A Tribute To the Christmas Nougat

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Halloween has come and gone, just like my sleep the day that Stranger Things 2 dropped on Netflix. In America, certain holidays are celebrated with sugar. Massive, gigantic amounts of sugar in the form of candy.

We start in February with Valentine’s Day. Everybody wants a SWEET-heart, right? The candy industry floods stores with red and pink wrapped treats for the first two months of the calendar year and the only way to swoon your prospective love is with heart-shaped chocolate.

Then…Easter. Holy smokes does that bunny love candy. Cadbury eggs are my guilty pleasure, but each has their own including some weirdos who claim to like Peeps. What color do those stores switch to for the Resurrection of Jesus? Pastels. LOADS of pastels.

There is a general lull in between Easter and Halloween, but because of Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day, the candy aisle generally has a star-spangled look during the summer.

Then…Halloween. The candy holiday of all candy holidays. What’s the color? ORANGE. You don’t like it? TOOOOOO BAD. Halloween will take over half of Wal-Mart each year for months at a time from costumes to pumpkins to candy to anything else you need for a two-hour stretch that kids knock on strangers’ doors for free candy.

Thanksgiving gets a pass on the candy front — it’s mostly a savory holiday with the turkey and dressing. Besides, stores have to prep for CHRISTMAS and NEW YEAR’S. I think if the candy companies could get away with it, they’d take the candy they didn’t sell at Halloween, slap a red and green label on it and re-sell it in December. Regardless, Christmas candy has its own special flavor, and one of those is the point of this blog post today.

The Christmas Nougat. 

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Look at it. Isn’t it beautiful?

I love this thing. First off, let’s look at the design. Striped along the outer edges. White and red. Red and white. Immediately it evokes feelings of candy canes, and with good reason. The inner portion is a white field, much like the snowy fields that many picture when they think of winter and the holiday season. Finally, the tree. Just look at that magnificent green little tree. And it would be SO easy for the candy makers to simply make the tree trunk green as well, but if you look closely it is brown, as it ought to be. Is the tree artificial or a real tree? Much like Schrödinger’s Cat, it exists in both states and is a perfect representation of the season for people who get their tree at Hobby Lobby or from nature.

Then, we unwrap the candy.

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Just…wow. 

It comes off clean. Whatever Brach’s has done to the consistency and texture of the candy, if the product is fresh and at the right temperature, it won’t stick. Best of all, it’s ready to eat. Small enough to pop right into your mouth, it goes from being semi-hard to soft thanks to the saliva working through your mouth. The peppermint flavor rushes through and takes you towards Christmas, even if the holiday is two months away. It transforms in your mouth to something not quite akin to chewing gum. Right when you are content, the candy is dissolved and gone. Ready for another one.

Eventually the bag is gone, and then the holiday season as well. On to Valentine’s Day and another year away from the Christmas Nougat. I’ll love you while you’re here, and miss you when you’re gone.

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MARTHA (or the problem with making your universe smaller)

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I would tell you to stop reading if you haven’t seen Batman v Superman, but that would be pointless. If you haven’t seen it by now, the chances of you deciding to watch it are slim. So buckle up — I’m ‘about to spoil a key plot detail from perhaps the most disappointing superhero movie of the last two decades.

So in BvS, the audience is geared up for some superfight between the hero alter-egos of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. All through the TWO AND A HALF HOUR (THREEEEE!! if you watch the Ultimate Cut) of this dark and dreary movie we are told that this is the fight to end all fights. Somehow the audience was expected to buy into some punk Lex Luthor and how he manipulated two of the greatest superheroes on Earth to fight each other, specifically Superman.

But that isn’t the worst part.

Martha.

Now, I’m not opposed to the name Martha. In fact, I have a Martha in my life and my mother-in-law is a wonderful person (honest!). But when these two DC titans are engaging in some fisticuffs, Superman tells Batman not to let “Martha” die. Of course, Martha is Clark’s mother, but in a weird twist………Bruce Wayne’s mother was ALSO NAMED MARTHA. It makes him stop the fight and the entire movie hinges on the moment when Batman is shook by a name.

