Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What's in the Box - my interview with Jason Haxton

When my wife, Marie, was younger, her dad was in the US Army, stationed in west Berlin, Germany.  This was during the 80's in the height of the Cold War when the Berlin Wall still stood, dividing the city.

During an outing she, along with some of her friends, ventured to a garden which was planted over a huge hill of rubble that was once buildings destroyed in World War 2.  It was an attempt to cover up the scars of that war.  There, not having to dig far, they collected some souvenirs (hers' was a piece of broken pottery hidden amongst the debris).

During that week when they all met again, they reported having very similar nightmares, and attributed it to the items they had collected.  They took their post-war artifacts to a nearby forest, gave an apology, and left them there.

After that, the nightmares stopped.

There are many stories of strange and cursed objects having the same or similar affects.  Whether you believe in the paranormal or are skeptical of such events is entirely up to you, but one such object that peaked my interest was an old wine cabinet that has come to be known as the Dybbuk Box.

I'm not alone.  In 2012 the film 'The Possession' (produced by Sam Raimi) was released in theaters, earning over $49 million at the box office.

A shortened version of the story behind the box is that an antique shop owner purchased the box at an estate auction of an old Polish woman.  The woman, who was Jewish and a survivor of the The Holocaust, apparently performed some sort of seance when she was younger which had trapped a demon (or in Jewish folklore, a 'dybbuk' or 'dibbuk') within the box.

The man took it back to his shop and opened it.

The contents of the box were confusing.  Inside the old wine cabinet were "two 1920s pennies, a lock of blonde hair bound with cord, a lock of black/brown hair bound with cord, a small statue engraved with the Hebrew word "Shalom", one dried rose bud, a single candle holder with four octopus-shaped legs, and a small, golden wine goblet" (Max Gross, in the publication The Forward, February 13, 2004).

Upon opening the box, strange things started to happen.  Light bulbs inside of the antique shop would explode.  The shop owner had nightmares of an old woman.  The shop owner's mother even suffered a stroke upon receiving it as a gift.

Soon the man rid himself of the box via Ebay.  A student purchased the box and, after opening it and suffering with very similar consequences (including his laptop crashing and loosing his hair), he sold the box to its' current owner, Jason Haxton.

Jason chronicles the events surrounding the box including his own experiences in detail in his book 'The Dibbuk Box' and, for those skeptics who prefer science over paranormal phenomenon, he's also the director of the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine at A. T. Still University in Missouri

Jason told me that when he purchased the box he was a skeptic himself, not believing in the supernatural.  "(I) still am pretty skeptical," he said, "except with this artifact!"

I was curious as to what his spiritual beliefs were now, since coming in possession of the box.  "I am certainly more spiritual and definitely believe there is an after-life of the spiritual self," he told me.  "This artifact confirmed it for me."

I asked why he would buy something like that in the first place.  "I was curious about this Dibbuk Box," he said, "but I only wanted to see it - to look it over to determine if it was legit and old, not to buy it.  But the college student who wanted (to be) rid of the Dibbuk Box made it clear that to see the Dibbuk Box, I would have to buy it.  I made up my mind not to buy this demented artifact.

"When I told a friend, who is an illusionist (magician)," he continued, "he wanted it bought for a ghost tour that ended in his home with a spectral illusion.  My friend asked if I would buy the Dibbuk Box for him and he would work with getting me repaid.  Once the Dibbuk Box arrived and strange things began happening... he no longer wanted to be near it.  So I was stuck with (it) and I began to get very ill, and have strange symptoms."

After having enough of these 'strange symptoms', Jason decided to bury the box in a private location.  For those who are curious, he has had an exact replica of the box made for people to view.  I asked him if he would send me photographs of the original box instead of the replica, and this is what he sent:


PICTURED:  The original dibbuk box in Acacia Ark.

Certainly concerning the box's history I cannot blame Jason for hiding it away in some underground location.  "My fear of destroying the Dibbuk Box (is that it) would permit the energy to be loosed around me and things would be worse.  So it has been buried per several Rabbis' suggestion to let the earth draw off the energies over time."

Whether the events told concerning this box are true or imagined is entirely up for you to decide.  Like all paranormal phenomenon, there will be believers and there will be skeptics.  What is true, however, is the fact that those who have come into contact with the Dibbuk Box believe the things that have happened to them.

As for Jason, I asked him exactly how the Dibbuk Box was sealed, and his answer reaffirms my belief that he is not messing around.  "The Dibbuk Box is in an Acacia Ark and then in a shock proof, military shipping container, then buried in dirt in the ground, in a private location."

Jason said he did unearth the box briefly for a Discovery Channel filming, but has not since returned to see the box.

"After sealing and burying it, I have not gone to check on it or had any issues."

You can read more about the Dibbuk Box at the website: www.dibbukbox.com

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Cartoons and Healing: My Interview with Amy Keating Rogers

There is a yearning to return to innocence.

In a fallen world full of illness, terrorism, wars and rumors of wars, a growing number of people are focusing their minds on things that bring them back to a child-like wonder. Not to be confused with a childish attitude, but to view things from the perspective of a child – for a fantasy world that, though not without confrontation, will always have a happy ending.

This is not a new phenomenon. Certainly, J. R. R. Tolkien began writing his mythical tales of Middle-earth in army barracks, recovering from the horrors of World War 1. In C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, the series opens with four children – Peter, Susan, Edmond and Lucy Pevensie – being evacuated from London to escape the very real threat of the Blitz, the German bombing of the United Kingdom in World War 2.

