Thursday, February 23, 2017

Final 2017 Oscar Picks

The Academy Awards are coming up on Sunday, so it's time for my final analysis of the season and my picks before the winners are announced. This has been a fairly pedestrian Oscars season in a lot of ways, with there being only a couple of stories that have dominated over the past month and only one major category (Actor) that has any question as to its result, barring some very surprising revelations in a few days.

The first prominent story is the role of the Oscars as a social commentary not only in terms of the event but also in regard to the kinds of movies that are awarded. The immigrant ban has resulted in at least one nominee not attending (and perhaps even winning), but there have been more layers to this Oscars, including the analysis of the status of the "end" of #OscarsSoWhite and the impending possibility that three actors of color could win Oscars this year, as well as the narrative that certain movies should win as a message of what Academy members believe American values should be.

The other main storyline of this year's Oscars is the juggernaut that is La La Land. I'm predicting that La La Land will go 11/14, missing out only on Actor, Original Screenplay, and one of the two song nominations (since two are in the same category). The modern throwback musical already shares the record for nominations with All About Eve and Titanic, but a night like this would put it into a tie with the most awarded films of all-time, including Ben-HurTitanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Because of La La Land's impending dominance (considering that it seems like it will be a disappointment if it receives fewer than ten awards on Sunday), there will be a number of films that will go relatively unrecognized, as it seems like only three of the other eight Best Picture nominees will receive any awards, and none more than two (either Fences or Manchester by the Sea, depending on what happens in Best Actor, and almost certainly Moonlight).

At any rate, here are my thoughts on the ten categories that I count for my annual predictions, as well as a few assorted thoughts on other categories.

Main Categories

Best Picture: As much as there has been the usual posturing and construction of narrative over the past month, it really seems like everyone knows that this has been a done deal since the nominations were announced. The question is not whether La La Land will win - it's what its total wins will be and whether it will break the record with 12 Oscars; my prediction is eleven to tie the record.

Best Director: It's Damien Chazelle for La La Land by a long shot here.

Best Actor: I am not sure that the last month has made things any easier to determine in the toss up between Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea and Denzel Washington in Fences. Casey won most awards, but Denzel won the SAG, which is a significant predictor of the Oscars. I think I have to go with Denzel on this one for several reasons: the backlash against Affleck; the general move to recognize actors of color; and further legitimating Washington's career with his third Oscar, much as they did with Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady in 2012.

Best Actress: Emma Stone has won basically everything for La La Land, and her narrative, along with that of the film, make a lot of sense for this year. Lock her in.

Best Supporting Actor: Dev Patel has gotten a bit of buzz, but he will not unseat the significant favourite, Mahershala Ali for Moonlight.

Best Supporting Actress: No change here - Viola Davis still has this locked up for her performance in Fences.

Best Animated Feature: Zootopia should come out as the winner.

Best Original Screenplay: It's Damien Chazelle for La La Land against Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea. My initial suspicion was that Lonergan would be awarded over Chazelle, but I could also see Chazelle winning because of a La La Land sweep; that said, I didn't think that La La Land was that well-written, particularly considering what Chazelle accomplished in Whiplash just a few years ago. I think that Lonergan will be awarded for his work in Manchester here.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Although both Arrival and Moonlight won the WGA awards, they are pitted against each other here because of the way the Oscars consider a film to be "adapted". In the end, I think the award will go to Barry Jenkins for Moonlight as a way to honor his work on that film.

Best Film Editing: Just like in almost any other toss-up category, it's going to be La La Land.

Other Categories

Documentary Feature: This is a seriously heavyweight category this year, with I Am Not Your Negro, 13th, and O.J.: Made In America all in contention. I originally thought that 13th might pull out the win here, but I'm going with the conventional wisdom that O.J. will win.

Foreign Language Film - Toni Erdmann from Germany was the early favourite, but the buzz over Asghar Farhadi's absence because of the travel ban has meant that The Salesman has become a popular pick as "message". I think Germany's entry will win, however, mainly because the film was so widely praised.

Music (Original Score and Original Song): La La Land should win both of these categories, but the only question is which song from La La Land will actually win - "City of Stars" or "Audition (The Fools Who Dream". Both songs are equally iconic in the film, but I'm going for "City of Stars", the de facto theme song.

Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design - La La Land.

Makeup and Hairstyling - Let's go for Star Trek Beyond.

Sound Editing and Sound Mixing - Probably La La Land thanks to the overall narrative.

Visual Effects - I have no idea, so I'll go for The Jungle Book.

So it looks to be a La La Land sweep with a few awards going to three other movies: Moonlight; Fences; and Manchester by the Sea. I'll check in on Monday after the awards with my review of how my picks went and thoughts on the ceremony itself - the highs, the lows, who is forgotten in the "in memoriam" montage (which seems like it is going to be more intense than usual this year).

Since the awards themselves seem like they will be fairly predictable, the main point of interest for the night is just how "woke" these Oscars will be and what host Jimmy Kimmel will do to participate in that element of the evening. My suspicion is that he will allow the speeches of presenters and winners to do a lot of the work and that he will likely add in a couple of his own impromptu zingers along the way, but I'm interested to see what happens either way, and how often Trump tweets in response to what he sees. It should be an interesting night for what it might come to represent, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

In or Out? 2017 Movie Edition

It's about the time of year when we cinephiles start to make the transition between the year that was to the year that will be. The awards season has essentially run its course, save for the big show at the Oscars. There have already been a couple of big releases that have started making headlines, and the first batch of big blockbuster movies will be upon us in a mere two weeks.

At this time last year, I used a simple evaluation tool to express my interest in the movies that were coming out in 2016. I divided the major releases of the year into various categories based on their content, and then I stated, based on the trailers and buzz I had seen so far, whether I was in or out on seeing it. I ended up being surprised at how often I was out on movies, but I suppose that I should not have been; after all, there are fewer and fewer movies of the blockbuster nature that are of any appeal to me.

I was not that surprised that I ended up staying true to most of those initial impressions, though I ended up reversing my decision on two superhero movies - I was originally out on Deadpool and in on X-Men: Apocalypse, which I still have not yet seen - and it seems likely that I will end up seeing the other two DC movies on which I was originally out.

Beyond that group, there were about a half-dozen movies that I ended up being out on despite originally stating that I was in, but only two (other than awards season movies) that I shifted from out to in: Zootopia and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (I was surprisingly reserved about the latter at this point last year, but I suppose that was when it was going through rewrites and reshoots and it seemed like it might be in jeopardy.)

I still have a dozen or so movies from 2016 on my list to see, most of which are the kind of smaller, more intimate dramas or independent movies that I tend not to prioritize seeing in the theatre and that usually don't come up until awards season kicks up in the fall. There are a couple of big films from last year that I have not yet seen, but my general opinion has not really changed on being in or out even on those films; it's more just a matter of feeling a resignation to see them at some point.

Evaluating In-or-Outs for Awards Season 2016

I also used this admittedly simple binary model to introduce my reactions to the movies for awards season in early October, a post in which I also attempted to rank the relative possibilities for success in awards season. I was pleasantly surprised to see in reflection that I ranked most of the movies that ended up getting nominated highly in my own estimation; the only misses I had were that I ranked Hacksaw Ridge a lot lower and Hell or High Water slightly lower than their actual results ended up, with notable Oscar nominations in several categories - including Best Picture - for each.

As far as the In or Outs on the Oscar films themselves are concerned, quite a few of them changed based on what happened over the course of the season. The nature of the way that films are released and the narratives unfold between October and March means that my ins-or-outs are decidedly less solid than they are for the rest of the year. I suppose it says something about my taste that it can be affected by the zeitgeist, but I'm okay with that; after all, most of the movies about which I switched opinion were on my radar anyway.

I do have enough respect for the general critical consensus, which is usually reflected to some degree by the various awards, that I am willing to use the general dialogue to help focus my admittedly limited viewing on the films that should warrant my attention. I am in this regard a kind of cultural middleman - I'm not completely ahead of the entire curve, but I'm still a late early adopter, as it were.

