Ruby Sparks (movie review)

Five years ago the movie Ruby Sparks appeared briefly in theaters. Reading the newspaper reviews intrigued me and I wanted to view the movie, but it was gone again before I had a chance to see it. This summer, using birthday gift money, I was able to buy a DVD of the movie. It arrived in yesterday’s mail. I watched it last night, and I am pleased to report that it met and exceeded my expectations.

The central premise of the plot is that a novelist creates a character—the title character of the film—and then she suddenly becomes a real person. This story retells the Greek myth Pygmalion, in which a sculptor falls in love with a statue he has carved and a goddess transforms the statue into a living woman. Of course this story has been retold many times in a variety of settings. Ruby Sparks does a better than average job of making the main characters believable, set in a twenty-first century California city.

Paul Dano plays the writer, Calvin, and Zoe Kazan plays the title character. (Kazan also wrote the script for the movie.) Brief appearances by Elliott Gould, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderas add texture to the film. Calvin is approaching his thirtieth birthday, having written the Great American Novel while still a teenager. Like many prodigies, Calvin struggles to meet the high expectations triggered by his early success. Early in the movie he is shown in a counseling session in which his self-doubt and fear of failure are clearly revealed. A girl he first meets in two separate dreams, coupled with a suggestion by his counselor, ignites Calvin’s imagination and sends him into a writing frenzy, creating a romantic novel starring his dream girl, Ruby Sparks.

The character of Calvin is well established when the appearance of the real Ruby Sparks begins to be foreshadowed. Her sudden manifestation in his kitchen causes Calvin to doubt his sanity, a verdict in which his brother concurs. Two revelations follow: other people can see Ruby and interact with her, and Calvin can cause Ruby to speak fluent French by adding a sentence to his novel. Calvin soberly locks the text of the novel in a desk drawer, and then he and Ruby establish a beautiful romance.

Of course the magic relationship does not last forever. Ruby wants more excitement than Calvin’s reclusive life offers. She increases her independence until Calvin begins trying to manipulate her through his writing. His own emotional problems are magnified in her behavior, until an ugly and inevitable confrontation between author and character occurs, vividly depicted by Dano and Kazan.

The pace of the movie follows the inner life of the author. His emotional disorders are subtly portrayed in a variety of ways without becoming distracting or insulting. His eccentricities—such as using an obsolete typewriter for his work—are important to the story. Yet many of the reviews I have read this morning miss the point, treating the pace, the actor’s work, and the details—such as the typewriter—as flaws.

Ruby Sparks covers far more than emotional disorders. It delves into the relationship between artists and the products of their art. A creator wants to be in control, yet the creator must also allow the art to develop in its own way. Characters find their own voice, begin to make their own decisions, and even force changes in the plot of the work. I am sure that painters, sculptors, and composers of music can share similar stories of the ways their creations overpowered them and forced them to change the work they were doing.

That said, Ruby Sparks is not a flawless movie. The characters are foul-mouthed and have no respect for the marriage bed (although fornication is not depicted on-screen). The ending tries to be both charming and ambiguous and instead is unsatisfying. One cannot be certain whether Calvin has learned from his experiences or if he is doomed to repeat his mistakes again. Like many good movies, though, Ruby Sparks manages the little nuances which carry the story of the movie without relying solely on dialogue and action. It is more than a romantic comedy; it is a thoughtful approach to creativity and the loneliness of the artist. For that reason alone, I recommend it. J.

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Waiting for the shadow of the moon

I’ve never made a bucket list. I am much more inclined to live in the moment, to take one day at a time. However, if I had composed a bucket list, right at the top would be viewing a solar eclipse like the one happening next Monday.

I’ve been fascinated by astronomy since I was a boy. I watched the Apollo space program on television and wanted to be an astronaut. I learned about the planets in our solar system (back when Pluto was still a planet) and read about comets and meteors, stars and galaxies, quasars and supernovas, and all the other fascinating things to be found in the heavens. Part of the appeal of Star Trek and Star Wars is the dream of interplanetary travel, although the reality is likely to be far closer to 2001: Space Odyssey. I have seen a comet, experienced several partial solar eclipses, and watched lunar eclipses from beginning to end. I’ve gotten out of bed at 4 a.m. to watch meteors. The coming eclipse will round out years of watching the sky and marveling at God’s creation.

No doubt many Christian writers and speakers are trying to find spiritual metaphors in the eclipse of the sun. A few are even making apocalyptic predictions based on this perfectly ordinary event. Aside from the classic contrast of light and darkness, I don’t see that the eclipse has much to tell us about redemption or new life in Christ. On the other hand, such an eclipse does speak of the wonder of God’s creation. Our Earth is the only known planet whose moon appears to be the same size as does the sun from the surface of the planet. An eclipse with a much bigger moon or with a much smaller moon could never be the marvel that this eclipse will be. The entire arrangement is beautifully planned.

