Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Community 301: Suspension of Reality

Season 2 was when Community figured out who it really was; Season 3 took it further up and further in and produced some of the show's most memorable moments and plot lines. I will concede that the season's overall level of ridiculousness strains the expectation of reality, but that it actually becomes a benefit rather than a detriment to the show. I still think that Season 2 was the show's best, but it's only by a narrow margin over Season 3 - and I would still take this season over almost any other season of any other show (and certainly over the other four seasons of Community).

Main character power rankings

More than any other season, it seemed as though most characters had their own story line; I suppose that makes sense in the community college setting, since the third year of college is often when students start differentiating among themselves and taking different routes to various careers. Some story lines worked better than others, which to me was the biggest contributor to which characters rose and fall in this season's power rankings.

9. Pierce Hawthorne (-2) - Aside from a couple of memorable moments as "Pillow Man", Pierce's character continued to slide in this season. Even the storyline with his father, which does advance his character, arguably does more for Jeff's character.

8. Dean Pelton (+1) - The dean had a few great moments this year, but perhaps none were more memorable than his descent into madness while filming a commercial. He's finally out of the basement; well dean.

7. Shirley Bennett (-3) - Shirley had far less to do this season with her baby storyline done, and a lot of her character was again reduced to her being a stereotype of a Christian. It was disappointing to see her being underused after it felt like the writers figured her out in Season 2, though her storyline of opening up a sandwich shop did give her something to do.

6. Troy Barnes (-2) - Troy's storyline about the Air Conditioning Repair School was funny at first, but it did not have the kind of punch it needed to. Troy mostly took a back seat to the antics of his two roommates, as will be discussed later on, but I suppose being the messiah of the AC Repair school isn't too bad.

5. Britta Perry (+2) - Britta becoming a psychology major and a "therapist" gave her a strong story arc throughout the season. That story development, along with her being the only person with much romantic action this season, pushes her up the standings.

4. Jeff Winger (+1) - Winger, ever the group's steady anchor, remained the conscience of the group, and he slightly improves his position largely because a couple of other characters faltered.

3. Ben Chang (+3) - From student to security officer to unhinged psychopath dictator, Chang bounces back as the fulcrum for most of the action of the season.

2. Annie Edison (Even) - Annie was awesome again this season, but even her time in Model U.N. , script supervising for the Dean, and role-playing Inspector Spacetime isn't quite enough to put her at the top.

1. Abed Nadir (Even) - Abed was easily the best character again this season, particularly in his manipulation of the Dreamatorium and the Darkest Timeline. Hot. Hot hot hot.

Romantic Encounter Power Rankings

There were very few romantic entanglements this season, and several of them were carried over from Season 2 (or S1, in the case of Annie and Jeff), so this is probably the least interesting season for relationships...other than Britta.

7. Pierce (Stories of Eartha Kitt) - Poor Pierce.

6. Troy (Britta) - Troy gets a couple of points for having something happening with Britta near the end of the year.

4. (Tie) Jeff (Annie) / Annie (Jeff) - The "will they or won't they?" of the series continues, but with a lot less interesting stakes at this point.

3. Shirley (Andre) - Shirley's wedding to Andre is a key development at midseason.

2. Abed (Hilda) - Even though Abed's only love interest could fit on a USB stick, he still got more action than most of his friends.

1. Britta (Subway, Blade, Troy) - Ummm, so Britta became the most interesting romantic character of the show this year.

Supporting character power rankings

There were a lot of characters in this season, including a number of new characters who created immediate impressions in their introduction. Half of the list is new for this season, and most of those will be replaced in the next season, but here are the power rankings for season 3.

NR: Jerry the Janitor; Alan; Dean Spreck; Colonel Archwood; Sgt. Nunez; "Asian Annie" Kim; Vinnie (the French Stewart impersonator); Faux-by / Dopple-deaner; Murray the AC Repairman; The Germans; Blade; Luis Guzman; Quendra; Urbana Champaign; Dr. Heidi; Kim; Toby the Pizza Guy

Off the list in Season 3: Pavel; Rich; Andre; "Annie's Boobs"; Vicki

HM: Officer Cackowski; Changlorious Basterds; Richie and Carl (board members)

10. Magnitude - "You know they're laughing at you, right?"

9. Garrett -"CRISIS ALERT!"

8. Subway - "Eat fresh!"

7. Cornelius Hawthorne - "Welcome to Hawkthorne!"

6. Gilbert Lawson - "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!"

5. Todd - "None taken."

4. Hilda - "I love Abed."

3. Fat Neil - "I did it for love!"

2. Leonard - "No such thing as bad press."

1. Starburns - RIP, Alex.

Faculty power rankings

There were not a lot of professors this season, and two of the faculty who were shown may not have even been professors. Here are the rankings for the season:

NR: Professor Ian Duncan, who inexplicably does not appear in S3 at all.

4. Cory "Mr. Rad" Radison ("Regional Holiday Music") - We're never actually sure if "Mr. Rad" teaches at Greendale or if he just works as the glee club instructor, but I'm going to include him here anyway.

3. Professor Cligoris ("Geography of Global Conflict") - Martin Starr has a memorable performance adjudicating the Model U.N. competition between the Annies.

2. Vice-Dean Robert Laybourne ("Biology 101", "Advanced Gay", "Digital Exploration of Interior Design", "Origins of Vampire Mythology", "The First Chang Dynasty", "Introduction to Finality") - It seems like he probably teaches, so I'm going to include him here, as John Goodman creates a memorable and imposing figure for the newly-revealed School of Air Conditioner Repair.

1. Professor Marshall Kane ("Biology 101", "Competitive Ecology", "Basic Lupine Urology") - The only problem with Professor Kane, played by the incredible Michael K. Williams, is that they did not use him in nearly enough episodes.

Overall Faculty power rankings:

15. Doctora Escodera (Spanish, S1)
14. Admiral Slaughter (Sailing, S1)
13. Coach Bogner (Phys Ed, S1)
12. Professor Holly (Pottery, S1)
11. Professor Michelle Slater (Statistics, S1)
10. Cory "Mr. Rad" Radison (Glee Club, S3)
9. Professor Sheffield ("Who's the Boss?", S2)
8. Professor Cligoris (Political Science, S3)
7. Professor June Bauer (Anthropology, S2)
6. Professor Whitman (English?, S1)
5. Professor Sean Garrity (Drama, S2)
4. Vice-Dean Robert Laybourne (AC Repair, S3)
3. Professor Marshall Kane (Biology, S3)
2. "Professor" Ben Chang (Spanish, S1) [It occurred to me that I should be including Chang's one season of being a professor in these rankings, so I'm slotting him in just a shade under Duncan.]
1. Professor Ian Duncan (Psychology, S1-2)

Best end tags

The end tags were far less entertaining in the third season, as many of them were used to advance narrative purposes. There were still a few great moments, though, but one stands far above the rest.

HM: The unproduced end tag ("Digital Estate Planning") in which Abed programs a new version of Pierce's father playing baseball with Pierce to bring a satisfying conclusion to that storyline. Apparently, Chevy Chase refused to film it, and it was on the last day of shooting, so it was never created.

5. Leonard reviews Let's Potato Chips ("Introduction to Finality") / Leonard reviews frozen pizza ("Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism") - The same gimmick works a little better the second time.

4. Troy and Abed in the Morning...Nights! ("Curriculum Unavailable") - Troy and Abed in the Morning make their second appearance of the season.

3. Carol of the Bells ("Regional Holiday Music") - "Dean, dean, dean dean, dean, dean, dean dean"... Now try getting it out of your head.

2. Greendale TV Charity Drive ("Pillows and Blankets") - The perfect send-up of public programming ends with this send-up of PBS pledge drives.

1. The Darkest Timeline ("Remedial Chaos Theory") - Evil goatees for everyone!

Best meta-moments and cameos

Season 3 continued the meta momentum of Season 2, and many of the show's most meta moments were also its best episodes. I tried to pick moments from each of the homage episodes to represent the best meta moments in the season.

HM: The parallels to Ken Burns' The Civil War ("Pillows and Blankets"); References to George Orwell's 1984 ("Digital Exploration of Interior Design"); the song "Daybreak" (Too many episodes to count), as the smooth jazz track became an instant favourite as soon as it made its first appearance.

5. Subway saves the day ("Digital Exploration and Interior Design") - Sandwich shop Subway turns up as a "corpohumanoid" and provides a link to fellow bubble show Chuck, which used Subway as a promotional sponsor in a similar manner.

4. Inspector Spacetime ("Biology 101") - The show's tribute to Doctor Who starts in episode 1, and it got better from there.

3. Beetlejuice in the background ("Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps") - Say his name three times and he appears...

2. "Where did he come from?" ("Regional Holiday Music") - The show had made fun of Glee in Season 1's paintball episode "Modern Warfare", but the entire holiday episode was devoted to openly mocking the tropes of the high school a capella dramedy, right down the random appearance of a pianist at the perfect moments.

1. The yam's autopsy ("Basic Lupine Urology") - The show's parody of Law and Order was perfect, right down to the moment that guest star Leslie Hendrix delivered her report about what happened to the group's yam, as she had done many times on the crime procedural. Bonus points to Donald Glover's Spider-Man tie hearkening back to the ill-fated campaign for him to play the webslinger in a movie.

Best homages

There were definitely fewer extended homages in the third season than in the second, and there were a few that were more obscure, but the homages this year were a close second to those in Season 2. Some of the homages were to genres, rather than specific movies, but they still work really well.

NR: Film Noir ("Competitive Ecology"); Horror Movies ("Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps")

5. Ocean's Eleven / Heist movies ("The First Chang Dynasty") -  Edited together brilliantly.

4. Super Nintendo role-playing games ("Digital Estate Planning") - Abed - along with gamers like me who had grown up with the genre  - knew how to beat Journey to the Centre of Hawkthorne.

