Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Monster Calls

I read Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls a year ago. I chose not to write about it because it was too personal, too magnificently beautiful to risk messing with the way it lingered. Now that the movie is out, I think I’m ready.

SPOILERS WILL ABOUND!!

As a young boy struggles to navigate the reality of his mother’s cancer and the increasingly futile treatments, a monster calls. This monster, an ancient tree that comes to life, insists the boy called him. Now that he is there, he will tell the boy three stories and the boy will tell him the fourth. These storytelling episodes are interspersed with real world challenges: he is being bullied at school; his estranged father is visiting again; his relationally distant grandmother is being forced to play an increasing role in his life; his mother is steadily succumbing to the cancer she is trying to hard to defeat.

The monster’s stories are meant to prepare the boy for what is inevitable. When I first read the book, the stories confused me, but as I watched the movie’s depiction some pieces fell into place. Here’s my theory for what it's worth. The stories are about some of the greatest fears in universal human experience: Life is unfair (the first story), hope and faith can be lost (the second story); and we will never matter (the third story). [1]

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Getting What We Deserve

Snapshot One: A few years ago, I attended a concert by Johnny Lang and Buddy Guy. While Lang’s performance left me in awe, a different memory has lingered just as strongly. When Buddy Guy finished his first song, he said something along the lines of, “Where’s the f****** crowd?”  Within minutes, audience members were shouting the f-word back at him. When Guy left the stage and began to work the audience, his speech, songs, and actions were full of innuendo – and once again, the audience responded in kind. It was all part of the stage show – Guy knows how to work a room – but I’ve never forgotten how the entire mood changed when Guy gave the audience permission to interact with him in a certain way by establishing what was appropriate. He didn’t have to tell them they could; they rightly inferred it from what he demonstrated. [1]

Snapshot Two: I once attended a soccer game in Costa Rica between two teams with a long and intense rivalry. My friend who took me, thinking himself funny, bought me the jersey of the visiting team to wear.  “Oh,” he noted, “don’t be surprised if people walking past you say insulting things.” Indeed, that’s exactly what happened. I wore a visiting rival’s shirt to a rivalry game; what else should I expect?

Snapshot Three: I saw a documentary that included some scenes from a music festival a few years back. A band introduced a song by saying, “There’s only one rule tonight: there are no f****** rules!” Shockingly, fans swarmed the stage, and the band had to stop while security enforced that particular rule. Limp Bizkit (“Break Stuff”) and Rage Against The Machine (“Killing In The Name”) have seen similar incidents at their concerts when fans went ahead and acted out what the band sang.

Snapshot Four: Last week, one of Mac Miller’s fans came up to him and said about Miller’s girlfriend, Ariana Grande, what Miller says all the time about women – specifically, how great it must be to “hit that.” If you are wondering why that fan thought it was appropriate to say that, just check out some of Mac Miller’s lyrics. Or not. The message matters.[2]

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The 'Hit' That Ariana Didn't Want - Or Deserve

Last week, a young fan said to Ariana Grande’s boyfriend, Mac Miller, “Ariana is sexy as hell, man. I see you, I see you hitting that!!!" Ariana’s response was rightly indignant: "Hitting that? The f***?? This may not seem like a big deal to some of you but I felt sick and objectified. I was also sitting right there when he said it."

Can we all agree that the fan was totally out of line, not just for saying that in front of her but for saying that at all? It’s a cold objectification of a human being whose value is reduced to her' tappability'.  Ariana desires to be seen as a strong, independent woman whose value comes from an inherent dignity, not her sexual desirability. I don’t blame her for wanting this.  All women deserve to be treated with value, worth and dignity because they are human beings.

Can we also all agree there is some sad irony here? Ariana makes her living in an industry that has normalized the use of ‘hit’ or ‘tap’ to refer to sex – and in so doing, our cultural troubadours have made it acceptable to refer to women as objects whose value is found in how eagerly men wish to ‘tap’ them. Here’s just a small sample easily found with a google lyric search – and I will let her boyfriend, Mac Miller, lead the way. I apologize for the language, but...it is what it is.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Assassin's Creed

As best as I can cobble together from the film, this is the background of Assassin’s Creed.

There are these assassins, and they have an initiation creed:
Assassin: "Where other men blindly follow the truth, remember..."
Initiate: "Nothing is true."
Assassin: "Where other men are limited by morality or law, remember..."
Initiate: "Everything is permitted."
Assassin: "We work in the dark to serve the light. We are Assassins."
Yikes. (Anti-hero...check!) What is so important that they are permitted to do anything immoral or illegal to serve this vague light?

Apparently, when Eve ate the apple, she exercised free will and as a result seeded the first sin into the world. Since then, everything has gone downhill: violence, greed, poorly made movies, etc. The Templars at some point decided that they would find the apple and genetically undo the damage that has been done (apparently sin is biological). Sounds great, but that also means free will goes out the window as everybody does what the Templars want them to do. The Assassins formed to stop the Templars from doing this.  

Fast forward five hundred years. The modern Templars are on the verge of getting the apple. They have apparently captured all the modern Assassins and managed, through some sci-fi wizardry, to find a way to send a modern descendent of an Assassin back to relive the life of a former Assassin. By doing this, they will be able to figure out where this elusive apple has been hidden for the past 500 years. One super na├»ve scientist, Sophia, is convinced the Templars will use this power to bring worldwide peace by deleting the genetic basis of violence in everybody (hello, Nobel Peace Prize!). I don’t think it will give much away to say that her plan is not the same as the other Templars.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

National Geographic's Gender Revolution

Recently, National Geographic made headlines by putting a transgender child on the cover.  The response has been mixed to put it mildly, ranging from praise for furthering human rights to criticism for promoting child abuse. In light of that discussion, I thought it worth noting several things about the transgender question that ought to be part of the discussion.

