Dreams Can Break Your Heart

My wife and I saw La La Land last night. I found it dazzlingly entertaining, and even more than a bit moving. Emma Stone fully deserves her Oscar nomination (Ryan Gosling was fine, but his performance has been overrated). I think it’s one of my favorite films from last year.

I was genuinely surprised by the ending. (spoiler warning: Do NOT read on if you haven’t seen the film but plan to) Everything in the cinema playbook suggested that Mia and Sebastian belonged together. Their lives seemed inextricable. They were in love. But, at the film’s end, they had gained everything except one another. I think the question writer/director Damien Chazelle wants the audience to ask here is, “Are they happy?” The last glance in Sebastian’s jazz club suggests yes, but the whole alternative-history-what-could-have-been sequence suggests they know what they gave up on. I think this was a brilliant move by Chazelle, because it touches on something that is absolutely true about the way people live their lives. Some people achieve their dreams. Some people find a soulmate. The lucky ones do both; the pitiable ones do neither. But most people do one or the other, and which one they choose–the dream or the love–demands sacrifice of the other. Dreams can break your heart.

Though the movie is marketed as a peppy romantic musical, there’s a core of sadness to the whole story. I think that’s what I admired most about it. La La Land is about realizing your dreams, yes, but it’s also about losing them. And the alternative history sequence invites audiences to question whether Mia and Sebastian (though I think the key choice made here is Sebastian’s) chose the right thing. Was she right to go to France without him? Was he right to stay behind and try to open his club? Did they miss what’s most important?

It’s OK to ask these questions, because eventually we all have to. We all have to choose between good things. And when that moment comes, I think pros and cons lists fail to help us because what we need is not a scientific evaluation, but we need to know where home is. We need to know where we ought to lay our treasures. The gospel has a word for that, of course. I can’t help but wonder if its word to Mia and Sebastian would have been: People are more important than careers, and family and home are still there even when the dreams fade over time.

But I can’t sit in judgment. I wanted Mia and Sebastian to grow old together. Maybe that’s not what they wanted. The heart is a mysterious thing. Sometimes it sings and dances. Sometimes it’s just stuck in traffic.

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The Thrill Is Gone

Some scattered thoughts about that Sherlock finale….[warning: possible spoilers ahead]

  • To me, the whole of season 4 has been a scattered, hokey, delight-scarce mess. “The Final Problem” epitomized that characterization. Yes, it was interesting, in the same way that lots of lousy books get finished by virtue of sheer, morbid curiosity. But there was just too much that didn’t work.
  • Introducing Eurus feels like a desperation move by writers who killed off their best villain too soon and realized it too late. The explanation given for why Sherlock has no memory of her was not particularly compelling; the idea that the world’s greatest analytical mind could somehow miss the entire existence of a deeply psychotic sister (one who partnered with her brother’s greatest enemy!!) is silly. It kicks against the entire show’s narrative portrait of its hero.
  • Sherlock, Watson, and Mycroft’s being tortured in a “game” setting was a good device and had a lot of potential. It was completely wasted. The low point was when the girl in trouble on the airplane turned out to be a split-personality Eurus, crumpled up in a Freudian heap on the floor of their family mansion. Sorry, but if you want Sean Maguire to put his arm on you and whisper, “It’s not your fault,” go do that instead of Sherlock.
  • Moriarty’s scenes are executed well. So well, in fact, that it’s impossible not to ask, “Why didn’t they just bring him back from the dead?”
  • Instead, they bring Mary back from the dead (sort of). Her closing monologue was fun and anthemic, but I still have no clue what the writers were doing with her character. Why did she need to die in the first place?
  • Throughout the entire finale, Sherlock is forced to choose one life over the other. This is a classic moral dilemma for heroes, and could have had a rich payoff. Inexplicably, once Eurus is arrested, the episode wraps up without ever addressing what happened during the game. There’s no moral development or struggle with what just happened. In fact, the characters seem to forget everything as soon as its over. What?
  • So Eurus murdered Sherlock’s childhood best friend because…they didn’t let her play along? Is this really what 4 years of brilliant teleplays have all led up to?
  • All I wanted for Christmas was for Sherlock to solve a great mystery. I think he does that once during season 4 (in episode 2). Can anyone understand this?
  • My fear right now is that Sherlock is not done as a show, but that Cumberbatch and Freeman are. It seems beyond the pale to “reboot” the show, but nostalgia without substance is the name of the game in show biz right now. If this is indeed the duo’s final episode, it was a massively disappointing way to leave.

