Down the Rabbit Hole

Conspiracy theories fascinate me. Not because I think they have any validity, rather, I am interested in the psychopathy behind it. I want to understand what twists a mind to the point it readily embraces the most preposterous ideas, how they can cling to beliefs so easily disproven. I don’t believe the moon landing was faked, that the earth is flat, that 9/11 was an inside job, or that Obama was born in Kenya. Those theories are ridiculous and the evidence to support those claims are laughable. Yet the people who believe these conspiracies intrigue me.

When presented with a conspiratorial idea, the skeptic in me is quick to dismiss the theory. There’s usually a simpler and more logical explanation. Even with the Trump presidency. As much as I don’t like our president, I tend to view the most outlandish claims about him with skepticism. He’s corrupt enough on his own, I don’t think his opponents need to make up stories to make him look bad.

Then a couple weeks ago, I awoke earlier than normal and began to skim through Twitter. I watched a few videos and read a few news stories. Everyone seemed to ask the same question: has Rudy gone crazy? I don’t think he has. And as I read various accounts, watched and re-watched the mind-blowing interviews where Rudy contradicted all of Trump’s previous claims, I began to (as the saying goes) connect the dots. I clicked the new tweet button and began to type:

All this Giuliani chaos seems absurd right? It doesn’t make sense. Even Politico posted a headline claiming he’s playing into prosecutors’ hands. Some people think Giuliani is bonkers, which is possible but there might be a better explanation. And one I think is far more logical. So, follow me down the rabbit hole. What if Giuliani is doing all of this on purpose? And what if he hasn’t gone rogue? What if this is Trump’s legal game-plan?

Throughout the course of the Russia investigation (AKA: WITCHUNT!) there’s been talks of pardons. Trump has already made two questionable pardons: Joe Apario and Scooter Libby. He’s also hinted at pardoning more. The pardon talk is (allegedly) a sign to his loyalists to keep their mouths shut as if Trump is telling them they have nothing to fear. Anyone charged in the investigation into Russia’s interference will be pardoned as long as they’re loyal. There’s also been speculation that Trump will try and pardon himself. There’s debate to whether he can or can’t legally do that. I don’t think he can, but I’m not a legal expert. Let’s assume for now, he can’t.

Things are looking bad and getting worse. Multiple charges filed. Multiple guilty pleas. Multiple cooperating witnesses. To everyone except the most ardent in the MAGA crowd, it’s obvious the Trump’s presidency is not going to end well. I think Trump knows this. Contrary to many of my liberal friends, I don’t think Trump is an idiot. I think the buffoonery is an act to play to the lowest common denominator. He wants undying admiration, and this is the easiest way to get it. Trump is smarter than most people give him credit. What rational people see as the most inane ideas are his specialty. After all, he did win the electoral college. He knew he’d never win the popular vote, so he didn’t even try. It worked.

His current legal strategy is (as far as I can tell) more of the same. What looks like complete insanity is actually subversive genius. Trump knows he’s going down, so his best option is to look incompetent. Is there a better way to look incompetent than to hire the worst possible lawyers to represent you? Between the turnover on Trump’s legal team, Giuliani’s baffling media blitz, Trump’s constant self-contradictions, and blatant lies, what we are seeing in the Oval Office is the biggest display of incompetency ever. Actually, faux-incompetency. They’re not all idiots. It’s a show. Why would they go through the effort of making themselves look stupid? Simple answer: like Doctor Strange said in Infinity War, “This is the only way.”

Trump really only has one way of avoiding serious legal charges - to get them thrown out in court. How? Because we’re all entitled to adequate legal representation. It doesn’t matter if you’re so poor the court appoints an attorney or if you’re as (allegedly) rich as Trump and can buy the most expensive attorneys in America. An ineffective attorney violates our 6th Amendment rights. Trump is hoping to muddy the waters so swampy that it’ll be impossible to get a guilty verdict. And if that fails, get the ruling overturned for reason of incompetent or negligent representation. To do that, Trump must prove two things.

1. Trump must prove that Giuliani’s performance was deficient with serious errors.
2. That Giuliani’s deficiency unfairly biased prosecution against Trump, depriving him of his right to a fair trial.

Giuliani’s performance and media appearances since joining the Trump legal team could be evidence supporting gross incompetence unfairly prejudicing the defendant. Trump’s statements since then are already playing into this plan. All of it is an elaborate ruse. If you act dumb enough for long enough, people will start to believe you’re dumb. I don’t buy it, I don’t believe Trump is that stupid. Calculated? Manipulative? Vindictive? Yes, yes, and yes. Dumb? Hell no.

But what do I know, I’m just a nerd from the middle of nowhere. All I know, is I’m not alone in my thinking. On his Late Night show, Seth Meyers said, “Trump’s going to be the first client who pleads insanity on behalf of his lawyer.”

photo courtesy of Politico

I could be wrong. It’s possible. However, I’m a fan of Occam’s razor, the philosophical rule that states problem solving explanations become increasingly unlikely the more assumptions you make in your answer. In other words, the simplest explanation is often the correct one. If the problem we want to solve is to explain the rationale behind Giuliani’s recent performances, the simplest answer that requires the fewest assumptions is that he’s doing it on purpose.


Do Christians Read the Bible?

When I was a kid questioning my beliefs, my curiosity and doubts were frequently ignored, discouraged, or shamed. The tools to learn for myself were scarcely provided. I was never challenged to figure it out. Anything remotely resembling an objection to the status quo was quickly and adamantly shut down as if it was a stumbling block. Or even worse: sin. When answers were provided, they were vague and insubstantial.

I would ask, "Why do we believe (random doctrinal statement or denominational tradition)?" Their reply would often be, "Because the Bible says so." The details of what the Bible actually said was rarely a part of those conversations. The authoritative impression is the Bible said whatever was convenient to support their perspective and my duty was to take their words at face value because, well, because the Bible said so.

So, I read the Bible to see if the Bible said what they claimed. And I read it more. Then some more. I kept reading it. I read commentaries and different translations. I studied the Koine Greek language so I could better understand the original context of the earliest texts we have available. I read books about the Bible and read the Bible some more. I still read it. The more I study the Bible, the more I'm convinced that the majority of people claiming to share my Christian faith don't read it.

Why do I have that belief? When I see how Christians act, the way they behave, the words they speak, the attitudes they display, so much of it is contrary to Christian scripture. This is either deliberate defiance or complete ignorance. Either people read it and decided it doesn't apply to them, or they have absolutely no clue what is contained inside the book they consider holy. This lack of Biblical knowledge was again made apparent for me over the last few days while the violence between the Israeli government and Palestinian protesters unfolded over news stories and social media. Considering the typical American and predominantly white, conservative, evangelical reaction, I feel compelled to document a pair of my core values that I believe because the Bible says so.

First, everyone is created in the image of God. In Christianese, we call them 'image bearers.' During the creation story contained in the first chapter of Genesis, God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness." The 27th verse is one of the earliest Bible verses I memorized in my childhood church classes: "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." That means every human born on Earth bear the image of God. Black, white, and every shade of brown; gay or straight; American, Asian, African, or any other region of decent; Muslims, Jews, atheists, and Jedi, all were created in the image of God. Nationality, sexuality, age, wealth or lack of wealth, religious belief, and political identification are all irrelevant.

If we are to take the Bible seriously, we should see the image of God reflected in every face we see. A Buddhist monk spinning a prayer wheel in a remote Tibetan village. A Hindu woman throwing colored powder during the Holi Festival in Delhi. A Christian teenager who hasn't told anyone he's gay because he's scared his parents will kick him out. A hacker in Russia. An undocumented immigrant in Arizona. A political prisoner in North Korea. A tribal leader in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. All are image bearers. You are an image bearer, so is the person you hate most in this world.

