Sunday, September 19, 2010

Helping friends move

I'm one of those people that helps friends move. I know some people who are almost dogmatic in their refusal to assist in the ritual, but I'm one of those people who almost always says "yes." I helped some friends from church move this weekend, mainly because I had told them that anytime they needed help I would be willing to step in. Blast! But what was interesting was realizing how much better I got to know them through the experience, as moving is a very vulnerable and stressful time. Your emotions are heightened because you're going through transition, and your life is on display: your method of organization; your conflict resolution patterns; your problem-solving skills; your crisis management philosophies; and especially your stuff. Stuff tells a lot about a person: not only how they have it packed and organized, but especially about what they are choosing to keep, and in some cases pay to have stored. I'm certain that people do the same thing with me: for example, trying to move, in 2nd year university, 2 balsa and wood glue dinosaur models I had finished in grade school comes to mind; why did I think they were valuable? But if it can be true that one man's junk is another man's treasure, the reverse is also true. Obviously, as a mover, I don't necessarily understand the reasoning behind everything, but it's just interesting to see how people value their possessions. It has again reminded me of the book Clutter Busting, and how interesting it would be to have to come in and try to divest people of their possessions, dealing with all of the false reasoning and emotional attachments to things. I still think I could do a pretty decent job at it, if I could get people to listen to me. (Perhaps starting on moving day might not be a great idea...) I've been working hard to declutter since reading the book, and I would say that, although we own a lot of things, we're probably down to between 15% and 25% clutter (and whenever we move again, that number will decrease significantly). But this whole idea of how people's stuff shows who they are has intrigued me, and I realized that I have helped almost all of my very good friends move. It wasn't hard, considering that several of them were roommates during my college days, but it made me think about how much I got to know them through the experiences. In some cases, it was a mutually beneficial experience; occasionally, it kickstarts a relationship or bumps it up a few levels; sometimes, it could have killed a friendship. That's why it's important to move well, and to consider carefully who to get to help you to move. I don't know when we'll have the chance to move again, but I know I'll be thinking about how my friends perceive me through my actions and my stuff, and picking carefully who I want those people to be. Especially that they like the same kind of pizza toppings I do.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Riders 43, Stampeders 37

I should have expected it. I should have known that the Riders returning home (where they still are undefeated) after their worst game of the season (a 31-2 drubbing in the Banjo Bowl in Winnipeg) against the best team in the league as the primetime game on national TV would be a thrilling overtime come-from-behind victory that could end up being the turning point in what could have been an otherwise lost season. I should have expected that the collective funk affecting Darian Durant and the offense could not continue, and that the loss of a couple of weaker players (kick, returner Dominic Dorsey to injury and receiver Prechae Rodriguez to waivers) would energize the rest of the team. I should have expected that Stevie Baggs signing in Hamilton, rather than Regina, might create a hunger to prove that they can still be the best team in the league on a given night. I should have predicted that the team's best offensive players - especially Durant, Cates, Dressler, and Fantuz - would finally click in a huge way. I should have expected that my choice to not watch the game would mean that I would miss one of the can't-miss games of the season (much like Game 1 against Montreal).
But until it happened in tonight's game, I was anticipating that the opposite result was entirely possible: that after three terrible weeks against two of the league's worst teams resulted in two losses and a near miss (if not for an inspired fourth quarter in the Labour Day Classic) that the Riders might completely wilt against a former teammate and the strongest team in the league and most likely the host for the Western Semi-final. I just as much expected that this game might be a turning point for the worse, or the proof that this year's team is still suffering a collective hangover from last year's devastating last-second Grey Cup loss. I can now see how those expectations have been disproven, and that tonight's game revealed that there still is a lot of heart and fight left in the 2010 Riders and gave me hope for the rest of the season and the post-season, but it was an OT score away from being the most heart-breaking loss of the season.
This is the life of a Riders fan: bipolar at best, soul-crushingly devastating at worst. There are lots of highs for the team, especially in the last ten years: The team is the most popular in the league; the years of sub-.500 seasons are behind them; the spirit of the fans is unrivalled in almost any North American professional league (Packers, diehard Red Sox and Cubs fans, Clevelanders, and who else?); and they currently have perhaps the best collection of young core players in the CFL (even without John Chick and Stevie Baggs this year). But they never seem to do anything easily; everything comes as part of a rollercoaster ride, and they seem dominant in spurts, not as a whole. It might be entirely psychological for the team, but it seems that there's some kind of hump of success that they can't get over. I would love to see a few 13- or 14- win seasons in a row, just to show that they are the team to beat. I would love to see back-to-back Grey Cup appearances, if not wins. I would love for there to be a time of prosperity in which every Riders fan could look back and reminisce about the glory days (which is now confined mostly to discussions of 1966-76, one day in November 1989, and a strong run to the end of the season and playoffs in 2007). But I'm not sure how I could handle it: the Riders have spent so long in this cycle that it's almost hard to imagine what I would do knowing that my team was the best by a longshot and not doubting them. It's much like Saskatchewan now being a have-province; it was a have-not for so long that prosperity is unsettling and even confusing.
So maybe I don't wish that the Riders became a dominant force and ripped off consecutive 15-win seasons. Maybe I would rather ride the rollercoaster and take the ups and downs and not know what's going to happen. Maybe I would rather have the discussions about whether the team can finally take the step or not. But part of me wants to know what it's like to have a team that I can count on to win every week. So maybe, just maybe, if we fans get a taste of extended excellence, we can decide which we like better. So here's my plea for the Riders: give us a taste of that dominance in the last seven games. You're allowed to lose 1 game as a bad loss, but not to a team you shouldn't lose to. You can have another game, maybe even two, that are hard-fought heart-rending losses. But you need to have at least three, preferrably four, games that establish your place and set fear in the hearts of your enemies (namely, Calgary, Montreal, and Hamilton, in that order). You need to show that you can be the best team when you want to be. You need to end up with an 11-7 or even 12-6 record and make people bet on you, not against you. And you need to allow me not to want to miss a second of a game lest I miss a moment that might mesmerize me for years to come. Tonight was a big step, but now it's on you with two games in Hamilton and Toronto, and lots to prove: tonight wasn't just a fluke, and you're not just a home team. Win them convincingly without showing any mercy, and keep the momentum going. Amaze me. Please.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Last Temptation of Pullman

