Dunkirk

I don’t often have the time (or bank account) to see movies in the theater. But I was pretty excited to be able to see an early 70mm screening of Christopher Nolan’s latest film Dunkirk. I would definitely see it in 70mm or even IMAX if you can. It’s visually stunning. Even more so, I came away feeling that Dunkirk is deeply resonant and thoughtful in its portrayal of war.

Every film about armed conflict and historical battles is a little different. They allow the director or writer to show off skills of historical accuracy, or tell a story that highlights heroes and national symbolism, or pop the hood on human nature and examine why people engage in violence at all.

Previous war films that I’ve seen have often been characterized by unapologetic gore and death, or the worship of self-sacrifice and patriotism, or a chess-like fixation on tactics and strategy. With Dunkirk, Nolan has done something more minimalist, more existential, more literal. Dunkirk is an up-close, personal account of the emptiness of war and the struggle to simply survive for another day.

(Spoilers Ahead)

By following three sets of characters, in a non-chronological weaving of their respective timelines, Dunkirk creates a feeling of disorientation in the audience like that of a shell-shocked soldier. Through the film’s nonlinear telling, a sense of time and order fades. You rarely know when a bullet, bomb, or torpedo is coming until it’s right on you. And Dunkirk not only shows it–it makes you feel it. It’s a rollercoaster of increasing intensity that is only occasionally alleviated for a fleeting moment. A simple piece of bread and jam after being pulled out of the water represents a brief taste of home, safety, and comfort. Until new bombardments ratchet up the danger and intensity again.

The sounds of the film are turned up to 11 and put you in the heart of the action. Every fly-by makes you want to duck. Every gunshot feels like it’s whizzing past your ear. Every tilting camera angle of a sinking ship nudges you to look for a way to get out and stay afloat. These are not moments for heroics. They’re for instinctual perseverance and leaning on the people around you to overcome the blasts and drowning depths.

Dunkirk is filled out and made even more felt by an excellently experimental Hans Zimmer score. With music as texture and just a few overt themes, Zimmer turns the intensity up and down in sync with the rising danger and brief moments of relief. A nearly constant stopwatch-like ticking conveys that time is always running out, while other instrumentals mimic the noises of fighter planes, ships, and munitions. A foundation of strings, synthesizers, and longing horns churn in the background. The melody of hope that appears late in the story is an intrusion of almost otherworldly warmth that washes over you like rays of purifying sun.

Dunkirk tightly fits it all together to depict the terror and disorientation of war. The primal strive to survive against ocean and machine. And the slight but tangible hope for escape and future comfort.

War is hell, as many have said. But Dunkirk perhaps depicts more of a purgatory–somewhere in-between heaven and hell. The Dunkirk beach is a stand-in for all of us trying to survive on this pale blue dot in a vast, dark universe. The twin forces of humans who’ve lost their humanity (the Nazis are symbolically faceless throughout the film) and an indifferent, wild planet constantly threaten to extinguish life and cause a permanent descent into darkness and meaninglessness.

But there is also the small glimmer of hope of making it out–making it home–if you can persevere. In Nolan’s worldview, it’s the industrious humanity of other people who come to the rescue rather than divine intervention. If we can make it another day together, maybe we will all eventually see the end of our existential desperation, and rest in the comfort of a heavenly home.

Boundaries and Spaces

Some of the things you can’t control…

How long you have to wait at the DMV. The weather. Where Earth is in the universe. If your favorite team wins the championship this year. Sunday night is the end of the weekend. Getting laid off. Who your parents and siblings are. Heartache is painful. Some drunks decide to drive. Humans can’t spread their arms and fly. Meritocracy is mostly a fiction. People need oxygen, water, and food (and many other things) to survive. You have to actually do the chores for things to be clean. Time travel is probably impossible. Others misunderstand and judge you. The typical lifespan is 71 years.

These are the boundaries of life. The things that are out of your hands and constrain who you are and what you can do. You might wish things were different. Or that you could have superpowers to overcome limits. But there’s little, if anything, you can do to change and control these things.

Some of the things you can control…

What food you eat. Who you ask out on a date. Where and when you take vacations. How you exercise. What time you go to sleep. How much of your income you save. If you play it safe or take a risk. Your outlook for the future. The city you make your home. Being better informed. Caring about what other people think of you. Your attachment to your phone. Learning new things. How you treat strangers and vulnerable human beings. The time you spend with the people you love.

These are the spaces. The undetermined, pliable things you can largely build and shape as you want. To do like this or like that. To prioritize or ignore. To do the same way for a while, or evaluate and change as you go.