The creation story is not the only passage describing all people as creations of God. In the book of Job, the friend Elihu described God as impartial, showing no favor for royalty or the rich over the poor because they are all God's handiwork, "For they are all the work of his hands?" The 16th chapter of Proverbs tell us that God made everything, "even the wicked." In Isaiah chapter 42, God is described as the Creator "who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it." That passage doesn't specify only a select receive breath and life from God; breath is given to all earth's people, and life given to everyone who walks this world. The prophet Malachi asked, "Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us?" While in Athens, Paul preached, "He himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth." Throughout scripture, I find a God who sees every single human on this planet as a person made in his image. If God sees God in all people, we should too.

image courtesy Buzzfeed

This means every Palestinian protester was created in the image of God too. When you applaud Israeli snipers, you're celebrating the destruction of God's image. You are relishing in the loss of a human life. When you say, "they deserve it, they had it coming," you're blaming an image bearer for their own demise. You have failed to see in them the beauty and intricacy of God's creation. We should never glorify death, we should never praise a killer. Your glee is antithetical to Biblical instruction.

Second, revenge is not a Christian activity. It is not our right. It is not our privilege. It is not our duty. There are certain matters of justice we should relinquish control. In Deuteronomy, God says, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them." As Christians, we must accept the fact that vengeance is a divine matter, not a human pursuit. We must also realize our definitions for words like due time, disaster, and doom are different to us than they are to God.

The writers of the New Testament reiterate this instruction to abstain from taking matters of retribution into our own hands. In Romans, Paul quotes the verse in Deuteronomy where God claims sole right to avenge. In the same letter, Paul implores us to live in harmony and writes, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone." The book of First Peter instructs us to be sympathetic, loving, compassionate, and humble. It says, "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing." Then it quotes a Psalm, "Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech. They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it."

I am not naïve. I understand governments, judicial systems, and militaries pursue justice and vengeance on their own terms. This is not a plea for world leaders to abolish war and lay down arms. I do not believe victims of crime should be content if perpetrators walk free or that police should allow the underbelly of society to break the law without repercussions. At the same time, we as Christian individuals must have a different mindset. Our focus should be on peace, not revenge. We also need to recognize evil for what it is, wherever we see it.

Military snipers firing on civilian protesters armed with rocks and tennis racquets is evil. There are no qualifications, no exceptions. They killed children and the disabled. Their actions are wrong. You could argue how Hamas is evil, they've engaged in terrorism and they've caused great loss of lives. I would agree with you. But when you claim the Palestinians deserve to be killed because of Hamas, let me remind you, the Bible says we should not repay evil with evil. Palestinians killing Israelis is evil and Israelis killing Palestinians is just as evil. One does not justify the other.

image courtesy Sky News

Several dozen deaths and thousands injured. I cannot fathom how this remotely resembles doing what is right. There is nothing about Israel's handling of the protests that is sympathetic or compassionate. Monday's carnage is the opposite of harmony. This is not how you seek peace.

Stop dancing with joy over the deaths of a bunch of protesters. It's wrong. Why? Because the Bible says so.


Infinity War: Nothing but Spoilers

The following contains spoilers. Lots of them. You've been warned.

image courtesy of Marvel/Disney

Thanos got the power stone before the movie begins so Xandar has already been decimated.
Most of the Asgardians are dead and Valkyrie is nowhere to be found.
Thanos beats the crap out of Hulk, murders Heimdall and Loki, takes the space stone, then leaves Thor as the only survivor behind moments before the Asgard refugee ship explodes.

image courtesy of Marvel/Disney

Groot is now a teenager who does nothing but play a handheld video game all day.
Star Lord and Gamora developed a relationship.
Rocket is still sarcastic.
While responding to distress signal, Thor lands on their ship. Once inside he wakes up.
Thor keeps calling Rocket "Rabbit" and thinks he's the captain.
Rocket and Groot take Thor to Nidavellir to forge a replacement for Mjölnir.
Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, and Mantis travel to Knowhere to prevent Thanos from getting the reality stone from the Collector.
Tobias Fünke is in the Collector's collection. After he blue himself.
Surprise, they're too late; Thanos already has the reality stone.
He captures Gamora who is the only one who knows the location of the soul stone.
Star Lord, Mantis, and Drax go to Titan in hopes to rescue Gamora there.
On Thanos' ship, Nebula is being tortured. Gamora gives up the location of the soul stone to save Nebula's life.
They travel to the planet Vormir to retrieve the soul stone.
The Red Skull is there. The tesseract transported him there at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger.
To get the soul stone, Thanos must sacrifice the thing he loves most.
Gamora laughs because she thinks Thanos doesn't love anything.
Surprise, he loves Gamora, his favorite daughter. So he kills her to get the stone.

image courtesy of Marvel/Disney

The bifrost transports Hulk to Earth but he's transformed back into Bruce Banner.
For the duration of the movie, Bruce is unable to turn into the Hulk again.
Banner warns Doctor Strange and Tony Stark about Thanos moments before members of the Black Order arrive to take the time stone from Strange.
Strage is subdued and taken onto the Black Order ship.
Tony was going to propose marriage to Pepper Potts but he goes to space instead.
Peter Parker has spider sense now.
He used Ned to create a distraction on the bus, driven by Stan Lee, so he could sneak away and do superhero stuff.
And he gets his iron-spider suit.
Spider-Man joins Iron Man on the Black Order ship to save Strange.
The surviving member of the Black Order is defeated because Spider-Man once watched the "old movie" Alien.
Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Doctor Strange travel to Titan instead of returning to earth because Tony's ego believes they can stop Thanos.
They can't.
On Titan, they're joined by half of the Guardians of the Galaxy. They fight briefly before working together on a plan to stop Thanos.
Strange uses the time stone to see 14 million different future scenarios where they battle Thanos.
They lose each of them except one.
Thanos arrives and the fight begins.
They must prevent him from closing the fist with the infinity gauntlet.
Through their combined efforts they almost remove the gauntlet from Thanos' hand.
Until Star Lord learns Thanos killed Gamora and freaks out.
Star Lord ruins it for everyone and Thanos gets the upper hand.
Thanos stabs Iron Man through the chest and threatens to kill him if Strange does not forfeit the time stone.
Before the fight, Strange told Iron Man that he would let him or the kid (Spider-Man) die before giving up the time stone.
Now to save Iron Man, Strange gives up the stone as long as Thanos lets Tony live.
In possession of five of the six stones, Thanos transports himself to earth to get the final stone.
Strange tells Tony that it was the only way.

image courtesy of Marvel/Disney

When Thor, Rocket, and Groot arrive at Nidavellir, they discover the fires of the star are extinguished.
Peter Dinklage is a giant dwarf named Eitri, and he's the only living survivor of a visit from Thanos.
Thanos previously spared Eitri's life in exchange for forging a gauntlet capable of harnessing the power of the infinity stones.
However, after getting the infinity gauntlet, Thanos put out the forge's fire and encased Eitri's hands in metal.
To forge a new weapon capable of killing Thanos, Rocket and Thor must restart the fire and open the doors to reignite the forge.
Eitri creates an axe to replace Thor's hammer.
Stormbreaker can kill Thanos, and it has the power of the bifrost so Thor can transport himself anywhere in the nine realms.
Bad news, the axe needs a handle.
Good news, Groot donates a limb to provide the handle.
Thor takes hold of his new weapon and teleports himself, Rocket, and Groot to Earth.

