“Could this have been an email?”

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Here’s a quick plea to folks who work in a “knowledge-work” industry or even just in an office environment: Recognize and try to minimize the time-cost of Zoom chats, in-person meetings, and phone calls.

Obviously I’m not the first to talk about this; I can’t tell you how many posts I’ve read from productivity and systems analyst types who address this idea. But I was reminded last week of how gallingly frustrating it is to be on the short-end of this situation.

In my line of work, I edit documents to meet certain specs and then send them back to “clients” to get feedback before finalization. Usually it’s pretty straightforward. Tracked-changes, in-line comments, easy. I was trying to finalize a project that needed to be expedited, and I sent the document to the client team, expecting a quick turnaround. When I didn’t hear from them for a couple of hours, I followed up by email and was told, “Oh, didn’t such-and-such reach out yet? She said she was going to call you. She said that it would probably be quicker than an email.

Somehow, I doubted that.

Her colleague assured me she’d call me back directly, so I sat for a few minutes with the document open on my desktop, waiting for her to call. I knew that as soon as I started something else, I’d have to stop and change gears to deal with this. After 5 minutes, I sighed and opened a different document to pick up working on another task, only to hear my phone ring 30 seconds later.

Now that she had me on the line, my contact then proceeded to open up the document I had sent the day before and read over it, line by line, making occasional comments–including a five-minute excursis in which she realized she was confusing this document with another project and had to check her email to confirm she was thinking of the right one. As I sat on the line with her.

Just to be clear: there were maybe 10 questions in this document to answer, most of which required a YES/NO response.

It took us 15 minutes to work through the short document so I could get the information I needed from her. Information that she could have typed up in-line in the document and emailed to me, adding little to no additional time on her end but possibly saving me about 10 minutes on mine.

That doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize that 5 or 6 such events burn an hour of work time.

I know I’ve done things like this in the past, so I’m trying to be mindful not to do this myself because I don’t want to be the guy whose name gets muttered through gritted teeth. No one wants to be that guy.

So here’s my plea, on behalf of the people you work with or interact with professionally: If that phone call or Zoom meeting or in-person meeting (if you are so blessed) is merely an information check-in that can be summarized by a 3-paragraph email or a notated document providing feedback, just send that to them and give those people back their time.

(Of course, then there’s the whole discussion about whether or not email itself is all that it’s cracked up to be, but we’ll leave that aside for now.)

Do you have any “quick phone call / meeting” horror stories? Leave them in the comments!

“Let Them Fight!”: The4thDave Reviews “Godzilla vs. Kong”

Dramatic Recreation of Title Character to Avoid Copyright Infringement (Hi, Legendary Pictures!)
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We have established already that I’m a mark for Godzilla movies, so I pretty much knew going in what to expect and what not to expect. When you purchase a ticket for a kaiju movie, you’re not looking for deep characterization, complex or thoughtful plotting, or meditative storytelling that reveals something true and surprising about the human condition.

The formula for a successful Godzilla movie is as follows: Godzilla + other monster + smashed buildings + cool visuals and loud noises + extended fight sequences + Godzilla wins = Success/Profit.

Does Godzilla vs. Kong do the job? My (mostly) spoiler-free thoughts below.

Monkey See, Monkey Smash

Up front, the film seeks to put the viewer in Kong’s corner. As a proud member of #TeamGodzilla, this was mildly annoying, but hey, I get it. Godzilla is unrelatable and cold; he’s a hurricane, an unrelenting force of nature (at least until you give him a kid–then things get weird). Kong has a better chance of connecting to the human characters more easily (as we’ve seen in the history of King Kong films), so it make sense from a storytelling standpoint to make him the connection point for our audience stand-ins on-screen. And as the film ramps up and it seems like Godzilla is going rogue and turning against humanity, the humans need the big ape in their corner.

I wasn’t a huge fan of his last “Legendary Monsterverse” film, Kong: Skull Island, mainly because I think it didn’t know what it wanted to be and tried to include too much Acting and Story to be an effective Kong film. (See formula for Godzilla success, above.) That said, I thought the CGI for Kong was really good at that point, and it’s only gotten better. The CGI of Kong’s face and fur in GvK were gorgeous, and it just looked so good on the big screen. (Yes, I watched this in a theater–more on this later.)

In fact, the visuals overall were really stunning in this movie. As I noted previously, the visuals for Godzilla: King of the Monsters were really muddy and dark, so that it was difficult to appreciate the designs of some of the creatures. In GvK, there are beautiful, vibrant vistas that provide the backdrop for these creatures to move and interact, from lush and otherwordly naturescapes to the futuristic neon of bustling urban centers. You can clearly see what is going on at all times, so the fighting and destruction of buildings was crystal-clear and spectacular.

The visuals, the sound design, the fight sequences were all on-point and delivered exactly what I was hoping for.

Unfortunately, the acting and plot also met my (low) expectations.

Cameo, Friend of All Actors

(That was a very weak Gamera reference; you’re welcome.)

Okay, let’s talk plot: it was…let’s be kind and say it was “busy.” But that’s the thing, gang: you probably shouldn’t expect the plot to make much sense. This is part of the whole Godzilla mythos.

In the Toho days, there were all sorts of bonkers plans to try to stop the big guy. Weird, stupid, nonsensical pseudo-science that “just has to work because it’s our only hope!” This movie was no different. I won’t give anything away, but characters were throwing out terms like “gravitational inversion” and “psionic connection” and “living super-computer” like these were sensible, logical terms. It’s gibberish. It’s fine. Eat your popcorn.

