Wednesday, March 29, 2017

LENT 2017: Communications

It has been a few weeks since I first posted about my journey at the beginning of Lent, in which I expressed my intention to spend time and energy over this liturgical season investing in being more intentional about considering my own vocation in my current context. It's not that I have not been thinking about the concept in that time or that I have not had the time to write the next installment - it's that I have not had the inclination to form any of those thoughts into another post.

Every once in a while, I have trouble sleeping at night. When that happens other than as a result of intake of caffeine too late in the day, I often find that I have something in my brain that I have to get out before I can fully rest, so I usually get out of bed and start journalling, at which point I typically realize by processing through writing what it is that has been keeping me awake. Last night, I realized that part of what I was processing was the question of creativity and writing and how this all fit, so it made sense to write this next installment of my journey in Lent about my vocation of communications.

As I have had several people observe to me over the past two years, I write a lot and I have been writing for a long time. I'm always taken a bit aback at first when people make that observation, but then I realize just how abnormal it is that I: 1. Write in a public forum regularly; 2. Have a two-decade long history of being publicly published in various media; and 3. Write well enough that people want to keep reading what I'm writing.

I still find myself somewhat flabbergasted when I discover that people seek me out and are deliberate in paying attention to what I say. It's not that I feel as though what I say is not worth the attention or that I do not think that the quality of my writing does not deserve said attention (lack of confidence was never my shortcoming, after all); it's more a sense of genuine surprise and honour that, out of all of the many many voices writing things on the internet, people would choose to spend their time and energy reading what I am writing.

I know I have spent a fair amount of time throughout the history of my blog writing about myself as a writer (most recently in May 2016), so I am trying not repeat myself (even though I recognize that as an almost inevitable likelihood at this point given the sheer volume of material I have produced over the years), but I do think that it is worthwhile for me to look at some of my history as a writer in order to consider where I am at now.


A writer's history


I guess I have almost always been a writer, though I rarely would have characterized myself as such. I do not remember writing much when I was a kid, but I also don't remember a time when I did not have an advanced vocabulary; I was reading books by the age of three, and by the time I was in Grade 5, I had the equivalent vocabulary of a first-year university student. I suppose when you do all that reading that it has to come out somehow, so I was a fairly early adopter in terms of writing.

I started writing for my high school newspaper, The Spark, in Grade 9, and I was part of the editing team soon thereafter. I learned a lot about myself as a writer in those years writing for an audience of a thousand peers, and I'm still proud of the work that I produced, especially in my Grade 12 year when I served as editor. It seems quaint now, especially in the age of the internet, to have written some of the pieces that I wrote at the time in the way that I wrote them then, but it was all part of my journey, and I realize now just how much each of those experiences - like interviewing Wide Mouth Mason or interviewing and writing the excerpt for the special guest for BRIT, our school's popular basketball tournament - helped shape me as a writer.

My initial plan upon leaving high school was actually to be a journalist. At that point in my life, my plan was to enter the world of sports writing and to perhaps be the next Ron MacLean, although now I imagine that I would be more like Sean McIndoe of Down Goes Brown, one of the few hockey writers I still actually follow. In retrospect, I'm not that disappointed that I did not pursue that path, though there is always a small part of me that wonders what the life of a sportswriter might have been, though I suspect that I would not have been satisfied with my life's work had that been my primary focus.

I continued to be involved with the student press when I started at university, both as an editor and as a writer, and I found that I still had an outlet for my ideas. I decided not to pursue journalism as a career at the point at which I recognized that the internet was going to be a tool that I could use for channeling my interests and skills as a writer. Self-publishing through zines and blogs and independent sites was on the rise around 2001, and I quickly realized that anything that I wanted to accomplish as a writer I could do on my own and that the established channels of journalism might actually take away from those possibilities in my future.

I kept on with my work for the school paper, particularly in the areas of Arts and Opinions, and I continued to hone my sense of voice and self. Blogging provided an additional outlet for me in my last few years of writing for the student press, and it still serves a purpose for me today (more on that to come). I occasionally sought other avenues to publish my writing after I finished school, most of which I was able to access through various contacts I had established over the previous seven years. I wrote a couple of articles for Patrol Mag (which is apparently now defunct), and I had one article I wrote about the 2006 TMNT movie published by Relevant Magazine in their "Dailies" section, and I was even published in The Saskatchewan Book of Everything.

But I was also attempting to start a teaching career and get married, so writing took a back seat for several years. Sure, I had a few spikes in my interest and production on my blog (particularly in 2009, the only year to date in which I have neither started nor ended a teaching contract) in those years, but most of my attention went elsewhere; in addition to teaching and marriage, I had constant career changes, church leadership, directing summer camps, and board games that took up a lot of my attention, so writing became less significant as a part of my life. It never left completely, but it was definitely a lot less prominent for a number of years.

That brings me to the present, in which I have been blogging at a furious pace over the past eighteen months: since October 2015, when I really started up again after about eighteen months in which I had been less productive, I have posted 128 times, good for just over 21 times per quarter and an average of a post every 4.28 days - numbers that do not include the forty-or-so posts that are sitting in my drafts folder in some semi-completed form.

The question I am seeking to answer in this season, then, is how does writing fit in as a vocation in my life? Or, perhaps more accurately, is it still vocational, or is it just a hobby that takes up a lot of time at this point? It's a question that has been plaguing me for the past month, and although I'm not sure I'm much closer to an answer, I think it is still worthwhile to examine where I am at now.

The present


My blog is admittedly a mish-mash of styles, subjects, and ideas, and it has been for most of the past decade. Sure, I had some avenues to siphon off some aspects of my writing, but since 2007, it has mostly all ended up here in a big jumble, so I thought I would start this part of my journey by sorting through the morass of topics that have come to make up my scattered consciousness online.

As I can see it, there are a number of different kinds of posts that I publish, some of which I would barely qualify as "writing", as they end up feeling more like BuzzFeed listicles than pieces with any actual analysis or deeper meaning. As I looked through my history - these past eighteen months particularly - I found ten different general ways to categorize the posts that I write.

1. Board games (mostly stats on games I have played and lists of games)
2. Sports predictions and reflections
3. Commentaries and/or opinion pieces on current events and/or politics
4. Commentaries/reviews/opinion pieces on pop culture (music, movies, TV, video games, etc.)
5. Pop culture lists and contextualizations of various canons (authors, works, media)
6. Expressions of thoughts on issues of church, faith, and theology
7. Personal processing
8. Biographical explorations
9. Vocational explorations
10. Random blatherskyte (shout-out to all you Darkwing Duck fans out there)

The first thing that really sticks out to me is that there are some very different categories included on that list, some of which have been more common at different points in my blogging history. There is, of course, a lot of overlap in and amongst those categories, as most of my personal processing also involves some kind of hook with pop culture and/or current events and/or one of my other hobbies, but it's a long way from serious theological discussions to lists of board games (or perhaps not as far, considering how many pastors there seem to be within the worlds of board game reviewing and design).

There are some general groups into which sets of categories could be placed - personal explorations, commentaries, lists, faith, and hobbies, perhaps - but when I break it down into these ten categories, it seems fairly clear that I am lacking focus and vision in my blog; it seems mostly to function as a repository for whatever I am thinking about and feeling the need to communicate at any given time, which makes sense, since that was my original purpose for my blog back in 2004 - a place to publish the things I was thinking about but that did not really belong in one of those other avenues.

I still wonder whether some of these subjects are best left for other fora or forms of media - topical blogs or sites to which I could contribute, or podcasts, for example. Though I have often considered either finding or establishing other places to divert some of those various categories, I have also wondered whether it is worth it to maintain that many different channels online, but I suppose I will continue to have these kinds of internal debates until I finally resolve them - a statement that is certainly tautological, though I'm not sure that it loses much meaning as a result.

I find it really difficult sometimes to have all of these parts of myself combined in one place and I feel unfocused and unable to process what I "need" to write. Sometimes, I recognize that my drive is to write something more diversionary, like the recent week in which I focused on the Oscars and the Nintendo Switch, but sometimes it's much deeper and more meaningful, like this series of posts. As much as I have struggled and continue to have to work through the juxtaposition of all of these types of writing, however, I recognize that they are all here and that they are all a part of me, for better or for worse, and that this blog reflects that fact.

