GISHWHES on Team Shatner.

item692014 was my third year in GISHWHES (Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen), the madcap international scavenger hunt devised by actor Misha Collins of the CW show Supernatural. I will leave you to look at the site and then Google in mix of confusion, horror and glee if none of these words make sense to you. In 2011 I watched from the sidelines, wondering what the heck this thing was on Tumblr. In 2012 I was ready to join alone, but a dedicated friend joined with me and then recruited 13 more in a jiffy. in 2013 those people couldn’t join again, and I made good friends from total strangers via Twitter. In 2014, I kept talking to William Shatner and for some reason he kept talking back. On a long road, that led to me being on Team Shatner for GISHWHES 2014.

I’ve been asked a few times about being on Team Shatner; once by Misha Collins himself, in front of an audience of die-hard SPN fans in Vancouver. Everyone secretly wants a horror story. We like villains. We like how they help us make sense of the world. Everyone wanted to beat Team Shatner, even if they weren’t competitive to start with. It gave them something to fight against, not just for. I think fighting for things goes ever so much deeper in the long run; but as they say, “every fairly tale needs a villain”.

I’ve slowly learned that you should pay close attention to actors. You can’t always feel them out like you do other people. They make their living convincing you they’re someone that they’re not. Don’t always trust your assumptions; make special effort to read beyond the lines what they do, not what they say. It’s not necessarily willful deception; just habit combined with defense. We all do it, but some of us are much better at it. That’s the difference between an amateur and a professional.

I hesitated about being on a celebrity team. My ego’s not nearly so large to not notice I was punching above my weight, and I had “normal” teams to choose from. My friends reminded me not to miss a one-time experience.

And in the end, that’s what GISWHES is – the experience. It’s not about the prize; not really. If it was, the odds are kinda terrible. Better than a lottery ticket, and less random; but it’s still not super likely you’re going to be on a winning team. Is Misha Collins such an unimaginably amazing person that you would literally do *anything* to spend a weekend with him? (I’m hearing a few “YES”es. Whatever works for you.) The promise of the prize gets you to go farther than you would otherwise, but the reward that keeps you coming back has to be something else, or you’d lose once and give up. It’s the experience.

So what was it like on Team Shatner? It was uncannily like my other two teams. I don’t think the details are that relevant. It was exhausting, it was tumultuous, it was beautiful. We argued about some things, laughed about others. Some things never came together, and others took our breath away. People took a look at the impossible and decided to kick out some letters. It was what it was. We make choices about what we take from experiences, and that’s not something that we can be told to do by outside judgment; whether you weigh it on someone being famous, or whether your team wins or loses.

I think from my interactions – and yes, I did have them – Mr. Shatner was genuinely curious about what motivates people to do GISHWHES, being unconvinced that it could be just for Misha’s sake. Not because he can’t understand why people would do that for “Cupcake”, but because I think having been the subject of both fandom adoration AND ridicule for so many years, as an intelligent and thoughtful person he ultimately wanted to take the machine apart to learn what makes fandom tick. And that extends outside Trek.

That’s all the more I’ll attempt to read minds. I’ve tried so many times to completely grasp that ineffable, missing element of why GISHWHES is addictive. It’s fundamentally such a terrible idea, really, which you can see immediately when you move beyond “it’s a scavenger hunt” and try to explain it to those you’re trying to recruit help from. Why do I think we do it? The charity aspect is a component; but that involvement varies from team to team, and from year to year. It has to be deeper than that. The related kindness aspect is important, too, but you don’t need the scavenger hunt for that; just Random Acts. So there’s something more.