The biggest flaw of this movie is frankly that there are too many human characters with not enough to justify their presence, while other characters from the previous films are all but forgotten. Fine actors like Kyle Chandler are given just a few scenes, while characters like Charles Dance’s villainous Alan Jonah are completely ignored in this movie (which doesn’t make sense due to how the post-credits scene from KOTM *should* have played into this film!).

There are essentially 2 groups of human characters, which I’ll call Team A and Team B. Team A has somewhat of an impact on the storyline. They make the choices that drive the action, but really only serve as faciliators to the spectacle. They don’t change anything fundamentally, because in this franchise, the humans are either provacateurs or spectators. This other group of humans includes Befuddled White Guy, Mother Figure, Villain Stand-In, and Little Girl Ape-Whisperer. Do they have names? Sure, but who cares. They have functions and that’s all we need right now. Hush now. Sip your soft drink.

Team B’s sub-plot is more-or-less pointless other than to provide a reveal that honestly could have happened without them (sorry, Millie Bobby Brown). This plot arc follows the antics of Comic Relief Guy, Heroic Young Woman, and Overweight Male Sidekick Who Provides One Single Moment of Usefulness. Other than that one key event (that could have been done any number of ways), they did not impact the storyline at all. At times, it just felt like a necessary vehicle because MBB is still a bankable rising star and the producers think that will get the kids into the seats. (As if the headliners aren’t sufficient!)

I’m being facetious, obviously, but let’s get real here. You didn’t pay your ticket price or HBO Max subscription fee to focus on the human beings in this one. You wanted to see the monsters. And that’s what you got. The humans are glorified subtitles segueing from plot point to plot point.

It sounds like I’m criticizing the film. I’m not.

This is what I came here for.

The Main Event: A Three-Round Championship Bout

And in the end, was I satisfied? Of course I was. This movie was a blast.

The three main fight sequences were thrilling and visceral. There was enough back-and-forth to convince you that Godzilla and Kong are at least competitive, if not equals. When they joined forces to square off against a third combatant, the action ramps up even more.

You know it’s a good action sequence when you find yourself phsically tensed up and flinching one way or the other as you’re watching it.

Now, I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers so far, but I feel compelled to say the following, so put your [SPOILER EARMUFFS ON] and skip to the next section if you don’t want to be spoiled:

While the filmmakers try their best to keep it even and ambiguous, there’s no doubt in my mind that Godzilla proved to be superior. Kong needed human assistance and/or weapons to beat Godzilla, and Godzilla essentially killed Kong at the end, before he was revived. The only reason Mecha-Godzilla almost beat Godzilla was because he had just finished fighting Kong and was exhausted/hurt. Having Godzilla and Kong take down the mech together and then give begrudgingly respect as they each retreated to their home base was a perfect way to end this film and leave the door open for future sequels. (I’m still holding out home for a Godzilla vs. Mecha-Ghidorah storyline–I’m just saying, there are 2 more heads out there somewhere.)

Okay, [SPOILER EARMUFFS OFF].

Support Your Local Moviehouse

I’ve been looking forward to this movie since it was announced…and delayed…and delayed again. With the way that the pandemic seemed to be threatening the economic landscape and the nature of how we consume entertainment, I had serious concerns about whether or not I would get to see this movie in a theater in all its big, dumb, loud glory.

Thankfully, as we seem to be moving toward the end of the pandemic’s grip on society, movie theaters have started reopening, and I was able to go with a group of friends and sit in a nearly-empty movie theater to watch this spectacle exactly as it was intended to be seen.

Before the show started, we settled into our seats, overpriced snacks in hand. The atmosphere was almost giddy, as we chatted through the previews for Fast and Furious 9, Free Guy, Black Widow, and a few other upcoming features. Then, the show began. We cheered, we laughed, we commented up and down the row at different points. And as the lights came up and the end credits rolled, we laughed and joked as we walked out of the theater, revelling in what we had experienced together.

It had been about a year and a half since I’d sat in a movie theater. And while my movie-going outings have become more scarce in recent years since I became a parent, I still got out once in a while, either on a date with my wife or on a Saturday morning with friends. When the pandemic shut down the theaters, I was concerned that this was the end of an era for moviegoing. While it was unlikely that theaters would go away entirely (at least at this point), I started to question if the era of the big megaplex theater was coming to an close.

Hopefully, as the world bounces back from Covid through better treatments, vaccine availability, and smarter health practices, we can get back to “normal”–or at least a better version of “normal”–so that things like live sports and movie theaters become part of our cultural experience again. There’s something special about sitting with your friends (or a hundred strangers) in a darkened theater and enjoying the excitement and spectacle of a blockbuster movie as a group. Moviegoing is a communal event, a shared experience. It’s not just about the movie itself; it’s the whole process–tickets, concessions, the seats, the conversations on the way in and on the way out. It would be a shame to lose all of that. I hope we don’t.

So here’s my final recommendation: Godzilla vs. Kong was a silly, senseless spectacle of smashing that should be enjoyed in a movie theater. Grab a group of friends, buy a big ol’ tub of popcorn and a soda, and have a great time.

Friday Feed (4/16/2021)

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Happy Friday, friends! I have a handful of pretty cool links for your weekend perusal. I’d love to know if you enjoyed any of these in particular, so feel free to drop me a comment and let me know what you think! Here we go!

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And here he joins the Melodicka Bros to cover SOAD:

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There you have it. Talk to you next week, friends!

