An Endless Stream of Endless Films

Earlier today, Marvel Studios gathered together a group of journalists and fans at the El Capitan Theatre in California to announce the films and release dates that will comprise Phase Three of their Cinematic Universe. Between now and 2019, 11 Marvel movies will be hitting the big screen, including a showdown between Captain America and Iron Man (Captain America: Civil War), Marvel’s first female superhero film (Captain Marvel), and a two part conclusion to the Avengers trilogy. I’m sure this announcement will galvanize the Internet and give fans plenty of fodder for discussion, dissection, and debate in the coming days, but I found myself reacting to the news in a wholly unexpected way: indifference. The weird thing is, I love Marvel movies, so it took me by surprise that today’s news would leave me feeling so underwhelmed.

Back in 2008, Marvel launched its cinematic juggernaut with the release of Iron Man, and while it seems hard to believe now, the film was a huge gamble at the time. Iron Man was a second tier Marvel character and the alter ego of Tony Stark, a narcissistic, egotistical, borderline alcoholic played by a pre-career Renaissance Robert Downey Jr. Marvel’s entire game plan could have easily gone down in flames right then and there, but instead, Downey infused Tony Stark with an irresistible combination of charm and charisma, audiences fell in love with the character, and the rest is history. Six years, 10 films, and over $7 billion at the worldwide box office later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is stronger than ever, and the recent critical and financial success of the previously almost unknown property Guardians of the Galaxy proved that the Marvel brand is not slowing down anytime soon. What’s even more telling is that every other studio wants in on the action.

The rule in Hollywood seems to be that once they find something that works, everyone jumps on the bandwagon instead of finding something else new or original. What Marvel has accomplished with their cinematic universe is incredible, but the novelty of the concept is starting to wear thin now that everyone else is in on the game. Earlier this month, Warner Brothers announced a slate of 10 films to be released between now and 2020 that will feature the DC characters and take place in a shared universe, while earlier this year Sony announced their intentions to create a shared universe of films starring characters from the Spider-Man comics. Beyond comic book properties, Disney has announced a schedule of one Star Wars film per year, all of which exist in the same galaxy far, far, away, Universal Pictures kicked off their shared universe featuring classic monsters with Dracula Untold earlier this month, and somehow, someone at Sony thinks that a multi-picture universe of films based on Robin Hood is a good idea. This isn’t even taking into account the X-Men universe that has been in motion since 2000, and its almost inevitable crossover with the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot. Just taking into account the films based on comic books, these shared universes will produce 28 films that will be released over the next six years. That is a special type of Hollywood lunacy.

So why am I feeling underwhelmed? If anything, 28 films in six years is an overwhelming number, but that’s exactly the point. It’s simply too many to care about. More importantly, it’s too much of the same thing. Marvel has become the expert in producing crowd pleasing, action packed, blockbuster films, and despite the fact that their last two films were both excellent, they also reinforced just how predictable this formula has become. Superhero faces some sort of threat, exposition dialogue to tie in the other films, a couple of great action sequences, a main character apparently dies but inevitably doesn’t, and finally, drop a bunch of hints about what’s still to come.

It’s that last point that is most responsible for my indifference towards today’s announcement. While the concept of building a cinematic universe should in theory provide storytellers with an unlimited amount of creative freedom, in practice it is quite limiting. Every piece must fit in perfectly with the larger picture as a whole, and it deprives movies of that most basic of plot points: an ending. Marvel’s problem in this area began with Captain America: The First Avenger, an otherwise solid film whose ending was nothing more than a glorified trailer for The Avengers, and this problem has only grown more troublesome as the movies have progressed. Not one of them, however good the rest of the film may be, has a good ending, because the very nature of a shared universe dictates that they can’t have an ending. Instead, these films simply set up the next entry and allude to events that are years down the line, and at a certain point it becomes exhausting waiting for a resolution, any resolution, for these characters we’ve grown to love. You may enjoy the films while you’re watching them, but as time goes on, you start to leave the theatre with an increasing level of cynicism that this is all just one big experiment in delayed gratification.

