Our Bitter Struggle

The day was cool and overcast—not exactly ideal Sunday weather, but good enough if the only ambitions of the day were to sleep. Trying to feel at least somewhat productive, I gathered my computer and a glass of sweet tea and sat down on the sofa to hammer out a few words on a topic as yet undetermined.

After a minute or two of watching the cursor slowly blink on an empty page, I began to feel as though a pair of eyes were upon me. Looking around the room, my gaze fell upon the house’s resident cat. Her body draped with languid dignity across the mantlepiece as cats are wont to do when they feel that they own the world (note: this dignity is present at all times other than when they want food or to be let outside—in which case this façade is quickly lost with hysteric abandon). She looked on me from her lofty throne, eyes quickly communicating her sense of feline superiority and control. Now I have been told, both by Jim Davis and others, that to look away from a cat after making eye contact is a sign of weakness and inferiority. As such, I immediately knew that my sworn duty was to make sure this cat understood her proper place in the universe, and with quick abandonment of my writing project I began to engage in a contest of mortal staring.

I’m not heavy into pet psychology, but assuming that animal psychiatrists are on to something has always made the games more fun. One such study found that if you blink at a cat while maintaining eye contact, a message of ‘friendly’ superiority is communicated as opposed to a hostile one. Now, as much as the fate of the world hung in the balance due to our great struggle, my streak of ‘benevolent-dictator’ had no desire to rub my obvious superiority in her face, and so frequent attempts to ‘blink’ at my opponent were made to little obvious effect.

Steely gaze met steely gaze as the cat and I maintained unbroken eye contact for quite a while, each waiting to see who would crack first. However, after much staring that quickly grew quite embarrassing due to its duration, she glanced away. VICTORY! Turning back the computer screen I realized that she had just given me something to put down on my empty page; but, before even pressing the first keystroke, I felt her gaze upon me again. Realizing that capitulation to her war of attrition at any point would mean ultimate defeat, I hardened my resolve to see this ongoing fight to the bitter end. After many reiterations of the war and victory cycle, hopes were high in the human camp that final victory was just around the corner. However, just as ultimate conquest seemed within reach, my opponent rose gracefully and moved to lie down in a less combative part of the room, leaving our epic struggle with such a carefree air as to say, “I am tired of your stupid antics human, and this game ceases to amuse me, so see you after my nap.”

Despite this small setback, the war is not over. Mankind must triumph! For now, however, I content myself to fill out this page and await the hour when her contented snoring ceases and her eyes open, and then we shall once again engage in bitter combat for the fate of the living room.

Jim Davis
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Review: Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Riding on the waves of good sentiment from the original Lego Movie that surprised me (and most people?) with how awesome it was, Lego Movie 2, five years later, seems late to the party. In the intervening years, Chris Pratt, who voices the main character, Emmet, has gone from being a likeable but relatively unknown actor (Parks and Recreation) to being a cinematic superstar in such films as Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World, Passengers, and more. With the time gap, can the filmmakers recapture the lighthearted wit of the original? The answer is no, but that is okay.

In parallel with real-world time, the sequel begins five years after the events of the first film–in a post-apocalyptic world channeling vibes from Mad Max: Fury Road. This world, as the film quickly establishes, is the fallout caused by the Lego-obsessed boy’s sister (mentioned at the end of the first film) being allowed to play with her brother’s Lego creations. Can the main characters survive in this post-apocalyptic wasteland? To find out, watch the movie. Or read on, to decide if that’s something worth doing.

If Lego Movie surprised us with its freshness, wit, and cultural commentary (provided by such catchy/banal songs as “Everything is Awesome”), the sequel is surprising in some of the new elements it brings to the mix–a musical vibe, and a tone that is thematically darker in places. Lego Movie 2 is not a clone of the original, and this is both a liability and an asset.

It is a liability because some of the characters in this film feel transparent. The original film hides the metaphorical (?) story of the father-son relationship until the last third of the film, giving the Lego characters space to breathe and become real to the audience, before revealing the meta-story. Because the curtain has been pulled back already, however, Lego Movie 2 has a transparency that makes certain characters feel simpler. For instance, you might think, This character is only saying this because that’s what the sister is trying to communicate to her brother. It robs the audience of an emotional connection with some of the characters, because we feel they are marionettes for the larger meta-story.

However, the distinctiveness of Lego Movie 2 is an asset in other ways. It is not the same story as the first film, and that is okay. While not as strong as the first film, it tells a familiar but original story that, instead of recycling the popular parts from film 1, takes a different direction, revealing new dimensions to each of the characters. As a film, it stands on its own legs, which is respectable, even if the legs aren’t quite as swole as the first film’s.

All in all, Lego Movie 2: The Second Part was an amusing, lighthearted way to spend a Saturday evening. Would I recommend most people wait for the subsequent release to Redbox or Netflix to watch it? Probably. But, for those who enjoyed its predecessor, is it worth seeing this installment? Absolutely.

