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

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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

Top-Down Tuesday – Marvel Studios and The Avengers

In the wake of the San Diego and Chicago Comic-Cons and in the calm before Age of Ultron – and to commemorate the fact that I finally got to see Guardians of the Galaxy this weekend – I thought it would be fun to take a critical look at Marvel’s Cinematic Universe as it stands now. A few words of warning, though…

1. The rankings that follow are based solely on my own opinions and my own personal tastes. No other metric was used in gauging the quality of each film.
2. These rankings only include major motion picture releases. No “One-Shots” were included, nor was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..
3. I only saw Guardians two days ago. I haven’t had much time to ponder it, but I feel obligated to include it here. You may hate where I rank it, and I may end up regretting what I say about it. But it is part of “Phase 2” and it will make this list an even 10, so I’m going to run with it.

So, without further ado…

Number 10

Iron Man 2 Title

Without a doubt, this is my least favorite film in the franchise. Iron Man 2 falls victim to what I like to call The Spider-Man Syndrome (more on that later) which its predecessor so ably avoided. What we’re left with is a Tony Stark who’s become a sad sack, a climactic battle with a villain that’s basically just another evil Iron Man, 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 plainly and simply isn’t any fun (Scarlett Johansson kicking ass notwithstanding).

Number 9

Thor 2 Poster

Although I think this movie is marginally better than Iron Man 2, I feel like it suffers a lot of the same issues. And – much like IM2 – it represents a significant drop-off in quality from its predecessor (again…more on that later). That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its high points. 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 sequel to Thor.

Number 8

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First, the obvious: It’s infinitely better than that warmed-over piece of crap that Ang Lee made with Eric Bana in 2003. To paraphrase Entertainment Weekly‘s review of The Avengers, however, there’s just no getting around the fact that The Hulk is better in small doses. Think of it this way – how much can you really watch a character who becomes incapable of having meaningful dialogue right when he becomes the most interesting?

That said, one of the ways I judge films is by how willing I am to re-watch them. In four years, I’ve had absolutely no desire to see Iron Man 2 ever again. Even when I did my pre-Avengers Phase 1 binge, I skipped it. I could probably convince myself next spring to watch Thor 2 during the requisite Phase 2 marathon, but I’ve felt no real compulsion to re-watch it yet. The Incredible Hulk is the first film on this list that I’ve seen multiple times and I can see myself watching again someday.

So it’s got that going for it.

Number 7

Iron Man 3 Poster

First, it’s a significant improvement over IM2. Second, it establishes that this is a comic book/cinematic universe in which there are consequences. For Tony Stark, the events ofThe Avengers can’t be swept away and conveniently forgotten (see also: Stellan Skarsgard in Thor 2). Tony Stark’s PTSD drives the character without dragging down the movie, lending IM3 a healthy dose of realism without being heavy handed (see Iron Man 2). Finally, I know it may have pissed off a lot of comic book purists, but I loved the bait-and-switch with the Mandarin.

Or is bait-and-switch-and-switch? I still haven’t seen All Hail the King. Regardless, Ben Kingsley’s incredible.

Number 6

Guardians Poster

Like I said, I just saw this movie. It could easily move up or down this list in the future. If it does, I’ll post an update and an appropriate mea culpa. That said, Guardians was a much better movie than I expected it to be. Admittedly, there were some elements of it that echo The Avengers: A team of disparate and borderline dysfunctional personalities is pressed into service together by an onslaught of nearly impossible circumstances; that team is brought together, shattered by its own egos, then reforged in the wake of apparent defeat; and even Groot has a laugh-out-loud Incredible Hulk moment during the climactic battle on Ronan’s ship. I assume that a lot of this is deliberate, given the fact that it’s all punctuated by musical leitmotif’s that heavily echo Alan Silvestri’s Avengers score. The end result is that Guardins of the Galaxy feels like a film forged from shared thematic DNA rather than a retread of The Avengers. 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.

And that’s hot.

Number 5

Iron Man Poster

Numbers 5-3 on this list were the toughest to rank. I think they’re all excellent, and they’re nearly interchangeable on this list.

More than anything else, I give major kudos to Iron Man for simply being fun. Even more, I give credit to Iron Man for simply having fun. I’ve always loved and respected this movie for being the first major comic book movie to break away from what I earlier referred to as The Spider-Man Syndrome. Basically, after the 2002 release of Spider-Man, studios weren’t allowed to adapt a comic-book property for the big screen without somehow turning the main character into a sad sack of existential angst (see: Tony Stark, Iron Man 2). It worked for Spider-Man and it worked for Tobey Maguire. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for the slew of mediocre films released in its $800,000,000 wake. It’s like I woke up one day and suddenly there was no such thing as a superhero that didn’t hate himself/his life because of the unbearable burdens of being a superhero.

Enter: Tony Stark. 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? Why did Hollywood have to ruin it for us? Thanks, Robert Downey Jr., for bringing the dream back to life!

Number 4

Captain America Poster

Captain America was always my favorite comic book when I was a kid, so I admittedly have a bit of a soft-spot here. I went into this film skeptical of Chris Evans (who wouldn’t be after Fantastic Four?) and worried that Cap’s 1940’s 98-pound-weakling-with-a-heart-of-gold persona wouldn’t translate well to the 2011 cinema. But I also walked into the theater more than a little giddy to finally get to see Captain America get his due on the big screen. 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 (who prevented the Red Skull from looking cheesy while also keeping him from looking repulsive). There was one moment – in the wake of Bucky’s apparent death – when I feared that the Cap was going to go all Spider-Man on me, but the filmmakers did an admirable job of acknowledging Steve Rogers’s sorrow and giving him time to mourn without letting him (or the film) wallow in melancholia.