image courtesy of Marvel/Disney

On Earth, the Secret Avengers (Captain America, Black Widow, and Falcon) rescue Wanda Maximoff and Vision from a Black Order ambush.
They meet up with War Machine and Banner at Avengers headquarters where General Ross orders their arrest for defying the Sokovia Accords.
Wanda is the only person powerful enough to destroy the mind stone and Vision asks her to do it to prevent Thanos from taking it.
Instead the group travels to Wakanda to see if the time stone can be removed without killing Vision.
In Wakanda, the Secret Avengers, War Machine, and Vision meet up with Black Panther and Bucky Barnes.
Hawkeye and Ant-Man are unable to be there because they took a plea deal after Civil War and are under house arrest.
Bucky gets his biomechanical arm back and everyone prepares for battle.
Wanda and Vision remain with Shuri in the Wakanda science and medical labs to remove the mind stone from Visions head.
The remaining members of the Black Order arrive with the armies loyal to Thanos.
The Earthbound Avengers and Wakanda's tribes war the alien hordes.
Since Banner can't Hulk out, he's using Tony's Hulkbuster armor.
To save their friends, Wanda and Vision join the fight instead of finishing the procedure to remove the mind stone.
The heroes are about to be overpowered by the invading enemies.
Then Thor arrives and zaps the aliens with lightning.
Rocket is impressed with Bucky's robotic arm and offers to buy it.
Just as the invading aliens are about to be defeated, Thanos arrives.
The team is out of time to thwart Thanos so Wanda is forced to destroy the mind stone that is still attached to Vision's head.
The process kills Vision but the stone is shattered preventing Thanos from possessing all six stones.
Unfortunately, Thanos has the time stone and he uses it to rewind time, restoring the mind stone and bringing Vision back to life.
Then Thanos rips the mind stone off Vision's head, killing Vision a second time.
Thor jumps in and impales Thanos through the chest.
Thanos tells him he should have aimed for the head.

image courtesy of Marvel/Disney

With all the stones in his possession, Thanos can achieve his goal of balancing the universe.
Thanos snaps his fingers and half of life in the universe dies. Those who pass dissolve into dust.
Thanos teleports to a new planet (perhaps a pocket universe inside the soul stone) and has a conversation with the childhood version of Gamora who asks if the cost was worth it.
He says it was.
Movie over. The villain wins. Roll credits.

Bucky Barnes dies.
Wanda Maximoff dies.
Black Panther dies.
Several members of Wakanda's army die.
Falcon dies.
Groot dies in front of Rocket Racoon.

On Titan, Doctor Strange dies.
Mantis dies.
Drax dies.
Star Lord dies.
Peter Parker dies. Because of his spider sense, he's the only one who can feel it coming. He collapses into Tony's arms crying "I don't want to go."

On earth, cars and planes and helicopters are crashing because the people controlling them perished.
Maria Hill and Nick Fury are in a car crashed caused by a pilotless vehicle.
Maria and Fury both die, but not before Fury sends a page to Carol Danvers, AKA Captain Marvel.


Notes from a Jedi Master

If you ever ride shotgun in Emrys, you should recognize my geekery before you get your seat belt fastened. Just look at the dashboard and you'll see Chewie.

Bonus points if you can identify the song playing on my car stereo.

As a Star Wars fan, I celebrate Star Wars Day faithfully. You know who else celebrates this geeky holiday? Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill. Hamill is one of my favorite humans on this planet. From lending his voice to create my favorite version of the Joker, to his quick and sharp wit, to the general level of coolness most nerds hope to achieve, Hamill is one of my heroes. Despite his incredible career, most people will only remember him for his role as Vader's son, the kid from Tatooine who really wanted to go to Tosche Station to get some power converters. Some people could complain about their singular identity, but Hamill embraces it. He's a man who doesn't take himself too seriously and tweets like these are evidence.

I will never be as cool as Mark Hamill. However, I am as cool as me. And that is enough. So, from one nerd to another, I wish you a happy Star Wars Day. May the 4th be with you.

I am one with the 4th and the 4th is with me.


The Adjustment

This chapter of my life would make a good movie. Or maybe hire a camera crew to follow me around, create a reality TV show that would make a studio executive somewhere very rich. Call it Square Geek in a Round World. It's a true fish out of water story: a nerd from the suburbs tries to figure out life as a first-time farmer.

The one with the wild hair is Ringo.

Sure, I spend most of my work day in front of a computer. But at nights and on the weekends, I'm doing things I've never done before.

Like performing triage for a bunch of chickens rescued from an abusive and neglectful owner.
Like installing an electric fence.
Like riding a four-wheeler at sunset.
Like stacking a ton of hay.
Like picking up a warm egg seconds after it was laid.
Like watching a dozen deer run through the back yard.
Like milking a goat.
Like drinking fresh goat milk.
Like drinking fresh goat milk mixed with strawberry rum.
Like herding ducks out of the garage.
Like herding geese out of the garage.
Like herding chickens out of the garage.
Like learning we should keep the garage door closed.
Like loading a nervous horse into a trailer.
Like driving a truck.
Like driving a truck while towing a horse trailer.
Like driving a truck while towing a horse trailer containing a nervous horse.

I'm still a nerd though. I play video games and board games, read comic books and horror novels, watch movies, and binge my favorite Netflix series. I still do those things; I also drive t-posts and name our goats after musical instruments. Right now, there is a scratch on my left arm from a baby duck (GoGo) who likes to climb on me, and a scratch on my right wrist from a young Flemish giant rabbit (Flash) looking for food. There are scrapes and bruises on me for which I can't identify a cause. There is alfalfa inside my shoes and quite probably poop of some variety on the soles. Early mornings are now a way of life. I've used my pocket knife more in the last two months than I have ever used one in my entire life.

There is still room to grow and lots to learn. I can saddle a horse, but I still confuse the difference between a bridle and a halter. I know latigo is a thing, but I couldn't tell you what it is. Annie and I have a goal of riding the horses through a drive through, but we also need to spend more time taking them off our property first. Driving the truck forward with a trailer is easy, but I need to work on backing it up without jack-knifing. We have one pasture fenced in but need to do more. The hot tub needs fixed. I need to figure out how to put siding up on the barn's exterior. And I should practice milking the goat more.

The short one is Viola.

The country life also has benefits. The ridgeline to our west blocks out most of the light pollution from the city of Spokane so clear skies at night are filled with the expanse of stars. It's also fascinating to watch storms roll in over that ridge and nothing is more relaxing than watching the sun set behind it from our back porch while sipping on a homemade cocktail. Farm-fresh eggs make a delicious breakfast. Same with the fresh milk. Our corner of paradise is literally a scenic paradise. The sunrise chores, labor intensive projects, and upkeep of the house is exhausting, but I also sleep harder and more soundly than I have in years. Studies show the presence of animals is good for mental health and time in the nature eases symptoms of depression; I can provide empirical evidence to support those claims. Hearing our goats bleat, holding a baby turken, the flock of poultry and water fowl swarming around me when I feed them, one of the dogs using me as a pillow, seeing the look of happiness on my kids' faces after they trot on the horses; it all brings me joy. The work is getting easier. The last load of hay felt lighter than the one before it. I'm also losing weight at a faster rate than any other attempt I've made at dieting.

I'm falling in love with our rural life yet maintaining my nerd roots. It's a clash of cultures and a work in progress. Nothing ever goes right the first time, but we get it eventually. This story could make an entertaining movie or television special. So, if you know any producers, send them my way.


Revisiting the MCU

Avengers: Infinity War, is out. Before I take the kids out to see it, we’ve spent the last several weeks on a Marvel movie binge. Until now, my oldest has only seen three of the eighteen movies. Zu and JJ haven't seen any of them. My obsessive tendencies wouldn't be comfortable allowing my kids to see the culmination of ten years’ worth of stories without seeing those preceding tales. They need to know what happened so I don't have to explain it in the middle of the newest movie.

image found on Reddit

Along the way, I noticed some recurring themes and connecting threads between the various films I had not noticed the first time (or second or third times) I watched them. Seeing them all back to back in succession provided a new and refreshing perspective and I am more excited to see Infinity War now than I ever was before. I've also concluded there is a topical filter for each of the three phases; despite different characters, directors, plots, and style, it seems all the movies are about the same thing.

Before we all head out to the theaters en masse to see (what might possibly be) the biggest blockbuster ever, I'd like to review the road so far and explore the thematic joints and tendons (intended or otherwise) linking the films into one functioning body. Warning, there will be spoilers.

The theme I found in Phase One is Responsibility and Control.

image found on Pinterest

In Iron Man, a wealthy, playboy, genius, CEO of an arms manufacturer learns to take responsibility for his actions after being kidnapped by a terrorist organization who used his weapons to further their agenda. The ordeal changes his perspective and he begins to take ownership for his previous actions and his impact on the world, telling a news conference "I had become a part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability."

