Tuesday, July 4, 2017

An Edited Declaration: Independence Day Thoughts on Our Complicated Legacy

Recently, I've been reading on the history of the Fourth of July, specifically when it comes to the Declaration of Independence. Like all historical events, our Independence Day is fraught with simplifications and even blatant inaccuracies. I read on NPR, for instance, that the vote on independence actually happened on July 2, and that the signing of the Declaration didn't happen until August of that same year. But the document was dated July 4 as it was sent out to each of the colonies, and so today we celebrate the Fourth as our day of independence from Great Britain.

This has been cause for some reflection on my part. I've been pondering the nature of freedom, of the founding of our country, and of the complicated history we all share. Is the United States as great as we want it to be? And even if it isn't, isn't there some kernel of truth or beauty that we can celebrate on July 4?

I love a good satire as well as anyone, but the Babylon Bee hits too close to home when it claims we have accepted the United States of America as our Lord and Savior. Yet satire alone does not tell the whole story; I think there can and should be a place for what can only be called patriotism. Not that I should place the United States on a throne above all others as the so-called “nation blessed by God,” but that I should appreciate what our founding fathers did so many years ago. The Declaration sounded a clarion call, if imperfectly, on the way God has placed humans in relationship; that oppression is not only offensive to our nature as human beings, but an offense against the Higher Law of truth, as set forth by God.

I added a catch up there, if you noticed; the call of the Declaration was imperfect. Arguably, it left no room for half of the world's population—women—and contradicted itself in being silent on the issue of slavery, which left black men and women wildly unequal to white landowners. In freeing themselves from the oppression of Great Britain, the newly vested Americans averted their gaze from the oppression that they themselves were upholding.

Yet one of the most interesting parts of the Declaration's history is Thomas Jefferson's original draft—which included a scathing indictment of Great Britain's slave trade and accused King George of trying to right the “crime” of slavery by having slaves murder other Americans to gain their freedom. I've included the full paragraph below:

“He [the king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

Thomas Jefferson calls the slave trade an “infidel power,” contrasting it bitterly with the so-called “Christian King of Great Britain.” Yet these words were cut from the final draft, nixed by the need to pacify the states (and the representatives) who were so deeply involved in the slave trade.

In a way, I think this very saga is a glimpse into the founding of our country. The United States was not founded perfectly; in many ways, it was not even founded well. But nevertheless, it was founded on ideals. When I look at the history of the American Revolution and the legacy of such documents as the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, I see people who are idealists first and realists second. Even though, realistically, the Declaration could only represent all thirteen colonies if it left out all mention of slavery, the first impulse of Jefferson was to call for true equality—the “most sacred rights of life and liberty” for all people, including slaves.

This does not negate the terrible things that have been done in the name of this country. We are still a country founded on war, with a legacy of both liberty and oppression; we are still a country seething with internal divisions, left unhealed by the Civil War; we are still a country of uneasy peace, racial tension, and partisan hatred. But we are also a country that is founded upon the ideal of a self evident truth: that people have essential rights, endowed by their creator.

In some ways, I see this as parallel to human nature itself, and I see the hypocrisy of the United States in the strikingly similar hypocrisy of the church, which has a perfect ideal of which it falls short. “All men are created equal” is in some ways a failure—not unlike “Love one another,” “May they be one, as we are one,” and “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The United States has been a force for good—so has the church. The United States has been a force for evil—so has the church. 

And so I have to come to the conclusion that I should approach my country in the same way that I approach my community. Not that the United States should be treated the same as a church; there are obvious differences in how we should approach Christian community and how we should approach our temporal citizenship to any physical country. However, I find the same principle at work, which G. K. Chesterton so succinctly summarized: “Things must be loved first and improved afterwards.”

To return to my original question—how should I respond on Independence Day? What is there to celebrate about such a mixed and complicated legacy? I can only say that it is important to celebrate the good without ignoring the bad. I should celebrate the Fourth of July, not because I don't think the country needs improving—it does—but because I think that love is a necessary predecessor to change. I must love my country first, and improve it afterwards.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How DreamWorks Lost Its Way

Not too long ago, The Atlantic published a thought-provoking piece titled "How Pixar Lost Its Way." It points to Disney's purchase of Pixar as the death-knell for Pixar's unprecedented streak of high-quality films. Regardless of whether Pixar can regain the stratospheric quality that is now enjoyed by Disney Animation, no one can argue about Pixar's capability to produce high-quality films. While it remains yet to be seen whether Cars 3 will redeem the universally-panned Cars 2, Coco has delighted fans with the recent trailer, and the announcement that Pixar has no sequels planned after 2019 is also encouraging. Pixar might have lost its streak, but it hasn't quite lost its way.

