Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Killing Eve and British Crime Television

If I've talked with you for more than five minutes in the last few weeks, I've probably recommended the BBC America show Killing Eve. For those unaware, its eight episode first season focuses on burgeoning MI5 officer Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and her stylish serial killer counterpart Villaelle (Jodie Comer). Throughout the season, they track each other down, endlessly attempting to predict the other's next step. Their relationship is marked more by respect than oppositional.

I'm a sucker for British crime television and its various iterations. AMC's (and later Netflix's) The Killing is probably the show that first drew me in. It's not British and was based on a Finnish series but it shared plenty of, what I'm calling, British crime show attributes. At the time, I was eating up anything AMC was producing - thank-you Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and then later Halt and Catch Fire, The Walking Dead, and Better Call Saul. But The Killing drew me in for its slow burn approach to solving a case. I was, until then, used to crime television resolving the mystery by the end of the episode. Perhaps, in a special circumstance, the crime took two episodes for the killer to be found. Yet the singularity within The Killing fascinated me and had me hooked. Two seasons to solve the first case!

What followed was plenty of other shows. Shetland is probably my favorite. But The Fall, The Missing, Happy Valley, Top of the Lake, and Marcella also have my recommendation. I haven't watched Broadchurch front to back but what I've seen, it would also come with my recommendation. Even more campy series like Paranoid or Safe hold my attention. What these all hold in common is prolonged gratification. Clues slowly resolve themselves. Extra time is given to the detectives or community members. The plot moves forward, rarely losing momentum. Women are just as often playing the role of protagonist. There's fewer unholstered guns.

Killing Eve share many of these traits. What it adds to the genre is a lightness, a finesse. The series is produced and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, otherwise known for her work in comedy. With a comedian at the helm, this, once again, proves that blood and dark themes are often best told by those who have a sense of humor (see Get Out as exhibit A). It doesn't hurt that the two leads are strong women with their respective skills. The leading performances are award worthy. The editing is brilliant. The music choices are dynamic and fit within the fabric of the series. It is effortlessly diverse on the gender, race, and LGBTQ fronts. I was fully engaged front to back, as much interested in the inner-workings of the two leads as I was on the "case" being resolved. Check it out this summer if you have the time.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Best Albums of 2017

Another year for some stellar albums. In my listening sphere, there were a few artists coming back after brief hiatuses with LCD Soundsystem and The xx. A few promising newbies with Sampha and Maggie Rogers. And a few fantastic rap albums with Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar. Some other old favorites dropped off my radar a little bit with Fleet Foxes and Arcade Fire. And a number of other old favorites put out good but not great albums that landed on the honorable mentions list. Here's what I listened to and enjoyed the most this year. Happy listening all.

Sidebar: I made a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite tracks from the year. Lots of cross over with my top 10 list (and HMs) but not exclusively. Here's the link.

10. Manchester Orchestra - A Black Mile to the Surface
Ten years ago, I was loving Manchester Orchestra's I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child album. I was moderately into their follow-up but then dropped off with the band in the subsequent years, mostly due to a harder sound that I'm not into as much. When A Black Mile to the Surface released to very positive reviews, I checked out the album and was taken back to my 2007 self. They don't sound stale, they sound like what they're best at. Emotional rock. Soft lyrics followed by crashing guitars and drums. I'm in.

9. LCD Soundsystem - American Dream
Ok, I'm not really into bands "retiring" to then return shortly later. That's just a long space between albums. Otherwise, I'm into the new music for the most part. I skip a few tracks but tonite, how do you sleep?, and emotional haircut are stellar. I was also able to see them live in Philly and they did not disappoint.

8. The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding
These guys know how to create a mood. Driving in the car or turned up while making dinner, The War on Drugs make you feel comfortable. I'm into it. I'll keep listening to it. A few more keyboards this time around but same reliable atmosphere created for me.

7. Sampha - Process
This dude has produced for Drake, Solange, and Kanye. He rolls with some big names. But then, on his first album, he does his own thing sans features. Some incredible beats throughout the album. Then (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano is a contender for best ballad of the year. I listened to this album a lot this year.

6. Beck - Colors
This album was a long time coming. I was such a sucker for the Wow single released in 2016 and anxiously awaited more of the same with the album release. While the remainder of the album is unique from the standout off-kilter single, there are a bunch of great, feel good pop jams.

5. Sylvan Esso - What Now
High expectations for this one. Their debut s/t album was my favorite album of 2014 and it wasn't certain they were continuing with the project. So last year when rumors of a new album and the following singles popped up, I was very pleased. While the single Radio is a little on the head (still very catchy), The Glow and Die Young are fantastic pop singles. Overall these two are stellar at creating pop songs that have more depth than pure bubble gum.

4. Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory
Big Fish Theory is more to the point than the debut double album. From my standpoint, that was a good move as it's pretty great front to back. Standout tracks Big Fish, 745, and BagBak are all fantastic. Caught him live at the 9:30 Club in D.C. and the show was lit. Love it. Keep 'em coming, Vince.

