The Christmas Spirit in Gate B2

"Indianapolis #1" by Claire P. (_rockinfree) used under Creative CommonsKaren and I travel a significant distance for one of the two winter holidays each year. We’ve kept this pattern in some form or other since we’ve been married, as a way to make certain both ends of the family are allotted equivalent time. The issue that we encounter is that traveling in the winter is, well…interesting. Each year promises to be unpredictable…it could be a smooth travel experience (one year was eight hours flat, from the time we walked into the airport until the time we set our bags down on the floor of the guest room), or it could be an insanely frustrating experience, such as the time we sat in an airport terminal for seven hours waiting for a “ground stop” to be lifted.

This year we booked an early flight, keeping the entire departing trip scheduled around our daughter’s nap routine. Had everything run anything close to smoothly, we would have been putting her into the rental car just in time for her to snooze away the last leg of the journey. Instead, we encountered one of those travel days…

After waking up ridiculously early to catch our first flight, we had to wait for de-icing (hooray for living in New England). That was just enough of a delay to find out that the airport where we were connecting had issued a “ground stop” (a traveler’s tip…when you hear those words, you are hopelessly, hopelessly screwed). Eventually, that flight was cancelled. After being re-booked, we were still sitting in the origin airport when our daughter should have been napping, only to find out our re-booked flight was delayed. We were told we could still make our connector after arriving at a new connecting airport with 20 minutes to spare…except that a flight ahead of us apparently experienced an emergency and had to be landed before everyone else, which resulted in our having ten minutes to walk several gates away, take a shuttle, walk several more gates…we didn’t make it. We thus re-booked again, and instead of arriving at any sort of sane time, we arrived at midnight.

That, dear reader, would cause the most saintly among us to have a short temper.

During two of our many layovers, though, some cool things happened. Another family who was awaiting a delayed flight was traveling with three children, who began playing ball at the gate. Our daughter joined in, and had great fun. Even though she’s barely able to understand the concept of throwing a ball at this point, let alone the mechanics, she thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing with the other children.

While waiting in the gate for our final flight of the day, two other children came up to introduce themselves to our daughter. They were much older than she, but there were no other children in the terminal, and they were looking for a playmate with which to pass the time. My wife got involved, as did a college student who was already waiting when we arrived, and soon there was a full-on game of duck-duck-goose in the middle of the gate. At first, people seemed uncomfortable with it. Slowly, though, a crew member who looked like he was finished for the day and flying as a passenger began smiling, Then a guy in a Marines t-shirt smiled. The smiles were contagious, and loosened everyone’s mood (we were far from the only delayed travelers that day). Even I was less grumpy afterward. There was innocence in that terminal again, a sense of merriment as we waited for yet another delayed flight, a pervasive sense that even the most frustrating of circumstances would be overcome by this season that we hold so dear.

Christmas was an odd experience this year…as we fall back into what was our normal family holiday rhythm after a chaotic year, there were a lot of things that were comfortingly normal, and others that were oddly out of place or accidentally overlooked. What seemed most profound about my Christmas week, though, was the feeling of watching my wife and daughter and a group of complete strangers disrupt the tense atmosphere of an airport terminal with the laughter and all-around noise of a children’s game. There was something pure about that, even holy, perhaps. Christmas truly began for me in that moment.

I hope that, whenever yours began, it has been blessed.

Photo Attribution: _rockinfree under Creative Commons

A Tribute to a Blanky

Tiny Blankie

‘Tis the season for…well, the season for stuff, all too often. This is the time of year, after all, in which we collect seemingly endless amounts of stuff. Often, I think that stuff is intended to be used as a coping skill. We cling to certain things, because they make us feel more comfortable, more safe in certain situations. When life becomes stressful or out of control, we find that item that makes us feel safe and hold onto it.

Not all stuff is needless accumulation, though. I’m reminded of that, as well, as I look around at our Christmas decorations. Our tree is decorated almost exclusively with ornaments from our past adventures, both in our life together and before we met, and it’s a very important and spiritual experience for me to reflect on that. I have a small porcelain Christmas tree that my mother gave to me as a gift when I was young, and this will be passed on to our daughter. It has no financial value to speak of, but a huge value in the fact that it reminds me of my mother and, as we age and she will eventually pass on, it will become even more valuable…I hope even to our daughter’s children.

While I don’t believe in accumulating stuff, I do think that it’s important to have and hold onto those sorts of important items in life. They serve as markers for us to focus on important things.

Our daughter started early in that regard.

When we were expecting, one of Karen’s co-workers knit a blanket for our daughter. The blanket had a pattern in it that equals 42, because we’re geeks and that, after all, is the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Karen thought it would be a really cool idea to have a second blanket, a sort of substitute in case the main blanket got dirty and needed washed, and her co-worker generously made a second, smaller version, this one without the special pattern, but otherwise a smaller duplicate of the first blanket.

