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Lead Role Cast

“Bella Morte” Lead Role

“Bella Morte” (Beautiful Death) is my next project, once Season 1 of “Shepard” wraps in October.  It explores the life of a beautiful femme fatale, Jaiyana, as she is forcibly drawn out of retirement and hired to take on one final hit.  Even though I’m still refining the script for this short, I’ve had the rare pleasure of already casting the lead role.

Those of you who have directed anything, stage or screen, know that casting a project can be both incredibly exciting and very challenging.  Sure there are casting directors and talent agencies to help narrow down the choices for you, but ultimately it comes down to matching that vision of a character in your head, with actual, physical people in the room next to you, patiently awaiting their turn to audition.  This also means keeping an open mind about it.  You may have to compromise on that vision to a degree.  But sometimes that’s when the greatest magic happens.

While casting “Shepard” I was met with tremendous good fortune.  I was fortunate enough to be able to offer two roles the very same night as the auditions.  The actors were just that good, and that perfect for the roles for which they auditioned.  I very nearly was able to offer a third that night as well, the role of Jamie.  We had two strong contenders for the part, so I decided to do callbacks for them both and see how it would go.  Once we got rolling, the choice was obvious.  And honestly, it had been my gut instinct from the start.

Megan von Wertman is a versatile actress.  She auditioned for two roles originally: Jamie, and Shayla.  These two characters are so diametrically opposed to each other, I was actually surprised to see she wanted to take them both on.  Far more common was to audition for Allyson and Jamie – characters that were more similar to each other.  Megan could have easily handled either role, but I was very compelled by what she brought to Jamie.

Most times, the “quiet” girl comes off as being fairly bland.  But Jamie, in Megan’s hands, leapt right off the page, right off the screen.  Finding a pretty girl to fill a role like that is easy.  But finding one who can infuse a character with so much personality – especially given the brevity of the character’s sides – is much more challenging.

It was also about that time I noticed that Megan’s versatility could make her the perfect candidate for Jaiyana, the assassin brought out of retirement in “Bella Morte.” Jaiyana is a challenging role, to say the least.  There’s a lot more to her than just being a patient, precise killer.  So much more, in fact, that to divulge even the slightest detail would utterly spoil the film.  She has a lot of pain and grief to carry with her, and a profound sorrow that most people cannot begin to imagine.  If there is a place more tormentuous than hell, that is where Jaiyana resides.  But there’s also a humanity to her, a spark that makes her relatable, sympathetic to the viewer.  To have already met the person capable of tackling that broad range at this early stage is definitely a pleasant surprise.

It’s a rare treat at this level to have such consistent good fortune in casting.  I couldn’t be more pleased with my cast for Shepard – every one of them is exactly right for their roles.  And now, Bella Morte is starting things off in the same way.  Although we’re months from rolling cameras on this exciting short film, I greatly anticipate seeing Megan’s Jaiyana in action.

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Character Profile: Jason Shepard

“These kids aren’t my problem.”

It’s hard to imagine such a calloused and self-centered individual had such humble beginnings, but such is the case for Jason Shepard.  Born into a single-bedroom apartment (literally; his mother couldn’t afford insurance and had him at home), Jason grew up without luxuries like toys, disposable diapers, or medical care.  His mother worked three jobs to provide for them, after his father walked out soon after he was born.

Jason attended a poorly rated public school, where he was mocked behind his back for his limited wardrobe and the lack of a hot shower every day.  The constant taunting led to many fights and an ever-increasing build-up of anger and frustration.

Yet at home, Jason seemed content.  He enjoyed spending time with his mother at least once a week, and spent the rest of the time plucking away at a guitar she had bought him at a yard sale.  It was his most prized possession, and on it, he taught himself how to emulate the sounds around him.  He spent hours listening to the rock stations on the radio and picking out the tunes, then playing them himself.

Unfortunately, one of his mother’s job was working in a local mill, where she contracted a serious lung disease that prevented her from working.  After a friend offered legal counsel, she sued the company and the money won from the lawsuit allowed her to finally give Jason the kind of house and life she had always wanted for him.

