Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sunday Best: 2017 Summer Box Office Review

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Film Flash: The Hitman's Bodyguard

HitmansBodyguard.jpg15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

Charismatic stars, funny premise cannot rescue this movie from mediocrity. Gary Olmdman is criminally underused
2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Helpless - One Year Later

Most of the following is my essay from 8/23/16.

At the bottom is a short reflection on my experience one year after.

The thing that first struck me was the view.

I never noticed how blank and empty the ceiling was even though I must have glanced at it thousands of times.  It made me realize that all of the things I wanted to see were around me and not above me, but it took too much effort to look.

I had been having chronic back pain for a while.  After it got intolerable, I was told to go on bed rest.  Then sometime before noon three weeks ago, I noticed something was off.  I looked down at my left foot and I noticed I couldn’t flex it.  I immediately texted my wife who was at work.  It was decided that she would leave right away and bring me in for medical attention.  By the time she arrived, my right foot followed suit and I was unable to flex it either.  So my poor wife had to carry me to the car.

I have not been able to walk on my own since.

When we got to the hospital it was decided that I would have surgery.   They discovered that my L3 disc in back had shattered and the fragments were pressing on the nerves causing what they called a bilateral foot drop.  The surgeon told me that it was so bad that when he cut open my back, fragments of the disc popped out.

Since then I have remained in the hospital.

There is much for which I should be very thankful.  For all intents and purposes, the surgery was a success.  However the damage to the nerves will take a very long time to heal.  The nerve runs from my spine to the tip of my foot and it can take up to a centimeter a month to regenerate.  But I am no longer in any serious pain.  There is still soreness and weakness from the surgery, but that, I know, will pass in time.  Also during my recovery I have had many friends and family members help ease the passage of time with refreshing fellowship.  And of course, my wife has been a saintly pillar of support throughout, working all day at her job and then spending all night sleeping in a hospital chair by my bed.

But the biggest struggle for me is the feeling of utter and total helplessness.

Those first few days were the most humiliating and difficult.  Every turn, every movement was painful.  My back was not strong enough for me to even sit up on my own.  Even with support, the strain was incredible.  

Please forgive these next sentences if they are too vulgar.   But I think there are very few things more humiliating for an adult than to not be able to use the bathroom independently.  You feel gross, disgusting, embarrassed, humiliated, and weak.  You are literally infantilized and cannot help feel concretely the powerlessness of your situation.  In an activity for which we normally demand and expect total privacy, I had to call and ask for help.  And while the hospital staff went out of their way to alleviate my sense of shame, it lingers nonetheless.

I came to realize how utterly dependent I was on the staff here at the hospital.  Anything that was out of reach for me, even putting socks on my own feet, was something that required their assistance.  I now have an incredible amount of empathy for residents of nursing homes.  The feeling of absolute dependence on medical staff is terrifying because you keenly feel the power imbalance.  If you get even the slightest inkling that a member of the staff is annoyed or upset with you, fear grips your insides because that person has complete power over your life.

And as I lay there flat on back staring up at the ceiling of my hospital room, I thought about Jesus as a little baby.  I imagined Him lying flat on his back in a little crib.  And in that image I saw Our Lord take on a voluntary helplessness.  If I could through sheer force of will, like the Bride in Kill Bill, get my feet to move the way I wanted, there is little doubt that I would.  But in that manger at Bethlehem you had total and complete Omnipotence crying helplessly because He was hungry or in pain or covered in his own waste.  Can you imagine the restraint of that Divinity that patiently endured the slow passage of seconds to minutes to hours to days to weeks to years before even the smallest bit of independence could be managed?

Here’s the kicker for me: no one would blame Jesus if He used His Godly powers as a baby.  Imagine this baby being able to perform miraculous feats as if by magic.  In fact, I think that many would come in wonder and offer gifts Magi style.  So why did He not?

Because when you love someone, you want to be as close to them as you can.  God wanted to know our helplessness.  While He is always exalted above us, He is also with us.  He knows our struggles and feels our pains.  I cannot think of a single miracle He performed that was done purely for Himself?  If I had access to His power, I would be worse than Bruce Almighty.  But the Lord only used that power to help others and bring them to faith.  He never cheated.

