Personal Updates, Coming Attractions, and Remembrance (9/11/2020)

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Good morning, friends and readers! It’s been a month since I’ve posted last, but rest assured that, as the song says, you were always on my mind. I wanted to jump in here to give you some updates on what’s going on with me, drop a few recommended links for your weekend, and tell you a little bit about what I’m working on.

Personal Updates!

Things have been busy here at Chez 4thDave. Working from home is still a joy in a lot of ways, but lately it’s been a little more challenging with a very mischevious toddler and a baby who’s now able to crawl with sneaky quickness. As such, the interruption frequency has been pretty high, making workdays more frustrating.

I also have been given more opportunities to serve in my church and to serve other churches in the area. I’ve had 2 opportunities so far to preach at another church as part of a team providing “pulpit supply” until they can find a new lead pastor, so that has meant more time in study and sermon prep. This looks like it will continue through the fall, so I’m looking forward to getting more opportunities to preach the Gospel, something I really love doing!

My Monk Manual reviews continue to be my highest-traffic posts ever. It’s cool that a blog post just talking about something I really like and use personally is connecting with so many readers. And thanks to an affiliate-link agreement with the company, I’ve been able to make some unexpected but much-appreciated extra income that is helping my family out as we pay off debt and look to the future! What a blessing that is. (By the way, if you are in the market for a new journal/planner, check out those links–my code gets you 10% off your purchase! …Okay, shameless plug over.)

There are a few other big things on the horizon for my family, but I’ll save that discussion for later. All that to say, lots of important things happening to me personally, so the “fun” things (like blogging) have slid to the back burner for a bit.

Blog Updates!

I have a few posts I need to polish up and publish, including some sermon-text / Bible-study posts, some #FridayFeed content, and maybe a few other opinion pieces, depending on how salty I feel like getting. (Considering how tired I am all the time, you can probably count on my blogging for the next few weeks to be pretty low-sodium.)

Something else I’m thinking about doing is trying to post daily micro-blogs in October, featuring 31 books that I enjoy or that have made an impact on my life. And of course, there will be a corny hashtag: #Booktober. What do you think: should I go for it? Let me know in the comments.

I’m also planning on continuing my Twilight Zone (2019) commentary (I’m a few episodes into Season 2 so far!), so you should see a couple posts on that in the next few weeks.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about going back and finishing my #52Stories project from 2019, so I can close the loop on that challenge. Better late than never, right? Let me know in the comments if you think that would be worth doing. If so, maybe I can round out November with some of those posts.

That should set me up for the next 2 months of blogging. My problem is always making big plans and then not following through. But you know what? If y’all are willing to come along for the ride, I’ll figure out a way to make it work. In the words of DJ Khaled:

Friday Links

Finally, we should acknowledge the somber remembrance of the day.

  • Right now as I’m getting ready to post this, the reading of the names of the 9/11 has been going on for over an hour. I would encourage you to watch at least some of the video of this year’s remembrance and take some time to think about and pray for the victim’s families.
  • If you haven’t read it yet, my “where were you when” story is posted here.
  • If you’ve never read through Ari Fleischer’s Twitter recap, every year he provides a minute-by-minute account of the events of that day from his perspective inside the inner circle of the White House. A fascinating insider look at how the United States responded to that terrible attack.
  • The ESPN 30 for 30 film “First Pitch” is an outstanding look at the place of sports in the aftermath of 9/11. I don’t know where you can find the whole thing online for free (legally anyway), but here’s a great clip that sums it up.

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That’s all I have for today. Go hug your kids, tell your parents you appreciate them, call your grandma (because it’s been too long!), and do the kind of things that you’ll look back on and wish you had “gotten around to” more often.

Have a good weekend, friends.

Through Another Dimension: Considering “Twilight Zone 2019” (Part 3) – Season 1, Episodes 6-10

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Welcome back, friends!

Assume the same caveats from my last post, and let’s get into it, shall we?

Episode 1.06 – “Six Degrees of Freedom”

The Premise: During the final countdown before a manned mission to Mars, the 6-member crew of the Bradbury learns that nuclear war has begun. Facing certain death if they abort the launch, they decide to complete the mission without hope of support–only to begin questioning later what really happened. 

The Payoff: Finally, a space travel episode! Not to say that The Twilight Zone is limited to science fiction, but it’s nice for them finally to touch base with the genre that was so associated with the original series. The opening of this episode was killer—the playful elation of the crew as they finish up pre-launch checks, abruptly undercut by the dread and horror of the announced missile strike and the awful implications of their next vital decision: complete the mission, knowing they likely won’t have any support from home, or accept their fate and perish with the rest of the city?

The episode unfolds as a series of snapshots or vignettes, each tagged with the number of days left until the team expects to arrive on Mars. You get to see little pieces of most of the crew’s backstory, though the focus is mainly on the captain. The crew tries their best to keep things going as they should, even under these circumstances. One of the concepts bandied about during these sequences is the idea of a “great filter”–that a species’ level of advancement depends on whether or not they develop the technology (and wherewithal) to explore other worlds, before they destroy themselves.

During these sequences, it’s clear that something’s just a bit off with Jerry, one of the crew members. He finally snaps during a potentially life-threatening solar flare, and tells his panicked crewmates that they have nothing to worry about–he’s convinced this is all a simulation. When he goes out into the unshielded air lock to prove it, he disappears, apparently consumed by the heat, and the rest of the team resigns itself to completing the mission–but always with a question in the back of their minds: “What if Jerry was right?”

Well, here’s the spoiler: he was…and he wasn’t. The crew makes it to Mars (presumably) but the final scene reveals that some unseen higher beings have been observing their efforts. The “great filter” idea pays off here, as the aliens comment on the perseverance of the humans, as well as the actions of the one who figured out they were watching (whom they saved from the solar flare). This opens up the idea of aliens within this TZ2019 universe (and it is a shared universe, as there are references to this space mission back in “Nightmare”), but it seems that this thread will not be picked up again, at least in Season 1.

