four Agreements, The: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom”* by Don Miguel Ruiz

10. “Glossika Mass Sentence Method: German Fluency 1” By Mike Cambell and Christian Schmidt

11. “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn (Good – Starts out a bit clunky and (seemingly) predictable, but climax is suspenseful.)

12. “I Am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj”* by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (Excellent. Piercing and unflinching.)

13. “Illusion vs. Reality – Dialogues with Shri Ranjit Maharaj” by Ranjit Maharaj

14. “Master Key to Self-Realization”* by Shri Sidharameshwar Maharaj (Sublime: Clear, kind, poetic, powerful.)

15. “Peanuts Guide to Life: Wit and Wisdom from the World’s Best-Loved Cartoon Characters”* by Charles M. Schulz

16. Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy (Fun, as his books usually are.)

17. “Rogue Warrior”* by Richard Marcinko with John Weisman (Very Good – Surprisingly well-written; would be a great movie.)

18. “SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper”* by Howard E. Wasdin and Stephen Templin (Excellent. Well written, down-to-earth, both ferocious and gentle, the story wields both the sword and the olive branch.)

19. Service: A Navy SEAL at War by Marcus Luttrell and James D. Hornfischer (A quieter but in some ways more complete story than “Lone Surivor”.)

20. “Warrior Soul: The Memoir of a Navy SEAL”* by Chuck Pfarrer (Well written, and with honesty and humility.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What Happens When You Don't Use a Chair

I bought a yoga ball to sit on at work and help alleviate my "kicky feet" as well as  aid in juicing up my kinesthetic brain passages.  Due to my cubicle's rather open position facing down a hallway, people could see me bouncing up and down on my big blue yoga ball while I translated medical documents.  One of my co-workers commented that this was strange to see, but if she had a yoga ball to sit on herself, I doubt she would have said anything.

I was quite happy to sit there and bounce while I typed.  The ball didn't properly "bounce" and get air, it just let my restless legs keep rhythm to whatever what was firing off in my mind while I'd flick words onto the computer and, depending on the mental nature required of my translation, listen to music or podcasts out of the privacy of my headset while I typed.

The only problem I had was that the ball was noisy to blow up, so I tended to top it off after hours in order to not disturb my neighbors.  It occurred to me that there might be something improper to the whole picture:  I would contendly bounce on my ball and listen to music that invigorated my spirit while I thinking how to best translate a document in which some unfortunate person was describing how their life was falling apart.  But if my spirits were up, my translations would be better and hopefully the individuals in question would get the help they needed.

In this particular morning I had assumed the position to work and bounce, and since I was working on a blood lab, something which I find almost complete joy in translating, I was able to listen to a podcast as well. Blood labs, like any translation, do demand attention to detail, but they mostly consist of lists of numbers set in a template I already have established.  So, while they are long and rather tedious, they are extremely simple and straightforward, and it is easy to see that you are making progress in them.  Therefore, my mind is at liberty to spin a couple of extra plates while I crunch up and double check my numbers of uric acid measurements and white blood cell counts listed.

In this particular instance, my corner of my mind began to  mull over if there wasn't something wrong with my dear yoga ball. It seemed to need more refills of air, but I couldn't tell if it wasn't holding air as well as it had when I first got it, or if I was imagining things.  I could tell it wasn't able to support me as well as it could before and I thought to myself that it really is time to top it off again.  The very instant I was thinking this, the whole goddamn thing exploded, dropping me flat on my unbraced bum.  As I crashed through space and onto the floor in front of my computer I couldn't decide if surprise, sudden and unexpected pain, or wounded pride was more of a problem, so I yelped out "Ow, my ass!" and decided that would have to do.

Since I had music playing through my earphones, I had no idea how loud the pop of the ball had been, but apparently it rang out across the office because even people from down the hall started coming into my cubicle to see if I hadn't somehow had an aneurism and fallen off my desk.  They rushed into my cubicle to find me still sitting on my sore bum on the floor in the middle of my now shattered yoga ball with my headphones still stuck in my ears and feeling very undignified.  I felt as if I had been caught doing something wrong rather than just the victim of a expedited rubber ball deflation.  I would be remiss though if I didn't say that I was also touched that they  hurried over, looking concerned and ready to help if I needed it.

My neighbor who had said I looked strange sitting and bouncing was one of the first responders, but later admitted she was very reluctant to step into my cubicle, because if I had fallen and was bleeding out of a head wound, she said she would have collapsed. There would have been no shame.  I recently got blood drawn for a check up and nearly passed out twice in a row.

