Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On Baseball

"The relationship between a fan and his baseball team is unlike anything else. If you love a team - if you truly love it - then that team infiltrates your daily life for six straight months (seven if you're lucky). You wake up, you shower, you eat, you work, you eat, you watch your baseball team, you sleep. When the Mets collapsed for the third straight season last week, myevastated friends who follow them all said the same thing: it wasn't losing again as much as reflecting on those 162 games and the hundreds of hours wasted along the way. They felt betrayed. Only baseball does that to you. It's a game of routine, of watching one at-bat after another, hoping something different happens, of relishing the little things that happen along the way. You don't know your favorite players personally, but you feel like you do."

- Bill Simmons, Now I Can Die in Peace (3rd ed.), p. 433-434

Bill Simmons, the originally self-proclaimed and now widely acknowledged "Sports Guy" is a ridiculous man. He's an unabashedly unashamed Boston homer who writes more about his teams (Celtics, Patriots, and Red Sox particularly) than every other team combined. He uses references to 70s pop culture, porn, and pro wrestling within sentences of one another, and he has a seemingly eidetic memory for the most inane of sports trivia. He writes as if he relives each and every moment of agonizing heartbreak and unbelievable victory every time he writes about his teams and their daily ups and downs. Somehow, over the past decade, Simmons has become one of the authorities on sports in the internet era, as anyone who claims to be a sports fan but does not read Simmons is immediately disqualified from having any further meaningful contributions to any discussion on sports until he has experienced the full glory of Simmons' voluminous archives. That brings us to this book, a collection of running diaries, knee-jerk reactions, thoughtful commentaries, and mastery of parenthetical clauses and footnotes culled over a decade of following the Boston Red Sox. Simmons has included articles he wrote from 1999 through 2008, mostly unedited, that give one of the truest pictures of what it is like to follow any sports team, but particularly one with the kinds of highs and lows experienced by Red Sox fans. I'm sure I read many of these articles as they were published, but somehow they all seemed fresh and newly meaningful when they were packaged together in this way. Simmons not only defines the voice of Sox fans; he has redefined what it means to be a sports fan in the 21st century. Now I Can Die in Peace is a must-read for any sports fan, even if you don't like baseball. Scratch that - especially if you don't like baseball; then you can get a real sense of what it means to be a fan.
That was the review I just wrote on Goodreads about Bill Simmons' baseball book. What I didn't mention is that I'm one of the people I wrote about at the end of the review: I am not really a baseball fan. I could have been, but it never really solidified for me. I've had an interesting journey through two-plus decades of occasionally watching baseball, starting with experiences in my childhood. I remember the first time I ever watched baseball - the 1991 World Series between the Twins and the Braves. The main things I remember were Jack Morris' mustache, Kirby Puckett's paunch, and being excited when the Twins won in Game 7 since that's who my dad told me to cheer for.
The '92 Jays were an eclectic bunch of players and mustaches - including Jack Morris, who signed with the team in the off-season - who beat the same Braves in the World Series. I don't remember much of that team, other than Dave Winfield's interminably long batting times, Roberto Alomar's fantastic acrobatics at second base, and Pat Borders playing out of his mind and winning the Series MVP. It was exciting enough that I joined the Jr. Jays and started following the team more closely the following season. It was the '93 Jays that really captured my attention: Olerud, White, Alomar, Sprague, Molitor, and of course Joltin' Joe Carter, whose Game 6 game-winning home run remains one of the most exciting moments in any sport ever. I also lived in Saskatoon, perhaps the only city ever to have a riot after a championship series without having a team involved in the series. At that point, I probably could have actually become a long-term baseball fan. I was eleven years old, I had a great mind for numbers, and I had a lot of spare time. Then came the 1994 strike and cancellation, and any good will that might have been built up at one time was summarily ended in my mind.
There were enough elements over the next few years to keep me moderately intrigued: two Ken Griffey Jr. baseball games for the Super Nintendo, Cal Ripken's streak, the Florida Marlins winning the World Series. I still could have become a baseball fan, but I was not quite ready to commit yet. Then came the 1998 season, and the floor fell through. Three things happened that could have solidified by fandom, but in retrospect, they marked the beginning of the end.

1. The Blue Jays' only meaningful season since 1993, when they finished four games back of the Boston Red Sox for third in their division. The 1998 season cemented "also-ran" status for the Jays at that point, as well as the reality that New York and Boston would rule the division for the foreseeable future; it ended up being a decade until Tampa Bay broke through, but the standard was set that year. Any chance of me being a Jays fan was done.

2. The race to beat Maris' record between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Sure, it was exciting at the time, but there was something about the record not only being broken but shattered that broke some of the mystique. 1998 truly was the height of the steroid era, as we now know, and although we didn't know it at the time, baseball had lost its innocence - you know, if you don't count the 1919 Black Sox, or the widespread blatant racism well into the 1960s, or the all-time hits leader being suspended for gambling...well, you get the point. By the time Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001, the entire landscape had changed, and we realized 1998 for what it was. We just didn't really know it at the time.

3. The Yankees swept the Padres in the World Series. These were not the same Yankees that had won the Series in 1996, when they were the plucky underdogs against the powerhouse Braves. They were not quite the Evil Empire yet - even though they were still the Yankees - and they were likable. Something changed between that team and the team in 1998, when they started a winning streak of three World Series in which they lost only one game in the Series in the ridiculously insular Subway Series in 2000 against the Mets. I didn't know it at the time, but things were different after 1998.