However, the point that The Atlantic made was fascinating: the change that came about because of the Disney takeover also led to a change in film quality. With the recent acquisition of DreamWorks Animation by Comcast, a similar takeover has happened at DreamWorks Animation. Moreover, even the leadership change runs parallel to Pixar: Comcast also owns Illumination Entertainment, the up-and-coming studio that produced hits and franchises like Despicable Me and Secret Life of Pets, and there are rumors that the co-owner of the brand, Chris Meledandri, will also take over DreamWorks Animation.

The question is, then, are we on the brink of seeing a similar change in DreamWorks? It's possible. But there is one crucial difference between DreamWorks and Pixar, as they currently stand: DreamWorks has had a lot of duds.

But why? How did DreamWorks go from the studio of The Prince of Egypt, Shrek, and How To Train Your Dragon to the studio of "The DreamWorks Face"?

I would argue that the reason for Pixar's continued success is the same reason that DreamWorks eventually lost its power as a branding: their founding principles. And if DreamWorks is going to become a studio more defined by How to Train Your Dragon 2 than The Boss Baby, they'll need to recognize that and make a cultural readjustment alongside their new acquisition.

The founding philosophies of Pixar animation have been well documented; they rely on excellent storytelling and peer review to create great films. This has been the case since the very first release. "When [Toy Story] came out, almost all the reviews had one line saying it was computer animation, and the rest of the review was about the movie," Ed Catmull says, recalling the initial reviews of Toy Story. From the beginning, Pixar has been about great storytelling and innovation, a legacy that continues to affect their work today.

The origin story of DreamWorks animation paints a different, and more complicated, picture. It was originally intended to be an alternative to Disney; Jeffrey Katzenberg, a former Disney exec who left the company disgruntled, teamed up with Steven Spielberg to start DreamWorks SKG. The animation division of DreamWorks SKG began with two very different releases: Antz and The Prince of Egypt, released within two months of one another in 1998. Both of them were moderately successful; both of them were very different from what had come before.

But here is the key: Antz released first.

In many ways, the inaugural "hit" of an animation studio becomes something that defines it. Toy Story remains ranked by many as the best movie Pixar ever made, one that continues to shape the culture of the animation industry.

In the same way, Antz helped to shape the culture of DreamWorks Animation, for better or for worse. It was edgier, loaded with pop-culture references and knowing nods to the adults. It functioned as a forerunner to the then-groundbreaking release of Shrek, which was a scathing satire of traditional animated genres and spawned dozens of bad animated films in nearly every studio, as each tried to cash in on the success of the franchise. (Pixar remains the notable exception, while Disney ran headlong into the trap with Chicken Little.) It is clear that the legacy continues to live on—just look at any of DreamWorks's recent releases, such as The Boss Baby.

Here's the thing, though: Antz wasn't supposed to be DreamWorks's first film. In fact, The Prince of Egypt was put in production long before Antz. But the impending release of Antz and eerie similarity to Pixar's production, A Bug's Life, plunged DreamWorks into controversy. This was made worse by the fact that the release date of Antz was moved from 1999 to October 1998, before The Prince of Egypt and, more significantly, seven weeks before the release of A Bug's Life. Accusations of plagiarism ran wild, as detailed by David Price in his book The Pixar Touch. 

The end result was that the production of Antz was rushed to completion and became the focal point of DreamWorks's animation lineup, while The Prince of Egypt quietly made money and disappeared from the press. The artistic successes of films like The Prince of Egypt and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron became overshadowed by Antz and the breakout phenomenon of Shrek. 

Ever since, DreamWorks Animation has labored under the two-tier system. Historically, it has been funded by their films in the Antz genre, such as the Shrek and Madagascar franchises (which have seven massive box office hits between them), and thus it has been heavily oriented toward that genre. Indeed, after the mediocre box office performance of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, DreamWorks went six years before producing another "artistic" and critically-acclaimed film (Shrek 2 being the arguable exception). Kung Fu Panda ushered in a new and improved form of the DreamWorks "artistic" feature: the familiar slapstick and knowing jokes of the Shrek era with a surprising dedication to good storytelling. The success of Kung Fu Panda led, even if implicitly, to the magnum opus of DreamWorks's "artistic" genre: How To Train Your Dragon, a superb story in the vein of the earlier DreamWorks dramas, told with trademark DreamWorks humor and a soundtrack that recalled the soaring notes of The Prince of Egypt and Kung Fu Panda—both of which are films composer John Powell collaborated on.

