Friday, December 20, 2013

7 Quick Takes Vol. 25

Merry Christmas to all from Conversion Diary!

1.   So, I learned something about myself over past couple weeks: I’m really, really bad at fasting. I’ve been trying to do it on Fridays, but the trouble is that it makes me lethargic, irritable, and prone to overindulgence after it’s over. So far the attempts have been “eat nothing for set period” and “eat only specific things.” Neither has worked out too well. Now, obviously I’m not going to ‘give up’ fasting (hmmm…fast from a fast…). I suppose I just need to practice a little more. Still, I thought it was kind of interesting.

2.       This week I did something rare for me and wrote a couple short (very short) stories. My stories tend to either be too short to be worth bothering about or too long to fit in the short-story format. For these, however, I decided just to run with it. One is a quick piece set in the ‘Gods and Monsters’ universe, which needs a good deal more work before it can be shown, and the other is a slightly-Lovecraftian horror story, which I’m much more satisfied with. One or both might be posted for viewing sometime in the future, but I didn’t think they were very ‘Christmasy.’

3.       I was planning on doing a post on the Duck Dynasty controversy that exploded this week. I had it all written and was letting it sit so that I could review it with a clear head and take out anything too nasty, when I found that two of my favorite bloggers – Matt Walsh and Larry Correia – had already dealt with it. Posting on a subject that those two have lit into is a little like kicking something that’s already been mauled by a cougar and a grizzly: it’s not just pointless, you actually feel kinda bad about it (language warning on both of them if you decide to follow the links). Their basic conclusion is “A&E are idiots.”  
All I can really add to the topic is my deep amusement at the GLAAD writer’s comment that Robertson’s words “Fly in the face of what true Christians believe.” Robertson was quoting the Bible!  
That, and the author of the original article in question is a real tool. Seriously; go read it and you’ll find the contempt for Christianity, Conservatism, and the Robertsons themselves just oozing between the lines.  

4.       I’m very behind on my Christmas shopping and card sending, but I am not going to panic. I am not going to panic. I am not going to panic…

5.       You know what’s a good sign? When you review the next chapter of your book before publishing it online and then find yourself getting sucked into your own story months after you wrote it. I definitely see a lot that could be fixed or improved, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed re-visiting Chronicles of Hendricks. Ordinarily, rereading my own work is a purely painful experience, so I’m taking this as a sign that I’m improving as a writer.

6.       So, I saw The Desolation of Smaug, and I’m working on a review. I really, really hate to say this, but it wasn’t very good. It was the first of Jackson’s Middle-Earth films that have to give an negative assessment of. There’s very little Bilbo, there much too much new crap that doesn’t fit, I’m sick to death of badass hot-warrior-chicks, and the climactic action sequence (original to the film) is so stupid and pointless that it makes the sauropod stampede in King Kong look restrained and dignified.
On the plus side, Smaug himself – as voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch – is all-but perfect. But alas, neither he nor the still-excellent Martin Freeman as Bilbo can save the movie, since they’re just not in it enough. At least the first film, bloated though it was, knew to keep Bilbo front and center.   

7.       This has been the week of weeks regarding stupid things happening at work; our always-touchy new printer surpassed itself by frying some of its hardware, which took three days to fix and we still don’t know how it happened. An unfortunate mix-up regarding a meeting with two ‘Todds’ and my not reading the email closely enough resulted in a working lunch that was a sandwich short. I’ve discovered a pair of keys in my desk that don’t appear to correspond with anything in the building. A mix-up on those keys and the building master key led to a long, uncomfortable conversation with a coworker that seemed to be nothing more than “we should really label these,” but kept looping back in on itself for no apparent reason that I could discover. Finally (and this might require a little explanation), yesterday (two days before break) I processed an ‘urgent’ purchase order, which then had a follow-up request to charge it to one of the vendor’s other locations. This very same vendor had put in a request months ago to charge to a specific location, which (after a good deal of wrangling with the people who handle that) we did. Now they’re asking this one to be charged to their old location. I died a little inside when I read that request and had to remind them that this is not at all feasible when half the company is already on vacation.
I’m wondering whether God is telling me that it’s about time to get serious about moving on?

Vive Christus Rex!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Brief Scene in Heaven

Scene: Sts. Valentine and Patrick are standing back to back, arms folded, looking extremely grumpy.

Valentine: “I was beheaded for trying to convert the friggin’ Roman Emperor.”

Patrick: “I was kidnapped, sold into slavery, escaped, then came back and converted my captors.”

Valentine: “And now…”

Patrick: “My feast is just a day for people to pretend they’re Irish as an excuse to get drunk.”

Valentine: “And my feast is, at best, a chance to buy bad candy and weak greeting cards, and at worst an extra chance for fornication and general unchastity.”

At this point St. Nicholas passes by, not noticing them. Valentine and Patrick watch him thoughtfully for a moment.

Patrick: "'Course, I suppose it could be worse."

Valentine: "Amen."

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Godzilla Teaser

As a huge Godzilla fan, I've been eagerly and somewhat anxiously awaiting the first sight of Gareth Edwards' reboot of the franchise, due out May of next year. Now it's here, and all I can say is:

I confess; after Pacific Rim, I was a little worried about Godzilla; would it be able to distance itself from the other movie? Would it come across as just 'also ran'? What would be different about it?

Judging by this first trailer, the answers are 'yes, no, a lot!'

The first half of the trailer is taken up with a striking new idea; a parachute jump into a kaiju-afflicted city, making our first glimpse of Godzilla a bird's eye view from above. This is something we've never seen before, and seems to indicate that Edwards and his crew are really pulling out the stops in terms of creativity and inspiration. Basically, that scene has done more than almost anything else to reassure me about this movie. The sequence, even in the trailer, is equal parts awe-inspiring, thrilling, and frightening (especially accompanied by music from 2001: A Space Odyssey). In a word, it's exactly what you might have been hoping for.