Between the events from 1998 through 2000, I was established as not a baseball fan. Then one moment gave me hope: Luis Gonzalez' bloop single to win the World Series in the bottom of the 9th inning for the Arizona Diamondbacks over the New York Yankees in the 2001 World Series. It was entirely unexpected, especially since the Yankees were close to their fourth Series in a row. I remember watching the game at a Boston Pizza on Sunday, November 4, 2001, because my now-wife and I were having our first major DTR ("define the relationship") talk at the time. I left the restaurant with hope for a new beginning on a relationship and for my future as a baseball fan. The next decade or so is a mostly indifferent morass of highs and lows. There were some great highlights: the elation of watching the Yankees lose another Series, this time against the Marlins; watching the Red Sox, Cardinals, White Sox, Giants, and Phillies win World Series titles; Moneyball (the phenomenon and the movie); the rise of the Tampa Bay Rays; and the run of the Rockies in the 2007 playoffs. There were a lot of lows, too: the Mitchell Report; the steroid era; the Evil Empire (the Yankees); the Athletics never making it to the World Series; contraction talk; the ignominous end of the Expos; and the continuing stratification of franchise payrolls. It was never enough to fully pull me in, and never enough to push me away definitively.
I watched it all through the lens of writers like Simmons and Jonah Keri, never really feeling the need to invest myself or any pull toward the game, but never really knowing why, other than the lingering disillusionment from 1994 and 1998-2000. Then, as I read Simmons' book and the quote with which I led off this reflection, I realized that to really appreciate baseball, you need to have your team to follow - and that really can only happen in a place with a baseball team. I've thought about picking a team and trying to follow them, but it has not been easy to decide which team I could cheer for. It was almost the Jays for me, but they're halfway across the country. I thought about the small-market A's, but they're just too far away. The only team that has ever been geographically close to where I have lived is the Seattle Mariners, but they're across the ferry, so it's not really feasible to pick them based on geography.
I know it does not really make sense to pick a team, but then I realized who my team would be if I were to pick one: the Minnesota Twins. The pieces were all there: fond memories from childhood; identifying with a small-market team; a great cast of players, including some from Canada; and an embattled history, including almost being contracted in the 2002 season. There's no way I could be accused of being a bandwagon jumper (after all, they did finish last in the American League last season), but they have also had enough success over the past decade that I could reasonably expect that there would be some good highlights of being a fan. I suppose that even geographically, it could make some sense, since the Twins were one of the closest teams to where I lived when I was growing up, and I have some distant family ties in the Minnesota area. So maybe that's what I need to try this year to really try out with the baseball fan experience: following the Twins on a semi-regular basis. Maybe that will help me actually have baseball mean something, and I can get a little taste of what it might mean to enjoy baseball like Simmons does. Besides, if I start being a Twins fan now, then I can legitimately enjoy their eventual success without jumping on the bandwagon when it happens. So there you have it: I am arbitrarily declaring myself a fan of the Minnesota Twins. Go Twins go!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Tabletop Day and beyond!

A couple of weeks ago, on Saturday, March 30, I celebrated the first International Tabletop Day. Tabletop is Wil Wheaton's YouTube show in which he films himself and friends playing different board games and explaining them to the viewer. The series does a great job of introducing new games to viewers, particularly people new to the world of these kinds of games, and it's a great way to learn how a game works. As part of the promotion for the day, they encouraged gamers to organize events for playing games and to go to their FLGS (internet speak for "Friendly Local Game Store") to get some of the promos that they had available. We went to a couple of local stores and managed to get some great swag, including a brand new copy of The Resistance!

We played five games that day, including three rounds of the cooperative game Pandemic: On The Brink, since my wife refused to quit playing until we won. (The final result of the winning game is included below.) That day of gaming brought my plays for March up to 19, which is the minimum I'd like to play each month, but more than that, it brought me back into the groove of gaming, which is why I thought this would be a great chance to recap my first quarter of board gaming.

7 Wonders and Pandemic continued to be my two top-played games in the first quarter of the year, as I recently acquired the expansions for both and they continue to be two of my wife's favourite games. I played four games for the first time - At the Gates of Loyang, Eclipse, Egizia, and Lords of Waterdeep - and I enjoyed them all. Only one of those - Loyang - was on my list to play this year, leaving me with nineteen to go on that list from December. (Maybe I should look at editing that list down a bit - perhaps a top ten to play would be better; more on that later.)

In terms of adding to my collection, I added four games from January to March: The Resistance (a social deduction game for 5-10 players); Barons (an area-control card game which I have yet to try); At the Gates of Loyang (the third part of Uwe Rosenberg's Harvest Trilogy, along with Agricola and Le Havre, which plays particularly well as a solo game); and Egizia (a worker placement game based in Ancient Egypt). It might seem like four is a lot, but I have actually slowed down my pace from last year. In fact, one of the things I have realized is that I need to get rid of some games, since I own some games that I know I will never really play. Addition by subtraction. I have a couple of games on my radar for picking up on Kickstarter, but those will not come in until the fall, so for now, I might just try to sell games to refine my collection and fill in a couple of the existing gaps.

