Some Thoughts on Growth and Transition

As many of you know I have recently become involved with the Catholic Church after years and years of avoiding any religious organization at all. One of the biggest struggles here for me is best posed as the following question: “What does it mean to be humble in my Faith?”

I left Christianity when I was 19 primarily because of those who worshipped around me. This was not a smart move. Much like voting, if you don’t participate you can complain all you want but you have left the decisions to the folks you disagree with. So here is my first attempt at sharing Christian thought with you all without shoving it down your throat. Or, here is my attempt at being humble while sharing my religious perspective. Continue reading

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On the Woman at the Well

For much of my adult life I have been an agnostic that leans atheist. Over the past few years, there have been some big changes in my life. Primarily impacting folks I care about. These changes have had me thinking long and hard about my belief system and these long and hard thoughts culminated in a thoughtless action that led to an examining of “breadcrumbs.”

Specifically, about two weeks before Christmas I went to visit some old friends at the Facebook campus in Menlo Park and on the way back home, I followed Decoto Road all the way to Mission Blvd in Union City. I would normally turn right and head home through the Sunol Canyon, but on this day I wasn’t super busy and I decided to turn left, on what felt like a whim.

As I drove further and further along Mission it occurred to me that I knew exactly where I was headed: Holy Sepulcher Catholic Cemetery in Hayward. Or, the site of my father’s grave. When I arrived, it dawned on me that I hadn’t visited in so long that I needed to go to the office and get a map to where he was buried. When I found his grave I stood and stared for what felt like hours, not really thinking about anything but feeling a well of emotions. Not like in a Lifetime Movie sort of way, it was a bit more realistic than that. Raw but not painful. Spiritual but not supernatural.

When I got back in my car and began to head home, the thoughts started pouring in… Memories of a great trip to Montana with my Uncle John. Thoughts of my Mother in Law, whom I had only recently really developed a great relationship with. The breaking down of friendships in the recent past… a lot of things hit me like flashes in a perfectly imperfect slide show in my mind. I noticed that these thoughts served as breadcrumbs in my own Hansel and Gretel type fairytale. Breadcrumbs I had missed when I first encountered them.

I started going to the local Catholic Church a few weeks later, right after Christmas. It had been forever since I had attended a Catholic service and I had totally forgotten how to take Communion. I reached out to Father Paul and we shared a few emails about the Patron Saint of Boxer Court, Seamus. It felt like more breadcrumbs and so we met for coffee and I shared a lot of what was going on in my mind. To my surprise I got choked up a couple of times talking about things that hadn’t seemed very emotional to me before then.

To make this self indulgent long story a  bit shorter: I have begun the process of Adult Confirmation with the Catholic Community of Pleasanton. This week we talked a bit about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4: 5-42. Here is the reflection I wrote after the reading:

Jesus thirsts for the salvation of others. In this way, I think of salvation as “peace of mind.” I am just like the woman at the well, even if my particular details are different. I am here because I seek companionship with other humble servants of Love. I am a sinner, by my thoughts and deeds. By the things I have done and left undone.

Like the woman at the well, I need to leave something behind, though in my case it is not a jar to catch water that is left behind while I run to tell others good news. I have feelings of unworthiness and I lust for things that don’t matter. These are like two sides of the same coin and it’s a coin I struggle to lose. It’s always under a couch cushion that I happen to flip over at the most inopportune time.

In the coming week I need to confront a source of this coin. There are many and they will always require vigilance. This week I will choose to confront a source of these negative thoughts with kindness and an open heart.

This is something I learn how to do through the example of Jesus at the well. I will push myself to be uncomfortable with the goal of improving my relationships with some specific individuals. Doing this will keep my spiritual river flowing and it will help me leave that coin under the couch cushion where it belongs.

This is a journey I just started and it is one that won’t ever end. I will always be a work in progress and I will always struggle with the coin. But I feel so much stronger just having noticed the breadcrumbs. Wish me good fortune on this journey and know that I wish you good fortune regardless. Peace be with you, always.

On The Force Awakens, not spoiler free

How do I describe the genius of this film? With a buttload of spoilers. If you haven’t seen the Force Awakens, two things: 1. What?!?!?! 2. Don’t read this if you don’t want to know.

Part of me wants to react to the criticisms I have read/heard. The other part of me wants to just focus on the facts and speculate on what they mean. Dammit, let’s do both!

This movie is NOT A New Hope made over. That seems to be the loudest criticism and it’s off base. Yes, it starts on a desert planet. Yes it includes a droid carrying a secret. Yes, Kylo Ren looks like a hipster Darth Vader (more on that in a minute). Yep, the bad guys have built a weapon of ultra mega super mass destruction. Sure, it includes a stormtrooper defecting from a group that is the equivalent of a Neo Nazi version of the Empire. Yes, the female hero of the story spends the entire movie complaining about getting back to her boring existence on a backwater world. Yes, the new heroes are guided by a grizzled old vet of a massive war from decades before who didn’t even believe the Force existed most of his life. Yep, there is a Force sensitive small creature that runs a pub for vagrants in a centuries old castle on a world of lakes and greenery… Oh wait, most of that is nothing like A New Hope.