I recently read Philip Pullman's controversial new novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, in which avowed atheist Pullman presents his take on the story of Jesus. Pullman's central conceit is that Mary actually gave birth to twins named Jesus and Christ:Jesus is an outgoing anti-authoritarian humanist; Christ is the soft-spoken neurotic recorder (and reviser) as well as the main character of the story. Pullman has tried to parallel the New Testament account, including in writing style, cadence, and basic plot with a limited amount of success (read the review in The Globe and Mail for more information), tweaking and twisting the story in ways both slight and significant to fit his central purposes: to show that the story of Jesus Christ was a myth that was added onto after Jesus' death and to negate the supernatural nature of his life. It is a short and easy read, and at best serves a mildly intriguing revisionist diversion from the Gospels. Pullman is not expecting to be taken seriously, but he is seriously positing that people think about how stories are created and evolve over time. The book definitely has an agenda, including some pointed criticisms of belief in the miraculous and in the role of the church, though Pullman's lack of subtlety makes it easier to process his point of view. I'm not sure I would recommend reading the book other than as an interesting distraction, but it has made me think about how we treat Jesus' story as a church. Too often we look at the doctrines that we have derived from Jesus' life without considering it as a story, and that attitude transfers to how we treat one another's stories, as only good for sermon illustrations, "how-tos", or cautionary tales. We often do not interact with stories as they are, and we feel like we have to have agenda coming into hearing someone's story. Consider how stories like Pullman's, or The Last Temptation of Christ, or The Da Vinci Code are received: with vitriol and venom and hatred, rather than with a spirit of openness and dialogue. (I find it interesting that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ also contained significant divergences from the story, but it has been widely accepted as evangelical canon. Just a thought.) True, Pullman's story is heretical, and its very premise undercuts a significant belief of the Christian faith, but what I find interesting is how reading it actually led me more toward the actual story than to his perversion. And I think story has the power to do that in a way that doctrine or dogma does not: it can communicate truth to our hearts, even if it is obscured by some untruths. And yes, I recognize how post-modern this all sounds, but I think it's true: when we focus on the story, we can relate more, and we can sort out some of those belief issues together. Pullman has attempted to create a piece for conversation here, and I sincerely hope that there are some people who can use this as a starter for dialogue. It is a story, not a theology, and the same goes for Jesus: he wants us to engage with his story, not his theology. And when we engage, we can dialogue safely in community. So rather than condemning Pullman for twisting the Gospel, we (as Christians) should use this opportunity to listen to his story and tell our stories. I believe, through that exchange, that Jesus' story will come through, and that the truth will set us free.

P.S. Here's a slightly amusingly smarmy response posted at Christianity Today. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Good news everyone!

When I was in Grade 11, I remember being stoked about Matt Groening's new show, Futurama. I, like almost every other teenage fan of The Simpsons, had no idea what it was about, but we were prepared for anything with Groening at the helm. The Simpsons was in its prime - just take a look at the episode lists for Seasons 6-9 and you'll see what I mean - and Futurama looked hilarious. And it was. In a few short years, it supplanted its predecessor in every way. I did not watch every episode when it came on (I did, after all, have some time when I did not indulge in the delights of television), but the antics of the Planet Express crew became one of my all-time favourites. Of the initial run of 72 episodes, not one was unfunny or poorly written; a few were even quite touching ("The Sting" and "Jurassic Bark" stick out the most for me). I've watched every episode at least twice, and I often was in the mood for watching a disc at a time. I was very excited when Comedy Central announced the development of the four DVD movies, and even more excited when they turned out well. But for me, the real test was when it came back as a half-hour comedy: would it keep the same kind of manic pace and hilarious premises as before, or would it lose a step like The Simpsons? Thankfully, the show is sharper, more outrageous, and even more bitingly satirical than it ever has been. Though the show pushed some boundaries in its initial run on Fox, the double whammy of 10 years of depravity and being on cable has given the writers even more leeway with what they can do. This "season", which was 12 episodes long with a 13th coming in November and another 13 in 2011, has featured some of the best satire that the show has offered, as well as many memorable stories. The finale celebrated the show's 100th episode (the four movies are considered the equivalent of 16 episodes) in style, and I hope it keeps on delivering the goods.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

