The Thing I Like About …

Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters: when Tyson explains about the kids who are scared of him.

Tyson is a typical adolescent boy who has just met his half-brother Percy … but unlike Percy, Tyson is a Cyclops. He has one eye in the middle of his face, and he hides it by wearing sunglasses. But, as he explains to his brother, Tyson was walking in the woods one day and came across a group of Boy Scouts. The boys screamed at him and ran away. “I’m sure I smiled,” Tyson explains, looking sad. He obviously understands why the boys were scared – he knew he looked different from them – and he didn’t hold any grudge about it. But he had put his best face forward, and welcomed them, and they had run away anyway – so afraid of what they thought he might be that they were unable to see his smile.

Of course, we know he’s just a kid. We know that he’s not that sort of Cyclops that would just eat a bunch of Boy Scouts. We know because we … because we … because we’ve been getting to know him, listening to him talk about things, looking at his pleasant little face, and learning how sweet and kind he really is. We the audience know that Tyson is wonderful and good, because we’ve spent time with him.

We spent time with him because we didn’t think we needed to be afraid of him, or worry that he was the bad guy, or that he was going to hurt someone we cared about.

What if the Boy Scouts had taken that time?

What if the Boy Scouts had looked before feeling fear? They would have seen Tyson smile. They would have realized he just wanted to play with them. They would have treated him like any other kid who wandered into their camp – with concern, kindness, and welcome.

It turned out that the Boy Scouts were the ones who caused the pain. They were the ones who did things others might be afraid of; in their haste to fear harm instead of looking at what was really happening, the Scouts became the most hurtful thing in the woods that day.

What are you afraid of? And is it because of something you already know, or because of something you imagine, or suppose, or assume? What if the things you’re afraid of aren’t actually dangerous? What if you’re missing a lot of really good stuff – like a friendship with Tyson, and all of the adventures he can share with you – because you aren’t waiting long enough to see his smile?

More to the point, what does your fear make you do? Who do you become when you’re afraid? Who do you hurt in your frantic attempts to run away? How many Tysons are lined up behind you, wishing you would stop screaming and just come back and play?

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The Thing I Like About …

Touch: the thing that most likely was the reason the show got cancelled.

Touch deals with a boy and his father; the father is ordinary, and the boy is extraordinary. The boy can see the numerical underpinnings of the world, and he uses that ability to help others. The father loves his son, and uses that love to help him. And the glimpses we the audience get to see of the interconnectedness of human life are creative, inspiring and heartwarming.

But Season Two puts the boy and his father on a path of escape – running from some shadowy powers-that-be who know what the boy can do and either fear it or want to control it or both. We spend this season watching them stay less than a step ahead of their pursuers, and we don’t get to see as much of the magic interconnectedness of human life. Things just aren’t as creative, inspiring or heartwarming, and the tension of constantly hiding and fleeing becomes the only thing we experience.

The ending, though, was more than hopeful. It clearly (to my eyes, anyway) was going to allow the boy to use his ability even more than before, and to help others again, and to inspire again. Unfortunately the powers-that-be in the real world didn’t see it that way, and they decided to cancel the show.

And that, to me, is the real darkness that the boy (and his father) were combatting the whole time: the tendency of human beings to be afraid of the magic of our lives, to try to control and micromanage that magic for short-sighted reasons, and, sadly, to give up looking for magic just when it becomes visible – like lying down and freezing to death twenty yards from the farmhouse we glimpsed through the trees.

The first and most consistent thing the boy tries to impress upon his father is that the magic of the universe cannot be controlled or micro-managed; it blossoms as it wishes to, and does what it’s meant to do, regardless of any external attempts to change it or anyone’s opinions about it. The boy is never afraid of the people who follow and hunt them, because he has total faith and trust in the magic that he sees all around him. Season Two warned us what those of us who can’t see the grand pattern might do unless we’re careful: we’ll destroy rather than create, hurt rather than heal, fear rather than live. Season Two was the reason why Season One was so amazing – because in our real world full of fear and doubt and struggle, the challenge isn’t to find magic or harness it or understand it. The challenge is to leave it the hell alone – to trust, to allow, to believe, to relax, to know.