I intended to do a documentary this year, but gave it up to be on Team Shatner (and because it was logistically staggeringly complex). But I’ve still tried to understand. I think maybe it’s such a transformative experience because by forcing us into the deliberately uncomfortable, it breaks the mold of identity and our worldview. Maybe nothing significant was ever discovered in pajamas on a couch. Maybe we need a bit of proper misery; especially shared misery. Maybe we find solutions to our real problems by creating ridiculous ones to solve instead. Maybe there are things you don’t realize about what parts of you matter until you intentionally make yourself completely ridiculous. Maybe you don’t know who your true friends are until they become sick at the sight of Skittles making a giant portrait of an actor from a show they don’t even watch.* Maybe there are a lot of reasons.

In my essay about the film The World’s End, I wrote that comedy can be a vehicle for deep philosophy because we frequently only get at the truth sideways. I think GISHWHES is an awkward, frantic crab walk sideways to that truth. Maybe you can trust an actor to show you how much we surround ourselves with artifice and illusion that prevents us from seeing who we are, and who other people are. And to provide the right tools, no matter how strange they seem, to break those barriers down. There are profound ideas hiding out there somewhere between the absurd and the painful, just waiting for us to see them through the veil of the mundane. You just need a push to shatter the shades of your everyday life that obscure them. I guess I started with a one-up on that this year, on a team with people I knew from television. (Mr. Shatner doesn’t want to know how old I was when I started watching him.) That’s already one barrier shattered.

And whether that push is Misha Collins or William Shatner, it’s in your hands after that. As of right now, we don’t know who won yet. Maybe I’m going to Croatia on the weirdest, craziest vacation ever; maybe I’m not. Maybe friends will win; maybe strangers. My advice for any competition is always believe you can win, never assume you will. But I think the important parts of any story, really, happen in the middle; not at the beginning or end. So my advice from inside a “celebrity team” – don’t let anyone else determine what you’ve won or lost. Maybe I’ll never know quite how to say what I want to about GISHWHES. Maybe it’s okay for some things to be ineffable.

 

* I hope that my wonderful friend and accomplished Skittles artist Bonnie Craft, who passed away suddenly only a few days ago, knew how much I really did appreciate her. She put me on a path that led me here, and while I don’t know where that path goes next, I’m deeply grateful. I will never take for granted the people that my fandom, however bizarre it seems, have brought me to.

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Lighthouses

“May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”

It’s very difficult to describe to those who have never been in a fandom why under its lens enthusiasm becomes passion, and acquaintances can become family. “It’s just a TV show!” they’ll exclaim. Precisely why media fandom is a more popular target for this criticism than, for example, sports fans, is a question unto itself. The fact remains that for people who have never been – even casually – participants in a fandom for a TV show, film, book, a blog, have great difficulty grasping how it’s possible that it could become the tentpole of a relatively sane individual’s life.

I’ve thought a lot about how to explain the kind of deep emotional ties that we can create with fiction (and often, creators of said fiction), and I think I’ve finally got it.

Imagine a lighthouse. On a sunny day, what use is a lighthouse? It’s scenic. It has character. It’s painted in bold colors. But it doesn’t really serve any purpose in your life, even if you’re a seafarer, except perhaps as confirmation of where you are. For most people, fiction is like a lighthouse; it beautifies the surroundings, it gives you some kind of general touchstone as to what day of the week it is, or ties you to the place you are at the time.

Now imagine the same lighthouse, at night. There’s a storm blowing and the sky is black. And you’re out at sea. The only light to follow, the only guide you have to ensure you aren’t shattered into splinters on a rocky coast, is the lighthouse. Suddenly it’s not just there for looks. It’s a beacon, a tether to the world.

Just as before more high-tech methods of seafaring came about lighthouses had a deep meaning, so stories have long been a centerpiece of our world. Fiction has always been company and sustenance in long dark tea-times of the soul. And we have always built around them to create community, beginning with stories told around campfires. Our stories connect us. That shared campfire of fandom now burns 24/7, inside your phone. As a source of comfort, distraction, encouragement – it’s accessible and constant.

