Not So Super-Sized

Fast Food Icons: cosplayers as fast food characters

One summer a few years ago, before having our daughter, Karen and I were taking a road trip to visit some family. We left late, after she had finished teaching her night class, and neither of us had eaten dinner. We didn’t want to stop and take time, as we were hoping to arrive at our destination before it could be called tomorrow, so we decided to do something that was quite unusual for us: utilize a drive-through.

We chose Sonic, because, we reasoned in our hungered state, that it was at least slightly better than the evil golden arches and, if eat fast food we must, then it should at least be of some semblance of freshness.

We concluded our road trip with the feeling that we had bricks sitting firmly in our stomachs. And perhaps some concrete. Bleh.

Our family eats out with some degree of regularity, but generally not at fast food places. Part of the reason is that I worked at one (I’ll leave it nameless), and I’ve seen what happens behind the scenes. I’ve seen and handled the frozen burgers before they’re thrown onto the grill for a few moments and then placed on a burger. I seen the grease in which the fries are cooked. I’ve seen the chicken nuggets before they’re cooked. I would have to be pretty desperate to put that garbage into my system, and that’s something upon which Karen and I firmly agree.

When I read the scurfuffle regarding the enormous discrepancy in pay between the CEOs and the front-line workers in the fast food industry a few days ago, I, of course, felt a reaction. I don’t want to talk about the political issue here, though I certainly have my opinion on that. My thought was actually of a conversation that I had with a family member some months ago about how ridiculously fast-paced our lives have become since having children, and how the professional space insists upon consuming more and more of our time. We’re propelled through life at a warp speed that no starship of science fiction stories could ever hope to match. There’s no time to breathe, no time to think, no time to ponder and consider life, and…no time to prepare real food. So, to a window we drive.

The country that gave us the drive-through window, I reasoned, couldn’t ever be accused of being a patient culture.

One of the reasons that these CEOs make such a ridiculous amount of money (and please note that I’m not saying this is the only reason…I’m just leaving the politics out of this space) is that there’s a demand for a quick and easy solution to food. We have no time to cook, so we need something fast. And since so many of us need exactly that, the businesses that provide that fast alternative need a way to provide more of it…you guessed it…faster. That speed, of course, is mutually exclusive of quality.

As I sat down with family over the recent Easter holiday, I was reminded of how important an interpersonal event sharing a meal is. How spiritual an experience. Eating together…which means taking the time to savor the food before us and let our lives weave through each other for an hour or two…is a huge part of the human experience, and always has been. The more of our meals that occur in a car or involve throwing away a bag afterward, the less we get to engage in that experience. That experience is not a pleasure reserved for the wealthy, or the intelligentsia. It’s a part of who we are…a part that we’ve forsaken.

People are very wealthy because our culture can’t take the time to connect, to pause, to enjoy, to socialize.

That’s a part of this story that I fear we’ve overlooked…and a part that makes me quite, quite sad.

Photo Attribution: Doug Kline under Creative Commons

Moonlight Exposition

When I was young, my parents spent a great deal of effort teaching me things. I gravitated toward random trivia and facts. My theory is that this was due in part to the fact that my mother was a science fiction fan (specifically a Trekkie), which caused me to happen onto all sorts of various bits of knowledge. This was stuff that I could out-smart the other kids in class with, so I held onto it. I was the geeky kid who knew the names of all the dinosaurs, and could name all of the comic book characters in the educational comics that the teachers handed out to teach us to not do drugs.

When I was in the second grade, our teacher was teaching a unit on astronomy. Now, I remember precious little about the second grade, and what I do remember is embarrassing, but I fondly remember that day, because the teacher was talking about the moon. I raised my hand and proudly offered my bit of knowledge: the moon doesn’t glow on it’s own, I claimed. It glows because it’s reflecting the sun’s light from the other side of the globe.

The other children scoffed at this outlandish idea. And then the teacher vindicated me, proclaiming that I was correct.

I really like that memory.
Last week, I was unloading our daughter from the car upon arriving home for the evening. It was just dark out, and she pointed up to the sky and, with her (amazingly, profoundly, ridiculously) advanced verbal skills, began to describe to me how the full moon was glowing. And, so, I began explaining to her how it was reflecting the sun’s light from the other side of the globe.
Now, I hold absolutely no misconception that our two-year-old will have learned anything about astronomy that night. After all, night still happens “because the sun has gone to bed.” And those sorts of poetic explanations are far more important right now than any concrete, scientific facts. I loved seeing the world through her eyes in that moment, though…experiencing her wonder as she observes the things that I take for granted. It forces me to notice things again…things to which I had long ago grown de-sensitized. I enjoy explaining these sorts of things to her…the unique and the mundane, but especially the unique…because it’s more about building the habit of doing so at this point, I think.
When I was in the fifth grade (I think this was in the fifth grade), concluding my elementary school career, I remember reading a mystery for a class reading assignment. The teacher asked us to process clues in the story, and come to conclusions about how the crime had been committed. I offered that the glass from the broken window was laying outside the home, and thus someone hadn’t broken the window in, but rather it had been broken from the outside.
Yeah…my geekiness manifested early…
That was another one of those proud moments when I was vindicated by the teacher’s affirmation. I want a lot of those in our daughter’s life, and I think that they begin with Karen and I exposing her to random pieces of knowledge. That knowledge builds on itself. The way that the moon glows is just the beginning.
A very important beginning.
And I’m so privileged to get to share it.

A Review of “Captain America: The Winter Solider”

Captain America's Shield

When the Captain America: The First Avenger was nearing it’s release, I remember having a conversation with an old friend over coffee. He wondered what would be done with the character on film, the undertone being that he was concerned that Cap would be reduced to the hard-fighting, propagandized embodiment of the “American dream.” I refuted that the character has a long history of being much more than that, and the capacity was certainly there if the writers chose to realize it. Certainly they did in the first film, and I had high hopes…and high standards… for this week’s debut of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

I also find myself recalling another conversation with another friend who collected comics as I do. He operated a comic book interest group in the city where we lived, and said in one of our conversations that comic books provide a snapshot of where our culture is or has been at any given moment in history. I think that’s true. I also think that the potential for this is even greater as our heroes leap from the page (some beautifully, some less than spectacularly) onto the screen. If ever there was a super hero story to date that wrestled with the changing times in which we find ourselves, it is this film. If ever there were a character to wrestle with these massive issues and give hope in our fight to defend…or even to understand…our identity, it is Captain America. If ever there was a time to put these questions onto the screen, it’s now.

Oh, and those high standards? They were exceeded in nearly every way.

Steve Rogers, remember, is a man out of time, a member of the “greatest generation,” the product of an era when true freedom was felt to be threatened and a nation of people were willing to do whatever it took to defend that freedom. He is displaced to our current time, and left to sort out a country extremely different than the one for which he fought. Captain America symbolizes everything that we would want in a hero…good for the sake of good, annoyingly good, an ideal that is more powerful in spirit than in any physical capacity. You likely recall his line from the Avengers, when, saying that he had been told that America won the war when he emerged from his icy hibernation, he added, “They didn’t say what we had lost.” It’s hard to look at where we are and wonder if we haven’t lost a great deal. The ideal of sacrificing for what we believe isn’t in question. The question of our age is rather, what is it that we’re sacrificing? How far is too far, and what is it, exactly, that we believe?

This film does what the super hero genre is most uniquely qualified to do, and pulls that lingering question under a spotlight to be examined. Were I to isolate a single theme for The Winter Solider, it would be this: What is freedom? Nick Fury holds one ideal, and guides SHIELD in that path. “We take the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be.” He’s angry that Captain America won’t accept that ideal. After all, he reasons in early and very meaningful dialogue, Captain America’s generation got their hands dirty protecting freedom, and did things that they weren’t proud of. The Captain’s response is that they did indeed, but that they did so for freedom, not fear.

In a post-terror-attack world, has our definition of defending freedom become a reactionary one driven by fear? Conspiracy theorists would tell you that this has given rise to those who say that there is such a thing as too much freedom, those who would act for what they see is the greater good of the entire country without that country’s consent or permission. Our surveillance society concerns of today is the example that most likely leaps to mind, and the movie captures this fear, wrestles with it, forces the audience deeply into both sides and the answers at which they arrive to the questions, the questions that have to be asked. The movie asks them, in a way that I can’t recall a super hero story doing since the Watchmen came into print. And, while that might be shockingly high praise that will be off-putting to some, I’ll say in my defense that, in order to explore the character of Captain America as a sequel deserves, the writers had to delve deeply into the anxieties of the times, into the questions that we all have on our lips, just as Moore did with his anti-heroes. The difference here…the thing that Captain America symbolizes above all else…is that there is hope.

Captain America, after all, may be the first super hero, but he is also much more than a super hero. He is a symbol of the everyman, and someone who must probe the questions that we are frightened to probe. This film is simply just deeper than the rest of the Avengers canon, and, while the films preceding it have certainly laid the foundation for this, there just hasn’t been a film to date that was more capable than this one of exploring the issues at hand, and I am so glad that Brubaker, Markus and McFeely did not shy away from doing so, because this screenplay is simply, unquestioningly superb.

