Tomb Raider: a Review

Historically speaking, video games do not have a stellar record translating into movies. More often then not, they are box office bummers. Failures. Duds. Think of, if you can remember them, movies like Super Mario Bros (with John Leguizamo), Doom (with Dwayne Johnson), Max Payne (with Mark Wahlberg), or more recent adaptations like Warcraft or Assassin's Creed. These movies either try too hard to feel like you're watching a video game or stray too far away from the source material. Additionally, they miss the mark with sloppy storylines, wooden dialog, and bad CGI.

Sure, some of them have been entertaining. A few were even mildly successful. Movies like Street Fighter, Mortal Combat, the pair of Lara Croft movies with Angelina Jolie, and the Resident Evil series have some cinematic worth. Still, they're campy films with glaring flaws. And the best video game movies, aren't adapted from actual video games - like Wreck-It-Ralph or last year's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

Major studios see the billions of dollars in video game revenue made each year and they want to tap into the gamer demographic. Despite their many (and I do mean many) flops, studios keep making more movies based on video game franchises. For fans of both movies and video games, we go through a repetitive cycle: excitement, doubt, hype, hope, disappointment, and regret. Every time news is released about an upcoming adaptation, we think 'could this be the one to get it right?' Then we see the movie and walk away hoping, 'maybe next time.'

The new Tomb Raider movie is that next time. This is a movie adaptation faithful to the video games while still providing an engaging cinematic experience. I walked out of the theater thinking this might be the best video game ever. With a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is also one of the most positively reviewed video game adaptations.

Tomb Raider stars Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, a college-aged daughter of a wealthy business man and adventurer, played by Dominic West. She lost her father seven years earlier (their sweet bond is explored through flashbacks), and now as a young adult she refuses to admit he is dead or accept any of her prodigious inheritance. Instead, she works as a bike courier and barely makes enough money to pay her bills. After finding a key and cryptic message her father left for her in his will, she embarks on a journey to follow his footsteps and solve the mystery of his disappearance.

This trip leads Lara to beautiful locales starting with her London home, through Hong Kong, to an uninhabited island near Japan. Along the way, she meets muggers, a drunken sailor, and treasure hunting mercenaries. The film incorporates many of the tropes from the Tomb Raider games: riddles and puzzles, traps hidden in floor switches, undiscovered temples, running on and jumping from surfaces that are not sturdy enough to support an adult human's weight, clinging to the sides of ledges, and scavenging for resources. Even Lara's choice in weapons pull from the more recent versions of the game, a bow and arrow, and a climbing ax.

image courtesy of Warner Bros & MGM

While I think Tomb Raider could be the best video game adaptation ever, it isn’t free of error. While it creates a thorough story arc for Lara, she’s the only character that feels like a real person. Her father is nearly cartoonish, the merc boss (Walton Goggins) is pure bad guy with no redeeming qualities. Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) is the generic Asian and loyal sidekick. Outside of the film’s protagonist, there is little character development. Many of the action sequences are intended to feel like the games. While it creates a thrill, they’re also implausible (and occasionally physically impossible). The plot is entirely predictable and only exists to propel Lara through the transformation from who she was to who she becomes and to set up a main antagonist for the inevitable sequels.

Despite Tomb Raider’s weaknesses, it is still an enjoyable movie. It proves that a good video game movie can be made. Good, but far from perfect. It should captivate anyone who has played the games, with enough Easter eggs and references to satisfy Lara Croft’s biggest fans. For those who have never played a Tomb Raider game, this is still an adequate popcorn flick for anyone with a craving for action movies.


A Call to Arms

Nerds – you are the heartbeat of human progress. Each step forward in the modern era was driven by you. You are the engineer and inventor of every new or improved technology. Your goal is to upgrade our quality of life. When the world seems to have abandoned reason, you are there to remind us that science still exists. Without you there would be no organ transplants or vaccinations, no personal computers or smartphones. Our planet would be more polluted and less understood.

Geeks – you are our modern raconteurs and minstrels. You tell the stories worth telling. You speak to the truth of the human existence through allegory in the fiction of superheroes, pirates, spies, and adorable anthropomorphic animals. You breathe life into our hopes and help us conquer our fears, you give life to our joys and animate our imaginations. We need your stories.

We ruled the box office. Of the top ten grossing movies of the last five years, nearly all of them were products of geekery. In 2017, four of the top ten grossing movies were based on comic books, five were in the fantasy or science fiction genres, and the one remaining movie was a part of the Fast & Furious franchise, a geeky fandom in its own way. Since 2012, nineteen comic book movies landed in the top ten money makers for the year they were released, twenty-three were fantasy or science fiction, and fifteen were from other fandoms. Hollywood has made over trillions of dollars of profits by bringing nerd culture to the masses.

We, the geeks, embody the opening line from O'Shaughnessy’s Ode: “We are the music makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams.” We are the artists and authors behind much of the entertainment and you consume. We are the scientists and foodies making the food you eat tastier, healthier, and more sustainable. We are also your bosses, business leaders, entrepreneurs, and CEOs. Economies revolve around our ambitions and visions of what the future could be. When Beyoncé sings “Who run the world?” our answer and reply is NERDS!

Before you malign the freaks and geeks, remember that we’ve saved the world more frequently than you brush your teeth. When our world is distressed and in dire predicaments, we don’t quit. Once bullied for our nerdiness, we grew up to sign the bully’s paychecks. We don’t know how to give up. We also know how to play the long game. Kicked down and pummeled is never the end for a geek; we will get back up. When we rise, great things happen.

It seems our world needs to be salvaged again. The number of hate groups are increasing and using recruiting methods like those used by ISIS. Racism and bigotry run rampant. Evangelicals threw their support behind a man who demonstrates everything they once opposed because he promised them power. Trump and his administration reversed numerous policies and regulations designed to protect the environment. The President’s antics, childish behavior, crass language, and boorish decorum dominates our headlines. When Trump isn’t the biggest news story in the land, we’re arguing about gun control after yet another school shooting or debating police violence after another unarmed (and usually) black man is killed. American life has been turned upside down.

Nerds will come to the rescue. Wherever the marginalized, the oppressed, the outcast, or the weak and powerless have been robbed of their safety or dignity, the geeks and nerds stepped up and played the role of hero. We punched Nazis in WWII and we still do today. When culture needs to change, we go first, paving the way for others to follow.

We might not have the best track record. Like any other human on earth, we have our flaws and a history of missteps. In our past we’ve objectified women, made jokes of the LGBT community, and accentuated the stereotypes of minorities. Those are not our greatest moments. Yet, when needed, we have made efforts to abandon and overcome our prejudices. We strive to empower those who we previously demeaned. As those populations continue to face hatred and discrimination, we stand beside them in solidarity and elevate their voices.

This is a call to all my fellow geeks to unite and use our nerd powers for good. Now is the time for us to act. Let’s model ourselves after the Green Lantern Corp (ignoring their disappointing cinematic legacy) as a force for all that is right and just in this world. In comics, the Corp was created to be protectors, recruited from those with strongest moral character, armed only with their creativity. And they swore a memorable oath: “In brightest day, in blackest night, No evil shall escape my sight. Let those who worship evil's might, Beware my power, Green Lantern's light!