“See you in the gloom.”

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I started working out again.

I wasn’t planning on writing about this so soon–perhaps I was afraid I’d jinx myself or something (not that I believe in such things). More likely, it’s that I don’t feel I deserve any kudos for doing this yet.

When I start to make some positive change in my life, my wife will sometimes tell me she’s proud of me. My knee-jerk response is, “Be proud of me later.” Maybe that’s the wrong response to give, but I know myself. I know how often I’ve begun new projects or habits or “life changes” and how quickly I’ve faded out, lost steam, and fallen away. I’d much rather that she’s proud of me for being faithful at something for a long time than for merely starting it.

Anyway.

I have some friends who are part of a fitness group called F3 (which stands for “Fitness, Fellowship, and Faith”). They have been encouraging me to take part in their early morning workouts for a year or two, but I’ve rebuffed their suggestions with various lame excuses about timing and schedule and energy levels.

The fact of the matter is I didn’t want to join for two very important reasons: 1) Most of the workouts are at 5:30 a.m. and I hate waking up early; and 2) I’m fat and lazy and don’t like to be uncomfortable.

I needed something to jolt me out of those excuses.

Embracing My Why

In conversations and coaching about lifestyle changes like weight loss and fitness, a common refrain is “find your why”–the bottom-line driving reason for you to make a change. The logic of this is that you have to want a certain outcome more than you want the bad-for-you momentary choices. If you can hold on to your “why,” you can say “no” to yourself enough to build a better habit.

Obviously, a big “why” for me is my family. I’m 40 years old, and I know (at least on some level) that I am shortening my lifespan by living at a very unhealthy weight. Nevertheless, I still struggle to break some of the habits that keep me at this weight. (We don’t need to get too deep into the psychology of why that is, at this point. But suffice it to say, unless something changes, I’m not doing myself or my family any favors.)

On top of that, at my current weight, I can only get a limited amount of life insurance, so if anything were to happen to me, my family would struggle financially for a while before they could get their feet under them. That’s not at all what I want for them.

In the past, thinking about my “why” has usually triggered at least some sort of short-term change that quickly burned out as I reverted to old patterns. Then something happened about 2 weeks ago that flipped the first switch.

One night at around 1:30 a.m., our newborn woke up crying–piercing screams rather than her usual slow build-up cries. She was totally fine–she had a gas bubble, which in her 6 weeks of life experience would fairly be called an emergency–but I realized that I was not fine. For some reason, her cries triggered a physiological panic reaction in me: heart racing, chest tightness, jaw tightness, arm/shoulder pain, difficulty breathing, headache. Even as my wife tended to our daughter and I laid myself back down to sleep, I still felt amped up. My mind buzzed.

What if this was it? What if this was actually the heart attack I’ve been warned of but pretended wouldn’t catch up to me? What would happen to my wife and daughters if I died right now?

I’ve had those types of thoughts before. And while I can always rest in the reality that ultimately God will watch over my family, it’s still my responsibility to provide for and protect them–which I can’t do if I’m not alive.

For some reason, this early-morning shock hit me differently, and it was enough to make me decide to take a leap I’d been putting off for months.

I was going to go work out with other people.

Friendly New Guy

There is a third reason I put off going to those early-morning workouts with my friends: I didn’t want to embarrass myself. I didn’t want to be the one really fat guy who couldn’t keep up and who spent the whole time sucking wind and sweating like a wounded buffalo, while all these other athletes were completing exercises I couldn’t get close to finishing. (Seriously, the “burpee” is a cruel, sadistic exercise that has no right having such a cutesy name.)

But I went anyway, willing to risk embarrassment to try it out. I didn’t think I’d like exercising with other people. I didn’t think I’d finish the workout. I didn’t know if I’d ever go back. But I wanted to give it a try. But here’s what I found.

The guys were really welcoming. I was greeted warmly and welcomed by several of the group that morning. Between very challenging sets of exercises, some of them took turns hanging back in the back of the pack with me to talk. I was a little surprised by how cool everyone was. I was obviously in the worst shape of anyone there (by orders of magnitude) but they were all working hard and encouraging each other and me. That was refereshing.

I did better than I thought. I had to modify most exercises (and was encouraged to do so), and I’m most definitely the last man to finish every set. But I didn’t quit and I didn’t puke. That’s a small victory. The group’s repeated encouragement was that I wasn’t competing against anyone out there except myself, and my goal should just be to get better. And that is definitely my goal. I want to get better each time.

I became part of the group, not just a tag-along. One of the cool things about F3 and the culture they build is that they give each person a nickname or call-sign. You show up as a “Friendly New Guy,” but by the end, the group gives you a nickname and you are invited back. This sounds corny, but I think this may be part of the secret sauce of the whole thing. The feeling I was dreading most of all, going into this, was of being seen as a poser, as not really belonging there. The way these F3 groups welcome new guys and build rapport is something special.

I felt way better than I expected. I was totally gassed, and my muscles were unbelievably sore the next day. But I came home after that first workout with a smile on my face, and even told my wife it was “fun.” I committed to myself to show up for 3 workouts a week (at least at first) and have only missed one in the last 2 weeks. Obviously, it’s still really early in the process, but no matter how hard the workout is each time, I’m always glad after I finish and looking forward to going back.

SYITG

This really wasn’t supposed to be an infomercial post for the F3 program (#NotSpon), but this is just a cool development in my life and I wanted to share a little bit about it.