Our daughter slept with them from the day she joined us, and they became her security. She clung to them as she learned to calm herself after being upset. They have affectionately become known as Tiny Blanky and Big Blanky. We developed a system: Big Blanky was the most important, so Tiny Blanky went on trips and outings, in case she needed to sleep in the car, but still keeping the primary Blanky safe at home.

The first time our daughter got really sick, she threw up on both of them in the same evening, and was up until the wee hours of the morning crying and unable to sleep because Blankies were absent as we washed and dried them for her.

Blankies were important. Very, very important.

Karen texted me at work one afternoon late this week. She had made a quick run to Ikea to return some odds and ends that we had purchased and decided we didn’t need (ironically, she was acting to prevent the accumulation of stuff). She was leaving the store when they discovered that Tiny Blanky was not with them. Re -tracing steps, talking to security, consulting with lost-and-found…all resulted in nothing.

Tiny Blanky was lost.

Karen spoke of the sadness that she and our daughter talked through in the store, of how bravely our daughter handled the loss. It seems silly, to be so sad over a blanket, especially when Big Blanky is still safely at home for her to sleep with. But, Tiny Blanky had become a fixture, often in her hand as she walked here or there, requested frequently when out and about. Tiny Blanky, an inanimate object, had assumed a personality of sorts. Our daughter is sad, and told me so, but bravely moves on with life.

What’s really sad is that Karen and I sat around after our daughter was asleep for the night, and spoke of how depressed we both are that Tiny Blanky is gone. And while we hope we will be called by the store saying they’ve had a blanket turned in, and while I will make whatever time necessary in my schedule to get it if they do, we’ve moved to acceptance now. I’m much more aware of the need to keep track of Big Blanky, so that it can be kept for her and hopefully even held onto as an adult, so that she can remember the story. After all, Big Blanky was lovingly made and is one of a kind. It’s of great importance to our daughter, and thus of great importance to us. And I’m certain that it will continue to be in her hand as she explores the world.

The day Tiny Blanky was lost, though…that was a sad day for our family.

Tiny Blanky, thank you for all that you did. You will be missed.

Amazonian Losses

"Drone and Moon" by Don McCullough used under Creative Commons

There was a lot of stir last week after Amazon’s CEO announced that he intends to have packages delivered by drone aircraft to many areas, often in under an hour from the time that they are ordered. Everyone has been talking about it since the interview, and futurists have been abuzz. I’m a bit of a futurist myself, and as much as the idea gave me pause at first, the idea of tiny robots buzzing over our heads carrying out day-to-day business sort of excited me a bit, I’ll admit. Visions of futuristic movies and books that I read as a child danced through my head. When I think about it for a more than about a moment, though, it leaves me with concerns.

Let’s ignore the obvious fact that such deliveries aren’t legal in the U.S., and that the likelihood of them becoming legal, even to suit the influence of a business as huge as Amazon, isn’t high. Well, at least I hope that’s the case. I think the thing that troubles me the most about the reasoning behind wanting to make this happen is the perceived need of the public to have what they order so quickly. This is the issue of instant gratification taken to an entirely new level.

And speaking of levels, there are levels to this, layers of issues beginning to manifest, I think. First is the fact that we feel we are entitled to have what we want in under an hour, and that we shouldn’t have to leave our sofa to receive it. Secondly is the consumerist culture that permits us to have enough influence so as to dictate this need. Thirdly is the damage that we are doing to ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually by refusing to slow down as we are able to increasingly have whatever, whenever.

I’m certainly no hermit curmudgeon who is opposed to technology…I make my living in web technologies, and I love the progress that we make as a culture as we build new tools to assist us with our daily lives, to connect with each other in new ways. I’ll also admit up front that I’m not at all a fan of Amazon, not the least reason for which is their monopoly over book sales and the way that they treat authors. Those caveats aside…

This whole thing just makes cringe as I picture a tiny helicopter-like device landing on the balcony of our apartment with whatever I ordered 20 minutes ago. I truly can’t imagine what I could need that fast, what I could feel that I had that much of an entitlement to have immediately.

Our national ethos is one of transforming every aspect of daily life into a business. We can buy or sell anything, and, ultimately, anyone. We “consume” instead of engage, we accumulate, we are hopelessly distracted. We fill the voids that these activities leave in our lives with more stuff, and the faster that we can get that stuff, the more we can avoid the void. Which means we soon won’t notice it at all in our mountains of instantly-delivered possessions.

We won’t notice the very void that causes us to lose ourselves.

Photo Attribution: Don McCullough under Creative Commons

A Review of “Thor: The Dark World”

We now know that earth is but one of nine realms, known beyond our planet as Midguard. We know that we’ve been visited by beings from another realm known as Asgard, beings so powerful that they spawned mythology and were thought to be gods by ancient cultures. We know that this visitation led to all sorts of issues for New York and led to the formation of a loosely-knit team of heroes called the Avengers.

What we didn’t know until now, but what Asgardians at least knew, is that once in a very rare while, the nine realms become perfectly aligned. Gravitational and reality-bending phenomena occur during this alignment, and the release of powers that were previously impossible can occur. This alignment is known as Convergence, and Convergence is where we begin Thor’s second installment in the Marvel cinematic canon, two years after his original disappearance back to Asgard.

The last time Convergence occurred, a war-mongering race called the Dark Elves sought to unleash a power known as the Aether. While the Dark Elves were defeated by Odin’s father, the Aether itself is unable to be destroyed, and was buried deep in an unknown place in some un-named realm where it would never be found…until, through the events taking place in Convergence, a hapless Jane Foster not only stumbles upon the Aether, but is possessed by its power.

And nothing brings Thor into the battle more quickly than his true love being in danger.

Thor: The Dark World outshines Thor’s first film in every way, and I say that acknowledging up front that I loved the first film. In this second film, though, we see Thor as every bit the reluctant hero, not seeking any glory for himself, and even less eager in the character flaw that is his love for a good fight. Here, we see Thor nobly defending the one he loves, and defending the earth that he has sworn to protect. Yet, we still see Thor as the warrior he is, and as he brings Mjolnir to bear as he rushes into battle (and his first entrance onto the screen is an outstanding one), you’ll find yourself cheering more than one jaw-dropping occasion as he fells his enemies.

This film leaves you with no doubts that, when the lightning sears the sky and Thor of Asgard swoops into the battle, things just got serious.

And, while every super-hero story must revolve around that climactic battle of good against evil, that battle is not what this movie is about, at least not in the physical sense. The battles that are fought within the characters are so much more profound, and stay with you after the film ends so much more. They wrestle with impossible hope, they wrestle with grief, they dig deep for courage. Each of our major characters in this film franchise are developed at a much deeper level in these two hours, skillfully painted by the Yost, Marcus, and McFeely. We find ourselves standing taller at Thor’s belief and hope that even the most evil can be redeemed, and stand for what he believes, even when it means possibly being ostracized by the father whose favor he so desires. We sympathize with Selvig’s self-doubt, and we warm to Jane Foster’s scattered distraction against what she feared would be a broken heart. We even find ourselves touched by a level of humanity in Loki that we never thought possible, even if it is a fleeting one.

The pacing of the film is superb. You find yourself knowing that someone is going to die in these battles, and I felt the anxiety well up in my stomach as I was completely uncertain as to who that might be. The comic relief is expertly-timed, and prevents the tragic moments in the film from becoming overbearing. This superb craft on the part of the director shines even more when combined with outstanding performances by each actor involved. Hemsworth gives a range to Thor that we had yet to see prior to this film, and Portman’s few seconds of scattered dialogue when she first encounters Thor again accomplishes more for her character than many actors could accomplish in an hour. Skarsgard brings a new dimension to Erik Selvig, who has not fared well since the invasion of New York, and, of course, Hiddleston continues to evolve Loki in a haunting way. We also see Odin’s faults at the fore, thanks to a top-notch performance by Sir Anthony Hopkins.

The visual effects are epic, and draw the viewer through an exploration of the nine realms with breath-taking expanse. These visual effects are also quite prominent throughout the film, as the numerous CG artists in the ending credits will attest. If you’re the sort of purist who thinks that a good film doesn’t involve a green screen, then you may have problems with this.
I should also mention…and I won’t do spoilers here…that you should be prepared for plot twists.

Otherwise, in fairness, I’m really trying to come up with a reason that one wouldn’t enjoy this movie, whether or not you are a comic book fan. Perhaps this is because Marvel studios has done so well at making those who weren’t already fans into fans. This film, as objectively as I can see, though, is simply well-written, well-acted, and well-directed, and it’s a high-fantasy adventure that found me as reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons at times as it did the comic books of my youth. Thor is, perhaps more than any other hero in the Marvel universe, and hero of conviction, and will defend what he believes to be right and good despite the cost. His films continue to hold a unique place in the Marvel universe as he continues to be a hero to which even heroes aspire. Make the time to see this if you haven’t already (this review comes a couple of weeks after it’s release). You will not be disappointed.

And, in case you haven’t learned this yet (although I can’t imagine how you wouldn’t have), stay through the credits for not one, but two hidden endings. The first made me think of classic Dr. Who, and the second…well the second is just simply what we were (im)patiently awaiting for the other two hours.