I cannot walk on my own.  But on the road to Calvary, neither could He.  Even as He was fulfilling the purpose to which He was born, He was helpless.  Simon of Cyrene helped Him along the way to where he was crucified.  And all the while He had the power to stop it but did not.

This is a love that is complete.  Nothing was held back.  And now I can never doubt that He is with me in my suffering.  When I struggle to walk, I remember so did He.  When I am gripped with crippling fear, I remember He sweat blood in Gethsemane.  When I feel shamed and humiliated, I remember they stripped Him naked in public and mocked Him as king.  When I lose someone I love, I remember He wept at Lazarus’ tomb.  When I feel the pangs of rejected affection, I remember the hollow kiss that betrayed Him to death.  When I feel lonely, I remember that all of his best friends abandoned Him the night He needed them most.  And when the day comes for me to die, I will remember how he had to endure the slow movement of time from second to minute to hour after hour on that horrid cross.

The angel said that of Him that He shall be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.”

And He is a God who is with us.

Maybe that was the reason He took away my ability to walk.  Because as I lay flat on my back helpless, I have no choice but to look up to Heaven.


I wrote this essay exactly one year ago today.

As difficult as that month in the hospital was, I can tell you that not a day has gone by that I have not been grateful for the ability to walk.  I have never complained since about having to get up and move around because I am keenly aware of what a blessing it is.

I would not want to wish my experience on anyone, but I have learned so much.

I learned that my life hangs by a thread and that if I continue in good health it is only by the grace of God.

I learned that feeling trapped in your own body might be the worst prison of all.

I learned that one day this body is going to break down with age or sickness again and I need to take advantage of my health while I can.

And I was reminded that my friends and family are generous and continually kind.

I was reminded that being a Catholic school teacher meant that I was part of a faith community that rallied around me and supported me throughout my recovery.

I was reminded that I married the greatest woman in the world.  After working a full day at her job, she would stop by the house to take care of any needs there and then come to my hospital room at night to spend time with me and work on her second job.  Then she would sleep sitting up in a chair next to my bed just so I wouldn't be alone at night.  Then she would get up in the morning and go off to work and repeat the process over and over again.  For a month.

And her work did not stop there.  Once I came home she was my primary caregiver.  She had to wake up early and cleanse and bandage my wounds.  This was especially important after I developed an infection and was hospitalized for another week followed by another surgery.  Every morning she would have to help me get dressed and drive me to anywhere I needed to go.  And keep in mind she has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was four-years-old.  She never once complained.  She never once grimaced.  Never once did I hear her sigh in exacerbation as she had to put on my socks for the hundredth time.  She never once made me feel like a burden and I will never be able to thank her enough.

Finally, I was reminded about God's generous love.  One of the worst things about a chronic condition is that you often feel as if you will never get better.  But the Lord saw me through and healed me.  Since then every sin of laziness on my part feels like a heresy against his generosity.

But in the end, I am reminded that when I am helpless, He is my help.

And I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sunday Best: High School Movies (for Teachers)

This list is a repost from four years ago.  But since I will begin teaching classes again soon now that summer is over, I thought it was worth another look.

  1. Remember the Titans

     Sports take up an important part of the lives of many high schoolers. For many of them it defines their social circles, their focus, and the way they look at life. Denzel Washington's Herman Boone is tough on his players both on and off the field. He understands that building up self-esteem is not his job. When his assistant coach builds up a player that Boone tore down, Boone warns him that by not letting that teen experience failure that he is being crippled for life. Sometimes teachers know that failure is the best teacher.

9.  Mean Girls

There are a lot of problems with Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey), but at least she tries to directly address the cattiness problem rampant among high school girls in a way I have never seen done in any other movie. She tries to show that this path is self destructive and pointless.

8.  Summer School

One of the things that impresses me about this movie is that it allows you to see how badly the teacher played by Marc Harmon does his job. He goes on a slow evolution from self-centeredness to devotion. But his dedication does not suddenly give him magical teaching powers. He succeeds as often as he fails, but he learns to accept the victory.