3. Heart of Darkness ("Documentary Filmmaking: Redux") - This was easily the most obscure homage of the series, as it necessitated characters having to comment on the similarity of the events of the plot to the documentary it parodied - Heart of Darkness, about the making of Apocalypse Now.

2. Ken Burns' The Civil War ("Pillows and Blankets") - The battle between Blanketsburg and New Fluffytown is narrated in public broadcasting fashion.

1. Law and Order ("Basic Lupine Urology") - It might be the best homage in the series - and that's saying something.

Favourite moments

  • Cougarton Abbey ("Biology 101")
  • Inspector Spacetime ("Biology 101")
  • Earth 2 ("Geography of Global Conflict")
  • The Darkest Timeline ("Remedial Chaos Theory")
  • Chang's homage to noir detective fiction ("Competitive Ecology")
  • Annie's horror story ("Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps")
  • "He tweeted it!" ("Studies in Modern Movement")
  • "Go, Greendale, Go!" 90s advertisement ("Documentary Filmmaking: Redux")
  • Troy and Britta hugging ("Documentary Filmmaking: Redux")
  • Big Cheddar ("Foosball and Noctural Vigilantism")
  • Troy raps ("Regional Holiday Music")
  • Britta finds the song within herself ("Regional Holiday Music")
  • Troy and Abed are normal for Shirley's wedding ("Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts")
  • Jeff's new swagger (and the Dean's reaction) ("Contemporary Impressionists")
  • Jeff freaks out ("Contemporary Impressionists")
  • The return of the blanket and pillow forts ("Digital Exploration of Interior Design")
  • The war between Blanketsburg and New Fluffytown ("Pillows and Blankets")
  • The opening credits of the Law and Order parody ("Basic Lupine Urology")
  • "Starburns is dead" ("Basic Lupine Urology")
  • The Greendale Seven incite a riot ("Course Listing Unavailable")
  • Greendale Asylum ("Curriculum Unavailable")
  • Everything about the video game "Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne" ("Digital Estate Planning")
  • The heist ("The First Chang Dynasty")
  • Troy and Abed's goodbye alluding to Lost in Translation ("The First Chang Dynasty")
  • The montage that finishes the season ("Introduction to Finality")

Best episodes

Although there were fewer standout episodes than there were in Season 2, there were still five episodes that ranked above the rest, with a couple of honourable mentions

HM: "Regional Holiday Music"; "The First Chang Dynasty"

5. "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux" - Abed's second documentary takes on a much darker tone than his first as the Dean takes Greendale down a dark path in filming a new commercial for the school.

4. "Digital Estate Planning" - The group goes on a 16-bit adventure for Pierce's inheritance.

3. "Pillows and Blankets" - Ken Burns' "The Civil War", if it was about pillow fights and blanket forts at a community college.

2. "Remedial Chaos Theory" - Seven timelines are created by one simple action, but one is by far the darkest.

1. "Basic Lupine Urology" - Community parodies Law and Order in the study group's quest to discover what happened to their yam in Biology.

Final Thoughts

Season 3 is by far the zaniest season of Community. It stretches the bounds of believability, but it stays true to its characters and to the character of Greendale, which makes it work just perfectly. It builds on the first two seasons well, and the groundwork for in-jokes for most of the rest of the run is established in this season. This is why I go Greendale.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Top Board Games of 2015 [Revised]

Earlier this year, I wrote a post in which I identified my favourite games of 2015. Since January, I have played a lot of games (in case you hadn't noticed), including a high number of games from 2015 that I had not yet played as of that post and replayed enough of the games I had already ranked that I thought it would be a good idea to revise that original post with an update of all of the games I have played that were released in 2015 and whether there has been a change in my picks for my favourites or runners-up for each category.

A couple of notes on formatting and categorizing: I decided to integrate a couple of categories ("2-player" and "Game Experience") into the other categories because I thought it would be easier to have fewer exceptional categories. This left me with six categories that were differentiated by complexity, rather than having some categories differentiated by player count, for example There are, as would be expected with any method of categorization, possible arguments with which games fit in which category, but I am happy enough with the ways in which each category breaks down.

I also divided the "filler" category into "filler/light" and "filler strategy" in an attempt to alleviate the problem of having a huge "filler" category. The division is a little awkward, to be sure, since some of the "light" games do have an element of strategy, but I think it mostly works well. If the game is intended to be primarily strategic or requires strategy, it's bumped up a half-bracket to the more complex sibling category, in the same way that there's a difference between "family" and "family strategy".

I also ended up going on a journey in which I categorized my entire collection, wish list, and played games by year of release - the reflections on which I will include in a future post - and I realized that I had to abide by the release dates on BoardGameGeek as the absolute standard, which meant that I had to make some changes to this list. There were a number of games that I included in my last post that were actually released in 2014 - most significantly Eggs and Empires, Medieval Academy, Orléans, Scoville, and Sheriff of Nottingham - so that's why a number of my previously included favourites are absent from this post.

Here, then, are my updated thoughts for each of the six categories, presented in order of increasing complexity. (The numbers in parentheses indicate the number of plays for each game as of the time this post was published.)


Favourite: Codenames (11)
Other social games played: Mysterium (1)
Still want to play: Knee Jerk

No change here - Codenames is still the king of its category, and it continues to be my go-to party game, a fact that will likely not change in the near future other than the fact that Codenames: Pictures has just released and will take a few plays away from the original. I enjoyed my one play of Mysterium - basically Dixit meets Clue - and although I would not mind playing it again, I doubt it would find a place in my collection.


Favourite: Between Two Cities (6)
Runner-up: The Grizzled (3)
Other filler games played: ; Dr. Eureka (1); Fidelitas (2); Flip City (2); The Game (8); OctoDice (8); Tiny Epic Defenders (1)
Want to play most: Oh My Goods!
Still want to play: Cosmic Run; Seven 7s

This category has by far the highest usage rate on average of any category, and several of these games have been among my go-to games of the past year. They are short, easy to learn and teach, and they have enough possible strategy without being too overbearing for new players.

Between Two Cities is a fantastic cooperative/competitive game, although I could easily see The Grizzled eventually taking over the top spot in this group. OctoDice - a dice version of AquaSphere, a complex game I really enjoy - is my current go-to easy filler game. The Game is exceptionally easy to teach and fun to play for novice gamers, so it seems like it may end up with the most plays of any game in this group.

Filler Strategy

Favourite: Tiny Epic Galaxies (5)
Runner-up: Harbour (5)
Other filler strategy games played: ...and then, we held hands (1); Arboretum (1); Cthulhu Realms (1); Fleet: Wharfside (1); Mottainai (3); Star Realms: Colony Wars (1); Tides of Time (1); Valley of the Kings: Afterlife (1)
Want to play most: Hengist
Still want to play: Biblios Dice; Vault Wars; Xenon Profiteer

After integrating the 2-player games and dividing the light and strategic filler games, this category still ended up being very large. Tiny Epic Galaxies is a great game, but Harbour will also continue to get a lot of play. Almost any of these games, in fact, are great to pull out in various circumstances, and I expect that many of them will see a lot more play in the future. I find myself still wanting to play Mottainai more than I have, as its high learning curve makes it challenging to teach, but I know there is a lot more strategic depth waiting to be plumbed in that game.


Favourite: Floating Market (4)
Runner-up: Cacao (1)
Other family games played: Colt Express (1); Karuba (3); Lanterns: The Harvest Festival (1); Machi Koro (4)
Want to Play: New York 1901

Floating Market -  a fun introduction to worker placement and dice speculation with a fun theme (fruit gathering in Thailand) - ended up taking the top spot after both of my previous favourites here were eliminated from being 2014 releases.

I see Cacao and Lanterns - two visually striking, easy-to-learn tile-laying games - eventually being added to my collection, and either might become my favourite with a few more plays. I had considered purchasing Machi Koro at one point, but I'm not sure about that now. Colt Express and Karuba are fun family games, but I wasn't that enthused by either of them.

Family Strategy

Favourite: Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (17)
Runner-up: 7 Wonders: Duel (11)
Second runner-up: Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King (2)
Other family strategy games played: Among the Stars: Revival (1); Artifacts, Inc. (1); Asking for Trobils (1); Broom Service (1); Discoveries (1); Gold West (1); Loop Inc. (1); Super Motherload (1); Viceroy (1)
Want to play most: Barony
Still want to play: Above and Below; Brewin' USA; Burgle Bros.; Favor of the Pharaoh; Liguria; Mission: Red Planet (Second Edition); Nautilus Industries; Nova Cry; Parfum

This is the largest category with twelve games played and another ten on my list to play, so I felt justified in including two runners-up. I also did not see being able to leave out Isle of Skye from recognition, even though I have only played it twice; it's just such a great game, and I know it will get many more plays now that I have added it to my collection.

I had not yet played Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 when I first published this list, but it probably comes as no surprise that it easily enters as my favourite game of this category for the year. 7 Wonders: Duel was integrated from the previously separate 2-player category, as it is a fantastic implementation of one of my all-time favourite games.

I was somewhat surprised to see that I still have ten games from this category to play, though it does make sense when you consider that half of those ten are not easily accessible to me in a friend's collection. As for the other five, it's not as though I have not had the opportunity to play those games yet; in fact, several of them have been present at my weekly game night. I suppose the main reason I have not yet played them is that I have not seen the need to make them a priority; I would imagine that some of those ten would even be easily dropped off my list and I would barely notice that I did not play them. Time will tell.

Complex / Advanced Strategy

Favourite: The Voyages of Marco Polo (2)
Runner-up: Elysium (4)
Favourite Expansion: Orléans: Invasion (5 - 3 on Invasion, 1 on Prosperity, and 1 on The Duel)
Other advanced strategy games played: 504 (1); Deus (2); Grand Austria Hotel (1); Mombasa (1); T.I.M.E Stories (11)
Want to play most: My Village; Shakespeare
Still want to play: Blood Rage; Council of 4; Food Chain Magnate; The Gallerist; Nippon; Signorie; Steam Works

I think this is the strongest group of games of this list, and I think that with a few more plays, The Voyages of Marco Polo, Elysium, Mombasa, and Deus might emerge as some of my favourite games, period. Elysium remains runner-up because Marco Polo is such a fantastic game, but that should not be seen as a knock against Elysium, which I thoroughly enjoy as a strategic multiple-use-card game.

