Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Pixar's Inside Out and the Importance of Sadness

[Warning: this review contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, be warned. Also, this post will make more sense if you have seen the movie.]

I’m not that much of a movie person. Sure, I enjoy the occasional flick, and can quote you Princess Bride like nobody’s business. But I rarely see stuff at the theater.

However, the kids have mellowed me a bit, and I went and saw Frozen when it came out, and I ended up writing a whole post on it.

Inside Out looked interesting, so we decided to go see it together during a recent vacation. (I’m pretty sure this is the first time I have ever seen a movie on its opening weekend.)

Four out of five kids liked it. My older daughters, naturally, did. (They are both within a year of Riley’s age, and yes, there is some resemblance…) My seven year old son like everything - including the previews - so naturally he liked this. I was more surprised that my four year old daughter found it to be very intense, and was genuinely concerned that they might not get Riley to be happy ever again. (I should know better by now than to underestimate the ability of Miss Lillian to understand stuff.) My nine year old son wasn’t impressed, but introspection has never been his strong suit. He’ll wait for the Minion Movie, thank you very much.

On the other hand, like many other parents I know, I found myself a bit moved, and have been continuing to think about the movie since.

I’ve always be a bit of an introspective introvert, but it hasn’t been until the last decade or so that I have really been willing to admit that I am also a very emotional sort. Sure, I like to think of myself as logical - and I still think I am. To a degree. But my emotional side is pretty strong, even if I didn’t want to admit it when I was a teen and young man.

Inside Out looks at that awkward transition from child to teen, when everything becomes complicated. For the subject of the film, Riley, this happens at age 11. For me, I would say it was at 12 and 13. Boys develop a bit later. Whatever the case, Pixar really got it right. It was a bit like being inside my own head at that age.

There are a number of fun and witty moments. I particularly liked the bit where Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong get caught in “Abstract Thought.”

But, what I was really left with at the end was the turning point, the pivotal moment. Riley has been governed mostly benignly by Joy, who simply cannot understand why Sadness even exists. But, after a traumatic move and some rocky experiences thereafter, Sadness (for reasons she herself can’t understand) starts changing happy memories to sad. Joy is livid, and ratchets her controlling personality up to the limit. But then, she and Sadness are sucked up and deposited into a remote bit of memory, and have to get back with the key “core memories.”

The epiphany for Joy comes when she realizes that Sadness is as important to life and wellbeing as she is, and that many joyful memories are touched with sadness. The realization occurs as she turns a memory through its entire rotation in time. The sadness itself attracts a resonant feeling in others (in this case, between Riley and her parents), and brings out the actions of comfort and assistance. Sadness serves as a mutual bonding.

Thus, Joy realizes that the key to getting Riley back to emotional stability isn’t to make Sadness stand in a circle by herself where she can do no harm - or good. Rather, Sadness needs to take the controls for a while so that Riley can again feel rather than repress her pain.

It is this insight as to the role and importance - indeed the necessity of sadness that has occupied my thoughts since seeing the movie.

My cousin-by-marriage and theologian, Todd Billings, has referred to this need as that of “lament,” as found in the Psalms, and I think he is on to something.

In our greater society, but also in our churches, there is a relentless pressure to be positive, no matter what. Sometimes we can feel bludgeoned by platitudes, whether from preachers or motivational speakers. Joy, joy, joy, joy, all the time. (Another way that our society and churches favor extroversion and punish introversion.) But it is when we become truly real that we are able to make that connection. Bonding isn’t really about shared peaks, but about shared valleys.

I am particularly reminded of the way that Bill Gothard painted so called “negative” emotions as sins of the worst sort, lumping everything from expression of pain and hurt to disagreement as “bitterness,” which opened your heart to Satan. You wouldn’t want to be bitter, so pain and frustration and fear all were suppressed and not spoken of.

And so, one must always present a facade to others, lest one be tarred with the mark of “bitterness.”

In reality, the strength of the church should be to mourn with those who mourn. Those connections made in the sharing of pain and sadness are the ones that are strong - and last.

On a related note, another thing this film got absolutely right is the “islands” of Riley’s identity. These core areas of self-image are the keys to how we view ourselves and present ourselves to others. When stressed, these islands can prove to be fragile, and we crumble. As the movie shows, they can be particularly vulnerable at times of transition, and it can be difficult to recover from an identity crisis.

This is one reason why no amount of money in the world could ever induce me to repeat my Junior High years. While I have some good memories - and I believe that some of those experiences are key to my own “islands,” those years were really hard for me emotionally.

On a related note, the transition from law school (where I mostly knew my identity) to finding a job, which wasn’t automatic, and seriously stressed this risk-adverse guy, was difficult and required a period of trying to re-orient and right my emotional ship. (Big time thanks to my parents and my (now) wife for helping me through that.)

