5.22.2015

Beautiful Chaos

In the grand American tradition, Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer. With sunny days and warmer weather, this weekend is also the official beginning of camping season. Long hikes, pitching tents and sleeping on uneven ground, cooking over tiny gas stoves or carefully constructed fire pits.

As a kid, for me the summers meant mountains. I spent my adolescence trekking trails of the northern and central Cascade range. This was an opportunity to chase mountain goats along a snow covered ridge, feed marmots in the shadow of Mt Baker, wade through ponds and streams formed from glacial melt, and stand upon the summit of rugged peaks. My mountaineering days taught me lessons of perseverance, respect for nature, and the joy of accomplishment. It also placed in perspective the scope of my insignificance in comparison to the vast landscapes and magnitude of our bigger world.


One summer, along the Devil's Gulch trail south of Cashmere, we saw a pillar of smoke rising across the valley. At the time, I didn't think much of it. We finished our hike and headed home, unaware what we saw was a precursor to something with which many residents of western states have become familiar. The day after we returned home, the news was reporting of a wildfire in the area we observed; it spread and within days much of the forest we visited had burned.

Forest fires are powerful forces. They create massive swaths of destruction, sometimes causing evacuations and costly property damage. At a minimum, they transform gorgeous scenery into cinders - blackened hillsides of smoldering ruin.

For the casual observer, these disasters appear to be chaotic. Roaring flames that multiply with staggering speed. Acres of land burning in unison. A fire so large that the possibility of controlling it is daunting - if not impossible.

Visually, chaos is the best descriptor. But there is an order to it - a science that explains what is happening and predicts what will happen. Contours of the landscape, wind speeds, weather forecasts, the variety of trees and shrubbery that serve as a fire's fuel. Firefighters use this knowledge to combat natural forces that make men like me cower.

Within the chaos, there is order. It is even beautiful. Have you ever stared into a fire, mesmerized by the the way the flames seem to dance a waltz set to the music of crackling embers or followed the wisps of smoke traipsing skyward?

The power to ruin with the beauty to enrapture.

Despite the manpower needed to battle wildfires, the financial costs to rebuild, the burden of insurance settlements - we actually need wildfires. The health of a forest is improved by fire. Pine needles, fallen leaves, and weeds build up, destroying habitats for various wildlife which throws the ecosystem off-kilter. Fire will burn away dead vegetation and thin overgrowth. It removes non-native plant species and kills diseased trees. Ashes add nutrients to the soil. Fires return sunlight to the forest floor, serves as natural insect and pest control, revives animal habitation, and spurs new plant growth.

Fire can destroy a forest, but a lack of fire is even more destructive.

The same is true in the human soul. Sometimes, we are consumed by fiery emotional chaos; our lives in turmoil. I say this with confidence because it has been apparent in my own world. We are busy, burdened, stressed, mired in conflict. At times, this fire rages out of control and the possibility of overcoming our trials is daunting - if not impossible.

However, what is true in the natural world is also true in the spiritual realm. Within the chaos, there is order and even beauty. The bible frequently uses fire as a metaphor of how our lives are tested and improved through a refining process as if we were made of gold or silver. That which tests us makes us better. It transforms shame into worth and gives purpose to our struggle. Trials can destroy a life, but a life without trials is even more destructive.

There is an end to this fire. What comes out of the smoldering ruin is better, stronger, healthier. Embrace it. There is beauty inside the chaos.

5.15.2015

Perfectly Imperfect

We all have flaws. I hope you realize this fact. The single most obvious trait of humankind is our abundant diversity of errors. Everyone makes mistakes. People skew toward selfish motives more often than not. We claim dominance over a natural world we cannot possibly control and allege mastery in topics that remain mysterious.

Looking outward, it is much easier to identify displeasing features about ourselves than it is to list self-affirming or positive attributes. Surveys show about half of Americans want to lose a few pounds. Skee-Lo wished he was a little bit taller. The quest for exterior beauty keeps the cosmetic surgery industry profitable. It is too easy to look in the mirror with thoughts: too skinny, too fat, too short, too tall, my nose is crooked, my ears are not even.

Looking inward we could all admit blemishes in our character. One of the hard lessons I have learned over the past couple of years is that I am more self-centered than I would care to admit. I know I'm not alone. It should not take much effort to honestly assess some personal failures. Perhaps you cheated on your taxes, imbibe more alcohol than you probably should, openly mock others without regard to the weight of your words, possess bad habits that you cannot seem to break.

If you are anything like me, you brush this off with feigned humility or cover it with self deprecating humor. It is as if we trust self inflicted insults to lessen the impact or severity of our folly.

We view our errant ways - intentional slights, unintended failings, and unavoidable results of genetics as a witch who turned us into a newt. We read self-help books, attend therapy, seek wise counsel, follow 12 step plans, and at the end of the day we bravely declare "I got better."

Better is a funny word. Too often we strive for perfection unaware of improvements along the way. Realistically, better is the best we can hope for.

A result of residency on terra firma is that we will always be imperfect. We get better then realize that we still have flaws.

As long as our hearts beat, we will be incomplete. As long as our lungs draw breath, we will be tragically flawed. As long as synapses fire within our brains, we will be perfectly imperfect.


From a spiritual perspective, I believe this points to our need for a savior. Perfection is something unattainable without some sort of supernatural intervention. For this reason, Paul wrote to the Philippian church "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own." He knew that he wasn't perfect. Perfection is a long term goal - something to strive toward.

From a scientific perspective, I see this as a result of entropy - a measurable disorder. All systems seek equilibrium and our bodies are subject to the laws of thermodynamics. There might be psychologists out there who could disprove me, but I believe our emotions act with fluidity and seek the same equilibrium as any thermodynamic system. We are born into a world of disorder and that chaos is reflected in the ebb and flow of our emotional state.