TRANSGENDERISM HAS COMPLICATED ORIGINS

Glenn Stanton offers a list of potential causes for gender dysphoria: the “girl trapped in a boy’s body” conviction; family and parental dynamics (“family noise”); psychosexual disorders; not being directed or encouraged in typical gender behavior; a mix of many of factors. His conclusion?
"The truth is that no one really knows what’s behind it, even the most cutting-edge researchers and clinicians. A 2014 book for clinicians, Treating Transgender Children and Adolescents, explains, in academic terms, 'No unequivocal etiological [causal root] factor determining atypical gender development has been found to date.' Translation: We’re just not sure what causes it."
Walt Heyer, who was formerly transgender, writes:
Has any biological basis been found that indicates who will develop into a transgender? Is there a genetic marker in transgenders? The answer is no. Researchers have looked for evidence to prove that transgenders are different biologically but they haven’t found any. One study published in 2014 looked at certain suspected areas of the brain for an association with male-to-female (MtF) transsexualism and found none. Another study, published in 2009, looked for “evidence that genetic variants of sex hormone-related genes confer individual susceptibility to MtF or FtM transsexualism” and didn’t find any. Yet another study, published in 2013, found that “gender disorder does not seem to be associated with any molecular mutations of some of the main genes involved in sexual differentiation." Not a smidgeon of abnormality can be found in the genetic makeup of transgenders so, no, transgenders are not born that way. They are normal males and females.
In response to a flyer that read, "“Gender dysphoria is increasingly understood…as having biological origins,” Kenneth Zucker, one of the top researchers in the world, responded, "In terms of empirical data, this is not true. It’s just dogma, and l’ve never liked dogma. Biology is not destiny.”

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Comet Ping Pong, Pizzagate, And The Pursuit Of Truth

What some are claiming is happening in the Pizzagate scandal is sadly not out the realm of possibility. We know that people at times do terrible things and cover them up. I'm thinking of the story about pedophila in the UK parliament; the under-reported story about known pedophile Epstein and the politicians and celebrities who hang out with himthe recent pedophile ring uncovered in Norway; and the bust of a huge child pornography ring in Canada several years ago. I think that's one of the inevitable results of a porn-saturated culture, but that's a topic for another time. 

The problem of pedophilia is real and apparently growing, and it doesn't help that more and more people are defending it. However, we need to make sure that we are focusing our justified anger properly. This is, of course, the debate about Pizzagate: have people uncovered an actual pedophilia ring that deserves righteous anger and swift judgment, or it is a groundless story that has taken on a life of its own? In an internet world full of fake, biased and distorted news, it's not always easy to tell. 

In the interest of letting you read and reach your own conclusions before offering mine, here is a list of relevant articles that represent lead voices on both sides of this story.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange has been crushing it at the box office, and rightly so. It’s gorgeous and smart, and it offers a compelling (albeit common) superhero narrative: ordinary people become extraordinary, and in the process they realize that with their great power comes great responsibility. This will require what we think of as virtues: bravery, wisdom, self-control, altruism, moral goodness, and a willingness to sacrifice self for the sake of others. There are plenty of places to read plot summaries and discussion of the movie as a movie. I would like to highlight several things that stood out to me.

THE CHARACTER ARC OF DR. STRANGE

I really like how the narrative moves Dr. Strange from a cold, rational, self-centered egoist to a man who realizes that he must be willing to give up himself for the sake of the world. What began as a myopic quest to gain enough power to heal himself becomes a calling to save the world even if he can never get what he wanted personally. By the end of the movie, he has even gone back and sought to mend the trail of broken relationships he was leaving when we first met him. 

Evil as presented in the movie is strong and mesmerizing early on - but isn't that the case with most things that tempt us? By the end, that same evil has lost its luster. The really cool people in this movie are the ones who are not only fighting for good but who are good. It's nice to have a movie that shows the rise in Dr. Strange's virtue as desirable and compelling.

THE IMPORTANCE OF CHOOSING THE GOOD

Some are arguing that Dr. Strange is actually a villain because he taps into the evil side of this power to bring about good. I didn't see that happening. Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One, is shown to be wrong for making the kind of moral compromise ‘for the greater good’ that actually draws the evil to this universe. Dr. Strange rejects this (though he does later describe her as ‘complicated’, which may be setting up a scenario in which he is drawn to the same flawed justification). 

Mordo flatly rejects the Ancient One because he believes all the power into which they tap is evil. That does not appear to be true, but his opinion makes sense considering his experience. We see his start on a path to villainy: he is willing to kill anyone who has that kind of power - once again, for the sake of the greater good. Sound familiar? In the process of fighting the kind of moral compromise he saw in the Ancient One, he has given in to the same siren song of "the end justifies the means." His concern is legitimate; his methods are not. He has the potential of becoming perhaps the most sympathetic of the Marvel villains, one whose means we cannot justify but whose ends may well be more important than we realize.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Tougher Kind Of Thankful

"My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon." Japanese poet Masahide



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I don't know how your life has been, but this past year's circumstances  have reminded me that thankfulness doesn't always come easily. Sometimes it does bubble up naturally from a place of happiness - when the sun is shining in a cloudless northern Michigan sky over blossoming cherry trees, it's easy to love life. However, being thankful is often a commitment to finding that which is good even when the things we love burn to the ground.

As I look back over my life this Thanksgiving, I can see a number of gaps where barns once stood. I don't want to forget that when the smoke clears, the moon (or perhaps the Son) faithfully brings light to even the charred corners of the world. So, here's my attempt to see the beauty in the ashes.