It’s not a competition.

This past weekend, I participated in two competitions: a chocolate-themed 10-mile road race, and my family’s annual Oscar prediction contest.  Of course, the Academy Awards themselves are also a competition and are surrounded by a number of unofficial competitions of the “who wore it best?” variety.

I am a competitive person, and specifically, I like to win.  This explains why I prefer playing trivia and word games, which I’m good at, over playing card and strategy games, which I’m not.  It explains why I was disappointed not to receive the Dissertation of the Year award last year when I should have been happy just to be done forever with being a student.  It also explains why, although I’m proud of both of my friends who completed Saturday’s race with me and I’m glad we got to have that experience together, it irks me that one of them finished five minutes (and five places in our age and gender category rankings) ahead of me.  I’m not mad at her; I’m mad at me.  I should have trained better.  I shouldn’t have eaten all those fish and chips the night before.  I should have started slower to preserve my stamina.  I could have beat her–that’s what I’m still telling myself three days later.

I have this mantra/piece of unsolicited advice that I frequently use on myself and others: “It’s not a competition.”  Of course, some things, like races and the Oscars, actually are competitions.  But there are a lot of things that we turn into competitions that were never intended to be.  Who contributed the most to this project?  Who’s the busiest?  Who has the most friends?  When I was in grad school, the competition that never stopped happening in my head was about who made the smartest-sounding remark in a class discussion.  Now I host a similar head-competition: Which professor is the most popular with the students?  But that’s just one of my many mental Olympic events.  There’s also “Can I run longer than that guy two treadmills down from me?,” “Do I look more physically fit than that woman my age?”, “Whose food looks the nicest at the potluck?”, and “Who knows the most about [insert topic here]?”

Participating in all these competitions all the time is exhausting.  It’s also antithetical to the way Jesus lived and asked us to live.  When Jesus’ disciples were arguing about which of them would have the highest place in the kingdom of God, he told them that they had to become like little children in order to even enter said kingdom.  Here’s something about little children (older children start growing out of this): They’re not good at games, in part because they don’t understand the concept of competition.  Another competition I tried to get started this past weekend was a relay race in the 3-year-olds Sunday school class I teach.  A very small minority understood what they were supposed to be doing, but most of them just stood there and looked cute at me.  And I got annoyed with them for not being competitive enough.  True, little kids will fight over toys–they can be a bit greedy–but that’s not the same as competing.  They really seem unconcerned about who wins and who’s the best.

I would love to press a reset button and go back to that non-competitive mental mode of childhood.  Because I can’t do that, I have to work really hard to be happy for others who can do things better than I can, to be content with who I am and what I’m capable of (not that I shouldn’t strive to improve where I can), and to be like Jesus, who was perfectly happy giving all the credit to his Father.

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all of your Oscar questions answered

Ok, so my title is shameless click bait.  I don’t know what all of your Oscar questions are.  But I know the questions that are generating the most buzz in my own circles, so I’m going to extrapolate from said buzz and assume that you’re asking some of the same questions.  And then I’m going to answer them from the perspective of an amateur film critic who’s seen more of the nominated movies than the average American has, which is still not very many.  Here we go.

Q: What does Lion have to do with a lion?

A: Absolutely nothing.  I saw this film over the weekend, and I enjoyed it very much and was moved by it, although I think this was partly due to the extremely emotional soundtrack (nominated for Best Original Score) by Dustin O’Halloran (a favorite on the hip instrumental music playlists I frequent on Spotify) and Hauschka.  But the title is a real stretch.  Here’s what it’s really about: A little boy from rural India gets lost at a train station and ends up over 1,000 kilometers away from his family.  After living on the streets and in an orphanage for a couple of months, he gets adopted by a family in Australia.  Almost 25 years later, while he’s in Melbourne taking a hotel management course (a little Easter egg for Dev Patel fans), he decides to try to find his birth family, but he has almost nothing to go on–not even his mother’s first name.  (As a little boy, he thought her name was “Mum.”  This is why parents should teach their kids their real names.)  Spoiler: He succeeds in finding them.  But he doesn’t run into any lions.  And it’s not called Lion because of the way he lets his hair and beard grow out like a crazy mane while he’s holed up in his apartment searching Google Earth.  No, we find out literally in the last seconds of the movie that his name means Lion.  It doesn’t even really work symbolically–there’s nothing predatory or dominant about this protagonist.  Good movie, iffy title.

