Making Sense of the Senseless

The world is not a happy place at the moment. From the escalating violence in the Middle East, to the rise of Boko Haram in Africa, to the epidemic of gun violence in the United States, to the increasingly violent situation in Ukraine, good news is hard to find among the tragic headlines and ever rising body count. Last week, the world was stunned by the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 when it was shot down over eastern Ukraine by a surface-to-air missile, and I suppose the only bright spot to be found in this horrific story is the fact that the world can still be stunned by a senseless act of violence in an era where bloodshed and slaughter are so tragically common.

It has been a week since I first woke up to those terrible headlines announcing MH17′s sad fate, and the gruesome photos of the crash site that have been beamed around the world have only made this story seem more surreal. However, even more than the photos, the hardest part of this event is the stories of the 298 people who lost their lives on that flight. Almost immediately, the pictures and profiles of these innocent victims who got caught in someone else’s fight began to appear online and in the news media, and invariably, stories of how wonderful they were began to emerge. We hear about how they were kind, generous, and loving, and how they didn’t deserve to die, and once again, those who remain are left to wonder why these terrible things keep happening to good people. This is the common refrain of these tragedies, and it has made me question on more than one occasion whether or not a just world really is possible, but whenever I begin to despair, I remind myself that bad things happen to good people not because of some cruel cosmic joke, but simply because of the math.

Every time something horrible happens that destroys your faith in humanity, humanity gives us the heroes and the helpers who pick up the pieces, tend to the wounded, and salute the fallen. Evidence of this is everywhere. For every starving child there people trying to feed them. For every bomber who blows up a bus, there are hundreds of ordinary people who rush to do what they can to help those on board. For every natural disaster that wipes out whole communities, there are thousands of people who donate money, supplies, and their time to get those communities re-built and back on their feet. For every shocking act of violence, there are millions of random acts of kindness happening all over the world, many of which will never go reported, but each and every one doing their part to heal our battered souls.

Our world is a broken place, and the problems that people face on a daily basis in every country often seem insurmountable, but when the daily deluge of terrible news stories threaten to overwhelm, I always take a deep breath, close my eyes, and remember the words of that most wonderful human being, Mister Rogers:

There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbours and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.

When we hear the stories of the victims of senseless tragedies, and we hear what good people they were, we can take heart in the fact that bad things don’t just happen to good people. Bad things happen to good people because the statistics demand it. Bad things happen to good people because I believe with all my heart and soul that the vast majority of people on this planet are good people, and so when tragedy strikes, it is inevitable that good people will always pay the price. This will never change, because the number of people who want to destroy our world will never come close to the number of people who want to save it. When our time on this earth is over, and all that is left of us are the stories we leave behind, I hope that our legacy is that we were a race of helpers. I hope that among all the tales of war, killings, and violence, the real story shines through. That when the few came at us with anger, intolerance, and hatred, the many responded with kindness, compassion, and love.

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Can You Escape?

If someone had told me a week ago that I would pay for the privilege of being locked in a dark room with a couple of strangers for 45 minutes, I would have forced a small smile and slowly backed away from the crazy person. However, yesterday, that was exactly what I did when I tried out one of the emerging new trends in entertainment; a real escape room game. The premise is as simple as it sounds: you are locked in a room, usually one styled in a certain theme or story, and within a certain amount of time you have to decipher the clues found within in order to escape. Simple, and as it turns out, brilliant as well.

I had never heard of this new phenomenon, but while trying to decide on something to do to pass the time on a rainy Saturday afternoon, a friend suggested we try out a new company called Exit, wherein your goal is to simply exit a room. A couple of hours later I found myself entering a room styled as a lost ship whose encounter with some mystical Sirens caused its mission to go horribly awry. After some quick instructions on the rules of the game, the door was shut, the clock was started, and the game was on. I was determined to be one of the lucky few who actually make it out of the room, but after some initial progress, our group became stuck on one frustratingly stubborn lock combination, and as the clock ran out, I knew I wanted to come back and try it again, which of course is the brilliance of this particular business model.

