Trade Up

To put it simply, I am not very good at speaking.

And not just public speaking, which is met with a healthy level of nervousness for most people, but speaking out loud in general has always been a challenge for me. I don’t know the reasons or cause behind such an impediment, nor could I ever attempt to rationalize this difficulty in communicating as anything more than a simple fear of failure. I’m just scared of messing the words up, so instead of taking the risk, more often than not I choose to keep my mouth shut.

As a self-proclaimed writer, words are quite literally my livelihood. I rely on words for everything – for expression, therapy, introspection, prayer, etc. And I’m good with words, too. I can articulate thoughts and opinion, defend positions and offer sound conclusions with some pretty effective language when the occasion calls for it, but only as long as these words are put on paper. Attempting to do so without a pen in my hand usually results in any intended meaning becoming lost in translation.

This is a big problem. In point of fact, a writer with a communication problem is no writer at all. At least this was the conclusion I came to early on in life. You see, for as long as I can remember there have been stories circulating in my head, pages filled with characters and ideas since I first learned to construct sentences. Solace was found in the blank pages of my notebooks, where I would retreat into distant worlds and go as far as my imagination allowed, becoming anyone I wanted to be. Contrarily, in the reality of my actual world I knew exactly who I was, and she was no story-teller at all. She was shy, uncertain, and scared. Worse, she had no desire to fix the reality in which she lived.

Avoiding this fear was never really an issue until I graduated from the small and comfortable private school that I’d spent over a decade of my life in, forcing me to enter into the unknown arena of college classes. Somehow I managed to survive the brutal instances of being called upon in class, and even muscled through the much-dreaded presentations that the more malicious instructors loved to assign. All such assignments occurred in liberal arts classes, where talking was not only encouraged but necessary for a passing grade. Once finishing the core curriculum at junior college, I had an Associates degree in hand and absolutely no clear direction for moving forward aside from knowing that whatever it may be, my continuing education would never include studies in the liberal arts.

I also knew, however, that a Bachelor’s degree in anything would at some point or another require speaking up, so I began the search for a field that I found interesting enough, and one that didn’t require anything more than introverted study and silence. I had found the courses in Criminology the most engaging and for a time I entertained the notion of becoming a criminal psychologist with career goals as a juvenile probation officer. For one semester I fully embraced this aim and excelled in all my studies of crime investigation, courtroom law, and psychological analyses. Having had two close relationships with juvenile offenders in high school, I rather naively regarded these personal experiences as motivation and qualification for my higher education.

I felt qualified because these individuals that I had formed relationships with had let me in when they’d trusted no other. I believed that this meant that I could someday make a difference in the lives of other similarly troubled souls. I hoped I could achieve with others what I had failed to do as a teenager with these friends, which was to prevent a continued pattern of destruction and save them from a future of disappointment and misery.

The memory of my own disappointing failure was all too fresh at that time, for I had already seen one such friend’s struggle end with his dropping out school our senior year, only to be killed in a motorcycle accident a few months later. The other friend finished school with me, but had resigned himself to a constant state of despair that he attributed to our friend’s death, using it as a reason to drink himself to sleep each night, lamenting his unfulfilled life with bitter rambles in the long evening hours. For my part, this mourning period was recorded in the safe confines of my secret journals, keeping the words that might have helped him in his struggle locked away out of the fear that I might lose him too. I wouldn’t dare tell him the true motive behind my going to classes night after night, this after working all day in order to pay rent for the lease we shared. I couldn’t tell him how desperately I needed to keep him close, to take care of him while he couldn’t do so for himself. I could never say the things I felt, utter out loud the words written daily, for to explain that my greatest hope was to see him happy again, that saving him was my only true goal, would mean opening the door to the worst disappointment of all: rejection.

I couldn’t speak, not even to my closest friend in the world. On paper words have meaning, but they have no weight if never read; out loud, words have consequences.

While I may not have told him the whole truth, I was as honest as my protective walls allowed. When asked why I would choose such a profession, I told him of my desire to help troubled teens, even if it meant that only one life might be saved.

“You can’t save someone from who they are,” he told me. “If they’re anything like me, they’ll hate you for even trying.”

Unlike me, he was never lacking for words once he felt comfortable enough around a person to speak. And once he did, people listened. I was always listening, and this is sometimes all that a person needs – which I told him in response.

“And sometimes people are just pissed off at the world. Kids like that won’t ever trust you or accept you. I don’t think you have what it takes for that kind of rejection. You just don’t get it.”

Words have consequences indeed. These in particular have weighed me down for years. Soon after that conversation I abandoned my goals in juvenile rehabilitation and, at the semester’s end, enrolled in a paralegal certification program at a neighboring city’s community college. If I couldn’t enforce the law and avoid confrontation at the same time, and if I couldn’t practice the law with my inability to speak to defend it, then I would become an expert on the law and work behind the scenes for those who could.

This period of discontent is recorded in my notebooks as well. With my pen I described my growing depression and longing to fill the void that I couldn’t name. I wrote and wrote, scribbling words on countless pages until my hand could no longer hold a pen. Weeks of scribing my confused thoughts and searching through the words they produced brought me no closer to the answers I needed, even though the meaning was there all along.

Words are my life, my soul, my voice – even when I can’t speak them aloud. As an imaginative yet inhibited child, I retreated into my writing and relied on it as an outlet; the same was true for the aimless 21-year old version of myself. Writing has been one of the few constants in my life. I had always been a writer. I had just missed the meaning between the lines of my work. I had mistaken purpose for pastime. I’d harbored my words on paper out of cowardice, ignoring the calling on my heart.

In hindsight, I now recognize this calling as the voice of God spilling through the lines of my words, urging me to step out, to trust His promises, to accept His offering of creative gifts, to rely on Him for strength, and to believe that I do have what it takes because He’s all that I need.

I wish I could say that I answered this call from God after a personal revelation, but He had to use an actual voice and public setting in order to get my attention. Money and months were wasted by dropping out of the paralegal program, but I could no longer ignore what I had subconsciously felt all along. I was a writer, and I would pursue writing the way any person whose father insisted on their finishing any form of higher education should, by enrolling in University of Houston’s College of Liberal Arts English Department.

