Origin Story: Secret identities

Dear Bethany,

Take a knee, kid. It’s time for a little advice.

I’m going to take advantage of moments like this for as long as I can, when I know you can’t roll your eyes or run away from my sage tidings. Which, by the way, I have in spades. Just ask your mom.

You’re a captive audience for now. Nearly six-month-old fetuses usually are, chained by a lifeline and hibernating in weightless, warm dark.

So here goes. Are you ready?

Know this: Watching your friends grow up is a beautiful oddity, a Tim Burton film brought to life.

Also know this: Sometimes it takes shock value to make you realize their transformation.

There’s an iconic scene in ‘Batman Begins’ where the Caped Crusader’s childhood friend suddenly realizes Bruce Wayne, a sad, orphaned billionaire, lurks beneath the constant scowl and expensive Halloween costume.

“Wait,” Bruce’s friend Rachel Dawes pleads as Batman prepares to jump off a roof and soar into a fear toxin-fueled Gotham war. “You could die. At least tell me your name.”

“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me,” the Dark Knight hisses, a nod to advice Rachel gave him earlier in the movie.

Message received: “Bruce?” Rachel whispers as Bats leaps from the ledge.

She’s blindsided by this notion, this sudden, unexpected proof of maturity in her lifelong pal.

I experienced this recently, Bethany. I watched four friends – two to-be moms and dads – go from Bruce to Batman in the blink of an eye. Their respective announcements that they had their own children on the way alerted me to this.

Not to say this hadn’t been happening in front of me. It’s just easy to miss the steps leading up to the moment, I think. Friendships in your late 20s/early 30s are like that. People you’ve known for years and have built a considerable memory resume with can fade into the complicated painting of careers, marriage and distance.

But it’s the oddest thing: when friends like that make their own announcement that someone like you is on the way, it inevitably touches up their corner of the canvas and makes it shine.

Such notifications have happened to me twice over the past few months, and both came with those primitive-looking ultrasound maps where doctors point at a human-ish looking shape and swear it’s a baby; both out-of-the-blue revelations came from friends I’ve known for years.

I was roommates with one, and we still attend superhero flicks wearing superhero shirts. It’s nice to know there’s someone out there who’s comics appreciation is DNA-deep. His wife was the first friend I met at college. I’m glad she stuck around. You should hear them sing together.

Still another was the first person I latched onto in my first newsroom gig. There’s a movie called ‘Superbad’ you’re not allowed to watch until you’re older we can quote every line from. His wife and I are at least in the top 10 when it comes to biggest fans of narrative non-fiction in the free world.

I stood with both couples on their wedding days, honored on a Knights-of-the-Round-Table-caliber. Proud. There we were, pretending we knew what we were doing.

I don’t know, though; there was something about their respective “baby-on-board” announcements that made me see them in a different light; made me tilt my head, squint my eyes, and whisper, “Bruce?”

Because these people I care for, as much as I have always respected them, have – at least from my perspective – thrown on capes and taken it to the next level. Their happiness and anxiousness and general difficulty in finding words to describe their love for a little person they’ve never met personify that. They can all but fly. At the very least, they’ll have to learn.

We’re all trudging the same route, step by nervous, excited step to the fabled Land of Parenthood. Two of them are a bit further ahead, the other pair still catching up. You and their children are all due within four months of each other. I think you planned it that way.

These ideas may be a bit beyond you for awhile, I get that. Friendship during childhood is different, more day-to-day. For me there were a lot more Legos and RC cars involved. I promise you that’ll change someday, that it may even catch you off guard.

And when it happens, when you realize your friends are more Batman than Bruce, it makes you want to be the same way.

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You can’t spell ‘Winter Soldier’ without ‘win’

My patriotism is documented, hieroglyphs embedded in the worn tape of a VHS video.

It shows a Christmas morning. It’s 1987 in Colorado Springs. Robe-clad and mussy-haired, I reach into my stocking and pull out two comic books. The excitement is palpable as the pages flap and crackle in my tight fist.

