Why Mr. Incredible is More Interesting than Mrs. Incredible

Character growth will always be more interesting than a cool motorcycle.

That’s the short, spoiler-free version. Read on if you’ve already seen The Incredibles and its sequel, or if you don’t mind having the general plot revealed.

To me, Incredibles 2 had some fun moments, but it took the same lesson as the first movie—family is important—and put it into a different plot with a slightly different premise.

But the nice thing about how similar the two movies are is that it’s fun to compare Mr. Incredible’s character arc from original film to sequel.

Setup

In Movie 1, a complicated mixture of pride, desire for justice, and sheer fun of super-heroics causes Mr. Incredible to take up undercover work, lie to his family, make his wife suspect he’s having an affair, endanger his kids, and abandon all rational suspicion to nearly get himself killed on a supervillain’s island.

In Movie 2, that same mix of emotions is going on…but this time, Mr. Incredible doesn’t get the opportunity to put the mask on. The call to action comes for his wife instead, and circumstances force him into a state of powerlessness. He doesn’t understand Dash’s new math. Violet is furious at him for publicly embarrassing her and ruining her adolescent life. He bought the wrong kind of batteries. The baby won’t go to sleep. (Also, he explodes.)

Results

In Movie 1, Mr. Incredible’s family basically rescues him, dramatically revealing his messed-up priorities and the value of what he’s been missing.

And in Movie 2, we find that being present for what he’s missing has a cost. It’s boring and hard and exhausting and totally without glory. But Mr. Incredible learns the new math and apologizes to his daughter and calls in a babysitter equipped to deal with exploding babies.

I found his character journey way more interesting than SuperMom’s, because while she got the cool action scenes, she never has to confront her weaknesses in the way her husband does in both movies.

The script was not subtle in the scenes where Mrs. Incredible admitted it was nice to be the one who was needed, or when Evelyn flattered her, saying she could do it all on her own. Even the reversion back to the silver Elastigirl uniform instead of the family logo made me think, “Great, they’re going to explore the potential danger of rugged independence and girl power!”

After all, in the original movie, Mrs. Incredible goes through a ton of emotions. Her desire to protect her family and later, suspicion of her husband, trigger a lot of the plot. Then, she learns to trust her kids and let them have some independence and renews her vow to keep her family together.

But in the sequel …there’s no payoff. Mrs. Incredible’s actions don’t have consequences. Her fatal flaw is a talking point that does no damage at all. And she ends the movie in the same place she started. (more…)

A Different Perspective on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal

Let’s talk prairie.

For those of you who aren’t part of adorably nerdy bookish communities, here’s the short version of the controversy.

In the 1950s, an award was created called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in honor of Wilder’s contributions to children’s literature. (She wrote the Little House series, among others, turned into a beloved T.V. show still re-running late at night somewhere.) It is given to someone who has had a significant impact in the world of kids books.

In addition to displaying family and faith values, Wilder’s series, a fictionalized version of her 1800s childhood, contains stereotypes of Native Americans and is not nuanced about the complex history of the American West. In the Little House books, the homesteaders are good, and the books remove most of the uncomfortable aspects of exploitation, forced removal, and taking away of rights from native people.

This week, the American Library Association decided to change the medal’s name to the more generic Children’s Literature Legacy Award. And a lot of people are really angry.

Disclaimer: I read some of the Little House books as a kid, but didn’t care for them, probably because I read them in that stage where every other little girl was devouring countless books about dogs, cats, and horses which I HATED, and Laura and her family regularly interact with cute animals.

So I don’t have emotional stakes in keeping the Wilder name attached to the award, because it’s not something dear to my heart. For other people, it’s touching a raw spot…and it’s also become politicized.

I made the mistake of reading the one-star reviews people have left for the ALA to protest this choice. Some of them were thoughtfully articulated, like, “I have a hard time understanding this decision, since it seems that Wilder was a product of her times and even apologized for and changed an offensive passage when it was pointed out to her.” (A reference to the edit made from “there were no people, only Indians lived there” to “no settlers,” for which Wilder apologized in the 50s.)