However, it was released in the same year as the critically panned but commercially boffo Shrek Ever After, and DreamWorks followed the money. Outside of two Kung Fu Panda sequels and How To Train Your Dragon 2, DreamWorks produced no significantly artistic or critically relevant films in the following seven years. But unlike the first decade of the century, the Antz films of the 2010s have, for the most part, flopped. The Croods and The Boss Baby are the only two out of the seven DreamWorks originals of this decade to crack $400 million at the worldwide box office.

In other words, the DreamWorks formula is fading. In choosing Antz over The Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks Animation slowly lost its way. However, with Comcast's recent purchase of DreamWorks, the studio can rebrand itself. Like Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, it has the opportunity to choose between two heritages.

So far there are no indications of whether the DreamWorks ship will turn itself around. Their current release schedule includes two sequels in the Antz genre (Trolls 2 and The Boss Baby 2), a mysterious original (Everest) and the finale of the How To Train Your Dragon franchise. The success of these second-act sequels, and the success of How To Train Your Dragon 3, may determine whether or not DreamWorks will take on the storytelling-first approach championed by Pixar. If not, it may be that DreamWorks Animation will allow itself to be eaten at last by Antz.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why the Kung Fu Panda Films Are Actually Good

Kung Fu Panda had no right to be a great film.

Really, it shouldn't have worked.  It was the same old formula, a humor-based animated film in the vein of Shrek.  It was a textbook case of irreverence for the original story archetype—the Hero's Journey—to force a few laughs.  The cover had a really bad (but somehow good) punchline.  And to top it all off, Jack Black was playing the main character.

And yet, there was something different about this film, a mystical element that merely increased in the two surprisingly good sequels that followed.  It was not merely characterized by jokes in the middle of serious moments, but serious moments in the middle of a joke.  At the core of DreamWorks' characteristic irreverence, there were striking moments of solemnity.

In essence, Kung Fu Panda worked because the story structure was modeled after Po: there was no secret ingredient to the plot, and yet that was all it needed to be great.

The Shrek films went wrong by letting their primary characteristic become their only characteristic.  There were fairy-tale jokes by the dozens; and believe me, Kung Fu Panda never forgets that it's about a panda that does kung fu.  Yet Kung Fu Panda doesn't let itself become defined to that genre. It sets up a genuinely compelling villain; it utilizes animation's untapped potential for martial arts.  And, at the core, it explores the nature of identity.

The secret ingredient is Po, literally.  In the Shrek films, Shrek himself becomes a plot device for guffaws and jabs at Disney.  But the Kung Fu Panda films focus on a character that is both endearingly geeky, but also surprisingly serious.

Do you want to know why Kung Fu Panda transcends the DreamWorks animated comedy?  Because Shrek is jaded, and Po is sincere.

To stay true to the character, Kung Fu Panda had to fuse two halves: the inherent hilarity in a panda learning kung fu, and the absolute naive sincerity of the one learning it.  As a result, it becomes both.  In a way, the whole series is told in a structure that models the inward journey of Po, in pursuing his identity.

This is why it works.  And this is why we find it oddly moving.  Isn't that strange?  The same film that says, "Panda, we do not wash our pits in the Sacred Pool of Tears," also says this: "There is a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift.  That is why it is called the present."

It's beautiful.  But perhaps one of the most moving images I've seen in the trilogy is from Kung Fu Panda 3.  As Po finds balance within himself, the image of a dragon starts to form around him. The music soars, and he says, "Am I the son of a panda? The son of a goose? A student? A teacher? I'm all of those things.  I am the dragon warrior."

And that - the complete acceptance of both his heritage and his upbringing in discovering who he really is - is a picture we find deeply moving.  We all are on a quest to discover who we are; and Kung Fu Panda taps into that elemental desire in an unexpected way.

Yes, it had no right to become a great film...but Po had no right to became a great warrior.  That's exactly why it works.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Reflections on 2015

2015 was a long year.

You can read that however you like; depending on the day, I might say it with a long sigh or I might say it with a note of thoughtfulness in my voice. Either way, it's true. It's a struggle to unpack what this year has meant for my life...so much has been crammed into so little time.

At the beginning of this year, I was in Kansas with my family; I was staying there, but I did not live there. Ironically, as the year draws to a close, I am in Liberia with my family, but I'm just staying here – I no longer live here.

It's so inside-out—and that really sums up the whole year. So many things in my life have gone topsy-turvy. 2015 was my first full year as an adult, and this semester was the first time I have been away from my family. It was six long months until I was able to return and see my family again. In that time, I've had to sort out who I am becoming and what it means to be an adult.

Half of 2015's issues were the aftershocks of 2014. When I returned to Liberia in February, haunting reminders of the Ebola crisis remained: bleach buckets, informational murals, and faded signs told a silent story as new Ebola cases continued to smolder here and there.

Much of this spring was sorting out what 2014 really meant for me. I had to figure out what it meant to be an adult with the knowledge that I stepped into manhood during the hardest year of my life. The final, formational months of my teen years matured first through the worst emotional crisis my family has ever seen and afterward through the worst Ebola outbreak the world has ever seen. Just two months before my birthday, I was evacuated from West Africa, among other things. I eventually turned 18 surrounded by family and friends, but I was stranded in the United States, unable to go back to the place I called home.

But how did that inform how I live my life? To be honest, I'm still figuring that out. How do I live with the fact that I'm “American” while recognizing that I cannot be wholly American thanks to my experiences? I've learned how to be open with some of my experiences—almost anyone who knows me knows of my background and my parents' work—but there are some things from last year that I feel like I'm still processing. 2015 is still a work-in-progress.

When I did return home in February, I had three short months to relish my country and my family. College was on the horizon, and I had to look in the faces of my then-baby siblings and try to start saying goodbye. After that, I was off to the States, to figure out how to live without the comforting nearness of my family. I did a lot of growing up then, too; I led a critique group at a writing workshop (it scared the bejeebers out of me – still does, to be honest), I lived (semi)independently, I survived welcome week at my college, and I finished the semester with all of the grades I wanted.

And looking back, I felt like it was a good transition. My sister and I owe a lot to a wonderful “surrogate family” that took care of us (and gave us coffee and food on weekends) and to the strong upbringing we received that taught us how to work hard, study well, and seek after God. And I in particular owe a deep debt to my parents—to my dad, who showed me how to think deeply, and to my mom, who showed me how to love well.

But I don't think this year turned out the way it did out of nowhere. Looking back, there was a turning point in 2015. In the quiet turmoil of reverse-culture shock and in the depths of grappling with saying goodbye to my country and the people I loved best in the world, God gave me a gift.

Truth can speak powerfully through art. Last year, God used Rend Collective's song, “My Lighthouse”, to get me through the summer—I hung onto the promise that he would carry me safe to shore. This year, he gave me a voice for what I was going through in growing up and moving away: a film called Inside Out.

Even before I saw it, Inside Out was formational for me. I had been following it for two years—the most intriguing project from my favorite director, making it for my favorite studio. Even before I left to go back to Liberia, I was planning on seeing it opening weekend. When the initial reviews came out, my excitement grew and grew, until it reached a fever pitch. Inside Out became a sort of lifeline; it was something I had looked forward to all through 2014, a sort of stabilizing factor in my hectic life.

But even then, I didn't realize just how important it would become. When I saw it for the first time, I was barely a week-and-a-half out from leaving Liberia. I sat in the theater, with all of the built-up anticipation of two years boiling in my stomach and all of the built-up emotion of eighteen years knotted in my heart.

And from the beginning, Inside Out affected me deeply; it was cathartic, in many ways. I lived vicariously through the main character, who began to grow up more and more through a tough experience, moving away from everything she knew. I hurt deeply with Joy when she looked back on old, happy memories and cried, and I felt my time in Liberia ice cold in my heart. And when the film's finale came, I felt the warm arms of my Father wrap around me and warm my soul with his presence.

It was only through recognizing these emotions and experiencing them fully that I began to heal. Inside Out started the process, and the process has continued through the rest of this year. It was fitting that I went and saw it again on my birthday, and I cried more the second time. Every time she said, “I miss Minnesota,” I heard “Liberia,” and the tears felt cleansing, in a way. Inside Out gave me the voice to express my sorrow, because sorrow is part of healing.  But Inside Out also showed me that sadness is part of the path back to joy; that was something that I continued to discover throughout the semester.

And that is one of the things I am taking away from this year. God blessed me richly through the every-day things that he helped me recognize as miraculous and full of wonder.  He has given me joy.

Two of the greatest blessings sleep just two doors down from me.  Last night I rocked my little sister to sleep, as her twin slumbered quietly in the crib a few feet away. She had been a bit standoffish for the first few days, but I was her favorite again, and the way she and her twin brother laugh and say my name is the greatest reward I have ever received. Never before have I been more grateful for the opportunity to love someone.

2015 was a long year. But in the end, all that I have left is thankfulness. God has blessed me—with people to love, and with a beautiful film that I saw at just the right time, to lift me up and help me heal. He is faithful through the ages.


(Listen to the song for full effect.)

Your grace will never be forgot
Your mercy all my life
Will be my soul's forever song
My story and my light.

