On Seattle

Last Wednesday night, there was a mass shooting outside a McDonald’s in Seattle, resulting one woman’s death and injuries to seven bystanders, including a nine year-old. The suspects have been identified as “frequent flyers” but have not yet been caught.

When I heard the news, I was saddened but not shocked. Over the last couple of years, there’s been a number of random acts of unprovoked violence and vandalism, from hate crime to stabbings and other violent assaults (one incident leading to a 2-week closure of the courthouse entrance). Drugs are often involved and have ties to other problems as well, like the rise in defecating on sidewalks. It’s reached a point where I feel unsafe going to Seattle (especially at night), avoid it when possible, and wouldn’t particularly recommend it to tourists visiting our state.

Eric Johnson is a local journalist who’s been researching these problems for some time now. His reports highlight the heart of the issue, which is that (as is clear from the outcomes) the city’s current leadership and their policies are simply not working. Meanwhile, issues related to crime and drug addiction are quickly getting much worse than they started out.

Johnson’s latest report can be watched here (about 5 minutes), but to get a full scope of the situation I recommend taking the time to watch his 1-hour documentary, Seattle is Dying. Nearly a year old now but still relevant, it includes diverse perspectives from citizens, law enforcement officers, and current and former addicts. At the end he offers some ideas for possible solutions to try.

As a side note—I’ll add that there was quite a bit of backlash from other media sources when this film was originally released. Some thought it was too sensational, harsh, or tunnel-visioned; others accused Johnson and his network for being politically motivated. To that critique I would say—sure, it’s not a perfect documentary, but a) if the current attitudes are superior, why is the situation continuing to deteriorate? and b) there hasn’t been any real political diversity for many decades, so merely criticizing the mayor and city council is bound to be perceived as political in nature.

Regardless of whether Seattle is “dying”…there is still a serious problem, and Wednesday’s tragedy was a symptom. I wholeheartedly believe it’s possible to solve it in a way that is compassionate and fair to the entire community. I hope the city’s leadership opens up quickly to alternative perspectives and approaches to improve public safety, or that voters support candidates who will, because the status quo should not be acceptable.

My Favorite Hymn

Growing up, I learned many, many different hymns at the various Protestant and Anglican churches my family attended over the years. It’s a bit impossible to choose just one favorite, especially since (from a liturgical perspective) songs of worship vary in theme depending on the current season of the church calendar. If I had to choose, though, it would be “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” by Charles Wesley, set to the lesser-known 1861 melody called “Hollingside.” Somehow both sad and joyful, this hymn meant a lot to me in a dark time of life and continues to bring me peace.

Jesus, Lover of my soul
Let me to Thy bosom fly
While the nearer waters roll
While the tempest still is high:
Hide me, O my Savior, hide
Till the storm of life be past;
Safe into the haven guide
O receive my soul at last.

Other refuge have I none
Hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, ah! leave me not alone
Still support and comfort me!
All my trust on Thee is stayed;
All my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenceless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.

Plenteous grace with Thee is found
Grace to cleanse from every sin;
Let the healing streams abound
Make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art
Freely let me take of Thee:
Spring Thou up within my heart
Rise to all eternity.

Amen.

From a musical perspective, there’s something surprising and effective about that momentary change to G major at the beginning of the second half of the stanza. In the first verse, it comes at a rising plea for help (“Hide me, O my Savior hide”), but by the last the verse, it represents an affirmation of confidence and trust (“Thou of life the fountain art”). This bittersweetness fits the verses beautifully.

The lyrics themselves embody two themes that resonate with me strongly. One is the Lord as the “fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9, John 4:14, Revelation 21:6) who overcame the storms of the world. (Incidentally perhaps, this is reflected in the melody, too, as it repeatedly moves up and down the scale in “waves.”) The symbolism of fighting one element with another type of the same element—e.g., old Adam vs new Adam—is really powerful and intrinsic to Christian belief.

The other theme is “Lover of my soul,” which, though such a simple phrase, embodies the ultimate relationship. It doesn’t get any closer than “lover” or any more essential than “soul.” I borrowed the phrase in a short poem I wrote last year, called “Hero”:

You are my only hero
Lover of my soul
Voice in the shadow
When my spirit tries to fold

You are my only hero
Father of my past,
Present, and future
The only One who lasts.


—m.h.

He Was the Future

he wears a gray suit
thick-rimmed glasses
black hair carefully combed
a stern look
hiding a smile that could open a book
and a voice seared
with good

he’s in trouble with the crowd
back against the door,
newspaper in his hands,
he won’t leave
till he’s sure

the light bulb betrays him
peers dimly
over pages
so you know
his mind is distant,
heart present,
life persistent

he was the future,
friend of mine,
echo of conscience
in another time

a fighter,
never touched a rifle
till he was sure;
he was the future—
but no more.