This episode was strange but fun, and I probably could use another viewing to really “get” it. In some ways, this felt like a set-up episode for a future storyline (which is weird, since this is an anthology show–right? Maybe, maybe not…)

Also, I had no idea what the title refers to, so I looked it up. Per IMDB, this refers to directional movement within a simulation: up/down, left/right, forward/backward, pitch, roll, and yaw. So that’s fun; thanks, IMDB!

Episode 1.07 – “Not All Men”

The Premise: A meteor storm in a small town affects the behavior of about half of the residents, in increasingly terrifying ways.

The Pay-off: This episode…oof. The thing is, I suspect any negative comments I have about this episode might be written off as “male fragility” or “mansplaining” or somesuch, so it makes me slightly hesitant to bother laying out the problems I had with it. Truth be told, there were a lot of things I thought this episode did rather well. The way the main character Annie was depicted enduring instances of everyday sexism was a thought-provoking way to address the real misogyny that exists in our society. The quiet admission of her sister Martha that she had been (presumably) assaulted during her dating years was heart-breaking. The cinematography of the birthday cake scene was terrifying and effective. The acting was pretty solid across the board. And though I sometimes struggle with the phrase “toxic masculinity” (especially since it is often attached to any traditionally masculine ideals/tropes, rather than just negative ones), there are legitimate conversations to be had about the way some men treat women in our culture, and art is often a great way to instigate those conversations.

That said, the big problem with this episode, as with “The Wunderkind,” is that the writer/director took the central conceit of a meteor rock bringing out the worst traits of the men in the town, and used it like a sledgehammer. Once the chaos ramped up and the episode shifted to almost a zombie-horror tale (which, again, I thought was a cool choice, honestly), all subtlety from the first part of the episode was destroyed, to the point that the end narration of the episode basically argues, “yes, basically all men.” (Get it? The episode title was ironic.)

This is an episode I wish I could hash out in friendly coversation, because it’s worth discussing and my feelings on it are truly mixed. The two biggest issues I have with the writing of this episode are 1) the story’s thematic inconsistency, and 2) the inadequate worldview expressed. In brief:

1) Annie and her sister Martha seek to escape the deranged men of the town, and they hope that police or military responders will help to defend/rescue them from the threat–even though these organizations also employ *gasp!* men. So, is it that all men are capable of these evils, except for those in uniform? (We know the answer to that.) Despite the best efforts of the progressive writing, this common theme still peeks through: Annie and Martha are hoping for a defender who will protect them by displaying courage and sacrifice (two traits classically associated with noble or honorable men [though not exclusively men]). What felt so broken about this plot was that there were no noble men. (Or at least, noble straight men, as the only example shown of a man resisting the meteor madness was a gay teenager. It almost seems as if acknowledging a need for noble heterosexual men would undercut the whole point of the episode. Maybe it would.)

And I want to be very clear: I’m not saying that these characteristics of nobility are exclusive to men–not at all. But the episode seems to imply that such men do not exist in the real world, that all men can be seen as potential threats, and that rings false, at least to me. But I’m not a woman, so perhaps the point is that this is true from a woman’s perspective (though that seems to categorize the female experience as monolithic).

2) The story seems to present toxic masculinity as a product of masculinity and not a product of sin. For this, I’d point to the gas station scene, in which Martha tries to gin up some reaction to the meteor rock but can’t do so because she doesn’t have the…testosterone, I guess? (Frankly, if they somehow linked the meteor rock to reactions with testosterone, that would have made more sense, but whatever.) The clear implication is that she isn’t reacting because she isn’t a man. As a Christian, I believe that instances of (actual) toxic masculinity are the product of a sinful nature–which is not limited to only one gender. The more interesting writing choice, I think, would have been for the meteor rock to affect both men AND women, if in different ways. This would have opened up an interesting exploration of the darkness of human nature as a whole, in a sci-fi/horror context, in which you could still address male sexual aggression and random acts of violence. But then again, that doesn’t seem to be the goal of the writers.

Like “The Wunderkind,” “Not All Men” was an episode I didn’t really enjoy–not because the subject matter bothered me, but because I thought the simplistic execution wasted the storytelling opportunity in order to score political/cultural points.

Episode 1.08 – “Point of Origin”

The Premise: Eve, an upper-class housewife in a picture-perfect suburb, suspects that something is not quite right with her idyllic life. After she is taken into custody by mysterious agents, this suspicion is proven correct as Eve’s entire reality is turned upside-down.

The Pay-off: This episode was another mixed-bag for me. The overarching theme of immigration is pretty on-the-nose, but I still liked several elements of this episode. Perhaps my issue is that I was hoping for a bit more to it. Granted, it’s an anthology show, so we can’t expect deep lore when there’s only a single episode to work with, but when you drop parallel-dimension travel on me, along with an agency that’s tasked with capturing the people who don’t belong in this world, I’m going to want to see how this progresses. Of course, these are all analogs for real-world groups and organizations, but this episode does just enough to make this scenario feel different and fresh. Ginnifer Goodwin gives a fantastic turn as Eve and drew my sympathy almost immediately. The actor playing her main nemesis brought the appropriate amount of cold, bureaucratic creepiness, and that beautiful machine they used with the “Eye of the Beholder” facemask was a glorious Easter egg.

The immigration commentary was laid on a little thick at parts (the “ladies who lunch” were basically all right-wing stereotypes in fancy outfits), and the part when Anna calls out Eve’s shallow interest in her life was a little heavy-handed but still worked for me. And then there was Jordan Peele’s tsk-tsking closing narration about how we’re “all immigrants.” Okay, y’all. We get it. Now let me get back to the science fiction, please.

I agree with Mark Ramsey’s comments on The Twilight Zone Podcast‘s discussion of this episode: part of the problem was that the people the showrunners wanted to zing with this social commentary probably won’t relate to the upper-crust, fancy-home-with-a-housekeeper type (though I would also suggest that those who fit the main character’s social set may also harbor such views, at least subconsciously, but would see themselves as champions of social causes).

I guess I don’t have much else to say about this one. As I said, it felt like an interesting teaser but left me wanting more.

