Sunday, January 31, 2016

Music Confession, Johnny Dollar, Query Blues

On one of the many podcasts I listen to, the host huffily insists on a weekly basis that he doesn’t like music. As heretical as it sounds, I don’t think I like music, either. Over the years, there have been albums that have been very important to me and have gotten me through some hard times. And I write poetry, which is a close cousin to music. But lately my personal approach to music is ruthlessly utilitarian: When I  listen to it, it’s only to enhance whatever it is I happen to be doing at the moment: upbeat pop or heavy metal for working out, ethereal new-age ear candy for writing and creative work, or light techno for gaming. (Speaking of which—“Rise of the Tomb Raider” came out for PC, and it is glorious, but more on that next week when I’ve had a chance to play further into the game.) For me, music has a always been a tool, rather than an end in itself. And with the podcast explosion, over the years, I’ve come to prefer the sound of human voices talking. Hearing interviews, conversations and monologues comforts me and makes me feel connected to humanity in a way that listening to music doesn’t.

Speaking of podcasts, Mr. Typist and I recently got into listening to the old-time radio show “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar”, described in the opening credits as "The transcribed adventures of the man with the action-packed expense account — America's  fabulous freelance insurance investigator!" Johnny Dollar is known for his detailed and often editorialized expense reports, which he reads off at the end of each show after he’s nabbed the latest grifter, firebug or flimflam man trying chisel his client. The stories aren’t earth-shattering in terms of originality, but they’re well-acted and a lot of fun to listen to. One of my vague goals is to someday write an old-timey radio serial—even if it’s just a two or three part series. The format offers a lot of potential, and with podcast equipment being so cheap and easy to use these days, why, it’d be a cinch to pull off of a recorded version.

On writing: I sent out two queries over the last two weeks on my novel, but I’m feeling too demoralized to send out another one this weekend. I know you’re supposed to keep going with these things, and I haven’t given up, I just feel all mopey and dream-muffled about it right now. Sending out a query feels like launching my baby down a river on a raft in the hopes that it gets found and adopted by a good family. The agencies all make it clear up front that they won’t respond unless they’re interested, so that leaves me with nothing to do but stand in the echo of their disapproving silence. I’ll try again next week.   

I know I spent the first of part of this post talking about how I don’t like music, but nonetheless, I went down a Nick Cave rabbit hole this week, and I came across the video for “The Weeping Song”, which is a song I’ve always loved despite its heavy-handedness. I had never seen the video, and I thought it was stunning—but I do recognize that neither the song or the video are for everyone. So I included “The Ship Song” as a palette cleanser. Enjoy!

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, January 23, 2016

That Oddly Existential Bernie Sanders Ad, Snubbed by JW’s

Am I the only one who finds the new Bernie Sanders ad oddly existential?

Every time I hear the song “America”, I’m filled with a haunting sense of loss and alienation. It strikes me as a deeply existential song about people searching for something that doesn’t exist. It’s always made me think about the bigger question of what America is—the abstract idea of America, America as a country, and my ambiguous sense of place within it. The ad uses the most optimistic lyrics of the song: “Let us be lovers/We’ll marry our fortunes together/I’ve got some real estate here in my bag/Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike/They’ve all come to look for America.” But it doesn’t include the lyrics that evoke a deep sense of loneliness: “And the moon rose over an open field/Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping/I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” Not to mention the part about boarding a Greyhound in Pittsburgh, which in itself evokes imagery dystopian enough to make even the most die-hard optimist want to jump off a bridge. It’s not a cheery song. It’s certainly not a fun little ditty about how great America is. And it’s about the last song I would expect to be used in campaign ad.