Most of my collecting efforts have gone into finding the many Carcassonne expansions I did not yet own before they went permanently out-of-print - an imminent threat given the unknown status of some of the smaller expansions with the switchover of the distribution of the game in North America from Rio Grande Games to Z-Man Games. I added two big expansions - The Tower and the gimmicky-but-great-for-kids The Catapult - as well as the six new mini-expansions and most of the other existing mini-expansions (The River II, Cult Siege and Creativity, and the Games Quarterly mini-expansion from 2006). I'm at the point now at which the other expansions I don't have are fairly rare, as many of them are micro-expansions that were released at specific conferences mostly in Germany and go for exorbitant amounts on eBay. If I ever found them for a good price, I'd buy them, but it's not worth it to pay $25 for two tiles. (Trust me, they go for that much.) I took a bit of time to organize all of my current expansions in a Plano 3700, and I'm pleased with the result. Now I just hope that this helps me play the game more often!

So what am I looking forward to in the next few months of gaming? There are always games I want to try , and there are a couple of interesting games being released soon that I might even buy, such as Forbidden Desert, the sequel to Forbidden Island and Alien Artifacts, the new expansion for Race for the Galaxy that reboots the game - but that might change when the Spiel de Jahres nominations are released near the end of May. Mostly, I just want to play the games that my group already owns and has tried. Some of those are short games that I want to play more to really appreciate the nuances therein (Citadels, Glory To Rome, Innovation, Race for the Galaxy); some are medium-length games that we enjoy and can play with better strategy (Alhambra, Lords of Waterdeep), and some are the longer games that we have barely begun to learn (Caylus, Eclipse, Egizia, El Grande, Le Havre, The Princes of Florence, Power Grid, and Puerto Rico). So that's my goal: play more of the games I already own and enjoy. Seems like a good idea, right?

And, for good measure, here is my list of games I want to try by the end of the year, which I was able to edit down to fifteen from twenty before (excluding Barons, which I will play soon). The games are: Android: Netrunner; The Castles of Burgundy; Core Worlds; Eminent Domain; Flash Point: Fire Rescue; For Sale; Fresco; Jump Gate; Ora et Labora; Stone Age; Through The Ages; Tigris & Euphrates; Twilight Struggle; Village; and Zooloretto. So let me know if you're in the area and you want a game to hit the table - I'm in!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dare I Dream?

With only eight games and just over two weeks left in the NHL schedule, the Toronto Maple Leafs are firmly holding onto a playoff spot. The last time the Leafs were in the playoffs was in 2004, before the previous lockout cancelled the entire 2004-2005 season. That was nine years ago, and they have not made the playoffs since.

To put that in perspective, my now-wife and I were just getting engaged for the first time. Since then, we've had an un-engagement, re-engagement, and nearly five years of marriage. Sidney Crosby was yet to be drafted. The Calgary Flames lost the Stanley Cup Final that year. The Leafs' current leading goal-scorer, Nazem Kadri, was thirteen years old. You get the picture - it was a long time ago.

After the lockout, Leaf fans held on to a semblance of hope for a couple of seasons before giving up entirely. Here is a short summary of what the Leafs have done since that last playoff loss, when Jeremy Roenick and the Flyers beat them in the second round, including both their regular season history and the significant moves made by the management during that time - a reflective diary from a fan. (I know this is kind of the Sports Guy's gimmick, but I just started reading Now I Can Die in Peace, his memoir about being a Red Sox fan, so bear with me. Plus, I think it works well in this context.)

2006 - 9th place, 90 points, 2 points out of a playoff spot. The Leafs decided to make a run with their old crew, who were all two years older than their last playoff appearance. They kind of had to, since they, unlike most forward-looking teams in the league, had not written contracts that anticipated the lockout and were still beholden to their aging stars. It almost worked, but they fell just short in the final week. That was the year that the Oilers almost won the Cup starting in 8th place in the West, so Leafs fans hold onto hope for the next year that all they need to do is make the playoffs. The Leafs also made one of the dumbest deals they have ever made, dealing away surefire goalie prospect Tuukka Rask for one-time Calder-winning goalie Andrew Raycroft. Why? Because they had Justin Pogge in their system. He's now a top goalie...in Italy. We knew it was dumb at the time, but there was nothing we could do except watch and know that there was a long road back to respectability.

2007 - 9th place, 1 point, and they lost out on 8th on the final day of the season, to the New York Islanders. The Islanders, who won four straight to end the season with journeyman goalie Wade Dubielewicz giving conniptions to every sportswriter in Canada. The Leafs had beaten the Canadiens in their last game to sit in playoff position, and all they had to do was watch the Devils and Islanders play the next day and hope that the Devils won, even if it was in a shootout. The Islanders led 2-0 until the last five minutes of the third period, when the Devils scored a goal; they scored again with one second remaining to take the game to the shootout. There was hope for Leaf Nation - maybe, just maybe the Leafs could squeak in and make a miracle run. But alas, it was not to be, as the Islanders won in the shootout, and the Leafs were left to wonder what might have been for another year. The box score from that day is still heartbreaking, and that's the closest the Leafs would come to a post-season appearance for another half a decade. The Leafs picked up goalie Vesa Toskala after the season, but he never worked out in Toronto - of course.

2008 - 12th place, 83 points, 11 points out of a playoff spot. We fans hoped for a complete collapse soon so that the Leafs could pick up a high draft pick or two and start rebuilding. In typical Leafs fashion, they were not bad enough for a good draft pick, but not good enough to be exciting that season. The only interesting part of the season was wondering what would happen with Mats Sundin, their star captain; he left after the end of the season knowing that he had no chance of winning with the Leafs. The bigger move the club made was to finally fire incompetent General Manager John Ferguson, Jr., replacing him with Cliff Fletcher in the interim during the season and hiring Brian Burke as the permanent replacement in the off-season. Burke had built winners before, so there was hope.