This should not be thought of as a bad thing. It should be a reminder that we are all in process. It should demonstrate that we all have room to grow and improve. It should encourage second chances and grace and understanding.

You have not arrived. Neither have I. For better or worse, we are imperfectly human.

5.13.2015

being mean

While out running errands, my oldest was pondering the characters and plot of a movie we watched a few months ago. He is at the stage where he wants to examine what makes the good guys good and the bad guys bad.

The subtleties of characterization is sometimes layered to the point where it is difficult for his concrete way of thinking to understand. His aspie brain longs for black and white division between right and wrong. He is a rule follower and desires a world where everyone follows those those rules.

In examining this movie, he knew the antagonist was bad. Yet, he could not figure out why. So he asked.

"Dad, the villain from this movie, was she breaking the law?"

"No," I answered, "she was just really mean. And being mean isn't illegal."

"It should be illegal."

This is the world he lives in. All that is right is good but that which is wrong is horrible. For him, having something bad be legal is illogical. For example, he does not understand why people smoke if they know it is so unhealthy.

He does understand the difference between nice people and mean people. Unfortunately, this world is not typically kind to kids on the autism spectrum. He sees this every day - experiences it in a way that emotionally wounds him. He shares a classroom with kids that are not technically bullies, however they are not nice. They do not explicitly break the rules, but they are unkind in ways where rules do not apply.

With that in mind, his statement makes more sense. How much easier would life be if it were illegal to be mean to others? What if to be unkind was to break the law?

5.05.2015

#SgtMoore

Last Tuesday was National Super Hero Day. Saturday was Free comic Book Day. On Sunday, I went to see 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' with a few friends. Yesterday was Star Wars Day (and yes, I did wear my Darth Vader t-shirt to work). So much geekery; I am still recovering from my nerd hangover.

There are many directions I could take this post. I would love to talk about comic books and superheroes. I am planning a movie review for later this week. But today, I just can't.

Not today.

Because at this moment, a real-life hero is in critical condition at Kootenai Health. It was the first thing I saw on Facebook when I woke up this morning and roughly 75 percent of my friends with North Idaho roots have posted something about it on Facebook or Twitter.

A little after 1:30 this morning, Sergeant Moore - a Coeur d'Alene police officer was checking a suspicious individual during routine patrol. That suspicious individual shot Moore, stole Moore's car, and fled the scene eventually abandoning the cruiser near State Line. Police have caught the suspect (a twenty something on felony probation) who was hiding in a nearby Walmart parking lot.

We have heard much about bad cops this past year. From St Louis, to Cleveland, NYC, Tulsa, and Boston. There has been so much emphasis on heavy handed police tactics. Civil rights abuses. Unarmed African Americans killed. Kids killed by law enforcement. Militarization of local police departments across America. Even in North Idaho, we have had our share of officer involved controversy and mishandled incidents.

We hear a lot about bad cops. Journalists love those stories - they bring in ad revenue.

But we don't often hear about good cops. Sgt Moore was a great cop. He was one of the good guys.
Photo courtesy of the Cd'A Police Department

Something isn't right. I know that all of these police shootings are symptoms of humanity's brokenness. It doesn't matter whether the victim was an unarmed black kid or an officer trying to do his job. Both ends of the spectrum end with senseless death. Both ends point to our own spiritual corruption. All of it makes me sick.

The violence has to stop.

It has to.

Because this? What happened today. What happened last month. What happened last August. It is ridiculous.

We shouldn't have talk about stories like this.

We shouldn't see police brutality.
We shouldn't see responding protests and riots.
We shouldn't see officers gunned down in the line of duty.
We shouldn't see kids shooting up their schools.
We shouldn't see bullied teens choose to eliminate their own life.

We are killing our culture.

The violence has to stop.

5.01.2015

Guest blogging: SecondIron

Want to talk about scary movies? Science fiction? Superheroes? Me too. We could chat for hours. These are some of my favorite topics of conversation.

I also enjoy writing about them. Occasionally, I get the privilege to do that for some of my friends. Today, is one of those days as I have a guest post on the SecondIron Blog.

Click HERE to see some of my thoughts about the creatures from classic monster movies, why they're important, and what we can learn from them.

4.28.2015

Choose Kind

The first time I heard it was a little over a year ago. After a wave of suicides and school shootings, a youth pastor penned a blog post pleading for a way to stop the spread of violence, loss, and grief. He made suggestions for how the church could better minister to at risk kids - not just those from the LBGT community but also those with mental health issues, abused and neglected kids, and those bullied by their peers. I don't remember much of the details from what he wrote, but there was one line that stood out.

He said (paraphrased) "Given the choice between extending grace and being theologically correct, I will always choose grace."

That line stayed with me. I can either show grace or be right. Preferably, both. I am the kind of guy who enjoys being right. But often, winning the fight comes with a price. That is a difficult lesson to learn, and to be frank - one I'm still learning.

Still learning. And still hearing variations of that same phrase.

Christian and I are reading together through 'Wonder' by R.J. Palacio. The book follows August, a 5th grader with multiple facial deformities, through his first year of middles school after years of of being home-schooled. One of his teachers introduces a new precept every month and the first one sounded familiar when I read it.

"When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind."

I actually stopped reading at this point and asked Christian what he thought that precept could mean. We talked about it for a while before reading again. Knowing how hard it is for me to learn this concept, it is one I hope to see him master at a younger age.

Then I heard another variant at church this last weekend. Pastor Mike was preaching on accepting others in the same way that Jesus accepted us - including those who have different beliefs or values.