Side note: Little Me needs to take better care of his comics. God’s sake, kid.

“Spider Man!” I shriek, the hoarseness of morning still not quite gone from my voice. (I hadn’t discovered coffee yet). Then comes the main event, a comic book cover adorned with the smiling visage of red, white and blue-clad Captain Steve Rogers.

Captain America to you.

“Captain America!” Little Me squeals. “Just what I needed!”

Twenty-six years later, that video is still track 1 on the Pfeil Home Video Greatest Hits Catalog. There are additional reasons for that – I also got a music box in my stocking I referred to as a “baby maker,” and the resulting laughter nearly put my parents in the hospital with chest pain – but that high-pitched approval for a superhero is the highlight for me, anecdotal evidence of my affection for the coolest cat in the Marvel Comics universe.

This past weekend, moviegoers seem to be coming around to my way of thinking. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” set an opening weekend record for April, raking in more than $96 million.

It’s well-deserved.

Like every Marvel movie since the first ‘Iron Man,’ it is, of course, sardine can-loaded with marvelous action sequences. Gunplay. Knife fights. Shield hurls. Acrobatics. Hovercraft aerial battles reminiscent of World War II U.S. Navy newsreels. All phenomenally-paced and sequenced. In an industry where it’s getting tougher and tougher to suck the wind from ticket holders’ lungs, ‘Winter Soldier’ has plenty of steroid-fueled battles to deal out.

USA.

Then again, it’s the story of a runt-turned-superhero fighting a mysterious assassin and all other things terrorist/espionage/explosivo, so why wouldn’t it have that element?

But there was a whole other layer to ‘Winter Soldier’ that impressed me even more: the movie’s heart.

When it comes to this character, it’s key. How much depth and fear does a brave, sickly boy turned into a red, white and blue powerhouse during the days of Hitler have? Think about the strength and struggles that come with a responsibility like that. Then freeze this kid in ice and have him lost for 70 years, only to defrost and wake up in a world of iPhones, Justin Bieber and a government that has admitted to spying on its own people. Oh, and almost everyone you love is gone.

Rip Van Warrior.

Talk about feeling lost and adrift. Imagine the amount of will and gumption you’d need to soldier on. ‘Winter Soldier’ addresses where strength of that magnitude is found, that you need to dig deep to find it. Historically, Marvel movies have been rich, visual feasts, but this is the first time I’ve felt one of their films emote on a level comparable to Chris Nolan’s recent ‘Dark Knight’ movies.

You get a salute from me for that alone, Marvel. Here’s to many more.

Dismissed.

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Origin Story: Great powerlessness

Dear Bethany,

The first time your mom felt you move happened on April Fools Day. No joke.

We sat in a Mexican restaurant finishing our food when she fell into her trance, what looked like one anyway. Someday you’ll learn about the phrase: “1,000-yard stare.” It means that your eyeballs look like they’re frozen and unfocused. It was like we were inside a TV set and someone had hit pause, but just for her sight.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

Un-pause. A  grin stirred on her lips; mischievous, the smile of a rookie poker player who got dealt a straight flush on their first hand.

She told me she thought she felt you move, couldn’t tell but was pretty sure. Adrenaline mines ignited in my veins and turned my breaths into post-marathon oxygen gulps. I leaned in and asked her what she felt. It wasn’t stomach-related, she said. More like she had a tiny piano in there and someone had just fluttered the keys for a few seconds.

Could be the baby, she said. Could be.

Moments like these are key into understanding your mom and I. She’s practical and logical. I’m 30 and read comic books. She said maybe, maybe not. I said absolutely. It was you, kicking and creating little in utero tsunamis. I can’t wait until you’re old enough to tell her I was right.

It’s odd to think someone who’s currently the size of a coffee mug created such a sensation, that a likely flutter from a pea-sized hand can remind you that you’re powerless.