I also had to include Orléans: Invasion here, as Orléans was my previous favourite before being bumped as a 2014 release. I really enjoy the scenarios included in Invasion, particularly the titular cooperative game; although I have yet to try the solo scenarios included in the game, it has been well worth the investment as an expansion for one of my favourite games.

One note about T.I.M.E Stories, which seems like it should be regarded more highly than it is, considering that it has eleven plays. Those plays represent working through the first three story expansions, during which I was routinely underwhelmed by how it progressed. The "choose your own adventure" style of the game makes it hard to go into more detail, but suffice to say that although I enjoy the idea of the game and I have enjoyed the overall experience that I would not choose it as one of my favourites of the year.

I still have nine games from this category to play, which is not much of a surprise as several of those games would take several hours and an extensive rules explanation to learn and play. I know at least three or four of them are still quite popular and will make their way to my table sooner or later. Some of the others - maybe not so much; then again, some of those nine may continue to fade with time in light of the "cult of the new" habit that permeates the hobby.


After re-evaluating my list of games produced in 2015, I ended up with eighty-eight games on my list, with just over a third of those (29 games and 5 expansions) still on my "Want to Play" list. Of all of those 2015 games, I ended up with around a dozen that have already set themselves apart as some of my favourites not only of the year, but of my collection.

I found it interesting that, between playing games subsequent times, redefining the categories, and moving the 2014 releases out, that only one game that I had listed as my favourite in January (Codenames) remained my favourite.  Most of the shifting came from moving the 2014 releases off the lists - and most of those games are now my favourites from that year - so this shift does not illuminate a change in taste.

My initial suspicion that 2015 was an exceptional year seems to be correct. There were a high number of really incredible games that came out that year, and so far the cohort of games released in 2015 is among my favourites of any cohort released in a calendar year. It might just be that I was even more aware of games from that year and that I have had more access to games recently than I ever had before, but I tend to think that there is something special about the group of games released in 2015.

Even with just under three dozen games left to play from the year, I doubt that there will be nearly as much change from this list as there was from its previous iteration to now if and/or when I play those games. So, aside from the possibility of another post at some point in the future in which I further revise this list (and perhaps also examine similar lists from other years for comparison), I'm calling this finished. In conclusion, here are the games from 2015 that are in my collection and on my wishlist, as well as my top games of the year.

Collection and Wishlist

Games from 2015 in my collection: 7 Wonders: Duel; ...and then we held hands...; Between Two Cities; Codenames; Elysium; Fidelitas; Fleet Wharfside; Floating Market; The Game; Harbour; Isle of Skye: From Chieftain To King; Knee Jerk; Mottainai; OctoDice; Pandemic Legacy: Season 1; Star Realms: Colony Wars; Tiny Epic Galaxies; Valley of the Kings: Afterlife (18)

Games from 2015 to add to my collection, in order of preference: The Grizzled; The Voyages of Marco Polo; Tides of Time; Lanterns: The Harvest Festival; Cacao; Love Letter: Batman Edition; Batman Fluxx (7)

Expansions from 2015 in my collection: Council of Verona: Corruption; Imperial Settlers: Atlanteans; Istanbul: Mocha and Baksheesh; Orléans: Invasion; Pandemic: State of Emergency; Takenoko: Chibis (6)

Expansions from 2015 to add to my collection, in order of preference: Galaxy Trucker: Missions; Race for the Galaxy: Xeno Invasion; Castles of Mad King Ludwig: Secrets; Roll for the Galaxy: Ambition; Dixit: Memories; Concordia: Salsa (6)

Top Games of 2015

Social/Filler/Family Games of 2015 that just missed the Top Five: Cacao; Floating Market; OctoDice

Top Five Social/Filler/Family Games of 2015: Between Two Cities; Codenames; The Grizzled; Harbour; Tiny Epic Galaxies

Complex Games of 2015 that just missed the Top Five: Deus; Mombasa

Top Five Complex Games of 2015: 7 Wonders: Duel; Elysium; Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King; Pandemic Legacy: Season 1; The Voyages of Marco Polo

Friday, November 18, 2016

Doctor Strange...love?

(Or, how I learned to stop worrying and enjoy superhero movies and understand pop culture in a post-Trump landscape.)

I have a few thoughts after watching Doctor Strange last night, some of which concern the movie itself, and others that transcend the movie and its genre, which seems appropriate for a movie that is continually asking its protagonist to look beyond his immediate circumstances. As a preface to what I will share, I enjoyed the experience of watching the movie, and although I was distracted by the faults of the movie, I would give it somewhere in the range of 7 or 7.5 out of 10.

It was visually stunning - perhaps the most incredible spectacle I have seen in cinema since Inception, and easily establishes a new standard for the already-stuffed superhero genre in terms of visual effects and creative presentation. It incorporated the idea of mystical arts into the science of the MCU, and although I was disturbed by the violent first scene, I was mostly okay with how the movie handled death and violence, in addition to being pleased that the movie de-emphasized the occult and black magic elements that Strange used in the comics.

That said, I continually found myself distracted by several aspects of the movie, particularly in the first third before the action really picks up. The script was surprisingly weak, even for a superhero movie, and it left incredibly talented Oscar-nominated performers Benedict Cumberbatch and especially Rachel McAdams with little to do (and left me frustrated with the continuing trend of Marvel movies under-utilizing incredible actresses like her and Natalie Portman as helpmates or damsels in distress despite giving them characters who are ER doctors and astrophysicists).

I recognize that the expectations for the quality of superhero movies - particularly of origin stories - is relatively low on the whole, which is why I think I have heard mostly positive reviews of Doctor Strange; although I have avoided most reviews, I have most often heard the comparison to Iron Man, the movie that started the MCU in 2008. Iron Man set the standard for origins (at least in the Marvel end of the cineplex), and although Doctor Strange comes as close as any individual origin story has to exceeding that initial feat, it still falls woefully short of the mark that was set almost a decade ago.

That comparison makes a lot of sense, as Strange is inevitably compared to Tony Stark; after all, both are rich, arrogant, hyper-intelligent jerks from New York who are humbled by their own mistakes and who have to learn a new way of life in Asia. The weight of that comparison, perhaps combined with my musings about how the movie would have differed if Joaquin Phoenix had stayed on in the role, contributed to my overall initial disappointment with the development of Strange's character, as I did not see the kind of arrogance that I expected to see in him - or at least, I was not fully convinced that he was who they made him out to be.

Once Strange goes to Kathmandu and the plot and the effects pick up, the movie gains a lot of momentum, and Cumberbatch seems a lot more comfortable being a mystically-powered superhero than he did an arrogant neurosurgeon. Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ojiofor elevated their characters (although the controversy of casting Swinton over an Asian actor lingered in the back of my mind), and the movie's final extended confrontation

It's not as though the overall expectations for origins or Marvel movies should be that low, particularly considering the nimbleness of Ant-Man as a heist movie and the WGA-nominated Guardians of the Galaxy as a cosmically epic cousin that also inhibits the more mystical end of the MCU, and I found myself in part disappointed not from what Doctor Strange was, but what it might have been.

The best analogy I can conjure is that Doctor Strange reminded me of the 2015-2016 Oklahoma City Thunder, an NBA team that many experts thought should have won the championship last year. They underperformed in the regular season despite having two of the best players in the league largely in part from having a coach - Billy Donovan - who was still figuring out the professional game after having fantastic success in the amateur ranks.

Then Donovan and the Thunder figured something out in the playoffs and almost beat the best regular season team in NBA history - the Golden State Warriors - before losing three consecutive games to lose the series in seven games. (The Warriors would then, in a bout of cosmic karma, go on to repeat that ignominous feat in losing the Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers two weeks later.) All the pieces finally fit together and worked for the Thunder, but fans of the team and of basketball were left with a sense that, even with as great as they were, they should have been better.

That more or less sums up how I feel about Doctor Strange - even with as good as it was, it probably could and should have been better. Director Scott Derrickson, whose legal supernatural thriller The Exorcism of Emily Rose remains one of the more interesting movies of the mid-aughts, seemed out of his depth at the start, but it seemed as though he started to figure the movie out once he got to the mystical epic portion of the movie.

I know that some of the issues of the movie come from being hamstrung in having to include certain aspects in a superhero movie that introduces a character, but I do think that even with those constraints that there were ways that the movie could have been better. For all of its faults, I enjoyed it for what it was, and for what Strange, who I expect will be much more entertaining in his next appearance, will bring to the MCU both as a character and as a franchise.

Looking at the world through a keyhole

What I found more fascinating was a thought that I had in the back of my head thanks to Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan of The Watch, a pop culture podcast to which I listen regularly. In their recent post-election episode, they discussed watching The Good Place, the newest NBC comedy from Mike Schur, as escapism from the reality of living under the weight of the election of Trump.

Greenwald pointed out that Parks and Recreation, Schur's previous comedy for the Peacock, is a show that seems automatically dated, as its sense of positivity seems entirely out of place as a relic of the Obama era. The two bantered about the way in which Trump's election will affect how we consume media, inspired largely by Ryan's ill-regarded decision to watch Don't Breathe, a claustrophobic torture-horror take on Wait Until Dark, as a way to escape from the reality of the election; as it turns out, movies that once served as escapism for him now took on a new much more sinister identity in a world with Trump and the "deplorables" in power.

