Thursday, August 28, 2014

Entering the Phantom Zone

In the winter of 2007, I practically starred in the final episode of the hit TV show "Smallville." That's practically almost a complete lie (I was only an extra), but I'm using it as a segue, since that episode was called "Phantom" and I'm on here today to write about Phantom Power.

Now, I'm assuming that you're not one of those morally bankrupt people who laughs at depression-era folk for walking around turning off the lights in unoccupied rooms. Heck, you probably do a bit of that yourself, and maybe you even (gasp) leave the lights off from time to time and let the natural light of day come in through the windows. But it's possible that you're unaware of something called Phantom Power, which is the energy used by appliances when they're turned off, but still plugged into a power source.

Here's some information on Phantom Power from an article on the How Stuff Works website:

"According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL), the average home contains 40 products constantly drawing power. Individually, the electricity flowing to a TV that's been turned off or a coffeemaker programmed to brew in the morning is extremely small, but together, these sleeping devices may account for as much as 10 percent of household energy use."

This may sound like no big whoop, but the article goes on to say...

"Let's consider the example of an old VCR in the basement that draws 13 watts, all day, every day, for an entire year. Every 1 watt of power translates into just a bit less than 9 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year (1 watt x 24 hours per day x 365 days per year = 8,760 watt-hours a year = 8.76 kWh/year):
13 watts x 8.76 kWh/watt/year = 113.88 kWh/year
So at 13 watts, the VCR consumes about 114 kWh per year. Assuming an electricity cost of 11 cents per kWh (your actual cost may be higher or lower, depending on your provider), the cost to power the VCR comes to about $12.53 per year, or just over $1 per month. When you think of it in those terms, it doesn't seem like much. But consider that you may have as many as 20 or 30 other appliances using phantom power as well, and you can see how the numbers begin to add up. According to the Energy Star Web site, the average U.S. household spends more than $100 each year to power devices that are turned off. Nationally, phantom power accounts for more than 100 billion kWh and more than $10 billion in energy costs each year. "
That's is a lot of clean water for kids in cholera-prone areas. That's a lot of mosquito nets for children who'll otherwise die of malaria. Heck, that's a lot of ice cream you can buy for your less electricity-conscious friends. 
And pause, for a moment, to reflect on where all those 100 billion kWh come from. They come from War-for-Oil. They come from mountaintop coal removal. They come from damning and destroying our natural waterways. 
Now, my guess is that you don't mean to pillage and rape the planet and anybody too poor to stop you from taking "their" natural resources, just so that you won't have to unplug that VCR (or ipod docking station, or whatever) every time you're not using it. You're not a monster, after all. You're one of the good guys. 
So as one of the good guys, why don't you go take a gander at the rest of the article for some easy things you can do today to save the planet, and a couple 'a bucks.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Josh Barkey, Worker Ant

Writers (and screenwriters, especially) have to do this thing called "stacking projects," because unless you're a blockbuster superstar, you can't ever afford to write just one thing and then sit around drinking Margaritas whilst everyone hands you money and tells you you're awesome. The fact that I'm not yet getting paid much to write means that I've got a lot of balls I'm currently trying to juggle.

I just added them up. They are:
  • This blog.
  • Two finished short films playing in a number of film festivals (LOCKER 212 & TWO FOR TEA).
  • One short film in post-production: GNOMES.
  • Four short films in various stages of pre-production with four different directors: UNRELEASED, AT EASE, THE BUTTON, & ABDUCTED (and a fifth, APOLLO XII, that I've not yet written, but which already has a director and a budget).
  • Two feature films with directors attached, in the infancy of pre-production: PINK, & GINSENG.
  • Five contests I've got scripts entered into that I've yet to hear back from.
  • My short story collection: IMMORTALITY (and other short stories).
  • A novel I'm almost ready to self-publish: FOUNDER.
  • A second novel I'm just starting to re-write: POUNDERS.
Each of these projects demands a considerable amount of time and energy, beyond the initial writing. The short films, for example, require a lot of additional writing for things like fundraising and promotional materials, and then there's always the difficult decision of which festivals to attend once they are complete. The novel I'm about to put out will require a LOT of marketing - starting with figuring out how to cajole my film-friends into making me a world-class book trailer.

All of this while attempting to keep up with my daily writing, and I end up sometimes feeling a little bit like the leaf-cutter ant I captured in this little video-clip on my last trip to Peru.