There’s a Green Lantern story called ‘Secret Origin’ that tells of ringslinger Hal Jordan’s beginnings in the days before he joined the Green Lantern Corps.

“I was Captain Hal Jordan,” he says at one point. “Now I was just Hal Jordan.”

Yes, great power yields great responsibility, but great responsibility tends to weaken at first glance. Here, life says, you’re in charge of this important facet. Don’t screw it up.

Gulp.

So what do your mom and I do until that day comes? Prepare as best we can. We bought you your first books last weekend. Your mom found them in a couple different used bookstores on the Oregon Coast: some Winnie the Pooh stories and ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar.’ The latter is a story about a tiny, quiet creature that eats a lot, wraps itself in a cloak of warmth and emerges as a butterfly.

Sound familiar?

We’ve also got the baby bath and are starting to amass some all-too-tiny clothes. Among them are a three-pack of Green Bay Packers onesies and some Denver Broncos pacifiers. I imagine one of the biggest divides in our house in the coming years will be over your NFL loyalty.

Joke’s on us if you don’t care either way. That may be healthier for everyone.

Not that I haven’t gone completely delusional in the midst of all this planning. I understand you’re going to shatter any and all preparatory steps we take, a bull in a best-laid plans china shop. Still, we’ll keep it up, I think. At least a couple of our safeguards have to stay standing.

Hopefully all this hasn’t swayed you from future movement. That will never be my intention. Never stop dancing, Bethany. Never stop cartwheeling, somersaulting, running. I’ll chase you as far as I can when you get here.

“When you get here.” Man, no four words have ever brought quite so big a smile to my face. I can’t believe I get to tell you all this in just a few months.

Then again, I likely won’t be able to say anything at all.

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Origin Story: First contact

This is the second entry in a series on first-time fatherhood. Read the first entry here.

Dear Bethany:

I want to tell you about the first time I heard your heart beat, how it made me think of submarines and how I didn’t believe it was real.

It was February. Your mom and I sat in an examination room. I could feel her nervousness, despite her calm. She’s able to smear this layer of jam-like zen over her panic. It mimics actual peace pretty well.

My mind drifted, caught in a lazy tide of ways this meeting could go wrong. I can’t remember when anxiety and pessimism didn’t cloud my vision or flare up to Vesuvius intensity when it came to worrying about people I love.

Like you.

Not that you were tuned in to our worry and curiosity. You were a hybrid at that point, a blend of fact and theory. There but not. Three months of growth to your name. There’s a Captain America story arc called “Reborn” where he’s basically lost in the space-time continuum, straddling reality and conjecture while he tries to become whole. That’s been you in a way, slowly waking from the dream of non-existence as you try to find your way home.

But you were about to send a signal, a sign that you were still on course. Our doctor brought in a fetal doppler — it’s intended to pick up tiny heartbeats like yours — and pressed the microphone against your mom’s stomach, began drifting back and forth, slowly.  It wasn’t just a search for a heartbeat. This felt more like hailing a spaceship.

Do you copy, Fetus One? Come in.

You did. The sound was subdued at first; static in a tunnel. Then the sound of your tiny heart expanding and contracting came in clear.

Wub wub wub.

It made me think of sonar pings and deep water. You had rhythm, kid. I could set a metronome to your tiny ticker.

“You hear it?” the doc asked.

I leaned in to listen, skeptical. Nothing could sound that perfect, that sculpted. Wub wub wub wub.

“And that’s definitely it?” I asked.

“Yes,” doc said.

There was a hint of verbal eyeroll in her voice. Sort of an “I-know-what-I’m-doing” tone. And I was OK with that. When it comes to you, I want to be sure. Doctor was positive.

Wub wub wub. First contact. A “Wish You Were Here” postcard for the ears.