If you’re a man in the US and you need some motivation to get healthier or get stronger or just get moving, check out their site and look for a group near you. It’s all free to participate and volunteer-led. If you think you’re too old/fat/slow/shy to join any kind of workout group, I’d say just give it a try. Do your best. Swallow your pride. Get after it.

And depending on the day, if you’re in a certain part of the Houston area, I’ll see you out there in the early-morning gloom. Because I’m not planning on stopping anytime soon.

No matter how small.

My friend Michael Coughlin put out the call on Twitter this morning to folks in Texas that the Texas legislature will soon be considering bills that limit and/or outlaw abortion. He encouraged any friends who are against the scourge of abortion to submit comments that would be part of the public record and provided to the legislators.

As I’ve discussed in the past, I am thoroughly and unwaveringly convinced that abortion is evil, that it is the premeditated murder of a human being, and that it should not exist. So naturally, I was happy to lend my voice to the proceedings, as a citizen of the great state of Texas. I’ve included these comments below, so that I’m fully “on the record” on this subject.

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Good morning. I’m writing to encourage and exhort my representatives to take a stand and make Texas a state that affirms the value and dignity of human life from the moment of conception.

The unborn child is a unique human being, with her own unique DNA, distinct from her parents’. She is not a blob of tissue or a mere collection of cells. From the moment of conception, the unborn child’s cells are totipotent, carrying within themselves the complete blueprints to develop into a fully-formed human being, if given the time, nutrition, and protection necessary. In time, the child will develop her own nervous system, internal organs, blood type, fingerprints. All of the hallmarks of a unique and precious individual are there in the womb within the space of mere weeks. If we claim to be a society that “believes in science” and affirms the inherent rights of human beings, then it is hypocritical to dismiss the scientific reality of an unborn child’s humanity at any stage of development or to allow the decisions of others to make the life of that unborn child discardable.

As a unique human being, each unborn child has been endowed by his or her Creator with inalienable rights recognized under the United States Constitution, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To allow the mother or another individual to make the decision to end the life of that child denies those rights. Not only is such a premeditated act of violence tantamount to murder, ending the life of a distinct human being, but it is a clear instance of social injustice. If Texas is going to be a state that protects the rights of its citizens, it must begin doing so at the very earliest stage of existence.

Finally, I call on my state government to recognize that every unborn child, no matter the circumstances of their conception, is made in the image of Almighty God. From the moment of conception, they have been knit together in their mothers’ wombs, intricately woven in secret, as the Psalmist poetically described it. Every person is an image bearer of God, no matter their age, stage of development, level of ability or disability, ethnicity, economic circumstances, sex, or location. Every person deserves dignity and respect. Every person has the God-given right to be born.

It is the duty of this state and its leaders to protect and defend the rights of its citizens against injustice and premeditated violence. Friends, we have failed to do so when it comes to our youngest, most innocent, and most vulnerable citizens. I plead with you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to consider this, and to ask yourself if we really want to be a people that denies the basic humanity of others, and treats human beings like objects to be owned or discarded at the whim of another. May it not be so. May it never be so in the state of Texas.

Thank you for your time and attention. Know that I and my family will be praying for you.

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I know this is a challenging subject with a lot of strong feelings on both sides. You may disagree with me, and you may even be upset about this. If you’re willing and able to discuss the issue in the comments, I’m happy to engage in good faith. (As always, just don’t be a jerk.) So I’m leaving the com-box open for now. Thanks.

Revisiting”Something Wicked This Way Comes” as a Grown-up

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I’ve loved Ray Bradbury’s fiction since my early teens, when I first read “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” from The Martian Chronicles in English class. I was floored by Farhenheit 451, delighted by Dandelion Wine, and mesmerized by Bradbury’s myriad short stories. His Zen and the Art of Writing is still in my top-five writing books of all time. However, I contend that his most underappreciated work is his “Halloween novel,” Something Wicked This Way Comes.

I was 15 or 16 when I first encountered this novel, recommended by a classmate of mine. The imagery was indelible, and even if the exact details of the plot escaped me in the intervening years, the mental images of the midnight train and the dark carnival arriving at 3 a.m. have been forever lodged in my imagination.

A few weeks back, I listened to an episode of The Great Books Podcast (highly recommended podcast, by the way), covering this novel and its themes. The discussion was so intriguing, I decided it was time to revisit this story, about 25 years after my initial reading.

Boy, am I glad I did.

Spinning the Carousel

The set-up of the book is spooky and enchanting: a few days before Halloween, childhood best friends Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade encounter a lightning-rod salesman who warns them that a big storm is coming and that they should get prepared. Soon, they see a flyer for “Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show,” a mysterious carnival on a train that chugs its way to the outskirts of town at 3 a.m., the “witching hour.” It becomes clear that this carnival has a sinister and perhaps even demonic pull on the hearts of some of the residents of Green Town, Illinois, and soon Jim and Will start to see and feel the effects of the carnival themselves.

One of the biggest dangers of Cooger and Dark’s carnival are the rides and attractions that seem to grip people’s hearts and souls: the carousel that can make people older or younger, depending on which direction it spins; the hall of mirrors that can magnify the pain and isolation one feels; the Dust Witch who sees the future and reads the mind; the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, encased in a tomb of ice. These sideshow attractions take on a shadow of foreboding as they seem to embody the things that tempt the main characters the most (recalling to mind an idea that Stephen King would later take up in Needful Things, though I’m not sure that the one directly influenced the other). Bradbury explores the nature of temptation, the hunger of discontentment, and the danger of giving up almost anything to satisfy your deepest desires.