Conclusion


There are a few ways in which I am seeking to solve this seemingly never-ending internal conflict. I am looking to diffuse some of my interests into different platforms; for example, I'm currently working on launching a separate site through which I can process most of my board game geekery. That still leaves me here, of course, with a combination of random thoughts on sports and current events, various pop culture thoughts, and assorted personal reflections. (I had initially started to write a section for this post on my pop culture writing and habits, but I think that it will be best left for another post, considering the already sizeable scope of what I had started writing.)

I have found, however, that my current circumstances and method of blogging have not been naturally adaptable to the kind of confessional long-form writing in which I have expressed interest over the past decade. I have had an idea for a book for seven years and a title for at least four of those, but aside from a couple of fits and starts, I have not made progress on either that book or the ideas that I have had since. I do believe that I will be able to repurpose some of the things that I have written on my blog over the years, but I also know that the process of writing individual blog posts is far different from the kind of sustained focus that is necessary in order to write a full book that has thematic through lines.

This is all to say that it feels as though I need to make a decision as to what I want to do with my vocation as a writer. I could pursue the type of writing that I have wanted to do for years and really press into what that might mean for me, particularly in light of a possible future as a career, but I am honestly not sure that I want to make the kinds of sacrifices of sleep or other hobbies that seem like they would be necessary to make that happen, and maybe that's where it ends for me - after all, if I'm not willing to do what I need to do to be a writer, maybe I'm not going to be a writer.

Then again, maybe there are ways to make this writing vocation work. Maybe it's as "simple" as waking up half an hour earlier and using that time to do the kind of writing that is difficult to do during the day. Maybe it's more complex, though, like having to make some hard decisions about reducing the other kinds of writing that are taking up my time and energy. It's really hard to say, though I do feel as though I am at a point at which I need to take some steps either toward pursuing writing or toward continuing to see it as more of a hobby than a vocation.

I will say, however, that I do feel (again) as though I have a renewed interest in investing in myself as a writer, and I am (again) interested to explore what it might mean to be more intentional about that different style of writing. I'm not sure that this Lenten journey will result in the kind of final decision that I had at one point hoped it might, but I'm certainly not discouraged by the progress that I have made in this area of my vocation over the past month.

I recently read through both of Glennon Doyle Melton's books, and though I have mixed opinions on their total effectiveness, I did find this quotation that really stuck out to me about writing in her first book, Carry On, Warrior, so I leave it here as a sort of benediction for this post and an encouragement to myself and to fellow writers.

"If, anywhere in your soul, you feel the desire to write, please write. Write as a gift to yourself and others. Everyone has a story to tell. Writing is not about creating tidy paragraphs that sound lovely or choosing the “right” worlds. It’s just about noticing who you are and noticing life and sharing what you notice. When you write your truth, it is a love offering to the world because it helps us feel braver and less alone. And if you’re a really, really bad writer, then it might be most important for you to write because your writing might free other really, really bad writers to have a go at it anyway…. If you feel something calling you to dance or write or paint or sing, please refuse to worry about whether you’re good enough. Just do it. Be generous. Offer a gift to the world that no one else can offer: yourself." (25)

I could not have said it better myself. For now, I'm writing as a gift to myself and hopefully for others, and I hope that there is some part of what I write that brings out truth. There's something invigorating about writing, even if it seems like it's a relatively meaningless topic at the time, and there's a sense of life and purpose that I derive from my expository exploits. I do not know what my writing will look like in the future - whether it will stay as it is or whether it will become more vocational - but I am always going to be a writer, period.

Monday, March 27, 2017

2016: The Year in Movies!

I struggle a bit more every year with my year-end movies list, and I'm finally starting to figure out why. It took me seven years to realize that I had felt the same way when I was preparing to write a year in review post about the movies of the previous year - that I was not sufficiently qualified to comment on the movies that were released because I felt as though I had not seen enough films to qualify myself for writing such a post.

In response to that feeling, I had not posted a year in review for movies for each of those seven years from 2009 to 2015. I wrote a catch-all post in April 2016 in which I attempted to rectify that oversight, but it was admittedly overstuffed with various titles, it ultimately underserved the content other than meeting the goal of having put the information out there, and I was not able to accomplish the level of analysis that I usually like to put into these kinds of posts.

I had been feeling similarly unqualified to comment on last year's movies based on my viewership in 2016, and so I realized that I have thus far again avoided writing my year-end review on movies for the past year. I have been working in the past month to catch up on a number of those movies, but I still have only watched eighteen movies from the past year - which I recognize is still a lot of movies in comparison to many people, but it still feels low for me.

That said, I am at the point in my life and movie-watching in which I will only be at all interested in around three dozen movies that are released in a calendar year (at most), and of those, I might see only a dozen or so within the range of the calendar year. I realize that number would still represent a lot for some people, but for me, it marks a significant reduction over past years in which both of those numbers would have been significantly higher.

I am learning how to be at peace with my current pace, much as I have had to do with my consumption of music, and I recognize that if this were more important to me that I would put more time and energy into the enterprise of watching movies. As it stands, movies are a somewhat passive hobby, but I still really enjoy them, and I feel as though I have reached an equilibrium in the amount of time and effort I put into my movie-watching with the amount of enjoyment and satisfaction I derive from movies in general.

I am now including a lot of this information in my quarterly media updates, but I think it's still worth it to recap here, even if it's just for future posterity. I have divided my categorizations into five broad general categories: blockbusters (they really are a category of their own); family; comedy; drama; and documentary. For each category, I have included my favourite(s), others I have watched, and the movies I missed. (It can safely be assumed that any movie not mentioned here falls outside of my areas of interest.) I have also included a short summary of my favourite movies of the year (at this point, anyway) to conclude the post.

Blockbusters


There were a lot of blockbusters that seemed like they dominated a lot of my awareness over the past year. I can't say whether they were more prominent as a "genre" than blockbusters have been in the past, but it seemed like they took more effort, which is perhaps because there were more movies of this sort that were in my wheelhouse; it's kind of like how some years feature more artists I like releasing new albums, so it just takes more energy to be a music fan in those seasons.

I was more indifferent and somewhat ambivalent, however, to this particular group of blockbusters than I have been in previous years; though almost each one had a few inspired moments, I mostly came away with a sense that they did not accomplish much creatively, or at least that they could have done more but that they missed out on various opportunities. Most of them were enjoyable enough (with a couple of exceptions), but I'm not going to go out of my way to watch most of them again.

It's a little disappointing, however, that this is by far my most populated category, but it makes sense, as these are the kinds of spectacle movies that tend to be more worth watching in theatres because of the visuals, the zeitgeist, and the fact that my wife usually likes to see these kinds of movies on the big screen. I have heard many of the complaints about being tired of this kind of IP manipulation, and I tend to agree, as it seems like more of blockbuster culture is about loss aversion than it is creative risk-taking.

Then again, I'm also part of the problem because I keep getting caught up in the hype and I keep going to theatres to see them, so maybe I just need to learn to stop being part of the culture of blockbusters - a task that is made much easier this year by the wholly uninspiring and unpalatable slate offered up by major studios, with a few exceptions (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049, Star Wars: The Last Jedi), so at least I will not be further encouraging the cycle - I hope. At any rate, here are my thoughts on blockbusters from 2016.

Favourite: Deadpool - I was reticent to see this R-rated superhero movie at first, but it ended up being the most fun I had with a movie last year by far - so fun I watched it again on Netflix in the fall. It was easily the most interesting blockbuster of last year (at least until Rogue One was released) because of the way that it rewrote the expectations for the genre, and it will be interesting to see how studios react to its success with future endeavours.

Watched:

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice - The less written about this turgid mess of a movie, the better. It was overstuffed, undercharacterized, misconceptualized, awkwardly constructed, visually muddled, and woodenly acted. It's unfortunate, as it really could - and should - have been much better than it was.

Captain America: Civil War - In contrast to BvS, I enjoyed this movie in which superheroes fought against each other. I think the main difference between this and BvS was that I felt as though Marvel had earned the right to pit its characters against one another after eight years of laying the groundwork in previous films, whereas DC tried to give themselves a short cut through all of the work of narrative and characterization, which clearly did not work.

Doctor Strange - My initial reaction to the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe still stands - it works well enough in establishing a new piece of the MCU, but it's a little tiring to go back to the start, even with a new hero. I'm mostly looking forward to seeing where the franchise - particularly star Benedict Cumberbatch - goes from here now that they have the world established.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - My initial reaction to this first adventure in a new franchise in the Potterverse was mostly indifferent - it was an interesting enough way to play in the sandbox of the Harry Potter world without having to stick to the overbearing need for narrative, but I didn't really feel  as though it was entirely necessary. Since then, I have shifted slightly, as the result of a few external inputs, and I'm interested to see this movie again, as well as the next one in the series to determine its fate.