If I had to register one formal complaint against Captain America, it would be this: No Scarlett Johansson. I still think the post-awakening sequence at the end of the film would have been a lot more fun if she’d been the one tending to/watching over Steve Rogers…then chasing him into the streets of New York. Alas…

Number 3

Thor poster

This is the only film on this list that I didn’t see in the theater, and it is one of only two titles (along with Guardians of the Galaxy) that I never really read when I was younger. Because of this, I went into Thor expecting nothing. And I was blown away.

Like most of the world, I had initially scratched my head at the decision to sign Kenneth Branagh as director. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Branagh as an actor, and I have deep respect for his efforts to faithfully bring Shakespeare alive on screen. But…directing a comic-book movie? Really?

Ironically, it was Branagh’s own description of the Shakespearean-ness of this incarnation of Thor that got me interested in it in the first place. And, frankly, I think Branagh more than anything else is what makes this movie work. I have never seen another comic-book movie so light on action and so heavy on dialogue. 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.

Number 2

Avengers poster

It’s not perfect. The requisite “assembling” of the team was bound to clunk a little bit in the first act. But once The Avengers gets rolling, it is insane fun. The action in the third act especially is a sight to behold. Large stretches of it track the various characters through a series of long takes that blend one into the next with a minimum of cuts, lending a true sense of scale to “The Battle of New York”. Like my other favorites on this list, The Avengers tempers its action sequences with some perfectly placed belly laughs. And, as a bonus, this is the film that finally seems to get the Hulk right. What could be better?

Oh, yeah…

Number 1

Winter Soldier poster

One of the ways that I judge movies is by how long I think about them after they’re over. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I want every movie I see to be particularly philosophical or intellectual. Far from it. It just means that the movies I like best are the ones that capture my imagination. The Avengers did it. The Winter Soldier did it even better. I don’t even care that whole recorded-consciousness-of-Zola sequence was patently ridiculous. The conflicts it causes and the action it sets in motion make for a great ride. And, yes, the thematic content therein is in fact intellectually and philosophically troubling.

As a side note, for my money 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. The scoring as much as the film itself stuck in my craw for days after I left the theater. All three times.

If I have a criticism of the film, it’s this: Unlike in comic book story-arc of the same name, the Winter Soldier is really just a subplot here. In some ways, his inclusion is a little bit of a waste and almost feels like a cheap trick to get fans into the theater. I would have liked him to have featured as prominently as the title suggests. But, I suppose that’s what Captain America 3 is for. I can’t wait.

So…there it is. Was I overly harsh on your favorite? Am I too rose-colored about my own? Post a comment below and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA

Taking Stock – Top Thoughts on My Top Four Writing Goals for 2014

As I was saying, we are – as of today – a quarter of the way into 2014 and over half-way through Lent. I figure this is an opportune time to take stock of my progress toward my various writing goals.

46 Posts in 46 Days

As a way to motivate myself to be more consistent about writing on this blog, I challenged myself to publish an average of one post per day during Lent. Then I immediately upped the ante and challenged myself to do the same thing with my Facebook page.

Four weeks in, I’m definitely behind. As of this morning, I’ve published 17 new posts on this page and 18 on Facebook. I’m definitely not freaking out about it yet, though. Right now, I’ve got three weeks of Lent left to work with. Any coach will tell you that anything can happen in the second half. Aside from that, even if I fall short of my 46-post goals, I will have still managed to become infinitely more consistent on this blog than I’ve ever been before. And that consistency is the point of the challenge anyway. So even though I would hate having to admit that I couldn’t finish, I think I’d be able to hold my head up walking off the field.

Keeping a Writing Journal

I originally wrote about this in my first post on insights about writing gleaned from insights about strength training. My notes for the month of January are extensive and scrupulous. I totally fell off the bandwagon in February, unfortunately (more on that below). Between January 29 and March 5 (Ash Wednesday), my book is completely blank. I picked the journal back up at the start of Lent – if nothing else, I needed to keep track of my “46-in-46” challenge – and have been maintaining it in the month since, although not with the same level of detail as before. I’m hoping that as I get more consistent with my fiction writing again (see below) that I’ll find the motivation to go back at this like I did at the start of the year.

At Least 1,000 Words a Day

Much like with my writing journal, I was kicking ass with this through the month of January. No surprise, the two go hand-in-hand. I was on an absolute tear trying to finish my new manuscript, which gave me a lot to write about in my journal. Once the first draft of that manuscript was finished, though…

Yyyeeeeeeeaaaaaahhhhhhh.

Now, I’m willing to let myself off the hook for falling off the wagon with my 1000-word goal in February – I spent most of my writing time in the ensuing weeks focused on reading, proofing, and editing – but in the process I also started ignoring my journal. Looking back now, having a record of how much or how little I was able to read through on any given day – in other words, how extensive the changes I needed to make and why – would be pretty damn nice to have. But I must not have thought it was interesting enough write down at the time.

Right about the same time I finished the first round of edits on Children of Genius, I dropped the previously mentioned 46-bomb on myself. As a result, I haven’t typed a word of new fiction since.

Separating “Writing Time” from Blogging Time

One of my deals with myself coming in to 2014 was to reserve my morning hours for working on my fiction. The inherent challenge then became finding time to blog. And my blogging suffered as a result.

