Statistics that matter only to me

In 2018 I finished reading 143 books, bringing my yearly average for the last eighteen years up to 121.

During the twentieth century, I pretty much read what I wanted when I wanted (aside for school assignments, of course) without operating from lists or keeping any permanent records. In 2001 I decided to keep a list of what I was reading and what I wanted to read, and that action set a pattern that I continue to follow today. Typically I am reading selections from four or five different books every day, not including the Bible which I read through once a year. But I read through sets of similar books: fiction, philosophy, history, science fiction, or the like. Last year I read through the Christian medieval writers, from Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy through the anonymous The Cloud of Unknowing. I finished a series of science fiction/fantasy and then turned to ancient philosophy, including Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. I finished a series of books related to the Nixon administration and Watergate. I also read novels written by Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Portis, Chaim Potok, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Pynchon.

In addition to reading, I also wrote and published. In 2018 I published a study of the parables of Jesus, a collection of essays (most of which appeared first on this blog) called My Best Friend’s Rotten Wife, a study of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, and a collection of short stories.

And, of course, I wrote for this blog. In 2018 I received 7,805 views from 5,223 visitors. I realize that many of my readers have considerably more views and visitors, but I aim for quality rather than quantity. (Who else recently said the same thing?) During the past year my most popular post was “23 Odd Facts about Man in the Moon,” which I suspect must be featured on some Andy Kaufman fan web site. The runner-up was “Hello, my name is Joe,” which I know is featured on a web site about robocalls. Next came “Did Jesus ever have a panic attack?” an essay which I included in My Best Friend’s Rotten Wife. In fourth place was “Four Heavens,” explaining the uses of the word “heaven” in the Bible, including what it means in Genesis that “God created the heavens and the earth” and Paul’s reference in II Corinthians to the third heaven. Finally, a post that I wrote during the 2016 presidential campaign—one which received more than a thousand visits that year—is still performing well. Evidently Google and other search engines consider me a reliable source to answer the question, “Is Donald Trump the Antichrist?

I hope to continue to be a prolific reader and writer in 2019. I have already finished three books which I started last month, and I have several writing projects in store as well. May all of you enjoy your reading and your writing this year. J.

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The limitations of science

I am a fan of science. I was a boy at the time of the Apollo missions to the moon, and I watched full coverage of them on television. Over the years, my parents bought me a telescope, a microscope, a chemistry set, and a 100-project electrical kit. I got As in science all through school. I still keep up with the latest discoveries, from the exploration of Mars to the particles detected from split atoms.

Science provides many benefits. Science gives us longer and more productive lives, thanks to expanding knowledge about nutrition, sleep, exercise, medicine, therapy, and the battle against pests, from viruses and harmful bacteria to fleas, ticks, and tapeworms. But science cannot help us beyond death. Science cannot tell us whether any part of our being survives death. Nor can science reveal the destiny of that surviving entity, whether it will go to heaven or to hell.

Science is limited to studying the physical world. It can measure and describe matter and energy, but science cannot observe anything that does not consist of matter or energy. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, angels, demons, or the human soul. It is not scientific to say that science disproves those entities, because the rules of science do not permit science to determine anything about the nonmaterial world.

Therefore, anyone who puts his or her faith in science is as mistaken as someone who puts his or her faith in money, or in political power, or in one’s own good deeds, or in Baal or Zeus or Thor. Money and politics and good deeds all have value; they each have a place in our lives. But none of them can take the place of God. None of them can do what God does for his people.

One of the benefits of science is that it changes. New discoveries invalidate prevailing theories and force the creation and testing of new theories about the material world. Isaac Newton applied mathematics to science. He found the equation that describes how gravity works. After Newton, science grew more and more mechanical, with the hope that one day science could explain everything in the universe. But Albert Einstein and other twentieth-century scientists showed that Newton’s mathematical and mechanical universe only describes matter and energy of moderate size. The rules change with the very big, the very small, and the very powerful.

Because science changes, it is unreliable. One researcher says coffee is good for people; the next researcher says coffee is bad for people. Efforts to eradicate the spread of disease and improve the cultivation of crops have damaged the environment by killing off insects and poisoning the creatures that eat insects. Food additives, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and perhaps even life-saving vaccinations can have damaging side effects, which may explain the increase in recent times of autism, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and intolerance of one another. The poisonous social atmosphere in which we live may literally be poisoned by the same scientific advancements that were intended to improve our lives.