7.  The Karate Kid

While Miyagi is not a teacher in a high school, he is teaching a high school student. And his teaching method is top notch. I love the way that the movie captures the frustration between teacher and student, especially when students cannot understand why they need educating. I've noticed that when students don't like an activity, they ask “What's the point of this?” But even if an explanation is given, they still will not understand. They have to be shown. So much of what happens in high school is learning not only facts, but skills and habits that will help you in life. Learning how to speak properly, write properly, dress properly, be respectful, etc. are things that will help in later professional life. Miyagi demonstrates that with his “wax on, wax off” style of teacher that builds up the muscles of habit to strengthen the person to the task at hand.

6.  Waiting For Superman

While the focus of this documentary was primarily on grade schools, it did point out a few issues regarding high school education, the most important of which was that competition between schools will result in getting the best quality teachers.

5.  Mr. Holland's Opus

The movie is a bit overly sentimental, but I think that it touches on the secret wish that all teachers have to make a difference. We have students for a little while and then they move on. And rarely do we see where life takes them. As the years pass, you begin to wonder what kind of impact you've had and if you've made any real positive difference. Mr. Holland's Opus is a reminder that helping out one soul is better than all the fame and fortune in the world.

4.  Dead Poets Society

The goal of a great teacher is not just to get students to know more but the think more. Robin William's John Keating uses all of tools of entertainment at his disposal to do just this. I have heard some critiques that this movie reduces teaching to simple performance. And to be sure there are some teachers who only entertain without educating. But I've always maintained that keeping a class' attention is half the battle. If I can keep my students from falling asleep, I've done something right. Jokes, impressions, games, etc are all a means to an end. And Dead Poets Society shows what happens, for good or for ill, when teens start becoming men and thinking for themselves.

3.  Lean On Me

Morgan Freeman's performance is outstanding as “Crazy” Joe Clark, the embattled principal of East Side High. He embodies the fatherly qualities of stern disciplinarian and tireless protector. He makes several mistakes along the way, but he is undeterred in making sure his students have a chance to succeed. This movie gets that safety and discipline are a pre-requisite in the classroom if any learning is going to happen. A student once asked me why I am so strict with things like the dress code or tardiness. My honest answer is that the more discipline there is in class, the easier it will be for the students to learn. As I pointed out earlier, many don't see this, but I do. Lean on Me shows taking discipline out of the schools will destroy them. Bringing it back is an act of love.

2.  The Emperor's Club

“What's the good of what you're teaching?” is a question posed to Kevin Kline's Mr. Hundert, the teacher of Classics in The Emperor's Club. The question is trying to glean what are the pragmatic benefits of studying the ancient Greeks and Romans. And while Hundert has a good practical answer, he points to the larger reason: it shapes a child's character. Teaching is not just about facts and figures.  It is about helping mold the personality of someone. So much of our personalities solidify during the years of high school and college. A great teacher can influence that. The movie also reminds us that a teacher is not defined by a single success or a solitary failure, but by a whole lifetime of work.

1.  Stand and Deliver

This utterly unsentimental movie is my favorite movie on teaching. Edward James Olmos gives one of his best performances as Jaime Escalante, a teacher who decides to hold calculus classes in an underprivileged urban school. Like Joe Clark, Escalante is tough. He says, “There will be no free rides, no excuses. You already have two strikes against you: your name and your complexion. Because of those two strikes, there are some people in this world who will assume that you know less than you do. Math is the great equalizer... When you go for a job, the person giving you that job will not want to hear your problems; ergo, neither do I. You're going to work harder here than you've ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is 'ganas.' 'Desire.'”

But toughness is not enough to be a good teacher. Escalante gives all of his time and talent to his students. At a faculty meeting, despite his crowded schedule, he says “I can do more.” A teacher needs to be present to his students to help them. And it costs Escalante much but he never complains. He knows that by raising the bar high, the students will meet and surpass his expectations. He understands that teaching is an act of faith. You have to believe that your students can excel And you have to believe that you can teach them to do it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Feast of the Assumption - 2017

(repost from 2012)

The Blessed Mother has been very important to my life, especially after my conversion.  I know I am not devoted as I should be, but I try to commit myself every day to her Immaculate Heart.  

But on a day like today I cannot help but be happy for her.  She lived a life free of sin and no gets a sneak preview of the Resurrection.  No wonder this day is a holy day of obligation!