There were a few movies that I prioritized over the past few months because of intrinsic interest in either subject, creator(s), or both - namely Arrival, La La Land, and Silence - but the remainder are probably Netflix fodder for some point in the future. I'm still in on A Monster Calls and Hell or High Water, and I could probably still be convinced to be in on Bleed For This and Gold if they popped up in my queue. 

I ended up out on Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, The Birth of a Nation, Live By Night, and Passengers after initially being in, mostly due to lukewarm reaction from critics and lack of awards season attention. I'm in at some point on Hidden Figures, Lion, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea, though I'm not in a rush to check any of those out. I'll get to them when I get to them, but for now I'm also starting to look ahead to the year to come at the movies.

Looking ahead to 2017

If the past few years are any indication, there will be around a hundred and fifty releases of note in movie theatres over the course of the year, or approximately three per week; of those, around a hundred will receive wide release and attention. I went through the list of releases for the year on Wikipedia and on Metacritic and tried to tease out the the movies that either might fall in my realm of interest or that might be unavoidable in terms of popular awareness.

There are some genres that I could easily crop out from my possible viewing diet: horror; thriller; most animated family movies; and most comedies. Occasionally, something like Split that I might otherwise ignore punches through and grabs at least a bit of attention from me - not that I've found my way to seeing it yet, but it's now on my radar - but those are exceptions, rather than the norm.

After my initial cull, I ended up with a list of just forty-five movies on which to decide whether to be in or out, which seemed about right based on similar lists I have made in past years. There will be, of course, more releases in the last half of the year that will command some attention from me - even if just in passing - but even factoring those in, just under four dozen seems right at this point.

A number of the movies I have featured here were easy outs for me, but I wanted to include them anyway because they will receive some attention from the moviegoing public at large, and I also wanted to be able to write some sarcastic comments abuot them along the way - or at least to be able to brag about my ability to avoid bad movies (which I will say is fairly advanced).

I also found it necessary to add another level of interest beyond "in" or "out" and the various adverbs used to modify my thoughts therein. I am using the label "in-trigued" as well this year, which indicates that, although I'm not in, I at least maintain a heightened level of interest in the movie, and I will be tracking the release of those movies to determine whether I will see them or not. Without further delay, let's start with the tentpoles and move out from there.

Superhero Division

There are eight new superhero movies, including The Lego Batman Movie, slated for release in 2017. The good news for me is that I'm out on as many as I am in, so it should not be hard to keep up with this category.

Logan (March 3) - Although there is part of me that is intrigued by the use of the Old Man Logan storyline and the presence of Professor X, I just don't see much reason to invest in this last appearance of the original Wolverine. Out.
Summary: In on Marvel Studios, out on everything else. Seems about right.

Power Rangers (March 24)- No. Just no. Out.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (May 5) - I cannot be any more in on this one.

Wonder Woman (June 2) - I'm conflicted: the trailers make this look somewhat funny and interesting, but it's also a DC movie, which has not been a good marker for a number of years. Call me out for now, but some good buzz could convince me otherwise.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (July 7) - It's hard to garner any kind of excitement at the second attempt at rebooting the famed webslinger, but Spider-Man stole the show in Captain America: Civil War and the trailers feature Spidey and Iron Man fighting side by side. I haven't not been in for a Marvel movie made by Marvel Studios yet (although there are a few I was less excited about), so yeah, I'm in.

Thor: Ragnarok (Nov. 3) - On one hand, this is a Thor movie, which usually means that it will be plodding and boring; on the other, it features an adaptation of the Planet Hulk storyline and is directed by New Zealander Taika Waititi, who has a history of quirky indie comedies. I'm going to split the difference and call it a moderate in: I'll definitely see it eventually, but I probably won't rush out to see it right away.

Justice League (Nov. 17) - I'm still a bit behind on my DC movies - Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is still in my "grudging watch at some point" list - but there is nothing from what I have seen so far that makes me have any desire to see this movie. Out.

Fanboy Division

Ah, the kind of nerdy fare that appeals to us fanboys and sci-fi geeks but that might not quite be as appealing to a wider audience. The last few years have provided some really incredible spectacles in this category, so I guess we will have to see if 2017 will rise up to the challenge. This is easily the category with the most wild cards, so there could be some great movies here - but there could also be a lot of terrible ones.

Life (March 24) - I'm not often one for sci-fi horror, but the pedigree of writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (The Joe Schmo Show, Zombieland, Deadpool) has my curiosity piqued. Therefore, I'm in-trigued, though that might be affected by the critical reception it receives.

Ghost in the Shell (March 31) - As much as I appreciate Scarlett Johansson as an action star, I have no reason to see this. Out.

Alien: Covenant (May 19) - Judging by the combination of the abomination of Prometheus, the awkwardly public statements about the constantly changing status of the franchise, and the general lack of success of these kinds of franchise prequels / bridges / reboots, I'm guessing that this is going to be a hot mess. 100 % out.

War for the Planet of the Apes (June 14) -I have not yet watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but the trailers for this one make me want to catch up and see what will happen.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (July 21) - This is an audacious sci-fi film with the biggest budget ever for a French film. Director Luc Besson was responsible for the guilty pleasure that is The Fifth Element, so there's hope for this comic adaptation, but this is the wildest of wild cards. Let's call it in-trigued to cover my bases.

The Dark Tower (July 28) - Another IP that has taken a circuitous route to its release, which may bode poorly for its possibilities. This one is a little stranger still in that it seems as though Fox is trying to use the movie as a launching point for a TV series. I'm in-trigued, especially because of Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey.

Blade Runner 2049 (Oct. 6) - Some people are asking why they are making this movie at all, but I have to say that I'm intrigued by the presence of Canadians Ryan Gosling and director Denis Villeneuve. I am in, and I just hope they don't reveal whether Deckard is actually a replicant or not.

[As an aside, are there any other Harrison Ford roles left that he needs to reprise while he still can? I think we've hit them all now, right? I mean, I don't think Witness is getting a sequel anytime soon...]

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Dec. 15) - As if the hype from The Force Awakens was not enough to make me interested, the fact that Rian Johnson is directing this movie puts my interest over the top. I'm more in on this than any Star Wars movie yet.

Annihilation (TBD) - Alex Garland proved with Ex Machina that he is a cinematic presence to heed, so I am in for his next movie.

Assorted Action Sequels and Reboots

These movies seem to be made for opening weekend and international audiences, and even though I suspect that they will range from bad to terrible, they will nevertheless be talking points over the next year. [Insert eyerolls, snarky tone, and sighs of resignation that most of these movies have even been greenlit in the first place.]

Kong: Skull Island (March 10) - I am really not too sure who was clamouring for a revival of the King Kong IP other than the studio, but here it is anyway. I don't think the trailer takes itself seriously enough to make me want to watch this. Out.

Fate of the Furious (April 14) - You know what this franchise really needed? Academy Award Winners Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren. Well, it's got 'em, but I'm still out.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (May 12) - Why would I watch this when I could just rewatch The Sword in the Stone? Out.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (May 26) - In yet another sequel that no one asked for, Orlando Bloom gets back into the action and Javier Bardem is now the antagonist. But here's the question I have: other than international markets, who are the diehard fans who are going to see this movie? Maybe Michael Bolton will, and then he can add another verse onto his song. Out.

The Mummy (June 9) - Tom Cruise reboots The Mummy - this time with a she-mummy! - since Brendan Fraser apparently was not either available or marketable enough to attempt to kickstart an extended universe franchise based on classic horror monsters. That sentence alone is proof of where movies are at in 2017. So, so out, and "you must not read from the book!"

Transformers: The Last Knight (June 23) - The fifth Transformers movie will be Michael Bay's final as director, so expect even more explosions and unbearably loud grinding metal noises than usual. Out.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Oct. 6) -I'll admit to a mild interest in this sequel, not having seen the original, but something tells me that there won't be enough draw here to win me over to watch it. Out.

Summary: Out on pretty much any movie that falls under primarily under the "action" label. In on having hearing later in life. Out on reboots, remakes, revisions, reimaginings. In on watching at least one of these movies tank big time; my money's on Kong and King Arthur.


There are so many more animated movies coming out this year that I could have easily included another ten movies here; I did last year and I ended up out on almost all of them anyway, so I just picked my top six (including two live action movies with significant special effects) for evaluation.