It could be said that much of fantasy and children's media has been derived from very real and serious events. It is no wonder that both children and adults have benefited from them.

"I think if people can find healing in the shows I’ve worked on, that is fantastic!" said Amy Keating Rogers, a writer and story editor for such cartoons as 'The Powerpuff Girls', 'Dexter's Laboratory', 'Samurai Jack' and 'My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic', the popular reboot of the 1980's Hasbro toy franchise. "That is not the original intention of the programs I’ve worked on, but that doesn’t matter. If someone can find hope then it means everyone that worked on that show has surpassed expectations!"

Amy has been nominated for four Emmy Awards, and has also written Powerpuff Girls chapter books for Scholastic and Golden Books. "I’ve been in touch with a man that suffered a stroke and watching The Powerpuff Girls gave him the drive to work on his recovery," she said.


"When you write, what are your thoughts concerning the adults who are also going to be watching?" I asked.

"When I write, my primary concern is the children that will be watching the show," she said. "Having children myself, I try to write things that I feel would be appropriate and that I wouldn’t mind my kids watching. I also have the network Standards and Practices to take into account for any show. Each show has different guidelines that I must be aware of while writing. Some shows let you push the boundaries while others are more strict. Finally, I take into account the parents that are watching with their kids. I always throw in humor that the adults will get a kick out of, while staying appropriate for kids at the same time. But if I laugh at it, I figure other adults will too!"

I was curious how adding confrontation into a show was determined, without having too much confrontation.  
"It depends what the subject of the story is," she said. "If it’s about a character coming into town and causing trouble, I write them being confrontational. But these characters are also modeling behavior for our kids, so there needs to be a balance of that character being confrontational but then getting their comeuppance. They may not learn from their bad behavior, but if the other characters are aware of it and are unwilling to be treated that way again, that’s a good payoff."

I asked her about the adult following of the recent 'My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic' show, a group of people who call themselves Bronies and Pegasisters. "I have had some great interactions with the Brony community," she said. "I went to BronyCon back in June and will be attending more Cons coming up this year. Everyone I have met has been very kind and appreciative of the show. The episodes of MLP: FiM were not originally intended for an adult, male fan base. But if they enjoy and are inspired by the show, I think that’s fantastic!"

'My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic' is about ponies from a town named Ponyville in a world called Equestria, specifically one pony named Twilight Sparkle and her quest to study friendship, under the guidance of the wise Princess Celestia.


"The Brony community is also not just about watching this show," she added. "It’s about following the examples set forth by the characters in the show. And the Bronies have taken it to heart, raising lots of money for various charities. I’ve been very impressed by them."

It would seem that the followers of the show have been impacted for the better by the strong morals, values and strength of friendship it portrays. By doing a quick search on Google, I was able to find one group who was raising money to send financially strapped students to an art university.

Those who attended the BronyCon held in Secaucus, New Jersey were a very kind crowd. According to an article on Buzzfeed, they cheered for two National Guard members who came to the convention in uniform. In a time when the military is sometimes protested, this show of respect spoke volumes concerning this community.


"I spoke with many people personally at BronyCon and in emails that say that MLP: FiM has changed their lives," Amy said. "MLP: FiM seems to show people a more peaceful, utopian community that is a great escape from the real world."



My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic airs on The Hub network 

Much like Lewis' Narnia, the show has some conflict, but always it's the good that wins. Strong life lessons are taught, and examples on how to treat others are given. "The show was always geared to show stories about friendship—thus Friendship is Magic," Amy said. "And friendship can have a lot of conflict. In life, there are always misunderstandings and assumptions. Pride and ego can get in our way. Wanting to please everyone yet pleasing no one. But, through these conflicts, our goal is to demonstrate how apologizing and accepting apologies makes those friendships stronger. Being older and wiser, Celestia understands these issues better than the younger ponies and is able to offer her wisdom."

I asked about one character in particular, a show magician named Trixie who was a bit of a snob when she arrived in town, and if the main characters would be forgiving if an episode was made where she returned. "That’s a very good question," Amy said. "I think if Trixie came in wanting to make amends, then certainly. It would depend how she entered Ponyville. Is her motivation to make friends or to cause more trouble? The other characters would respond accordingly."

Is it bad for adults to watch and be impacted by a children's show? Not at all, if they benefit from it. C. S. Lewis once said, "Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence."

"When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

Finding in things what is morally beneficial; finding what helps us move beyond our tragedies; to search through the coats in a wardrobe for a portal to a place full of innocence and wonder, especially with our own children; that truly is magic.

Hurricanes and Crosses: My Interview with Jason Wright

When I first heard of Hurricane Isaac, it's path, and the day it was going to hit, one of the first things I thought about was Jason Wright's novel, 'Recovering Charles'. It was a book he had written which focused on a man in search of his father in New Orleans, a city torn apart in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

When I asked what he thought about Hurricane Isaac, Jason said, “I kept thinking this is going to fizzle, it’s going to run out of steam before it ever got anywhere close to the coast. I don’t know if that was my heart talking because I didn’t want to see a Katrina 2 or if I just wasn’t paying enough attention to the news.”