As a result of their conversation - though perhaps this might have happened anyway - I found myself watching Doctor Strange differently than I imagine I would have had I seen it either before the election or in a world in which Clinton was elected - looking at the movie through the keyhole of Trump, as it were. There are different aspects of the movie that seemed to be more accentuated because of the changes in the US as a result of the election and the resultant wave of hate crimes, protests, and thinkpieces that have emerged in its wake.

It's not as though those aspects would not have been present had Trump not been elected, or that they are applicable only to Trump, but it seemed as though they took on a different resonance because of the events of the past two weeks. Neither is Doctor Strange is limited to being a simple political allegory, but it is representative of much more significant truths of human nature, in much the same way that The Lord of the Rings was inspired, but was not limited to serving as an allegory of, the Great War.


I can see how Doctor Strange can be seen as an allegory for the current American political climate, with the good Doctor perhaps representing the Democratic Party: once arrogant and unable to see the faults that would lead to his own downfall, and now humbled and needing to learn a new way of seeing the world in order to become its rightful protector. The villain Kaecilius, in this lens, perhaps becomes an allegory for Trump, with his intent to invoke the power of dark dimension in the form of the interdimensional entity Dormammu comparable to Trump's use of racism and misogyny to channel the dark forces of the alt-right to win the election.

[/End spoilers]

Now, I do recognize that these properties are in development and production for several years, so it's not as though we will actually see mainstream reactions to the new world of Trump for at least a year - if not longer - but the fact is that it is now impossible not to experience pop culture through the lens of the world as it now exists - a place in which hate has been politically legitimated not only in the US but in much of the western world.

I listened to a recent interview with the writer of Arrival (which I plan to see soon) in which he indicated that his movie - about the ways in which governments and scientists deal with an alien presence on earth - does take on a new resonance now, and that director Denis Villeneuve saw the ways in which a movie like this would be prescient regardless of what happened in the election. Even a movie like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story may well find itself interpreted in this light, particularly in an internet culture that revels in hot takes and alternative viewpoints (not unlike the latter half of this very post).

In this sense, Trump's election and the rise of the alt-right, dating back to the inception of the Tea Party in 2008, is arguably equal to the effect that previously significant political and historical events had on the pop culture of their times. Pop culture is not a very old concept, but each decade of the past century of pop culture can point to one or two significant factors that permeate much of the media that are produced in each period.

In the 1920s, it was the post-war boom and Roaring Twenties. In the 1930s, the Depression. In the 1940s, World War II. In the 1950s, it was the early Cold War and the threat of communism. In the 1960s, it was the assassination of JFK, the civil rights movement, the rise of the Hippies, and the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, it was Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, it was Reagonomics and the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, it was the internet, globalization, and rapid changes across the world. In the 2000s, it was 9/11 and the threat of terrorism before the relentless positivism of the Obama administration. And now it's nativism, ultra-conservatism, and Trumpism.

It may take another year or two before we really start to see just how much pop culture responds to Trump (who will continue to serve as an avatar for the entire rise of the alt-right, regardless of his mild protestations to the contrary), but Trump is already affecting our view of popular culture. I will be interested to see just how much the experience of pop culture will be different in this brave new world, and what might happen by the time the sequel to Doctor Strange is released in Phase 4 of the MCU in 2020.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Thoughts from a codependent Evangelical

It's the day after the day after, and the backlash against the backlash is in full force on social media. There are a number of posts encouraging people to move on from any and all political discussion. Some posts are encouraging liberals (a group that is being treated as a monolithic category despite significant internal diversity with much the same fallacy that previously applied to Trump supporters) to chill out.

Some posts are being written with tongue-in-cheek wit, while others have the tone of unspeakable existential terror. Some posts are legitimately trying to help people understand and process their grief, and there are already a lot of posts that are trying to start to determine just what exactly happened to cause this surprise. 

There are an increasing number of Trump supporters who are becoming more vocal in expressing their opinions, and I have had some emerging in my own social feed despite my encouragements to allow those of us who are grieving to have the space to grieve. I have, however, had a couple of very interesting conversations with friends from the conservative side about how I'm feeling and why I'm feeling the way I am, which is in part why I'm choosing to post and to write through this whole process.

It seems that each day of pondering and praying and talking through my feelings with people brings me a new insight to share, and I am happy to have not only the voice to do so but also an established forum in which I can communicate my feelings. All this is to say that the purpose of these posts is not be inflammatory or to try to start an argument; I'm merely trying to process this whole election myself and to try to help others from all perspectives to do the same.

I am definitely still experiencing some grief, but I'm moving toward dealing with the issues at hand. I have begun to pinpoint that one of the hotspots for me is, as it has been for a long time, the connection of faith and politics - in particular the ways in which Evangelicals have engaged in the political sphere in this election, so I think it is an area that merits further investigation from me in regard as to why and how this is such a trigger for me.

The Immoral Majority 

Although I have found the combination of faith and politics to be troubling for some time, going back to the days of the 2004 election, I have found the ways in which Evangelicalism and the Republican party have been intertwined over this campaign to be particularly odious and reprehensible. (I would have used the term "deplorable", but I think that term is gone for good now.)

As I have started to sort through my thoughts on this election, I have come to the realization that as terrified as I am of President Trump and what he may do during his time in power, I realized that I am arguably more afraid of Mike Pence and what he represents: a wave of cold, calculating white Evangelicals that will do whatever they can to take power at any cost that has likely now firmly entrenched itself as the most significant minority group in American politics for the foreseeable future.

This is not about Pence being VP, or even the possibility that if anything were to happen to Trump that Pence would be in power. The power of the VP is limited, and even if Eric Trump's words that Trump would give many of the powers of the President to the VP come true, Pence being VP is symbolic of the greater issue rather than a cause of it. This is about Pence as a symptom of a far more troubling trend than it is about him as a politician or back-up Commander-in-Chief.

Pence, along with similar ideologues like Ted Cruz, helped lead the coalition of 81% of white Evangelicals who voted for Trump - a number that, by the way, exceeds the number from that same demographic who voted for George W. Bush by 2%. That group makes up 20% of the voting populace (or so I've read), and they are now directly responsible for President Trump.

These Evangelicals, particularly the ones in power in the Republican party, used Trump both through and in spite of his buffoonery and immorality to secure the most hard-right agenda that the US has ever seen, and the masses responded to their overly simplistic reductive arguments in droves. There are several reasons why this hits me so hard and why this is perhaps the part of this process that will be the most difficult to grieve, but they all come from the fact that Evangelicalism is my home culture.

An Evangelical Upbringing

Evangelicalism is my primary home cultural influence, other than being Canadian or from Saskatchewan, the heart of the Canadian prairies. My immediate family does not have strong ties to any of our various ethnic backgrounds - Norwegian, Danish, Ukrainian, English, German, even American - but I grew up going to an Evangelical church. Even my perception of pop culture - easily my family's lingua franca - emerged through the lens of Evangelicalism.

We attended a Mennonite Brethren church, so there was a strong cultural influence present in the community, but that culture did not directly affect me, not being Mennonite by heritage. I do, however, readily acknowledge that some of the ways that I understood theology and ecclesiology were significantly affected by my MB upbringing, and that my affinity for certain dishes comes from those roots - an affinity that I am very glad to have in common with my half-Mennonite wife, who enjoys cultivating those culinary connections with her heritage. 

I did have to spend time unpacking my beliefs about Catholicism and Pentecostalism, in particular, as I emerged from that church in my mid-to-late-teens, but I tend to think that much of the underpinnings of the way in which my MB church taught and practiced Evangelicalism were common to most Evangelical churches in our area.

I, like most Millennials, am far less devoted to particular institutions than were previous generations, so by the time I was in my mid-teens, I found myself branching beyond that particular church context and being shaped by the broader Evangelical culture as it manifested in the middle of the Canadian prairies, which is to say theologically and socially conservative or "fundamentalist".

I was heavily involved in parachurch ministry, and I found myself participating in youth groups and activities in churches from various Evangelical denominations: Alliance, Baptist, Mennonite, Pentecostal. You may note that there are no mainline churches - Anglican, United, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Reformed - on that list; we Evangelicals mostly spent time with our own, and we rarely connected with those other Protestant churches, much less the Orthodox or Catholic communities.

A space of dissent

As I grew older, I began to wonder and question many of the assumptions I had made as I grew up in the church, especially in regard to many of the socially conservative teachings of the church. I was twenty when I first really found myself questioning, and ultimately in opposition to, the practices and teachings of a church that I attended. I had to learn how to not trust the church and how to live in a space of dissent, and I would end up practicing that a lot over the course of the next decade.

Little did I know where that journey would lead me over the next thirteen years, but I find myself now in a position in which I am in significant opposition to several, if not many, of the core theological, ecclesiological, soteriological, missiological, eschatological, sociological, political and even moral and ethical presumptions of the Evangelical church as a whole, as evidenced by my vocal opposition to Trump. 

I am part of that 1/5 of white Evangelicals who saw a different way than what was being presented and who did not see a way in which our understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was in any way compatible with either Trump's ramblings or the platform of the Republican Party. I chose personally to support Hillary, although I know not all anti-Trump white Evangelicals did so, and I do not necessarily fault them for that. This is not about being pro-Hillary; it's about the Evangelicals normalizing and accepting Trump.

As a Canadian, I had neither the responsibility nor the opportunity to act on those beliefs other than through conversation (mostly on social media), but I still felt a strong moral imperative to take a stance on certain issues within my own context. And for those wondering if it's easier being a so-called "liberal" Evangelical in Canada: perhaps slightly so, but I doubt there's a huge difference between Evangelicals in the US and in Canada.

Which brings us to where I am now: in a posture of dissent, along with many of my peers who find themselves in similarly unfriendly confines, trying to figure out what it looks like to be part of a church that has condoned and even endorsed Trump's behaviour. Some have long given up on church, and although I acknowledge that that's a shame, I can understand why. 