The Lego Batman Movie(Feb. 10) - I know this could have been included as a superhero movie, but I think it fits just as well, if not better, here. Lego Batman was arguably the best part of The Lego Movie, and the trailers make this seem like it will be hilarious. IN.

Beauty and the Beast (March 17) - I have not watched one of Disney's live versions yet, and I do not intend to start now. What would have made this actually interesting is if they had gender-flipped the roles - now that is a movie I would see. Out.

Cars 3 (June 16) - I have a three-year-old nephew, so I'm almost certain I will end up watching this when it hits Netflix around Christmas. I'm out, but I'll see it eventually, so I guess I'm in after all.

Despicable Me 3 (June 30) - Ditto to the third time around for Gru, Lucy, and the Minions, although I think I will probably enjoy this movie a lot more. I'm in, but I'll likely wait to see it.

Coco (Nov. 22) -Very little is known about Pixar's newest movie, other than that it is an original story that takes its inspiration from the Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead. Original Pixar movies tend to be really good, so I'm in.

Jumanji (Dec. 22) - The so-called "spiritual sequel" to the original 1995 Robin Williams movie has a twist - rather than the game invading our world, some teenagers get sucked into its world. I have a soft spot for the original, but I'm a hard out on this reboot.

Summary: In on Pixar originals, out on remakes and reboots, in on Grucy.


This list will likely be far fuller in the fall, when most of the prestige dramas tend to be released, but it's already fairly long based on a number of filmmakers who are releasing new entries in time for awards season consideration. For now, here are my early reactions to the dramas I find interesting.

The Shack (March 3) - The controversial Christian novel gets the big screen treatment, and although I'm out, I must admit to at least wondering what will happen when this hit theatres in a few weeks.

Song to Song (March 17) - Director Terrence Malick, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and stars Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, and Natalie Portman are involved with this love story set in the music scene in Austin, Texas. In-trigued, for sure.

The Circle (April 28) - Tom Hanks and Emma Watson help bring the Dave Eggers cautionary tale about modern social media culture to the screen. From the trailers I've seen, I'm in, but I fully acknowledge that it seems just as likely to be a disappointment as a success; I'm not sure why I have that feeling, but it seems plausible that the movie might totally miss the mark. I guess we'll find out in a couple of months.

The Big Sick (June 23) - Kumail Nanjiani's version of his courtship in real life got a lot of buzz at Sundance, and I'm really interested to see if it holds up. I'll put in-trigued on this one.

Dunkirk (July 21) - Christopher Nolan does his war movie. I am so in.

Untitled Detroit project (Aug. 4) - Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal team up for the third time after The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty for a new movie about the 1967 Detroit Riots. Even without a title, I'm in.

mother! (Oct. 13) - Darren Aronofsky directs Jennifer Lawrence....I'm definitely in-trigued.

Murder on the Orient Express (Nov. 22) - Can Kenneth Branagh pull off both directing and starring as Hercule Poirot in a new version of the classic Agatha Christie story? I don't know if he can, but the cast has me in-trigued.

Darkest Hour (Nov. 24) - Just look at this picture for a second and tell me you're not curious about this movie. Gary Oldman as Churchill seems like a slam dunk for an Oscar nomination if the movie lives up to its pedigree. I'm in for now, even without a trailer.

Untitled Paul Thomas Anderson Fashion Project (TBD) - All we know is that PTA and Daniel Day-Lewis are teaming up again for a project about a fashion designer in the 1950s. I didn't need more than PTA, and I couldn't be more in.

The Death of Stalin (Iannucci) - Although this is listed as a drama, it really seems like it will be more of a comedy considering Armando Iannucci's history (The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep). Either way, I'm in.


Most contemporary comedies have no appeal to me, but there are a few that stick out over the next few months.

T2: Trainspotting (March 17) - I am in-trigued by the concept that Trainspotting could even warrant a sequel, as well as by the fact that original director Danny Boyle is returning, so I am likely an eventual in.

Baby Driver (Aug. 11) - Edgar Wright's movie about a young getaway driver might be equal parts comedy and drama, but he has not had a miss yet. In.

Pitch Perfect 3 (Dec. 22) - The Bellas are back for a third time, which is not a surprise after the smash success of the sequel back in May 2015. PP2 was a little disappointing and sophmoric at points, but I'll be honest that the presence of writer Kay Cannon, along with the returning stars, is still enough to bring me back for more. In.

Downsizing (Dec. 22) - Alexander Payne's new sci-fi comedy seems like it might evoke elements of Charlie Kaufman, which is probably a good thing. In.

Suburbicon (TBD) - George Clooney has a solid history as a director of both drama and comedy, and even though all I know about this film is that he's behind the camera with a Coen brothers script, it's enough to put me in.

Summary: In on all five movies mentioned here, even though at least two of them are a little less enthusiastically. Out on pretty much every other movie labeled as a "comedy". In on TV comedy as the leading version of the art form.

Summary of 2017

I find that this "in or out?" process is actually quite useful in evaluating my interest in various movies for the year. I was actually quite surprised to discover that I am interested in more films than I expected over the rest of the year, even given the minimal information that exists about some films.

I ended up with thirty movies on my list, which seemed like a surprisingly high number at first until I realized that I usually end up with between three and four dozen movies in any given year on my list. About half of the thirty are the kinds of movies that I will end up seeing no matter what, but the other half of the thirty have a range of possibilities in their final release.

Of course, there will be a few movies that emerge as significant to replace those ones, especially later in the year during awards season, and there will be a few surprises along the way, but it seems like I will end up right around that mark of two to three dozen movies for the year. For the record, here are the movies I mentioned throughout the rest of the post, ranked by my relative interest expressed so far.

Most excited for: Blade Runner 2049Dunkirk; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; The Lego Batman Movie; PTA's fashion movie; Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Also in: Annihilation; Baby Driver; Bigelow and Boal's Detroit Riots movie; The Circle; Darkest HourThe Death of Stalin; Downsizing; Pitch Perfect 3Spider-Man: Homecoming; Suburbicon

Tentatively/probably in (eventually): Cars 3CocoDespicable Me 3; Thor: Ragnarok

In-trigued: The Big SickThe Dark Tower; Life; mother!; Murder on the Orient ExpressSong to Song; SplitT2: Trainspotting; Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets; War for the Planet of the Apes

There you have it: my ins and outs for movies for 2017. As usual, I'm interested to see what happens and how it all plays out, and I'm sure there will be a lot of surprises along the way. Such is the life of a cinephile.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

On Memoirs and Writing

I have been thinking a lot lately about the art of the memoir - or "mem-wah", to evoke memories of John Malkovich's Osborne Cox in the Coen brothers' 2008 spy spoof Burn After Reading - the collection of stories from someone's life that are meant to be humourous, illustrative, heart-breaking, powerful, and occasionally poignant.

Memoirs have long been a staple of my reading diet, but I cannot think of a time in which I have read as many memoirs in as short of a period as I have in recent memory I usually read one memoir every two months or so, but in the past two months alone, I have read at least eight memoirs from different kinds of writers: comedians, bloggers, theologians, mothers, feminists, and even a vegan musician.

I have read memoirs by comedic figures I have enjoyed in the past: Joel McHale's Thanks for the Money; Anna Kendrick's Scrappy Little Nobody; and Mike Myers' Canada. I have read memoirs by bloggers with whose work I was not very familiar - if at all - before reading their books: Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton and Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. I read books that explored aspects of life and faith using the elements of memoir, such as Rob Bell's How to Be Here and Lauren Winner's Still: Notes from a Mid-life Faith Crisis. And, for good measure, I added in Moby's Porcelain to cover my quota of musician memoirs.

It's not as though I set out planning to read almost nothing but memoirs for two months, and it's also not as though I thought they were all great books that I absolutely had to read. It just kind of happened that I ended up reading them all in such short succession based on when I discovered them and when they came in from the library, though perhaps part of this wave was a result of the fact that several of these books were released in time for the Christmas shopping rush. But whatever the reason, I ended up immersing myself in the world of other people telling their stories, and it made me think about these kinds of collections of stories, my interest therein, and my interest in and affinity for telling my own stories.

What kind of memoirs do I read?