Needless to say, I have long since been sure to be on vacation for this event. I will have to drive several hours, but I am blessed with family living right in the path of the totality. My room there is already reserved. The only problem is the question of the best location for viewing the eclipse. Some of the family is content to relax in the back yard; after all, the sun and the moon will be overhead—what else would anyone want? My father and I already understand one factor that the other members of the family are missing—the arrival of the moon’s shadow will be dramatic as it soundlessly roars across the landscape at a speed faster than sound.

Every shadow has two components—the entire shadow, and the core of the shadow. Generally we see shadows projected across a surface that is near the object causing the shadow. Therefore, we do not observe the two components. When a more distant object casts a shadow, the blurred edges of the shadow are outside the core, but they are still part of the shadow. The moon is about 239,000 miles from the earth. A dramatic difference exists between its entire shadow and the core of the shadow. A partial eclipse happens outside the core, in the rest of the shadow. At ninety percent or more, the partial eclipse can still be spectacular. But as the core of that shadow arrives, everything changes. My father and I want to be sitting where we can see that shadow tear across the landscape toward us. Yet we do not want to oversell the experience (or give away too many secrets), so we are looking for a compromise that will give us some chance to see the shadow approaching without straying far from the property.

Thinking about shadows, and light and darkness, leads me to another random observation. We see with our eyes. In the back of our eyes are two sets of receptors, called rods and cones. With rods we sense light and darkness; with cones we perceive colors. The cones require more light to work than do the rods. Therefore, in dim light we see things in black and white and in shades of gray. In brighter light, we are able to make out more colors. As the Moody Blues remarked (“Nights in White Satin”), in the nighttime and early morning, “red is black; and yellow, white.” Or, as I tease my children, one sees many yellow cars on the road during the day, but hardly any yellow cars are noticed at night. Do people who own yellow cars only drive during the daytime?

Here is my spiritual take on light and darkness. We see and comprehend many things about creation now, but as the Bible says, we see in a glass dimly. In the new creation, we will see and know things more fully. Other bloggers that I follow have been speculating about heaven in the last few days. I think that the contrast between the lives we live now and the lives we will live then resembles the contrast between what we can see early in the morning before sunrise and what we can see when the sun is high in the sky. Much more will be revealed to us in that new creation than we are capable of perceiving today. What puzzles us now will make sense then, and the harmony of creation will resonate in our lives in ways we cannot even picture or describe today. J.

Twelve underappreciated Beatles songs

Between 1963 and 1970 the Beatles recorded and released more than two hundred songs, most of which they also wrote. Songs were released as singles (A and B sides), extended play (EP) albums of four songs, and long play (LP) albums of ten to fourteen songs. Around twenty-seven songs reached the number one position in the official charts of the United Kingdom (UK) and/or the United States. (Variations on how rankings were determined make this number vague.) Fifty-four songs were re-released in 1973 on the Red and Blue albums. Yet the Beatles created much more high-quality music than either of these summaries would suggest. What follows is a list of twelve songs that—with one exception—never cracked the top forty hits and that—again, with one exception—are not represented on the Red and Blue albums. Yet these songs are every bit as good as those Beatle songs that claimed those distinctions.

“Do You Want to Know a Secret” was one of fourteen songs on Please Please Me, the Beatles’ first album in the UK. It was later included on the American album The Early Beatles. When the Beatles shot to success in the United States at the beginning of 1964, record companies scrambled to release as many Beatles songs as they could, and “Do You Want to Know a Secret” peaked at the number two spot in the United States in May of that year. Afterward, it faded into obscurity. Like most of their early songs, “Do You Want to Know a Secret” is a cheerful love song, every bit as good as their earliest hits, “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me.”

“If I Fell” was written by John Lennon for the movie A Hard Day’s Night to accompany Paul McCartney’s “And I Love Her.” Both songs are heard on the UK and American albums A Hard Day’s Night, as well as the American album Something New. When they were released together as a single, “And I Love Her” was designated the A-side and “If I Fell” the B-side. As a result, Paul’s song receives much more attention and was put on the Red Album. John’s song is as beautiful and as earnest as Paul’s, even though it qualifies the singer’s love with repeated “if”s. In the movie, John begins the song to raise Ringo out of a funk and succeeds.

“I’m a Loser” was one of John’s contributions to Beatles for Sale, a UK album whose songs were divided among several American albums—this song shows up on Beatles ’65, an album released for the Christmas market of 1964 in the United States. “I’m a Loser” laments a lost love, one that the singer confesses he should have worked to preserve. Like “If I Fell” and “Help,” “I’m a Loser” is personal and heartfelt, in contrast to many of Paul’s love ballads.

“I’ve Just Seen a Face” is an upbeat love song by Paul about love at first sight. Although it was not used in the movie Help!, it was released on the UK album of that name, later appearing on the American version of Rubber Soul. Paul thought enough of it to include it in his Wings over America tour of 1976 and in this live album made during that tour.