Still, better an overworked ant than the motionless larvae I used to be.
Here's to a sense of purpose in everyday life.


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Saturday, August 23, 2014

IMMORTAL ORIGINS: "A Man You Can Count On"

I hope you've had a chance to check out IMMORTALITY (and other short stories), a collection I self-published a year and a half ago that's sitting at a solid 5-star rating on Amazon, where it is currently on sale for a measly eight dollars and ninety-six cents (or $2.99 for Kindle). If not, you should watch the following video, go to Amazon, taste the free sample, decide you love it, buy a copy, read the story in question, and then come back here for the rest of the post.

I'll be writing about the story behind the story, and I don't want you feeling like a clueless, gibbering ape.

Got it?


So, the first thing you have to know is that I wrote many of the short stories in this collection on a dare made by Ray Bradbury during a talk he gave at Point Loma University, in which he challenged would-be novelists to learn their chops by writing a short story a week for a year.

This was not easy.

Every week after I'd finish a story and post it to this blog,* I'd immediately get the sensation that that was it. That was my last idea and there are never going to be any more ideas ever again and I'm going to fail horribly and everyone's going to laugh at me.

Yet every week, something else came. 

I'd been teaching high school art, and the week I wrote "A Man You Can Count On" had not been a good one. One particularly horrible, no-good, mixed-up, very bad day there was a pizza party for the Art Department Booster Club. The party didn't start until later in the evening, at the home of one of the parents, in the opposite direction from my house (which was already thirty-five minutes away), which meant I'd have to wait around in my classroom after school until the time of the party.

To top it off, I could feel myself coming down with a cold. 

But this was the first Booster Club gathering and my presence was expected. So I sucked it up, waited around for a few hours, and then drove out. The party wasn't for another hour, but I was thinking that if I showed up early I could also leave early, and I wanted to swing by a grocery store and pick up a jug of orange juice on the way.

I bought my orange juice / cold medicine and walked back to my car. It was locked. The keys were in the ignition. I was only wearing shoes, pants, and an Art-department t-shirt. The sun was setting, and it was getting very cold.

Not having a cell phone, I went back into the grocery store and called home. My younger brother Jason (generously) agreed to drive up and bring me a spare key, so I lay on the still-warm hood of the car and sipped orange juice, shivering as I waited. When it got too cold, I walked to a nearby Starbucks and bought Jason a gift card for his time. He showed up, I thanked him, and then I got back into my car.

I managed to follow my hand-drawn map right to the house where the party was happening with no further issues. I knew it was the house, because I recognized my boss's car, outside.

It was a huge suburban home. Stone facade, manicured lawn... the works. I knocked at the door. No answer. I rang the doorbell. No answer. I rang it again, and again, and again. No answer. I walked around to the side of the house and peered in a window, down a hallway to where I could see people sitting around a kitchen island counter, laughing and having, as they say, a gay old time. I found a small rock and tapped on the window. No answer.

I went back to the front of the house and rang the doorbell a few more times. You guessed it... no answer. I tried the doorknob. Locked.

That was it. I walked down the sidewalk and back to my dying, decrepit, beater of a grandmother car, hoping against all hope that no one would answer the door and stop me, forcing me to go back inside when all I wanted was off that property, out of that neighborhood, and back to my own, warm bed.

As I drove home, I stewed. 

Why hadn't they answered the door? Well, because they were having fun, I thought. They were at a party and they were having fun, and they assumed that anyone who was supposed to be there at that time of night would have their phone number, and would call to be let in. Except I didn't have a cell phone. I didn't have a cell phone, and I didn't fit in their world of big houses and big money. So I was no one - just an annoying stranger to be left out in the cold.

Maybe that's not what happened. Maybe they were just blasting music so loudly they couldn't hear me. Maybe they had locked their front door not because suburbanite people are paranoid freaks, but because there'd been a spate of daring robberies in that neighborhood the week before.

I didn't care. I was convinced that my exclusion was the direct result of economic injustice, hegemonous corporations, suburban stupidity, and America as a--


I saw the rabbit just before it went under my tire. I may have cursed. I don't remember. I pulled to the side of the deserted country road and walked back with my flashlight. The rabbit was there, and it was dead. I went back for my camera to take its picture - to memorialize it, somehow, so that it would not have died a completely unheralded death. My nose and eyes were running, a little, and it wasn't entirely from my oncoming sickness. I went home and wrote a blog post, venting my frustrations into the internet void.