But there was still a link missing, even with a heartbeat. We still didn’t know what you were. You were still “Chip,” the gender-neutral identity we assigned to you when you were the size of a chocolate chip, just getting started with your Lego-like self-assembly of cells.

For that, I need to tell you one more quick story: about the day you stopped being the ambiguous, genderless “Chip” and started being my daughter.

I’ve known you were for some time. You could say I had a hunch, one family and friends tried to squelch beneath their boots. Girl, I said. It has to be a girl.

No, 98 percent of the general populace responded. Boy. But I stood my ground. You’ll soon learn I’m right about everything, even when I’m wrong.

You made finding out the answer difficult when we went for an appointment this past Wednesday. The ultrasound pressed against your mom’s stomach and showed a defined, human-looking you. You squirmed and thrashed, legs cycling in roadrunner whirls. Images of you slashing through finish line ribbons while a cheering crowd of track meet watchers jumped to their feet flashed in my eyes.

We got the gender confirmation after about 20 minutes of searching.

“I’m pretty sure that’s a girl,” nice health professional said.

Doc confirmed it. Yes, Ryan; it’s going to be two against one very soon. You’re toast, bub, doomed to say yes to every request, so long as she bats her beautiful Bethany eyes and makes her bottom lip pop out.

“Please, Daddy?”

Sigh.

But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, I suppose. Until then, I still have that heartbeat to look forward to. That wub wub wub that reminds me how strong and beautiful you are and how hopeless you’re going to make me.

I’m already thinking about the next time I’ll get to hear it, Bethany. I swear…it sounds like you’re saying hi.

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Mimic

In honor of my workplace, I’d like to share two of my recent watercolors.

Here’s the Mail Tribune building during a sunrise.

And here’s my boss’s hand while taking notes.

I’m pretty proud of them.

Now it’s time for the confession: they’re not actually watercolors.

They’re photos. Yes, photos. Run through one of the coolest iPhone apps I’ve come across yet.

Here are the originals:

The app is called “Waterlogue,” available for $2.99 in the iTunes Store. I discovered it through a ‘Wired’ magazine story, had to have it as a recent hobby convert to the beauty of the art form.

But, like most upgrades in the Convenience Factory, such ease at producing beautiful watercolor/photo hybrids comes with a price. Namely, laziness. I wonder how many make-a-buck schemesters will attempt to utilize this app, print the resultant photos and charge $500 for a “piece” they spent less than 500 seconds on.

Should art be this easy? I’ve recently begun a series of actual watercolors – all the classic Winnie the Pooh characters – that I want to frame for my first kid when they arrive in August. Here’s one:

I think it’s an anecdote as to why real paintings shouldn’t feel threatened. There was love and dedication that went into this, a goal I set out for myself that I wanted to see through. There was excitement when it was finished.

I mean, the watercolor/photo crossbreeds are cool, but there’s a difference between tapping a few buttons on a screen and holding a brush. That connection and fulfillment we get from art isn’t going anywhere.

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Those books we wish we could just…harpoon

This was the passage I stopped reading ‘Moby Dick’ on:

“Lakeman! – Buffalo! Pray, what is a Lakeman, and where is Buffalo?”

That’s page 292 in the Barnes & Noble Classics edition. Right at the top of the page. I actually shook my head, slammed the tome closed and put it down.

“Nope,” I said. “Nope. Absolutely not.”

I was done. Done done. Monopoly-marathon-game-that’s-still-going-after-seven-hours done. And I was pretty upset about it.

2014 was supposed to be the year of ‘Moby Dick,’ the lauded American classic about a vengeful, disfigured captain and his adversary, an equally-vengeful, disfigured sperm whale. It’s “the” book. “The” classic English and literature teachers place at the center of candlelit altars.

All but one, perhaps. I remember being in high school and listening to my own mother, a veteran public school teacher and college professor, rail against the story. Her main issue was author Herman Melville’s many segue’s, how he often abandoned a compelling narrative about the ocean’s fury and the futility of vengeance for frequent 10-page drivel-fests on nautical terminology, the whaling industry, and other such “data” one might expect to find in an early 19th century textbook.