Without giving too much away, the plot of the story involves Will and Jim recognizing that something’s unsettling and wrong about the carnival and its inhabitants, trying to stop their plans themselves, and, when that becomes impossible, eventually enlisting the help of Will’s father, Charles Halloway. Halloway is described as a prematurely “old man” of 54 (!) who works as a janitor at the library, is a lover and reader of books, and becomes the only hope the boys have to stand up against the forces of Mr. Dark (the “Illustrated Man”) and his carnival troupe.

The book is a showcase of fantasy-horror, with lyrical prose that evokes startling and beautiful imagery. Bradbury is sometimes pigeon-holed as just being a “sci-fi guy” or a “dystopian writer.” His ability to paint a picture of sublime small-town Americana that suddenly veers into gothic horror is breath-taking.

Staring Into the Mirrors

Over the last few years, I’ve revisited works of art and media that I remembered loving in my youth and young adulthood. As I’ve done so, I’ve noticed how certain ideas or characters hit me in an entirely different way as a middle-aged, married man than they did two decades prior. This book was another one of those instances.

For one thing, there were subtle suggestions or references to sexuality in a few chapters that totally sailed over my head as a young and blessedly naive teenager. This is not at all to say that the book is crass or crude; Bradbury is able to trace the faintest outline of an idea so that the reader understands his implication, without needing to be explicit or base. As a sheltered teenaged boy eager to move along the creepy plot, I flew right past certain dialogue exchanges and paragraphs without realizing what was really being talked about or its implications (for example, Jim peeping through a window and seeing something he shouldn’t have, planting seeds of lust in his heart). While one could suggest that such references are unnecessary (and I don’t disagree totally), it could also be argued that those moments show us another picture of the enticement of sin, without debasing the reader with lurid description. At any rate, I was a bit shocked, reading these scenes with adult eyes.

However, the big shift in my reading experience was being able to understand Charles Halloway so much better. In my youthful mind, he was simply a wise mentor character, a heroic father, but little more; I was too busy putting myself in the shoes of young Will, scared by a wilder and weirder world than he was ready for. Now, I noticed different things about Charles. I related to his frustration with the passage of time, as his mind and body disagreed on how old he really was. I recognized with bitter familiarity the fleeting temptation of the carnival’s flyer advertising “the most beautiful woman in the world” and that split-second of hesitation, of imagining, before Charles dismissed the images and thoughts it conjured in his mind. I heard my own voice in his discussion with his wife about how he wishes he were a younger father, instead of there being a 40 year difference between himself and Will (a feeling that especially hit home as we’ve recently welcomed our third daughter, halfway-through my 40th year). I felt empathy as Charles seemed to wonder who he really was, what his life was good for, as he considered his work and his place in the world.

These are all questions and thoughts and emotions that may be most clearly felt and understood and written by a middle-aged man (Bradbury was 42 when the book was published). As such, it seems that it’s only now, in this second reading, that I have truly begun to understand this book.

“It is my own smile.”

In the end, love wins the day. Not in a cliched or bumper-sticker-style way. Love wins, because joy wins. Acceptance and contentment and gratitude wins. Sometimes, the best thing a middle-aged father can do to fight off the dark fog that creeps around his life is to smile, to laugh loudly, to embrace his wife and children, and to be grateful for what he’s been given.

And for the thirteen-year-old boy, looking out with trepidation at the big, bad world, perhaps his superpower, his totem against the darkness, is realizing that he would be blessed to become that kind of “old man” one day.

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If you’ve never read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, I would highly encourage it. It’s a creepy and beautifully-written “genre” novel that touches on deep ideas and themes about the human experience. It’s easy to miss because it’s one of Bradbury’s lesser-known works, but it surely deserves a place of honor alongside his more popular novels.

And if you *have* read it before, and it’s been a little while, maybe give it another shot and see what new things pop out. You never know what you might discover!

This experience has inspired me to go back and revisit other books I read years ago to see if my perspective has changed. I don’t know how often I’ll get to do so, but whenever I do, I’ll come back here to tell you all about it, deal?

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Have you read this book? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Grief, Perservering: Final Thoughts on “WandaVision”

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Hello again, friends! I’m back to give my quick retrospective thoughts on WandaVision. Yes, it’s been a few weeks since the finale (what can I say, new baby and all that), but I still wanted to revisit the show and its themes because they were so rich with ideas for discussion.

So, don’t touch that dial–let’s get into it!

Very Special Episodes

First off, I have nothing but HUGE praise for the director and the writing and production teams on maintaining the television tropes and framing throughout the series. It was an absolute delight to recognize subtle references in both the opening credits sequences and the way the “on-air” segments were shot. I especially enjoyed that Malcolm in the Middle got a some love as the framing style for the Halloween episode. That show doesn’t get nearly enough credit!

The other references were stellar, from the theme song changes reflecting the 80’s (Family Ties, Growing Pains, Full House) and the 2000’s (The Office, Modern Family) to the use of the commercials as glimpses into Wanda’s damaged subconscious (the Yo!Magic yogurt commercial still creeps me out). Even the titles of the episodes were a wink to classic sitcom tropes and traditions. The care and love that the showrunners have for past shows took this concept from a quirky oddity to a really heartwarming retrospective of television history, decked out in a superhero costume.

While not perfect, this series wildly exceeded my expectations in terms of production and style. It bodes well for the other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) shows coming to Disney+, and how seriously Marvel Studios is taking its TV storytelling.

