The Best Things I Laid Eyes on in 2015

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So a few weeks before Christmas, I put out my “Best of” list for short stories, fully intending to do the same for books and movies and who knows what. Then…I didn’t. But, I don’t want to leave it all hanging out there, so I’m combining lists and putting out a “Best Things I Laid Eyes on in 2015” list. You’ll find movies, books, places, people and more. I tried to think of the entire past calendar year, but I know I missed a thing or two I loved. Forgive me. So…here’s my list:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

bb-8_14e2ad77I’ve seen the newest Star Wars film twice now and yet it seems like we’ve just shaken hands. I can’t even tell you how many times I saw IV, V, and VI as a kid. We had the movies on VHS and I watched them over and over and over. I loved them all and when Lucas re-released them in theatres with the latest effects, my dad made sure all of us kids were sitting in the seats.

Then the Prequels. Ugh. Like so many others I wanted to like them. Like so many others I was disappointed. I barely remember watching them and I know I’ve only seen Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith once each. And I know with the final movie I only saw it so I could say I did. There was no hype. No anticipation. No excitement.

Not so here. There are haters, but they can forget about trying to get me to hate it. It checked all the boxes for me and established new characters I care about. A re-tread? Hardly. Similar storybeats, but so was Harry Potter. So have been stories throughout the ages. I am an unabashed fan and I don’t care who knows.

Weapons of Mass Deception by David Bruns and J.R. Olson

weaponsmass_cvr_lrgBruns and Olson have a great book on their hands, I think. Reading this book brought be right back to the hours and hours I spent reading Tom Clancy’s books when I was in high school and college. Clancy had a knack for telling a complicated story with complex international political ramifications and making me care about it. With Weapons of Mass Deception, Bruns and Olson have done the same. The book is a tremendous achievement and I can only hope that the two coordinate their efforts again to give us more books like this down the road.

Jessica Jones / Daredevil

David-Tennant-Jessica-Jones-Poster-Doctor-Who-BrasilI’m lumping these two together. The first two Marvel properties developed for Netflix and both were daring (pun intended) and showed us a side of Marvel we didn’t know we would ever get on the screen. In Daredevil we got a great introduction to the dirty underbelly of New York and were made aware early on that anything goes. Daredevil showed us that in violence, but keeping with the theme of Murdock’s blindness, a lot was kept in the dark and at night. That violence was brought to light big time in Jessica Jones. I loved Jessica Jones. I think I liked it better than Daredevil and that is saying a lot. As a father of a pre-teen girl, I am worried about the world she’ll grow up in and the boys she may date. As a high school teacher, I see a lot of borderline abusive relationships as well. In Jessica Jones, we see those relationships personified in the villain Kilgrave. What a performance and in a way it’s a shame what the end result was for his character. I’m looking forward to what Marvel and Netflix will be cooking up for us in 2016.

Chicago Architectural Tour

BoatTour2_NatalieTaylorI went on a school trip to Chicago early in the summer and one of the things we did was this. If you ever get the chance, it is a great trip up and down the Chicago River with historical context for nearly every one of the buildings along the shore. There is a lot of new building going on and the new Trump Tower gets its fair share of criticism, but I daresay that is part of what has spurred the new developments along the route. The day we went ended up being a lot colder than we anticipated, but I still wound up fascinated by what I saw and heard along the tour.

Constitution/Warrior by Nick Webb

warriorThese books were great. So great that when I was buying Christmas gifts, I bought them in paperback for my dad. He’s hard to shop for, but he’s a military space sci-fi nut, so I knew I was safe with these books. I enjoyed Constitution, but I wasn’t sure what Webb would give us in the follow up. Wow. He really set up a complex and interesting backstory for each side in the conflict (and there are many more than two) and set up a potentially explosive third book in this series. If you like action and intrigue in your science fiction, check out Nick Webb’s books.

Ant Man

The last movie I remember smiling about so much in the theatre before Star Wars was Ant Man. Such a great movie. Really impressed me with its humor and vibe. Just as Daredevil and Jessica Jones redefined Marvel for the TV audience, so did Ant Man for films after the success of Guardians of the Galaxy. I love the nods to Avengers and how it all fits in with the larger universe without feeling too small.

My Newest Book Cover

Coming Soon…. Check this out:

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The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott

I’d read the book by Andy Weir last year so I can’t credit that here, but the movie exceeded all my expectations. I have been burned too many times by books turned into terrible movies, and so when Scott managed to turn The Martian into not only a decent movie, but a GREAT movie, I was thrilled. Matt Damon did a fantastic job and I thought the changes made from book to film were slight and appropriate for the conversion to the movie theatre.

