Angst and Adverbs

Ah, teenagers, let them be true

To one another! for the world which seems

To lie before the high school creative

Writing club’s open mic night

Has neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.

 

They are depressing creatures

Reading depressing odes

To depressing topics.

They scratch at scars that never felt a wound

And do it in pretentiously elegiac terms.

So many of them waking up next to pillows

Where someone’s head used to lay.

So many fractured fairy tales

With broken endings

Written from the seeds

Of worst-case scenarios.

 

They begin with ritual apologies and

Carefully practiced acts of modesty before

A lot of gratuitous throat-clearing.

They start slowly

Then

Theyreadeverythingasquicklyastheycanbecausearushofwordsfollowedby

Pregnant

Pauses

Reflects passion

And intensity.

 

Nobody in their stories ever does much of anything,

But everybody does everything in very specific ways.

“He brushed his teeth quickly, he showered hastily,

And then he dressed frantically.”

The paradox of trying to describe speed.

He brushed.  He showered.  He dressed.

Rely on the rhythm.

Let the syntax speak for itself.

 

By the end of the night, I feel like

I am standing on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where aspiring young students come to write

Their tales of never was there more woe.

 

But I am calm tonight.

Despite the grating roar of so many

Egregious displays of awful writing,

It is beautiful to see them being written

And to hear them being shared.

Top-Down Tuesday – Marvel Studios and The Avengers Revisited

With Age of Ultron on the horizon, my wife and I spent the last month watching our way through the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  With the marathon finally complete and the new Avengers film being released this week, I thought it was a good time to revisit my rankings of the Marvel Studios pantheon.  When I wrote my original list back in September, I had just seen Guardians of the Galaxy for the fist time, and there were at least three movies on the list that I had only watched once.  Now, having recently seen all ten films again (and watched them in order of release), I’m ready to rethink my rankings.

As before, the only metric I used to rank each film was my own enjoyment.  That said…

Number 10

Iron Man 2 Title

Previous Rank:  10

What I said before:  …my least favorite film in the franchise….What we’re left with is a Tony Stark who’s become a sad sack…and a two-hour long excuse to give some backstory on S.H.I.E.L.D. and to introduce Black Widow.  The end result is a film that simply isn’t any fun.

On further review:  Yup.  I still hate this movie.  I’ll freely admit that until last month I hadn’t seen Iron Man 2 since it was first released (I skipped it during the 2012 Phase 1 binge).  I will also freely admit that it is better than I remember it being.  But, five years on, I’m still disappointed.  This is the only film in the franchise that I’d call gratuitous, and the only one that feels like a cash-in rather than a necessary step in universe-building or a vital component of the ongoing story.  There’s nothing here that couldn’t have been introduced in another film, and far too little to enjoy overall.

As a side note, after two years of watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which seems to get better every week, by the way), retroactive demerits for the clunky contributions to Agent Coulson’s ongoing characterization, even if they are some of the best moments in the film.

Number 9

MCDINHU EC040

Previous Rank:  8

What I said before:  …infinitely better than that warmed over piece of crap that Ang Lee made with Eric Bana…however, there’s just no getting around the fact that The Hulk is better in small doses….That said, this is the first film on this list that I’ve seen multiple times and I can see myself watching again some day.

On further review:  First, I have no lower opinion of this movie than I did eight months ago.  I do, however, have a slightly higher opinion of Thor:  The Dark World (more on that shortly).  I give this film high praise for very capably hustling us through Hulk’s origin story without belaboring the point (since we’d all be beaten over the head with it five years earlier).  I also salute its ability to lay the groundwork for a future franchise without feeling like a half-baked cheat with too much held back for later films (a huge complaint I still have with the first Spider-Man and X-Men films).  We all know that Marvel Studios is playing the long game with the Avengers franchise, and I think it’s a shame that we still haven’t seen any more of the Abomination or the Leader.  Such is life, I suppose.