“What Goes On?” is credited to Lennon-McCartney-Starkey and thus is one of Ringo’s first compositions, even though he was helped by his bandmates. The song reflects the skiffle origins of the group (skiffle being a folk music style of the United Kingdom analogous to American country & western). In the UK it was released on Rubber Soul; in America, it was reserved for Yesterday… and Today.

“Here, There, and Everywhere” is one of Paul’s love ballads in the tradition of “Yesterday” and “Michelle.” It was released on both the UK and American versions of Revolver. With its soaring melodies, “Here, There and Everywhere” can stand with “Yesterday” and George Harrison’s “Something” as one of the Beatles’ most memorable songs.

“Good Day Sunshine” is also on both versions of Revolver. A cheerful love song, it is said to be inspired by American groups of the mid-1960s such as Lovin’ Spoonful. The Beatles were known for their experimentation with harmony, and “Good Day Sunshine” includes some interesting modulations that drive the energy of the song.

“Got to Get You into My Life” is possibly the best song on Revolver, high praise for a song that must compete not only with “Here, There, and Everywhere” and “Good Day Sunshine” but also with “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine.” A jazzy tune, it is accompanied by a brass section, a sound for which the later group Chicago would be known.

“I Will” continues Paul’s string of soulful love ballads. It is hidden on the White Album, filled with experimental songs written while the Beatles were in India. Oddly, Paul sings of his undying affection for a person he may never have met. Donavon is said to have contributed some of the lyrics to the song.

“Sexy Sadie” is also on the White Album. John began the song to express his disillusionment with the Maharishi, but the final version of the song sounds more like the agony of a relationship in which the boy is seeking the attention of the girl only to be snubbed.

“Across the Universe” has two versions. The version that is heard on Let It Be and on the Blue Album contains lush orchestrations created by Phil Spector, who produced the Let It Be album. The original version was chosen for the Past Masters compilation. The song features John’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics also featured in “Strawberry Fields,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and “I am the Walrus.” Sounds of birds and the backing vocals of two randomly-chosen Beatles fans make this rarer version of “Across the Universe” worth finding.

“Oh! Darling” is one of Paul’s contributions to Abbey Road. Paul strains his voice to its limits in this performance, capturing the tone of a live performer on a tavern stage (which is how the Beatles developed their act before achieving fame and fortune). Like “Yesterday” and “I’m a Loser,” “Oh! Darling” captures the sorrow of an ending relationship, perhaps reflecting the closing weeks of the Beatles’ partnership as they set out on their solo careers.

None of these songs receive much attention on oldies stations. Yet, before the popularity of downloaded music, this collection of twelve tunes could easily have been assembled, given a snappy title like “Beatles Secrets,” and sold profitably as yet another collection of Beatles songs. J.

Beatles albums

Years after they disbanded, the Beatles remain the most successful rock group of all time. (I was going to attempt a joke about Stonehenge—which is seen in the Beatles’ movie Help!—but there was actually a band of that name in the 1970s.) People are still paying money to listen to the Beatles’ music, people are still writing books about the Beatles, and schoolchildren are still deciding which of the four is their favorite Beatle. The history of the recordings of Beatle music is more complicated than one might expect for such a popular group of musicians.

Early in 1963, the Beatles’ single “Please Please Me” reached the top of the music charts in the United Kingdom (UK). Their producer, George Martin, invited them into the Abbey Road studio to record an album which would also be called Please Please Me. In about twelve hours he recorded several takes of the songs that the Beatles were then performing in their live shows. The album shot to the top of the charts in the UK. Released in the United States as Introducing the Beatles, it did not initially fare well. After their successful concert tour (including two appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show) in February 1964, the album was periodically re-released under various titles. Its most successful American package was released in 1965 and was called The Early Beatles.

In spite of a heavy schedule of concert tours, the Beatles recorded six more albums before the middle of 1966. All of them reached number one on the UK charts: With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. From their first seven UK albums, the American market managed to squeeze eleven albums. They accomplished this three ways. First, the UK albums all had fourteen songs, but the American releases had only twelve songs—sometimes fewer. Second, the Beatles did not include their hit singles and B-sides on their UK albums, but these did appear on the American albums. Third, for the movie albums A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, the American versions used only songs that appeared in the movies and then filled the albums with instrumental tracks from the movies, while the UK versions included Beatle songs not used in the movies. Aside from those already mentioned, the other American albums as of 1966 were Meet the Beatles, The Beatles’ Second Album, Something New, Beatles ’64, Beatles VI, Rubber Soul, Yesterday… and Today, and Revolver.

Rubber Soul and Revolver showed increasing complexity and diversity in the Beatles’ music. When they stopped touring in 1966—their last scheduled live concert was August 29, 1966, in San Francisco—they were able to become a studio band, putting hours into creating each new song. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the first album to be released in the UK and the United States with identical songs. This was followed by Magical Mystery Tour which accompanied a made-for-TV movie of the same title, seen in the UK on December 26, 1967. The next year they released The Beatles, a two-disc album usually called “the White Album.” The last album they recorded was Abbey Road in 1969. In 1970, as the band was disintegrating, they finally released the songs they had recorded before Abbey Road as the album Let It Be, which accompanied a feature film of the same name. Meanwhile, the American industry managed to create two more albums, Yellow Submarine (which contains four new songs, two songs from previous albums, and an entire side of instrumental music from the cartoon movie of that name) and The Beatles Again—usually called “Hey Jude”—which consists of singles and B-sides that had been left off the albums.