ALL the short stories

11160045_10207031928225789_1011873126454258904_oI read a lot of short stories in 2015. A LOT. I already did my Best of list for just short stories, so I’m not going to rehash them here, but if you like short fiction, you need to check out the Future Chronicles curated by Samuel Peralta. Some great works by a lot of amazing authors. (Myself included, Full Disclosure.)

My Family

Over the summer I had the opportunity to see a lot of family. My wife and I went on a joint vacation to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge with her parents. Unlike some, I do like my in-laws and we had a great kick-off to the summer and good stories for years to come.

We also had a family reunion for my family. My sister lives a couple states away and my older brother is over 2,000 miles away, so getting us all together is easier said than done. Fortunately it worked out and we all met at my parents’ home for a few days. Unfortunately, my 99-year-old grandmother passed away in North Dakota the same week, sending my parents off to handle that business. All of my siblings were able to make it for the funeral, but it did put a bit of a damper on the overall summer get-together. Regardless, it was a great time to see people I don’t typically get to see.

The Dark Man/The White Night by Desmond Doane

26105206A different kind of books than Webb’s offerings, but still just as compelling. If I was going to put out a Best Books of 2016 list, I really think The White Night would have held the top spot. Who is Desmond Doane? That’s the penname for Ernie Lindsey, an accomplished author on his own, but for these horror/supernatural books, he wanted a little edge he couldn’t provide as himself, so Desmond Doane was born. The first book is good, but the second…man, I couldn’t put it down. There was a moment – and you’ll get there too – when I read it and I had to send a message to Ernie cursing him out for what he did to me. I couldn’t wait to write up my review for it and I am strongly anticipating the third book in his Graveyard: Classified series in 2016.

Humbird Cheese, Toma, Wisconsin

humbird-cheese-mart-910750A must stop on our family trips to North Dakota. On our way up for the funeral, we had to stop here. If you love cheese, this is a great place with free samples of nearly all the varieties of cheese. Me? I love a good smoked cheddar and buffalo wing-flavored cheese curds.

Collider Movie Talk on YouTube

We ditched the Dish this year. After over 10 years with either Dish Network or DirecTV, we finally cut the cord so to speak. We rely on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu for most of our traditional TV viewing. However, I’ve come to expect one show each day – Collider Movie Talk on YouTube. Each day, John Campea leads a panel discussion show to discuss movie reviews, box office returns and general movie news. It isn’t dry – each of the hosts have their own unique brand of humor and their passion of movies and genre movies in particular is infectious. In addition to Movie Talk, they also produce weekly shows for comics (Heroes) and Star Wars (Jedi Council) as well as a plethora of TV show recap episodes. If you like entertainment news that isn’t just Kardashian this and Kanye that, check this out.

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How Am I Different Than Before 9/11?

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black-nwr-9-11-never-forget11With this year’s anniversary of 9/11, I didn’t necessarily want to just rehash where I was on that date (although I’ll never forget working at WONU-FM as a morning show producer watching it all happen and then helping to report it on a radio station). I’ve been down that road repeatedly. It is helpful to revisit the past and to understand we all share a similar story from that day. We can all remember where we were…what we were doing…how we felt.

But what I wanted to spend a few minutes today on was who I was then compared to who I am now. In a way it’s a very difficult assignment. The lives we lead are continuous, leading us constantly along an edge — a cliff — of who we are now compared to who we used to be. But I think I can accurately answer some things about the “me from the past.”

I always loved history and geography (I teach both of those subjects at the high school level now), but what 9/11 did for me was open my eyes to the lives of those in these strange and distant lands. Sure, there was the initial hate and desire for revenge, but we also were able to see the women and children who had been kept in a state of fear and repression in the old Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. We were suddenly made aware of the oppressive governments in the Middle East — some that operated from a basis of Islam, and some that merely used Islam as an excuse, a smokescreen.

At the time, I was a newly-minted college graduate. I had mastered four years of post-secondary education and came out on top. I knew what I needed to know to make it in this world, and then 9/11 came and shook me to the core. Who were these people that had spent years planning and plotting to kill and hurt us? You could easily dismiss them as simple radicals who operated outside of their religion (and for the most part be correct), but by slapping a label on them you would be ignoring the reality of their lives. You would be ignoring what led to their feeling of hopelessness so much that they felt they needed to lash out at America.

Out of the discovery of what was actually in the Middle East, what happened? Many things — invasions and wars. Some may have been justified, some not. That isn’t a discussion for today, but ultimately what those 19 terrorists started 14 years ago has led eventually to Saddam Hussein being taken out of power in Iraq. It’s led to the Arab Spring were numerous despots saw their power they held get taken away from them. It’s led even today to the Refugee Crisis that has dominated the news lately. Our actions do not happen in a vacuum. They have long and sometimes unintended consequences. Did the terrorists hope to destroy and cripple the U.S. 14 years ago? I believe they did. In the end, if they could see the chaos they unleashed in the Middle East, would they repeat their actions? I’m not so sure.

