Put Your Head Down and Work

One of my first jobs out of college was at a busy, local bike shop. It was 2009, so my humanities degrees were useless in the already bankrupt Chicago labor market. But the bike shop was a happy medium. It paid well, the customers were (mostly) cool, and the discounts were steep. Outside of the university, sandwich shop, and non-profit jobs I held during college, my years with the bike shop were my first real introduction to “work” in Chicago. That particular psychology of labor—a byproduct of capitalist economics—constituting the careerist spirit of ‘The City That Works.’ I didn’t realize it at the time, but we had a running joke in the shop that I think served as dictum for this psychology: “Put your head down and work.” Which is what we would say—jokingly-but-not-jokingly—when things got hectic. Us shop hands would complain under our breath at the weekend busyness, or the stupidity of that new money yuppie couple in the corner. Then someone would say, “put your head down and work.” We’d laugh, but then we’d actually put our heads down, and we’d work. And stop complaining, and stop joking around.

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Natural Theater, or, the Very Large Array

Yesterday I took a few-hour jaunt out of T or C to the Very Large Array, the, uh, very large radio telescope/observatory roughly fifty miles west of Socoro, New Mexico—notable only because once you’re past Socoro, there’s nothing but mountains, fields, and a gradual elevation climb to 7,000 feet above sea level. Every five or ten minutes I’d see another car on the road, but otherwise, the only signs of life are endless acres of shrubby trees tended by sleepy herds of roaming cattle. But even in its seeming remoteness, the landscape is far from bleak. Instead, it emanates an unfamiliar, palatial sentience. Not merely a backdrop, but a conscious presence. Waterlogged storm clouds combed the sky, washing the roads with fat raindrops. Lightning flashed, occasionally scorching the ground just a few car lengths away. But in the distance, the hot, white light of the desert sun pierced through the gray dimness of the squall, as a broad performance of natural theater. And no better stage than the vast plains that once were the floor Lake San Agustin, an ancient, Pleistocene expanse.

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STOP! Dahmertime.

Last night I did my third reading with the good folks at Pungent Parlour, and to celebrate my newfound breaks from the stifling worlds of business and academia, I read my freshly penned letter to late Wisconsin folk hero Jeffrey Dahmer. And now I’m sharing it here because it’s a little too blue for Shouts and Murmurs.

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Graduate Recognition Speech

Last Thursday I was invited to be a Distinguished Student Speaker at Northeastern Illinois University‘s Graduate Recognition Ceremony. My upbringing and history has made me suspect of all institutions, but my experience at NEIU has been a boon for my confidence, production, and direction. And now I have a Master of Arts degree.

Below I’m posting a full transcript of the speech. For history’s sake. And also for blog content.

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A Conversation with Structo

In 2012 I published a short story in Structo: Issue 8, and the good people over with the UK-based lit-mag started a series where they interview former contributors, seeing what’s new and good and so on and so forth. Today it was my turn. Go here to read the full conversation, where I’m name-dropping Dostoyevsky, Terrence McKenna, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

A Toxic Filmography

I am less than a month away from my thesis defense meeting at Northeastern Illinois University. Once I’ve successfully completed that (fingers crossed), I will be receiving my Master of Arts degree the following month. The working title for my project is “Toxic Cults.” Sexy, right?

I’m still refining my final draft, but today I completed the filmography portion of the project, which I’m including below for those who are curious about what I’ve been doing the past eight months. The list is ordered by date, from oldest to newest. I’ve seen almost all of the movies here and my appetite for shitty ’80s cult movies is now fully sated.

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Making Truth in Alaska: The Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference

As a native Illinoisian, mine was a childhood of highways, humid summers, and Hardees. So when I learned I’d won a grant from the City of Chicago to visit Alaska I wondered if I’d come back alive.

Alaska would be my first encounter with actual geology, a foreign concept in my home city of Chicago, blue island of glass, steel, and pension crises in a sea of King James red. Topographical lust was partly what attracted me to Alaska, though the real dram came from Alaska’s promise of ‘frontier.’ The most frontiersy Chicago gets is when an armless body washes up on the beach by your apartment, and even that I’ve only seen through hearsay. Alaska’s landmass is equal to 21% of the 48 contiguous US states (‘The Lower 48’ in Alaskan parlance), though the Lower 48’s population is nearly 42,000% greater than Alaska’s. But in place of people, Alaska has bald eagles, bears, and bergschrunds. And according to the CDC, the highest suicide rate of any US state.