The person who relies on science and scientists to provide all Truth is missing a great deal. The knowledge that our souls will spend time elsewhere when we die—a better place or a worse place, depending upon who we know and trust—and that our bodies will be raised to eternal life at the dawn of the new creation—this knowledge shapes much of what we choose to do today. Knowing the Creator of the universe is far more important than knowing when and how the dinosaurs lived. Knowing that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus provides forgiveness of sins, fellowship with God, and victory over all enemies is far more important than encyclopedic knowledge of all the chemicals or all the planets and planetoids or all the subatomic particles.

One reason science seems to be more valuable than religion is that science has, over the years, provided material explanations for phenomena (such as thunderstorms and epileptic seizures) that were formerly attributed to spiritual causes. One might chart the number of phenomena that are explained by science and no longer attributed to spirits and assume that the need for religion will disappear. But even though science can improve our lives in this world, it gives us no reason to go on living. Nor can science guarantee eternal life in a better world after death in this world. Science cannot lift the guilt of a person who knows that he or she has done wrong. Science cannot teach people how to forgive one another and live in harmony. Science is beneficial, but it cannot replace religion. A life based on science is as empty as a life based on money or politics or entertainment.

I remain a fan of science. But my faith is in God. Science studies the things God made. Theology studies God. God is not too small for science; he is too big for science to grasp, too powerful for science to measure, too grand for science to explain. I thank God for all the things science has discovered about his creation. I praise God for who he is, information which science cannot supply. J.

Remembering John Lennon

John Lennon was the first Beatle.

He was leading a skiffle band when he was introduced to Paul McCartney. Skiffle is English folk music—Beatle fans have heard skiffle-sounding songs such as “Baby’s in Black” on Beatles for Sale and “Maggie Mae” on Let It Be. John and Paul became musical partners, and George Harrison soon joined them. Other musicians came and went, including Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best. Ringo Starr replaced Pete Best as the Beatles were preparing to make their first hit record. The rest, as they say, is history.

Older baby boomers know that “the day the music died” is February 1, 1959—the day Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash. For late boomers like me, the day the music died is December 8, 1980, when John Lennon was shot and killed in New York City. I was a college student at the time. I was sitting in a friend’s dormitory room that night when Dan Rubens noticed the open door and called into the room that Lennon had been shot. Dan didn’t know any of us in the room, but he had just heard the news and wanted to share it with someone.

Stereotypes about the Beatles include the thought that Lennon was more adept with lyrics and McCartney was more adept with melodies. This overlooks the fact that Lennon penned some admirable melodies, from “If I Fell” to “Across the Universe,” not to mention his post-Beatles hit “Imagine.” But Lennon definitely had a knack for words, which he demonstrated especially in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “I am the Walrus.” The music of the Beatles has remained popular for decades and has reached several generations. In many ways, it defines the popular culture of the 1960s.

John Lennon was the first of the Beatles to marry and the first to father a child. He was also the first to divorce and remarry. Lennon’s own childhood was difficult—his father abandoned the family, and his mother died while Lennon was young. (Paul’s mother also died while Paul was young.) He was raised by an aunt. Although Lennon sang about love, he was distant and cold toward his own family members, as he admitted himself in interviews toward the end of his life. Like most musicians of the time, the Beatles experimented with drugs—first pills to keep them awake and energized for their hours on stage, then later marijuana and LSD. Lennon even had to break a heroin habit in the 1970s.

In 1966, John Lennon commented to a reporter that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. When this remark was printed, it caused considerable controversy. Lennon half-apologized, explaining that he was only stating a fact about the Beatles’ popularity in England and was not claiming to be better than Christ or to deserve to be more popular. Lennon’s own views about Christianity (and religion in general) were well-known even before he wrote and recorded “Imagine,” in which he pictures a world of peaceful cooperation without politics and religion to divide people from one another.

In 1980 Lennon returned to the recording studio after several years of retirement. His single “(Just Like) Starting Over” was rising in the charts when Lennon was killed, eventually reaching the number one spot. Lennon’s last album, Double Fantasy, also made it to number one after Lennon’s death, and it won a Grammy award as Album of the Year. It is difficult to imagine how John Lennon’s career would have continued had he not been killed. Two of his songs were included in the Beatles Anthology of the mid 1990s; Lennon was accompanied by added tracks of Paul, George, and Ringo, making the songs the closest possible approach to a reunion of the Beatles.

