How Parenthood Made My Marriage Stronger

Not actual parenthood, mind you, although I’m sure when we cross that bridge together we’ll both learn a lot.

But I’m talking about the TV show Parenthood.

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My husband and I started watching the show last year, after several of our friends recommended it, and after a brief hiatus, we’re finally back to watching an episode together most evenings. The reason we took a break from it is really just evidence for how great a show it is.

We got too involved, too invested. We (okay, okay, I) couldn’t get through a single episode without ugly crying. The characters, with all their various issues and mistakes and complications, became a part of our lives. And what with me publishing my second book and trying to get my ducks in a row for going back to school and us buying our first home and moving and facing the busy holiday season, it all became a bit too much.

But now we’re back. And, as I was beginning to suspect last year before we hit the pause button, watching it together has been exceedingly good for our marriage.

How can a TV show, especially one rife with such relational and familial drama, be good for any real life relationships? That’s probably would I would have said last year, before we entered what can only be described as the Braverman Family Circus. Divorces and delinquent teenagers and spoiled kids and brother-sister screaming matches all put together doesn’t exactly equal the relaxed, peaceful atmosphere I’m usually craving at the end of a long day.

But here’s the thing. This show is so real, from the situations to the acting to the breakdowns in communication to the consequences of everyone’s crappy actions. And through all this fighting and discord, I’ve discovered something.

The characters have fights for us.

That sounds weird, and maybe it is weird, so let me explain.

My husband and I have shared almost three wonderful years together as man and wife. We’ve had our ups and downs, of course–what couple doesn’t? And there have been plenty of family emergencies and situations arise during our time as a married couple.

But there is still plenty we haven’t experienced yet, like parenthood and the trials and tribulations thereof. There is plenty we hope we never experience, like layoffs, cheating, separation, a spouse with cancer, substance abuse, and divorce. And all these things play out on our television every night, an hour-long drama fest filled with mistakes and arguments and, yes, fighting.

After we’d been watching for a while, we started pausing the episodes so we could discuss what was going on. What was Julia doing wrong? What was Adam doing right? Without really meaning to, we started discussing the thought processes behind each character’s actions and whether or not we agreed with them. Oftentimes, at least starting out, we have wildly different opinions, but we talk through the situations calmly and thoughtfully, weighing each other’s comments with careful consideration until we reach a satisfied middle ground, a place where we both feel like we understand the other person just a little bit more.

Basically? We get the productive benefit of having a fight, without having to have a fight at all.

Thanks to Parenthood, we know more about each other’s personal communication styles, our more nuanced views of what’s right and wrong, and what we would like to do in various difficult situation, all without having to experience anything more difficult than sitting on our couch holding hands. Watching this show together has been a way for us to both step outside ourselves for a little while and just engage with each other intellectually. It has allowed us to wrestle with tough questions without us forgetting for a moment that we’re on the same team.

And you know what? Since we’ve started watching the show together, our fights have been fewer, farther between, and more productive.

I’m not going to give Parenthood all the credit for that. After all, we do work on our relationship outside of that one hour spent together on the couch. But it’s definitely helped. It gets us talking about things that aren’t superficial at the end of long work days when we’d both rather veg out. It makes us think about how we would act, and whether our instincts are correct. It makes us–or at least me–more mindful of our marriage, in the very best way. And in my book, something with results like that is definitely worth pursuing.

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How I Do It: 1 Not-So-Easy Step to Make Your Dreams Come True

I hear it all the time. “How do you do it?”

It’s not an unwarranted question. Sometimes, I even ask it of myself. How do I do it?

How do I put in forty hours Monday through Friday, while still squeezing in six hours of classes, and then turn around and work another eight hours on Saturday, and then spend Sunday mornings at church, and then spend Sunday afternoons grocery shopping and doing chores? How do I manage to do all of that, and still manage to be a homeowner and a wife, and hopefully a potential mother, and put in enough writing to churn out roughly one book per year?

People also ask this question of my husband and myself as a married unit. How do we work fifty plus hours a week each, and still find time for romance and companionship? How do we manage to put money in savings almost every month on such a low combined income? How did we manage to go from limping along from paycheck to paycheck to paying off component student loans and purchasing a house in less than three years?

The answer to both questions is really one and the same.

This answer is simple, although it might not be what you want to hear. It is not a simple solution, one tiny step needed to right the balance in an already stress-filled life.

Here it is:

I do what I do because I have to.