—m.h.

The other day I started writing a poem about a character archetype—let’s call it the “underdog dad”—then it just morphed into a poem about Atticus. If you’ve read Go Set a Watchman, this poem could take on a cynical meaning, but it’s actually meant as a tribute to the original character in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Do you have any favorite character archetypes?

Capital Cities – TBT

For today’s Throwback Thursday, I’m going back to a glorious year, 2013, and the groovy sound of Capital Cities.

As with Echosmith, I was never a Capital Cities fan per se (some of their songs are not, shall we say, kid-friendly), but there were a few songs I did like when they were in their heyday.

First was their hit single, “Safe and Sound.” I’ll never forget the first version of the music video, which featured an eerie montage of dancing and war:

“Chartreuse” and “Center Stage,” while not being deep songs, were also some upbeat tunes on my list:

And a year later they came out with One Minute More, their second hit single and my ringtone at one point. 😆

Again, nothing super intellectual here, but I’m a sucker for upbeat songs with a retro vibe. Wikipedia tells me they were making music again as recently as 2018. I’ll have to investigate that at some point and see what the new stuff is like…

Lonely Generation by Echosmith – Album Review

Today Echosmith dropped their latest album Lonely Generation, which thanks to YouTube ads I got to listen to for free. 😉

If their name doesn’t ring a bell…the band (three siblings: Sydney, Noah, and Graham) is best known for their 2013 hit “Cool Kids,” which used to be played in stores a lot. It’s a good song, though my personal favorites by them are Tell Her You Love Her, Safest Place, Nothing’s Wrong, and Over My Head. I wouldn’t call myself an Echosmith fan, but they have an upbeat sound with non-explicit lyrics, and I like to see what they’re up to.

Lonely Generation starts off with a single by the same name—a song about zoomers (Gen Z) and how the internet has affected their lives and relationships. As a millennial I found this song relatable, too, and it’s definitely the most catchy off the album.

Watch on YouTube

We’re the lonely generation
A pixelated version of ourselves
Empty conversations
I’ve disconnected, now I’m by myself

The rest of the tracks are pretty consistent with the Echosmith sound. I found some new favorites, which I’ll share below. Quite a few songs do suffer from a lack of originality, which has been my main quibble with the band in the past. It’s not that they can’t write a really great song (see examples above), but so many of their songs in general are just not memorable to me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself… here’s the track list:

  1. Lonely Generation
  2. Diamonds
  3. Cracked
  4. Shut Up and Kiss Me
  5. Stuck
  6. Last Forever
  7. Everyone Cries
  8. Scared to Be Alone
  9. Lost Somebody
  10. Love You Better
  11. Follow You
  12. I Don’t Wanna Lose My Love

Some of these songs weren’t my cup of tea (“Diamonds” and “Shut Up and Kiss Me”)…again, on a scale of mediocre to original, they were kind of “meh.”

What was really interesting to me was the overall darker nature of this album, a return to the deeper (and sometimes sadder) bent of their older songs while still keeping their retro vibe. I really liked “Cracked” and “Everyone Cries,” which both fit the Lonely Generation theme:

Listen on YouTube

Heart broken down the middle
So lost and don’t know why
Everyone cries

(Petition for Sydney to start a side gig where she just sings ballads—anyone?!)

On a brighter note, “Lost Somebody” is a high-energy bop about getting your heart broken (for reals), and “Follow You” is primed to make the rounds of 2020 weddings:

Listen on YouTube

And I, I thank God for you all the time
Someone who knows my faults
But loves me despite them all

Overall I give Lonely Generation 3/5 stars—a decent, middle-of-the-road album. They’ve proved they can do a variety of genres, but I’d love to see Echosmith pivot to a softer sound or even full acoustic, which seems to be their strength.

Beautiful

I miss a beautiful place
It pleads my name in these timid hours
‘M—,
don’t you remember how it felt
when the world was a beautiful place,
not bent and rancid and tepid and shrill
filled with desires to punish and kill
till a twisted sense of justice and peace
should reign
by the power, weight, and word of pain?’

Oh, darling daydream long gone
You had a lovely mind
before the world did you wrong
You could not foresee the noise around you
incubating till time should come
You often forget there was anything but
this endless, awful chase along
a path that seems so bare and dim—
nothing like the beautiful place that you miss.


—m.h.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) – Reaction and Some Thoughts on Art vs. Artists

Over Christmas break, my sister and I went to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood at a local theater, days before its last showing. The film is a semi-biopic about Mr. Rogers, who has recently seen something of a restoration of his legacy as a genuine cultural figure, instead of a “weird old guy who likes puppets” (or worse).