However, the Green Lantern oath has more than one version, and each carry the same weight of righteousness. “In loudest din or hush profound, My ears catch evil's slightest sound. Let those who toll out evil's knell, Beware my power.” Or, “In this place of black and grey and dark, the green shall be my light, my hope, my strength. All that is good is all I defend. I shall not falter.” Even the Blue Lanterns had an epic oath, “ In fearful day, in raging night, With strong hearts full, our souls ignite. When all seems lost in the War of Light, Look to the stars, for hope burns bright!

These oaths should be our rallying cry. We should be beacons of hope defending all that is good. There is a lot of evil in our culture. People who pervert justice, distort the truth, and abuse their positions of power for their own selfish gain. Our voices are louder, it’s time to be heard. We see them. They cannot escape our sight. We’ve saved the world before, let’s do it again.


Nuestra Vida Loca

"We have a crazy life." This is the first of two true statements my fiancée made while we were at the grocery store trying to figure out dinner for the night.

The conversation transpired around 6pm at the end of a long and exhausting weekend. We were both tired, weary, hungry, and attempting to feed four people with the least amount of effort without resorting to fast food. She was correct though. Our depleted energy levels in the moment could not contradict her. Rather, it was evidence to the veracity of her claims. We do have a wonderfully crazy life.

Friday night, my oldest went to his first school dance. I drove into Coeur d’Alene from Newman to drop him off then spent an hour working on my book before picking him up and heading back home. While we were out, Annie cooked spaghetti with meatballs and dyed the pasta blue. Then she threw an impromptu dance party in the living room with the three kids who did not have a school event. After their fun evening, JJ and Zu bestowed upon Annie the title of "coolest mom ever."

We awoke to a 5am alarm on Saturday for our family farm-work day. We started with a sunrise pancake breakfast (also dyed blue) then moved into the regular chores of feeding all the animals, both in the house and in the barn. The kids were all dressed and outside by 7:30 to help us assemble field fencing, complicated by a fresh layer of snow that fell the day before. This project took longer than any of us imagined. There was a short break for lunch and a trip to North 40 to pick up more supplies. We hung a 12-foot gate, stretched and secured 466 feet of fencing, twisting the final bits of metal wires as the sun began to set behind the ridgeline on the opposite side of the valley.

Sunday started with a morning drive to the rural outskirts of southwest Spokane to the farm where Annie had been boarding her horses. We loaded the tack and grooming gear into the van, got the horses and a several alfalfa bales into a truck and trailer, then made the drive back home with a pit-stop to buy coffee for the friends who were helping. Then the group went out for lunch at a local cafe before trekking out to Garwood to pick up Annie's new horse trailer. We spent an hour setting up the horse trough and tossing food over the fence to the horses before returning some borrowed tools in a second trip to Garwood.

The grocery store visit was the conclusion of this eventful weekend. "We have a crazy life," she said. I nodded in affirmation. After all, we had just spent the entire weekend - all our time and energy - to bringing Carwyn and Roxy home. Aching to our bones, mentally fatigued, itchy from sweat and hay, longing to eat something warm and delicious. We recalled how much we had accomplished, both a little astonished that we were able to do it all considering we are rookies in farm-life and neither of us have ever built a fence before now.

She asked me if I had ever imagined spending an entire weekend working to take care of a pair of horses. The younger version of me had drastically different dreams. She also asked if I could imagine doing anything different now. I cannot. Annie smiled. Then she said her second true statement: "I've never been happier."

As for me, I feel the same. Every muscle in my body hurts. My mind is spinning in bewilderment from how much work got done and how much we have yet to do. My future thoughts of what movies I want to watch and blog posts I plan on writing now include when I get to ride the horses, what rodeos we will attend, and where we will fence in the next pasture. It is a crazy life. And I have never been happier.


Annihilation: a review

On March 31, 1999, my friend Jeff and I got opening night tickets and packed into a crowded theater to watch The Matrix. Two hours and sixteen minutes later, we walked out of that theater awed and speechless. Afterwards, we drove back to his house to play some video games. There his mom had a barrage of questions.

"Did you enjoy the movie?" Yes. "What did you see?" The Matrix. "What's it about?" Here is where we had some difficulty providing an answer. With the mind-twisting mix of action, theology, and philosophy blended into cinematic magic, we couldn't really explain the movie we just watched. So, we went with a quote from the film: "No one can be told what the Matrix is, you have to see it for yourself."

Sure, we could describe elements of the film. Hackers, raves, red pill blue pill, Neo, kung fu, bullet time, deja vu, guns - lots of guns, helicopters. But what was it about? We couldn't describe that. Honestly, I'm not even sure we knew, even after watching it. We could describe the Matrix, but not explain what it was about.

Last night, I stepped into an empty theater to watch Annihilation. It is a completely different movie yet my reaction to the two films is remarkably similar. Sure, I can describe Annihilation, tell you what happened. However, I unable to explain what it is about. I'm not even sure I know. There's something about aliens, mystery, grief, immortality, self-destruction, cellular division, doppelgangers, and genetic mutations but so much of it is open for interpretation. The film followed a non-linear timeline, the themes are intentionally ambiguous, and the ending is inconclusive.

Since I can't explain, I will describe. Lena (played by Natalie Portman) is a biologist and professor at Johns Hopkins joins a cryptic and potentially suicidal expedition into an area known as the shimmer (so named because its outer edges look like light refracting through soap bubbles or an oil slick on water). She volunteers to go because she wants to know what happened to her husband (Oscar Isaac) who had been missing for the past year while on a covert mission.

image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Most of the basic details from inside the shimmer were spoiled by the movie's trailer. It looks strange, no one knows what is in there. Communications from inside never reach outside. The military has sent in drones and groups of people and nothing has come out of it until Lena’s husband and he’s too sick to fill in any details. While they do not know what the shimmer is, they do know it is growing.

Once in the shimmer, Lena and her companions find lush and vibrant floral growth, trees formed into the shape of humans (or people who turned into trees), crocodiles and bears that exhibit genetic qualities of other animals, and deer with plant-like antlers. There, they explore various theories about what caused the shimmer and whether it should be confronted, embraced, or destroyed.

Annihilation begins at the end, with Lena quarantined and being debriefed after returning from the shimmer. Her initial answers are non-committal. She struggles to maintain eye-contact with her interrogator and provides the same response to most of his questions: "I don't know." Those three words adequately explain this movie. What is it about? I don't know. What is the shimmer? I don't know. What does it mean? I don't know. Is it a great movie? I don't know.

Despite its flaws, Annihilation is still worth watching. It is visually stunning with slow pacing that allows you to appreciate the twisted alien scenery. It is delightfully weird from start to finish. It is heavy in both science and fiction. With source material relatively unknown, Annihilation looks and feels wholly original, simultaneously emotionally stirring and intellectually provocative. In a world where Hollywood continually churns out sequels and reboots, we need more movies like Annihilation, willing to take risks and do something different.

A mind-twisting mix of horror, theology, philosophy, and cinematic magic, Annihilation creates a dizzying, puzzling, and sometimes uncomfortable viewing experience. Much like The Matrix, Annihilation must be seen to be understood. No one can be told what the shimmer is, you have to see it for yourself.

image courtesy of Paramount Pictures


Presidential Dreams

Savannah wanted to be President when she grew up. Not only did she want to become an American President, she dreamed of being the first woman President. That's the answer she gave when I first met her as a third grader in Mrs. Wilson's Enhanced Learning - a special class for gifted students with abnormally high IQs.