Mike said, "Choose to value the relationship over the need to be right."

Finally, I read it again this morning in 'Why We Eat Our Own' by Michael Cheshire. While interviewing people who had left the church but still considered themselves Christians, Cheshire asked them a question about what it would take for them to return to a local church.

He described their answers, "they would need to be convinced that the Christians in that church were nice. That is the very word they used most. Nice. We must be nicer."

Cheshire continued, "Too many Christians run around being the opposite of nice. Mean. They try to force and push fellow Christians to live exactly like them, parent like them, do marriage like them, eat like them, exercise like them, talk like them, vote like them, and despise the same people as them."

Once again, I see two options: to force others to conform to my ways, or just be nice.

Extend grace.
Choose kind.
Value the relationship.
Be nicer.

That is the goal to which I aspire. It isn't easy though It is so much fun to be right and I can be ridiculously stubborn. Learn the lesson and learn it well. I am repeating this phrase over and over until it sticks.

4.22.2015

What it's like to be a Mariners fan

In my previous post, I admitted to being geek who enjoys spectator sports. But I am a local boy so my fandom is generally limited to my hometown teams.

That means Seahawks football. My mom was (is) a Denver Broncos fan, so those Sundays of my childhood when those two teams played each other were always fun. My dad, Aaron, and I all cheering for the Seahawks while my mom was the only one dressed in blue and orange. I am a loyal 12 and the past couple of years have completely atoned for every dismal season I've watched back as long as I can remember.

That means Sonics basketball. I don't care how many championships the OKC Thunder win, I refuse to acknowledge them as a valid NBA team until the Supersonics are back in Seattle.

That means Sounders soccer. I played soccer as a kid and love having a hometown team that I can support.

That means UW athletics. The Huskies. Purple and gold. Granted, now that I live in WSU/UI territory, my choice in college sports seems a bit heretic. But I don't really care. Go Dawgs.

Even now, living in North Idaho, I consider myself a local boy and include Spokane teams among my favorites. Shock arena football, Chiefs hockey, Gonzaga basketball.

When it comes to baseball, I am all about the Mariners. A long suffering M's fan.

Within the world of Seattle sports, it seems most embarrassing to admit your favorite team is the Mariners. In fact, the last time I went to a game at Safeco field, there were more fans of the opposing team in attendance than there were for the M's. When everyone sang 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' during the seventh inning stretch, only a small percentage were actually there to "root, root, root for the home team." No shame if they didn't win, that's what most everyone expected.

They're still my team and I'm not ashamed to admit it. I genuinely miss the old trident logo of the early 80s. I fondly reminisce about the glory days of the mid 90s. Griffey's backward hat, Buhner buzz cuts, counting strikeouts for the Big Unit, watching Lou Piniella argue with the umpires, A-Rod (before the drugs), Edgar and Tino. And it doesn't matter who is providing color commentary these days; any time I listen to a game, I hear Dave Niehaus' voice superimposed over any other announcer.

image courtesy of Yahoo Sports

Don't forget though, I am still a nerd. I am a data junkie, a numbers guy. If you want to know what it is like to be a Mariners fan, the statistics will describe it better than the memories of the lingering taste from a Kingdog consumed in 1989.

Here are the statistical facts:
* The Mariners had a losing record for each of the first 13 years of their existence.
* Since 1977, the Mariners have only made it into the post season four times.
* Number of American League Division titles: 3
* Number of American Legaue Championships: 0
* The Mariners have never played in the World Series. There is only one other team that shares this shameful feat - the Washington Nationals.
* The Mariners have finished the regular season first in their division three times. In one of those three years, they lost in the first round of the playoffs.
* They have finished second in their division four times, but only advanced into the playoffs in one of those seasons.
* From 1977-1993, the Mariners never finished a season ranked better than fourth in their division.
* From 1994-2014, the Mariners never finished a season ranked worse than fourth in their division.
* They have only won 46% of the games they have ever played (not including the 2015 season).
* Rookie of the Year has been awarded to three Mariners - the first was my favorite: Alvin Davis.
* Two Mariners have won the Cy Young Award.
* Two Mariners were named Most Valuable Player.
* The Mariners have sent a player to the All-Star Game every year since their first season in 1977.
* In 21 those 38 All-Star Games, at least one Mariner was elected to be on the starting lineup.
* There was a Mariner in the All-Star starting lineup every year from 1990-2004.
* The most winning season in Mariner history was 2001 with a 116/46 regular win/loss record.
* They lost the American League Championship to the Yankees in 2001; being the first playoffs post 9/11, that was the year everyone was rooting for the Yankees.
* Also in 2001, Seattle hosted the All-Star game and the Mariners had four players in the starting lineup - more than any other team that year.
* Of their winning seasons finishing with greater than a 0.5 winning percentage, 7 of those seasons have been in the last 15 years.

What do those statistics tell me? Well, a lot.

The Mariners are better today than they've ever been. Their recent years show a stronger and better performing team than the one I fondly remember from my youth. They are a whole bunch of awesome without much to show for it. They are the best team with the worst success. Every year, they start with so much potential. It is for that reason I keep coming back to them thinking, 'maybe this will be their year.'

Maybe 2015 will be their year. But if statistics have anything to say (which I am convinced statistics always has something to say), Mariner fans can expect more of the same. I say this with love for my favorite baseball team, with respect for all of the enduringly optimistic fans like me, with a bit of hope and a dash of realism. We have a good team this year, but I fear it will not be their year.

Yes, I know that the season just started. Yes, I know that they've only played 14 games and have another 148 scheduled. That means they are only 8.6% of the way through the season. There are a lot of games left to be played and things could change.