Episode 1.09 – “The Blue Scorpion”

The Premise: An anthropology professor comes into possession of an allegedly cursed pistol when his father commits suicide with it. This strange and beautiful object begins to control the man’s life, with possibly deadly results.

The Pay-off: I loved this episode…right up until the closing narration.  Chris O’Dowd (of “IT Crowd” fame) plays the lead character’s descent into obsession in this episode as a slow boil, and it really makes for a captivating performance. The episode is beautifully shot, and the set decorations and props are top notch. The eponymous gun is a beautiful piece, and it makes sense that it is such a point of fascination for so many. I thought the “JEFF” bullet was a nice touch and added a sense of dread as more and more Jeff’s enter the story. While the episode didn’t resolve the way I expected and was a bit anti-climactic after the growing tension of the episode, it wasn’t bad. Just a little underwhelming.

But then you get the closing narration, in which Peele talks about how…we love guns more than people? I mean, I guess you can make that connection (see the statement, “I love him more than I ever loved you” throughout), but it reeeeeeally feels like a stretch. Aside from the shooting-range scene, this whole episode could have centered around another “cursed object” and it still might have worked with a few narrative tweaks. After enjoying the episode as a well-done “cursed object” story, Peele’s moralizing at the end confused me. I thought, “Wait a minute–was that really what this was all about?”

I don’t know, Mr. Peele. Sometimes a pistol is just a pistol.

Episode 1.10 – “Blurryman”

The Premise: Sophie, a writer for the 2019 reboot of The Twilight Zone (!!!), finds herself in a strange and terrifying situation, as the wall between reality and fiction dissolves and she is stalked by a mysterious, shadowy figure.

The Pay-off: In a season of up-and-down episodes, the first series ends with one of the very best outings, both in terms of writing and execution. I absolutely loved the meta-references, and the reveal of the “Blurryman” having been present in earlier episodes of the season blew me away.

There were so many things to applaud in this episode. The acting was on-point. Zazie Beetz killed it as the writer Sophie, Jordan Peele played a slightly more arch version of himself, and the cameos were all delightful. (Truth be told, I’d love to see an actual TZ episode with Seth Rogen playing a lead role, but I think that’s ruined now!) The set design and use of previous locations and props were delightful (for example, including the bar from “The Wunderkind” was a great call-back). The creepiness of the Blurryman’s slow approach was pitch-perfect, even if the chase was perhaps a bit over-long. The only production weakness was a wonky bit of CGI on the Blurryman reveal, but I can forgive that. It’s high-end TV, but it’s still TV.

[SPOILER] And in the end, what’s chasing Sophie is the “ghost” of Rod Serling himself, because of course it is. This was pretty obvious early on (though that may be because Tom Elliot and Luke Own actually pointed out the Serling-like blurry figure in the background of the climax to “Replay,” so I was already a bit primed for it! But from a metaphorical standpoint, it’s just so perfect. This iteration of the show has been trying to both honor and differentiate itself from its legendary godfather. Reportedly, Serling’s widow was involved in the production of this episode as well, so there was a real care taken to honor the legacy with which they have been entrusted.

This episode, like “Replay,” had me literally sitting up at the edge of my seat, mouth agape and slightly smiling, muttering responses back to the TV throughout the episode. I was fully and thoroughly engaged and delighted. And in the end, when “Rod” takes Sophie through the doorway to another dimension, I just shook my head and smiled. Perfect ending. (Plus, I loved the fact that young Sophie’s touchpoint for The Twilight Zone was one of my all-time favorite episodes, “Time Enough at Last”!)

“Blurryman” was nearly perfect as a Twilight Zone episode and helped to successfully cap off a generally-good first season of the 2019 update.

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So what did I think of the season as a whole?

One of the most important exchanges of the season finale was early on, when Sophie and “Jordan” discuss what The Twilight Zone *should* be: is it just scary campfire stories, or a vehicle for social commentary? “Jordan” suggests it can be both. Sophie struggles with this idea until the Blurryman shows her that there is room for both: you shouldn’t lose the childlike wonder and delight of a scary campfire story, even as you are trying to point to larger issues. 

This right here is the crux of the season, the series, and my sometimes-frustration with the 2019 version of the show. There were times throughout this first season when the balance of story and social commentary felt really off. A recent interview on The Twilight Zone Podcast with the show’s executive producer Win Rosenfeld indicated that he very intentionally wants to make political statements with the show–which is fine, in my view. However, political statements don’t guarantee good or even effective art.

There were episodes in Season 1 that handled social commentary in a way that felt natural to the story, such that the use of tropes and cliches were minimized and the narrative worked very well. There were other episodes that felt like the writer was assigned a message or moral, and tried to slap a story around that like papier-mache. Frankly, the stories that felt the least political seemed the most successful as Twilight Zone episodes, even if they didn’t move me particularly as a viewer.

I find myself going back to a word I’ve used repeatedly so far in these reviews: subtlety. When the message is surface-level and the characterizations are cliched, the show feels clunky like every other politically-driven scripted show on television. But when the story comes first, when the characters feel authentic, then even a plainly-moralizing episode still works, because that’s what the original series did, in my opinion. The most overtly-political episodes still worked because the writers/showrunners were storytellers first and pundits second. My favorite episode of the season was clearly a “message” episode, but it had enough layers and complexity that it rewarded more contemplation after viewing.

My hope is that Season 2 continues that trend, with strong narratives and characterization, so that the thematic takeaway isn’t front-and-center in each episode.

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Here’s my personal ranking of worst-to-best for this first season of the 2019 Twilight Zone reboot series:

10. “The Wunderkind”
9. “Not All Men”
8. “A. Traveller”
7. “Point of Origin”
6. “The Comedian”
5. “Six Degrees of Freedom”
4. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”
3. “The Blue Scorpion”
2. “Blurryman”
1. “Replay”

That’s all I’ve got for Season 1 of The Twilight Zone (2019)!

What did you think of the first season? What were your favorite epispodes? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Coming soon: I’ll review the first 5 episodes of Season 2! See you there!