My father took the opposite route. I remember watching the John Huston-directed film adaptation with him as a kid and liking it, how he always encouraged me to scoop the book up and give it a go.

Talk about being torn.

Fast forward 20 years later. It was time to check the box on reading this elusive tale. I made it my New Years Resolution, scooped it up and got going.

The first 100 pages felt like a honeymoon. Melville paints a beautiful picture of New England whaling towns during the early 19th century. I could see the shipyards and lazy flocks of gulls meandering overhead. I heard their far-off calls and the creak of the anchored boats.

“Huh, Mom didn’t like this,” I thought. “Weird.”

Then the gods of Literature and Irony decided to high five and send a Plague of Yawning Confusion my way. Melville’s focus shifted from narrator Ishmael’s point of view to a homicide investigation bulletin board: pictures, words and incomplete, rambling thoughts all tacked up and poorly assembled with pieces of yarn and angrily-scrawled Sharpie arrows.

There were whole chapters on the whaling industry, nautical terminology, psychology, and more. All departures felt abrupt, like yanks on still-mending stitches.

I was Captain Ahab, and the book was my elusive white whale, ever out of reach.

Like any 21st-century 30-something, I took to social media with my issue, asked if anyone had ever just flat-out not finished a book. If they’d ever just, at some point, looked at the still-unread pages and thought, “No way.”

The online responses were nearly unanimous. Yes, they said. Yes, we have. Don’t worry, Ryan. You’re not alone in this. We’ve all been there. A former editor of mine summed it up nicely, as editors are apt to do: “Way too many books to waste life on ones you don’t like.”

And he’s right. But there’s something frightening about that logic, too. As a librarian acquaintance of mine showed me, a a staggering 57 percent of started books are not finished. That’s a little disturbing to me. I mean…of course, read what you like, but that seems like an awful lot of words to just give up on. Right?

But as the Medford School District and its teachers union recently showed me, you can compromise on pretty much anything. Officially, I have not yet given up on the tale. For now, it’s just getting a bookmark put in it, sandwiched between pages 292 and 293.

At the recommendation of one of my current editors, I’m taking a leave of absence, Mr. Melville. I’m due for a vacation, a siesta, a detox from your eternal abyss of disjointed, drunken diary entries. And I’m not sorry. ‘Moby Dick’ may be considered the holy temple in the Lost City of Literature, but that doesn’t make its interior any less dusty or poorly-lit.

I need some fresh air, to remember that reading for fun isn’t supposed to involve so much work.

But I’ll be back. Count on it. I’ll have my hazmat suit on this time.

My harpoon will be ready.

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Origin Story: Our hero is en route

BREAKING: I’m going to be a dad.

Yes. A father. In the non-profit industry of responsibility, it’s a promotion. The promotion. Starting in August, a mewling seven-or-so pounds of helpless squirming pink will be in my hands. My wife and I will be responsible for every move it – yes, “it,” we won’t know the gender until next month – makes, for helping it navigate its life story. All while the world – strangers and family and friends alike – watches from afar and – consciously or not – judges our performance. Just like we used to. You know, with all those “other people’s kids.”

Did you know irony tastes like panic? A neurotic kick with not-so-subtle notes of anxiety.

Yes, sleepless nights and panic-filled days are beginning to stir, but I still could not be more delighted. I hope you’ll indulge me over the next few months, let me pen my moments of eagerness and uncertainty in an effort to assemble this 1,000-piece puzzle of first-time fatherhood.

If this were a comic book, it’d be an origin story. We’re still in the prologue phase. Kal-El has just escaped Krypton safely, is still hurtling through the lonely stretch of space in a little ship. Earth is a blue dot on the horizon.

And somewhere on its surface, two first-time parents are waiting.