And Another Reason Why English Is Hard…

English really is quite a difficult language
Being hard to speak, and even harder to spell.
Consider, for example, the following verbiage,
And stress one word, with unique connotation:

“I never said she stole my money.” – A blanket, bland statement
I never said she stole my money.” – There was another accuser.
“I never said she stole my money.” – You’d never make that pronouncement.
“I never said she stole my money.” – Oh, but you heavily implied.

“I never said she stole my money.” – This woman has been framed.
“I never said she stole my money.” – She got to it by other means.
“I never said she stole my money.” – There are other victims to be named.
“I never said she stole my money.” – But perhaps she’s stolen your heart?

A Dash of Grammar

I was banging my head against the figurative wall of writer’s block as I became more and more frantic for a spark of inspiration for today’s post—when it suddenly hit me.  Why not conquer two birds with one stone?  1) Satisfy my grammar-loving curiosity by looking up an answer to a punctuation question that I’ve been meaning to investigate for some time and 2) share my new knowledge with my dear readers.

The hyphen (-), the en dash (–), and the em dash (—).  You may not have realized this nuance existed, but there really are three versions of the “dash,” and these punctuation marks have their own sets of distinct rules.  While they all connect words and ideas, they do so to different extents that in some ways relate to their lengths.

Hugging Hyphens

The hyphen is meant to connect extremely close ideas, often compound words (daughter-in-law, user-friendly, etc.).  As an article on The Chicago Manual of Style Online explains, “The hyphen connects two things that are intimately related.”  This little line performs an extremely powerful function in language because people can use it to combine several words in order to create an entirely new word.  Hyphen originally came from Greek words meaning one, together, and in one.

Going the Distance with En Dash

Like the hyphen, the en dash connects ideas, but these connections are usually related to distance, either in time or space.  Here are two examples: “From September–May, most children are in school” and “I have to read chapters 23–30 by next week.”  The en dash functions where the word “through” would normally function when describing a range.  An interesting rule regarding the en dash is that they are meant to be used when connecting “a prefix to a proper open compound: for example, pre–World War II” (“Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes”).  The origin of en dash is that the dash was the width of an N in printing.

Breaking and Filling with Em Dash

em dash examplesLike parentheses and commas, the em dash indicate a break in thought and is used when adding a side-note or additional thought to a sentence, as I used in my opening sentence for this post.  In my experience, the closeness of the idea determines whether you should use a comma, em dash, or parenthesis to set off the extra information or to indicate a disrupted thought.  The closest ideas work best set off by commas, while very tangential ideas should be enclosed in parentheses, with the em dash falling somewhere in the middle.  Another function of the em dash is to indicate that something is missing.  An unfinished bit of dialogue might end with an em dash (e.g., “What is that—!”), and it can also serve as a placeholder for curse words, for people’s names (think Austenian novels), and more.  Like the origin of en dash, the term em dash comes from the fact that the dash was the length of an M in printing.

Now, next time you want to invent a new word, describe a range in time or space, or build suspense as your reader wonders whether your character has just been eaten, you will have just the right tools to accomplish your task.


Works Cited

“Em dash.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.  2011.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash

“En dash.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.  2011.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash

“Hyphens.”  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.  2011.   Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash

“Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes.”  The Chicago Manual of Style Online,            www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/HyphensEnDashesEmDashes/faq0002.html

Parable

Warm lights and soft smiles waltz in these halls tonight,

Remembering the ghosts of revelers past:

Dim figures who embrace each other

Tightly, lightly, as they circle spritely,

Spin, and flash in pairs.


A melancholy settles like a fine dust

On the finery fading year after year

And moments not recalled, yet embalmed

In reels found, unwound, filled with sounds

Of mirth, and wit wasted.


The dancers’ presence lights up the vibrant hall,

With merriment and movement free of memory,

Technicolor dreamers, sad for those

Who depart, dart, straight to our hearts, yet

Laughing since they lived, and will again.

Queen Spider: An Apocryphal Anecdote

‘Tis said that her majesty Queen Elizabeth I of England was taking a stroll in the garden, accompanied by her chief advisers. As they often did, these men were urging her majesty to wed. The Queen merely brushed off their concerns like flies. At length, one of the men demanded of her outright:

“But why will her majesty not marry?  Surely a husband would be of great use to her majesty.”

Elizabeth walked a few more paces, then stopped near the branches of a small tree. She gestured to two thin twigs. Woven between them was a large web, in the middle of which sat a huge spider.

“How many spiders do you see on this web?”  she asked.

“Only one,” replied the advisers, puzzled.

“I am like this spider,” said the Queen. “As she rests in the center of her kingdom, perfectly capable of snaring her own prey and feeding herself, so am I. See how she dexterously maneuvers herself from one thread to another; a mate would only get in her way.”

One of the advisers spoke up: “And yet, your majesty, the spider needs that mate to produce offspring.”

“True,” said Elizabeth, “and when he has fulfilled his part, the female spider will entrap and eat him, as if he were no more than the customary fly. I would not wish such a fate on any man.”  Then, smiling, she calmly took her leave of her councilmen, whom afterward never did press the issue of marriage quite so enthusiastically.