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Pretty much.

It’s lame, but ultimately what it does kinda makes it worse. Instead of giving the characters outside issues to affect their fight, it actually shrinks their universe and draws us back to their past. And when that happens, it hampers storytelling. It starts getting into an almost unspoken prequel territory (I’ll save my prequel talk for another day), and restricts the options for what the characters can do.

In a way, this is what fans want…up until the point it happens. For instance: Rey from the new Star Wars trilogy. Fans need to know: is she a Skywalker? Is she secretly Han and Leia’s daughter? Is she Emperor Palpatine’s long-lost daughter? Is she Lobot’s neice? Is she R2-D2’s mechanic’s dogwalker’s friend?

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She’s handing this to her father…or a complete stranger…

Or how about Finn? He’s black, so OF COURSE he has to be Lando’s long-lost son.

Why do we do this? Ultimately we like to have connections and meaning to something new. As a teacher, we get a new crop of 8th graders each year coming up as freshmen. Often we try to figure out who they are by older siblings, parents, what school did they come from — we try to peg these students as one thing before they’ve even had a chance to show us who they really are.

We like comfortable. Sure thing. But what challenges us and allows growth is fresh and foreign situations. What if Rey isn’t related to ANY character from the previous eight movies? Fine. We’ll get a lot more story and a widening of a vast universe that we already know and love. But perhaps the folks at Lucasfilm have added her to a family tree from a character we already know. That’s fine, too, but the problem will continue. If we really value fresh content and new stories from Hollywood, we need to push for that same freshness and creativity in our familiar franchises.

It’s the same reason that the Transformers are now embedded into the lore of Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. It’s the same reason we’re making sequels of movies like Blade Runner and Alien. It’s the same reason that Disney is making “live-action” remakes of the films that were already near perfect in the first place (looking at you, Beauty and the Beast).

We need to demand originality, but not from the entire movie. We need to demand originality within the movie. The script, the characters, their mothers. With Justice League coming soon (a week and a half away), I’d like to see that DC has learned from their first few movies, but I’ll withhold judgment until I see it.

Until then…I’ll be looking forward to Thanksgiving at Martha’s house.

 

Plagiarism is a Gut Punch

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PlagiarismSucks

Let me share a little story. It was probably 2004 or so and I was the Sports Editor for a small newspaper in Southeastern Illinois. We probably had a circulation of 2,000 or so in our county — population a little shy of 7,000. You wouldn’t think a county with a population that small could support two newspapers and ultimately you’d be right, but in the early 2000’s, another paper battled us for news and scoops in our cozy little county. Sometimes we even had employees that went from one to the other. The woman I’ll reference here as “Helen” was one such employee. She was with our paper when I first came to the area and left after about a year and went to the competition for a couple years.

Being that we were both weekly papers in the same county that covered the same news, there was always a certain amount of similarity in our content. It was unavoidable. But we never stooped to copying. That was wrong and we all knew it. Even Helen…I thought. She was never my favorite, but plagiarism (especially from newspapers just 10 miles apart) was unthinkable in my mind.

Then it happened.

I wrote up an article about a baseball camp that was going to be happening a few weeks off. A former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher was going to be coming, so it was a BIG DEAL to our little county. There were a lot of details and moving parts to the deal, so by the time I finished writing up the article, it did read a bit like a press release, but I had quotes included from the organizer, a man who is a friend of mine. It wasn’t just a PR piece like what the local hospital or bank sent us. This was actual journalism. To be fair, it wasn’t amazing work by any stretch, but I spent time and effort to get it done, so I’ll count it as such.

We printed our story in the paper. Job done.