Then I wrote a story. 

I wrote a story called "A Man You Can Count On," and I put into it all my tears and my frustration. I put into it how I felt about the veneer of politeness shellacked over every last bit of southern American culture, and how when it comes down to it, we're all a bunch of rabbit-killing monsters. I put into it my frustration over years of working in a private school where most of the parents seemed more concerned that their children appear well-behaved than that they actually were healthy and well.

Where they were willing to DRUG their own children rather than let them struggle and fail under the pressures of a difficult college preparatory school.

I wrote these things into a story about a young rail-rider trying to return to the suburban North Carolina home he never knew.

I rewrote that story about thirty-three times.

Then I threw that story into a collection of short stories and made it available to you, oh internet phantasm, for the measly price of not-much-at-all.

So that is the story of "A Man You Can Count On." And if, for some inexplicable reason, you've read this post without first having read the book, well... that's insane. Go click THIS LINK, buy a copy, and support my writing habit before I have to go back to eating bugs to stay alive.

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*I posted the stories on this blog to force myself into accountability, but they were in extremely rough shape and have subsequently been removed... so don't bother looking for them.

Friday, August 22, 2014

thoughts on CALVARY (a film review)

It is strange, given how important faith in God is to so many of us, how few movies there are that deal with it in an intelligent, thoughtful way.

This is not, I think, because Hollywood has some sort of hidden agenda against exploring these issues, but rather because it is a difficult thing to do well - to wrestle with faith in a way that takes it seriously, without ignoring the faults and foibles of the people who practice it.

Mockery is easy. Nuance is hard.

Which is why John Michael McDonough's new film CALVARY is such a welcome addition to the world's film library. This thoughtful Irish film is a significant departure for McDonough, whose previous movie THE GUARD featured a corrupt(ish) cop who pairs up with an FBI agent to investigate an international drug-smuggling ring.

CALVARY is uncomfortable and imperfect, but it's also very intelligent. It does what all good art does by starting with questions and exploring them into bigger questions, leaving you not with a sense of having resolved everything, but simply of having dug deep into the marrow of life. Truths are told in a way that forces you to confront your own questions about faith, doubt, God, and the Church.

Father James is a good priest. 

The movie begins with him in the confessional, as one of his parishioners tells him that in a week, he's going to kill him. Not because he's a bad priest (the sort of priest with whom this would-be murderer has had a great deal of experience), but because he's a good one - an innocent one.

It's a fantastic hook with which to begin a movie - opening with that Agatha Christie "Who's gonna do it and why?" question, and then leaving you to your questions as you follow Father James through his week in a village full of troubled, human people.

Will this good man die?
What is a good man?
Can a priest be a good man?
How important is faith, and does it really matter what we believe?
If there is a God, how can that God be thought of as good, given all the evil in the world and all the corruption in the Church?

No simple questions, these, and so there are no simple answers. 

Yet the movie does offer a guide for how to approach the struggle, as it shows Father James dealing with the humanity of his parishioners in a way that is deeply human. In his wisdom, he sees their foibles and - even without always understanding them - he offers kindness and compassion, free of any sort of judgment. He has opinions on the right or wrongness of their actions, but he generally doesn't feel the need to express these opinions out loud (with the notable exception of the times in which he's speaking out against those who abuse their positions of power and influence).

It is likely that the more conservative-minded among us will find his approach offensive. How can he just sit by without pronouncing some kind of judgment on the sins of the people in his church, they might ask? But as Father James so aptly puts it, it's not actually his Church. The Church to which he has a vocation belongs to a God of grace and forgiveness. And while there are no great answers or apologies that Father James (or I) can give to the justifiable accusations against that Church, there is nonetheless that still, small voice, drawing us back again and again to restoration and healing and hope.

Father James is a good man, as far as men go, but he is not a perfect one. What makes him good is his kindness, compassion, and wisdom as he walks his own via dolorosa - the path to his own Calvary.

It is not, as I have said, a perfect movie.

McDonough perhaps falls victim to the same Oscar-Wildean foible as his equally-talented filmmaker brother Martin (IN BRUGES, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS) of making nearly all the characters equally intelligent and witty, so that the film can at times feel like a long succession of clever quips. They're brilliantly entertaining, but ultimately the mono-tonality of it can grow a little heavy. Furthermore, there are aspects of the plotting that strain credulity in a way you don't really like to see in a drama. For example, the idea that Father James would react as he does to a murder threat from a known aggressor seems a little, well, inhuman.