If you deeper look into fandom than just matching t-shirts, or tattoos, or cosplay, you will find most people in them are in some way at sea; or were when they came into it. They may have a weak support system locally, be estranged from family, have chronic illness. They’ve lost loved ones in ways they can’t understand, or mislaid their faith that things can get better. They’ve fought battles alone and silent, for victories unremarked and unsung. So in times of trouble they look for a light, bright and rhythmic, to guide them safely to harbor. It seems like a great weight to place on fiction, but the best fiction has something to say. It carries echoes of the pain and the wisdom of the real people who create it, and the audience feels that echo in themselves.

So to celebrities, writers, and creators who understandably find the attention they receive to be overwhelming, perhaps I would tell them to think of themselves as lighthouse keepers. They must tend a light largely oblivious of those who might see it; their number, their location, what ship they’re traveling in. Just like lighthouse keepers, they know long hours of solitude on a rock, climbing difficult stairs to tend a flame that no one may see – they know the hard work. But to the sailor who sees that light at their darkest and loneliest moment, when despair has taken hold and there is no way to chart a safe course – that one light is the difference between life and death. That stranger has lit and tended a personal beacon just for them.

So please, never be ashamed to look for the light in a storm, and never be afraid to keep a fire. Sometimes we all need a lighthouse. You never know who you might save.

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The LEGO Movie, creativity, and the building blocks of art

A confession. You probably heard a lot of people tell you “OMG that movie was amazing” before you went. You probably doubted it, because you’ve been burned before. A LOT. Maybe you even felt tempted to find something to dislike just so you didn’t feel like a sheep. Well, go on and whistle for the border collie, because my confession is…a movie about LEGOs made me cry.

There’s a lot to love straight off the bat. It’s immediately fun. The animation is super nifty, detailed and technically astounding*; it really looks like it was done with stop-motion and it gives it a charming, handmade feel. It’s very much a kids’ movie, not because of the subject, but in that it has the qualities of a child’s brain. Its landscape is visually riotous, jokes fire off at lightning speed in a slightly non-sequitur pastiche, and its logic doesn’t require the approval of outside observers. It’s funny, fast, and smart; the writing is really strong and on-target. It’s got a great celebrity cast who bring fantastic voice acting skills to the table. This is important, because it’s a different skill set, and many animated films have suffered from poor casting. But most importantly, this film has a message that speaks to nearly everyone about the nature of creativity; and I think that’s why it’s really been a blockbuster.

[SPOILERS AHOY, READ AFTER SEEING FILM]

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Failing with Style: Lessons from Toy Story

Possibly a controversial opinion, but I don’t think Pixar has made a film that was more elegant and complete than Toy Story. They’ve addressed bigger ideas, in more ambitious settings; but Toy Story is the building blocks of many of their other stories without any fat.

If you haven’t seen Toy Story, I’m at your door with the DVD* right now. So let’s not bother with recapping the storyline. The film is obviously built around the conflict between Woody and Buzz. Woody is a catastrophist with low self-esteem, and Buzz is the polar opposite: an egotist who is so wrapped up in his own world that he’s basically the only toy who DOESN’T know he’s a toy. Naturally, all the circumstances aside, characters who are opposites tend to clash.

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SDCC Badge Pre-reg and the “Vegas Effect”

Comic-con has been putting out a slow trickle of information on badge sales for 2014, and as the actual convention creeps closer the anticipation and stress level for the actual sale has only built exponentially. For me, aside from its other perks Comic-con is where I see (and in some cases met) the majority of my friends and the only convention I still go to for fun. I’m pretty dang invested in getting a badge (and I really wish I’d tried for Pro). The year they put the next year’s badges on sale at the con, I stood in an obscene line and got shut out of Preview Night – only to have friends breeze through a painless online reg later on. I’ve been through tough times with Comic-con. But they continue to give me a series of small heart attacks, like the announcement today that the badge registration waiting room will be randomized.

EVERYBODY PANIC AND FREAK OUT. …But why?