These real escape room games are a relatively new form of entertainment, with the first ones dating back to only 2006, but it’s only been in the last two years that they have really taken off, with games popping up across the United States, Canada, Japan, China, and in several countries across Europe. According to one source, there are over 50 different escape room games in Hungary alone, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Perhaps people are drawn in by the chance to participate in a real live video game, while perhaps others want to prove themselves a real life Sherlock Holmes. For me, the thrill of solving each little puzzle was addicting, and more than enough to keep me coming back for more, so I know I have a date with a lost ship somewhere in the near future. I guess I’ll be paying for the privilege of being locked in a dark room with a bunch of strangers yet again, and the strange thing is, I can’t wait.

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The Wrong Ending

It’s the cliched sports movie plot line we’ve all seen a thousand times. The gifted prodigy. They are the chosen one who will lead their team to greatness and glory, and at first, success seems almost preordained. They reach the final championships, and initially they are brilliant, leading their team to victories and triumph. But then things start to unravel. The brilliance begins to fade, and they begin to struggle. Somehow, they cobble together the victories needed to reach that all important final, and when the day finally arrives, they enter the arena with the weight of the world on their shoulders. This is their moment, if only they can reach out and take it.

The game is tense, and both sides valiantly battle for control. Our prodigy does everything they can, but is rewarded with near misses and lost opportunities. And then, in the dying moments, their opponents strike, pull ahead, and all seems lost. The fans are defeated, the commentators declare victory, and our prodigy looks lost. That is, until the final seconds, when they are granted one last shot; the last play of the game to show the world what they’re made of, silence their critics once and for all, and prove that they have what it takes to be called the best. The ball is set, the whistle is blown, and it’s kicked towards the net. But it sails over the top. A miss. The prodigy has failed. This is not how it was supposed to end.

Like most of the world, I was enraptured with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The past month has been filled with more drama and heart pounding excitement than anything Hollywood has ever produced, and the exuberant joy of victory, and in turn the heartbreaking despair of defeat, have been both incredible and unbearable to witness. Between Luis Suarez’s post-bite banishment, Robin van Persie’s flying fish header of a goal, Brazil’s shocking defeat at the hands of eventual winner Germany, and the best theatrics this side of the Oscars with all of the diving on display, this tournament had it all, and it played out live on the world’s largest stage.

I wasn’t particularly attached to any one country, so I often found myself rooting for the perceived underdogs in any given match (go Costa Rica!), but there was one person in particular who I wanted to win more than anything: Argentina’s captain, Lionel Messi. Long considered one of the greatest footballers of all time, Messi has won pretty much every award possible in the footballing world, including the Ballon d’Or four times, 3 Champion’s League titles, 6 La Liga titles, and 2 Club World Cup titles. He has scored up to 5 goals in a game, smashed every scoring record in sight, rarely dives or argues with the officials, constantly gives up scoring chances if a teammate is in a better position, and whenever possible, publicly credits those teammates for his success. But he hasn’t won the World Cup. According to the constant stream of commentary in the lead up to this year’s tournament, Messi’s accomplishments meant nothing without hoisting that fabled trophy, and according to footballing experts, if he didn’t lead his team to victory in Brazil, Messi’s legacy would be forever tarnished. As Argentina’s captain, it was all on him, whether fairly or not.

By now, everyone who watched the World Cup knows how this story goes; of how Messi was brilliant in the group stage, but then faded in the knockout rounds. Argentina squeaked by Switzerland and Belgium, before taking out the Netherlands in penalty kicks; all while Messi failed to find the back of the net. Facing Germany in the final game, it seemed like everything was on the line for Argentina’s captain, with commentators wondering if this was the moment for him to finally step out of the shadow of his fellow countryman, Deigo Maradona, and join the ranks of footballing legends. As the game progressed, the German defense smothered Argentina’s attacks, and near misses by both Messi and Gonzalo Higuain will most likely haunt them forever. In the 113th minute, Mario Gotze’s brilliant goal put Germany ahead and all seemed lost. But then, in the dying seconds of the game, Messi was given a free kick at a perfect scoring distance from the German net. As he stood there, waiting to make his play, it looked like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. The referee blew his whistle, and, well, we all know how this ends.

I love sports, because watching a game unfold is like watching a story happen live before your eyes. The athletes who create these stories dedicate their lives to perfecting their craft, and we all delight in watching their journey from rookie to seasoned veteran happen before our eyes. When someone like Messi comes along; someone who is almost unnaturally gifted, it is easy to get caught up in the moment and be taken in by the possibility that we may be bearing witness to that elusive player of a generation. That one great talent who will inspire generations to come with their sporting heroics, and in our haste to anoint the next revered legend, we tend to forget that they are also human. Fallible and flawed, and while we may ask them to be perfect, they never are.

So this World Cup, I was cheering for Lionel Messi. Not Argentina, but their captain, because it was my hope that in winning the World Cup, he could finally be free of the criticism that has followed his career despite his unworldly accomplishments. I wanted him to lift that trophy and finally be able to leave behind the pressure an entire football-crazed nation has put on his shoulders since he was a teenager. I wanted him to win, because I am tired of his critics negating his spectacular achievements simply because of one trophy. But life is not a Hollywood movie, and sometimes the best can fail. When you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, even the strongest among us can get crushed.

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One Last Adventure with True Blood

Tonight marks the season premiere of HBO’s True Blood, and the start of the show’s final season. After having recently endured the brutal and soul crushing fourth season of Game of Thrones, I’m more than ready for some light summer television. Of course, this is HBO, which means their version of light summer television comes complete with plenty of blood, sex, and mayhem dolled out by the vampires, werewolves, fairies, and other assorted paranormal characters that inhabit this crazy show. While recent seasons have been marred by uneven plot lines and an ever increasingly sprawling cast, when push comes to shove, True Blood is one of the most addictive shows to ever grace the small screen, and so I’m ready to settle in for one final go around with all the insanity that makes this show one of a kind.

True Blood may have debuted back in 2008, but I resisted tuning in for years, because after the onslaught of the Twilight franchise around the same time, I was left with a general loathing for all things vampire related. However, a friend of mine insisted that I give the show a chance, and so one night, when nothing else looked appealing on television, I decided to give the first episode a go. One week and several sleepless nights later, I had devoured the first four seasons, and was well and truly addicted to the trials and tribulations of telepathic waitress, Sookie Stackhouse, and her heated romance with 173 year old vampire, Bill Compton. True Blood wasn’t, and still isn’t, the best show on television, but its ability to make it nearly impossible to stop watching is second to none. Each season plays out like one long story, and every single episode ends on a cliffhanger; a practice that is as ingenious as it is infuriating when it is 4AM and you just want to watch one more episode.

With its seventh season set to be its last, I’m ready to see what surprises these final 10 episodes have in store, and to find out how the stories will wrap up for each of the many characters that populate this show. The showrunners have teased that not all characters will make it to the series finale on August 24th, so I’m bracing myself for a Game of Thrones-style mass slaughter, but unlike that particular fantasy hit, True Blood has a wicked sense of humour and jovial spirit to its proceedings that should help to soften the blow. However, I’m mostly looking forward to getting sucked back in one last time, and to getting re-addicted to a show that is a crazy mashup of fantasy, soap opera, drama, and comedy, with characters that I’ll honestly be sad to see go by the end of it all. Over the past seven years, True Blood has somehow managed to successfully mix crazy twists with tender moments, and with trailers promising a return to its core characters and a more centralized plot, True Blood just may go out on the high it deserves.

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Late Night’s Bold New Voice

I love The Daily Show. Since I discovered its brilliance three years ago I have yet to miss an episode, because no one walks the line between mock outrage and genuine I’m-scared-for-the-future-of-my-country outrage better and more perfectly than Jon Stewart. Along with the hilarious skewerings of overreaching public officials, the spot on parodies and satires, and the laugh out loud field reports from the show’s talented team of correspondents, The Daily Show will often deliver much needed moments of serious reflection about the current state of affairs, and some of my favourite moments of the past three years have been when Stewart uses his platform to deliver pointed commentaries about the system and its many flaws.

Of the correspondents, my favourite by far was John Oliver, a British comedian whose field reports were often the highlight of many an episode, including such gems as his report on Australia’s gun control laws and his segment blasting the US for cutting off UNESCO funding. There was also the time that Stewart cut his wrist on a prop gone awry, and Oliver managed to seamlessly and hysterically incorporate it into their bit. However, my favourite John Oliver moment was easily his report from the final space shuttle launch in 2011, because his unabashed glee and excitement over witnessing the take off is truly a sight to behold. Because of all this, I was thrilled when Oliver took over as host of The Daily Show for three months last summer, because I believed it would be the perfect opportunity for him to really shine. Turns out, I was right, because not only was Oliver amazing as the guest host, but he was so amazing that soon after his stint ended it was announced that he would be leaving The Daily Show to host his own show on HBO. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver debuted two weeks ago, and after only two episodes, I’m convinced that John Oliver is one of the most talented people working in television today.