3. The xx - I See You 
Post second album Coexist, I thought I might retire the band as finely tuned electronic song writers who I could live without. But then I See You opens with a bang and doesn't let go. Happy to have them back and being alright with going upbeat now and again.

2. Maggie Rogers - Now That the Light Is Fading
Maggie made music news when in an NYU music course with visitor Pharrell, her track Alaska brought tears to his eyes. The video is online. So that was when I first heard of Maggie Rogers. But then I listened to the EP and was into it. And then I kept listening to it. Over and over. Though short with but five tracks, they are sweet.

1. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.
The day this album dropped, I was traveling for most of the day via car and plane. I think I listened to the album five times. It's hard hitting. It has a few slow jams. It's got some great features. It's Kendrick at his best. To Pimp a Butterfly may be an album for the ages but DAMN. is Kendrick firing on all cylinders. DNA. and HUMBLE. reflect the hard hitting. LOVE. is so smooth. Literally all the songs do their thing. Thanks for doing your thing, Kendrick.

Honorable Mentions (10 more, listed alphabetically)
Broken Social Scene - Hug of Thunder
Dirty Projectors - s/t
A Ghost Story (Original Soundtrack)
Haim - Something to Tell You
Ibeyi - Ash
The National - Sleep Well Beast
The New Pornographers - Whiteout Conditions
Phoenix - Ti Amo
Spoon - Hot Thoughts
Taylor Swift - Reputation

Best Movies of 2017

Well with a general crap year there's nothing quite like the catharsis, inspiration, and creative exploration of the movies. My favorites ranged from coming of age to horror. There's been some incredibly moving and poignant stories told from all sorts of genres. Here are my favorite movies of the year plus honorable mentions and highly anticipated listed at the bottom.

10. It Comes at Night
This slow burner horror film relied more heavily on what we imagine is out there than what is actually out there. And like any good horror movie (in my opinion), it reflects on how the monster inside each one of us is as dangerous as any sort of zombie or boogey man.

9. The Lego Batman Movie
The joke density is crazy high on this one. I was happy to be along for the ride. Haven't gotten around to see Ninjango (too soon?) but my multiple viewings of The Lego Batman Movie were a fun ride.

8. Call Me by Your Name
A coming of age story in which there's no villain. A 17 year old boy who falls for a man presumably in his late 20s. It's charming and lovely and sad. Set in beautiful northern Italy in an idyllic spot which doesn't reflect many people's actual experience but the emotions are real and the movie is executed expertly. Also some Sufjan songs throughout.

7. Thor: Ragnarok
This was a fun action movie in which I laughed a lot. So basically exactly what I'm looking for when going to a super hero movie. Director Taika Waititi did an expert job with the film and his comedic and international perspective showed in just the right ways.

6. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I am loving the new Star Wars movies. They're daring and unique and hold onto the excitement and adventure of the originals. The Last Jedi wasn't afraid to explore who Rey and Finn and Kylo are. And the few new characters were great add on. The visuals were on point. The funny asides served their purpose and the porgs weren't super annoying. Not mad that the Star Wars universe is expanding.

5. Coco
One of Pixar's more beautiful movies. The visuals were fairly incredible. The themes of the movie were relatively standard though the whole context in which it was set was unique. I just loved how specific and sweet and inspiring the story was. From a cultural standpoint, it celebrated the customs and intricacies without appropriating them. Hooray for Miguel, I'll be remembering this one.

4. Dunkirk
Wow, this movie was a spectacle. Three stories woven together to tell a snapshot story of the battle of Dunkirk. With Nolan at the helm, I was fearing a heavy, drawn-out thinker movie but was pleased that it was lean, human, and to the point. Oh, and Harry Styles in a real movie. Why not?

3. Lady Bird
Gosh I loved everything about this one. Greta Gerwig had an excellent debut as director. Saoirse Ronan continues to be fantastic in everything that she's in. Another coming of age movie. About a girl who thinks she's bigger than her home but really mostly just doesn't quite fit. She likes boys and has a few friends and listens to Dave Matthews Band (it's set in the early 2000's). I laughed so many times in the movie and felt for so many of the characters. Greta, keep 'em coming!

2. The Big Sick
A rom-com. Heavy on the comedy and fairly romantic. The story of how Kumail and his wife actually met. Wouldn't have guessed that Ray Romano would play a supporting role in one of my favorite movies of the year but the movie has tons of heart and is so funny and deals with issues of race in authentic ways.

1. Get Out
Jordan Peele as director. With a comedian giving direction, he knows how to keep the movie moving and doesn't run into pacing issues. He also clearly knows his horror stuff. And then he flips most of the tropes when the themes of race get tied into the horror. Again, Peele's time on Key and Peele keeps the themes from coming across as inauthentic or preachy. He knows how to make a point and then move on. This movie is scary, funny, and well executed. It's also chock full of metaphors and themes that are so relevant to the black experience today. I loved hearing what others picked up from the movie. And while it's easy to pick apart and discuss as a think piece generator, it's just a plain great movie. Go see this movie and keep watching it.