During the time I knew her, my dream job changed several times - from astronaut to actor to architect to radio DJ. While the future careers most kids imagine working evolve as they get older, Savannah remained steadfast. She provided the same presidential answer for icebreakers and class projects when we were in junior high. In high school, she was an active honor roll student playing volleyball and joining the Future Business Leaders of America. She was a hardworking, driven, determined, and wildly intelligent. In a speech delivered during our senior year, she maintained her ambition to be the first woman elected as President of the United States.

After high school was over, I didn't keep track of what happened to Savannah. In the years since, I've never attempted to look her up on social media or Google. I have no idea what she's done with her life. Did she pursue a political career or go into the corporate world? Did she become an entrepreneur or settle into the domestic family life as a stay-at-home mom? Regardless of where she is today, her childhood dream of becoming the first woman to hold presidential office is still alive. For now.

She wasn't the only classmate who wanted to be the POTUS. When asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" there were several others who answered, "The President." However, Savannah was the most ardent among them, and the most memorable. It seemed like a common response for kids growing up in the Reaganomics era. We had an admirable man in office, and we all thought we could do it too.

I don't hear the same aspirations in younger generations. Some of them remember the scandals of Clinton. Many of them grew up listening to the criticism against Bush Jr for the war in Iraq, his poor handling of natural disasters, and his abysmal economic policy. Most saw all the ire heaped upon Obama for every action he took. They are hyper-aware of how much our standing in the world has degraded under Trump. More and more of our youth are jaded to the state of politics and want nothing to do with it. They're taking the Kanye approach, "No one man should have all that power." They'd rather protest the President than one day replace him.

A few kids today still want to become POTUS when they grow up, just not as many as when Savannah and I were kids. It's a shame though. If President Trump has proven anything, it's how anyone can become President. Anyone.

Given the opportunity, who wouldn't take it? If it didn't require a prohibitive treasure chest of financial backing and you could get a party to endorse you, would you be willing to put your name on the ballot? Maybe some of us wouldn't want the high degree of name recognition or the constant disparagement of at least half of our nation. Perhaps the expectations and stress attached to the responsibility of the highest office isn't something we don't want on our shoulders. Hopefully most of us are content enough in our real lives to make the lure of living in the White House unappealing.

If we're honest, we've all at least thought about it. Haven't we? You might not ever want to be the President, but I'm sure you've thought about what you would do if you were in his shoes. I know this because I see how many of us armchair-quarterback the decisions of Presidents both past and present. We either laud or condemn their actions, their executive orders, the bills they sign or veto. We critique the fit of their jeans, the length of their neck tie, the color of their suit jacket, the look of their hair or attire. We judge how much money they spend travelling, how frequently they golf or take vacations, what they say in speeches or press conferences. We log into social media and tell our friends and followers, "The President is wrong because ..."

Every time we do it, we're saying, "I could do better." It's possible we could. Or, at least, we could do the job of presidenting this nation the way we think it should be done better than anyone who has actually been the President. The only person qualified to run America the way you think it should be run is you, and the only person qualified to run America the way I think it should be run is me.

Sure, we may not have ever had the childhood dream of becoming President like my former classmate Savannah. Maybe the desire to hold that office is laughable to us and if anyone asked if we'd be interested, our answer would be "Never." Perhaps. Yet, haven't you ever thought about what you would do if you were President? I know I have.


Adventures with Microwaves

"Do you have a fan?"

It was an odd question from a coworker for a couple of reasons. First, it's the middle of winter; outside highs have been dipping into single digits and sub-zero temperatures this week. Second, my office is typically a few degrees warmer than Hoth. 'Tis not the season for circulating fans.

My colleague recognized the confusion on my face so she provided an explanation. Someone tried to cook a microwavable pizza in the break room and tried too hard. They nuked the pizza long enough that it caught fire and filled the room with a smokey haze. Flames had been extinguished yet my coworker was looking for a way to dissipate the stench hanging in the air.

The door to the break room is ten paces from the door to my office and I was completely unaware of the excitement happening so nearby. Unfortunately, I do not posses a fan so an alternate method of air circulation would be needed. Days later, our break room still smells like burnt cheese.

By the end of the day, after I left the office and made my way home, I almost composed the following sentiment to post on Twitter: "It takes a special kind of stupid to microwave a pizza so long it actually catches fire." But I stopped myself. Why? Well, haven't we all done something similar? I know I have.

During the winter of '99, my two roommates both traveled home for Christmas, leaving me alone for the holidays. I had moved out of my parent's house earlier that year and it would be an eight hour drive if I wanted to visit them. Other circumstances prevented me from heading back to the Seattle area. The main reason was my retail job that expected all staff to be working the day before and after Christmas.

I worked the late shift at Old Navy and was a team-lead throwing freight after the store closed. We worked until midnight. My crew and I frequently went to Sheri's after work where we would hang out for a couple hours over coffee and conversation. It was usually between 2am and 3am when I drove back to my apartment.

If I was still hungry in those pre-dawn hours, my typical dinner was a plate of nachos. A handful of chips, a handful of cheese, stick it in the microwave for seventy seven seconds. Simple, quick, cheap - three things a twenty year old bachelor craved. While my roommates were out of town, I would turn on a movie and lounge in the recliner while I ate, then I'd often fall asleep in the living room without a worry of anyone waking me up while they got ready for school or work the next morning.

After an unusually late night, followed by another late night of holiday shoppers and abnormally large product shipments, I was exhausted. I still ordered my plate of fries at Shari's and hung out with my crew. After finishing there, I had another conversation with one coworker in the parking lot before driving home. It was almost 4am when I walked in the door. Still, I kept my dinner routine: plate, chips, cheese, 77 seconds, recliner, movie.

Except, I made a mistake. When I placed my nachos in the microwave, I pushed the seven button one too many times. Instead of my normal duration, I tried cooking my food for seven minutes and seventy seven seconds. I sat down expecting to hear the ding notifying me my meal was ready, but it didn't chime. Because I was so drowsy, I dozed off in the recliner before eating. I woke up a few minutes later to the smell of smoke.

image courtesy of Dorset Fire Protection

The plate was too hot to touch, I needed oven mitts to extract it from the microwave. The chips were all charred black and the cheese melted to the point it welded to the Pyrex. I tried to pull the nachos off the plate to dispose of it in the trash. Nothing budged. I attempted chiseling it off with a steak knife without success. I had to throw it all away, plate with the torched food.

The bottom floor of our apartment was filled with acrid smoke and was beginning to waft up the stairs to the bedrooms. Despite being the middle of winter, I opened the sliding glass door to the back patio and tried waving a towel in that direction to clear the air. By sunrise, the smoke was gone but the stench remained.

One of my roommates was due to return five days later. My goal was to have the apartment back to a normal odor by then. Every night when I got home from work, I opened all the windows and the sliding door to create a breeze. With snowy weather and daytime temps below freezing that whole week, I slept under every blanket I owned. I closed the windows and doors the next day when I left for work, then repeated the process when I returned.