I’m disappointed that there was no Season Three, but if the purpose of the show was to demonstrate what’s possible – both good and bad – then I say message received. I’ll never be the one who sees the grand pattern – sometimes I can’t quite see myself getting through the next two hours – but I believe in the magical interconnectedness of humanity. I believe in magic, the real kind.

And if we can envision it while watching a television show, imagine what we can witness if we bring that vision outside with us. Imagine what the world will show us then.

The Thing I Like About …

True Lies: the part where Dana steals the key.

In True Lies, a woman finds out that her husband has been a spy for their entire marriage. She is understandably upset, and therefore follows him into an international terrorist situation wherein they subsequently bond (just like anyone would do). While they’re traipsing all over the place, getting shot at, diving into burning lakes, and ducking for cover from a nuclear explosion (like any other ordinary date night),the terrorists have taken a nuclear bomb to Washington, D.C., and commandeered an office building that’s under construction. The terrorists threaten to detonate the bomb in the city unless their demands are met. They have also taken the spy’s daughter Dana hostage, and they have forced a film crew to come witness their operation – the guns, the bombs, the detonators, the key that turns on the detonator …

But the key to the detonator is gone.

Dana has stolen the key while the terrorists are focused on the journalists; she has run upstairs to the unfinished roof.

She runs across the roof to a construction crane. She climbs out on the crane arm, a couple hundred feet above the ground. She does this even after the terrorist tries to play good-cop for a moment. She does this even though she looks completely terrified. All she has to do to be safe is go back to the man; even if he has the key again, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll detonate the bomb. No one has had a chance to refuse his demands, after all, and he might never blow up the city. But she tells him he’s a whacko, and puts the key around her neck, and climbs even further out, until finally she falls, and is hanging on desperately to the very, very edge of the arm.

She’s not a spy. She doesn’t know that her dad is a spy. She’s not even in the action-adventure date-night part of the film. She’s pretty much a regular person, grabbed by terrorists, given the opportunity to put a wrench in their works … and staking her life on taking that opportunity. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do.

She doesn’t even have a plan (if she had, maybe she would have run down the stairs); she just knows that the whackos shouldn’t win, and that she’s sitting right there next to the key. She sees an evil in the world, and she fights it with bravery and sacrifice.

The terrorists look around at a world that scares them, and they focus on those fears. They believe they can’t exist in the world unless it looks exactly like what they expected. They funnel their fear and uncertainty into anger and chaos and pain.

Dana looks around at a world that scares her – full of terrorists and a two-hundred foot drop to her death – and she chooses to champion that world, just as it is, even if it means she can’t stay in it.

And in the end, that makes all the difference.

The Thing I Like About …

Crazy from the Heart: the part where he tells her they (probably) won’t kill her.

In Crazy from the Heart, Charlotte is a high-school principal in a small Texas border-town, and Ernesto is the janitor. They go on a date. They end up in Mexico. For the whole weekend. Charlotte comes home with a giant hat and a bigger hangover. And somehow, while she was gone, the racist community in her little town had lost all respect for her position and for her as a person. Finally, two members of the school board pay Charlotte a visit, reminding her in the oblique language often used by racist people who don’t want to admit it, that she, a white woman, is not allowed to fall in love with a man who is *Mexican*.

Charlotte decides that she has spent her whole life toeing the line, and she tells the two members of the school board: “If I died, on my tombstone it would say ‘Charlotte did what she was told’.” And one member of the school board gives a nervous little laugh and says, “I don’t think it’s gonna come to that.”

I doubt he really means that the school board is in the habit of killing principals who date “incorrectly”. And his inability to detect sarcasm is likely a personal problem rather than a reflection on any racism he might have. But when he gives his nervous little laugh, you realize that his problem isn’t racism.

It’s that he’s afraid.

He’s afraid of the world changing into something he doesn’t recognize or understand. He’s not so much motivated by hatred as he is by an overwhelming desire to preserve … because, if we’re alive, then the situation we’re in must have allowed us to be alive, right? So preserving it is very, very important.