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What I Watched in 2014. Including ‘Jack Reacher’ for Some Reason.

Though 2014 was a busy year for me, I managed to fill my downtime with regular doses of B- and C-grade media, and an occasional A-grade treat. And I’ve captured (almost) all of it in the below list that charts all films and TV series I watched during the year. There is a lot more TV and far fewer movies compared to past years, but as our culture increasingly consumes serialized entertainment, this seems a fitting shift.

And because I believe that media help us understand ourselves, others, and the world, I willfully ingested some absolute shit for the sake of social perspicacity (looking at you, Aaron Sorkin). Problem is, when you eat a lot of shit, your brain-stomach gets used to it, and you end up watching Crossroads for your final film of the year. But if I don’t watch Britney Spears movies, who will? How else will I know to drink Pepsi?

When I first started charting my annual entertainment consumption, I was in a strange cinematic phase. I was taking in Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, and others in the Criterion Collection canon like they were minor deities. I was also watching through decades of Razzie winners. So I got a bit of vertigo mixing the high and low like that. As I near the end of my 20’s, I also realize that I have lost a taste for sober existential flicks, but probably because my present life casts me in a leading role. To the point where I wish Bresson’s characters would settle down a little, stop being so hyperactive. Also to the point where I make stupid nerd jokes.

If the titles on this list seem random, it’s because I did most of my movie watching on Netflix, Hulu+, Amazon, and YouTube. Whatever was available was what I would watch. So some of these titles are re-watches and others are because there was nothing better on. And while I enjoy the convenience of these services, sometimes browsing their digital shelves makes me feel like I’m in the VHS section at Village Discount. Sometimes you pick what looks best, and sometimes you pick Jack Reacher.

Best TV from this year was True Detective, Fargo, and Mad Men. Shows like these make me feel not-so-bad about the death of cinema. I also splurged on the full Seinfeld boxset, even though DVDs look more antiquated by the day. Nobody’s streaming the full Seinfeld, so fuck it; disc it is. Favorite movie was Birdman. Also, Interstellar was really well done, even if it was Cosmology for Idiots. Also, the Carlos miniseries is awesome if you ever have six hours to kill. Also x3, Guardians of the Galaxy is a legit fun movie and shows how comic book movies should be done. Also x4, Chris Pratt’s six pack makes me believe that anything is possible. Worst-best movie was Mac & Me, and that needs no explanation. Brought to you by Skittles. Also x5, I guess I saw Battleship? I don’t remember anything from that. Or from most of what else I watched.

You’ll notice a lot of ‘classic’ titles on the list here, too. Stuff like Caddyshack, Airplane, Blade Runner, and other movies everyone is ‘supposed’ to see. Because my wife grew up in the boons of New England, she never got the chance to take in the essentials. So I was happy to re-watch as she got introduced. But in the end she still preferred The West Wing, so I guess I lost.