The walrus is sadly missed. J.

Another post about baseball

“I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time with America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian-head penny in a handful of new coins.” W. P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe. The novel was made into a movie, Field of Dreams, in which Terrance Mann delivers a speech based on these words.

Baseball has always been a game of strategy as well as talent. From the competition between pitcher and batter to the alignment of fielders on the diamond, baseball players try to outthink the competition. The statistics of baseball have become ever more complicated, with technology assisting the measurement of the speed of pitches and of hit balls, launch angles, and other fine details of the game. Players and coaches study these statistics in an effort to improve. They also study the opposing players, searching for tendencies that can be exploited as weaknesses.

When I was in high school, I patterned my batting stance after Dave Kingman. Kingman played in the major leagues for sixteen seasons, including three with the Chicago Cubs. His stance at the plate was wide, with the distance between his feet greater than the spread of his shoulders. He had an upper cut in his swing long before people were discussing launch angles. In his career, Kingman hit 442 home runs. That’s a lot. He also struck out 1816 times, also a lot. Sometimes he would hit the ball five hundred feet… straight up in the air, only to have it be caught in the infield not far from home plate.

Analysis of the 2018 baseball season shows that a higher percentage of runs scored was due to home runs than ever before, and a higher percentage of outs was due to strikeouts than ever before. It is as if every batter wants to be Dave Kingman. Forty years ago, not everyone wanted to be Dave Kingman. At that time I was taught how to modify my stance to drive the ball to right field or left field. The goal was to get a hit by putting the ball where the fielders were not close. In today’s baseball games, many teams adopt “the shift” on defense. If they know that the tendency of a batter is to hit to the right side of the field, they put three infielders there and only one on the left. A good coach should be able to teach a good hitter to take advantage of the shift. I remember one game in the 2016 playoffs when Ben Zobrist ended a string of hitless at-bats for the Cubs team by bunting the ball down the third base line. The San Francisco Giants had to adjust their defense to account for this possibility; the Cubs responded with a string of hits, went on to win the game and the series against the Giants, to beat the Dodgers for the pennant, and to beat the Indians for the World Championship. It all came down to one bunt.

Pitching has changed in baseball. Pitchers go through such contortions to add speed or spin to the ball that it is rare for a pitcher not to need major surgery on his arm or shoulder before his career has ended. Batters have to adjust. They learn to react to the habits of a pitcher, seeing how he prepares for each pitch and guessing from those preparations what the pitch will be. Pitchers study the habits of batters, knowing which of them have a tendency to swing at pitches they cannot hit. New players have a brief advantage, since their habits have not been revealed. After a short time, though, new players have to adjust because the opposing teams have learned their habits.

As the Chicago Cubs use the coming months to prepare for the 2019 season, I hope they will adjust their thinking. Learn to hit the ball to the opposite field to compensate for the shift. Level the launch angle for contact with the pitch rather than trying always to hit a home run. Use the bunt and the stolen base to upset the rhythm of the opposition. Pitch more to induce weak fly balls and groundouts rather than trying to strike out every batter. Over time, good fundamental baseball always overcomes the latest tactic or gimmick. This matters, because the one constant through all the years has been baseball. J.

Star Wars, truth, and redemption

When George Lucas first envisioned the movie that became Star Wars IV: A New Hope, he was planning on a single epic movie, not a franchise. As the script developed, the story and characters went through many changes. Lucas came to realize that the story he wanted to tell would not fit within a single movie. In the end, he introduced his characters and then moved them immediately to the big ending he wanted to show: the destruction of the Death Star. When the original Star Wars became wildly successful, Lucas was invited to make more movies with the same characters. He rounded out the trilogy, ending the third movie with another destruction of another Death Star. Along the way, he introduced more ideas about the characters and their setting than had been in the script for the first movie.

As a result, the great Jedi warrior Obi-wan Kenobi is trapped in a pair of blatant lies in the original movie. Handing Luke Skywalker a lightsaber, Obi-wan says, “Your father wanted you to have this.” Shortly thereafter, Obi-wan informs Luke that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father. In the next movie, The Empire Strikes Back, Vader reveals the truth to Luke when he tells him, “No; I am your father.” In Return of the Jedi Luke confronts Obi-wan with his lies, and the warrior feebly twists the family history so that he can tell Luke, “In a way, what I said was true.”