I wanted to quit after two weeks, having discovered rather quickly just how out of place I was among so many who had embraced their writing long before college, and who enjoyed the sounds of their voices as much as their written work. Opinions were eagerly offered, self-indulgence commonplace in every classroom. I found that most writers, or at least those of my generation in pursuit of an English Literature degree, consider themselves creative geniuses and jump at any chance to showcase their talent or well-read knowledge. The majority of my essays reflected this cynicism toward novice literary critics, while in class discussion I learned to pretend my way through academia, mastering what I dubbed “literary bull shit” in order to blend in with my liberal peers.

It was awful, but also entertaining. It was hard, but doable. I didn’t even throw up before or after my first required presentation in class, which had been assigned in a course of study that I had registered for based on nothing but its safe-sounding title – Hong Kong Cinema. Contrary to my assumptions, there was much more involved in it than simply watching Kung Fu movies for homework. The class centered on the cultural influences of films during Great Britain’s lease agreement of Hong Kong as colonized territory and after it was released back into Imperial China’s possession. Multiple film analysis texts were listed as required reading along with studies on the history of Hong Kong’s ownership, which was discussed for the effect it had on cultural development, especially for those in the generation without memory of being under the umbrella of the Chinese empire. As an autonomously operating government inside the legal but not exercised control of Great Britain, Hong Kong’s 101 years of freedom were spent with the unavoidable knowledge of the fast-approaching lease expiration, and the independence they felt but never owned was expressed most poignantly in their budding film industry.

Movies that I had often enjoyed poking fun at were now seen in an entirely new light. Each one of the sampled viewings was a character study of the clashing generations that divided Hong Kong between those clinging to their heritage in motherland China, and those whose identity was linked to Hong Kong alone. Filmmakers’ opposing views became easily recognizable as the weeks progressed, presented in the different forms of heroic tropes and varying fighting styles, in reverent depictions of ancient custom versus anti-establishment underdogs who stand against an ambiguous figure of oppressive authority. And while all of the films’ dialogue had to be translated by subtitles, the languages used were also telling of this binary cultural state, spoken in either Cantonese or the more traditional Chinese-spoken Mandarin.

It was my favorite class, taught by my favorite instructor, but at the same time it was the scariest and most dreaded of all the courses taken. For as much as I enjoyed it, I could never forget that I was fast approaching the day of my assignment, when I was to lead the class discussion as the “expert” on that week’s material.

Again I wanted to quit. I wanted my car to break down, or my college funds to suddenly run out – anything to avoid the collective gaze of a classroom full of confident intellectuals. I couldn’t speak from the seat at my desk, let alone from a podium at the front! Surely not even God could expect such an effort from me. He had purposed Moses and still let him speak through Aaron, hadn’t he? Where the heck was my verbal articulator? Who would step in to translate for me when I failed to profess the knowledge burdened to me at no choice of my own? What was He thinking?!

I hadn’t wanted to go to college in the first place; I didn’t need to be there! And this became the running theme of my “prayers,” which in the days leading up to my presentation sounded more and more like a tantrum thrown by a petulant child.

At the risk of building up to an event that might seem to be this essay’s intention, I must confess here that my presentation was a massive non-event, the most anticlimactic conclusion to a semester’s worth of preparation and anxiety, and barely worth mentioning at all if I’m being perfectly honest. I wish I had something inspiring to recollect instead, that I could have that moment as a personal testimony of God’s promises fulfilled, and describe a manifestation of God’s gifts as I boldly delivered the most satisfyingly kick-ass end to a lifelong struggle that anyone’s ever seen. I can’t though, because it wasn’t any of these things. The presentation itself wasn’t terrible, I’m happy to say, but I didn’t knock anyone’s socks off with my dazzling insight either. I did, however, walk away with a B- that day, and an A average for the class overall.

Despite my uninspiring performance in class, that day is nonetheless notable for the first attempt of many in pursuit of my degree, and also for what had occurred before class earlier that same morning. One hour before I was to stand at the podium I was sitting in a narrow space between the gray cubicle wall and clerk desk, nervously tapping my foot as I waited for the registrar’s office worker to return from making copies. Because I was still agonizing over the task that awaited me in the next hour, what I had already considered a waste of effort turned into a colossal waste of valuable prep time as the minutes passed by. But there I sat, having brought in my father’s military service documents at his urging, waiting for news that may or may not validate the information that had been passed along by a friend of a friend’s cousin and shared with my aunt, who in turn had told my dad about a supposed Texas legislation that possibly offered some Texas residents the chance of transferring their unused G.I. Bill into “legacy” funds.

Yeah, it sounded made up to me too.

From what little I understood of the fine print, eligibility requirements depended on a large number of factors including date of enlistment, amount of service years, proof of Texas residency, etc. So while the clerk was away from the desk making copies, I had plenty of time to speculate as to how long the review process for such an application would take.

At long last she returned from her task. Separating her paper copies from the originals, she then focused on the computer screen as her fingernails tapped against the keyboard, glancing intermittently at the documents before keying in more information. Her fingers stilled on the keyboard and one hand moved to the mouse, after a few clicks she looked over at me and smiled.

“All right, Ms. Creswell, that about does it,” she said. “Unfortunately you will have to repeat this process for each enrollment period, but it should be much faster now that we have all the information on file.”

Confused, I met her smile with a blank stare. “So when will I know if I’m eligible? Will they call me, or this office, or…”

“Oh! I’m sorry, there was a misunderstanding; I thought you knew! You are eligible to receive the full benefits for tuition fees, but it won’t cover text books, parking…”

I couldn’t even hear the rest of her sentence because I was too focused on the other words. “Full benefits?”

“That’s right.”

“So my tuition for next semester is covered in full?

She smiled patiently and shifted her computer screen toward me. Leaning forward in my seat, I squinted to read the number her long fingernail pointed to – the negative number at the bottom of the page.

“They’ll all be covered. Your refund for this term’s payment should hit the account in one to two business days.”

Through my blurred vision, I saw when her eyes filled with unshed tears of her own and she reached over to hug me before we both began to laugh. We soon drew the attention of her curious co-workers; one by one they each exited their cubicles and, upon hearing their colleague’s excited explanations, all took turns hugging me too.