These transitions also highlight the role of sadness in transitioning from child to adult. So much about childhood is uncomplicated. Happy is happy, and sad is sad, and there is little to confuse it. But in the transition, the line is blurred, and more and more is a mixture of joy and sadness. With every gain, there is a loss. And happy times that were become a memory of pleasure and wistfulness at what can never come back. (I remember with great joy holding my children as babies - but there is also that sadness that they will never be that small again.)


There is no better way to describe it. And yet, without the bitter, the sweet would be cloying.

I remember one of those memories tonight. When I moved out of my family home to my own place, I was thrilled and excited. And, don’t get me wrong, I have never wished to go back. I’m an adult, not a child, and I am glad of that.

But. That one night, months after that move. I went home for a night and slept on the bare floor of my old room in a sleeping bag. That place with all its memories, now just a bare room. I was choked up that night.

And so, Sadness comes and inexplicably touches that yellow orb, and a part turns blue.

Yet, this too is part of the way things must be. As those islands of identity crumble, they are replaced and rebuilt. Not quite like they were, because childish things have been put away. But they are rebuilt, on a foundation not merely of joy, but of that mixed bittersweet amalgam that makes us who we are. Our sense of self isn’t just what has made us happy, but what we have overcome. And our connections with others don’t arise just from the fun of childhood, but from the burdens we have shared, the challenges we have faced, and the pain we have endured.

After the foundation crumbles, and we are left fishing for that centering again, it takes both hands: that of Joy and of Sadness, pushing that button together to create that mixture of yellow and blue that supports the new grownup identity.

(So yes, count me among the number that got a little glassy behind those 3d glasses…)


Dickens was here first: 

I wrote a bit about the way that pain and sorrow make us who we are and teach us empathy in my bit on Charles Dickens' The Haunted Man. The original Star Trek characters would also explore this in The Final Frontier.  

A bit of music:

In case it wasn’t obvious, music has been meaningful to me (and one of those “identity islands”) as long as I can remember.

Also, as long as I can remember, the bittersweet has called to me in music. I love minor keys, and I love heart-rending sorrow expressed in words that cannot be uttered.

Thus, if you want to see me governed by Anger, in his little suit and tie, remind me of all that Gothard tried to take from me in his crusade against “evil” music. It was bad enough that Jazz and Rock and all their relatives were forbidden. (Because, well, racism.)

But he also had a problem with minor keys. Perhaps because such “negative” emotions were unacceptable. Needless to say, this was a problem for for me. Music has always been a cathartic experience for me, and I experience it viscerally when I play it. That’s why music was the one thing I clung to for dear life throughout the transition to adulthood and beyond.

So, in honor of the bittersweet, here are eight minor key pieces that have been part of my soundtrack. This is by no means a definitive list, or a list of my favorites. These are just the ones that came to mind most readily as having impacted me at key transitional times.

Empty Canvas by John Michael Talbot: 

Probably the first bittersweet song that I played to death in my childhood. Tune that guitar down to an open D. And really, the longing for communion with the Divine has haunted me ever since.

The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel: 

My dad’s teen theme song was I Am A Rock, but this was mine. Sure, it’s preachy. But sometimes I think it is even more relevant these days.

Isle of the Dead by Rachmaninoff: 

I got the opportunity to play some great pieces in my years with the Bakersfield College orchestra. I’ll never forget the chances I had to play solo parts: Danse Macabre, Vivaldi’s Spring, the Pas De Deux from Swan Lake, Albinoni’s Adagio, Grand Canyon, the Saint Saens Violin Concerto, and most of all Scheherezade, but I will never forget playing Isle of the Dead for the first time. That haunting tune in 5/4 time. That descant in the solo violin. The chorus welcoming the dead to the underworld, and then the fade to the silence of the River Styx as the waves lap the shore.  

Brahms’ Piano Concerto #2, third movement: 

Anyone who can listen to the 3rd movement of this piece, and not be moved, has a heart of stone indeed. We did this my first year with the BSO, with Anton Nel. [link]. Yes, I still remember it. Definitely my favorite piano concerto, although Mozart’s final concerto, in B flat comes close. (Also bittersweet, if in a major key.)

Mozart’s Symphony #40: 

Mozart has an undeserved reputation as a “light” composer. Sure, he wrote some light stuff, particularly in his teens. But underestimate his emotional depth at your own risk. I never get tired of the melancholy of #40.

Symphony #6 “Pathetique” by Tchaikovsky, fourth movement : 

Oh man. Heartrending and lacerating, and like nothing else. Maybe Mahler approaches it sometimes (and he had a lot of heartache), but Tchaikovsky wore his emotions on his sleeve. Is this despair, resignation, or something else. It was hard to come back after playing this one, particularly after the excess and vulgarity of the preceding movement. That garish plastered happy face and exaggerated jollity crashing down to such pain that it doesn’t end so much as fade into unutterable quiet.