2009 - 12th place, 81 points, well out of a playoff spot - The same result as the year before, but slightly worse because it meant another wasted season without a good draft pick to compensate. Just before the next season, Burke finally made his mark and pulled the trigger on a huge deal, picking up young star Phil Kessel from the Bruins for three picks. In true Leaf fashion, this ended up not entirely working out for the team, as demonstrated the following year. Also, the book Leafs Abomination is published, and every Toronto fan nods glumly as they read the account of why the Leafs stink.

2010 - 15th place, 74 points, 2nd worst in the league. Finally, the bottom falls out, and the only team worse than the Leafs was the Edmonton Oilers. The high pick that Leaf fans had so eagerly awaited was finally ours - except that the Leafs had traded it away in the Kessel deal. Of course, in a year in which the second overall pick would have netted them a superstar like Tyler Seguin, they had traded their pick away to the Bruins (along with their second round pick that year and a first round pick the following year). Sigh. Burke did continue to rebuild the team in his image, as he picked up D Dion Phaneuf from Calgary during the season. We were mostly tuned out, but intrigued to see what might happen in the future with Phaneuf and Kessel in the fold.

2011 - 10th place, 85 points, 8 points out of a playoff spot. A resurgence from the previous year's debacle, led by an unexpectedly frisky crew of young players with something to prove. Hope springs again in Leaf Nation. Burke adds by subtracting, getting rid of two defensemen. Francois Beauchemin was traded for Joffrey Lupul, who would become key to Kessel's success, along with prospect Jake Gardiner, and a week later, the Leafs finally parted with the last piece of their past and dealt away Tomas Kaberle, the offensive "defense"man whose egregious errors were perenially overlooked because he played in Toronto. Our final link to the past was gone, and the rebuild was fully underway. Fans can endure a couple of horrible seasons, as long as they can have hope, and there truly was hope for a better result next year.

2012 - 13th place, 80 points, 12 points out of a playoff spot. Aaaaand we're back. After a surprising first half had the Leafs in a playoff spot, a fantastic and not unexpected second half collapse left them significantly out of the playoff race. Granted, their spot looks worse, as the Eastern Conference was very tight that year with only six points separated 10th through 15th place, but they were still out of contention well before the end of the season. The team's big deal of the year was trading away young D-man Luke Schenn - the fifth overall pick in 2008 - for forward James Van Riemsdyk, who has been a top-20 scorer this year. Maybe the Leafs' fortunes have finally changed...

Which brings us to 2013. Currently, the team sits in fifth place in the East with 49 points and eight games to go. This shortened season might be the best thing to happen to the Leafs since the Cujo signing. The team surprisingly fired GM Brian Burke before the season, but the team has otherwise kept with his plan to let players develop and find their rhythm together, and it seems to be working. Four teams would have to jump over them to make the playoffs, and those teams are all between five and seven points behind the Leafs in the standings.

That means, in theory, that if the Leafs win five or four or even as few as three of their remaining games that they should be able to make a playoff spot. If they can do that, it is all but assured that the Leafs will finish in fifth, since they likely will not be able to make up enough points to finish higher than the Bruins or Canadiens, their two most likely first round opponents. Both of those series would be difficult for the Leafs to win, and I would not expect them to win, but honestly, it does not matter to me whether they even get out of the first round; it just matters that they finally make the playoffs.

It means that I can watch at least four games that matter in late April and early May. It means that I can cheer against whichever team beats them out and thoroughly enjoy their inevitable demise. It means that I can proudly be a Leaf fan once again. And it means that I can dare to dream about a day when I can finally enjoy a Stanley Cup parade in Toronto. I am finally letting myself dream again, and that's the greatest gift that this year's Leafs have given to me. Now, where's my fifty mission cap?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On Ebert and upcoming movies