We do what we do because we have to.

Plan everything.

Skip lunch breaks.

Save receipts.

Stay home and cook, even when it would be easier just to go out.

Budget everything. Money, time, calories. Everything.

Brainstorm while driving.

Stay up half the night working on homework and reading assignments, and then stay up even later to put in work on my books.

Don’t watch near as much Netflix as my lazy butt would like.

Know when it’s time to take a night “off” to spend time with my husband, and I don’t mind working twice as hard the next day to make that happen.

I don’t have a ton of free time–in fact, I’m not even sure I understand what free time is anymore–but you know what? I am completely, totally satisfied. I might be sleep deprived and busy to the point of nervous breakdown on some days, but for the first time in my life, I am passionate about what I do.

My office job? Love it.

My fast-food job? It’s only temporary, I don’t hate it, and it allows me to spend time with friends.

School? LOVE IT.

Writing? LOVE IT.

Achieving dreams, no matter what they are, will always require work. It will always require discipline. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll pursue them later, when it will be easier, when it will be more manageable. Such a time will never come. You don’t have to do everything all at once, but you have to start somewhere.

Make a list of everything you need to accomplish in order to fulfill your dreams and start doing them as you can, baby steps, one by one. It will be frustrating and draining, and some days you will just want to give up because you feel like you’re standing still, but you’re not. You’re still light years ahead of the people who are not even trying.

Stop waiting for your fully-formed dream to drop painlessly into your lap. It’s not going to happen. It never happens like that. If you want something to happenstart that process now. You’ll be busy, and you’ll be tired, but you will be doing something you love.

If you need further inspiration, check out Zen Pencils’ wonderful illustration of a speech given by James Rhodes, “Is That Not Worth Exploring?” It makes me tear up every time I read it, because it is so true. Your dreams are worth exploring, no matter the sacrifice. No matter what you have to do. So get out there, and do it!

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Jennifer Lawrence Two Ways, or: Surprised by Joy

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My husband and I rarely make it to the movie theater. Between both of us working six days a week (at least), my writing, and the ever-climbing ticket prices, it usually doesn’t seem worth the hassle.

This year, though, thanks to a surprisingly good number of options at the box office and the generosity of family members, we made it for quite a few films this year. Jurassic World. Ant Man. The Intern. The Martion. Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. And, as luck would have it, we viewed two Jennifer Lawrence films–The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 and Joy–in less than twenty-four hours.

These movies couldn’t be more different, and neither could the respective heroines. That’s obvious, right? I mean, the one is set in a postapocalyptic dystopian wasteland hundreds of years in the future, while the other can be found smack dab in the middle of the decade of my childhood. The one is charged with the unrequested burden of saving the known world, while the other just wants to support herself. You can’t compare the two at all.

Except that you kind of can.


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I read The Hunger Games once, right before the first movie came out. Both of my roommates were big fans of the series, and over the course of a few snotty, hazy sick days, I managed to plow through all three books. I loved The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

My venture into Mockingjay, however, culminated with me hurling my (borrowed) copy across my bedroom.

Nearly four years later, I stand by that decision.

*spoilers ahead–read at your own risk*

The conclusion to this bestselling YA series, which years after its last publication is still selling like hotcakes, is about as satisfying to me as the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathy Hallows, and for the same reason.*

*Don’t crucify me quite yet. I’ll delve into my qualms about Harry Potter–which overall, I absolutely adore–at a later date.

From the moment Effie plucks her sister’s name out of the bowl at the Reaping Ceremony at the very beginning, Katniss’s life becomes a series of trips to the gates of Hell and back.

She is forced to kill other children, lest she be killed herself. She helplessly watches on as Rue dies, and she spends days worrying that Peeta will slip away from her, too. She develops PTSD and receives no counseling.

Once she returns to Twelve, she lives in constant fear that President Snow will kill her, or worse, her family. She is forced into a fake relationship while her heart is elsewhere. She is forced into yet another round of the Games, where she watches even more friends meet their untimely ends.

She is ripped from her known reality and whisked away to Thirteen, where she is quickly made into Alma Coin’s puppet and put in the frustrating situation of being the face of the rebellion but having no power to do anything of substance. Her mental trauma goes untreated and seemingly unnoticed by everyone around her. She loses more friends, more family. She begins to suspect that the good guys are no better than the bad, only to have those suspicions confirmed.