Ghostbusters - I spent a whole post discussing my thoughts on the franchise and reviewing the new movie, so I'll summarize here: the movie was fine, but I thought it could and should have played more to its stars and gone more for a gross-out vulgar R-rating rather than the tepid PG/PG-13 CGI spectacle it ended up blandly serving.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - Rogue One was a lot better than I expected it to be, given all of the preamble about rewrites and reshoots and meddling from Disney. There are a few issues with pacing and character development early on in the story, but the last half more than makes up for those with one of the most enthralling war sequences not only in Star Wars, but in movies of recent memory. My current evaluation is that I'm pretty sure I will rank this as the second-best Star Wars movie, but only fourth (maybe third, depending on how I decide I feel about Return of the Jedi) in terms of enjoyability.

Star Trek Beyond - The third movie in the new Kelvin timeline was an enjoyable action sci-fi romp, but it was not quite as Trek as I hoped it would be; sure, it had an interesting hook for its villain and a couple of cool sequences, but I felt as though the theme was not as integrated as it had been in the two previous Kelvin timeline films. That said, I think there is still life left in this particular franchise, so I'm still looking forward to future installments.

X-Men: Apocalypse - [I probably should have written a different post on this movie, but since I watched it relatively recently, I'll just include my thoughts here.] X-Men: Apocalypse was a swing and a miss as a movie; it introduced some interesting characters, but it mostly just did not accomplish what it should have been able to do. The previous X-Men movie, Days of Future Past, had repaired most of the damage that had initially been caused by the 2006 conclusion to the original trilogy, X-Men: The Last Stand; Future Past was lighter in tone, focused on character development, and presented some really interesting narrative potions that did not seem predetermined, unlike Last Stand and First Class, which successfully attempted to reboot the X-Men franchise.

In that light, it was really disappointing that Apocalypse repeated so many of the problems that had occurred a decade earlier: too many characters; an uninteresting villain; an overbearing "end-of-the-world" trope that was tired even before it started; and not enough interesting points at which the narrative could diverge from the path it "had" to take to appease the needs of the necessary conclusion as well as of the franchise. It was disappointing, to say the least, since Apocalypse is a fascinating character, and there was definitely more that the movie could have done with him and the other new characters.

I think that the bottom line was that Fox was facing the same kind of pressure as Warner Bros. (DC) in terms of launching their cinematic universe and that they essentially shoehorned two movies into one. Maybe the solution would have been to feature a different villain in this movie and to introduce some of the new characters, while leaving Apocalypse and the rest for the next movie, but I also know that they were dealing with contracts for Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender, so they were somewhat forced into the narrative path they chose.

In the end, maybe Apocalypse is just one of those examples of business trumping artistic merit, which ended up meaning that the business was far less than they hoped it would be. It seems like Fox may have learned their lesson with the success of Deadpool and now Logan, as well as Legion on the small screen, so I'm still hopeful for the future of the X-Men as a part of popular superhero culture, but I don't think there will be any reason to return to Apocalypse.

Missed:

Suicide Squad - Yes, I know this is probably going to be bad, but I still feel like I need to watch it anyway at some point.

Family


It seems as though fewer family movies are on my radar every year, as a lot of the animated and family movies just seem to be less interesting. There were a couple of interesting films, but not many that I absolutely had to see.

Favourite: Zootopia The new Disney animated movie was quite entertaining and well done, though I was surprised at the inclusion of a few scenes of more adult-oriented content that I thought might necessitate conversations that some parents might not appreciate having. That said, the recent stretch of movies including ZootopiaWreck-it-Ralph, and Big Hero 6 show that Disney is far from a slouch in the kids' movie department.

Missed:

Finding Dory - It's on my Netflix queue to watch with my nephew sometime.

The Jungle Book - I might end up watching this at some point for the spectacle.

Kubo and the Two Strings - The awards season attention paid to this movie made me take note of it.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Chalk up my interest in this movie to several factors: director Tim Burton (although that is becoming a far less intriguing factor all the time); seeing how the source material translates to the screen; and possibly for use at some point as a classroom resource.

Comedy


Comedy has clearly been the domain of television for many years, but there are usually a few high spots in the movies that warrant attention. There was not much last year, but there were a couple of standouts that will be part of my rotation for a long time.

Favourite: Hail, Caesar! - The Coens' most recent screwball comedy combines elements of several classic Coen movies, including Barton FinkThe Hudsucker ProxyThe Big LebowskiBurn After Reading, and more. At first, I was not sure that it worked, but as with most Coen movies, the more I thought about it, the more I realized what (I think) they were trying to do and how it did work, so I'll be eager to watch it again - especially if I end up going on a Coen spree soon.

Watched:

The Lobster -
What a head trip, and an excellent performance from Colin Farrell. This is one of those movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that you have to watch repeatedly to fully understand, and that's okay - it's definitely worth it.

Mascots - Christopher Guest's first mockumentary in a decade was refreshing in that it returned us to the well-established format in a new wacky world of competitive "mascottery", as it were. That said, it was the first of his films (for me, at least) that felt a little derivative and forced, and I would choose most of its predecessors before this one, even if I imagine that I will watch this again for a giggle or twenty.

Missed:

Hunt for the Wilderpeople - I saw the trailer for this and thought it might make a fun movie to watch sometime; also, director Taika Waititi is one of those indie creators who always seems to be interesting, and he has a pedigree with Flight of the Conchords, so that seals the deal.

Sing Street - I have heard nothing but praise for this movie from the director of Once about a bunch of teens starting a band in Dublin in the 1980s, and I'm further interested in it for the Irish angle as a result of my fandom of U2.

Drama


There were a number of really interesting dramas last year, and I find it interesting that my favourites of the past year were from a variety of genres - musical, science fiction, neo-western, and historical.

Favourite: Arrival - Arrival is one of those movies that really makes you think and that sticks around for a long time afterward not only in your brain, but in your soul. Almost everything about this brooding, moody, atmospheric film was incredible - especially Amy Adams in the lead performance - and I think it will emerge as one of the most memorable SF movies of its time and perhaps of all-time.

Watched:

ARQ - Netflix released this entertaining SF concept film in the vein of Primer or Looper. It's one of those hidden gems that's worth a watch for fans of the genre.

Hell or High Water - This neo-western seemed fairly straightforward, but it took a few twists and turns in its narrative and character that set it apart as one of the better movies of the past year.

La La Land - I enjoyed this musical (which I consider far more of a drama than a comedy), particularly for its tight direction.

Silence - Martin Scorsese's passion project about Jesuit missionaries in medieval Japan seems destined to become one of his underappreciated films, and that's a shame, as it has some really valuable things to say about faith and life.

Missed:

A Monster Calls - Pan's Labyrinth meets Where the Wild Things Are - looks interesting.

Manchester By The Sea - Wins for Best Screenplay and Best Actor tipped the scales for me to see this intense movie at some point.

Moonlight - The unexpected Best Picture has been on my radar for a long time.

Documentary


It seems like the past few years have generated a lot of great documentaries, and 2016 was no different. It looks like I have a lot of catching up to do on Netflix.

Favourite: 13th - Ava DuVernay's documentary connects the 13th Amendment to end slavery with the current incarceration rate of African-Americans in a vital, fascinating, and heart-breaking way.

Missed:

For the Love of Spock - Leonard Nimoy's son, Adam, talks about his famous dad and their relationship.

Ghostheads - A movie about fans of Ghostbusters.

Into the Inferno - The latest from Werner Herzog looks into volcanoes and the origins of life.

O.J.: Made in America - The Oscar-winning doc about O.J. Simpson is at the top of my list to see.

Summary


There was a lot of talk at the turn of the year about where 2016 landed in terms of years of cinema; some critics and commentators derided the year entirely, while others picked out a few gems that made the entire year of cinema worthwhile. My take is that while last year was a weaker year for movies in general that my favourite movies for the year will stand up over time and be well-regarded within their genres. I enjoyed most of the movies I saw last year, but there were only a few that really stuck out to me as movies that I will likely cherish over time.

On a broader scale, I also wonder whether there is starting to be the manifestation of the kinds of microcultures in critical acclamation of films that there has been in television for a number of years. Perhaps there is now not only the division between blockbusters and awards movies, but there might be more division within the realm of awards fare as to the relative quality of those films. It's hard to say at this point, but it seems possible that 2016 may be seen as a point of divergence like 1994 was in cinematic history in regard to the wider acceptance of independent film.