Number 8

Thor 2 Poster

Previous Rank:  9

What I said before:  …I love Christopher Eccleston in pretty much everything.  And Stellan Skarsgard manages to steal every scene he’s in.  Unfortunately, the movie was bloated with action sequences and left me feeling like I’d just watched a Star Wars spin-off rather than a worthy successor to Thor.

On further review:  Something about this movie never sat right with me.  My last comment above echoes my initial impression of the film when I saw it in the theater.  Having never seen it again over the ensuing year, I really had no other frame of reference when I wrote my original rankings, so I stood by that assessment.  Watching the movie last month, however, I had a moment of epiphany:  The Dark World is about twelve minutes away from excellence.  Specifically, I think it would be an infinitely superior movie if instead of the extensive prologue about Malekith and the sequence of Thor and his warriors in battle, it opened with Jane mired in her hopelessly awkward date with Chris O’Dowd.  There’s nothing established in the prologue that isn’t revisited later in the film.  More importantly, skipping over the awkward introduction to the Dark Elves and the Aether would give the movie two things it desperately lacks:  a consistent sense of pacing and – more importantly – any sense of mystery whatsoever.  With that in mind, I’ve bumped The Dark World up a spot mostly on the merits of its potential.  A skillfully crafted fan edit would likely rank even higher on my list.

Number 7

Iron Man 3 Poster

Previous Rank:  7

What I said before:  …a significant improvement over IM2…it establishes that this is a comic book/cinematic universe in which there are consequences….Tony Stark’s PTSD drives the character without dragging down the movie, lending IM3 a healthy dose of realism without being heavy-handed…

On further review:  It gets better every time I see it, but I just can’t justify moving it any higher up the list.

Number 6

Iron Man Poster

Previous Rank:  5

What I said before:  More than anything else, I give major kudos to Iron Man for simply being fun….It was a breath of fresh air watching a character leading the rock star life who simply reveled in the fact that he got to be a superhero.  Isn’t that every little boy’s dream at some point?…Thanks, Robert Downey Jr., for bringing the dream back to life!

On further review:  Yup, still fun.  Unfortunately, not as much fun as…

Number 5

Guardians Poster

Previous Rank:  6

What I said before:  Guardians was a much better movie than I expected….It has larger-than-life but also very relatable characters, intense and enjoyable action sequences, and more laugh-out-loud moments than the other nine films on this list combined.  Oh, and a green Zoe Saldana fighting a blue-skinned Karen Gillan.

On further review:  Guardians of the Galaxy is the closest this list came to any truly seismic movement in the rankings.  When I wrote my original list, I had only seen this film once…and only two days before, at that!  Since then, I’ve seen it more times than I feel comfortable admitting.  And there’s no getting around it:  this film is a fucking blast.

See, it even got me dropping F-bombs to make my point.

I seriously debated moving Guardians as far up the list as number three – and I still might some day – but for now I just can’t bring myself to drop anything out of my top four.

Number 4

Thor poster

Previous Rank:  3

What I said before:  It’s a character-driven tale of loss and redemption whose classical elements are almost perfectly balanced by well-placed and intense action sequences and some equally well-timed moments of laugh-out-loud comic relief.  It’s serious without taking itself too seriously, and it’s truly Shakespearean while still managing to be fun.  In a word, it’s awesome.

On further review:  All right, you’ve got me.  All I have in my notes for this entry is a big, black question mark.  This movie is amazing.  The visuals are lush and vibrant, Jeremy Renner’s cameo is pitch perfect, and I’ve already said everything I need to say about the story and the characters.  I’ve got no excuse.  Except that I just can’t help myself (see below).

Number 3

Captain America Poster

Previous Rank:  4

What I said before:  I went into this film skeptical of Chris Evans…and worried that Cap’s 1940’s 98-pound-weakling-with-a-heart-of-gold persona wouldn’t translate well to the 2011 cinema….I left feeling satisfied that Evans had pulled it off.  So, too, had Hugo Weaving (who made the Red Skull deliciously sinister as only Hugo Weaving can) and his make-up/effects team….