As I thought about my history of reading memoirs, I realized that there are certain types of memoirs that I tend to prefer. I have tended not to prefer the memoirs of the kinds of famous people whose memoirs are usually popular within the genre: Hollywood celebrities; famous musicians; prominent politicians; pillars of faith; or star athletes. The kinds of memoirs I tend to read are those written by edgy comedians; music fans; fledgling bloggers; or athletes whose perspective is much different from the typical athlete's experience (professional 12th men or college basketball players who never made it pro, for example).

Several of these kinds of memoirs find their way into my semi-regular rotation; for example, I read one or two memoirs by comedians and/or actors each year. Some of my favourites in recent years have been Tina Fey's Bossypants and Amy Poehler's Yes Please, not only because they told amusing stories about their respective experiences in comedy, but also because their books were funny in their own right.

Moby's memoir was actually the exception to my trend in reading musical memoirs. I am far less inclined to read memoirs by the musicians themselves, and far more interested in reading memoirs from the perspective of fans and/or writers such as Chuck Klosterman or Matthew Paul Turner. I occasionally read a memoir by a musician, but I think I'm much more interested in what the people who are reacting to the music are saying about their experiences rather than what the musician themselves are saying. The best moments of Moby's Porcelain were when he was reflecting on the nature of his own journey as a creator, rather than when he was merely relating unfortunate details of the debauchery in which he repeatedly found himself.

I also find myself reading memoirs from writers with some regularity. Sometimes a memoir is the way that I discover a writer - Dave Eggers' A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius comes to mind - and sometimes that discovery comes through a recommendation, such as West's Shrill. I discovered the writing of Canadian Will Ferguson from his now-seminal work. Relating stories can be a great way to get a real sense of who a writer is and what it is that they are trying to accomplish; it is, after all, a skill that we work hard to develop.

But the genre in which I read most memoirs is easily the area of faith and Christian life. I have discovered some of my favourite writers and thinkers by reading a memoir they have written. I read through all of Lauren Winner's books over the past year after starting with her first book, Girl Meets God, which is about her conversion to Christianity to Judaism. I found Matthew Paul Turner through his writing about music. And, then, of course, there's Donald Miller, who I actually discovered through his book that was written before Blue Like Jazz - Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance, the story of a road trip he took to move from Texas to Oregon. 

What is the appeal of a memoir?

As I thought about these different types of memoirs, I wondered why I found them appealing, and what facets of a memoir are the reasons I choose to read it - particularly above all of the other choices for books that I could read. As I reviewed the list of types of memoirs I tend to take in, I began to observe some patterns in why I read memoirs.

There are times in which I want to be entertained. That might be by reading stories of their childhood or their formative years, or just in the tone they use, or the snide comments made in the margins or footnotes, but in certain cases, I just want to enjoy getting to know them better and to enjoy their voice as it relates their stories.

In some cases, I am interested in the stories associated with a set of experiences with which I am already familiar. In the case of the comedians or musicians whose books I have read, I want to know more about their movies or TV shows or albums or concerts; I want to understand not only the circumstances that have shaped who they are, but I want to make sense of their creations through understanding more of the spaces from which they came.

Some memoirs I read because I want to know more about the experience for the sake of the experience, rather than because of the identity of the author. I did not care who Paul Shirley was, but I was fascinated by the experiences of a professional basketball player who bounced around leagues in North America and Europe as a role bench player in his memoir Can I Keep My Jersey?

But perhaps the most clear reason I read a memoir is that I want to connect their experiences to my own. That might be in one of the aforementioned ways of making connections between their art and their background, or by learning about an experience that I otherwise would not have been able to comprehend, but ultimately, I think the reason I read memoirs is because there is something in their experience - or their perspective in relating their memories - that helps me understand myself better.

It is little surprise that I can remember many of these titles without prompting from my GoodReads history because these stories have made an impact on me and made me think about my own circumstances. The memorable memoirs have connected with something in me and forced me to think about my own life, which is why this entire discussion has made me think about this blog and my own "memoirs", such as they might come to be.

How is this reflected in my own writing?

It's funny that I don't really remember why I started blogging. It was the kind of thing that many people were doing in the early aughts, back in the pre-MySpace days of LiveJournals, so I guess I just decided to start doing it when it was arguably at its apex among the general populace. I was actually in the place in which I often find myself in regard to most technological and social media pursuits: clearly behind the early adopters, but somewhere between slightly and moderately ahead of the masses. (I had a similar experience when I started on Facebook and later on Twitter, though I was - and still am, for that matter - definitely behind on Instagram.)

The difference for me, I suppose, is that when I engage with something like a blog or a new social media platform that I do so with intentionality and with the express purpose of fully incorporating it as part of my life. I typically don't do half-measures in any endeavours, which I suppose is evident that I'm still blogging almost thirteen years later, long after many of my peers have moved on from the format.

Shortly after I started this blog in July 2004, I wrote a column for a semester in the Sheaf - the University of Saskatchewan newspaper - about the Life of Turner and the weird and wacky experiences I had therein. Whereas that column represented my experience of attempting to write humour for a wide audience (with some success, I might add), this blog has primarily served as a way to process the things that are happening in my life and to share those with others in the moment, and it is to a large extent autobiographical.

But every so often, I would write about past experiences with a purpose that was exceptional in its intent to explore an aspect of my past. I would take the time to go digging into an issue and to see not only what I could remember, but to see how the narrative was shaped over the course of my life in a particular area.

Some of my favourite posts of that ilk over the years were ones in which I explored an aspect of my childhood at an indepth level, but it was really only in the past year that I really started to dig into my personal history in an intentional and systematic way to tell my stories. I started with various hobbies: I wrote my history as a board gamer, and I wrote a three-part series of my history as a music fan in my "Turner Tunes" series. I even spent time thinking about my fandom of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Toronto Maple Leafs. And, then, of course, there have been posts in which I have begun to explore my own experiences with Christianity and church.

So what about faith?

Somewhat ironically, considering that I find memoirs about faith to be the most compelling for me to read by far, I have written relatively few posts reflecting on my own journeys in the church - at least in terms of the wider perspective of my blog. It seems to come up only every few months - much lower than I expected - and the frequency is inconsistent at that. I can look back throughout my archives and see a few instances in which I processed something meaningful in the realm of faith and theology, but the fact that I have almost as many posts with the label "sports" (89) as with the label "faith" (92) is indicative that I have underrepresented faith in my journey over the years - or that I really had a lot to say about sports, I suppose. At any rate, I have not written as much about faith as I wish I had.

I have written a few memorable posts about my faith journey over the years. One of the first instances in which I felt a post that I wrote about something theological had resonance was in January 2006 when I wrote about communion in a short post entitled "Wonder Bread and Welch's". I started to dig into my history of church membership in a post in October 2012 that promised a "Part 2" that never materialized. And in more recent memory, I wrote a post on my transition back to prairie Evangelicalism in March 2015, about six months after my reentry, and most recently, I wrote a post directly after Trump's election in response to the overwhelming support he received from white Evangelicals that that included aspects of my journey within (Western Canadian) North American Evangelicalism.

But I still find myself generally avoiding - or at least not engaging in - writing about my faith experiences. I vacillate between writing about board games, commentaries on current events, exhaustive (and often exhausting) analyses of different media or genres, reviews of current pop culture, and those aforementioned biographical histories of my own hobbies, but I rarely find myself investing in writing about my own faith journey, even though I arguably receive more positive feedback as a result of those posts than most other posts I write - usually combined.

My avoidance of such matters has been practical at times in regard to my vocational reality, whether that has been as a teacher primarily in Christian schools or as someone who has actively sought to serve in a position of ministry with various denominational and parachurch organizations. I wanted to be careful with what I wrote for the sake of what others thought, and I'm not disappointed that I did. I think my caution has prevented me from publishing some things that I might not have wanted to have out there - even though I still write things that make my wife question my judgement from time to time.

But that explanation is not nearly sufficient as to why I continue not to write those kinds of posts, as I currently do not have those same concerns. I still have to be aware of what I am writing since I am still working as an educator and attempting not to burn many bridges within the kinds of Evangelical circles in which I was raised, but that's not why I'm not writing more of my faith memoir. I think the problem I am having now, actually, is that I am struggling with the overall narrative.

