Holiday Retrospective

Somewhere around the second year of our marriage, Karen and I decided that we should have a family computer. We had both been Mac users for a long time, and we each brought our grad school laptops to the marriage, which were beginning to become dated and underperform basic tasks. So, we purchased a desktop Mac into which we consolidated both of our old laptops. All of the things from grad school and earlier transferred into users on the new machine, and life moved forward.

That computer lasted us until only months ago, at which point we upgraded. The users on our old computer? Transferred right over, meaning that everything from grad school and earlier is still there. The end result of this is that my email application has a habit of storing “archive” messages from forever ago. When it does so, it stores everything in the email conversation…the original email, the replies, every part of the thread. Entire conversations that I had long forgotten about there at your fingertips when you find yourself wasting time (as I was a few weeks ago), and wanting to browse through the past.

Karen and I were part of the same theatre group for some time, and there are a lot of conversations with other members preserved in these records. Conversations with members of our old faith community about the things that were going on in our lives. I miss those friends, with all too many of whom I’ve fallen out of touch.

I love the opportunity to live in different places. You never know when you move to a new place if you’re going to like it or not…sometimes it’s a wonderful experience, sometimes a terrible one, but always an experience from which one grows. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking that I’ve only one or two big moves left in me. Partly this is because I’m starting to feel old, but I think that this falling out of touch is a large part of the problem. After moving back to the South recently, we’ve had the chance to re-connect with many old friends that now live only a few minutes or hours away instead of all the way down the East coast. I’ve cherished those opportunities, but I’ve discovered, as well, just how dynamic all of our lives are.

I mean, that works out well in theory…we know we’re not static, that our experiences and relationships are always altering the way we navigate through this journey called life…but it’s much more striking in practice. As we’ve re-connected with old friends, I’ve noticed profound differences at times, even to the point that I’m not certain friendships would have formed between some of us had we met now. I’ve also heard the stories of what has transpired in their lives since last we were in regular contact, and I understand, at some basic level, why these changes have happened. I’m only left wondering how it is that I’ve changed, how different I must seem to these old friends.

Advent is winding down, and Christmas in mere days away. I’ve lived long enough, and traveled around enough, to have friends in many places. Most of them I won’t speak to before Christmas aside from cursory greetings on cards, but there are days when I carry them all with me heavily through the day.

It’s frighteningly difficult to remember at times how interconnected our lives are. Today, we are interconnected despite geographical distances. I hope we can all slow down this week and remember each other, because that’s a part of what the Holiday Season is about.

Christmas Climates

When I was young, I was steeped in the traditional religious imagery that light represents good, and dark represents evil. There’s precedent for this, after all. The healing power of sunlight is well-documented, and certainly I don’t have a great history of functioning well when deprived of it. Contributing much to my image as…different…in my religious circles when I was young, though, was the fact that, as much I love the sunshine, I’ve always found something pure, something very holy, about night. There’s something about the darkness, the quiet, the peace of standing outside after most people are retiring for the night, that somehow puts life into perspective.

It’s easier to pray when you can quiet the noise in your head, and that’s always been when I can do it best.

Christmas last year was…anticlimactic. When we lived in Virginia, there was at least some semblance of winter to mark the season, and at the time I thought that it was just enough. While I loved living in New England, shoveling out from under feet of snow was not my most favorite way to ring in the holidays, but it did harken back to my childhood. Last year was my first Christmas in North Carolina, and it was marked by high temperatures and torrential rains of Biblical proportions. Not really my idea of a good time.

The thing about winter weather is, it doesn’t seem so terrible after you’ve experienced a winter without it. Winter in North Carolina is marked by brown lawns and bare trees. While I’ve still been in a t-shirt and shorts lately, for the last month we’ve been surrounded by something that a good snowfall normally conceals: the fact that everything looks dead. Either it looks dead in plentiful sunlight, or it looks dead while awash in days of unending rain. Either way, one struggles to see life in this.