In The Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner attempts to suppress his powers because he feels responsible for the damages he causes when he transforms into the Hulk. The military wants to recreate the experiment that created the Hulk and it is Banner’s responsibility to stop them. He learns that he cannot get rid of the Hulk inside him, so he uses it to stop a madman then retreats to the Canadian wilderness to practice controlling it.

In Iron Man 2, Tony’s life is out of control and multiple parties fight for ownership of the Iron Man suits. The government believes the Iron Man suit should be publicly regulated, Ivan Vanko wants control of it because his father helped Howard Stark (Tony’s dad) develop the arc reactor, Justin Hammer wants control so his company can reproduce and sell it, and Tony believes he should have sole control of the technology because he invented it and it is his responsibility.

In Thor, brothers Thor and Loki compete to replace their father Odin and control Asgard. However, Thor is reckless and irresponsible, so Odin punishes Thor by stripping him of his powers and banishing him to Earth. Loki deceptively takes control of Asgard and Thor's friends travel to Earth to bring Thor home. Ultimately, Thor assumes responsibility, offers himself as a sacrifice, proves himself worthy, and admits he is not ready for the responsibility of being king.

In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers believes it is his responsibility to fight in World War II. Unfortunately, he's too scrawny and is rejected from enlisting. He's recruited to participate in a super soldier experiment which makes him bigger, stronger, and faster. When he hears his childhood friend's squadron was captured and held as POWs, Steve takes on the responsibility of rescuing them. After locating and destroying several Hydra bases, Steve sacrifices himself to prevent a plane full of weapons from being detonated over an American city.

In The Avengers, Loki appears on earth and takes control of a powerful artifact. Nick Fury brings together Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow as the only people on Earth capable of stopping Loki. They are joined by Thor who feels it is his responsibility to stop his brother.

The theme I found in Phase Two is Identity.

image found on Pinterest

Iron Man 3 follows The Battle of Manhattan (the climatic scenes from The Avengers). Tony suffers from insomnia and panic attacks from his involvement. He spends all his time building dozens of Iron Man suits where he finds his identity. He doesn’t know who he would be if he didn't have his armored suits. Meanwhile, a brilliant scientist named Aldrich Killian attempts to establish his identity after being rejected by Tony Stark a dozen years earlier at a New Year's Eve party. And a struggling actor finds his identity portraying a terrorist to cover up the negative side effects of the Extremis virus developed by Killian.

In Thor: Dark World, Thor is trying to figure out where he belongs. Is he a Hero of Earth or a hero of Asgard? He cannot be in both places. After saving both realms from the fulfilment of a cataclysmic prophecy, he declines an offer to take the throne of Asgard and returns to Earth.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve tries to find his place in modern society. He also learns his old friend Bucky wasn’t killed during World War II; Bucky was experimented on and brainwashed by Hydra to be a biologically and mechanically enhanced assassin. Unfortunately, he doesn't remember who he is or anything from his past, including his friendship with Steve.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, a group of strangers discover their identity and purpose together. Peter Quill is an orphan kidnaped from Earth at a young age and raised by bandits. He wants to make a name for himself separate from the Ravagers. Gamora and Nebula were adopted by a tyrant and trained to be his personal assassins. Both want to be free from their life, Nebula wants to kill her adoptive father but Gamora wants to make enough money to run away. Rocket is a genetically engineered raccoon whose best friend is a sentient tree named Groot. The pair are looking to make a fortune as quickly as they can. Drax is a soldier seeking revenge against Ronan, a powerful alien who murdered Drax's wife and kids. Each of the guardians have their own motives, yet they are all lost and broken individuals with no family. After saving the universe, they stick together because it is the closest thing to a family they'll ever find.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, everyone is struggling with their identity. Tony doesn’t want to be a hero anymore. War Machine and Hawkeye are trying to establish their place as a part of the team. Natasha and Bruce see themselves as monsters yet find solace in each other. Tony and Bruce program Ultron, an AI software intended to be a peacekeeper, but Ultron decides the best way to create peace on earth is to kill all life on earth. Th Vision (a living android created by Ultron) isn’t sure of who or what he is. Wanda and her twin brother Pietro must decide if they are going to be antagonists bent on revenge or heroes helping save lives.

In Ant-Man, Scott Lang, a petty thief and ex-con: to "earn that look in your daughter's eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are." He’s given that opportunity by Hank Pym, who gave up his identity as Ant-Man several years ago after losing his wife on a mission for S.H.I.E.L.D. Hope believes she should wear the An-Man suit, yet Hank refuses to let her because he fears losing Hope the same way he lost her mom.

The theme I found in Phase Three: Consequences. Either facing the consequences of our own actions or suffering the consequences from the actions of others.

image courtesy of Consequence of Sound

In Captain America: Civil War, The Avengers fight over the consequences of all their previous missions. The UN drafts the Sokovia Accords to hold powered individuals accountable for their actions. This is the result of damages done in Manhattan (The Avengers), Washington DC (Winter Soldier), Sokovia (Age of Ultron), and Lagos (beginning of Civil War) where several Wakandan humanitarian workers were killed. Some heroes submit to UN sanctions while others rebell against it. Their choices are amplified when Steve Rogers sets out to save his friend Bucky who is framed for detonating a bomb at the UN, killing the King of Wakanda. Everyone picks a side and suffer the consequences.

In Doctor Strange, Dr Steven Strange attempts to avoid consequences. He’s a brilliant surgeon but a careless driver and irreparably injures his hands in a car crash. Unable to work, he spends his fortune looking for someone who can heal him. He eventually travels to Kamar-Taj and meets the Ancient One who promises he can heal himself through learning mystic arts. The Ancient One faces the consequences of breaking the laws of nature to prolong her life. A former student of hers, Kaecilius, faces consequences for seeking eternal life and bringing Dormammu to earth. And Mordo grows disillusioned with the way magic is used to bend the rules and seeks to enforce consequences on all who practice magic.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 has everyone involved facing consequences. Yondu and his crew is exiled from the Ravager community for child trafficking. Yondu also faces a mutiny for going easy on Peter Quill. Peter ignores the warnings of his friends after meeting his biological father. Rocket wrestles with the consequences of being an experiment and feeling alone in the universe. Groot is now a baby because of his self-sacrificial act at the end of the first Guardians movie. Gamora and Nebula fight through the consequences of their sibling rivalry. Mantis realizes her error working as Ego's servant. And all the Guardians face the consequences of stealing valuable and powerful batteries from the Sovereign.

In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter Parker faces several consequences. For ignoring his school work, skipping classes, and quitting his extra-curricular clubs. For being over-zealous as a superhero. For being careless in stopping a bank robbery, interrupting a black-market weapons sale, and trying to apprehend an arms dealer alone. For ignoring Tony Stark’s advice. For the villain’s daughter to the homecoming dance. For keeping secrets from his aunt.

In Thor: Ragnorok, Thor, Loki, and all inhabitants of Asgard face the consequences of Odin’s death. Loki is also held accountable for his deceptions. Bruce Banner wrestles with the consequences of being the Hulk. Valkyrie wrestles with the lose of all her friends and fellow warriors. And the Grandmaster is confronted by his former subjects and the consequence of running the gladiatorial games on Sakaar.

T’Challa also deals with the consequences of losing his father, T’Chaka in Black Panther. More than learning to be king of Wakanda, he also faces the consequences of his father’s choices, which include the return of an exiled warrior whose father was killed by T’Chaka. Wakanda is thrown into conflict when Warmonger returns, and he accepts his consequence for his chaotic and short rule over Wakanda.

Of course, I could be reading more into these movies than I should. Perhaps my interpretations here are figments of my imagination. And there are more to these films than my simple explanations. For example, Iron Man and Doctor Strange both tell redemption stories. Age of Ultron and Winter Soldier both explore the topic of trust. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is filled with resolving daddy issues. And Black Panther is about cultural identity and social justice.

Maybe Infinity War will align with the thematic element I found common in the rest of Phase Three. Or not. I’ll find out soon. Until then, please don’t spoil it for me.