Jason Wright is a New York Times Bestselling author. Along with 'Recovering Charles' (2008), he has written many bestselling novels, including 'Christmas Jars' (2005), 'The Wednesday Letters' (2007), 'The Cross Gardener' (2010), 'The Seventeen Second Miracle' (2010), and 'The Wedding Letters' (2011). Jason has also been on CNN, Fox News, and C-Span, and writes the weekly column 'Wright Words'.

"My first reaction was I didn’t have a reaction,” he continued, “because I just kept thinking it’s never actually going to come to this. Now that it has, it’s been very surreal.”

I asked Jason what inspired 'Recovering Charles'. “I watched (the storm footage) for hours and hours and hours. Before, during, and after Katrina. It was more gripping to me than 9/11. It was just so heartbreaking.”

I was working in a town in northern Virginia called Fredericksburg at the time, far removed from Katrina, and there were some people I ran into that had the attitude that the people in New Orleans could have left but didn't, and so deserved what they got. Jason ran into that sort of attitude too. “Some were talking about how the people down there should have seen it coming and that’s what they get for living down there,” he said. “I was just hearing so much of that, how they weren’t prepared, they should have left, all that kind of stuff, and I just didn’t see that. I just saw the tremendous human suffering.”

It sometimes seems that when we're far removed from a tragedy, the impact of it doesn't seem as real to us as those who have to go through it. Jason decided to go there, to New Orleans, and see first-hand what recovery there was like. “So many people think Katrina was just so clear cut,” he said. “The reality is a bunch of those people are generations in the gulf and didn’t have resources to leave. They didn’t have access to funds and cars. For most of the people who were there when the city flooded, they didn’t have resources to be anywhere else. For me, Recovering Charles was a chance to tell a little bit of a human story. I thought the city was treated unfairly.”

We then talked about his book 'The Cross Gardener', which was my favorite of his novels. It's a story about a man who, after his mother is killed, is adopted and raised on an apple orchard. After his adopted father dies, his wife is suddenly killed in a car accident, and he is left to mourn her at a small cross he erects on the road where she died. There he meets a mysterious stranger caring for the roadside memorial, a man he only knows as the Cross Gardener.

“It’s not a doctrinal book,” he said. “I’m not suggesting any of this is how it works for everybody. I just thought that it would be interesting to just invite readers to think about what that process of stepping from this life to the next might be like. If you’re by yourself at 2 o’clock in the morning on some remote highway, are you really alone or is there someone there to help with that process? The book was kind of a way for me to ask myself some of those questions.”


Most of Jason's books are stories of recovery from tragedy, of triumph over trauma, the very spirit of what this blog is all about. They are truly inspirational, and may provide comfort for those who are recovering themselves.

You can find out more about Jason and his novels at www.jasonfwright.com

This article was originally published in the blog "Chariots of Salvation" on 8/30/2012.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Best Laid Plans of Ponies and Men - my interview with Peter New and Dustykatt


I was on my home from a visit to my parents' in Virginia when the radio began to flood us with news about a shooting that happened in a theater down the street from my home in Aurora, Colorado.

It is now over half of a year since that horrible day and the Century theater has reopened to the public.

In the days and weeks that followed, I (as were many) was left to wonder how such a thing could take place. What could drive a human being to commit such an inhuman act?

Such was a question I could not answer. I couldn't even begin to make sense of the situation. Instead, I began to focus on the good of humanity. A quote surfaced shortly after the tragedy at Newtown which was extremely beneficial for a countless number of people when dealing with tragedy. It was from Fred Rogers, and he said,

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.”

Instead of focusing on the evil that humanity was capable of, I decided to go on a journey to find a group of people who truly were “the caring people in this world” that Mr. Rogers had described. What I found was quite unexpected but I find myself extremely thankful that such a group dedicated to the principles of love and tolerance is out there regardless of what may be said of them.

Enter the bronies.

Never in my life could I have predicted that I'd be sitting down to write an article on any incarnation of My Little Pony, let alone multiple articles.

I don't think anybody could,” a fan of the show named Dustykat Rhoades told me. “I grew up in the 70's and 80's, and the 80's version of the ponies was just horrible. There's no way you could have predicted it would come back this strong but Lauren Faust got her hands on it and coming out of Dexter's Labratory and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends and Power Puff Girls, all shows which I loved – once I found out that she was the one behind it, I thought yeah, it's going to be good.”

Perhaps calling Dusty a fan is an understatement. He hosts 'Stay Brony My Friends', where he's interviewed many of the people involved with the show. I had talked with some of the people involved with making the show, but I had yet to actually talk with one of the adult followers known as bronies and pegasisters.

I asked him how he was introduced to it. “We were playing AD&D here at a roomate's house,” he said. “One evening after playing they said come on we need to watch a show, and I said 'what show is this?' and they said 'My Little Pony' and I thought, of course, are you crazy? And they said no, it's a good show don't worry about it. I've known these gentlemen for 20 years and they knew what I like and I knew what they like. We had been in a lot of fandoms.”

We sat down and watched the first half of the first season by the time I was too tired to watch anymore,” he continued. “So we were up until 4 or 5 in the morning watching it. It was pretty cool.”



I was curious if people had treated him differently since he had started watching the show. “Not really,” he said. “Most of my friends know I'm a little weird anyway. I've been in the comic book, animation and all that stuff my entire life. You wouldn't think that I'd be like this 45-year-old biker dude who's into Disney and Pixar and science fiction and comic books and animation and all this other stuff anyway so, it was just another extension of something that I like.”