In any other galaxy, Luke Skywalker would have wondered, “How can I believe anything this person tells me?” Honesty ought to be one of the qualities that distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys. Half truths and twisted truths ought to be the tools of evil, not the strategies of good. But in the Star Wars galaxy the bad guys are powerful enough to be open about their plans, while the virtuous rebels must rely on deception to prevail against the Empire.

Philosophers have struggled with the ethics of telling the truth or lying. In a classic puzzle, they ask whether it would be moral to lie to protect a life—such as if an agent of evil is looking for a certain victim, you know where the victim is hiding, and the evil one asks you directly where that person is. Should you tell a lie to keep the potential victim safe, or should you speak the truth, salving your conscience with the thought that the agent of evil would cause the harm; you would be blameless. Most people, I think, would find a lie acceptable, even honorable, under those circumstances. Immanuel Kant (a German philosopher who lived roughly two hundred years ago) disagreed. He insisted that, once you have found one justification for lying, you make all lies acceptable, and no one can trust anyone else anymore. By insisting that no circumstance justifies lying, he upheld what he called the moral imperative of always telling the truth.

Christians know that Jesus Christ is the Truth, and Satan is the father of lies. We would rather speak the truth than tell a lie; we want to avoid the habit of lying. But under a condition where harm would be done by speaking the truth, most Christians would lie. For we have something Kant did not have in his system: we have the forgiveness of our sins. We avoid sin whenever we can; but to save a life we would tell a lie. We would not call the lie justifiable, but we know that we are justified. All our sins have been forgiven by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He has justified us, redeeming us and bringing us back to his kingdom of pure and perfect truth.

In George Lucas’ universe, even Darth Vader could be rescued by sacrificial love. In his story, the father was saved by the son. In our truth, the Son redeems those who have fallen into evil and makes them acceptable to the Father. In a way, Jesus accomplishes this through a holy deception. He clothes us in his righteousness and takes the blame for our sins. By transferring guilt to his Son and righteousness to sinners, God the Father participates in this deception, and by it we are saved.

Obi-wan’s lies happened only because George Lucas did not know what would be in his second Star Wars movie when he filmed the first one. But God knows everything. When he created the world, he knew about our sins and about the price that would need to be paid to redeem us. God went ahead and created anyhow. He thought we were worth the cost. J.

The Chicago Cubs

Now that the World Series is under way, I will write about my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. They are not playing in this year’s World Series, but only two years ago they won the World Series, ending the longest championship drought of any professional sport.

Around Christmas of 2016 I told my father that I hoped the Cubs would take after the (basketball) Chicago Bulls of the 90s who won six championships in the span of eight years. I hoped that they would not take after the (football) Chicago Bears of the 80s who assembled a talented team but only won one Super Bowl. I regret to say that, over the last two seasons, the Cubs have resembled the Bears more than the Bulls.

This year the Cubs won ninety-five games. That tied them for most wins in the National League, which is a good thing. They were tied with the Milwaukee Brewers, who—like the Cubs—play in the Central Division of the National League. Because they were tied, the teams had to play each other in one game to determine who would represent the Central Division in the playoffs. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, both in the West Division, also finished the season with the same number of wins and also played one game to name the division champion. This is the first time that two extra games have been added to the schedule at the last minute to determine the championship of two divisions.

Because the Cubs won more than half the games they played against the Brewers this year, the tie-breaking game was played in Chicago. The Cubs lost that game 3-1. The Rockies also lost on the same day. This led to the Cubs and Rockies playing a game to determine the Wild Card team. Because the Cubs had the better record, that game also was in Chicago. The Cubs lost again, this time 2-1.

It is possible to win a baseball game 1-0. In fact, it happens quite often. Usually, though, when a team scores only one run, they lose the game. When Chicago’s offense fails in the two most important games of the year, fans like me worry. Granted, they were one of the best teams all year long. Granted, they have been in the playoffs the last four years, making it to the pennant-deciding games three of those years. And granted, they have recently won a championship in memorable style. But champions cannot rest on their laurels.* Their fans expect them to succeed every year.

The Cubs have assembled a team with awesome talent. This season they had to contend with injuries and other distractions. They still did very well. But only one team can be a champion. Cubs fans waited 108 years to see the Cubs win a World Series. (They won the World Series in 1907 and again in 1908.) They do not want to wait another century for another championship.

A meme was posted on Facebook by a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. It depicted a “participation trophy” for the 2018 Cubs in the postseason. That was clever. It was also painful to see.