A lot of being able to live well comes down to understanding the things you can’t control and the things you can. The things that guide and limit our path, and the things that we can do the way we want.

We don’t have superpowers. We’re not powerless. We are people. We are both limited and full of potential. Understand, explore, try. Know what shapes you and what you can shape.

Find your place in the boundaries and spaces.

This Week in Upgrades: January 16

Hello, friend. I’m running behind today. It’s been a normal, full workday for me. Did you get Martin Luther King Jr Day off? If so, I hope it’s been a reflective and restful holiday.

Here are the most interesting things I came across this week…

Life’s much better with plants in your home. Here’s how to do it without ending up with a pot of dead branches.

Why are people ticklish?

The ongoing conversation about who gets to be an expert on cuisines from certain countries and cultures.

People who swear have been shown to be more honest. (That doesn’t mean they’re more moral).

Antibiotic resistance is getting worse. I feel like nobody’s really talking about this?

The world’s eight (8!) richest people have as much wealth as the bottom 50%. Just a little bit of inequality. Hierarchies may be vital to capitalism, but they’re not natural.

What can actually fix inequality? Policy? War?

The historically low amount of global sea ice should be a huge wake up call about the climate (in a long line of wake up calls).

Another wake up call.

A reminder to take studies praising or villainizing a particular food with a grain of salt (yeah, pun definitely intended).

Alaska is incredible.

Have an awesome week!

 

 

 

 

Who Needs a Gun?

It’s happened again. The horrific violence in Orlando is at least the 133rd mass shooting of 2016, and the 998th since Sandy Hook in 2012–a moment in history when any reasonable person would have thought: surely the slaughter of twenty kids and their six teachers will change gun policy in America. Nope. In fact, the tragedy at Pulse in Orlando is now the deadliest mass shooting in US history. They seem to be only getting worse.

There’s reason to worry that the frequency of mass shootings and the absence of any gun policy change are making us desensitized to gun violence. These kinds of tragedies in the age of social media have a very short half-life of attention. In a few weeks, will you still be mourning the victims in Orlando and clamoring for changes to gun laws in America? Will I?

Maybe instead of losing the forest for the trees with the particulars of each shooting as they happen–the number of casualties, the religion and mental state of the shooter–we need to ask more poignant, all-encompassing, difficult questions. A question like:

What citizen needs a gun in 2016?

If we’re objective and honest, nobody needs one. There are many people who want one–recreational hunters, for example. But no regular citizen of the United States needs–fundamentally, unequivocally–to possess a firearm. If you disagree, ask yourself why?

What exactly do you expect to happen that necessitates owning your own firearm? Hunting for meals? Someone trying to murder you in your home? Self-defense against a suddenly tyrannical US government?

How likely are those scenarios to happen?

The reality is that today, no one needs to hunt for their meals. We are thoroughly civilized and consumerized by the likes of superstores, farmers’ markets, convenience stores, and restaurants. They all are regularly supplied by reliable food production systems that ensure that even the family mart in Quaint Town, USA, has some organic meat and produce available. Even those who hunt primarily “for the meat” only make up 35% of hunters–not even close to a majority. And it’s not clear that nowadays it costs less to hunt for meat–should someone declare that regular groceries are unaffordable. To be sure, a game meat like venison is absolutely delicious–I grew up in Wisconsin with the occasional family-hunted jerky, steaks, and sausage. But it’s not essential to survival. Just enjoyable when you can get it. And you could get it with weaponry other than a firearm. That’s not a need.

Nor does anyone need to own a gun in expectation of a home intruder. Statistically, it’s actually less safe if you do have a gun in the home. It’s much more likely a family member or close friend will be shot with it–domestic violence, suicide, or child-related accident–than a criminal intruder. Even if you are in the uncommon situation of an intruder in your home when you’re there, there’s a reasonable chance that: (1) the gun gets taken over from you; or (2) that you reactively shoot as soon as you see someone and discover it’s a person you know (that you may have been able to talk down), someone unarmed (and therefore not immediately life-threatening), or even someone innocently entering the house when you weren’t expecting it.

As for the so-called citizen militia scenario, let’s all simply recognize there is no modern Lexington and Concord to come. The United States today has a flawed, yet relatively stable democracy. Citizen paranoia is much more probable than violent state tyranny.

So, again, where is the need for a gun for the average citizen in 2016? There isn’t, it’s a want.

And if it is just a want, we better ask another question:

What does a gun do?