And after it’s all said and done, after she helps topple a tyrannical dictatorship and prevent a new one from rising in its place, what does she do? She retreats alone to the same miserable, bombed out ghost town the government forced her to live in all those years. She ends up marrying Peeta because he makes his way back there, too. They have a couple of children. She still has nightmares about the Games, and probably always will, but at least they’re safe for now. Fade to black.

Um. . .excuse me?

The conclusion to Mockingjay differs so much from the two preceding books that it is almost physically jolting. The Hunger Games and Catching Fire both end on a note of triumph, of hope for the future. Mockingjay has nothing to offer but existential drudgery and despair.

The movie handled the story much better than the book did, but my hope that the tone would change was not fulfilled. I left the theater feeling beat down and depressed. Feeling like my investment in the series wasn’t worth it at all.

For what it’s worth, Jennifer Lawrence’s swan song performance as Katniss Everdeen was flawless. The raw emotion she lends to every character she plays brought a flat character to life and evoked empathy from me where the book could not. I cared about Movie Katniss, which makes the end of Mockingjay Part 2 even worse.


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Contrary to Mockingjay, I had no earthly idea what I was getting into with Joy. The trailer was deliciously ambiguous about the plot, which was refreshing and intruiging–these days, most trailers seem to contain spoilers galore. Even when I read a short synopsis of the movie, it didn’t sound all that great. But because I trust Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, and David O. Russell, I gave it a shot.

Man. Oh, man. Joy isn’t a movie. It’s a work of art.

Cinematographically speaking, it’s a beautiful, beautiful mess. In some ways, it reminded me of two other favorites, (500) Days of Summer and Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina.

Awkward camera angles. Theatrical staging. Stageshow-like dialogue. A very strange show-within-a-movie kind of thing. With an ordinary movie, I would have shrugged these techniques off and labelled the movie as haughty and unnecessarily artsy. But in Joy’s case, they only served to make the film stronger.

Joy is a modern feminist retelling of Cinderella. My husband pointed this out to me on the car ride back home on New Year’s Day. I responded to this by blinking slowly and stupidly before realizing of course it is. I’m still not quite sure how I missed it. (Perhaps he should be the one writing this blog.)

*Mild spoilers ahead–read at own risk*

Joy is the only grown-up in a world full of adolescent-minded people content to wallow in failure. Her parents aren’t dead, but they might as well be–her mother spends all day and all night tucked in bed, immersing herself in soap operas and ignoring reality, and her father slips effortlessly from one woman to the next. Her half-sister is snarky and judgmental. Her ex-husband loafs about in her basement two years after the divorce. Joy’s only supporter is her grandmother, who remembers her gift for creating and inventing and encourages her to pursue that aspect of herself. After a red wine fiasco with her father’s newest amor, Joy has a flash of inspiration: she won’t accept the expectation that she has to scrub on her hands and knees. Oh, no. She’s going to create a self-wringing mop.

What’s so beautiful about this movie is Joy’s refusal to succumb to her apparent destiny. All her life, her family drains her energy and hard work like a parasite. They practically beg her to join them in their pit of failure and despondancy. But she refuses, and through her own innovation, she pulls herself through. No prince required.

Joy is all about self-determination. It’s about taking control of your life, maybe even your destiny. It’s about confidence, hard work, and persistence trumping listlessness, laziness, and defeat. It’s about hope, and love, and. . .well. . .joy.


 

I’m convinced Jennifer Lawrence is the great actress of our times. When future generations look back at our era of cinema, she will be our Greta Garbo, our Audrey Hepburn, our Ingrid Bergman. In both her current movies, she proved once more that she is worthy of all the awards. She reached through the screen, twisted my heart, and made me wish I’d smuggled some tissues inside the theater.

The only difference is simple. Joy was worthy of her. Mockingjay was not.

 

Marvel, the Everyman, and Deadpool: An Unbalanced Equation

I remember my first experience with the superheroes of Marvel. It was the summer of 2002, I was eleven years old, and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man was all the rave at the box office.

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Looking back now, I realize how groan-worthy this movie is – the plot is ridiculous, the acting subpar, and the script has more cheese than the state of Wisconsin. But at the time, to a girl whose exposure to superheroes had been limited to a host of horrid Batman movies and a few stray scenes from Superman, it was everything I didn’t know I wanted.