After this we get a lot of quick scenes, mostly of people running and looking. Nothing especially special (though a brief shot of a crushed train strewn across a highway is impressively alarming). Then, at the very end, we get a long, though smoky and unclear view of the king himself.

What impressed me most is the palpable sense that, for all that this is a reboot, with a new studio and computer-generated effects, that this really is Godzilla. Something about the shape, the size, the way he moves in the little we get to see of him that just feels right. It's not just the fact that he looks like himself - the classic 'tripod' dinosaur shape and spikey plates on his back - it's that they seemed to have captured the majestic, indomitable nature of the character. Basically, I felt as I was watching it that this really is him; the one and only.

Or put it this way: the few, unclear glimpses we have of Godzilla in this trailer were more true to the character than the entire 1998 movie.

My only real complaints about the trailer are that 1. I would have liked to see more, though I suppose that's the point of a teaser, and 2. even allowing that, I wish they hadn't cut away just as Godzilla begins to roar at the end: I would have liked to hear the whole thing.

So, for the full trailer I'm hoping for some sense of the human characters and story, a clearer look at Godzilla (including hearing his full roar), a glimpse at the enemy monsters, and (most importantly) a hint of the atomic ray, because judging by what we've seen so far, I can't wait to see what they're going to do with that. Ideally, the trailer would end with a scene of his plates lighting up, then cut away just as he's about to fire.

Anyway, in case it's unclear, I really, really loved this teaser, and I can't wait to see the full trailer (they better hurry up; the movie is less than five months away). This, more than anything, has brought home to me "yes; this is happening; we're getting a new Godzilla movie."

And now I must return my happy dreams of a sequel featuring the Heath-Ledger-Joker version of King Ghidorah.

Vivat Christus Rex!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

'Chuck' and the Christian Life

                  Last week I finally finished Chuck, the excellent spy-comedy series that ran from 2007 to 2012. While the show certainly has problematic elements (such as a total embrace of current sexual mores), it also has enough heart, thoughtfulness, and decency to make up for it.
                  The story: Chuck Bartowsky’s life is going nowhere fast. He’s very smart, but he was expelled from college after his best friend framed him for cheating and took his girlfriend, and now he’s working a dead-end job at the local ‘Buy More’ (basically Best Buy with a green rather than blue color pattern) and living with his loving, though concerned sister, Ellie, and her overachiever boyfriend, Devon (nicknamed ‘Captain Awesome’). His free time is mostly devoted to playing video games with his slacker friend, Morgan.
                  All that changes when, one night, he gets an email from his former best friend which, when opened, downloads the top-secret ‘Intersect’ computer – a complete database of all the intel from every government agency – into his brain. The CIA and NSA quickly dispatch their top agents – glamorous Sarah Walker and intimidating John Casey, respectively – to recover it. Finding that Chuck is more capable than he seems, the government decides, for now, to allow him to keep his life while serving as a mobile database for covert missions, with Sarah and Casey assigned as his ‘handlers.’ Sarah poses as his new girlfriend, Casey as a co-worker at the Buy More, and all are closely monitored by the no-nonsense General Beckman.
                  What makes the show so good, and stops it from being merely another spy-movie parody, is the care and honesty it brings to the relationships. A large part of the story is Chuck’s struggles to maintain his connection to his family and friends in the face of his new spy-life. This becomes increasingly difficult, as his undercover activities force him to repeatedly disappoint and lie to everyone he cares most about. As Chuck’s normally a very honest and nice guy, this puts a great strain on him and everyone else.
                  Moreover, Chuck’s “fake relationship” with Sarah also becomes more and more difficult to maintain, both because of his natural honesty and because he’s genuinely fallen for her. The delicate balancing act of pretending to be in a relationship with someone he desperately wants to be in a relationship with is depicted with great care and pathos.
                  This emotional honesty is mixed with a cheerfully cartoonish version of spy-craft; missions that require tuxedoes and dresses, vodka-martinis, secret lairs, glamorous assassins, massive thugs, and super-villains with gloriously silly weapons. The contrast between the down-to-earth, carefully written world of Chuck’s emotional life and the ‘everything-and-the-kitchen-sink’ approach to the spy life works surprisingly well. It emphasizes the alluring contrast between his dull, old life and his exciting new one, while at the same time making us understand his desire to get back to his old life. The spy world may be fun, but it’s his normal, boring life that really matters.
                  Which brings me to the ostensible point of this piece: the themes of Chuck:

1.     Keep Things in Perspective:

             One of the main sources of humor on the show is, as noted, the contrast between Chuck’s normal life at the Buy More and his more exciting life as a spy. But the really funny thing is that Chuck’s co-workers at the Buy More don’t treat it as normal. Indeed, they take the Buy More at least as seriously as Chuck takes international security. Almost every episode the Buy More crew are engaged in some insane scheme, some inner-store power struggle, or some ‘mission’ to boost their business, which they latch onto with Marine-like dedication.
Meanwhile, Chuck, Sarah, and Casey are off, say, trying to recover a biological-weapon before it can be sold to the World’s Greatest Terrorist™.
                  The point here is an amusing satire of the things we think important – office politics, bottom-line initiatives, group dynamics, and so on – and that really don’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things. So what if the Buy More doesn’t out-perform its hated rival, the Large Mart? Who really cares who gets the assistant manager position? Is acquiring the latest new computer before it hits the shelves really that big a deal? And is it worth being cruel, selfish, or dishonest?
                  Well, no it isn’t. Not in a world where crazy corporate executives plot to take over the CIA via internet. But, in another way, it kind of is important. It’s their lives. It may not be as important as saving the world, but saving the world is done precisely for the sake of people like this. The world is kept safe for Democracy because Democracy means ordinary people like the Buy More crew, or Ellie and Awesome, being able to live their ordinary lives. In a way, you could say that Chuck, Sarah, and Casey recover that bio weapon because it would have prevented such ‘unimportant’ things as the struggles of the Buy More.
                  There must be ‘big’ things: governments, armies, nations, and spies, and they are grand and glorious and good in their own ways. But there must also be ‘small’ things: homes, families, friendships, co-workers, and Buy Mores, and it is for their sake that the ‘big’ things exist at all. A small family around their Thanksgiving table, or a retail storefront prepping for Black Friday are the ends; the CIA, NSA, and so on are the means. If they don’t promote and protect such moments, all the spy-craft, underground lairs, glamorous parties, and firefights are simply a waste of time. This dynamic is a universal part of the human experience, and it is well to keep in mind.
                  On a related note:

2.     Don’t Despise the Ordinary:

                  Chuck’s life is your standard boring, underachieving lifestyle. And yet, throughout the first few seasons, he keeps trying to get back to it, or if not exactly to what he had before, at least to some kind of ordinary life. It is, as noted above, what really matters to him, because that is where his friends and family are. In one episode Chuck finds that his relationship with Morgan is fraying due to his spy-life. When Sarah fails to see the big deal, since Morgan is a slacker and an idiot, Chuck responds with a story illustrating how Morgan has been there for Chuck whenever he needed him the most. It was the simple, ordinary things, like inviting him over to play video games all night after his mom disappeared, which made a difference. Those were the important things, more important than high-profile meetings and international incidents.  
                  The contrast is interesting: the spy-world is glamorous and exciting, but it’s shallow. You can’t have real relationships, only quick flings to burn off energy. You simply don’t hang around anyone or anything long enough to really build memories or friendships. Meanwhile the ordinary world may be boring, but it’s deep. There are real, tangible emotions and relationships here. Morgan and Chuck care about each other in a way that spies, even friendly spies, don’t or can’t. More than once there are scenes where Sarah finds herself standing awkwardly to one side while Chuck mingles freely with his family and friends, looking on wistfully at a world she has never known.
                  Chuck wants to get back to his ordinary life because he knows that’s where his roots are. That’s where the things that make him really happy are to be found. That’s where real opportunity is. He enjoys the spy-life, but he knows that there’s no future there for him.
                  Both Casey and Sarah, steeped in the glamorous, shallow life of the spy, are at first contemptuous of Chuck’s ordinary life. But as they spend more time around him, they come to appreciate it and understand his longing for it, and even to come to desire it themselves. Which brings us to:

3.     The Allure of Goodness:

                  There’s a lovely dynamic in the show: as time goes on, Chuck grows from a terrified, awkward bumbler to a genuinely skilled and intelligent spy. At the same time, Sarah and (especially) Casey start off as cold, cynical killing machines, but the more time they spend with Chuck the more his own honesty and kindness rub off on them. They grow into warmer, friendlier, and more caring people. And they slowly turn from literally wanting to kill each other into honest-to-goodness friends.
                  Sarah and Casey are both long-term spies. They’ve never been around anyone or in any place long enough to build any real relationships. But now, effectively stuck in Burbank, surrounded by Chuck’s family and friends, and forced to work with the same people week after week, they begin to build them.
                  The two spies, who are trained to suppress their emotions, to follow all orders, and to be remorseless and detached from other people, begin, perhaps for the first time, to experience real goodness on a regular basis, and find that they like it. They come to appreciate Chuck’s honesty and gentleness and, what’s more, to desire to emulate it themselves. They find, slowly, that they want to be able to trust people, to be honest and open, and to care about others. And by degrees, they do. They put down roots, they build friendships, they learn to trust and to be honest with one another.
                  In the process, they find that they’re happier than they ever thought they would be. Indeed, in contrasting their characters at the start of the show with the ones they have at the end, you wonder whether they’ve ever been happy at all before they started to emulate Chuck. Sarah becomes warm, smiling, and good-humored; not taking herself so seriously and acting much more relaxed around others. Casey finds himself forging friendships and familial bonds, becoming protective and caring of other people, and developing a surprisingly perceptive ear for emotions, which he uses to give his friends relationship advice.
                  What it is, as noted above, is that the spies, seeing the depths and joy in the ‘ordinary’ world, recognize the goodness in them and feel a natural attraction to it. They want to experience it for themselves, and finding that they can’t as they now are, they change so as to be able to. Goodness, especially deep, rich goodness like that, is intensely alluring. Maybe not at first, while the shallower goods of excitement and physical pleasure still beckon, but the more you’re exposed to it, the more irresistible it becomes.
                  And, as they become better people, Sarah and Casey also become better spies. Learning to trust and care for each other, they develop into a much more formidable force than they would have been otherwise. It allows them to read situations better by noting each other’s behavior, to push themselves further than they would ordinarily be able to, and even, when it comes down to it, to tear down conspiracies and unknown enemies, because they know going in who is on their side and who isn’t.

4.     The Importance of Family

                  Finally, perhaps the key theme in Chuck is family. Chuck’s sister, Ellie, is the most important person in his life, his emotional rock, and maintaining his relationship with her is his first priority. Meanwhile, major story arcs revolve around Chuck’s hunt for his long lost parents and the consequences – emotional and otherwise – of this search.
                  The broad dynamic of the show’s characterization has Chuck’s immediate circle coalescing into an odd but effective extended family. Distrustful characters learn to open up, dislike turns into affection and care, couples get married and start families. His extended family is what keeps Chuck stable and, more importantly, morally centered. It is the foundation of his life.
                  The interesting thing is that none of the lead characters had particularly stable family lives. Chuck and Ellie’s mother and father vanished without a trace while they were children, forcing her to raise him. Sarah’s father is a con man and her mother is…complicated. Casey, meanwhile, turns out to have considerable family related baggage of his own.
                  But the characters manage, despite everything, to forge out real, happy family units despite their unpromising backgrounds. This mirrors, in a sense, the way Chuck turns out, despite his completely unpromising start, to grow into a surprisingly competent spy. From out of the wreckage of their lives, the characters struggle, through love, loyalty, and friendship to forge something better for themselves.
                  What this ‘better’ thing turns out to be is family. Family – a real, solid, loving, normal family – is the Holy Grail of the series; the thing that everyone ultimately ends up longing for. Though, as noted, the show takes unchaste behavior such as living together before marriage for granted, it also portrays marriage and family as the goal of any serious relationship. Towards the end it even skewers things like pre-nuptial agreements and easy divorce, and dares to suggest that a successful, professional woman would really prefer to stay at home with her new baby instead.