High school turned things around for Jason.  His mother – with her health deteriorating – invested some of the money from the lawsuit and managed to make enough to provide for herself and Jason for a long, long time.  No longer ridiculed, Jason reveled in newfound popularity due in part to his impressive guitar skills.

Jason found himself escaping more and more into his music as his mother’s health declined.  He began writing songs, putting the lyrics to paper and then making up the tune as he went.  He also began casually dating Amber DiSoltes, a fellow Senior.  His mother had desperately wanted to see her son attend his Senior Prom, so he took Amber.  She told him how happy she was and how proud she was of him, giving him a strangely long embrace before he departed.

The next morning, Jason returned home to find his mother had died in her sleep.  He was devastated. He was invited to stay with his grandparents, but chose to move to New York instead, in the hopes of escaping his old life and pursuing a music career.  He left Saint Paul without so much as a goodbye, refusing even to take part at his own graduation.

Working as a Taxi driver in New York, Jason met up with Silas Bishop, a fellow aspiring musician.  Silas was playing a gig at a night club with his partner, Nathan “Nate” Reinke.  Their third man cancelled at the last minute, and Jason – who overheard this on a cell phone while driving the two to their engagement – offered his services.

The trio performed a few cover songs, and a few tracks written by Silas and Nate (which Jason picked up on after hearing the recordings just once).  By the end of the night, people were asking for EP’s and demos.  Silas and Nate offered Jason the job permanently, and Damned Azkus was born.

The band met with great success, eventually signing on with Interscope Records.  The band kicked off a brief tour in the Northeast to celebrate.  The album was a regional success, and a world tour was in the works.  Meanwhile, Jason had married Katherine “Kat” Veneziano.  A groupie for the band from age 16, she fell in love with Jason and married when she turned 18.

Twin boys soon followed, and “Kat” ended up leaving the road life to raise the kids.  Jason grew more and more distant, unable to find satisfaction at home or abroad.  He turned to drinking, had several affairs, and fell into a deep depression.  This life wasn’t what he had hoped it would be, and he had no hope left for any other kind of life.

After a late show one night, Jason took a groupie back to the hotel with him. Both were seriously drunk, and the girl, Tiffany, decided she didn’t want to wait until they were back in the hotel.  She climbed atop Jason, and the subsequent coupling resulted in a terrible car accident.  A piece of shattered windshield nearly tore Jason’s hand off.

After surgery, he was told his nerves were shot. He could never play guitar again.  The band was unable to find a replacement and their future deteriorated.  When Kat found out how the accident had happened, she took the kids and left.  Jason was utterly alone once more.  He spent several weeks in rehab only to fall back into old habits.  He landed in jail, lost his license, got it back, and repeated the cycle.

Perhaps it was fate that Jason ended up taking a trip into Virginia.  He had been drinking again, and was pulled over and arrested near Saint Paul. The arresting officer recognized him, and made a phone call on his behalf.  Jason went before Judge Harold Slate and was sentenced to community service, in the hopes of rehabilitating him.

Though he’s had a difficult life, it’s hard to feel sorry for Jason. Most of his current troubles are his own doing, and he doesn’t seem to care or look out for anyone but himself.  Yet deep down, there is a small part of him that is still that sad, lonely little boy who had only a guitar and a loving mother to get him through each day.

Fate has a funny way of bringing things full circle, and of forcuing us to confront the ghosts of a past we thought we left behind.  And so it goes with Jason Shepard, now standing at the beginning of a journey that will bring him face to face with shadows of his past and that will change his future forever.

 

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Enter, the Shepard

Welcome to Saint Paul, Virginia.

Nothing ever happens here.  Until the day Jason Shepard comes home.

“Shepard” is my first major creative effort outside of film school, and my first attempt at a web series.  It chronicles the story of Jason Shepard, a one-time rockstar who has lost everything to a string of bad decisions and run-ins with the law (both of which involving copious amounts of alcohol).  After he is cut a break by a sympathetic judge, he finds himself back home, facing a lengthy community service sentence at an old church on the verge of closing its doors.

Inspiration for this story came from a number of places.  I’ve always enjoyed the idea of returning to what you’ve left behind and facing your past.  It’s not an unfamiliar story, that’s true. But the thing about “homecoming” stories is that they are as varied and unique as the individuals who populate their worlds.