For our part, we grew up watching Mr. Rogers and were already big fans. When I was attending public school for a while (a memorably negative experience), I remember treasuring every Mr. Rogers episode as the highlight of the morning. In fact, because of my fond memories of Mr. Rogers, I didn’t want to see Tom Hanks (or anyone) play him, until I watched an interview clip where Hanks talked about it. It was such a thoughtful interview, I thought I’d give the film a try.

Watch trailer on YouTube

Not Your Typical Biopic

Without giving it all away, the plot follows Lloyd Vogel (inspired by real-life journalist Tom Junod), who in 1998 is assigned to write a magazine article on Mr. Rogers. He doesn’t want to do it, and on top of that, he’s struggling with fatherhood: both with his aging father, who abandoned his family and now wants to reconnect, and with his own newly born son, whom he’s afraid of letting down. Mr. Rogers takes a great interest in Lloyd, and pretty soon their conversations turn into more of an interview with Lloyd than Fred, which makes Lloyd really uncomfortable, even angry. However, it’s this conflict with Mr. Rogers that becomes the motivation for Lloyd to face the music and put his life back together.

My Favorite Movie of 2019?!

Some of you will remember how much I loved Aladdin (a controversial opinion, according to one of my friends who didn’t like it so much!). With that said, I have to say A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood MIGHT be even better.

I don’t want to get too analytical with this review. I just want to emphasize how thought-provoking, relevant, and nuanced this film is. The interactions between the characters are sympathetic but also very raw. The commentary on fatherhood is really powerful and emotional for those who’ve experienced tension in a relationship with a loved one.

More than that, I was struck by how the themes of betrayal, repentance, and forgiveness were handled so brilliantly. There is a scene—which I will verbosely paraphrase since I can’t remember it word-for-word—where Fred tells Lloyd that you have to recognize even the people who have hurt you have shaped who you are and informed your understanding of right and wrong. In other words… you can be bitter and vengeful about a troubled relationship, or you can use it to set yourself on the right path. You can feel hatred, or you can feel gratitude that you learned something. Wow.

Finally, I applaud the scriptwriters for not glorifying Fred Rogers. From everything I’ve heard about him, this film is pretty accurate. He was a private person, a genuinely kind person, and obviously not a perfect person or dad himself. The film alludes to this with great subtlety, neither elevating him to “sainthood” nor inventing sordid backstories/psychology. It’s just a very refreshingly realistic film, without lessening the story—probably because Mr. Rogers, with his combined heroism and humility, makes for a great protagonist.

On a Darker Note…

As the opening credits played, I was shocked to see Tencent Pictures listed as one of the production companies. The parent company, Tencent, is a mammoth Chinese tech company associated with controversies ranging from copycat software to assisting the Chinese government in surveillance and censorship. Not that U.S. companies are flawless by any means, but for a film about a Christian pastor, and with China’s current terrible abuses against religious minorities, this feels like an uncomfortable juxtaposition and left something of a bad taste in my mouth.

I nearly didn’t mention this because, on a certain level, it seems almost irrelevant. However, it’s important to realize there is a commercial element to this film (in other words, this isn’t an indie “labor of love” production).

For the viewer, it comes down to where do you separate art from artist (or in this case, the group profiting off the film). I don’t have a personal one-size-fits-all answer to this question, though I have some rough heuristics for coming to a conclusion on a case-by-case basis. Maybe I’ll share those in a future post.

For now, I’ll just say, I expect we are going to see a lot more of this kind of collaboration in films and other media going forward. It’s not a negative thing on the surface—the bigger the production values, the more people can benefit from Mr. Rogers’s story and Christian values. However, it does raise questions for me about ends justifying means (or not). Short version is… I would have preferred that Tencent didn’t participate in the film.

"RUNAWAY" by half•alive – Favorite Song of 2019

This year, I stumbled upon a surprising number (30+) of brand-new and/or new-to-me, well-written songs. It’s hard to choose one favorite, but after some reflection, I’m giving the prize to “RUNAWAY” by a relatively new band called half•alive. The lyrics are relatable, empathetic, and original. The music video is kind of weird (what can I say, interpretive dance is not my thing 😆 ), but at the same time, quite touching in the story it tells.

Listen on YouTube

I’ve been searching, nothing’s working
I’ve been tripping, no one’s perfect
Chasing vision, just the surface
Shirt’s on backwards, not on purpose, yeah
I’ve been learning, something bigger
Expectations, feet were failing
I found blessings flowing from
This side of Heaven

Staring into my reflection
Redirecting my perfection somewhere else
When there isn’t any progress
Lean on truth inside the promise
It is well

I hold my life out in front of me
Dreams of who I want to be
I’m seeing every empty page
But I find that everything I am is
Everything I should be
I don’t need to run away

I don’t need to run away
Yeah, I don’t need to run away

Something’s working, heart is turning
Vision’s clear, and still I’m learning
That what I am, what I am, what I am, what I am
Is something more than I can plan
Go, tell me now!
I don’t need to run away