From mountaintop to valley low
Through laughter and through tears
Surely the goodness of my God
Will follow all the years.

For all that You have done for us
For every battle won
We'll raise a song to bless Your heart
For all that You have done.

In all our failures and regrets
You've always led us home
Redemption's arm has raised us up
Our triumph in the storm—

For all that You have done for us
For every battle won
We'll raise a song to bless Your heart
For all that You have done.

(You are faithful through the ages.)

In unity we'll stand as one
As family we'll go
Shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand
Into the great unknown—

For all that You have done for us
For every battle won
We'll raise a song to bless Your heart
For all that You have done!

—Rend Collective, "For All That You Have Done"

Monday, August 3, 2015

Defunding Planned Parenthood Is About Abortion And Morality, Not Women's Health

Today, the Senate took a vote on the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood.  It was a swift move, brought on by four controversial videos that showed Planned Parenthood officials speaking callously and casually about the killing of unborn babies.

These undercover videos showed activity that varied between morally disgusting and completely illegal, among it being the sale of baby parts (and the haggling over prices,) the discussion of how to perform the operation to save the most valuable organs, post-delivery abortion, and the implication of profit.

These revelations brought universal condemnation from the conservative politicians and, for the first time in a long time, put liberal politicians on the defensive.  The Republican Party has, for a large portion of my lifetime, been defined as the reactionary party - liberals create controversial issues and the Republicans react to them.  The fortunes have reversed on this issue, however, and the response of the Democratic Party has been uneven at best.

As I've watched this issue evolve, I've become more and more incredulous at how those who are pro-choice respond.  I've seen multiple people fall back on logical dodges I learned about in middle school, grasping for straws in the face of this glaring, moral issue.  Even Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has stumbled about for an appropriate response, contradicting herself multiple times and calling it a misunderstanding.

By far the worst of the logical blunders has been in Planned Parenthood's stubborn redefinition of the issues.  Almost every response I seen has been tailored to shift the focus of the issue off of the moral and legal issue of abortion and onto Planned Parenthood's greater purpose, which is supposed to be women's health.

It has been maddening to watch, especially since the response has been so slippery and subtle.  The spokespersons for PP stick to their guns and demonize their opponents like there is no tomorrow, chalking the issue of abortion up to right-wing extremists who hate women.  They hear hard questions and repeat their list of talking points as if they were acceptable answers. The whole pro-life movement is a "fringe" issue from the "extreme" edge of the Republican party, and ought to be ignored as if it were a Republican version of ISIS.  The videos were "heavily edited" (even though the original, full-length videos were released.)

In middle school, we called this a logical fallacy.  The conversation essentially goes like this:

"We should defund Planned Parenthood because abortion is a moral evil and because Planned Parenthood is doing it in an illegal way."  (The action with the reasoning behind the action.)

"Republicans want to defund Planned Parenthood because they are trying to undermine women's health." (The response to the action that ignores the original reasoning behind the action and is thus invalid.)

Before I continue, let me say for a moment that the idea that defunding Planned Parenthood will undermine women's health is actually hogwash.  Such arguments ignore the fact that the proposed bill in Congress would have redirected all of the funds - some $500 million dollars - to like-minded women's health organizations that do not perform abortions.  In fact, I would doubt that defunding Planned Parenthood would be an issue at all if they did not perform abortions.  So not only does Planned Parenthood refuse to answer the original issue, even their red herring answer is invalid.

Another argument I've heard is that abortions take up only a small portion of Planned Parenthood's services.  But the fact that Planned Parenthood does a great deal more than abortions does not factor into the equation at all.  We don't refuse to boycott countries rife with human rights violations just because they do a great deal more than violate human rights.  The morality of the country as a whole is tainted by an individual issue.  In the same way, the morality of Planned Parenthood as a whole is tainted by the individual issue of abortion.

The fact of the matter is that the Planned Parenthood issue is entirely an issue of abortion, not women's health.  It is a moral issue, not a social issue.  The fact that it has been knowingly breaking the law - or at least fudging it in a serious and widespread way - is secondary to the bigger issue.

The anti-abortion movement has been characterized with moral imperative.  Abortion must be stopped because it has been evil.  But the logical failing of the pro-choice movement is to try and redefine this issue as something purely practical, women's health, failing to address the ethical or legal aspect of abortion in any way.

Not once in this whole controversy have I heard the opponents of the pro-life movement actually respond with a moral argument for abortion.  It's for a good reason—any moral arguments for abortion collapse in on themselves.  Life, and humanity, can only be logically defined at one point: conception.