After everyone saw that I was fine things returned to business as usual and I picked up the shattered rubber wings that had once allowed me to sit and probably screw up my back, and I was left to ask myself, was this karma?  Had I somehow upset the balance of the universe while happily finding a niche in my career, using my love for language, but translating documents written by people in deep pain? Or was this just a freak of nature; a yoga ball gone bad?  

Some questions have no answers.

Monday, May 19, 2014

May Thoughts

Today I was listening to a podcast about whether objects or experiences make us happier.  As in most things, the answer seemed to be "It depends" but the general verdicts leaned towards experiences, but with caveats.

However, hosts made a point that struck me.  Materialism keeps people at a baseline-level of happiness, evidence shows.  In other words, getting something new is great for a few weeks, but then the charm wears off, and the person returns to their normal level.  Hence, much like a drug fix, the person goes after a new thing.  Life becomes cluttered but there is no real fundamental change or improvement is made.

And I wondered, what is my baseline level of happiness?  Can it change or is it fixed?  I feel fairly certain in is not fixed.  However, I look around and so many people seem to be jubilant with things in their life.  "How's the new job? -It's great!"  "How is your new apartment?  - It's so nice!" "How's that chocolate mousse? - It's terrific!  And I catch myself wondering, and I really that much below them?  Or are they exaggerating or putting on a front to hide from mediocrity?  It's a bleak question I suppose, but I wonder how many folks are sincere in their expressions joy.   
I have to admit a biased from where I am writing right now.  Things have been going good for me: I got a new job that is closer to what I want to do in life, and I recently moved to a new apartment that I think will be a good change for me in many ways. 

But the fact is, despite the many incredible people I have met here in Austin, and the friends I have made, there has recently been a profound sense of loneliness in me.  It's a feeling that I've had much of my life, having traveled as much as I have.  I've forged wonderful life-long friendships but distance is usually an issue, and I've hoped to make some friends here that are close, both emotionally and geographically. 

But in nearly every case, things have remained at a casual level, and I wonder why.  This is certainly not what I want in a friendship.  I wonder what lesson I have to learn from this.  I do wonder if I can keep being open with my heart with people I care about.  Wearing my heart on my sleeve comes as natural to me as breathing, and trying to be more guarded is probably a useful skill, and one I'm not very good at yet.  But I am realizing that my energy to spend on those around me is very finite, and less so if I care about someone who sees me as simply a casual acquaintance rather.  In some cases, connections which I thought would foster potentially profound friendships has instead given way to deep misunderstanding and miscommunication and a painful attempt at learning the other person's language. 

This is not at all to diminish the connections I have made here though.  I am very thankful for the wonderful people I've met and friendships I've made, and aware that things do continue to evolve.

Today, while concerned about this, and no doubt stuck deep inside my own thoughts, I realized I had left my phone at home.  This was irritating and it helped point out how much I missed my phone and how much I missed it. 

But it should not have been a problem. 

After work I stopped by my old house to pick up some mail that had been sent there.  I got in my truck to leave, but got no further.  The engine would not even turn over.  A mobile mechanic was called up and he started working on my truck in the street to replace the starter.  I was very irritated, and upset that I was unable to contact a friend of mine to let her know I was not meaning to stand her up to play pool.  

Forced to sit by myself for a couple of hours and slow down while my truck was gutted, I turned my feelings inward, which was uncomfortable, since this feeling of loneliness now feels like broken glass inside of me.

As I was examining these feelings, I became more aware of the world around me, of the sun setting, of the breeze blowing the trees on the street, of the air becoming cooler, and of the fireflies twinkling on and off over the neighbors' yard.

And I had to admit to myself that everything changes: the light, the temperature of the air, the motion of the wind, and even the fireflies were not constant.  And then I looked back at my feelings, and started to feel less of an attachment to them, because they are in constant flux, too.  At the moment, they were feeling pretty shitty, but they don't tend to remain that way during the complete day.  And even if they do, they go away when I sleep, where I don't feel anything, which alone means they cannot be constant.

And if it is not constant, it's hard to see how they can be personal.  Everything moves on its own, but part of a bigger whole that moves.  Instead of the idea where one feels insignificant, or that their feelings are a drop in the bucket, there was more a sense of life is simply being expressed in this particular way, at this particular moment. 
And there was comfort in that.