                  In short, Chuck is far from what you’d call a ‘Christian’ show: religion is pretty much non-existent in the character’s lives, the worldview is pretty much wholly secular (at least it doesn’t, as far as I can remember, engage in the casual religion bashing so common these days). But it is steeped in what you might call the most Christian aspects of secular morality: family, friendships, the allure of love and honesty, and the dignity of ordinary life. Outside the sexual aspect (which, to be fair, does come in a good deal), the show is wholesome and uplifting; the violence is frequent, but cartoonish and almost always justified in context. Issues of honesty, fidelity, and responsibility are handled with care and thoughtfulness and the show typically comes down on the right side of all of them. It’s all around a great show. 

Vivat Christus Rex!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Agents of SHIELD, Psychonauts, and Pope Francis All Walk into a Bar...

I’m really enjoying Agents of SHIELD. I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe (well, with the exception of Iron Man 3, which was a big disappointment), and seeing it from ‘ground level’ of the people handling day-to-day weirdness is pretty darn cool.  
That said, the episode from the week before last was a little annoying (though the fact that they managed to include a bit of classic X-Men lore without violating the rights issues involved almost made up for it) in that its victims of the week were Hollywood! Christians. For those who don’t know, Hollywood! Christians are apparently what the film/television industry think Christians are like. They’re basically people who were apparently trapped in amber somewhere around the Babylonian exile and were revived to found small-town America. So, they’re constantly terrified of God and think whatever happens is His punishment and they freak out and attack anyone who is even mildly 'different' or who just seems to be having a hard time.
This episode focused on a woman who was safety inspector for a research facility that ended up exploding. Then weird things start happening around her, causing her to think God is sending demons to punish her.
Okay, first the obvious question; where the hell is this woman’s pastor? If she is as religious as she’s depicted, and if the small town is as close-knit and religious as it’s supposed to be, shouldn’t they have at least one or two ministers handy? What are they doing while this woman is suffering an emotional breakdown and thinking that she’s surrounded by demonic tormentors?
Maybe this is some weird, super-insulated Protestant sect or something, but shouldn’t at least someone involved be bringing up God’s mercy? Shouldn’t someone be pointing out that messing up on your job, even when it leads to a few deaths, is a minor sin at most, and certainly not one that’s going to get you demonic punishment on Earth? Why doesn’t anyone point out the extreme absurdity of her assumptions, even with regards to her own beliefs? And when one of the main cast quotes ‘God is love,’ why does it seem to come as a profound revelation to this woman? What the heck kind of whacked-out church is running this town anyway, and why did someone think it was the perfect place to build a Large Haledon Collider?  
Now, this points to a very annoying tendency. It seems like many people see Christianity as neatly divided into two mutually exclusive types; the good and the bad. Good Christianity is all about God’s love and mercy, by which they mean “He doesn’t really care what we do, just so long as we don’t hurt anyone.” Bad Christianity is all about God’s wrath and threatens hellfire and punishment and all the rest. The first kind respond to sin with a “God loves you just the way you are” if it’s socially acceptable and a “you make me sad and I’ll pray for you” if it isn’t. The second kind just declare that everyone they have any reason to dislike or think ill of is going to hell and are eager to help them along.
Whenever I encounter this division I feel like Raz’s father at the end of Psychonauts (fast version: an excellent game about a boy who runs away from the circus to attend a summer camp for psychics) when he sees the evil-but-completely-inaccurate mental image his son has of him: “Is that really how you see me?”  
The truth, of course, is that both ‘types’ of Christianity bear only the most tenuous relationship to the real thing. “Good” Christianity is a parody of God’s mercy, which seems to say that, since no sin is beyond His mercy, that means anything we or anyone else happens to like doing is perfectly alright and it’s an evil unchristian thing to even call it a sin (but it’s okay to call calling it a sin a sin). It is, as C.S. Lewis so perceptively described it, the desire for, not a father in Heaven, but a grandfather in Heaven: “a senile benevolence that, as the saying goes, ‘likes to see young people having a good time.’” Basically, this kind of Christianity is little more than a kind of mental comfort blanket: you cozy up with it when you’re down, but it has no practical effect on the rest of your life. It is the Christianity of toothless platitudes like “I feel X, but you may feel different” and “well, so long as you’re basically a good person everything is alright” or “of course I don’t believe in a God who would exclude anyone!” It’s a Christianity so diluted with public opinion and the ‘spirit of the age’ that it’s reduced to little more than secularism with a slight hint of Christianity (the religious equivalent of hot ham water).
“Bad” Christianity, I find, is much more often encountered in movies and books than in real life. The real life equivalent usually boils down to “but look, this is wrong and you shouldn’t be doing it!” But since it’s such a common image, and because I know something like it does exist, I’ll deal with it anyway. Obviously, constant warnings of God’s wrath and predictions of Hell for other people are not part of the Christian life. Christianity is the belief that “God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son” to save it and Our Lord specifically forbade us from speculating on each other’s final destination.
But there’s not really any need to argue against “bad” Christianity, is there? It’s less a position people commonly hold than a parody used to pressure people into embracing “good” Christianity. It exists to say “well, either you’re screaming at people that they deserve to go to Hell or you accept and support whoever we tell you to. Those are your only two options.”
The truth, like Razputin’s father, is that we have a grotesquely warped vision of Christianity, one in which concerns and warnings turn into vicious hatred or offers of help and forgiveness turn into permission to do whatever you want. It’s the childish, unreasoning response of someone who simply doesn’t want to hear what you have to say because it threatens to disrupt his own wishes. It’s to be expected of Raz because he’s about ten (we all remember how evil our parents seemed when they told us that we couldn’t play video games today because we forgot our homework for the third time in a row), but the fact that a goodly chunk of the population continues it into adulthood should be a source of intense vicarious embarrassment for us.
                As well as, frankly, a source of shame for Christians. Somehow or other we’ve come to the point where a large part of the population can swallow bizarre caricatures of us without rolling their eyes at the absurdity of it. We can say that it’s because the media and academia and all the other usual suspects hate us, and that may be true, but that would just emphasize the fact that we need to do a better job of sharing the faith.
                This, incidentally, is what I think Pope Francis has been getting at; people have a warped, ‘meat-circus’ view of Christianity and it is up to us to correct it. Apparently, the way we’ve been going about it hasn’t been working very well, so we need to try something else.
What do we need to do? Well how should I know ("I'm a dentist!"); let’s keep listening and see what the Pope thinks.   

