Friday, December 15, 2017

Movie Review: It Comes At Night (2017)

It Comes At Night (2017) directed, co-written, and co-edited by Trey Edward Shults

A family is living at their boarded-up cabin in the woods. There's plenty of plastic over the only functioning doorway. Some apocalyptic disease has broken out and precautions like gas masks and gloves are required for outdoor excursions. Unfortunately, the grandfather has come down with the disease. In the movie's harrowing opening sequence, the wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) says goodbye to her father, who clearly is on the verge of dying. Husband Paul (Joel Edgerton) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) take the semi-comotose grandfather out into the woods where they shoot him in the head and burn the body. A few days later, someone tries to break into the house at night. The family manages to subdue the invader named Will (Christopher Abbott). After using the proper precautions (which includes tying up the invader outside to make sure he isn't going to come down with the disease), Paul talks to the guy and works out a deal to bring the guy's family to their home. The new family has some goats and chickens, so fresh milk and eggs. The two families awkwardly bond over a couple of days. Even so, tensions arise, especially for Travis, who has nightmares about the situation and is a bit fascinated with Will's young and pretty wife (Riley Keough). When things fall apart, the situation becomes very terrible for all involved.

The movie is very serious and almost unbearably tension-filled. The main family lives a rather spartan life that is made a little bit lighter by the new people coming in, but the dad is very mistrustful and has a hard time living up to his good intentions. Both families are played sympathetically, or at least ambiguously enough that they seem sympathetic given the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately for the characters, they don't give each other the benefit of the doubt and tragedy ensues. Unfortunately for the viewers, the big incident that ultimately causes the two families to turn on each other is unexplained (which isn't such a problem) and non-sensical given the situation (which is a huge problem). The ending is emotional powerful but unconvincing.

Technically, the film works quite well. The son's nightmares, while reflecting the actual situation, are clearly demarked by a change in the aspect ratio of the image, so the film doesn't have cheap fake-outs of the "oh that was just a dream" variety. By the final scene, the aspect ratio of the waking world is the same as the nightmare, suggesting the family has descended into a more nightmarish situation than they started with. The acting is very good and the house makes a believably creepy setting. The movie is artistically well done but key elements are too underdeveloped to satisfying to me.

Not recommended.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Book Review: Awkward by Ty Tashiro

Awkward: The Science of Why We're Socially Awkward and Why That's Awesome by Ty Tashiro, Ph.D.

Awkwardness is like the common cold--humanity seems to be stuck with it. Everyone is susceptible but some people more so. Everyone has the occasional awkward moment while some people seem to exude awkwardness. Psychologist Ty Tashiro realized that no one has pulled together the research on awkwardness and found answers to why we are awkward and what we can do about it. This book presents his findings with a blend of personal experience, real world examples, current research, and deep yet accessible analysis.

The first part of the book looks at awkwardness itself. Tashiro observes that awkward moments come when people miss certain social cues or expectations. For awkward people, their focus spotlights particular details that they find interesting, often missing the larger picture or other critical details in a situation. It's as if social rules are not intuitive or interesting to awkward people. However, once those rules are broken, the lapse is immediately obvious and uncomfortable. Understanding emotions is challenging for everyone and can be more difficult for awkward people. Certain parallels with autism are brought out though Tashiro does not identify awkwardness with autism. Learning some social dynamics and having strategies for dealing with particular situations are ways to alleviate the level of awkwardness in life for anyone.

The second part of the book looks at how modern society is making people feel more awkward. The shift away from face-to-face contact started with the telephone. Now with email and texting, a lot of the important interpretive details (facial expression, vocal inflection, etc.) are missing. The likelihood of misinterpreting or misconstruing an action or statement skyrockets. The problem is even worse in dating, where social expectations have shifted and blurred what used to be clear cut distinctions. When are you just friends? When are you going steady? When (or even if) should you get married? Nowadays, these questions have more ambiguity, causing more awkwardness.

The final part of the book considers how awkwardness is awesome. Tashiro discusses how being awkward is an adaptive trait. Evolutionarily, being awkward would seem like a negative trait that should eliminate those people from the gene pool. The awkward person's ability to stick with mundane tasks long past the point of boredom for a regular person can often contribute to the social group. Further, the ability to focus and to put together seemingly incongruent ideas is a hallmark of innovators and the awkward. There is a parallel or overlap between awkwardness and brilliance. Awkwardness definitely has an upside.

The book is surprisingly engaging. The author usually starts chapters with a personal anecdote (he's had his own awkward life) or a real life example and uses it throughout the chapter to concretize the research, ideas, and conclusions he presents. The blending of philosophical distinctions with actual experiences makes his ideas more understandable and memorable. The book reads quickly and inspires hope for dealing with awkward situations, people, and your own awkwardness.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Book Review: Fairy Tail Vol. 16 by Hiro Mashima

Fairy Tail Volume 16 by Hiro Mashima

The Laxus story arc (where Laxus tries to take over the Fairy Tail guild by having everyone fight each other, leaving him in charge) ends with the unsurprising defeat of Laxus. The very ending of the arc is sweeter than expected. Then the guild has their fantasia celebration as part of Magnolia's harvest festival (Magnolia is the town where the Fairy Tail guild hall is located). A new storyline starts with several Dark Guilds teaming up to seize control of a special ancient magic called Nirvana. Fairy Tail teams up with other guilds to send their top wizards to fight the Oracion Seis, a Dark Guild with only six wizards. Naturally they are supremely powerful wizards so the fight will not be easy.

The book also has a side story about Lucy's father, who has fallen on hard times. It's also sweeter than expected but does seem more like filler than part of a greater story arc.


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Weir Farm National Historic Site

Not far off the route from Boston to our home is a unique place run by the National Park Services--Weir Farm National Historic Site. When J. Alden Weir married Anne Baker the 1880s, they moved to the farm. He loved the landscape and was a painter (from the American Impressionist school), so he produced many works here. He also invited artist friends like Childe Hassam, John Twachtman, and Albert Pinkham Ryder to the farm. They shared his love of painting outdoors. Weir died in 1919. His eldest daughter married a sculptor and painter. They kept up the artistic tradition and built a second studio in 1932. They died in the 1950s and the house, barn, and studios were bought by Sperry and Doris Andrews, who continued to make art here. Eventually sixty acres of farmland, sixteen buildings, and seemingly endless stone walls became part of the National Park Services. Weir Farm is the only NPS site dedicated to American painting.

Weir Farm National Historic Site sign--a dead give-away

Gathering information at the parking lot

The first building we came to was Burlingham House, named after Weir's youngest daughter, Cora Weir Burlingham. The house was part of a neighboring farm that Weir bought in 1907. She lived there from 1931 to 1986.

Burlingham House

On the porch of the house is one of the many encouragements to try out artistic endeavors. Small paint kits are provided for visitors to make their own art. The bison that my son worked on has more significance than is immediately obvious. The farm has several painted bison at locations where the artists painted their more famous paintings.

Painting supplies

My daughter at work

The preschooler works in waterpaint

His bison

Her flower

Cora Burlingham studied interior design and horticulture. With that expertise, she designed the garden terraces and the sunken garden next to the house.

Terraced gardens

Sunken garden

South of the house is Weir Preserve, a section of the farm donated to the Connecticut Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. When we visited the house, the ranger gave us a scavenger hunt and a guide to the painted bison. We found our first bison here.

To the Weir Preserve

Painted bison in the wild!

We discovered more gardens and some fantastic stone walls.

Walking through a garden

Trying to climb the wall

Another well-assembled wall

We went down a long path and crossed a road to the other part of the farm where the Weir House and nearby studios are located.

Approaching the original farm buildings

The first house on this farm was built in 1780. When Weir moved there a hundred years later, he made many expansions and additions to the house, including the front porch for the artists to hang out on hot summer days.

Weir House

Nearby is the stone picnic table which Weir's daughters used to host tea parties for friends and guests at the house.

Picnic table

We spotted another bison near the art studios.

A nice field by the art studios

Painted and unpainted bison!