Recasting Pietro

With all that lavished praise in place, let’s go ahead and talk about my biggest disappointment in the series: the Pietro Fake-out.

As you may recall, Episode 5 ended with a HUGE reveal: an unexpected knock at the door revealed “Pietro” back from the dead–but it was the Fox X-Men Unverse’s Pietro, not the MCU version. The internet fandom collectively lost its mind (me included), because this seemed to imply that upcoming “multiverse” storylines were being introduced by crossing over another version of Quicksilver into the Marvel 199999 (MCU) “universe.”

If you don’t know why this is such a big deal, permit me a brief discursis.

The biggest challenge in creating the MCU had nothing to do with storytelling or characters and everything to do with lawyers. Over the decades, various corporations had acquired the rights to Marvel superheroes — Fox owned the film rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four, Sony owned Spiderman, and so on. So while all of these characters lived together in the same world (more or less) in the comics, and interacted with each other, the ‘twain could never meet in the movies–or so we thought.

In 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, the MCU introduced the Maximoff siblings Wanda and Pietro as supers who were created by Hydra’s nefarious tinkering; however, in the comics, they were actually mutants, the children of Magneto from the X-Men stories. Since the idea of “mutants” was legally off-limits to the MCU, we all assumed that these would just be alternate versions of the characters (since they existed in both movie franchises with different actors/backstories) and that was that. Then Disney decided it would become the One Studio to Rule Them All and not only acquired Fox and its properties but negotiated to bring in Spiderman into the MCU, beginning in Captain America: Civil War.

Once Disney bought out Fox, the questions began circulating: When would we see some version of the X-Men in the MCU? Who would be the first “outside” character to cross over? The Fantastic Four? Wolverine? And surely this won’t happen until years into the future, right? Phase 5 or 6 of the MCU story?

So when Evan Peters, the Fox X-Men film version of Quicksilver, was revealed standing in the doorway asking for a hug from his “sister,” I was one of thousands who did this:

Pointing Rick Dalton | Know Your Meme

I literally paused the show for about 2 minutes and excitedly explained the above to my bemused wife. I just couldn’t believe it. They were really going to do it! The multiverse was happening NOW!!!

Except it wasn’t.

The showrunners later said that this was meant as a cheeky meta-reference and nothing more. I’m still not sure I buy that. If they could have pulled off this kind of major crossover, I think they would have, so I’m wondering if they got word from the executives that this kind of storyline move was coming too soon, and they had to quickly change course on “Fietro.” In the end, the character was just another townsperson (with a dumb joke name). What a let-down.

This was probably my biggest (maybe only?) beef with WandaVision. In a show full of bold strokes and daring narrative choices, this would have been the biggest bombshell move, steering the course of the TV shows and films for years. Maybe that was too much to ask. I was just so delighted with being legitimately surprised for once.

Aside from that issue, what else do I have to say about the show?

“It was Agony All Along…”

In the end, I was…surprisingly close, if not dead-on correct, with most of my predictions. How about that!

  • Wanda did it. While Agatha Harkness / Agnes was manipulating some elements of the Hex (and seriously, how fun was that character!), it was truly Wanda controlling the town, even if she didn’t realize fully how she was doing it.
  • Vision wasn’t *really* there. That is to say, his physical body from the end of Avengers: Endgame was still at SWORD’s lab until the end of Episode 8. The version of Vision in the “show” was created by Wanda and bound to the Hex.
  • Wanda had “friends” on the outside, trying to break in. Although Wanda didn’t know any of the people trying to break in, at least some of them were friendlies, including Monica, Darcy, and Jimmy. (All three brought such great energy and fun to the proceedings. What perfect choices for secondary characters to get a chance to shine when not bound to their usual superhero storylines!)
  • There wasn’t a “bad guy” in the typical sense. The SWORD director was definitely villainous (I mean, you don’t shoot at kids, not matter how you want to justify it), and Agatha was the main opponent in the climactic battle, but in terms of overarching villains for the show, the only real nemesis was Wanda’s all-consuming grief. That grief created the pastel prison that enwrapped Wanda and the other townspeople. Her memories filled the nightmares of her prisoners. Her pain drove her to do unheroic things. It was Wanda all along.
  • My only “miss” was on the mutant question. And I even guessed this (based on the speculation of others) before Evan Peters showed up, so I should get at least half-credit for anticipating the massive fan speculation. (No? Okay, fine, mark it as a miss.)

It could be argued that a lot of these elements were predictable. (For example, the fanbase identified Agnes as Agatha Harkness from almost the word “go.”) But rather than making it boring, the fact that so many of the references and Easter eggs were guessed by the fan community made it a game of figuring out how the story would eventually play out.

That said, I guess it’s not *that* impressive that my guesses were right–but I’m still claiming the W, y’all.

Saying Goodbye, and Hello

What made this show work in the end?

WandaVision wasn’t ultimately about superheroes and androids and witches and action sequences, though that’s what may have sold people on it at the outset. At its heart, the show was a meditation on love and grief. The strongest and most memorable moments were the quiet conversations, the honest arguments, and the tender exchanges between the titular characters.

The final two episodes were an emotional rollercoaster, as we are taken deep into Wanda’s past to relive with her the traumas that brought her to this point. Even the major (and presumably expensive) special effects sequences pale in comparison to the final moments of Wanda and Vision embracing as their “world” collapses around them. Wanda has to say goodbye to the children she has grown to love and the husband she could never truly have. She is forced to accept that some people never get “happily ever after.” And she does accept it…at least for now.