The next week, the competition ran their story. Two things stood out — first, it was MY STORY. She moved a few words around, but the quotes were there, the content was the same, the structure was intact. It probably 98 percent of what I had done, and any changes lessened the quality of the original story. The second thing, and the thing that was the cherry on top — she put HER NAME on it.

HER NAME. On MY STORY.

I wanted to be ill. I…I didn’t know what to do. I really didn’t have a lot of options. It was two newspapers that maybe a couple hundred people read each week. I think my boss lodged a complaint, but nothing was going to happen. I wasn’t going to sue them and they weren’t going to retract anything.

But it didn’t change how I felt. I had something that I had done. A piece of my creativity — however small — was stolen from me and someone else’s name had been slapped over the top. Whatever respect I had left for Helen was gone. Instantly.

Again, being the smalltown newspaper, I understood that we often essentially shared news. Since I had written the article almost as a press release, I probably would have even accepted it had it been published anonymously. But the fact that Helen claimed it as her own. That she put her freakin’ name as the byline was what really ticked me off.

Nowadays I’m a high school teacher and I see this struggle every year. Students want to take the easy way out and claim others’ work as their own. I get it, but there isn’t any recognition of the person on the other side. What about the person who wrote the essay, the article, the randomly Googled piece in the first place? They put forth work and effort into it — work that student is now sloughing off by taking the easy way out.

So as someone who has been on that side of it — don’t plagiarize. It really sucks.

The Impact We Have

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Recently two people who both had a tremendous impact on my life passed away. One was more unexpected than the other, but both were influential, not only on me, but on the whole community as well.

This is small town America. We don’t have a great football tradition, but what we do have is volleyball. Seemingly for a couple generations now our county has produced quality volleyball players. We’ve had some good coaches to get them far into the state playoffs, but there was really only one who shaped and produced state contenders. That was Linda Oxby, longtime Head Coach of the Edwards County High School volleyball team here in Southeastern Illinois. She was diagnosed with cancer about half a decade ago, fought it for all that time, and finally passed away a few weeks back.

And then there was Patrick Seil. Every small town needs a newspaper and Pat was the publisher of the Navigator & Journal-Register and had been at the helm of the local weekly since the mid-90’s. I’d known him since 2002 when I walked into his office looking for a job, but he was influential on more than just me. Everyone seemed to know him. He could spend all day shooting the breeze with whomever walked in the door but put his nose to the grindstone when he had a paper to put out. His health hadn’t been great lately, but complications from a fall led to his death a couple weeks ago.

As Pat’s Sports Editor for nearly seven years I had a front row seat to some of the best volleyball on this side of the state and I learned how to be a leader from Linda Oxby. After I was done at the newspaper, I was hired on as a history teacher at ECHS and I taught alongside Linda for many years.

It isn’t often when you can say you were truly in the presence of a legend. With both Linda and Patrick, I can honestly say I have known two taken from our midst at about the same time. From both I learned and from both I could stand back and admire their accomplishments.

It leads me to wonder how I can influence people. As a teacher I see dozens of high school students each and every day — am I having an impact on them? As an author, I try to craft stories that have a personal story to them — are my readers seeing that and am I even reaching people? As a father, am I putting forth an example worthy of my kids? As a husband, do I show the love to my wife that she deserves?

I wrestle with these questions and more every day, and I’m thankful for the impact of people like Linda Oxby and Patrick Seil on my life that I can.

Marvel Cinematic Movies – Ranked

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thorimax3Can you believe we’ve had 17 (!) films since we were introduced to Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark in an Afghan cave? Marvel has truly shown the rest of the movie studios how to successfully do a movie universe, deftly weaving storylines from one character to another, teaming them up when possible and leaving them alone when necessary. As they got their foundation and feet under them, suddenly the head honchos over at Disney let the films start to be a little more unique with a little more flavor. If one film showed that, it was definitely Thor: Ragnarok.