Other responses were…less helpful, using profanities against PC advocates in between references to 1984.

After reading and thinking, I settled on a few thoughts to help me decide how to think about the new non-Wilder award.

It is not really censorship or book burning.

The ALA isn’t suggesting that no one read the Wilder books, or even that schools remove them from their curriculum or libraries take them down from shelves, as far as I’m aware. They just want to have an award that fits with their values. Maybe you disagree with how they’re applying their values, or don’t think the Little House books are really that offensive, but no matter what, this isn’t a dystopian book burning situation.

It may or may not be erasing history, depending on what you mean by that.

For the “it’s not erasing history” view…history isn’t a string of facts, it’s the story that pulls those facts together. It has a bias, especially history taught to kids. And it’s safe to say that for generations, patriotism made edits to American history to minimize certain uncomfortable facts, from the Founding Fathers as slaveholders to the atrocities committed against Native Americans. Part of the story was told—George Washington was a great leader, there was violence from Native Americans against white settlers—but another was often left out.

With that in mind, changing the name of the Wilder medal is actually correcting history—it’s making a statement to kids that “This is only one highly-biased side of a very complex story.”

But for the “it is erasing history” side, kids can learn a lot from the Little House books. Why they shouldn’t complain about modern chores, for one, but also the biases and dangers of a certain way of thinking, one that said, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Now, kids often need parents to discuss those issues with them and point out flaws in characters’ thinking, especially the “good characters,” but if we never let kids encounter media that shows the ugliness of who we were and what we believed, we’re more likely to repeat the same mistakes.* (But again…remember that the ALA isn’t telling people not to read the books.)

It is deeply influenced by current-day values.

This choice was made because we’re going through a season of sensitivity to issues of race. You can think that’s good or bad or well-intentioned-but-with-some-negative-results. But it is true that the Wilder medal was renamed because of what our generation values.

Every single historical figure has a mixed legacy. We are human. We are so deeply influenced by the biases of our time that we can’t even recognize them, and generations from now, people will look back and point out our own blind spots. They’ll remove 2018 heroes from honors in their names, strip them from awards and tear down their statues, all because the particular sin and selfishness within a particular saint has suddenly become the issue of the day. I guarantee it.

(As a Christian, this doesn’t particularly bother me, because it removes the temptation to idolize people instead of God. But that’s another blog post.)

Now, maybe you’ve read about the content that some people are calling out in Wilder’s books and don’t find it offensive, given all the good aspects of the books.

Think about this, though: how awkward would it be to give the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to this year’s recipient, Jacqueline Woodson, who is an African American writer, when you know her community is protesting Wilder’s treatment of people of color in her books? In the often chalky-white kiddie lit world, authors of color care deeply about issues like these.

It would be kind of like if someone gave the Paula Deen Medal for Excellence in Culinary Publishing to the National Heart Institute’s Low-Cholesterol Cookbook.

Or if we celebrated Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty as the latest winner of The Huffington Post Media Sensation Award.

Or if John Piper won the Joel Osteen World Impact Award.

(Have I covered enough groups to make everyone feel included? Good. All of those awards are totally fictional, by the way.)

Granted, all three of those scenarios are much more exaggerated than the Laura Ingalls Wilder legacy. But in each case, the award recipient is part of a group that opposes something the namebearer of the award contributed to.

So if you’re mad about the name change, I get it. To be honest, I don’t know that I’m convinced yet that it was the right move. Beyond that, it’s difficult to live in a world where what is offensive seems to be constantly shifting, where complete strangers can get into shouting matches online, where it feels like we’re so focused on being outraged that we’re forgetting how to love one another.

But even if you don’t agree that the decision was necessary, be sure to think about why it was made, because the more we understand people we disagree with, the easier it is to love them. And that’s one way you can be on the “right side of history” when judged by future generationsby taking a stand for gracious and reasonable dialogue in an era defined by noisy division and outrage.