But we do not go to the movies for perfection, and it seems to me that the film's virtues far outweigh any complaints that might be raised. It is a good movie by any standard: innovative, gorgeously-shot, thoughtful, well-acted, entertaining, and intricately plotted.

If you're interested in a dark comedy that digs deep into tough, important questions, then I suggest you give CALVARY a try.

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If you do watch and enjoy CALVARY, here are a few other faith-exploring movies you will likely find interesting and moving, as well:


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NOTE: Today's post is brought to you courtesy of my awesome (and awesomely tall) cousin, Darren, who took advantage of an opportunity I like to call "Boss Josh Around!" 

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Kentucky, Part Two: An Afternoon with Wendell Berry

This past Sunday from three to five, my woman-friend and I sat with Wendell Berry and his wife Tanya, drinking cold water and talking about everything from indie films to biblical scholarship.

It is inherently ironic for me to write about this on a computer, given that my introduction to Wendell Berry (and the piece of writing that inspired me to go on a Wendell-Berry-reading-rampage) was his essay "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer." But as Mr. Berry once told me in a letter, we all live with a series of compromises we did not choose. So I will use this computer and this electricity to tell you the story of how I came to meet Wendell Berry, perhaps our nation's greatest creative voice in the conservation movement.

It began, as I have said, with an essay, which was followed by a book. That book was That Distant Land, which I experienced as a beautiful lament for a way of life that we are rapidly losing. It was tragic, but it was also a funny and entertaining, and as with all great books inspired a sense of connection to the author - of love, almost.

So I looked him up on the internet, found the town where he lived, and wrote him a letter.

He wrote back!

Over the next few years I read more of Wendell Berry's books. I read his collected essays, novels, and poetry, and I loved all of it. I wrote more letters, and he wrote more in return. Sometimes, I would send him a piece of my writing. He was very kind and very encouraging to me about my work, and before long, I'd decided I'd like to meet the man.

I'd been planning to visit my old friend JJ up in Lexington, and knew that Mr. Berry lived not far from there. But the timing of my visit didn't work with his availability. After a last minute, regretful phone call from the man himself (What?! "Berry" on my caller ID?!), I went ahead and made my visit to JJ, anyway.

Then a few months ago I started seeing this woman-friend of mine, who told me out of the blue that there was this essay she re-read every year by a guy named Wendell Berry called "Feminism, the Body and the Machine." CRACK! The idea lightninged down out of a cloudless sky. I would take my woman-friend to visit Wendell Berry, and then JJ, to boot.

I wrote, and Mr. Berry agreed. 

We drove up, had our aforementioned visit with JJ and family, and then drove another forty minutes to the Berry farm. Up the grade of a narrow driveway, to park behind a sensible-looking gray Oldsmobile just as Mr. Berry pulled his old, white truck onto the shoulder of the road down below.

My woman-friend and I watched as he started to climb the cracked concrete steps, with a battered briefcase in hand. His border-collie-mix dogs came first and said hello, and then Wendell Berry himself stuck out his hand to me and said, "You must be Josh." He greeted my companion and ushered us to his door, directing us ahead and toward his friendly (and whip-smart) wife, who said there was no way she was going to sit out with us in the mosquitoes. So into the kitchen we went.

The Berrys mentioned almost apologetically that their water was out, and how you never realize how much you need something until it's gone - which was a perfect segue into talking about Mr. Berry's work for the preservation of our waterways.

But we didn't talk about the preservation of our waterways. Not at first.

Instead, Mr. Berry and his wife directed a steady stream of questions at us. They asked about what we were doing and what we were hoping to do, and about where we were from and about our parents.

Eventually, we talked about them a bit more - about Mr. Berry's writings and about his thoughts on the world. We talked and we joked and we laughed, and I am not going to attempt to recreate for you that conversation, because it was just a conversation. It wasn't magical or glowing or perfect. It was four people in a country kitchen, drinking water and sharing their moments.

I will just say that my woman-friend was right, and that Wendell Berry was exactly what you'd expect: an old farmer like every other old farmer you've ever hung out with, except perhaps smarter. His wife was delightful, and they were both kind, generous, and thoughtful.