Nothing Else Matters by Metallica: 

A more recent discovery, and my favorite Metallica song. Ultimately, to me, it represents the quest for truth and the Giver of Truth, despite the endless hypocrisy and game playing.

The Prodigal Son Suite by Keith Green: 

The ultimate in redemption, and another song that got me through childhood and the teens. A reminder that, ultimately, grace is undeserved, and doesn’t even make sense. It is a love that conquers all and defies all, and exemplifies that upside down kingdom.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Capitol Reef National Park

This May the kids and I took a trip with my parents to see the three Utah national parks that we had not yet seen. (We practically lived at Zion when I was a teen, and went to Bryce a few times, most recently last summer.) The first park we visited was Capitol Reef.

This is a really long and skinny park, centered on the 100 mile long Waterpocket Fold, a monocline fold in the rock layers. This was a perfect place to visit, since our current science unit is on earth science.

We timed our visit well, as we had good weather most of the time and saw plenty of wildflowers. As with all natural wonders, one really must get out and hike, and not just see things from the road. We had only a couple days to hike, so we didn’t get to everything, but we still got a pretty good sampling of the best of the views and features available in the main portion of the park. We hiked to the rim overlook, saw Hickman Bridge, and strolled the Capitol Gorge.

When the kids get a bit bigger, we want to take the 12 mile trek to see Hamburger Rocks. That’s a little beyond the speed and endurance of the smaller kids right now, although the older ones could certainly do it.

Capitol Reef lacks the dramatic scenery visible from the road that places like Zion and the Grand Canyon have, although it is pleasant enough. The real joy of the park comes from the stuff you can see on the trail, and the lack of crowds once you get a mile or so off the road.

Also, you can buy strawberry rhubarb pies (and other stuff) at the little homestead museum. So that’s cool. 

Anyway, here are a few of the many pictures I got. 

The kids, near Twin Rocks

Capitol Gorge

 The Waterpocket Fold from the Rim Overlook

 Hickman Bridge


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This book was recommended to me by my friend Amy from law school. Since we were both crazy enough to have a bunch of small children in fairly rapid succession, a book by a guy with five kids held some promise. 

Professional comedian Jim Gaffigan is even crazier than I am, however. We both had 5 kids in about 7 years, but he managed to fit them all in a two bedroom apartment in New York City. And this is no penthouse either. More like the 800 square foot house I was born in, but without a yard.

On a related note, the chapter devoted to how he gets the kids to bed in shifts is worth it by itself. It reminds me of the times we had to put a crib in the hotel bathroom or closet to get a kid to sleep, but Gaffigan has it even harder.

A few other things that sounded far too familiar:

First, the way that “family friendly” is typically a synonym for “terrible.” (Gaffigan cringes when his clean comedic act is described that way.) These places cater to the lowest common denominator of kid taste, or the lowest common denominator of what corporate focus groups think kid taste is. Whichever is worst. In a number of ways, this has been the juggling act in my own family, because some kid-oriented activities are fun. Disneyland, parks, and that sort of thing. Other things, like “family friendly” restaurants, not so much. Particularly for foodies. Thus, we dragged our infants to tasty dives fed them all kinds of weird food before they knew better, because we didn’t want to be eating at McDonalds for 25 years. On the plus side, it worked. On the minus side, do you know what it costs to feed five hungry kids sushi?

Also familiar was the bit about children’s books. Gaffigan notes that some are rather good. (He shares my positive view of Go, Dog, Go!) But others are tedious in the extreme. And these are often the ones the toddler wants to hear seven times a night. And he does have a point that it is hard to read Dr. Seuss without sounding a little drunk. Seriously, have you tried to read Fox in Socks or Oh Say Can You Say and not make a mistake?

Another one that caused a serious guffaw was his kids licking the subway pole. Yes, we were the ones with the little boy that kept licking the bus stops in San Francisco. I have a strong stomach, but, seriously, eww!

The bit about naps was pretty funny too. Gaffigan views naps for toddlers as “payday loans.” You get some money (or quiet time) now, but have to pay it back later at 400% interest. A napped toddler will stay up all hours of the night and be impossible. Actually, for us, we couldn’t even get credit. None of our kids have napped well after turning one, and our eldest needs less sleep than I do most of the time. So basically, we had to settle for “be quiet for a while so your parents can rest.”

This is totally payback for me. I didn’t nap, although I could be quiet when asked. My poor parents.

Gaffigan also gets the problem with having five kids. Everyone does tend to look at you just a little funny. Gaffigan himself was the youngest (naturally) of six. He at least got in the habit of explaining that his parents were Catholic. Nowadays, there are more options. I tend to get asked if we are Mormon. (No.) And then Catholic. (Also no.) Like the Duggars? (Heck no!) Living in New York, Gaffigan also notes “Orthodox Jewish” is an option. He also anticipates my current explanation, “Five kids, Dad Crazy,” although he deems it too honest. But yeah, that’s about the best explanation I can come up with.