So bottom line, am I excited about Marvel’s announcement today? Yes. The future line up injects some much needed diversity into Marvel’s pantheon of white men, and if the rumours regarding Benedict Cumberbatch joining Marvel as Doctor Strange prove to be true, it will be fun watching the Internet collectively lose its mind over the prospect of Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki sharing screen time. And yes, the trailer for Age of Ultron has me wishing it was May already, and I am curious to see how Paul Rudd fares as a superhero, but the prospect of 11 more films that only serve to tease more future films mostly has me weary. Marvel claims to have their films mapped out until 2028, and while I may be on board for the time being, it’s only a matter of time before I check out. 14 years is just too long to wait for a proper ending.

 

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Connecting with a Rat

I don’t know if this happens to other people, but I often find myself drawn to certain movies, books, and/or songs at different points in my life. For a variety of reasons, these artworks strike a chord with me at particular moments in time, and they become my cultural touchstones for however long the connection lasts. At the moment, my cultural touchstone and go to movie is Pixar’s Ratatouille, and while I may not be an aspiring chef like the lead character, or a rat for that matter, I know exactly why I’m drawn to this film at this particular point in my life.

My connection with Ratatouille started last month when I treated myself to a day at the Disney parks in Paris. I had only just moved to France and I hadn’t met anyone yet, so when it came time to decide how to spend my birthday alone in a foreign country, Disney was the clear answer. I knew that a brand new attraction based on Ratatouille had opened earlier this year, but because I hadn’t seen the film since it was released in 2007, my recollections of the plot details were a bit fuzzy, and therefore, the night before my birthday, I sat down to watch Ratatouille so that I would be ready to experience the new ride the next day. It only took a couple of minutes for me to be reminded of why Pixar is renowned for their storytelling, because I was instantly swept up in the story of Remy, a rat who wants to be a chef in Paris, and Alfredo Linguini, the garbage boy at the famous Parisian restaurant, Gusteau’s, who happens to be extraordinarily bad at cooking. Remy has the talent, Linguini is a human, and together, they take the culinary world by storm.

As it turned out, my decision to re-watch Ratatouille before going on the ride was a good one, because although people will be amazed at the ride itself without having seen the film, the ride succeeds in putting you right in the middle of the movie, and by knowing the characters and their stories, the ride is simply that much better. A combination 3D movie and dark ride experience, Ratatouille, or as it’s known in French, Ratatouille: L’Adventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy, is an incredible leap forward in theme park attraction innovation, and in particular, the trackless technology used to move the ride vehicles through the attraction is incredible. I ended up going on the ride several times in a row, garnering some rather pointed looks by the ride attendants in the process, but I didn’t care. I loved every minute of it, and Ratatouille is now easily one of my favourite Disney attractions, not to mention one of the best theme park attractions in general that I’ve experienced in a long time.

Since my visit to Disneyland Paris, I’ve re-watched Ratatouille a number of times, and I’ve come to realize that there’s a certain level of familiarity to it that goes beyond how much I love the ride. One main character is a newcomer to Paris who has been separated from his family and can’t stop marvelling at the beauty of the city he now calls home, while the other main character lives in a tiny Parisian apartment, needs a job, and is spectacularly bad at cooking. Let’s just say that I can relate to them both. I have a feeling that so long as I’m in Paris, I’ll keep coming back to Ratatouille and the adventures of Remy and Linguini, because even though I don’t aspire to be a chef, there’s something comforting in watching characters take big risks to do what they love. And who knows? Maybe Ratatouille will eventually inspire me to learn how to cook. Just don’t tell my Mom I said that. I don’t want to get her hopes up.

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Top 10 Lessons from Living in Paris

Today marks my one month anniversary of moving to Paris, and while it has been a month of ups and downs, it has also involved a rather steep learning curve about what it means to live in this beautiful city. I could write a book about my adventures so far, but since I’m saving that until after my year here is up, here are my top 10 lessons that I’ve learnt from my first month in the city of lights.