Jason doesn’t have much left at home. No family, and no friends.  Just one lingering connection, in the form of an old high school flame that he walked out on after the prom.  And, one new connection, in the form of an aging and very much atypical church pastor, who seems to think Jason would be well-suited for the task of working with the youth group.

I didn’t honestly expect much to come from this series at first.  It seemed like a neat idea, but I never planned on taking it anywhere.  The nascence really came from my own church pastor asking me to work with the youth at our church.  It sparked an idea that has since grown into this web series.

We’ve just begun production, and have two full days of work under our belt.  As things continue, I’ll offer production updates and insights on this blog, and we’ll take a look at the unique cast of characters that populate this small but fascinating world.

Until next time!

 

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No, Really

I have to laugh when I think about how many times I’ve sat at this keyboard, or another, and swore to myself that I’d really start blogging more regularly.  My last post was from March, and detailed the travesty that was the Mass Effect 3 ending (which was, in fact, rectified in recent [free!] DLC – thank you, Bioware!).

So here I sit once more, having re-read a great many of my previous posts, wondering if this sort of thing is worth maintaining.  Do I have frequent flashes of insight substantial enough to offer more regular posts here?  Do I follow pop culture closely enough to make relevant observations?

Who knows?

These “I want to post here more often” posts crop up once every few months as some kind of desperate attempt at getting myself “back on track” when it comes to my writing.  The fact is, I am a writer in every sense of the word.  Filmmaking is a hobby of mine, but writing is my passion, that thing I must do or else I will eventually drive myself insane.  It affords me the chance to express feelings otherwise bottled up, the opportunity to share my often unusual opinions, and the satisfaction of getting the various worlds and people in my head out onto paper, to be consumed by others in some form either written or visual.

So, I guess I’m going to get more serious here.  Categorize things better.  Post more often.  And you know it’s going to work, because it’s not a New Year’s resolution.  It’s a new…uh… week?  No.  Y’know what, it doesn’t need a name.  Just some action.

Speaking of action, I’m making a web series.  Yep, already into production on it.  More on that next time.

No, really.  Next time.

 
 

Mass Effect 3: Too Far?

I need to vent about this, badly.  So, I’m doing it here rather than Facebook so I don’t spoil it for my friends still in the trenches.  I know, in the grand scheme of things this will never amount to much.  But it’s upset me tonight and I’m going to deal with those feelings.

I’m completely let down by the ending to Mass Effect 3.

The entire game was perfect.  It hit all the right notes.  It was intense.  Incredible.  Epic beyond compare.  Every moment was golden.

I can handle the Starchild on the citadel.  I can handle the final choice.  I can handle Shepard being fated to die.  Lots of games and films end with the main character being killed, and it makes sense if that’s their story.

Shepard was a solider and a fighter who wouldn’t have much use elsewhere.  I just can’t see her (yes, HER – I play FemShep and I quite enjoy it) settling down long-term somewhere with Liara (yep, went that route, too) to have kids and raise a family.  This is all she knows.  And once you’ve seen these things, they can’t be unseen.  There comes a time when you’re fighting to protect a life you can never go back to, and I suspected as far back as Mass Effect that this would be the case for Shepard.

John Marston is another great example.  It wouldn’t have made sense for him to have a happy ending.  The kind life he lived, the deeds he’d done…those things make a happy ending impossible.  Oddly, one could also look to Frodo Baggins for much the same thing.  Once you’ve experienced that darkness, there’s no going back.

So I’m okay with that.  Shepard has to die to save everyone.  And the brutal final stage with the limping and the blood was all brilliantly, brilliantly executed.  It finally felt like Shepard could really be hurt.  That she wasn’t immortal after all.

I’m even willing to go so far as to be okay with the mass relays being destroyed (though I would prefer they simply go offline like the Reapers did [if you choose to destroy them] rather than blow up, which creates a major inconsistency I’ll speak of later).

The part where it started to not be okay, was when this wave of destruction was chasing the Normandy.

Now, I know that the destruction (or synthesis, or control-wave) targeted mass effect drive cores, which are powered by Eezo.  So it’s possible that this is why the Normandy was being chased.  The problem is, we don’t know this because it’s not put in context.  All we see is Joker freaking out in the cockpit for a few seconds, and then the Normandy is swallowed up.