I’ve read several analyses of the ad, and most of them come to the conclusion that it's exploiting nostalgia, which I think is totally incorrect. The ad is not exploiting nostalgia--it’s exploiting our growing sense of alienation and loss of identity, in a strangely brilliant way. It takes the common tropes of campaign ads (wholesome dairy farmers, small business owners, families at the dinner table), and juxtaposes with them this song that is strongly associated with alienation--then ramps it up by showing crowds of people cheering and uniting behind a cause, while the lyrics “They’ve all come to look for America” flash on the screen. I have to hand it to them; it is very affecting. Admittedly, I’m susceptible to emotionally-charged ads, but I still think this one is pretty genius. (Disclaimer: None of this is to say I’m voting for Sanders or anything—I’m undecided.)

Mr. Typist and I get regular visits from the Jehova’s Witnesses. They’re nice people and Mr. Typist will spend a fair chunk of time chatting with them. If Mr. Typist isn’t home, they usually read me a bible verse or two and go on their way. This morning when they came by, they asked for Mr. Typist specifically. When I told them he was still sleeping, they said, “Oh. Well, can we come back later when he's awake?” “Umm...sure,” I said, even though I felt summarily rejected. I almost wanted to shout after them, “You know, I’m pretty confused about God! I could use some answers here. I have a vague sense of something missing in my life.” But instead, I shut the door and sulked. That's what it's come to, folks--Mr. Typist gets requested by name, and I don’t get so much as verse from 2 Corinthians.

 --Kristen McHenry

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Query Letter Triumph, Craft Conundrum, Vat of Nothingness

I wasn’t going to say anything about my query letter in this post, because I’m aware that I was starting to sound completely unhinged. But…I had a breakthrough, folks! After working on it for literally eight hours yesterday, it finally clicked. I just “got it”—I have the hook, I have the right tone, and I think I finally have a viable query. I realized that I had been leaving out a key piece—the precipitating event that causes my main character’s crisis. I was starting the letter in the wrong place; being overly focused on the sequence of the plot, rather than spark that starts the fire. I sent an inquiry to an agent this afternoon, and I felt good about it. There are many, many more to send, but I feel like I’m in a much stronger position now to get a bite.

I’ve been getting frustrated with my punch rug hobby because I’m having a hard time creating finer patterns. Brimming with confidence due to my pillow success of last week, I got the bright idea that I could learn embroidery. I, who can barely sew a seam and have no patience even for that, managed to briefly delude myself that embroidery would be a great craft for me. And it’s all because I watched this really captivating video that made it look so simple and beautiful. I want to be the kind of person who can do embroidery. But I’ve also resolved to stop making aspirational purchases that will sit gathering dust for years. (Like my bike.) However, it turns out there is such a thing as an embroidery punch needle! Which solves both of my problems. I nipped over to Joanne’s today to look for one, but they didn’t have any. Undaunted, I bought some embroidery thread anyway, and tried to use my yarn needle with it. It looked hopeful for a minute, but then it all went to hell. So it’s back to yarn until I can get my hands on an embroidery punch needle. (Thrilling stuff, I know.)

I don’t have anything else to add because nothing happened this week. I worked, came home, ate dinner, and went to bed. I’m starting to feel like my life is very much like Norman’s. If I really stretch, I could say that I Feng Shuied my office thanks to the help of my friend, ate a high-concept burger at one of those over-achieving hipster restaurants, (it wasn’t great), and had a weird dream about a Victorian-era vampire. (The scary kind, not the sexy kind.) Gah, sorry I am so unutterably dull this week. Here, have a video. Lois CK is my go-to when I run out of ideas.

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Weight Creep, Refrigerator Rorschach, I Made a Thing!

Since I started working a few blocks from my apartment, I have gained…a tiny amount of weight. It’s nothing to panic about, I tell myself. It’s barely worth noting. But of course I have noted it, because I am who I am, and because I am ever on alert now due to the trauma it caused me to “have” to lose thirty excess pounds a few years ago. I am not going through that seventh circle of hell again. When I was working at the other location in the Central District, I would walk uphill about two miles every morning on an extremely steep incline, and walk back downtown on the way home. That was my exercise for the day, and while it was hardly a P90X workout, it did ensure that my heart rate got up at least twice a day, and that my muscles were engaging in some sort of resistance. But since I started at the new location, I’ve noted a distinct softening of the musculature and a general physical malaise settling in. So I signed up for use of the employee “gym”—a tiny but functional workout space with a balance ball, an elliptical, and several confounding contraptions I haven’t figured out how to use yet. I faffed around the last two days doing some crunch-type gestures and some half-hearted cardio on the elliptical during my break. I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed that this new exercise “plan” will stave off further atrophy and weight gain, because I lack the will to do anything more ambitious. 