Issue No. 1: Patience

The first three months of my wife’s first pregnancy have been a parable about patience, an animation of someone drumming their fingers while steam pours out their ears.

When she found out back in December, – when the story “broke,” as they say – she had to wait to tell me. I was sick. (see also: pretty much dying). The bug I’d caught was some destructive hybrid of ebola and the virus from ‘Walking Dead.’ I lost nine pounds in four days and spent a majority of that period twitching and writhing on the floor like I’d just gone cold turkey on heroin.

But, as most people with functioning immune systems are apt to do, I improved. My wife told me she wanted to start the weekend off by heading to National Creek Falls, up near Union Creek and Crater Lake. It’s a secluded spot, accessible via hiking trail. A large waterfall hisses in one corner while a perpetual mist blankets the air. Creeks trickle happily nearby.

I asked my wife to marry me at the spot. That should have been my first clue. The second was that she said I should bring my video camera to do some nature filming.

That was a ruse. We’d only been there a few minutes when she had me set it up on a tripod and told me she wanted to give me an early Christmas present. Cool, I thought. As instructed, I got in front of the lens and closed my eyes and felt something rectangular press into my upturned hands. I heard the “BINK” of the camera beginning to record, the whir of the tape.

“Open your eyes,” my wife said.

I did, saw the picture frame and flipped it over.

Remember that scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” where Mary cross-stitches the “George Lassos The Moon” picture for him? That picture stared back at me, only “George” was crossed out, replaced with “Ryan.” “The Moon” was also crossed out, replaced by the words “a stork.” It took me a few seconds. Then a quiet synapse in my brain ignited. Ghostly hands twisted once-disconnected wires of comprehension together.

I screamed the word “WHAT?” I looked up at her and said, “Are you…”

She nodded eagerly, grinning. She was six weeks along at that point. I hugged her and told her I’d never been so happy or scared in my life. I meant it. We codenamed the tiny mass of cells “Chip,” because it was the size of a chocolate chip when she told me.

Six days later, on Christmas day, we showed the footage to her parents. They thought they were just watching a little nature video I’d whipped together. My mother-in-law had a meltdown. She stamped her feet and grabbed her face as it went red and tears poured down. Joker-caliber laughter boomed in their living room.

My mom cried too when we told my family over Skype, hugged my sister who just looked stunned. My dad smiled and his face went pensive as he journeyed to the Land of Overanalysis/Nostalgia, a popular destination resort for first-time grandparents.

My brother. Lord, my brother. His reaction started with a proclamation that he “KNEW IT.” He put his face right into the computer’s camera and blocked out everyone else. He decided “Chip” should be called “Gunner” – regardless of gender – and could not stop grinning.

A list. He sent me a list of names.

The opus of reactions was a late-in-the-day Christmas present for me.

An agreed-to public announcement embargo of Feb. 14  has passed now, and my family did it without slipping. Not to say there weren’t moments of pleading to break their collective vow of silence earlier. That’s inevitable.

People just have to share good news, I think. Bad news is easier to bottle and store, forget about. Good news comes gushing from taps into foam-topped pints we down with gusto before slamming them down on the counter and bellowing for more.

Issue by issue

That’s all for now, I think. I’m closing this first issue and putting it back in its protective cover.

I wonder if comic book writers get frustrated at having to see their story unfold in courses, that their audience can’t see their completely-realized tale all at once. Because, frankly, I’m there right now. When it comes to my first kid, its health and my wife’s health as she keeps it warm and nourished and growing, I almost want a spoiler alert. To know. If only to stop shaking that Magic 8 Ball and continually watching the message come up “Cannot Predict Now.”

My brain has probed some odd places lately when it comes to Chip. I wonder what its voice will sound like, what it will look like, how it will sound when it cries. What it will be afraid of. What it will be enthralled by.

Even silly things, components like whether it will be a Broncos fan like me or side with my wife and her Packers on Sundays, whether it will even care about football. Whether comics will be a vital part of its life’s lexicon, or if it will politely request I not wear superhero shirts out in public.