When we moved to North Carolina, I was torn between emotional extremes. I was sad to leave New England, and I continue to miss it terribly to this day. Still, we have good friends here, and I was looking forward to seeing them again, and to be able to say that I had lived somewhere else new. Living in different places, after all, is such an important life experience. I worked really hard to push my homesickness aside and allow myself to experience this (very) different culture.

If I can blame last Christmas’ anticlimax on homesickness, then this year’s scapegoat is overwork. The absence of regular posts here is certainly indicative of how hectic life has been with both the blessing of a great deal of work, and the preparations that come with expecting the addition of a second baby girl in just a few weeks. Life has been busy.

Earlier this week, I was outside taking care of around-the-house chores around 8:00 p.m., well after dark in December. It was warm…mind-bogglingly warm after living in New England…and I paused to take in our neighborhood. It was quiet. A breeze blew through bare branches, and rustled the wrapping paper decorations on our neighbor’s front door. Two homes in our cul-de-sac have somewhat elaborate outdoor Christmas light shows. The culture of an area becomes a more ethereal experience in those moments, something that you can absorb more than you can define. I thought of how raking and bagging leaves is the activity that takes place two weeks before Christmas here, not operating a snow-blower. I thought about our friends here, old and new, several of whom have either grown up in, or at least lived in this area for many years, and that this is the Advent season that they know. The extreme difference between this and what I know as the holiday season makes this no less sacred, no less meaningful.

In that moment, standing in the darkness and feeling a warm breeze in December, I found myself much more motivated to dig deeply to find the positive in the experience of another Southern Christmas. There’s much to be said for the spiritual state of contentment, and it’s something at which I’ve never been particularly good.

This year, I believe I’ll try harder.

Blessed Advent to you.

A Review of Marvel’s “Jessica Jones”

Jessica Jones is a very interesting choice of characters for Marvel’s second installment in their direct-to-Netflix Defenders chronology, particularly because she’s never a Defender. For a more general audience, though, this is an even more interesting choice because Jessica Jones isn’t the sort of comic book character that’s “mainstream” in the geek knowledge-base. She’s more niche geek, if you will. That said, she’s played a role in the Avengers and crossed paths with other characters from Hell’s Kitchen, notably Daredevil and, more consistently, Luke Cage, so this series makes sense in a courageous way from Netflix’s perspective.

For those who don’t know, Jessica Jones receives her superhuman abilities in childhood following an accident, and her attempts at being a hero (de-emphasized in the writing of this series) don’t end well as she falls into the hands of Zebediah Kilgrave. She instead becomes a private detective. In the series, this is less from a desire to do good than it is to “make a living in this…town,” but she’s also good at it, although catching others in extramarital affairs is less than glamorous.

I liked the directorial choice to emphasize the “private eye” element of this story, because it’s part of what sets Jones’ character apart. The opening score is outstanding, full or noir-ish appeal blended with modern edge that captures the character and her landscape perfectly. The score becomes extremely important as the series progresses, because it doesn’t recur regularly. In fact most episodes open without it, and the entire opening credits sequence is only used to mark a new act, as it were, in the story. The directors make use of this creative decision quite effectively.

Overall, the writers have been very faithful to the characters, as well. We see adapted origin stories, as is expected at some level when the stories move to the screen, but they are still handled mostly with respect to the canon. We see a fringe villain introduced, and I’m very impressed with Rachael Taylor’s (of Transformer’s fame) portrayal of Jessica’s friend, Trish Walker…aka Patsy Walker, aka one of Marvel’s oldest heroes, Hellcat. While we don’t see any costumed identity launched in this season for Trish, we certainly see a respectable groundwork laid for her, which I’m in hopes Marvel will develop further.

The writers have also impressed with their introduction of Luke Cage. This was sort of necessary, as it would be impossible to divorce Jones’ and Cage’s stories and still remain faithful to the comics canon (their romantic involvement anchors multiple story arcs). Cage is gritty and real. His conversation over breakfast with Jones about the nature of their abilities and the stories of their acquisition is pleasing to any serious fan in its brevity and light-heartedness. One of the things done well here is that the characters are all picked up well after their origins. We don’t see them acquire their powers, we only see how they’ve learned to adapt their lives to having them. These are characters, as Captain America phrases it in the printed version of Civil War, who are “close to the street.” They don’t don costumes and fight alien invasions (at least not yet). They fight to survive the evil around them, and hopefully save some other lives in the process.