I asked how bronies treated one another. “Most people generally interact with each other well especially at a convention,” he said. “Everybody is happy to be there, happy to see the voice actors, happy to be able to buy those little trinkets they haven't been able to find anywhere else. Singing, dancing, just an all over feeling of joy being with people that get it instead of people that don't.”

I've always been a huge Trekkie all of my life having been to five Star Trek conventions in the past, so what he said next hit home for me. “It's sort of like a Trekkie at a Star Trek convention,” he said. “They can wear their ears and their costumes and their uniforms and can speak Klingon to other people and can have a conversation. They're with like-minded souls. It's the same thing, where you end up getting very happy to be able to discuss the finer reasons why Twilight Sparkle is better than Rainbow Dash, or whatever you want to talk about.”

ALICORNGATE

Finally, I asked Dusty about a very delicate subject that had received much chatter and controversy within the community as of late. It was revealed that one of the main characters in the show, the bookworm unicorn known as Twilight Sparkle, would be transformed into an alicorn princess during the season's finale, a role in par with her superior, Princess Celestia.

Alicorngate, courtesy of The Hub

I was not sure how to approach the subject or even if I should. As a Trekkie, it would be like my reaction to the idea of the first 'Next Generation' movie having James Kirk and Jean Luc Picard meet and greet while the Enterprise-D was destroyed. I'm glad I did as his answer seemed very level-headed.

I believe in M. A. Larson,” he said, referring to a writer of the show. “If Hasbro has made the on-high that we need to make Twilight Sparkle and alicorn to sell toys, they will make it work because they've done it time and time again - that when Hasbro comes and says we need to sell a toy, they make it work and they make it awesome. I have complete faith in DHX and the writers.”

In researching for this article and reaching out to other members of the community, I seem to find the same pattern of thought. There may be some reservations to the idea but for the most part I have seen many people posting a picture of a button which reads, 'I BELIEVE IN M A LARSON'.

I asked one of the cast members, Peter New, about the controversy. “I really only know what I have read about on Twitter,” he said. I can’t really speak about it. It’s a thing, obviously that the writers have decided to go and do and I have learned in my long and varied career that one must put one’s faith in the writer. That’s what I do and that’s what I would recommend. In terms of what is happening, how it’s happening, any of the questions people seem to be having about it I really don’t have any answers. It’s a question for the writers.”

I actually believe in Megan McArthey a little bit more than I believe in M. A. Larson because M. A. Larson is, thus far, a figment,” he joked concerning another writer for the show. “Megan McArthey I have met and seen with my own eyes so she has proven herself to me whereas M. A. Larson I think might be a robot. ”

Peter provides the voice of several characters in the show including the large farmhand brother of one of the main characters (Applejack), a red stallion named Big Macintosh (or Big Mac for short).

THE ART OF THE VOICE

Peter told me some of the details which goes into being a voice for the show.

It’s an interesting quandary being a voice actor,” he said, “because the assumption of course is that you know everything about what’s going on but the reality is that you know very little. We record these episodes months in advance usually and of course when we record them we don’t have a picture, we just have lines of text. So people will want to know things about what’s happening in the picture which we will have no clue about and it’s ever surprising when you actually finally do see a show what happened. You think well that joke makes sense to me now, now that I see what’s happening. I know I saw it written down but I couldn’t picture it. People will ask you about, ‘was the fact that the character was red anything to do with the voice that you came up with?’ Well no I didn’t know the character was red. I had no idea. I just saw Horse number one. Magnum is another example. That was just Rarity’s father and the fanbase named the character Magnum and I quite liked that for a name for that character, I think it’s very funny. I played Dr. Stable in the Daring Do episode and again, it’s not called Dr. Stable, it’s just called Doctor. 

Magnum

Peter told me about the development of the voices and how much of the time the cast is left in the dark when it comes to the show's development. “A lot of the time, too, you’ll just get thrown these voices on the fly,” he said. “I’ll be standing there because I played something else in the episode perhaps and they’ll just say, 'ok Peter can you read this doctor character?’ and I’ll say, ‘uh ok uh, something official like this?’ and they’ll say ‘push it a little this way or little bit that way’ and then you go and that’s it, and that’s how you come up with the character voice. It’s very quick a lot of the time. You forget entirely about it because months go by and then all of a sudden people are interested in asking you things about a character that you don’t even remember playing because it happens so quickly and there were only a few lines. Then I find myself on whichever of the fansites seems to have the most information so that I can sound like I know what I’m talking about when people ask me the questions.

Basically any fansite that I’ve ever been to, from Equestria Daily to DerpyHooves News to whatever else - usually it’s one or the other that has the insight first that I need.”

The fans know before I know usually,” he laughed.