While there are some hints that Wanda may now be looking for a way to cheat death and pull her family from another plane of existence (possibly setting up an even darker storyline for her in the future), that doesn’t take away from the emotional punch of the resolution of WandaVision.

It’s easy to write off superhero movies as little more than apocalyptic sky-beams, mindless explosions, and popcorn entertainment. Many times, that’s really all they are and need to be. But when these elements are employed to create a story that dives into the deep waters of human experience in an honest and challenging way, the genre becomes something special.

WandaVision is that kind of special entry in the MCU, and I really hope that the folks at Marvel Studios take note and keep aiming for this level of storytelling in the future.

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What did you think of WandaVision? Share your raves and/or critiques in the comments!

Playing Life-craft.

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

I have to admit: I miss playing video games regularly.

I used to play video games for hours, back in my youth and even well into my 20’s. I had buddies who did the same; it’s just what lots of single guys do.

It’s not surprising: there is an allure to video games for young men. (Note, I’m not saying this is *exclusive* to young men; but I can only speak authoritatively on that particular demographic for obvious reasons.) Video games can provide clear quests to complete, goals to accomplish (often with a “roadmap” or skill-tree providing logical next-steps), and small-scale challenges to overcome that teach skills and techniques to completing larger or more complicated challenges. Video games, especially current generation games that play like interactive novels or feature films, wrap the player up in an involving drama or thrilling adventure. If your life feels a little on the dull side, or you feel like you’re in a rut and can’t get traction, video games provide escapism and the opportunity for excitement and even personal fulfillment. If you don’t have a lot of influence or accomplishment in your real day-to-day life, it can be tempting to lose yourself in another life with a different set of circumstances in which you feel more in control.

On top of that, successes or accomplishments are easy. Not to say that there isn’t skill in the pattern recognition, strategic approach, or quick-twitch hand-eye coordination involved in melee battles or speed run completions. But you’re typically not breaking a sweat, challenging your physical limits, or risking anything tangible. Your successes and dangers exist only within the plastic or metal box that contains the world of the game. It’s a taste of adventure within a controlled environment where nothing is truly lost.

(I’m half-tempted to compare the level of “accomplishment” achieved in video games to what I do every day in my knowledge-worker-based field, but the prospect is entirely too depressing.)

I’m dangerously close to slipping over into “old man yells at cloud” territory, so let me be clear: I’m not critiquing gamers or gaming. If I get a spare half-hour, I’ll pop on my SNES classic and play a few Mario levels until my kids get antsy that their cartoons aren’t on. I even enjoy watching certain Youtubers stream “let’s play” videos where they work through a video game campaign for hours and hours, chatting and joking the whole time. The experience reminds me of middle- and high-school sleepovers with buddies in which we played games until the wee hours, buzzed on soda and pizza rolls.

But the subconscious danger of video games may be that they can condition us to seek out low-effort wins that don’t cost us anything real.

Building vs. Button-mashing

I spent hours last year watching a gamer on Youtube play through Minecraft, an immensely popular “sandbox” game with no set level path that invites players to explore, build, create, and just have fun in the retro-looking, blocky digital environment. As I watched this guy explore, dig, and build, I thought, That looks like so much fun. I should get this game. But as I thought about playing that game, I realized that I could actually do some of the things I was seeing on screen already, no download required.

The player was crafting shelves, gathering resources, building a house, exploring the woods. I could learn to do all of those things in real space and time, if I really wanted to. But I don’t really want to do those things, because they’re hard. I like easy. But easy doesn’t create anything worth having.

I’m reminded of my old friend Trevor. He’s put together an adventurous and unique life for himself that seems perfectly suited to him: he plays bass guitar in a rock band, he works hard as a contractor/builder, he hikes mountains, he travels to other continents, and he has a great dog. He’s a bit of a nomad, but he’s worked hard to fashion a real life in the real world. (If you’re on Instagram, you should give him a look. Tell him Dave says hi!)

And point-of-fact, my own life is richly blessed. I have a beautiful family, a great church, a steady job that I’m actually pretty good at, and outlets like this one to write and interact with others.

Perhaps what I need from time to time is an “analog project” (as Cal Newport might describes it) to challenge me to create or accomplish something in actual space and time, away from the digital world.

So I raked leaves.

So. Many. Leaves.

There are these big live-oak trees in our neighborhood that have been here for decades. After the recent freeze, the one that shades over most of my yard finally dropped a massive number of leaves. There were drifts of leaves in my yard and driveway, the way some northern cities would accumulate snow.

The grass in my front yard was also becoming overgrown. I don’t own a lawnmower yet (never needed one before moving into this house), and with the baby coming about a month after move-in, buying a lawnmower just wasn’t a priority. But last Friday, I looked at the sad state of my yard and said, “Enough is enough.”

I spent hours raking leaves and cutting my grass with a battery-powered trimmer/weed-eater, sweeping my arms back and forth, stopping to change battery packs and then charge the spent ones. I filled 9 contractor-sized bags with leaves. Every time the wind gusted, a cascade of several dozen leaves would fall from the branches above onto the places I had just raked. I had to keep telling myself it wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be better. I was making more order where there used to be chaos.

Finally, the task was “done.” There are still leaves in the yard and the driveway, but the front of my house looks cared-for again. I was wiped out and sore, with scratched and blistered hands, but I actually accomplished something tangible. I can look out the window and see my work and say, “good.”