The Beatles remained popular, so record companies continued to release new combinations of their music. In 1973 two releases, each consisting of two discs, appeared. Often called “the Red Album” and “the Blue Album,” these collections became the definitive catalog of Beatles music for the next generation of fans. Other collections were regularly released with various levels of success. When the Beatles music was remastered for CD release in the late 1980s, the UK albums were selected rather than the American albums. An additional two-disc release, Past Masters, contained the singles and B-sides which were not on the UK albums.

In 1995, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr cooperated in a massive undertaking called Beatles Anthology. The result was a television special (later released on VHS and DVD), a collection of studio outtakes and unreleased songs (released on cassette tapes and CDs), and a coffee-table book. John Lennon had been assassinated in December 1980, but his presence was very much felt in Anthology through previous interviews and other recordings. Two songs that he had recorded (not for release) were remastered with contributions from Paul, George, and Ringo, resulting in the first new Beatles music in several years.

All of this music remains available in a variety of formats. My next post will describe several songs by the Beatles which are, in my opinion, underappreciated. J.

Superheroes and conspiracy theories

I need to stop wasting my time on bizarre, conspiracy-theory web sites. But, somehow, whenever I start looking into a Stanley Kubrick film, I keep on reading until I have gone down the rabbit hole of the-moon-landing-was-faked, or MK-ULTRA and Monarch, or something equally strange. For the record, Stanley Kubrick did not use the tricks he learned from making 2001 Space Odyssey to help NASA fake the moon landing. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin really did walk on the moon forty-eight years ago. Any contrary evidence is merely proof that some people fail to understand science and technology.

On the other hand, during the Cold War the United States government really did experiment with mind-control in a program that was called (among other things) MK-ULTRA. In competition with the Soviet Union and its allies, the US military and the CIA wanted to explore every possible edge that could lead to victory. The CIA really did destroy most of its MK-ULTRA files in 1973. They did so to hide evidence that they had engaged in behavior that was immoral and criminal. At the same time, they wanted to hide evidence that the experiments had failed, that mind-control is not an effective way to battle the nation’s enemies.

Most of the CIA’s mind-control experiments were chemical in nature. They had two goals: to find a chemical that could be used to affect a person’s thinking and behavior, and to find a way of delivering that chemical surreptitiously. Although a number of chemicals can change a person’s thinking—the CIA had especially high hopes for LSD—delivery proved to be a greater problem. They could get Americans to experiment with drugs voluntarily. They could find ways to dose the food or beverage of a close associate, such as a family member or coworker. Getting the poison to the enemy was much harder. Notoriously, the CIA tried several times to disrupt Fidel Castro’s career chemically, but all of those efforts failed.

Secret societies exist (most of them openly), but they do not purchase or kidnap children to torture them into compliant slavery. Manchurian candidates, programed to assassinate upon a trigger command, exist only in fiction. Not every young woman who wears a tiger-print or leopard-print garment is a programmed sex slave; many people merely find those fabric patterns attractive. Not every use of a rainbow or a bluebird in visual art or cinema is a reference to mind-control; both symbols have a variety of meanings which have nothing to do with evil manipulation of the mind.

Perhaps some adult somewhere has used Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz or some Disney cartoon to mess with a child’s mind. All of these stories are entertaining, while at the same time they operate on several layers of meaning, conveying interesting messages about perception and reality. None of these stories was created with evil intent, and no secret society has used them to entrap thousands of children in a network of evil.

According to conspiracy theories, Monarch treatment tortures children to achieve in them a condition called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. DID is a real disorder. Often it results from childhood abuse, causing the child to create several personalities to escape the reality of abuse. Tragically, many children have been horribly abused, not to train them for secret missions, but only at the whim of a monstrous adult. Formerly, child abuse was a taboo topic in polite society, but concern for the victims of abuse has made people more willing to talk about abuse.

In recent years American society has become aware of a culture of abuse within the entertainment industry. Various figures—some famous actors and directors, others more behind-the-scenes figures—have used their access to young and ambitious boys and girls to satisfy their own evil cravings. They are not Monarch trainers; they are simply bad people. Undoubtedly their predatory ways have damaged their victims. Some of these children are abused sexually or physically; all of them must cope with an abnormal life, a life high in stress and anxiety, a life with lofty goals but also a high probability of failure. When Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus behave badly, they are not proving to be victims of Monarch programming. They are merely coping (poorly) with the transition from child star to adult, a change that is hard enough for the rest of us who were not child stars.