I asked him about his thoughts concerning being one of the only men involved in the show. “In Pony I have been the only man in the room sometimes when we record these things but I don’t find any issue with that at all,” he said. “I respect the performers that I work with, male or female, and there’s a tremendous amount of talent coming out of everybody that I work with in general. So I’m able to learn every time I walk in that room. To me, discovery is the central tenant of the artist process and if you’re not learning and challenging yourself and discovering something then you’re done as an artist. So I find that gender doesn’t really play into it for me at all. Ashley Ball is a tremendous talent, she’s fantastic to watch. Andrea Libman is a tremendous talent, she’s fantastic to watch.  Etc.  I can’t really point at anybody that I work with on either of these shows that I wouldn’t say that same thing about. ”

FROM PONIES TO A PET SHOP

I had noticed that much of the talent from My Little Pony also had gone into making another show called 'Littlest Pet Shop', a show which airs on the same network (The Hub). I was curious if there was a reasoning behind that. “I don’t think there’s anything particular behind that,” Peter said. “I think there’s a very small but very talented pool of voice actors in Vancouver and I think Hasbro was happy with the work the studio was doing on Pony and decided to trust them with Pet Shop as well. So that in and of itself is going to bring in a number of the same people in terms of the animators and what not. Then in terms of voice casting I think – again I’m speculating here – if I were casting, let’s put it that way, I would be of two minds about it and I would say on one hand I trust these actors that I’ve worked with on the one show to come to this other show and do fine work, but on the other hand I don’t want to overuse a particular voice because I worry that even talented voice actors carry a similar timber in their pitch that they carry from character to character and, if you’re adapt at it, you can usually hear something in my voice that’s in Big Macintosh that’s also in Rarity’s father and also in Sunil and also in whatever else I’ve done in that show. So I think there’s, on the one hand, faith in the performer so you want to use the performer but then on the other hand there’s a little bit of skepticism that you’re worried about.

That all said,” he continued, “there was an audition process and those of us that are on both shows just happened to be lucky enough to pass in both of those cases. It’s not that any of us were asked to come over from one show to the other, so far as I know. I think everybody was auditioned and read for parts and satisfied the producers concerns is my guess. In other words, the faith in the performance over-met the worry that it would be over-used. I’m not sure there was any conscious casting in terms of if we use this actor then we can try and bring one fanbase over to the other fanbase. Obviously there was some hope I think in that if they used some of our names in a press release before the premier that they might cross- contaminate the fanbase there but I think that came after. I think the principle concern that any good producer has is making a good project. ”

FAME AND OBSCURITY

I wondered, if people generally did not treat Dusty differently because of his admiration for ponies, did people treat Peter differently on a professional level?

Not particularly, no,” he said. “What’s interesting is whenever I go to one of these conventions, for instance, it’s like being famous for a weekend. As soon as you walk in a door of one of those places you are famous and it’s fantastic and strange and humbling and wonderful, but as soon as I get home nobody knows who I am anymore except for people that know me. I tend not to get stopped on the street for this and I tend not to get recognized obviously because I’m not a face.

I get recognized more for TV commercials that I’ve done than I get recognized for My Little Pony,” he said. “It’s very rare that I’ve been recognized for My Little Pony. So it really is this kind of fractured experience in a way. I feel very much like a celebrity whenever I’m talking to or in the midst of this tremendous community and then very much anonymous when I get home. I think that’s sort of a fantastic difference. If the question is ‘has it changed the way people treat you’, very much yes but only in specific circumstances. 

I love it, don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “I do love it, I think it’s fantastic, but it’s certainly an interesting ride. I can hardly believe it’s happening to me frankly. It’s very strange. Not that it’s happening or not what’s happening – you’re sort of operating in your own life and doing your own thing and you pull on this one thread and get one part and it leads to this notoriety and everything happens normally. Then, all of a sudden you’re standing on a stage in front of four thousand people just outside of New York and people are cheering at you and everything that has lead up to that moment is one small natural next step, and yet once you get there it’s huge and remarkable. It’s my first real experience with that and somehow I guess I always imagined that it would be different and it isn’t. It seems like a very normal natural thing and yet it seems like a very strange and unique thing all at once. It’s a marvel and it’s very much a difficult thing to get one’s head around, but it’s lovely. I wouldn’t trade it. ”

On the subject of famous anonymity, I could not help but bring up something that I had seen a few days ago. I was pulling through a McDonald's drive through when I spotted on the back of the SUV that I was behind a decal of a side character that I had written about before in my previous articles, the snobbish (but now reformed) show-magician pony named Trixie. I had just decided to do this article a day or so before seeing that, and I had to ask my wife (who was in the car with me) if what I was seeing was really there.

It is absolutely fascinating to me,” Peter said when I told him this, “because again, like you I would have thought well, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie and the main six are the ones that are going to get the most attention and they do get the most attention, but it really does surprise me how much attention side characters get and even side characters on the order of Vinyl Scratch. I didn’t even recognize it because I was so surprise to see it but there was a guy who was cosplaying as Magnum, Rarity’s father that I played.” Peter told me that he thinks this was at a convention in New Jersey. “I thought that was astonishing that he would take the time to put that particular character together as opposed to Big Macintosh, or as opposed to one of the Wonderbolts or a royal guard or whatever. He chose Rarity’s dad and I was supremely flattered by that. ”

Tom Selleck cosplaying as Magnum

If there’s a character in the show anywhere,” he said, “even if he doesn’t speak or she only has one line, someone is probably cosplaying as that character somewhere and is really devoted to that particular character. Every character has a fan which is remarkable. It’s remarkable. ”

THE MEN WHO STARE AT PONIES

I could not help but touch on something that happened at one of the Pony conventions that I had written about before. Having had family and friends that had served in the military (and some that are still in service), I greatly appreciated where a crowd cheered for a reservist who came to the convention in uniform.

There’s much that happens in this community which is very refreshing,” Peter said. “I went out for drinks in Seattle with a couple of guys, one of them was Dusty, and I had this realization at one point that there’s no other thing that would have brought those four people together. One of the guys there works at NASA, and helped put Curiosity on Mars.” 