For too long, too many have gone along with the guns don’t kill people, people kill people cliche. But ask yourself: what is the purpose of a gun? What is its function? To have portable, quick-to-initiate, precise, lethal force, in a way that extends and amplifies the human physiological capacity for violence–like a punch or throwing a rock. In short, guns inherently wound and kill. You don’t use them as a replacement flower vase or to tie your shoes, because that’s not what they do. 

It’s a relatively narrow and modern application to use them in an intentionally non-injurious way like target shooting. And, even so, there are surely less risky and intense hobbies than loading up a firearm and trying to rupture specific places on a stationary target or objects flying through the air–even though that may be a fun skills challenge or stress-relieving.

But what about freedom?

Indeed, the United States is a country wrapped in the necessity of that immensely powerful idea. “Life, liberty (i.e. freedom), and the pursuit of happiness,” are the DNA of this country. But freedom doesn’t mean everyone gets to do whatever they want. Each person in the United States surely should have freedom from violence–as much as people desire to have the freedom to buy many things they want. Needs are more vital than wants. And freedom from violence is unquestionably a need, whereas the freedom to own a firearm–a piece of technology that’s primary purpose is to wound and kill–is a want.

We should therefore question how that want can impinge and is impinging on freedom from violence. The terror in Orlando has given us a fresh reminder of that. The shooter was an American citizen–legally in the country–using a Sig Sauer MCX–a semi-automatic firearm legally purchased. The victims were innocently trying to enjoy their lives and pursue happiness.

Whatever the original intent of the Second Amendment, it doesn’t seem to fit the current era of guns and gun violence. And, in fact, Thomas Jefferson was mindful of such unforeseen times:

Jefferson
via @JohnFugelsang

Existing gun policy is clearly “unadapted to the good of the nation”–to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in 21st century America. It’s time to think outside the box–outside of dogma, partisanship, and prejudice–about real freedom, what guns are for, and who actually needs one. Too many innocent people have died or will be killed as we’ve maintained the status quo of lax laws to accommodate want.

 

How to Adult: Stuff

Do you have a favorite thing to wear? When you dig through your dresser or look at the rack in the closet, are there clothes that you love more than the rest?

For the longest time, I would have one shirt or sweater that I thought was about the awesomest top I could find, and I felt pretty awesome in it whenever I’d wear it. Everything else in my wardrobe was made up of things from when I was younger that still fit, randomly bought pieces from sale sections, and clothes I got as gifts. Most days I left home wearing one of those things, and not feeling particularly awesome because of it.

There’s an energy to what you wear. Some make you feel awesome. Some make you feel whatever. Some make you feel why do I have this and when would I actually want to put it on?

It’s the same kind of energy that exists with all of the stuff that fills up our homes. The things in your closet, in the bathroom cabinet, in the kitchen, on the floor in the living room, and everywhere else, have a kind of force. They make you feel a certain way when you’re around them and when you use them.

Thinking about stuff in that way might seem kinda out there, were it not for the success of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Most of us at some point have parted with a thing or two by giving it to Goodwill or just throwing it in the garbage. The “KonMari Method” takes things to a whole other level.

The basic principle is one of those great rules for life that sounds remarkably simple but changes things dramatically when you follow it. For every piece of stuff in your home–every shirt, every book, every kitchen gadget, every childhood crayon drawing–you must hold it in your hands and ask, “does this bring me joy?” Just an instinctual yes or no–no rationalizing. It’s easy to wander down the rabbit hole of no, but it… that causes you to hold onto something that doesn’t actually make you feel all that awesome. But it came from grandma. But I paid $50 for it. But I’ve had it since I was in college. It’s really hard with some stuff! But you’re trying to focus on the feeling each thing gives you–keeping only what gives you delight when you touch it.

As you go through this intense and sometimes emotional process, with all the different kinds of stuff filling up your home, you’re left with only things that spark joy, as Kondo describes it. What’s left in your closet means you can wear the outfit that makes you feel awesome every day because they’re all like that.

Practically speaking, is this difficult? Absolutely. There’s a minimalism that’s too minimal. You can’t walk out the door naked three days of the week because you only have four clean things in your wardrobe.

And few people can afford to drop tons of money all at once to build up the clothes, cookware, furniture, books, etc. that spark joy.

So maybe instead for right now, before you winnow down to keeping only the things that make you feel that way, focus instead on the things you’re about to buy. Ask whether it truly makes you feel awesome and will continue to make you feel awesome in six months. Instead of buying two or three fast-fashion shirts that will fall apart after the third time you wash them, try to save up a little bit and get one shirt that’s built to last. Even in our mass-produced world, there are plenty of makers making things that you’ll feel full of joy about for a long time.

