because I know you care what I think about Avengers: Endgame

Dare I add my voice to the swirling conversation? I dare. This isn’t a true review, just a list of some of my observations. There may be some spoilers–if you can figure out what I’m talking about.

I liked the movie! I didn’t fall asleep, and that’s no small feat when we’re talking about a three-hour movie that, for me, started at 7:00 pm. Although some of the most scene-stealing characters (Peter Parker, Peter Quill, Peter…no, I think that’s all the Peters) were among the disappeared (N.B. Did this scenario remind anyone else of the TV series The Leftovers?), this allowed some former background characters to step forward, and they carried this responsibility well. I’m thinking in particular of Don Cheadle’s character, whose relationship to Tony Stark I have given up trying to remember, like a lot of things in this cinematic universe. (Sorry, folks. I never claimed to be a true card-carrying Marvel geek.)

I didn’t understand why all the infinity stones came to Ironman in the end. Please do not reply to this post and mansplain it to me. If I really wanted to know, I’m sure I could choose from many different mansplaining websites and YouTube videos. But I don’t really need to know. It’s enough for me that the stones did come to him. It made sense with Tony Stark’s character arc (which was quite moving), and besides, I trust that Dr. Strange knew what was going on. Because of Dumbledore, I have a lot of experience trusting wizards even when I don’t understand their plans.

I want to spend the rest of this post talking about Thor because, as you may know from previous posts, he and his world are the only parts of the MCU that I really get into and buy the Blu-Rays of and write conference papers about. First, let me get my dreamboat Loki out of the way–I was actually pretty happy with the cumulative three minutes or so that he appeared in the movie. It was more than I expected. Thor, on the other hand, was not at all what I expected. I thought it was fascinating that the non-human Avenger was the one who basically dealt with a mental health crisis during this film, though his decline into physical sloth and mental inertia was played mostly for laughs. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing–more than half of good comedy is based on the truism that sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. Although I want to be clear that there’s absolutely nothing inherently funny about someone turning to alcohol to deal with grief, guilt, and regret, there’s no harm in audiences chuckling at Thor’s Norwegian bachelor pad shared with his interplanetary bros Korg and Meek. And I loved that we got to visit Dark World-era Asgard and witness Thor’s heartfelt (though, even here, rather funny) conversation with his mother, Frigga, who was always one of my favorite characters in this saga. I also appreciated the fact that when Thor reacquired his hammer, he didn’t immediately turn back into the svelte warrior of the previous films, ripped abs and all. (Though he did suddenly get a complicated braid in his beard when he started channeling lightning during the final battle–not sure how that happened.) I’m glad to see that Thor has taken passage on Starlord’s ship; those two characters (because of their fantastic actors) have wonderful comedic chemistry, and I hope we get to see them in another film.

Well, that’s all I’ve got. I almost hesitate to ask, but I will: What did you think of Avengers: Endgame?


I figured out why women (still) love Elvis.

I’ve never given much thought to Elvis Presley. I guess I’ve just pictured him hanging out somewhere near the top of a list of “most overrated musical artists of all time.” But I recently acquired a three-disc record album called Elvis: 50 Years, 50 Hits (I got it for free) and have listened to it twice now, and I’ve come to a better-informed opinion. I still think that for someone called “the king of rock and roll,” he has a pretty poor output of actual rock and roll songs. I’ll give him “Hound Dog.” That’s a rock and roll song, and a good one. And he’s got a few others along the same lines, though not quite as good. But his repertoire largely consists of excruciatingly maudlin ballads and swoony doo-wop numbers. It’s the latter category I want to focus on in this post because in listening to them, I think I’ve discovered why Elvis makes women…well, swoon.

It’s the lyrics, first of all. The aforementioned “Hound Dog” has this wonderfully bitter refrain (“well, they said you was high-class/but that was just a lie”) that puts in it the same category as Bob Dylan’s triumphs of nasty schadenfreude (OMG, I just spelled that word without looking it up–high five to me), “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Idiot Wind.” But that song is an exception in more ways than one. Most of Elvis’s songs have a tone not of ill will but of a plea for good will. He creates this persona of a heart-bruised lover who’s been hurt in the past and who is now turning to the unnamed female addressee of the song (with whom many female listeners identify, not by accident) and asking her to be gentle. You don’t have to go any further than the titles of some of the songs to see this persona: “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” “One Broken Heart for Sale,” “I Beg of You.” It’s as if he says to each fan, “I’ve been hurt in the past, honey, but I know you won’t do that to me.” (I’m pretty sure that’s not an actual Elvis lyric, but it could be.)

And there’s something incredibly endearing about that. I won’t make an overgeneralization and say all women, but many women are attracted to a man who is hurt, whether physically or emotionally, and needs our help. The cynical interpretation of this phenomenon would be that we like the power this gives us over a man; the more generous interpretation would be that we (everybody, but especially women) have an innate desire to nurture and care for people. The truth is that it’s probably a combination of the two. I have no idea whether Elvis Presley gave conscious thought to the psychology of all this, but I think he instinctively knew these things.