The bright spot is that the Cubs were beaten by the Colorado Rockies. There are ten teams in the National League East and West divisions, and now eight of them have blocked the Cubs from advancing in the playoffs. Aside from the Dodgers, who took the pennant from the Cubs in 2017, no National League team has stopped the Cubs in the playoffs more than once. Every time the Cubs faced a team in the playoffs more than once, the Cubs won the second time. (On the other hand, every East or West Division team that met the Cubs in the playoffs for the first time beat the Cubs—until 2017, when the Washington Nationals broke the pattern by losing to the Cubs.) So, according to that pattern, only Philadelphia stands in the way of a Cubs Championship in 2019.

Cubs fans have suffered from the slogan “Wait til next year” for most of our lives. The great players wearing Cubs uniforms today owe it to their fans to do more than participate. They are paid to be champions, and champions they will be.

 

*The expression “rest on your laurels” comes from the ancient Greek Olympic games. In the ancient world, winners were not given gold medals. They were given laurel crowns—C-shaped ornaments worn on the head, woven from branches taken from a laurel tree. Julius Caesar wore a laurel crown. So does the cartoon Little Caesar of the pizza chain. Laurel crowns dry up quickly. They become brittle and fall apart. Therefore, athletes need to go out and win new crowns. They cannot rest on their laurels. J.

Happy birthday Barbara Eden

Today is the birthday of one of the most beautiful and charming actresses ever to appear on television. Barbara Eden is 87 years old today, and even at 87 she remains both beautiful and charming.

She is best remembered as the title character in I Dream of Jeannie. The show told the story of an astronaut (played by Larry Hagman) who was stranded on a beach after an unsuccessful mission. A finds a bottle and rubs the dirt off it, and a genii magically appears. A language barrier exists until he wishes that she could speak English. Afterward, she is able to draw rescuers to him. He sets her free, but she has already set her heart upon him. So she smuggles herself and her bottle into his equipment and travels with him to Florida.

All this is but the first part of the first episode. The rest of the five seasons depict the various ways in which she tries to serve him and protect him by her magical power. Generally her misunderstanding of American culture and technology cause trouble rather than service and protection. The scriptwriters struggled to find situations in which her power would be somehow limited or otherwise hindered. Larry Hagman was scornful of the show; he once claimed that they had only three scripts that they kept reusing with only the details changed. But the show had a huge following, which indicates the scripts could not have been that bad.

Barbara Eden starred in other shows, including Harper Valley PTA. Like most of her friends, though, I remember her best as Jeannie. I vividly remember one episode which I saw when I was very young. Jeannie and her bottle were trapped inside a safe, and the safe was in danger of being destroyed at a garbage dump. The show depicted the safe being carried down a conveyor toward certain destruction… and then of course they broke for a string of commercials.

I Dream of Jeannie aired during the same years as the Apollo space program. I was a fan of real astronauts as well as of those depicted on the show. The makers of the show cooperated with NASA to make the show as realistic as possible. There were, however, goofs. Real astronauts lived and trained in Houston, Texas—not Cocoa Beach, Florida. Both Houston and south Florida are very flat, but mountains were sometimes seen in the background of the neighborhood where Tony and Jeannie lived.

Most famously, Barbara Eden’s navel was not to be seen on network TV, although on two or three occasions her costume did slip, and her navel did appear briefly. But in more than one episode other women were seen in two-piece bathing suits, exposing their navels and much more flesh. That double standard did not make much sense.

Wherever she is and however she is celebrating, I hope that Barbara Eden has a very happy birthday. J.

Five movies for Independence Day

On this fourth day of July, citizens of the United States of America celebrate the independence of our country and remember the freedoms we have as citizens of this country. Americans celebrate with parades, picnics, fireworks, and other traditional activities. Here is a list of five movies that I like to see around Independence Day. Not that I claim they are the best possible movies or that every American should see them. I don’t even watch all five every year, but it’s a safe bet I’ll be watching one of these five movies while others are out watching the firework show.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): Actor James Stewart and director Frank Capra combine to bring viewers this movie about America’s government. Jeff Smith, played by Stewart, is a simple honest patriot. Named by the governor of his state to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate, Smith finds himself confronted with cynicism and corruption in the nation’s capital. Some elements of the movie fall short—for example, it’s hard to believe that a patriot like Jeff Smith would need a lecture from his office secretary about how a bill becomes a law. Still, the unabashed patriotism of Smith and his supporters—along with the tour of Washington DC’s landmarks—makes this movie a refreshing holiday treat. Some American politicians objected to portions of the movie that depict corrupt politicians (although no states or political parties are named), but the movie was banned in the totalitarian countries of Europe for its celebration of democracy and the power of the common man.