*Stuffy Historical Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: You may have read my post about why I’m fine with the removal of some Confederate statues. Summary: some of those memorials were put up with the express purpose of championing a certain set of ideals over the coming change of civil rights. They are there to honor the cause the men fought for, not just to record the history that happened. Because of that, it makes sense to let legal, democratic processes in a community remove them. This is not the same issue, in my mind, because the intent (the award honors Wilder’s contribution to children’s literature, no hidden agenda) and figure (Wilder was a product of her times as much as any of us, but she’s not a symbol of racism like a KKK leader such as Nathan Bedford Forrest is) are different. Although the reactions to the choices are pretty similar.

How to Write Like You Don’t Matter

(I gave this devotional recently to a group of writers, but I think it applies to how all of us search for significance. Enjoy!)

When I was thinking about a passage of Scripture that relates to writers, Psalm 8 immediately came to mind. Which probably needs some explaining since it’s about stargazing.

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens.

Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet.

I love how this captures an emotion we can all understand: standing underneath the stars, looking up at the countless number of them…and feeling very, very small.

Sometimes I feel that way when I think about words. How many people are stringing letters together to form words and sentences, how those combinations form a massive amount of ideas, how many things I have to say and how helpless I often feel to say them effectively. Sometimes I look at statistics about the vast number of books being published each year, or I read a favorite author and think, “How is it possible that we have access to the exact same letters?” and I feel very, very small.

(more…)

Be Brutus, Not Mark Antony (And Other Things I Never Thought I’d Say)

Recently, I realized that my sister Erika has something in common with Marcus Brutus, murderer of Julius Caesar (the man) and star of Julius Caesar (the Shakespeare tragedy).

(Near the top of my list of “fun things to do on my blog” is to compare my twin sister to a character in a play she hates…while she’s busy being a camp director and won’t see it. Heh heh.)

For those of you running over the basic plot points right now to guess what I mean, I’m going to rule out at least one: my sister has never, to my knowledge, led a conspiracy to stab a political leader. (I mean, you never know, but it’s unlikely.)

She did, however, tell me about the importance of names.

In college, when I thought I hated kids but accidentally signed up for children’s ministry (loooooong story), one of the best tips Erika gave me was: “Learn their names. All of them, even the ones who aren’t in your group.”

Why? Well, partly so you can call them out when they’re about to dump a bag of slime in someone else’s hair. But also because using names communicates to people that they are valuable. Important. Worth knowing as individuals. Even kids can pick up on that, and while I’m not as good at associating names and faces as my sister is, I always try to make an effort.

So did Marcus Brutus.

(Summary of the plot for those of you not required to read this one in high school: Julius Caesar, who may or may not have been on the path to dictatorship, ignores several direct warnings of his impending doom. Brutus, his friend, and Cassius, definitely not his friend, lead a group of conspirators to murder him. Mark Antony pretends to side with the conspirators…and then turns the tide of public opinion and fights against them. Lots of angst and death and a few women being sensible one minute and then abruptly crazy.)

When watching a production of Julius Caesar recently, what caught me was how deliberate Shakespeare was in having Brutus call people by name. Every minor character on his side is given the dignity of an identity and usually an accompanying adjective of praise—mighty, honorable, most noble, etc.—embodying the ideals of the Roman republic that Brutus said motivated his choice to kill Caesar.

Whereas Mark Antony, the loyalist and alleged hero of the story…not so much. Antony speaks to faceless masses, which is fine when he’s addressing (*cough*blatantly manipulating*cough*) the townspeople, but it continues into his relationships with his subordinates and even at times his inner circle. When he does speak the names of others, it’s not usually in a positive way, like when he trashes co-leader Lepidus as soon as the guy leaves the room.

Need more proof? There are several scenes where Brutus not only refers to his servant, Lucius, by name, but strives to be kind to and look after him. Whereas when Antony needs something from his servant, he hollers, “How now, fellow!”

Brutus is able to call in Varro and Claudius, his guards, to ask a favor of them. Antony addresses his underlings as a mass and even Shakespeare identifies them as Soldiers 1, 2, and 3.

Brutus goes around in a circle to greet and charge each conspirator individually. Whereas Antony’s most famous scene is his speech to a group of nameless, numbered citizens.