There is much more that is different. Like, that time when our heroes were surrounded by stormtroopers and a squadron of X Wings came blazing across a lake and tear it up! A Force vision brought on by touching an important relic. A “sibling” rivalry at the highest level of the First Order.

The second most frequent criticism I have heard/read is some version of “Rey is a Mary Sue.” How did she know how to do a mind trick? How could she use the Force to grab a saber when a clearly more Forced trained badass is trying to do the same? How does she fight back from a Force user’s mind probe? How does she then kick his ass in one of the best lightsaber fights in all of the films?

This criticism is dumb, even when presented by smart people. These questions are entirely the point of the film… To set us all up for two more movies that answer the questions. I mean, how did Luke Skywalker use the Force to guide proton torpedoes after about 27 minutes of training with Obi Wan? Because his dad was the most Force sensitive being in the history of the Universe. Something we didn’t know explicitly in a film until 1999 (the Force sensitive part, we knew the father part in 1980).

Is Rey Luke’s daughter? Seems like it, which means probably not. Is Rey a Kenobi? Completely unlikely, so maybe so. Is Rey a Solo? Seems like a guy who knows he will likely be killed by his son but tries to redeem him anyway might tell his daughter that, well… she is his daughter. Or that her mother, after losing her husband at the hands of their son, might tell her shortly thereafter. None of that happened, so probably?

In other words, we have no clue what’s coming next. If I were to guess, I’d expect that the Kung Fu: The Legend Continues style ending is visual storytelling where folks expected verbal recognition. Rey is the child of Luke Skywalker. And really, visual storytelling is happening in many more places in this film. For instance, I think we know who Rey’s mother is. Rey was wearing her helmet. Her name is Dosmit Raeh. She was a pilot in the Rebellion. This info comes from The Force Awakens: Visual Dictionary. How did she and Luke get together? Do they have other little badasses roaming on backwater worlds in hiding? Did Luke’s New Jedi Order not frown on attachment or did he pull an Anakin? No idea, and I love it.

I could be completely wrong on both counts about Rey’s parentage. But… We don’t know and I love it!

As for Starkiller Base and it’s alleged similarities to the Death Star… That’s entirely the point, just as Kylo Ren’s hipster Darth Vader is entirely the point (a fact my friend Nathan can tell you I guessed way back when we saw the first trailer, Kylo Ren as Vader fanboi, I mean. Not as Vader Grandson, though that makes a lot of sense in the narrative). Imagine post WWII Nazis regrouping in South America. Now, those guys decide that the fatal flaw in their plan to bring order to the world was that Hitler didn’t push hard enough. Translate that to Star Wars… You have the First Order, dedicated to succeeding where their heroes failed.

Quick segue, another criticism I have read and heard is the “Darth Vader’s Grandson?!?!? SO LAME!” Star Wars, the Saga, is the SKYWALKER SAGA. That’s why. It’s not the Solo Saga. It’s not the Kenobi Saga. It’s not the Yoda Saga… those characters all play hugely important parts in the overarching story, but the Saga is about the Skywalker family. It will continue to be about the Skywalker clan. 

This brings us to Kylo Ren and Snoke, Supreme Leader of the First Order.

Kylo Ren is the most complex villain the Star Wars franchise has ever had. He is conflicted. He is emotional. He is unpredictable. He is a new piece of a triangular die that I thought was a coin before this movie. He is not a retread of Anakin Skywalker, he is a bizzaro verison of Luke Skywalker… Remember ESB and RotJ were all about Luke fighting a tug towards the Darkside. He faced countless situations that resembled what we later saw his father face. Where Anakin stumbled, seemingly unaware to the dark path, Luke chose the light. Now we have the next generation of Skywalker and he isn’t stumbling toward the dark path… He is choosing it! He is both Vader and Luke and something completely different. And he is choosing to follow the dark teacher, unlike his Grandpa, who was manipulated into following a dark teacher. It’s a huge difference and not really that subtle. The fact that he is Vader’s Grandson gives his character more weight than some random fanboi in a costume. A lot more weight.

Who the Hell is Snoke? No idea, but I expect that he is from beyond the Outer Rim. In the books Aftermath and Lost Stars, it is explained that a year after Return of the Jedi a final, desperate battle was waged over Jakku (thus the crashed Star Destroyer and Super Star Destroyer amongst various TIE Fighters and X Wings) in which the Rebellion defeated the last vestiges of the Empire, decisively. Some portion of those Imperials stayed in the known universe and signed on to the Galactic Concordance while others fled to the “Unknown Regions.” It’s also explained that the Unknown Regions had been partially explored by Palpatine, exclusively to find the source of Darkside power he felt came from that part of the Galaxy.

Now, why is this all in books and not in films? Because… Prequels. Treaties, politics, etc. They suck in the Star Wars Universe, at least as more than peripheral plot points in films.