Spider-Man was something…more. While there are silly one-liners and bursts of comedic relief, the story here is much more serious than those of its proverbial big brothers. Our hero, Peter Parker, couldn’t be more different from the iconic, neomythical Batman and Superman. Peter might be tortured like Bruce Wayne and posses preternatural abilities like Clark Kent, but that’s where the similarities end. He has “greatness,” as it were, thrust upon him as an angst-ridden teenager. He balances crime-fighting with mourning the death of a father figure, struggling to break social barriers, and pining after a girl who does not return his affection. In this way, he is Everyman: an ordinary person who, through personal struggle and redemption, is able to extraordinary things.

215px-Daredevil_posterThis has, historically, been a trait shared by the majority of Marvel heroes over the years, at least those chosen for film adaptation. Shortly after Spider-Man came Daredevil, featuring Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer who fights through his disability in the name of justice. 2003’s Hulk, while an admitted failure, introduces us to Bruce Banner, whose struggle is to protect the world from the monster within. 220px-Hulk_movie

2008 brought us the beginning of the Avenger films with Iron Man, through which we meet Tony Stark, whose hubristic, irresponsible lifestyle nearly costs him his own life. Once exposed to  his own wrongdoings, he uses his genius and power as a vehicle for redemption. Like Bruce Wayne, he does not possess extraordinary powers, only resources; however, he uses those resources to transcend, rather than propagate, his inner turmoil.

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The Avengers also bring us Steve Rogers-turned-Captain America, a weak man made strong for the sake of justice and righteousness, and Thor, whose status as a god does not save him from betrayal and loss. And most recently, we have Ant-Man featuring Scott Lang, a reformed convict who just wants to be worthy of his daughter’s love.

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This flavor of hero is what changed me from someone who enjoyed superhero movies to someone who enjoyed Marvel movies. It’s what I expect from the company now. I crave someone to root for; someone with a disadvantage, a difficulty, a less-than-perfect past who wants to rise above his Ant-Man_posteror her circumstances and achieve greatness in the name of righteousness. More than that, I crave a story so well told that excessive profanity, nudity, and other types of vulgarities are not necessary. It’s not that I have paper-thin, ladylike sensibilities so much that I understand the art of basic storytelling. If a movie absolutely needs bare breasts and one hundred F bombs to draw a crowd, it’s not a good movie. Ironically, given my ambivalent feelings for Superman, I crave truth, justice, and the American way.

But that’s not what Deadpool, the next Marvel character film slated for release, is selling. Wade Walker undergoes a dangerous experiment in an effort to cure his cancer, leaving him disfigured but alive. As a trade-off, he now has the power of accelerated healing and a dark, twisted sense of “humor.”

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To be honest, this doesn’t seem too far off from the usual superhero flick, so when my husband seemed disappointed by news of the movie, I was confused. He showed me the trailer, and then, I understood. I more than understood. In the span of three minutes, there were multiple uses of the F word, several vulgar jokes and comments, and female nudity. In the span of three minutes. In the trailer. Immediate red flag.

More off-putting than that, though, was the callous, snarky nihilism presented by the titular character. Unlike his Marvel hero counterparts, Deadpool does not seek to use his newfound abilities for good, does not aim to protect and serve, does not seek justice. Instead, he desires to settle a personal vendetta, to satisfy a bloodlust that does not discriminate between good or evil.

When the trailer ended, I found myself too disturbed to speak. Finally, I cleared my throat and, incredulous, asked, “And this is a Marvel movie?”

My issue with Deadpool is not that he exists, but that he exists as a protagonist. Both in comic book and movie form, he is more comparable to DC’s the Joker than any hero in either pantheon. Like the Joker, Deadpool is not on a “side”; he serves no one but himself. His propensity for wild card violence, chaos, and meaningless bloodshed is a driving force, and his self-awareness as a fictional character in both comics and video games suggests Jokeresque insanity.

Were he pitched against the Avengers, individually or as a team, in the clear role of super villain, I wouldn’t be opposed to his place in the Marvel Universe. But placing him in the role of protagonist, framing him with a thick layer of moral ambivalence? That goes against the grain of everything Marvel has released in the past decade.

Fans of Captain American and Iron Man don’t want to root for a protagonist who spouts lines like…well, actually, all of the meaningful quotes from the trailer are riddled with profanity, so I won’t put any of them here. If you’re curious, check it out for yourself. If you’ve played through video games in which he appears, you probably know what I’m talking about. This character has no redeeming qualities, but instead is the personification of outlandishness. To steal a line from my husband, he’s the embodiment of juvenile excess. He is fleshly satisfaction. He is gluttony and lust and savagery and misogyny. He is one hundred steps backward in terms of social progress.