Honorable Mentions (10 more, listed alphabetically)
Baby Driver; The Shape of Water; The Disaster Artist; A Ghost Story; The Killing of a Sacred Deer; The Lego Batman Movie; Logan Lucky; Spider-Man: Homecoming; Whose Streets?; Wonder Woman

Highly Anticipated (10 more, listed alphabetically)
Blade Runner 2049; Brigsby Bear; Darkest Hour; I, Tonya; Ingrid Goes West; It; Logan; Mudbound; Phantom Thread; The Post

Best Television of 2017

I'm finally adding "Best Television" to my year-end blogs. I'll be honest; most of my media consumption is spent with television series so it makes sense. Logistically, listing out my favorite television of the year is a little more complicated than movies or music, particularly when I'm not up on every single show and will most likely catch some stellar shows in the following year. For my list, I'm including any series that premiered new episodes in 2017 and I've listed the latest season as the one making the list. I've also included a "Highly Anticipated" list for series or seasons that I'm behind on as a little bit of a catchall for potential favorites.

Overall, the year had some great shows continuing with the string of great television throughout the last couple decades. My list includes series from prestige cable stations, network, and, unsurprisingly, my top five were all produced by streaming services. That's the era we live in, no? In terms of show format, I've trended towards watching comedies that have some weight to them rather than super serious dramas or comedies that deal exclusively in joke delivery. From a genre standpoint, I'm all over the place but I think the ease of availability makes it difficult to get stuck in one genre or another. Anyhow, happy viewing!

10. Search Party (TBS, season 2)
Premise: In season 1, Dory (Alia Shawkat), learns of a college acquaintance gone missing and, along with her friends, becomes consumed in finding this person. Chaos ensues.

This show is just so weird. The characters are all unique and dysfunctional. Dory is constantly looking for purpose and meaning and only finds it in really unhealthy ways. The great lead cast of four friends showcases various involvement and commitment to the pursuit and they process some of the messed up events that follow in vastly different ways. This all sounds super serious. But it's a half hour comedy show. Can't wait to see where season 3 goes.

9. Jane the Virgin (The CW, season 4)
Premise: Jane (Gina Rodriguez) accidentally gets artificially inseminated and has a child, as a virgin. Mom and grandma are always close by. And there's usually ups and downs with her love interests.

What a charming show. It's light and funny and deals with plenty of difficult issues. It brilliantly utilizes a narrator for comedic effect. All the characters are fantastic. If effortlessly flips back and forth from English to Spanish and represents a corner of American culture (Latino Miami) that is often times overlooked. While Jane is typically moving in or out of a romantic relationship, she is not defined by these relationships. She loves her mother, grandmother, and father while often times disagreeing with them. Season 4 has kept up the high degree of heartfelt comedic excellence this show has carried on for years now.

8. Broad City (Comedy Central, season 4)
Premise: Two friends live their lives in New York City. Like Girls minus the self-inflicted melodrama.

Ilana and Abbi are really funny. Especially together. The show is often times raunchy and hilarious. I'm not sure what else to say. It's clearly coming from a female perspective, something we need more of in the entertainment and comedy worlds.

7. American Vandal (Netflix, season 1)
Premise: Mock true-crime documentary series in the same vein as Making a Murderer or Serial. The crime is a series of penises spray-painted on cars in a high school teacher parking lot.

The premise is silly. And some of the jokes are sophomoric. And yet the show hits all the beats of the genre they're parodying. And then the characters are genuine and relatable and empathetic throughout. Going into it, you think you're going to be over it a half-episode in, but the show is made so expertly and the layers of the crime get unwrapped at just the right rhythm. I was more intrigued than Making a Murderer.

6. The Leftovers (HBO, season 3)
Premise: 2% of the world's population suddenly disappears. The leftovers try to make meaning of their lives.

The third and final season of the series was my favorite. It moved along quickly and strangely and kept all of the complex character development. The majority of the action moved across the world to Australia (from Texas, which was a move from New York). The move provided new plot points but not create discontinuity in the series as a whole. With so many loose ends within the series, it finished satisfactorily without feeling too tidy.

5. Bob's Burgers (FOX, season 8)
Premise: Bob and his family run their burger restaurant. They all love each other and are weird.

Yo, eight seasons. And the show is still going strong. Bob, Linda, Tina, Gene, Louise, and friends. This show has developed its characters so well. They're each hilarious. And they all accept and love each other in their own weird ways. While I only started to watch the series a few years ago, I'm in for the long haul.

4. The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu, season 4)
Premise: Dystopian future in which the majority of women go barren, men rule the world, and the handmaids bear the children. Also a bunch of caste system stuff. Eerily close to current day.

I'm going to be honest, Elizabeth Moss is a boss. Clearly so on Mad Men. But then her work on Top of the Lake and The Handmaid's Tale has been phenomenal. But this show is much more than just a one character tour de force. The whole world created by this show is just so believable and creepy and reflective of where we are at as a society. Margaret Atwood is prophetic in more ways than one and the translation to television series was thankfully done with precision. We'll see where the show runners take season two sans book as a grounding source.