So, maybe neither objects nor experiences bring happiness, because happiness too is an experience that comes and goes.  But there can be peace beyond that.  Nothing needs to be taken personally.

Yes, I am still lonely feeling.  And I am still uncomfortable with that.  But I started to remember that I have a right to feel uncomfortable, and that there is nothing wrong with that, or with going through an emotional low.  I feel that in my life I have gone through a large number of them, but perhaps there is a reason for it.  It doesn't have to be suffering, but rather a different expression of life in a given moment.  It is not my intent to say that if you are unhappy you shouldn't do anything about it to try to improve the situation if possible or feasible, but once you give yourself permission to feel shitty, feeling shitty actually feels less shitty, and I think that allows joy to come in organically, rather than force fed through objects or experiences.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Tristan's List of Movies and Books of 2013

As usual at the beginning of the year, I recap the list of books I read, and include a little review, if appropriate.

The asterisk (*) by the author’s name indicates those were exceptionally good books.

This year I'm including some new twists: I'm going to list the best book I read in the fiction and non-fiction category, and I'm also going to include the movies I watched, all with the same self-imposed “rules” and “features” of the list.

As always, these are books I read this year, not only just books that came out this year. Most of them were written ages ago, some of them centuries ago.

None of the movies I watched were made centuries ago, however.

These are all my opinions, and these lists are mostly for my amusement, and for the occasional two or so requests for recommendations of books to read that I get during the year.

Some conclusions:

-Robert Heinlein had a brilliant imagination and was a great story teller. This is not, however, the same as saying he was a great writer. His characters and dialogue have aged horribly, and I wonder if they sounded hokey even at the time they were written.

-Seems I hit the spirituality books a little hard this year. Sweet. 

Books I Read in 2013

1. Abyss, The by Orson Scott Card; based on screenplay by James Cameron*
a. Excellent – As much a novel as a supplement; fleshes out story perfectly

2. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan*
a. Sublime. From all of the elements in it, I should not have enjoyed this book. And yet it was perhaps the richest and most fascinating book I read this year. It’s the kind of book that makes me want to write. The second two books in its trilogy are very nearly equal to it.

3. American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, Jim DeFelice

a. Good, a little too homegrown for me, but haunting to read due to his untimely death.

4. Bankei Zen: Translations from The Record of Bankei by Peter Haskel (translator); Yoshito Hakeda (editor)*
a. Sublime – Clear, beautiful, to the point. From the East, but so clear it can be easily accessed in the West; old, but has lost none of its freshness.

5. [Title removed at publisher’s request]*
a.  Small but powerful.  If you read this book, it’s because it has found you, not the other way around.

6. Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan*
a. Sublime. Dense, though at times a bit confusing. The second book in the Takashi Kovacs trilogy.

7. Brother of Sleep by Robert Schneider*
a. Very good, magic, lyrical.

8. Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, The by Bill Watterson*

9. Clear in Your Heart: The Radiant Mirror of Self-Shining Awareness by John Wheeler*

10. Dark Half, The by Stephen King
a. Good, kept the pace going, but ending between the Thad and Pangborn seemed abrupt.

11. Dirty Enlightenment: The Inherit Perfection of Imperfection by Peter Brown*
a. Very good though hardly a primer for his “field”.

12. Dismantling the Fantasy: An Invitation to the Fullness of Life by Darryl Bailey*
a. Sublime, Gentle, Poetic, Clear. This book breathes life.

13. Essence Revisited: slipping past the shadows of Illusion by Darryl Bailey*
a. Very similar to “Dismantling the Fantasy”. The clarity of Bailey’s words remains excellent

14. Hannibal by Thomas Harris
a. Good – Dark and sexual.

15. Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris
a. Ok – Felt unrelated to the Hannibal series, far-fetched and forced. Weakest of the saga.

16. In The Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language by Akira Okrent*
a. Very Good, nice intro to the history of conlanging.

17. Inferno by Dan Brown

18. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton*
a. Very Good – Well-paced, exciting, dark. Second time reading it: First novel I had ever read; I originally read it in third grade.

19. Key to Rebecca, The by Ken Follet 

a. OK, slow until the last 70 pages or so. Before then I had considered giving up on the book.

20. Life Above All Else by Gilbert Schultz*

21. Light Behind Consciousness, The: Radical Self-Knowledge and the End of Seeking by John Wheeler*
a. Very good, though not as good as “Awakening to the Natural State”

22. Longest Day, The: June 6th, 1944 by Cornelius Ryan
a. Good, well-written, interesting German points of view

23. Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realization by Douglas E. Harding*
a. Sublime – Some of the clearest pointers in the West on so-called Eastern spirituality.