Fitting Marvel’s history of placing all-star casts in the Avengers films, this certainly is no exception. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson all bring outstanding performances to the screen, as do Cobie Smulders (who we discover may play a very important role in upcoming films?) and Anthony Mackie as he debuts the Falcon to our lineup of heroes. Evans allows Steve Rogers to develop as a character is huge ways here (his scene opposite Hayley Atwell is…wow…). Also, for long-time comic book fans, Agent 13 makes an appearance, hopefully the first of many, and I’m happy to see the thorough evolution of the Black Widow (and, if I may interject and channel the voices of long-time fans everywhere…please, Marvel…she needs her own film!).

My only complaint with the film, if this is a complaint at all, is that the themes which it explores are so huge, and it’s treatment of them so thorough, that the Winter Solider story arc (which I won’t spoil if you’re unaware of who he is) lacks a bit in where it could be taken. That is, by the end of almost two-and-a-half hours in the theatre, I wanted to see him developed more.

From a closer perspective, the choreography of the action sequences are generally excellent here, although the final and climactic face-off between Captain America and the Winter Solider became a bit too predictable. The pacing is ideal, giving the audience just enough time to relax before returning to the edges of their seats, and the plot twists…well, let’s just say I didn’t see this one coming.

Captain America is an iconic character for reasons that many don’t realize. He simultaneously symbolizes and calls into question our nation’s identity. This film realizes that potential, and I can’t imagine anyone not taking something huge away from the movie. Super hero fan or not, Avengers fan or not, you will not be disappointed here, you will be enriched.

And, just in case you’re not conditioned for it yet, don’t leave when the credits roll. There are not one, but two hidden endings, one of which introduces three important new characters to the Marvel universe.

I give Captain America: The Winter Soldier a solid ten out of five stars.

Image attribution: Andrew Buckingham under Creative Commons.

Acclimations and Adaptions

Theatre with footlights

I walked outside this morning on my way to the office and nearly swooned in the warmth. I actually rolled down my window at one point. It was almost…fifty degrees! I remember well the first week that I lived in Virginia. I moved there in January, being used to heavy sweaters and winter gear for at least two more months. That week I remember driving to class with no jacket on and my sunroof open. I thought I had reached Heaven. I’ve always hated the cold and hated winter, and here I was, perhaps finally free of it.

Now, ten years later and after two years in New England, I have perhaps finally acclimated in a sense, if my comfort with my window down this morning is any indication. It’s been a long time coming. I expected to be rudely re-acquainted with what a real winter was after so many years in the southeast, but I hadn’t expected it to be as severe as the two winters I’ve been through in New England. Harsh would be an inadequate descriptor. I’ve wrestled with a depression for a good portion of the last two years that I thought was a thing of the past.

That hasn’t been entirely seasonal in nature, though. Changing careers at this point in life is exciting, yes, but fraught with more stress than I had anticipated. I thought it would be rough, but I didn’t know it would be rough. I didn’t anticipate the long acclimation period to that, as well…to being in a position in which I knew information, but lacked experience. That’s not a situation in which I’ve often found myself for the last twelve years.

I suppose that, if I were to identify anything that I’ve taken away from this experience (other than I should listen to my instincts, because there are many ways in which this might have gone much more smoothly if I had…but that’s another post) it’s that I should avoid expectations. Difficult, because we enter every experience with expectations. That’s simply part of the human condition. The last two years of my life, though, are prime examples of how the act of entering into new experiences with a high expectation has resulted in an enormous amount of frustration and disappointment. I thought that life would be easier after this career change, that it would quickly reward my efforts, that our family would be in a better position both emotionally and financially. Life, unfortunately, and especially in our political and economic climate, is nowhere near that predictable or sunny.

In short, I don’t find us riding waves of familial success as I thought we would at this point. Rather, we are treading water in many ways.

Could this have been predicted? Perhaps some of it could have. This radical life change was entered into thoughtfully and prayerfully, though, and it was not impulsive. It’s just impossible to predict everything, or even most things. And, overall, it’s been worth the experience and has placed us in a better position in many ways. I wish, though, that my expectations hadn’t been as high, that I hadn’t permitted myself to build up this elusive ideal of what life would look like before reaching this point. Because, if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have hit quite as hard, perhaps, when the rough spots occurred.

Weather is unpredictable, both literally and metaphorically. Perhaps it’s better to accept that as the primary constant in our experiences.

Photo Attribution: dcJohn under Creative Commons