In their hunt for evidence of Monarch programing based on MK-ULTRA experiments, some conspiracy theorists have noted the prevalence of superhero stories in which a person carries two identities. One is an ordinary person living an ordinary life; the other has special powers and abilities, generally used to help others. Supposedly, this double life portrays DID, the splintering of a personality to create a willing but hidden servant to the powers that secretly rule the world. Diana Prince is Wonder Woman; Clark Kent is Superman. Yet, in this theory, these stories are parallel to the several identities created by Monarch programing.

Poppycock! All of us wished, when we were children, to be special, to have powers beyond the ordinary, and to know that the world somehow depended upon us. Superhero stories build upon this common dream, pulling us into a story in which the heroes have extraordinary powers (but in which they must also defeat extraordinary villains). Perhaps the source of this dream is the messianic theme—the promise that a Savior would come on schedule to defeat evil and to rescue its victims. Not only is this promise delivered overtly in the Hebrew Bible and confirmed in the New Testament; it also has subtle roots in creation, which depicts the history of salvation in many ways, such as the conversion of caterpillar to butterfly.

Identifying secret societies that enslave thousands of children to do their will only places the problem of evil on a different level. It allows an us-v.-them mentality which diminishes the consequences of our sins by comparing those sins to greater, more pervasive evil. It replaces Satan with human plotters who still seem to have supernatural powers. Worse, it reduces the saving power of the cross of Jesus Christ by shifting attention from spiritual reality to political, social, and economic forces.

We enjoy superhero fiction. Some of us even enjoy conspiracy theories. A healthy dose of reality is necessary, though—awareness that the real enemy has been fought and has been defeated. Christ is risen! We need fear no power. J.

More than ten performances, and none of them a lie

I am not going to lie to you—particularly not about concerts I have attended and enjoyed.

If you spend any time on Facebook, you have probably seen those lists, “Ten concerts I attended (one of them is a lie.)” I don’t visit Facebook often—I got an account largely to keep track of my children’s lives, but it has helped me to reconnect with friends from high school and college. Seeing some of my friends reminisce about concerts brings back memories for me. But I then discovered that to list nine concerts I have attended (plus the obligatory lie), I would have to include symphony orchestras and municipal bands.

Not that I’ve never enjoyed a rock concert. I’ve been to a handful over the years, and I’m not sorry to have gone. But I’ve also let a lot of opportunities escape without regret. When I was in college, I could have gone to a Barry Manilow concert. Some of my friends were singing in his local back-up choir. I decided that I would rather catch up on homework than spend an evening with Barry Manilow. More recently I could have gone to a Pat Benatar concert. I enjoy her music, but it was an outdoor concert with summer heat and humidity and mosquitoes. I figured I would be happier at home, where I could listen to studio-made recordings of Pat Benatar in air-conditioned comfort. I also could have gone to a Paul McCartney concert. I’m a big Beatles fan; I have seen and heard Ringo Starr in concert. But I decided that even Sir Paul was not worth spending more than a hundred dollars for one ticket; I have other bills to pay.

Now if the Facebook meme was about live performances, and not just popular singers, I could name a lot more than ten. I’ve been to an opera; I’ve been to the ballet several times; and I’ve seen lots of live plays, including musicals. When I was in high school, I was even involved in some live performances. My high school put on a musical every spring with considerable success. For two years I was in the pit orchestra, playing the trombone. The first of those was Music Man, in which just three of us trombonists had to represent seventy-six trombones. I had the all-important part of creating the tuba blats for the children’s band at the end of the show. As a senior, I finally tried out for a part on stage and got to portray Horace Vandergelder in the classic Hello, Dolly!

I could list a great many musicals I’ve seen performed live over the years, from high school and college productions to community theater to traveling professional shows. Some I saw during the height of their popularity: Annie, and Phantom of the Opera. Others I saw as revivals—I once saw an aging Yul Brenner perform in The King and I. I saw Donnie Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

I have thought about writing a post describing my favorite musicals, but when I started listing them I passed fifty and was still thinking of more. So, no, I am not going to lie to you about a performance I’ve attended. But I definitely prefer musical theater to the standard rock concert. J.

World Series memories part three

The Chicago Cubs won their last World Series 108 days ago.

If you follow baseball even with mild interest, you will remember last season when baseball announcers were obliged to mention, every fifteen to twenty minutes during every game, that the Cubs had not won a World Series in 108 years. Their last championship was in 1908, setting a record of futility for professional American sports teams that may never be broken. Their last National League pennant and World Series games happened in 1945. Most Cub fans had never seen a World Series game played in Wrigley Field. Year after year, faithful fans supported the team skeptics called “the Lovable Losers.” In some ways, it was more painful to come close in 1969, 1984, and 2003 than it was to accept another losing season and move on to football in the fall.

The climb to a championship began when the Chicago Tribune Company sold the Cubs to Tom Ricketts. Ricketts then hired Theo Epstein to oversee the rebuilding of the Cubs. Epstein concentrated on acquiring young talent. The team in Chicago fared badly at first, while the future Cubs worked their way through the minor leagues. Then, one by one, they began appearing in Chicago. The new leadership traded experienced Cubs for prospects and projects. Epstein brought in manager Joe Maddon. He also signed expensive free agents John Lester and Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. By 2016 the magic was ready to happen.