What is my overall narrative?

The best memoirs have a clear hook, purpose, and frame of reference. Mike Myers' book is all about his experiences with Canada, being an expatriate who achieved significant fame outside of Canada. Ferguson's Why I Hate Canadians had its provocative title, but also included a series of essays that all pointed to his understanding of what it meant to be Canadian. Donald Miller has written a half-dozen books at varying points in his life, each one about a different set of experiences that made him who he is in that season.

I don't have a sense of that overarching sense of purpose or narrative yet; that's not to say that it won't come, but just that it's not currently evident. Some blogs are written with a clear purpose or in a specific season; my blog has existed as a forum for me to write about things I'm thinking about, whether they are happening in my own life or in the general zeitgeist, which means that it has varied wildly over the years.

I was last working through this line of thinking last May, which makes sense, as I spent much of the rest of the year processing a number of professional setbacks and personal conflicts that took up a significant amount of my time and attention. I did not stop writing in that time - even in regard to aspects of personal memoirs - but a lot of my writing was at arm's length to myself since I was just too raw to let it come through. The times when I did - the posts after the election, my post about Orlando - were inspired by other events, which allowed me to start digging into something more sensitive, but even then I have been tender in regard to my writing.

I have recently started to come to some resolution in a couple of those sensitive areas, and even now I am feeling a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in exploring more of my own experiences in short bursts. I am finding more incentive to invest in the process, and I am better able to process the things that I am discovering in the midst of this reflection. But I also recognize that this is not a magic solution with immediate results, and that I am going to have to keep pushing through to get to the point at which I see that purpose as evident as it needs to be.

The best way to keep writing is, however tautological it may seem, to keep writing and to see what comes out. It happens frequently that the end result of a post is not what I had imagined when I started, and I find myself in a wholly unexpected place through the process and the conclusion. That also happened with this post: I thought it was going to be a small post about enjoying memoirs, but it turned into a much deeper reflection on my own writing about my faith journey.

I will just keep writing and reflecting and thinking and pondering and pontificating and kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight, in the words of one of our greatest poets. No creative breakthrough has ever come without significant effort and even suffering, and I have to keep trusting not only that something is going to come of this entire process, even if it's not clear in the meantime, but that even these individual pieces of the process matter not only to me, but to others who are reading my journey, in the same way that I am affected by reading the memoirs of others.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The New Abnormal

It has been a rough few weeks for the world, to say the least. The unrelenting stream of increasingly upsetting headlines coming from the hand of Trump and the brain of Bannon are at the least disconcerting and at the most foundationally terrifying. It's almost impossible to keep up with the constant barrage of news coming from the White House - from "alternative facts" to the hundred thousand people being affected by an unconstitutional ban on people of a particular religious background to Russian hacking to an aggressive attempt to dismantle the reputation of journalists to pipelines to the Wall - so it's no surprise that the Doomsday Clock moved up to 2 1/2 minutes to midnight.

It's no wonder that, even at only twenty days into this new era, many pundits and personalities already seem extremely tired. Representatives of the White House have continually and persistently attacked the media as "fake news", and it seems as though the goal of this administration is to exhaust its opponents into submission, whether those are the Democratic Party, the media, or the 66 million Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton.

In the period between the election and the inauguration, I decided to stay quiet (at least publicly) for my own sake and for the sake of those around me. That's not to say that I have not had many many thoughts I could have written - it's mostly that I needed to take some space and time to sort through what I thought and how I might best proceed in this new season of life. I did not want to be constantly reactionary, nor did I want to be contributing to the unescapable noise that continually overpopulates my Facebook feed with articles and memes.

It's not that I do not appreciate those articles, or that I do not agree with them; it's mostly that I have taken some time to take it all in and to determine how best to move forward in this new abnormal, both personally and publicly. And to be honest, even after three months of pondering and preparation, I just do not feel ready to deal with it.

I have often found myself feeling overwhelmed by the volume and scope of the types of articles that I have been reading over the past three months, and there have been points at which I have been feeling hopelessness, anxiety, stress, and anger - among other emotions. I have realized just how much of a turning point this shift is not only in terms of American or world history, but even in the context of my personal narrative.

I have begun not only to recognize but also to voice how much of a challenge Trump's election has become in my life, and I am not alone in that sentiment. I have already had several conversations and read many reflections which point to the fact that this event might well be one of the most significant of our collective lifetime as millennials, and that there are a lot of people who have been similarly shaken by the events of the past few months - or years, for that matter, since this is really part of a narrative that extends backward to and through various attacks, Gamergate, and even to the rise of the Tea Party in 2010.

I find myself having to work to reconcile myself to this new abnormal in various aspects of my life and having to learn how to reason with events that seem inherently unreasonable, and to do so in my current context as a teacher-on-call. This post, then, is my attempt to work through some of those aspects in a way that may perhaps be encouraging and supportive for others who find themselves in similar circumstances.

I am not necessarily interested in being an activist or in making a statement or starting an argument, but I know that some of those aspects are present even in writing a post on this topic. But there is an intangible importance in being part of a broader conversation and in saying something, so this is that something, such as it is for now.

I am not attempting to parse all of the facts - or the "alternative facts" - or to force a point of view on anyone; I am merely doing my part to process everything that is going on, and in doing so to perhaps help others in their own processing.

For my part, I keep coming back to three ways in which I find myself processing this new abnormal; as a global citizen, as a Canadian, and as a Christian. If that triumvirate sounds familiar, it's because in the final pre-election post I wrote, I broke my reactions to the election into (roughly) those three categories; in some ways, then, this post is a direct follow-up to the thoughts I had before the world changed, so it might be worth your time to quickly review what I wrote then before proceeding with this article.

As a Global Citizen

In that earlier post, I framed this section in terms of critical thought and education in my role as a teacher, and although those aspects are a vital part of this conversation, I wanted to frame them as part of a larger narrative that I have seen developing, which I would frame as being a "global citizen". What I mean by that is that I am someone who lives in this world and who cares about what might happen within it and to the people around me, and that I am choosing to prioritize values that elevate the general dialogue, rather than coarsening it. In a sense, this is the "ethical" dimension of how I am processing all of the events of the new administration apart from the politics of it.

I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the election that, although I acknowledged the stages of grief in my processing the election of Trump, I would not move to acceptance, and I still feel that way. So much of what has happened over the past few weeks is completely unacceptable not just on a political level, but on the level of consideration of basic human decency. It's one thing to disagree with the politics of a party, but it's another to find the democratic practices of a party to be abhorrent - and I certainly am finding the way in which the Republicans are playing a power game and capitulating to certain loci of power within their base - the racist, misogynist so-called "alt-right" - to be a very disturbing trend.

As I have taken in the extensive coverage of the first few weeks of the new administration, many things have struck me as significant, but perhaps none more evident than the erosion of core democratic values and respect for others. I had hoped that the Republicans would make a shift in some of their policies and practices, and they did - just in a direction that is increasingly disheartening.

There are already several examples of the degradation of not only political discourse but of regard and respect for democracy and the people: the impending abandonment of the Affordable Care Act; the omission of the name of the Jewish people in a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day; the hasty implementation of an immigration ban of citizens of seven countries with the justification of national security when there has been no clear or present danger from people from those countries; the confirmation of any of the dubious and contested choices for cabinet positions; any of the host of incidents in which official White House spokespeople have pointedly, repeatedly, and deliberately attempted to sabotage the reputation of the media; and more.

It has seemed as though each day has brought a new tragedy that has generated public outcry, and there appears to be no end in sight - at least in the immediate future. It is all very discouraging, especially as it seems as though the Republicans are dedicated to continuing to engage in the politics of the manipulation of power by any means necessary. The actions of the outgoing government in North Carolina are evidence of the strategy of the Republican Party at large, and they are leveraging their pursuit of power by limiting the ability of people by race, religion, and party affiliation.

I am still not sure exactly what to do, though, other than taking it all in and writing the occasional post. I have friends who are now becoming politically active - even here in Canada - but I'm not sure if that's for me just yet. I have some friends who are posting on social media, but I don't know that that's the best plan for me at this point. I don't even have a classroom in which to conduct these discussions with students - although as a substitute teacher I occasionally have some unexpected openings to have very interesting discussions with students on some of these topics.