1) The stereotype of rude Parisians couldn’t be farther from the reality I have experienced so far. Nearly every time I’ve tried to communicate with my halting, bumbling, and broken French, the people I’ve encountered have either switched to English, slowed down their speech, and/or dumbed down their French for my benefit. Usually with a smile of appreciation for my attempt at their language. Two weeks ago, as I attempted to communicate with the woman at the cash register at a local grocery store, the elderly woman behind me in line immediately jumped in to help translate for me, after which she gave me a hug of encouragement, and assured me that I would eventually get the hang of the language. I now consider her my adopted French grandma.

2) The Paris Metro system is an amazingly convenient way to get pretty much anywhere you need to go in this city, and it is quite possibly one of the easiest public transit systems I’ve encountered to navigate.

3) That being said, its convenience and ease of use means that everyone and their dog (literally) uses the Metro, and therefore getting a seat is nigh impossible. Rush hours are the worst, because while it doesn’t quite reach Japan levels of volume, it does get far too packed considering that France is a country that doesn’t believe in using deodorant.

4) Parisians have a very laissez-faire attitude when it comes to picking up after their dogs, meaning they literally leave the poop where it lands. If you’re walking around town, particularly in residential neighbourhoods, you really have to watch where you step.

5) Everything in this city is a work of art. Seriously. Sometimes I find myself staring up in awe at random buildings that in all likelihood are probably just the local sewage plant, but to my eyes, look like the Sistine Chapel. It’s what happens when you grow up in a city where buildings that are 50 years old are considered ancient.

6) The rental bike system in Paris is an amazing way to get around if you’re tired of jostling for position on the crowded Metro, and with stations every couple of blocks, it’s incredibly easy to just rent a bike and be on your way. It’s also really fun; that is, once you get over your fear of dying because you’re trying to navigate Parisian traffic on a bike.

7) Paris runners mean business. I’ve never considered myself to be a fast runner, but since I started running on a regular basis last year, I’ve always been comfortably average. In every race I’ve entered, I’ve always finished smack dab in the middle of the pack, and while out on training runs, I’ve always passed about an equal number of runners as those who have passed me. Not so here. I’ve lost count of how many runners have blazed past me like they were Usain Bolt, and I can count on one hand the number of runners I’ve managed to limp by. I’ve also run two races since I’ve been here, and I’ve noticed that while these runs are for fun, there’s a distinct level of competition in the air that I haven’t felt in the past. Both times, I finished decidedly at the back of the pack.

8) Sure the Eiffel Tower is a tourist trap, and yes some Parisians may deride it as tacky, but gosh darn it, it sure is pretty all lit up at night.

9) There is nothing better than fresh pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant) from any of the half dozen bakeries that are all a less than 5 minute walk from my apartment. While this is in of itself an amazing thing, in terms of sheer caloric intake, this is also a very, very bad thing. This also applies to the ridiculously cheap (but great tasting) wine on sale at every grocery store.

10) Parisian apartment doors will automatically lock behind you, and European pipes are much more fragile than North American pipes. You have been warned.

So there you have it. One month, so many lessons, and I’m sure there are many more to come. All I can say is here’s to the next 11 months. I already know it’s going to be quite the ride.

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An Evening with Notre Dame

IMG_6367I have been in love with the Notre Dame Cathedral since I first laid eyes on it over a decade ago. Towering over the Île de la Cité in the heart of Paris, Notre Dame is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in France, and it is by far one of my favourite buildings in the world. When I arrived in Paris last month, I knew it would only be a matter of time before I found myself at the threshold of Notre Dame once more, and indeed, I’ve since made several trips over the past couple of weeks. One such visit was earlier this week, when I attended an evening recital that was a celebration of the recent restoration of the Great Organ of Notre Dame. When I first heard about this event, I knew that there was no way I would miss it, and the evening that unfolded is not one I’ll soon forget.