I’ve been standing on a stage with just a mirror
Forced to face who I’ve become
Searching for a new escape
I scan the exits that embrace an easy out

I hold my life out in front of me
Dreams of who I want to be
I’m seeing every empty page
But I find that everything I am is
Everything I should be
I don’t need to run away…
No, I don’t need to run away

And…I could do a full line-by-line analysis on the lyrics, but someone else already did it (score!):

Watch on YouTube

Hitchcock's 'Rope' – A Study in Free Speech

Some of you may remember from my book blog I’ve been casually watching and ranking Alfred Hitchcock films over the years. I’m no fan of his, but there have been a few of his films which really grabbed me (Rebecca, Strangers on a Train, and The Wrong Man). Rope (1948), which I just watched the other day for the first time, is one of those films.

The setting of Rope is very mundane: a comfortable apartment with a view of the city skyline. It is shot in a “single” take—or at least, as close to that as could be achieved back in the 40s (due to the limits of film, they had to piece together multiple shots to get the effect of one). The cinematic choices are all constructed as to emphasize the seeming normality of the setting, but this film is actually the darkest, most metaphysically gruesome of Hitchcock’s I’ve seen yet.

Based on real-life Chicago murderers Leopold and Loeb, Rope begins with two roommates (boyfriends, by the subtext) strangling their mutual friend and classmate David, “for the sake of it.” They stuff his body into a large wooden chest, then proceed to prepare for a party they are hosting for David’s parents and friends. Brandon Shaw, the brains of the scheme, is a gleeful psychopath: he views the whole thing as an elaborate game—a proof of what he, as a “superior intellect,” can get away with—going so far as to set the wooden chest as a buffet table for the party. His friend Phillip, who has gone along with the murder out of devotion to Brandon, suffers from torturing guilt and fear of getting found out. Meanwhile, the guests begin to arrive, and among them is Rupert Cadell, their former school housemaster who once introduced them to Nietzsche…

This was a jaw-droppingly horrible plot, but it touches on certain themes in a way that makes it more real than just a nightmare. The lighthearted parlor banter about murder, such as you’d read in an Agatha Christie novel, is given serious consideration; at one point, David’s elderly father condemns it strongly, perplexed and troubled by the other guests’ flippancy. The callous treatment of Brandon’s ex-girlfriend (and David’s fiancee) Janet is an ambiguous subplot which rings true to life. On a psychological note, Brandon sees himself as a personification of Nietzsche’s amoral Superman, and he attributes this personal revelation to Rupert’s lectures—Rupert, his beloved hero and mentor.

This poses the moral dilemma: what is “hate speech,” and how far should free speech be allowed to go? Should someone (a professor, say) be permitted to speak in favor of murder or other crimes in the abstract—that is, not directed to any particular person or group of people? How far is Rupert guilty of Brandon’s crime (or is he at all)? Rupert claims no guilt; on the other hand, he also denounces his former belief in Übermensch. If he is not guilty, why does he feel the need to go back on his rhetoric?

This is a film for the modern day; that said, I didn’t come away with any definite conclusions. We live in a world where people can hide online behind anonymity, impersonate others convincingly via “deepfakes,” and fire employees for tweets they made years ago. It seems somewhat unfair to say speech itself can be a crime, when:

  1. it is not always possible to verify authenticity
  2. something once “ok” to say is retroactively condemned later down the road
  3. everything shared on the internet is effectively permanent and can be spread exponentially, making retraction in some cases difficult or impossible

After all, we can hardly predict who may interpret someone’s words as what, and for every sick person who puts evil thoughts into action, there are countless others who will live law-abiding lives—for whatever reason, never acting on their perverse feelings.

On the other hand…treating actions as completely isolated from thoughts/words means speech itself must be considered as amoral, right?

From a biblical perspective, thoughts do hold personal moral substance, subject to God’s judgment just as actions are. This is evidenced by Jesus’ warnings not to commit adultery in your heart (Matthew 5:28) or cause a “little one” (depending on interpretation, a child or a young Christian) to stumble (Luke 17:2).

It gets difficult, however, when morality is not derived from an unbending, ageless code of ethics, established by Divine Authority, but rather the man-made individual or collective conscience which is changeable. I am not sure there is a secular solution to this problem, and it’s demonstrated by the inconsistencies in “free speech” as defined today, at least in Western culture. In this context, I think there would need to be some “statute of limitations” to prevent people from constantly digging up dirt on each other (in true 1984 style). As further food for thought, here’s Wikipedia’s article on United States free speech exceptions.

Have you seen Rope, and if so, what did you think? Did you feel Rupert holds any moral responsibility for David’s murder, or is he an innocent bystander who had merely shared some “unpleasant” opinions?