Over five years have passed since that morning, and I’m struck with a similar yet different wave of emotions. Disbelief, humility, awe-struck wonder and joy are just a few of the emotions experienced that day as well as today, but retrospect on the event has added a lot more to it now. Recalling the complete and utter amazement I felt at the moment of God’s blessing, I can’t help but feel convicted for allowing it to be taken for granted for even one second.

Looking back, I am reminded of both the simple and the profound instances God shows up, the crazy and unbelievable ways he chooses to bless us even when we aren’t looking. At the same time, I’m ashamed at the crazy and unbelievable lengths He must go to at times just in order to get my attention. For over twenty years I failed to see or hear Him, even in the hours of my darkest need when He revealed Himself to me as the light that led me through. He alone deserved the glory, and even in my ungratefulness His mercy and grace never failed.

I missed what was right in front of me all along, and eventually He just called me out on it. Literally called me out from where I sat in the back of the crowded church.

Hey, remember all those times when things just happened for you out of nowhere, when things just worked out with no explanation? Yeah, that was Me.

So you know that emptiness you feel inside and keep trying to fill? Also Me.

And that direction you’ve yearned for? That purpose-filled life you imagine, the undiscovered passion that you write with hope of someday finding? Do I need to spell that out for you too?

GO WRITE SOMETHING.

Admittedly these were not the actual words spoken to me that day, but it’s pretty close to what went down. The message was clear. I didn’t have any more excuses after that. In less than two minutes, God had effectively removed any vestige of doubt keeping my writing in the shadows by shining His light on the matter.

But recognizing His calling in our creative gifts is only the beginning of the story, regardless of how long it takes some of us to get there. The real challenge comes in how we choose to respond to this call. As C.S. Lewis explains, “we are not necessarily doubting that God wants the best for us, just how painful God’s best will turn out to be”. Remember, to much that is given, much is required. Taking classes at a University was only the start of this for me, and while the experiences never got any easier, I now know that I am capable of overcoming my fear. I do have what it takes to speak out. Even when I fail miserably, even when I stumble on words and embarrass myself, credit can still be received when trying in itself is a victory.

I now see the miracle of my debt-free college education as God’s ultimate reminder – a small example of the kind of favor that awaits those who are willing to step out and into His plan for our lives. I went kicking and screaming the whole way there, and He responded by taking away the burden of tuition. I traded a fast and easy education for a grueling pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree; traded a comfortable, thankless job behind the scenes for an unknown future in writing that will require courage and confidence to share.

Sometimes the trade doesn’t look like it’s in your best interest at all. Sometimes it just looks like a bad deal. But we can’t expect that trading our plans for His best will be an even trade. It may come at great cost, and it may even require going backwards at times, but it will always be progress, and it will always be trading up. What we gain in return – direction, renewed purpose, confidence, etc. – are priceless benefits, and so worth it.

It was never easy in college, but it was worth it after all, and the same will hold true in my future endeavors. The things I have to say are yet to be heard, the stories have yet to be told. The greatest test of my faith and trust in God’s promises has yet to come, though it’s now closer than ever before. I know this to be true because I am writing now in response to this renewed calling on my heart. The fear of failure is a familiar stumbling block on my path; writing in recollection of previous victories is the best defense. When I can’t yet speak, I will write until I can.

I’ll write it out until I remember that I have done it before.

In my final semester of college I took an advanced course for credits required only by graduate students, my only reason being that it was taught by the same instructor of the Hong Kong Cinema class in my first semester. I knew it would terrifying and challenging, based on my own experience and from reading the comments on its online rating, but I also knew it would be interesting and engaging, just as before.

The structures of the two classes were similar, with discourse ranging from various texts and film analyses in a study of surveillance and its effects on society. Unlike the other class, it was held in a quasi-stadium style room with seats surrounding the podium in the center floor. Also different from Hong Kong Cinema, there was no volunteer for the first presentation slot, leading the professor to single out the one recognizable face in the crowd since – in her words – I had done this before. Not having months to prepare and agonize over the assignment made it better and worse at the same time, and in the third week of classes I found myself at the podium and at the center of everyone’s undivided attention.

The focus of that week’s study was Michele Foucalt’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison and I was to deliver a lecture that covered the 1st third of the book, which discussed the history of international penal systems, in correlation with one of the films from the course’s selection of study. The film I chose was Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. A swan song to the silent movie era, Modern Times was released shortly after sound technology revolutionized the film industry and served as a final farewell for Chaplin, who also starred in and produced the title. It helped that I’d found the movie surprisingly entertaining. Filled with Chaplin’s signature antics and hilarious physical comedy, it provided fans a satisfying conclusion to a cinematic era, while instances of sound disrupting the typical silent narrative were used conscientiously and ironically.

I spoke of these details briefly, keeping focus on the themes of authoritative watchfulness in the narrative as it follows Chaplin’s factory worker through a series of unfortunate events. The story and character derived from Chaplin’s real life experience touring a major automobile factory in the U.S. His observations on the treatment of its workers and the environment as a whole became inspiration for the script, which was layered with social criticisms stemming from Chaplin’s growing disdain of American government. While not the agenda of Modern Times’ lighthearted script, the subtle political tones that spilled out on screen were the product of Chaplin’s controversial socialist ideals that would later lead to the U.S. government barring him from reentering the country.

Like Foucalt’s study on prison ethics, Chaplin too was offering a deep criticism on the heavy hand of authority that demanded uniformity and surrender of self, the discipline found in free society and prison alike. It was a fascinating topic of discussion, and I presented it what best I could in the allotted 25 minute window before posing the first of a series of questions to the class for their input.

I breathed a silent sigh of relief, having made it through the worst part of the assignment, and knew already that I had fared better than my previous attempt. Upon delivering the pointed question, hands went up all across the room waiting to be called upon, but the instructor stepped up to the podium before any answer was given. She apologized to me for the interruption and proceeded to address the student body on the nature of our individual presentations, reminding us of what all was required for the grade.