So many questions and dreams. More than I’ve ever had.

But it has to be this way, I suppose. Anything that requires process and patience has to be among the upper echelon of what matters. Homemade lasagna from scratch takes almost a full day of preparation for a reason. ‘Lord of the Rings’ is not a short story on purpose. ‘Breaking Bad’ is a story that can’t be told as a two-hour movie intentionally.

For Chip, for my Kal-El, the journey to Earth is going to take time. The 1,000-piece puzzle is going to be assembled at a tortoise’s pace. The story will told in chapters, in single issue comic books. Not full volumes. Not in weekend Netflix binges.

I’ll try to savor each issue, Chip. Please forgive the restlessness I exhibit along the way.

I’m just so excited to meet you.

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He believes a man can fly

I watched the Christopher Reeve ‘Superman’ with my dad the first time I saw it. He said, “Cool, huh?” at the end.

Yes, Dad. Cool, indeed.

The young man in this video doesn’t need any such prompt. Comic book fans aren’t born. They’re made. This is a key piece of evidence in that argument. Unedited. “No filter,” as they say on Instagram.

Pause it at 33 seconds and look at that face. In this moment, he knows nothing about the world’s ugliness. Only that he just saw a man wearing a cape launch into the sky, that he was so fast.

I envy the buds of imagination that just started opening in his head, the sensation that gravity, to him, lost its grip.

Just for a moment.

Ten bucks says his 16-month-old gibberish translates to, “Wait for me!”

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Mr. Capote

“Just remember: If one bird carried every grain of sand, grain by grain, across the ocean, by the time he got them all to the other side, that would only be the beginning of eternity.” – Truman Capote

I want to tell you about something that’s important to me, regardless of its insignificance in the grand scheme of things.

Really, the above sentence could be the running theme in most of the blog posts I make time for. This one feels a little different, though.

I should preface by saying that “mourning” celebrity deaths feels very trite to me. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, it seems almost like a reflex for many to send their well-wishes along to strangers. “RIP” and “prayers to the family” and so forth, assorted digital epitaphs that are really just hiccups that drown in the vast pool of millions of others.

Not to say limelight passings are meaningless, either. Death is death; it’s horrible and lonely and unfair. But the ratio of such hashtagged eulogies seems largely absent when it comes to soldiers, nurses, firefighters, and the like.

All that to say that I’d rather not “mourn” Philip Seymour Hoffman, an absolute A-grade gem of an actor who was found dead from an apparent heroin overdose Sunday in a Greenwich Village apartment. I’d like to, instead, remember him for the movie he starred in that continues to haunt me nine years after its release.

I first saw ‘Capote’ at the Varsity Theater in Ashland my senior year of college. My then roommate Luke and I went together. The crowd was scant at best, here-and-there patrons who, more than likely, had just been looking to escape the gray drudgery outside. The film tells the story of author and socialite Truman Capote. Well, one story, rather. His last and darkest one, possibly his best.

‘Capote’ is ultimately about Capote’s writing of ‘In Cold Blood,’ a true crime story that reflects on how a quadruple murder rocked a small Kansas town in the 1950s. The film shows how interviewing the sources, the police, those close to the slain – then writing the book – changed the formerly flamboyant writer, how a storm cloud wove itself over his head and stayed there until he died from liver cancer in 1984.

Hoffman received an Oscar for his portrayal of the title character. Deservedly so. The person he is in the beginning is the polar opposite of who he is just before the credits roll. Hoffman and director Bennett Miller frame a slow descent into darkness perfectly, assisted by the story’s barren setting, gray camerawork palate and piano/cello music that sounds plucked right from the corridors of some abandoned building people believe is haunted.