1. Dream Team (1989)
2. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
3. Vernon, Florida (1981)
4. Red Scorpion (1989)
5. The Turin Horse (2011)
6. Battleship (2012)
7. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
8. Broken City (2013)
9. Pacific Rim (2013)
10. Spring Breakers (2013)
11. Top Gun (1986)
12. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
13. In Like Flint (1967)
14. Computer Chess (2013)
15. The Long Goodbye (1973)
16. Haywire (2011)
17. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
18. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
19. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
20. Her (2013)
21. Rock ‘N Roll High School (1979)
22. Orange is the New Black: Season 1 (2013)
22. Reindeer Games (2000)
23. The Act of Killing (2012)
24. The Octagon (1981)
25. Jack Reacher (2013)
26. Reindeer Games (2000)
27. Gray’s Anatomy (1997)
28. Psycho (1960)
29. Holy Motors (2012)
30. Warrior of the Lost World: MST3K (1993)
31. Double Indemnity (1944)
32. Somebody Up There Likes Me (2012)
33. The Kids Are Alright (2010)
34. Dirty Harry (1976)
35. The Great Outdoors (1988)
36. XXX (2002)
37. Galaxis (1995)
38. Twin Peaks: Season 1 (1990)
39. Twin Peaks: Season 2 (1991)
40. M*A*S*H (1970)
41. Airplane (1980)
42. Harold and Maude (1971)
43. Airheads (1994)
44. Passion (2012)
45. Archer: Season 4 (2013)
46. True Detective: Season 1 (2013)
47. The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1967)
48. Sherlock: Season 1 (2010)
49. Sherlock: Season 2 (2012)
50. The Station Agent (2003)
51. 3rd Rock From the Sun: Season 1 (1996)
52. 3rd Rock From the Sun: Season 2 (1997)
53. The Ambushers (1967)
54. Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012)
55. 3rd Rock From the Sun: Season 3 (1998)
56. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
57. Rapt (2009)
58. 3rd Rock From the Sun: Season 4 (1999)
59. Gravity (2013)
60. American Hustle (2013)
61. Static (1986)
62. 3rd Rock From the Sun: Season 5 (2000)
63. Parks and Rec: Season 6 (2014)
64. Don Jon (2013)
65. MST3K: Cave Dwellers (1984)
66. Homefront (2013)
67. 3rd Rock From the Sun: Season 6 (2001)
68. Peep Show: Season 2 (2004)
69. Crackhouse (1989)
70. Peep Show: Season 2 (2004)
71. Holes (2003)
72. Bob’s Burgers: Season 4 (2014)
73. Men in Black II (2002)
74. Maximum Overdrive (1986)
75. Mad Men: Season 7, Part 1 (2014)
76. Adventures in Babysitting (1986)
77. Over the Top (1987)
78. Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special (2013)
79. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
80. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
81. The Net (1995)
82. Game of Thrones: Season 4 (2014)
83. Fargo: Season 1 (2014)
84. Seinfeld: Season 3 (1992)
85. Seinfeld: Season 4 (1993)
86. Deadwood: Season 1 (2004)
87. Deadwood: Season 2 (2005)
88. Seinfeld: Season 5 (1994)
89. Deadwood: Season 3 (2006)
90. Seinfeld: Season 6 (1995)
91. Seinfeld: Season 7 (1996)
92. Orange is the New Black: Season 2 (2014)
93. Under the Skin (2014)
94. Seinfeld: Season 8 (1997)
95. The Mighty Ducks (1992)
96. Hardware (1990)
97. Seinfeld: Season 9 (1998)
98. The Frozen Ground (2013)
99. Bored to Death: Season 3 (2011)
100. Gross Point Blank (1997)
101. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989)
102. The Naked Gun (1988)
103. Office Space (1999)
104. Lolita (1962)
105. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
106. Blade Runner: Final Cut (2007)
107. The Double (2013)
108. A Brief History of Time (1991)
109. The West Wing: Season 1 (1999)
110. The West Wing: Season 2 (2000)
111. Trailer Park Boys: Season 8 (2014)
112. Zelig (1983)
113. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
114. Black Sabbath (1963)
115. Futurama: Season 2 (1999)
116. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
117. Shivers (1975)
118. Slap Shot (1977)
119. Portlandia: Season 4 (2013)
120. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Season 9 (2013)
121. Kingpin (1996)
122. They Came Together (2014)
123. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
124. Snowpiercer (2013)
125. Office Space (1999)
126. Batman (1989)
127. Batman Returns (1992)
128. Last Action Hero (1993)
129. Changing Lanes (2002)
130. Event Horizon (1997)
131. Carlos: Miniseries (2010)
132. The Bad News Bears (1976)
133. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
134. The Omen (1976)
135. Scrooged (1988)
136. Mission: Impossible (1996)
137. The Burbs (1989)
138. Nebraska (2013)
139. Django Unchained (2012)
140. Futurama: Season 3 (2000)
141. Caddyshack (1980)
142. Interstellar (2014)
143. Days of Thunder (1990)
144. The Firm (1993)
145. Sneakers (1992)
146. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
147. Damien: Omen II (1978)
148. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
149. Birdman (2014)
150. The Drop (2014)
151. Black Mirror: Series 1 (2011)
152. Black Mirror: Series 2 (2013)
153. Jumanji (1995)
154. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
155. Mac and Me (1988)
156. Society (1989)
157. Crossroads (2002)

A Thank-You Letter to the Packard Foundation

Have you heard of Vasalgel? It’s a new contraceptive technology for men that’s recently been making news rounds at The GuardianThe Daily MailThe Daily BeastThe New York Times, and others. The short version is that Vasalgel is a safe, non-invasive, non-hormonal, and completely reversible form of male contraception. And if you don’t believe me, read the long version here.

