In The Eye of the Storm: Surviving Hurricane Harvey

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Monday, August 28, 2017: Ever since Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast, rain kept pouring down. The streets of my neighborhood were starting to flood, with water getting higher every night. An uneasy, lingering anxiety filled my guts, even as I kept praying Rosary after Rosary. I was in my room, reading when my mom said: “Pack your bags. We’re going to evacuate.”

At this point, a lot of the things in my room were already put into bags and placed high in case water got into my house. Still, I packed a few bags and felt my heart jump when my dad said that there were people ready to take us out of our house. The next thing I knew, I was out on a float boat, the kind that people usually use for river rides at water parks. My stomach felt like it was on fire and I wanted to make sure that my backpack stayed above the high flood waters.

So while floating along the street, I did something a little crazy:

I sang.

Specifically, I sang this song:

It was kind of appropriate. And part of me knew that if I didn’t sing, I would’ve been panicking instead. My brother and I made it to the gas station across the street and waited for our parents. Dad was also on a float boat, but my mom took a jet ski. It felt like forever.

Once we were all together at the gas station, we hitched a ride to the grocery store down the street and waited there for someone who could drive us to somewhere dry. I prayed that if I had to take shelter, I wanted to be at a church where I could sleep in front of the cross or the Blessed Sacrament. Instead, we ended up hitching a ride with one of dad’s customers (a contractor) and went to another town where my mom’s coworker lived. His house had plenty of room for us, not to mention that he still had electricity, a guest bathroom, and a laundry room.

The strange thing was that even though I was at someone else’s house, worried about if water would get into mine, I felt more at ease than I was at home. Miraculously, through the rain and the flood waters, all the stuff that I brought with my was mostly dry. My laptop, keyboard, and phone were dry, my clothes were damp, and I had all my toiletries. Not to mention my tiny collection of Funko Pops.

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I also had a few books with me. One book was Every Day with Mary, a collection of daily reflections from the affiliates of Mayslake Ministries that I got at the Catholic Writer’s Guild conference in Chicago. The reflection for that day began with this Bible verse:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory thatis to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.-Romans 8:18-19

The reflection’s theme focused on abundance, but not the kind you would hear about from the Prosperity Gospel or Law of Attraction crowd. The abundance in this book referred to the heavenly reward for those who carried heavy crosses in their earthly lives. Mary is a great example of this because she also had to leave the safety of her home at a moment’s notice and stay amongst strangers for a certain period of time. But throughout that ordeal, she remained strong and did God’s will.

One of the things I prayed while I stayed at my mom’s coworker’s house was a short request to Our Lady of Fatima: “Our Lady of Fatima, please bring a miracle of the sun to Texas.”

The next day, around the afternoon, my brother messaged me to look out the window because the sun finally came out, peeking from behind the clouds. We also decided to go to my cousin’s house and sleep over there because they just came back from being evacuated.

Throughout all this, I thanked God for giving me the strength to go through all of it. I felt grateful for my family, the clothes that I had, and all the things I had with me. And then, when I woke up on August 30, 2017, I took a picture of the sky. Never have I ever felt so grateful to see the sun and the beautiful, clear skies of Texas.

I was able to get home yesterday and signs of recovery were already showing on the drive home. The streets were dry and even though my street was still somewhat flooded, the waters were no longer high. I arrived to a house with only one inch of water damage…in my garage. Every other room in my house was okay and still had electricity and running water and functional plumbing.

Which leads to the question: Why did I have to leave?

For the brief period that I left my house, I experienced what it was like to be displaced. I understand now how scared everyone in the shelters must feel. I also got to see how disasters can bring out the best in people. 90% of my social media feed shared images and stories of people who were helping others, like the priest on the kayak who was trying to find wine for Mass, the lines of volunteers, and the local furniture store owner who turned his showrooms into shelters.

And as far as the 10% of social media who keep politicizing this tragedy: look at the people who are volunteering and donating and please do likewise. Here’s a list of charities to donate to. 

Even though the storm has passed, the next chapter of recovery has just started. The entire Gulf Coast of Texas was affected by this storm, not just Houston. I am supremely proud of my city, but I want to use this blog to raise awareness of everywhere else that was affected. Not to mention that the storm has moved on to other areas who will also need help. Hurricane season is not over. But for now, I feel grateful for how everyone has come together and stayed strong.

As I am back home, I am playing “Amazing Grace” on my Spotify app. It’s cheesy and the most overplayed song in the history of Christian music, I know. Even so, the song was written by someone who survived a storm. It was through God’s grace that I was able to be strong in the middle of the pouring rain and all the uncertainty. I pray that this grace will be given to those who need it now.

DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS!