The Cubs had won the National League wild card in 2015, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates in a one-game play-off and then defeating the St. Louis Cardinals before being swept by the New York Mets. The four embarrassing losses to the Mets may have been one of the best things to happen to the Cubs; they energized them for the next season.

The Cubs roared off to a great start in April and never looked back. More than half their starting lineup was voted onto the All-Star team. The Cubs’ only slump in the season came just before the All-Star break, but they were stronger than ever after that. They coasted through September, using extra pitchers to keep their starters from tiring. Then they met the San Francisco Giants in the playoffs. Giants fans thought that their team should be favored—they had won championships in 2010, 2012, and 2014, so it seemed that it was their turn again. The Cubs denied that destiny. Then they moved on to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers won two of the first three games against the Cubs, causing the Cubs batters to saw at the air chasing pitches the way they had done against the Mets a year earlier. In the fourth game, Zobrist turned the tide by laying down a perfect bunt. Somehow that was the crack in the dam which broke. The Cubs bats awoke, and they easily disposed of the Dodgers.

Their World Series opponent was the Cleveland Indians, who had not won a championship since 1948. The Indians’ manager was Terry Francona, who had managed eight victories in World Series games with the Boston Red Sox without a single loss. The American League had won the All-Star game, giving the Indians a home field advantage. That ended up being an advantage for the Cubs. Their young power hitter, Kyle Schwarber, had been injured on the third game of the season. He missed the rest of the season and the first two rounds of playoffs due to surgery and recovery. Now doctors said he was fit to bat and run the bases; he just could not play a defensive position. American League ballparks allow one batter (called a designated hitter) to bat but not play a position, relieving pitchers of the obligation to bat. Schwarber was that designated hitter four times for the Cubs, helping lead the team to victory.

Even so, the Indians won three of the first four games against the Cubs. They needed only one more victory to become champions; the Cubs needed to win the next three games. Once again, pitchers for the opposition had been fooling the Cubs’ batters, inducing them to swing wildly at bad pitches. But the Cubs had some good pitchers of their own. Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta held the Indians’ offense in check while the Cubs recovered their ability to score runs. The fifth game was a 3-2 nailbiter, but in the sixth game the Cubs broke out early and maintained their lead for the victory. Admittedly, Maddon overused his ace reliever, Aroldis Chapman, a pitcher who regularly throws the ball more than one hundred miles an hour. Chapman prefers to pitch just one inning (usually the ninth), but Maddon  brought him in earlier, which would have dramatic consequences in game seven.

Once again the Cubs broke out with an early lead, and all over the world Cub fans prepared to celebrate. Kyle Hendricks was pitching a gem of a game, but Maddon replaced him in the fifth inning to bring in Jon Lester along with catcher David Ross, who planned to retire at the end of the season. After Lester, Maddon brought in Chapman, and the Indians fought back. Chapman surrendered a game-tying home run in the bottom of the eighth inning, horrifying Cubs fans everywhere. (It was in the eighth inning in 2003 that the Cubs lost a big lead in a key game due to a freak circumstance which does not deserve to be mentioned.) Neither team scored in the ninth, bringing the game to extra innings.

Rain delayed the game, and Jason Heyward called a meeting in the weight room by the visitors’ locker room. There he reminded his teammates that they were talented, that they had won games all year, and that they were capable of winning this game. A string of hits in the top of the tenth inning gave the Cubs a two run lead. They gave up one run in the bottom of the inning, leading Maddon to change pitchers one last time. Mike Montgomery threw two pitches. The second pitch was grounded to third base, where Kris Bryant, wearing a huge grin, captured the ball and threw it to first base. Anthony Rizzo caught the ball, raised his fists into the air in victory, and slipped the ball into his pocket.

One hundred eight days later, the joy has scarcely diminished. The players are gathering for spring training, preparing to battle toward a second championship. Chicago sports fans have high hopes, but also long memories. In the 1980s the Chicago Bears assembled a talented team of great personality who had a marvelous season in 1985, ending with the Bears’ first Superbowl victory. The team should have been a dynasty, but they failed to return to the Superbowl. On the other hand, in the 1990s the Chicago Bulls also assembled a talented team of great personality, centered around Michael Jordan. His team won six championships in eight seasons. Cubs fans hope that the current Cubs will imitate the Bulls and not the Bears. Either way, the names will remain engraved forever in our memories. Bryant, Russell, Baez, Rizzo, Contreras, Schwarber, Fowler, Heyward, Zobrist, Arrieta, Lester, Hendricks, Lackey, Chapman, Montgomery, Edwards, Almora, Montero, and Ross: most of them are young as well as talented. Chapman and Fowler have moved on to other teams and Ross has retired, but the rest of them are back and ready to play again. On behalf of Cubs fans everywhere: Go Cubs, Go! Bring home another trophy! J.