24. Lost World, The by Michael Crichton
a. Second time reading it. Originally read in grade school.

25. My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf*
a. Very good – cinematic and well-developed portray of Dahmer as told by someone who knew him when he was a teenager.

26. On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious by Douglas E. Harding*
a. Excellent, clear, friendly: An excellent book on spirituality.

27. One Good Thing by Preston M. Heller*
a. Very Good; occasionally a bit heavy-handed and in need of an editor, but overall well-told.

28. Op-Center by Tom Clancy, Steve Pieczenik
a. OK, slow-paced yet felt rushed.

29. Open to the Source: Selected Teachings of Douglas E. Harding by Douglas E. Harding, Richard Lang (Editor)*

30. Orders from Berlin by Simon Tolkien
a. OK, interesting premise but a bit dull and predictable.

31. Reason for God, The: Belief in the Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller
a. Good and Challenging; Good book to have in one’s arsenal to discuss conservative Christianity

32. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
a. Good – Good story, okay writing.

33. Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein
a. OK – Quite aged and characters act corny.

34. Ruins, The by Scott Smith
a. Good, dark, hooks you in.

35. SEAL Warrior: Death in the Dark: Vietnam 1968-1972 by Thomas H. Keith and J. Terry Riebling
a. OK; fascinating but author’s voice was a little too macho for my taste.

36. Secret Window, Secret Garden by Stephen King
a. Good, Surprisingly suspenseful and satisfying.

37. Silence of the Lambs, The by Robert Harris
a. Good – Interesting story, good characters, okay writing.

38. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
a. OK – Dry and Plodding.

39. Suffer in Silence by David Reid*
a. Very good, almost documentary-like. Plot is fairly thin, but fascinating and very well-written.

40. Walking Dead, The: Vol. 17: Something to Fear by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn and Tony Moore*

41. Walking Dead, The: Vol. 18: What Comes After by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn and Tony Moore*

42. Weirdos from Another Planet by Bill Watterson*
a. Very good – imaginative and touching, as always

43. Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan*
a. Very Good – The slowest paced but the most complex of the Takashi Kovacs novels so far. 

Best book of the year:

Fiction: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Nonfiction: Dismantling the Fantasy: An Invitation to the Fullness of Life by Darryl Bailey

Runner up: All of the books I read by Douglas Harding.

Movies I watched in 2013

Along with the reviews, I'm going to include what I thought were the best features of the film, and what it might get nominated for if the Academy Awards were run by me.

The ones with this goofy looking thing (§) mean that I saw it prior to 2013, but watched it again in 2013, which is the first year I started making a movie list. 

On some of the movies I did not include the years they were made.  My list has evolved over time in terms of detail, but I don't always go back and fix the past shortcomings.

1. 13th Warrior, The (May 2013) (Okay)
a. Good visuals, bad character development. Nice depiction of language learning

2. 42 (April 2013) (Very Good)*
a. A bit clichéd, but some good photography and an excellent performance by (and make-up job on) Harrison Ford.

3. Act of Valor – 2012 (October 2013) (Very good)* §
a. Macho and propagandistic, but exciting, interesting and full of excellent cinematography.

4. Babakiueria (March 2013) (Very Good)*
a. Surprisingly funny, effective, and cutting satire on aboriginal/European POVs. Very recommended.

5. Battleground (Jan 2013) (Good)
a. A slow but well-told story about a group of American soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge, focusing on their psychology rather than on the fighting, similar to A Thin Red Line.

6. Beyond Thought (Awareness Itself) (Jan 2013) (OK)
a. A ho-hum documentary about the state of Awareness that is aware of all things.

7. Captain America (June 2013) (OK)
a. Good, but flawed and a little shallow.

8. Captain Phillips – 2013 (October 2013) (Excellent)*
a. Suspenseful and well paced. The last 5 minutes are some of the most moving ever filmed. My nomination predictions: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Hanks), Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Editing.

9. Conjuring, The – 2013 (October 2013) (OK)
a. Had some creepy and suspenseful moments but was too formulaic.

10. Contagion – 2011 (October 2013) (Very good)*
a. Suspenseful, cold, stark. Focus more on the situation instead of connecting with any characters. Some good cinematography.