Vivat Christus Rex!

Friday, December 6, 2013

7 Quick Takes Vol. 24

As seen on Conversion Diary.

1.       I was going to lead in with grumblings about last week’s Agents of SHIELD episode, but that turned into a full-length post in its own right, so now I’m one take short.

2.       I may have had my promised post on Chuck ready today, but since I left my zip-drive at home this morning I couldn’t finish it in time. It’s coming up, don’t worry, full of Adam Baldwin-y goodness. Likewise, I started working on a post about what Minecraft teaches us about the last things, but it’s not ready because Igot distractedplaying Minecraft.

3.       Okay, it was all Minecraft. There was also some Rome: Total War thrown in there, and in any case I’m using both games as opportunities to listen to audio books, so I’m educating myself at the same time. So there!

4.       I’ve also been watching a lot of Poirot starring David Suchet. This show has made me think of a number of things. One is the tangible, solid nature of correspondence and business before the advent of computers. The feel of real paper, the clacking of real typewriters, and the scribbling of real pens seemed to make day-to-day life more immediate, more present than it is now. It makes me want to try writing on a typewriter for a change.
The other is the unconscious piety Poirot expresses at one point. On holiday in Rhodes he pokes his head into an old chapel, spies an altar covered in icons and crosses himself before moving on. It’s just a simple, casual act that he does without thinking; something I ought to develop as a habit (incidentally, Poirot is explicitly supposed to be Catholic and David Suchet is a convert to Anglicanism).

5.       Introvert problems: coming up with jokes about your own reclusiveness and not having anyone to share them with.

6.     I’m considering taking a break from the Online Dating Scene. For one thing, it’s frustratingly unhelpful so far, and for another I want to focus on other endeavors. So, pretty much unless I start another interesting interaction sometime in the next week or so I’m going to drop it for a while.

7.    It’s late and I’m tired, so here’s a cute picture from Catholic Memes

Vivat Christus Rex!

Friday, November 22, 2013

7 Quick Takes Vol. 23

Still hosted by Conversion Diary.

1.       Blogging hasn’t received much priority over the past week or so; I’m much more focused on fiction writing and just haven’t done a whole lot else. Lost City is finally starting to move!

2.       Well, that and I discovered Netflix has Chuck on view instant. Maybe I’ll solve the above problem by blogging about that, because man that’s a great show!

3.       In addition to stepping up my writing, I’ve been carving out more reading time, since that’s fallen off lately. Right now I’m tackling a bunch of books at once, as usual: I started Marlowe’s Faustus last night, I’m still plugging along through the monster that is Witness, I’ve resumed my study of the Summa, am casually re-reading Chesterton’s The Catholic Church and Conversion, and have recently gotten back into Monster Hunter Vendetta, the second book of the very fun Munster Hunter International series (if you want to know what those books are like: the part I read this morning had the hero getting into a pit-brawl with a gang of gnomes for calling one of them a lawn ornament). Whew! As you can see, I really need to allot more time to reading to get through all these.

4.       The above makes it sound as though I’m a lot smarter and more active than I really am. Let me clarify; I’m reading these books in the same sense that I’m keeping my apartment clean: I get around to it maybe once a week if I don’t get too distracted.

5.       Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis (also Aldous Huxley and…someone else, right?). There was an embarrassing moment earlier this week when, with all the coverage going on, I ended up thinking it was on the 19th and posted on Facebook to that effect. Well, in my defense, when half the internet spends the whole week leading up to the date of Kennedy’s assassination talking about it, it’s sometimes hard to pick out which date specifically they mean to commemorate (especially if you’re skimming for the more interesting bits).
Anyway, my carelessness about facts notwithstanding, today we ought to do something to commemorate the passing of one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth-century by reading one of his works. If you have time, plunk down with Screwtape (the audio book is only about four-and-a-half hours). If not, peruse a little in The Weight of Glory or The God in the Dock for his essays (one of my favorite is a very brief sketch where he imagines an argument between his soul and body: “That’s soul all over; give me an order and then blame me for obeying!”).  

6.       In violin I’m starting to try to learn vibrato (that thing where you wiggle you fingers to get a trill on the full and half notes). It’s really difficult! As in ‘how the heck do people do this?’ difficult. Basically, it involves quickly adjusting the amount of finger touching the string, without jerkign the whole violin all over the place. Or, to put it another way, you move the hand/arm in question in such a way that the only effect is that the finger holding down the string moves slightly. Yeesh! Still, I’m making some progress; I have the foggiest idea of how it’s supposed to work now, which is an improvement over last week.

7.       This weekend is my birthday! No real plans yet for the day itself, but I’m taking Monday off and planning on doing two things; going down to the shooting range and writing at the coffee shop for hours on end. Huzzah!