You’re sitting there going, how did I end up having beers with these four people who otherwise, outside of the fandom, would have no reason to talk to one another whatsoever? I think that’s remarkable and that kind of experience happens all the time, and the number of people that tell me about the tremendous ways that the show has impacted their lives is supremely humbling, how much it has actually, legitimately helped people deal with their circumstances and cope with problems that they couldn’t deal with before the show came along. My very small part in that is humbling. All these things touch me and make the show, the thing that Lauren (Faust) created remarkable. I feel very lucky to be a part of it

I think there’s a tendency for the uninitiated to think that there’s something very weird going on,” Peter said concerning the fandom,and indeed when I first heard about bronies, obviously you think, that’s curious. Why would a group of grown men be interested in a show for little girls? It’s a paradox in our society. But as soon as you do any kind of scratching at the surface you realize that this is a group of people who, very much like Trekkies I find, are interested in a community and they’re interested in overcoming differences to work together to solve a problem, to broaden their horizons. I think that is a truly wonderful thing. So I’ve been very moved by the My Little Pony fan community. ”

After having written the previous articles and becoming so involved in the community, many of the fans have reached out to me and I've even become friends with some of them. When I asked one of those people who I had made friends with how the show affected him, he said, “It, well, simplified a lot for me. Being able to watch such a happy show every weekend really relieved a lot of stress, made me a lot more easy going.”

A YEARNING FOR INNOCENCE

Before my trip to Virginia and about a month before the tragedy in Aurora, I had watched the first episode of My Little Pony. It was a two-part episode. Like Dusty, I was already a big fan of the other shows that the same people who had worked on My Little Pony had been involved with. Someone had told me about it already, but when I heard that one of the episodes featured Star Trek alumni John De Lancie, I knew I had to give it a try. After all, the very first Trekkie convention I had ever been to had hosted John De Lancie, so in some strange degree I was already invested in it.

It wasn't until that long drive home when I started to think about the huge following that the show had received. I had a lot of time to think during those long hours of driving across the United States to get from the east coast to the Midwest and I had to find something to fill my mind with other than the events that were unfolding back in Colorado. I found myself contemplating on how a show for little girls could gain such a momentum among fully grown adults.

I wondered what it was that drove some people towards evil, while others yearn for something more pure.

I think the show offers an alternative,” Peter said. “I think Star Trek did the same thing ultimately. It doesn’t have to be one way or the other. We can look for answers in the middle. How one does that is to really look at the opposites. I think a lot of the time people don’t really look at the opposites. They see the evil and then they sort of rail against it or they run away into the innocent and they disappear into the pure. I feel like one could assume that’s what’s happening with Friendship is Magic but I don’t think it is because I think the lessons in it are too strong, much like with Star Trek. So I think while initially you might feel like I just want to just shut my eyes and close my ears to the real world and visit this place where it’s always lovely.

The thing is it isn’t always lovely. They do have to fight for what they believe in. I think that works as an excellent metaphor for those kinds of experiences and I think it does offer new ways to approach arguments. My hope for the show and to the fandom is that it does create a change in the way that our western society approaches and copes with these kinds of issues because it can seem very polarized when you listen to the news. It can seem like there’s only this way and there’s only that way and the people that believe in this way don’t believe in that way and the people that believe in that way don’t believe in this way. The middle ground is usually acceptable for everyone but nobody talks about it. Nobody talks about actually sitting down for beers with the four people that you never would have met and realizing that of course you have a common ground because we’re all human and we all just want a better world for our children. We all just want to get along and have a lovely time. It’s easy to get bogged down and I think the show kind of reminds us that we don’t have to. I’m a big fan of the alternative answer. I’m a big fan of saying well, ok well there is this and there is that, but what else? There’s this, AND there's that, not or.

My pony friend that I mentioned before also enjoys watching a very well known show that airs on AMC called 'Breaking Bad'. I asked him how he went from watching something like that to watching My Little Pony. “I am so commonly watching shows with a darker and violent tone,” he said, “that shows as innocent as MLP really even it out for me. I don't remember how exactly I started watching, because it has been over a year now but I'm sure it just balanced everything out so well is why it instantly became interesting to me.”

ON WRITING AND COMEDY

Peter has been involved in many fronts of show business, from writing to producing to stage and screen. I asked if he had any plants to return to the writing field. “I do have plans to return,” he said.I’ve written a few feature length screenplays that I’m not very good at trying to sell. ”

Peter laughed then continued, “I’ve been thinking lately about getting back on that train. It gets a bit frustrating at that level for me. You write a thing and then you’re proud of it and then there’s a whole lot of work that you have to do to get it off your desk and on to somebody else’s desk. You have to get it on two hundred desks and get two hundred pairs of eyes to read it before one goes, “Oh yeah, you know what? I do want to make this movie with you!” and that’s a lot of phone calls to make and a lot hustle that I really want someone else to do and of course there is no one else to do it. So things end up in my drawer but I have been thinking a lot lately about getting back on that train and trying to get that going. ”