I left the front windows open when I drove to pick Shane up from the airport, my last ditch effort to eradicate the vague burning scent. On the drive home, I warned him that the apartment smelled funny. When he asked why, I explained how I had burned some nachos. He laughed and said, "How bad can it be?" My parking spot was directly in front of the open windows. When Shane stepped out of my car, he took a deep breath and asked, "What's that smell?" I replied, "Remember how I told you I burned some nachos?" Yes, you could smell it from the parking lot.

Lesson learned, and I've never burned anything in a microwave since then. This week, my nearly posted attempt at humor reminded me of past failures. I deleted my tweet before I even tweeted it. If it takes a special kind of stupid to set a microwavable pizza on fire, then I am that special kind of stupid. There's no need to insult an unknown coworker for sins I've so easily committed.


A Batman who doesn't Batman?

Imagine for a moment. You are a resident of Gotham City, existing in a world of superheroes, sidekicks, and diabolical villains. There is a Batman who is fully capable of thwarting the plans of any nemesis who wants to bring harm and chaos to your city.

Now pretend you look at the news headlines and browse through twitter.

First, a robbery at Gotham National Bank. Two-Face and his goons entered the biggest bank in the city, fully armed, holding the staff and patrons captive while emptying the vault. To keep the hostages silent, Two-Face determined the fate of anyone who made a noise with the flip of a coin: heads they live, tails they die. By the end of the heist, two tellers, a security guard, and twelve customers were murdered and Two-Face's crew eluded arrest.

Later that night, Bruce Wayne tweeted the following: "My thoughts and prayers are with those scarred by the horrible events at GNB. It is my hopes that Dent and those who participated in the crime are brought to justice." Then he asked Alfred to pour him another glass of ginger ale and resumed his review of a Wayne Enterprises financial report.

Next, Penguin disrupts a political rally for the mayor's re-election campaign. After distributing explosive plush penguin dolls in Robinson Park, Penguin went on a shooting spree with a modified semi-automatic disguised to look like a harmless umbrella. In total, thirty-three people lost their lives and dozens were hospitalized.

In response, Bruce posted an official message on the Wayne Enterprises Facebook page. "My heart is breaking with the citizens of Gotham after today's horrific tragedy. My thoughts and prayers are with the city. Regardless of our losses, we are resilient and maintain faith in a better world future. Tomorrow, Wayne Enterprises will be observing a moment of silence as we grieve. Then we will continue to devote our efforts to improving your standard of living. On behalf of myself, our business manager Lucius Fox, and our board of directors, we wish you safety and grace in the days to come." Then Bruce joined Lucius for a game of tennis at Arkham Country Club.

Finally, there was a terrorist attack at Amusement Mile. More than two hundred and fifty tourists were killed or injured. The Joker took credit for the carnage and many survivors reported hearing laughter throughout the carnival park during the melee.

From inside the Batcave, Bruce takes a break from teaching Robin Krav Maga. He posts on Twitter, "Terrible and disturbing reports from Amusement Mile today. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families." Robin asks if there is something they should do but Bruce insists nothing can be done. With or without Batman, criminal masterminds will always find a way to bring mayhem to the city.

This all sounds ridiculous, right? If there was a real-life Batman capable of vanquishing the greatest criminals our cities have to offer, we would not be satisfied by him offering only thoughts and prayers, empty platitudes.

image courtesy of Lazy Batman

Why? Because he's Batman. Of all Gotham's residents, he has the most power to do something. He is better trained, better skilled, and better equipped to stop figures like the Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face. He can stave off their evil plans, so we would expect him to save the day, to protect human lives, and prevent tragedy. Anything less would be disappointing. It would be a shame if Batman stopped protecting Gotham. Even greater shame if he ignored his city in exchange for empty clichés to his prodigious social media following.

Unfortunately, we don't have the same high standards for our elected representatives. After every mass-shooting, government officials offer thoughts and prayers. They blame mental health, they blame violent video games or movies. Regardless of their scapegoat, they make one thing clear: guns are not the problem. They will argue about second amendment rights and mental illness for a couple weeks. Then nothing. They will do nothing.

They say we need better mental health supports while cutting funding those with mental and cognitive disorders need to get treatment. They claim schools should have better security but refuse to provide funding to improve safety measures at our schools. They promise they want to avoid another shooting and prevent further tragedies then turn around and say nothing could have been done to avert the most recent massacre.

If anyone in our nation has the power to affect change, it is our government. It is the people holding elected office that write, debate, and (allegedly) pass laws. To see them do nothing more than bury their head in the sand while offering empty and worthless platitudes is a damn shame.

However, I have faith there will be change. Not because some NRA funded senator is offering thoughts and prayers, but because there is a turning tide in our populace. More and more, I see average citizens who are fed up with this nonsense. I believe that America is still what Abraham Lincoln described as a "government of the people, by the people.” He hoped "that these dead shall not die in vain." While he spoke of soldiers who died in battle, I now hold the same hope for the lives lost in every school from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Marjory Stoneman Douglas. In memory of those killed at my high school and too many kids in more communities across our nation, I hope their deaths are not in vain. If our elected officials refuse to act, then we the people must elect new officials.

The American people, regardless of their religious convictions, are slowly realizing the truth written in a biblical epistle written by James (emphasis added):

"If people say they have faith, but do nothing, their faith is worth nothing. Can faith like that save them? A brother or sister in Christ might need clothes or food. If you say to that person, 'God be with you! I hope you stay warm and get plenty to eat,' but you do not give what that person needs your words are worth nothing. In the same way, faith by itself - that does nothing - is dead.

Someone might say, 'You have faith, but I have deeds.' Show me your faith without doing anything, and I will show you my faith by what I do. ...

You foolish person! You must be shown that faith that does nothing is worth nothing. ... people are made right with God by what they do, not by faith only."

When you refuse to act despite having the power to do so? We see you and you're like a Batman who doesn't Batman, alone in a cave shirking your duties. Those of you in government who claim guns have nothing to do with gun violence? We see you and we know how much money you received from the NRA. You senators, representatives, governors, mayors, and president who tweet out thoughts and prayers then say there's nothing you can do? We see you and your faith is dead. If you do nothing, your words are worth nothing. It would be appropriate for your re-election campaigns to produce nothing. Because I hope, from the depths of my soul, I hope our dead did not die in vain.


Happy Valentine's Day

This is my fiancée. Here, She is performing urgent care for a sick chicken we rescued from an abusive and neglectful home. In these little things, Annie displays a bottomless depth of compassion. It is there for her family, my kids, our friends, and a multitude of furry and feathered creatures. Her heart is full of love for others and she still makes room to encourage me, challenge me to grow, and support my dreams. I am so incredibly proud of who she is, and I consider myself lucky to have her in my life.

We come from different worlds yet our philosophical, political, and religious beliefs are remarkably similar. Our differences are mostly in personality, disposition and temperament, our social habits, and the entertaining hobbies we pursue.

She described some of these differences to a friend of hers while we worked on a weekend fencing project. She always wanted to fall in love with a cowboy, but all the cowboys she met were way too politically conservative. "All I wanted," she said, "was a liberal cowboy. They don't exists. Trust me. So I had to build one." I guess it's easier to turn a liberal nerd into a cowboy than it is to make a conservative cowboy more liberal.

It is mostly an inside joke which makes us both smile. She is not actually turning me into a cowboy. I am learning to do farm work and animal chores because I love her and want to be a part of her world. From that perspective, I am turning myself into a cowboy.