I felt sick to my stomach and nervously wiped my sweaty palms on my pants, grateful for the podium that partially shielded me from the rest of the class. Before losing what composure remained, the measured breaths I was exercising stopped altogether when she added how fortunate it was for those in attendance that I had gone first, as they now had an example of what exactly she was looking for in these assignments.

With that, she stepped to the side and nodded for me to continue, completely unaware of the fact that she’d just gifted me with the second best moment of my college career. I doubt that she remembered my first venture into her classroom, or my mediocre performance as a pupil that led to her scribbling the words “speak up” on one of my earlier in-class exams, so she had no way of knowing the impact of her comment then. But I did know, and have cherished them ever since. She had recognized only my face in that first day of class, and that alone had led her to assign me the presentation. Her confidence had not been marred by past failures, the memories of which only I possessed.

That is a lot like God and how He operates. He isn’t bothered by our stumbling in previous attempts, or our professed short-comings that we use as justification to dodge what’s been asked of us. He doesn’t give a lick about the opinions we have of our ability. He doesn’t keep record of times when we’ve shied away from the uncomfortable path He’s laid out for us. He only recognizes the qualification assigned by Him, sees only new opportunities to show His strength in our weakness.

To be perfectly honest I am not very good at a lot of things, and that still holds true for public speaking as well. Thank God I don’t have to rely on my ability alone, or at all for that matter. I don’t even have to wait for the sudden emergence of supernatural confidence before I step out either, which may yet happen; you never know. The point is that my confidence is not in me, but in a much more reliable Source.

So it’s time to trade up.

 

 

 

 

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Alexander Hamilton and the #RESIST movement

Hamilton is so hot right now. I’m talking Hansel-level hotness.

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In fact, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway production and hip hop masterpiece, Alexander Hamilton is easily the sexiest figure in American history. And while Miranda and his genius approach can (and should) be credited for the revival of cultural interest in Hamilton’s largely overshadowed role in our nation’s formative years, the real Alexander Hamilton still remains, to most, lesser known than his battle-rapping namesake. Like many of its fans, I jumped on the Hamilton bandwagon with very  little knowledge of the true story it’s based on. I knew that the titular character was the face on our ten dollar bill, that he had been involved in a dual at one point, and that was about it. I honestly can’t recall any history lessons or exams that went beyond a brief mentioning of his name; and if I did at one point learn that the infamous dual resulted in Hamilton’s death, it had long since been forgotten by the time I first listened to the musical’s cast-recording album.

As a writer I can only imagine the depth of research that went into Hamilton‘s story production, the first of many steps in that long journey to opening night on stage, and can appreciate the bravery required by an artist for such an undertaking. From what parts I have read of the biography that first inspired Miranda’s vision (reading the massive book from cover to cover is quite the undertaking in itself; it’s a working progress for me), I am utterly amazed at the amount of historical accuracy Miranda managed to include in the play. The iconic story of Hamilton’s journey from immigrant to American hero is told in two acts, spanning years that highlight events of struggle and victory, political achievements, personal loss, national scandal, and endless opposition throughout Hamilton’s adult life. Of course, there is only so much that could be told with a run time of 2.5 hours. Miranda was forced to leave out many events and details for the sake of time, but also for the sake of creating and maintaining a sympathetic character from source material, one that would connect with his intended audience while remaining as true as possible to a notoriously disliked figure in American political history.

The play’s widespread coverage of factual details, already criticized by some as being overloaded and too long, could not have very well included Hamilton’s general distrust of American citizens, or his warnings against governing authority giving too much power to the people. It’s doubtful that even Miranda’s level of creative talent could have achieved a way of cleverly explaining Hamilton’s defense of an electoral college, grounded in his ardent belief that people generally did not know what was best for them, and were too easily influenced by every exchange of opinion and ideals.

Or perhaps Miranda simply recognized that the majority of his intended audience would fail to understand the ideals professed in Hamilton’s Federalist Papers, which offer reasonable conclusions and a sound defense of the United States Constitution, while extending less-than flattering faith in the citizens that the Constitution protects.

This Hamilton would not have been as entertaining to the masses. This Hamilton was never a favorite of the masses, in his lifetime or any.

But it is this Alexander Hamilton that we all have to thank for the institutions we all take for granted every day – the first Treasury Secretary, the author of the Federalist Papers, the decorated military officer, the founder of the National Bank, and most trusted adviser to George Washington. Hamilton implemented financial systems still in use today; he stressed the need for a separation of powers in government; he outlined Federal and State jurisdictions; he laid the path for continuing functionality of the government while it was still in its infancy.

Without any precedence or examples to draw upon, Alexander Hamilton and the rest of our founding fathers built this nation from the ground up – an experiment that no other country in the world has been as successful in exactly replicating, though many have tried. But as with the nature of any experiment, its ultimate success or failure is yet to be concluded so long as it is on-going.

The American experiment  may still yet fail. And that is why now, more than ever, it is imperative that this generation heeds the wisdom and warnings put forth by those first in possession of the unified American spirit.

We need to accept the fact that the men responsible for pages and pages of documents, and bills, and declarations were a lot smarter than we claim to be. And that the author of these words in particular understood current issues beyond the limits of his own generation:

 

So I’m talking to you now.

That’s right – you. Ye legions in pursuit of social justice, ye “resisters” of imagined oppression – you are the very disease warned against by our founding fathers, corrupting the principles and truths upon which the American experiment was founded. But you’re ignorant of the problem you represent, and have become blinded by a false sense of morality in your community dwelling of media-fed ideals. You can’t see beyond your self-seeking aims to consider their consequences. If each “trending” outrage is answered with shifting policy, then the governing body – and our nation as a whole – is in effect no more stable than the moods of a hormonal preteen. And will be regarded as such by our global peers, who may choose to wait for the air to settle again, or take advantage of our divisive state in the gusts of “fashionable outcry.” The result – this new America fashioned by popular demand, where prejudice and self-indulgence are confused with patriotism and equality; and where the greatest threat to its liberty isn’t faced against a tyrannical force, but found in the entitled voices of its own disillusioned citizens.

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Translation: Get over yourself. Be chill. Carry on.

Coming at ya from the “ten dollar, founding father without a father who got a lot farther, by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter…” you know the rest.