3. Stranger Things 2 (Netflix, season 2)
Premise: Small town 1980's Indiana following kids, teens, and adults. Sci-fi and government cover-ups and superpowers and more!

I think most of us can agree that Stranger Things was the most engrossing piece of entertainment summer 2016. So I had high hopes and expectations for season two and, thankfully, was not let down. The addition of Max and her sultry/bully older brother, the fleshing out of many of the boys' families and personalities, and more time with flakey Nancy. Honestly, I just want to hang out in Hawkins, Indiana. So I was fully along for the ride this season and agree with the widespread distaste for the trip to Chicago. But, ultimately, keep the 80's small-town mysteries coming.

2. Master of None (Netflix, season 2)
Premise: Aziz doing his thing in New York (and Italy). The series isn't afraid to focus on a singular topic for an episode and unpack it.

I just love the directions this show takes. I didn't get caught up into the love story that weaved through the season but that goes to show how strong the other elements of the show are. Particularly, three episodes stuck out as classics. First Date considers modern dating, New York I Love You explores and celebrates the "side-characters" oft ignored in television/movies, and Thanksgiving runs through Denise's experience growing up as a lesbian in a black family. Each a gem. Then overall, Aziz is just so loveable. He's sarcastic and sincere and doesn't have his life totally together but he's earnest and doesn't make reckless decisions. The show takes on a number of issues relevant to our world today but not at the cost of purely hitting the viewer over the head with a particular message. Aziz and friends, more please.

1. Catastrophe (Prime, season 3)
Premise: Rob (Rob Delaney) hooks up with Sharon (Sharon Horgan) on a business trip to London and she gets pregnant.

I'm trying to think of a good metaphor to describe my experience watching this show. The closest thing I'm coming up with is a favorite sweater that's old and worn. It's comfortable, fits well, looks good on me, and just feels good when I put it on. Most of those things apply to my viewing of Catastrophe. The sweater metaphor falls short in that the show is also really funny. Like, super funny. As in, I think the two leads, Sharon and Rob, are just funny people and the mercilessly short seasons leave me wanting to spend more time with them. Each season has smartly jumped forward in time and plot. They deal with serious adult situations in real adult ways and process them in realistic manners. If you're looking for a smart, human, funny sitcom, check out Catastrophe.

Honorable Mentions (10 more, listed alphabetically)
The Americans S5; Better Things S2; Big Little Lies S1; Bojack Horseman S4; Dear White People S1; The Good Place S2; Top of the Lake: China Girl S2; Transparent S4; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt S3; You're the Worst S4

Highly Anticipated (10 more, listed alphabetically)
Better Call Saul S3; Black Mirror S4; Fargo S3; Game of Thrones S7; Halt and Catch Fire S4; Insecure S2; Mr. Robot S3; The Walking Dead S7; Westworld S1; Veep S6

Monday, July 10, 2017

Baby Driver, Nostalgia within the Digital Age

Baby Driver is the latest from comedy director Edgar Wright, widely known for Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World movies. The latest, an action movie, stars Ansel Elgort as Baby, Lily James as the love interest, Kevin Spacey as crime boss, and Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Eliza Gonzalez, and Jamie Foxx as a collection of baddies hired on to pull off an assortment of heists. Baby is the reluctant and very skilled getaway driver, paying off a debt to Spacey's character. Baby also happens to always have earbuds in, listening to a wide spectrum of jams to distract himself from his tinnitus, providing a bangin' soundtrack and central component of the movie. Baby Driver isn't revolutionizing the heist/car action movie genre from a narrative standpoint but the generally positive reviews are instead geared more towards the car chase choreography, use of music, and quippy performances by the stacked cast.

Baby's vast and varied music collection is provided through a variety of clickwheel iPods which he yanks from the various cars he lifts, each coming with a handful of musical gems. In our smart phone world, the clickwheel iPods are now outdated, reminiscent of the decade past. The iPod revolutionized the way we listen to music and then, just as quickly, became relics of yesteryear. For me, the aughts (2000-2009) encapsulated my high school and college years and thus were formative to my music sensibilities, primarily delivered through the mode of a handheld device with the sole purpose of bringing music to my ears. The clickwheel iPod produces a nostalgia to my thirty year old self. The clickwheel iPod is my vinyl.

Ansel Elgort, driving with earbuds
With Baby having earbuds in the majority of the movie, the movie has music playing nearly from start to finish. While Baby has a medical impetus to keep the music going, he fulfills my late high school mantra to "soundtrack my life," wherein I would throw in my earbuds walking between classes, while driving to and from school, or while hanging out in my room. The way Baby uses music, covering every moment, is a reflection of the revolutionary iPod. While previously, Walkmans and Discmans created a continual escape for music geeks, the iPod had the battery life and music range to keep me entrenched for most of my waking hours.