Nearly everything about the Notre Dame Cathedral is impressive, and the Great Organ is no exception. Sitting high above the back of the cathedral’s nave, the organ consists of five keyboards, 190 ties, and over 8,000 pipes, and in daylight, when the pipes are framed by the great stained glass rose window that sits just behind it, its beauty is enough to take your breath away. Recently, the organ underwent extensive restorations, and with these IMG_6360now complete, two recitals were planned to share the new organ with the public. Admission was free, and therefore on Tuesday night, I found myself standing in a long line of people, all of whom were just as eager as me to get inside and hear how the restored organ sounded. It didn’t take long to file in and find seats, and while I waited for the recital to begin, I contemplated my surroundings and marvelled at how Notre Dame managed to be even more beautiful at night. From the soaring ceilings, to the darkened stained glass windows, to the chandeliers that lit the nave, the sight was simply gorgeous, and as several hundred of us sat there and waited, the excitement in the air was palpable.

At exactly 8:30PM, the first notes from the organ cut through the air, and the sound was enough to give me goosebumps. It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard an organ played, but I’ve never heard one that sounded as beautiful as the Great Organ of Notre Dame. From start to finish, the organ’s notes reverberated throughout the building with what can only be described as perfect acoustics. At times, it was as if the very air itself was vibrating, while other times, the quieter notes seemed to be seeping out of the stones that surrounded us as if it was the most natural thing in the world. The program of music selected for the recital was wide ranging, and included classical pieces that showcased the organ’s bellowing tone, to decidedly more contemporary selections that stretched the capabilities of what an organ can play. The final number was a long selection that would not have been out of place on an episode of Doctor Who, but during which its multiple parts ultimately came together in a crescendo of tempos, styles, and beats that was as bewildering as it was awe inspiring. I was certain that the music being played must have required at least three organists, if not more, but at the end of the night, when a single solitary figure stepped forward to take his bows, I could only shake my head in amazement as I rose to my feet in a standing ovation. I don’t know the organist’s name, but I do know that he fully earned the four encores that were given him that night.

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If you ever find yourself at Notre Dame, be sure to take the time to turn around and look behind you at the organ that sits above the main doors to the cathedral. Its size and beauty are impressive, but I assure you, the sound that it makes is so much better. Tuesday night will not be my last visit to Notre Dame, but at the moment, it is certainly the most memorable, and I know that every time I see the Great Organ from now on, I will smile and remember the night it made the air sing.

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Locks of Love?

I’ve been in Paris for a couple of weeks now, and while I’ve only seen a fraction of what this beautiful city has to offer, I have seen a fair few of its biggest landmarks. One highlight was when I took an afternoon stroll down the Seine one weekend, spending the hours criss-crossing across the river using about half a dozen of Paris’ famous bridges. It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, and the beauty of the city was on full display. That is, until I happened upon the famous Pont des Arts bridge; a pedestrian walkway that connects the Insitut de France and the Louvre Museum. While the bridge is usually a beautiful sight, in recent years the Pont des Arts has fallen victim to Paris’ reputation for romance and the hordes of tourists who descend upon the city every year looking for love. I am of course talking about the dreaded love lock craze.

IMG_6291I use the word dreaded because while the symbolism behind these locks is nice, the reality of them is not. For anyone wondering what I’m talking about, let me explain. In 2008, love locks began appearing on the Pont des Arts; left there by couples caught up in the romance of being in Paris. The idea is to inscribe both of your initials onto a padlock before attaching the padlock to the railings of the bridge and throwing the key into the Seine, thereby sealing your love forever. Initially, only a few locks appeared, with marginal impact, but eventually the idea became all the rage with tourists, and today, every inch of the Pont des Arts is covered in padlocks, sometimes as many as three layers deep. What started out as a whimsical tradition is now a serious problem for French officials.