And that mindset is how people end up recreating situations that were horrible in the first place, and tolerating situations that don’t have anything to do with goodness or happiness or even safety.

If we don’t understand something – or someone – we suddenly don’t know concretely how to behave in ways that keep us safe and alive. That uncertainty hits us – all of us – at a very subconscious level, and it manifests in a million different ways, from anxiety disorders, micromanaging, bullying, and heart attacks, to racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious persecution.

If you were to ask that school-board member why it’s not okay for white principals to date non-white janitors, he would probably say, “Because they’re different.” And different is “bad”, because how else will we know that we’re “good”? And on that notion all the evil in the world is based.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can learn to embrace change, and to face fears with something besides subconscious, knee-jerk reactions. We can learn to feel – and even be – safe in a world that isn’t exactly like the one we’ve always known. And we can learn, therefore, how to change things that really shouldn’t be preserved, no matter how familiar or understandable they are.

The Thing I Like About …

Annabelle: the doll never does anything.

Annabelle is a large doll with glass eyes and a painted face … and a spirit that possesses her. People who own the doll report significant paranormal disturbances and a sensation of an evil presence. A psychic tells one of the owners that the spirit is a girl whose parents have died, and that the girl loves Annabelle and wants to stay with her.

Perhaps this “girl” is the evil presence, or perhaps there is an additional entity that brings something darker to the party. Maybe the whole thing is just in the overactive imaginations of the people who became spooked by Annabelle’s staring glass eyes. Maybe the current owner – a young mother who’s experienced a recent trauma – is just overwhelmed by hormones and emotions and memories; maybe she’s just concocting the whole thing in her head.

But the audience soon sees that something supernatural really is going on. Things around Annabelle are altered in strange and unpleasant ways, and the atmosphere is decidedly threatening. And the camera lets us know the source of this unpleasantness: the increasingly creepy face of the doll, whose eyes we assume will blink at any moment, whose head we assume will turn back and forth of its own accord, whose little doll feet will no doubt be heard scampering all over the hard-wood floors. But … we watch Annabelle for the whole length of the movie, and our tension builds, and we get more and more creeped out by the staring and the waiting and the unknown that we expect …

… and Annabelle never moves. She never blinks. She never turns or twists or walks or talks or anything. The only times she moves, she’s being held and moved by others. The supernatural things going on very quickly reveal themselves to be about whatever spirit has attached itself to the doll; rather than some kind of physical possession that allows Annabelle to be alive or animated, the possession is emotional, bringing the spirits into the house with the doll like a bad smell that won’t go away.

So why, even at the end of the film, are we still looking at her porcelain face and waiting – with our hands cupped over our eyes – for her to move? Even after we’ve identified the danger and dealt with it, why are we still waiting to see something in that doll?

Because we want to.

Not because it’s a horror movie, and we as an audience expect creepy things to happen, but because even in our actual lives, we think about the things that frighten or spook or disturb us … and we wait for it to happen. We almost want it to happen, just to resolve the growing tension of waiting for it to happen. We almost want it to happen.

We watch horror movies so that all these things that we fear can happen in a controlled environment – because somehow they need to happen, but we don’t really want them to. We just want a release from that tension, from the daily fear of everything that could go wrong. And we put all our eggs into one basket – the doll Annabelle – because that way, we’ve isolated the object of our fears into one convenient package, and if we can “stop” Annabelle, then we can “stop” all our fears in one fell swoop. We can imagine that all the fears in our hearts actually reside in this doll, and once it’s “dealt with” then our fears will go away … one Annabelle at a time.

But in truth, Annabelle is only a doll, even within the story. In truth, the evil presence attached to the doll is something separate and amorphous and enormous, connected to horrors the heroine couldn’t even really contemplate. In truth, no matter what dangers we face, it isn’t the doll that’s the problem. It’s the way we sit there, with our hands cupped over our eyes, building up our store of tension and dread, illogically wishing for the things we fear to “just happen already.” It’s the way that we put our fears into the things around us, and wait for them to live up to our expectations.

In truth, we bring the fears, and Annabelle just sits and stares at us, until the very, very end.