Resurrection vs. Retribution

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Ever since 2006, when I first heard “Picture to Burn” on my local country radio station, I have been a “Swiftie.” Taylor Swift’s songs always resonated with me. However,  I recently started feeling a dissonance between how I saw life and how Taylor saw hers. This dissonance was most profound when I listened to her latest single “Look What You Made Me Do” and watched the music video that debuted on Sunday night. To me, it didn’t sound like Taylor at all aside from a few lines here and there. I know that Taylor has been through a lot in the past few years, but I wondered why she chose to portray herself the way she did in her music video.

“Look What You Made Me Do” starts out with Taylor crawling out of her grave, looking like a zombified version of how she looked in “Out of the Woods,” which was my favorite music video from her thus far. But her face reminded me of Anya Jenkins, who started out as a vengeance demon on Buffy:

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer is copyright to Mutant Enemy and 20th Century Fox. Image is used for editorial purposes only.

The prechorus of the song goes: “I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time. Honey, I rose up from the dead. I do it all the time.” Why did she show herself coming back from the dead as a zombie? I see it as a distorted version of the Resurrection. Zombies, vampires, and other versions of the undead are all dark, perverted types of “resurrections.” To quote Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she came back wrong.

Taylor has written songs about revenge in the past. But at the same time, she also wrote songs about forgiveness as well. So why does she choose to use revenge now?

A few telling lines from the second verse give the answer: “The world moves on, another day, another drama drama. But not for me, not for me. All I think about is karma.”

I recently read an article from Bishop Robert Barron about the difference between karma and grace. In the most simplistic terms, karma is about retribution. “Do good things and you get good in return. Do bad things and you will suffer.” Taylor is driven by revenge in the hopes that everyone who did her wrong will get what they deserve.

The last significant line in the song is this spoken line and it’s the one that Taylor puts on all her social media: “I’m sorry. The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh. ‘Cause she’s dead.” In the video, this is shown by all of her past selves falling down into a dark chasm, with the new Taylor standing on top of a hill with a giant T behind her.

The old Taylor is definitely dead. But instead of embracing grace and forgiveness, Taylor chose to be the bad guy, bent on revenge and retribution.

Now flip the script and take a look at my life recently. In the past few years, I went through my share of bad dating experiences. I was one guy’s rebound date. I went speed dating, but never really connected with anyone. I even dated someone who turned out to be a narcissist!

But at the same time, I kept writing. I worked on my novel and got to share it with other writers at a couple of conferences. I went to Chicago on my own! My first real grown-up adventure! I have been finding my writing voice, this clear, resonating bell that people can hear and listen to. I learned what forgiveness actually feels like and how to persevere in the face of adversity. In other words, I became stronger.

What gave me my strength? Grace. By rooting myself with God, He gave me strength I never knew I had. Even now, as Hurricane Harvey flees Texas, I have found the strength to overcome the anxiety that was building up within me since the storm hit. Grace is not something that I deserved because I was good. God’s strength was given to me because I needed it. Grace is a gift, one that we need to share with others. Through grace, we find the strength to forgive and renew ourselves. We find the strength to persevere. We die to ourselves and live again through Christ.

“It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20

And grace is the difference between having a personal resurrection and being fueled by the revenge from the death of your reputation.

*mic drop*

So You Think You Can Write-Part 3: Creating Characters, Beyond the Cliche

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To paraphrase my favorite novel, Pride and Prejudice, I am a studier of character. Whenever I watch a movie or a TV show or read a book, I want to invest in the people more than whatever happens to them. What do they do? What are they thinking? What kind of people are they?

Even the most basic of plots can be compelling enough if the characters are written well. One example of this is The Guardians of the Galaxy (both Vol. 1 and 2). The plots of both movies are simple, but the characters are what make the movies interesting and compelling. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1 sets up what kind of people the characters are (and yes, I include the talking racoon and the giant tree as “people”). Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 introduces more personal stakes and shows the group coming together as a family unit. The action, music, and humor all contribute to the movie, but what people end up remembering (aside from the catchy songs) are the things that Peter, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot all experience.

When you’re creating a story, you want to create characters that aren’t stereotypes or cliches. If you’re writing young adult and know about the basic Breakfast Club archetypes, figure out a way to develop beyond the typical athlete, brainiac, princess, basketcase, and criminal. Power Rangers (2017) did this by giving each of the characters a personal stake in the story and characterization that goes beyond their high school label.

Jason starts out as the typical jock, star of the football team. However, he is tasked with the responsibility of being the leader and making sure everyone gets along. Billy is the brainiac, but he’s also on the autism spectrum and is grieving over his deceased father. Through befriending the rangers, Billy learns how to be more social without having to change who he is in essentials and he sees the rangers as his family. Zack seems like the cool high school delinquent, who always cuts class and hangs around the mines and train cars. In reality, he has the responsibility of taking care of his sick mother and fears losing her. Kimberley is the spirited ex-cheerleader, but her past as a mean girl causes her to wonder if she’s worthy of being a ranger. Trini starts out as being a “new kid on the block,” wanting to socialize, but never fitting in. She later reveals that she struggles with stuff relating to her identity. The way that she sees herself conflicts with what her parents want her to be.