It will be fascinating to see how this particular group of movies emerges as a part of the overall culture of cinema, and to see whether my own opinions will change over time. I find it interesting that my initial opinions in regard to my favourite movies of the year have rarely changed over time, so I suppose that time will tell what will happen with this crop of movies.

Top movies to see: A Monster Calls; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight; O.J.: Made in America

Other movies to see: Finding Dory; Hunt for the Wilderpeople; The Jungle Book; Kubo and the Two Strings; Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children; Sing Street; Suicide Squad

Personal favourites, but not "Top 5" movies of the year: Deadpool; Hail, Caesar!

Top 5 movies of 2016: 13thArrival; Hell or High Water; La La LandSilence

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

On banana bread and existential stress

The day didn't really start out very well. I was supposed to be working, but I got a late cancellation of my scheduled shift, so I was suddenly presented with a weekday off for the first time in over a month. I have been used to this pattern over the past seven years of casual work, but I was caught off-guard by the extra time and space that confronted me. I had a few things on my brain that I could do during my unexpected windfall of time, but I was fortunate enough to not have anything that absolutely had to be done during the day.

I struggled significantly at the beginning of the day to get going; without something directing my time, I felt a little aimless and unfocused. Eventually, I got myself together enough to get motivated to do some baking. In the past year, I have learned to bake muffins so that we can have quick and easy breakfasts before work, so I thought that would be a good use of the morning; then, I thought, I could work on some of our finances and perhaps even start on our taxes. As far as I was concerned, it was going to be a good day despite the slow start.

I found the recipe for banana-walnut muffins and I started measuring out the ingredients, at which point I realized that I did not have the right amount of sour cream for the recipe. So I did what any rational person would do - no, I did not go out immediately and get what I needed to finish the recipe - I plopped down on the couch in overwhelmed frustration to play video games, which then distracted me for several hours. I was unsuccessful in dozens of attempts to beat the final boss of the game, so I was further demoralized by my lack of accomplishment to that point in the day; after all, even my distraction was ultimately unproductive.

By early afternoon, I finally got up the gumption to make the quick trip to the store to pick up sour cream, which happened to be on clearance. Everything was looking great until I checked the recipe when I got home and realized that it was not sour cream that the recipe required, but plain yogurt, which I still did not have. (I don't know how I would have reacted if I had ended up having the right ingredient in my fridge from the get-go - maybe more dejected video games?)

I decided at that point to alter my plans - instead of making muffins, I would use the ingredients I had measured out to make banana bread, which I have made many times. It took some meticulous math to determine the correct amounts for converting from one recipe to another with the appropriate doubling ratios, but I managed to do it. Then I realized that the sugar, which was called to be initially creamed with the softened butter until light and fluffy in the banana bread recipe, was already mixed in with the dry ingredients. Cue the despondency creeping in again.

It had been a day of frustrations, but I was determined that I would have something to show at the end of it all, so I did the best I could with what I had. I mixed the ingredients together, and lo and behold, I ended up with a double recipe of banana bread.

Sure, it took almost a full day with all of the discouragements and distractions and disillusionments along the way, and I didn't end up with what I wanted at the beginning, but I was able to salvage something out of what had been an unexpectedly difficult journey over the course of the day.

I realized as I spent some time journalling and praying throughout my emotional ups and downs that this day was in many ways a metaphor for this season of my life. The encouragement I received in my prayer time in the morning - even before all of this happened - was that this day, and indeed this season of my life, is not about the product, but about the process. It's about learning how to adapt and adjust and rest and relax and receive the gifts that are set out for me each day.

The gift I had today was that I did not have anything that had to be done by the end of the day. I ended up having the space to be not okay and get distracted and play video games and make mistakes and bake banana bread and to write this post without any external expectations on my time. Still, I spent most of the day feeling stressed, and I knew that did not match up with the requirements of the day, so I needed to spend some more effort on sorting through why.

I realized as I reflected on the day that most of the pressure I felt over the course of the day - and indeed in this season of life - is internal. Most of the stress and anxiety and pressure I feel is from within - a sense that I am wasting time and losing valuable hours and that life is slowly slipping away. I have so many things that I want to be able to do, and when I have a day like today, I really struggle with feeling as though I have not accomplished anything, even when that feeling is false.

The cosmic irony in this entire situation is that yesterday was one of the most productive days I had had in a couple of weeks since I have been feeling the effects of a nasty head cold. I worked a shift and applied for a job and sent a number of emails and bought groceries and generally felt more productive than I had in a long time, and I still had time to rest in the evening. I felt great about my day, which perhaps contributed to why today was such a struggle from the start.

But after all is said and done, both yesterday and today were just days. Sure, one was energizing and one was enervating, but they were both just one day in the big picture; neither will make or break my year or my month or even my week, and I can always find a way to gather myself and make the next day better. And despite all of the problems I had today, I ended up with a new blog post and warm banana bread, which is sometimes all that you need in life.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Celebrating The Joshua Tree

A landscape monochrome photograph of U2 in the desert sits in the center of a black background. U2 are standing on the left half of the photograph, with a mountain range on the right half. Tiny gold text reading "THE JOSHUA TREE U2" is stretched across the top of the black background.Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of U2's fifth album, The Joshua Tree. It has sold over 25 million copies, and it is widely regarded as U2's greatest album and one of the most memorable albums of the rock era, period. For the record (pun intended), I would not rank it as their best album - that spot will likely always belong to Achtung Baby for me - but it is the first non-Greatest Hits U2 album that I owned, and it will always hold a special place in my life.

The Joshua Tree was originally intended to be a double album, and though the efforts to reconstruct the song order as it might have been are certainly interesting for fans like me, I think that there is a beautiful simplicity in the album that was released. There are some arguments to be had about the effectiveness of the latter half of the album (not from my corner, but from some), but the first side of the album is easily among the greatest collection of songs released on one side of a record.

There are documentaries and books written about this album and its effects on music and society at large, not to mention its place within U2's canon, so I do not feel the need to expound any further on its merits here. What I do want to do in honour of the album's anniversary is to discuss some of my thoughts on and experiences with each song over the years. Usually I do a track-by-track analysis on new albums on a first listen through the album, but in this case, my opinions are formed by hundreds - maybe even thousands - of plays of each song.

Side 1


Where the Streets Have No Name - This song might be the single most meaningful song of my life. It was part of my wedding as the recessional - the officiant introduced us during the introduction and we ran down the aisle as Bono crooned "I want to run" - and it is the one song that I already know that I would want at my funeral. I have cried and felt more emotion and sensed the move of the Spirit as a result of this song than any other in my life.

Despite its deep significance in my life, I will admit that it has its flaws - the introduction is maybe too long, the recording levels are too subdued, and there are a couple of quizzical musical choices in the midst of the song - but there's something about the song that transcends its individual parts and that makes it indelibly memorable. In fact, the song was the bane of the band's recording sessions, and it was almost deleted entirely at one point before Brian Eno and The Edge figured out what needed to be done; it has since become one of the band's most definitive tracks.

I have seen it performed all three times I have seen U2 live, but the first time on the Vertigo Tour in 2005 is by far the most memorable version for me. Near the end of the main set, the band started into the introduction, Bono ran around the ring, and African flags streamed down the strings of lights hanging behind the band, as it was in the midst of Bono's attempts to bring attention to the plight of the third world. Bono yelled "AF-RI-CA!" and launched into the opening verse - "I want to run / I want to hide / I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside" - and I cried to those words - not for the last time.


I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For - This is far from U2's only gospel song, but I would argue that it is their best example of the genre both in medium and in message. There is great irony in the fact that it is this particular song that has caused so much concern from Evangelical Christians over the years. I have heard more than one argument pointing to the lyrics of this song as being evidence of the band's abdication of their Christian faith, but it is both an immature and improper reading of the meaning of the song and I would counter that it affirms their faith more than almost any other song in their entire catalog.

"Looking" is about yearning for more of the experience of heaven, about not being satisfied with the imperfect state of things on earth, about pining for justice and equality and love to permeate as much of our existence as we allow it to. But the song is also about the tension between what is and what could be, the now and not yet, the harsh reality of life and the possibility of what could happen if we actually allowed ourselves as humans to experience even the slightest taste of the divine.