Music Man (1962): Made from a successful Broadway musical, this movie is not about patriotism or the Fourth of July so much as a celebration of the heartland of the United States and the people who live there. Harold Hill is a traveling salesman who markets musical instruments, lesson books, and uniforms, promising to form a boy’s band, even though Hill cannot read a note of music. Marian Paroo is the town’s librarian and must choose whether or not to reveal his scam. With songs including “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Til There Was You,” Music Man joyfully depicts the state of Iowa in the summer of 1912. The dance scene in the library is particularly not to be missed.

1776 (1972): Also made from a Broadway musical, this movie uses song, dance, and acting to depict the writing and acceptance of the Declaration of Independence in the Second Continental Congress of the North American colonies of Great Britain. No movie is a purely accurate source for history lessons, but this movie comes close. The actors truly live the parts of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the other founding fathers of the United States. At times humorous and at times gloomy, 1776 does not back away from the harsh realities of war and of American slavery. In the end, though, it is a glowing endorsement of that document created back in 1776 which gave the founding principles of a new nation.

Moscow on the Hudson (1984): Robin Williams plays a Russian musician who defects to the United States while his employer, a Russian circus, is performing in New York City. A landmark movie that can help younger people understand the issues of the Cold War, the movie shows the differences between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but it does not retreat into jingoistic propaganda. Life in Russia has joy as well as gloom, and life in America has sorrow and fear as well as freedom and opportunity. Several other powerful actors depict the population of New York City, a group of people who have traveled from all over the world to take part in the American way of life. Though the film is not entirely family-friendly, it remains one of the clearest proclamations of America’s values during the Reagan administration.

Independence Day (1996): An obvious choice for the Fourth of July, Independence Day tells the story of Earth being invaded by hostile aliens from outer space. Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, and Bill Pullman all shine in their roles of survivors who must confront and defeat this unexpected threat. Goldblum is especially effective as the environmentally-conscious computer expert who perceives the threat earlier than most people and eventually helps to create a solution. Doses of humor spice the action of this movie, including some lines so subtle that they might not be noticed until a second or third viewing. The President’s speech to his troops before the final battle is particularly uplifting and memorable.

Happy viewing, and happy Independence Day!  J.

(originally published July 3, 2015)

Parallels of Wonder Woman and Full Metal Jacket

Last week the movie Wonder Woman was shown for free at the park downtown, and so I got to see it again. I’ve not gotten deeply involved in the superhero genre, but Wonder Woman had sufficiently good reviews for me to see it in a theater, and I enjoyed it. The story has enough depth and the characters and settings are sufficiently interesting to make me want to see it more than once. Gal Gadot’s portrayal of the title character is nicely done. I have to be cautious expressing my admiration for her, though, because I have a daughter who looks much like her—something apparent not only to her father but also to her coworkers. So I don’t want to rave overly much about the actresses appearance or talent.

During the sniper scene in the Belgian village, I began to think of Stanley Kubrick’s movie Full Metal Jacket, which also includes a sniper scene. In the last few days my mind has found many other connections between these two fine movies.

First, they are both about war. Not only do they include wars or have wars in the plot—both movies explore the meaning and significance of war. Although Full Metal Jacket does not have a figure like Ares to personify war, it demonstrates the same thought that Ares speaks to Wonder Woman: war springs from the violent tendencies embedded in human nature. The very fact that we entertain ourselves by watching movies about war underlines that point; if we were too horrified by war to watch it on the big screen, we might have a better chance to restrain it in real life.

Both movies divide neatly into a training section and a combat section. In spite of the many differences involving the training of warriors, there are similarities in the training technique. For example, in both movies the instructors demand the best of their warriors, urging them to push beyond their limits and achieve more than they thought possible.

In both movies the instructor is violently removed before the combat section begins.

Both movies have the warriors traveling to combat in a different and unfamiliar part of the world. In both cases they have to adjust to foreign situations. And in both movies they confront an enemy that is determined to win by any means possible—corrosive poisoned gas, or booby-trapped toys.

Then of course there is a sniper in each movie.