As our time wound down and I started watching the clock (Mr. Berry wore a watch, but I never once saw him glance at it), they thanked us for coming. Mr. Berry said that he was glad to hear we had friends in the area, and that he wondered whenever people drove a long ways just to see him if maybe they thought he had a trapeze act, or something. We laughed.

We laughed a lot, that visit.

As we got up to leave, I asked if it would be awkward for me to ask for a picture and they said "Yes, it would, but we're used to it." So I pulled out my camera and said that we'd talked about how it was awkward, but we really wanted a memory of my woman-friend with Mr. Berry (Mrs. Berry wasn't interested in being photographed).

He seemed to warm to that idea, and when we'd stepped out onto the porch he said that since she was beautiful and he was not that good-looking, together they'd average the picture out to something fairly attractive.

I took the picture. He told me to take another, to be sure I'd got it.

We bid goodbye to him and then the dogs, and drove away. 

Now, part of me did not want to tell you about our visit. Part of me feels the irony of writing this on a computer as a pin-prick of conscience, and knows that one reason for telling you this story is because of that brush-with-fame mentality that brings us such ugly phenomena as reality TV and People magazine.

But one thing that Wendell Berry said during our conversation that really caught me was that he referred to himself as a "small writer," and I realized that he was right. His books sell, but they are not best-sellers.

They should be.

So I decided to stifle that niggling self-conscious guilt, and encourage you to go to Wendell Berry's Amazon Page and buy a copy of one of his books. If you like novels, buy Jayber Crow. If you like thoughtful essays on a wide range of topics, buy Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community. If you like poetry, buy a book of his poetry (I did, but haven't finished it yet, because poetry is hard). And my woman-friend (who is reading over my shoulder as I write this) says "Don't forget short stories, because his short stories are fantastic."

Then she added that people should maybe buy my short stories, while they're at it. So, there's that.

Now, I know you may be hoping that I'm going to end this tale with the picture - the one I took of Wendell Berry and my woman-friend on the porch of his home, in the fading light of a Kentucky afternoon. I'm not, because for some reason that feels to me like it cheapens the moment.

Still... you did come all this way. So...

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Kentucky, Part One: Old Friends

Oh internet, you vile seductress.

I almost completely kept my self-vow to quit you whilst in Kentucky the past few days, but my hosts had internet and there were a few things I simply had to do whilst I was there. 

It was a grand time, nonetheless, and although the spark that lit the fire of the trip was the idea to spend a few afternoon hours hanging out with one of my very favorite living authors, the majority of our time was spent reconnecting with some dear old friends. 

Our first destination was Aunt A's house. 

Aunt A reads this blog, but I swear I'm not just being polite when I say that we had a delightful time cruising the streets of Wilmore, making smores over a backyard bonfire, and conducting an impromptu sing-a-long to the accompaniment of my unevenly-played ukulele. Here's a picture of me amusing myself after taking the enviable lead in the "waking-up-early" competition (sixteen brownie points to the first person to comment with the name of the painting, and who painted it)...

The next day, after a loverly little coffee shop breakfast and a loverly drive out to a loverly bridge look-out (Aunt A is British, so it's important to use the word "loverly" a lot), my woman-friend and I were on the move again. 

Despite our near-pathological shared inability to read maps and follow a road, within an hour we were at the home of my friend-from-a-way-back, whom I will refer to here as JJ. 

JJ lives with his lady-love and his father on a largely-wooded, 60-acre farm in a place called "Bald Knob." His father has a small cabin and a Shi-Tzu, and JJ and his lady-love live in a converted barn with two dogs that could probably swallow the Shi-Tzu fairly easily, but for some reason don't. 

JJ is a chef who at one time or another has literally cooked for kings, so each meal was an experience and a half. We spent the next few days going for walks in the woods and up the road, reading on the porch, and drifting from one mind-blowing culinary experience to the next. 

JJ's father is a former University professor, and his lady-love a former PhD candidate in philosophy. My own woman-friend is a wicked-smaht, full-scholarship student at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, so conversation was as lively and challenging as you're likely to find in that neck of the woods.

Then we toodled off for our time with Wendell Berry (barely getting lost at all along the way). 

I'm looking forward to telling you all about that experience, tomorrow. For today, though, I'll save myself a few thousand words and leave you with a some pictures to give you a sense of what those days with JJ were like.

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