Q: Will the ending of La La Land make me sad?

A: It depends on who you are.  I know one person who was absolutely devastated by the ending, in which the main characters do not end up together.  However, the general consensus among my family and friends is that the ending is bittersweet–heavier on the sweet–and appropriate to the story, which is more about pursuing one’s dreams than about finding true love.  When you see the two protagonists smile at each other in the very last scene, I’m confident that you’ll be confident that they are both happy with the way their lives have turned out.

Q: How many Oscars is La La Land nominated for?

A: Fact: 14

Q: How many is it going to win?

A: Research-based opinion: 12.  I think it’s going to win all but Best Actor (my research says that one goes to Denzel Washington for Fences) and Sound Mixing–that will be Hacksaw Ridge‘s only win.

Q: Is Hacksaw Ridge as gory as they say it is?

A: It depends on who “they” are, but it is pretty graphic, and this is coming from a person who eats snacks while watching The Walking Dead.  Also, there are rats.  If you can get past all that, though, it’s a very good movie.

Q: What should I wear to my Oscars party this year?

A: If you’re in it for “the long haul” (a key phrase in La La Land), you should probably wear your pajamas, because you know the telecast never ends when it’s supposed to.  But if you want to wear something thematic, the bright primary colors and swingy skirts (if you’re a lady) and classic-cut suits (if you’re a gentleman) of La La Land would be a fun choice.  You can also look to the Costume Design nominees for some inspiration–the 1920s look of Fantastic Beasts would be fun and not too difficult to pull off.

Q: When do the Academy Awards air?

A: This Sunday night, February 26, at 5:30 if you’re in La La Land, 8:30 if you’re on the East Coast.  See you then!

my favorite fictional couples that never happened

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and some of you may be feeling like your true Valentine is out there somewhere (maybe in a very specific location whose exact address or coordinates you know) and just hasn’t found his or her way to you yet.  This is kind of the way I feel about Tom Hiddleston, and I now know, since I read that article about him in GQ that came out last week, which part of London he lives in.  (Like Charles Dickens, he comes straight outta Camden.)  In honor of all of you who are feeling frustrated in love, here are a few fictional couples who never get together despite my best shipping efforts.

  1. the unnamed narrator and Frank Crawley in Rebecca.  *spoilers ahead* My book club just read this 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier.  I described it as “creepy Downton Abbey,” so if you like stories about rich people with no jobs, and their household staff who know way too much about the family, you will probably enjoy this book.  (I also thought the writing style was beautiful, the setting haunting, and the human psychology spot-on.)  I had several theories about what was going to happen in this book, some of which were based on superficial resemblances to Jane Eyre, and all of which turned out to be wrong.  The theory that I clung to the hardest was that the narrator’s husband, Maxim, was going to either go to jail or get the death penalty for having killed his first wife, the narrator was going to realize that he never really loved her but was just using her to try to have a normal life, and she was going to end up with the longsuffering and loyal estate agent Frank Crawley, whom I pictured as the subdued and diplomatic Tom Branson of the later seasons of Downton Abbey.  It just seemed so clear to me that the narrator was much more comfortable around Frank than around her preoccupied and moody husband.  I went so far as to go back and make sure the first chapter, which occurs chronologically at the end of the story, didn’t have any proper nouns in it–“We thought she was talking about Maxim, but she could have been talking about Frank!”  I was wrong; she stuck with the wife-killer.  Poor Frank.
  2. Liesel and Max in The Book Thief.  I’ve read Markus Zusak’s remarkable Holocaust-era novel in two different book clubs, and both times some people, including myself, have stated that we wished Liesel, the book thief, and Max, the young Jewish man who hid in Liesel’s family’s basement, had gotten together at the end.  I get all the reasons why that relationship wouldn’t work: he’s older (not that much older, though); she sees him as a brother; it’s not really a book about romantic relationships, but at the same time Liesel will always carry a torch for Rudy.  I do get all that, but I can’t stand to think of Max being all alone for the rest of his life.  Liesel, we learn, marries some random guy and ends up having a bunch of grandchildren, so I’m not worried about her.  But Max is such a lonely figure throughout the book–he arrives alone; he leaves alone; he has to stay in the basement when everyone else is going to the air-raid shelter.  It breaks my heart to think he’ll have to stay that way forever.  He made you a book, Liesel.  Did your random guy do that?
  3. Harry Potter and Luna Lovegood. Speaking of the trope of marrying a random-guy-ex-machina, I’m sure I’m not the only Harry Potter fan who used to think it was a total copout when J.K. Rowling declared that Luna Lovegood, one of my favorite fictional characters of all time, ended up marrying some guy named Rolf Scamander.  Now that I know and love Newt Scamander, I guess I’m okay with Luna marrying his grandson.  But still, like everyone else, I wanted her to get together with Neville.  And yet, there’s a part of me that also thinks Harry and Luna would have been a great couple.  I think she would have helped him not to take himself so seriously, and he would have helped her get some street cred at Hogwarts (not that Luna cares what people think of her).  They have some sweet exchanges in the books (like when Luna tells Harry about her faith that she’ll see her mother again) and the movies (like when Luna says that hanging out with Harry is “kind of like being with a friend,” and Harry says, “I am your friend, Luna”), and I think this mutual kindness and confidence could have gone somewhere romantic.