Social Media Resolutions for 2017

  1. I will be less cynical. Sarcasm and withering criticism are to social media what static is to AM radio. There’s no need for one more person’s trying too hard to be funny.
  2. I won’t start or join a “pile-on.” If I wouldn’t publicly shame a person in real life, I shouldn’t do it online.
  3. I will tweet unto others as I would have others tweet unto me.
  4. I won’t be so preoccupied with my phone that I forget the people around me. If at any time I feel defensive when someone suggests I take a break, I should interpret my defensiveness as a sign they’re right.
  5. I will be more concerned with saying what is true and helpful than building my “brand.” If someone says something better than I said it, that’s not a problem.
  6. I won’t repost meanness or trollishness, not even to mock it.
  7. I will always feel free to not chime in.
  8. I won’t “hate-click” or “hate-share.” In the new writing economy, there is no such thing. (see resolution #6)
  9. I will actively seek out and share the wisdom of others, rather than see it as a threat.
  10. I won’t sneer at those who do the opposite of these resolutions, since I already know I myself will fail them.

Disappointed By Christmas

I’ve heard several people say the days and weeks after Christmas are one of the sadder and more melancholy times of the year for them. True for me as well. My parents have told me that when I was younger they watched as I emotionally primed myself for Christmas Day, only to seem sad and distant after the last present had been opened. Eventually they realized my mood had nothing to do with gifts; rather, I was “crashing,” reentering reality’s orbit after weeks of fantasy. Christmas didn’t let me down; my own hope did.

For many of us, the symbols and sounds of Christmas unleash an intense kind of longing. Sometimes we may not even articulate what this longing is for, but we feel it nonetheless. In American culture, Christmas is often talked about like an all-healing euphoric experience; advertisements and literature often acknowledge that the “holiday season” is a particularly good time to be happy, or childlike, or charitable, or even just alive. By the week after Thanksgiving, when the Christmas carols start to swell in our car radios and colored trees beam into the lengthening fall evenings, many begin to feel this inarticulate hope throbbing, like the memory of something long forgotten.

It’s no wonder then that for many of us, the days after Christmas inspire a dour kind of “Was that all?” True, sometimes our Christmas is difficult, or lonely, or sad. Sometimes its just not what we expected. But for me, I think what has disappointed me is not the holiday itself. It’s my hope for it. The reality didn’t “live up” to my expectations because it was never supposed to; the expectation was the point. And now, it’s gone.

The realization that it’s possible to get exactly what you want and yet feel that hope has betrayed you is one of life’s milestones. We are all born believing that what really stands between us and joy is not getting what we want.  We have to be taught otherwise, and many never are. We have to be taught that peace and satisfaction are not the same thing, and then we even have to be taught that sometimes the two are opposed to each other. None of this comes naturally, because natural human nature does not discern it.

To feel disappointed by Christmas is to plunge headfirst into the truth that we are made for something even greater than hope. For the Christian, the hope of Christmas is not formless and void. It has a shape, a color, and a name. It has blood and sinew. The hope of Christmas is not even the numinous experience we feel when we hear “O Holy Night” or see Gerard van Honthorst’s manger scene. In other words, the hope of Christmas is not hope at all. It’s a Savior, a Savior whose bloody birth stank of manger in a real place at a real time. To hope in some ethereal Christmas ebullience is not the same as to hope in Jesus of Nazareth. This is why the apostle Paul went out of his way to say that if the baby in the manger hasn’t actually been crucified and actually raised from the dead, then Christianity is an idiocy so extreme that we who name it should be pitied more than anyone.

The hope of Christians is that “If.” And that’s what all hope is at its essence: An “if” that means joy to us. Yes, Christmas will disappoint us if we return to the manger hoping to see a baby. He is not there, and so neither are we. On the Monday after December 25, the Christmas child is exactly where he was before: Preparing a place for those whose hope is in the light of the world.

C.S. Lewis on Christmas Gifts

From “What Christmas Means to Me”

…the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds.

1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out — physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail. Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we hardly remember) flops unwelcomed through the letter-box, and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?