Perhaps I'm fighting my age, but is feeling nostalgic for a time era less than twenty years prior a more recent phenomenon? It's reminiscent of Richard Linklater's movie Boyhood's use of music. The 2014 movie was filmed over a twelve year period and showcased music from the years leading up to its release date. I remember when Gotye's Somebody I Used to Know played in the movie and, within a matter of three years, I had totally forgotten the song existed and yet was totally taken back in time, albeit a short trip back.

Baby Driver's use of the clickwheel iPod doesn't seem intent on taking its viewers back to a previous age as much as to signify a peculiarity on Baby's part that is both strange and yet relatable. Regardless, my nostalgia radar went off. Perhaps my experience of watching the movie differs than others as it relates to nostalgia, specifically for those in different age demographics. Do others feel the same way when they encounter products, devices, or methods in movies based distinctly in the past? Is the use of nostalgic artifacts a lazy form of audience connection in any way? Is nostalgia for the recent past another sign of the digital age, time moving at an accelerated pace? Just a few questions to chew on. Baby Driver was good; go see it if you like light, fast-moving, music heavy action movies.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Few Quotes from "H is for Hawk"

I just finished Helen Macdonald's 2014 memoir H is for Hawk. I realize I'm a little behind in reading and writing about it but I found a few quotes especially meaningful. Macdonald is a falconer living in England. She writes about raising and training a goshawk, her father's recent death, and the life and writing of author and fellow falconer, T.H. White.

The book is reflective, informative, and unique. And I wanted to write down a few quotes.

The first refers to Macdonald's conclusion that she cannot live as her goshawk. In her grieving process, she wishes to seclude herself, find insight and comfort, and vicariously live out the life of her hawk, Mabel:
“In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all” (p. 275).
The second quote is less central to the thesis of the memoir but rather focuses more so on how we perceive the world and, in particular, our perception of our historical roots as it relates to our given geographical place and home. Given our political climate, her words ring especially true:
“Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history” (p. 265).

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Listening to a Few African & African-American Stories

Over the last few weeks, I've read Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give and Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, watched season one of Dear White People on Netflix, and started listening to Trevor Noah's Born a Crime via audiobook. To use David Dark's term, my attention collection has inadvertently landed on stories told by those with an African-American and African background and hold race, among other themes, near the center of their individual works. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us of The Danger of a Single Story in her excellent TED Talk and though not intentionally planned out on my end, I'm happy when I have the space and time to avoid said danger in my media consumption, even if it doesn't happen as much as I would like and I'm certainly not coming close to getting the complete collective story (as if that is a thing and as though that could be accomplished).

All that said, I've enjoyed these media slices and I thought I would share what about them I enjoyed along with any (minor) critiques.

Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Info: Young adult fiction novel; released 2017
What I enjoyed: This teen novel hits on a number of current day issues for Starr, the teenage protagonist: code switching between her wealthy, white-majority high school and her rundown neighborhood and home, police violence against people of color, and finding ways to survive and maintain one's dignity amidst unfair disadvantages. These are all issues that need to be discussed and highlighted. What the book does so well is maintain its sense of perspective from Starr, the teenager experiencing and processing all of these issues. Her thought processes flow smoothly from making sure her Jordans aren't dirty to dealing with trauma to figuring out how to handle a white boyfriend among her black community.
My hesitations: True to the genre and also a part of what makes the book great is the perspective of the protagonist. As an adult reading a teenager's thought process, there can be moments of frustration, wishing Starr would have a certain conversation or simply be more sure of herself. Basically, inherent in the genre is dealing with the angst and unease of being a teenager and that's not my favorite part of said genre.

Title: Homegoing
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Info: Fiction novel, released 2016
What I enjoyed: The book could easily be classified as a collection of short-stories. Fourteen stories from seven generations following two Ghanian sisters' lines from the 1700's until present day, traversing continents, gender and sexuality, various forms of slavery and oppression, a range of ways of coping, among a plethora of other topics. The scope is wide though each story felt personal and interconnected.
My hesitations: Less a complaint as much as extra work, the amount of characters was extraordinary and required frequent referencing of the family line graph at the beginning of the book. I would recommend reading in close succession, allowing oneself to get into a rhythm of reading each of the stories.

Title: Dear White People
Creator: Justin Simeon
Info: Netflix original series; season 1 released April, 2017
What I enjoyed: I'm not going to try to give thoughts without the context of the 2014 movie of the same name, director, and plot line. Dear White People is set on a fictional Ivy League college campus, with a black-face party instigating the course of events and primarily follows the various black students throughout the school year. Each episode is told from a different students perspective, allowing for more nuanced character development than the movie and to allow for a variety of perspectives to be heard on the various topics being discussed. This was a good move. The show is also funnier, to my recollection of the movie. The script is quick and engaging. Most or all of the plot lines could be pulled from many/any college campus; the show is relevant.
My hesitations: The show can be a little on the nose. There's a scene where Sam (central protagonist?) and her first-year roommate Coco (another central character) voice how they choose to live as black women in a white majority campus and society. The spoken lines are true and it's important to recognize their differences but the scene also seems to feel like two talking heads making their individual points rather than two embodied human beings/characters. As Ta-Nehisi Coates mentions in an Atlantic group discussion on the show, Dear White People is primarily concerned with racism and black people are of secondary concern. Still, the revised format of the series (each episode from a different character) helps in this department and I look forward to future seasons.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Shedding My Whiteness

I wrote this blog earlier this spring (specifically, March), mostly trying to process a handful of thoughts, books, movies, and experiences I'd been fortunate to have the months prior. I delayed in posting, feeling more passionate than thoughtful. After a quick re-read and minor edits, here it is.