The definitive version of this song, in my opinion, came on 1989's Rattle and Hum, in which the band recorded the song live with Harlem gospel choir The New Voices of Freedom, though I have also appreciated the live versions that they have performed with Bruce Springsteen in recent years. I have only seen it performed live once, as the closing song of the opening night of the Innocence + Experience Tour in Vancouver; it was an incredible closer, and that was even before this happened:


With or Without You - This song, perhaps more than any other that the band has written, demonstrates the balance of all four members of the band and the need that they have for one another, both musically and lyrically. Bono is at his most poetic - at least of his early days - in U2's first number one hit, but his contribution does not begin until the track is 28 seconds in; until that point, it is a testament to the faithfulness of Adam Clayton's bass playing, Larry Mullen's perfectly understated percussion, and The Edge's masterful manipulation of the technical elements of the guitar. It is understandably one of the most memorable introductions for each member of the band, and the song is rightfully considered to be one of the more beautiful songs in U2's canon.

"With or Without You" is a troubled love song about the tension that Bono experienced as a family man and a musician, but it is testament to Bono's skills as a lyricist and poet that it can be understood to mean so many more things: a quarrel between lovers, an expression of the tension present in Bono's fractured religious upbringing, or even the conflict between ego and faith in one's self. And like those themes, as well as many other songs from the album, it is not only the lyrics that defy a particular and pointed interpretation, but also the music. The instance near the song's conclusion when Bono intones "Oh-oh-oh-ohhhh" is one of the more transcendent moments in pop music, and it almost always gives me chills, especially when watching a live performance. I have seen the song live twice, though the performance as part of the encore on the 360 Tour stands out to me as particularly exceptional of the two.


Bullet the Blue Sky - U2 has reinvented this song more than any other in their catalog, save perhaps for "Sunday Bloody Sunday", even though it is one of the most overtly directed and political songs in their catalog. Though the lyrics are about the intervention of the U.S. government in the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s, the song has also come to represent criticisms of American foreign policy, the corruption of greed and Wall Street, the negative influence of religion on public policy, and the proliferation of handgun violence in the United States.

"Bullet" was a continuous part of the band's performance catalog for two decades after its release, and they revived it for the Innocence + Experience Tour after allowing to lie fallow for the 360 Tour. I have seen them perform it live twice, and it has been very powerful both times, but the performance that still stands out to me is when the band combined the song with images and sound clips to make a potent statement about the status of gun violence in the US on the Elevation Tour in 2001.


Running to Stand Still - This slower ballad is an intensely personal song both in its subject matter and its delivery, as U2 turns their focus to their home in Dublin and to the heartbreaking trend of heroin addiction that had taken root in the neighbourhood of Ballymun. The brilliance of the song, as with most songs on this album, is that it is also about so much more than that, and I can understand why some people consider this the best song on the album. It is the direct descendant of "Bad" from the band's previous album The Unforgettable Fire, and I was privileged to see the two songs juxtaposed when I saw them perform on the Vertigo Tour.

Side 2


Red Hill Mining Town - This song about the National Miner's Strike of 1984 was intended to be the album's second single, but Bono had trouble consistently hitting the high notes during rehearsals, so it was shelved in favour of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For". It has never been performed live, so it will be exciting to see the band play it on The Joshua Tree 2017 Tour this summer.

Although it is far more pointed in its subject matter than other tracks on the album - perhaps contributing to the relative ignorance this song has endured over the years in comparison to the first five songs - the most memorable moment comes when Bono sings "I'm hanging on / you're all that's left to hold on to / I'm still waiting". It could be about the song's ostensible subject matter, or it could be about enduring through pain and wondering when the divine will appear, and it's that moment in which the song really find its voice.

In God's Country - The album picks up tempo again with a more standard rock tune, one of the more innocuous and non-memorable songs on the album, and one that the band famously struggled to record. It's definitely a pleasant song, and it certainly has some deeper meaning to it, but I find that I often lose it in the midst of the album despite its more poignant moments - "sad eyes, crooked crosses / in God's country". It's not a bad song, by any means; it has just never really done much to imprint itself on me over the years.

Trip Through Your Wires - This is the bluesy harmonica track in the middle of the last half of the album, and I consider it most memorable not for what it is, but for what it represents for U2 - an exploration into different forms of American music. Bono uses vague imagery of deserts and religious figures to seemingly comment on a relationship, but it could be mean so much more. It's another track that I enjoy, but that does not really stand out apart from its context on the album.

One Tree Hill - The best song on Side 2 is also its poppiest and most upbeat, which belies its subject matter: grieving the sudden death of the band's dear Maori friend Greg Carroll. Bono wrote the song after Carroll's funeral, and the band avoided playing the song for much of the Tour for fear that Bono would be too emotional. It is truly a beautiful song that combines beauty and pain and that really gives voice to the experience of grief and how it can affect you. You could argue that this was the moment when Bono and U2 really grew up as a band, and that this is the most mature song they had written to this point in their career. It's a beautiful and mournful song, and I was glad to see that the band brought it back on the 360 Tour, even if it was unexpected and experimental.



Exit - U2 is arguably at its darkest here in this song inspired by Bono reading Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, a novel about famed murderer Gary Gilmore, who was the first person executed after the US reinstated the death penalty. Rather than comment from the outside of the issue, Bono instead chooses to poetically attempt to climb inside the head of a (serial) killer and to identify some of the emotions associated with that state of mind.

As with most songs on the album, "Exit" is more about Bono's attempt to enter an emotional state than it is about a specific situation; the song is about the kinds of dark corners of the human soul, the depths to which we can descend, whether through reason or emotion; and about the way in which people with troubled minds see the world around them. The music grows to a crescendo of intensity along with the lyrics, and by the time "Exit" reaches its conclusion, it feels appropriately cathartic and purgative.

It is a remarkable song on its own, and I would consider it the most memorable song on the second half of the album; it is also sonically different from much of the rest of U2's music, though it is still unmistakably theirs. But what I find particularly intriguing about "Exit" is how it acts as a lyrical and thematic precursor to the band's journey in the 1990s, starting with Achtung Baby, continuing with Zooropa, and ending with Pop. Bono started experimenting with the idea of writing from and performing as different personas - Judas, MacPhisto, the Mirrorball Man, for example - but I don't know if any of that journey would have happened without "Exit", which is, I think, most memorably captured in the movie Rattle and Hum.


Mothers of the Disappeared - After the intensity of "Exit", this final track is a welcome break, even though it is similarly bleak in some ways. The song is a hymn inspired by the plight of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers whose children had "forcibly disappeared" at the hands of dictatorships in Argentina and Chile. It is, like "Running to Stand Still", deliberately understated in its musical composition, which allows the message of the song to come through that much more powerfully in its simplicity.

It is another song inspired by political events in South America - the third of the album after "Bullet the Blue Sky" and a brief reference to Chilean poet Victor Jara in "One Tree Hill" - and it is clear evidence that Bono's increasing consciousness of global affairs inevitably affected U2's trajectory. "Mothers" is another heartbreakingly beautiful song, and it perfectly captures the feel of the rest of the album.

Bonus! Sweetest Thing - The single from The Best of 1980-1990 was a track that was initially cut from The Joshua Tree, but I wanted to include it here anyway. It was one of the first U2 songs that I noticed, and it still holds up twenty (and thirty) years later. It is a somewhat saccharine pop apology to his wife for spending her birthday in the recording studio, but what saves it is that Bono is actually sweet in his lyrics and vocal delivery.

It is, by the way, the all-time lost opportunity in Weird Al parodies; not only does the song "Swedish Thing" about constructing IKEA furniture basically write itself, but U2's video is incredibly lampoonable and would have made for a great spoof. Al had parodied "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" for his previous album, so my guess is that he had the idea and chose not to pursue it.


Conclusion


The Joshua Tree is a musical and poetic masterpiece, and there are few albums that have the kind of lasting resonance that it has had in thirty years. It has held up incredibly well, and it is still as meaningful as it was when it was released, which might explain why U2 is devoting a tour this year to reviving its contents in their entirety for the first time. The band has indicated that they will be performing every track from the album in every show, though they will be presented in a creative order, along with the possibility of some b-sides and rarities from the era.

I am not at this point planning to make it to one of the shows on The Joshua Tree Tour this summer - though I have been surprised by late opportunities to attend U2 concerts in the past - but I am nevertheless glad to see the band reviving the material as a whole. Many of these songs have weaved their way in and out of the band's performance routine over the years, but it is going to be incredibly special to see what they do with it now.