Anyway, it’s my belief that Snoke, the Unknown Region, and that Darkside power are all related. Add the Imperial remnants and you get the genesis of the First Order. Those remnants don’t really think the Empire ever ended, not in their heart of hearts. They see Snoke as the new Emperor. They don’t follow him for the reasons Kylo Ren does. They are not religious zealots drawn to a dark cult and I have a feeling that this split will be the undoing of the First Order… Think of it like the pro business, libertarian type that aligns with the ultra religious, anti civil liberty type to win votes. They aren’t really natural allies but they share a common enemy so they agree to be cool with each other.

To wrap this up, where is this new trilogy headed? The short answer is “I don’t know but I think it’s going to be awesome.” The longer answer is “It’s going to answer the big questions but leave enough mystery for Episode 10-12 to answer.”

Big questions? There are many, but here are a few I’d expect to be answered: How did Snoke turn Kylo Ren and can Ben Solo be redeemed? How will the tension between Ren and General Hux, representing the two unnatural allies with a common enemy, unfold and what will the ramifications be? Who is Rey and how does she relate to the Skywalker legacy? Will Luke Skywalker attempt to rebuild the Jedi a second time? What actually happened to his first attempt when Ben Solo turned and was Rey already being trained? What is the state of Galactic Politics now that the First Order has suffered a crushing defeat? What fills the vacuum left by the instantaneous incineration of the Republic Senate (I’m rooting for Chancellor Calrissian)? Can we see some damn space battles, please?

I can’t wait to find out.

On The Force Awakens, spoiler free

Trying to be reasonable about a Star Wars film is, for me, like trying to hold back praise for my children. I spent the evening of May 19th, 1999 in the Chabot Theater on Castro Valley Boulevard and I left that screening of The Phantom Menace elated, for example.

I left the Regal Hacienda Crossings Stadium 20 & IMAX in a similar euphoria on December 17th, 2015 after viewing The Force Awakens. That is where the similarities end. Now that I have seen it four times, I can objectively say, I LOVE this movie. The tl;dr review of The Force Awakens is to simply offer an alternative title: “The Return of Star Wars.”

The test of a Star Wars film has always been “Can it make ridiculous coincidence pass with no acknowledgment of the complete implausibility by the audience?”

Damn that is a long sentence.

For example, in the opening of A New Hope, Darth Vader raids a Consular ship that is carrying his Princess daughter and his former astromech droid AND a protocol droid he built for his mother. Those droids are launched from the ship in an escape attempt only to land on the backwater home of that Princess daughter’s farmboy twin brother. And none of them know any of this.

It’s horribly outlandish. But, we don’t know any of this at the time we see it, either.

Contrast that with The Phantom Menace. The Senator of Naboo is a secret Sith Lord and he has engineered a blockade of his planet in an attempt to create a Galactic crisis that he can use to become Chancellor. In complete dumb luck, the Jedi sent to resolve the conflict survive every assassination attempt and make it to the planet’s surface. They successfully usher the Queen off world but end up stuck on the same backwater planet from A New Hope where they find the most Force sensitive being in all history. The boy will grow up to be Darth Vader and the Queen will be his wife. None of the characters know this, but we do. And it gets boring.

To me, this is what “The Return of Star Wars” means. There are revelations made in The Force Awakens, some shocking. There is also so much left unaddressed. We may just have watched a sister, brother, cousin, uncle love parallelogram, but maybe not. What is the current state of politics? Does Lando Calrissian have something to do with something?  I have no idea, and I love it.

Another essential part of “being Star Wars” is biting, sarcastic camaraderie amongst newfound, yet some how fast friends. From Han to Luke, Leia to Han, everyone to C3PO, etc. There’s plenty of that in this movie and the actors deliver. This kind of witty banter is applicable in any environment and it’s that sense of familiarity that helps to make a futuristic space faring society set in the distant past somehow more than believable.

If I had a quibble, it would be that the design of the First Order’s leader is not one that I expected or found particularly inspiring. Much of the other additions are extremely satisfying. Kylo Ren feels like a Dark Lord of the Templar, more than the Sith. The tension between Adam Driver’s Ren and Domhnall Gleason’s General Hux is unlike any relationship we have explored in the Star Wars universe and I have to believe that this relationship will drive a huge turning point in one of the upcoming Episodes.

One common concern from my fellow nerds is that the plot follows closely A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. While I definitely understand the criticism, there was enough of a divergence for the middle third of the movie that it felt somehow fresh to me. Without going too much into spoiler territory, there is no character like Maz Kanata, expertly played by Lupita Nyong’o, in any Star Wars film. No locale like Takodana, or watering hole quite like the one we visit.

And further, I felt like the story chased a different legend. There was a Mordred, an Arthur, a Merlin, a Lady of the Lake and an excruciatingly satisfying Excalibur moment. You’ll know it when you see it, and if you don’t… The theater erupting into applause will be a hint.

All of this is to say, four viewings in… I can’t imagine growing tired of it. It is truly the Return of Star Wars and I can’t stop smiling thinking about what we don’t know. I’m humming the Force theme and trying to guess which questions Episode VIII will answer.

The Force is finally with us, once again. I couldn’t be more excited.