Watching these videos awakens you to the reality of the situation: that living, thriving babies are being killed in utero, and worse, that they are being murdered in such a way as to preserve their body parts to be sold.  Even those who support abortion squirm, because deep in their hearts, they know and recognize these "bits of tissue" as human beings.

The fact of the matter is, abortion is an issue that should transcend political parties, because it is a moral issue.  Yet when the vote on Planned Parenthood failed today in the Senate, it was split almost entirely on partisan grounds: only one Democrat voted for the bill.

We were united on the killing of innocents in the Middle East; why can't we be united on the killing of innocents in our own country?  Why can't we even be united in investigating Planned Parenthood, which has been caught doing illegal activities?

But is it even possible for people to admit that they were wrong?  That abortion is an evil, and that their political party isn't right every time?  Or is it possible that pride and the desire to be right is going to prevail—and that this fundamental evil is going to remain a partisan issue?  It is easy to disagree with a political party as a whole and not bother examining the truth of individual issues, and the politicians of the United States have taken the easy way out.

The only possible way for the Democratic Party and those who support abortion to resolve the issue is to ignore the issue.  It requires living with logical inconsistency.  And that is exactly what the supporters of Planned Parenthood are doing.  Like those who passively accepted the regime of the Nazi party, and those who looked away when the horror of the Holocaust began, those who are pro-choice can only look away from those gruesome images and pretend like they saw nothing.

It is the tendency of "conservatives" to blow up the issues and compare them to ludicrous things, such as the horrors of Nazi Germany.  All too often, these arguments fall flat, because there is really no comparison.

But when you hear the officials of Planned Parenthood casually discuss how to best kill an infant, when you hear them haggle over prices for these body parts, when you hear an aide shout, "It's a boy!" while rummaging through an aborted baby's remains, I can only think of the pictures I have seen of dead bodies, stacked outside a concentration camp.

The Auschwitz of our day is a sterile hospital room.  God help any of us if we look away.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

On Seeing a Vision from an Airplane

Once, weary of travel, my eyes aching for a glimpse of my destination, I gazed out my airplane window.

One of the marvelous things about airplanes is that the window-framed world feels so much smaller and larger at the same time.  And I never felt that sensation stronger than I did at that point, watching the sun glow over the shrouded Midwest.  It looked as if it were blowing on the cloud bank, spinning it into cotton candy - powdery and silver-white, soft as a whisper.  This effect made the clouds look like a wide, spinning disc, something you could nearly jump on and let it carry you away. It was like the wormhole of imagination, with a thin cloud line above and below, with a sliver of reality sandwiched in between.

Then, below, the powder faded into a sinister grey, the underbelly of a storm. It looked like piles of dust, billowing around the bottom of the stunning, spinning disc of the cloud-sun. Then, a bit of gold could seen, far off in the distance; layered, textured, beyond the reach of these cotton candy and dust-storm clouds alike, both below it but utterly out of reach in a transcendent sort of beauty.

For a moment my mind could not grasp what it was, something so eerie, so otherworldly yet so achingly beautiful. Finally it settled on something, and to my star-struck gaze it looked to me like the sun must be shining on Kansas, sending rays of light to pierce the clouds and make the fields burn gold and green.

I could not speak; I nearly choked up. As the sun set further, the wheat fields of gold melted into clouds, for it was really the beginning of a haunting sunset that I was seeing. The sun began to die and burn up the clouds in red and yellow fury, and with my elevated gaze I could see layers of clouds with layers of colors, and distantly below, I could see the best color of all - the deep, dusky red of the end of a sunset, sending rays across the misty clouds.

It is the most beautiful and most transcendent of colors because it is the most emotional. It is at the same time beautiful and mortal; a dying light is what makes it really live. It is loneliness and introspection. It is the fleeting beginning of an ending. It is the essence of bittersweet.

And as the colors faded, the flaming memory of that first wondrous glimpse stays with me; and I cannot help but reflect that perhaps my initial thought was the most honest. Perhaps, for all the cities and flatlands and barren hills, the truest picture I ever saw of my home was the one I saw in the colors of the sunset.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Life at the Front: Part III

In my last post, I implied that our first swimming attempt was a certified failure.  That's not entirely true.  (I did make the mistake of putting on sunscreen, which means that my painfully white winter skin stayed painfully white.)  There was one redeeming factor to it...I found some sea glass.  Behold the glory:

I haven't visited any of the “sea glass spots” where those beauties often end up, so perhaps my collection will grow to rival my previous one; few people have been “harvesting” sea glass since the missionaries were evacuated.