Rampage: a review

I wanted to write an eloquent review of Rampage. I started, then deleted a draft detailing my love for the original arcade game in the late 80's and early 90's. It followed into my enjoyment of the console versions released on the original PlayStation and later for XBOX. Let's be realistic though. Rampage is an atrocious movie. It is undeserving of such an articulately composed review. So, I'll be blunt. This movie should not have been made.

Even though video games usually do not translate into quality cinema, I still had tempered expectations for Rampage. I anticipated a big, stupid, yet somewhat fun film. It delivered on the big and stupid, but failed to provide any fun. When compared to the irresistible and cathartic amusement of its source material, it is unfortunate an unforgivable for the theatrical interpretation to be such an abysmal mess.

this was fun, image courtesy of Bally Midway

As for where the movie version of Rampage went wrong, let's start with the basic plot. Vulture published an article claiming "Why Rampage Is the Most Faithful Video-Game Adaptation Ever Made" yet provided no evidence of the film's faithfulness. Because it's not faithful at all. Rampage (the game) was a simple story about a giant lizard, ape, and wolf destroying one city after another. Rampage (the movie) had a convoluted story about weaponizing genetic modifications, a primatologist's relationship with his best gorilla friend, and corporate espionage. It was also (kinda sorta) about a giant lizard, ape, and wolf destroying some of one singular city. The only continuity between the two mediums is that big monsters destroyed some buildings. In the video game, the monsters were once humans transformed by exposure to toxic chemicals. Lizzie, George, and Ralph then traveled the world attempting to destroy all the cities where they found chemical plants ran by their employer, ScumLabs. In the movie, ordinary animals were exposed to growth hormones from illegal gene manipulation experiments conducted on a space station and drawn to the corporate headquarters of Energyne by some sort of undetectable radio signal. Some of those animals mutated to include DNA of other creatures. For example, the wolf can glide like a flying squirrel and throw quills like a porcupine. Meanwhile, the gorilla was only supersized versions of his original body.

Beyond deviations from the game's origin story and minimal plot, there is much more to the movie Rampage worth complaint. The CGI was inconsistent - impressive at best and shoddy at worst. While the fur and skin creature effects looked great, there were scenes in the movie where it was obvious you were watching The Rock in front of a green screen. The bad guys were just bad. Not so-bad-we-love-them, but over the top, mind-numbingly cheesy, and so bad it's not even enjoyable to watch - like a humorless version of Pinky and The Brain. Anything hinting at their motives was incoherent. The game's original arcade cabinet showed up in the background of several scenes but only as decoration. No one played or even mentioned it; its existence is more a self-congratulatory salute from a filmmaker trying too hard than it is a celebratory nod to the franchise's fans. The only logic of the film's plot is to supply the main characters with quippy one-liners, whatever might look cool to a seven-year-old so they can sell toys, and convenience as a crutch for sloppy screenwriting/lazy storytelling. There are no explanations why the wolf had DNA spliced in from other species while the gorilla did not, or why the crocodile grew so much bigger than the other monsters. Police and military are portrayed as incompetent buffoons for no apparent reason. Characters are introduced and disposed of faster than it takes to flush a toilet. The primatologist has a lengthy backstory including combat with Army Special Forces, working as an anti-poaching officer on African wildlands, and extensive philanthropic work because why not. He's an expert at everything and would be considered over-powered he was an actual videogame character. On top of all of that, the gorilla (who communicates through sign language) has the inappropriate, dirty, perverted sense of humor of a junior high aged boy, and failed to learn how jokes are funny the first time, not funny the second time, and annoying any time after that. Finally, for a film based on a game where the sole purpose was destroying things, the movie's destruction was disappointingly minimal. They spent too much time with intrapersonal conflict between the main characters, the villains hatching their schemes, the military planning action then watching it unfold from a remote location, pointless conversations, and jokes beaten to death through repetition.

The only redeeming quality in Rampage is the trio of heroes. Duane Johnson (the primatologist), Naomie Harris (the genetic engineer and former Energyne employee), and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (rogue government agent) fully embraced the silliness of their roles. It's as if they knew they were making a bad movie so they might as well enjoy doing it - which is good for them because I did not enjoy this movie. I really wish I could recommend this movie but I can't. It failed to live up to my lowest of low expectations. It was big, dumb, and boring. It isn't even worth the price of popcorn at the theater's concessions and I've now wasted more words on Rampage here than it deserves.

this was not fun, image courtesy of New Line Cinema


The Borderlands Parenting Method

As my kids get older, I sometimes think parenting is going to get easier. It doesn’t. To be fair, it doesn’t get harder either. Instead, it gets different. Or maybe different is harder. By the time the difficulty of raising a child increases, your skill as a parent has also improved so what others see as more challenging is not of greater difficulty to you. Just different.

I could be wrong though. Maybe parenting does get harder as kids grow up. Perhaps the difficulty level remains constant. Either way, one fact remains true, it doesn’t get easier.

I’ve spent time pondering how things change as my kids grow up. I linger on the issues they face and the best strategy to deal with each individual challenge they experience. I’ve engaged in conversations of how it sometimes seems harder, yet at the same time it only feels like a different kind of difficulty. As I try to explain what being a parent is like to me, my mind wanders to a motley collection of treasure hunters on the alien planet Pandora.

Wait, what?

Pandora is the setting for the Borderlands series of video games. Gaming is one of the ways my kids and I bond. My oldest and I have been playing the first Borderlands game together, going through the story in co-op. Along the way, he’s learning the value of teamwork, problem solving and strategic planning skills, the payoff of trial and error, and relief from dumb luck.

Borderlands is one of my favorite games from the last ten years. A unique art style, seamless blend of a first-person shooter with role-playing mechanics, adventurous Indiana Jones styles story that’s part sci-fi and part western.

Players select one of four treasure hunters, each possesses an individual skillset so each character plays differently. They set out to find a mythical vault on a remote mining planet inhabited by bandits, savages, rakks, and skags. Along the way, you search every locker, toilet, and pile of sticks for money, ammunition, and health kits. You protect locals, take odd jobs, and work as a mercenary while accumulating the ability and powers needed to defeat increasingly bigger and stronger enemies. You choose your missions based on your skill level, careful to avoid those tasks too difficult or dangerous for your character.

image courtesy of 2K Games

While Christian and I have enjoyed our time facing each trial as we explorer Pandora, I realized we were playing more than a game. Our button mashing translates into an allegory for my role of a father.

When you start the game, the first enemies are weak and easily defeated. Yet the character you play is inexperienced and powerless, so those wimpy bandits are challenging for a new player. As you battle ravenous creatures and face off against the violent profiteers, your strength grows. With new powers, those early enemies seem much easier to overcome. You can kill them with one shot instead of expending your entire supply of bullets on a lone thug. However, to continue the main story, you must tackle bigger and badder foes. Missions are progressively more perilous. Boss battles increase in difficulty. Objectives are harder to achieve. The final mission is more difficult than the first, yet it isn’t unsurmountable. It’s a different kind of difficult because your abilities grow along with the power of your enemies. A seasoned player will struggle through later stages of the game the same way a first-time player will struggle through the initial battle.

Just like parenting. With more guns.

Nothing really prepares you for your first child. Read all the books you want. Educate yourself and get advice from experts. You can be mostly ready. Sooner or later though, your child will do something so mind bogglingly absurd your only logical response will be frozen terror and the sudden recognition you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.

A newborn presents many challenges for first time parents. Diapers are confusing to someone who’s never had to change one before. There are products like wipes and powders that must be juggled with a circus performer’s skill. Once you kinda get the hang of it, your baby will pee in your direction (perhaps on you) the moment their privates are free of the confines of their diaper. Dressing your child for the first time can be confusing, and you might feel like you need a degree in chemistry if you want to prepare their bottle with the correct formula to water ratio.

In retrospect, these tasks are simple. After a few months of changing diapers, you could probably do it blindfolded. You can strip them of one outfit and into a change of clothes fast enough to elude notice. Bottle feedings become so routine you’ll inevitably fall asleep while holding a bottle in your child’s mouth. When they cry, you’ll know their either tired, hungry, or poopy; it’ll be trial and error trying to figure out which. The things you once thought difficult will become second nature. You complete these tasks on instinct and muscle memory.

