John Wick Could Have Been An Oscar Award Winner — Here’s Why It Isn’t

“They used to call him the boogeyman.”

“The boogeyman? He’s supposed to be the boogeyman?”

“No. He’s who you called to kill the boogeyman.”

Thus we get introduced to the legend of John Wick, established just shortly after seeing three tragic events happen to what appears to be just a normal, mortal man, and an opening shot of him crashing his car and bleeding out on an anonymous street corner. And with that we are drawn into a densely imagined criminal underworld populated with rogues and villains, friends, foes, and where everything that isn’t business is intensely personal.

To say that this is one of Keanu Reeves’ best movies in years is an understatement of epic proportions. At least three places in this film he emotes so heavily you forget that Reeves is the master of emotionless deadpan. The action sequences are fresh and crisp, the supporting characters fill their roles well, and the setup is so powerful, the audience is gut-wrenched into wanting to support this very, very bad man doing very, very bad things.

635494961822000008-BEAGLE-JOHN-WICK-MOV-JY-3400-68084492[1]Let’s just say the dog wasn’t the only thing leaving bodily fluids on the floor and furniture.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. To me it seemed like Reeves’ personal Unforgiven – a movie that took Clint Eastwood from Hollywood gunslinger to Hollywood legend and Oscar winner. In that film, Eastwood plays a man still inwardly grieving the loss of his wife while trying to avoid the life of violence he left behind for her. His tale of redemption is a failure, though, and in his wake all he leaves is an aftermath of violence and regret. John Wick reaches for this same star, but doesn’t quite reach it. Here are the four reason why I think it missed the mark.


It’s Too Much Like Unforgiven

As I just mentioned, unfortunately for me, because now I’m going to have to write something more about a bullet point I’ve already spoiled, this move reminded me very much of Unforgiven. Former killer who escaped his violent past experiences great personal tragedy, and gets sucked back in, for the wrong reasons, experiencing (and dealing out) more personal tragedy along the way. It’s a tried and true meme for Hollywood, and we’ve seen several action films, dramas, and thrillers with this setup in the recent past.

Just because John Wick does it better than any film since Unforgiven doesn’t take away from the fact that Unforgiven already got an Oscar for this story. The Academy isn’t likely to give their awards to films — even great ones — that follow the same path laid out by previous winners. If anything, they like to pretend that they reward creativity and genuine originality, even while promoting and managing the most derivative film industry on earth.

In Unforgiven, the kid tells William Munny, “I guess he had it coming,” after experiencing his first gunfight and murder. Without even a pause, Munny replies, “We’ve all got it coming.” John Wick seizes on this too hard. Each person Wick meets on his path of vengeance reminds him about the consequences of coming back into the fold after leaving it. It’s a constant reminder that a life lived in violence is bound to end in violence. “You and I are cursed,” the antagonist tells Wick. “On this, we agree,” Wick says in return.

UnforgivenLandscape[1]To be fair, the two movies do not share the same skyline. 

It’s Too Much Like Constantine

The last time I wrote the words “Keanu Reeves’ best movie in years” it was almost 10 years ago for Constantine. The problem with that, is John Wick borrows heavily from that movie, too. We have the solo protagonist who has dedicated his life to a special form of killing. He’s quite good at it. So good, in fact, the devil himself would come from hell to collect his soul when he died, just to gloat at finally beating the son of a bitch. That’s John Constantine’s legend amongst the demons and angels his world is populated with. John Wick’s own mythology is just as elaborate, and when he learns his son has made an enemy of Wick, our primary antagonist begins drinking and smoking heavily, and becomes prone to bouts of hysteria. He’s facing his own personal angel of death. The two are epic bad-asses in their worlds. The similarities are too strong.

400px-C-Constantine-Big-Gun-Pica[1]They also both appear to star Keanu Reeves. 

And their worlds are too similar. Midnight’s club in Constantine, where angels and demons can intermingle, and a pact of neutrality prevents anyone from taking a side while in the bar is in place at the Continental, a Switzerland of hitmen, where the rules of neutrality are so strong, even talking about business is forbidden.

Wicks friends are killed just to slow him down, in the same way as Constantine’s. Sure, these are easy motifs of the action genre, but it links these two films together, and diminish the originality of the newer, better one.

It Has Too Much Speed

The world-building here is stunning in a way. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad builds an immense, gloriously imagined underworld for Wick and his enemies to play in, but don’t give us any time to appreciate it. The film moves too fast, especially at the beginning, and by the second act climax things are moving so fast you start to wish you hadn’t ordered the Muto-sized Diet Coke at the concession stand, because if you leave now, there’s a good chance you’re going to miss someone getting their ass kicked hard.

You get the feeling that the director was unsure about how to handle quiet moments. Great films always have them: scenes where it seems like nothing is happening, but in truth, the actor is changing. The situation is changing. The stakes are changing. Paradigm shifts, contrary to the Dilbert cartoon purporting otherwise, often happen in silence; and John Wick doesn’t give us enough of them to appreciate how fast the film does move once the pot is on boil.