Perhaps more than any figure other than Steven Spielberg or possibly Martin Scorsese, Roger Ebert demonstrates the development of American film since 1970. The late sixties and early seventies marked a significant shift in movies - arguably one of only two or three such shifts in the past century of film-making - from the big-studio Hollywood Blacklist era to the more independent, subversive, counter-cultural films that would mark that period; this shift was perhaps clearest in the difference between the Best Picture winners for 1968 and 1969 - Oliver! and Midnight Cowboy, respectively. Ebert started as a screenwriter but soon found that his love for cinema was better served by discussing film, rather than simply creating it. He crafted a voice in appreciating film as an art form, and he influenced countless contemporaries and generations of cinephiles, including me.
Roger Ebert taught me how to really appreciate film. I remember watching Siskel & Ebert most weeks even as a teenager to see which films they would like and which they would find abhorrent and whether their picks would match my own or my expectations of what they would pick and pan. Siskel and Ebert found a balance between the two of them, managing to be intellectual without being pretentious, enjoying films without sacrificing quality, and allowing movies to be movies. Some critics have trouble striking that balance, either being incredibly crusty and hating everything (ie. Rick Groen of The Globe and Mail or Owen Glieberman of EW) or overly effusive, gushing about movies that there is no reason to gush over (sometimes Lisa Schwarzbaum of EW). While Siskel tended at times to be more of a gusher, Ebert was more sparing in his praise and more scathing in his criticism; readers got the sense that Ebert took it as personal offense when a movie was poorly constructed, particularly if it seemed like it should not have been. Whereas Siskel and Ebert's "Two Thumbs Up" was given out more liberally, he kept careful consideration of the brand of "four stars", reserving that for the kinds of movies that really stood out. And, for the most part, it did not matter to which genre the film belonged - Ebert was willing to find enjoyment and value in all genres (if it was there to be found). He found base-level comedies featuring scatological humour and gross-em-out horror flicks hard to enjoy not because of content, but because of quality. Although as a teen, I was mostly an unabashed fanboy and action movie enthusiast - I initially took after my parents' tastes - as I watched more films, I found myself agreeing more and more with Ebert's perspective. It wasn't that I agreed with him because he said it; I agreed with him because he was usually right. Ebert helped me learn a new language and style of appreciating film, particularly in my early 20s when I started to pursue a wider variety of fare. I found myself understanding and appreciating his point of view, even if I did not always agree, and it seemed like Ebert, more than most other critics, was close to a "kindred spirit" in my love of movies. I am sad that he will not be around to review any more movies, but his legacy will carry on - and I am glad to be a part - however small - of that legacy.
With this all in mind, I thought this would be an appropriate juncture to discuss the movies to which I am looking forward over the next few three months, the second quarter of the year. After a particularly uninspired first quarter, there are actually a decent number of movies I would like to see from now until June. The nice thing is that I do not have much of a backlog right now, as the only movies I have wanted to see so far this year (other than the many 2012 releases I have enjoyed in past months) involved dinosaurs from another era: Jurassic Park 3D and A Good Day To Die Hard (which I don't want to see as much as I feel the need to be able to mock openly) (see what I did there?). The next few months feature a mix of intense relationally-driven dramas, sci-fi spectacles, and abstract independent films, all of which attract my attention. Here is my countdown of all of the films in which I have at least passing interest over the next three months, even if it's in deliberate ignorance.

Deliberate Omissions:
20. The Hangover Part III - I've never seen the first two; maybe I should sometime, but now is not that time.
19. This Is The End - Even though the idea of celebrities dealing with the end of the world seems funny, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg tend to be fairly sophmoric in their humour, and I suspect that this effort would probably be more of the same kind of tripe present in Superbad and Pineapple Express. I'll probably pass - though some good buzz might change that.

Wild Cards:
18. Epic (May 24) - It's an animated film, and although it does not come with great expectations (it is, after all, from Fox Animation), it's not one of the endless parade of sequels that have peppered all non-Pixar animation in recent years, so it might be worth seeing. I'll reserve judgment until it's released.
17. The East (May 31) - This indie is a thriller that focuses on people infiltrating a cult-like anarchistic syndicate. It seems like perfect fodder for Netflix in a few months, and Ellen Page is part of the cast, so I might check it out sometime.
16. The Place Beyond The Pines (April 12) - Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper together make this crime drama interesting enough to put on my list.
15. Pain & Gain (April 26) and 14. The Bling Ring (June 14) - Two stories based on very strange real-life events from two very different stylistic directors - Michael Bay and Sofia Coppola, respectively. They could be really engaging, interesting films, or they could be complete flops. I'll wait on these two.
13. Upstream Color (April 5) - The last film made by Shane Carruth, the director and star of this reportedly abstract-beyond-understanding film, was 2004's Primer. That's enough to at least make me want to see this one.

Mild to Medium Interest:
12. 42 (April 12) - I am not usually a fan of baseball films, but this telling of the story of Jackie Robinson could be really fascinating.
11. To The Wonder (April 12) - It seems oddly appropriate that Terrence Malick's latest film was the last film that Ebert reviewed. It seems like in some ways it might be even more abstract than Malick's previous film, The Tree of Life, which I think will be interesting to see. When someone like Malick makes a film, I feel the need to at least see it.
10. After Earth (June 7) and 9. Oblivion (April 19) - Two high-concept science-fiction films about life after a global extinction level event, both of which feature big stars and directors with a need to (re-)establish reputations. Joseph Krosinski directs Oblivion, with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, and M. Night Shyamalan tries to return to form from a decade ago with his story written by Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana) and starring Will and Jaden Smith. I'll see them both fairly quickly, but who knows if they will be any good; then again, can they be worse than Prometheus?
8. Iron Man 3 (May 3) and 7. Man of Steel (June 14) - Two superhero movies I know I will see, even though neither of these two heroes are particularly interesting to me. Still, I'll give them a shot to see what they do with their respective stories.

Movies I Can't Miss:
6. Monsters University (June 21) - Pixar releasing a prequel to one of my favourite animated movies ever? I'm stoked.
5. Much Ado About Nothing (June 7) - Joss Whedon brings Shakespeare's classic comedy into the contemporary world, with Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. What's not to love?
4. The Heat (June 28) - Director Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks, Bridesmaids) brings Melissa McCarthy back as a foul-mouthed street cop and pairs her with straight-laced federal agent Sandra Bullock. This looks like it might be even funnier than Bridesmaids; just watch the red-band trailer and try not to laugh.
3. World War Z (June 21) - Brad Pitt faces off against super-fast zombies in this adaptation of Max Brooks' seminal zombie novel. I know it's gone through retooling, and it looks different than the book, but I still need to see it.
2. The Great Gatsby (May 10) - One of the most colourful directors brings one of the most colourful stories of the last century to life. Gatsby is one of my favourite novels to teach, and I cannot wait to see what Baz Luhrman does with the story, especially with Leo DiCaprio at Gatsby, and especially in 3D.
1. Star Trek Into Darkness (May 17) - Was there any doubt that this would be my number one anticipated movie? Seriously - Benedict Cumberbatch apparently destroys the Earth and all kinds of awesomeness ensues. And it's an even-numbered Star Trek, which means it's going to be super-awesome. The question I have is not, "will this be a good Star Trek movie?", it's "will this top Wrath of Khan, Undiscovered Country, and First Contact and be the best Star Trek movie?" But there are no expectations at all...man, this movie had better not let me down.