The fact that I could write this much on the album and still feel like there is more to say is perhaps the greatest testament to its brilliance and endurance. It is intimate and expansive; lonely and lovely; full of beauty and pain and ugliness and hope and faith and love and dreams and life. There are few albums in my life that I can say have had such a profound effect on me that I know will continue to have as profound an effect on the rest of my life.

So whether you're like me and you have listened to the album hundreds of times, or whether you are rediscovering it for the first time, take the time in the near future to visit The Joshua Tree as an album. Find somewhere comfortable, curl up with a hot cup of tea, and allow the sonic and lyrical landscapes to engulf you as you journey with Bono, The Edge, Adam, and Larry to those places to which the album takes you, whether those are the inspirations of America, Ireland, El Salvador, New Zealand, and Chile or the emotional refuges of your psyche. Give it your full attention and listen to its richness and its sparseness, its intensity and its frailty, its beauty and its pain. Hear its heartbeat. Hear its heartbeat.

Monday, March 06, 2017

LENT 2017: Introduction

Last week marked the beginning of Lent, the season in the church calendar that precedes Easter by six and a half weeks (forty days plus Sundays). Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday came and went, and many people started their various observances of the season. The modern tradition in many branches of Christianity is to encourage us to give up something for Lent as a penitential practice to help us focus on God and to understand the reality of Jesus' final time on earth, his death, and his resurrection. I have often observed it myself by giving up something I enjoy like video games or thrift shopping, but this year is different, as I have felt completely unprepared for this Lenten season.

I actually felt surprised by Lent this year, which does not happen often; I knew it was coming on the calendar, but it still caught me off-guard somehow. I did not grow up in a church tradition that observed the liturgical calendar, so it was not until my early twenties that I started to be aware of the rhythms of the different seasons that are observed in many Christian traditions; I have, however, been observing Lent in some way personally for well over a decade, so it should not have come as a surprise to me - yet it did.

In some years, it's really obvious what I have needed to give up for Lent, but this year it has been unclear. It's not as though I could not benefit from leaving a few habits behind for a month and a half, but more that almost anything I have thought of giving up seems to be too superficial. I do recognize the irony therein - after all, Lent is intended to be a period of introspection and self-evaluation of what is important in life - but I decided that I did not want to give something up for the sake of giving something up; I wanted Lent to mean something more this year.

I started to wonder if this year my Lenten practice might be different from the norm - that this season might not be about giving up something, but about taking up something, kind of like New Year's Resolutions. I was thinking about this shift even before I realized the actual timing of the beginning of Lent this year: March 1. I am, after all, of the belief that our new year should really start at the beginning of March rather than on January 1.

I find too often that our New Year's Resolutions get lost in the darkness of winter and the post-Christmas credit crunch, and that delaying those self-evaluations by just two months might make a lot of difference to their relative success. By March, the world is lighter, there is new hope for the year, and enough time has lapsed since the failures of the original resolutions that most people should be able to regroup and start afresh with new revisions of those aspirations.

So Lent this year is going to look a little different for me and it's going to be more intangible than giving up a food or a hobby. I am viewing this year as a chance to go through my personal dreams and goals, and to work through some things that I have been pondering for years. I imagine that I might have to give up some things that I have held onto for a long time, but this year, my "Lent" is about "Life: Exploring New Transitions" (I do like my forcedly constructed acronyms, after all).

Life goals


It's strange that in the past few weeks I have been encountering the idea of "life goals". I had already been thinking about the idea in recent months, but I have had a few interactions in which the concept has been raised without my nudging, like when I watched La La Land. Then, over this past weekend, a friend with whom I had not corresponded in years sent me an unsolicited link to his blog in which he wrote an entire post about life goals and finishing things; it seemed oddly timely and appropriate, particularly in light of thinking about writing this post.

Some people have the problem of not having any goals; my problem is the inverse -  I have too many goals, and part of the problem is that they have been very scattered over the years. They have been expressed in various blog posts and conversations and lists and social media accounts, so the first step I decided to undergo was to attempt to collate all of those various goals, dreams, visions, missions, passions, and lists into one master list. My goal, then, for the first quarter of this year was merely to make a list of all of those goals, no matter how meaningless or mundane they seemed. Then - and only then - could I start sorting through and evaluating those lists for their viability.

Some of those lists are, of course, more trivial - books to read, movies or TV shows to watch, video or board games to play - whereas some have been much more significant - life goals, financial targets, family ideas, and the like. Some are things that I want to do once - "bucket lists", as it were, rather than "life goals", but some are deep life changes that I want to make to the character and substance of who I am and will be.

As I underwent this process of collecting all of these various items and putting them in one place, I realized that the last time that I had gone through an endeavour like this in my own life - at least one for which I wrote anything down - was five years ago. I did a bit of processing on some of the more mundane pieces of this list back in October 2015 when I wrote about the projects that I wanted to finish - some of which I have actually done in the past year and a half - but the last time I really spent time on the wider level was back in February 2012.

Five years later...


It was interesting as I looked at that list to see what had changed in those five years since I last evaluated my life goals. I was initially disappointed to see that there were really only three of the dozen or so various life goals that I had listed at that time that I have actually completed - church leadership, directing a summer camp, and moving to Saskatchewan. There were one or two more goals listed that I have since dismissed or that seem more like faint possibilities or past hopes rather than actual goals that are still in effect, but much of my list remains the same as it did then.

There are some goals that I have found quite disappointing to have not yet accomplished: having debt paid off; having a stable teaching job; being ready to buy a house. It was more than a little disheartening to discover that not only have I not made much progression on some of those goals, but that there are some that I do not seem to be anywhere near completion. At the same time, I have also considered what I have accomplished in that time, and I cannot be disappointed in what I have done in that period, even though it was not what I might have initially expected or wanted.

Regardless of what I have or have not managed to do over those years, I quickly came to the realization that I needed to start drafting a new list of life goals based on who I am now, so I started to create a new document of life goals and dreams that encompasses all kinds of ideas, hopes, dreams and goals: big life ideas; prophetic statements that have been spoken over me over the years; hopes for home and family; concert bucket lists; places to travel; and even pop culture and media to consume.

As I began to compose this new master list, I started to realize that the net I have been casting over those years is kind of overwhelming. I have maintained fairly meticulous lists over the years, particularly in my media consumption, but every so often I would realize that there was another document or site that I had forgotten about that needed to be added to my master list(s). I got stuck in the minutiae of my lists, and I had to leave the process behind for a couple of weeks. Nevertheless, it continued to subsist in the back of my mind, which led to this particular manifestation of my process and its combination with my observance of Lent.

I realized then that I needed to adjust my filter and to work at the problem from both sides: though I needed to continue working on that level of collecting various lists and goals, I also needed to prepare for the evaluation process and to look at the filters of the bigger picture, which led me to the conclusion that this journey was not as much about being bogged down with details of the minutiae of those lists, but more about asking the bigger questions about vision and direction in life, which led me back to my journey of vocation.

On Vocation


I have written several times before about my thoughts on vocation, and in particular of my "tri-vocation" of communications (which includes writing, journalism, and pop culture consumption), education, and ministry. There are posts peppered throughout my history in which I have written about those areas either in isolation or as a unit, but I have not spent much time recently delving into this kind of vocational self-evaluation in recent memory - especially as an entire picture.

So the first step of my Lenten journey this year is to take some time and to evaluate each of those three areas in quick succession with the goal of achieving some sense of the wider picture. My hope is that, by intentionally reflecting on these areas close to one another, I may have some insights into some of my overall goals and direction in life.

I have decided, however, that there is one more area that was not present five years ago that I need to include along with these three vocational bastions: board games and game design. I was a nascent gamer back in 2012, and it was shortly after evaluating my life goals in that document that I had the idea for my first game; it is obviously a much more important area to me now. It's not necessarily at the point of "vocation" yet in my life, but it's certainly a field that has become present and prominent enough in my life to warrant some self-examination in this context.

It is admittedly a little odd that I feel as though I have to resort to preparing these things for public consumption in order to process them, but that has almost always been my M.O. in these kinds of pursuits. I think there is a real value in having to prepare these kinds of thoughts for an audience, as it gives me an external reason to collect my wonderings as well as a different register of language with which to communicate them not only to others but also to myself.

To be honest, I'm not quite sure what is going to come out of this journey over the next few weeks. I have some notion of a few things that might arise based on the thoughts that I have had over the past few months, but I suspect that there will be a number of unexpected developments that emerge as a result of these personal investigations. I'm looking forward to the clarity that I hope to gain out of this process, and I hope that my journey will be illustrative for others who are on their own Lenten and vocational journeys, whatever they may be.