The Life-changing Magic of Deleting 200 Emails

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On the way home from an out-of-state roadtrip (family obligations, stop glaring at me, I’m quarantining now), I listened to a discussion Brett McKay of the Art of Manliness podcast had with Scott Soneshein about his book Joy at Work, which he cowrote with the Queen of Sparked Joy herself, Marie Kondo.

One of Soneshein’s suggestions for decluttering your digital life is to clean out your email inbox of things you keep around but don’t need. I don’t know about you, but this is an area where my pack-rat tendencies flare up.

I have a few different email accounts for personal use, including one just for advertisements, mailing lists, and newsletters–non-vital email, in other words. I subscribed to several newsletters, which may arrive every day to every month or so. They range from political analysis to creative advice to theology. I think they’re all pretty neat, and I’ve enjoyed reading them from time to time in the past. However, several months ago, I started collecting a backlog of emails I promised myself I’d get around to reading. The news-commentary emails are easier to delete in a more timely manner, but some of the other less-time-locked material was just sitting there in my inbox, like it was a little digital to-be-read shelf full of bite-sized goodness. If only I had the time!

Well, I took the time today–but used it to clear the deck. I pulled up the 250-300 emails, and went screen by screen, highlighted all 50 emails on each screen and selectively saving only the ones I decided I could read TODAY. And then hit “delete” at the bottom of each page, removing all the rest.

That inbox now has 36 emails in it. And I’m about to go through, read or skim each of the survivors, and file or delete as needed. The crazy thing is: I don’t even miss the 200+ other emails, because I have no idea what was in them. I’m sure they included good and useful content (I’m pretty selective about newsletter mailing lists), but that doesn’t matter.

Sometimes the hardest thing for me is to accept that I don’t have the time or ability to read everything or learn everything. I am finite. And that’s okay.

So here’s my suggestion, reader: if you’re collecting hundreds of emails that would be nice to go through if you had the time, but just aren’t vital to your life, perhaps consider flipping the script. Rather than asking whether or not you should delete each of those emails, assume you are going to, click that “select all” box, and then make each of those emails justify why they deserve your attention.

Be merciless. Be demanding. Don’t linger. Hit delete.

You probably* won’t miss them.

(*And if you do realize you just deleted something valuable, dig that one thing out of your “Trash” folder–but don’t go email dumpster diving!)

 

Friday Feed (7/23/2020)

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Happy Friday, readers! Here are some interesting finds from the last week:

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Happy weekend, friends. Do me a favor, if you will: take a moment over the next few days, and tell your loved ones how much they mean to you. They need to hear it more often, and it’s good for us to say it more often.

Also: remember that every day is a gift from God; remind yourself to receive it with thanksgiving and put it to good use.

I’ll be back next week with another Twilight Zone commentary (because I enjoy them, even if none of y’all read them!) and a few other fun things. See you then!

Through Another Dimension: Considering “Twilight Zone 2019” (Part 2) – Season 1, Episodes 1-5

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Hello again, readers! I’m back with a commentary/analysis of Episodes 1-5 of The Twilight Zone (2019) Season 1!

Rather than giving a deep-dive review of each episode, I’m just going to provide some initial thoughts and observations. Frankly, there are better blogs and podcasts out there who can give you deeper analysis, especially since I’ve only watched each of these episodes 1 time. What you’ll find below are my thoughts and observations, with some influence and insight from Tom Elliot and friends on The Twilight Zone Podcast. (Quick caveat: I’ve tried to note where an idea came from them and not originally from me, but if I miss any, let me know. Sometimes it’s hard to remember if I’m coming up with an observation or repeating it!)

Be forewarned: While each “premise” synopsis below will be spoiler-free, my subsequent comments on each episode will not be. Scroll accordingly!

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Episode 1.01 – “The Comedian”

The Premise: A struggling comedian meets a stranger in a bar who gives him some career-altering advice. But the comic finds out that success comes at a price–and there are some things you can’t get back once you give them away.

The Payoff: Okay, starting with one more disclaimer–I watched this episode when it was offered as a sneak preview for the series, over a year ago, so my recollection of finer details will be a bit fuzzy. But overall I thought this story was a good start to the season. Samir, the struggling comic (played by Kumail Nanjiani), is offered a kind of Faustian bargain by a mysterious stranger (played by Tracy Morgan) and begins to find fame after years with little success. Thematically, the story examines what you give up when you put increasingly more of yourself out there for public consumption, as Samir literally begins to lose people and relationships once they become fodder for his stand-up routine. Looking back over this season, I have to admit this episode is one that feels more like classic Twilight Zone in terms of style: a main character with a fatal flaw receives his comeuppance. The foul language felt a bit heavy-handed, but I assumed at the time that was due to the setting (turns out, that’s just the norm for the new show). All in all, a nice creepy tale to kick things off.

Episode 1.02 – “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”

The Premise: A journalist battleing PTSD boards a plane from Washington D.C. to Tel Aviv for an assignment, when he finds a strange mp3 player in the seat-back pocket. On it, he hears a podcast detailing the mysterious disappearance of his very own flight.

The Pay-off: This is the only episode of the season that is blatantly presented as a re-imagining of a classic episode (and one of the most famous) from the original series. Adam Scott plays Justin Sanderson with a slow-burn panic that keeps the tension high and makes his increasingly-erratic actions seem almost reasonable, at least at first. While we as the viewers can recognize how his actions appear more erratic and crazy over time, we’re allowed into his world enough to see the logic of his decisions. Throughout the episode, Adam tries to determine who will be responsible for the potential crash, with interludes from the podcast (read by the great Dan Carlin) providing a sort of real-time narration. As Tom and his guests noted in the TZP commentary, there is also a sort of Fight Club element with the character of “Joe,” whom Justin meets in the airport and talks to throughout the flight. I too found myself wondering if Joe was real or a figment of Justin’s stressed imagination. (Maybe because “Jack” first meets Tyler Durden on a plane in Fight Club?) This episode provided a fresh take on a familiar scenario for fans of the franchise and kept the tension high throughout. The coda at the end was unnecessary, but included a fun (and obvious) callback to the original episode and took is in a different direction (literally) than the previous iterations. All in all, great work.