There you have it - my most anticipated movies of the next three months. It seems like there's something interesting being released almost every week in May and June, so I'll have to pace myself. Especially if I want to see Star Trek Into Darkness multiple times. But there's no pressure. What are your most anticipated movies of the next three months?

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

House of Cards

NOTE: I wrote most of this post when House of Cards was first released a couple of months ago. I think most of it is still applicable, and I have updated the content to reflect some thoughts I have had in the meantime.

I have not yet had the chance to watch Netflix's original series House of Cards, but I will watch it soon. The concept itself is intriguing: "A ruthless Congressman, Francis Underwood, will stop at nothing to conquer everything in this wicked political drama about power, sex, love and greed." The personnel make it even more enticing: Kevin Spacey stars; writer Beau Willimon was Oscar-nominated for last year's The Ides of March, one of the most thrilling political movies in recent memory; and the David Fincher is producing and doing some directing. But perhaps what makes House of Cards most worthy of attention is not the show itself, which seems destined to be less consequential than the possibility that this series could have a significant effect on the commercial and creative way in which television is produced and consumed, regardless of how well-received the show may be. It may not happen right away, but it certainly may mark the beginning of the end for television as we have known it - or at least be a milestone on that route. Even before one episode had aired (or was made available for streaming, as it were), the show was guaranteed to run for 26 episodes, the equivalent of two seasons. As if this were not unusual enough in itself, Netflix also decided to release the entirety of the first season - 13 episodes - at once, rather than according to the sequential model that has been the backbone of all episodic enterprises, whether on network, cable, or online, for the past seventy years (and in cinemas before that). Moreover, Netflix is promising not to release any information on the viewership of the show; that may change if it proves to be a hit, but it's at least an interesting position to take before a show airs.
There are a number of intriguing ramifications creatively in the way that Netflix has treated House of Cards. The idea of committing to two seasons is new, and it will be interesting to see how it changes the way viewers decide to engage in the show from the start. The standard network procedure is for a show to receive an order for an initial six, nine, or thirteen episodes, after which point they may be extended for the remainder of a season. Some shows get the renewal right away, some receive their news incrementally, and some have to wait for the last-second favour of an executive to continue their enterprise; others, of course, get cut at any time, often without regard for any attempts at resolution or consideration for the viewers. (I still think the all-time low was the cancellation of Lone Star, one of the early critical favourites, in September 2010 after TWO episodes.) As a result, many viewers seem hesitant to watch a show until they see that their investment will be rewarded with continued support from a network, which turns the relationship into a catch-22: viewers don't want to watch a show that the networks won't support, and networks won't support a show that viewers don't want to watch. Cable networks have changed this model in the past fifteen years, as they commit to a full season (usually consisting of ten to thirteen episodes), and are often more forgiving with allowing shows time to establish their viewership. There are far fewer shows on cable, however, and they all have higher production costs, so cable networks have a lot more invested (in theory) than the networks do. Still, there are a number of shows that are canceled after their second season (Boss or Party Down being recent victims), which still seems to be the point at which a show would be able to emerge from a smaller audience to a broader one. Think of how many shows you enjoy that you did not start to watch until after their second season, or at least until you were sure that they would last. House of Cards is automatically getting that two-season buffer zone that all other shows have to earn, and it will be interesting to see what viewers do with it: will they try it out or wait to see how it's received? Granted, Cards has a high pedigree with the names attached to it, and other Netflix original series don't seem to have the same favour of a two-season order, but it's still an interesting experiment. It seems to be at least worth a try, since the traditional network model has such a high failure rate, and it only seems to be getting worse. (Quick: name a hit TV show from one of the major networks that premiered in the past year. If you said "Revolution", you're about as right as you can be. Remember, "Girls" was on HBO.) This model needs to change, and although Cards may not be the impetus for change, at least it's trying something new.
Another interesting creative change is that the entire first season has been conceived, planned, and filmed before any critical reception (which has been overwhelmingly positive). The result is that House of Cards will undoubtedly feel more like a cinematic entity than a televised one. That's not that dissimilar from many cable shows that have season arcs planned out, but even those shows often feature surprises that even the writers did not expect. Television shows have to find that cadence in which they find their rhythm and discover the layers of what's really going on, and they often need that time to find out where things should go. If they were forced to construct the entirety of their run initially, it might look different: for example, if initial thoughts were followed, Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman and Justified's Boyd Crowder would not have made it out of their series' first seasons, and there would be much weeping and gnashing of teeth - perfectly pearly white teeth. Some shows have that clear identity from the start, but those are often so-called "high concept" shows that fizzle out creatively very quickly or encounter significant issues in expanding their worlds beyond that initial pop, such as Heroes, My Name Is Earl, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Lost. (I might get some flak for that last one, but convince me I'm wrong. "Oh, we're going back to the island? Didn't see that coming at all!") It does take a great idea to start a show - after all, the conflict needs to be immediately clear, or else it becomes a long anecdote - but it also takes time for writers and actors to get to know the characters and to be able to put them in enough different situations that they really can get a sense of who these people are and why they do what they do.
Possible spoiler alerts on Breaking Bad and Justified ahead...proceed with caution. The two aforementioned series, Breaking Bad and Justified, are both excellent examples of how a show can be both driven toward a conclusion and be responsive to how characters develop. Of course, both shows are well-established, so they can take a lot of freedoms, and both are on cable, so they can be more creatively loose with their content and format than network shows, but I argue that their abiility to adjust is still impressive. They are the two shows I most appreciate currently (though Homeland is a close third and will certainly take that no. 2 spot if its third season is as strong as its first two, with Breaking Bad being done by then). Both BB and Justified have had the benefit of an overarching dominant philosophy and vision from a prominent person with an established aesthetic and sense of purpose - Vince Gilligan and Elmore Leonard, respectively. They have also incorporated a communal aspect to their show's development in which producers, writers, directors, and actors all have a voice in how things go throughout the show. (Read this article to get a sense of the process on Justified - but don't read it if you have not yet watched Season 4.) They have clear ideas of where the shows should go and could go, but they also allow for their shows to grow and change. Even now, I have no idea of where the final octet of Breaking Bad episodes will end up, even though I (along with the rest of the internet) have no shortage of theories as to how it could or opinions on how it should end. BB has left several open ends to be resolved, but all we know is that we can trust Gilligan and company to stay true to the world they have created and to include several of the kind of gaping-maw moments (those ones that make you shout out and drop your jaw) along the way. It is an incredibly tight enterprise, and I cannot wait to see where it ends up. Justified is the show I most enjoy watching because of its unique combination of gravity and levity (grevity?). The two leads - U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and hillbilly crime lord Boyd Crowder - are two of the most well-written entertaining characters on television, and the writers of the show continue to find fascinating ways to have the two connect (like when they were united against the hill-people). The world of Harlan county is continually opening up, and the story is definitely not anywhere close to over. It actually feels a lot like The Shield, which had a similarly conclusive story in its fourth season only to open the doors wide open with the onset of the fifth season (one of the best of any show I've watched). Who knows where Justified will go? Not even the writers know fully at this point, but I know I'm going to enjoy it.
A television show is at its best like a house of cards. It takes a long time to build it up, but it can collapse with one mistake. It requires patience, endurance, and perseverance to make it work well and to see the pay off; only time will tell if Netflix's gamble actually succeeds or if it falls in on itself. But perhaps its about time that I actually finally watch the show; after all, I have some time now that Justified is over while I'm waiting for Breaking Bad to resume.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Being Tri-Vocational