Like many Christian colleges, the community within which I live and work has a white majority and the resulting culture reflects that in many ways. There's clearly work to be done in terms of creating a more just and equitable racial and ethnic environment that seeks not only higher representation of people of color, but more inclusive operating at every level. I say this as I also know that we at Messiah are striving for racial reconciliation* in real and meaningful ways, for our faculty, staff, and student body. As manifestation of this and among a variety of other factors, this year alone, I've been impacted by multiple book groups (Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy & Jim Wallis's America's Original Sin), a lecture by Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, a service trip to D.C. with Messiah students involving a workshop on race and a visit to the National Museum of African-American History & Culture, and personal professional development reading Messiah's professor/alum Dr. Drew G.I. Hart's Trouble I've Seen. So while not perfect, I have appreciated the ability to grow in my understanding of issues of race in this environment.

Each August, the good folks in the Intercultural Office lead an exercise for the in-training RAs, having them take five-minutes to write their story. Where they're from, the traditions their family has, their hometown values and routines. Everyone writes their story out on a piece of paper and posts them on a wall, creating a collage of miniature life-stories. While it's always nice to recognize the nuances and variety of backgrounds, the exercise gets at the idea that we all have a particular story. This is oftentimes especially helpful for majority students as it's easy to fall into the mindset that, if you're from the suburbs and have limited experience in diverse settings, that your story is normal. Heck, I've been through this exercise five times and I always have to fight the urge to recognize that while my story may be a common one in the room, I cannot categorize it as normal. My path has given me a particular set of formative experiences, impactful people, and exposure to ideas that has left me with a particular set of bias, worldview, and perspective.

This leads me back to what I mean when I say "shedding my whiteness." When I check "white" on any form, I do so reluctantly but honestly, knowing that "white" is a messy conglomeration of certain European immigrants and descendants that have made their home here in the US from which I am a result. And, as I continue to learn, "white" is and almost always has been in the position of oppressor, and those with a light skin tone have always been welcomed into the "white" club with the perks of having certain advantages and avoiding other disadvantages. Broadly speaking, avoiding slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration. And then there are countless more specific examples of oppression (e.g. redlining or microaggressions). So while my direct family line may or may not have been directly involved in many or any of the systematic forms of oppression, I can't totally shed the group from which I come because my family line has always been able to check the "white" option on the forms. Hopefully my actions and words work towards a more equitable present and future.

One major take-away that I had from Dr. Drew G.I. Hart's book, Trouble I've Seen, is the imperative to the white church to not trust our guts on issues of race. In looking back at our country's history, there was a solid majority of nice, white Christians who were trusting their instincts that slavery and segregation laws were moral. Just like I have to check myself every time I consider my story as normal, I cannot trust my instincts because there's no way I've unlearned the bias that hundreds of years of oppression has ingrained in the culture in which I grew up. So, whenever there's a racially charged incident nationally or more locally, I need to first recognize that I have a bias on the event and then I need to listen to others who come from perspectives other than mine. Or, as another example, the first half** of the movie Get Out speaks brilliantly to a black guy's experience in a predominantly white (and liberal!) environment. Time after time, the protagonist endures the well-intentioned stereotyped conversational assaults from his white girlfriend's family and friends all the while having to justify and prove that the impact is exclusionary in nature.

So I am trying shed my whiteness. This takes intentionality. And work that doesn't immediately further my own standing as a person doesn't always feel rewarding. But I think it is rewarding in the long run and it's something that is in line with the kingdom of God and a more inclusive life really does benefit both myself and others. I'm looking for the next step. Or maybe just trying to be faithful in my current operating roles as husband, friend, residence director, consumer of culture, etc. In any case, I'm trying to have open eyes and ears to the world around me.

*I know the term "reconciliation" is a misnomer as there's no amiable racial relations to revert back to in this country/culture. Is there an alternative phrasing that's preferred?
**The latter half of the movie also obviously speaks to issues of race, just in a more direct and horrific way.


As reference, these are all great:
Dr. Drew G.I. Hart's book, Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism 
Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Jim Wallis's book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America
I haven't read Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas's work but if her lecture was any indication of her books, she's worth investigating
The movie Get Out fits within the horror/thriller genre so beware... but it is excellent, even to someone who doesn't naturally enjoy the genre
The National Museum of African-American History & Culture in D.C.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Five Take-Aways from the Introvert Book

The book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain, released in 2012. It's been on my to-read list for a while after popping up on my Goodreads feed over the last few years. While the book could be less long-winded, a common critique I have of many non-fiction books, there's a lot of great materials in there. As someone who is an introvert myself and work with many introverts in an extrovert culture and, more specifically,  an extrovert field (college residence life), I identified with a lot of the material and was glad to name many of my experiences and felt responses. It's high time to own and champion my introversion.