For anyone who may doubt that claim, I urge you to check out last week’s episode, during which Oliver dedicated over a third of the episode’s running time to discussing the death penalty’s use in the United States after the botched execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett the week before. Not exactly the kind of material normally associated with a comedy program, but Oliver acknowledged this fact up front, promised viewers a video of a hamster eating tiny burritos as a reward for making it through, and proceeded to launch into a poignant, thoughtful, and yes funny, but appropriately so, discussion about the death penalty, and questioned whether or not it is morally right for a country to allow legal executions.

I already knew that Oliver is a brilliantly funny comedian, but as I watched this segment unfold last week, it became clear to me that not only is he brave enough to take on topics that most people would shy away from, but he is talented enough to do so in a way that is both intelligent and constructive to the greater conversation about these topics. At the end of the segment, during which he acknowledged his own country’s horrific history with the death penalty and outlined the many issues associated with its modern incarnation, Oliver managed the impossible task of offering his own opinion on the matter without judging those who may feel differently. On the contrary, he recognized that this deeply complicated issue will invariably elicit a wide range of responses, and in light of recent events, perhaps it’s time to encourage further discussion on the matter, however difficult that may be.

Comedy has long been used as a tool to discuss difficult issues and subject matter, and some of the best social commentary on record has often come from gifted comedians. John Oliver is no exception, and I’m thrilled that by landing at HBO, he has been given the freedom to do precisely that, because not many people would have the guts to devote so much time to such a decidedly unfunny issue only two episodes into a brand new show. In the end, it is this willingness to take risks that will most likely be what sets his show apart from the myriad of other late night offerings, and I know I will remain an avid viewer of Last Week Tonight for as long as it’s on the air. And now, here’s a video of a hamster eating a tiny burrito.

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My First Time at the Faire

Well, I can check one more item off of my bucket list. All my life I’ve heard about Renaissance Fairs, and yesterday I finally got to attend one in person. Let’s just say it was quite the experience. Billed as a Renaissance Festival and Fantasy Faire, this one had it all; knights, fairies, pirates, princesses…and that was just in the parking lot. Of course, when I say parking lot, I really mean a field where we could abandon our futuristic driving machines, and change out of our modern garb in order to assume our characters for the day. Therefore, after settling into our parking spot, we propped open the trunk of the car and began changing into and assembling our costumes in what was easily the weirdest tailgate party I’ve ever been a part of. My identity for the day was that of a serving wench; not the most glamorous of roles, but it was the costume my friends had picked out for me, and any misgivings I may have had about the implications of that choice were quickly forgotten as soon as I felt the cool breeze around my legs that was created by the costume’s billowing skirt, because the sun was out and the day promised to be a scorcher.

Once inside, we began our leisurely stroll through the grounds of the faire, causally taking in all manner of vendors, food, entertainers, and old fashioned drinks. It was quite the sight to see a magician entertaining on lookers, while just across the path mermaids swam in a pool next to a pirate ship. A bit further on we came upon an exhibition of belly dancing, a Shakespeare company performing As You Like It, and a beer garden where we took a much needed refuge from the sun and indulged in some Henry VIII Porter. However, the highlight of the day promised to be a demonstration of jousting, during which the Knights of Honor would be competing for our enjoyment, and presumably theirs, because why else would you willingly gallop towards another person in full armour, all while hoping to avoid getting hit in the chest with a rather imposing wooden stick?

IMG_6069Unfortunately, on this day, the horses needed for said jousting were out of commission, and therefore the event could not go on as planned; a disappointment for sure, but a medieval re-enactment society was there to fill in the gap, and this group did not disappoint. Clad head to toe in shiny, freshly polished armour, and holding genuine, albeit blunted, swords and axes, these knights were now the featured entertainment of the day, and as we approached the viewing area for the first show, two knights stood centre stage, swords causally slung over their shoulders, as they cordially discussed how the imminent fight was going to go down.