In the past couple of weeks, I have been working through the idea of "vocation", a term that is not often used in its truest sense in many contexts. Allow me to explain: for a large portion of the population, the term "vocation" is equivalent to "job" or "occupation" or perhaps even "career", but that's not the truest sense of the word. "Vocation" is more about calling and purpose than simply work; it shares a Latin root with "voice" and "vocal" - the element of being called, so to speak (see what I did there?). In many Evangelical churches, the term is used sparingly - if at all - often in reference only to a "call to ministry" because it sounds too much like the high church. It was actually when I started spending time with Catholics and Anglicans that I really started to hear the term "vocation" applied to more than the select few who devote their lives to the church. Sure, the priesthood is a vocation, but marriage is a vocation and so is parenthood and so is singlehood and whatever field you are called to. In the past couple of decades, the concept of the "seven spheres of influence" (about which you can see some of thoughts here) has begun to advance the idea of "vocation" in a humourously Evangelical way, as much of the dialogue about these spheres in Evangelical churches is directed toward "reclaiming [the sphere] for Jesus", but at least there is still some semblance of understanding that people are called into different fields for different purposes. So, as I was saying, I have been working through the idea of vocation, particularly inasmuch as it applies to being "bi-vocational" - having two jobs/careers/callings.
I have actually really been struggling with the idea of being bi-vocational, and I have wondered why. As a teacher, it is part of the nature of the job to be bi-vocational, even in the midst of a day's work. You have to be a teacher and a coach and a counselor and sometimes a social worker and a drama director and a...well, you get the point. It seems like the nature of the self-determination of the job is such that teachers, arguably more than other professions, are able to incorporate other vocations into their lifestyle. Common examples include other forms of teaching, including music, and pastoring, but I have met some teachers with very interesting second vocations - like being a silversmith, for example. I think part of the reason I have been struggling with being bi-vocational is that I do not feel like my primary vocation (teaching) is that strong right now - after all, I do not have a contract at a school, and working as a teacher-on-call is only so fulfilling. But as I worked through it, I realized that I am struggling with being bi-vocational because I actually cannot be bi-vocational; I have to be tri-vocational to succeed. Now I need to unpack that a bit.
When I was in high school, as I began to attempt to determine what path I should take in university (and thus in life), I felt like my callings were to journalism, education, and ministry, and that much of my life's work would be spent weaving and winding my way through those paths. As I neared my time for application into entrance into the School of Journalism in my second year of post-secondary, I realized that was not the path for me, and I spent a few months re-evaluating my life until I arrived at the conclusion that I needed to head toward education, the path I have traveled, more or less, for the past decade, with a few bumps along the way. When I was laid off from my first "permanent" teaching position three years ago, I went again into some soul-searching to determine whether my vocation(s) had changed or needed to change, and I arrived at the same conclusion that I had a decade previous, albeit with some more open consideration in each field, as I recognized that my continuing vocations were to communications, education, and service. I have been involved in ministry and writing that whole time as well, and it feels like my most successful times have been when all three vocations have been flowing together. I
n light of these realizations and my current vacillation between these three I thought I might spend a bit of time working through each of these vocations in this forum over the next few days to determine my status in each of these areas. (I thought about trying to come up with a snappy acronym for this small personal project, but nothing came to mind. Yet.) I think it will be helpful for me to understand where I am at, and I hope that it might enlighten something for you as I go through this process. (And, really, even if it doesn't, I'm still going to work through it, and you can't stop me. Although you could stop reading. Hmmm...I should really rethink this line of reasoning. But I digress.) I'm looking forward to what I learn about myself, and also to seeing how my process helps you through wherever you are at. I am doing my best to be vocational through my writing, so here goes...