His name is Alexander Hamilton, and there’s a million things he did see done. So let’s not ruin it for him or the rest of us.

 

When my Muse won’t shut up about Star Trek Beyond

Later Post.

I mean late, late. As in the why-the-heck-am-I-still-thinking-about-this type of late. Oh well. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. Deep breath, and GO….

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I am a fan of science fiction. I love stories of space and/or time travel, of bending the rules of “acceptable realism” and credibility for the sake of a great tale of human, or nonhuman, adventure. I count myself a fangirl of many such franchises in this genre: Stargate (the movie) and its spin-off series, SG-1 and Atlantis, The X files, Terminator (yes, all of them), Firefly and Serenity, Farscape, Star Wars, and Star Trek., to name a brief few. I’ve had an on-going love affair with them all. So of couse, like most other self-proclaimed geeks, I was very excited to learn that Simon Pegg – another well-known and much loved geek – had taken the helm in penning Star Trek’s latest entry,  Star Trek Beyond.

The film, which is the third installment in the “Kelvin Universe” introduced in 2009 by JJ Abrams, was set to stand apart from its predecessors, however, as it is the first of this reimagined brand without Abrams in the director’s seat. (He was kind of busy with another Star-based franchise at the time.) No matter, because like most fans, I thought the Enterprise and her crew in the capable hands of Pegg and Justin Lin, the director credited with reviving the Fast and Furious franchise to unimagined success. And for the most part, Star Trek Beyond meets expectations. Unless you are one of those haughty critics who finds fault in every creative choice. Or unless you’re one of those die-hard purists who detested the new Kelvin timeline from its onset, in which case I have to wonder why they keep watching at all. Or unless you’re just not a fan of fun in general. If you fall into any one of these categories, then Star Trek Beyond is not the film for you.

Because above anything else, Beyond is fun. One would have to be brain dead to not agree. Simon Pegg’s script manages to capture more of the original spirit that fans grew to love back in Gene Rodenberry’s day, while its release near the 50th anniversary of the maiden voyage provides one of many nods and easter eggs to the original series. The crew of the Enterprise, now in year three of their five year voyage, have found their niche and work together like a well-oiled machine. Sometimes even too well for Captain Kirk’s liking, as he is beginning to find life on the final frontier monotonous.

Which is where we find him in the film’s opener – contemplating his life choices that now seem pale in comparison the legacy left behind by his father; and contemplating life in general. We learn that Kirk is nearing his birthday, significant for it would make him one year older than his father had been at the time of his death which occurred on the same day of Kirk’s birth. The state of mind is a bold choice for the writers since the James T. Kirk beloved by Trekkies across the galaxy had never, and would never, be seen considering a desk job outside of space travel. The notion was risky, and for many it failed to pay off, as even supporters of the Kelvin timeline found it hard to believe and out of character for Kirk.

The character arc didn’t bother me, however, for I found such questions of life and purpose an understandable and even relatable concept which would eventually meld nicely with revelations on the villain in the third act. The brilliance of altering the timeline on the day of Kirk’s birth breathed limitless opportunities for the story itself while also changing the core dynamics of James T. drastically. This timeline’s Kirk was not groomed for Federation service like the original; this version was not born into Starfleet, he was born on the ship that would claim his father’s life. To assume he would face the same challenges with the same relentless spirit after such a huge alteration would be absurd.

So, no, Captain Kirk’s characterization was not the problem I had with Star Trek Beyond. Nor is Justin Lin’s imagining of the Star Trek universe. True to Fast and Furious form, Beyond is a thrill ride from start to finish. Viewers feel like they are in a space race against the film’s resident ‘baddie,’ whose ambiguous origin and motives are saved for the final act. Which was fine for the most part, as we are too engrossed with the ship-eating mechanical bees wreaking havoc on the Enterprise and the vestige of problems facing the marooned crew members on an uncharted planet.

The division of the crew enabled the plot to finally shed light on its supporting cast members, which to date had left them unforgivably flat. Mr. Sulu shines in his position with Uhura and the remaining captured crew. And Chekov finally gets his moments of screen time which, though often upstaged by Kirk’s presence, allows for fans to enjoy Anton Yelchin’s final performance before his real life tragic death. I like to think the talented actor would be proud of the film; I know his friends and fans were.

Elsewhere in the movie, marooned apart from the others on the same planet, Spock and Bones get to flesh out their tense working relationship that never quite meets friendship, providing moments of levity and comic relief from the dire circumstances. I enjoy Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban both, but their banter at times feels contrived and lack-luster, neither finding the same on-screen chemistry that each shares with Chris Pine’s Kirk.

I’ll share one other delight before delving into the ‘problems’ I retained from my viewing of Beyond. That being the space cowboy sequence accentuated by the Beastie Boys “Sabotage,” which brought us back to our first introduction to young Kirk’s troubled youth in 2009’s Star Trek. I have no idea the so-called science necessitating the blasting of the song through the air waves, seemingly instrumental (pun intended) to the disruption and defeat of the villainous tech bees targeting York Town – the newest Federation colony / space station. But it sure as hell looked and sounded cool, so who cares? As Kirk remarks upon hearing the song, “good choice.”

Star Trek Beyond is filled with similar examples of good yet (arguably) unnecessary plot choices, culminating into an enjoyable and entertaining as hell movie overall. And I would have left it at that had it not been for the two instances in the film that stood out as something else entirely. I can understand why it might have been done, or what the filmmakers thought they were trying to achieve, but the inclusion of both moments respectively were strange enough to give me pause. Which should NEVER happen during a movie where the audience is expected to practice their ‘suspension of disbelief.’

Only a few minutes into the film, Kirk’s Captain log is the voiceover during a montage-like sequence highlighting various crew members on the ship, providing visual examples of the personal sacrifice he refers to. When the camera pans over Mr. Sulu’s station, we see a wedding band on his finger which is next to a small photograph of a young girl. Viewers are meant to think, ‘aw, Sulu has a family,’ driving Kirk’s meaning home, so to speak. Later, when the Enterprise docks for respite on Yorktown, Sulu races to his awaiting daughter’s arms while another man looks on affectionately at them both.