A much longer list could be made of differences between the two movies, but the similarities are far more interesting. The story of war is much the same whether it is told by Homer or by Oliver Stone. Whether our heroes are ordinary mortals or the offspring of the gods, we still see them wrestle with the senseless violence of war and destruction. The questions are easy to ask; the answers are harder to find. J.

Movie review: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

I bought the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for one reason: the movie celebrates the city of Chicago. Other members of my family do not approve—not that they don’t love Chicago, but because they are involved in education. The depiction of high school, and especially of teachers and administrators, in the movie is insulting, no doubt. All the same, the movie is widely regarded as a reminder to enjoy life, to seize the day, and to make one’s life worth living.

Like many other John Hughes movies, Ferris Bueller involves high school students who are confronted with an adult world that they neither understand nor respect. Set in the 1980s (the time period in which these movies were made), Hughes’ work can be regarded as commentary upon the Baby Boomers, a generation that questioned authority and made their own rules in the 1960s, only to become every bit as rigid and authoritarian when they rose to positions of power. The youngsters in Hughes’ stories are not taking to the streets to protest, nor are they seeking Flower Power. In many ways they are conformists, even though they quietly resent the lives they are forced to live. Generally wealthy, well-dressed, even pampered, they lack a loving connection to their parents. As a result, they form their own tribal culture which grants them an identity which comes from themselves and not from the adults who make all the rules.

Ferris Bueller is supposed to be a likeable character. Even the school secretary reports that most students in the school like and admire Ferris—“They say he’s a righteous dude.” But Ferris is dishonest, manipulative, conniving, self-centered, and smug. Some reviewers have labeled him a psychopath. He breaks into the school’s computer system and changes his attendance record—probably also his grades, although that is not shown. He sets up an elaborate system of props and sound effects to cover his absence from his bedroom, should anyone check on him. He faces the camera and speaks to the audience (which is hardly new or clever; Woody Allen did it earlier, and far better, in Annie Hall). Ferris gives instructions about how to deceive one’s parents and be excused from school due to illness. Ferris’ sister Jeannie is not fooled by his ruse, and neither is the school principal. But the movie’s script demands that Ferris succeed at everything he tries. He is a prankster like Till Eulenspiegel; and, as with Till, the audience is expected to be on the side of Ferris Bueller.

Ferris has a friend, Cameron, who is also missing school due to illness. Ferris decides that Cameron’s illnesses are psychosomatic, a result of neglect from Cameron’s parents. Besides, Ferris does not have a car and Cameron does. In short order, Ferris browbeats Cameron into getting out of bed and getting dressed and driving to the Bueller house. He then forces Cameron to pose as the father of Ferris’ girlfriend Sloane, getting her released from school through the phony news of the death of a grandmother. Still manipulating Cameron, Ferris gets access to the prized possession of Cameron’s father, an expensive sportscar. With that vehicle, they escape into the city to enjoy a baseball game at Wrigley Field, lunch at a fancy restaurant, a German heritage parade, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Meanwhile, the school principal is determined to catch Ferris playing hooky. In a series of cartoonish events, Mr. Rooney attempts to visit the Bueller house, only to be struck by misfortune after misfortune. He is like Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner, except this time the Roadrunner has all the props from Acme. Mr. Rooney tangles repeatedly with a fierce dog. Then, when he finally gets into the house, he is attacked by Jeannie, who—not recognizing him—calls the police to report an intruder in the house.

In every story, something is supposed to happen to the main character that changes him or her. No such thing happens to Ferris Bueller on his day off. He catches a foul ball at Wrigley Field, he commandeers the sound system of a parade float to serenade his friends and the city in general, and he returns home in the nick of time to escape capture by his parents. Some people suggest that Ferris Bueller does not even exist in the movie. They suggest that Ferris is an imaginary character, created by Cameron to be all the things that Cameron cannot be. Although this explanation does not match all the events in the script, it does underline the key to the movie: nothing but good happens to Ferris, and he is unchanged at the end of the movie, but his day off does provide important changes in most of the other characters in the movie.

Sloane does not change. She is there mostly to stand next to Ferris and look pretty. Cameron admires her, and she shows warmth toward him, but she is definitely Ferris’ girl. They even speak lightly of becoming married.  This does not stop Ferris from flirting with young ladies on a parade float. Later, he interrupts a mad dash across the back yards of his neighborhood to introduce himself to two sunbathers. That’s how little respect he has for Sloane. At the same time, though, Cameron, Jeannie, and Mr. Rooney each experience important changes in the movie, changes that would not have happened without Ferris Bueller’s day off.