IMG_6294Earlier this year, a portion of the bridge actually collapsed under the weight of the locks, and the environmental hazards posed by the thousands of keys now sitting on the bottom of the Seine are many. On the day I walked across the Pont des Arts, I overheard a tour guide explaining to his group that city officials have tried simply removing the locks, but the manpower required is enormous, and the empty space only fills up with more locks in a matter of weeks. Even worse, tourists have begun attaching locks to various other bridges and structures around Paris, and while others have attempted dangerous feats of urban climbing in their attempt to attach locks to street lamps and higher up structures. The whole thing has grown to be such a problem that there’s an entire website and a petition underway dedicated to ending the love lock phenomenon, and police regularly patrol the bridge in an effort to get people to stop. Last week, city officials began placing plastic panels over the bridge’s infrastructure, but only time will tell if this succeeds in dissuading determined tourists from leaving behind a token of their love.

IMG_6295Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much of a fan of big romantic gestures as the next person, but it seems to me that there are ways of expressing your love without resorting to vandalism and destruction of an UNESCO World Heritage site. Not to mention the inherent danger involved. When parts of the bridge collapsed earlier this year, it was estimated that just one panel was holding up over 700 kg in weight from the locks, meaning that in its current state, a bridge that was only ever meant to hold pedestrians is now holding over 93 metric tonnes. All this, and tourists still attach their love locks, oblivious to the harm they are causing. Sometimes, in spite of it. Unless Parisian officials figure out a way to permanently end the love lock craze, it’s only a matter of time before the bridge comes crashing down into the river below, most certainly injuring and potentially killing dozens of people. I don’t care how much I thought my love was forever. That’s not a legacy I have any interest in being a part of.

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A New Season Begins

Every year in May, the annual upfront presentations take place in New York City, where the broadcast television networks unveil their schedules for the upcoming television season. The upfronts reveal which shows have been cancelled and which shows will be returning, but more importantly, they are used by the networks to preview their slate of new shows that will be debuting in the fall. On average, up to two dozen new shows will be competing for viewers, and therefore from that point on, the marketing machine goes into overdrive. The summer months become littered with previews, trailers, ads, and exclusives for the various new offerings, and each network does their best to convince viewers to change the channel in their favour. The competition is fierce, and the marketing schemes are often wide ranging and far reaching, but come September, all that matters is a series of reports known as the overnight ratings. Brutal? Yes, but I’ve always been fascinated by the process.

Although a smattering of new and returning shows have already made their debut earlier this month, the third week in September traditionally marks the start of a new television season, and the rollout of new and returning shows begins in earnest. This means that tonight is the night that the fun begins. It used to be that television shows could start out with soft numbers and were then allowed to gradually grow into their audience. Unfortunately, in today’s network television landscape, those days are long gone, and a show has to either put up a big number right out of the gate, or risk being yanked after only a handful of episodes have aired.

This is why the overnight ratings numbers are so important, and it means that for anyone who follows the television industry closely, the next couple of weeks are the ones to watch. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I fall squarely into this category, and these coming weeks are my favourite time of the year in terms of television. For the next couple of weeks, I will pore over the overnight ratings every morning, and from those numbers, I will try to guess what the future holds for new and returning shows alike. After all of the summer’s full throttle marketing blitzes, it fascinates me to see which campaigns worked and which shows will strike a chord with viewers, but equally interesting are the shows that barely register a blip before being unceremoniously pulled off the schedule. Television, more so than film, can act as a real time barometer of our collective conscious, and watching which shows are selected or rejected every fall is as good a commentary as any on what our society currently values.

Which brings us back to tonight. Tonight marks the beginning of a new television season, and over the next month, nearly 20 new shows will debut and compete for viewers and ratings. While many people, quite rightly, complain that the current ratings system is an antiquated and outdated form of measurement in today’s digital world, a better system has yet to materialize, and that is why for the next couple of weeks, myself, along with many nervous television executives, will be watching those ratings very closely. Some shows will be hits, some will flop, and some will balance precariously on the bubble between the two, and I love watching and waiting to see where everything lands. While there may be almost 20 new shows out there, ready to entertain me, the daily release of the overnight numbers is the real show.