My future in Evangelicalism

For much of the past year, I have wondered if I would have a future in the Evangelical church in general. For a long time, I was able to find spaces in which I could be myself and not feel like I was compromising in order to stay where I was, but I have observed that those spaces are becoming more and more limited as I continue on this journey.

I have recently realized that several moral and theological positions I hold and on which I would not be able to compromise are enough to likely keep me from being considered for positions with many Evangelical ministries, a vocational path I have long kept open as a possibility in my career trajectory. Those doors are closing, either through my own initiation or theirs, and I don't see that trend changing any time soon.

So, as I process what has happened with Trump and the Republicans, part of what I am processing and grieving is my own place and future within the Evangelical church. And no, there's not a significant difference between what I experience in the prairies and what is happening south of the border in terms of theology and politics; Saskatchewan is easily the most socially and politically conservative province in the country, and the church here is no different.

I grieve the fact that many people are rightfully blaming the Evangelical church for Trump, and that the legacy of the church is now inextricably linked with Trump's own legacy. For the rest of my life, any effort of the Evangelical church to engage with the world is going to receive the response of "why should I listen to you? You are the reason we had President Trump."

Now, it is entirely possible that Trump, like Ronald Reagan before him, turns out to be a passable, if not effective, President, and that he will make changes that will be more in line with the more libertarian beliefs he expressed before engaging in a hostile takeover of the Republican Party and common decency. It might not be likely, but it's possible, so I'm not going to grieve his actions prematurely; the reality, however, is that there is already significant damage done, regardless of what happens over the next four years, and the Evangelical church is tied to Trump, for better or worse.

I will continue to grieve the fact that the Evangelical church has given up all moral credibility with anyone with even the slightest twinge of progressive thought, and that I will spend the rest of my life having to differentiate myself from 80% of the people with whom I share a home culture. It gets a little harder every time someone says, "you're not like those other Christians" because I grieve that I am the exception and not the rule.

Evangelical codependence?

Maybe I'm just in a codependent relationship with the Evangelical church: it continues to baffle me, confuse me, and hurt me, and I still keep coming back because I love the church and I see the good in it. Maybe I'm just a hopeless optimist, but I have heard enough voices who are expressing their discomfort and disapproval of this election within the context of the church to give up on it entirely.

It's not easy to stay in the church when you feel as though you have to dissent in order to maintain personal integrity. When you feel like it's often an ethical compromise just to go to a service on a Sunday morning. When you feel like you have to pick your battles just to be able to be there. When you are legitimately concerned about bringing a friend to church because you don't know what kinds of things will be spoken from the pulpit.

But it's not easy to leave, either, for many reasons. When you see peoples' lives being changed. When you connect with Jesus not in spite of, but through, the worship or the sermon. When you just need to be somewhere you can be known. When you share a prayer request and someone comes over and prays for you. When you see good people who actually don't know any better, and you wonder if part of the reason you're there is to help them see something new, and then you realize that you were actually there because you needed to realize something for yourself.  

I have had too many conversations in which I was able to help people understand things in a different way and too many circumstances I had a meaningful conversation in which someone I thought was closed off expressed admiration for the way in which I shared my point of view. I have had too many meaningful connections to write off the church entirely, and it means too much to me to just leave.

This is one of those times, however, when I do wonder if this could be it for me and the Evangelical church. I could see that this might be the point of no return - the point at which I have too much difference to overcome to stay in the church. I just don't know what the future looks like, and that's something that I find myself grieving.

At the same time, I do have hope, as many of the connections I have made through my time in the Evangelical church over the past three decades are still fruitful and meaningful. I am having meaningful conversations with people who knew me in those fundamentalist years who are observing a change in me and opening up avenues of discussion about how and why I believe what I believe and do what I do in the context of the church. 

I may end up leaving the Evangelical church, possibly even as a result of however this entire process shakes out, but I do know that if I do that it will be with a thoughtful perspective and a heavy heart, that I will do everything I can until that breaking point to find a space of dissent in which I can still be part of the body of Christ, and that I will do everything in my power to help others do the same as they navigate their ways through these troubled times.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Day After

The world looks a lot different than it did yesterday. When I wrote that post about the election, I - along with almost every reasonable political pundit other than the alt-right - expected Hillary Clinton to be President-Elect today, rather than Donald Trump. Sure, the signs of Trump's triumph were there in hindsight, but it's not unreasonable to be completely shocked in the wake of the news this morning.

A lot of pundits and analyzers and politicos and dataheads will spend the next week sorting through what happened and how and why, so I'm not going to try to do any of that now. There's bound to be lots of media-bashing, finger-pointing, liberal-shaming, soul-searching, over-intellectualizing, and hand-wringing, and I'm sure much of it will be intelligent, well-informed, and deserved, and that I will even participate in some of it. For the moment, all I'm working through are my emotions, which mostly consist of numbness and disbelief.

In the past twelve hours, I've been processing through the stages of grief rather rapidly. Denial: "it doesn't matter that she's losing Florida and Ohio; it's going to be fine." Anger: "Seriously? This is happening?!" Bargaining: "Okay, so if she loses Pennsylvania, then she can still win if she wins Arizona." Depression is where I am now, but I promise that I am never going to get to acceptance.

I am not going to accept that Donald Trump being President of the USA with a Republican Senate and House of Congress is a good thing.

I am not going to accept that this is "God's will", or that this is part of some divine plan for the land. I doubt I will be alone in turning to the stories of I and II Kings and I and II Chronicles in the Bible to see the example of what happens when people put their own desires first.

I am not going to accept that it's okay that 81% of white Evangelicals voted for a candidate who has repeatedly demeaned, belittled, alienated, or otherwise made anyone who is not white, heterosexual, conservative, and proud of those things to feel like less of a person.

I am not going to accept that Hillary Clinton is to blame for being unpopular or hawkish or corrupt or unelectable, or that she was the wrong candidate for the party.

I am not going to accept that voter suppression and gerrymandering are reasonable political practices.

I am not going to accept that sexism and misogyny are permissible in so-called civil discourse.

I am not going to accept the damage that could be done to progress for human rights and against climate change.

I am not going to accept that the rich should be allowed to get richer while the poor suffer without proper social support and health care.

I am not going to accept that being smug about being Canadian is helpful for anyone.

I am not going to accept that deprecating humour can replace actually dealing with the issues.

I am not going to accept the lies.

I am not going to accept that the next four years of American politics or world history are going to be in any way, shape, or form normal, particularly considering the possible criminal investigations into the President-Elect.

Here, however, is what I will accept:

I am going to accept that the people did make their choice, and that democracy was enacted.

I am going to accept that I, like so many others, was wrong and that I could not see the latent outrage that propelled Trump to the presidency.

I am going to accept that there needs to be change to the Democratic Party and to the political system in general.

I am going to accept friends who support Trump and his policies.

I am going to accept that, as part of the church, it will be part of my work in the future to heal the rift that has been created through this election and through whatever happens over the next four years.

I am going to accept that I need to love others as much as I can.

I am going to accept that God is in control, and - as I stated yesterday - that He is bigger than our political systems, and that even if there are things that happen that seem unspeakably unfair, that His ways are greater than our ways.

I am going to accept that my part now is to grieve with those who grieve, to be a voice with the voiceless, and to do what I can to ensure not only that the worst possible outcomes are mitigated, but also that this does not happen again. I don't know what that looks like in the long term, but I do know that even if it just looks like letting the people who are struggling with this new reality know that I am struggling with them by writing a short blog post, that that will be enough for today.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Unnatural Election

When Alec Baldwin and Kate MacKinnon broke character and the fourth wall in their final cold open on Saturday Night Live to state how gross they felt about this entire election and that they were so glad that it was over, I could not agree more. Even for those of us north of the 49th, this election has been a gruesome slog through increasingly unbelievable levels of depravity and indecency.

I have written a few times about the election: when Trump first seemed to have locked up the Republican nomination in March; at the conclusion of the Republican National Convention in July; and as an addendum to my review of Alice Cooper's show in mid-October. This is not to assert that those are the only points at which I have dealt with how the election has made me think and feel; I would argue that consuming media about this election has been present almost every day of my life over the past six months, and it is only at these selected nexus points that I have allowed myself the freedom and/or sensed the necessity to discuss my thoughts.

This election has been an inescapable black hole, and its gravity (in both senses of the term) has sucked me in, even as I tried to leave it behind. I mostly stopped posting on social media after I had a couple of significant altercations in July; I occasionally retweeted an article I found, but I was done with having my feed overrun by Trump's politics. I caved a couple of times last week, as I tweeted links to a couple of particularly insightful articles, but I had to go back to abstaining, lest I get dragged further and further in.

But I have known that, aside from processing the final results, that I would need to have one last outburst in which I processed the entirety of this past year and how it has affected me. I have been both shocked and not surprised by the range of emotions I have experienced over the course of this election: angry; aggrieved; ashamed; appalled; agitated; frustrated; resigned; disappointed; and incredulous, among many others.

In this process and my emotional spectrum over the past six months, I have realized that there are three significant areas in which this election has affected me: as a Canadian; as a critical thinker; and as a Christian. I thought it would be useful to spend a bit of time evaluating the ramifications of this election in each of these areas before actually processing the final results, which will come tomorrow - unless, of course, we revert to tribal warfare in a post-apocalyptic nuclear winter, in which case, I probably won't be blogging about the results of the election. Probably.

A Canadian Perspective

It has been surprisingly difficult to be a Canadian during this entire electoral process. Sure, on the one hand, there's relief in the initial thought that it's not something that directly affects us and that we can avoid any responsibility for what happens, but on the other hand, there is also a helplessness that arises from the inability to do anything directly, like voting or volunteering.

The reality is that, other than the US itself, Canada - along with Mexico, of course - is by far the most affected country by this election - and not just in terms of the ramifications of government policy. The nativist, isolationist, xenophobic sentiments that have arisen in this American election are present and not-so-latent in Canada, as evidenced by our federal election last year, and the rise of Trumpism has given a new license to those kinds of thoughts in Canada - a license that had been somewhat revoked - or at least quieted - by the replacement of Stephen Harper's Conservatives with Justin Trudeau's Liberals last October.