Fast forward a bit, and they’re on a planet.  If you get a halfway decent ending, you see Joker and EDI emerge (unless you destroyed synthetics, in which case it’s another crew member) and everyone looks out over the horizon.  And if you get the “perfect” ending, you see Shepard’s torso in unnamed rubble somewhere, and it inhales.

My, how it derailed so quickly.

My major problem with this is that, in a game that has redefined the term immersion even more so than its two predecessors, our characters are given the worst possible outcome for everything.  We spent the entire game uniting the GALAXY!  And now, all of the races are stranded on Earth without any ship capable of mass effect.  Wrex will never see his new children born, or oversee the rebuilding of the krogan empire.  Tali will never see Rannoch.  Liara cannot help rebuild Thessia.  Garrus cannot help rebuild Pavalen.  Grunt is also stranded away from his people.

Some may argue that this is an artsy ending that is classy.  Maybe it is.  Maybe it’s poetic and beautiful in its own way.  Life doesn’t always have happy endings.  And if I had invested two hours of my life into watching a film that ended this way, then so be it.  But I didn’t.  I spent dozens – HUNDREDS – of hours of my life in this world, living this story.  And I can unequivocally say that I hated this ending.

Bioware blew it in a number of ways: first and foremost by giving this, the END of a TRILOGY, what is possibly the shortest ending out of all three games.  That’s not what I wanted.  That’s not what ANYone wanted.  We wanted resolution.  We wanted to know that all those hours, fighting for those characters, wasn’t all for nothing.  That the choices we made, and re-made, and re-re-made in subsequent playthroughs had meaning.  Had value that would reach beyond the moment.  Mass Effect 3 was a dark game.  People died, even if you tried to save them.  I only had one “unexpected” loss (Legion), but there was so much oppression and darkness and sadness in this game that it really started to wear on me emotionally.  Which is fine – again, the game redefined immersion.

But it also had a theme of hope.  Hope victory, hope of preserving some piece of who or what we are.  Death, hope, sacrifice.  I get it.  These themes are all intertwined and we saw just about every side of them throughout the game.  And it built up to a very logical finale: Shepard sacrificing herself so that everyone else would continue to have that hope.

But it went too far.  Crashing the Normandy on some random planet, offering no context, no closing dialogue, no big, epic ending to what was a big, epic trilogy… it was the wrong move.  Creatively, the ending works.  But you’re not writing a novel.  You’re not filming an art movie.  You’re making a video game that people are investing many, many hours in.  If you’re going to kill the character they’ve spent 3 years building, you damn well better show us the aftermath.  Not some artsy, poetic aftermath of the Normandy survivors playing Robinson Caruso and populating an entire planet.

So what did I want to see?  More.  I want some questions answered.  And these are questions that should be answers.  Mass Effect is not the sort of game that should have gone out on such a quiet note.  Casey Hudson promised they’d tie up all the loose ends.  But they didn’t at all.

What happened to your squadmates from the end run towards the beam of light?  If they died, we should have seen an enraged Shepard pressing on.  (I had Liara with me – it should have been a major moment.)  I realize she’s focused, but her team has always come first.

Why in the hell, after building up the rivalry throughout ME2 and The Arrival DLC, do we NOT get a confrontation between Shepard and Sovereign?

Why is the crew of the Normandy back on the Normandy?  When we last see them, they were supporting the troops in the base camp before you head out to your final charge.  Am I to understand they abandoned the fight and jumped on the Normandy?

Why is the Normandy anywhere other than Earth?  When we do see the ship, it’s being pursued by a random ball of doom.  If we needed to see this impact, why was it not shown above Earth, with every other Eezo-powered ship meeting the same fate?

Why do we get no scenes of resolution for any of our characters?  This is where they went wrong.  They banked on their brilliance for creating such an artsy, gorgeous ending, without understanding that they basically nullified the first two games, since nothing we do matters him them.  The choices we make affect very little in the big picture.  The ending is always destruction.

This ending should have run for 20 minutes at least.  We should have seen the counsel coping with the destruction of the citadel and the relays, if they’re hellbent on going that route. (While they’re at it, they can explain why the relays blowing up didn’t destroy the system in which they resided, like the so-called Alpha Relay from ME2: The Arrival.)

Or on a happier note, we should have seen the characters returning to their war-torn worlds to rebuild.  But at the very least, we should have seen something.  We should have seen Liara mourning Shepard, inconsolable.  We should have seen the crew giving Shepard and Anderson a proper funeral.

We should have seen the Reapers being dismantled and the broken counsel worlds picking up the pieces.  Which is why the relays shouldn’t have been destroyed, either.  Kill Shepard if you must…but show us how it impacts our crew.  Show us Liara and Samara returning to a broken Thessia.  Show us Wrex and his little krogan babies.  Show us Miranda and her sister trying to live normal lives now that Cerberus is gone and the Illusive Man is dead.

The destruction of the Citadel, the end of the Reapers – this is a MAJOR EFFING EVENT.  It deserves more than a whisper for a send-off that, while lovely, was entirely unsatisfying.  And if we want to do the whole continuation-of-life-into-the-future then let’s flash-forward to Earth – seat of the new counsel (they’ve earned it by now) where Matriarch Liara shows her grandchildren the massive memorial statue of Shepard – which also plays the words she recorded for Shepard in the little black box back on the Normandy (yes, I’m implying Liara is pregnant at the end of ME3).  Or if you romanced Ashley, or Kaiden, do the same with them, but make the kids great-grandkids or something.  It works either way.

Is this all a little cliché?  Maybe.  But it’s eminently more satisfying.

Video games are evolving as an art form.  What works well in one doesn’t translate well to another.  This sort of ending would be great for a film, but it’s unfulfilling for a video game.  Just as films would be a disaster without some kind of narrative structure.  Shooting a novel word for word would be impossible and a giant mess.

In real life, bad things happen.  We don’t always get the ending we want.  But you can only take that message so far before you start pissing off on a practical level.  I’m not going to follow another Bioware franchise for fear of getting burned again – that attitude is running rampant right now.

I don’t fault BioWare for trying something different.  They didn’t know this wouldn’t work.  And even if they’ve had ME4, or some DLC, or a new MMORPG in this universe already planned out to give us answers, we shouldn’t have to buy or play it to be more satisfied with ME3’s ending.  It should stand on its own and be complete.  It should be what it needs to be for the type of story it’s telling, and for the platform on which it is being told.  And it simply is not.

I don’t need to see Shepard’s chestplate breath.  I just want to see the characters I’ve fought for move on with their lives.  They get what they wanted – but it’s not really the same.  There’s plenty of drama and tragedy and sorrow to be had…but also hope – which I am now bereft of.

I don’t expect them to correct this.  They really can’t, unless they retcon the entire thing (which maybe their smartest move) because having Shepard suddenly be alive again would be a total cop-out and degrade her final sacrifice.  Maybe we could get a better, wider-spread epilogue.  But I won’t buy it.  I shouldn’t have to.  It should have been included.

It’s going to take some time to decompress here.  I’ve been playing this game a LOT in the past few days, and I need to let it sink in and get over it and move on.  I’m disappointed and empty and let down.  I hope they try to fix or redeem this somehow, but I don’t think they will, or can.  Which is a shame, because it’s the most brilliant game ever – right up until the complete en

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2012 in Pop Culture, Video Games

 

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Every New Beginning…

From the ashes of the old, the new is born.  So it is with this yearly cycle we celebrate every December 31st.

2011 was definitely a year of personal change, introspection, and growth.

I’ve heard it said that a man truly becomes a man when he loses his father.  I never believed that, until I lost mine in February.  My dad’s unexpected passing has had a profound impact on every aspect of my life, and it’s been a tremendous struggle to move beyond it.  When I was a child, I lost my step-dad Bill.  In my late 20’s, I learned my biological father, whom I had never met, died in a motorcycle accident.  Dan Maley was the only man I knew as “dad’ from childhood to adult.  He was a kind, generous, and giving soul, and his life has truly inspired mine.  “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” he used to say.  It’s something I have tried to take to heart.