Maybe it’s silly of me to hold a comic book company to standards of my own making. Maybe it’s naïve of me to expect one of the many giants in a multibillion dollar industry to worry about content over cash flow. Maybe I’m wrong, and it’s Deadpool the people want; not Captain America, not Iron Man, but Deadpool. And maybe it’s unfair for me to compare Deadpool to other Marvel films, especially the Avenger films, since they are written, directed, and produced, by two entirely different sets of people.

But I still find the presence of those five magical red-and-white letters at the end of the Deadpool trailer jarring, if not horrifying; a non sequitur, if ever there was one. Regardless of the fact that Fox is the production company, this movie’s release commits an egregious error. It sets a tone that contradicts not only the Avengers, but every other Marvel film made since the original Spider-Man. Wade Walker has no honor, no truth, and no desire for redemption; he has only disgrace, selfishness, and nihilistic futility. To have him in the printed Marvel pantheon as anything short of a villain is a mistake; to elevate him to film status, a tragedy.

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This morning, I was jamming to the Lorde album “Pure Heroine,” because I’m a teenager at heart.  I was mindlessly singing along to song after song as I made my way to church, until I stumbled upon the common theme woven through each of the seemingly unrelated songs: history repeats.

Each song alludes to aristocracy, nobility, ancient empires.  In some songs, the allusion is pretty on the nose, while others have more subtle references:

Everything’s cool when we’re all in line for the throne / But I know it’s not forever (yeah)

Only bad people live to see their likeness set in stone / What does that make me? 

Delicate in every way but one (the swordplay) / God knows we like archaic kinds of fun (the old way) 

Call all the ladies out / They’re in their finery / A hundred jewels on throats / A hundred jewels between teeth

Her hit song Royals is really what caught my thoughts this morning, though.  I have probably listened to it one hundred times, but this morning, something struck me:

Every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom / Bloodstains, ballgowns, trashin’ the hotel room / We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams / But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece / Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash / We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair / And we’ll never be royals / It don’t run in our blood / That kind of luxe just ain’t for us / We crave a different kind of buzz.

Oddly enough, these words reminded me of one of my favorite passages of scripture.

Because I am not a normal person, that can be found in what is possibly the most depressing part of the Bible – Ecclesiastes.  I have met very few people that understand my absolute adoration of the sweet, existential verses nestled within that book.  Most find it depressing – probably because of all of those “everything is meaningless”s peppering those pages – but personally, it has lifted me from some of the darkest times in my life, oddly enough for the same reason.

“Meaningless!  Meaningless!” says the Teacher.  “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”  What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?  Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.  The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.  The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.  All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full.  To the place the streams come from, there they return again. … I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens.  What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!  I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.  I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.”  Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.  For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.  (Ecc. 1:2-7, 13-18)

Kind of lends credence to “ignorance is bliss,” doesn’t it?

And it’s true, right?  It sounds like Solomon was wrestling with the same things that we struggle with now, thousands of years later.  He felt empty inside, unfulfilled, restless.

And the thing is, he had literally everything.  Think of the richest person alive right now – Solomon could probably buy him out twenty times over and still have plenty left.  He did not lack in love (or lust) – he had a thousand wives.  He was gifted with wisdom beyond measure.  He had everything.

And that everything turned out to be nothing.  Just like every rich, wise, powerful ruler before and after him, he realized that his possessions were nothing but particles of dust he’d managed to capture for a moment and hold between his fingers before they slipped away.  To treat them as anything more is to experience disappointment at very least; the consequences can be much more severe, though.  As Paul wrote to the Romans, “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die.” (Rom. 8:13)

This is why Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan and Justin Bieber and Amanda Bynes – people, who to ordinary folks like you and me, have literally everything – develop addictions and relish in self-destructive behavior.   Because all of the fame, all of the riches, all of the renown in all the world, cannot secure that which we all search for – Security. Inner peace. Immortality.

Those things can only be found in Christ.

So remember this the next time that you find yourself worrying about things that, in the grand scheme of things, are thoroughly insignificant.  Instead, devote your energy and care to finding fulfillment in Christ.  He alone can fill the void in our hearts.

(Aaaand I just thought of a way I could’ve worked Once Upon a Time into this. Oh well, another time.)