Before I launch into the two main points of this post, I must make a confession: some of my pictures don't fit into the general scheme of this article.  Accordingly, I'm just going to dump them here with captions.  Enjoy:

Our neighbors brought us some almonds; they're thinner, softer, and longer than the almonds you find in the States.
A view of Peace Island from the highway; it's called an island because it's surrounded by swamp.
Pretty typical sign for the urban Liberian, although I've never seen anyone label their apartment before.
That one building at ELWA Junction is finally finished and functional.  I kinda like the clock to the upper left; it's a nice touch.
Done?  Okay.  The dump is over.

Several days after we arrived, we headed in town to go to Lonestar, one of the three major phone networks in Liberia.  Dad went in armed with the iPhones we acquired in the States, and at the end of the day, we got two of our three phones working on Liberian networks.

While we were in town, we saw a mind-boggling number of Ebola signs.  I took pictures of all of the ones I could; here's a selection.

This sign was across the road from Lonestar.

Even "NO LEMON", an automotive service center that focuses on post-war countries, got an Ebola facelift.
One of the main themes seems to be that “stopping Ebola is everyone's business”.  I think it's safe to say that a lot of the expat money pouring into Ebola relief has gone into mobilization and advertisements.

Not all the signs were about Ebola, obviously.  Here's a new Cellcom sign I find simultaneously hilarious and disturbing:

On our way to Lonestar, we passed the “new Ministry of Defense”, as they call it, even though the building had been half-constructed decades ago, and abandoned during the civil war.  The site had been requisitioned for a large Ebola unit.

It was from one such unit that Liberia's only (some are calling it "last") case of Ebola was recently released.  News has been getting progressively better since we arrived; according to some secondhand information I obtained, there were around twelve unconfirmed cases when we arrived.  Last week there was just one confirmed case, the aforementioned woman who was cured and released.

Word on the street has been that Ebola finish from Liberia; still, everyone is being cautious.  One doctor told me that we have to prove it's not April, referencing the time period last year when Ebola slowed down drastically and opened the doors for a massive resurgence.

Part of the Ebola response is that I've been seeing a large number of helicopters.  Some appear to be run by the United States. Here's a glimpse of one I got with my phone, flying over ELWA:

Like I mentioned earlier, all of the expats are being very cautious.  Alex and Dad visited a Samaritan's Purse hub last week and the precautions were very thorough.  The bottoms of their shoes were sprayed with bleach, their temperatures were checked, and a “certification” was stapled to their clothes with their temperature and the date.  (As a minor collector of Ebola artifacts, I've half a mind to visit the SP office and get a certification myself, so I can save it for posterity.  I'll frame it beside my copy of “Time's Person of the Year - 2014”.)

Still, even in the midst of Ebola response, the normal rhythm of life is being reestablished.  Here are some familiar (and unchanged) places that I think you may appreciate:

Across the road from the entrance to the ELWA campus
The Exclusive!
The beach.  I think this deserves a virtual heart: <3
The painted palm trees.  For those of you who don't know, Liberians often paint trees and locales for Christmastime, to make everything look fine before the big holiday.
Business as usual at the house—it's a hot day, so naturally we've got the laundry out.
The lagoon, on the interior side of the bridge.  If you want to contextualize, pronounce it lah-GOON.
Also, the beach is still just as awesome as ever.  We went swimming for several hours yesterday, and it was glorious.

Before we left the States, some very generous people gave us what is called a “Watershot” case for iPhone.  It allows you to take pictures with your phone underwater, as deep as 130 feet.  (Not that I'm going to go that far down.)  Here's a picture of it:

During our beach trip, I took over 600 pictures with the Watershot, some above water, and some under the water.  (I deleted most of them, since underwater pictures tend to be blurry if you don't hold the camera still.  I ended up with 52 pictures total.)  I caught some pretty stunning stuff; here's a brief gallery, complete with captions.  Be very, very jealous.

Some of my favorite fish; they swim in small schools in the rockier parts of the bay.
I'm not sure what fish this is.  It's one of the more generic fellows that swim through from time to time.

I feel kind of like a submarine should come rumbling through here.  Oooooo-ummmmmm...

I caught this guy accidentally turning towards me and got a quick shot.  Not the clearest picture, but isn't it cool?  It tends to blend into the sand, save for the neon orange fins and a light electric blue streak running from the mouth to the gills.

Water pouring over one of the rocks, with the sunset behind.  You can see that, during the dry season, the sun disappears into the haze rather than the horizon.
Doesn't that foam look kind of delicious?  It's at this spot that we have a slightly dangerous game, of who can stay balanced on the rock the longest as the waves pummel us.  Falling off is pretty safe, however, since there's a deep spot just behind us that reaches seven or eight feet deep at high tide.  (This was taken at mid-tide, when the water was probably stomach-deep.  The waves that wash over the walk are gentler and don't really take much skill to withstand.)
I also got some quasi-artistic shots, and they were totally on purpose.  Really.