Yet, as you find certain aspects of raising a child easier, new challenges arise. Your kid begins to walk and you quickly discover your preemptive attempts to baby-proof your home were woefully inadequate. When they transition from milk to solids, baby foods will prove to be a more difficult medium for feeding your child. I’ll promise the first time you try to shove a spoon in their mouth, more food will get on the outside of them than the inside. Again, you’ll figure it out. It’ll get easier and at the same time get harder. They get older and bigger and present new challenges.

You’ll face sickness and accidents. You’ll corral crying children in the middle of a grocery store under the judgmental glare of strangers. You’ll fend off the beggings of a toddler who wants only wants you to buy them a treat. You’ll tackle teaching them to dress themselves, brush their teeth, ride a bike, throw and catch a ball. You’ll struggle through school enrollment and dropping them off at their first day of kindergarten.

There’s more. Soon you’ll navigate the world of homework, parent-teacher conferences, school bullies, extra-curricular activities, dating, and juggling all the schedules for everything related to your child. You’ll buy new clothes then a week later, your kid will hit a growth spurt and those new clothes won’t fit any more. You’ll have to figure out what music you feel are appropriate for your kids and determine what TV shows and movies you will allow for enter entertainment. You’ll struggle steering them away from friends who are bad influences.

As each prior task becomes manageable, the next task shows up with increasing difficulty. Your skills and abilities and talents as a parent grow just in time to face bigger and badder parenting tasks. However, it never seems like the new challenges are harder than they were when you were a brand-new parent. It’s not harder, just different. The things that frustrate parents of teens would be impossible for you to face when you were a new parent. Yet everything you experienced from that moment on will prepare you for what is happening now. Even though now is harder than then, you’re also more prepared and capable than you were back then.

Just like Borderlands. With less guns.


A Quiet Place: a review

The best horror movies are built upon a foundation of atmosphere. They use imagery and sound to create a looming sense of dread instead of scaring you with presumably scary things. Fright stems from how the film makers want you to feel, as if the anticipation scares you more than the slashes, jumps and gore of a typical horror film.

A Quiet Place succeeds in weaving atmosphere into the fabric of their their story. It's not the scariest movie I've ever seen, it doesn't even rank in my top ten list of frightening films. Instead, it is the perfect horror film for people that don't enjoy scary movies. It is a stellar presentation from director John Krasinski, who teams up with Emily Blunt (his real-life wife) to craft a beautiful, heartbreaking, and terrifying tale. And it oozes atmosphere.

The story begins 89 days after a cataclysmic event. Lee (Krasinski) and Evelyn (Blunt) are survivors, trying to maintain their health and livelihood along with their three kids. They live in the near-future after earth has been taken over by blind monsters who hunt by sound. Silence is essential to their safety. It's like an episode of The Office (also starring Krasinski) where the employees of Dunder Mifflin are on their longest silent streak. Except, in A Quiet Place, the penalty for making noise is almost certain death.

courtesy NBC Universal

For protection, they use sand to pad every path they follow around their farm and into the nearby abandoned town. Everyone walks barefoot, they use soft surfaces to deaden sound, and sign language is the predominant form of communication. The family was already fluent in American sign language because their oldest child is deaf (a brilliant and emotional performance by Millicent Simmonds). Everything they do must be accomplished in complete silence, from praying as a family around the dinner table, to playing games of monopoly, to rummaging for antibiotics at an emptied pharmacy. To complicate their quiet existence, Evelyn is pregnant and quickly approaching her due date.

courtesy Paramount Pictures

Throughout A Quiet Place, the family lifestyle adds to the atmosphere. Every whispered line dialog and the hand motions Krasinski makes to hush his family generate tension. The pained facial expressions of fear, distress, agony, remorse, and sadness speak louder than any words ever spoken. Every sound effect will make you flinch, from a child brushing against stalks of corn while he runs, to the chitter of small woodland creatures, to the accidental sounds arising from careless movements. A Quiet Place is a very quiet movie. Aside from a lack of vocalized dialog, it keeps ambient noises and the music of a film score to a minimum, allowing for greater impact when the silence is broken.

Noiseless dead air would make most movies boring, however in A Quiet Place, the silences screams. I've never sat in an auditorium so hushed during a movie. The audience in my local theater had moved past the crumple of concession wrappers and crunch of popcorn within the first 15 minutes. No one sucked their soda cups dry. Everyone fought back against urges to cough or sneeze. By the movie's climax, we were all just as silent as the characters we watched, as if even the sound of pants textile against seat cushion when finding a more comfortable seating posture could ruin the movie for all in attendance.

courtesy Paramount Pictures

Any filmmaker who can elicit such a strong response from their audiences is a winner. Additionally, A Quiet Place wins for more than its creative use of silence and the pervasive accompanying creepiness. Yes, there are monsters (or aliens, maybe, the story isn't clear on the creatures' origins) and it is a tale of one family's semi-apocalyptic survival. It is also much more than a movie about beasts and human annihilation. The devastation that preceded the events of the movie are only a backdrop. The constant peril of hiding from deadly monsters is a mere plot device. These elements only serve to tell a bigger, and more important story.

A Quiet Place is about dealing with grief and guilt. It is about our fears of failure and our desire to leave behind a legacy. It is about improvising when the tools we need are unavailable and what we have is inadequate. It is about perseverance in all situations and determination when hope seems lost. It is about how families should function, to love, encourage, and support each other - even in the midst of tragedy, disaster, and emergencies. It is about how the things we do communicate love as much as the things we say. It is about the sacrifices parents make to raise their kids, to educate and mentor them, to provide for them, and keep them safe from harm.

More than anything, A Quiet Place achieves what rare few movies do, they remind us what it means to be human. In A Quiet Place, we discover humanity in a broken, messed up, and dangerous world. While real life isn't inhabited by creatures, part demogorgon and part Cloverfield monster, our world is broken, messed up, and dangerous. Perhaps the best way to navigate life is to love like Lee and Evelyn: deep, unwavering, relentless, and sacrificial.

This is a movie you should see - even if you don't like scary movies. Just make sure you're done eating your snacks by the end of the previews; once the feature presentation begins, you won't want to make a noise.

courtesy Paramount Pictures


The Kids Are Alright

On a Tuesday night a few weeks ago, I was sitting in McDonald's with my laptop and my standard order of a McChicken, medium fries, and a cup of water. When I am writing, I am more productive in public spaces than I am at home. Even with the distractions of people coming and going, I get more work done at a fast food joint or coffee shop than in the comfort of my living room. I prefer Jack-in-the-Box or Wendy's, but anywhere with free wi-fi is fair game for me except Starbucks - it's a bit too cliché.

This writing session was flowing as it usually does. I was typing out a film review in between bites of food, rewatching the movie trailer on YouTube, staring into space trying to determine exactly how to phrase a certain conglomeration of words in a way it would be coherent and reasoned. Then some teens began to enter the lobby. Then some more. And then even more. Three waves of youthful energy packed the place, roughly two dozen when all had walked through the doors. They all appeared to know each other, they bounced from one conversation to the next while waiting to place or receive their orders, a nebulous mass of human forms and boisterous voices.

Normally, customer traffic doesn't bother me. I can continue plucking away at my keyboard as if they're just ghosts in the room, present yet unseen. With this group of kids though, it was different. I stopped typing, looked away from my screen, and observed for the duration of their visit. Sure, they splintered off into small huddles like any other group of teenagers would do. However, they never remained in one conversation for long. They bounced around from one cluster to another. All smiling, happy, eager, and connecting with each other. I watched in wonder.

(like this but less creepy)

I remember being their age. between the ages of 17 and 19, the kids I hung out with would invade various food establishments after church on Sunday nights. We'd roll in, dine cheap, stay for an hour, then leave behind a mess. We were obnoxious, sloppy, and enjoying our time together. Twenty years ago, we were the wayward youth grownups blamed for the downfall of America. The kids I recently observed in McDonalds reminded me of my old group of friends. Descending upon a source of inexpensive edible junk, chatting and laughing the whole time, loving every minute, then leaving.