I asked Peter if there was anything that he preferred doing. “No is the very short answer,” he said. “To me it’s all part of the same job. For me, I’m like a conduit that sits at the center of this paradigm - I’m at the sort of middle of this line I guess where I want to express myself through this kind of performance type creativity. That usually manifests as acting in some way. It usually manifests as saying the words that have been written for me and produced for me. To me it’s sort of just extending the lens backwards. It’s like I’m sort of standing in the middle and if I want to do writing or producing that’s kind of behind me, and if I want to act that’s sort of all out in front of me. It’s all kind of on the same line. If I want to say certain things that no one else is writing well then I have to write them. In all, I will make this anecdotal – it all comes out of my training doing sketch comedy years ago, where there’s really only one rule in comedy which is that if they laugh it’s funny and that’s it. If they don’t laugh there’s something wrong. I always view in comedy creation that there really are only a couple of things that can go wrong. One is if you’re standing up on the stage and they’re not laughing at a joke that you’re absolutely convinced is hilarious, then you’re doing something wrong as an actor and you’re not presenting that joke to them in the most hilarious way. However if you’re standing on the stage and you know that you’re presenting it to them in the most hilarious way it’s just that they’re not on board with the idea, then that problem is with the writing. In either case you’re going back to the drawing board – you’re going back to the rehearsal room or the writing table, one way or the other and trying to recreate either the context in the writing so that the audience understands where you are when you get to that perfect piece of performance or you recreate how you approach the writing as an actor. So you’re constantly manipulating these two sort of twins of the creative process. So for me it’s always been that connected, it’s always been that sense of well, if I write it like this then I can say it like that, and I’d like to say it like this but it isn’t written like that. I often find that my hands are a bit more tied when I’m performing someone else’s words because I feel less inclined to change them because they’re not my words. And then producing is just sort of the necessary evil that comes along with that. As I said about the scripts, there’s no one else that’s going to do the hustle for you.

So, if you really believe in a thing and you want to make it happen, and a few times that’s just fallen to me and there’s no one else to do it, you sort of find yourself at this momentum thinking well, it’s either all going to come crashing down at my feet or I can pick it up and get walking. ”

I asked him about a project that he had put up on the website 'Fanbuilt' called 'Tapeworm and Hovercraft'. “A friend of mine and I use to laugh about the idea of making this cartoon called Hovercraft and Tapeworm, about a hovercraft and a tapeworm who were an unlikely set of friends. For whatever reason it was such an absurd combination it just made us laugh. So, with Lee Tockar’s excellent idea at Fanbuilt I just thought, well why not throw it on Fanbuilt and see what comes back and see if people respond to it? And so far I’ve got a number of people who’ve put character designs out, a lot of people who are interested in voicing characters should that opportunity ever present itself – it’s sort of the last step of course.

Then there’s a couple of emails that say things like, ‘The world is not ready for the inside of your mind, Mr. New’,” he laughed, “which I’ve heard before. Actually I hear that sung quite a bit in my life but I just keep pushing through anyway. ”

A MESSAGE FOR THE BRONIES

As we began to wrap up our conversation, I made mention of the beneficial aspects of My Little Pony, but that some people thought of the idea of grown men watching it rather silly.

My response to that is, if my friends were saying to me well listen, why do you like that show? Don’t you think it’s a bit silly? Well I would say yeah, it is. So?”

Life can be silly,” I said.

Life is usually very silly,” he laughed. “It’s pretty ridiculous. Why judge it? What is your problem with it that you who haven’t seen it need to judge it? That I think is a big question. Are you so concerned with being tough or concerned with being whatever? I think it’s marvelous – the gender expectations are being shifted by this thing. It’s a huge impact that this show is having on our society right now and I think it’s remarkable and wonderful. It’s almost entirely positive.

Pictured: life


Later he said, “I don’t think gender roles need to be defined in the same way that they use to be. I think equality makes far more sense. It certainly makes far more sense in our era. So I think well, why not simply react to what you like?”

I like to take the view that, something the scientist Carl Sagan said, we as conscious creatures are the universe’s way of knowing itself. I think that’s quite a marvelous notion because it opens us up to do different and conflicting notions and yet it’s all a way of discovering. We’re just the universe, we’re just trying to figure it out, trying to figure out what we are and where we are. We are all part of a one, and I think that’s a powerful idea. We’re not just one with each other as people but we are one with everything. We just are one with everything. We don’t need to seek it. It is the base from which we launch. ”

Perhaps some find the idea of watching a show about ponies is strange because, in some sense, we fear breaking away from the traditions that has defined us as a society. “Why not pursue what is interesting instead of being handicapped by notions being passed on to you from your father’s father’s fathers?” Peter asked.

I have met many fantastic people on this journey and have made many new friends. For that I feel very blessed. The basic principles of being kind – forgiveness, love and tolerance – is strong within this community, so who am I (or anyone else for that manner) to say that being a fan of a show that reflects those same morals is wrong or strange? In the world that we live in, I certainly hope that the people I interact with will be more like bronies and less inclined to go Breaking Bad.

As my new friend Dusty would say, Stay brony my friends.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Nurturing our Gentler Dragons: My Interview with Cathy Weseluck



Cartoons are not just for children anymore.

It seems that more adults are benefiting from children’s programming.  Some may find such behavior to be a bit taboo, but is it harmful?

It would be hard to form an argument that adults watching cartoons aimed at children is morally wrong, especially in an age where so many cartoons are now being made for adults (The Simpsons, Family Guy, etc.).  If anything, it may be argued that adults watching kids’ cartoons that are clean for all audiences and teach good morals and life lessons is a healthier behavior than an adult watching programs containing violence and crude humor.