I just saw it yesterday and I’m still reliving parts of it over and over again in my head. I laughed more than I expected (and I expected to laugh A LOT), yet this movie had some of the most dire consequences of any of the MCU films to date. I think the latter is partly done on purpose: so that the events that happen in the next Avengers team-up, Infinity War, don’t come out of left field. I think there’s a good chance we see some serious characters go down in that movie.

ANYWAY…I saw some other people making their MCU ranking thus far, so I decided to do the same. Now of course, art and movies are subjective, so my list will be different than yours and that’s OK. I based my list on a couple of factors: 1. Would I rewatch it again in a heartbeat? 2. How good of a movie is it? and 3. How does it really fit in and impact the rest of the MCU films?

So without anymore yammering from me…

  1. Captain America: Civil War
  2. The Avengers
  3. Captain America: Winter Soldier
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy
  5. Thor: Ragnarok
  6. Captain America: The First Avenger
  7. Ant Man
  8. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  9. Iron Man
  10. Doctor Strange
  11. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  12. Thor
  13. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  14. Iron Man 3
  15. The Incredible Hulk
  16. Thor: The Dark World
  17. Iron Man 2

Yep. I’m a big Captain America fan. I can hear people talking now, and that’s fine with me. Frankly, up until I actually typed it here, I had the first Cap movie at #5 instead of #6, but that’s really how much fun I had with the new Thor movie. If there is any kind of theme with the first group of movies (except for TFA), it is team-ups! Every single movie in the top five features heroes teaming up with one another, sometimes against other heroes, but oftentimes against one villain or another. Frankly when it comes to the Thor film, I’m still processing it, so come back in a week or so and I might have it a little higher or possibly a little lower. I tried to take the immediacy factor out of things, but I still love it to bits at the moment, so it makes my Top 5.

A few other notable bits:

  • I straight-up LOVE Ant Man. If there was more than just Falcon’s wonderful cameo in the movie, I might have even had it higher on my list. Paul Rudd is just hilarious and that Thomas the Train fight sequence at the end is better than most of the “fighting aliens or robots in the sky” parts that many of the films do.
  • Even if a movie is towards the bottom of the list doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, I would re-watch any of these movies and really liked them when they first released in theaters. But Iron Man 2 has some huge flaws and frankly I don’t remember much of the second Thor movie. In fact, the way they were able to take Thor and make him one of the BEST Marvel heroes in Ragnarok speaks to Taika Watiti’s ability to work with characters.
  • Many said that Doctor Strange was a better origin movie than Iron Man, and in some ways I do agree, but Iron Man was the first. If we didn’t have that first movie and the impact it made, we might not have the rest of this list.

But, what do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Should Guardians 2 be higher? Should Ultron be higher than the Bottom 5? Is Stan Lee the real First Avenger? Where will I put Black Panther on this list? Do I love Captain America too much? (quite possibly). Let me know!

Overpromising and Underdelivering

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This post deals with a few major topics, one of which is the 90’s Christian band dc Talk. If they aren’t your jam, that’s cool, but I think there are some important points for everyone by the time I finish.

So today was the big day. Most of you probably weren’t even aware of it, but over the last week or two, the Facebook page for 90’s Christian supergroup dc Talk suddenly got busy. Considering the social network didn’t even exist last time they put out an album in the late 90’s, this was curious. About a week ago, they posted an image with one thing on it — 2017. A teaser video soon followed with other Christian artists questioning whether the news was too good to be true. All that led to a “Major Announcement” today at noon.

I, as well as a ton of Christian music fans, kept refreshing their site today ready for the announcement. Would it be a new album? A series of YouTube videos? A reunion tour of sorts? Whatever any of us thought, it would surely be blown away by the announcement. dc Talk was HUGE between 1995 and 1999. When they split up they were still at the height of their popularity and all three of the members continued their careers with solo albums that transitioned into very successful post-band careers for most of them. Today Toby Mac has had perhaps the best career of the three, but Michael Tait is now the lead singer for the Newsboys and Kevin Max recently helped resurrect Audio Adrenaline from retirement.