Yet they were different than the crew from my good old days. I was impressed by how they presented themselves. None wore anything flashy or revealing. None dressed grungy or slobby. Not over the top formal wear like they were on their way to a school dance, just smart and semi-professional in appearance. Each spoke with polite language. They were goofy and boisterous, yet they didn’t use any profanity, insults, or dirty jokes. They were all respectful toward each other and the other customers in the dining area. When they left, it was like they were never there. These teens were just like the kids I grew up with, only better. Their visit filled me with a sense of hope.

This transpired in the weeks after the shooting at MSDHS, before the nation-wide school walkouts and March For Our Lives protests. The kids from Parkland were constant faces on news channels, headlines both praised and criticized them. At the time, I wanted to write something about how great it was to see youth engaged in the political process. Whether you agreed with them, whether they’re right or wrong, whether they succeed or fail is irrelevant. We need passionate and energetic fresh faces involved with political discourse because the decisions our government makes today will affect them and their peers more than it will impact me and my generation.

After the shooting, I avoided writing about the topic. I've talked about gun control before and I probably will again but that wasn't the blog post I wanted to write. Instead I wanted to compose something encouraging those students challenging the adult world, political process, and the way we think about American rights. I was dismayed at the alleged grownups in the room who acted with a maturity level more fitting for grade school playgrounds. Yet I couldn't do it. I tried. There are four different drafts I deleted after I couldn't figure out how to say what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it.

I know what it was like to be young and ambitious and inspired and facing nothing but a wall of condescending elders. I felt like I had words for these kids that needed to be said. I wanted to let them know that they would be mocked and ridiculed for their actions. I wanted them to know how people will go to absurd lengths to defend their sacred cows, and when it comes to Murica, there's no greater sacred cow than the Second Amendment. I wanted to tell them the same thing I tell my son about bullies, their words and actions speak more about them than you.

Much of what I wanted to write about was obvious, the smear campaigns and ad hominem attacks were prominent in conservative media. I saw the fake news stories and photoshopped memes on Facebook. Everywhere I looked, I saw a grumpy old man complaining these kids were too young to have an opinion. Every news channel had a pundit claiming these kids were paid actors. I didn't need to warn them what was already happening was going to happen.

There's more I wanted to say. I wanted to let them know a day is coming when they'd look back and wish they had done things differently and it's OK to have those kinds of regrets. I wanted them to know they would make mistakes and they shouldn't let those errors derail them. I wanted to warn them of the danger of overnight celebrity. Historically speaking, youth and fame are not a good combination. The rush of everyone paying attention to you can be addictive. The lure of the spotlight is powerful and can be taken away as fast as it was obtained. However, I've never been famous; I don't have any legitimate advice from experience.

I hope they have strong emotional support. I hope they don't take these days for granted. I hope they remain engaged and do great things with their lives, yet I also hope they do the things kids their age typically do: attend sporting events and concerts, compete in talent shows, go to prom, graduate, take summer road trips, go camping, register to vote, enlist in the military, apply for scholarships and enroll in a university or trade school, get a degree, fall in love, fall out of love, start a career.

At the end of my high school days, the private Christian college I wanted to attend required all prospective students to memorize a Bible verse from 1st Timothy: "Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity." I wanted to pass on the wisdom in this scripture to these kids leading the Never Again movement. It doesn't matter if they follow Jesus or not, if they're religious, spiritual, or none of the above. There is power in embracing your youth. Any time a young person finds themselves in a leadership role, older generations will attempt to discredit or discourage them. I wanted to tell these kids to not allow their elders to destroy them, to stand strong, to set an example for their elders so loud and noble and pure that it can't be ignored.

That is what I wanted to write, and I just couldn't do it. Then I witnessed local kids in action. I've spent a lot of time with teenagers as a youth leader, yet those interactions were all in controlled and supervised environments of church youth groups and summer camps. My oldest is now a teenager, yet I don’t see him when he's not around adults like me or teachers or youth pastors. My time at McDonald's was like watching kids in the wild, observing them in their natural habitat. No chaperone. No responsible adult monitoring. No grownups telling them what they can or can't do. Only a herd of teenagers free to do whatever they want and act upon their own desires. I couldn't look away and I was in awe. These were not the Tide Pod eating, Logan Paul wannabe, participation trophy receiving idiot youth my conservative friends warned me about.

Whitney Houston once sang, " I believe the children are our future." On a Tuesday night in late February, I was given a glimpse into days yet to come; someday soon they will be our elected leaders and corporate CEOs. Bring it on. Give them a platform and a microphone. Let them lead. Let them protest. Agree with them, disagree with them. Debate them. Educate them and learn from them. If these kids are our future, then the future is very bright.


Yes, But Kinda

I am a pacifist. Well, I probably shouldn't use those words in that order. A more accurate statement would be: I try to be a pacifist.

As far as pacifism is concerned, I'm a terrible pacifist. I’m bad. I've read and reread many of Stephen King's books, stories and novels that are gloriously violent. I include both Fight Club and The Matrix in my list of all-time favorite movies and both films are smorgasbord of gunplay and fist fights. I own (and play) several violent video games from Street Fighter to Grand Theft Auto to Call of Duty. I watch football and hockey more than any other sport and they're known for player injuries and five-minute penalties for fighting.

To recap: I'm a pacifist with reading preferences skewed toward violence, who still loves bloody mayhem in movies, has no qualms committing acts of violence in fantasy (just averse to doing so in real life), and is a fan of violent athletic competitions.

Outside of entertainment, I still might be the worst possible advocate for pacifism. At least once a week, I ponder how satisfying it would be to throat-punch someone. I would never strike a Nazi, but I wouldn't object if someone else hit a Nazi. Simple schadenfreude (deriving satisfaction from observing someone else's unintentional yet self-inflicted pain and/or misfortune) is one of my greatest indulgences. My inner mind applauds when I see arrogance humbled, impatience forced to wait, or folly find failure. Those are thought patterns a good pacifist would abhor.

The allure is difficult for me to resist. However, I realize how the cycle of violence is ultimately fruitless. And I have written on this topic before. How America has a problem with violence and an obsession with guns. How when everyone is armed, it is impossible to define who is a good guy with a gun. How an armed society is not a polite society. How we all believe the myth of redemption through violence - (or a belief in violence preventing violence).

Since the dawn of humanity, we have had it backwards, placing too much value in vicious methods. Violence begets more violence. It escalates. It isn't a solution, it is an invitation to retaliation. In a violent world, no one wins.

I know these facts, yet I still read books with violent protagonists and villains, play video games where I control violent and heavily armed characters, and watch TV shows and movies filled with acts of violence. My values are walking contradictions. I am one part Tyler Durden and one part Mahatma Gandhi. It is my own cognitive dissonance where I simultaneously avoid and consume violence. I am a spectator and a participant, a critic and a curator.

So I will call myself a part-time pacifist. A pacifist in theory only. An angry pacifist. A lousy excuse of a pacifist. I am one, even if I'm not a good at it.


A Better Man

Pearl Jam’s third record, Vitalogy, was released during my sophomore year of high school. I immediately embraced it as the quintessential album of our time. It seemed as if it contained a cryptic message exclusively intended for and only to be interpreted by my generation.

It began with a trio of raucous songs (Last Exit, Spin the Black Circle, Not For You) with the the unrelenting and frenetic energy that made them cultural icons. These songs still want to make me throw my fists in the air, nearly 24 years since they were first released.

The slower songs from the album took on great meaning for me. Immortality, the album's second to last track, helped me understand my insecurities. Nothingman and Better Man were different sides of the same coin, the first played into my sense of self-deprecation and the other fed my over-inflated teenage ego.

Then there was Corduroy. This song first made its way to radio airplay in middle of my corduroy pants and flannel shirt fashion phase and it quickly became my personal anthem. Lyrics like "You're finally here and I'm a mess" or "Push me and I will resist, this behavior's unique" spoke to my rebellious soul and they remain ingrained my psyche.