Please don’t get me wrong – I enjoy my programs as much as my kid enjoys his, but the strong urge for adults to be ‘more adult’ is, in itself, childish.

When I asked voice actress Cathy Weseluck what she thought about the adults watching shows that she’s in, she said, “I think itʼs wonderful they are and it tells me again, there is something about the shows that is reaching a much wider audience than usual, a sort of expanding appeal that is curious and wonderful all at the same time.”

Cathy has provided the voice of many characters, including Spike, the baby dragon from ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’.  Spike is the assistant of Twilight Sparkle, who is a student of ‘Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns’.


Spike with Twilight Sparkle from 'My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic'


In the research I did for the article on cartoons and healing, I focused on one group in particular, the adult followers of the popular animated reboot of Hasbro’s ‘My Little Pony’, known as Bronies and Pegasisters.  “Now, having met so many of the ʻBroniesʼ, my understanding of who they are and what they represent has become clearer and clearer,” she told me.  “At first I was quite shocked in the literal sense, that a demographic of young men from the ages of 18 to 30 or older, were interested in the show, (since traditionally, the show was always geared to young girls) then very quickly, it became a fascination! Having always had an interest in human nature and sociological trends etc., this was certainly new, and somewhat of a phenomenon! All of the ʻBroniesʼ Iʼve spoken with, in similar AND in different ways, have all admittedly been affected deeply by the show, which focuses on kindness and friendship, acceptance of one another, and the old fashioned values of integrity and nobility. This version of the show known as ʻMy Little Pony: Friendship is Magicʻ is a different version than the show that originated decades ago, and every aspect of it reflects excellence. Thereʼs a healing going on here I believe, and itʼs a wonderful thing, a phenomenon and something that is actually creating “community”. I am touched by these individualsʼ commitment to being examples of goodness and kindness in the world, and to their promotion of the virtues of friendship and tolerance.”

I asked her if she knew of anyone who had used cartoons as a means to help them overcome tragedy or challenges in their lives.  “Yes, many,” she told me.  “And itʼs astonishing actually, as to how many there are, and yet so heartwarming to know that the messages/dynamics reflected in those shows are reaching so many people and seemingly healing them on a very deep level. One young guy told me he had lost friends in a car accident and how, by watching the show ʻMy Little Pony: Friendship is Magicʻ it helped him out of a deep depression.  Another family contacted me years ago to tell me that for the first time, their severely autistic child, (who could not speak more than a word here and there), after watching a show I voiced called ʻCybersixʼ, was suddenly literally able to repeat my lead characterʼs lines verbatim and remarkably, made a ʻrelationship associationʼ between that character and another.”

Just this month, the British Psychological Society published an article concerning cartoons helping autistic children understand empathy.  We would like to see teaching methods such as these become part of all classrooms,” Professor Baron-Cohen, a Fellow of the Society, said.

“Itʼs such a great feeling for me personally, to be part of shows like these and to know they are touching so many people in different ways,” Cathy said.

When writing the first article on the fan base, many of the fans reached out to me to voice their own opinions of the show.  Often I find myself drawn to things that allow me to put myself in the shoes (or hooves in this case) of the characters of a show,” said one fan named Bridget.  “I seem to adapt and cope with recurring anxiety and depression this way.”

“Cartoons will always be at a center of our heart,” Bridget continued.  “They mean so much to us in ways some people can’t understand.  So I think animation will remain a key tool in creating extraordinary things for children, teens, and adults to help them with the ever growing, constantly changing trials and troubles we call ‘life.’”

If adults watching cartoons is a problem, I’ve yet to see why.  The fans from the show have only been kind and welcoming to me ever since I wrote the previous article for Chariots.  In such a condescending and hopeless world, it is quite a pleasant surprise to find such a caring group of people.

The show displays a large amount of forgiveness among the characters, especially between Spike and his caretaker, Twilight.  I was curious about one character that I had asked Amy Keating Rogers (a writer for the show) about, a snobbish show magician named Trixie.  I asked Cathy what she thought would happen if Trixie ever returned in a future episode, having been turned humble instead of proud.  Well, that’s always hard to say,” she told me.  “Favourably, I’m sure, though Spike has a mind of his own, after all! I’m sure we’ll have a chance to find out more about his personality as he finds himself in new and interesting Pony Predicaments! One thing’s guaranteed, that ALL of the characters will have more lessons to be learned!”

I asked her if she could tell the fans anything about the anticipated third season.  “Only that they won’t be disappointed!” she said.  “It’ll definitely prove to be chock full of more fun and adventure!”

An inside joke of the show is Spike’s constant attempt to win the heart of one of the main characters, a fashionable pony named Rarity.  I asked Cathy if Rarity would ever ‘get the hint’.  “Man, I certainly hope so!” she said. “Spike is trying sooo hard, it’s almost painful to watch!  It’s definitely in his nature not to give up, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

I asked what her reaction was when first approached for the show.  “Delighted as always, to have the chance to be part of another fun and popular series,” she told me.  “But, as is the case with any audition, the process is the same: prep the material, do a little research if possible, and give it your best shot.”

Often in the world that we live in, we attend to take things too seriously and, perhaps, if we just take a step back from the violent hustle and bustle of every day, we could find some nurturing for our gentler dragons.

“Happily things worked out,” Cathy said concerning her role, “though quite suddenly, I find myself adding a lot of ‘minerals’ to my diet....!!”