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Sherlock S3 E1: The Empty Hearse

Sherlock is, overall, an unconventional series. They like to drop breadcrumbs early on that are easy to miss, threads that eventually tie into a later plot element and only then make sense. This is part of what makes the show so clever, but that always leaves them on the knife edge of leaving too many viewers too confused, or giving the impression that events occur out of left field. Personally, I think it takes me three passes with anything complex to really get a handle on my opinion, and Sherlock is no exception. One for the heart (gut emotional reactions), one for the brain (evaluating what’s really happening), and one for the mechanism that makes it tick. I have to say that Sherlock Series 3 is the one I’m most conflicted about, and I think it will take another full pass through the season to really line up my thoughts and draw a conclusion.

I was initially in agreement with the fandom consensus that the case in the episode was too light, but on viewing #3 I feel less so. There’s some very deliberate structuring to make story elements overlap, so that you simply don’t register that one storyline is concurrent with another. They’re laying down the groundwork for one event while your attention is focused on another (e.g., always read the headlines on papers characters are reading). They’ve got a lot to pack into this episode, too: Sherlock’s return and the consequences of that, the question of “how he did it” lingering from the S2 cliffhanger, the events in John’s life in the intervening period, two cases, AND some subtle but critical setup for following episodes. That is a whole lot of pieces of furniture to move around. On top of that, there’s the “emotional baggage” of the characters AND the viewers that needs shifting after the two-year hiatus.

And it’s a bit of a Herculean task. [SPOILERS - ASSUMES YOU HAVE SEEN THE EPISODE] Continue reading

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Sleepy Hollow is the most progressive show you may not be watching

I was watching Sleepy Hollow this past Monday and at the end of a scene was struck by something. There were five characters in this scene, and only one of them was white. (He’s also British and a man out of time, but I don’t think that quite qualifies him as a minority.) This is a pretty remarkable occurrence on primetime network TV.

It was a brief flash of thought that led me to be pretty mystified why I haven’t heard much discussion about how remarkable this show really is. What better day to bring it up than Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which also happens to be their season finale? Does it take people who can suspend their disbelief enough to accept a Revolutionary era soldier (who works for the Masons) was resurrected in modern day by witchcraft so he could fight the Apocalypse to be okay with a black female co-lead? Okay, maybe not; Kerry Washington has been winning awards for Scandal. But there’s no denying that most TV is still staggeringly lacking in diversity of all types.

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6 Improbable Things, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Believe in Success

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.  – Charles Dodgson, Alice in Wonderland (or that time the Queen sounds really positive out of context)

I spend a lot of time alone working late into the night. And when I say “a lot of time”, I really mean very nearly all my time. I don’t have a boss to tell me what to do. I don’t have a partner who works with me. Having your own business is 24/7 and a huge responsibility that’s hard to walk away from, even when you need to for a while. I don’t necessarily recommend this lifestyle, but everyone’s had times where they have to live that way – for finals, for a major project. So aside from more streaming television and perky J-pop/hard rock than should be legal, how do I keep going?

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Cavalcade of Canadians: The Actor-Spotting Trivia Game

Yes, at long last, it’s the rules to the infamous game I’ve been playing forever, but named a few years ago. I’m writing them up because a few friends thought this was an actual thing that I did not invent (in contrast to the ones who just assumed I was nuts). So please, read on. Don’t leave me to play alone. When I’m sewing in the middle of the night no one can hear me call points. Let’s make it an actual thing.

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CAVALCADE OF CANADIANS: The Actor-Spotting Trivia Game
Fun for the Whole Family (If your family consists of Canadian casting directors)
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Sherlock S3 E2: The Sign of Three

[CONTAINS SPOILERS] This episode has already been a point of contention among the frenzied mass of Sherlock fans who waited two years for a new series. I’m not sure any of us can even process new information fully after so much time disassembling and reassembling every iota of S1 and S2. But I’ll say at the start that I’m taking up the middle ground – I like it, AND it’s a bit incoherent and fragmented. For the sake of argument I’d rather focus on some of the negatives, since I’ve seen more of the positive.

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