Goodbye & Hello

 

Pen poised over paper,

I hesitate.

About to begin

No—wait!

Oops.  Too late.

Cross that out.

Let’s start again.

 

Hello, old friend.

How have you been?

I saw you just yesterday,

But you look so different

Today.  And who is this?

Oh, your sister?

I don’t believe we’ve met.

 

Hello, how nice to meet you.

(Maybe we can be friends,

But time will tell).

What’s your name?

“Two Thousand Nineteen.”

(Well…that’s unique.)

What an interesting name!

 

You know them too?

Oh, that’s so neat!

And her and him?

What a small world.

Do you have any other siblings?

Several thousand?  Well.  That’s a lot.

I have only three.

 

I need to go, but nice to meet you.

Oh, yes, I know.

Another time…

Oh, no.

Not again.

Wait!  What’s your name?

Too late.

 

Pen over paper

Begins to scrawl.

I think on old friends.

No!  Wrong again.

Ugh.  How frustrating.

Another paper and 364 more days

To get this right.

 

Goodbye, old friend.

Hello, new stranger.

You may have to tell me your name

A few times more.

But I will get it right.

Eventually.  With perhaps

A few relapses.

The Condescension of God

One does not have to look far during the Christmas season to find images of Christ’s birth: an idyllic scene full of hay, a smiling Mary and Joseph, three wise men with gifts, and friendly looking animals, all surrounding a peacefully sleeping Jesus. This is an amazing image: a king, not coming in power and with a sword, but in abject poverty and humility.

At the core of Christmas we celebrate the great condescension of God himself. As Paul states in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” and again in Philippians 2:6b-8, “Though he [Christ] was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” The classic manger scene is a beautiful picture of the humiliation and hope of Christ’s life intertwined: the suffering and death and, ultimately, resurrection in victory.

Whenever reading the account of our Lord’s birth today, let us do so in the context of what a recently imprisoned Chinese pastor said, “The way that Christ resisted the world that resisted him was by extending an olive branch of peace on the cross to the world that crucified him” (Wang Yi, 2018). If in the beauty of the human birth of our Lord we see the depth of his humility, and how he would go on to even greater and more painful sacrifices out of love, then only can we truly begin to grasp the magnitude of that peaceful manger scene and respond as Zechariah did:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he has come to help and has redeemed his people. For he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from long ago, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us. He has done this to […] remember his holy covenant -the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham. This oath grants that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, may serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him for as long as we live.” (Luke 1:68-75)

Merry Christmas!


My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience -Wang Yi

Review: Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life

Inspirational or motivational books often put their promises in their title: Think and Grow Rich, The Magic of Big Thinking, The Power of Positive Thinking, What it Takes to be #1. Why not judge these books by how well they deliver on their promise? For Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons From an Extraordinary Life, Louis Zamperini’s last book (co-authored by David Rensin), the question is: does Zamperini have any worthwhile lessons to impart? While some of the lessons outlined in the titles of each chapter are hackneyed, the stories are interesting, and the reader can learn lessons simply by listening to Zamperini tell of both his successes and failures.

That Zamperini’s life was extraordinary is beyond doubt. An Olympic-level runner who was widely thought to be likely to be the first athlete to run a 4 minute mile, Zamperini’s life took a different turn when the U.S. joined World War II and he became a member of a B-24 flight crew that was eventually shot down in the Pacific. But instead of dying, Zamperini, along with Captain Russell Phillips, survived on a raft for over a month with nothing more than a flare gun, some candy bars, and some other basic survival gear. Captured by the Japanese and imprisoned, Zamperini survived and eventually returned home, to the great surprise of everyone. But the most significant changes took place in Zamperini’s life after his rescue: following an onset of PTSD and a growing dependency on alcohol, Zamperini’s wife convinced him to attend a Billy Graham crusade, and he eventually committed his life to the Lord. He never drank again, and he devoted his life from then on to helping at-risk children find purpose—and adventure.

Some of the “lessons” in Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In, have a cheesy ring to them—chapter titles such as “You Need a Cloud to Have a Silver Lining,” “Don’t Ask Why, Ask What’s Next,” give an idea of some of the trite lessons drawn from what would otherwise just be an interesting story. Other chapters, such as one that includes a story of getting a kiss from Angelina Jolie (one of his friends), seem more like opportunities for Zamperini to reminisce, but that’s a forgivable flaw in someone who lived such a colorful and interesting life.

Other vignettes, however, are moving. One story in particular stands out—where Zamperini begins training to run again, and works hard at it for over six weeks. At the end of the month, he has his wife time his laps, and discovers that he is much slower than before. This forces him to accept that he will never recover his running ability—it’s time for him to find another path. Several other stories stood out to me from his post-war life as well: a giant boat trip, business ventures, and other escapades as he tried to find a calling.

Overall, this was a really quick, interesting book that gave some solid, if not revolutionary or cohesive, advice on how to live well. Living actively to the age of 97 and packing a second book with more tales, Zamperini certainly knew how to live well.