The little wave that could.  (On a serious note, I had no idea an iPhone could take such good pictures.)
I got Beth to take a picture of me (our goggles-strap was broken so I had to hold them to my face).  It's like sea-ception or something.  I feel proud of the artistic achievement.
Beth took a picture of her feet.
I took a dramatic picture of Beth framed against a sunset, sitting on a rock as the waves crash around her.  Slap a filter on it, and voila!  "This is real art, Emmet!  Dark and brooding."
Take a look at the beach; it's beautiful.

Ah, yes, Liberia.  It's good to be back.

About this series of posts: “Life at the Front” isn't sure what it's supposed to be, so it settled for part Ebola commentary and part missionary life, which ends up being pretty sporadic.

I'll be continuing this whenever possible, covering both the developments in my personal life and whatever news comes my way concerning the current Ebola outbreak. Including taking iPhone pictures of signs I've never seen before. (Guilty as charged.) My sisters tell me I look like a tourist. (Certainly not guilty as charged.)

But, I've got this notion in my mind that I'm writing down things that people are interested in. So I can afford looking slightly idiotic as I brandish my smart phone and fake a wide-eyed tourist look.

Dad and I are going in to Immigration sometime this week, so I should get enough story and picture fodder for Part IV—stay tuned!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Life at the Front: Part II (The Theo Post)

You know, I said previously that these posts focus on a cross between Ebola news and missionary life.  I wanted to do this primarily by narrating with a series of iPhone pictures, to give you an idea of what things are like in (almost) post-Ebola Liberia.

I plan to continue this approach.  However, I neglected to remember that a large number of my pictures focus on one very specific subject: the hilarious bundle of four-year-old energy known as Theo.

Obviously, this must be remedied.  Brace yourself.  (Some select captions feature Theo himself.)

Back in December, Theo broke his arm.  He had been jumping off of a pickup in one of his typically daring maneuvers, except this time it went a little too far.  He ended up having surgery and was shackled with an unwieldy cast.  (Theo didn't care for the cast too much, so one of his perpetual vices was to mess with it; one time he took it completely off while his mama was sleeping.)

Despite this, the little turkey was still hyperactive.  For instance, we brought him back a foam sword, which he has used to great delight.  (“Theo In Pictures” is a man after my own heart.)

Theo: "You and me, we had swords!  In the grass!"
His ninja moves were honed instantly, and he wreaked justice on our banana trees...with his cast still on:

(Note the bananas; we planted this tree last year, and it's getting close to producing!)
We took him to the beach a couple days after coming back, but that was a mistake with the cast.  He couldn't really swim, and the temptation to dunk his cast under the water was a little too much for him.  (He made it about twenty minutes without incident...but then it happened.  While I was watching him.  Oops.)

So maybe it wasn't the best idea.  We decided it would be better to wait for a full-on swimming spree till he had his cast off.

"That me!  And chicklet."  (On his way to get his cast off.)

"That me-o!"  (FREEDOM! Also, Brantlys, you'll be happy to learn that Stephen's ACU shirt is going to good use.)
So the day he got it off, we headed to the beach again, this time armed with snorkels and a camera.  Needless to say, Theo had a lot of fun.

"I splash the water - I make the water to go in Alice eye!  And mama looking like monster.  See, mama?  You look like monster."

Theo and Rebecca Epp, a friend of ours and a doctor who works at ELWA
(Frieda: Theo says he misses you!  He remembers you pretty clearly, probably the best as the owner of Mr. Fuchs.  Speaking of your “campus dog”, he followed us to the beach:)

What can I say?  Theo is the same Theo. Based on the antics he's had thus far, he's sure to feature in my later posts as well.

Catch you later...my man. *cool bike riding face*

"That me-o!  On my bike."

About this series of posts:“Life at the Front” isn't sure what it's supposed to be, so it settled for part Ebola commentary and part missionary life, which ends up being pretty sporadic.

I'll be continuing this whenever possible, covering both the developments in my personal life and whatever news comes my way concerning the current Ebola outbreak. Including taking iPhone pictures of signs I've never seen before. (Guilty as charged.) My sisters tell me I look like a tourist. (Certainly not guilty as charged.)

But, I've got this notion in my mind that I'm writing down things that people are interested in. So I can afford looking slightly idiotic as I brandish my smart phone and fake a wide-eyed tourist look.

Next up is Part III, which will feature dozens of new photos...including some ridiculously cool ones I took underwater.  Happy reading!