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

As for me and my house

It was around the middle of February that I passed a personal milestone: this is the longest I have ever lived in one house. Ever. My family moved every couple of years as I was growing up, though we never moved more than a few blocks away. The last (and only other) time I have lived in one house this long was when I was in high school; I ended that residency by moving out for the first time to go to university. After eight nomadic years, I have found myself again strangely rooted in one place. It seems surreal to have actually set this milestone, and for each day to be adding one day more to my record for residency, especially as it does not seem as if there will be an end to this arrangement anytime soon.

We live in a one-bedroom place which is severely undervalued for rent (partly because we are good friends with our landlords and they really like us), and short of a significant life change, we're here for a while longer. We have little reason to buy - not that we would be able to qualify for a mortgage anyway - and we really like our place. It is weird, to say the least.

The realization of this milestone helped lead me to my choice in observing Lent this year, which was a different Lenten season for me. Although I have not been part of a church tradition that observes Lent liturgically, I have usually chosen to observe it myself over the past decade by giving up something, as is the custom. I have given up different things over the years - video games, thrift shopping, TV, certain types of food - but this year I felt like it was time for a different Lenten sacrifice: my time and energy.

After having been sick and casually (un)employed for much of the three months leading up to Lent, I had spent more time in my house than I had in years, and I began to realize that needed to do some deep organizing and cleaning and put my house in order. It's rare that anyone gets past that surface level of typical cleaning - if they even get that far - so my wife and I decided that we needed to make time and energy to systematically work through our space.

The last time we did anything like this was in May 2011, when we spent the better part of a week off together going through our kitchen, so it was long overdue. Throughout our two-week spring break, we started to go through each room of the house and ask ourselves those hard questions you have to ask when clutter-busting. Is this useful? And the corollary to that question, will I use it again? Is it beautiful? Or is it just taking up space?

We managed to rid ourselves of at least a dozen bags of stuff to Salvation Army, along with several bags of old papers to be recycled. My wife went through and organized her old papers from childhood, a task she had been avoiding for years, despite the emotional wherewithal it took for her to do so, and we just kept at it. We finally finished yesterday - April 1, Easter Monday - with one last blitz on our kitchen and dining room. We finally don't have (m)any of those lingering pieces that just don't have a home - we still have a couple, but we know what we're going to do with them (mostly).

We now have a better idea of the tasks we want to accomplish in the next few months - sorting through photos and putting them in albums, finishing a couple of long-standing "fix-it" projects, scanning and filing some papers on the desk - but our house is as much in order as it ever has been, and it feels great. I still have to go through our games and books and DVDs and trade some in or list them online, but now I feel as if I can do that because we have worked hard to make the space in our limited space (and time) to allow that next level of self-evaluation to take place. We have cleared the junk and more, and though we still have a lot left to do, we have made significant enough progress to mark a great start.

As I reflected on what has transpired in the past month and a bit, I realized that I usually have not needed to be this deliberate about this process. Some of that is, of course, due to having a wife who actually wants to have a say in how things go around the house, but it's more than that. I realized that moving is, to some extent, a way to be forced into some semblance of this process; since I was moving every four to eight months (and sometimes sooner), I was required to be a bit more choosy.

But sometimes moving consists of just getting out and dealing with all of the stuff later - the important thing is just to get everything from one place to another with some remainder of sanity intact. Some moves allow for more in-depth self-examination; I can remember two times in which I was leaving one city (2003 and 2008) and had the time and space to work through that process and make a big shift in my philosophy and practice of stuff. This has felt very similar, even though we have no plans to leave even our house, much less our city, anytime soon.

There's something about either accomplishing long-awaited projects or jettisoning them entirely that is freeing, and it feels like we have needed this liberation in this season. Perhaps it means that our season may change soon, but it may just be that it has been time to take that next step and release some of those things (whether they be tasks or objects) from who and where we are and where we are going. I just feel lighter and "healthier", and I'm really looking forward to taking more steps toward being freer.

I know that now that the physical stuff is mostly cared for that I still have a lot of online junk through which to sort - old e-mails, Facebook messages, photos, documents, mp3s, videos sent to me by friends that I put into a "To Watch" folder and never looked at again, social media, online contacts, seasons of TV shows I will probably never watch - in addition to maintaining the order of our house.

I'm looking forward to putting life in order in the next few months, including working on some of my personal health goals and just trying to take more time to enjoy life, rather than letting it happen around me. Our house was named "Camp Awesome" several years ago; I'm just glad to help it live up to that hype.


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