There’s an implied subtext in most of this songs–occasionally made explicit, as in “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”–that goes something like this: “If you treat me gentle, baby, I’ll treat you gentle too.” (Shoot, I think I missed my calling as a songwriter.) And this message, I would add, is not only sweet but also essential in a culture like ours in which masculinity is often portrayed as mutually exclusive with kindness and tenderness. If that message is sentimental, maybe we need a little sentimentality.

more musical observations

My posts have been taking a musical turn of late, not necessarily by design. Here are two more semi-profound musings I had about songs this past weekend.

  1. In a post several years ago, I grouped together three movies that came out in 1999 and summarized them all with the famous line from the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” (1998): “You bleed just to know you’re alive.” I found myself thinking about this lyric again while listening to a song from just two years later, “Pinch Me” by the Barenaked Ladies (2000). I realize now that I’ve typed it out that this is a really unfortunate convergence of song title and band name (well, let’s just say a really unfortunate band name, period), but the title simply refers to the song protagonist’s feeling that he is asleep and needs to be (but is not sure if he wants to be) awakened in order to face the real world. (By the way, you may know this song better as the one with the line, “I could hide out under there/I just made you say ‘underwear.’”) The song could be read as a plea from a depressed person who can’t muster the courage to even go outside his door. I have a feeling that many cultural critics read it, along with “Iris,” as an anthem of the malaise of late Gen X-ers and early Millennials—people my own age, who grew up hearing these songs as background music—and perhaps some of them connect this malaise with the sense of entitlement that they are so fond of attributing to people in that age range. I prefer to think of true interpretation of these songs as somewhere in between: they’re not only about people with diagnosable mental health conditions, but neither should they be dismissed as the whines of bored young people who have to manufacture problems in order to help themselves feel validated. I would submit that the world has gotten more overwhelming and that people my age and younger are less equipped to deal with it than those who came before us, and these songs are just evidence of that. I’ll leave you with that to ponder.
  2. Now, something more uplifting. While running on Saturday, I listened to one of my favorite songs of all time, Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” and maybe it was all the adrenaline or the fact that my institution has graduation in less than two weeks, but in any case, I came up with a brief commencement address on the theme of this song. Here it is: Have you ever wondered why we use the term “commencement” for something that we usually talk about as an ending? Also, have you ever wondered why the song says, “We are the champions,” implying that we’ve already won, but then goes on to say, “We’ll keep on fighting to the end?” The answer to both these questions is the same: it’s that the struggle is never over in this life, is it? You’re celebrating the end of college, and indeed you should. You are a champion. But you still face the fight of career, relationships, and just getting through life. You can “go the distance” like Rocky, but then you still have Rocky II, II, IV, IV, and Rocky Balboa and Creed and Creed II—you see what I mean. The Queen song goes on to include several more of these “already and not yet” constructions (to borrow a term from theology): for example, the speaker of the song talks about taking his bows and his curtain calls, but just a few lines later he uses future tense: “I consider it a challenge before the whole human race/And I ain’t gonna lose.” So remember, the fight goes on. But don’t let that discourage you. [And I teach at a Christian college, so this next part applies to my students and is crucial.] Remember that you serve a God who does have time for losers. He gave his life for losers like us, and he makes us champions. The End.

“Michigan seems like a dream to me now”

I’ll go ahead and warn you that I’m not totally sure what direction this post is going to take–whether it’s going to turn out profound like last week’s post or be a stream-of-consciousness reflection on how Simon and Garfunkel lyrics have kept coming to my attention over the past week, which is all that I have in mind right now. Just letting you know.

So, yes, last night while I was making a tuna layered salad to chill for tonight’s meeting of my creative writing group, I listened to my Simon and Garfunkel greatest hits record because for days, I had been coming across direct and indirect references to their songs, from a former grad student telling me that “Bridge over Troubled Water” played an instrumental role in the conversion of Christian singer Jason Gray (shout out to you, Kandy, if you’re reading this!), to Max Lucado’s odd but appropriate mention of “The Boxer” in his early book No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, to the Michigan place-name Saginaw, which always makes me think of the song “America” (which, since that’s the most generic song title ever, most people probably think of as “All Gone to Look for America”). (“It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw.”) By the way, I haven’t been to the city of Saginaw, but the reason I fairly often think of the name and hence the song is that there’s a thoroughfare called Saginaw (Street? Avenue? It’s just called Saginaw, apparently. They do that a lot around here) in Lansing where the American Red Cross platelet donation center is. Yes, I do drive an hour to Lansing to donate platelets when I could donate here in Grand Rapids with Michigan Blood Services. I’m loyal to the Red Cross, and I don’t mind making the drive once or twice a month, especially now that I have a new Mazda CX-5 that I really enjoy spending time in.

Okay. Rambling. Focus.

