My quarantine birthday

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Having your birthday in the era of COVID is different. Dinner at a nice restaurant comes to you in a large box. Your friends & colleagues show up, but you all gather on Zoom. Socially distanced cake happens w/ face shields on.

But you know what doesn’t change? The love. I’m so grateful to everyone for taking a few minutes out of their day to stop by and wish me happy birthday via Zoom yesterday, and for my lovely wife for arranging the whole event.

Among a parade of folks from all different parts of my life, my dear friend Matthew Weber showed up in the Zoom chat and was his characteristically amazing self. He wrote three Haikus to celebrate the occasion of my birth, which I shall now reproduce for you in full:

“Renaissance hombre
With a depth of excellence
Parallel to none

A voice and a heart
That is smooth and savory
Foie Gras kind of friend

Mysterious? Yes!
But crack that sweet hardened nut
And your reward? Joy.”

This inspired me to ask us the whole crew to get into a haiku-writing session, and in fact, many great haikus were written impromptu and shared. Here is mine:

“Zoom with all my peeps
Even in mid-pandemic
I’m very lucky”

Even in the middle of everything, there can still be love and kindness. My friends and colleagues are a frequent reminder of this.

Leave

Starting today, I’ll be going on a three-month sabbatical from my full-time job at Amazon. Everything is fine – my overall health is okay and there are no family emergencies. Rather, I’m using the leave to focus on some personal projects, on my home life, and on improving my diet and exercise.

At this point, I’ve been at Amazon for 2.5 years. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, there’s a saying that’s common among employees that Amazon years are like “dog years” in that every year you work there feels much longer than it actually is. In my experience this is true, but only because of the sheer quantity of material you are able to learn, the responsibility that’s vested in you as an individual employee, and the amount of impact you are able to make. Overall, I’ve gotten a lot out of my time at Amazon and I feel extremely fortunate and privileged to work with such talented people who have been very understanding of my need to take this personal leave.

Beyond all the things I plan to do, it has been a challenge to maintain my job and all of my extracurricular activities. I’m hoping to use the next few months to take a step back and re-prioritize everything I’m working on so that I can return to work with renewed focus. But I’m also hoping it to use it to reconnect with old friends and meet new prospective collaborators (on that note: if we haven’t spoken in awhile, and/or you have a creative project to pitch me, now is the time to get in touch!)

There’s an old blog post I’ve been thinking a lot about recently over at Tim Urban’s Wait But Why, about visually dividing your life up into years/months/weeks.

Seeing life divided up like this can be both invigorating and terrifying. It’s scary because you realize how limited our time is and how each week is an inevitable step towards the bottom of that chart. But it can also be exciting, as Urban writes:

Both the week chart above and the life calendar are a reminder to me that this grid of empty boxes staring me in the face is mine. We tend to feel locked into whatever life we’re living, but this pallet of empty boxes can be absolutely whatever we want it to be. Everyone you know, everyone you admire, every hero in history—they did it all with that same grid of empty boxes.

The boxes can also be a reminder that life is forgiving. No matter what happens each week, you get a new fresh box to work with the next week. It makes me want to skip the New Year’s Resolutions—they never work anyway—and focus on making New Week’s Resolutions every Sunday night. Each blank box is an opportunity to crush the week—a good thing to remember.

“Every blank box is an opportunity to crush the week.” Let’s make the most of them. I’m going to try my best to do so during this leave and beyond.

If you want to follow my adventures over the next 11 weeks, I’d recommend:


A few other links from recent days:

Giving Thanks

“I think I kind of lost the thread of what you were doing with your life.”

Three years ago, I was catching up with a friend over lunch when she spoke these words to me. And reader, I agreed with her. I had recently left a lucrative job at Microsoft to try my hand at the world of startups, but things hadn’t exactly worked out like I’d hoped. So for awhile, I was adrift as I applied to jobs, trying to figure out what direction my life was heading in. At one point, I even created a “dream board” where I wrote all the different paths I could pursue onto index cards, tacked them onto a bulletin board, and ranked them based on their likelihood of success and the emotional satisfaction/financial benefits they might bring me (it’s an illuminating exercise that I’d recommend to anyone).

After much consideration, I’d decided that I wanted to give the corporate world at least one more shot. I felt like I still had much to learn, and I enjoy solving business problems and making an impact as part of a team.