Another friend of Annie's was impressed my daughter's knowledge of comic books. She told me this a few nights ago while we sat on the couch and discussed my daughter's various fandoms. We had some laughs as Annie mixed universes, trying to separate characters between DC and Marvel. I let her know about Zu's crush on Iron Fist and told her my two favorite heroes were Daredevil (the blind vigilante lawyer) and Nightcrawler (the teleporting mutant). She let me geek out for a while, filling her in on backstories and random trivia.

Her daughter is obsessed with Captain America. Annie recognizes the character but knows little about his background in either movie or comic form. Some other superheroes are also vaguely familiar to her, mostly by name alone. She is leaning on me and my knowledge to help her relate more to her daughter and my kids. This is how I know she loves me because she is stepping into my world as much as I am exploring hers.

If we only met in the middle, I'm not sure if our relationship would work. We did not find love by sticking to our own interests. We thrive because I go all the way into her country life and she goes all the way into my geekdom. I am thankful for the love I found with Annie. Today, I wish her the happiest Valentine's Day.


So Subjective

Christian had an interesting question for me. Not a parental inquiry, but one for a cinephile. My son knows and shares my love for movies and he generally trusts my judgement when I tell him a movie is rubbish or worth watching.

So, he asked me, “Dad, what makes a good movie good?”

“That’s a difficult question to answer,” I told him. “Everyone has a different definition of good. There are movies that are universally praised that I think were horrible. There are award winning films that I think are a complete waste of time. But there are also movies I thoroughly enjoyed that were mocked by critics and mass audiences.”

“But in your mind, why do you think some movies are good and others aren’t.”

I had to think a while as his question does not have easy answers. How can I enjoy movies that were critically panned while rejecting others that are seemingly adored by everyone else? It is all so subjective. After some introspection, I gave Christian three thresholds to be met for me to consider a movie as worthy of my appreciation.

1. It needs to have a coherent story. It needs to make sense. That doesn’t mean it needs to be a simple story, or even easy to understand. Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’ was challenging to follow; the scenes mostly flowed in reverse chronological order. To comprehend the plot, you had to watch the whole thing. As far as the story was concerned, viewer knew what was going to happen but were unaware of what did happen. It created a feeling of confusion forcing audiences to understand how it felt to suffer amnesia like the film’s protagonist. Yet, the closing scene provides an ah-ha moment explaining everything. Memento satisfies my need for a coherent story.

2. It needs to have characters I care about. I want to be invested in the outcome of a story, like it actually matters what happens to the characters. For me, I don’t care if it is the villain or the hero, I want to experience sympathy for them and be interested in their survival. I want to understand and empathize with their motives. ‘Spider-Man Homecoming’ is one of those films that made me cheer for both the hero (Peter Parker) and the villain (Vulture). Not every movie can satisfy my need to care about its characters. For example, consider ‘Pain & Gain’ with Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson. I wanted to like this movie but couldn’t. I hated every character. The athletic trainers and bodybuilders who are central to the plot are all abhorrent people. The person they kidnap, torture, and extort is repulsive. I can’t identify who is a good guy or a bad guys because they’re all bad to me and in the end, I want the worst to happen to all of them. Because it failed my second criteria, I don’t think ‘Pain & Gain’ was a good movie.

3. It needs to move me in some way. Either it should create a strong reaction, make me ponder my existence, or profoundly affect my emotions. The ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise might not be great movies by any standard, however they pass this third requirement for me. They thrill me. They are exciting and spectacular. They flood my system with adrenaline. Other movies that satisfy this requirement are those bringing me to tears like ‘Toy Story 3’ or ‘Bridge to Terabithia.’ I would also include movies like ‘Donnie Darko’ and ‘Inception’ for this final point because of how much they made me think and how they stuck with me long after watching them.

image courtesy of Baltimore Sports and Life

Finally, the best movies, the ones I truly consider great are those that satisfy all three of my requirements. They’re coherent, I care about the characters, and they make me think deeply or feel something. Some of my most favorite movies do this. Here are a few examples.

In ‘Good Will Hunting,’ Will is a troubled yet brilliant kid. At the recommendation of an MIT professor, Will must see a therapist to avoid jail. The story follows a logical order. I want Will to find love and overcome his abused past. I want his therapist to help him. By the time Sean (the therapist) tells him “It’s not your fault” and embraces the kid, I weep along with Will.

Beautiful Girls’ tells the story of a piano player who returns to his home town and reconnects with his old friends for their high school reunion. It is a very simple premise for a story which makes me consider if I’m making the best of my life. They drink, go ice fishing, and discuss the flaws in their lives. One is having an affair with his high school sweetheart (who married a different man), another is trying to win back his ex-girlfriend (who already started dating someone else), and the piano player stresses over dissatisfaction with his job and relationship while developing feelings for the thirteen-year-old girl who lives next to his dad. Everyone is a mess and I want them to change their ways.

And ‘The Goonies’ is a masterpiece in achieving what I want from a movie. It is the most straightforward adventure plot – a group of nerdy kids search for a treasure to save their neighborhood from greedy developers. To do so, they must avoid booby traps and murderous criminals. I strongly identify with the kids; if I was a fictional character in their universe, I’d a be a goonie too. Along the way, I (the viewer) feel what they experience – the apprehension in moments of peril, the relief as Sloth saves the day, and the vindication when the families can keep their homes.

Filmmakers need to do those three things for me to love their movies. Make sense, make me care, and make me think or feel. What about you? What makes a good movie good?


The Super Bowl that Was

As we delve deeper into 2018, it is obvious we are stuck with a President Donald Trump. However, we live in a world where the team who lost the Super Bowl is owned by Trump's friend Robert Kraft, coached by Trump's friend Bill Belichick, and led by Trump's quarterback friend Tom Brady.

Confession: I used to be a minor Patriots fan. Back when they were perennial underdogs yet to win a Super Bowl, I occasionally cheered for them. Since their first championship win in 2002, my opinion of them has degraded thanks to their cheating scandals, Belichick's permanently grumpy face, Brady's smug arrogance, and their many connections to Trump.

Sunday, the dogs snuggled up for a nap while I watched the game. The Philadelphia Eagles are NFL champs and their city has been burnt down to rubble in celebratory(?) riots. Eagles-fan-for-a-day is now over and we can all go back to supporting our regular favorite teams in anticipation for next fall. Before we return to our legitimate fandoms, I have some favorite Super Bowl LII moments to share.

Of the actual sport with real athletes doing things on a field, here are my top five highlights.
5. The Patriots failed trick play. Tom Brady errors as a receiver and the ball was over-thrown. It's schadenfreude seeing Brady fail in a play that his team perfected.
4. Gronkowski's touchdown celebration. It's nice to know that I'm not the only white dude who shouldn't be allowed to dance.
3. The catch that was a touchdown that was fumbled then caught again and was ruled a touchdown. It could have been called incomplete, but the call was upheld and I might have screamed loud enough to scare both sleeping dogs.
2. The Eagles trick play. Foles succeeded in the same play Brady missed earlier in the game. The Eagles beat New England at their own game by out Patriotting the Patriots.
1. Brady's fumble. After the touchdown that almost wasn't, the Patriots needed a miracle. Instead, they got Tom Brady. The ball was stripped from his hand, cementing the Eagles’ victory.

