Ruby Sparks Romance

Ruby Sparks is the story of an agoraphobic writer who peaked too soon, and finds new inspiration when he writes (types) his dream girl into life. Literally.

Calvin (Paul Dano) wrote a novel to rival Catcher in the Rye when he was a teenager. Ten years later, his only friends are his brother and sister-in-law and his pet dog, Scotty. And he is creatively blocked to the point that he is seeing a therapist (Elliott Gould).

In his sessions with his therapist, Calvin reveals that he has a recurring dream about a cute, red-headed girl named Ruby Sparks. His therapist recommends writing about her to see if it will unblock him. Calvin complies, at first reluctantly, but then in torrents of creative energy (sparks).

One morning he comes down the stairs of his apartment to discover Ruby cooking him breakfast. At first, he believes he’s just hallucinating her, but soon he discovers that other people can also see her, and she is indeed real. In fact, not only is she real, but he can control some of her actions, and even her underlying personality by typing new pages about her.

Sounds like every man’s dream come true, right? Not exactly. Calvin soon discovers that the power to control another human being, particularly his soulmate, is a Russian nesting doll of Catch-22s. Trying to make her happy makes her manic, trying to make her exclusively his makes her clingy. His every attempt to improve her destroys a little bit more of what drew him to her in the first place.

In this aspect, the movie is reminiscent of one of my favorite short stories: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” in which removing the “blemishes” of the beloved only serves to dissolve her.

You might be thinking at this point, haven’t we heard this story again and again ad nauseum? It’s the old Pygmalion project rearing it’s wizened head again, right? Ruby Sparks is just a Galatea or Eliza Doolittle for a new generation, right? Can’t we just say don’t try to change the people you love, and be done with it?

Fortunately, Ruby Sparks adds a new wrinkle: a female screenwriter. Zoe Kazan—in a case of life imitating art—wrote the script, and plays the title character, staring alongside her actual boyfriend, Paul Dano. Ruby is not some caricature of a woman with her inhibitions removed. She is a fully-realized woman written by a woman. She is disturbed by the strange power Calvin seems to wield over her. She scolds him when he shuns his mom’s boyfriend’s good-natured efforts to make nice with him. She feels smothered. She makes friends and has a life outside of Calvin’s apartment.

Furthermore, the movie is directed by the husband and wife team that brought us Little Miss Sunshine. This is no mere speculative exercise. This is couples therapy. I can only imagine the actual arguments and tender moments of the respective couples that inspired scenes from the movie. There seems to be an honest wrestling with the complexity of love between the sexes.

Just as Little Miss Sunshine was less a story about a little girl’s beauty pageant and more about the deeper bonds that overcome the dysfunctions of family life, Ruby Sparks is less a morality tale about a lover’s quest for the perfect mate, and more about a writer learning to live outside the pages of his typewriter.

Calvin has become so self-absorbed he has shut out the people who care about him. Ruby is just another one of the many characters who populate his life. He interacts with his friends, family, publicist, and ex-girlfriend only on his terms. When they are not serving his purposes they are forgotten, only to be remembered when he needs them again. Given an unprecedented amount of control over the life of another, he begins to realize how selfish he has become.

In a pivotal scene, Calvin forces Ruby to tell him he is a genius over and over again until she’s exhausted. This is significant because up until this point he has contradicted anyone who has called him a genius. But as he watches Ruby worship him, the deception of his false modesty slowly crumbles, and he sees the ugliness within. Will he take the opportunity to change, and begin to free the people in his life to be who they are, or will he descend deeper into his growing isolation?

Ruby Sparks expertly balances such heavy scenes of soul-searching with an undercurrent of refreshing levity. The color palette is bright and cheerful, and the score by Nick Urata is both whimsical and sublime. Strings and trumpets and bombastic timpanis soar to the idealistic heights of infatuation and explore the quiet moments of sated love that simply enjoys the silent presence a lover. Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano successfully translate their off-screen chemistry to the movie.