It’s possible there was a structural reason for this that has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s portrayal of either man—maybe the characters in Brutus’ scenes are named because they appear more than once and keeping them anonymous might confuse the audience, or maybe Antony addresses everyone generically because his scenes are almost always shorter.

Maybe. Maaaaaaaybe.

I just can’t think Shakespeare made such a strong contrast between his two main characters accidentally.

Intentional or not, one of the effects, I think, is that audiences are able to see Brutus outright stab his friend and leader onstage…and still relate to him, feel his grief and moral conflict, and believe Antony’s pronouncement that Brutus was “the noblest Roman of them all.” Why? Because Brutus acts in ways that are consistent with the code of ethics he talks about.

Which made me think: do all of the tiny actions of my life back up the broad, sweeping claims I make about what I believe? Specifically, if I say that people are made in the image of God and are of infinite worth and value…how do I treat the people I interact with every day? Not just my friends and family, but the characters playing walk-on roles in my life (and starring roles in their own), the ones who I might never see again or who can’t give me anything in return or who won’t be around for long?

It’s worth thinking about. Can we know all of them by name? No. But we can treat them like they matter so that our words and actions are consistent, just like Brutus.

(And also don’t assassinate anyone. Let’s not take this imitation thing too far.)

What the British Baking Show Taught Me About Accepting Criticism

I realize I’m several years behind the craze of The Great British Bake-Off, but when lots of my friends were raving about it, I decided, without ever seeing an episode, that I would loathe it.

My reasoning? I hate reality TV. And I enjoy baking, but in a very imprecise, hey-that-looks-like-about-a-half-cup, yay-frosting, look-I-coated-myself-in-flour sort of way. The last thing I wanted to watch was a dramafest that would also give me impossibly high standards for future batches of cookies (sorry, biscuits).

The judges and hosts of the show.

Thankfully, that’s not what the show is like at all. The drama is mostly: will the rolls rise in time?!? Or what if the ice cream melts inside the baked Alaska and makes it (gasp) soggy? It’s almost entirely about talented people making beautiful, delicious food. So, five stars from me.

The contestants from 2014 (the season I just watched).

But one people-watching aspect of the show that intrigues me is seeing how the bakers take criticism from the judges. Some are so extreme on the people-pleasing scale that they go out of their way to agree with the judges…and offer additional information on why their bake is even worse than originally thought. Others make a self-deprecating joke or agree to work on that aspect in the future or just say “thank you” and retreat.

But what always gets me are the people who argue with the judges.

Granted, some things are a matter of taste, but even then, do you really want to contradict two respected culinary authorities while being filmed?

Actual comments contestants have made include:

  • “Well, I quite liked it.”
  • “I really don’t think it’s that bad.”
  • “But you’ve missed the point.”

All of which were met by a sarcastic comment from Paul and a raised eyebrow from Mary (which, in understated Mary-speak means, “I am completely appalled by your rudeness, young man/woman”). None of their excuses, shockingly, changed either the judges’ minds or the state of the baked goods in front of them.

But the defensiveness is easy to understand. These people have put their identity in what they’re doing, and to have it critiqued is hard. “I am a good baker,” they’re saying. “Everyone has told me this. To criticize my baking is to criticize me and all of my hopes and dreams.”

So they respond with excuses and miss an opportunity to grow and improve.

And I cringe because that is totally me. (more…)

Hobbit Birthday Party, Year Three!

Reasons I Want to be a Hobbit

  • Full pantries, including massive wheels of cheese.
  • The ability to make up all the riddles on the spot. Also random pub songs.
  • Adorable houses.
  • Occasional rogue strains of adventure in family trees.
  • Gardens and a love of growing things.

Not my actual birthday cake. I am not nearly that talented.

And, finally…fun birthday traditions, including giving gifts to other people.

Since I try to make my life as Shire-like as possible, this is my third year of handing out virtual “presents” to my friends on my birthday…fun, favorite, or interesting things on the Internet that I’ve enjoyed this year. Here you go! Enjoy!

The Shire: To help you in valuing food and cheer and song above hoarded gold.