When you live in Seattle, one of the most obvious places to work is Amazon, whose corporate headquarters is based in the South Lake Union neighborhood. I knew very little of what it was like to work there — only that their business prowess was formidable, their scope was sprawling, and their standards were incredibly high.

Over the course of several months, I applied for several jobs at Amazon. At most companies, when you are deemed worthy of an in-person interview, they bring you in for a full day’s of conversations with employees. Amazon is no different. I remember sitting in the lobby of one of Amazon’s buildings, waiting for a day of interviews to begin. I watched as hundreds of employees passed by, pressing their badges against the security turnstiles and stepped onto elevators that would whisk them up to their offices. It was a normal day for them, but for me, all I wanted was to see what was past those turnstiles, to understand what it was like to work at this company that had captured the loyalty of tens of millions of Americans.

I’d dedicated many days of preparation to every interview I participated in, and I was turned down more than once. But eventually, after a great deal of perseverance, I was hired.

I know that lots of people have different opinions about Amazon and certainly working there can have its ups and downs. But as I reflect on the past 2+ years of my life, I have so much gratitude for all the hyper-intelligent people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve been able to have, and all that I’ve been able to learn. Regardless of how things play out from this point, I have a much deeper understanding of my capabilities and what I want out of my life, as well as more resources to make those things happen. I have started to find the thread of my life again.

But what comes to mind today, on Thanksgiving Day 2019, is all the people that helped me to get to where I am.

As I was going through the process of getting hired, I realized that the one thing that was most important to my success was to find a group of people who believed in me. I was so lucky to have found them: people who dedicated time and resources to helping me prepare for my interviews; people who made connections with others that would prove invaluable in the future; people who helped me talk through all the different options and possibilities (Notably, my wife falls into all these categories and more. She’s  never stopped believing in me, even in my darkest hours). Everyone gave freely without expecting anything in return. In doing so, they earned a friend in me for life.

So as you reflect on the state of your life, as many do during this contemplative holiday period, I hope you’ll remember the people who’ve believed in you. Those who have cleared the way for you, supported you, and made sacrifices to get you where you are right now, even when you could give them absolutely nothing in return. And if you have a chance, maybe give them a call or a text and let them know how much they mean to you.

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

The Sweet Smell of Succession

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HBO’s Succession is one of the most compelling shows on television and it’s returning for a second season on August 11th. And I’m launching a new podcast to recap it with Tara Ariano! You can find the podcast at successionpodcast.com, where we’ve already recapped season 1, and you can support the show at successionkickstarter.com.

For those who aren’t aware, Succession chronicles the power moves of the Roy family and their patriarch, Logan Roy. Logan is the founder of a a gigantic media conglomerate called Waystar Royco which has generated obscene wealth not just for himself, but for his four children. While they each defend against outsiders that would threaten to infiltrate their circle, they must also contend with their biggest obstacle: each other.
Succession’s portrait of the Roy family is funny, biting, tragic, and heartbreaking. It offers so much fodder for discussion and we’re looking forward to breaking it all down with you.

On a personal note, this marks my first real collaboration with Tara Ariano. I first encountered Tara’s work over a decade ago, when I became a huge fan of her website, Television Without Pity, one of the first TV recap sites ever. TWoP managed to combine snark and insight into an irresistible package. It was essential reading for show watchers and showrunners alike (Famously, the site was referred to obliquely in an early West Wing subplot). It’s not an exaggeration to say that sites like Television Without Pity paved the way for some of the work I’ve done with my own TV recap podcasts.

Tara and the founders of TWoP also went on to create the Extra Hot Great podcast, a weekly general interest TV podcast which is a exceptionally well produced. Extra Hot Great manages to capture what makes television wonderful and transcendent but also, occasionally, truly terrible. Still, the podcast itself is always a delight and continues to this day.

In any case, I couldn’t be more excited to work with her on this new venture. I hope you have a chance to check out our first episode at successionpodcast.com. You can also support the show via Kickstarter at successionkickstarter.com.


Some other interesting links from the week:

Announcing Culturally Relevant, a new culture podcast

When I first started podcasting 12 years ago, it came out of a desire to preserve interesting conversations that I had with other people and to put them out into the world. On a fundamental level, I believed that when people can have access to meaningful dialogue about topics they’re passionate about, it makes them feel less alone.