Friday, March 03, 2017

The Wonder of Hyrule

Today marks the release of the new game in The Legend of Zelda series, Breath of the Wild. Though I will not be able to play the game today I am very excited to try it out soon, especially because it has been receiving incredibly high scores from reviewers. I, like most fans of the franchise, have been eagerly anticipating a new full game in the series for the five years since the release of Skyward Sword for the Wii.

Sure, there have been several remakes and rereleases, along with a new portable 2D Zelda back in 2013, but it has been a lean few years for fans of the franchise. This has happened before, however, and each time fans have been rewarded with a game that pushed the limits of what they had previously thought was possible from the series.

As I have been thinking about the possibilities of BotW, I have also been thinking about the nature of the series. I am far from the first to write on the subject, as there are books discussing the intersection of the series with Theology and Philosophy. I was slightly surprised, however, to discover how little scholarship the series had evoked considering how wide its impact is considered to be, but, then again, the world of video game academia is still relatively nascent. I'm not sure that I will help solve that shortcoming at this point, but I did want to provide some of my thoughts on the series.

I have had a post like this percolating since the series started celebrating its thirtieth anniversary last year, so I figured that it was time to write a more definitive post on my thoughts on the series. The only other post I could find that I have devoted to the series was this oddity from December 2009, although I did write a similar post last fall about the Metroid series for its thirtieth anniversary back in September. So, to celebrate the release of Breath of the Wild, I decided to spend some time thinking about why I think The Legend of Zelda series is so great, to identify my personal connection to the series, and, of course, ranking the games in the series.

What's so great about Zelda?


The Legend of Zelda is among the most consistently highly-rated video game franchises, and the very title is associated with a very high level of quality. There are many reasons that could be identified as to why the series has had such success, including the gameplay, graphics, narrative, and more, but I think that there are three that stand out above the rest as an answer as to why Zelda games have been so great: the wonder of exploration; the familiarity of Hyrule; and the incorporation of ingenuity.

Many of my cherished memories of the series involve a sense of wonder in the exploration of new areas of Hyrule. Even though the games have been criticized over the years for becoming increasingly linear and predetermined, there is still a sense of awe at the revelation of a new area of the world. That awe is often empowered by the visuals of the game, though even the older games in the series like Ocarina of Time retain a sense of wonder now despite their technological inferiority. The sense of wonder is more about the open nature of the game and the possibilities that these new lands might hold.

I think the Zelda series also works well is that it has a sense of familiarity and referentiality to it. Each new edition feels as though it is building on a previous iteration of the series in a way that is familiar to the player, though in a fresh and expansive manner that allows the player to feel like it is a new experience. It has been argued that the series has become too formulaic with its progression of early game, boss fight, entry into a second world, dungeons, and then final boss fight, and there is some merit to that argument; that said, I think the recognizable pattern is mostly a positive for the series. I appreciate the comfort of having some sense of my surroundings, and I enjoy being able to explore a world that is both familiar and fresh at the same time.

I will state, however, that this familiarity has resulted in attempts to create a consistent timeline out of the byzantine chronology of a series of games that was more about evoking an idea than about crafting a clear progression of events. This attempt to resolve the timelines has created some awkward solutions, and I think it is ultimately not the point of the entire series. I understand that connecting all of these games makes the entire The Legend of Zelda feel more epic, and I do enjoy the labyrinthine fanboy obsessions with trying to figure it out, but there is a cynical part of me that maintains that the entire timeline is an exercise in futility; just enjoy the games for what they are, not for what they might represent in the history of Hyrule.

The Zelda series also incorporates a sense of ingenuity in a way that it seems that few other games do, whether that's in the items that are included, the puzzles that are presented, or the relationships of the characters. It seems as though each game incorporates one or two new elements that revolutionize the game in some way, usually in the form of new items that Link finds along his journey. Several of the games feature an innovative hook, like Link being able to shrink or turning into a wolf or flying through the sky or becoming a painting on the wall, but there is always something that makes a new Zelda game interesting. It's a thinking game more than it is a combat game, and I think the fact that brains are required more than brawn is part of what makes Zelda great.

Memories of Hyrule


I have a lot of vivid memories tied up in experiences playing games in the series; in fact, I can recall most of the circumstances in which I played each game. I played through the original NES classic with my dad when I was about seven years old; we spent months meticulously exploring every square inch of that game and graphing it out on maps that I still have to this day. A Link to the Past was one of the first games that I was able to explore on my own, and I remember the wonder at the first time that I beat the first big boss and was instantly warped to the Dark World; at that point, it was a shocking surprise, since it had not been done before.

I remember eagerly anticipating the release of Ocarina of Time for the N64, the first 3D entry in the series; when I was fifteen years old, I spent the first weekend my parents left me at home alone exploring Hyrule and only making it through the first third of the game. I remember replaying the game six years later while I was taking a summer class at university - my attendance thereof may have waned as a result of my ventures into Hyrule - and then replaying the Master Quest another six years after that. I have been continually frustrated by its sequel, Majora's Mask, and despite starting the game several times, I have never finished it - although I am really skilled at the first third of the game.

The Wind Waker was a wonderful escape during my teaching internship. Twilight Princess was a fun experience to share with my wife shortly after we were married. I played Phantom Hourglass during our summer in Taipei. I was sick for most of the holidays at Christmas 2011 when I played through most of Skyward Sword. And, more recently, A Link Between Worlds was a welcome distraction when I was dealing with the impending loss of a good friend to cancer. The Legend of Zelda has always provided a world into which I could escape, and it has provided me with great joy throughout my life to have played these games.

I thought I should also include a few notes on my thoughts on the spiritual nature of the series here. The games are set in a fantasy realm in which magic and monsters are present, and I have had to reconcile my Evangelical Christian worldview with those elements. I went through a time in which I got rid of the Zelda titles I owned due to a perceived conflict between the games and my beliefs, but I eventually returned to the world of pop culture (and my senses) and I decided at that point that I was okay with the way in which The Legend of Zelda incorporates those potentially problematic elements.

I will admit that there are times at which the series seems a little dark and uses imagery and gameplay mechanics that are of concern, but I also think that I (along with many other gamers) are mature enough to decide what's really problematic and what is not. For me, I ultimately decided that the fantastical nature of the games was not worrisome enough to warrant more significant concern.


Ranking the Zelda games


When I wrote that post seven years ago, I mentioned that I had considered ranking the Zelda games, but that it felt like a "fruitless pursuit" because all the games were "so good". I decided this time around to take up the challenge despite the possible difficulties in doing so; I ended up being satisfied with my list, but there were three titles in particular that provided me a little extra challenge in their relative placements.

Ultimately, with my rankings, I ended up attempting to resolve the question "if I could only play one Zelda game (again), which would it be?" The more likely I was to want to replay a title, the higher it ranked on my list, regardless of the fond memories I may have had from when I played it at an earlier point in my life.

I have omitted the non-canonical CD-i titles Faces of Evil, Wand of Gamelon, and Zelda's Adventure, as well as spin-off games like Link's Crossbow Training. Otherwise, all main games in the series are included below with a brief commentary on each one.

Not Played: Four Swords (GBA, 2002) and Tri Force Heroes (3DS, 2015) - These titles were both portable multi-player titles that are considered to be in the main series but the gameplay of which seems gimmicky and does not really match the rest of the series. I doubt I will ever play either of these games, and I would not be surprised to see them rank at the bottom even if I were to make my way through them.

Honourable Mention: Hyrule Warriors (Wii U, 2014) - While this is technically a spin-off game, it feels like it should be considered a main title in the series. It has a fascinating story line, great characters, and a lot of replay value. Its hack-and-slash format was a little off-putting as a result of the thankless grinding that was required to progress through the game, but I still ended up playing 264 hours of the game (mostly with my wife), which exceeds all other games on this list except for one. I just hope that they find a better balance for rewards in the inevitable sequel.

15. Four Swords Adventures (GC, 2004) - This game is more of a spin-off than a main series title in many ways, as the gimmicky core idea - controlling four Links at once in a level-based non-combat progression of puzzles - seemed more like it was developed independently of the series and then placed into the Zelda universe. It was fun to play through once, but I cannot see that I would ever feel the need to play it again.