11. Croods, The (April 2013) (OK)
a. Boring and clichéd. Some funny moments but very very few.

12. Cropsey (December 2013) (OK)
a. Interesting documentary but somehow unfulfilling.

13. Debt, The (May 2013) (Very Good)
a. Good plot twists, good acting.

14. Devil’s Double, The – 2011 (October 2013) (Very good)*
a. Disturbing and dark. Dominic Cooper’s performance is unbelievably excellent.

15. Die Brücke – 1959 (July 2013) (Very Good)*
a. Well-told; brave enough to show some realistic violence.

16. Django Unchained (Jan 2013) (Excellent)*
a. Excellent action/comedy/drama. Arguably Tarentino’s greatest film, second only to The Inglourious Basterds. Christoph Schultz gives an excellent performance.

17. Ender’s Game – 2013 (November 2013) (Good)
a. Fairly faithful, but felt rushed and lacked the depth and heart of the book. Predictions: visual effects.

18. Event Horizon (April 2013) (Good) §
a. Clichéd but spooky and intriguing haunted house story in space.

19. Everest: IMAX – 1998 (October 2012) (Good) §
a. Good photography, as always with IMAX.

20. Fire in the Sky (May 2013) (Okay)
a. Interesting story, but a bit boring.

21. Flight (2012) – December 2013 (Very Good)*
a. Well acted, well directed, excellent crash scene.

22. Frighteners, The – 1996 (September 2013) (Very good)
a. Surprisingly good dark comedy.

23. From the Earth to the Moon (June 2013) (Good)
a. Good but not as interesting as I’d hoped.

24. Good Day to Die Hard (Feb 2013) (Poor)
a. Disappointing, hollow, half-baked, terrible character development. The weakest entry in the series. The car chase was the very entertaining, though.

25. Gravity – 2013 (October 2013) (Very good)
a. Very suspenseful and very straight-forward story telling. Very interesting that finally space is portrayed as completely silent. My predictions: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Bullock), Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, Best Art Direction-Set Direction, Best Editing

26. Great Gatsby, The [2013 version] (June 2013) (Good)
a. Energetic: Possible Oscars: Art Direction/Set Direction, Costume Design, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Direction, Editing

27. Hobbit, The: The Desolation of Smaug – 2013 (January 2014) (Very good)*
a. Bleak but superior to first film. Less campy. Nominations: Visual Effects, Sound Effects, Sound Effects Editing, Art-Set Direction, Costume Design

28. H. H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer – 2003 (November 2013) (OK)
a. Interesting tale, but rather blandly told. A bit cheap-looking.

29. Hangover, The: Part III (June 2013) (Good)
a. Funny, but the weakest. Nevertheless, nice to see the formula changed a little bit.

30. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (March 2013) (Okay)
a. Good make-up effects and set pieces, but felt more like a couple of chapters rather than a stand-alone story.

31. Iron Man 3 (May 2013) (Very Good)
a. Slightly darker, good, but not the best in the series.

32. Jurassic Park* (April 2013) (Excellent) *§
a. Classic film, and 3D looks surprisingly good.

33. La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful) – 1997 (November 2013) (Good)
a. Good and touching. Slap-sticky, but still magical.

34. Lawless (Feb 2013) (Good)
a. Good, but didn’t live up to expectations. Tom Hardy did very good voice work.

35. Life of Pi, The (Jan 2013) (Good)
a. Very good adaption…My predictions: Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Editing, Visual Effects, Adapted Screenplay

36. Lone Ranger, The – 2013 (July 2013) (OK)
a. Entertaining but long and a bit drawn out. Good use of scenery. Possible nominations: Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Art Direction/Set Direction

37. Man of Steel – 2013 (June 2013) (Good)
a. Nice back story, fun to watch, and moments of brilliant cinematography, but a bit disappointing. Predictions: Visual Effects

38. Master, The – 2012 (July 2013) (OK)
a. Interesting look at Scientology, but very slow moving. Excellent performances, however.

39. NeverEnding Story, The – 1984 (Good)
a. Famous movie, but acting and effects, and probably overall feel, are best left for children. Still entertaining though.

40. Now You See Me (June 2013) (Very Good)
a. Fascinating and smart. Good twists. Possible nominations: Director, Cinematography, Visual Effects, Supporting Actor (Woody Harrelson).

41. Oblivion (April 2013) (Very Good)*
a. Surprisingly good and moving. Haunting; great special effects, cinematography, sound and acting.

42. Others, The – 2001 (October 2013) (Very Good)*§
a. Brilliant ghost story, excellent acting, especially from the children. Great cinematography.

43. Perfect Vagina, The (Jan 2013) (Good)
a. Interesting reporting on how some women are opting for plastic surgery on their vulvae to make them more “idealized”.

44. Psycho – 1998 (October 2013) (OK)
a. A remake of the original 1968 version. Some chills and suspense but felt hollow. Excellent cinematography, however.

45. Red Corner – 1997 (November 2013) (OK)
a. Interesting; listening to the interpreters was the most interesting part.

46. Red State (May 2013) (Very Good) *
a. A bit confused and heavy handed, but mostly well-done and surprisingly dark.

47. Rescue (September 2013) (Good)
a. Well-shot, but slow IMAX documentary.

48. Rescuers, The (March 2013) (Very Good)* §
a. An old, dark Disney classic. Brought back nostalgic memories of music and art work from the children’s book and tape that were adapted from the movie. With gunshots, kidnapping, skulls with diamonds in them and scenes of children putting on pajamas, its interesting to wonder how the MPAA would rate it now.

49. Ring of Fire – 1991 (November 2013) (OK
a. Good, but expected more of a geological documentary rather than a presentation of life in that area.

50. Rosemary’s Baby – 1968 (October 2013) (Very good)
a. Good acting and a disturbing ending.

51. Ruins, The (May 2013) (OK)
a. Good adaption: decent B-suspense/horror.

52. Se, Jie (Lust, Caution) – 2007 (November 2013) (OK)
a. Well acted, but dragged.

53. Serenity (March 2013) (Very Good)
a. Very good, not quite perfect, moving finale to the series “Firefly”.

54. Session 9 – 2001 (November 2013) (Good)
a. Beautiful use of locations. Not terribly original.

55. Silver Linings Playbook (March 2013) (Very good)
a. Touching comedy/drama. Sensitively portrays a family’s frustration about mental illness. Jennifer Lawerence’s character is very fascinating.

56. Sinister (March 2013) (OK)
a. Interesting horror film. A little too clichéd but still created an atmosphere of suspense; had some jumps; gore was mostly suggestive.

57. Species – 1995 (October 2013) (Boring)
a. Dull and fairly unoriginal. Considering the list of some good actors, everyone gives a flat performance. Best features were some of the designs by H.R. Giger and the actresses’ attractive body. Made me really wonder if it was made to cater to some kind of fetish.

58. Spectacular Now, The – 2013 (September 2013) (Very Good)
a. Very well done and un-clichéd. Possible Oscars: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay

59. Star Trek: Into Darkness (May 2013) (Very Good)*
a. Happy to hear Klingon used and see Kronos, even if it was just a brief scene.

60. Sum of All Fears – 2002 (September 2013) (Good)§
a. Entertaining and suspenseful.

61. Talvisota (January 2013) (Good)
a. A long, but good tale of a group of soldiers during the war between Finland and the Soviet Union. Often slow, but well-acted. Directed at a Finnish audience, so some background on the war itself is useful before watching the film.

62. Ted (March 2013) (Good)
a. Great one-liners; not as funny as I’d hoped, but some hilarious moments.

63. Three Kings – 1999 (June 2013) (Good)
a. Good example dark humor and war.

64. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – 2011 (July 2013) (Good)
a. Layered, dense, worth re-watching

65. Valhalla Rising – 201? (November 2013) (Boring)
a. Beautiful cinematography, and artistic but mostly meanders about and drags.

66. Wolverine, The – 2013 (July 2013) (Good)
a. Interesting, fascinating introduction, but mostly action and light on story.

67. World War Z – 2013 (July 2013) (Good)
a. Nothing terribly original, but interesting look at a crisis on a global scale.

68. Zero Dark Thirty – 2012 (Feb 2013) (Excellent)*
a. Great film in docu-drama style. One forgets they are watching a movie and feel as if they are watching the real thing. Climax is genuinely suspenseful. One of the best-directed films of 2012.

69. Zwartboek – 2006 (August 2013) (Very good) *
a. A bit contrived, but an interesting WWII drama from a presumably little-discussed resistance group. 


Before publishing this, the Academy Awards published their list of nominees from 2013.

You can see it here.

I stand by my personal nominees though.  Over the years, I've become more and more skeptical of the Oscars.  I still think they are fun, but I don't take them nearly as seriously as I used to.

My next blog entries will be back to meandering and other nonsense, as usual.