The Thing I Like About …

Noah: the fact that Noah is not perfect.

In the Bible, the story of Noah is a story of redemption. The world is purged of the iniquity of man, and only Noah and his family are chosen to continue the human race in the new, cleansed world. Noah and his family are chosen because they are not part of the iniquity – they are not “sinners.”

But, as we have seen for thousands of years, humanity is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Good and evil march hand-in-hand, because humans always have to balance their capacity to love with their capacity for fear. No purge, in the Bible at least, ever eradicated humans’ tendency to hurt one another, to feel anger, hatred, despair and other fear-related negative emotions, or to be tempted by greed, lust, and excess.

In Noah, he’s not perfect. He’s slow to anger; he’s not fearful of much. He’s a kind man, and a faithful one. He knows that he’s being asked to do something by a higher power that he’s not qualified to understand, and he’s happy to do it. But he’s not sure how to interpret the signs and dreams he’s been given, and he’s not sure of the purpose or the outcome. He has doubts and concerns; he hurts and grieves and struggles and makes mistakes. He can only do his best, from the best intentions that he can have, and he isn’t perfect or infallible at all.

It is he, an imperfect, ordinary man, who is found good enough to survive, to come forward and author a new chapter in humanity.

We spend a lot of time criticizing ourselves as a species – and we certainly have room for improvement in the way we treat one another – but, whether we follow a religion or not, it can be very frustrating to feel that only a total purge of our iniquity can solve the problem. Noah suggests that imperfect, ordinary humanity is exactly what we’re expected to be – that we are not inherently evil – and that the answer to our problems, to our struggles, to our doubts and fears, is not to run from them but simply to start over.

Noah is not perfect at all. Sometimes we’re even quite irritated with the way he’s interpreting his divine mission, and with his sense of hopelessness. But he and his family do have one thing (besides an ark) that the humans left behind don’t seem to have, and, when Noah realizes what that one thing is, he finds hope and peace and joy again.

He has love … and that and two months’ rations fix every problem in the world.

The Thing I Like About …

Plus One: the part where the Allisons kiss.

Plus One is jam-packed full of adult content … so kids won’t have the chance to see what turns out to be a very interesting comment on human nature. Basically, during a crowd-of-drunken-teenagers house party, a meteor crashes to earth, causing an electromagnetic … thing … that creates a stutter in … the space-time continuum, I guess? – events happen, and then fifteen minutes later, they happen again, overlapping the first event so that functionally there are two of everyone.

But the two groups of people don’t understand the nature of the other group of themselves; they become afraid, and alarmed, and then, as so often happens with people who are alarmed and afraid, they become angry and violent. Everyone lashes out at his or her other self, kicking and clawing and screaming in panic-filled rage. Only one person seems unconcerned about the bifurcation – Allison, the smart girl with ordinary hair and no makeup that the other teenagers torment and ignore.

Allison is confident enough not to worry about what the other teenagers think – she really doesn’t want to be anything like them – but she does imagine a world where she is loved and valued and, well, not tormented and ignored. When she sees her fifteen-minutes-ago self, she acts quickly to prevent the other her from being hurt by a mean-girl ambush. As the meteor phenomenon begins pulsing, causing interesting time distortions, Allison catches up with her other self, and the two girls sit on a bench, holding hands and watching the others freak out.

They finally realize, as they stare silently at one another, that they – she – have always been completely happy with … herselves – that she really doesn’t care about the others’ opinions, and that she’s actually fulfilled just being herself. She’s not afraid of seeing herself. She’s not afraid of being herself. She loves her few friends, but her deepest and most meaningful relationship is with herself.

Then, just as the phenomenon resolves itself and subsides, they kiss.
Weird? – maybe. But if you just thought to yourself, “That’s crazy! You can’t love yourself!” … then maybe you just figured out what no one else at the party figured out: if you don’t love yourself, well, that’s the craziest thing of all.

If you met yourself, would you be your own worst enemy? Would you hold hands? Would you be afraid? Allison gives herself a chance … and she’s pretty much the only one who leaves with a smile on her face. When’s the last time you felt that way when you looked in the mirror?