I’ve been putting a lot of mental energy into dealing with the work transition, and as such I’ve been letting things like writing my query letter go. But I plan to tackle it again soon, along with my new idea for a long-term project, whatever form that may take. Right now, I’m working on character development. There’s always this magical moment for me when something “clicks” and my main character comes into to full and brilliant focus. One of the best character-development exercises I ever read was to imagine what is on your character’s refrigerator doors. I thought this was brilliant advice. A refrigerator will tell you a lot about a person. You could be the type who has a million expired coupons stuck on there with motley magnets collected over years, (sounds familiar), you could be someone who has aspirational flyers for vegan food-delivery services, (also familiar) or you could be some pathological neat freak whose fridge doors are a blank stainless steel canvass. A refrigerator door reveals multitudes.

In a follow-up to last week’s post, I wrote my first “Life of Norman” story, received with  typically lukewarm praise. But I got seven upvotes! At least one of which was Mr. Typist, but I’ll take it. I’m enjoying the Norman phenomenon and will write another Norman story soon. Oh, and I finished my pillow!! I actually finished a thing! A whole, crafty thing from start to finish that required sewing and everything! Admittedly, the stitching is pretty jenky, and the whole thing is this close to exploding into a mushroom cloud of yarn and batting, but the point is, I did it! I crafted a craft. I’m a crafy m-effer. I can now strut proudly into Joanne’s Fabrics and hold my own with those goth hipster cross-stitch nerds. Ha! Evidence of my crafty brilliance:

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Life of Norman, The New-Project Itchies, I Sewed!

I recently discovered on Reddit an interesting group experiment called “The Life of Norman”. It’s a forum on which one can write and submit stories about Norman, an extremely boring, if harmless, fictional character. The trick is to write stories with the lowest stakes possible, which is antithetical to fiction writers. Norman’s life is incredibly bland, and the stories are meant to describe only the most mundane aspects of his everyday reality: Norman buys milk. Norman writes a check. Norman watches CSI. Norman gets a glass of tap water. It’s a weirdly genius concept. It’s also very soothing. But what I find most interesting about it is how a community of unconnected people can all agree on the “rules” of Norman’s life and write stories that reflect the same tone and feel. This community builds a group story of Norman’s boring existence, with oddly compelling results. I’ve never been much of a collaborator when it comes to creative writing, and the idea of a character sharing ownership among thousands of different narrators is fascinating to me. Having read through a number of the stories, I now feel the same affinity to Norman as I do to the characters in my own stories and novel. I haven’t plunged in to contribute yet, but I plan to write and post a Norman story soon. I hope I do okay!

I've been waiting for a new writing project to breathe life into. I always know that I’ve hit on something when my hands start to tingle, like a ball of energy gaining momentum, and I get little itchy flashes of excited joy thinking about it. That’s happening now, and I’m really glad. I needed a longer creative rest than I realized after finishing the novel, and I’ve been worried that I was finally, totally, “written out”. But the new-writing-project excitement is coming back to me at last. It’s still a very un-formed idea, but it gels a little bit more each day. It’s also a bit experimental in form, so we’ll see where it goes. All or a portion of it may be posted on this blog as a regular series. Or it may not. I just don’t know yet. So stop pressuring me, alright?? Geez.