With all the optimism us Seattle fans are supposed to possess, why the dire prediction?

Consider how this season has progressed this far. We all ready have a losing season: 5 wins, 9 losses. That gives us room to improve, but we're last place in our division and it is unlikely we'll catch up enough to qualify for post season - even as a wild card.

A couple of players give us hope. Felix is in the top ten pitchers leading the league in strikeouts. Cruz leads the league in home runs and tied for first in RBIs. These stats should make us happy. But for me, it is a whole lot of awesome and not much to show for it.

So far tonight, they're up 3 to 1 in the top of the 5th. But they had a 3 to 1 lead last night during this same inning and blew it by giving away 5 runs in the 8th inning. I have come to accept this as their SOP.

Doom and gloom aside, I'm still a fan. The M's can keep Seattling their way out of a winning season, I will still cheer them on. And yes, I did just use Seattle as a verb.

If this isn't our year, maybe next year will be our season.

4.21.2015

Reconciling Geekdom & Sportsdom

Classic stereotypes put the geeks and athletes into two different camps; never the twain shall meet. The division has long been set - immortalized in 'Revenge of the Nerds.' The Tri-Lambs with their awkward fashion sense, coke bottle glasses, and pocket protectors, ostracized and oppressed by the Alpha Betas clad in their letterman jackets.


These are the social rules: nerds are nerds and jocks are jocks. The geeks enjoy math and science and art while the popular kids play basketball and football.

Of course, those rules only exist in the David and Goliath stories of pop-culture. Movies like 'Rushmore,' 'Bad News Bears,' and 'Little Miss Sunshine' remind us what it is like to be young and awkward while giving us an underdog to celebrate.

While books and movies maintain a solid separation between the nerds and the jocks, the lines in real life are not so clearly defined. Shelves across America are lined with both comic books and athletic trophies.

However, stereotypes exist for a reason. They all started somewhere. Frequently, it is a truth exaggerated. The typecasting for the geek world and the sports world are recognizable in personal experience.

If you look back into your teen years, it is probably a safe bet to assume that your high school drama club was not populated by the most athletic students in school. In fact, the majority of them were probably on the lower end of the athletically capable spectrum. Conversations you overheard in locker rooms and along sidelines probably did not include topics of time travel, parallel universes, or interstellar exploration. The captains of your chess club and swim teams were most likely two different people.

Two worlds. On the surface, they are diametrically opposed. But looks can be deceiving and those worlds frequently collide.

One of the kids from my old school is a fine example of the person of both nerdy and sporty interests (I shouldn't call him a kid, we're both in our mid 30s now and he's a few months older than me). When we were students at MPHS, he was the lead actor in every theatrical production - a leader in our drama club. Even today, he is one of the most talented actors I've ever met. He recently founded The Rogues Gallery, a non-profit theater company in Seattle that produces plays with geeky themes. Their debut event was a live reading of "William Shakespeare's Star Wars" with a full cast. When I see Facebook posts from him, he frequently writes about superheroes, D&D, Cthulhu, board games, and the activities of a working actor.

Friends like him make me proud to be a nerd.

He is more than a saint of geek culture. He digs Seattle sports. Like me, he is a 12th Man and a long-suffering Mariners fan. He has provided some interesting insights into Seattleite baseball and football; sometimes of intellectual purpose and others just humorous. Regardless of content, these Facebook updates from a former classmate made this past NFL season much more enjoyable and he is all ready off to a good start with the MLB.

Being a nerd that loves sports (or at least a fandom for local teams) is a counter-cultural exercise. It defies the stereotype. We're the exception to the rule. Sometimes it feels like we have to explain our justification to why we're watching ESPN instead of SyFy. Or our rationale for obsessing over an athletic competition in the same manner we would the newest movie in the MCU franchise.

We all have our reasons. I cannot explain why my old friend is a sporty nerd, but I can identify why I am that way. Having grown up as the artsy kid in a sports-centric family helped contribute to my dual obsession. Perhaps that is too shallow an explanation. Family origin is a factor, but if that was the only influence, I could live a happy life without watching a single minute of gameplay. My interest in sports is truly a geeky endeavor.

I am a numbers guy. Facts, figures, data, statistics, charts, and graphs. It is all endlessly fascinating. The personalities do not attract me as much as how they translate into a trend-line. I can geek out over team rankings or stat leaders or score predictions or win/loss probability.

That is how this geek reconciles my enjoyment of sports. But I am not the voice of nerds everywhere. Your mileage may vary.

4.19.2015

Eight

Today is a special day. One of my favorite days of the year. Because on this day, the world was gifted with the presence of one filled with grace and fire. She has fierce strength and a tender soul. Proud of her heritage, loyal to her family, caring for those who are hurting, and opinionated beyond her years. Zu, my sweet girl, this beautiful young lady is celebrating her birthday today.









Happy birthday, Princess.

4.13.2015

Kootenai crazy

Do you ever experience days where it feels like the world around you is losing its tenuous grip on sanity? That sense of madness is the best way to describe North Idaho today - particularly in Kootenai County.

Please do not misunderstand me. I living here. I am looking forward to attending another Car d'Lane (and hopefully it isn't raining this year), another year downtown for the fireworks show, returning to Art on the Green and the North Idaho Fair and Rodeo. I consider myself lucky to reside somewhere where I can take the kids hiking or swimming and return home in time for lunch. The sounds of baseball filtered into my apartment from the fields next door is strangely calming, as are the thunderstorms that roll through late in the spring season. The typically snow-filled winters are a fulfillment of all of my childhood dreams.

That being said, today is not the day to display hometown pride. At the very least, it is the kind of day where you want to avoid reading or watching the news.

The day begans with the Department of Health and Welfare reeling from last week's actions in the state legislature that effectively dismantles Idaho's ability to collect child support. But that was last week. Allow me to break down the events from the past 24 hours.

* Police were searching for a suspect after last night's shooting at a Hauser bar, eventually catching him midday.
* Another search stemmed from a home-invasion robbery this morning. Police eventually arrested three suspects in Hayden.
* A large, bald, and suicidal male with multiple warrants is the subject of yet another manhunt, causing lock-downs at a couple of Coeur d'Alene schools.
* A naked woman on LSD was spotted at a busy intersection in Post Falls.

I stopped paying attention after that.

This is North Idaho. A land of beautiful scenery. A wonderful place to live. Filled with more than our fair share of nutters. Consider it job security for municipal and county police forces.

photo courtesy of The Spokesman-Review

4.10.2015

Daredevil

Within the world of comic books Matt Murdock/Daredevil is one of my favorite characters - second behind Nightcrawler. As a fan, I was disappointed in the 2003 movie with Ben Affleck. When film rights reverted back to Marvel a few years ago, the fan boy in me swelled with hope that the character could be given a proper cinematic showing. After the announcement came that Daredevil would be released as a 13 part miniseries through Netflix, my excitement grew.

In anticipation of the series release, I went back to the Marvel archives and mainlined the old stories. With the new year, I began re-reading back issues - starting with Kevin Smith's Guardian Devil arc through the Civil War events. I devoured a little more than 90 issues in an attempt to remember the characters and personas in preparation for the day Daredevil would be streaming on Netflix.

That day was today. The show's producers have rewarded fans for the wait. The first couple episodes have been completely engrossing and I am looking forward to finishing the rest (as well as the other Netflix/Marvel series currently in development). A few thoughts crossed my mind while watching and I thought I would share here before bingewatching the rest.

1. Thank you for not beating us over the head with yet another origin story.

Sure, the opening shots of the first episode follow Battling Jack Murdock as he pushes his way through the crowd to find his son Matt lying on the pavement. We are there long enough to see that toxic chemicals have been spilled and hear an elderly pedestrian explain that the boy pushed him out of the way and saved his life. Then the young Matt begins to panic as he realizes that he can't see. That's it. The next scene features a grown up Matt sitting in a confessional booth asking the priest to forgive him of something he is about to do.

Sequels aside, superhero films tend to linger far too long on the hero's origin. Perhaps this is due to a fear that audiences are not smart enough to follow the plot if they don't know why their hero is a hero. Granted, this exposition is sometimes valid. In last summer's Guardians of the Galaxy, we needed to know how Peter Quill became Star-Lord. We needed to see Tony Stark's transformation from the head of a weapon's manufacturer to a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist dressed in iron armor to help make sense of the first Iron Man movie.

But how many times do we need to see Bruce Wayne's parents get shot in a dark Gotham alley? How many times do we need to see an infant Kal-El sent away from the planet Krypton to crash land near a Smallville farm where he's adopted by the Kents? Reboots are the worst with origins - frequently retelling the same story while the previous iteration is still fresh in viewers' memories. Sometimes even sequels over-do this - like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 which added to the origin story as if they didn't explain enough in part one.

Marvel's Daredevil gets this right. The opening scene establishes just enough for us to know that Matt Murdock is blind and has a self sacrificial personality. That's it. The rest of his history is told through flashback sequences in ways that contribute to the story rather than as a distraction.

2. Is that the Dread Pirate Roberts?

The black suit and mask featured in the first episodes for Marvel's Daredevil is not the costume comic fans are used to seeing. It isn't the red spandex bodysuit with the horned cowl. But it isn't a departure from the comic books either. This black outfit is based on Frank Miller's Man Without Fear books. Looking at it, I can't help but think how much he looks like Westley dressed as the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride. To be fair, it is far more intimidating than the more common red devil outfit. If I was a low level mafia thug, seeing the blindfolded man in black jump out of the shadows would be enough to put the fear of God into me.

Photo courtesy Marvel Television

3. It is all connected.

The new Daredevil series does not exist in a bubble. It is connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe just like ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter. While the tone of Daredevil is darker and grittier than the typical Marvel outing, there are reminders that Matt Murdock lives in the same world as Captain Rogers, Black Widow, and Agent Phil Coulson.

In the real world, Hell's Kitchen is far safer than the NYC neighborhood represented in the comics. Today, you're more likely to find tourists than mob violence. To remake the dangerous version of Hell's Kitchen, Daredevil's producers and screenwriters tapped into the finale of The Avengers. The fallout of the movie's alien invasion of New York is played out into Daredevil's world and referred to as an "incident" where death and destruction fell from the skies. It is explained that the battle between the Chitauri and Earth's mightiest heroes damaged half of the buildings in Hell's Kitchen and there is a government capital program set up to rebuild.

Due to these events, Matt and his business partner are able to find an office location to open their law practice at a cheap price. But it also opened up the doors for criminal activity to take advantage of federal funds pouring into building projects. One crooked contractor states that having masked vigilantes is actually good for their business because they get more money from the government every time a hero pushes a thug through a wall.

The connections don't stop with ties to The Avengers. In a flashback, Battling Jack is asked to take a dive in a boxing match against Carl "Crusher" Creel. Creel is a young up and coming boxer whose name should be familiar as the older version is the Absorbing Man - a villain from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. I hope to see more of these connections as the series continues.

Writers involved with Marvel's movies and TV shows are smart; they know how to weave their stories into a tapestry without ham-fisting characters and plot lines into places they don't belong. They have stated that Murdock could show up in the movies if the Netflix story does well. Considering Daredevil's inclusion in the Civil War comics, the potential for crossover could be beneficial.

4. This is what superheroes would look like if they existed in our world.

Matt Murdock doesn't have superpowers. Sure, his sense of smell and hearing are heightened - but this is a product of training and diligence more than it is through supernatural gifting or technological enhancement.

When looking at the rest of the Marvel universe, an unpowered hero is an abnormality. Tony Stark wears an armored suit that helps him fly and fires a multitude of weapons. Steve Rogers was enhanced by the super-soldier serum. Bruce Banner was blasted with gamma radiation. Thor comes from an alien race that is so technologically advanced that ancient vikings considered them to be gods. Star-Lord's companions are a talking raccoon and a sentient tree. Coulson was revived with alien blood, and his protege Skye is an inhuman.

Even in costume, Matt Murdock is still painfully mortal. His abilities are the same when he is a lawyer as they are when he is the Daredevil. His blindness is apparent, even when fighting off a half dozen armed goons. He is strong and skilled in martial arts, but he is also fully human and as fragile as any other normal person walking this planet. Falling from a second story window causes him to black out and leaves his nose and lips bloody. He needs medical intervention after walking into a trap. His bones can break, bullets and knives can inflict serious wounds, and fist fights sap his endurance.

In a stunning single shot sequence at the end of episode two, Daredevil infiltrates a secure location to save a kidnapped boy. He is injured from an encounter the previous evening but he does not hesitate to fight. Through the scuffle, he is slammed into the walls, punched several times, thrown to the ground, and is bruised and bloodied. As the scene progresses, you can see the character slowly grow more and more winded. He has to stop and catch his breath a couple of times before continuing the brawl. By the time each of his opponents are unconscious, he is limping and barely has any strength left to escort the boy to safety.

We're not the only ones to notice his imperfections. The night nurse tells Matt that he isn't very good at being a superhero. She later confronts him to debunk his claim that he enjoys the pain he inflicts as a vigilante. People frequently reach to shake Matt's hand, forgetting that he can't see them. The priest at the beginning of the first episode tells Matt that he is doing confession wrong. Even Matt's attempt at preemptive confession reveals his intellectual conflict between wanting to do the right thing, but knowing that the methods he uses are morally sketchy.

5. Daredevil fights something real.

Through most of the MCU, the heroes fight off things of fiction: monsters and aliens and robots. These villains make entertaining stories but at the end of the credits, we know that those bad guys don't exist in the real world.

In contrast, the enemies Daredevil faces are just as realistic as the injuries Matt endures while dressed in costume. The main criminal activity that Daredevil disrupts in the first couple of episodes is human trafficking. He rescues women and children who are about to be sold into the sex trade. This is a very real problem in the real world. Organizations all over the globe - even in the United States are fighting against human slavery.

A well told fictional story can have great impacts on actual issues we're facing in real life. We've seen it happen before. This could be the case with Daredevil. It is encouraging to see a TV show intended to entertain step beyond the role of fiction to shine a light into a dark and depraved corner of humanity. I hope that as people watch this show, they realize that the problems in Daredevil's Hell's Kitchen also happen every day in the real world. I hope they understand that this isn't something that only exists in Eastern Europe or China or Thailand - that it also happens in America.

And maybe, just maybe, viewers will respond by supporting organizations that are helping people escape slavery and are fighting against human trafficking.

4.06.2015

Scenes from a movie: Fight Club

Of those who have seen Fight Club, people have either a love or loathe opinion of the film. For me, it falls into my favorite movie genre: mindf@#%s. Those are the movies that mess with your brain. The movie's plots keep you off balance and unsure of what is happening. By the end credits, you are left wondering if you actually saw what you think transpired. It forces you to watch the movie a second (perhaps third or fourth) time to make sure you caught everything.

Not certain of what I'm talking about? Think of movies like Pi , The Game, Donnie Darko, Memento, Inception, or 12 Monkeys. If you step out to get a drink, answer a phone call, or use the bathroom while these movies are playing, you will return more confused than when you stepped away. Sometimes it feels as if you might miss something if you even blink.

That is how I classify movies like Fight Club.

In this 1999 film - directed by David Fincher (who helmed The Game), Edward Norton plays the nameless narrator - a disgruntled insomniac feeling lost and overwhelmed by his dismal white collar job. He seeks therapy, medications, and support groups without relief. After a chance encounter with Brad Pitt’s character - an anarchist named Tyler Durden, the narrator returns home from a business trip to find his apartment has been destroyed. He is invited to live with Durden where the two men start an underground fight club that grows into an anti-capitalist group called Project Mayhem.

Weird things happen. They dumpster dive at a liposuction clinic, they make soap, they secure financing, they fight, they get bloody and bruised. The plot twists like a pretzel and leads into a dazzling climax.

Fincher's Fight Club is endlessly quotable. You would have a difficult time finding a anyone in their 30s that can't tell you the first two rules of Fight Club. It is entirely exciting, hilarious, engrossing, and disturbing - all at once. Its best trait is that it makes you think - a rarity that I love in cinema.

To be honest, the only reason I watched Fight Club when it first came out is because I wanted to see Brad Pitt get the crap beat out of him. Since then, it has become one of my all-time favorite movies. I can watch it over and over again and still get a mystified feeling at the end. For those of you who have been living in a cave for the past 16 years, I won't spoil the ending.

Well, not the climactic moment at least. But what comes after resonates with me more now than it ever has before. After the twist is revealed and the plot is resolved, the Narrator and Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) stand together in a parking garage to watch as buildings explode and crumble around them.

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Surrounded by destruction, the Narrator looks at Marla and tells her, "You met me at a very strange time in my life."

It was a strange time in his life. He first met Marla in various support groups and in the time between their first meeting and the final moments of the film, the Narrator had transformed into a completely different person. His experience as Tyler Durden's roommate was tumultuous and chaotic. Nothing in his life was the same as it had been months earlier. Those words, "You met me at a very strange time in my life" carry a poignant weight.

I feel that closing scene far deeper these days than I did when I was 20 and watching Fight Club for the first time. The past couple of years have been a period of change and growth for me. It has been filled with grief and loss, but also with new adventures and renewed sense of identity.

Over the past couple of years, I have also met a lot of people, forging new relationships and creating a revived network of support. Whether it is the worship team at church, my Monday night small group, the D&B community, or my Friday night late night Google Hangout group, most of the people that I trust and value are relatively new to my life.

The Narrator's words have come to mind upon multiple occasions these past couple of years. I cannot tell you how many times I've wanted to tell someone, "You met me at a very strange time in my life."

So I'll say it now. If you are one of those that have recently become a part of my world, you are my tribe and I am grateful for our friendship.

However, you met me at a very strange time in my life.

Thank you for accepting - and even embracing my strangeness.

4.01.2015

April foolery

Show of hands: who has engaged in some practical jokes today? Any on the receiving end?

Then there's my son. I'm not sure he understands how to do April Fool's pranks. That isn't for a lack of trying. He has embraced this holiday with manic exuberance. His error is more in application. He thinks his jokes are hilarious, and in a way they are. I am just not convinced anyone is falling victim to these pranks other than himself. For example, this is what he looked like when I picked him up this afternoon.


"What is that on your face?" I asked.
He answered, "It's a tattoo."
"I see that, but why?"
"Because it's April Fool's Day."

My son is convinced that applying a temporary tattoo to his forehead is the most eloquent practical joke ever implemented. That was not the only trick up his sleeve. He also spent the day walking around with his shoes untied. His reasoning? If anyone pointed out his untied shoelaces, he would tell them "I know. APRIL FOOLS!" Then at lunch, he told me that he was going to ignore any attention I gave him, unless I was pranking him.

Even now, with him huddled over the dining room table doing homework, I am chuckling as I type these words. As a concept, he gets it. In practice, he is the butt of his own jokes. Perhaps that is the mark of true comedic genius.

3.31.2015

Shake the dust

Welcome to Holy Week. This is the Christian tradition. Beginning earlier this week with Palm Sunday - a day to celebrate Jesus's triumphal entry, riding into Jerusalem upon a donkey. This is the start of Passover, the week we remember a garden betrayal, a mock trial, and the crucifixion of our savior. It culminates this coming Sunday, honoring the resurrection on Easter - the grandest of all Christian holidays.

Some things get missed among the plastic eggs, candy, and bunnies. Even in the pomp and circumstance of church services and big family dinners, we forget a detail of great importance. It is not the last supper with the broken bread and cup of wine. It is not the traitor's kiss. It is not the guards who tortured Jesus and gambled for his clothes. It is not the empty tomb.

The detail that we overlook is not the what but the why. Why, if Jesus was the son of God, why would he willingly endure the suffering and indignity of a Roman execution?

The simple answer is that he did it for us. As is often true, the some answers lead to new questions. If Jesus was a sacrifice for us, then why us?

If anything is clear, we the people - the most dominant species on this planet, we are a messed up population. Prone to mistakes and failure, constantly at war, jealous and power hungry. We are greedy and selfish humanity. But even at our best, our flaws are evident. We are Han frozen in carbonite. We are Marty McFly trying to undo our mistakes in both the past and the future. We are the Goonies looking for one last adventure before being evicted from our homes. We are Jack Shephard leading others yet feeling unfit to do so.

Why us? I am positive that the twelve disciples had similar thoughts when Jesus first approached them and said, "Follow me."

"Are you talking to me?" they must have asked, "Or that smarter, better qualified, and more handsome fellow over there?"

These were fishermen and tax collectors. People that flunked out of religious school and returned to the family business. Minimally skilled, unappreciated, despised, and deemed not good enough to be a disciple of any of the other rabbis. Jesus asked them to follow and somewhere inside their hearts they had to respond, "Uh, OK, but are you sure you have the right guy?"

When Jesus wasn't preaching to the crowds or healing the sick, he was pouring his life into a motley crew of men who never considered themselves to be good enough. He showed them compassion and love beyond comprehension. Even into his final days, Jesus displayed lavish acts of love for people he knew would betray him, deny him, and abandon him.

In every conversation they shared, in every mile they walked, in every meal they ate, Jesus was consistent in the message he had for his followers. "It doesn't matter who you are, where you've been, or what you do - I love you."

Jesus knew their pasts, but he also knew their futures. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus was preparing them for their lives beyond the present moment. He was providing instruction for their ministry but tempering with the warning that they wouldn't always be welcomed or accepted. In those instances where they were mistreated or rejected, Jesus gave the order to shake the dust off of their feet as they left that place. This was a way for them to separate themselves from their bad experience. Shake the dust, shake it off, leave it behind.

Jesus loved these men. He knew they were all tragically flawed. In telling them to shake the dust off of their feet, he was also giving them hope to move on. "You're broken people but I chose you."

It is through these imperfect heroes that the church was born. It is through these imperfect heroes that the gospel was spread across Judea and into Rome. It is through these imperfect heroes that Jesus displayed his perfection.

That is why I celebrate Easter. It did not happen in spite of humanity's failures, but because of it. We needed someone perfect to cover our imperfections. We need that hope to give us the courage to shake the dust, to leave it behind, and carry on the Good News to those who desperately need it.


The above video was filmed at a To Write Love On Her Arms event called Heavy and Light. For more information, you can read about it on the TWLOHA site here.

3.27.2015

Faith & Pop Culture: Wrecked by Pride

Last weekend I watched a pair of movies that do not (at least on the surface) have any thematic similarities. The first was The Judge - an emotional drama about a big shot attorney returning home for his mother's funeral then staying to defend his father against murder charges. The second was Chef - an indie comedy about a popular chef and his culinary journey of food and family.

Admittedly, the second film served as a counter balance to the first upon the suggestion of a friend. The Judge turned me into a puddle and I needed something funny to cheer me up. Chef was the perfect remedy.

Legal battles and Cuban cuisine. A tear-jerker and a witty satire. Nothing in common. Well, maybe something. Both movies show the devastating fallout from pride. Different stories, different methods, same result. Pride wrecks lives.

The two main protagonists in The Judge display divergent faces of pride. Robert Downey Jr. plays the attorney Hank Palmer returning to his home town to mourn his mother's death. Hank's father (Robert Duvall) is a notoriously strict judge and one of the most respected legal figures in Indiana. On the evening following the funeral there is a fatal accident and the judge faces charges of first degree murder while Hank stays in town to help his father in court.

For Judge Palmer, pride manifests itself under noble intentions. He is a man who would rather go to prison than have his case history called into question. He is a man who found the reckless behaviors from his son's past to be an embarrassment. He wishes to see the flags flying at half staff in the event of his death. His desire is to leave a worthy legacy.

This pride prevents him from admitting weakness. The Judge is facing terminal cancer - a secret he's kept by getting chemo treatments at a private lakeside cabin rather than a medical facility. He refuses to admit that the side effects of his cancer treatment have caused him to black out and lose memories. It is because of his pride he seeks out an inexperienced attorney instead of asking his son to represent him.

Hank's pride is more apparent and is displayed through overt arrogance. He flaunts his wealth, success, charisma, and expertise. He doesn't hesitate to humiliate or seduce others depending on his mood. Yet he shows cracks: he has an unforgiving relationship with his father, both of his brothers feel abandoned by him, and his marriage is on the verge of divorce.

In Chef, Jon Favreau is Carl Casper, the talented and famous chef at a popular restaurant in LA. For him, pride is demonstrated with a singular obsession with his craft. He views himself as culinary master, angered by his boss (Dustin Hoffman) the restaurant owner who won't let him try innovative recipes.

Because of the pride in his skills, he resists his ex-wife's suggestion to open a food truck and work for himself. Pride strains his relationship with his 10 year old son and his friendships with his kitchen staff. He pridefully insists that he is happy with his job even when it is obvious to everyone around him that he is miserable.

When studying the bible I have read much about pride, and none of it is positive - especially in Proverbs. Proverbs says that arrogance will be punished. It says that destruction and disgrace follows pride. Even the book of Isaiah says that great people will be brought down and the proud will be humbled, a truth we see in The Judge and Chef. The no-nonsense judge, the flashy lawyer, and the culinary genius. Each of them brought down. Each of them disgraced, punished, or destroyed.

Pictures courtesy of Village Roadshow/Warner Bros. Pictures and Open Road Films

The first humbling moment for Judge Palmer comes in a heartbreaking scene where his disease causes him to collapse in the bathroom. His son comes to help him through nausea, vomiting, and complete loss of bowel control. Despite their contentious relationship, Hank helps his dad through the humiliation and into the shower to clean up. Judge is further humbled as he is forced to admit the truth of his illness and failing memory in court as he’s providing testimony. He is humbled even more as he hears his guilty verdict. His disgrace was an attack on his legacy.

Hank Palmer’s humbling moments were not outright embarrassing, but direct statements from various relationships in his life. His dad’s doctor tells him, “You really aren't a pleasant person.” When his daughter asks why he and his wife are divorcing, she tells him, “Daddy’s don’t get lonely. They only marry younger mommies.” When trying to reconnect with his old high school sweetheart, she tells him the truth, “You’re just a boy from Indiana who’s gonna do whatever he has to do to pretend he’s not.” She also tells Hank that he’s selfish and a bully. In an argument with his older brother, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) voices hurt and bitterness that he’s the responsible brother who stayed home and would be the one to provide care to their mentally handicapped younger brother after both parents had passed; he makes the accusation that Hank would run back to his lavish lifestyle and forget about them. And finally, in court, Judge Palmer says that his biggest professional mistake was going easy on a criminal’s sentencing because the criminal reminded Judge of Hank. Each statement punished his arrogance and revealed him to be a smaller man than the image he projects.

In Chef, Carl Casper’s humbling is a downward spiral that begins when his boss won’t allow him to control the restaurant’s menu and they receive a bad review from a famous food blogger. He is humbled again when he accidently posts a public tweet that he thought was a private message to the blogger. It gets worse when his boss still refuses to grant him creative control over the menu; he quits but none of his kitchen staff friends leave with him. He returns to the restaurant later that night to confront the blogger where Casper unleashes a massive rant that is caught on camera and uploaded to Youtube. This video goes viral and Casper finds himself unemployed and unable to find any restaurant willing to hire him. His final humbling moment happens when he has to lower himself to ask his ex-wife’s ex-husband for a favor. Chef Casper found pride in his work, and his work was destroyed.

If pride wrecks lives, then the inverse is true. Humility restores life. Hank Palmer petitions for compassionate parole for his imprisoned father. He returns home and accepts his roots – even to the point of shouting “I’m from here” while standing in the middle of the street. He is not perfect, but he is healing. Chef Casper also finds healing in humility. His new venture turns into a massive success, he reconnects with his son, and his relationship with his ex-wife is restored.

From tears and laughter, these two films reminded me of the advice of Philippians chapter two. “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”