I’ve been following Vasalgel’s progress for a few years and I’ve been excited to see their project gaining traction. In their most recent progress update, they announced a new grant award from the Packard Foundation and asked subscribers to send thank-you letters to the foundation for their support of Vasalgel. Normally I wouldn’t do this, but male contraception has a huge uphill battle to fight. So I wrote a thank-you letter (printed, stamped; real old-school) to the foundation’s director of population and reproductive health, Tamara Kreinin (The David & Lucile Packard Foundation 343 Second Street Los Altos, CA 94022), and I’d like to share the letter with you now (below).

Male contraception’s uphill battle starts in the social thickets. Here are your alpha males who think the penis does as the penis does and, hey, if a baby’s made, not my fault. And here are your pee-shy policy makers who prefer to defer all questions of reproduction to women (while at the same time doing an excellent job inhibiting women’s reproductive rights). And here are your political pedants who’d rather spend billions on chemicals and laws to curb ovulation than on finding a way to turn sperm ‘off’ for a while, which conceptually seems like it’d be far more simple. But what fun is birth control if it’s not increasing cancer risks, causing permanent reproductive damage, and upsetting psychological balances? Especially if it happens to women and not me in my Ford F-450 on my way to the gun range where I can compare calibers with my bros.

This is why I support Vasalgel and will do what I can to bring this product to market. Other dudes—those who have hetero sex and those who don’t—should do the same.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Ms. Kreinin,

I’m writing to thank you and the Packard Foundation for your recent gift to Vasalgel. As a proponent of reproductive rights, I’ve been following Vasalgel’s progress for a number of years and it’s incredibly exciting to see their project gaining steam.

In Vasalgel’s mailing list update from November 5th, they announced their grant award from the Packard Foundation and invited mailing list subscribers to thank you personally. Because of the positive life changes Vasalgel promises to deliver, I’ve become a vocal supporter of their project to provide a new, safe form of birth control and destigmatize male reproductive rights. And as a potential future user of their technology, I want to do everything I can to help bring their product to market. If that starts with a simple thank you, count me in.

I’ve been married almost five years and birth control is always a concern, especially due to the financial stresses that would materialize if we were to unexpectedly conceive. I hated seeing the damage ‘the pill’ was having on my wife—from severe mood fluctuations to loss of sexual appetite—and as we all know, condoms are a bummer. She’s since switched to an IUD which has so far been effective, though we’ve had countless conversations over the years ending with a depressed wish that there existed a simple, effective male birth control solution. When I first heard of Vasalgel, I wanted to know where to sign.

It has been really exciting watching Vasalgel’s success in the lab. With continued financial support from organizations such as yours, Vasalgel will be able to continue cutting through the red tape and bring their product to market. And I’ll be standing first in line, looking forward to worry-free birth control a new era of reproductive rights. The Packard Foundation benefits, and so does humanity. It’s a win-win. Sex needs only chemistry, not chemicals.


With Gratitude,

Benjamin van Loon
Writer, Marketer, Married Guy

Freedom From Religion

Pleased to announce that I’ve placed in the 2014 Brian Bolton Graduate/Older Students Essay Contest, offered by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. The essay had to answer “why ‘Religious Liberty’ does not mean the right to impose your religion on others,” and though I played by the rules on this particular submission, I’m glad to see my literary conservatism pay off. I still owe $499 for my fall semester at NEIU, so the $500 award seems almost providential. Also, I’ve now received scholarships from a Muslim foundation, a Jewish foundation, and a secularist foundation. What does this make me? Mega PoMo? Broadcast-ready on NPR? Do I need to start wearing a cape?

I can’t post the full essay here, but I’ll post a snippet and then provide a link to the full version once FFRF posts it next month. And the snippet:

The First Amendment establishes freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and most importantly, freedom of religion. In emphasis of this importance, the amendment opens with the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses that state, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Thomas Jefferson sums up the implication of these clauses in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, that with this rule in place, there is erected “a wall of separation between Church & State.”

On paper, the separation seems like it should work, but two centuries later the amendment is still contentious. Though we’re reading the same law they ratified in 1791, its words are weighed, conveyed, and parlayed according to an entirely different historical rule—and under our present paradigm, religious liberty is what’s at stake.

Stay tuned for more soon.