Episode 1.03 – “Replay”

The Premise: On their way to freshman orientation, a mother and her son are menaced by a racist state trooper, just as she discovers her father’s old camcorder can reverse time. But can it prevent what feels inevitable?

The Payoff: This was the first episode of the season that wore its message squarely on its sleeve, but that didn’t prevent it from being a compelling story.

Nina Harrison is driving her son Dorian to school to study filmmaking, when they are harrassed by a shark-like state trooper, Officer Lasky. Thanks to the “magic” camcorder, Nina is able to rewind time and undo the escalating confrontation. However, no matter how Nina tries to change the timeline to avoid this threat, Lasky keeps finding them, with increasingly dangerous results. Ultimately, Nina realizes that the only way to alter the timeline is to take a detour and return to her childhood home to visit her estranged brother. He shepherds them through sewer tunnels and back alleys until they reach the university campus, but they can’t escape without one more encounter with Lasky and his men.

While it’s certainly possible for viewers to assume the message is “all cops are dangerous,” I think the theme is a bit more nuanced than that. While the presentation of the ever-present Lasky felt (to me) like something more fitting to the 60’s, setting it in the present emphasizes the idea that people of color still sometimes deal with discrimination and injustice from police. The inevitable encounters with Lasky represent racism as an ever-present threat that must be navigated but perhaps cannot be avoided. In the third act, Nina’s brother Neil acts as a sort of modern-day Harriet Tubman, at one point taking his family literally underground in their quest for Dorian to find “freedom” (via education). In the finale, they had to stand up to Lasky and his men, and they did so with a crowd of families at the university who all produced cellphones to record his behavior. While this episode premiered over a year ago, I watched it just weeks after George Floyd’s murder, and this moment felt particularly powerful and timely. All in all, this episode felt like the *right* way to lean hard into an issue in this format. (Later entries would not be so successful, in my mind.)

Episode 1.04 – “A. Traveller”

The Premise: Every Christmas Eve, the chief of police in a small Alaskan village “pardons” someone being held in their often-empty jail. This year, a mysterious stranger suddenly appears in one of the cells and asks to be the lucky recipient of the sheriff’s gesture.

The Pay-off: I gotta be honest–this was the first episode for me that didn’t quite “work”–at least on a script or story level. The technical elements and performances were excellent. The cinematography and editing were moody and ethereal, contrasting the dark, shadowy “underworld” of the cellblock with the tinny, red-lit Christmas party and the cool blue-black of the outside night sky. The acting was on-point, as it is throughout the entire first season, and the characters were interesting. It just felt like the story and theme were a bit muddy, as if the writers tried to pull together too many disparate threads. It was a story about hidden secrets being revealed, a fable about getting the thing you want and finding out it’s a trap, an allegory about manifest destiny and the erasure of indigenous culture (?). Honestly, the part that works best is the premise itself: a charming stranger in a suit and fedora appears suddenly in an underground prison cell of a snowy village on Christmas Eve, during the police station Christmas party. It had the intial markings of one of the sweeter episodes from the original series, like “Night of the Meek,” and could have taken a turn and become an interesting and heartwarming tale about “welcoming the stranger.” But rather than resolving with lessons learned amid the “magic of Christmas,” it devolves into a tale of people being awful to each other at the brink of an alien invasion. Throw in some cheap “hypocritical Christians” commentary, and it just turns a bit too bitter for my taste. I hear that this one improves with rewatches. Perhaps I’ll give it another try.

Episode 1.05 – “The Wunderkind”

The Premise: In the aftermath of an embarrassing campaign defeat, a young up-and-coming campaign manager finds a new candidate to champion in the next election cycle: a 10-year-old Youtube celebrity.

The Pay-off:  I thought this was one of the worst episodes of the season, and not for the obvious reasons. Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s about Trump. The boy-president is an avatar for Trump. That alone wouldn’t be enough to turn me off or irritate me (I’m certainly not a fan of the man). But the reason why I think this episode roundly fails is because the premise strained credulity so painfully that the satire turned into farce–and the worst kind of all, a boring farce. While some of the performances were solid (John Cho was a perfect lead), and there were some insights about the mercenary nature of presidential politics that they could have played with a bit more, the idea of everyone kowtowing to a 10-year-old boy (including his parents?!?) was just too much to work with. Obviously, they want to recall “It’s a Good Life” from the original series, but that’s one of the most fantastical episodes of the classic run. Taking the exaggerated dynamic of that episode and wedging it into a realistic setting just doesn’t work. I get it–you’re using a petulant child to represent the fickle and capricious nature of the current administration. Good for you. Now show me something interesting.

If they had instead aged up the candidate, made him (or her?) a Youtube influencer more like the Paul brothers or a similar personality, it might have been more effective, because you can bring in other ideas like the manipulation of an audience or office for financial gain (also a pertinent critique). You even could have made the child-president concept work better if you didn’t have his parents on board at some point (and perhaps having the president “disappear” them ominously, which would have been a better allusion to the previous iteration). All in all, this episode sunk into a bog of “huh-huh baby Trump” caricature, and it could have been so much better. (To quote an old meme: “I’m not mad, I’m just…disappointed.”)

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Five Season 1 episodes down, five to go! Do you agree with my takes? Disagree? Did I miss something? Comment below!

Next up: Episodes 6-10 of The Twilight Zone (2019) Season 1!

Through Another Dimension: Considering “Twilight Zone 2019” (Part 1)

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The After-Hours

My earliest memory of The Twilight Zone was from 7th or 8th grade, at my friend Adam’s house, staying up late watching an all-night marathon on a local TV station (aired on New Year’s Eve, as I recall). Much of my early exposure to The Twilight Zone was in that format: holiday marathons of the “top” 10 or 20 most popular episodes on late-night local TV or cable channels.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that I really hadn’t seen very many episodes of the classic series–certainly fewer than 50 out of the 120+ half-hour episodes. With the advent of Netflix streaming (and discovering online resources like Tom Elliot’s fantastic Twilight Zone Podcast–definitely check that out!), I not only started filling in the gaps of my Twilight Zone viewing, but I also became aware of an entire season I had missed because those episodes were made for an hour-long format and most stations never air those longer episodes as reruns.