I was, however, doing great at keeping to this goal in the pre-dawn hours. Then Lent started. And more and more often, I’ve found my mornings usurped by this arbitrary challenge I’ve dropped on myself. What’s more, now that rugby’s in full swing, the likelihood is that that won’t change until after Easter. In the meantime, I’ve got to find time to start my next book.

So…I guess you can call that the quarterly report. We’re still a few months away from half-time, but clearly adjustments need to be made.

And how about you? How are you coming along with your goals for 2014? Leave a comment and let me know.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA

10 Insights on Writing From 40 Years of Insights on Strength Training, Part 2

A while back, I shared some of my musings in response to the wit and wisdom of world-class strength coach Dan John, who wrote a pair of articles for T-Nation.com chronicling the wisdom he’d gleaned about both life and sport from his four decades of training experience. What follows is the second of this two-part series. To read Part 1, click here.

The following list was adapted from Dan John’s article 40 Years of Insight, Part 2 on T-Nation.com. The insights are listed here in the same order they appear in the original article.

Put your money where your mouth is

Although John warns against getting suckered by quick fixes and miracle cures, he does advocate taking the time and investing the money necessary to read reputable books/articles on your profession and to attend clinics, seminars, workshops, etc in your field. John claims (with a touch of hyperbole) to read “nearly every new book and DVD on the market” and to spend a lot of time in the front row at conferences and clinics. He also seeks out one-on-one time with respected trainers and coaches in order to pick their brains about recent publications.

Obviously, I wouldn’t be writing this post if I wasn’t studying up on strength training. I’ll freely admit, however, that I don’t spend anywhere near enough time learning about writing. I read a couple of books per year about teaching writing, but this is a very different animal (and it’s generally focused on a very different style of writing). I buy my annual copy of the Writer’s Market – I even read the articles on craft, technique, etc…at least the ones that interest me – and I’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, but I’ve never attended a writing workshop or been part of a writer’s circle. I’ve mostly been learning by emulation, imitation, and trial-and-error. Now, I don’t want to undermine the importance of practice and experience, but there’s also something to be said for some old-fashioned, hands-on instruction. And that’s something I should probably be seeking out. To paraphrase a genius, madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Maybe it’s time to seek out professional help and regain my sanity.

Yes, intensity trumps everything. But…

Or, as John says, “I think we’ve lost sight of the importance of ‘easy'”. As far as strength, conditioning, fat loss, etc are concerned, John advocates making time for activities that are relatively easy on the body and – more important – enjoyable. Even just a leisurely walk can count for a lot, and it doesn’t require you to stress sets, reps, and time.

Now, in case you couldn’t tell, I take myself way too seriously as a writer. I couldn’t tell you the last time I wrote something that was just plain fun. And I don’t know if I’ve ever written anything I’d be willing to call “fluff”. Much more troubling, though, is the recent realization that I almost never tell my daughters stories. I read to them a lot, but I rarely if ever just make up stories for them. If that’s not the writer’s equivalent of an evening stroll with the family, then what is?

Stop judging everything!

As much as I would like to go off on a rant about trolling and inappropriate reviews and the like, that’s not really what Dan John is getting at. The point, as he explains it, is to never judge your work or yourself based on one performance or one outcome. But how easy is it as a writer to hang your head at the first criticism you receive or to simply want to quit after the first rejection letter? John shares how he often tells inexperienced shot-putters and discuss throwers, “Sorry, you just aren’t good enough to be disappointed”. I wish someone would have told me that when I was a teenager and got my first Thanks but No Thanks letter in the mail. I’m sure a lot of you can relate.

Last lift/best lift. Las throw/best throw.

Here’s a typical scenario: A weight-lifter is feeling great, having an awesome workout, and just set a personal best on the day’s main lift. What does he do next?

If he’s like most lifters, he throws on a little more weight and tries to squeeze out one more set.

And he probably fails.

We always want to push ourselves too far. And when we do, we reach a point of diminishing returns. In weight lifting, this not only ruins today’s workout, but also compromises the next one because of the detrimental effect it has on your ability to recover.

Now imagine this: A writer is kicking ass, cranking out words by the hundreds, and just blew past the day’s goal, finishing a pivotal chapter in record time. What does he do next?

Rrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiigggggggght.

Do yourself a favor. Save your work, push yourself away from the keyboard, and leave some in the tank for next time.

List out your “Highs” and “Lows”

Dan John shares an experience from which he learned a vital lesson about life: After being instructed to write two lists – the lowest and highest moments of his life – he realized that most of his worst experiences led directly to something on his best list.

For me, the lowest experience of my life – making a stupid mistake, losing a job that I’d scratched and clawed to earn, having to move back in with my parents – was a stepping stone to everything I have now. I met my wife a month after moving back home (she literally appeared on my doorstep, a story for another time). Six months later I was starting both graduate school and my first coaching job. The basic premise of my novel Rottweiler was born out of another of my lifetime lows, and it’s a novel I never would have written without my wife’s support, encouragement, and feedback.

So whether you’re feeling like you’re at rock bottom in your personal life, your job, your writing, whatever, just remember that you’re on the first step towards one of your all-time highs.

Keeping the “Little Red Book”

John keeps a tiny spiral notebook full of inspirational quotes from influential people (both famous and otherwise). For right now, my little red book is scattered throughout my house. It’s spread through hundreds of books filled with little bits of paper marking important pages with passages that were particularly meaningful to me.

Unfortunately, I have a bad track record for poor foresight. Most of the pages in question have no markings on them. And whenever I stumble across one of my makeshift bookmarks, I can’t remember for the life of me why it’s there.

So much wisdom – or at least so many personally meaningful quotations – lost to time. In the future I should really try writing them down. Or at least highlighting them. You never know when they’ll come in handy.

Follow the Leaders

Or, more accurately, catch up to the leaders. John writes the following: “Find out what the best are doing. Look at what you’re doing. Now shrink the gap”. For a lot of us, this might overlap somewhat with the first item on this list. But the point is simply to figure out where we think we’re headed – as writers, teachers, professionals, parents, etc – and to start developing a road map to get there. What we do along the way is up to us, but starting with what’s worked for the best isn’t a bad way to get yourself rolling.

It’s not “hydrating,” it’s drinking some damn water

Actually, I just thought this was pretty damn funny. And so true.

Make of it what you will.

You will wish you did it earlier than later

Yeah you will. No matter what, we’re all going to get older. But what are we going to do with our lives as we age? In four years or ten years or twenty years, what are we going to be able to say we’ve accomplished? And how much will we regret it if all we have to show for those years are extra candles on our birthday cakes and wrinkles on our faces?

I finished my first novel near the end of the 2003. I knew that the next step was proofreading and editing so that I could start the query and submission process. And then that novel sat on my laptop until 2008. I don’t know what kept me from completing it sooner – laziness is the most likely candidate, then intimidation by the process – but pretty soon I began to hate myself for leaving the job unfinished. Eventually the self-loathing alone was enough to keep me from going back to it. I just didn’t want to be reminded of my own failings.

By the time I finally sucked it up, finished editing the manuscript, and started the query process, the bottom had dropped out of the economy and the publishing industry was closing its ranks. I had simply waited too long. Eventually, I went back to the drawing board.

The first draft of Rottweiler was done by summer of 2010. Yet it was another two years before I was ready to start editing. The whole time I lived in terror that the story was going to pass its prime and lose its relevance.

With my current project – Children of Genius – I’ve finally learned my lesson. I’ve gone through a first round of editing, and now the manuscript is incubating with some beta readers until rugby season ends. I’m not messing around this time.

I can’t say for certain if I’d be anywhere different right now if I hadn’t dilly-dallied with my first book. Let’s be honest, the thing was an unpublishable train-wreck. But who knows what I might have been capable of if I’d learned that lesson ten years ago instead of five. I can’t get those years back. But I can keep myself from losing out on any more.

In forty years, a lot of great people are going to pass over into the next existence

To quote Dan John, “it’s becoming woefully obvious to me that my torch is burning dim and I’ll be passing it along sooner than later. That’s why I write. That’s why I keep lists. That’s why I answer the same questions over and over and over again. Our time on this precious earth is short. Good health and a measure of strength can help you live a better quality of life. And that’s the greatest lesson of my life.”

I couldn’t possibly say it better myself.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA

10 Insights on Writing from 40 Years of Insights on Strength Training, Part 1

Among the many hats I wear is my role as the “Strength and Conditioning Coordinator” for my high school football team. It’s a role that I’m grossly unqualified for, but one that I generally enjoy. And, frankly, it was a job that no one else wanted. So, it’s mine.

As part of this job, I spend a fair amount of my time in the winter reading articles and watching videos/webinars looking for ideas about how to revamp and improve our strength program. This year, I stumbled on to the writings of Dan John and spent several days obsessively reading as many of his articles as I could find. What I find particularly engaging about Dan John is…

1) even though he is an elite athlete and one of the pre-eminent strength coaches in the world, his philosophies are brilliantly simple and reasonably grounded;

and

2) his articles are surprisingly well-written and accessible, while at the same time containing frequent inspiration from and allusion to literature, religious studies, etc.

In other words, Dan John is not a semi-literate meathead using his role as a published strength guru as a platform for bragging about his own accomplishments, nor is he some bozo prescribing overly convoluted programs that can only be completed by people with no jobs yet unlimited access to supplements (legal or otherwise). He’s a real human being – albeit a uniquely gifted one – with a real life and real interests outside the weight room and off the track. And God bless him for it!

During this recent adventure in Dan John binge-reading, I discovered a pair of articles in which John pontificates on the forty most important lessons he’s learned from 40+ years of strength training. Some of them are specifically about what you do in the weight room, some of them are about the hours you spend away from the gym, but all of them are applicable to real life.

As I read and re-read these articles, what struck me most was how many of Dan John’s lessons were specifically applicable to writing (so much so that I’ve already begun to use some of them). With that in mind, I thought I would share some John’s insights and some of my own thoughts on their value in the writer’s realm.

The following list was adapted from Dan John’s article 40 Years of Insight, Part 1 on T-Nation.com. The insights are listed here in the same order they appear in the original article.

Keep a journal of some kind

Dan John explains that the inspiration for his article began with a look back at forty years’ worth of his own training journals. In these, he has not only recorded sets/reps/weights, but also a running record of what was happening in his life at the time and how he was feeling physically/mentally/spiritually on any given training day. I’ve kept similar logs of my workouts for years, although never in so comprehensive a manner. My records are largely numerical, focused on sets and reps in the weight room, skips and misses with the jump rope, total mileage on the road, etc. I frequently include commentary on my bad days and their supposed causes (over-doing it my previous workout, poor nights of sleep, heart about to explode after taking a double-dose of decongestant, etc), but none about my good days. The upshot is that, on analysis, I have extensive insight into how to avoid repeating my worst performances, but none about how to live up to my best. And without knowing how to continue to raise the bar on my workouts, I’m limiting my goals to simply being less mediocre.

Worse than the deficiencies in my training journals is my complete lack of such records about my writing. Until I read Dan John’s article, I had never in my life kept a log of my writing efforts. I finally started a few weeks ago. I’m keeping it simple for right now: word count, what piece I was working on, and a short paragraph on how it went. This last typically includes my mindset going into my office as well as some thoughts on how quickly I was able to “get into a groove” and why (enthusiasm, fatigue, distraction, etc). Despite this simplicity, I’m already reaping immense benefits. Having a tangible reminder of what I have and haven’t accomplished each day goes a long way towards keeping myself acccountable. Simply put, I *dread* having to open up my journal and write down 0 words.

You must master the squat movement

I’d like to say that the dustiest and most overlooked piece of equipment in most gyms is the squat rack, but – let’s be honest here – there’s always a line of bozos waiting to use it for curls and shoulder presses. Dan John’s point, however, is not to trumpet the classic SQUAT TIL YOU PUKE!!! meathead mantra, but to convey that the squat is a fundamental human movement pattern, one that too many people ignore. There’s no way to be strong, fit, or even healthy if you ignore something so fundamental to human life.

As a coach, I stress fundamentals above all else. And, yes, I both prescribe and practice a variety of squatting exercises. As a writer, however, I realized that I’ve lost sight of the little things. Specifically, I’ve sorely overlooked the simple joy and fundamental value of short stories and poetry. I was so fixated on writing *novels* that I ignored everything else. In fact, the short story that I finished in November was the first one I’d written in years (more of them than I’m willing to admit). Regardless of whether or not it’s worth a shit as a story, as an exercise, it was invaluable. Don’t believe me? The next time an idea hits you, set yourself an arbitrary word or page limit. Assuming you don’t say F*@# it! and give up, see how much more forethought you have to put into both plot and character development. Watch how much more focused your descriptions have to become. And try not to freak out when you realize how heavily you weigh the value of each individual word in the editing process.

Too easy? Try to express anything meaningful in exactly seventeen syllables (the generic formula for a haiku, which is always fun to play with). Good luck!

There are several “Modern Classics” that will support your training goals

Where I expected to find a bibliography of modern training tomes, Dan John surprised me with a short list of both literary classics and popular fiction with the explanation that “at times big goals and big stories also include epic tragedy and overcoming failure”. And who among us hasn’t faced such tragic circumstances as crashed computers, dead flash drives, rejection letters, etc? Who hasn’t poured their heart and soul into a brilliant idea only to walk into the local bookstore and discover that someone else has beaten us to it? Where better to turn for the strength to carry on than the very classics we’re trying to emulate. If Cormac McCarthy’s man and boy can reach the sea – and if Harry Potter can ultimately overcome the all-consuming evil of the dark lord – then can’t we find the strength to overcome misplaced notebooks and negative reader reviews?

Lift Outdoors

In several articles, Dan John advocates lugging some equipment out of the gym (a workout in and of itself) and out into the sunshine for a group training session. He expounds on the benefits of group motivation, the added accountability of having an audience as you lift, and the value of simply breaking out of your routines doing something different. As the old saying goes, changes in latitude…

As far as writing goes, I interpret this advice a couple of different ways. The first is simply the need to write “out in the open” every once in a while. Now, if you’re reading this post you are, in all likelihood, a WordPress blogger. In which case, I’m preaching to the proverbial choir here. For better or worse, writing under the looming shadow of near-immediate publication is going to have a huge impact on your work (a subject I’ve already written about on this site).

In a similar vein, I recently taught a lesson that I cribbed from Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers in which I wrote a timed essay in front of my English 1 class. I narrated my thoughts and my decision-making process as I went, and I wrote every word on a legal pad under my ELMO. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more self-conscious about a rough-draft in my life (which was, of course, one of the main points of the lesson – that we all deal with anxiety about our writing, and that we all generally write shit on the first go-round). It was a humbling experience, to say the least.

Another, perhaps simpler, way to apply John’s advice is to literally write outdoors. Or at least out of your house. I say this, of course, with some trepidation. We all look down our noses at the dipshit sitting behind his laptop at Starbucks, the guy who needs you to know that he’s “working on a novel”…and that we all know is never going to make it past page 3. But I can say from experience that some of my most productive days were spent writing in a spiral notebook on an airplane, or surreptitiously scratching out ideas in a legal pad while proctoring the ACT exam (a serious no-no, I know, but…). Too often, it doesn’t occur to us that we’re in a rut until we’ve been forcibly driven out of it. Only once we’re on the outside of our comfort zone looking in do we realize the value of discomfort (something any weightlifter can tell you all about).

Learn to meditate or relax “on command”

For Dan John, this is largely a matter of emphasizing the value of sleep in the recovery process (which is, of course, where the real growth and gains and occur). Too many of his clients/athletes sleep too little, some because they don’t try and others because they simply can’t. Aside from carving out adequate time from your schedule to rest and sleep, John advocates teaching your body and spirit alike how to relax and willingly embrace that rest. Both my worst mornings writing – and most of my writing is done in the morning – and my worst days lifting generally come after my worst and/or shortest nights of sleep. And, more often than not, my most fitful sleep comes when I’m the most anxious, stressed, and distracted. How many such nights and, by extension, how many such poor performances (at both the keys and the gym) could I have avoided by teaching myself how to relax, unwind, and let go “on command”?

“90% of success is simply showing up.” Woody Allen

“If you’re gunna gunna,” as Dan John puts it (meaning if you’re “gunna do this and gunna do that”), “you have to show up….[I]f you just show up, you’re gunna gunna do just fine.” At the risk of over-simplifying a major point in John’s book Easy Strength, 200 easy, fun workouts over the course of a year are infinitely more beneficial than three miserable, balls-out sessions at the height of New Year’s Resolution season. In other words, simply showing up all year long will do a hell of a lot more for you than killing yourself for a week or two.

I read once that Nicholas Sparks holds himself to a minimum daily word count, whereas Stephen King writes for a bare minimum of four hours each day. They’re different authors in different genres with notably different approaches to their craft. But they have two very important things in common. First, they show up. Regardless of how long it takes to hit the daily quota or how fruitless those hours might be, they show up every day. Second, they’re both wildly successful authors with multiple best-sellers on their respective resumes.

Anybody can show up for those first bursts of creative energy, the initial fits of passion when an interesting idea takes hold of you and the first few pages (or chapters) seem to pour from your fingers as if channeled directly from the Muses themselves. The real trick is forcing yourself to keep showing up at the gym when February rolls around. Even just 100 words a day – EVERY day – adds up to 36,500 words in a year. Keep that up and within a few more months you could have the first draft of your first novel.

We tend to be “glib” about our weaknesses

Weaknesses in most people’s weight-training are a result of over-emphasizing certain lifts or muscle groups at the expense of others. For the average man, this means a lot of time on the chest, biceps, and shoulders with little attention paid to the back and legs. Or, almost as typical, it means focusing too much on the muscles on the front of the body (the ones you can see easily in the mirror) and too little on the back of the body. And this is generally part of a self-perpetuating cycle of poor reasoning. You go into the gym and find that a certain muscle group is weak, which makes you dislike working it. Because you dislike working it, you don’t. And because you don’t work it, it gets weaker. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Eventually, those strength imbalances limit the gains you can make on the muscles/lifts that you DO like. Worse, they’re injuries waiting to happen.

Dan John makes the point that we can’t afford to be glib about our weaknesses. He also stresses that we can’t overcome our weaknesses by merely *working on them*. To correct said deficiencies, we have to attack them with full force and full focus.

I’ve been very open in previous posts about some of my weaknesses as a writer. I’ve also admitted here that I don’t spend anywhere near enough time writing short fiction and poetry. These are areas I’ve started working on, but need to start attacking for the benefit of my writing as a whole.

It’s the movements you’re NOT doing that are impeding your progress

In Dan John’s case, he makes the point that most typical weight lifters undervalue – if not completely avoid – squat movements, hinge movements (RDL’s, cleans, swings, etc), and weighted carries (farmer’s carries, suitcase carries, etc). For me, it’s the steps that come after the writing and editing.

Where I most often fail to “show up” is in the query and submissions processes. Whether it’s a matter of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task or terrified by the potential for torrents of rejection, I don’t know. But I do know that I’ve gone so far as to electronically publish a novel in order to avoid the time and stress of agent queries/submissions. As a result, I have a novel – one that I’m damn proud of, I’m not ashamed to add – languishing on various digital marketplaces because I’m lost in a sea of similar writers and at a loss for how to market my work. My lack of networking and marketing savvy is just that much more that I’m NOT doing…and in this case I’m not even a 100% sure what it actually is that I’m not doing.

I’m pretty sure that’s worse.

You can’t do everything at once!

Really, Dan John’s point is that you can’t do everything at once forever. When we’re young, our bodies can handle playing multiple sports and training multiple days each week and…well…pretty much anything we’re willing to throw at it. And, for a while at least, we can make tremendous gains in every arena specifically because we’re doing everything. Inevitably, time, age, and wear catch up with us, though, and those gains come to a screeching halt.

Admittedly, I’ve mostly fixed this problem when it comes to exercise. Over the past few years I’ve seen significantly greater benefits from 2-4 focused, intense workouts per week with ample recovery time in between than I ever did from 5-7 long grinds. I’ve also come to accept that I can’t have a goal of adding muscle mass if I’m going to routinely go on long, slow, ten-mile runs.

Beyond working out, I’ve been trying to do everything for a long time. I’ve written about this subject in the past, so I’m not going to bore you with any more of it now. I will say this, though. It wasn’t until I sucked it up and decided that the only way I was going to be able to write consistently was to do it during the pre-dawn hours that I actually started to make real headway towards my goals. Until recently, however, I was trying to accomplish everything I want/need to do as a writer during that 4:45-6:15 am window. When all that entailed was writing and editing, this was fine. But as I prepared to publish Rottweiler and needed to start trying to market, network, etc, I found more and more of my morning hours being spent on these tasks and far too little of it writing new material. And few things are more frustrating than getting up at 4:00 on a workday only to walk away from your desk feeling like you’ve accomplished nothing. So, I’ve decided that now my morning hours are to be devoted solely to the writing process. All marketing and social networking efforts, this blog included, are strictly forbidden. So far it’s working. I’ve written more words since the start of 2014 than I did for months prior.

Now…if only I could find the time to start blogging semi-regularly again.

If you really want a breakthrough, teach someone else. And if you need mastery, teach 65 fourteen-year-old sophomore boys something all at once.

To paraphrase a colleague of mine, just because I said it doesn’t mean they learned it. You can file this next to the fact that assigning a task (telling someone to do it) does not equal teaching the task (showing them how to do it). If you’re going to teach someone how to do something, you’d better know your shit. And you’d better know it inside and out.

It’s rapidly approaching a year since I started this blog, and in that span I’ve spent more time thinking about how I really write than I ever had before in my life. If I was going to share my thoughts on the writing process – on my writing process, at any rate – I needed to really *know* that process. The knowledge and self-awareness I’ve gained along the way are at the foundation of the growth and changes I’ve been prattling on about here. And this, of course, has made me a far better writer. At least in my own humble opinion.

Hopefully it’s been as illuminating of an experience for you as it has been for me.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA

To continue on to Part 2 of this series, click here.

Top Ten Thoughts on the Chicago Bears in the Wake of the 2013 Season

I warned you on the 29th that I might have more to say about the Bears this year. So, in no particular order…

The Chicago Syndrome

It’s no secret that there’s no better place to be a professional athlete than Chicago…when your team is winning. Unfortunately, it’s the worst place to be when you’re struggling. Chicago fans are endlessly loyal, but they’re also impossibly demanding and insidiously ruthless. Anything less than the ’85 Bears or the ’95-96 Bulls is considered abject failure for which jobs will be lost and heads will roll. The unrealistic expectations and the unfair treatment is my least favorite part of being a Bears fan.

I bring this up now because it’s been a frustrating season, and – call me a hypocrite if you want to – I’ve fallen victim to the Chicago Syndrome on many a Sunday afternoon this year. And I’m probably going to be battling it here. My apologies in advance.

So, let me get this straight…

Lovie Smith gets fired after leading the Bears to a 10-6 record in 2012 (only 2 seasons removed from a trip to the NFC Title game, no less) while Marc Trestman goes 8-8 with a superior team and is still considered the savior? No denying that Lovie Smith’s 2012 squad suffered a disappointing second-half slump after starting 7-1, but they won the games they needed to win down the stretch in order to make the playoffs. They were ultimately kept out of the postseason when Minnesota pulled off an upset over Green Bay. To paraphrase Mike Ditka, you’re telling me that if the Packers play better then Lovie Smith deserves to keep his job?

Rrrrrriiiiiiight.

Meanwhile, Marc Trestman inherits a team with virtually identical defensive talent and an infinitely improved offense (more on that shortly) only to let them limp to a .500 record. Much more telling is the fact that the Bears were handed multiple late-season gifts but went out of their way to not make the playoffs, getting pummeled by the Eagles and suffering a fourth-quarter meltdown against the Packers.

In short, Marc Trestman did less with more. All while the Bears organization paid a winning head coach with a Super Bowl on his resume 5 million dollars to sit on his couch for a year.

Mel Tucker

I know I’m beating a dead horse here…and kicking the poor man while he’s down…but I can’t help myself. I’ll try (try!) to keep it short, and then I’ll let it go.

I’ll freely admit that I was impressed by Tucker’s willingness to adapt when he took over as the Bears’ D-coordinator, adopting the existing schemes and lingo in order to take advantage of the veteran talent he inherited. It was a failed experiment, however, and one that comes with a built-in failsafe. Tucker just might be able to buy himself another year under the pretense of finally running *his* defense instead of Lovie Smith’s and Rod Marinelli’s. And if the Bears buy that reasoning, Tucker probably ends up getting two seasons out of the deal, the first to transition to his defense and a second to get the right personnel to run it. By then, he might have brought the Bears’ defense back up to average (about where his defenses in Cleveland and Jacksonville peaked). Or the whole regime could already be on its way out the door. If Marc Trestman cares about his own job security, it would probably be in his best interests to cut ties with Tucker now.

The Importance of Leadership

Coaching issues aside, it was obvious this year that the Bears lacked leadership on the field and in the locker room. Brian Urlacher was the face of the franchise and the pulse of the team for over a decade, and no one stepped up to adequately fill the void left by his retirement. He would have been a steadying influence and a voice of accountability that the team desperately needed this year. And even on the downside of his career…

He would have been better than Jon Bostic

Granted, both Bostic and fellow rookie Khaseem Greene should have been learning from the sideline this season (both started because of injuries to veteran linebackers). But that doesn’t excuse Bostic for routinely filling the wrong gaps, taking on blocks with the wrong shoulder, and misreading run/pass/play-action. Frankly, I would expect better out of a high school freshman. The only play I can remember from this year where Bostic looked like a true cover-2 middle linebacker was his interception against the Ravens in November. Hopefully that’s an indicator of great things to come, but the bulk of the evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

On the other hand side of the ball…

That offense. God bless that offense. It is a frakking monster. Right now the Bears have the best quarterback(s) they’ve had in decades, arguably the best running-back they’ve ever had not named Payton, their best tight end since Mike Ditka, and the two best wide receivers they’ve ever had – period.

But don’t forget the big dogs

Often overlooked in the annals of Chicago sports history is the fact that during their miraculous 2005 playoff season (led by fourth-round rookie quarterback Kyle Orton!) and 2006 Super Bowl run, the Bears had one of the best offensive lines in football. As is always the case for offensive linemen, though, nobody notices them when they’re playing well. Make a serious run at most sacks allowed in a season, however…

You get the idea.

All of the firepower the Bears have in Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, et al wouldn’t mean anything without a front five that can consistently open holes and keep their quarterback off the ground. Even in spite of starting two rookies (Kyle Long and Jordan Mills), this year’s O-line was the best the Bears have had in years. No accident that their offensive production was some of the best in franchise history.

The Unavoidable Question

Before we watched the Packers game the other night, my wife asked me if I thought the Bears should re-sign Jay Cutler this year (it’s sweet when she humors me). I stopped and thought about it…and I realized for the first time that I genuinely have no opinion either way. Here’s how I see it:

He’s high risk/high reward. He does things with the ball that no other quarterback can. And because he knows that, he also throws at least one horrific interception each game. I would hate to lose the circus touchdown throws, but I’d love to be rid of the jackass mistakes.

He’s unflappable. No matter how good or bad the game, his expression never seems to change. Quarterbacks need that kind of unshakeable confidence. Unfortunately, his default face is an infuriating blend of smugness and apathy. The Chicago sports media has been puzzling for five years over whether that’s really who he is or not. And we still don’t really know.

If Cutler stays, we know what we’re getting (for better or for worse). If he leaves? Maybe the Bears keep Josh McCown for a year or two as a stopgap while they groom a high draft pick. But there’s no telling how long McCown can stay hot, even as good as he was in relief of Jay Cutler this year. And any draft pick is a gamble, now matter how promising.

I’ll hang my hat on this: There’s only been one time in his tenure with the Bears that Cutler had the same offensive coordinator for two seasons in a row. Running Mike Martz’s offense in 2011, Cutler was finally playing like an elite quarterback before his season was cut short by injury. Hopefully with another off-season to learn the Marc Trestman/Aaron Kromer offense and to continue developing chemistry with his receivers, he’ll start living up to his own hype again. If he can stay healthy this time.

Speaking of Josh McCown

He’s not the answer, and he’s not the future. And, contrary to popular belief, I doubt he’s going to be lured away by huge contract offers. He’s a 34-year-old journeyman who’s spent multiple seasons out of the NFL. A team would have to be desperate to offer him a starting job and/or big money. He played some outstanding games starting in place of an injured Jay Cutler this season, but did it by being smart and conservative with the ball against some so-so defenses. In other words, he played like a more-than-capable career backup. No denying what a vital asset that is in the NFL, but it’s an asset that the Bears should have no problem retaining. And if/when they do re-sign him, we’ll all breath easier in anticipation of next season.

With All That Said…

The 2014 season kicks off in just over eight months. No matter what, I’ll be dressed in navy and orange and I’ll be glued to my TV. Go Bears!

Any Bears fans out there? What are your thoughts about the 2013 campaign? I’d love to hear from you.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA

Top 5 Things I’ve Been Wanting to Say on This Blog Over the Past Three Months

In no particular order…

It’s a girl!

Baby Number 2 was welcomed into the world on September 1, 2013. She was born 7 pounds, 5 ounces and 20 inches long. And she’s now a vibrant and healthy three-month-old with a smile to melt a man’s soul. Mama and daddy have managed to stay both healthy and sane. Big sister has been equal parts adoring and adorable as she’s doted on the new addition. Life is good.

Go team!

Football season ended recently, which is why I suddenly find myself with the time and the energy to be here. We followed up an improbable run to the state championship game in 2012 (after being picked to finish in the bottom half of our conference) with a similarly improbable trip to the quarterfinals. We lost three games on the year, although each of them went down to the last play. We were decidedly short on talent and, by week 5, we were fairly certain as coaches that we’d be damn lucky to win a single playoff game. To have a fourth-quarter lead on a superior opponent and to be within a two-minute drill of the state semifinals was truly a blessing. I couldn’t be more proud of the young men on our team.

What the hell, Bears!?!

From the beginning I was adamantly opposed to Lovie Smith’s firing, and I still am. You simply don’t replace a winning coach unless you have the opportunity to make an immediate upgrade. To fire a head coach coming off a 10-6 season to hire a project out of the CFL? That’s laughable. More importantly, the Bears’ brass cleared out a defensive regime with a history of consistent dominance to hire a coordinator with a proven track record for mediocrity. I give all the credit in the world to Mel Tucker for his willingness to put his ego in check and change his system to suit the wealth of veteran talent he inherited, but I can’t forgive how consistently AWFUL Chicago’s defense has been. Nor can I accept the eagerness with which most commentators try to let them off the hook because of their personnel issues. They were terrible even before the injury bug hit! Sure, you can point to the dramatic improvement of the Bears offense this year – especially in the passing game – and try to justify the coaching change. But that ignores the sweeping changes the Bears made to their offensive roster. Essentially, Phil Emery fired Lovie Smith for the annual underperformance of the offense…then went out and bought all the talent that Lovie Smith’s offenses never had, especially on the line. The only time the Bears’ offense was even remotely as talented as it is now was in 2006. They made it to the Super Bowl that year. In 2010, the Bears made it to the NFC Championship Game with the equivalent of a JV offense compared to their current roster. And now, in 2013, Marc Trestman’s team needs a miracle to even stay in the playoff hunt. So, thank you McCaskey family and thank you Phil Emery for ruining the Bears’ defense and special teams in exchange for an offense that’s statistically impressive but still can’t deliver in critical situations or score enough points to win games against decent opponents. You have no idea how excited I am for these next four weeks!

And, on the subject of What the hell!?!…what’s up with The Walking Dead this year?

I’m sorry, but Sunday’s undeniably intense midseason finale not withstanding, this year has been serious snoozer. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those crass jackwagons who pisses and moans every time an episode goes by without a shot fired or a pile of corpses burned. I heaped boundless praise on season 3, especially in the springtime when the show was at its most dialogue-intensive. I’ve never seen another program that can take two men glaring at each other across a table for an hour and turn it in to sixty minutes of pulse-pounding suspense. But this season’s apparent Ebola outbreak failed to generate the human drama the production team was aiming for. I knew from the end of last season that a holocaust was necessary to cull the sudden influx of extraneous characters the prison took on in the finale, but the mystery plague just didn’t do it for me. Kudos to the production team, though, for delivering a faithful and powerful translation of one of the most memorable (and disturbing) story arcs in the comic series to close out this fall. I’m stoked to find out what February brings!

And, most importantly…

I’m back!

And it’s great to be here. Hope to catch up with you all soon.

CVA