Yesterday, I actually sewed! I’m making my latest rug into a throw pillow to send to my mom (Merry late Christmas, Mom!), and I had to do the edging, which I bravely did, thanks to the encouragement of Mr. Typist. I had to go to Jo-Anne’s Fabric to get the stuff I needed, and as always, I found the experience intimidating. Jo-Anne’s used to be a boring, sleepy place where dowdy elderly ladies shuffled in to buy knitting needles and dried flowers. But ever since the DYI crafter movement went full-throttle amongst the hipster elite, it’s been crammed with punked-out, beanie-clad scenesters who possess machine-like determination and focus, mowing down the aisles stuffing their carts with gadgets and crafty gew-gaws that I don’t even recognize. I feel totally out of my element. I had to ask the cybergoth behind the fabric counter how many yards of cloth I needed for the backing, and I felt like a complete newb. Which I am. I just make rugs for fun—writing is such an amorphous activity, and it’s nice to counteract it with an activity in which you can actually see the final results of your creative labor. Being pretty inept at making, I’m just excited to have a craft I can actually do. But I don’t have any ambitions to be great at it. I just want to make my silly little rugs and pillows, and have the freedom to be bad at it.

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Tiara Trouble, Query Entropy, Trolled by a Knife Set

This is fading news by now, but the monumentally awkward gaffe that Steve Harvey made when he announced the wrong winner in the Miss Universe pageant still haunts me. My first reaction, after sweating and cringing in sympathy, was relief that Miss Colombia handled the situation gracefully. But in retrospect, it would have been way better if she’d round-house kicked the woman who tried to detach the tiara from her head, screamed “You’re going to have to pry it out of my cold, dead fingers!” and took off running. That’s certainly what I would have done. They would find me hiding in an alley, hunched over my Precious, rocking and mumbling about how I will never relinquish.

I’m still working on the query letter. It’s become an entropy situation, where the more effort I put into it, the worse it gets. But I’m undeterred, as I am certain that at any moment, query letter genius will strike, and the world’s most compelling hook will flow from the Heavens through my fingertips, and it shall come to pass that the first agent who puts eyes on it will immediately demand the full manuscript and an exclusive contract. It’s just a matter sitting here re-writing the same three sentences another seven million times.

Speaking of glorious moments, on Christmas Day, Mr. Typist and I opened a big present from my mom. When we lifted the item out of the box, the heavens opened, angels sang, and sunlight broke through the clouds. It was a beautiful new set of sleek, silvery kitchen knives! We were so excited! Yay, new knives! Then excitement turned to mild puzzlement as we noticed a clear square of hard plastic with mounting holes had been fastened to the bottom of it with screws. Mr. Typist shrugged it off as a “shipping thing” and unscrewed the plate. Then he reached for the butcher knife…which did not come out of the holder. Nor did any of the other knives. We stared at each other in complete befuddlement. “Is there a release mechanism or something?” I asked, squinting at it and feeling around for a magic button. Had our muscles somehow atrophied overnight, rendering us too weak to remove a knife from a block? We pulled, prodded, rattled and yanked, but those knives were not coming out. Those knives were Excalibur.

Finally, Mr. Typist flipped the whole thing over, peeled the protective rubber off the bottom, and discovered the crux of the problem: The knives had holes punched in them through which wire was looped and used to permanently attach the knives to the holder, so it could be safely wall-mounted for display in a store. Apparently, Amazon was so short on product, they yanked this model straight off a wall somewhere without stopping to think through the physics of the situation. And that is how Mr. Typist and I got trolled by a knife set. Every time we walk past it, we’re convinced that it’s laughing at us. But’s that’s okay. It shall soon be boxed up and summarily returned to the prank-knife hell from whence it came, and a new, non-trolling set shall replace it. Thanks to my sister for facilitating the return! (Waves.) And Mom, as we discussed, I really hope you are not reading all this wracked with guilt and feeling bad. It’s given us the gift of having something to look forward to!