Also worth noting: JJ Watt's award. I've got a tremendous respect for Watt and his actions following last year's hurricanes. The man placed the value of human life above his career and I can't think of anyone more deserving of the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.

For those who only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials, here are my five ish favorites.
Honorable mention: Amazon's Alexa lost her voice. Celebrities fill in as a replacement for the voice of Alexa; none made me laugh as much as Rebel Wilson setting the mood.
5. Dodge Ram's Vikings. This ad would have been ranked higher on my list if it wasn't for their other Super Bowl ad. Using Martin Luther King Jr's voice to sell trucks was so offensive it soured this truly great commercial featuring headbanging Vikings in a Dodge Ram driving to the Minneapolis while listening to Queen's We Will Rock You.
4. Wendy's slams McDonalds. McDonalds flash freezes their beef to "seal in fresh flavor." Unlike Wendy's who use never frozen beef. Wendy's reminded us the iceberg that sank the titanic was also frozen.
3. Every commercial is a Tide ad. David Harbour (AKA Chief Hopper in Stranger Things) spoofs "typical" Super Bowl ads, including those for cars, beer, jewelry, soda, shaving cream/razors, and smart home systems to demonstrate how every advertisement is a Tide ad because the clothes worn in every commercial is super clean.
2. NFL’s Dirty Dancing. Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr danced together like Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. The two football stars recreated the Dirty Dancing routine set to Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes duet (I've Had) The Time of My Life.
1. Doritos and Dew Duel. Doritos has a new spicy flavor of chip and Mountain Dew has a new cool refreshing flavor of soda. First, Peter Dinklage faux-rapped to Busta Rhyme’s verse from Look At Me Now to promote Doritos Blaze, facing off against Morgan Freeman who lip-sang lyrics from Missy Elliot’s Get Ur Freak On for Mountain Dew Ice.

Hollywood also debuted new movie trailers and these are the films I can't wait to see.
5. (tie) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom & Mission: Impossible - Fallout. I can't tell which of these two are of greater worth. Both are franchise films from franchises I enjoy. I was underwhelmed by the last entry in both series. Both have colons in their title. Both have potential to be awesome, or completely horrible. I can't make up my mind, so I'll list both.
4. Skyscraper. I have no idea what this movie is about. All I know is an aging Rock wearing a prosthetic leg will be doing parkour and leaping from heights that would kill a normal mortal. Despite limited information and a guaranteed need for a willing suspension of disbelief, I'm in.
3. The Cloverfield Paradox. This was a surprise trailer for a movie to be released as soon as the game was over. I have not yet had time to watch it and the reviews from critics who did have time suggest that I shouldn't make the time. However, the first Cloverfield movie also got poor critical reviews and it's on my lists of favorite monster movies and favorite found footage movies. I will log into Netflix this week and see it against professional advice.
2. Solo. Until now, I have had the lowest of low expectations for this movie. As a prequel, I know the main characters will survive with all limbs attached so they can appear in the original movies. The stakes are low. In these situations, the sense of danger is never high enough to worry a character's safety. But the Super Bowl teaser changed my mind and now I can't wait for the month of May.
1. Avengers: Infinity War. This is the other reason May is going to be a good month.


The movies of 2017

We are two days into the month of February and I have finally listened to the yearly recaps from my movie and pop culture podcasts: Filmspotting, Relevant, Weekly Planet, and You Hate Movies. Now I am adequately prepared to list my favorite movies of last year. My top ten list has been compiled but first, a disclaimer.

Financial budgets and time restraints mean I'm unable to see every movie. There were movies I wanted to watch yet have not yet been able to do so. I feel as if I've failed as a geek because of these five omissions. I hope to correct my errors as soon as possible.

5. Blade Runner 2049
4. Colossal
3. The Girl with All the Gifts
2. Thor: Ragnarok
1. Wonder Woman

Now, my ten favorite movies from 2017.

10. Bright (Netflix) starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton. Two cops, a human and an orc protect an elf with a mythical magic wand and find themselves at the center of a dispute over an ancient prophecy. The movie critiques race relations, class warfare, and police corruption in a story that answers what would happen if Tolkien's creatures from Lord of the Rings existed in modern Los Angeles.

9. Kong: Skull Island (Warner Bros) starring John Goodman, Samuel L Jackson, Brie Larson, and Tom Hiddleston. A group of scientists and soldiers are sent to an unexplored island at the end of the Vietnam War in hopes to prove the existence of a mythical giant creature.

8. The Lego Batman Movie (Warner Bros) starring Will Arnett, Zack Galifianakis, Michael Cera, and Rosario Dawson. Lego versions of Batman, Robin, and Batgirl try to maintain order in Gotham as Batman unleashes the villains of multitude of other franchises in an attempt to permanently defeat The Joker.

7. Split (Universal) starring James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy. A troubled teen is kidnapped by a disturbed individual with dissociative identity disorder. The film follows her efforts to escape while interacting with many of Kevin's 23 personalities.

6. John Wick: Chapter 2 (Lionsgate) starring Keanu Reeves. Wick is still can't escape the world of assassins despite his desire to retire to a life of peace. So, he shoots a bunch of people. Again.

5. Downsizing (Paramount) starring Matt Damon, Hong Chau, and Christoph Waltz. After an irreversible medical shrinking procedure, a newly divorced man tries to figure out who his is and his place in this world.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Disney/Marvel) starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, and Kurt Russell. Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, and Baby Groot face their greatest challenge yet - an absentee father named Ego.

3. Get Out (Universal) starring Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams. Chris, a photographer from the city travels to the country side with his girlfriend to meet her parents - a neurosurgeon and a hypnotherapist. It doesn't go well. After hearing racist comments from his girlfriend's brother and witnessing odd behavior from the groundskeeper and housekeeper, Chris begins to suspect something disturbing about the family.

2. It (Warner Bros) starring Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, and Wyatt Oleff. A group of nerdy kids and outcasts collectively known as the Losers Club battle violent bullies, abusive adults, and Pennywise the creepy shape-shifting killer clown who feeds off fear.

1. Logan (20th Century Fox/Marvel) starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Dafne Keen. Jackman's ninth and final performance as Wolverine is easily the best of the entire X-Men franchise. It also packs the greatest emotional punch. Logan (AKA Wolverine) is getting old and his mutant healing powers are not as strong as they once were. He provides palliative care to a senile and cantankerous Charles Xavier (AKA Professor) in a world where all other mutants have been killed. Logan crosses paths with his clone, a young girl trying to find freedom from the diabolical scientists who have been experimenting on her and her friends. It's a superhero movie, a genre I love, based on one of the first comic book characters I read when I was a junior high student. It's also a mature story with an ending that made me cry ugly tears.

What was your favorite movie of 2017? What did I miss?



Dear church, you have always been there for me. It must have been easy for you as I am a straight white male. Over the past few years, as I have spent time with friends who are not straight, who are not white, and who are not male, I have discovered how you have not shown them the same accommodations I received. I thought my experience was normal because the bible directs us to love without discrimination and to heal the brokenhearted. The church's mission is a ministry of reconciliation, to be a refuge for those who are hurting, a triage for the sick, and a beacon of light for the lost. True religion is one which protects the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant. Dear church, you have failed.