Vladimir Nabokov

Earlier this month a woman told me that her mother’s writings are as good as Nabokov’s. In a situation like that, one can only smile and nod, even while one’s mind is silently screaming, “No! No one writes as well as Nabokov!”

The Mount Rushmore of twentieth-century American writers consists of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner. Of the four, only Faulkner even approaches Nabokov’s ability to paint with the English language, and Faulkner tended to stray a bit too often into stream of consciousness writing and other tricks. Nabokov was a master of written communication. The most amazing fact about Nabokov’s skill with English is that English was not his first or second language. He was born and grew up in Russia, learning to speak and to write in Russian and French. He learned English later, after his family had fled Russia. Yet his later novels are written in English, and his earlier novels were translated from Russian to English under his supervision. Both sets of novels sing in a lyrical manner unapproached by any other writer of the last hundred years and more.

Hemingway in particular is credited with crisp, succinct writing which has influenced thousands of composition and journalism classes. Gone are the long Dickensian descriptions found in nineteenth century English literature. Yet Nabokov accomplished something in English that Hemingway and Steinbeck never approached. Nabokov had a profound sense of the sound and rhythm of language. As a master he toyed with language. His mind was capable of creating descriptions of people and events that are multi-textured, complex without becoming verbose. When I read a Hemingway story, I might think, “I never imagined that character or setting or plot, but if I had, I could have written this story.” When I read a Nabokov story, I ask, “How did he do that? And why is it that I cannot do that?”

I just happen to be reading the short stories and novels of Nabokov this month. Currently I am savoring The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. I saw one brief example of Nabokov’s mastery of expression last night, as the title character describes his social awkwardness by calling himself a “colorblind chameleon.” Who but Nabokov could have expressed so much with but two English words?

Tragically, Nabokov is best-known for Lolita, a novel about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a “nymphet,” a prepubescent girl to whom he is drawn emotionally and physically. The subject is uncomfortable; and, because he writes from the man’s point of view, Nabokov does not directly condemn his character’s thoughts and his actions. Notoriously, the book is frequently banned. Two movies have been made from the book, the first directed by genius Stanley Kubrick and starring genius Peter Sellers–not as the main character, but as his nemesis, Clare Quilty. (The name itself is a beautiful visual pun.) While Lolita contains as much of Nabokov’s skillful writing as any other novel he wrote, the subject matter tends to guide people into the false assumption that Nabokov himself must be perverted. Nabokov makes his characters so convincing, so real, that a reader almost expects each of them to be somehow an autobiographical image of the author.

My favorite Nabokov novel is Pale Fire. The heart of the book is a poem of 999 lines–the thousandth line is missing–but the bulk of the book consists of a preface and annotations by a second character, the poet being the first character. The relationship between the poem and poet on the one hand, and the interpreter on the other hand, is displayed astoundingly throughout the book. While it contains a wealth of literary tidbits of the highest quality (such as “Chapman’s Homer” referring simultaneously to a particular translation of an ancient Greek poet and to a more recent success on the baseball diamond), the entire novel contains levels of meaning and significance that can hardly be described, certainly not without spoiling the charm of the book.

Aside from writing, Nabokov’s passions included chess, butterflies, and opposition to totalitarian governments. A little awareness of these topics assists a reader of Nabokov. (For example, Sebastian Knight has a close associate named Clare Bishop.) Lack of awareness of these matters does not keep any reader from enjoying Nabokov’s work. Many of his clever jokes are discovered only during a second or third reading, when the reader can set aside plot and character and instead swim in the flow of Nabokov’s unequalled prose. J.

It’s a Wonderful Life

My plan to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with my family this weekend was delayed as my daughters ran from one Christmas party to another. I hope we will be able to squeeze the movie in one evening in the next two weeks, because the uplifting story of kindness and generosity returned in a time of need suits the holiday spirit of Christmas.

I love this movie despite its errors. I am not talking about continuity errors or character errors. (You can read about those on IMDB if you are interested.) The movie contains some significant theological errors, some of which are even essential to the plot.

First, people do not become angels when they die. Human beings remain human, even when their spirits are separated from their bodies. Angels have always been angels. Just as cats never turn into dogs, so people never turn into angels. If Clarence is an angel, then he has always been an angel.

Second, the conversation between Clarence and Joseph, prompted by prayers to God on behalf of George Bailey, totally fails to mention God. True angels serve God and do his will. They do not answer prayers or step into the lives of God’s people without a direct command from God to do so. Perhaps the makers of the movie were afraid that a portrayal of God would offend some people. If so, they were probably right. Still, the omission of God from the heavenly counsel is also problematic.

Third, angels do not need to earn their wings. The wings of angels are rarely mentioned in the Bible, although the prophet Isaiah saw angels surrounding the throne of God–they each had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two wings they covered their feet, and with two wings they flew. Also, the angels depicted on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant and in Solomon’s Temple had wings. Angels do not need wings to fly. They are spiritual beings, not physical beings. They do not take up space or reflect light. When angels become visible, they generally do so to deliver a message from God. (The word “angel” actually means “messenger.”) Instead of reflecting light, they emit light, which is probably why they often begin conversations with human beings by saying, “Don’t be afraid.”