When you begin to be aware of the energy of the things in your home, stuff is no longer just stuff. It has a force, it has influence, it requires attention and discretion. It can either spark joy or suck you into a black hole of other emotion. You have the power to filter out what’s what, even if it takes a little while to do so.

When you’re surrounded by the things that make you feel awesome, it nudges you to be a more awesome you. Put on your favorite outfit and get to it.

 

How to Adult: Cooking

When I did How to Adult: Eating, I promised one later about cooking. The future is now.

These two sides of food–eating and cooking–come with significantly different skill sets. With eating, we found that you can eat enjoyably and healthfully by following three basic principles: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. When it comes to cooking, five minutes watching an expert chef can send you retreating into thinking I’ll just go ahead and buy every meal for the rest of my life. How am I supposed to do that?

There’s an intimidation factor to overcome with cooking. I’ve been (attempting to) cook all kinds of stuff at home for years now, and I still worry I’m going to screw it up half the time. It’s going to happen. And that’s the point. The most important thing when it comes to cooking is that you try to cook.

Start with boxed macaroni and cheese and feel like a boss because you boiled and drained noodles, then added butter, milk, and powdered cheese to get a zesty (radioactive?) sauce. No shame. That’s about the only thing I knew how to cook when I first started making my own meals.

Or dive into a complex cookbook recipe with 31 ingredients that takes 6 hours to prepare.

Try, try, try.

You will definitely blow it once in awhile. Cooking is one of the last great opportunities for trial and error in a thoroughly routinized world. Sometimes you’ll add too much salt. Maybe the first time you give salmon a try you overcook it a bit. Seafood is especially daunting. But you learn when you mess up. Oh, this is how I should do it next time.

The sooner you start cooking at home, the better. It’s such a valuable pursuit. You know every ingredient that’s going into what you’re eating. You feel a sense of accomplishment for doing it yourself. It saves money because it’s cheaper than eating out. So many good things happen when you cook your own meals.

So how do you do it?

A little bit of equipment is required–the basic utensils, pots, pans, and the like. This list is a decent place to start, though I certainly don’t have everything that’s there. It takes time to acquire the kitchen gear you want or need, so start with inexpensive equipment that’s the most essential, and then add and replace as you go.

It’s hard to make anything if you don’t have steps to prepare it. That’s where recipes come in. The goal with recipes is to understand basic techniques and principles for putting ingredients together. How to Cook Everything, by former New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, is really good for this. For hundreds of the most common dishes, he gives you the standard recipe to get the basic concept down, and then variations so that you learn how to improvise. In time, you’ll be able to look at what you have hanging around in your kitchen and turn it into meals.

My wife and I have also enjoyed using The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook, because you end up with portions that are–surprise, surprise–just right for two people (or a meal for now and leftovers for later if you’re cooking for one). There are countless cookbooks, with dozens more published every week. If you want to expand the things you can make to dishes from a particular region of the United States, or strictly vegetarian, or specifically desserts, you can find any number of choices.

There are also tons of food blogs to mix in new recipes if you want to break from the books you’re using. Smitten Kitchen is a delight. Food 52 is endless. 101 Cookbooks is easy and healthful. Search and you will find.

When it comes time to plan and prepare meals, it helps me immensely to pick some of the things we’re going to cook during the week ahead of time, and get those groceries in one trip. Because of busyness, laziness, intimidation, and everything else, it’s probably not an achievable goal to cook each and every meal you eat in the next 7 days–at least when you’re starting out. Aspire to make something like 3 or 5 legit, cooked meals. The rest can be easy-to-put-together things like sandwiches, salads, and low-cost fast-casual stuff if you’re short on time. Making simple lunches with my wife to take to work is one of my zen moments during the week.

As you cook, you’ll find recipes you love and recipes you hate. There will be dishes that get a little better each time you prepare them, because you figured out you like to add more garlic than the recipe calls for, that your oven takes five minutes less than what the page says, or that there’s an ingredient that’s not in the recipe but makes it taste so much better.

You’ll get a repertoire of things that become a breeze to prepare because you’ve made them and modified them so many times. You can move up to making 8 or 10 (or more) meals at home each week, and try new, and even harder-to-cook, dishes. Way to go, Alton Brown.

There’s also a variety of techniques to learn–especially knife skills. There are more good videos online for cooking technique than you could ever watch.