In addition to creating an intangible camaraderie, podcasts also open people up to new perspectives and interesting arguments. If I started podcasting from the position of wanting to find people who affirmed my opinions, I’ve tried to get to the point where I seek out those that challenge my own. Only in the crucible of a blistering, incisive argument can your own point of view be truly tested and validated, I’ve come to conclude. And podcasts are an amazing vector for all of these interactions.

In the intervening years, I’ve been fortunate to meet dozens of fascinating and talented individuals, including filmmakers and writers and authors and artists from all walks of life. But despite all the podcasts I’ve created, there still hasn’t really been a vehicle for the full breadth of these conversations. That’s what I’m hoping Culturally Relevant will be.

Every weekly episode will feature an in-depth conversation about an interesting topic, whether we are discussing a creator’s own work or reviewing something else. I hope it’ll be a mix of the casual and the formal, deliberate and off-the-cuff. I have absolutely no idea if it’ll work but I’m hoping you’ll join me for the journey.

An intense time

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You may have noticed it’s been a little quiet recently on the blog/newsletter. That’s because I’ve been busy gearing up for an intense time of my life: Hosting three weekly podcasts at once (Write Along, the Slashfilmcast, and now with the premiere of Game of Thrones, A Cast of Kings). A surprisingly large amount of prep has gone into this season of A Cast of Kings and I’m both nervous and excited to go through this final step of the journey with all of our listeners.

Given this schedule, for the next few weeks I’m going to take take steps to maintain my mental health and likely slim the blog/letter down, perhaps keeping it mostly to a list of recommended links.

We are about to enter a consequential time in pop culture history. In April and May, we’ll see the conclusion of Game of Thrones and the end of the first few phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These are both epic stories — breathtaking in scope, sprawling in ambition, and unequaled in their respective mediums.

I find myself experiencing a lot of emotions as I contemplate these stories wrapping up. While I’m obviously a fan that has considered both of these works worthy of analysis and debate, I’m also a commentator with a modest following that has been podcasting/blogging/vlogging since they began.

I’ve looked back on the past decade and considered all the things I’ve devoted my time to. And I’ve started to turn my eye towards the next decade, and begun thinking about how I will take what I’ve learned to create valuable work that can stand on its own. Hopefully, I’ll have more to share with you soon. Hopefully.

In the meantime, here are a few things I’ve been working on recently:


Some more interesting links from the past week or two:

What I’m thankful for this year (2018)

A non-exhaustive list, in no particular order:

  • I’ve had some health challenges this year, but overall I’m grateful that I continue to more or less get by, living in a city (Seattle) that’s beautiful, thriving, and whose best days are still ahead of it.
  • I’m thankful to be working for a company that is writing the future of how people interact with commerce and technology. It’s not a privilege I take lightly.
  • I’m thankful that the American people were given a voice in this year’s Midterm Elections and that as a result, some form of balance has been restored to our government. Trump’s legislative agenda, which has imperiled minority groups of all kinds, is dead for now.
  • As usual, I continue to be thankful for all the people who engage with me online, whether by reading my blog/newsletter, listening to my podcasts, or emailing me. Your engagement has been delightful, encouraging, and thought-provoking. And it reminds me why I do what I do.
  • I’m thankful for any and all the collaborators who’ve taken a chance on working with me (or who continue to do so). Any collaboration is always a leap of faith for all parties involved. I do my best not to underestimate the trust involved.
  • I’m thankful for Sony’s mirrorless cameras (and specifically the A7III and A6500), which have not only pushed the industry forward but have also pushed my photography forward too.
  • I’m thankful for my family, from my father who helps keeps our affairs in order, my mother who still makes me food and brings it to me in Tupperware containers, and my brother, who’s helped me put this blog together. They continue to play an important part of shaping who I am.
  • I’m thankful for the privilege of being married this year, for all the friends and family who came to celebrate with us, and for all I’ve learned about being a better person through it.
  • I’m thankful for the amazing year of videogames we’ve had, from the exceptional God of War to the hugely ambitious Red Dead Redemption 2. Many of my most memorable entertainment experiences have been through games this year.
  • Lastly, some film-related thanks:
    • I’m thankful for all the film-related podcasts I listen to (e.g. The Next Picture podcast, Filmspotting, Blank Check, among many others), the YouTube channels I subscribe to, and all amazing film writing I’m privy to reading each year. All of it continues to expand my mind, make me laugh, and remind me how much further I have to go.
    • I’m thankful for all the amazing movies I’ve been able to see this year, from big budget hits like Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War, which show it’s still possible to make interesting choices on a massive scale. Meanwhile, smaller indies like Bodied, Sadie, and Prospect inspire me and show me that it’s still possible to create something great using sheer force of will.
    • I’m thankful to newsletters like Richard Rushfield’s The Ankler and Casey Newton’s The Interface, which have taught me not just the value of interesting, outside perspectives on technology and entertainment, but also the level of quality it takes to turn a newsletter into a business.
    • I’m thankful to any folks who continue to take chances on my work, like the fine people of Winchester, VA who screened The Primary Instinct this year. It reminded me of the power of movies and how things can still find an audience years after the fact.
    • Finally: AMC Stubs A-List, baby.