On further review:  No lies – this is probably pure sentiment talking.  I love Captain America and I love this damn movie.  If I had to heap any more specific praise on it, though, it would be this:  to me, this is by far the most complete of the pre-Avengers Marvel films.  The prior Phase 1 movies not only left their doors open to the possibility of sequels, they practically demanded them (see my earlier gripes about The Incredible Hulk).  Cap’s escape into twenty-first century Times Square notwithstanding, this film functions perfectly as a self-contained narrative. We learn the backstory of Steve Rogers the man and the origins of Captain America the superhero.  We see Cap’s rise from lab experiment to super solider.  And we can accept the Red Skull’s inevitable defeat as sufficiently definitive that we needn’t look back if we never see him again (although his demise is also ambiguous enough to make me think that he might be standing at Thanos’s side by the time the Infinity War begins).  Even the prologue and epilogue still fit in this case, as the film brings us to a satisfying explanation for why America’s greatest hero would be marooned on a frozen tundra as well as why S.H.I.E.L.D. would be so interested in finding him.

Number 2

Avengers poster

Previous Rank:  2

What I said before:  It’s not perfect….But once The Avengers gets rolling, it is insane fun.

On further review:  The first act is still clunky, the second is still like a reality TV show about a destructively dysfunctional fraternity of prima donna psuedo-celebrities (and I mean that in the best possible way), and the third is still a veritable orgy of hypnotically intense action punctuated by vital moments of character growth that are underscored by the very real possibility that the good guys could actually lose, or at least suffer legitimate losses in pursuit of victory.  The whole is still greater than the sum of it’s parts.  In short, The Avengers is still amazing.

Number 1

Winter Soldier poster

Previous Rank:  1

What I said before:  One of the ways I judge movies is by how long I think about them after they’re over….the movies I like best are the ones that capture my imagination.  The Avengers did it.  The Winter Soldier did it even better…..this film also has the best soundtrack of the series.  It’s dark, it’s pulse-pounding, and it’s a perfect undercurrent to the film’s steady descent into conspiracy and darkness.

On further review:  As much as I love this movie, something about it has never sat quite right with me (yes, I know I wrote the same thing about Thor 2).  In my original post, I said that I felt like the Winter Soldier himself was under-utilized in this film, reduced to a subplot rather than the focal point suggested by the title.  Then, in my most recent viewing, I finally figured out what the problem is:  the Winter Soldier doesn’t need to be in the movie at all.

Now, before you jump all over me, I understand that Marvel is building for the future here.  Sebastian Stan is likely to replace Chris Evans as Captain America in the not-too-distant future, so it’s important for the franchise that they re-introduce Bucky Barnes.  I will also concede that, from a story-telling perspective, Bucky’s presence as the Winter Soldier significantly ups the emotional stakes for Steve Rogers and lends additional gravity to the film’s climax.  At the same time, the Winter Soldier could be anyone, and, with an appropriate change of subtitle, 95% or more of this movie would still work just fine.  And that, honestly, is the only reason why my recent moment of epiphany didn’t cost this movie the stop spot in these rankings.  With or without the Winter Soldier, The Winter Soldier is bad ass.

So…there it is…again.  It’s probably going to be a couple of weeks before I get a chance to see Age of Ultron, but once I do I’ll find a place for it in the rankings.  In the meantime, feel free to post a comment below and share some thoughts on your favorite(s).  I’d love to know what you think.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA

Why I’m Walking Away: An Open Letter to the American Rugby Community

For the first time in over ten years, high school rugby season is getting underway without me.  I doubt I’ll be missed by anyone but my players, and – after the hell I’ve put them through – even that might be iffy.  Over the past several seasons, I have largely become a non-entity in Rugby Illinois (formerly the Illinois Youth Rugby Association).  I voluntarily removed myself from any involvement at the state level long ago.  Now, before anyone can turn an accusatory finger at me and cry hypocrite, I understand that this makes me a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.  Unfortunately, I championed the solution for years and was met with nothing but resistance and derision.  There are only so many times a man can pound his head against a wall before he realizes that it’s probably smarter to just take a Tylenol and walk away.