3. Things are given as presents which no mortal every bought for himself–gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

4. The nuisance. for after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.

Lewis’s distinction here between the “merry-making” of Christmas (which he endorses) and the actual commercial enterprise of Christmas cards and gift exchanges (which he disdains) is a good one. It’s worth reminding ourselves that “Christmas spirit” is not, contra the advertising, synonymous with spending money.

The Threat to Reading

One of the most widely quoted sentences of Sir Francis Bacon–it comes from his essay “Of Studies”–concerns the reading of books: “Some books are to be tasted, others are to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” This is usually taken as a wise or sententious general comment about the worthiness of various texts, but Ann Blair shows that Bacon was making a very practical recommendation to people who were overwhelmed by the availability of books and couldn’t imagine how they were going to read them all. Bacon tells such worried folks that they can’t read them all, and so should develop strategies of discernment that enable them to make wise decisions about how to invest their time. I think Bacon would have applauded Clay Shirky’s comment that we suffer not from “information overload” but from “filter failure.” Bacon’s famous sentence is really a strategy for filtering.

Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, p. 110-111.

This is such an important, and liberating, point. You can’t read it all, and almost certainly shouldn’t try. Indiscriminate buying of books to fill out one’s “personal library” looks great on Instagram, but in practically every circumstance, it undermines the very intellectual pursuit it mimics. We instinctively guard the reading life against the threats of internet, TV, et al. But for some of us, the bigger threat to our intellectual formation may be our own vanity. Reading 1 book a month won’t buy many retweets. But between someone who digests 12 pleasurable, meaningful books a year, and someone who reads 1/6 of 50 different books, is there really a question which one is the actual “reader”?

Christmas and the Wrong Side of History

When you think about it, nearly everyone and everything connected to the first Christmas was on the wrong side of history.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were on the wrong side of history for sure. They were an elderly Jewish couple, living in an occupied land. They had no platform, no political clout. Even worse–they had no children. Their legacy would die with them: no son to carry his father’s name, no daughter to bear grandchildren. They were prepared to die unwept, unhonored, and unsung, an anonymous couple holding fast the religion of their ancestors. They were on the wrong side of the empire, the wrong side of culture, even the wrong side of fertility.

Mary and Joseph were on the wrong side of history too. Mary, a teenage girl with no husband, no dowry, and no way to explain the life inside of her, at least in a way that her family and her culture would possibly comprehend. There was to be no way around the scandal and shame of a baby born outside wedlock, scandal that would follow her and her child for many years. And Joseph, who did not avail himself of the clear permission that Moses’ law gave him to send his betrothed away in reproach. Joseph, who in the eyes of his father and brothers and friends now was the man willing to live with a whore. The reward for his trouble would be a life of labor, carpentry without a country, and a reputation as a man who had let himself be cuckolded.

Shepherds lived on the wrong side of history. Anonymous laborers who would make the term “blue-collar” seem extravagant. Their life’s hope was that enough of the flock would survive wolves and bears. No “opportunity for advancement” here, except wherever they would guide a foul-smelling herd on a particular night. How many believed their story about the night the angels came and told them about a baby, lying in a barn in Bethlehem? Did their children? Did their grandchildren? Did enough people laugh at them to convince them later in life that it must have all been an elaborate prank or mass hallucination? The word of a shepherd was to be taken lightly.

What about Simeon and Anna? I’m afraid they were on the wrong side of history as well. Two elderly, devout Jews, seemingly ignoring the Roman centurions around them so they could keep babbling about some Messiah. It was like they had never heard of someone called the emperor. Anna the widow never left the Temple; “Don’t listen to her, she’s crazy,” they would say. “Too heavenly minded and no earthly good.” Simeon and Anna, praying to a God who had not stopped an exile and an overthrow, talking about a king whose ancestral line had long been broken. Simeon and Anna, two more religious nutjobs who wouldn’t accept reality.

Poor, mute Zechariah. Poor cuckolded Joseph, poor philandering Mary. Poor daydreaming shepherds. Poor deluded Simeon and Anna. If they could have just accepted the Way Things Are, maybe their lives could have been more. Maybe they could have served in Herod’s palace, or been a confidant of Caiaphas.

If only they had just been on the right side of history, maybe the world would still be talking about them.

If only.