Ruby Sparks isn’t perfect—the plot feels a bit linear, some of the narration can give it a 500 Days of Summer style heavy-handedness, and several of the minor characters are a bit flat and unrealized—but then again, love rarely is.

Note: This movie is rated “R” for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use. 

(photocredit)

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Walking on Holy Ground

A Men of Integrity article I wrote last year:

A couple months ago I was standing in Jerusalem at the Garden Tomb. It was the last stop after a week of touring the Holy Land. My group spent most of its time seeing the sites of Jesus’ ministry in northern Israel, with the Dead Sea, Qumran, and Masada thrown in.

Along the way, we befriended fellow pilgrims like the men of a Congolese church in Dublin we met in Galilee. When they found out we were also “born again,” they gave us bear hugs, shouting “brother!” and “sister!” At Cana we met a Japanese woman with a church from Canada. She wept when she heard we were praying for Japan, hit by an earthquake and tsunami. We were all pilgrims traveling together on the road to holy sites.

The word pilgrim feels funny on Protestant lips. It makes me think of Islamic pilgrimages to Mecca, or Catholics visiting shrines to venerate relics, or John Bunyan’s allegory. What does pilgrimage mean for a modern day Protestant? The concept of “thin places” is a helpful starting point.

Being Supersuit

For years of my childhood, my friend Chris and I would have hours-long G.I. Joe battles. We invented complex character traits for all the action figures. For example, the ironically named, Guile, was the loose cannon who was always threatening to trick or abandon the team. He was a loner (come to think of it, Chris always made his action figures “the loner.” X-Men’s Wolverine was one of his favorites). But the Joes would always reel him in just in time to ambush the evil Cobra forces … by driving a school bus right into the teeth of heavy machine gun fire from Cobras occupying the elevated position of the bookcase. My tactical understanding at that time was on par with Lord Cardigan, who commanded the charge of the Light Brigade. No matter. The Joes always prevailed in the end.

Sometimes instead of G. I. Joes, it was superhero action figures. Sometimes it was just the two of us inventing elaborate stories of our meteoric rise to NBA superstardom on my driveway basketball hoop. Sometimes we lived in the virtual space of video games. But as often happens with childhood friends, it wasn’t meant to last. Chris’ family moved to Arkansas and I did less and less imagining.

Before Chris, there was my sister, Jennifer. On land we were Jonathan and Jennifer, brother and sister dynamic duo, but when we put on bathing suits and jumped into our grandparents’ community pool, we transformed into the aquatic superheroes Supersuit and Buddy—oddly fitting alter egos in a universe populated by prosaically named superheroes like Super-man, Bat-man, Spider-man, Iron-man, Ant-man … need I go on?

My superpowers consisted mostly of doing chin-ups on the railing of the wheelchair ramp, aided by the buoyancy of pool water; or swimming underwater between my dad’s legs; or doing handstands. Her superpowers consisted of copying me. If we were feeling particularly brave, we would challenge the imaginary pool sharks hidden in the murky fathoms of the deep end of the pool. We were a poor man’s Batman and Robin, if the poor man were a merman. As we got older Supersuit and Buddy hung up our oversize trunks and frilly tie-dyed onepiece and became regular citizens. Without their fearless heroes, the retirement community of Tucson, Arizona is probably being terrorized by pool sharks to this day.

When I was in middle school, my parents took me to a garage sale, where I discovered stacks of Spider-man and Captain America comics from the 70’s, the “bronze age” of comics. I think the woman at the table was eager to get rid of them, or maybe she just saw the glimmer of longing in my eyes, cause I got a huge stack of them for $10. I read and re-read those comics, imbibing the delicious mythology.

I related most to Spider-man. He was like me: a shy, insecure nerd. But when he put on that red and blue bodysuit with the plump red spider design on the back, he had all the answers. I imagine on weekends he turned that bodysuit inside out and became the faceless neon green man who shows up at every tailgate event. But those weekend escapades never made it into the comic books, just the serious crime-fighting of a man in a leotard: the superhero’s business casual.

He was so free, swinging through the city on his homespun strands of web. His acrobatic battles with the likes of Dr. Octopus, The Vulture, and The Green Goblin were epic.  More often than not, it was his mind and not his muscles that saved the day. I got him. And I lived out my wildest superhero dreams through him.

I don’t mean to brag, but when I was a kid I could imagine with the best of them. When you’re an introvert a top-of-the-line imagination is a must. I’ve since traded my imagination in for bad puns and big words—and we think kids make bad trades. Bamboozled by linguistic legerdemain again! Holy Adam West!

But every once in awhile, something happens that makes this boy tear off his man suit with all its overseriousness and stuffy alliteration, and don the colorful duds of boyhood again. The Greater Chicago Snowpacolypse© did it to me last year. The movie Cool Runnings does it to me. Hanging out with little kids does it to me. Riding roller coasters does it to me. Being around women does it to me … hmm … no wonder I’m single …

It happened again a couple weeks ago when I saw The Avengers on opening night. As I was picking up the tickets I reserved for my buddies and myself, the Avengers themselves walked through the doors of the theater; or rather, adults dressed up like the Avengers walked through the doors. These weren’t cheap cardboard cutout costumes they were wearing, but serious Marvel brand business casual. They had either bought them from some Hollywood overstock prop warehouse or fashioned them in their basements with meticulous care. These people were Comic-Connies, and they perfectly set the mood of childlike whimsy.

The movie itself was sheer bliss; a convergence of sorts: childhood superheroes, meet masterful storyteller. I drank deeply from a vintage draught of fun distilled from the summers of my youth. The characters were compelling and winsome. The good guys were good guys, the bad guys were bad guys. The infighting of the superheroes was hilarious: comically futile battles between indestructible characters. And the electric synnergy of teaming up so many superheroes in one movie will make me feel the lack in future one-hero movies.

The expansive aerial battle scenes captured the thrilling velocity of a roller coaster, yet avoided the incomprehensible messiness of a Transformers battle scene. And throughout, there was an undercurrent of knowing glances and nods to a community that shares the common language of childhood. Several times, I felt myself involuntarily grinning, the boy inside coming to the surface. The Avengers took me back to the world of my childhood; back to a world where heroes always prevail.

Image credit: Unsplash/Phoebe Dill

Just a Moment

Glass is a liquid. I can’t see it, but the pane is sagging under the weight of gravity ever so slightly. In a few hundred years it’ll be pudgy at the midsection—if the library surrounding it lasts that long. From my chair, all I see is a transparent wall separating me from Adams Park. I view the world like it’s trapped in an aquarium. Or am I in the aquarium? A magazine lies spread on my lap, but for this moment I’m in my head again. I can almost lose myself, eyes focused on what’s outside—trees and sidewalks and streets interlocked—as if this moment were all there is. I am just sun-warmth and breath, like a pie cooling on a windowsill.

I’ve just read in an article from The Atlantic on how lonely we’ve become: the Facebook generation. But I’m not lonely. I’m just alone. A fish in an aquarium above the street. The room I’m in is a shrine to reading. Some study, some read, some simply stare with an unnerving focus that wipes expression from their faces. I wonder about their stories. Why, like me, have they chosen to cool next to the window overlooking the sidewalk below?

I’ve put my cellphone away, so time isn’t passing. Time flows, but just like with the glass, I can’t tell. Not when everything around me moves so slowly.  Not without ticking clocks or anxious thoughts or rushing people. It seems to just stand still—a moment, a photograph, a single frame.

This is where I dwell most comfortably, in this timeless state, so immersed that I’m not even aware I’m immersed. Does a fish know it swims? Like fish, we all float through this vast universe, unaware that gravity is working on us. We can’t see the strings. We can’t see the gears inside the watch. We can’t see the picture flickering at 24 frames per second. But it is.

We can try to pretend that this world spins more slowly than our minds, but it just keeps spinning. While we try to vivisect it, it keeps going. While we hold up a magnifying glass, it moves beneath us. While I try to explain what’s happening, it is. We must learn to live in the moment. It’s all we have. We do all of our living and learning and loving and losing in the moment. Memories are the archival footage you can’t change and the future is a London fog.

How many hours have I spent robbing the present so I could pay for a glance forwards or backwards? We carry the past with us, there’s no need to backtrack. And trying to gaze into the future only makes us dizzy with all of the unactualized possibilities. Dwelling in the present is an act of faith. It requires letting go—of the impulse to hang onto the past as well as the need to control the future. It’s simply living in the moment and trusting that God will not waste your past experiences, that he will reward your faithfulness in the present, and that he is orchestrating your future for the best. For this moment, that’s enough.

A Modest Bestiary

Start small. With the word. The word. The Word.
Sentences grow from words coupled. Words reproduce as they are wont.
Thoughts grow from sentences lifted from the page.
Dreams are thoughts’ uninhibited cousins,
Making messes thoughts will have to clean up later.
But dreams make life interesting, so thoughts let them stick around.

Dreams also feed thoughts.
Thoughts take bits and pieces of dreams and string them together into
Sentences. The progeny of Words. Words made flesh as they
are written into existence from the mysterious cradle of the mind.
The mind borne of another Mind which spoke it into existence.
Start at the beginning with the word. The word. The Word.

(photocredit)

Who Is My "Neighbor" in a Globally-Connected World?

Kony ’12. It seemed like a good idea at the time. For a day, I was inspired that perhaps change can happen if enough people want it to happen. I believed that we could stop a man who has been kidnapping, raping, murdering, and pillaging his way through Uganda, Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan for a quarter century by raising such a large global outcry that he would be captured and things would be magically fixed. I was ready to buy the kit, ready to spread the word, ready to join the rallies, ready to help create the groundswell to sweep Joseph Kony out of power and into prison.

Then, within a couple days, as is often the case, cooler heads prevailed on me. These articles raise the issues more eloquently and poignantly than I can, so I’ll let the authors speak for themselves. I’ll just say this, creating awareness will not magically bring justice, and it is the height of pride to believe that North Americans can simply throw $30 apiece at a complex issue and expect it will go away. We create more problems than we solve when we buy into the “white savior” swooping in to solve the world’s problems overnight myth.

But far from letting me off the hook, this whole chain of events has forced me to do some deep soul-searching. Why did I care about this issue in the first place? Did I choose it because it was expedient, just a couple clicks here and there necessary? Did the beauty and artistry of the movie manipulate my emotions and bypass my judgement? Did I choose it because it was a sexy issue that would make me look good if I supported it? Did I choose it out of a sense of good old-fashioned Christian guilt? Did I choose it because of my personal battle with the need to “do” and not just “be”? Did I even really care about the people involved or was it just an issue to me?

The truth is, I’m not ready to invest in Uganda long-term. I have no plans to continually give to the cause of rebuilding Uganda. I’m not going to fly over there and get to know the people for whom this is a daily reality and not just the flavor of the week. I saw a movie, was moved, and in effect, pressed the “like” button on the issue. Because all I could promise was solidarity. I couldn’t promise commitment.

And this is the constant dilemma of our globally-connected society. If we cared about every issue we’re aware of enough to throw our weight behind it we’d soon succumb to compassion fatigue. We were not designed to bear the weight of the world like Atlas. And yet, there is a greater danger in the polar opposite: not throwing our weight behind any issue. Apathy is the imitation of death, and the ultimate surrender. So how do we decide what is worth spending our time, energy, money, blood, sweat, tears, gifts, and talents on?

I think one way to get at the answer to this question is to rephrase it and ask, who is my neighbor? You’ll recognize that this very question was asked of Jesus in Luke 10. He responded with the parable of the good Samaritan:

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

There are a lot of things I could say about this passage, but allow me to make three observations related to this discussion:

1. Jesus always prioritizes the person who is immediately in need in front of us.

Call it triage if that’s helpful. If donating to a cause will take something away from someone in more immediate need, you should give it to the person more immediately in need whom you can most directly help at that time (especially if that person is in your physical vicinity). This may mean that you choose to buy groceries for a neighbor who can’t afford them (as someone in my church recently did for a couple struggling young men) rather than donating to an overseas ministry like Invisible Children (if you can afford to do both, then more power to you).

Here’s a practical negative example from my own life. As I was driving to my church to feed the homeless in Chicago with a group of volunteers, I passed a family broken down on the side of the road about a block from my house. I was running late, so I didn’t stop. I think it’s pretty clear that I should have stopped and risked missing the van to Chicago.

2. Jesus expects us to do the work to understand the nature of the need and let that shape our response.

A lot of the criticism being leveled at the Kony ’12 movement is that it misunderstands the nature of the need. Perhaps the money being used to raise awareness and fund making posters and movies and bracelets would be better spent by the people on the ground in Uganda who are rebuilding the country. Furthermore, many feel that military action against Kony would only lead to more bloodshed (as it has in the past), and that there are other, better ways to bring peace and renewal to the region.

For another example, it’s easy to throw money at a homeless person, but often that is not what that person needs. That doesn’t mean you pass up the homeless person and do nothing. Perhaps sharing a meal with them, or buying them a public transportation pass, or simply hearing their story and letting them know you value them as a human created in the image of God is more in line with what they need.

3. Jesus expects us to see it to completion.

“Completion” will mean different things in different contexts. Sometimes, you will be able to solve the problem completely, such as when you help someone change a flat tire. Sometimes, “completion” will mean handing someone or something off to someone who can better help and then following-up later. Sometimes it will mean committing yourself to pursuing a solution to an issue long-term, and perhaps even moving to be closer to the center of the issue.

There is a place for donating money to causes, but we are responsible to know where our money is going and carefully select those who will steward it well (after all we are only stewards of it ourselves). There are several organizations that can help you choose the right one. If you’ll allow me to indulge in some self-promotion for a moment, Christianity Today published a couple helpful articles on the Church’s role in fighting global poverty and the effectiveness of popular methods that are generating lots of helpful responses.

So, who is my neighbor?

I want to humbly submit that our primary responsibility is to the neighbors God puts in our way daily. That may be the neighbor we regularly see or the neighbor we only see once in a lifetime. We have to be ready to drop everything to help when the need arises.

Our secondary responsibility is to the neighbors we “choose.” These are the tricky ones. These are the ones we may never see face-to-face: the sponsored children, the orphans, the refugees, the political prisoners, the persecuted minorities, the survivors of war, the hungry, the poor, the foreigners. They are tricky because they can become faceless masses or simply remain a face on a postcard. They can be a source of smug satisfaction (if we do something for them) or vague, relentless guilt (if we don’t). The temptation is to simply throw money at them to solve their problems. But they are more than their problems. They are people. If we decide to help them, we must commit to understand their situation. We cannot know our neighbors’ needs unless we know our neighbors.

All this to say, if you decide to give to Invisible Children and support the cause of Kony ’12, do it with my blessing. It would be wonderful to see a man with a shockingly warped mind who is guilty of such heart-wrenching atrocities be brought to justice. But if you do give, please be sure you know why you are doing it. Bringing Kony to justice will not be as quick, simple, and violence-free as the movie implies. We see but through a glass darkly, and do not know the full repercussions of bringing down a warlord (see Iraq/Afghanistan). Ultimately vengeance and justice are in the Lord’s hands. We are simply called to love.

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