 --Kristen McHenry

Sunday, December 20, 2015

My Week in Failure

Several months ago, I somewhat impulsively bought tickets to the Orchestra Seattle/Seattle Chamber Singers performance of The Messiah. One of my volunteers is a singer with the Chamber, and swore that they were known for doing the best Messiah in Seattle. The tickets were relatively cheap, and at the time I thought, “Why not? It’ll be fun,” I thought. “And Mr. Typist loves classical music!”

The concert was last night, and I spent the week peppering Mr. Typist with little reminders in order to mentally prepare him for the trauma of having to be around other people. The day before, the orchestra had sent out an e-mail reminder for the event, which mentioned that it did not start at 7:30 like I initially thought, but instead at 6:00—there was pre-concert concert, then the actual concert, with two intermissions. That, coupled with the long drive, meant we were facing at least a five hour commitment. Still, we both stoically steeled our girders, each one thinking the other would be disappointed if we didn’t go. We had a gloomy, silent early dinner, during which Mr. Typist suddenly blurted out, “Why are we going to this concert again?” at which point I reminded him that I bought the tickets months ago, knowing that he loves classical music. Then I added, “We don’t have to go.” And he was all like, “No, no. We’ll go.” And then I was all like, “Really, we don’t have to”, to which he responded, “Well, do you want to go?” leading me to wanly admit that no, actually, I didn’t really want to go. He looked like he had gotten a stay of execution.  I felt like a total philistine, but by that time it was pitch black outside and pouring down rain, I had been having a nice day decompressing from my first week on the new job by playing video games, and I wasn’t up to facing a crowd of people and three daunting hours of music that I don’t understand or have any particular love for. So there you have it--we blew off a culturally enrichening activity in favor of staying home in our sweatpants and watching TV. I regret nothing.

I still can’t face the query letter. I’ve now stooped to considering work-arounds, such as having a drone fly my novel through the window of an agent. I know I need to quit being such a ninny about this and just get it done, but I’ve already faced starting a new job last week, and I’ll be facing Christmas this week, which is grinding me down emotionally this year, and I just don’t have the mental discipline left to tackle it right now.

Mr. Typist and I took a longish walk today and partway through, both of my hips locked up so badly I thought I might not make it home. Despite my best efforts to stretch regularly, my hips have been really painful lately, to the point that I’ve wondered if I have arthritis. Mr. Typist offered to massage my gluts when we got home, and upon first contact, I howled with agony and begged him not to press so hard. He lightly touched my arm and said, “It was literally that much pressure.” Holy cow, folks. Somehow over the last month or so, the muscles in my hips have gotten into a knotted, inflamed, cement-glueish mess of fascia and corded tendons. I have no idea how it happened. It took half of the Seahawks game, a hot water bottle, and a lot of patience, but Mr. Typist finally managed to work out some of the knots. It’s still a mess, but a least it’s an improvement. The problem with the deep hip flexors is that it’s virtually impossible to stretch them, and once they lock up, you’re hosed. I had no idea how bad mine had gotten. Mr. Typist is hereby recruited into daily massage duty until they get sorted out.

I know some folks love Christmas, but for others, it can be a tough time. For those in the second category, have a bit of a laugh:

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Good Typist Epic Rant Edition: Query Letters, Parking Spaces, and the Stupid, Stupid Beatles

It’s been a long week, my nerves are shot, and I have no longer have any polite filter left. So enjoy my rant. If you need me, I’ll be hiding in the closet, curled into the fetal position.

Having to write a query letter is completely unfair and unspeakably horrible in every way. I am completely toxxed out on internet advice about the process. I am so sick of hearing about the STAKES, the freakin’ stakes, what are the stakes, what are they??? It’s fine if you’ve written some big, flashy, science-fictiony zombie novel about the end of the world, ohhhh, high stakes, but if you’ve written a character-driven novel in which the stakes are purely personal, you’re hosed. The world isn’t going to end if your character doesn’t get what she wants. Therefore, the book that you stupidly poured your soul and two years of your life into is worthless. Sorry I didn’t write a novel about the zombie apocalypse, a global nuclear war, or the extinction of all life on this planet. Next time, I’ll know better.