What’s particularly compelling about Jessica Jones as a character is that she flees from heroism, but, in the literature at least, only after trying to use her abilities for good in that way. Here, we don’t see Jones wanting toward being a hero in an overt way. Although her impulse is to save those in trouble when she has the option, her goal is survival. Still, we see this survival instinct as only a secondary desire to revenge, to the point that she is willing to sacrifice several other lives in order stop Kilgrave late in the series. She even tells Trish at one point, “I’m still not the hero you want me to be.”

Another outstanding point in the series is both the writers’ treatment of, and David Tenant’s performance of, Kilgrave. Felt as much in his absence in early episodes, descriptions of him from other characters paint him in a manner to match the very visible outcomes of the use of his powers. That is, we see Kilgrave’s actions before we meet him, and the result is a villain that is, without question, terrifying. Kilgrave leaves the viewer disturbed, shaken, and questioning their own thoughts on many evenings after watching one of these episodes. This could be the most insidious villain we’ve seen from Marvel Studios to date, and that’s no small accomplishment.

Unfortunately, what the writers and directors did well in plot and treatment, they nearly destroyed with lack of taste. Something that sets apart Netflix’s presentation of the characters of Hell’s Kitchen is their brooding realism. The violence is more violent (something that detracted heavily from Daredevil’s first season), the darkness darker, the passions more full in this depraved section of New York. The directors of Jessica Jones made poor decisions to take sexual elements that were necessary to the story and transform them into the most racy and most crass scenes possible, giving minutes of graphic screen time to the plot point that two characters slept with one another. Similarly, a lot of screen time is given to two attorneys whose romance, while hardly worth mentioning in the overall plot of the season, was given extended time in multiple episodes, as though only there for public opinion points, not for the story. While the violence is not as overstated as Daredevil, there a several moments when the resulting gore certainly is. The blood and shock value is numbing, causing the viewer to detach rather than engage the evil acts of Kilgrave.

That’s just bad art.

Then, there’s the dialogue.

For everything that the writers did well in plotting this season, they fell short of in dialogue. The banter between characters does manage to have a few scattered bright moments (likely due to the actors’ performances saving the scenes), but, overall, interactions between characters (especially those who are not leads) leaves much to be desired. Most distracting is the writer’s love a very specific obscenity.  While there are very notable exceptions in which a very good writer can get by with this, this isn’t that writer and not one of those moments. When one character’s speech cadence is marked by an obscenity as a pausal phrase, then that’s a character. When every character’s speech cadence uses the same, that’s the mark of a writer who cannot find the characters’ voices. This distracted me severely enough to make me miss important information more than once.

That’s just bad craft.

There’s an intentional harmony, or at least an attempt at one, made in several moments here…a discord between Jones’ heroic impulses and the pragmatism forced on her by her environs. There’s a glimpse of the costume that she wore in the comics as Jewel that delights fans, for certain, but also references so subtle as to be easily missed when she intervenes on behalf of those who can’t help themselves, and another characters tells her at one point, “You’re a good person, Jessica Jones.” Jessica simply swaggers away, maintaining her facade that she needs no one else around, and continues to survive. This lack of overt heroism, however, is not as much of a detractor from Jones’ character as one might imagine. Rather, it actually makes her more compelling, an extremely human struggle to move past trauma and take the journey from anti-hero to hero, which is where we see our tough-as-nails P.I. in the last scene.

Jessica Jones is a fascinating character full of potential, someone original that gives a lot of depth to the Marvel Universe on the page. She can give this depth to the on-screen universe, as well, if she can survive poor writing and directing. This season, while it did a lot of good things, was mostly lost to bad taste. I hope that future installments will be back to (at least) the level of what began with Daredevil. If you intentionally dig for the good as you watch this season of Jessica Jones, you’ll find it. Otherwise, it will seem like every other program that you might watch on HBO, and you’ll move on. If you’ve never met the character before, that would be a shame, but it’s true.