IMG_6070Because of this discussion, I assumed that we were in for a choreographed fight, during which swords would clang, shields would deflect hits, and axes would swing, but all in a controlled and planned out manner. Something along the lines of a Lord of the Rings Live!  Therefore, I was utterly unprepared for what ensued once the group’s announcer gave the signal for the fight to start. Two grown men, each wearing over 60 lbs of armour, ran headlong at each other, hacking away with their swords, their shields, and in times of need, their heads. This would go on for a couple of minutes, until eventually one or both would lose their weapons in the chaos, at which point the two would simply grab at each other and attempt to throw the other to the ground. Whoever hit the ground first was the loser of the match. It was violent, brutal, and spectacularly unrehearsed, and as I took it all in, it occurred to me that this was giving us spectators a rather genuine look at what battles in the Middle Ages must have looked like before stunt choreographers became a thing. And if anyone had any doubt as to the authenticity of the fighting, a conversation with the announcer later in the day, during which he gleefully detailed the time a sword caught his finger and the flesh in that finger exploded out the side of his hand, was enough to convince me that while these people certainly were passionate about what they do, they are also slightly insane.

After watching two shows of knights bashing each other’s faces in, not to mention the hysterical spectacle of two knights having to be pried apart after their armour became entangled as they hit the ground together, my group particular of knights, minstrels, and princesses decided that it was time to go, because the sun was making us all crispy and we longed for the modern marvel that is air conditioning. As we headed out of the grounds, I took one last look around me and had to smile at what I saw. People in costumes of every imaginable genre were wandering around the grounds, taking in the sights, browsing the many hand-crafted wares on sale, and watching as the various entertainers jockeyed to amaze them. According to pop culture, Renaissance Fairs aren’t exactly the pinnacle of cool, but that didn’t stop the day from being completely awesome. With events like these, you’re only going to have as much fun as you decide to have, and believe me, high levels of fun were being had by everyone around me. I mean, if watching knights go at each other with real swords while a man rumbles along behind you pulling a cart of fake dead bodies and calling out “Bring out your dead!” isn’t a good day, then what is?

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Running to the Beat

I’ve often marvelled at the power of music. One song can instantly transport you back to a specific moment in your life, bringing with it a wave of nostalgia. Film scores can cause your heart to pound, while concerts can compel you to jump into a sweaty mess of humanity. For fun. Music can make you cheer, dance, jump, and sometimes even cry, and I’ll never stop being amazed at where it can take you next. Earlier this week, I found yet another reason why music is so incredible, and I discovered it while out on my morning run.

At this point, it is important to understand that I am not a runner. I grew up in a swimming pool, and therefore my body was conditioned to think that exercise only took place in zero gravity environments. As I grew older, and spin classes and hiking took over from my time in the pool, I studiously avoided any form of running, with the exception of running after the odd bus or runaway shopping cart. Therefore, it was not in a moment of good judgment last year that I agreed to run a half marathon, but agree I did, and several months ago I began my training. Due to my complete lack of prior running experience, the first reaction of my body to the start of training was instant shock, as in, “What on earth do you think you’re doing?!” The constant pounding of the pavement left my body confused and disoriented, and in those first few weeks, I very nearly called the whole thing off. I figured that if I couldn’t run for two minutes without feeling like I was going to die, attempting to run 13.1 miles would surely do me in for good. But I kept at it, allowing myself generous helpings of walking in between my running attempts, and as the months passed by, I slowly worked up to being able to run for 45 minutes straight.

Now before you send in any celebratory parades, let me assure you that not one of those 45 minutes are pretty. Starting at about 30 seconds in, I settle into my usual pace, one that can only be described as a new dance move called the geriatric shuffle, and from there I huff and puff my way through my usual neighbourhood loop. I was content with this achievement, until I looked up my pace and realized that not only would I come in last in an upcoming 10K race, but I was in danger of not making the pacing requirements for the half marathon, thereby rendering all of this pain and suffering moot. And so I began looking for a way to pick up my pace that did not involve me curled up on the side of the road in the fetal position begging passersby for an oxygen tank. This search was not going well, and my pacing remained stubbornly stagnate, until yesterday when something wonderful happened. Previously, I always listened to podcasts while running, using the time to catch up on my backlog of subscriptions, but yesterday, my sleepy brain refused to choose one to listen to, and instead I just lazily hit shuffle on a random music playlist.