Over the last 2 years, I have almost completely caught up on what has become one of my favorite television shows of all time. While not every episode is a masterpiece, each season was packed with inventive ideas and challenging storylines. Serling and his team didn’t shy away from tackling social issues and political viewpoints, but they often did so under the cover of allegory and genre storytelling so that the message became a little more palatable. Serling himself became a modern-day Aesop, often underlining the moral of the story in his closing narration.

When I heard in 2018 that CBS was developing an updated version of the series, with Jordan Peele producing and starring in the “narrator” role, I was cautiously optimistic. I had just recently watched Get Out and was struck by how deftly (even Serling-like) Peele had been able to weave social commentary into an otherwise straightforward horror story. Like so many other TZ fans, I kept thinking, Don’t mess it up. Please don’t mess it up.

So did the new Twilight Zone live up to the legend of the classic? It took me more than a year to find out, as it happens. Life got busy, as it so often does, and it wasn’t until I heard that Season 2 would be released in its entirety in late June that I decided to “step through the door.” The question remained, however: what exactly would I find on the other side?

In Praise of Peele (and the Production Team)

So far, I’ve watched all of the first season. I’ll provide a brief analysis of each episode in the next few posts in this series, but I wanted to give my initial (spoiler-free) impressions here.

Let’s start with Peele himself. Stepping into the black suit (sans cigarette, naturally) would be a daunting task for anyone, but Peele brings the requisite mystery and cool restraint to the role (except…when he doesn’t–we’ll get there). He isn’t trying to recreate Rod Serling (except…well, we’ll get there), but instead to honor his legacy by taking up the mantle of the enigmatic, omniscient Narrator. He’s the one taking us on this journey (except…you know), and he does a bang-up job helping this show really feel like The Twilight Zone.

The show is cinematic and gorgeous to look at. The music evokes the appropriate off-kilter vibe, even reusing the end credits music from the original series. The production design and cinematography are spot-on, even down to small details like the fonts and layout of the title screen and end credits text. While a little bit of the CGI is limited by a TV-show budget, the practical effects are on point. Almost every episode includes very subtle easter eggs and callbacks to the original series that will make longtime fans positively giddy but will rarely distract a casual fan who’s only interested in the current story.

As an anthology show, The Twilight Zone runs the gamut in tone and tension, with some episodes being strange and intriguing and others being downright squirm-eliciting and bone-chilling. The production elements are employed well to create the mood of each episode, helping to draw the viewer into the story effectively.

All of that being said, production values aren’t (often) what made the original series stand out. It was always first and foremost the story and themes that captured our imagination. Does the current iteration have the same magic?

A World of Difference

My best answer to that question is: sometimes? The writing is solid from a technical perspective. The dialogue pops, and the characters generally work. The issue I had at certain points during the season was with how this iteration of the show handled the themes and messaging of each episode.

The Twilight Zone has always been a political show. This is a fact I never really appreciated until I started listen to Tom Elliot’s Twilight Zone podcast (again, recommended if you’re a fan of the series!). Elliot often discusses how Serling and the original show’s writers would sometimes use the genres of sci-fi and horror to make serious and pointed social commentary. When done well, this approach to genre storytelling elevates the form to something timeless and resonant.

In other episodes, the original series would present a type of morality play. Characters with a fatal flaw (hubris, vanity, greed) would receive their comeuppance via a type of karmic justice–as if the Twilight Zone itself was balancing the scales. Down-on-their-luck innocents would finally (usually, fantastically) get their big break. Then there were the episodes that were just strange for their own sake–creepy campfire stories to tell in the dark, strange tales of unimaginable situations and dark ironies. The original series seemed to balance these storytelling approaches fairly well, but I think the first season of the 2019 version struggled in this regard.

Several of the episodes in Season 1 of the 2019 series keyed in on a particular social issue, almost to the point where you could reduce the descriptions of the episodes to “the gun one,” “the racism one,” “the immigration one,” “the toxic masculinity one.” In some cases, the episode was still masterfully written, so that the clear allegory didn’t detract from a compelling story. Other times, it felt like the message was driving the narrative beats, instead of vice versa. The political bent of the show is predictably to the left, but as an ideological conservative I can still find pleasure in an interesting story well-told, even if I disagree with the worldview being expressed. Unfortunately, there were a few times this season where the cliches were a bit too much to overcome.

The other problem I have with this series thusfar is the “mature-rating” content that is employed throughout. Because this new series is written in 2019, it carries with it 2019’s social mores, in terms of sexuality, profanity, and morality. The show is only available on CBS’s premium streaming platform, so they are not constrained by broadcast standards (even 2019’s comparatively relaxed rules). For example, while it wasn’t enough to stop me from finishing the first season, I found the level of profanity in every episode (especially “R-rated” profanity) to be tiresome and entirely unnecessary. There are also a few instances of sexual content sprinkled throughout that, while tame by streaming-TV standards, still didn’t add to the stories and could have been alluded to instead of shown. I recognize that this show is competing in the same market as Black Mirror, Stranger Things, and Dark, but my hope was that The Twilight Zone could find a way to be provocative without being salacious. Some may find that corny; I prefer the term “classic.”

All that to say, I would strongly advise my readers and friends to look into the specifics of what would warrant “parental advisory” or a “mature” rating for this show, and then use their discernment on whether or not to watch (and I definitely wouldn’t recommend any of it for the kiddos).

The New Exhibit

All of that said, I did enjoy the first season of the 2019 series and look forward to checking out Season 2 very soon. (Obviously I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered writing almost 1500 words about it!) I’ll follow up this post with some brief episode-by-episode analysis of both Seasons 1 and 2. (If you’ve made it this far, I assume that might interest you! If not, then thanks for scrolling!)