So, for now, I'm just taking it in and having the conversations when and where I can. I'm making sure that I am aware of what is happening and I am working to keep people around me in the know. There may be a point at which I feel the need for more deliberate action in some sphere - politics, scholarship, service - but for now, I'm doing what I can do to be a responsible global citizen.

As a Canadian

The second area in which I find myself processing Trump's administration is in my citizenship as a Canadian. Although I am somewhat removed from the most direct results of the actions of the U.S. government, I continue to wonder how this will affect us in Canada in two ways. Not only am I concerned about the direct effects that the decisions that are made by the White House will have on our economy, immigration, environment, national security, and international relations, but I am also very concerned about the possibility of the spread of Trumpism in Canada for two reasons.

The first is the increasing influence of Canada's version of Breitbart, One of Canada's most reputable news sources, the widely popular newsmagazine Maclean's, published a disturbing piece a few weeks ago about Ezra Levant, our version of Steve Bannon. In the article, Maclean's reckoned with the rise of the extreme right in Canada, the ways in which Levant had already grown his audience, the political integration of Levant's ideologies, and Levant's checkered personal history in an attempt to communicate the real danger that such thinking presents to Canadians.

One of the most disturbing trends in the past few months has been that Levant and his like have started to make their presence known within the Canadian political landscape within the framework of the Conservative Party of Canada. The Conservatives are currently still reeling from losing a majority government to Justin Trudeau in October 2015, and they are in the midst of a heated leadership race to replace former leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper - and it seems as though the soul of the party, of right-wing politics in Canada, and perhaps even our country itself are at stake.

We now have our own Trump - Kevin O'Leary - who is attempting a hostile takeover of the Conservatives in their leadership race, having recently thrown his hat in the ring after the last French debate. The similarities between O'Leary and Trump are evident: both are business moguls who achieved fame as reality-television stars with a no-nonsense attitude and a gruff exterior. Both are strong personalities who entered a crowded leadership race for a right-wing socially conservative political party that is not in power and going through something of an identity crisis. Both are using populist tactics to attempt to sway voters, and both appear to have a minimal grasp on the nature of governing.

Yet, even in spite of the success of Trump in the American election, whenever people ask me what I think about O'Leary, my stock response is that I am not concerned unless he manages to win the leadership race in May. At this point, I believe that there are three reasons that O'Leary might not manage to duplicate Trump's success: the nature of politics and the process in Canada; the varied nature of our right-wing; and the geographical barriers that should prevent such a circumstance.

Although I am dubious about the effect of movements like TheRebel, I am heartened that most recent attempts to lower our national political discourse have been repudiated. The election of Justin Trudeau in 2015, for example, was as much about a rejection of the Conservatives and campaign policies such as the "barbaric cultural practices hotline" as it was an embrace of Trudeau's hopeful vision for Canada. But I also have hope that even the dialogue within our Conservative Party will reject the Trumpism of candidates like O'Leary or Kellie Leitch, as there seems to be enough dialogue within Conservative circles to demonstrate that there is a clear opposition to allowing that kind of thinking to take over.

Part of that opposition comes from the varied nature of Canadian Conservatives, who are an awkward coalition of economic conservatives, social conservatives, western alienationists, and the Trumpists. It seems, from the outside at least, that there is enough variation within the party that the Trump movement within the party might find it challenging to generate the level of support necessary to galvanize one of their figureheads into leadership.

Then there is the geographic reality of Canada. The American election was, in effect, a small geographical repudiation of some of the economic policies of a progressive administration that was perceived as having instituted policies that hurt the working class. 70,000 votes in only three states essentially decided an election in a country in which most of the loyalties of the various regions of the country are entrenched and almost immovable.

In Canada, however, we have a population concentration in Ontario and Quebec that comes to a majority on its own; a party could, in theory, win every seat in those two provinces and none anywhere else in the country and still form a clear majority government. It's normally not the most positive feature of Canadian democracy, and it has certainly contributed to some of the rise of movements like The Rebel - particularly in the west - but in the case of the Conservative Party, it might be the feature that keeps O'Leary out of power.

Canada is divided into 338 ridings, each of which are represented by one elected member in the House of Commons, with 199 of those in Ontario and Quebec. In the Conservative Party leadership race, each riding has the equivalent of one vote, which means that a candidate has to convince a plurality of people in enough ridings in order to advance to the next step. It also means that it's almost impossible for someone to win without carrying Ontario and very difficult without Quebec - and O'Leary does not speak French.

For now, I have enough hope in the system and in the character of Canadians, who even at our most conservative still tend to favour "peace, order, and good government". Then again, I was repeatedly wrong about Trump, so I still have to admit that if someone like O'Leary makes it through that there's always a possibility that Canada could go that way. It seems likely that our next few months might be interesting for Canada, though my hope is that it will ultimately be far less eventful than it has been for our southern neighbours.

As a Christian

This whole rise of Trump has really affected my view of church and faith. I was really shaken up at first, and I still find myself very conflicted about what it means to be a Christian in this current political climate. I was really disturbed by the fact that white Evangelicals were - and are so devoted to Trump, and it has continued to affect the way in which I interact with the church as a whole.

I have spent a lot of time trying to reconcile how reasonable people could make such moral and - as far as I can see  - logical jumps, and I have eagerly taken in the commentary that has been attempting to do the same. I recognize that there is room for difference in the interpretation of economic, moral, and social values in how they are understood in the Bible and Christendom, even though I find it increasingly difficult to reconcile a Conservative perspective with the gospel of Christ, but this - especially what has happened over the past three weeks - seems like a stretch even for that perspective.

I think the best explanation I have found is several articles that have argued that Evangelicals are drawn disproportionately to authoritarian figures - and Trump and his cabinet are authoritarian. The argument goes that the ways in which many Evangelical leaders and pastors conduct themselves, the leadership structure of many churches, as well as a number of theological positions of most Evangelical churches all lend themselves to a more authoritarian understanding of the Bible and of Christianity, and that as a group that Evangelicals are more subject to

From both observation and experience, this argument makes a lot of sense in regard to Evangelicals. I have seen and been a part of churches in which a pastor or leader has significant authority reflected in the power structure of the church as well as how their teachings from the pulpit are intended to be duplicated. There are many pastors who insist that theirs is the only way of understanding the Scriptures, and many churches in which dialogue is not only not encouraged, but even actively discouraged.

I have also long struggled with the hero worship culture of Evangelicalism and how much figures - particularly men - are elevated within the culture. The easiest finger to point, in many ways, is at the tradition of evangelists and faith healers - Tilton, Swaggart, Bakker, Hinn, and more - who actively and deliberately abuse their positions of authority to take advantage of the weak, but this culture does not stop with them.

Evangelicals do this often with contemporary authors, and I have seen this trend happen many times over the past few decades, with a man whose teachings because seemingly unassailable and ubiquitous: Bill Hybels; Joshua Harris; Donald Miller; Bruce Wilkinson; Rick Warren; Rob Bell; and Mark Driscoll, among many others.

Of course, not all of those were the fault of the author, and several of those authors are gentle men who actively worked against having their writings or teachings be considered to be authoritative; in fact, of that list, only Driscoll has apparently not engaged in some act of contradiction to being treated that way or contrition for the wrongs they helped engender in the church. The culture persists nevertheless, and there almost always seems to be someone that the Evangelical community considers to be "the guy".

It is little surprise, then, that Evangelicals also have treated politicians with the same type of recognition. Reagan, both Bushes, and even Mitt Romney have been accorded a form of unofficial canonization from Evangelicals, and Conservatives know that the road to the White House involves having your candidate being embraced by the churches - which brings us to Trump

Even though Trump on the surface seems to violate many of the values that Evangelicals espouse - particularly in his own actions and expressions of morality - the fact that his policies are amenable to their way of thinking made him already attractive to the Evangelicals and serves to explain why there would be a slightly higher-than-average response in the form of votes from Evangelicals.

But this consideration of the Evangelical attitude toward authoritarianism explains why he was voted into office so overwhelmingly - Trump is undoubtedly a strong and powerful leader. He leaves no room for discussion or dissent, and his style of leadership fits the profile that many Evangelicals not only prefer but are conditioned to see as the only "godly" method of leadership.