During the past few years, the world has witnessed multiple women's movements. In response, you have either been silent or defiant. When social media exploded with stories and personal accounts concluding with the tag #YesAllWomen, many guys - especially those within the church reacted badly. They dismissed this trend, humiliated the victims, and posted their own defense of #NotAllMen. The day after Donald Trump's inauguration, millions of women gathered to march in protest in dozens of American cities. A year later, there were more women's marches held in more cities with greater attendance. In both events, the church was largely absent. You showed up after the fact and only then as a critic. With recent causes like #MeToo, #ChurchToo, and #TimesUp, you continued to act with judgement and criticism. Dear church, your actions condemn you.

What you have done makes sense to me. I was raised at the height of purity culture when the bestselling Christian book was 'I Kissed Dating Goodbye.' My generation was taught modestly dressed girls were the only way to prevent a boy's hormonal urges because boys were not responsible for their insatiable sexual desires. Talking about sexuality was taboo and anything outside of puritan norms was condemned. You instilled in us a sense of shame around sex, even if it was consensual. You preached standards with little to no biblical basis and abandoned us with unhealthy images of ourselves, romance, dating, marriage, and intercourse. Purity culture was the logical result of generations of patriarchal dominance. Taken to its furthest extent, these beliefs led to a world where rape and sexual assault is justified and the victim is labeled as a liar or a slut. Dear church, you are at fault.

Even the author of 'I Kissed Dating Goodbye' admits he got it wrong. He recognizes the damages he caused. You still treat the book like it's sacred. Dear church, you have contributed to the trauma many women have experienced because of the shame and guilt you taught them to feel.

The cost of toxic masculinity is becoming more and more apparent. You warn us about hedonistic secular culture, yet you contribute to one of its greatest flaws: the objectification and exploitation of women. One by one, vile men are losing their positions of power as their previous deeds of rape or sexual assault are becoming public knowledge. From politics to sports to entertainment to industry, victims continue to come forward and reveal the depravity of those we once respected. These accusations of sexual misconduct even reach into the church. Dear church, you are not innocent.

20 years ago, while a youth pastor in Texas, Andy Savage sexually assaulted a high school student who attended his church after he offered to give her a ride home. Following his crime, he begged her to keep it secret. When she reported it to the church's associate pastor, he didn't report it to the police. Instead, he ordered her to remain quiet so the church could deal with it internally. Savage was never criminally charged; he is now the pastor at a megachurch in Memphis. A few weeks ago, he admitted to his church there was a "sexual incident" between him and a minor. His congregation gave him a standing ovation. Dear church, you are an accomplice, you share the offender's guilt.

Last week, Rachael Denhollander testified at the sentencing trial for Larry Nassar. Nassar was the physician convicted of sexually molesting more than 150 girls over the last three decades. For more than 30 minutes, Denhollander delivered a beautiful gospel filled plea for justice. While watching it, I wanted to applaud her and weep on her behalf. Halfway through her speech, she described the cost of her bravery, detailing cost of speaking truth. She lost her friends, her privacy, and her church. She lost her church because she leveled legal charges against her abuser. Dear church, you are supposed to be a safe place for victims. You should have loved and supported Denhollander amid her crisis, instead you shunned her and turned her away. Dear church, you are guilty of a dereliction of duty.

This needs to stop. It’s time for the church to stand up and be the church. It’s time for the church to protect the victims and not the abusers. We need to quit pretending our own indiscretions don’t exist. We need to repent and accept the consequences when appropriate. Then we need to sit down, shut up, and listen. For generations we have silence women – often when feminine voices were needed the most. Dear church, it’s time to give them back their voice.

Lucky for you, we have no shortage of intelligent and articulate women. Beth Moore, Rachel Held Evans, Anne Lamott, Ann Voskamp, Jen Hatmaker, Bernice King, Glennon Doyle, and so many more. Dear church, hand them a microphone then get out of the way. You might not like what they have to say but what you want to hear no longer matters. You are culpable and your time is up.


Something about timing ...

It was summer when Annie and I started dating. Our first date was on July 23rd. It was a Friday. The next date was on a Saturday. Then another Saturday. A month later we went on a Tuesday evening hike on Tubbs Hill. Exactly one month later. August 23rd.

That date was significant because it was the night we decided we wanted a serious relationship with each other. Not just dating, but something more. Something deeper. From the first date to the evening beside Lake Coeur d'Alene, it took us exactly 31 days to decide we each saw something in the other that we wanted in our lives.

We spent a lot of time just the two of us. Dinners. Walks in a park. Movies. Several philosophical, religious, political, and personal conversations. We did not publicize the relationship on social media at first because we wanted to be sure we were grounded together before telling the whole world. We also waited a few months before introducing each other to the friends we hung out with before dating. Three months to be exact. It was August 23rd when two of my best friends gathered with us for a bonfire at Annie's house.

A first date in July, commitment in August, introduction of friends in October. Each on the 23rd of their respective months.

So much of what we believe and value line up. Our strategies for parenting. Our attitudes about money and finances. Our love languages and the way we communicate with each other. Our opinions about laws and what they should or should not be. Our tastes in music, sports, and entertainment.

Even the foods we love and hate are similar. We both dislike seafood of any kind. We both despise stuffing and cranberry sauce at holiday dinners. We both consider Ming Wah as our favorite Chinese restaurant. When we go out to eat, it's easy to find a meal to share because there will always be something on the menu we both like. During an early date at MOD Pizza, we both ordered pepperoni and pineapple pizzas; the only difference between us is she placed her order with tomatoes and red sauce while I got cilantro and red onions on BBQ sauce.

We are a lot alike. However, Annie and I are not identical people. She is far craftier, better at Scrabble, and a talented photographer. I'm the writer with a stronger preference for spicy foods. She's a country girl and I am a textbook nerd. We are not twins. Between the similarities and differences, we compliment each other.

With so much in common, it only makes sense the significant days in our relationship also share something in common.

We got engaged this last weekend. I admitted I would be a fool to endlessly date such a wonderful woman without a ring and she accepted my proposal. It was a beautiful moment, uniquely perfect for our family.

Monday, while we ate dinner, Annie shared an observation. "You know we have a thing about months, right?" I didn't understand what she meant at first. She clarified it was about timing. "We became official exactly a month after the first date. And I met some of your friends on the same date a couple months later. Everything was on the 23rd."

Ah, I knew what she was talking about. Then she continued. "Do you realize you proposed exactly one month before Valentine's Day?"

Nope. Truth is, I hadn't thought about it. Definitely didn't plan it to be like that. We just have something about timing.

Naturally, when a couple move from dating to engaged, the most frequently asked question is when. When is the wedding date? This is a question neither of us made much preemptive effort to resolve. It is not the most urgent issue to us. Yet we have something about timing so Monday night, we discussed it.

So, mark your calendars. Tentatively speaking. August 23rd, 2020. It is a Sunday. While not set in stone, the idea of getting married exactly four years to the day after the moment we agreed to make us us is wildly romantic. Besides, we have a thing about timing.


A Lost Generation

My generation doesn't have a name so you might not have heard of us.
Generation X ended in the late 70's, Millinials started in the early 80's, and we were born somewhere in between.
A gap generation.
No one talks about my generation.