Lothlorian: Because I really feel like Galadriel would be obsessed with Enneagram types (mystical, slightly judgy, etc.).

The Lonely Mountain: Hidden treasure!

Grey Havens: Dead people preserved in an unusual way.

Shelob’s Lair: Because sticky. (It’s a stretch, I realize, but the best I could do.)

Fangorn Forest: Anything nature would have worked here, but I happen to love trees.

Dead Marshes: Crazy shrunken dude in a swamp. Enough said.

If you want more presents, check out Year One and Year Two.

Feel free to suggest other Middle Earth locations for next year!

Baby Dedications for the Rest of Us

At most churches I’ve attended, Mother’s Day is for baby dedications, that time-honored Russian roulette of trying to guess which kid will scream bloody murder while the pastor prays for their life and faith and peaceful upbringing.

As a single person watching from the pews, this is prime time to either A. join the obligatory cooing when adorable pictures of the dedicatees go up on the screen, B. try to rank how much sleep each participating mother got the night before, or C. remember to call Mom after the service and/or take her out to brunch along with half of America (with sincere apologies for all those years I overcooked toast and undercooked eggs and passed if off as “breakfast in bed”).

While none of those are bad things, they might be missing the point, because we still have a role to play, even if we aren’t the ones onstage breaking into a cold sweat because the grandparents are in the front row taking dozens of pictures of Junior spitting up during the pastor’s message.

Whether you’ve never had kids or have already made it through the kids-in-the-house stage or are still in the trenches of parenthood, there’s something you can bring to the little ones making their Sunday-morning debut.

Most churches have some way of including the observing members in the dedication. Whether they ask the congregation to repeat vows or say “amen” or just be reminded that they are part of the raising of these little kiddos, there’s a sense that we’re all in this together. Sometimes those requirements are spelled out, sometime they’re a vague commitment to join in community with the parents and children.

If that’s the case, here’s the fine print, just so you know what you might be agreeing to just by showing up on Mother’s Day, kind of like those terms-and-conditions boxes that hardly anyone reads before checking.

If you follow through on the promise you make at baby dedications, congratulations! You’ve signed up for a lifetime of tiny moments of secondhand parenthood, with all its joys and frustrations and moments of cluelessness.

You’ve agreed to do your best to model holiness in front of dozen of little eyes and ears. That means holding back angry words, choosing love, giving out of right motives…and humbly asking forgiveness when you fail in all those areas (as you’re basically guaranteed to do).

You’re telling parents that their kids aren’t just optional add-ons to the church, but that they matter. You’ll pray for their parenting when needed and be one in an army of comforters and babysitters and fix-it-guys and casserole-makers to be there with practical help in the hard times. You will greet and worship with and high-five and speak to the younger members of the church like they’re your little brothers and sisters (even if the highest spiritual plane you can bring the conversation to is dinosaurs and ice cream flavors). You’ll use your unique gifts to make a difference in their lives and in their parents’ lives wherever you can for as long as God puts them in your life.

If you live like you mean this, you will care about hundreds of young lives and sometimes wonder if it’s worth the emotional energy. You will give without the expectation of getting anything in return. You will speak up when you could just look away. You will pour hours and months and years of your life into serving kids who will shove a gluestick in your hair, like another Sunday School teacher more than you (and tell you so), hurt someone you care about, or leave the church and never come back.

Here’s the thing, though: you don’t get a family—a real, beautiful, stuck-with-each-other sort of family—without sacrifice.

There’s a lot of happiness when making room in your already-crowded life to love other people’s kids, don’t get me wrong. But it takes a reprioritizing, a setting aside of preferences, a long patience and a Holy-Spirit-empowered selflessness.

I’m not there yet…but I want to be. I’ve watched the lives of other believers who have loved recklessly outside of their own family lines to become aunts and uncles and grandparents to kids not their own. I’ve seen a special kind of beauty there that I want, because it reflects the love of Jesus.

So the next time a little red-faced child is making a joyful noise to the whole church, feel free to chuckle. But don’t forget to say “Welcome to the family”…and mean it.