So although it is disheartening, it is then not a surprise to hear of sermons in which Trump is praised as "God's man" or the "Christian choice", even from sources like Bill Johnson of Bethel Church - a church that I have personally attended and by which I have been affected positively in the past - who released a letter entitled "Why I Voted for Trump" immediately after the election. He wrote an apology soon thereafter as a result of the reaction, but the damage was already done in many ways.

But I have reasons to be positive about what is happening within Evangelicalism. For every Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell Jr. who is out there stumping for Trump, there are many others who are standing up and adding their voices to the chorus of Evangelicals who are not interested in being lumped in with the majority. One hundred prominent Evangelicals - including Hybels, Ann Voskamp, and author Max Lucado - recently purchased an ad in the Washington Post condemning the ban on immigration. Many writers and bloggers are openly condemning the actions and attitudes of Trump and the Republicans, and there is some evidence that the support for the president and the party is declining within those circles.

I am still struggling with my own position within Evangelicalism; then again, I have been experiencing this struggle for over a decade, so perhaps this wave of Trumpism is more of a trigger for old wounds rather than a source of new ones. Whether it is a root or merely a branch of the bigger tree, this embrace of Trump continues to leave me with more questions than answers, and I continue to wonder what my future might be within the Evangelical world if this is the direction in which it is heading.


As you can tell, it seems as though I still have more questions than answers in each of the three areas in which I am processing my response to Trump's election and inauguration, whether that is as a Christian, a Canadian, or a global citizen. This post is not an attempt to give answers, but merely to represent the processing that I am doing at this point and to help others in their processing, and these happen to be the three ways in which I am attempting to work through all of the goings on.

This is not going to be an easy process in any regard, and there are many other writers and bloggers who are wrestling with the realities of the New Abnormal in many different ways. There are many other aspects of this new administration that I could have looked at in this conversation, whether that is the implications and interpretations of events and policies from the perspectives of women, Muslims, Mexicans, economist, journalists, foreigners, politicians, and citizens, among many other affected groups. I chose these three not because they are more important, but because they are closer to my own experience, and I can speak more freely and applicably to this entire experience as a global citizen, as a Canadian, and as a Christian.

But as I reflected on the past few weeks, I realized that there was another aspect to my processing: a personal metaphor that occurred to me as a result of the juxtaposition of a personal event with the inauguration. Trump was inaugurated on January 20, and my grandmother's funeral was the next day. She passed away quickly and unexpectedly on Christmas Day, and I am still understanding what it means to live in a world in which she is gone.

I am not meaning to cheapen the experience of grief over my grandmother's passing in this comparison, but the closeness of the two events made me realize that there are similarities in the emotions that I have felt in the wake of both events, and that I am still ultimately grieving losses in both circumstances. There are no easy answers in either case, and there are no magic solutions for dealing with the grief incurred by either event.

One thing that I have found useful in drawing this comparison is the reminder that, ultimately, that I am still processing this entire Trump event as grief, and that some of the strategies I use to manage grief are also applicable when processing all of the everything that is happening south of the border.

I have spaces in which I can talk with others about what's going on and how I feel about it. I am not allowing myself to be overwhelmed with it, and I am learning when I need to pull away. I am finding positive things to occupy my time and attention, rather than just focusing on the negative hurt and pain. And I am writing as I feel the need to process and share things in this manner.

It's not going to be easy to keep pressing into this process over the next four years, but it's necessary, and I am certain that I will continue to need and to make the space to work through what it means to live in this New Abnormal - and that many of you will be vital to my success in learning to do so.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Final Frontier

Every year, I have a word that comes to me at the beginning of the year that helps define my year. It often comes to me starting in December as I am starting to think about the year to come and what it might continue to mean as the year goes on (and beyond). This has apparently been a hashtag trend - #oneword365 - for several years, as I learned from reading the blog of Canadian author Sarah Bessey, but I was doing it before it was trending, as I started my habit seven years ago with the word "peace" for 2010, which was followed by "joy" (2011); "roots" (2012); "sustainability" (2013); "simplify" (2014); "solidify" (2015); and "unify" last year in 2016.

"Unify" seems ironic in retrospect considering not only how divided everything seems now in this current political climate (more on that in a future post), but also some of my current feelings about my own life. As I explored what that word "unify" might mean in my "state of the union" blog post early last year, I thought about the concept of unification in the context of my marriage, in church, and in vocation. Although I am more unified in my marriage than I perhaps have ever been, I definitely feel the distance between me and church, as well as an internal anguish regarding my vocation.

Perhaps that internal angst contributed to the fact that I struggled as I entered the new year to determine what my new word might be. Nothing seemed really clear at first, and I entered the year at a bit of a loss as to what the new year might hold. Then I had an idea for my birthday party which unexpectedly led me to my word for 2017.

Adulthood: The Final Frontier

For the past decade, I have hosted themed birthday parties for myself. In the past, I have featured themes such as 90s, tropical, "Saskatchewan" (when I was living in Victoria), "meat" "Freaks and Geeks" (come as you were in high school), and, most recently, spies, but I was slightly stuck as to how to celebrate my birthday this year.

Then it came to me: Star Trek had just celebrated its 50th anniversary; Star Wars was about to celebrate its 40th; Firefly was about to observe its 15th anniversary, as well as the half-century mark before it was set (in 2517), and it was quickly clear that the theme for my party would be "space". We had a great night with some fantastic costumes, space-themed snacks and board games, and my first (and final) viewing of Spaceballs (which has not aged well at all, by the way) to cap off the night.

I quickly realized, however, that not only was I enjoying the process of planning a party, but I was also observing the process of entering the beginning of my mid-thirties. There was an unexpected significance to this birthday that I had not felt since I turned thirty, and it was having a deeper effect on me. As I was planning for my party, I started to realize something interesting: not only was "space" to be the theme of my party; it was to be my word for the year.

"I'll go runnin' in outer space"

I have always been fascinated with the idea of space since I was a kid. I read books about space, and I started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when I was eight years old. I was in S.P.A.C.E. (Saskatoon Public AerospaCe Education - they really had to force that acronym) Club from Grades 5 through 8, which culminated in me commanding a simulated mission to Mars and talking to an actual Canadian astronaut while he was in orbit.

My early love of the concept paved the way for what has been a lifelong enjoyment of the exploration of space and aliens. That includes visual media from "Pigs in Space" on The Muppet Show to every Star Trek movie to 2001: A Space Odyssey to the rise in recent years of critically acclaimed sci-fi movies such as Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival. It also includes books (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), board games, and even music (the trilogy of "astro-pop" albums released from members of Five Iron Frenzy as Brave Saint Saturn).

But even though my thoughts about the word "space" started with the idea of outer space and spaceships and aliens, they did not stop there. As I started to think about the possible meanings and impact of the idea of "space", I started to realize that there are several different permutations of the word that might have some ramifications for my journey over the coming year, and that only one of them was connected to these science fictional ideas. I ended up with five different thoughts about the idea of "space" and how it might connect to my life over the rest of this calendar year.

Inspecting spacetime

One interesting concept that I started to consider was the connection between space and time - the idea that they are not only related, but that they are actually indistinguishable. I'm not a physicist, so I'm not going to try to explain the point in any great detail, but suffice to say that "spacetime" is the best way to think of the relationship of the two - one is the other. Many creators have played with this idea of the relationship between space and time - the most notable in my recent memory was Christopher Nolan in Interstellar - but it's really hard for us humans to grasp the concept, since the current theories generally involve calculations that necessarily occur in dimensions above our own.

I suppose, to see the metaphor through, that it should come as little surprise that I have struggled with understanding the relationship between space and time in my own life, much as it is an almost incomprehensible scientific theory due to our dimensional limitations. It seems like space and time should be one and the same in my life, but it often feels as though they have a perpendicular or even an inverse relationship in my life. I might feel as though I have one and not the other, or at least that having one is not necessarily a precursor that I have the other.