14. Phantom Hourglass (DS, 2007) - The first Zelda game to use the dual screen and the stylus was interesting, but it felt a little methodical, as well as being very frustrating in the need to constantly repeat the main temple. I lost interest on the fourth or fifth time through the Temple of the Ocean King, and I just never returned to it.

13. The Adventure of Link (NES, 1988) - I know some people are apologists for this game, with its experience points, side-scrolling action, magic meter, exploration, and higher level of difficulty. I played through most of it once, and although I would probably play it again, it's easily near the bottom of the list, even though it has some of the better music of the series and the classic line "I am Error".

12. Spirit Tracks (DS, 2009) - The sequel to Phantom Hourglass improved a lot on its predecessor in many ways and it included a neat innovation in which the player could control a Phantom - not to mention Link driving a train. Despite the fun new wrinkles to the series, I did not finish this game, either, but I ranked it higher than Hourglass because I got distracted from finishing this game rather than frustrated by it.

11. Oracle of Ages / Oracle of Seasons (GBC, 2001) - I combined the two sister titles here since they use the same game engine and they were intended to work together. I played through most of Ages a couple of years ago, and I have yet to play through Seasons, but I am confident that this is the right zone for them to fit in the rankings. I enjoyed them (so far) about the same as Link's Awakening, so the fact that I have played through Awakening twice was what clinched their relative rankings.

10. Link's Awakening (GB, 1993 / DX GBC, 1998) - Awakening is a master study in maximizing the potential of minimalist hardware, as it provided a surprisingly expansive universe despite the limitations of the original Game Boy. I wanted to rank this higher, but all of the other games in the series are so good - especially the portable ones - that it ended up at the bottom of the top ten, despite the fact that the Wind Fish was super cool.

9. The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1987) - This was one of the three iterations that was hardest to rank, as I had originally ranked this game higher until I realized that I have not replayed it in many years and I probably would not do so anytime soon. It is still, of course, a landmark game, and one of the all-time classics, but this is about where it sits for me: ahead of most of the portable titles I did not finish and behind most of the console adventures that succeeded it.

8. Minish Cap (GBA, 2004) - Cap might be the most underrated Zelda game. It has an interesting core concept - Link can shrink down and interact with a tiny world that would otherwise be hidden to him - in addition to a great sense of humour and some genuinely challenging puzzles. There could have been more combat, and at times it felt a little too directed, but it was generally a really fun portable Zelda game.

7. Skyward Sword (Wii, 2011) - This title was also difficult to place on this list primarily due to its internal issues. While there are some very frustrating elements about this game, including Fi's constant interruptions, the overly hand-holding overly linear nature of the narrative, the incorporation of niggling trials that had to be passed to proceed in the game, and the monotony of repeated fights with The Imprisoned, the game was also breath-taking and incredibly fun and presented a number of really innovative narrative developments and unique puzzles (the desert, in particular). The use of motion control for the sword was inspired, and the overall story and game progression was satisfying despite the game's faults, so this spot - just outside the top five, but firmly in the top ten - seems just right.

6. Majora's Mask (N64, 2000) - This was easily the most difficult game to place on this list. I have started and stuttered with this game more than any other title I have ever played. It has been on my list to play since it was released, but I have never seen it through to the end. I would imagine that I would rank it more highly were I to actually play the game through to its conclusion, but I have to place it here for now. The game's idea and design are fascinating, the characters are arguably the richest in the series, and the parts of the game I have played have been captivating. I just need to make sure I don't take a break next time so that I can play it all the way through for once.

5. A Link Between Worlds (3DS, 2013) - Worlds was a refreshing reminder of days gone by, as this spiritual sequel to A Link to the Past returned to that 2D world in a fun way. It was one of the more colourful Zelda titles in memory, and its more open world meant that it was much less linear than other Zelda games. The game was a little on the easy side, but it was so much fun to play that I can overlook that shortcoming; besides, I can always play it again on hard mode to increase the challenge.

4. Wind Waker (GC, 2003 / HD Wii U, 2013) - Wind Waker marked a huge departure for the series, as it not only did away with the land of Hyrule, instead taking place in a world of oceans and islands, but it replaced the entire art style of the previous games with a new cartoony look. Wind Waker is an incredibly fun game, and I think it was my favourite to explore, even though it took so long to sail those seas; at least the Wii U version provided a Swift Sail to cut that time down. I started to replay it a couple of years ago, but I got distracted, so I am still looking forward to replaying this modern classic.

3. Twilight Princess (GC/Wii, 2006 / HD Wii U, 2015) - Princess has the best story and characters of any Zelda game other than Ocarina of Time, and I think it is the most visually striking game to date (including Skyward Sword). It is the darkest game in the timeline, but it has a gravitas and a sensibility that is out of character for the series - though it was welcome. There are criticisms to be had of the game, particularly in how linear it is at points and in some of the trials, but I think the overall game holds up incredibly well.

2. A Link To The Past (SNES, 1991) - I do not think I can overstate the effect that this game had on me in my tween years. This is the game that affirmed my love of the series, and I still enjoy it to this day. There are few 16-bit titles that are better than LTTP at what it does, and I think that games are still trying to catch up to it over twenty-five years later. This was still one of my favourite games to play as a completionist, as there were so many little easter eggs and hidden treasures to find, all of which I did without the help of the internet or a player's guide.

1. Ocarina of Time (N64, 1998) - No surprises here, as I would be far from the only fan to rank this game most highly in the series. I have played it through several times, and I have loved it every time. Re-entering this vision of Hyrule is like rewatching an old television series; even though you know how it's going to go and what's going to happen, you enjoy the journey anyway. This game set the template for all of the Zelda games - and arguably most open-world exploration games, period - and I still do not think that any titles have matched either its impact or its ability. I think I might actually almost be due for another play through, but I think it will have to wait until after I finally finish Majora's Mask.

Conclusion


It is clear to me from the fond feelings I have experienced in writing this post that I really have enjoyed my time playing the various games in The Legend of Zelda series. As I reflected on the place that the series has had in my life, however, I was surprised my two things most of all. First, I was surprised at how many games in the series I have left incomplete; in any other case, that might indicate a lack of interest in the games, but I feel as though it is more indicative of my video gaming habits and divided attention among media overall than it is a slight on the series. (I have left other similar games like the Metroid Prime series unfinished despite my significant enjoyment therein, so there are other examples that help confirm this thesis.)

Second, I was slightly surprised at just how meaningful the entire Zelda experience really has been to me, even though it is challenging to pinpoint exactly why I have such fond memories of these games. I can see the factors I mentioned earlier - the sense of wonder, the familiarity, and the ingeniuity - peppered throughout my experiences of playing through each game, but there is something more to why I am so endeared to the series as a whole.

There is something about The Legend of Zelda beyond my appreciation of those factors and the enjoyment of those games that has resonated with me on an unexpectedly deep level, and even after spending the time reflecting on the almost three decades I have spent with the series, I find it difficult to identify just why it really matters to me - especially since I'm not a huge fan of fantasy fiction.

I think that if I had to attempt to express it in one quality that draws me in more than any other, it's that sense of awe and curiosity in exploring new worlds as a child. I first starting exploring Hyrule when I was young, and each game has hearkened back to that initial feeling; Ocarina of Time (and later Wind Waker and others in the series) emulated this directly by having the main character be a child to start the game. There is an innocence and impending adventure and wide-eyed bewilderment that is present throughout the series, and I love that I get to have that experience every time I re-enter Hyrule.

That, ultimately, is perhaps one of my favourite features of the series: I can always enjoy the adventure again from the beginning, meaning that I can "link" up with my own memories as a fan. I can share those experiences, old and new, with friends who have similar feelings toward the franchise (including one friend who is a superfan who named his son after the Hero of Time).

I do think that it is somewhat strange, however, that my love of The Legend of Zelda has not transferred to other similar franchises - whether in content or style - and that there are no other fantasy games that I have picked up over the years. I did not get into Skyrim or Fire Emblem or Shadow of the Colossus, and I have not played other similarly-themed games like Final Fantasy. Perhaps the itch that I have for these kinds of epic fantastical games is scratched by my time in Hyrule, but whatever the reason, the lack of a transfer to other games intrigues me.

It has been a few years since I have lost myself in a journey in The Legend of Zelda, but writing this post has made me think that it might be time to lose myself in Hyrule again. I may have to wait to play Breath of the Wild, but I have enough other ways to enter that realm in the meantime, including, apparently, some unfinished business to which I should attend, if you'll excuuuuuuuuuuuse me, princess.

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