The area was a working farm even in Weir's day, though he was more interested in the visual atmosphere created by the farm. Animals roamed this area, along with carts and other rustic accoutrements of 19th century farming. He built a "Secret Garden," probably named after the Deutzia bushes that hid the interior. The farm was a bit of a whimsy for Weir. One of his friends nicknamed the area "The Land of Nod," referring to the dream-like state of life on that particular farm. The garden became overgrown after his death but efforts by the Park Service have restored it to its 1940s look.

Secret Garden

Inside the garden

Part of the scavenger hunt!

The garden does have some original equipment, like this sundial that seems a bit useless, or at least poorly situated.

According to this sundial, it's always nighttime

Doorway to the garden

Just outside the garden we spotted another bison!

Field bison

We explored one of the art studios where resident artists still work. We visited on a weekday so there was not much going on.

Various tools and works in the studio

The high ceiling means a high chimney for the stove

Going west relief

Books upstairs

Flowers and painting of flowers

An exhibit off limits for now

After a brief interview with one of the artists, my children had done enough activities to merit a Junior Ranger badge. We went back to the Burlingham House Visitor Center where they were sworn in.

Swearing in ceremony

We were on our way from Boston back to Maryland, so we didn't stay too long. We missed out on Weir Pond, a pond created by Weir with a picturesque dam and a small island. The hike is about a mile and a half and would have used up a lot of time. Maybe we'll stop by again to create some more art and happy memories.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Trying Letterboxing

A companion (or possibly rival) activity to geocaching is letterboxing. Geocaching is a search for hidden stashes using GPS coordinates posted on the internet. Letterboxing is a search for hidden stashes using clues posted on the internet. We've geocached quite a bit but the app version now has fees if you want to find anything more than the most basic caches. We don't go often enough to justify the expense, so we gave letterboxing a try.

Back in the summer, we had accidentally discovered a letterbox stash in High Ridge Park near our home. In November, we looked the stash up online and found that four stashes were in that park. We printed out each write up, a few of which required decoding of simple ciphers. My daughter was happy to do that at home before we left. With clues in hand we went to the park.

The first letterbox was hidden near the basketball court, so we began our search there.

Following the clues

The find was in a stump just inside the woods. Happily we did little bushwhacking to make it to the find.

Searching for the right spot

Found it!

The stashes typically only have log books and stamps. Visitors take the stamp from the log book and stamp their personal book. Then visitors use their personal stamp to stamp inside the log book, along with a name and date if they want. No geojunk trades hands, making it an easier job, especially if your kids fight over which things to take.

The next letterbox was further in the woods. The clue to go off the trail was a tree with the number 8 on it, which we thought was daft until we actually found a tree with the number 8 on it.

Three children searching near the 8 tree

Making the find

Stamping the log book with our stamp

Stamping our book

 The final two letterboxes were just off a paved path in the woods. The path is sponsored by Wegmans, which is a big weird since the nearest Wegmens is a good twenty-minute drive away.

Following the corporate path

Path sponsor

The find wasn't too hard. Similar to geocaching, the hiding spot was in a fallen tree.

Working together

We found the final letterbox very quickly since it was the one we discovered over the summer. My daughter was happy to have a full page on her log book.

She was not happy about the bright sunlight

We enjoyed the park while we were there. The preschooler wanted to throw rocks from a gazebo into the river far below. We didn't have the heart to tell him he'd never make it all the way. Even we parents couldn't have done it.

Throwing rocks

We also played at the playground before heading home.

Stair climbing

Stair walking

 The next day, we tried to find a letterbox near Savage Mill, on the train trail. We started at the Bollman Bridge.

Crossing the bridge

Historical certification for the bridge

The trail was supposed to have two letterboxes. According to the write up, the first box is gone. We went on to find the second one. We found the right location according to the clues but couldn't find the box. The last find was two years ago, so judging from the amount of trash (beer cans and water bottles, mostly), the box is probably long gone.

The proper stairs

The proper spot?

We enjoyed the walk along the Patuxent River anyway.

Waterfalls on the river

Back at the bridge, we tried throwing rocks in the river again, with much more success. The preschooler was very happy.

Throwing rocks

Checking for a splash

We also stopped in at Savage Mill, which is festively decorated.

It is the most wonderful time of the year

Even with the disappointment, I'm sure we will try out more letterboxing soon.