I’d love to hear about your adventures in shipping.  Meanwhile, don’t forget that chocolate goes on clearance February 15!

This is going to make a good story.

Last Tuesday night–Wednesday morning, technically–between 2:00 and 4:00 am, I found myself driving around Bedford and Amherst counties, including brief stints on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the ominously named (and very dark and narrow) Father Judge Road north of Madison Heights.  I saw a lot of deer and a raccoon, and I almost hit a small waddling creature that I didn’t have time to identify.  This isn’t the place to go into why I was doing all this nocturnal driving, but I assure you that it was all legal and mostly safe, and I wasn’t up to anything unsavory.  My point in sharing about this adventure is that although I was in a constant state of frustration, with occasional moments of mild terror, a small part of me–the creative part–was having a good time, because it kept thinking, “This is going to make a good story later.”

Because I spend a large percentage of my waking time reading, watching, and interpreting stories (and some of my sleeping time dreaming stories–I had a really stressful one after going back to bed at 4:08 Wednesday morning), I tend to see my own life as a narrative, with some experiences standing out as particularly excellent story material.  I’m a pretty decent storyteller, I think (actually, someone told me that last week, and I was flattered), and I have to admit that I enjoy keeping an audience entertained and feel like I’ve failed when my stories don’t have the impact I’d imagined they would.  And of course, there’s always a temptation to make my stories a little bit funnier or more shocking by altering events a bit.  Telling stories always involves editing–deletion, highlighting, etc.–but I try to avoid crossing the line into fabrication, not least because I find it satisfying to think that my real life (just like your life, reader) is stranger than anything I could make up.  I don’t think it’s an accident that some of my favorite–and most popular–blog posts have simply been stories about stuff that happened to me, like when I almost choked on the fumes of some spicy soup I was cooking or when I got angry and went all Hulk in my office.

Another occupational hazard of being a storyteller, even an amateur one, is the compulsion to come up with a lesson at the end of every story.  So bear with me while I draw a spiritual parallel here: We can see our lives as a lot more bearable, exciting, and significant if we keep saying to ourselves, “This is going to make a good story later.”  One of the hallmarks of a Christian worldview is the idea that God has written and yet somehow still is writing a story in which our planet is a major setting and every human being is an important character.  The theological implications of this are too gigantic to even be broached in a short blog post like this, but I’m just asking you right now to think of yourself as a character in a story.  That means a number of things: the decisions you make are significant, you are significant, and there’s more story to come.  Isn’t that exciting?  Even more exciting than a 3:00 am drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I’d say.