But again, as I look at myself and the person I am today, I know that the events of that day changed me. I became more empathetic. I saw people on TV as people. When I saw the grainy forms falling from the Twin Towers, I cried for those who felt no other option than to plunge hundreds of feet to their deaths. When I saw the anguish from family members searching in vain for those who would never return home, I couldn’t stop my emotions from getting the best of me.

And why would I want to?

It hurt when I saw those things. I wanted to cry with every additional second I watched television that day and the next few days. I felt an emptiness in my stomach for the lives that were shattered and broken on that day. But for all the pain I felt, I am grateful. I am a changed man, discovering a world outside of my own shell. Before that day, I mostly was concerned with myself. In this post-9/11 world, I think I have more sensitivity to the pain around me. And that pain, while it hurts in the moment, leads to more compassion, more love, more of what it really means to be a human. Not just an American, but human. Our nationalities are an accident of birth. I am lucky beyond belief to be a native of this country, but what if I had been born in North Korea, or Afghanistan, or Liberia? How are they deemed less worthy of a life than me just because of the country of origin?

I suppose in some ways, this also helped open my eyes to adoption as well. I was still three years away from being a father for the first time, but after that, my wife and I decided adoption was what we wanted to do for our second child. In a pre-9/11 world where I was oblivious to the plight of the areas of Not-America, would I have done this? I don’t know, but somehow I doubt it. And my life is richer for it. Some of the moments in the adoption process were difficult, but at the same time, I am not sure I would have made it though them were it not for the emotions I felt as I sat in front of a TV 14 years ago.

Today I spoke to one of my classes about 9/11. I thought I would make it through just fine, especially since the seniors in high school were just 4 years old when it happened. We didn’t share the event. But as I spoke and the room quieted down, I realized the trauma is still with me. As it is with most every American who went through that day. I don’t like it, but I don’t want to give that up, either. As John Green has said, “That’s the thing about pain, it demands to be felt.” I got choked up talking about what I experienced on that Tuesday, but it helped make me into who I am.

How am I different? I’ve changed in so many ways it is just ingrained in me. Of course, I would never wish 9/11 to happen, but with it, I believe it helped transform me into the man I am. My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone on this day. #neverforget

9/11 — A Date That Will Forever Live

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September 11.

Throughout my life, a number of dates have been important. Only a few have brought about immediate associations and most of them have been happy and pleasant. December 25. January 1. March 17. July 4. October 31.

I’m sure I could come up with a few others, including my birthday, but regardless, there aren’t many dates that leave me feeling anxious and feeling melancholy. December 7 – Pearl Harbor Day. For sure, that was one, but the events in Hawaii were so distant by the time I was growing up, I never associated much with that date, other than the start of WWII.

But, September 11. Already, you’ve got thoughts running through your head. It may be visions of airplanes crashing into supposedly indestructible buildings. Perhaps you see people running through the streets of New York, covered in ash and rubble. Maybe it’s the candlelight vigils that took place all around the country that evening or the visual of firefighters raising an American flag at Ground Zero.

We’ve all got those memories. Thanks to modern-day media, we all can share in the memories of that day.

Me?

I had just graduated from college months earlier, but stayed in the area and worked basically as a graduate assistant at WONU, the college’s radio station outside Chicago. My wife had to finish up her student teaching, so I needed a job and they were wonderful in keeping me on for another year after graduation.

In the fall, of 2001, I was working as a Morning Show Producer – gathering information for the on-air personalities. While our signal went into Chicago, we didn’t have a huge audience. That meant that in September of that year, we were still behind a little technologically. We didn’t have a TV at the station. Not until that day.

As soon as a few listeners called in with the news, the morning weather guy ran to get a TV from his office and hooked it up in the hall just outside the studio. We had it on for a few minutes and then the second plane hit the towers.

We were gutted. How could this be happening?

The rest of the day is a bit of a haze at this point, but I remember we set up a few more TVs and most of the day I found myself stopping to watch the tragedies unfold across the country. We were all amazed that this could be happening – here in our country. Wordless…silent…we watched as the shape of our country changed before our eyes. The early thoughts of a commuter plane or of an accident faded as it became clear that America was under attack.

In the years since, the memories have faded, but the emotions are still vibrant when the anniversary comes around each year. I am a teacher now and every year my students’ memories are more and more distant. This year I have students that were between 2 and 6 on that day. To them, it is now history. To me, it was an important event – a milestone that affected my life forever.