Fourth, the Bible does not mention first-class angels and second-class angels. The angels Isaiah saw were called seraphim (“burning ones”); other angels are called cherubim (“near ones,” perhaps because they remain close to God). There is also an archangel (“head angel”) named Michael. Medieval theologians speculated that there are nine ranks of angels, including thrones, dominions, virtues, and powers. There is no evidence that angels can be promoted from one rank to another by doing good deeds.

Why do I love a movie that is so wrong about angels? The movie is really about people, not about angels. Its hero, George Bailey, cares about people, especially the poor and the working class. His nemesis, Mr. Potter, cares only about money and power. In a run on the town’s bank during the Great Depression, George Bailey uses his personal funds (saved to finance his honeymoon–the run occurs the day he is married) to help others, while Mr. Potter takes advantage of the run to take over the bank. Even though George Bailey is a hero, he is not unflawed. Under stress he verbally abuses his wife and children, then self-medicates with alcohol. His religious beliefs are never stated, but it appears that he prays only as a last resort, not faithfully. Christmas provides a reason to decorate the home and the office, but its significance for George Bailey seems less than the significance of an approaching party to be held for his younger brother, a war hero.

For the Christian, It’s a Wonderful Life might be experienced like the book of Esther. God is never mentioned by name in Esther, although he is clearly the moving force protecting the Jewish people. Like Queen Esther, George Bailey acts in a godly way to help others; like Esther, he receives help when he needs it most. In Esther’s case, she needs the approval and support of the emperor; George Bailey needs the support of his friends and neighbors. Both of them receive what they need because God is in charge of their lives.

In short, Clarence is not the answer to the prayers prayed by and for George Bailey. The answer to prayers comes by way of the hearts of the residents of Bedford Falls. The ironic use of the hymn “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”–meant in the movie only to underline Clarence’s role–can instead remind Christians of the true meaning of Christmas: “Glory to the newborn King, peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” J.

Coffee

In my life I have participated in most of the legal substance-abuse vices, with the exception of tobacco. I’ve been around smokers frequently, but I’ve not been interested in smoking. Some other time I might address the abuse of sugar, salt, and oils, but today I want to write about coffee.

My parents had the habit of drinking a cup of coffee with each meal–breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They drank it black–no sugar, no milk or cream. As a child, I didn’t like the smell of coffee and didn’t want to drink coffee. Even when I went to college, coffee held no appeal for me.

That changed my last year of college. I took a course in art history which met three afternoons a week, right after lunch. The professor turned off the lights and showed slides of paintings and sculptures on the wall. He had a quiet, monotone voice. His quizzes were very difficult. To keep awake in class, I started drinking coffee with my lunch those three days of the week.

By the time I started graduate school, I was in the habit of drinking coffee every day. During my internship, I even learned to drink Cuban espresso, which absolutely requires a lot of sugar because it is so bitter. Also during my internship, I learned that drinking a cup of coffee during Wednesday night Bible class was a bad idea. I was often awake for hours after Bible class, until I learned to stop drinking coffee that late in the day.

When I graduated and started working a steady job, I had one day off each week. After a couple of months, I began to wonder why I always had a headache by lunchtime on my day off. I finally realized that my headache was a symptom of caffeine withdrawal. Rather than giving up on coffee the other six days of the week, I started drinking coffee on my day off as well, and the headaches went away.

My habit became two cups of coffee a day: one with breakfast and the other with lunch. Most of the time I drink it black. On hot summer days, I sometimes prepare a cup of iced coffee, which includes sugar. On some winter days, I treat myself to a mocha, stirring a package of hot chocolate mix into a cup of coffee. I always fix my coffee at home, because I do not want to pay the coffee shop prices to soothe my addiction. I have been careful not to have coffee in the mid-afternoon or evening, because I want to be able to sleep at night.

This was not a scientific study with proper controls, but I have played video games while mildly intoxicated with alcohol, and I have played the same games while “buzzed” with caffeine. In matters of coordination and in matters of judgment, I found that caffeine created more problems for me than alcohol.

Over the years, I have given up alcohol for Lent, and I have given up caffeine for Lent. I found caffeine to be the harder substance from which to fast. Withdrawal symptoms, the desire for a drink, and the rush to return to the substance when Easter arrived all were stronger for coffee than for alcoholic beverages.

My doctor suggested that I cut my coffee drinking in half to help control my blood pressure. At first I resisted his advice, but after I was diagnosed with anxiety, I was willing to cut back to one cup a day. I still drink a mug of coffee after breakfast before I leave for work.

Some web sites list the dangers of caffeine, while others insist that caffeine is safe except in extremely high doses. Some mornings I savor my cup of coffee, while other mornings I worry about my addiction to caffeine. I sympathize with people who struggle with addictions, because I know how powerful my own addiction is in my life. J.