It is particularly disappointing to see how much Canadian youth have bought into the politics of Trump; it is not uncommon for me to see those red trucker hats or to have a student unironically parroting Trump's claims to his classmates (I have yet to experience a teenage Canadian female vehemently supporting Trump, so I feel justified in using the male possessive pronoun there). This kind of thinking is present in Canada, particularly in the Conservative prairies, and I am disappointed to see that Trump's success has only served to bolster this kind of alt-right thinking north of the border.

While a Clinton victory would theoretically do something to alleviate the prominence of racism, misogyny, and overall indecent behaviour that has become normalized over the past year, I think that I'm justified in my fear that the Trump wing of the Republican party is here to stay, and that probably means that this election will not mark the last we are to hear of the vile rhetoric that has characterized not only this campaign but much of the Tea Party movement since Barack Obama's election in 2008 - even in Canada.

Whither critical thought?

The second significant way that this election has affected me is as a critical thinker and as an educator attempting to encourage the next generation to think critically about the world around them. Much ink has been spilled already about the way in which the media has entirely and repeatedly botched this election, and I echo the lament for our media, our children, and our public discourse and the ramifications that this election will have in both the near and distant future.

This is not to say that there has been no critical thought among the media; in fact, I would argue that there has been much cogent critical analysis among many notable American newspapers and online journalists, and that many members of the press deserve significant accolades for publishing articles that presented unpopular facts or a point of view for which they have received opposition and even threats of violence.

It's just that any articles that demonstrate responsible journalism are getting lost in the vast echo chamber of clickbait, sensationalism, rumormongering, conspiracy theorizing, and hate-filled rhetoric that has characterized the entirety of this campaign as a public enterprise. This has been a campaign of false equivalencies, logical fallacies, emotional zealotry, knee-jerk reactions, and exaggerated punditry, and perhaps the worst part is that most networks are not even attempting to appear to pursue the appearance of journalistic integrity.

I am still incredulous at the unfortunately entirely believable fact that the major networks have spent three times as much time reporting on Clinton's emails as they have on all policy issues combined. There has been shockingly little dissemination or discussion of the actual policies by much of the mainstream media - although some, like John and Hank Green of the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel, have tried their best to combat that trend. Despite the constant 24-hour coverage, much of the media news cycle has devolved to a "he said, he said" (no, that's not a typo) reporting of retorts with little, if any, substance in either the presentation of facts or in the analysis and evaluation of those facts.

Various members of the media have claimed that it's not their job to tell people for whom to vote, but I would counter, as many have, that it is their job to check the facts and to present that analysis to the general public - and despite those aforementioned exceptions, that has mostly not happened this year. Trump has been treated as equal to Clinton, if not significantly more favourably, considering the relative conditions and circumstances. Of course, it's not as though "facts" are a universally acknowledged truth anymore, so I'm not sure it would matter even if they were treated appropriately.

Another interesting aspect of this election has been the way in which the new late night landscape has dealt with the issues from a critical thinking perspective. Relative newcomers John Oliver, Seth Myers, and Samantha Bee have consistently led the charge against Trump and the degradation of public discourse, and Stephen Colbert has not been too far behind them. Jimmy Kimmel is roughly on par with Colbert, though he's not nearly as nuanced or intelligent in his commentary or delivery, and Jimmy Fallon is a useless distraction. David Letterman, however, seems like he could not be happier to not be dealing with this grind; Jon Stewart, however, seems at times like he misses it.

I will admit that Oliver, Myers, Bee, and even Colbert have certainly had some less-than-shining moments in which they have used their platform to be unnecessarily mean or derogatory, and that I do not support all that they have said or done. I do applaud, however, their dedication not only to comedy, but primarily to doing what they can to inform the populace. It is unfortunate that their coverage has necessarily had to be much more critical of one candidate than the other, but they do give me hope for the future of late night television.

As a final note in this discussion of critical thinking, I have been particularly offended at the encouragement I have occasionally received that I need to think more critically about Clinton and her corruption, particularly in the wake of the Wikileaks email dump. The implicit - and sometimes explicit - statement is that I am not thinking because I have opposed Trump and supported Clinton, and that anyone who is actually thinking will see through Clinton's lies to the corruption underneath.

I am a firm believer in Occam's Razor - the principle that the simplest explanation is often the right one - and this election has been a continuous, exhausting exercise in holding to that ideal. The increasingly ridiculous accusations that have been leveled at Clinton would be laughable - if they were not taken so seriously by so much of the population.

I have occasionally tried to wade into the waters of vile vitriol to attempt to read these arguments in order to determine whether there is any sense of validity to them at all. In the cases in which I have been able to get past the initial wave of offensive content, I have found little, if anything, that convinces me of to any conclusion other than Clinton is not corrupt and that the alt-right (and arguably all Republicans') greatest legacy is in destroying hers by keeping these "scandals" in the news - particularly at the expense of attention to a candidate who, by all critical analysis, has actual scandals in his past and present that may necessitate judicial action.

"Moral Majority" no longer

The final area in which I have realized the effects of this election is as a Christian, and it is easily the area in which I have had the most visceral reaction, as it represents the most personal connection I have to this election. I have long had a negative reaction to the commingling of Christianity and conservatism in both Canadian and American elections, but this campaign has delivered a new level of personal disgust on that front, as the Evangelical community (to which I nominally, if not mostly theologically belong) has given up any final vestiges of non-partisanship.

On Sunday, thousands of Evangelical church-goers in swing states were subjected to a video from Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Mike Pence, who describes himself as "a Christian, a Conservative, and a Republican" in that order. The video was a thinly veiled plea to Evangelicals to vote for Trump to align with their conservative values, and although Pence does not explicitly say for whom to vote, his very presence as a member of the ticket in churches mere days before the election makes this video far less than harmless.

I have been appalled at the way in which many American Evangelicals have twisted their beliefs and morality to be able to accommodate their candidate. I actually do not know they not only vote against Clinton, but actually for Trump. It is disheartening to know that so many people can so significantly misunderstand the gospel of Jesus Christ that they think that Trump's actions are acceptable - much less the hard-right policies of the Republican party.

I know that some people would accuse me of the same kind of moral gymnastics to be able to justify my support of Clinton as a candidate, but when I look at the Democratic platform, I cannot help but see a lot of the values that Christ himself taught: assisting the poor; taxing the rich; empowering women and minorities; and caring for the vulnerable. Sure, I have some issues with some aspects of their platform, and not everything Clinton and company has proposed lines up with the character of Christ, but it far exceeds the extension of privilege and oppression that seems to flow from Trump downward.

I am all for debate about policy and for freedom within religious communities to interpret the gospel according to the needs of their greater context, but I cannot see that any actions or policies that demean or alienate others at the expense of a select few are in any way in line with who Jesus was and what he did. This Republican platform and Trump himself have used the language of religion to justify not only maintaining the status quo, but actually in exaggerating its effects, and I cannot see how Christians can justify their conduct in this election.

I am heartened, actually, to see that not all Christians have succumbed to this trend, and that there are a number of prominent voices who have, at the risk of alienating their own audience, continued their campaign against Trump and this perversion of the Republican party. Their voices are, of course, being drowned out by the chorus of Trump supporters, but I am encouraged nevertheless to see that there are some authors and thinkers who love Jesus and the church who are presenting their thoughts in love in spite of the toxic and acrimonious atmosphere in general.

David Dark believes that there will be a reckoning for the way that the church acted in this election, and I tend to agree with him. I think that reckoning will be significantly generational, and that the hypocrisy of the North American church will result in an even greater separation of future generations from the church. If the Boomers thought the Millennials were already disaffected from institutions like religion, just wait until the next election, when the next generation starts to be able to vote. When future leaders are asking where the young Christians are, I think the 2016 election will be an obvious example of the trend away from church, if not being a turning point on its own.

If I do not allow myself to be too cynical, I could be convinced that there can be a future for the church in North America. The Jesus I know and love is far too significant to be sidelined by Trump, or even by the people who (intentionally or mistakenly) are using politics to achieve their own agenda, even if they honestly believe that agenda to be the thing that God is calling them to do and to be. To paraphrase Nadia Bolz-Weber, it's not my job to determine the size of the tent or who is in or out - and I do appreciate the irony that the same arguments that someone like Bolz-Weber uses about certain traditional outcasts from conservative churches are the same ones I use about those same conservatives.


The overwhelming sentiment throughout this entire election process is that it has not followed the natural order of politics or common decency, and although I agree with that, I think it's beside the point. The fact is that we now realize that "common sense" is not so common, and that there are no institutions - politics, media, or even church - that are immune to manipulation. This is the first truly postmodern election - the first time in which all of the presuppositions of order and decorum have been entirely disregarded, dismantled, and deconstructed beyond any point of recognition or recovery.

There is a lot of discussion about whether this election was an aberration and whether the 2020 election will mark a return to form, with varying commentary on what will actually happen in the future. I tend to think that normal, as it was once known, is now done; sure, there might be a regression to the previously established mean in 2020 or even 2024, but I do not believe that the systems themselves - or even the notion of having institutionalized systems - will magically bounce back and erase the memories of the past eighteen months.

No, this election has demonstrated the ways in which politics - and indeed, society as a whole - is changing, and our collective inability to handle that change. The US has clearly demonstrated that they are not ready to be vulnerable, open, or even to respect a female president, regardless of what happens in the election. The good news is that there is evidence of change not only in the demographics but also in the perspectives of some aspects of the US, no matter how incremental those shifts might be.