I'm having trouble stringing a lot of the material into a coherent single thesis so I'm typing up five take-aways that especially stuck with me. I'll give a quote and a few thoughts on how I've seen it play out in my life or those around me.


1. Leadership
"Because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions. Having benefited form the talents of their followers, they are then likely to motive them to be even more proactive. Introverted leaders create a virtuous circle of proactivity, in other words" (p. 57).
I've consistently received feedback from the student leaders with whom I work that I excel at listening. It feels passive and it's not a skill you see touted on many resumes. But I'm learning that it's a specific strength of mine which I want to own and develop in addition to encouraging within the students and colleague peers of mine with whom I work. My form of leadership may differ from the culture's ideal; that's alright with me.

2. Ideal work & learning method
"... the more creative people tended to be socially poised introverts ... introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation" (p. 74).
As education and work cultures trend towards group work and open work spaces, the limiting aspects are aplenty for introverts. I enjoy connecting with my colleagues on a daily basis and feel like I get in a rut if by myself all day. But, I often find myself unable to be productive (or as productive) when working alongside others. There's too much happening. I'm over-stimulated. Likewise, later on in this particular chapter, brainstorming as a way of idea-generation is identified as a poor method of creativity and coming up with a way to think anew. I've found this to be true in so many meetings. Feedback and ideas are requested and I don't have developed ideas to contribute. I wish I had time to concentrate deliberately by myself. I'm just as guilty of this in leading others. Note to self: give team-members time to think of ideas on their own, with space to do so.

3. Appropriately stimulating environments
"Once you understand introversion and extroversion as preferences for certain levels of stimulation, you can begin consciously trying to situate yourself in environments favorable to your own personality - neither overstimulating nor understimulating, neither boring nor anxiety-making" (p. 124). 
I've long known I had specific preferences for environment, work or otherwise. Lamp over fluorescent lighting, music that engages but doesn't distract, pleasant or no smell. I've also recently added a kinetic sandbox and essential oil diffuser to my office. Few people prefer chaotic environments, but boy do I love an office that is calming or a living room where the throw pillows are in their place. Introverts are more easily stimulated (read: distracted and worn out) than others and I'm happy to eliminate unnecessary distractions.

4. Making decisions
"... extroverted clients are more likely to be highly reward-sensitive, while the introverts are more likely to pay attention to warning signals" (p. 158). 
At a rudimentary level, extroverts get a buzz from opting to do things. This can be great in a lot of situations. But more destructive if in risk oriented fields like trading stocks. Later on it's commented upon that introverts are especially good at making a plan and sticking to it in a disciplined way. So I'm not great at making decisions quickly. My Input Strength doesn't help here either. But there's something to be said about slow-decision makers. They are prone to consider the plethora of outcomes and think a few steps down the line of reasoning. I have to prepare myself when serving on-call in my residence life role. But I shouldn't downplay my ability to reason and make good decisions when given the proper time and space.

5. Free Trait Theory

"According to Free Trait Theory, we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits - introversion, for example - but we can and do act out of character in the service of 'core personal projects'" (p. 209). 
A majority of my days are filled with meetings, many times in one-on-one settings. I often finish my days drained and tired. But I also don't tire of the work I do. I couldn't explain the dissonance very well. This little theory does a lot to help me think through what my "core personal projects" are - facilitating student learning, discussing important topics - and better understand why I'm willing to act outside of my personality trait for the majority of my days.


There you have it. There were plenty of other coherent, insightful take-aways from the book but those were five that stuck out to me. Likewise, introversion/extroversion is one aspect of our personality and thus our personhood. So here's to better understanding one more aspect of our selves.


Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Best Movies of 2016

It's been a good year for movies. From action to drama to comedy to animated movies, there were solid offerings throughout the year along with the usual plethora of Oscar bait movies in the holiday season. As has been noted by many others, 2016 was a rough year so I find it all the better that we have a wide spectrum of voices being represented. The film industry has a long ways to go on gender, racial and other forms of equality but I was happy to see a wider spectrum this year.

10. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
OK, this is my guilty pleasure favorite. I generally enjoy Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island guys but I sat down to this movie with very mediocre expectations and those expectations were surpassed. They were surpassed not by an especially heart-felt plot line or biting satire of celebrity culture though the movie holds up fine in those categories. The reason I enjoyed this movie as much as I did is because of the insane joke-density, specifically in the first 45 minutes. It had me laughing. Non-stop. Never-stopping.

9. Everybody Wants Some!!
Richard Linklater has a way of putting his finger on life as it actually is. Boyhood and the Before... movies are prime examples. Everybody Wants Some!! gets college right. While set in a frat-like house for the college's baseball team in the 1980's, I saw parallels to my own college experience and the experience of my own students. My and (most of) my students have less alcohol and hookups in the few days leading up to the first days of school. But there's an excitement and uneasiness that Linklater captures so well. A constant searching for place and social positioning. This movie was a lot of fun and it's tone was spot on.