Vivat Christus Rex!

Memorization Sample:

First, imagine a cruise ship with two decks:
                On the lower deck, Dr. Destiny grabs a gorilla, which knocks over another gorilla who slides on floor wax, hopes over a ferret baring its teeth, then peaks through the floor of the deck above. There Mr. B Natural prances by, followed closely by his clone. An anaconda gives a ‘wtf’ look to the camera, then looks up to see three color-swapped clones of Dr. Destiny parade by, one of whom slips on a banana peel causing the Crypt Keeper to laugh briefly until Mr. B returns, eliciting another alarmed take to the camera from the anaconda. Mr. B the slides the length of the hall, crashing down the stairs to the lower deck, which interrupts Dr. Destiny’s attempt to apprehend the gorillas a second time, sending the second gorilla sliding on a banana peel, leap frogging the same bitey ferret, and once again popping into the upper deck. By this time, Mr. B and his clone have started waltzing, the Anaconda throws up, and the Drs. Destiny start to parade past, but the anaconda and its twin slam the door after only one escapes. Brother Anaconda stretches himself out a bit, only to be bitten by the bitey ferret popping its head up from from the lower deck, which quickly ducks back down and high-fives its brother right before Edna Mode smacks them both. Dr. Destiny then ice-skates passed, then zooms straight up the steps and skips three times along the upper deck. One of the gorillas punches upward through the floor from the lower deck, then the Crypt Keeper joins in the two Mr. Bs in dancing before the Anaconda holds up a ‘please kill me’ sign to the camera, then Dr. Destiny comes skipping by again, three times, and the gorilla tries to punch up through the floor again, then the Crpty Keeper parades past, followed by the two Mr. Bs and the Anaconda face-palms with its tale. Then Edna Mode does three cartwheels down the hall, Dr. Destiny chasing after her, followed by the Crypt Keeper and Mr. B. The Crypt Keeper slips on the waxed floor, sliding the length of the hallway until the anaconda whacks him with its tale, but Mr. B springs by, scooping the Crypt Keeper up in the process and followed by Dr. Destiny, who slips on a banana peel, falls into a hole to the lower deck, bounces off of one gorilla and is knocked aside by the other. The Anaconda mugs in surprise right before Mr. B comes skatting the length of the hall only to be slow-motion clothes-lined by Edna, who does a quick hop and a kick to Dr. Destiny’s back, who is knocked into the Crypt Keeper, who falls onto Mr. B, then bounces off and slides the length of the hall before the Anaconda again hits him with its tail and Mr. B scoops him up and sends Dr. Destiny onto a wet patch, which sends him down the stairs onto the gorilla, whose friend punches him to the ground. The anaconda faints and the gorilla does a chest pounding dominance display.

What the heck was that, you might ask?

That is Hark, the Herald Angels Sing for violin.

Vivat Christus Rex!

Friday, November 15, 2013

7 Quick Takes Friday, Vol. 22

1.       So, if you’re coming here from our hostess site at Conversion Diary (where you can read about psychopathic centipedes and the people who love them) you might notice that you’ve been directed to a different blog than all my previous Quick Takes. That’s because this week I came to the decision that I really shouldn’t be trying to maintain four or five blogs at once when I get to them about once a week, so I’m consolidating all my blogging efforts (movies, religion, my life, and sarcastic comments on current events) into this one blog. So, if you’ve never been here before, welcome to The Catholic Nerd!

2.       By the way, if for whatever reason you care to browse my archived Quick Takes or Reviews (my sarcastic political commentary has all been deleted, because it wasn’t very good and I’m much better now), you can go here and here.

3.       I registered with the Catholic Writers’ Guild this week, thinking it’d be a good networking opportunity and chance to swap tips and tales with other Catholic wannabe writers. But, after making my password and paying my dues, I find that I “don’t have permission” to visit any of the forums or, well, do anything really. What? Then what did I just pay you guys for?
To anyone whose dealt with the site before; is this normal? And is it worth trying to deal with the problem?

4.       Speaking of Catholic Websites that Extort Money by Preying Upon Your Deepest Hopes and Desires (apparently, a surprisingly large category), my Online Dating Experience has been picking up some. I’ve had fun posting jokes in the forums, and I’ve actually communicated with some lovely ladies. Nothing’s ‘clicked’ yet, though, but at least the experience has begun to yield actual results (and after only about five months of trying!).

5.       I’ve started working on a mnemonic sequence for memorizing music, now that I actually know the names of the different notes (what? The really important part is “first finger on the third string,” not “B Natural”). So far I have the whole First (G) String (G natural = Lowland Gorilla, A natural = Augustus Gloop, etc.) and half of the Second (D) and Third (A) strings. Then it’s just a matter of linking them up in my mind and putting them together in bizarre ways to accompany the music! For instance, if the notes are E – B, I can imagine Edna Mode (from The Incredibles) slapping Mr. B Natural (you…don’t want to know) with a rolled up newspaper in time with the melody.

6.       On the writing front, I’ve been kind of scattered; Lost City of the Dimetrodons is making some progress, but I keep worrying that the leads are boring and that I need to make them more interesting. In my head, the male lead/main protagonist is a quiet, introverted musician and the female lead is basically a pre-Christian-Jewish-shepherd version of Lizzy Bennet, but I keep feeling like they’re not coming across. To deal with this, I starting working on lists of character traits to help me get a better grip on them.  
On the other hand, yesterday I got to write a fight scene between a ceratosaurus and a (juvenile) tyrannosaurus, so that was good.

7.       I’ve noticed an odd paradox this week; I’ve been working on embracing my introversion, and I find that the more I do, the more relaxed and out-going I become. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that the less I feel like I have to leave the house/strike up conversations/be liked, the more willing I am to do it on my own account. That, and I give myself lots of ‘me’ time in the process (I figure; grab it while you can, because if this Catholic Match thing works out, it’s all going bye-bye).