I started coaching rugby the same year I started teaching.  Prior to that, I spent four years playing on a nationally competitive collegiate side followed by a brief stint with a small men’s club.  I already had three years’ experience as a high school football coach, and I volunteered my time with the rugby club for two simple reasons:  I love working with teenagers and I love rugby.  The head coach quickly became one of my closest friends.  He and I used to spend hours talking about the future of the sport in Illinois.  Enthusiasm and awareness were both on the rise, new youth clubs were springing up every year, and the quality of competition was steadily increasing.  In ten years, we thought we’d be a legitimate presence in our school, with the support of the athletic department, access to school resources, and a legitimate IHSA tournament to determine the state champion.

But, ten years later, very little has changed.  Although there are more youth clubs and more players than ever before in Illinois, the public profile of the sport is still minimal and its reputation largely negative.  Worse, despite the outward appearance of change and growth, disorganization and dysfunction still rule at the state level.

Although my hiatus from coaching was meant to be temporary, I have a difficult time believing I’ll return to the rugby pitch any time soon.  What follows are the reasons why.

The Question of Legitimacy

For years, there’s been an ongoing push at the state level to “legitimize” rugby in Illinois.  But there’s only one way to really do that:  Become an Illinois High School Association (IHSA) sport.  Unfortunately, reactions to any mention of the IHSA range from indifference at best to outright defiance at worst.  There is an inexplicable insistence at both the state and national levels that rugby stands alone.  That rugby is, should be, and always will be unique in American sport.  This, however, defies reason.  Simply put, you cannot gain legitimacy as an outlier.

Blind Adherence to Overseas Models of Player Development

Ask any American what three sports the U.S. is best at, and you’ll invariably get three answers:  Football, Basketball, and Baseball.   They are recognized and endorsed by state scholastic organizations nationwide, and they follow similar models of team and player development at the elementary school, high school, and collegiate levels.  Common sense dictates that if you want to develop both the quantity and quality of athletes enjoyed by the big three, you would be best served following their blueprint.

In my experience, one of the main reasons why both the state organization and so many of the individual coaches are so vehemently opposed to seeking IHSA membership is because they fear losing their autonomy.  In other words, they might have to answer to somebody and be held to enforced standards of professional conduct.  So instead, we have State Based Rugby Organizations (or whatever the hell USA Rugby is calling them these days), community clubs, and fledgling “local academies” for player development.  The end result of this is a shortage of resources compounded by insufficient community awareness and parent support.  Worse, most players still do not learn about the sport until they are in late high school or even in college.  Meanwhile, boys’ and girls’ La Crosse have been classified as Emerging Sports in the IHSA with over 100 combined teams and – in my area at least – huge enrollment numbers.

And you can guess what sport those numbers are being drawn away from.

A Shortage of Professionalism

One of my long standing laments about coaching rugby in Illinois is the dearth of coaches who are also educators.  Does a good coach necessarily have to be a teacher?  Of course not.  On that same token, can an educator be a bad coach?  Absolutely.  All things being equal, however, I’d much rather entrust my own daughters to a trained professional who spends his or her days immersed in children and who thus understands and is responsive to their unique needs and desires.  More importantly, I want my children in the hands of coaches who are willing to put their players’ well-being before their own.  Sadly, I see far too little of this on the sidelines of high school rugby matches.  I’ve seen coaches who scream, coaches who swear, and coaches who don’t know how to win and lose with class.  Not to mention the many coaches I’ve encountered whose primary interest in their youth club is using it as a farm system for their men’s club and who don’t understand the myriad distinctions between being a player-coach among grown men and being a coach in a youth program.  In my experience, the bad coaches greatly outnumber the good ones, and they comprise the vocal majority standing in the path of true legitimacy for the sport.