Now I know that what I’m about to say isn’t exactly the scientific discovery of the year, but as soon as that music started playing, I could actually feel myself going faster as I ran in time with the beat. Turns out, simply listening to people talk isn’t exactly a great motivational tool when you’re trying to run with any semblance of speed, and as I clicked through song after song of fast beats and steady rhythms, I found myself settling into a pace that was much faster than any of my previous efforts. When I finished my route and looked down at my time, I had managed to shave two minutes off of my previous best.

I know that doesn’t sound like much, and I won’t be breaking any land speed records anytime soon, but I’ve found my key to running faster, and for the first time since I agreed to this crazy idea, I truly believe I can finish a half marathon. So from now on, my iPod will always be fully charged and ready to go for those early morning runs with my new running playlist all queued up. If you have any good song suggestions, please pass them on, otherwise I’ll see you at the finish line. If you can catch me, that is.

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A Reader Was Born

Last night I stayed up late to finish reading George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I don’t know why. I’ve seen the HBO show, and therefore I knew what was going to happen, and certain events were not any less traumatic on the page as opposed to onscreen. Perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment. Or perhaps it’s because the books are so well written, I couldn’t help getting sucked into the sprawling, yet amazingly detailed narrative Martin has created. Last night I only meant to read a chapter before turning out the light, but it was about halfway through that chapter that I came to what I’ve come to know as the no-turning-back point. I’ve become quite familiar with this point over the years, and I know better than to try and resist it, because the no-turning-back point is when you get to a certain point in a great book where you can’t stop reading, and instead you must stay up until you’ve turned the last page, no matter how long this takes. Trying to ignore this point is futile, because I’ve long since learnt that doing so only leads to sleepless nights where your brain refuses to turn off until you invariably turn the light back on, usually somewhere around 4AM, to continue reading. As much as these moments make the day after a drowsy affair, I love them, because there’s no better feeling than getting lost in a good book. I also remember quite vividly the first time I encountered a no-turning-back book. I was six, and the book was Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I can’t remember what caused me to pick up the book in the first place, although I have a sneaking suspicion it had something to do with a child’s glee over finding a book written by someone with the same name as me. Nevertheless, pick it up I did, and I was quickly drawn in to this story of a young pioneer family living off the land in the American frontier. In particular, the book’s detailed descriptions of making all manner of food and clothing from scratch fascinated me, because it had never occurred to my six year old self that there was ever a time when you could not simply go to the store and buy whatever you needed.

One night while waiting for my parents to call me for dinner, I curled up on my bed to read a chapter. This particular chapter was called “Dance at Grandpa’s”, and although I don’t remember exactly what it was that held me so enamoured, it quickly became clear to me that I wasn’t putting this book down anytime soon. The sky outside slowly darkened as I sat for hours becoming more and more engrossed in the story with each turn of the page. It was a magical moment, because it was in that moment that I realized the power and beauty of reading, and how books could transport you into another world and give you access to stories you never thought possible.

Needless to say, from that point on I was hooked on reading, and for the rest of my childhood you could usually find me with my nose buried in a book. Since that day I’ve devoured thousands of them; some good, some not so good, but every once in awhile I find that rare book that sweeps me off my feet, and I know that it’s only a matter of time before I hit the no-turning-back point. I look forward to these moments with an unabashed glee, not only because of the joy they bring me, but also because whenever it happens, I feel like that little six year old girl again, re-discovering the joy of reading. From Laura Ingalls Wilder to George R.R .Martin, and all the authors in between, thanks for the magic.

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A Remarkable Turnaround

Judging by the ratings for its debut episode, I wasn’t alone in my anticipation of the television show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Over the years, I’ve become a fan of the sprawling, multi-universe cinematic world that Marvel has created since 2008′s Iron Man, and I was looking forward to what they had to offer on a weekly basis through my television screen. The fact that Joss Whedon, master and commander of a little known film called The Avengers, was at the helm of the first episode only served to heighten my excitement, because not only am I a fan of what he has done in the Marvel universe, but I am also a huge fan of his work in television in general. Therefore, it was with no small amount of eagerness that I looked forward to the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere.