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A City of Art, History, and Culture

IMG_6275Two weeks ago, I boarded a plane, armed with only a suitcase and a sense of adventure, and moved to Paris. Well, that is one side of the story. It actually took three planes and 24 hours to finally land in Paris, and I had considerably more luggage with me, something that the Metro system of the city was in no way designed for. Three trains, two transfers, and one embarrassing glitch that involved one of my suitcases getting stuck in a turnstile later, I arrived, bleary eyed and sweaty, at the apartment that I had rented sight unseen for the next couple of months. Fortunately, the terror that was slowly mounting in my stomach kept the jet lag firmly in place, and therefore I was wide awake as I stared upwards at the 19th century building that was about to become my home. For about the 100th time that day, I thought to myself, “What have I done?”

Turns out, moving to a foreign country to follow your lifelong dream sounds romantic on paper, but when actually put into motion, it’s another beast entirely. While I did manage to make it to my apartment relatively unscathed, it turned out that the owner who was there to greet me did not speak a word of English, and therefore my first hours in Paris were spent bumbling my way through an orientation of my new home, during which numerous important points got lost in translate. Like the fact that the front door automatically locks behind you. Or the fact that watching certain channels on the television will cost you money. There was something important about the phone that I’ve yet to discover, and yesterday, when I attempted my first load of laundry, it became pretty clear that I had pushed the wrong buttons when the cycle entered its third hour of washing.

However, life is supposed to be an adventure, and so for my first week in Paris I set out to embrace my new surroundings and enjoy what the city had to offer. For my efforts, I was rewarded with the time I was nearly run over by a guy on a Vespa who was being chased by the police (that’s right, I managed to get in the middle of a Parisian police chase my first week in town), and the time that the aforementioned automatic front door lock made itself apparent when I locked myself out of my apartment without a phone, my wallet, or anything remotely resembling the level of French needed to talk my way out of a situation like that. There has also been countless awkward interactions at the supermarket, one of which ended with me buying not contact lens solution, but…well…to be honest, I still don’t know what it is that I ended up buying, but you can be darn sure I’m not putting it anywhere near my eyes.

To be clear, my time here hasn’t been bad, just overwhelming, as big moves tend to be, and while Paris has certainly been an adjustment, I’ve grown to love my neighbourhood and my little slice of the city. My apartment is located on the east side of Paris, and therefore I’m well away from all of the tourist hot spots, meaning every interaction with the locals acts as a crash course in French. I’m not fluent by any means, but I’ve managed to make myself understood on more than one occasion. And every other morning, as I lace up my running shoes and head for the beautiful city park that is just around the corner, I smile to myself as I join the countless other runners whose routes also take them around Lac Daumesnil, content in the knowledge that for this brief moment, I actually look like a local.

But perhaps the best part of living in Paris is the sense of culture that permeates every building, street, and cobblestone. You can’t throw a stick in this city without hitting something grand, historically significant, or just plain beautiful, and the cultural legacy of centuries of artists, architecture, and history radiates at you from all directions. Just a Metro ride away are the works of masters like Da Vinci, Monet, Picasso, Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Manet, and Rodin, or the inspirations for literary classics from Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, George Orwell, and Henry Miller. There are the sites that take your breath away, including the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triumphe, the Pantheon, the Opera Garnier, the Luxemborg Gardens, and Saint-Sulpice Church, and however the French may feel about the Eiffel Tower, when it lights up at night, the sight is simply spectacular.

I keep having to remind myself that I have a full year to explore these cultural marvels, and that it’s not necessary to rush out and see them all at once. However, last weekend I indulged in walking the full length of the city along the Seine one afternoon, just to get an overall feeling for the city’s grandness, and all I can say is that Paris is indeed grand. From its majestic domed basilicas to the cobblestoned streets that lay bare the weight of centuries of history, this is a city that basks in its cultural legacy, and more importantly, believes that access to culture is a right and not a privilege. I can’t think of a better place to spend the next year of my life.

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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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