Vivat Christus Rex!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Why Saints Are Like Pagan Deities

                A frequent objection by our Protestant friends about the Catholic practice of honoring the Saints is that it is overtly reminiscent of polytheism, with the various gods dedicated to different aspects of the world replaced by the various Patron Saints of the Catholic calendar.
                And, in this, they’re quite right. The Saints are indeed fairly closely akin to the gods of ancient Greece, Rome, and so on. Where Protestants are mistaken is in thinking that these gods were at all akin to God. It’s more a confusion of language than of concept really; we use the same word for the pagan deities as for the Blessed Trinity, when it'd be closer to the truth to use the same word to describe the pagan deities and the Blessed Saints and Angels.
                It’s easy for us to forget, because we’ve grown used to the idea of an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent God who transcends nature and time because He created both, that the pagan gods had none of these qualities. Zeus was the king of the gods and the ruler of the air, but he was not omnipotent (he had to fight a ten year war to earn his throne) and he did not create nature. Quite the reverse; Mother Earth is his grandmother and the Sky is his grandfather. Odin likewise was fairly far removed from the birth of creation, his grandfather having been licked out of the primeval ice by an ancient cow (it’s paganism; get used to it). He helped make the world out of the remains of the giant Ymir, but obviously there was some sort of ‘world’ going on with Ymir, the cow, and all that ice. Nor was he omniscient (he needed his two crows to bring him news).
                See, the pagan gods were more like stewards of creation, or at least, like ruling princes who schemed and inherited their way into dominion of a world that they were just as much a part of as humanity. The gods of Greece and Rome and Babylon were, in short, a part of nature, just like the sun or the stars (sometimes they were the sun and the stars). They had their own roles to fulfill, and as such wielded much greater power than human beings, but they were ‘creatures’ just as humans or animals were ‘creatures.’ They were not the Prime Movers, nor were they being itself. They, as much as humanity, answered to a higher authority than themselves.
                Now, as you can see, exalted creatures serving a higher authority and helping to order and steward creation is indeed a fairly decent description of the Saints and Angels in Heaven. So, yes; Catholic Saints are pretty similar to Pagan deities (without all the womanizing and warring and turning things into other things in a fit of temper). It’s the Catholic God that is beyond the pagan gods. Think of it less as “you’re just trying to revive paganism” and more “the True God is so far above the false gods that we who serve Him become like in power to the false gods.”
                Actually, that understates it; the Saints are more powerful, more worthy of praise than pagan gods. Pagan gods, as noted, could be tricked, manipulated, injured, and even killed in some cases. The Saints are subject to none of those limitations. The Saints don’t have the petty, easily-tweaked personalities of the gods. Yet the Saints can do pretty much anything the gods could do; heal diseases and illnesses, control the forces of nature, inspire human creativity and virtue, foretell the future, and so on. They do all this because of their union with the One who can do all things.

"Our dead are more powerful than your gods; what do you suppose that says about our God?"
Vivat Christus Rex!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Blogging Overhaul

I'm going to put this short and sweet; I don't blog nearly enough to justify maintaining four or five different blogs. I'm spread too thin, dealing with too many different fronts, and meanwhile I think some of my generals are planning to assassinate me...sorry, that metaphor kind of got away from me.

The point is that I've decided to shutter all my other blogs and simply post all my material (with the exception of my fiction) here. Reviews, life-updates, musings on religion and culture, all of them are going on Catholic Nerd. This is going to be my one and only public blog from now on, and as such it'll be getting a bit of an overhaul in the coming days/weeks to make it more suitable to be the single basket that holds all them eggs.

I'll keep the other blogs up and link back to them (since I don't want to clutter this one up with all those archives) but won't be adding to them. If you've subscribed to them, you should change over to this one.

Vivat Christus Rex!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Why I Saw Ender's Game

I went to see Ender's Game last night.

It was pretty good: it's not gonna be one of my favorites, but it was definitely smarter and more thought-provoking than almost any other of the teen-fiction-films we've had to date. In fact, it almost serves as a cutting subversion of the genre, with its teen hero deliberately put through hell in order to forge him into a master commander. It was also good to see Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley in actually decent roles for a change (Ford in particular hasn't had a role this good since...well, a long time). I also appreciated that the film kept the bold twist ending from the book, which certainly isn't the kind of thing you expect from a big Hollywood picture (I haven't read the book, but I was aware of the twist going in. It still was shocking).

But honestly, I didn't go because I was particularly interested in the film. I'm glad I saw it, don't get me wrong, but it wasn't on my 'must see' list.

I felt like I had a moral obligation to go because of Orson Scott Card:the book's author. I really know nothing about him except for two facts; one, he wrote Ender's Game, one of the most acclaimed and popular science-fiction books of recent decades. Two, he opposes 'same-sex marriage.' In the world we live in, the second is apparently more important than the first. Card's lost business because of his stance; he's been fired from writing gigs (including a Superman issue) because of protests and angry letters. It seems like almost every review of the movie felt the need to mention Card's views. Keep in mind, none of this has to do with anything he wrote: nothing in Ender's Game deals with homosexuality in any way (except, possibly, a brief line where a blowhard sergeant threatens to 'neuter' any cadets who are found in the opposite sex's bathroom). It all has to do with his personal views. His, let it be said, entirely reasonable personal views.

I felt an obligation to pay to see his movie, not just because I agree with him (again, the issue don't really come up in the movie). But because I too am a writer, and hope to one day make a profession of it. If I do, I fully expect to meet the exact same vitriol and hatred as Card has, and for the exact same reason. So, I think I need to offer him such support as I can, knowing full well that I'll probably need it myself one day. "Do as you would be done by: this is the Law and the Prophets."

Vivat Christus Rex!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Happy Halloween!

I love Halloween.