All of these characterizations seem simple enough, but anything that goes beyond the norm makes for great writing. If you have a young woman who acts cold and distant, figure out why she’s so standoffish beyond a tragic backstory. Wonder Woman is a great example of female characterization. She has some tragedy in her backstory, but it does not define her as a person. Your young woman might have issues with her parents, like most other teenagers, but it can’t be her only defining trait.

Creating a character is basically like going on an archaeological dig: you start out with the bare bones (personality, physical appearances, likes, dislikes, etc) and have to dig deep to figure out what kind of person your character is. That means figuring out their backstory and what they want out of life at the time that your story starts.

It’s important to create a cast of diverse characters, and I don’t just mean making sure that you have characters of different ethnicity. Each character should have a distinct and unique personality. Even when you use the Myers-Briggs or the Four Temperaments, there are still ways to make two people with the same personality type and temperament unique.

I challenge you to create at least five characters that you think feel unique to you. Who knows, what you create might end up creating the players to a wonderful story.

Defenders: A Review

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As a fan of Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve had a hit and miss relationship with the four Netflix Original Series shows. On the one hand, Daredevil started off well, but got muddled in the second season. I liked aspects of Jessica Jones, but I don’t think I could watch it again because Kilgrave is a living nightmare and I didn’t feel like Jessica had any hope of moving forward by the end of the series. Luke Cage is okay, but the violence feels all too real considering current events. Iron Fist felt too derivative and mediocre.

Defenders, much like Avengers, is the story of how these four street-level heroes become a team in order to take down the Hand, an ancient criminal organization. Daredevil and Iron Fist have the most at stake, since they have dealt with the Hand in the past. However, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones still have their own character arcs as well, wanting to help the people in their neighborhoods whose lives are being affected by the Hand’s conspiracy.

The action in this series is top notch, from the signature hallway fight to the fight between Luke Cage and Iron Fist and every other brawl in between. And the overall story is solid. The members of the Hand all want to prolong their immortal lives, especially Alexandra (played by Sigourney Weaver). They resurrect Elektra to act as their enforcer.

Matt Murdock’s character arc centers on trying to live out a normal life as a lawyer while still having the desire to fight crime as Daredevil. He is the only one who actually needs to hide his secret identity, since his double life could cost him his job and all the cases he won. Elektra’s return brings back issues for Matt Murdock who’s still not over her. While I understand their relationship, it’s not what you would call a healthy one.

Danny Rand starts out as being a single-minded, immature man-child, wanting to take down the Hand at any cost. Through meeting the other Defenders, he learns that he doesn’t have to follow his duty alone. His scenes with Luke Cage are my favorite scenes in the series, which makes sense because they’re best friends in the comics. I only wished that there was a scene where they talked about their taste in music. They also fight well together, as evidence in the fight with Alexandra’s minions.

Luke Cage acts as the conscience of the team, not wanting innocent people to get hurt. He has a lot to live up to as the Hero of Harlem and while he doesn’t have a lot of personal stakes in the series, he’s smart enough to go along with everything, even when things don’t make sense. He is also the hero who captures one of the members of the Hand. He’s better at escaping an attempted kidnapping than Danny, sad to say.

Jessica has the least amount of character development, given that she has the least amount of personal stakes and connection with the Hand in this series. She’s still isolating herself, not taking on any clients except for someone who provides the MacGuffin. By the end of the series, Jessica finds the resolve to start working again. And while I like that Jessica and Luke got some closure in terms of their relationship, I still ship them so hard that I wanted them to have at least one “ship tease” moment. Since Luke is still in a happy relationship with Claire, my Jessica/Luke ship is not gonna be sailing off anytime soon.

The major villains in Defenders are Alexandra and Madame Gao. The other three members of the Hand play second fiddle. Alexandra takes it upon herself to raise Elektra as the Black Sky, the Hand’s living weapon. Madame Gao is trying to keep the Hand from falling apart and proves to be a surprisingly good fighter. She’s also very intimidating, in spite of her age. Elektra, however, is the most complex villain in the series. Even though she is tasked with helping the Hand achieve their latest goal of gaining immortality and destroying New York City, she still has feelings for Matt. In the end, she chooses her own path, though where it will lead her and Matt is still unknown.

Overall, this series is worth watching, but I recommend not binge-watching everything at once. I don’t regret spending my weekend watching it, but watching the series one episode at a time helps to remember all the little things more. And thankfully, aside from one gratuitous sex scene, the violence is the only thing that makes this series MA. It’s a soft R rating overall. Watch it for the action and the character development. These guys are awesome.