Given the show’s subsequent drop off in viewers, I was not among the many who abandoned ship after the first couple of episodes, but I will admit to staying with the show rather begrudgingly. I never looked forward to the next new episode, and instead, they tended to pile up on my DVR, a sure sign of lack of interest on my part. The characters somehow didn’t quite sit right, with many of their relationships and interactions feeling forced and unnatural, while the plot meandered off on a mystery of the week style storytelling, which is inherently boring and predictable. In particular, as I wrote last time, it irked me to no end that Agent Coulson had been miraculously resurrected from his death in The Avengers, and despite my love of Clark Gregg’s portrayal of the character, the narrative implications seemed to be too much for the show to overcome. As a whole, the the series gave off the impression of an unfortunately squandered opportunity, and I was on the verge of throwing in the towel altogether. This is, until I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier this past weekend and everything changed.

At the time I saw the movie, I was several episodes behind in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and I had no intention of making them a priority in my DVR viewing. However, after seeing Captain America, and its far reaching implications on the Marvel universe, I was instantly determined to catch up and find out how the show would deal with these pressing issues. Last night I burned through the remaining episodes, and by the end of my mini-marathon, I was amazed at how quickly this show had turned itself around. Characters suddenly have depth and dimensionality, their relationships with one another suddenly feel real and genuine, and most importantly, the storytelling has ratcheted up the quality in nearly every way. Whether it’s the overall plot, the week to week stories, the mysteries, or the intrigue, everything is better. It’s almost as if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D was desperately trying to figure out what type of show it wanted to be, and as soon as it found something that worked, it just ran with it in the best possible way.

There’s only six more episodes left of the season, and with ABC still mum on whether or not the show will return for a second season, I can only cross my fingers and hope that my wishful thinking works again. In the meantime, I’m thrilled that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has found its storytelling mojo, and is finally delivering on its promise and potential. The show has some pretty important plot points to address in the upcoming episodes, and in a most welcome change from the beginning of the season, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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A Troubling New Trend

*This post is about character deaths on television, and therefore a general spoiler alert is in place for the whole post.

Killing off a major character on a television show used to be unheard of, and usually only occurred if an actor sadly passed away or if there was a salary dispute. Then along came a little show called Lost, which became a breakaway hit back in 2004, and proceeded to kill off its characters with wild abandon. There had been shocking character deaths prior to this, but no show racked up a body count of primary characters quite like Lost, and the landscape of television has never been the same. Today, even so called family shows such as Once Upon A Time kill off a character at least once a season, and while some of these plot twists can be quite effective, heartbreaking, and downright traumatic (I’m looking at you Game of Thrones), there’s a new emerging trend surrounding these deaths that is wholly detrimental to the art of storytelling. Several shows have recently embraced the notion that anyone can come back from the dead, no matter how definitive their deaths may have appeared, and the result is that these once shocking plot twists are quickly losing their story value.

Arrow was one of my favourite new shows last season, and although I still love it, this year Arrow has begun to get a bit repetitive with all of the characters that have come back from the dead. The first time it happened it was a nice twist, but by the third reappearance I barely registered a reaction, and any future deaths on this show will be greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be a much better show if it didn’t negate the emotional high point of The Avengers right out of the gate. I love Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, but resurrecting him to lead his own TV show completely undermines what was a pretty important plot point in the film, and only serves to ruin future viewings. Finally, the recently aired third season of Sherlock ended with a tease that a character that was officially declared dead by the show’s own creators is instead making a comeback, thereby invalidating his original exit, which was quite frankly a brilliant way to go out.

There are numerous other offenders, but the problem remains the same for all, in that by letting these characters come back to life, these shows are losing their narrative suspense. Much like the common compliant among comic book readers, if no one is ever truly dead, these dramatic death scenes come off as cheap stunts used to induce shock and bolster ratings. Character deaths should be dramatic and narratively fraught, and while it is a nice twist to have someone come back from the dead every once in awhile, if it happens with every other character, the element of surprise is lost. I know many people recoil in horror when their favourite characters bite the dust (again, I’m looking at you Game of Thrones), but I enjoy the risk writers take when they do something so drastic, and I like watching the narrative consequences unfold. Take away the consequences, and all you’re left with is something hollow that feels false and unnecessary. Therefore, I know it sounds morbid, but for the sake of the story, from now on can dead characters please stay dead?

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