My hope is not in returning to previously established norms, but in the next generations who will adapt and shift and learn how to work within this new reality. I do have hope for Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as for the media, and even for churches, that everyone can learn from this disaster and change for the next election. And I have hope in a God that's bigger than all of this. See you on the other side.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Want to replay

One of my favourite parts of the hobby of board gaming - other than actually playing the games, of course, as well as designing new ones - is nerdfully analyzing the ways in which I play games. It's (perhaps not that surprisingly) common among committed gamers, and there are even various websites and algorithms aside from BoardGameGeek that let you do so.

I track all of my plays on BGG, and I have gotten even nerdier in the past two years with the hobby, as I track any changes to games in any status of my collection in various offline documents, including when they are added to (or occasionally removed from) my Want to Play list, wish list, or collection. But every so often, I end up with another level of nerdiness about my collection that I feel the uncontrollable impulse to share in an even more extended fashion here for myself and the five people who I know will be interested in diving this far into my end of the hobby.

It has been a while since I delved this deeply into my own playing habits. I wrote an extensive post on cooperative games in April, but the majority of my journey has qualitatively focused on communicating the biographical aspects of my gaming rather than quantitatively analyzing my patterns. I have written my regular quarterly updates, which include limited self-analysis, and my year-end posts tend to be quite indepth, but the last time I went full nerd on my board gaming was last December, when I wrote this post after recording my thousandth play on BoardGameGeek.

I had a couple of other posts last year in which I nerded out hard, including when I took a look at my habits in creating my Want to Play list in June 2015, and when I further started to analyze those trends exactly one year ago when I added my hundredth title of the year to that list, so I guess maybe it was just time for me to spend a few hours observing and obsessing in the process of learning a few interesting things about myself as a gamer.

In the past two years, I have aggressively attempted to play new games, and I have been very fortunate to have made many new gaming friends whose collections have made it possible for me to do so. In 2015, I played 83 new games and a further ten new expansions; in 2016, those numbers are already at 88 games and 28 expansions with a sixth of the year yet to go. It helps that I have been aggressively reducing the number of unplayed games in my own collection, and I have relatively few items - 14 - that remain on my owned and want to play list; even those are mostly expansions and microgames, so I should easily be able to learn and play all of those games by the end of the year.

Those high play numbers have not made much of a dent in my "Want to Play" list, even though I have played a very significant number of new games in the past two calendar years. In 2015, I played 75 games and expansions from that WTP list compared to 128 added to that same list. I am faring slightly better in 2016, with 83 games and expansions played against only 75 additions to the list, although I have another forty or so games that I could (and likely will) add to my WTP list - which currently sits at 181 items - before the end of the year.

My Want to Play list - that is, games and expansions with zero plays but that I do want to play at some point - is my largest category when I organize my games according to number of plays, but it's not larger by much, as I discovered in this investigation. The next largest category, as might be expected with such an exponential growth in playing new games over the past two years, is the list of games for which I have recorded only one play.

One is the loneliest number

After reducing that particular list by two games last night with a second play of each (La Isla and Impulse, if you're wondering), my count of games with only one play stands at around half of the total games for which I have recorded plays: 169 of 344 unique games for which I have recorded a play in the past six years I have been tracking on BGG. (That figure of 169 would actually be slightly higher if I included all the expansions I have played only once, but it's the number I'm using for now.)

I was somewhat surprised at how many titles I had played only once, but as I looked through the list, it made a lot of sense. There were a number of social and party games that I played in only one (usually highly populated) context, as well as a number of small filler games from someone else's collection that I played at a game night or event at some point.

There were also a surprisingly high number of games (perhaps 15-20) that I had played much more often before starting to record my plays but that managed to weasel in one recorded play after I started tracking in 2011. Beyond those categories, there were a few games I had played with friends' kids at some point, and still a few more giant epic games that I will almost undoubtedly experience again when someone sets up a play on a Saturday afternoon.

There were, of course, a number of games that I had played once and had little desire to play again for whatever reason. Some I would actively avoid because I did not enjoy the experience or the game, but most games fell into a category of indifference - I would not mind playing it again, but I also would not seek it out. So as I looked over that list of 169 games, I eliminated any of those games and made a shorter list of games that I would actively seek out to try to play again, and I ended up with 82 titles - just under half of the initial list.

Creating the list

As I looked over that list of 82 games, I realized that I will be able to play almost every one of them again: eleven are in my own collection, and I could identify only four games to which I would not have easy access in someone's local collection. It seems that the primary impediment to playing these games more often is, quite simply, the ability to choose to play other games, including those 181 on my Want to Play list. #firstworldboardgamerproblems

I was curious to see whether those 82 titles had been on my list to replay for that long or whether they were mostly games that I had played in the past two years of rapid expansion. Of those 82, I counted only seven for which the initial (and only) play predated 2015 - and of those seven, only one was before 2014, in August 2013. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that, for the most part, that I am not only good at playing new games, but that I do serviceably well at playing games a second time. That said, some of the games on the list I first played in January 2015, so playing them again now would almost be like learning to play it for the first time.

After that initial differentiation between the two groups ("want to replay" and "don't really care if I replay"), I then further categorized those games into general categories of "social", "filler", "family" and "complex", and started to look at how many games fit into each category. I was unsurprised to see that there were a high number of complex games at 32, but I was surprised to see that there were exactly as many family games on my list.

The number of "filler" games was much smaller at fourteen, and "social" included only four titles. I suppose those filler and social games tend to be easier to replay, so it makes sense that there are only roughly half as many as are in the other categories. For the record, here are those lists, broken down not only by the aforementioned categories of complexity, but also by priority within the family and complex categories.

Social games to replay: Concept; Funemployed!; Knit Wit; Mysterium (4)

Filler games to replay: ...and then we held hands...; Burgoo; Council of Verona; Eminent Domain: Battlecruisers; Fleet Wharfside; Gravwell; Great Heartland Hauling Company; Haggis; Isle of Trains; The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction; This Town Ain't Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us; Tides of Time; TransAmerica; Yardmaster (14)

Family games to replay - higher priority: Akrotiri; Arboretum; Arctic Scavengers; Artifacts, Inc.; Cacao; Finca; Gold West; Le Havre: The Inland Port; Lanterns: The Harvest Festival; Loop, Inc.; Rialto; Targi; Tiny Epic Kingdoms; Valeria: Card Kingdoms; Viceroy; Vikings (16)

Family games to replay - lower priority: Asking for Trobils; Attika; Bomb Squad; Colt Express; Commissioned; DC Deck-Building Game; Discoveries; Dreamwell; Gone Viking!; Karuba; Mystery of the Abbey; Panic Station; Super Motherload; Trains; World's Fair 1893; Zooloretto (16)

Complex games to replay - higher priority: Amerigo; Belfort; Bruges; Castles of Mad King Ludwig; Concordia; Fields of Arle; Five Tribes; La Granja; Hansa Teutonica; Luna; Mombasa; Russian Railroads; Terra Mystica; Trajan; Twilight Struggle; Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar (16)

Complex games to replay - lower priority: 504; Dungeon Lords; Firefly: The Game; Genoa; Grand Austria Hotel; Lewis and Clark; New Dawn; Railways of the World; Shadows Over Camelot; Suburbia; Taj Mahal; Tigris and Euphrates; Tournay; Yedo; Yggdrasil; Yunnan (16)

And just in case you're interested if I went further than looking at games with one play, I did look at the games I had played twice and thrice as well. I figured that was as good a place to stop as any, especially because there is no word like "twice" or "thrice" that means "four times" - and there really should be. I also decided that four plays seemed like an effective cutoff for establishing a game as part of a regular rotation or repertoire, and the decreasing numbers of games with four or more plays made the analytical exercise far less interesting and effective - though there might be an interesting post of its own for those games at some point.

There are 33 games of 57 I have played twice that I would actively seek out to replay (18 of which I own) and 14 of 28 that I have played thrice (12 of which I own). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the percentage of filler and social games in each of the twice and thrice played groups was much higher; I suppose, after all, that they are significantly easier to replay, particularly if the gamers in question are already tired from learning a new game earlier in the evening. Those lists, of course, will both increase as I make progress on this list of games with one play, so I may find myself revisiting those lists in the future.

Reflections on the lists and the process

Although I was initially surprised by that egality in my numbers of family and complex games to replay, I soon found myself far less taken aback as I looked over the list. Most of the complex games were ones that I had explicitly sought out from my "Want to Play" list - and many on my Top Games to Play from a given year - but a significant number of the family games were also from my want to play list, though not with the same level of priority.

As I thought about it further, I realized that I had played a number of the family (and even filler) games as a result of playing the more complex games: I had arranged to play a longer game, and then we filled in the gap of time at the end with a shorter game from my want to play list. I have a working relationship with several gaming friends, in fact, in which we trade teaching games from our respective want to play lists according to what is in our collections.

In some ways, interestingly enough, it can almost feel more difficult to replay games than to play new games. It's not, of course, from an objective perspective, but the exhilaration of playing something new often seems to compensate for the difficulty of having to learn it. I think that gamers like me who like playing many different titles also end up often having to relearn most of a game when they replay it because too much time has elapsed between the first and second play, and it can be more discouraging to not know a game when you have played it once than it is to stumble through an initial learning round of a game.

I had tried this year to initiate a list of Top 20 Games to Replay, and although I have made some progress - 9 of 20 so far - most of my advancement on that list has been incidental rather than intentional, and it is largely because I purchased several of those games in order to play them again. I still hope to replay several of those games before the year is through, but time is running short to accomplish all of the gaming goals I have set out for myself, so I can't be too disappointed if I don't make too much more progress in the next two months.

I think I may have to be a bit more purposeful in my quest to replay games and to balance progressing on these lists with making progress on my Want to Play list when I make my gaming goals for the new year. It's not nearly as satisfying to replay games since I don't get to change the numbers in a category on BGG, but I know that replaying many of these games will be an enjoyable gaming experience since I have some idea of how to play the game already.