And then, of course, one is constantly asked,”Are you done?” Well, since my kids have a friend born after a vasectomy, and I know a few people who tried to stop at [fill in a number] before having twins for the “final” child, I think I will just cross myself and walk away. Best not to tempt fate at this point…

As far as that goes, Gaffigan also gets it right that pregnancy does tend to have a bit of an air of scandal about it. Is there ever a perfect time to be pregnant? (Sometime, I’ll have to tell our story, and how the timing of a pregnancy set the course of our life in a certain path.) As Gaffigan puts it:

Pregnant women are either too young or too old, or it’s too soon after another pregnancy, or she’s going to get in trouble at work. She’s too poor, too rich, too successful, too skinny, too fat, too crazy, too busy, too single, too married, too too.

Gaffigan plays this for laughs, but he recognizes the fundamental truth of the matter: a woman will be judged somehow for getting pregnant. If not with the first, than with the second. And he is right that it is something that has been done since the dawn of time, yet we act as if it is somehow new, that pregnancy (and sex) are a new and nefarious invention of the young people. (It would take another post, but so often public policy seems to be in total denial that people will normally and naturally tend to have sex and babies during their twenties, with the resulting pearl clutching when it turns out that people do in fact do this.)

With his self-deprecating humor, Gaffigan brings to light the inherent silliness of everyday life, but also, like any good humorist, gets at the truth of human foibles. I would hope those who read it would be encouraged to give those of us with small children a little understanding and patience, rather than judgmentalism. After all, anyone who thinks there is a formula for child rearing either didn’t have kids, or is in denial. It’s always going to be messy, loud, unpredictable, and above all, human. And, as a father of five myself, Gaffigan is dead right that if you need one thing as a parent, it is a sense of humor.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Fortnight of Years

A fortnight of years. A stone’s weight of years. The Moonlight Sonata of anniversaries. The architect’s version of 13. However you want to look at it, It’s both a long time and a short time.

Fourteen years ago, my lovely bride and I promised to love, honor, and cherish, and set out to build a life together. There have been so many twists and turns, and I doubt either of us would have believed it had we been told how we would be at this time. Perhaps neither of us would have dared to hope that we would have been able to build the life we have, and neither of us could have foreseen some of the challenges we have had to face together.

We’ve changed, and grown, together. We’ve taken on the world hand in hand. I’ve been told we make a good team, and I believe it. There’s certainly nobody I would rather have on my team.

It has been said that true lovers finish each other’s sentences, and that statement is true. But true lovers also share times where they both scream quietly together in an effort to avoid insanity. Sometimes, true lovers telepathically bring the right things home from the grocery store, because we just know. And so many times I can no longer estimate, let alone count, we will come home and breathe sighs of mutual relaxation in each other’s arms.

Fourteen years, and we fit together so closely that we cannot fathom how we ever were without each other.

Fourteen is also the number of lines in a sonnet. And, since that is my favorite poetic form, here are a few that express my love toward the lovely Amanda.


William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
          If this be error and upon me proved,
          I never writ, nor no man ever loved.


Edmund Spenser,  LXIV from Amoretti

Coming to kiss her lips, (such grace I found)
Me seemed I smelled a garden of sweet flowers,
That dainty odors from them threw around
For damsels fit to deck their lovers' bowers.
Her lips did smell like unto Gillyflowers,
Her ruddy cheeks like unto Roses red:
Her snowy brows like budded Bellamores,
Her lovely eyes like Pinks but newly spread.
Her goodly bosom like a strawberry bed,
Her neck like to a bunch of Columbines:
Her breast like Lillies, ere their leaves be shed,
Her nipples like young blossomed Jasmines.
Such fragrant flowers do give most odorous smell,
But her sweet odor did them all excel.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet XXIX

I think of thee!---my thoughts do twine and bud
About thee, as wild vines, about a tree,
Put out broad leaves, and soon there's nought to see
Except the straggling green which hides the wood.
Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood
I will not have my thoughts instead of thee
Who art dearer, better! Rather, instantly
Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should,
Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,
And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee
Drop heavily down,---burst, shattered, everywhere!
Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee
And breathe within thy shadow a new air,
I do not think of thee---I am too near thee.


Pablo Neruda, Sonnet 17 (translated by Mark Eisner)                                       
I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,   
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:   
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,   
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries   
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,   
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose   
from the earth lives dimly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,   
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,   
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,   
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

Happy 14th, Dearest. May my eyes always close with your dreams.

At Dapper Day, Disneyland, September 2014

Previous anniversary and mushy posts: