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.


Predictive Substitution: Harry Potter

I have a confession to make. One that makes me feel as if I have failed as a nerd. Are you ready?

I have never read any of the Harry Potter books. And I haven't seen any of the movies either. Strange, I know. You can shame me later.

Before I lose all credibility though, I must explain. The Potterverse isn't completely foreign to me. A good number of my friends are die-hard fans. Two of my three kids have read the full series of books; my oldest has read each of the books at least seven times. Despite never reading a single line of Rowling's novels, I am familiar with the stories. I could easily fake being a Potterhead.

I see the memes on Facebook and follow J.K. Rowling on twitter. I know enough of the story and plot twists to get the jokes. As for spoilers? Yeah.

"You're wizard, Harry." He's also a horcrux. Harry was an orphan abused by his aunt and uncle. They kept him in a cupboard under the stairs at 4 Privet Drive. Students take the Hogwarts Express train to get to their school, which departs from Platform 9 3/4ths at King's Cross in London. Wizards shop in Diagon Alley. Gringotts is a bank. Ordinary people (those who do not possess magical abilities) are pejoratively known as muggles. Hagrid is a big dude. Death Eaters are bad. Quidditch is a complicated sport. Hedwig the owl dies. Snape kills Dumbledore, but Snape isn't completely evil even though it looks like he might be. Voldemort is He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Hermione Granger is the real hero.

If Hogwarts was a real place, and my family was sorted into the houses, my oldest son and I would belong in Gryffindor, my daughter in Ravenclaw, and my youngest son in Hufflepuff. If I had a patronus, it would be a mountain goat. My daughter's patronus would be an Arabian horse. And my fiancée’s daughter's patronus would probably be a Shetland pony.

My knowledge of the wizarding world of Harry Potter and all his friends has been gained vicariously, like some sort of geeky osmosis. While I'll never be a Potter expert, I do appreciate what Rowling accomplished and the fictional universe she created. I know enough of the lore to enjoy the fandom without actually doing the reading and watching work of a true fan.

Which brings me back to the memes. While scrolling through Facebook, I stumbled upon a fill-in-the-blanks with predictive text game that had a Harry Potter theme. Harry was known as "The boy who lived," a phrase that also serves as the title of the first chapter of the first book. This line was the source of the meme, asking friends to use their phone's predictive text get a Potterish nickname.

(Your name), (the gender with which you identify) who (finish with predictive text).

When I did it, I got, "Nic, the boy who has a little more time." Which vaguely sounds like a threat, like my time is running out. Or an insult as if I'm not already doing enough. Perhaps, though unlikely, it's a reference to my superpowers, the ability to complete tasks quicker than expected allowing me a little more time. Note: I don't have superpowers.

Some of the other Potter-names were good for a laugh. The woman who has been through the ringer. The girl who was a little confused. The woman who is coming out of the oven. The man who was a little extra.

These quick breaks from reality give us a temporary reprieve from the dreary headlines of school shootings and scandals involving elected officials. We all need a little distraction in our lives, and I thank the nerds on the internet for providing what we need.

It also got me thinking. Rowling wrote in a way to make the reader empathize with Harry Potter. We were meant to experience the world of Hogwarts through his eyes. We should feel what he feels through both triumph and tragedy. What if we were to place our names into the titles of each of the seven books then completed it with a mix of Mad Libs and predictive texting.

Book 1: (Your name) and the (Dream job)'s (finish with predictive text)
Book 2: (Your name) and the (room in your house where you spend the most time) of (finish with predictive text)
Book 3: (Your name) and the (fill in with predictive text) of (your most exotic bucket list destination)
Book 4: (Your name) and the (closest fluid container) of (finish with predictive text)
Book 5: (Your name) and the (fill in with predictive text) of the (your favorite mythical creature)
Book 6: (Your name) and the Half-(fill in with predictive text) (your title of nobility if you were a member of England's aristocracy)
Book 7: (Your name) and the (your biggest fear as an adjective) (finish with predictive text)

My Harry Potterish book titles are as follows:

Book 1: Nic Casey and the Writer's Favorite Team
Book 2: Nic Casey and the Kitchen of the Gospel
Book 3: Nic Casey and the Kids of Kastellorizo
Book 4: Nic Casey and the Water Bottle of Thistle
Book 5: Nic Casey and the First of the Yeti
Book 6: Nic Casey and the Half-Washington Duke
Book 7: Nic Casey and the Insignificant Morning

Consider this my gift of escapism. Take a break from the nastiness of social media and geek out for a few minutes. Feel free to play along and comment what your books would be called. Maybe one of these days, I'll get around to reading the Harry Potter series. I've heard it's great.


Tomb Raider: a Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

image courtesy of Warner Bros & MGM

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

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


A Call to Arms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nuestra Vida Loca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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