I suppose, in the end, that's what it's all about: enjoying the games. The point of learning new games, after all, is to be able to enjoy playing them over and over again. It's a weird thought to me that most people own very few games and play them many times; after all, why would I play something again if I have the choice of something new? But I'm also learning that balance is necesssary, and that most people don't have the same kind of insatiable appetite for games - especially for learning new ones - that I do.

I expect that as I continue to consciously replay games that I will make progress on this list, though I also recognize that every time I play a new game it will be added to yet another "want to play" list - just one that only exists in my own recording, rather than as its own category on BGG. I suppose the other factor is that I have a much more well-established gaming group now, and as I know more games in their collections and they know more of mine that we will be replaying more games.

For now, I'm trying to play the games rather than letting the stats play me (to steal a phrase from one of the few people I know who is substantially more established in the hobby than I am). I am making an active effort to play the games I own more and not to add to those numbers without having played the games already in my collection. And I am enjoying replaying games not just for the sake of advancing the stats, but also because it's fun to play games I already know and for which I do not have to endure the process of learning.

I suppose this whole conversation is somewhat foreign to anyone who's not already as deep into the hobby as I am, and I'm sure that the fact that I was able to write a whole post on replaying games seems a little odd, but I think this has been a valuable journey for me. I've learned a lot about my recent gaming patterns, and I'm looking forward to seeing how I will continue to grow as a gamer in the years to come. And besides, I had a lot of fun doing all of these analytics and thinking about the games I want to replay - not as much fun as I intend to have playing them, but fun nevertheless.

What a novel concept - replaying games.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Times Like These

If you had told me back in the late 1990s that Dave Grohl would be one of the pre-eminent ambassadors for rock music two decades hence, I would not have believed you; yet, here we are, with Grohl and his Foo Fighters recently serving as emissaries on a musical journey throughout America in their late 2014 HBO documentary series Sonic Highways.

I recently watched through the eight episodes of the series on the recommendation of a musician friend, and I was floored by the breadth and depth of the eight episodes of the series, each of which featured the Foo Fighters recording a new song in a different studio in a different city, in addition to featuring interviews and documentary footage exploring the musical culture of that city.

The band takes an interesting journey through the musical history of the country, starting in Chicago before making their way through Washington, D.C, Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Seattle, before ending in New York. It's fascinating to see not only how the band works together, but how they interact with the various guests they feature on the tracks and how each location eventually influences the final sound of the tracks; I don't know that I could have identified the influence of each city without having watched the episode, but after viewing each story, that musical presence is unmistakeable.

Watching Sonic Highways made me think about my own history with the Foo Fighters, starting with their origins in the early 90s with Dave Grohl as the drummer in Nirvana. I was a bit too young for Nirvana, and I honestly did not really understand the appeal of the band or their genre; I'm not sure I do even now. I get why grunge happened as a product of Gen X, particularly in the wake of pop music like Milli Vanilla and Vanilla Ice or even of the glam rock of the late 1980s; I just never had a personal connection to Nirvana or grunge in general.

I don't think there's a contemporary comparison to grunge in terms of there being a style of rock music since that has had nearly as long and wide an impact. Rap rock, for example, is much more akin to that aforementioned glam rock in that it was significantly ephemeral and defined within an era; grunge, on the other hand, is still affecting music twenty-five years later.

The first Foo Fighters album - which was actually just Dave Grohl recording his own songs on his own time during the Nirvana years - was released in 1995 in the wake of the initial grunge movement and the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994. It is, in many ways, our clearest bridge between those initial early days of grunge and the brand of rock that bands like the Foo Fighters have produced since.

I have very little memory of that album other than the cheesiness of the "Big Me" video that parodied commercials for Mentos ("The Freshmaker!"), but I went back to discover the album in its entirety a few years later, and I was impressed by how much of Grohl's songwriting skills are clearly in display early on. The album holds up well even twenty years later, despite (or perhaps due to?) the fact that the video might be the most 90s thing ever.

My personal history with the Foos started with 1997's The Colour and the Shape, which was also the first album that featured the rest of the band - and which arguably remains their best to this day. "Monkey Wrench" is in the conversation for the best pop rock song of its generation, but it's not alone in its brilliance on the album. "Everlong" and "My Hero" are amazing songs, but even some of the other lesser-known tracks on the album - "Walking After You", "Hey, Johnny Park!", and "Wind Up", among others - are memorable in the way in which they not only capture but also transcend their time.

I know that The Colour and the Shape and its successor, There Is Nothing Left To Lose, have a special place in my musical memory because they were released during my physical adolescence, but I think they hold up almost two decades later on their own merit and not just on nostalgia - which is more than what can be said for most of the rock music produced during my high school years. I don't listen to the Foo Fighters ironically, and I think the only other mainstream rock bands from that era for which that remains true are Collective Soul and Audio Adrenaline, perhaps the closest thing to a "Christian" equivalent of the Foo Fighters (back when the easiest way to analyze any Christian artist was to compare them to their secular equivalent).

I saw the Foo Fighters live in the summer of 1998 at Edgefest, and I remember being relatively underwhelmed at the time by their set. I do not remember much of what they played, other than having a conversation with one of my teachers for the duration of most of their set, but my lasting reaction was that the Foo Fighters were no better than the fourth act of the day (after The Tea Party, Creed, and, surprisingly, Green Day, in that order).

Just over a year later, the band released There Is Nothing Left To Lose, which was much more melodic and much less angsty than its predecessor, meaning that it was more radio-friendly. "Learn To Fly" has become one of the staple rock radio tracks of its era (as evidenced by its inclusion in the game Rock Band), but much like the rest of the Foo Fighters' catalog, I see that as a strength rather than a detriment.

The Foo Fighters have arguably perfected the practice of balancing popular appeal and some semblance of rock resistance, remaining mainstream enough to be enjoyable by the masses but staying edgy enough to not be entirely "sold out" (as it were). There is furthermore an enjoyment that can be derived from the simplicity of the music itself, as shown in this video of a thousand musicians playing "Learn to Fly" in order to entice the Foo Fighters to play a concert in Italy (which they later did).

I lost track of the Foo Fighters for a number of years in the early aughts, much as I ignored a majority of "secular" music due to my convictions about the interaction of my faith and popular culture at the time; the Foo Fighters have the honour of being one of the bands whose albums I purged at that time and then repurchased afterward. While I was not paying much attention to non-Christian music in general, the Foo Fighters released One By One in 2002; it's a decent album, but I think it might be their most forgettable effort, despite a couple of great songs such as "All My Life" and "Times Like These", one of my all-time Foo faves.

I paid slightly more attention to 2005's In Your Honor, a double-album release featuring a hard rock album and a collection of acoustic songs, and although I was not really into it at the time, I have come to see this effort as much more significant in their catalog, perhaps as the point at which they became a "real" rock band. This is not to say that they did not have the credibility from their previous albums, but that Honor was the point at which they established their reputation as a lasting presence in rock and in music.

A brief digression: I think that the Foo Fighters are likely to be named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame soon, if not immediately, after their eligibility in 2020. I went down a bit of a rabbit trail on this point that may become a blog post later or sooner, but suffice to say that I think they're a lock and that they will be one of the few examples of their particular corner of rock music who will be recognized one day by the Hall.

The acoustic half of Honor, in particular, really made me look back on Grohl's songwriting skills, a facet that, although I found myself emphasizing in my own journey, really does not receive nearly as much credit as it should. The dual nature of Honor, I think, also really typifies the two sides of the band; on the one hand, they are this hard rockin', edgy band that pushes some limits; but on the other is this sensitive side that has really well-crafted melodies and thoughtful ideas. Of course, I think that the best Foo tracks and albums combine both of those aspects, and a quick glance through their Greatest Hits reveals both elements throughout.

When the band released Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace in 2007, something drew me back to the Foo fold. It might be the fact that I had spent the previous couple of years intentionally investing in and investigating new artists after my years away from popular music, and that any time that an artist with whom I had been familiar before my personal purge released a new album that it piqued my interest.

I don't remember expecting much from Echoes at the time but I was very pleasantly surprised in what it offered: a mature and balanced effort from a band that had by that point become experts in their craft. Sure, sometimes they veered too far into the territory of songs and lyrics that were a little too palatable, serviceable, or predictable, but I think most rock bands end up having a few tracks or even an album or two that end up in that area.

My experience of rediscovering the Foo Fighters made me go back into their old catalog, and it has sustained my interest through their subsequent efforts Wasting Light and Sonic Highways, both of which had enough draw of their own and the latter of which I would rank among their better albums, even if it is a little too short at only eight tracks. Highways might be their most interesting album in terms of both lyrical content and musical composition, and although it might never become my favourite Foo album - it's hard to see either The Colour and the Shape or There Is Nothing Left To Lose abandoning that spot - I might consider Highways to be their best work.

I missed a chance to see the Foo Fighters in concert in 2008, but I have little doubt that I will have the opportunity to do so at some point, despite their current hiatus from recording and touring. Sonic Highways demonstrated that the Foo Fighters have not said everything they want to say, and there seems to be a lot of creativity left not only as individuals, but also as a group. I am really interested to see what happens when they reunite, and I think they likely have at least one "great" album left in them before they call it quits (or at least just stop recording new material).

The Foo Fighters are like that old friend - maybe a buddy from high school or a college roommate - with whom you were never necessarily that close, but without whom it's hard to imagine life; they have just always been there, and you can't really think of life without them, even if you're not often in direct contact. It's always fun when you hang out, and there's something you get in that friendship that you don't get anywhere else. Sometimes there are really poignant moments of depth and meaning, but the absence of those moments does not signify a problem in your friendship; it's just a factor of how your relationship works.

I'm glad I have friends like that in my life, and that I have the Foo Fighters and other bands like them in my musical repertoire. It has been a lot of fun spending time digging into the discography of the Foo Fighters, and I've even reclaimed a few songs that I had overlooked for years in the process. It's "Times Like These" I learn to listen again and really appreciate what I've been given - and it's a surprisingly rich gift that Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters have given over the past two decades.


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