I may not have a list of amazing accomplishments or an instagram-worthy life. But I have sore muscles and a clean yard, with a house full of babies and a wife that I adore. I don’t need a video game to tell me that I just tallied a personal-best high score.

If you’re in a bit of a rut, and you need to score a “win,” let me challenge you: don’t pick up the video game controller or computer headset just yet. Go outside and rake some leaves. Shovel some snow. Clean up that room or closet that you’ve been shoving random stuff in for months.

Step into “chaos” and create a little bit of order. Make a small difference somewhere. It’ll do you good.

(And then game on, if that’s your thing.)

“BABY #3 has entered the chat.”

Hobbit ears! As often as she eats, I shouldn’t be surprised.

Sorry for the radio silence, gang. We’ve had some stuff going on.

The big good news was that Daughter #3 has joined the party! She was born on March 1st and is much adored by everyone in the house, including her 2 sisters. Going from 2 children to 3 has been a bit of a bump in level difficulty (as one dad joked, it’s like switching from man-to-man to zone coverage), but we’re getting the hang of it. The biggest challenge is just fatigue, because it seems like everyone is on different schedules and all need increased attention. Plus, my two older girls have decided to start getting up earlier in the morning, which means I’m on AM duty. All the more reason to get consistent sleep and choose a better diet, because we need all the energy we can to keep up with these three.

It smelled bad outside…

The other big event of the last month was an ongoing plumbing issue at our house finally got resolved. Our rental (built in the 1950’s) had an old concrete sewer line connected to the city water. The passage of time, the strain of the recent freezes, and just the strain of a bigger family living here caused the line finally to give out, meaning our outgoing water (and whatever was in it) ended up seeping into our backyard. Fun. Because of the heavy workload for plumbers in my metro area (with so many folks still needing repair from freeze damage), it took a while to get the crew here to fix the issue. Let’s just say we had to pick our spots for bathroom breaks during the day, just to make sure everything kept moving.

Thankfully, the home owner and property manager were on top of things and ready to get the issue addressed. The crew dug up our backyard and replaced the line, and we stayed in a hotel for a couple days while the work was being done. I’m happy to report that we’re back in our house and everything seems to be good to go (so to speak).

Side note: Let me make a quick plug here for the Drury Inn and Suites (#NotSponsored). The beds were really comfortable, and even the sleeper-sofa bed wasn't half-bad. But the thing that stuck with me was that the stay felt almost "normal." Our local Drury Inn not only was the only hotel I found in the area that still served hot breakfast (in a very Covid-safe way, with a server in a plexiglass cage), but also a hot dinner buffet! Plus, the pool was open at limited capacity. I don't know about y'all, but staying in a hotel with functional amenities felt a little bit like pre-Covid normal life. Don't get me wrong; all the Covid-era accoutrements were there (mask requirements in public spaces, distanced tables, little dots on the floor to stand on). But this is the first time I've stayed in a hotel in the past year in which it actually felt closer to life before we even knew the word "coronavirus." And that's a HUGE thing. So suffice it to say, Drury is going to be my first choice for all hotel stays in the near future. If you're looking for a hotel or planning a getaway, I think you need to give them a good look.

All in all, it’s been a busy month, but I’m excited to get back to posting more consistently. Thanks for sticking around, and I’ll look forward to sharing more with you soon. Later!

Friday Feed (2/19/2021)

Photo by Ruvim Miksanskiy on Pexels.com

Happy Friday, friends!

It’s been a wild week here at the 4thDave homestead, as wintery weather has knocked out power and weakened water supplies in my home state (where the stars at night are big and bright *clap clap clap clap*). My planned posts need to be bumped as other things take precedence.

In the meantime, here are a few links I’ve enjoyed recently. Have a great weekend and stay warm!

  • Pastor James Coates is the pastor of Grace Life Church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His church has been meeting without following the restrictions imposed by the local government, which the congregation argues is not consistent with the facts on the ground about C19 spread in their area and which, they argue, oversteps the government’s realm of authority. As a result, Coates has been fined, warned, and finally arrested. The Cripplegate has some good coverage of the arrest, as well as some of the response and online pushback. I have to admit, I’ve gone back and forth on this, primarily because each side of this discussion is framing their position as unassailable and their opponents as deceitful, when the reality is that both “sides” seem to be shading the truth to their advantage. (Example: I’ve seen many people say that Coates was jailed for “preaching the Gospel.” That’s just not true; he was jailed specifically for violating the local restrictions in order to gather as a church. He could preach the Gospel online, or to a handful of people, and not be arrested for the same reasons–IOW, it’s not the content of his preaching that got him arrested, or the fact that he was preaching. It’s because he and his congregation made the choice to meet. That’s their right to act in line with their convictions, but let’s be honest about the reasons.) All of this raises some good questions about the right limits of government authority and the necessity of gathering as the Church–questions that will continue to be discussed for months to come.
  • On that same topic, Alistair Begg has some good words about the importance of church attendance.
  • From the “Things that will get me called a RINO” file: I like Jonah Goldberg a lot. In the landscape of political pundits, I find myself agreeing with him the most often. Here, he argues that the answer to the craziness and stupidity conservatives see on the political left is not to create their own party of craziness and stupidity on the Right. The best response is to be boring grown-ups. (I’d LOVE to be part of the Boring Grown-up Party for a change.)
  • Seth Godin has a few words on “the pinging.”
  • Two great song covers for your enjoyment:

Have a great weekend, y’all!