8. Finding Dory
I saw this one at home later on in the year after hearing scores of "Good, but not as good as Finding Nemo" reviews over the summer. I'm a fan of Nemo but don't have any strongly held attachment to it so I came into Dory with an open mind. And I was very entertained and impressed. I'm not sure why I don't come into Pixar movies with crazy high expectations but the joke density, artistic animation, and story line were on point. Another great installment for the Pixar people. 

7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Well, if this is the standard for the Star Wars spin-offs, count me in for the next 8 movies most likely coming our way in the next decade. I loved the new cast. The banter wasn't quite at the level of the originals or The Force Awakens but I never felt like it was overly somber. I didn't have a desperate need for this particular Star Wars story to be told but I found it making the particular universe all the more richer.

6. Midnight Special
Director Jeff Nichols and lead Michal Shannon paired up for the excellently off-kilter Take Shelter back in 2011. When I saw them back together I was intrigued and excited for what was to come. In Midnight Special (as a spiritual sequel to Shelter), the story remains weird and mysterious but larger and more susceptible to being a blockbuster without losing the specificity of characters and plot development. I saw the movie twice and enjoyed the ride on both occasions.

5. Moonlight
Moonlight was making waves at festivals early on in the year and was a fairly unanimous critical darling. When I got a chance to see it, I understood why. It's the three-act story of Chiron, struggling to find his identity amidst adversity and unfair circumstances as a child, adolescent, and adult. The movie never feels sorry for its lead, nor does it dip into any sort of emotional manipulation. It does chronicle the formative relationships and experiences of Chiron, doing so in a beautiful, meditative way. Go check this one out if you haven't already.

4. La La Land
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling starring in a movie directed by the Whiplash guy, it would be a pretty big disappointment for this movie not to crack my top 5. Not one particularly into musicals, I loved the music in the movie. The visuals matched, both for the music numbers and throughout. And back to Emma & Ryan, they have an ease and comfortability between them that can't necessarily be manufactured. Oh, and the movie isn't all eye-candy and catchy tunes, it expertly depicts what it looks like to follow your dreams and, more importantly, what must be sacrificed.

3. Zootopia
Thanks to a wife that has a deep appreciation for both animated movies and animals and, more particularly, the intersection of the two, I saw Zootopia in theaters. (I also saw The Secret Life of Pets and Sing on the big screen.) It was excellent. The animation was fun. The jokes (largely puns) did their job. The movie speaks clearly, confidently, and with nuance on the importance of diversity and the danger of prejudice. It's a great movie for kids and adults.

2. Don't Think Twice
I recently read an article from The New Yorker on how and why improv comedy is the new sensation for so many bored and lost college educated. It helps with thinking on your feet, reading other people, and being creative within the constraints of a format. While I could certainly improve in those areas, I would be fine never attending an improv class nor even see a live performance. But Don't Think Twice tones down all the annoying parts of improv and pulls out all the nuanced aspects of the subculture. The movie focuses on the lifers, those who live and breath improv and are actually good at it. But how long do you keep doing something doesn't really pay the bills and doesn't really have that many spots available to progress? The ensemble cast works through those questions in mature (and funny) ways unique to themselves. No real answers are arrived at but isn't that how it is?

1. Arrival
Arrival is an excellent, thought-provoking blockbuster sci-fi movie that also comes at just the right time. Distinct from his previous movies though also distinctly within his wheelhouse of tone and theme, Villeneuve hits the nail on the head this time. Amy Adams carries the weight of the lead and Jeremy Renner and the others do fine. To me, Arrival sets itself apart through its story-telling. Earth receives extraterrestrial visitors and Adams' character is tasked with communicating with them. The movie is an exhilarating ride and there are some important points made along the way about being patient and intentional about listening to others. But then as the movie progresses, you start to realize that the entire structure of the movie mirrors the communication of the visitors and your mind is blown but not in a cheap way but more in a, "Wow, that was impressive, I need to re-watch this" way. Arrival is great and fun and important. 
Honorable Mention: (listed alphabetical)
10 Cloverfield Lane; Cafe Society; Captain America: Civil War; Captain Fantastic; The Edge of Seventeen; The Fits; Fences; Ghostbusters; Hail, Caesar!; Hell or High Water; A Hologram for the King; Hunt for the WIlderpeople; The Innocents; Jackie; Keanu; Life, Animated; The Light Between Oceans; The Lobster; Loving; Manchester by the Sea; Miss Sloane; The Nice Guys; Nocturnal Animals; Sing; Star Trek Beyond; Swiss Army Man; Weiner; The Witch

Highly Anticipated: (listed alphabetical)
13th; 20th Century Women; Allied; Doctor Strange; The Eagle Huntress; The Founder; Hidden Figures; I Am Not Your Negro; Lion; Moana; A Monster Calls; Paterson; Silence