We also lost our beloved pet, Tigger, just two weeks prior to my father’s passing.  This Christmas, the absence of his little doggy stocking alongside ours cut a pang of sadness through the holiday cheer.  And, as my oldest son Justin observed, “It doesn’t feel like Christmas without” his grandmother, “Pap” Lenny.  Lenny passed away just before Thanksgiving this year.  In the face of such losses, one would think the Christmas spirit in our home would be dampened.  And perhaps it was, early on.  Yet we celebrated what was probably our most joyful and satisfying Christmas in years.

One of my final creative projects for the year was a video compilation of images that honored those we have lost, not just this year, but in years past.  My step-dad, grandparents, and many others were there; as were Kim’s lost family members.  I felt compelled to do this, not so much as a Christmas gift (though it did become that), but to finally lay these things to rest.  My entire life I’ve been careful to remember the people I’ve lost, to the degree that maybe it became detrimental to really healing from it.  I tend to love deeply and without reserve, so when I lose someone, the loss cuts deeply.  This collage is my farewell to those I love, and to my childhood in general.

I’ll always be a kid at heart.  I’ll always love video games, and always love to go to movies and pig out on overpriced candy and popcorn.  But this year, I grew a lot. Emotionally.  Spiritually.  And physically, though I wish that weren’t the case. (Can we say Weight Watchers in 2012? Yes we can.)  My priorities have shifted.  My thoughts and opinions on a great many things have changed, matured.  I have left 2011 a very different person than I entered it.  I feel those changes were for the better, but that remains to be seen.

I generally don’t make “New Year’s Resolutions” per se.  But I do resolve to do a few things differently this year.  First: lose weight.  The oldest and most easily abandoned of resolutions, I’ve come to realize that I have no time left to waste.  For 33 years now, I’ve allowed my life and my own self-perception to bend to the whims of my weight and appearance.  I’m sick of it.  Someone once said, “Change will not happen until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing.”  I’ve reached that point.  I know I’m better than this.  I just need to act on it.

Second: Writing.  Folks, it’s time to get serious.  Because I haven’t been, let’s face it.  Who else lets a virtual series linger in oblivion for four years because he just doesn’t feel like doing anything with it?  Who else starts a dozen projects and finishes none of them?  I love the act of writing, but due to how challenging this year has been, I’ve not dedicated myself to it properly.  I’ve skated through my classes (earning high marks, but not really absorbing much).  To quote one of my favorite films, it’s “time to nut up or shut up.”

Third: finances!  Another one that’s easily forgettable.  We’ve got a great plan in place that we’ll acting upon within weeks.  I’m excited to start it.  We’ve been blessed with an increased cash flow, but it’s still tight with 5 kids.  Yet we will make it work, and we’ll make it work better than before.

Basically, these three things can be summed up in one: I’m going to take control of my life.  Time’s wasting.  33 isn’t old by a long shot, but it’s definitely not 25 or 21.  I don’t want to be 35, 45, 55, wondering what happened to these next few decades, why things turned out so poorly, why I have so many health and weight problems.  The time to act is here and now, and I’m excited about it.

Of course, it’s easy to get excited.  Staying excited is the true test of character, and that particular story has yet to be written.

Welcome, 2012.  I greet you with open eyes and arms, ready to make the most of each opportunity.

 

Holiday Cheer…and Perspective

The human race is capable of some remarkably stupid things.  A brief look at pretty much any chapter in any history book will tell you that.  Of course, you don’t have to really look that far: just take a trip to any mall or shopping center this week.

I have to wonder, if we as a race of sentient life forms could stop for one second and pull ourselves out of our own lives to really examine what we were doing, would it make a difference?  We’re all so busy, so caught up in the minutiae of our daily existence, we’re fortunate to be able to navigate our own lives at all.  Many of us wear this ridiculous rush like a badge of honor, as if somehow we’re noble creatures worthy of praise for enduring all of these trivialities.

People are very good at getting so caught up in the details, they’re no longer able to see or comprehend the context.  We bicker over minor offenses, so obsessed with getting our own way and having our own agenda pushed through that we trample on others and carry on in ways that used to be reserved for villains in Saturday morning cartoon shows.