If you’re a new or longtime reader/listener, thanks so much. I’ll keep going for long as I can, and as long as you keep showing up.

Write Along – a new podcast about the creative process

I’m pleased to announce that I’m launching a new podcast called “Write Along.” It’s about writing and the creative process featuring screenwriter, author, and former film critic C. Robert Cargill. Our first episode is up now. Check it out on iTunesGoogle Play, or via RSS.

Cargill is a writer whose work I’ve followed for many years. I’ve witnessed his ascent from a film critic at Ain’t It Cool News to a screenwriter working on films that rake in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. In recent days, I’ve seen Cargill share advice tweets about the writing process that have resonated with thousands of aspiring creatives on the internet.


I recognized that Cargill’s advice came from a place of generosity. He’d risen in the industry and wanted to reach down and help the next generation up along with him. So in an effort to signal boost, I pitched Cargill on a simple idea: A weekly podcast, no more than 20 minutes long, that covers a single piece of writing advice. It would be another way to preserve Cargill’s counsel, while potentially adding several layers of interactivity on top (both my dialogue with him, and the audience’s dialogue with us).

On a personal level, I’m excited about this podcast for two reasons: 1) I’m thrilled to be working with Cargill, whose voice I’ve always found to be compelling (even if I often disagree with him), and 2) I think there’s a lot of discipline involved in turning out a podcast that’s only 10-20 mins long each week, and I’d like to practice that discipline. I like to go long with my content. I meander. I don’t edit tightly. Can this weekly podcast that’s shorter than a sitcom episode provide enough enjoyment and utility to justify its existence?

Let’s find out together.


A few other notes and observations from the week:

  • If you’re an aspiring podcaster these days, I think it can be tough to figure out exactly which site to use for hosting and creating your podcast. There are just so many options out there (e.g. Podbean, Libsyn, Anchor, etc.). I honestly struggled for a little bit before settling on a hosted WordPress.com website, coupled with a Libsyn account for hosting files (the latter is primarily for the statistics and metrics it provides. WordPress hosts files too, if your’e into that sort of thing). I’ll probably review this experience at some point, but I chose it because it offers a lot of control over the podcast feed, with fairly minimal cost.
  • A big shout out to Wikirascals for helping me out with podcast art, and to @ZShevich for helping us come up with a name for the podcast.
  • This article about the last days of Blockbuster is beautiful.
  • I finally caught up with this powerful essay in which Darius Miles explains what the hell happened to Darius Miles.
  • Sandi Doughton has written a meditation on how to survive in Seattle traffic, which turns into a broader piece on the psychology of road rage. I can support Sandi’s premise that Seattle has some pretty terrible driving. Getting around by car is pretty unbearable and the lack of a subway system doesn’t help.
  • Roxane Gay writes about why you should vote even if you’re disillusioned right now:

Every single day there is a new, terrifying, preventable tragedy fomented by a president and an administration that uses hate and entitlement as political expedience. If you remain disillusioned or apathetic in this climate, you are complicit. You think your disillusionment is more important than the very real dangers marginalized people in this country live with.

Don’t delude yourself about this. Don’t shroud your political stance in disaffected righteousness. Open your eyes and see the direct line from the people in power to their emboldened acolytes. It is cynical to believe that when we vote we are making a choice between the lesser of two evils. We are dealing with a presidency fueled by hate, greed and indifference. We are dealing with a press corps that can sometimes make it seem as though there are two sides to bigotry. Republican politicians share racist memes that spread false propaganda and crow “fake news” when reality interferes with their ambitions. Progressive candidates are not the lesser of two evils here; they are not anywhere on the spectrum of evil we are currently witnessing.