I don’t understand why I have to write a sales piece for my novel anyway. I wrote an entire novel, for God’s sake. I finished it and edited it and everything. But now, because I can’t seem to write a query letter, I’m going to be washed up. This effin’ query letter is going to be the end of me. And as much as I appreciate the feedback I’m getting from online forums, I can no longer stand it: More detail. No, less detail. More specifics. Fewer specifics. What are the stakes? Arrgh! The stakes are that I am going to commit hari-kari if I can’t get this stupid query letter finished. I swear to God, I would rather write three more entire novels than to have to write one single query letter. Who the hell created this process anyway? I’m putting the system on trial, people. There has to be a better way.

I usually go grocery shopping on Friday nights, when there is less traffic and fewer people, but I was too exhausted to go last night. So I decided to be clever and do a combined grocery/Christmas/husband-birthday shopping trip at Big Everything Store today instead. It turns out there were NO PARKING SPOTS anywhere, and it was pouring down rain and deathly dark outside and people were driving like idiots and I decided screw this, and I turned around to go to my normal grocery store, and again NO PARKING anywhere, and I got really mad and just came home and told Mr. Typist, forget it. No groceries this week. I can no longer submit to the indignity of circling parking lots for thirty minutes at a time in a monsoon, waiting for a spot to open up so I can fight the masses to buy a bunch of crap to shovel into my face in a never-ending cycle of consumption. I’m done. It’s Taco Time and instant coffee for the rest of the week.

To add insult to injury, I set up a new Pandora station to listen to while working on my latest writing project, and they tried to play a Beatles song, which enraged me. I’m furious with the Beatles because they completely ruined the water aerobics class at my local pool. Water aerobics instructors have no musical imagination, so it was just all Beatles music, all the time, and it threw me into a rage about how unbearably smug and self-satisfied baby boomers are, even though they single-handedly destroyed the American economy. My entire water aerobics class was spent mentally gnawing on my bitterness, because of the stupid relentless Beatles music. I know it’s trendy now to hate on the Beatles, but I hated them before it was popular. They have exactly three songs that I like. The rest of them I find incredibly grating and overrated. And I don’t think they’re the geniuses everyone makes them out to be. So I quit going, purely so that I didn’t have to listen to any more depressing Beatles music. Thanks, John Lennon.

God, I’m cranky. I think I need some vitamin D. Which I could purchase, if there were any open parking spots at the grocery store.  

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Query Letter Hell, Transition Purgatory, Film Fog

Well, I did it, folks. I sent out my first three novel queries to agents yesterday. It was nerve-wracking, but I needed to bust through the fear and the only way to do that was to just take the plunge. I also posted my boiler-plate query letter on Absolute Write’s “Query Letter Hell” feedback forum, where it was instantly torn to shreds. Like the novel summary, writing a query letter is a total nightmare. It’s almost impossible to figure out what to include and what to leave out, and how to make it come together coherently in less than a page. I chalked up my first three queries to test runs, and I plan to re-work the letter based on the feedback I got from the AW site. So if you see me crouched in a corner, sobbing and clutching fistfuls of my own hair, you’ll know why.

Transitions are an interesting thing. I’m in the middle of a big one right now, and it has felt very intense. Never one to think of myself as anyone remotely impactful or influential, I now realize that I have indeed had an impact on my own little corner of the world. But just as I’ve influenced others, I’ve been equally influenced by them. Over the last few years, I have thought a lot about what it means to be a leader, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the mark of true leadership is allowing people into your heart. And that means opening yourself loss and pain and whole host of other uncomfortable feelings. But what else are we to do in this world but let people in?