Cooking, like so many things, is a lifelong process of developing understanding and ability. Don’t let the mastery of the celebrated chefs of the world intimidate you out of cooking yourself. If you want to get to their level, I’m certain you can. We need more people who care that much about real food. I’m in awe of what they do.

Or, just get really good at making simple and delicious pasta every Tuesday night.

Either way, it’s just a matter of trying. You got this, chef.

 

Space: The Necessary Frontier

Nothing lasts forever. Nothing we know of now, anyway. Our favorite athletes retire and move on from the sports stage they once starred on. Shows like Mad Men inevitably arrive at their series finale and conclude the stories they began years ago in their pilots. Jazzercise is no longer a trendy way to work out; the popularity of CrossFit today will likely fade in much the same way over the next decade or two. Young siblings grow up and move out—the days of everyone coming home from school and work every night for dinner together can never return. As difficult as it is to fathom the length of time, the universe is just under 14 billion years old, which means it hasn’t been around forever—and it won’t be around forever in the future. It’s hard to anticipate the forthcoming end of something when you’re right in the middle. It seems too far off, or too unlikely to happen. That’s just getting started. There are lots of seasons left. It’s cemented its place in society. That’s at least several years away. I just can’t ever see it changing from the way it is. Change of home is probably the hardest to process. You grow deep roots with the friends you make, the schools you attend, arts and cultural centers you frequent for entertainment, neighbors, favorite places to eat and drink, annual celebrations, the recognizable contours of local topography, seasonal transitions, and overall way of life—then uproot everything to go try to settle in elsewhere. Will the roots go as deep there? What do you do with the trauma of the severed, irreplaceable roots from where you left? Whether you’ve called a place home for one year or twenty, it’s difficult and disorienting to come to the end of something that was such a constituent part of who you are. The reality is that even if we’ve built a sturdy, comfortable home to pass on to our family for generations to come, one day home will have to change for all of us. Our planet, Earth, will no longer sustain the lives of people—whether we’re trying to live out of a cabin near one of the Poles, a hut close to the Equator, or anywhere in between. Eventually, our sun will run out hydrogen to burn and turn into a white dwarf. Before that, the sun will gradually get hotter and hotter as it turns into a red giant. In a little over a billion years, much of the earth will be completely uninhabitable: no plants, no animals, boiling bodies of water. This, of course, assumes that we won’t first completely wreck the planet through more anthropogenic climate change over the next several years. But whether we’re looking at 100 years or 1 billion, it’s become increasingly clear that Earth will not be our sustaining home forever. Space is not only the final frontier, as Star Trek has spiritedly suggested: it is the necessary frontier. We have to find somewhere else to journey to and make home. To do that, we obviously need a place to go and a means to get there. NBD. That colossal project is only in its infancy. We haven’t truly identified any proper earthlike planets. Mars is sort of a half-option: it’s in our own solar system, and with the right kind of engineering we could probably survive there in smaller colonies for a while. But even beyond the difficulties of radiation, bone loss, lack of indigenous oxygen, cramped living space, limited water sources, and the rest, it will succumb to the same fate as Earth with the decay and death of the sun. And though Mars is relatively close, we do not yet have an existing transportation structure to even make a one-way trip. SpaceX, the most innovative space technology company at the moment, recently had viewers around the world on a seat’s edge as they nearly landed a rocket stage for the first time, which would make it reusable—cheapening the costs of space travel and quickening the rate at which missions and innovation could take place. But comparably, that’s like someone being able to only mispronounce “bonjour” and “merci” in relation to free-flowing fluency of the entire French language. It’s stages prior to baby steps. Even infancy may be a bit of a stretch—cosmic exploration is prenatal right now. It’s all kind of a real life, race-against-time drama. Maybe we have several million years, but if we cannot reduce our negative impact on the planet and stabilize the global warming trends, maybe we only have a handful of decades. We can’t count on millions. Can we find a new home in time? Can we develop the complex, powerful technology to get to wherever that is and survive—even flourish—on it? The reality of this urgency and necessity is part of what made the underappreciated film Interstellar so compelling. It’s not merely fiction. Even if you have artistic critiques of Christopher Nolan’s film as a film, its story is solidly founded on one possible version of our future as human beings and the challenges we face to endure (as well as why we should endure). Whether it’s from blight, unmanageable global warming, the death of the sun, or something else that makes earth inhospitable in the end, we need to adventure well beyond the frontiers of the place we call home now if we want to ensure that our own story continues. Like all things, it will not be home forever.