In summary, if you enjoyed the original Twilight Zone series and aren’t put off by the content issues I’ve addressed, the 2019 TZ might be worth checking out. If you do so (or if you have done so already), I’d be interested to hear your feedback in the comments below and the upcoming episode summary posts!

On the other hand, if the “modern” tone and tenor are enough to keep you away, I’d still recommend going back to the original series and giving it a(nother) watch. Even though some episodes definitely don’t hold up anymore, it’s still a fun ride to take (by yourself or even with the whole family) through a door to another dimension.

Coming Next Week: My thoughts on Twilight Zone 2019 Season 1, Episodes 1-5!

Friday Feed (7/10/2020)

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Hey y’all! Here are a few things I’ve found fun or interesting in recent weeks. Enjoy, and I’ll be back next week with actual posts! Seriously!

 

“I don’t need your civil war…”

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How do you think about the people around you? How do you see them? How do you speak about them?

There’s been so much that’s gone on in the last month that has burdened and overwhelmed me. So much that I wanted to say but didn’t know how to–or whether or not my words would contribute anything useful or new. I’ve tried to stay out of the online hot-take business (with mixed success), but I think a lot of my thoughts lately are boiled down to this key issue:

When you stop seeing your ideological opponents as human beings worthy of dignity, it makes it a lot easier to justify treating them as sub-human in your speech and actions, both directly and indirectly.

People from my ideological/theological camp talk about the dignity of human life a lot, specifically when it comes to the life of the unborn. But I worry that much of that language is shown to be mere rhetoric when the way we speak to and about our enemies (either political or theological) is degrading, demeaning, and dismissive. (Depending on whom you ask, that makes me a squishy, raised-pinky, “nuance”-obsessed liberal, which is HILARIOUS.)

Labels and categories can sometimes provide a helpful shorthand in conversation, but I wonder if we lean so heavily on those that they start to become personas or avatars to absorb our attacks. It’s easy to make fun of “leftists” or “Trumpists” when you’re thinking about a generic stereotype instead of your parents or siblings. You can take shots, make jokes, dismiss their concerns. But when you start putting names and faces to the labels, it should become a bit harder to be so calloused and contemptuous.

“Should.” But we both know that with practice, we can become very comfortable labelling and smearing even the ones we purport to love with such invective.

“You’re just a…”

“Well of course you disagree, you….”

“Well, if you’d quit listen to all those…”

When Jesus said that in the end times, a person’s enemies would be the members of his or her own household, I don’t think the reason for this was supposed to be who’s on the national ballot or where we stand on cultural hot-button issues.

…I don’t have some great epiphany coming here. I hope you’re not expecting one.

Instead, can I just encourage you to take a few moments and run a mental audit of how you have spoken about people lately, including/especially those you disagree with? Ask yourself, “Am I able to disagree with this person/group while still treating them with dignity, as image-bearers?”

And don’t answer too quickly in the affirmative. I know that my knee-jerk reaction to this is, “Of course I do!” If it’s the same for you, maybe take a second and think carefully about it. If you’re feeling especially bold, ask someone close to you if you tend to speak of those you disagree with in minimizing or dismissive terms.

Perhaps one good step toward addressing some of the bitter divisiveness and tension in our homes and communities is by recognizing that we’re more than our political team-jersey–and the same is true of those on “the other side.”

Look, I’m not calling for some kind of kumbayah, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing-Imagine sort of utopian dream, because that won’t ever happen, nor should it. There are serious issues than need to be discussed. There are divides and differences of belief that can’t be ignored or patched over. It’s right and good to disagree, even disagree strongly, about issues of first importance. But if we can’t at least look each other in the eye and say, “you matter,” I think it says a lot about our own hearts. And for those of us who seek to follow Jesus, it may say something mortally serious that we just can’t ignore.

Planning Like a Monk: Monk Manual Planner Full Review!

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“IT’S ABOUT TIME, DAVE!” (I know, right?)

About 8 months ago, I wrote a review of my experience using the Monk Manual journal pages that were available for free from MonkManual.com, and promised at that time that if you readers would help me earn a free full journal, I’d come back with a full review. Well, your patience has paid off because here we are!

This review is long overdue, but I hope it will be helpful to you if you’re considering purchasing the Monk Manual journal (plus, I have a small discount code available, if that helps you decide!). So let’s get into it!

The Initial Experience

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First things first: the journal itself. The packaging is pristine, and just the experience of unboxing the journal is a delight. You can always tell when a company loves what they do, when they take care to make all the little details special. The MM folks have done that for sure.

The journal is well-constructed with a leather-like feel to the hardbound cover–smooth and cool to the touch with a green elastic band to hold it closed, similar to a Moleskine journal. The paper is a thick, acid-free stock, and the printing is clear, clean, and light but fully legible. (“Light” may not seem like a good thing, but the aesthetic of the journal lends itself toward subtlety, so from a design standpoint, it makes total sense.)

From a purely tactile standpoint, this journal is delightful to use. The Monk Manual crew have taken the time to make sure they are shipping a quality product. But as with many things, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

A Counter-Intuitive Solution to a Common Problem

The Monk Manual journal includes some introductory material explaining how you can use the different sections of the pages, and provides some prompts for how to make the journal work for you. But one of the things that sets the Monk Manual apart from other journals/planners is how the pages are arranged.

Typical planners are organized like a calendar: a monthly 1-2 page calender view, then the Week 1 view, followed by Days 1-7, with the pages laid out chronologically. At the end of the first 7 daily pages, you might have another weekly page, followed by the next set of days, and so on. But if you’re like me, this type of journal may only get half-filled, if you miss days, forget to fill things in, or get off track and come back later. The Monk Manual recognizes this problem and provides a unique solution.

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As you can see, the journal has 3 ribbon bookmarks attached to the binding. That’s because the pages are arranged into 3 sections: a section of Monthly Pages, a section of Weekly Pages, and a section of Daily Pages. At first, I was a little annoyed that I’d have to check 3 different sections from time to time, rather than just flip a few pages. However, time would provide the answer for why this type of design is brilliant.