Sulu is a happy father in a domestic partnership. His daughter and husband greet him tenderly. The audience gets it immediately; we acknowledge it immediately and prepare to move on with the narrative. But that doesn’t happen like it should have.

Now before anyone gets the wrong idea about my “problem” with this part, just wait. I have ZERO issues with Mr. Sulu being gay. I am not anti-gay nor do I harbor any ill-will or feeling toward the entire LGBT community. Seriously, be gay, be open about it, be whatever you want – if it makes you happy then why should I care? The problem I had with this addition to the plot, however, is its addition to the plot. The filmmakers hanging a lantern on its inclusion of gay characters was done so in a way insulting to my intelligence. And in a way that should have been offensive to homosexuals.

Let me explain. When, after Sulu gathers up his daughter and walks off into the crowds of the space station with his husband by his side, the camera zooms in on the couple’s arms around each other. This close up was completely unnecessary and upsetting to the fluidity of the storyline. Because of this, every person in the theatre sort of stopped and glanced around the room, as if to say, “Did I just see that?”

With such an egregious use of camera angle, I am left to assume that this was the director’s intent all along. For him to deliberately suspend the film’s narrative playing out of events so that audiences are forced to form opinion on the spot is not only disrespectful AND irresponsible filmmaking, it is unashamedly trying to piss someone off.

And it succeeded with a lot of movie-goers, which I’m sure the culprits loved. For me, however, I am not pissed off by their writing of Sulu has gay. I am disappointed by how ridiculously it was handled. There is a time and a place to shovel agendas down someone’s throat (a democratic convention for instance); in the middle of a movie is not that place.

Had they handled it any differently, had they not zoomed in, literally, on the gayness, I would have nothing critical to say. Show Sulu with his family, show is partner standing next to him in the final scene, reveal their relationship organically and not as a shock-and-awe presentation – it still would have pissed the right people off, but it would’ve left me with a better feeling about it. It wouldn’t have felt so forced and awkward.

I know, I know. I’m not gay so I just don’t get it. And maybe you’d be right to say this; right to argue that LGBT have come a long way in their right to screen time in film and television; maybe they feel as if they are finally being represented. But are you really? Are you really only your sexual orientation, as was the take away from this scene? Sulu is gay. The hanging of a lantern on this fact should not be heralded or admired, nor should it be something to inspire future filmmakers (Please, I beg you… do better!), for he was made to be gay only for the sake of being gay. The zoom to close up camera undermined whatever agenda the film had by acknowledging said agenda openly. It screamed, look what we just did!, instead of just progressing naturally. Helpful hint for directors: attaching flashing neon lights on your ‘forward-thinking’ plot choices only comes off as a desperate and contrived antic to appease a percentage of your audience. For the larger percent of moderate viewers who, like myself, go to a movie like this expecting to have a break from the daily political circus we see on the news, it only succeeds in leaving a bitter taste in their mouth.

I am not gay, but if I were I think that the scene still wouldn’t sit well with me. All I could take away from Sulu’s character was that he was gay; the filmmakers missed a great opportunity to make him so much more than that, so much more than his orientation. Where I should’ve been please with Mr. Sulu’s happy ending, I instead only felt manipulated.

Do better.

Another quite obvious political motif was presented in the villain himself. In the final act, we learn that Krall is not just any angry, slighted alien but in fact a former Starfleet captain and Federation soldier. In another of the film’s revelations (not as awkwardly timed as the aforementioned, but still pretty bad), Uhura conveniently happens upon a ship video log in which she recognizes Krall in his human form as Captain Edison. From his Federation history, they learn that Edison was an accomplished soldier in the wars against the Klingons and Romulans before peace was reached and the Federation formed. Subsequently, Edison was reassigned to Starfleet Command as a Captain, where it’s inferred that he wasn’t quite content with.

When Edison’s ship – the Franklin – became lost in uncharted space, and his crew forced to land on the nearest planet, Starfleet never found them; Starfleet never came for them. In his final log as Captain, Edison tells the camera and, by extension, Starfleet that “you’ll probably never see me again. But if you do – be ready.”

In ways that I’m still not quite sure of, Edison is able to prolong his life by sucking the life force (for lack of a better word) from others. If this reminds you too of Stargate Atlantis and those creepy Wraiths, we’re a kindred spirit. Anyway, the process alters Edison’s genetic makeup considerably, eventually turning him into the unrecognizable villain the crew of the Enterprise first meets. And staying true to bad guy form, Krall reveals his plan to attack the Federation at its heart, namely Yorktown where interplanetary species live freely and peacefully together. As one of his followers tells Kirk, “he means to save you from yourselves.” While Uhura defends her fellow crew members’ loyalty, Krall argues that their unity is a weakness; to him, it’s the most reprehensible aspect of the Federation.

So, okay, he’s crazy. He’s a terrorist. It’s a common factor with Star Trek villains. But his final show down with Kirk left me puzzled, once again causing a disrupt in the film’s progression.

“But you won,” Kirk argues, trying to make sense of Krall’s dastardly ways. “There is peace now. Because of you.”

“We are stronger when we struggle,” Krall counters. These words, uttered breathlessly but with effortless conviction, pulled me out of the movie and into my own thoughts. My spidey-senses were tingling; something was being said, something separate from the plot.

“Then we risk fighting the same battle over and over again.” Kirk’s exact words escape me now, as I was too distracted by the underlying message at the time. Krall didn’t want a solution; he wanted a struggle with no end.

So what then is the film actually saying? In the midst of constant chaos and terror – rioting in the streets, news channels repeating each night more tales of police shootings, of peace officers being demonized and attacked – we are forced to acknowledge that the struggle is all we know. All we have ever known. Another injustice to rally against, another cause – the same battle over and over, only with different players and new, sometimes old, motivations. Peace, unity, then seems an unachievable goal now, both globally and in the so-called United States.

Then is the message more of a question: can we ever achieve peace when so many thrive on the struggle? More and more today it seems that humanity has become complacent in our animosity. We love the fight. And if we don’t have a cause, we find or create one. Without realizing it, we have become warmongers, cultivating the hate we publicly admonish.

This film itself is guilty of being a perpetrator of this conflict, for weren’t they intending on angering a targeted audience in directing our gaze to Sulu’s arm around his husband? We don’t want the struggle to end, to live in harmony. Like Krall, we wouldn’t know how.

The thing that really defines Star Trek’s science fiction is not its advanced technology, or space exploration, or alien species, but its themes of unity – the idea, the fantasy, that differing peoples can set aside their differences and work toward common goals, for the good of all. It’s a beautiful idea, one that I think most people would hope for, even if it’s difficult to fully imagine. Which is likely one of the reasons Star Trek, in all its versions, is so universally loved. We’d like to believe that we’ll get there someday.

However, in reality we are a world full of Kralls intent on fighting the same battles over and over and over again. What lies beyond the struggle, beyond the strife, the hate? We may never know.

 

There, I said it. I’ll move on now. kthanksbye

 

Coincidence??

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It’s kind of funny…scrolling through Facebook has become, almost a bit of a luxury here recently. Before, in NYC, it was just another time killer when I was bored or waiting for the subway. But here in Ohio, it’s an extravagance if I have a free 3 minutes to scroll through my FB timeline. There’s just no time.

But yesterday, I was lavished with a few minutes to luxuriate on my phone.

Actually, it was the entire day. I have never received such a thoughtful gift in my life. My brother and sister-in-law surprised me yesterday with an incredibly beautiful day: a trip to the spa and beautiful 5-course dinner at a restaurant that caters to people with stomach issues, cocktails at a fun bowling bar, and sleep over at their place downtown. It was so wonderful.

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But while I was sitting in the spa chair, I flipped through…

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Out of the Grave

As much as I wanted to in the beginning – as much as my heart cried out for retribution and my soul for understanding – still, I could not hate him. And I could not hate him because I couldn’t blame him. Not even when it seemed that breaking my heart had become a thoughtless exercise which he mastered completely; not even when his silence tore open my barely healed wounds, and his indifference rubbed like salt into each and every one of them. In the end, neither one of us was to blame.

I came to understand that he couldn’t will himself to love me anymore than I could will myself to stop loving him. Though we both tried; God knows how much we tried.

But it was a wasted effort, each one of us warring against the rival parts of ourselves that knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what needed to be done. I knew his toxicity would inevitably destroy me just as he knew that I was the one with whom he might finally find peace.

We were like soulless creatures buried in graves of our own making, clawing our way through the crushing weight of dirt piled on top of us in desperate attempt to become alive again, but stopping just beneath the surface. For though the dirt was suffocating, it was familiar, and we’d grown accustomed to not breathing. And though breaching the surface would have meant a fresh start and a new life, we were both addicted to misery and death.

He was the vice I could never surrender, and I the redemption he could never accept. In the end – though he was the one to walk away – the decision was ultimately out of either our hands. The closure I received was not in retribution or even in understanding, but from the Author of our respective fates whose hands closed that door forever. Strong yet gentle hands that dug themselves into the dirt, grasped my outstretched arms, and lifted me out of the grave.

It was there that I breathed in for the first time in years, letting the fresh air fill my lungs and restore my soul.

We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as a way in which they should break, so be it.”                                      The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis

Concerning Old Maids

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Mamaw was afraid I would die an old maid.

Her words, not mine. And she expressed this fear quite frequently. At least once during each of my visits or phone calls, and never in an unkind or rude way, but in a gentle, I-am-genuinely-concerned-about-your-well-being kind of way. When I graduated college in December of 2013, she told me how proud she was of me first, followed by expressing her greatest wish of seeing me married before she died.

I had laughed and promised to do my best, though she in turn would have to promise to stick around for at least another decade as it would no doubt take that long to find a suitor.

She died four weeks later.

Granted I wasn’t left with a whole lot of time to fulfill her dying wish (I hadn’t known at the time it was a dying one, but if I had I don’t know that that would’ve made a difference anyway), but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d disappointed her. Of all her grandchildren I was the only one unattached, so to speak. At 23 years old I had a college degree, a good job, and no boyfriend, and since I was her only granddaughter, that truly concerned her. The amount of failed marriages among other members of our family did not. I’m not trying to offend any of my family here. None of us is perfect, least of all me; I’m just trying to be real.  I’m also sensible enough to accept Mamaw’s concerns for what they were – a desire to see her only granddaughter happy. To her, that meant being married.

The idea that marriage and happiness go hand in hand is common for folks in her generation. Back then you got married; it’s just what you did. I find it harder to excuse the generations after that though for posing the same questions about my singleness. The generation of my parents who boasted free love and used that as a permissible reason to have sex with anyone willing; the generation of baby-boomers who, according to shared statistics, have at least one failed marriage under their belt; the generation of women who publicly burned their bras and declared to the world that they didn’t need a man.

Or my own generation which is perhaps even worse. The generation that believes every detail of your daily life should be public domain and posted on the internet; the generation that doesn’t consider a relationship official until it’s “Facebook” official; the generation that has reduced our lives to a social media popularity contest by posting for all to see reasons why their husband is better than yours, or wife more thoughtful, or kids more successful. Look, here’s a picture of my perfect family being better than yours. It’s a game of disingenuous fluff that more often than not leaves me questioning what society has come to as it’s no longer enough to simply experience something, we must document it for likes and comments.

There’s a good chance I’m overthinking all of this. Maybe people are just genuinely curious about personal aspects of their Facebook friends’ lives; and maybe others just want me to find the kind of contentment they found with their 2nd or 3rd spouse. It’s entirely possible that the problem is just with me.

I don’t consider myself a feminist. I believe in marriage and someday, God willing, would like to find a husband to be my partner and best friend for the rest of my life. And most days, I’m okay with the waiting game. Most days I go to work where I’m blessed to have tolerable colleagues, come home to the best roommates in the world (you can’t beat the rent rate at my parents’), and spend a few hours outside drafting my novel. I like this routine. It may seem awfully boring to most, but it suits me. So most days, I’m okay. Content.

But not always. There are other days, of course, where the nagging notion that something is wrong with me sneaks back into my mind. Days when work is so dull that I can actually feel myself getting stupider, and evenings when my Muse is silent, replaced by the voice of Mamaw and her ever present concerns. Or other voices from equally well-wishing friends and family members saying more or less the same things. You’ve probably heard them yourself: Are you seeing anyone? But why not, you’re so pretty? When are you going to give your folks some grandkids? You’re not getting any younger. Or my personal favorite: You’re just too picky.