I wish that I had words to honor her properly.  So instead I want to share with you some thoughts from Pope Benedict XVI via  

The story says that he "set aside his prepared text for much of his homily."  George Weigel once said that Joseph Ratzinger was the only person he knew who spoke in paragraphs.  His mind and his words are so well ordered that even spontaneously they flow with eloquence.  

Below is a portion of the text of the article

On Assumption, pope says Mary is with God, listening to prayers

By Catholic News Service

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (CNS) -- Assumed into heaven, Mary is with God and is ready to listen and respond to cries for help, Pope Benedict XVI said.

Joining God in heaven, Mary "does not draw away from us, does not go to an unknown galaxy," but becomes "even closer to each one of us," the pope said Aug. 15 during his homily at Mass for the feast of the Assumption.


Mary's assumption, he said, gives believers "a sure hope: God expects us, he awaits us. We are not moving toward a void."

"And going to that other world, we will find the goodness of the Mother (Mary), we will find our loved ones, we will find eternal love," the pope said.

Pope Benedict... said that Mary's closeness to God ensures her closeness to all God's creatures.

"Mary, totally united with God, has a heart that is so big that all creation can find a place there," a fact illustrated by the votive offerings people around the world leave at Marian shrines and statues when their prayers are answered, he said.

Mary's presence in heaven shows that "in God there is room for man," he said.

At the same time, he said, she demonstrates that "in man there is room for God," and when God is present within individuals and they allow God to influence the way they act in the world, the world becomes a better place.

Many people today speak of their hopes for a better world, he said. 

"If and when this better world will come, we do not know. But one thing is certain: A world that moves away from God will not become better, but worse. Only the presence of God can guarantee a better world."

The Christian hope for a better world and for finding a place with God for eternity "is not just yearning for heaven," but allowing one's desire for God to "make us untiring pilgrims, increasing our courage and strength of faith, which is at the same time the courage and strength of love," he said.

Hail Holy Queen,
Mother of Mercy
Our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
To thee do we send up our sighs, mornings, and weepings
in this valley of tears.
Turn then, Most Gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy
towards us.
And after this our exile, show unto us the Blessed Fruit
of Thy Womb, Jesus
O Clement
O Loving
O Sweet Virgin Mary

Monday, August 14, 2017

New Evangelizers Post: Crafty Virtue

I have a new article up at  
One of Jesus’ most challenging parables is the one about the Dishonest Steward in Luke 16. In that story, a wealthy man is about to dismiss one of his stewards for being dishonest. The steward, wanting to ingratiate himself with those in debt to his master, reduces their debt to the master. The parable ends with the master commending the dishonest steward for acting prudently.

It is important to enter into its context, where the dishonesty of the steward was in the beginning of the story, not the end. Many misunderstand the parable, thinking that the master is rewarding the steward for dishonestly cheating him out of the debts owed. Instead, the steward is being dismissed at the beginning of the story for his graft in overcharging the debtors, something that would have been understood as common to Jesus’ original audience. For example, if Jesus told a similar parable today and began it by describing a dishonest banker, we would naturally assume that his dishonesty was in stealing from the bank. We would not need to be told this. In the original parable, the steward forgoes his cheating profits and has the debtors pay the actual amount they owe.

Because of this, the master commends the steward for being practical.

There are several lessons that one can draw from this story. For this article, I would like to focus only on one idea:

Crafty Virtue.

You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sunday Best: Top 5 Stephen King Films

With The Dark Tower premiering last week and It coming out soon, I thought it would be a good time to take stock of the best movies that have been adapted from Stephen King stories.

This list will only include feature films and not those found only on television.  This is a shame since there is a great deal to admire about the TV versions of The Stand, The Shining, and It.

The list is based on how good the movies are and not on how well they adapt Stephen King's actual story.  Some of the movies on this list are very unfaithful adaptations.  And yet as films in and of themselves, they are excellent.  So for the King fan, these movies may be considered sub par.  But I am judging the movies per se.

5.  Misery

This movie is ultimately a battle of minds that required to outstanding performances.  Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her portrayal of the psychotic Annie.  But James Caan is often overlooked for his amazing performance as a man so completely physically helpless against this monster so that he has to use all of his wits just to stay alive a little longer for the hope of escape.  Most of the action is contained in a very small space and yet director Rob Reiner makes the film incredibly watchable.