So.

The announcement came…and landed with a Thud.

dc Talk would be reuniting for…a cruise. A one week cruise that would cost — at minimum — $699 per person.

Social media outrage, considering the Christian audience, was huge.

The top comment on Facebook for the announcement video: “Seriously, that’s it? Now I know how Ralphie from a Christmas story felt when he decoded the message with his decoder. A lousy commercial.”

I know I had expectations. I was actually at the final dc Talk concert in 2001 when they briefly reunited while all doing their own music. I was on board for almost anything. Almost. This was not it.

To be fair, I think the announcement is cool, I just am not game for a cruise at that pricepoint and the hype for it was overblown for that announcement.

Christian music not your thing? Let’s talk superheroes.

Two major superhero movies have released recently. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War. Both did well at the box office to start their run, but I think its definitely fair to say that one of them will be remembered a lot more fondly than the other.

When they announced Batman fighting Superman in a movie, they promised a lot. They plastered that logo all over Comic Con that year and had people put it on their Most Anticipated lists years out from its eventual release. The two greatest superheroes in comic history, squaring off? Sign me up for that.

And then…it was okay. Meh. After seeing the trailer, I was primed, but most of the best parts of the movie were verbatim from the trailer. The set-up was wonky for their fight and ultimately didn’t pay off like I would have hoped. I don’t want to dissect the movie too much, but I’ll say I had a number of issues with the movie, but ultimately I would say I enjoyed it. More good than bad. But…

In both the case of dc Talk and BvS, the case is clear. They OVERPROMISED and UNDERDELIVERED.

Now…let’s crack open Captain America: Civil War. In many ways this is a response to DC’s BvS tale. The top two heroes in Marvel’s Universe going at it and fracturing their teams apart. Unlike in DC’s movie, the folks at Marvel accomplished a phenomenal feat — a highly entertaining and intelligent action movie. And the trailer? It was great, but it left SO much for audiences to unpack for themselves.

If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about, but the Airport scene in Germany…in the trailer it is really given the briefest of mentions. But that scene. That scene. In 17 minutes they gave us everything that BvS didn’t.

But even then the movie kept giving and giving and giving. The final act was emotionally brutal and in its own way, even more thrilling than all the action that preceded it.

Marvel OVERDELIVERED.

And thus, I come away from these three events with this lesson: When you are giving an audience something, don’t promise what you can’t deliver. If you’ve got the goods, the audience will find usually find you anyway, so try not to overpromise.

There are a number of other lessons to be learned from the releases of these two movies, but we’ll stay away from those today. Instead, just make sure that if you are going to promise the world, you deliver what the audience expects.

Perception is Reality

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When I was taking radio broadcasting classes in college, I was taught one thing that has stuck with me, even as I left broadcasting behind.

Perception is Reality.

I think there is a lot of truth to that. We create perceptions in the minds of other people and in their mind, the truth is born. Case in point — when we were taught this, the example we learned was about the noontime show on the college’s radio station. The show was called “Lunchtime Diner” so something like that. Whenever there was not the current radio singles playing, the DJ would be talking with diner noise in the background. The noise was pre-recorded and you could hear people talking, busboys cleaning up tables, forks and knives clinking — you know, diner noise. All prerecorded.

Yet the station would get call after call asking what restaurant the show was live broadcasting from. Listeners wanted to go there and eat while we broadcast this show. All just movie magic with a pre-recorded track playing while a guy talks between songs.

Perception is Reality.

We made a scene in people’s minds with a few simple tools and tricks and people were CONVINCED this restaurant was real.

How can we take this and spin it forward? If we can do this with a stupid pre-recorded track (it looped! If you listened closely, you could hear the same diner patron cough over and over!) then what are professionals in the media doing? What about the professionals in…sports? Entertainment? Politics?