First day of non-school

For the first time in twenty-four years, I did not go to the first day of school. The last time I was at home when September kicked off was when I was three years old, terrorizing my mom and reading everything in the house (yes, I was reading at three). It's a little surreal to not be at school after thirteen years in K-12, seven Septembers in university (including my internship), and three years of teaching. It didn't hit me too hard today, but that's probably because I'm still somewhat in summer vacation mode with a dash of job hunting; give it a week or two, and it will really start to feel strange. My life is still somewhat decided by the academic calendar, as many of the jobs for which I am searching are still in that sphere, so it's not a huge paradigm shift yet - just a little tweak. I'm applying for substitute teaching positions, but it looks like I may have an extended period of no school. I'm thinking of this time like a sabbatical, and it seems like I have enough to keep me busy over the next few months. I'm sure it will hit me occasionally, and that I'll have hard days when I really want to be back in school, but for now I'm appreciating the time away from the fluorescent lights, especially since it might be my only one for awhile.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Review: The Expendables

The action genre seemed to have fallen on hard times. In its heyday in from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, it was one of the guaranteed moneymakers, but in the last decade, it seemed that it might not resurface. Sure, there were some sci-fi kind of action movies, some spy-style action movies (a few Bonds, the Bourne trilogy, a couple of Mission: Impossibles), and a whole lot of comic book adaptations, but the purest form of action movie seemed to be gone. No longer did one man face impossible odds in a (possibly) real-life situation. There was always the need for something more than what had come before, like character backstory or actual dialogue. There have been a few attempts to keep the "pure" action genre going, but they have mostly been duds (see - or rather don't see - 2007's Live Free or Die Hard). Cue Sylvester Stallone.
Say what you want about Stallone's acting and his career, but perhaps more than any other figure in modern Hollywood, he has known what people want and how to give it to them. He has created - not just starred in - two movie franchises, and he has written, directed, and starred in movies for 35 years. Sure, he had a rough stretch in movies from 1997 to 2005, but that also happened to be a period in which he fathered three young girls and rediscovered his Catholic faith. And who knows what twitched in his brain around his 60th birthday, but his revivals of Rocky Balboa and Rambo certainly demonstrated that he was not done yet. Now, almost in his mid-60s, Stallone has engineered the rebirth of the action movie with The Expendables.
Let's face it: people who go to see this movie are aching for some old-school, straight-up testosterone-filled action, with a little bit of funny dialogue, repeated shots of at least one hot woman, and a classic rock soundtrack. Then there's that list of stars: Stallone, Statham, Li, Lundgren, Austin, Couture, Crews, Rourke, and even cameos from Willis and Schwarzenegger. So does it matter that the plot, characters, and even the names are paper-thin at best? Does it matter that the entire movie's course of action can be predicted before the opening credits roll? Does it matter that the dialogue is wooden, hamhanded, and cheesy? No (although a very touching monologue by Tool (Mickey Rourke) about a Bosnian woman halfway through the film breaks the monotony of poor acting and sets the tone for the finale of the movie). What matters is that Stallone and company go in, blow stuff up, and creatively kill as many people as possible. And that's what Stallone makes sure of, to an count of 250 (by my estimation). The film is excessively, unabashedly, and unflinchingly violent - at times disconcertingly so - and it certainly should fulfill anyone's quota for rock 'em sock 'em action movies. And Stallone, undoubtedly backed by his years of experience, finds a way to bring a visual poetry to the action, especially in the final half-hour.
What is perhaps the most interesting (and disappointing) part of the film is the complete lack of irony. The movie tries to be sincere, and it kind of succeeds, but it seemed as if some of the meta-self-awareness that peeks through occasionally might have been appropriate, if only to reward viewers. (There was one example in the film.) For example, couldn't they have had Gunner (Dolph Lundgren) commenting to Ross (Stallone) that "I will break you" or "if he dies, he dies"? Wouldn't that have just been awesome? Perhaps it is too much to ask, or perhaps action movies cannot be ironic; it's an idea to be explored in the future.
The Expendables did what I expected it would do: give me a distraction for just over an hour and a half of my life. Am I glad I saw it? Yeah. Would I watch it again. Probably not. It is what it is: an action flick that gets the testosterone pumping and gives some eye-candy (both of the explosive and female variety) to the viewer. In all, it might be one of the most aptly named movies I've seen in a long time: for me, it really was expendable. Am I glad that it's bringing action movies back? I'm not sure. But I do know that if they manage to bring in Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, or a larger role for Bruce Willis in the sequel that I'll at least be intrigued to see what happens.


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