I struggle with time and with space; sometimes, I feel as though I have time, but that I don't have space, or that even though I'm not very "busy" that life is still very "full". I have to constantly work on reminding myself that space and time are not at odds with one another or with me, and that I will find the space and time for the things that are important to me. I find that I tend to be better at that when I have a clearer sense of purpose and meaning, and that one of my struggles is in continually feeling as though I have to create those for myself, as exacerbated by my current vocational circumstances. For now, I need to remind myself that space and time are the same, and that I have the amount that I need of both.

The space between

Although I started off in the realm of sci-fi, I then started moving into (perhaps) more observable and relatable ideas of space. As I was writing, I started to think about the space bar and the purpose it, along with spaces between words, serve to create meaning in a linguistic sense: phonetically, semantically, syntactically, and contextually. In many ways, the spaces between letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs are as important as those things are themselves. We use "the space between" - a phrase that just made a bunch of you start humming this - to help us decode the meaning of the letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs; without those spaces, theywouldbecomealmostindecipherablegibberishthatourbrainswouldhavetoworksomuchhardertotranslateintounderstandableportions.

Of course, most of you were able to read that part of the sentence despite the lack of spaces between words, but that's in part because your brain can help you understand where the spaces should go and also in part because you have enough experience with words that your brain can work somewhat automatically to create meaning where it is difficult to see, much in the same way that we can generally understand short words even when the interior letters are mixed up - "mlik", for example - because our brains recognize the letters as a semantic unit and more or less automatically do the work for us. That said, I found that run-together phrase difficult to type without the spaces, and I found myself repeatedly having to delete the spaces I was unconsciously inserting as I typed.

So what does this have to do with my life? I think that sometimes we are so focused on the "words" of life - the times that are meaningful and when things are happening and moving and shaking - and not on the spaces - the pauses, the down times, the breaths - that are just as important for creating meaning in our lives. In graphic design, as in linguistics, the space - especially the use of "negative space" is just as important as what is put into the design, or the sentence, or the life, and I need to remember the importance of space on its own, not just as a way to get to the next thing.

I know that I can be so focused on trying to get to the next thing that I'm breathless and trying to fill or eradicate all of the spaces, and all that does is to make things more difficult in the long run. I think that we can learn to manage ourselves in those kinds of seasons - and they do happen - but that if we work ourselves for too hard for too long that we end up tired and exhausted and needing more rest than if we had just observed the spaces that were supposed to be there all along.


Then my exploration of "space" took me to the idea of the space between people, which was bolstered by my recent reading of The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage, a short book written by Rob Bell with his wife Kristen. The Bells discuss the space that is created between the two people in the covenant of marriage, which they call the "zimzum" - a term borrowed from the Kabbalah in regard to the idea of God contracting himself to make space for his creation - as a process they see as responsive, dynamic, exclusive, and sacred in a healthy marriage.

They use reflections on and stories from their own experiences to work through each of those ideas, but everything they talk about comes back to the concept of the "zimzum" - that space in the middle of a relationship. But as I read their conversation about space between people in marriage, I could not help but reflect on the idea that any relationship we cultivate has a common space, and that those spaces need to be cared for in a meaningful way.

I think that there are times in which we extend ourselves too far in our personal relationships, and that we try to create too many of these spaces with too many people in too many ways. I have begun to realize that I would far rather have stronger shared spaces with fewer people than weaker shared spaces with more people, and that in a lot of ways that the totality of relationships in my life is unfortunately a zero-sum proposition; there is only so much time and energy that I can put into relationships, and the time I put into one is time that is subtracted, effectively, from another.

This is not to say that I am cutting friendships or doing a purge of my contacts or that if you don't hear from me for several months that we are no longer friends; it just means that I am continuing to be more conscious and intentional about the spaces that I am creating with friends and family and what each of those spaces mean to me. I feel as though I am in a season in which I have less overall energy for working on those spaces, which I occasionally have to remind myself is okay. It's all part of making healthier space for myself in general.

Space oddity

As I considered these different scientific, linguistic, and relational aspects of space, my thoughts then returned to two applications of the idea of "space"  starting with "making" space. The very phrase has the connotation of intention, of purpose, and of craftsmanship - I am deliberately making choices in my life that lead to there being more space than there would be were I to leave it to chance or to cater to my every whim and wish. Space, in this mentality, is something to be aimed for, to be valued, and treasured, and it is worth sacrifice to achieve.

In the same way that "space" has a lot of different meanings, so too are there different ways of making space in our lives: relational; physical; temporal; emotional; psychological; even theological, perhaps. There are definitely benefits to making space in our lives in many of those areas. My friend Leah wrote a short reflection in mid-January about the positive results to some changes she has made in her life to make more space for herself, her family, and her relationships, and I am both grateful for her writing, as it encourages me to pursue the kind of peace that she exudes in her stories, as well as for being a beneficiary of some of the space that she has created in her life.

Yet I find myself wondering how to do it. I have a sense - as I have for years - of the kinds of things I can do to make space in any of those various senses - getting rid of physical things, clearing off to-do lists, removing items from my various wish lists, deleting apps from my phone - but for some reason, I struggle in the process, as I tend to start making space, stopping before the space is made.

Maybe it's that I actually do not know how to finish the process, or that I just get busy or distracted, or that I am still holding onto the things that fill up my space as pieces of my identity. Or perhaps I subconsciously do not want to make space because space invites the unknown, and the unknown is unexpected, uncontrollable, and uncomfortable. The whole process and point of making space is thus rooted in vulnerability, as it involves taking something that is, so to speak, making it not be, and leaving it that way, giving up control and agency in order to prioritize the "not-doing" in your life.

Of course, there is a part of me that has an idea of what could fill the space, but I suppose that defeats the purpose of making space in the first place. The notion is not to make space for the sole purpose of having it filled, but rather to make space for the sake of space - or for the sake of the kinds of experiences that can only be had in a space of having space. I think of the Jewish prophet Elijah after the encounter with the prophets of Baal; he went and hid in a cave (not necessarily with the best motivations, mind you), and in that cave he encountered God not through a storm or a wind, but in a whisper. God is in the spaces.

Enough space

The final reflection I have is about finding "my" space in life (not MySpace, which is apparently still a thing). I have struggled for a couple of years in finding my space in many different areas, including vocation and church. I have some spaces that have been or are mine, but I struggle with not feeling as though I have enough space - or enough of my spaces. I know that I am feeling the loss of some spaces, such as church, but I'm also not quite sure what to do in regard to the absence of those spaces.

The shift that I need to make, however, is the kind of shift you need to make when looking at a stereoscopic (3D) drawing; it's making the shift from the spaces that aren't there to the ones that are. It is not about focusing on the spaces that I do not have, but instead focusing on the spaces I do have -  in my daily life, my relationships, and my community. If I continue to see the spaces I don't have, I will not be able to appreciate the spaces I do have and the things that are available to me in those spaces.

It's the same kind of shift I made recently in viewing the Hartford Whalers logo; I had never seen the "H" in the middle for some reason - perhaps because I had never looked for it, but also because I did not know to look for it. As soon as someone pointed it out to me, it was obvious what was happening with their use of negative space to form the "H", but I would not have seen it without having it noted for me. In the same way, I think that this process of thinking through the idea of "space" as my word is the equivalent of having the "H" pointed out - now I'm thinking about the space and how it's used.

Spaced out

So that's what I have been thinking about "space" over the past month since my birthday. As you can tell, it has been a lot to process, and I am nowhere near the end of that process. I'm still working on making space and finding space and working on the spaces in relationships and using space and time well and allowing for space in my regular life - but it's hard to focus on space. It takes a lot of devotion to the idea, whatever permutation of it you choose, to learn how to value and preserve space.

The main challenge, I find, is in not filling the spaces, but in letting them be spacious. I find myself wanting to move to the next thing or solve the problem or do something, but that's not always the right thing to do. Sometimes - and this is one of those times - the best thing you can do is make the space you can and allow yourself to be led into and in the midst of that space.

I know that for the year to come the guiding questions that I will be asking myself about my life are related to space. Do I need more space? Where can I make space? Does this take too much space? Does it lead to space? How do I find space within my circumstances? Is this "my" space? What do I need to to make more space? How do I appreciate the space that I have? And how do I make the shift to looking at the "negative space" in my life? I know right now that it's not going to be an easy shift to make, but I'm glad at least to have this space in which to work through some of those ideas.


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