The funny thing is, I’m not picky in the slightest. Girls will normally start off with a list of qualities they want in a husband, but all those things are usually forgotten with their first crush. I’m not sure if it’s the same for boys, but for some reason I’m hoping not. So yeah, at 15 I had a pretty long list of criteria for my future mate. Ten years and countless first dates later, that list is nonexistent. I really only have two deal breakers: if a man isn’t a Christian, I won’t waste my time; and if I’m taller than him, I won’t waste his time.

If that’s picky then I guess I really am hopelessly screwed.

I think a lot of people assume that I have this grandiose idea of love in my head because I’ve never been in a relationship. Which is true, I haven’t really. But I have been in love. I lived at the mercy of this creature of love for most of my high school and college careers. And a not-so-small part of me sometimes worries that this is where the crux of my problem lies. I see people switching out their relationship status on social media as often as their profile picture. I hear of unexpected divorces between people I’m acquainted with, only to discover them three, four, five months later happily in love with someone new. And not just trading out one placeholder for the next, but genuinely in love with that new person.

And I cannot understand this, try as I might.

Sometimes I’m worried that the love I felt was so wrong that it damaged what was left of my heart beyond repair. I know this sounds hyperbolic and silly, trust me. I also know how I feel, better than any reader of this page. I honestly don’t know if I have it in me to feel like that again. I’m not discounting anyone else’s experience of heartbreak; I’m sure we’ve all been there before – that point where you just don’t see how you could ever be unbroken again.

It’s a horrible feeling, maybe even the worst. Just when you’re sure that the rest of your days will always begin with the heartbreak as your first waking thought, it suddenly becomes the second. Then the third. And so on and so forth until without even realizing it was happening, you’ve healed. At least that’s how it was for me.

I did heal, and though I’m thankful every day that the pain is long gone, I don’t know that I could ever consider myself entirely whole again. My friends think I’m joking when I say that I just don’t have those feelings anymore, that my heart is frozen. And for the most part I am joking, but to quote the great Stephen King, “most humor is anger with its make up on.”

You see, I am angry. Angry that I can’t answer why I’m still single; angry that there doesn’t seem to be any tall men left in the world; angry that most assume that I’m unhappy because I don’t have a boyfriend; even angrier when I do feel sorry  for myself for not having one! Angry that I can’t figure out why it seems so easy for others to fall in and out love.

I’m angry for being angry, confusing as that may sound.

But mostly my anger is directed at the 15 year old version of myself who was stupid enough to fall hard for the one guy who would never love her back, who could never love her back (I don’t even blame him for this anymore, I’ve come a long way in that respect). I’m angry because she stayed in that state for seven years, feeling too much for far too long. Because when it was all over and she was forced to come out on the other side alone (but really she’d been alone all along), she was changed.

I was 23 years old when I realized that I may never have anything of my heart to offer again. Next month I will be 27, and the thought is still with me.

I hope that this isn’t true. I pray that love finds me unexpectedly again, however far in the future that may be. I don’t intend on rushing anything.

But for those of you out there who think it means nothing to voice your curiosity about anyone’s relationship status, please stop and think before you do. I know that most of you, like Mamaw, honestly mean well. That nothing hurtful should be taken from your words. I’m just telling you that it might be hurtful to someone. Because you should never assume that the questions you have don’t hold weight; that they aren’t the same ones we’ve heard over and over again since we were old enough to date; or that we aren’t sometimes unable to sleep at night because of these very same, politely intended questions.

So I’ll go ahead and offer up a few answers while we’re here:

Why aren’t you married?  -No one’s asked.

When are you going to have kids?  –Since I am not married, not engaged, and not currently dating anyone, I can’t say that that is something I’m actively planning.

Why are you so picky?  -Because it’s my effing right to be picky! And, really, I just want to be able to wear high heels to dinner without towering over my date.

Demolition

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How structurally sound could the foundation have been if, in a single moment of entertaining the thought that you might lose him, the resulting crack compromises its fundamental integrity?

You can choose to ignore it – this nagging damage inflicted by either self-doubt, justified fear, or some combination of both – and continue building on this same foundation. It is, after all, such a tiny crack, barely enough to label a defect in the otherwise fully in tact base. It’s a calculated gamble that sometimes pays off. Sometimes not. Because in ignoring the damage, you risk this small crack gradually morphing into irreparable gaps that grow unchecked, spreading into the building blocks resting above.  This unseen threat chips away at the structure from the inside out, making itself known only in time for you both to witness the effecting crumble of all that had been laid.

The mound of ruins left in the wake of the destruction is yours to face alone; the littered debris piled at your feet all that remains as proof of the love you built. Like most surviving victims of natural disasters will tell you, the hardest part is often faced in living with the aftermath. In order to move on and start again, the ground must first be cleared, and it can’t be cleared until you find strength to work through that which you’ll find in the process. Permanently ingrained into the unsalvageable rubble are the memories of romance: fractured images of every moment you shared, muted sounds of every laugh, lingering scents in the air, echoes of sweet nothings and empty promises that you can still hear. Each and every piece compiling the ruins holds a memory too sweet to throw away, yet its jagged and filthy edges too dangerous to hold on to.

The process is grueling, and its completion won’t happen overnight. But if you can persevere, beneath the piled debris you’ll eventually find the foundation that was your death knell, and in seeing how deep and wide spread the crack from that very first doubt really is, you might wonder how it was able to stand for as long as it did. You might also wish to have condemned it yourself long ago. But hopefully, more than anything, you will feel relief – strengthened by retrospect on surviving the disaster and living through the aftermath; and then, at last, a sense of healing as you face the freshly cleared ground ahead and all its possibilities. Equipped with a toolbox full of life lessons, you know it might be years before they’re put to use, before you feel secure enough in yourself to break ground again. But you hope for that someday nonetheless, both burdened with and prepared by the knowledge in a thought that you’ll forever carry with you:

How weak a foundation must be if [even a passing moment in fear of] losing him is possible at all.