On a lighter note, Mr. Typist and I were recently pondering our complete lack of interest in going to the movies. He thinks it’s because we’re aging, but I refuse to accept that. I simply find the whole endeavor exhausting and unsatisfying. Most movies these days (oh God, I said “these days”—maybe I am getting old) seem bloated, overly-long, hyper, in-your-face, and unbearably frenetic. I rarely leave a movie feeling transformed or even emotionally sated. I just leave feeling like I’ve wasted three hours that I could have spent writing or creating something. I’m perfectly happy to waste exactly the same amount of time on mindless video games, but somehow I resent any time I spend at the movies if I leave feeling like I just ingested a bunch of empty visual calories. Having once been an avid filmophile, I’m a bit worried about what my growing indifference to movies says about me. For now, I’ll just tell myself that it’s the films that have changed, not me.

I have a reputation for being Grinchy, so here’s my one big Christmas-y act of the season: Enjoy this video of Sir Colin Davis conducting The Messiah with the London Symphony Orchestra:

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Review Revue! Ex Machina, Salt, and Star Talk

Since I feel mouthy and opinionated today, I’m going to foist my opinions of some stuff onto you:

Ex Machina (the movie): I have a propensity to view movies three to five years after they’ve premiered, so I consider myself on the bleeding edge for having just watched Ex Machina. I found the whole thing humorless, pretentious and naval-gazing. It takes itself way too seriously for what is, at its core, the oldest sci-fi film cliché in the book: Overly-advanced robot balks at its enslavement and turns on its creator. Spoiler alert: I’m glad the film’s fey AI creation Ava escapes and gets to live her dream of people-watching at crosswalks, but the whole movie was unbearably annoying to me. I’m annoyed that tech genius Nathan owns his own island. I’m annoyed by his arrogant sneer and his hipster glasses. I’m annoyed at how the movie breathlessly and uncritically perpetuates the myth of the lone genius. And I’m unfathomably rankled by how long it takes Ava to pick out a dress for her big escape. Yes, it’s well-performed and nicely shot, but it’s still just a re-hash of the same over-done story. I don’t understand why so many critics love this lethargic, self-important film so much. But an exhaustive comb through Rotten Tomatoes shows that I’m by far in the minority opinion, so maybe I missed something. Or maybe it’s finally happened, and I’m officially a crabby old woman, totally closed off to the joys of arty pretense. I give it one out of five rogue cyborgs.

Salt (the video game): With all of the complications at work preparing for the transfer to a new campus, I found myself badly in need of a brain-vacation yesterday, which for me usually means a day-long immersion in a mindless video game. I came across “Salt” and downloaded it for ten bucks on Steam, and it was just what the doctor ordered—completely unstructured, open-world play with no goals, no urgency, and enough petty amusements to keep me aimlessly island-hopping for hours. You start off on a desert island, with vague instructions from a mysterious captain to “loot and pillage”, which really just consists of running around gathering fallen logs and plant fibers for crafting, while dispatching the occasional pesky, pan-faced pirate. Eventually you gather enough material to build a raft, which allows you to cruise to other islands and gather more stuff to craft new do-dads. I think eventually you’re supposed to build an actual ship, but I don’t have enough ambition for that at the moment, and I’m too busy fishing. It’s like an extremely low-stakes combination of Minecraft and Far Cry 4. Nothing in the game has much consequence—even running out of food and draining your hunger bar to zero doesn’t affect you much. The graphics are good enough for what the game is, and its laid-back charm makes it a great way to unwind. I give it four out of five pirate hats.

Star Talk (the podcast):  And finally, for those of you who have not caught Neil Degrasse Tyson’s podcast Star Talk, you are seriously missing out. He’s big on bringing science into the mainstream through pop culture and the arts, so he has a lot of comedians, writers, actors and artists as guests. He even did an entire show where he interviewed artists about how science has inspired them. He’s at the forefront of making science accessible and integrating it into the larger culture, which is much-needed in these anti-science times. He’s also a delightfully expansive thinker, able to see connections in seemingly disparate things and ideas. And for an astrophysicist, he’s got some hella sexy guns. (He used to be a wrestler.) And sexy, soulful eyes. And….I should stop now. If you want to widen your perspective and learn some hard-core physics at the same time, take a listen. I give it five out of five particle colliders.

--Kristen McHenry