Maybe if we could zoom out for a moment, look at our lives from an outside perspective, we could better understand how those behaviors impact other people.  And perhaps such a new perspective would give us cause to make better, less self-focused decisions.

That’s an absurd notion in today’s world.  It’s all about the self – I just want to live my life, be happy, and have fun, because I deserve it; this is the prevailing attitude, and anything that arises to the contrary of this philosophy is met with scorn, disdain, or worse.

It’s this type of attitude that has finally begun to reshape Christmas.

Let’s look at this holiday, shall we?  It is considered by many to be the “big one” – the one time a year even the sacred institution of Wal-Mart closes its doors for a few hours.  It heralds the coming of winter, the end of the year, and sparks what has become a 3-month ordeal of shopping, decorations, music, lights, and spending money we don’t have on things that will be trashed by the end of January.

Ostensibly, Christmas brings with it joy, cheer, and goodwill towards men.  Practically speaking, it brings with it religious and philosophical differences, an even more incessant focus on the self (despite the fact that we’re buying gifts for others, we’re incredibly self-centered about it), and such disparaging, destructive, and irresponsible behavior that it’s a wonder the holiday hasn’t been banned. 

Who am I kidding? So long as it brings in millions of dollars for the retail industry, it will never be banned.  We pretend like we care about peace on Earth, deluding ourselves into thinking that our self-centered shopping binges will somehow bring about joy to the world.  We proclaim that Christmas is a time to be selfless – so don’t miss this great deal on a 42” LED television set!  We proclaim that it’s a time to be kind to one another, so we’ll politely tolerate the visiting family members as best we can, even though we don’t really like them, whilst running a run red light and forcing three cars off the road because if we don’t get to where we’re going right now then we’ll be… we’ll be… we’ll be there just a little bit later!  And we don’t want to be later, we want to be there now, because it’s Christmas and we just want to live our lives and be happy and have fun, because we deserve it!

Even the great public debate about the religious celebration of Christmas versus the secular is motivated by purely selfish reasons.  Do we honestly believe the great debate is about Jesus Christ’s birth, or some intangible, feel-good right to be able to say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas?  Bullshit.  The people engaged in these debates care less about the subject matter and more about having the right to do what they want to do, without regard for what anyone says, does, or thinks.  Freedom of speech gives every person the right to their own opinion, after all.  Yet, it fails to mention that they also need to tolerate others’ freedom of speech.  These folks who act all outraged at a nativity scene displayed in public aren’t acting out of some altruistic need to fight for the little guy, they’re acting out of their own hatred of religion.  And these people who sabotage non-traditional or secular Christmas displays aren’t doing it out of an abundance of love for baby Jesus, they’re doing it because they don’t like when someone has a different opinion.

And so to both sides, I say: if you really want to demonstrate the spirit of this season, whether that spirit comes from Christ’s birth, or simply being good for goodness’ sake, why don’t you both take back the truckload of presents you bought and use the money to feed a homeless family, or work in a soup kitchen for a few days, or go down and pass out blankets and coats to people who depend on the generosity of others to simply exist.  Donate the gift money to a worthy charity.  Or even – get this – treat everyday people with the respect and dignity that should be afforded every human being, whether you like them or not, and whether or not you agree with their belief system or life choices. 

What does it matter to you, really, if I prefer to say Merry Christmas, if that’s what I believe?  What’s more, why should you care what I believe in the first place?  Why degrade and belittle and disregard anyone’s beliefs, religious or otherwise?  Why should anyone care if I choose to depict a nativity scene in my yard, or if some organization sponsors a nativity scene in a park?  This country got by for many a decade with such abominations occurring, and the sense of community and brotherhood was significantly greater back then.

The answer to all of these questions is simple: it’s to push an agenda.  Those who don’t believe in God often belittle those who do, regarding them as weak, unenlightened, confused, or religious nutjobs.  And the same is true of many faithful, who view those who don’t believe as soulless, joyless atheistic heathens.

But the one consistency, regardless of your persuasion, seems to be that during this time of year, we should all be just a little kinder.  That’s the rhetoric that’s presented, anyway.  We certainly don’t practice it though, do we?  Some might, but the overwhelming answer is no.  If you doubt it, take a drive to Wal-Mart in the next 24 hours.  Head out to the mall this evening.