Vitalogy also came out around the time when I reconnected with Jeff, an old friend I hadn't seen in over a year. (You can read his story HERE and HERE.) In hindsight, I probably appreciated Vitalogy more than he did. Between the two of us, I was the bigger Pearl Jam fan. Still, we listened to this album a lot and frequently found our conversations wandering into the meanings behind Eddie Vedder’s songs.

Better Man is the track we discussed the most, probably because we were young, dumb, and thought too highly of ourselves. The song tells the story of a girl who is trapped in a bad, codependent, and possibly abusive relationship with man she no longer loves. Jeff and I so often talked about girls; we shared our juvenile crushes and pined after unrequited love. These conversations always circled back to this Pearl Jam song. It fit into the way we viewed the world, especially the world inhabited by the opposite sex.

We both knew of girls who (in our opinions) had bad taste in dudes. We thought their boyfriends were jerks. We heard complaints from our female peers about all the heinous things their boyfriends did, yet they continued to date these terrible guys. We would lament their bad relationships and complain how they’d never give guys like us a chance. Inevitably, one of us would quote Eddie’s lyrics, “She lies and says she’s in love with him, can’t find a better man.” In our minds, we were the better men.

image courtesy of Pearl Jam

Our questions would echo the other’s sentiments. Why do they always feel stuck with loser boyfriends? Why do girls always overlook boys like us? Why do good girls always go for bad boys? Why not us? Can’t they see we’re the better men?

The answers to our wonderings are obvious to me now, but elusive back then. However, if we had been honest with ourselves we could have figured it out. The truth is we weren’t better men. We were not as good as we thought we were. We were immature and cocky. We were proud and self-absorbed. We were unmotivated slackers. That’s why we were overlooked. We didn’t deserve any of the objects of our young lust, we only thought we did. And we were wrong.

After a long time and a lot of grief, I finally discovered how much I was selfish man. Not a better man. Not even a half-way decent man. I went through relentless introspection to realize I was a judgmental jerk more often than not, followed by some soul searching to figure out how to be a kinder/gentler me.

I still know women like the subject of the Pearl Jam song. Women who want to escape yet they feel like they can’t leave because they believe he’s the best they’ll ever find. I know women struggling to get out of abusive marriages. I know women working to escape the shadows of little men. Coworkers. Friends. Family. Rather than blaming them like I once did, I feel empathy. I understand how easy it is to find yourself in dead-end relationships. I don’t think they should have picked a guy like me because I could be the kind of guy they want to leave. I no longer think I’m a better man, instead I see that status as a goal to be achieved.


Paul, Apostle of Christ: a review

Thirteen years after portraying Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, Jim Caviezel returns to biblical dramas in Paul, Apostle of Christ. He plays Luke, Paul's friend, associate, and biographer. The movie follows Luke as he visits Rome during Paul's final days in a Roman Prison.

Faith-based movies tend to disappoint. Lazy scripts, one dimensional characters, and ham-fisted happy endings hinged on someone's emotionally manipulative come to Jesus moment. I don't enjoy rewarding artists for bad art. Given the choice, I'd rather spend my money on a sublime story that has nothing to do with God than fund a cheesy attempt at evangelism masquerading as a movie.

It should be understood, most faith-based films are designed to be evangelistic tools rather than an artistic expression of whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, or admirable. While Christian movie studios claim they hope their films minister to non-Christians, the people they want to reach avoid these movies like an infectious disease. Faith-based films end up only preaching to the choir. They are profitable from a combinations low budgets and the pious masses looking for wholesome Hollywood alternatives.

The people Affirm Films are aware of the trappings of religious audiences, so they crafted a film that is clearly marketed to church folks and doesn't pretend to be anything other than a movie for church folks. In Paul, Apostle of Christ, there is no demand for fans to bring their unsaved friends, no alter call, no happy endings. The film literally concludes with Paul's beheading. Which reminds me, there will be spoilers here. It’s difficult to talk about this movie any other way as the target audience is (or hopefully is) already familiar with the source material.

The predominantly church-going faithful should already be familiar with the characters they see on screen. Paul wrote the epistles. Luke was a physician and likely the author of two New Testament books: Luke and Acts. Nero was the Emperor of Rome who persecuted Christians and turned many of them into martyrs. Priscilla and Aquila were a married couple; tentmakers turned missionaries who frequently helped Paul in his ministry. The performances from Caviezel, James Faulkner (Paul), Joanne Whalley (Pricilla), and John Lynch (Aquilla), are all strong and bring life to these roles.

image courtesy of Affirm Films and Sony Pictures

The bulk of this movie is split between Luke's conversations in the Christian commune as they seek instruction and wise counsel, and inside Paul’s his prison cell where Luke attempts to transcribe the story of Paul's life. These interactions are fictional to the extent it is displayed in the movie. Is that how it really happened? Who knows. Even Paul's execution wasn't documented in the Bible, we only know of the method used from third and fourth century historians named Tertullian and Eusebuis.

There are several additional characters, invented for this movie. Mauritius, the Prefect in charge of Mamertine Prison where Paul was held captive. Octavia, a woman whose husband and child were killed by Roman soldiers. Tarquin, an orphan boy adopted by the Christian community and his cousin Cassius. None of these secondary characters appear in biblical texts and their presence here only creates tension or advances the plot. The daughter of Mauritius is gravely ill, and Mauritius seeks help from Paul and Luke. Octavia's grief divides the community over whether they should remain in Rome or flee to churches elsewhere. It isn't safe for them to stay, but the marginalized people of the city would die without their aid. Tarquin volunteers for a mission to help the Christians escape persecution and is killed while trying to deliver a message to those who could help. Cassius wants revenge for Tarquin's death and forms a plan to lead an armed revolution to overthrow Nero.

As a movie, Paul, Apostle of Christ is slightly more than mediocre. In the world of faith-based films, mediocre is better than most. The cinematography is excellent throughout and the filmmakers succeed in recreating the look and feel of first century Rome. The chemistry between Caviezel and Faulkner is superb, creating a believable friendship between Paul and Luke. However, the pacing is plodding - painfully slow. It lingers too long on shots of flickering candles, landscapes, buildings, and crowded streets absent of any action or elements to serve the story. The dialog was delivered with mixed results, sometimes inspiring - borrowing lines straight from scripture (often with humor as Paul kept telling Luke, "you should write that down"), other times it slipped between modern language and King James English with distracting inconsistency.

This movie shines brightest when it shuns the common Christian movie tropes. It avoids the "everything is better with God" cliché. No one is all good or all bad. Luke demonstrates doubt and insecurity. Priscilla and Aquila struggle over making the right choice when there isn't a good option. Mauritius wants what is best for his family. Even Paul, the titular character expresses regret and admits flaws. The protagonists don't lead anyone to Jesus and the plot isn't resolved with the conversion of an unbeliever. In one scene, Mauritius asked Paul what would happen if he didn't believe in God, to which Paul answered, "I'm not trying to convince you." Throughout the film, we see messy people living messy lives inside a messy world which makes this film set in the ancient world more realistic than modern stories told in most faith-based movies.

Knowing they would be making a film specifically for Christian audiences, Affirm Films crafted a message desperately needed in churches across America. The movie stressed a call to love others unconditionally. Luke attempted to stop Cassius's violence by stressing how love is the only way to defeat evil. Paul reminded Luke how those outside of their faith would recognize them by their love for others. Luke provided medical care to Mauritius's daughter out of love for his enemy. From start to finish, audiences will be urged to put the value of love above power, love above control, love above force, love above violence. Paul, Apostle of Christ demonstrates acceptable room for doubt, fear, and anger. It places women in roles of leadership and influence. It highlights the church’s biblical purpose: to care for orphans and widows, the weak and powerless, the poor and needy.

What we have in Paul, Apostle of Christ is an artistic interpretation of Saint Paul’s last days on earth. I think it’s a good story that could be improved. Over all, we need more movies like Paul, Apostle of Christ and less like God’s Not Dead 3. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys faith-based movies, this one might be the best you’ve ever seen.