The Monk Manual is advertised as a 3-month journal, but I’ve had mine for about 6 months and I still have lots of pages left to use. Rather than leaving dozens of blank pages for missed days, as I would in a typical journal, I was able to just pick up and start using the daily pages right where I left off. Plus, since the Monthly pages have about 6 weeks of “blanks,” I turned the last empty monthly page I had into a “June/July” section, so I could wring out every bit of usefulness from this journal.

 

 

The bottom-line is, the makers of Monk Manual understand that sometimes you miss some days, maybe some weeks, and rather than “penalize” you by forcing you to skip empty pages, you can just pick up where you left off with minimal effort. While there are some unfinished days scattered throughout my journal, I’ve been able to get back on track with using it in a fairly painless manner.

In a sense, I think that’s part of the philosophy behind the Monk Manual system: you aren’t aiming for perfection, but progress. This journal is designed to allow for those rough patches but still give you the opportunity to pick it up again and keep going.

My One Unresolved “Complaint”

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That brings me to the one unresolved complaint I have–the Monk Manual, for all of its pleasing design and well-thought-out organization, still doesn’t seem capable of doing the work for me. Those folks over at MM refused to include the self-discipline I needed when they sent me the box with my journal. That’s so frustrating!

Okay, joking aside, that’s really the only downside I can think of with this journal–I still have to do the work myself. As I noted previously, you get out of it what you put into it, and when I’ve been able to devote a few minutes at the beginning and end of each day to plan and review my day, I’ve found it to be a helpful way to think through my schedule and priorities. And then, during those weeks and months when I didn’t make that time, the journal just sat there on the shelf, waiting for me to come back and pick up again.

When I was doing some cleaning in my home office last month, I found a box that contained at least 5 old journals/notebooks, each of which having no more than 20 pages of writing in them. The bulk of those journals were blank pages, because too often over the years, I’d start something, get distracted, and then never pick it up again.

I was worried that it would be the same with the Monk Manual–once it had been months since I filled out a page, I didn’t think I’d really be able to start again. But honestly, it was pretty simple to just turn the page and start fresh. And so I’ve been back to using it for about 2 weeks, and once I run through the last of my daily pages (because I have the highest percentage of those left), I’m going to pick up another Monk Manual and keep it going.

Is it Worth It? Can You Work It?

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Admittedly, the Monk Manual isn’t cheap. You could pick up a blank journal at the store or online for a fraction of the cost. Is it really worth more than $35 to get this particular journal?

In a word: yes. I think the Monk Manual is worth every penny.

The materials are quality, the book is well-constructed, and the finished product is pleasing to the touch. The organization of the pages and the question prompts that are provided are unlike anything I’ve seen in a typical dayplanner/organizer. I’ve benefitted from using this journal, and from being able to come back to it after a 4-month gap.

My only recommendation is that you try to break out of the “90-day planner” headspace when you use it. Yes, that’s how it’s marketed, but honestly, I think it may be helpful to fill out all 6-weeks of each monthly page, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll need a little bit of forgetfulness-margin so that you don’t run out of monthly pages with a ton of dailies left.

Interested in the Monk Manual? Here’s A Special Offer for my Readers…

The folks at Monk Manual have agreed to re-up my affiliate link for another month, so if you use the code DAVEM at checkout, you get 10% off your total purchase from Monk Manual, and I get a small percentage back to me.

If you’re on the fence about this, I would encourage you to give it a shot (and not just because I have the affiliate link there). It’s a really neat journal, and I’m enjoying using it myself.

Once more, if you’re ready to check it out, use this link to get your discount and to let the folks at MM know you heard it from me.

And if you DO order a journal, comment below and let me know what you think! Thanks!

A Different Kind of Low-Carb Diet.

 

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Sometimes, our words reveal more than we intend.

My work day yesterday was broken up by some family responsibilities (yay, working from home!), so when I logged in just before dinner time, I got a bit spooked by my task list. I asked my wife if I could disappear for the evening to try to catch up some things. Back in the pre-WFH days, I would usually do this once a week to stay caught up.

At the end of the evening, as my wife was getting ready to head upstairs to bed, she said, “I’m sorry you have to work so long tonight.” I responded, “Honestly, it’s about 60% have-to, and about 40% anxious-about-my-inbox.”

A few minutes after she went upstairs, the Holy Spirit brought a Bible verse to mind, and I knew I was busted.

A Worried Mind

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it in this context, but I wrestle with fretfulness, specifically about the safety of my family. For me, going to sleep can be hard in a house that creaks and murmurs when the A/C kicks on. I have a semi-obsessive nightly routine of checking locks and alarms before bed, and if there’s even a bare question in my mind of whether I forgot one,  I will go back and do it all again.

One of my current favorite Psalms is Psalm 127, particularly the first verse. I have to remind myself, as my anxious mind races when my head hits the pillow, that unless the Lord is watching over me, all the locks and alarms in the world wouldn’t help. I have to trust in his protection, for “You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8).

But it was the second verse of Psalm 127 that came to mind last night, as my wife walked upstairs:

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Psalm 127:2)

The imagery there resonates with me so much: I’m prone to be up too late at night, chewing over the stale loaves of anxious toil, instead of receiving the gift of sleep.

I realized I was condemned by my own words. I was gnawing on the crusts of worry-work and missing the feast.

Unfortunately, I had also just washed it down with a carafe of full-octane coffee, so the gift of sleep would be a bit…delayed.

An Unexpected Blessing

What to do, then, in my caffeinated condition at 11pm? Take the unplanned opportunity and change my “diet” for the evening. I closed the computer, with its anxious crumbs, and picked up true food.

I was able to enjoy the Scriptures for a while, supplementing my reading with part of a commentary on the section. I nibbled at a few other spiritually-encouraging books. In short, I tried to redeem the coffee buzz!

When my head FINALLY hit the pillow (and I quickly prayed through my nightly temptation to fret), I wasn’t mulling over to-do lists and missed deadlines. Instead, I was grateful for all that God had blessed me with, especially the dear ones sleeping under my roof.

I’m also thankful for the gentle reminder to go a little more “low-carb” in my work-life, so I can better enjoy the good gifts God has given me.