4.  The Shining
The Shining poster.jpg
A horror masterpiece.  And this is coming from someone who does not enjoy horror films.  The movie works its creeping fingers of terror around your throat and then squeezes.  The horrible sense of unease never leaves the movie from the very first shot and the descent into madness feels ineveitable.  It is like being trapped in an oddly beautiful nightmare.

3.  Stand By Me
Stand By Me 1986 American Theatrical Release Poster.jpg
This is a movie that perfectly captures that odd time when you fall from the innocence of childhood but still are not old enough to be taken at all seriously in any adult way.  The four friends in this movie have relationships that feel real and identifiable to any boy who grew up with some close buddies.  Even as they revel in gross out vomit stories, there is a child-like naiveté to it that we can feel slipping away by the end of the film.  I love how when the boys part at the end, they fade away like ghosts, reminding us that even though we may not have them in our lives anymore, the events we shared with them will haunt our lives.

And the soundtrack is outstanding.

2.  The Green Mile
The words Tom Hanks, a prison guard looking to the distance, below the words The Green Mile, in the middle of the words, a small silhouette of a big man and small man walking towards a light.
Tom Hanks gives one of his best performances in this movie as he comes to discover that his death row inmate may be a miracle from Heaven.  The late Michael Clarke Duncan got an Oscar nomination for his role and it is well deserved.  There is something about his portrayal as John Coffey that has an aura of mystery and even danger.  His innocence could come off as mere stupidity.  But his final monologue where talks about people "being ugly to each other" always gets me.  And I have never heard a more pro-life sentence in a movie than: "On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and He asks me why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I going say?

1.  The Shawshank Redemption

Probably to no one's surprise, this movie is at the top of the list.  It is on the top films on most people's lists.  Director Frank Darabont is a poet with the camera and the movie works on every level: visually, thematically, emotionally, dramatically...   From the opening scene to the final shot, everything about this movie is great.  It is optimistic and hopeful, but it not a naiive hope.  Instead this movie looks the nastiness of the world right in the eye and it dares you to give in and then it dares you to believe that despite all of that, there can be a better tomorrow, that for all of us there can be a redemption.

Monday, August 7, 2017

New Evangelizers Post: Reflecting on Jesus’ Grandparents

I have a new article up at  
A few days ago we celebrated the feast of Sts. Anne and Joachim, the parents of the Virgin Mary. Very little can be said about them with certainty. Neither of Mary’s parents are named in the Scriptures. We find these names in The Gospel of James, a book that is not one of the inspired books of the Bible.
Is the information found in this book and found in the human tradition reliable?

Who can say.

Then what do we know with certainty?

We know that they lived in Nazareth with their daughter Mary. We know that their union produced the Immaculate Conception. And we know that their grandchild is the Incarnate Word.

Like St. Joseph, Anne and Joachim were born into the same fallen humanity that we all possess. I imagine that when they welcomed their daughter into the world they wanted to give her a better life than they had. I spoke recently with some friends of mine who have children and they said that they always wonder what will be the thing they do that will start a chain reaction of unalterably forming their child’s character. They hope that they say and do things that will make them holier and more moral. But an ill-tempered word or disinterested slight is something that they fear may be the source of a lifetime of hurt.

I don’t know that Anne and Joachim were any different. Sometimes I think we imagine Jesus and Mary were born with fully formed personalities. And to be sure in His Divinity, Christ had a perfect and unchanging Personhood. But in their humanity, both Jesus and Mary had to learn the way all of us learn.

Human beings are interesting creatures, unique in this world. Think of how many species have young that walk right from birth or engage in self-reliant behavior immediately with no parenting. Human children require years and years of parenting because we are so different. That is because we, unlike all other earthly creatures, are rational animals. We find the fulfillment of our natural potential not only in physical perfection (as beasts do), but in mental perfection as well. This requires a great deal of education. Here, I do not mean anything as formal as school, though that can be a part of it. The most important education of all is the one that teaches them how to live rightly. We call this moral education. And this is something that is not simply taught in platitudes and lessons. It is something that usually has its best chance of being taught through example and modeling.

You can read the whole article here.