Just pause for a moment and think about things that creep into your Facebook or Twitter feed? On a whim, I went through my Facebook feed and jotted down the headlines I saw from any post or video. Here are the first ones I saw:

“This May Shock You: Hillary Clinton is Fundamentally Honest”

“Pet Hedgehogs Who Are A Little Stuck”

“Kesha blasts body shamers in bikini photo”

“No charges against dog owner in mauling death in CA”

“Ebola meth? Police joke nets at least 1 drug arrest”

Maybe you’ve seen some of these stories. With so many of today’s news stories, they are painting a picture from the get-go. There is so little objective journalism anymore simply because they are roping in the readers with an intentionally provocative headline. The media (social and otherwise) is creating a reality that may or may not be there. 

But, maybe you haven’t seen these stories, either. That’s another aspect of our society that we shouldn’t overlook. We are so segmented. Our television choices (or lack thereof), social media, and altogether media consumption reflects that. When I was a kid, we had 4 TV channels, and one was PBS. We may have also had a couple independent channels that showed primarily syndicated shows (if you don’t know what those are, ask your parents). Either way, when you watched a TV show, you could be sure that most of the kids at school were also watching it, or that half of the office could talk about it around the watercooler. How many people watched the finale of M*A*S*H*? LIke a billion? (Quick research says just under 106 million viewers — WOW.) How many people watch Game of Thrones? A great audience for them is…8.1 million people. Less than 10 percent of the audience, yet it is considered to be a HUGE audience. Maybe that’s not right…how about the biggest audience for a network show? The Big Bang Theory averages….just under 15 million viewers.

We have dozens of TV networks, and even then, video games, social media, and other activities are taking numbers away. We get holed up and contained in our own little social bubbles and are CONVINCED that other people feel the same way.

Perception is Reality.

Let’s say the only thing I watch is ESPN. When I go to work, I’m surprised how many people aren’t as enamored as I am with the University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball team, or how Matt Harvey’s elbow will hold up this season. I have a deep knowledge of all things sports, but my knowledge of housing trends on HGTV, of stock prices from Bloomberg, of political races from any of the news networks…all that knowledge is nothing. Just vapor. I would be totally ignorant of all of that. And most people wouldn’t want it any other way. Don’t put politics in my sports! Don’t inject race relations or music or history into my enjoyment of a 3-4 defense!

The more we segment our society, the deeper those divisions get.

When these things overlap, we as a society literally cannot handle it. Look at the protests in Chicago that shut down the Trump rally. Look at any Trump rally. Just look at any debate on Facebook. When people are confronted with an opinion that doesn’t jibe with their preconceived ideas, they FREAK OUT. Names are thrown about — Communists, Socialist, Liberals, Radicals (and those are the ones I can print in good conscience!) — without even knowing what the names mean and without taking a moment to consider the potential truth in the other’s idea.

Thirty years ago, we all would’ve watched the Republican Debate, because it would have been the ONLY thing on TV. Now, we get the highlights in a 30-second clip we get from our most Conservative friend on Facebook, because we were playing Call of Duty, or were watching House of Cards. We’re more interested in a fictional President than the actual one.

What’s the fix?

I don’t know — but if we continue to let the media paint the candidates one way or another without us actually studying the issues for ourselves, we deserve what we get. If we want to choose our next President, we need to actually decide for ourselves what we want. Do we want pithy soundbites that mean nothing? Or do we want actual change?

Remember — Perception is Reality. A lot of people talk about how one candidate says what he means. Fine. Except he means to win the election without caring if he fulfills anything said in this calendar year. We are the generation that grew up with Google. Act like it and use those computer skills. Find the truth. Get past what the world is telling you through the filters on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Even there, you are shown what is “popular,” not always what is correct or what you might want to see.

It’s what you perceive. Is it accurate? Is it reality?

You decide.