Halloween is, to me, a celebration of a primal human need; the need to, for lack of a better term, play: to hold mock-battles, to imaginatively incarnate the evils and trials of the world into villains and monsters so that they can be slain. You can’t beat up lust or anger, but you can beat up vampires and werewolves. It’s tough, and they’re dangerous and all, but you can do it. If not, there’s always silver bullets, wooden stakes, big honkin’ shotguns and other monster-killing paraphernalia.

The point is, the impulse to create monsters and horror – to scare ourselves – is a good and healthy one (though, like all things, it can be perverted). It’s fun to be scared by a ghost story or a horror movie, just like it’s fun to jump out of an airplane with a parachute on. Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, Kharis the Mummy, and so on wouldn’t be any fun at all if they were chasing us for real of course. But in fiction we enjoy the shiver of dread as we watch the stiff, painfully-rehearsed way Dracula pours the “very old wine,” all the while keeping his eyes on his victim. We like being creeped out by Kharis’s glittering black eyes (or, for the more discerning tastes, the creaking menace of Imhotep). Monsters like that not only scare us, but they comfort us as well; they take up residence in our consciousnesses and serve as endless sources of jokes and knowing references.

It’s play and story-telling; two of the most ancient of mankinds weapons against evil. They help us to make sense of the senseless; to trap it in images and make it vulnerable, rather like how Nancy pulls Freddy from the dream-world into the real-world, forcing him to fight on her terms (man, I love Nancy!). Stories and games can make us braver, more resilient to the trials and temptations of life.

See, the trouble is that real evil is something that is both very like nothing (indeed, there is no such thing as pure evil, because evil is only a negation or corruption of something good) and, as such, it is very subtle and impossible to pin down. The devil can take any shape or persona he likes. Stories, and especially horror stories, are attempts to ‘pin him down:’ to force him into a specific shape for the duration of the story so he can be defeated. This helps us build ‘habits’ for defeating him in the real world. The more and better stories we ingest, the more monsters we vicariously defeat, the more horrors we imaginatively endure, the more ‘trained’ we become to face him.

That’s one part of it. The other is that a really good horror story will showcase something of the ‘bad news:’ the fallen nature of humanity. Take Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for instance, in which the good doctor discovered just what was lurking inside his own soul and lost himself to it. Or The Picture of Dorian Gray, about a depraved young man’s inability to escape his own conscience. Or Halloween, about the irrational evil lurking beneath the surface even in the most ordinary of places.

C.S. Lewis (who knew how to write horror very well) said that Christianity has nothing to say to people who don’t think they need to be saved. A good horror story helps show just how deadly and universal evil really is, and how foolish we are to think that we’re “okay just the way we are.”  No, the world has too much corruption, too many spiritual dangers and temptations for us to think of ourselves as ‘safe.’ Being confronted with zombies or ghosts or werewolves invites us to look at ourselves and the world we live in, to see the darkness lurking just out of sight, and so to realize just how scared we ought to be.

Of course, fear doesn’t have the last word; we don’t live in a world of Lovecraftian elder gods, but of the One God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ and died to save us from that very evil that so frightens us. We can enjoy imaginary fear and danger all the more because we know that, in the real world, we don’t have to be afraid.

Vivat Christus Rex!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Metroids as an Analogy for Sin

                Metroids are the most dangerous creatures in the galaxy. They look something like large jellyfish, only with mandibles instead of tentacles, and they float around until a living thing gets close, then they latch on and such all the energy out of it. Once they’ve sucked out enough, they divide into two and begin again, so two become four, four become eight, and so on.
                What’s more, they’re devilishly tricky to kill. They absorb energy, remember, so guns, lasers, explosions, lightning, and so forth don’t do any good and might just make them stronger. And their bodies are so malleable, so soft, yet tough, that they can’t be beaten, cut, or smashed (even if you wanted to risk getting close enough to try). The only way you can kill them is to first freeze them, then hit them hard with something powerful enough to shatter them, like a missile.  

                The image of the all-but invincible, ever-multiplying parasite is, I think, a good metaphor for sin. Like Metroids, sin is parasitic; it draws its strength from its ‘host.’ It is our free will, our choices to sin, that give sin its power. Also, just as Metroids multiply the more energy they drain, so sin multiplies the more we indulge in it. What was a harmless way to blow off steam after work grows into a wallet-draining, marriage destroying addiction within an alarmingly short space of time. Sin indulged breeds more and worse sin; once you cross a moral line, it is nigh-impossible to return, and the next line begins to beckon you. The more you do, the more you’re willing to do, until finally the life-sucking parasites multiply to the point that they eliminate all life on the planet (that metaphor kind of got away from me).
                So how do you kill sin? First, you have to ‘freeze’ it; make a firm resolution to reform, cut yourself off from temptation as much as you can. In short, make it as hard as possible for you to sin. Put a filter on your computer, then your computer in the living room, then stay off your computer as much as possible. Avoid the people and situations that cause you to blow up in anger. Stay out of bars and away from parties.
Then ‘blast it with a missile;’ here meaning intense prayer, service, other interests, spending time with family and friends, or building ‘replacement’ habits. Instead of that beer, you drink coffee. Instead of smoking, you eat jelly beans.

"Die, Metroid! Die!"

                The important thing about the latter is to find an alternate and non-evil way to get the desired result (the ‘reward’ of a habit). Thus the alternative to an unhealthy habit like smoking is a comparatively healthy one like eating jellybeans, which gives you a similar kind of satisfaction via the taste and sugar, but without the lung-cancer. Even Love and Mercy can be a kind of alternative means of satisfying our desire to punish, as responding to evil with good often leads the other person to be ashamed of himself; a much more thorough punishment than any we could devise (as St. Paul says, we “heap coals upon their heads”).  
                But remember; first you need to freeze the sin. You have to resolve to eradicate it and work to limit your exposure to it as much as possible. If you don’t freeze it first, all the missiles in the world won’t help you. As with everything you do, overcoming sin begins with a choice.

Vive Christus Rex!