Cameron begins as a deeply troubled character. He is in bed with symptoms said to be brought on by neglect from his parents. As he prepares to heed Ferris’ call to drive to the Bueller house, Cameron suffers an anxiety attack, crying out and striking the seat of the car. Overcoming his rage, he then has a tussle with his best friend in the midst of his phone call to the school principal. The purloining of his father’s car weighs upon his spirits throughout the day off. Finally, when the group discovers that the garage attendants have taken the car for a spin (adding to the mileage recorded on the odometer, something Cameron’s father monitors carefully), Cameron drops into what appears to be a catatonic state. Even if he is faking it, his choice to respond to his problem in that way, and his success in holding the state for a good length of time, indicate severe emotional health problems. He ends his catanoia with the appearance of an attempted suicide by drowning—again, not an emotionally healthy choice.

After the episode at the swimming pool, the group returns to the garage holding the precious sports car. Once again Cameron suddenly strikes out in anger, kicking and flailing at his father’s car. Realizing that he has damaged the car, Cameron begins to assess his need to deal with his father, no longer to hide behind illnesses and silence. Before he can assimilate that reality, though, the car shoots out the rear of the garage and crashes below the house. “You killed the car,” Ferris observes. Although Ferris weakly offers to take blame for the incident, Cameron refuses. He is going to use the disaster involving the car to assert himself to his father. He is finally going to stand up for himself. This is the last we see of Cameron in the movie.

Meanwhile, Jeannie faces changes of her own. She begins the movie irritated with her brother and his ability to do as he chooses without any negative consequences. After she discovers students in the school hallway raising money to help with Ferris’ feigned illness, she tries to report his crime to the principal, but Mr. Rooney has already left the school in pursuit of Ferris. When Jeannie returns home, she senses the presence of an intruder in the house and calls the police for help. Waiting for them to arrive, she hears a noise in the kitchen. In self-defense she assaults the intruder, not recognizing him as Mr. Rooney. When the police arrive, they find no evidence of an intruder in the house, overlooking Mr. Rooney’s wallet, which he had dropped in the Bueller kitchen. (The police bumble as badly as every other adult figure of authority in the movie.)

Taking her to the police station to charge her with placing a false report, the police leave her for a few minutes sitting next to a drug-dazed Charlie Sheen. In their brief conversation, Sheen gives Jeannie a new outlook on life, beginning with the ability to let Ferris be Ferris without being bothered by whatever he does. Jeannie gets to act on this advice driving her mother home from the police station. Seeing her brother sneaking through the neighborhood, Jeannie begins to drive erratically, distracting her mother and delaying so Ferris can return home safely. He nearly makes it, but he finally is confronted by Mr. Rooney. At this point, Jeannie has found Mr. Rooney’s wallet in the house. She can vindicate herself before the police and still see Ferris suffer for his crimes. Instead, she uses the wallet to blackmail the principal and prevent her brother from the punishment he deserves. Is this turn against authority and responsibility a permanent change for Jeannie or only a temporary softening of her heart? We do not know; her part in the story is over.

This leaves Mr. Rooney. His car has been towed. His nice suit and shoes have been ruined. His body and his pride have been damaged. Now comes a final humiliation. A school bus, filled with students from his school, is ready to take him back to his office. Bedraggled like the Coyote after every attempt to catch the Roadrunner, Mr. Rooney walks down the aisle of the bus. The students stare vacantly at him; in their own way, they have faced a day as tough as his day. One girl takes sympathy upon the principal, offering him a seat and a piece of candy. Has Mr. Rooney learned his lesson? Will his bus ride help him to empathize with the students and care more about their lives? Again, we do not know. Mr. Rooney is left on the bus.

We do not learn about Cameron and his father, or about Jeannie and her new attitude, or about Mr. Rooney and his revelation. This is not their movie. It is Ferris Bueller’s day off. Because he does not care about these people, except for the parts they play in his own entertainment, we are not expected to care about them. Ferris underlines this attitude by addressing the audience one more time after the closing credits. Informing them that the movie is over and they should go home, he reinforces his point. He claimed a day off to enjoy himself, and the effect that has had on other people does not matter to him. In this, he completes his role as the merry prankster.

Moreover, Daylight Saving Time must be abolished. J.