There’s a line in “America”–near the Saginaw line, of course–that I never really paid attention to or possibly even heard until last night. (I recently got a new turntable and speakers, and I’m having all these revelations because I can now hear my records properly for the first time.) It says, “Michigan seems like a dream to me now.” This line brought a bemused smile to my face as I was chopping cucumbers or whatever I was doing at that moment. Michigan does seem like a dream to me now, not because–like the protagonist of that song–I have passed through it quickly and left it behind, but because I am still here after seven months and yet it sometimes doesn’t seem real that I live here. And I don’t mean “dream” in the sense of “beyond my wildest dreams”; after all, if you told me I could live anywhere in the world, no restrictions, I’d probably pick Italy or somewhere else more temperate in climate and with better food than Michigan (no offense intended). But I’m awed, blessed, and kinda proud of myself that I am not only living in a state that a year ago I’d never remotely considered living in, but also working at a university that a year ago I’d never heard of (but only because it’s a hidden gem)–and I own a house in that state and just a few blocks from that university. I even have a Michigan license plate on the four-wheel-drive vehicle I probably would not have bought in Virginia. But it all feels a little surreal, like an unusually long vacation.

That’s all I have to say about that, as Forrest Gump says. I hope it was sufficiently profound for you. Go listen to some Simon and Garfunkel.

Big Daddy Weave, Christian music, and my judgmental heart

For over a month, I had been going to my chiropractor three times a week and seeing a poster for an upcoming Big Daddy Weave concert every time I hung up my coat. Although I’ve never been a particular fan of BDW, I would sometimes look at the poster and think, “I should go to that.” After all, I’ve been running a streak of attending good concerts ever since last October–basically, since I moved to the Grand Rapids area. Also, the poster said there would be a guest violinist and a guest cellist, and I like classy string music as much as the next person. I have also been slightly intrigued by Big Daddy Weave ever since I read a guest column in the World Vision magazine a few years ago by lead singer Mike Weaver. He wrote about preparing to visit his sponsored child in the boy’s home country and feeling apprehensive about the visit because as an obese person, he thought his presence might be awkward or inappropriate in a severely food-insecure area–and then having his apprehensions made mostly irrelevant when he and his sponsored child immediately connected. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of this piece and have had it in the back of my mind ever since then.

So I listened to Big Daddy Weave’s top tracks on Pandora and discovered, upon hearing them all at once, that these were some of the most memorable best-written songs I’d heard on Christian radio over the past few years. See, I have this thing about Christian radio–I listen to it while mentally distancing myself from it. After all, life is not always “positive and encouraging,” a favorite slogan of Christian radio stations. But as I studied BDW’s discography (still trying to decide if I should buy a ticket to the concert), I realized that while they do have a number of celebratory anthems about victory in Jesus (“The Lion and the Lamb” is a really good one), they also have a number of songs about shame, discouragement, and other non-positive experiences. Yet they always do point to Jesus somewhere in their songs. I’ve been telling my students that we need more Christian artists who do this, instead of jumping straight to the victory part.

So I decided to buy a ticket. But I felt like I had to deprecate myself about this. “I’m going to see Big Daddy Weave on Friday night,” I said to two of my music-savvy college students. “And you can make fun of me; I know that’s, like, soccer-mom music.” Their response surprised me. “Oh, we love them! So jealous you get to go to that” was essentially what they said. So I felt a little better about myself.

But when I got to the church where the concert was taking place, and I was standing in line waiting to get in, I saw a lot of soccer moms and soccer dads, and I started silently judging everything I told myself I hated about suburban middle-American Christianity. Honestly, I think this was a coping mechanism because I was really feeling lonely and awkward about attending the concert about myself.

I sat near the back of the sanctuary, which allowed me to do some people-watching, and I ended up being surprised by the diversity of the crowd. Throughout the concert, which was really more of a worship service, I sincerely enjoyed watching the people around me respond to the music. In the row in front of me, there was a group of intellectually disabled adults who were really getting into it. In the row in front of them, there was a group of teenagers who I would have guessed would’ve preferred newer and hipper bands, yet seemed to love the music. (Incidentally, there was a lot of hugging going on in both of those rows, especially toward the end of the concert.) In the row in front of them, there was a row of women who did indeed appear to be soccer moms, but one of them was African-American (one of the few non-white people in attendance–okay, so the crowd wasn’t diverse in every respect), and she wasn’t turning up her nose at the whiteboy music either; in fact, she and one of her friends a few seats down were on their feet almost the entire concert.

By the end of the concert, I felt convicted. What’s so bad about soccer moms anyway? Who am I, in my arrogance, to judge my fellow believers for the music they like or the way they dress or the minivans they drive? Or the way they worship? I felt convicted, but not guilty (another favorite song topic of BDW is how we don’t have to bear the guilt of our sin anymore, so that was good to hear)–I felt blessed that these people didn’t have a problem with worshiping next to a lone concert attendee wearing a weird bandanna and, by the end of it all, a goofy smile. (In case you’re wondering, that was me.)