Negative Public Perception

Over the past decade, USA Rugby has worked diligently to raise the public profile of the sport in this country.  In November, they managed to sell out Soldier Field in Chicago for a nationally televised Eagles/All-Blacks match.  I was there.  It nearly brought tears to my eyes to see 60,000+ screaming fans gathered on the lakefront for international rugby, even if most of them were wearing black and white.  Just five years earlier, I attended a match between the U.S. and Wales at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois.  There were fewer people in attendance that day than we get for our high school football games.  I can neither deny nor criticize the explosion in overall awareness between 2009 and 2014.

Awareness, however, is not enough.

What I saw in Chicago last November was all at once everything that is so right and everything that is so very wrong with rugby in America.  The Eagles acquitted themselves valiantly, playing some of the best rugby I’ve ever seen from a U.S. side.  The crowd was a testament to the natural diversity of the sport, and it was raucous until the final whistle.  Men, women, and children of all shapes, sizes, and colors were gathered together to celebrate a mutual and non-partisan love of the world’s greatest sport.  They cheered.  They sang.  And – in one of the great traditions of the sport – they became friends.  For many young spectators, it was a brilliant introduction to the simple beauty of the rugby life.

It’s a shame that it had to include a 68-point loss.

Far more distressing than the final score were the ludicrous displays of buffoonery and hooliganism that have become inextricably linked with rugby in this country:  Fans wearing nothing but tattered match shorts and tank tops (on a 40-degree day on the lakefront!), public displays of competitive drinking, vulgar and sometimes downright disturbing call-and-response songs and chants.  After the match, I even saw one young woman who was so drunk she’d pissed her pants and had to be carried out of the stadium by two men that I hope like hell were trustworthy friends.  In short, there were far too many people treating the event like the post-match parties of their college days.  And this in what was meant to be a family-friendly environment.  Needless to say, I was glad that my children weren’t there.

In short, little has changed in the fifteen years since I graduated from college.  Little will until we start taking the necessary steps to truly legitimize rugby in the eyes of America.  In Illinois, in my community especially, it’s a tough sell.  Too many parents have too many memories of the misbehavior of their college teams and local men’s clubs.  Unfortunately, scenes like the ones described above do nothing to dispel those notions about what it means to play rugby.  When you’re asking parents to overlook their personal experiences and trust that the rugby community is changing, you do yourself and the sport in general a grave disservice by having neither licensed credentials to demonstrate your qualifications nor any cogent affiliation with the school system.  Most parents will assume you’re a ruffian and that you’re going to indoctrinate their children into a life of drunken hooliganism.  Sadly, they might be right.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is this:  As much as I love teaching, I love coaching, and I love rugby, my days on the pitch are most likely over.  The only way I can see myself going back is if rugby becomes an Illinois High School Association sport with a school-sponsored team in my district.  When that day arrives, I’ll know that we’re finally done with coaches scrambling to put together their own schedules, clubs desperately seeking patches of grass to host matches, and the endless chains of vulgar, derisive, and inflammatory reply-all emails that pass for the decision-making process in this state.  When that day arrives, I’ll know that I will never again have to sit through an organizational meeting where one coach is asking for donations of used balls because his club is broke while another belittles the notion of school funding and support, where a coach motions to change the state by-laws to allow his high school athletes to play on his men’s team in the summer, or where I have to justify my refusal to take my youth team to any tournament sponsored by a beer vendor.  When that day arrives, I’ll know that I’ll never again have to defend my involvement in the sport to a colleague or justify its safety and efficacy to a parent.

Because when that day arrives, I’ll know that we’re finally legitimate.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA

To read more from this author, click here.

An Open Letter on Behalf of Bears Fans Everywhere

Dear Marc Trestman,

It is now halftime of your game in Green Bay. You’ve had two weeks to prepare, yet Dom Capers (like most DC’s you’ve faced this season) seems to be listening in on your headset, your defense looks completely clueless, your team has no discipline, and most of your best players look like they don’t give a damn. Please be on the bus back to Chicago before the start of the third quarter. Please have your office cleared out by morning. And please take Mel Tucker, Joe DeCamillis, and Phil Emery with you.

On behalf of Bears fans everywhere,

Christopher