The film is incredibly sad, and I like it that way. It’s a story that continues to demand my attention on things like violence being a part of our genetic code most of us are just adequate at hiding. I’m also reminded of the few stories that have broken me on this job, those moments like the Criado murders in 2011 where you almost just want to write, “I can’t describe it, man. You just had to be there” and hand it over to your editors.

It’s a slow, delicate burn of a  movie, and Hoffman exhibits eventual and complete sadness with a perfect, flawless pace. There’s a scene where he cries at the end that just hits me every time. I don’t join him – usually – but I believe in his heartbreak and utter confusion, that his soul has frozen and been dashed against the rocks.

Today’s a perfect day to watch it, I think. As I write this, there’s a lonely stretch of clouds that’s meandering across the Rogue Valley. You can almost hear the muffled thunder whispering within them. It’s quiet. Take out the streets and buildings and leave the farmland and a scattered puzzle of a few houses and shops behind, and I like to think it’s a scene not too far from the one Truman Capote – the real one – stood beneath, hands in his pockets as he started his day and wondered how to tell the story of a tragedy the right and dignified way.

Hoffman is as close as people like me will get to knowing how those moments really felt. His death feels like the death of a favorite band’s singer. Yes, you can still listen to the music, but their sudden absence makes their work feel more solemn somehow; sacred, something to be revered.

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The quiet brains

Ever been to the mall?

Course you have. You’ve parked, walked inside, made a b-line for that one item you had to go to the mall for – a video game you couldn’t find on Amazon or a new pair of jeans – and left. The end.

But have you ever listened to the traffic, the voices in the crowd as you walked?

Again, course you have. That’s why you hate the mall. You’re 30 now. Ancient. The opus of shrieking teenagers that live there is the Eighth Circle of Hell, a soundtrack the military could use to interrogate terror suspects. Half your life ago, you were part of that tidal wave. You yelled and thought you were hilarious and couldn’t understand why the 30-year-old Medicare recipients were throwing holy water in your direction.

Now you get it. And from where you’re sitting, it’s gotten worse.

These creatures have new weapons now. These are the 2.0 cyborg models. Smartphones, tablets, $100 dubstep-cranking headphones and Nintendo 3DSes are attached to their flesh. Think Robocop minus the lethal force and pensive quiet and well-constructed, concise sentences.

Yes, you’re one of those “Ugh, kids” people now.

Great.

But you shrug it off. You’re fine. Because guess what? You have proof of a different, more focused youth, ones that, unlike their counterparts, aren’t slowly evolving into robots. Instead, they build their own.

Yes, this team of kids from St. Mary’s School – aptly named the Argonauts after the shipbuilder Argus – is the reason you can shrug the rest of the mall crowd off.

They’re hard to spot, kids like these, but that’s only because they’re too busy thinking to scream. They’re thinking about a smartphone app that could tap into the wireless emergency alert system and warn coastal dwellers of an incoming tsunami. That idea netted them first place in the project research division of Oregon’s 2014 FIRST Lego Robotics competition.

Yes, first. Out of 120 teams.

Additionally, they’re thinking about the life they’re breathing into machines made from servos and Legos while writing hundreds of lines of code.

Oh, and they have to get along while doing it. Picture that: a group of smart, inventive people making the conscious choice to collaborate instead of adopting the more adult “us-versus-them” mentality. You know, the mindset that’s turned this country into a war zone.

Argonauts coach Catherine Dauterman may have put it best: “They have to really consciously think about what it means to work on a team, how to be good team members. How to support each other, work together, find solutions on their own.”

So while the overwhelming mall mass of kids – the one you’re admittedly being a little unfair to, because, come on, they’re kids – is likely causing problems, the Argonauts, the builders…they’re solving problems.

And they’re doing it all with grace and curiosity, ever inquisitive about what’s next.

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    Ryan Pfeil

    This is a blog for southern Oregonians to check in on all things geek. Sci-fi, history, comics, movies, video/photo and anything else that would have gotten you shut in a locker in high school. Have fun. Read Full
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