 

So You Think You Can Write-Part 2: Creating a Story

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Once you get the idea for a story, the next thing you need to do is plan out the story.

In the writing world, there are two kinds of people. Or really, three: Plotters, Pantsers, and the In-Betweeners.

Plotters are people who write a thorough, detailed plot outline, complete with character profiles and information on worldbuilding. The details that go into their novels can fill an entire notebook. Pantsers are people who just take the ideas in their head and write out the story as they go, with only a vague idea about where the story is going. I consider myself an Inbetweener. A Plotter with Pants, so to speak. When I create my stories, I create a plot outline with the major events in mind, create character profiles, and research the worlds that my characters live in.  However, once I have a basic outline, my characters, and an idea on where everything will take place, I write out all the major events and then fly by the seat of my pants trying to fill in the gaps in between.

Whether you’re a Plotter, Pantser, or an Inbetweener, research is an important part of the pre-writing process. Read books within your genre and look into the stuff that relates to the events and people in your story. Even if your novel takes place in high school, you will want to research potential places for your characters to hang out, the music your characters listen to, the kind of movies they like, etc. These details will enrich your story.

If you’re not sure how to organize all these details, I highly recommend that you read John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. Even though the book is for screenwriters and movie makers, it gives you a lot of details about what makes a great story. Movies make for a great template because the best movies out there all tell unique, compelling stories.

So which kind of writer are you? Are you a Plotter? A Pantser? Or somewhere in between?

 

So You Think You Can Write-Part 1: Ideas

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You might have been wondering where I’ve been for the past month. I spent the month of July working on the 5th draft of my novel Love Notes. I also got to go to a writing conference in Chicago and had a really great experience from the trip.

Now that my latest draft is finished, I’m taking a break to let my draft sit before I start editing. I decided that from now until December, I want to do a weekly blog post series about writing.

I believe that anyone can write, in the same way that Anton Ego learned that anyone can cook:

Not everyone will make the New York Times Bestseller list or become the next JK Rowling. However, a great writer can come from anywhere and I think everyone can learn a little bit about how they can improve themselves as writers, even if it’s just limited to writing in a journal or blogging. The real purpose of writing isn’t to make money or to become famous. We write to understand ourselves and the world around us.

But the question is if we want to write, where exactly can we get ideas?

Start by taking a notebook everywhere you go. I recommend a pocket-sized notebook or a composition notebook, something that can be easy to carry around and take with you wherever you go. Use a pen that can write easily or a pencil. You can start by just writing about your day, no matter how boring it may seem, or just go somewhere and people watch.

Write down what you see around you, even if it’s just the stuff in your house. Try to describe everything that you see. Then open up your other senses. What do you hear? What do you smell? What kind of food can you taste that’s nearby? What is the surface you’re sitting on feel like? How do your clothes feel on your skin?

You can also write about whatever is on your mind. Is something stressing you? Is there something you wish you can tell someone, but you can’t spit it out? Do you want to ramble, but don’t want to post it on Facebook or Twitter? Use your notebook to let it all out.

These are all basic ideas to just get you on the ball for writing in general. If you want to write a novel, the seeds for a possible book are going to be found in these seemingly ordinary observations.

If you’re not sure where to start as far as story ideas, try using classic literature as your inspiration. One great example of a reimagining based on classic literature is the Jane E. series by Erin McCole Cupp. This three-part novella series is inspired by Jane Eyre, but places the Gothic Romance in a cyberpunk world. I highly recommend it. However, I don’t recommend ripping off whatever book series, TV shows, or movies are popular right now. These things are great as a starting point, but don’t just copy and paste plots you like without contributing anything original. Nobody likes a plagiarist.

You may not think your life may be all that interesting, but just think of the “what if’s” in your life. I came up for the concept of Love Notes from a “What If”: “What if I actually stuck things out with my piano lessons and dedicated my life to playing classical music instead of writing?” I also combined this “What If” with my recent experiences in dealing with anxiety. In many ways, I was basically writing Love Notes as a way to show myself how far I’ve come.

The best writing advice as far as finding ideas comes from Jenna Moreci, YouTube vlogger, writer, and Cyborg Queen: “Write the book you want to read.” (I highly recommend watching her YouTube channel. She has great writing advice and she’s hilarious!) If you like mysteries, then write a mystery. If you like sci-fi, write sci-fi. And if there’s a book you always wanted to read, but you can’t find it, like say, a sci-fi novel that doesn’t take place in a dystopia, try writing it out yourself.

My challenge for you today is for you to get out there and write down every single idea you have in your head. Just get to writing today. Next time, I will talk to you guys about planning a story out once you get an idea that you really love.