My generation has always been on the edge of something.
We were born with the death of disco and graduated high school when ska got popular.
We were too young to relate to Reality Bites and too old to relate to Superbad.

We inherited our older siblings' sense of apathy and borrowed a sense of entitlement from our younger siblings.
I guess we got the worst of both worlds.

We were the last generation to watch Saturday morning cartoons and the first generation to watch Nickelodeon.
Now we are Cartoon Networks' target audience.

We were the last generation to experience analog technology and the first generation to experience digital technology.
We are the only generation to be raised on both.
We were guinea pigs.
The test subjects.
Our education was an experiment with mixed results.

We learned from both Mr. Rogers and Super Mario.
We watched the rise and fall of AOL.
We were in school before and after Google.
We perfected social media and made it unbearable.

We were weened on vinyl records, spent our childhoods with cassette tapes, took our CD collections to high school, and binged on MP3s in our college years.
We know we should feel nostalgic for one of those mediums but we're not sure which.
We were the last generation to buy VHS, the first to stream movies, and we still lovingly hold on to our DVD collections.
We turned Blockbuster into a ghost town and we were the first residents of Netflix.
We can't live without the internet but still remember when we lived without the internet.

My generation is both listless and motivated.
We are filled with both hope and despair.

The odds are stacked against my generation.
We can't get low tech jobs because they're filled by an older and more experienced generation.
We can't get high tech jobs because they're filled by an younger and more experienced generation.
Our parents' generation didn't need a college degree to get a career.
Our kids' generation won't have a career without a college degree.
We split the difference.

We are everything and we are nothing.

We are sandwiched between a generation that's broken and the generation that broke them.
We are permanently stuck in the middle.


Faith & Pop Culture: Downsizing

When I sat down to watch Matt Damon's new comedy, Downsizing, I was expecting a lighthearted and quirky perspective on what life would be like if people were the size of action figures. The movie delivered on that premise with heavy quirkiness. It was also so much more. I walked out of the theater impressed by how this film stepped beyond the confines of humor to deliver a solid, timely, and surprisingly spiritual message.

On the surface, Downsizing is a satire about a middle-class American adjusting to life after a medical procedure shrunk him to a height of five inches tall, coupled with an environmentalist’s morality play. Underneath its skin is a critique of wealth, privilege, discontent, and ignorance. Downsizing is a story about the quest to find the lost soul of America.

image courtesy of Ad Hominem Enterprises and Paramount Pictures

Paul Safranek (played by Matt Damon) is a stand-in for the average American. He has a good job as an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks; he appears to have a happy marriage and a comfortable life. As you dig into his character, you see cracks. The relationship with his wife isn't solid, he had to leave medical school to care for his ailing mother, he still lives in the house he grew up in, and he carries too much debt to purchase a newer/nicer home. Like many Americans, he struggles through an imperfect life without realizing his many blessings. His smile and child-like wonder mask his true feelings of unease and dissatisfaction. He has a great life yet it is not enough.

Not finding pleasure in a steady job, friends, family, romance, social status, or consumer goods, Paul does what a lot of Americans do. He runs from his problems.

A scientific breakthrough intended to reduce pollution offers Paul a chance at a better life. The irreversible downsizing process would turn his meager net-worth into a fortune big enough to retire in luxury. Miniaturization seems to be the answer for his wildest dreams. He takes the offer but his wife panics and abandons him. Paul quickly finds himself in a paradise, divorced and unemployed, and watching his hopes fade.

Time moves on. Paul stops correcting people who mispronounce his last name, finds work in a call center, moves from his mansion into an apartment, unsuccessfully attempts dating, and dresses like everyone's most boring uncle. Along with his setbacks, Paul also lost his identity. He's a man without purpose.

If we could distill American culture into a singer person, Matt Damon's portrayal of Paul Safranek would be the result. Lost, adrift, and purposeless. We don't know who we are, we're just lonely and eager to please. We're broken people longing to find our reason for being. We do our jobs, go on awkward dates, and complain about our noisy neighbors. We fill the holes in our lives with anything we can find, leisure activities, consumerism, parties, drugs, friends, lovers, celebrity worship, cultural fads, political movements, careers, travel, or hobbies. All of it is a fruitless endeavor if we don't know who we are.

Paul would have been stuck in this aimless wandering through life had it not been interrupted by his eccentric upstairs neighbor Dusan (Christopher Waltz) and a member of Dusan's cleaning crew Ngoc (Hong Chau) - a formerly famous political activist from Vietnam who was shrunk against her will. The first thing Paul noticed about Ngoc was her awkward gait, caused by an ill-fitting prosthetic. Then he recognized her face. One of Paul's greatest joys was meeting people made famous by downsizing: the scientist who discovered the process. The first tiny baby born to a downsized couple. And Ngoc, the lone survivor of a group of downsized Vietnamese refugees stowed away in a TV box.

The playboy and the dissident disrupt everything about Paul's life. Dusan encourages him to be more adventurous, and Ngoc forces him to see the world from a different perspective. Dusan loved Paul for being funny and nice. Ngoc drags him to the ghetto to provide medical care to the least fortunate of the downsized society. One showed him how to have fun, and the other taught him to be compassionate.

It is the latter that revolutionized Paul’s life. Ngoc knows exactly who she is and why she is on earth. When Paul offers to fix her artificial limb, she insists he helps her sick friend first. Despite his protests, she convinces him to accompany her. He follows her on her mission to deliver food and medicine to the sick and impoverished. He sees where she lives and realizes her sick friend is dying. She drags him to church and to her cleaning job. Soon, he goes everywhere she goes.

Paul has poor boundaries. He can’t say no. Dusan invents a story to take Paul to Norway and help him get out of constant work with Ngoc. It doesn’t work in their favor and Ngoc ends up accompanying them on their trip. Even in Norway, Paul still isn’t sure of who he is. He oozes unhappiness. He is ready to abandon his friends to live in an underground bunker with the original downsized colony, convinced that’s his purpose.

Given the opportunity to avoid guaranteed environmental disaster with the Norwegians, Paul went back to Ngoc. In the closing scene, we see a content and truly happy Paul for the first time. For the whole movie, he was miserable. It wasn’t until he willingly sacrificed himself for the service of others that he found peace and joy. It wasn’t until Paul was doing God’s work that he discovered who he was.

Ngoc opened Paul’s eyes. For the first time, Paul realized the promise of success and riches aren’t evenly distributed. He began to see the inequity in how people are treated. He witnessed first-hand something he never knew existed. Ngoc proved Jesus’ words to be true: “You will always have the poor with you, and you can help them anytime you want.” Caring for the poor is where Ngoc found satisfaction. That was her source of harmony and confidence. She knew that was where God wanted her.

Considering the current state of affairs in America, we could all use a little more peace and joy. We’ve lost our soul. We don’t know who we are. Maybe we it’s time we sacrificed our own dreams and pursuits to help those in need. Perhaps we should give up our privilege for those who have none. Can you imagine what kind of world we would live in if the church stepped up and did God’s work, providing for the least of these? Paul found his purpose there. Why can’t we?

Disclosure: there is a lot of naked dudes in this movie. All of it was presented in a medical or scientific context. None of it was sexual. However, be warned. If the sight of male genitals makes you uncomfortable, you probably should avoid watching. Otherwise, I recommend you see Downsizing, it's good quirky fun with a deep moral lesson.