If I may be permitted a brief anecdote: this morning, I came to work by way of the parking lot for Ross Park Mall.  I drove around the outskirts and was promptly intercepted by a shopper who was in such a hurry, they could barely keep their car straight.  They cut me off and blew through a stop side without even looking.  When my turn came up, I waited past my turn and allowed someone else to go first.  I caught the look on her face as she waved her “thank you” to me, and it was one of surprise.  As if to say Wow, an act of kindness at Christmas.  Tell me there isn’t something seriously wrong with someone being surprised at an act of kindness at Christmas – a holiday that we universally proclaim to be all about such things. (Epilogue: I caught up to the driver not twelve seconds later, stuck in traffic. Fat load of good being a jerk did you, huh?)

All of this is enough to make one want to give up on the holiday.  I, personally, have allowed the past week, filled with miserable, wet drives home and drivers who are equal portions rude, ignorant, and careless, to get me down.  But why should I allow that to so thoroughly influence my mood?  Why give the ignorant power over me?  I think we as a nation do that often enough of a national scale.  There’s no need to do the same thing on a personal scale.

The solace I’ve found is simply this: Christmas is what you make it.  If you’re a miserable, self-centered person then you’re probably going to hate the holiday.  And if you’re the sort of person who does mark the holiday by helping those in need, then you probably do it year-round anyway.

I’ve always loved Christmas.  As an only child whose parents were divorced, and who lost his step-father at a young age, my Christmas’s were always exquisite, if only to compensate for the lack of a father figure.  I always received everything I asked for: video games, toys, whatever my heart desired.  But you know what I remember the most about my childhood Christmases?  The smell of the house when my Grandma baked cookies.  The laughter and joy of family getting together.  The smell of ham, cranberries, and cinnamon.  The fun and unique sights and sensations of visiting family on Christmas Day.  That’s what has stayed with me, and that’s what I’ve tried to carry on for my children.  That, and being a good example for them.  What will it profit them to see me react in kind to an impatient driver who cuts me off or flips me the bird?  I want them to have positive experiences at Christmas time, so that when they hit 30, they look back with as much fondness as I do.  Because Christmas, for adults, is about that nostalgia more than anything else.  We look back at days gone by, as each year comes to a close, and we remember happier, more innocent days.  I want my kids to have those kinds of days to look back on, too.

That’s my Christmas.  Being with those I love.  Exchanging gifts, not because we have to, but because we want to take the time to show that we care.  I took my oldest two boys shopping for their younger siblings this year, and let them pick out gifts that they felt their younger sibs would enjoy.  They had a great time picking it out and imagining what will be said when it’s opened.  They were not expensive or elaborate gifts, but they meant something special.  And it did the kids good to be selfless and focus on someone other than themselves.  And this, amidst the chaos of hundreds of shoppers running into each other, pushing past each other, in a hurry to find a good deal, oblivious to the true nature of the season, enslaved only to its perceived obligations.

News flash: Christmas carries with it no obligations, folks.  None.  It’s a man-made construct, meant to honor the birth of Christ.  Yes, this winter holiday existed before that, in the form of Saturnalia, Yule, and other precursors.  Yes, it exists now as a holiday also embraced by more secular ideals.  But it carries with it no obligation to buy presents, no obligations to put lights, no obligations to do any of that stuff.  Christmas is just a day, that will come and go like any other day on the calendar.  Take charge of your own life, and your own holiday.  Choose to make Christmas what you want it to be, not what someone else tells you it should be, and you will have the merriest, most enjoyable holiday you’ve ever experienced.

Besides, we all know that Christmas really came about because Santa, the immaculately conceived and murderously evil son of Satan who was born at the same time Jesus was, went on a killing spree the night just before his own birthday, forcing people to gather at a Mass of Christ (or Christ’s Mass – BAM, mind blown!) for protection.  Of course, Santa then lost a bet to an angel and had to do good and make children happy for 1,000 years, but that ended back in 2005… so you better watch out…better not cry… better not pout… or Santa may bludgeon you to death with your own ham…

  

Merry Christmas!

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2011 in Uncategorized