Five more minutes with Daisy, the funeral, and Willem Dafoe at the beginning would have not only better established these characters’ connections, but also their strength. Five minutes of quiet time near the midpoint — like John McClane pulling glass out of his feet and talking to Sergeant Powell in Die Hard — would have added depth and subtlety to a film desperate for it.

323098-r0000159_1_[1]Yippie-Ki-… God Damn my feet hurt. 


Its Set in the Matrix

I don’t know if this should bother me — well scratch this. I know it didn’t bother me; I loved it — but I think the combination of the elaborate world-building side-by-side with how well everyone in this film knew each other became a detriment to the drama. Every single person John Wick met, except for the antagonist’s son and cronies, he knew. He knew the antagonist, he knew everyone at the Continental, including most of the guests. He spoke perfect Russian and knew the doorman at the secret Russian club, the hot bartender at the Continental’s club, the owner of the Continental, everyone. He knew the head of the Russian mob, and everyone in the mob, again — except his son — knew him. The body disposal guys knew him. The Continental hotel clerk knew him. The local police officer on the “outside” knew him, knew what he did and was apparently ok with it.

This is simply not consistent with reality. In my experience, and in every great film, there is an element of the unknown. There are surprises. There are twists. Things happen that you simply can’t prepare for, and John Wick suffers from the same malaise that infects action films today: the protagonist is simply the greatest killing machine that has ever lived. That’s the Matrix. That’s not earth.

Liam Neeson in Taken is an unstoppable killing machine. Stallone in the newest Rambo (and all of the Expendables films) is an unstoppable killing machine. For all it has going for it, at the end of the day, John Wick is just another generic, unstoppable killing machine. That’s all the Matrix films ended up being. Agent Smith and Neo punching each other for two hours while the rest of the cast wandered around pretending they mattered.

agentsmith[1]Lots and lots and lots of Agent Smiths. 

What made Die Hard an amazing film, and the greatest action film of my generation (better than all of its sequels, combined) is the fact that John McClane wasn’t an unstoppable killing machine. He was, in fact, very stoppable, and survived his experience in the Nakatomi building almost more through luck than raw skill and superior training. It gave the film a sense of real danger. It made the protagonist accessible. Today’s action films are like gun porn. Lots of plastic jiggling around, bodily fluids ejaculating all over the place, and people breathing heavily and bumping into each other over and over and over again until someone cries out and it’s over.

I think if John Wick had managed to avoid that, it could have been a generational favorite, and an action film classic. As it is, it’s still pretty damn good. 4.5 Glocks out of 5.


Today, I’m Thankful for Hell Week

One thing you learn (or ought to learn, if you’re paying attention) is that *everything* you are taught in Marine Corps boot camp comes with subtext. As a screenwriter, you become aware of subtext early on: the best dialog is always saying something more than just the words coming out of the actor’s mouth. Whoever scripted our activities at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, back in 1987 was a master wright. I learned things in the most novel, unexpected ways — lessons that hold tight to me even today, a quarter century later.

One of the very first lessons? How to lace your new boots. Laces go in and loop left over right, left over right, left over right until you get to the top. This simple drill reinforces how you’re supposed to cross your legs when you sit on the ground: left leg tucked over right. Later, on the firing range, you learn this is the optimal position for cross-legged sitting marksmanship, and the official position for competitive marksmanship.

It’s little things like that that stick with you.

Or big, big things, like hell week.

Hell week is fun — in that way that things can only be “fun” once they are far enough behind you they don’t physically hurt to remember anymore. It works like this: for one week, your platoon gets to feed the entire camp. The entire camp. Every meal, for a week. Which maybe doesn’t sound bad if you just think about it really quickly and move on, but it sounds worse and worse and worse the longer you think about it.

We got up every morning about 4:00, I think. No reveille for the Hell Weekrecruits: we’re up MUCH earlier than the bugler this week.  Drill Instructor Sergeant Riviera, would pace us as we bustled out of our racks, out of the barracks, and to the chow hall, where we had been broken into various groups: bakers making bread and desserts, cooks shucking corn and peeling potatoes and cooking both, servers washing dishes and preparing to serve several thousand hungry men in a quick, military manner, and the troublemakers, back in the pot shack, washing pots and pans all day. We’d cook breakfast, have everything ready for the morning rush, and about 9:30 when it subsided, wash everything and cook a new pile of mess for lunch.

About 2:00 or so, after the lunch crowd fell away the pot shack crew would get a 30 minute respite of sunshine, sloshing through the mess hall. “Oh look: a parade,” said Drill Instructor Sergeant Auld. “I love parades.”

Thirty minutes for everyone, then back to cleaning, prepping, and preparing for dinner. We’d feed everyone on the base, clean up the kitchen area, wash all the dishes, scrub the floors, and generally just work until someone yelled to stop working: we were done for the day.  It might have been 9:00. I don’t know. You lose track of time when your entire existence for a week is wake up, work, go to bed. We were so tired, Drill Instructor Riviera didn’t even do his usual pacing of the runway, whispering to us of rumors of war in Panama, in Granada, in a far off place called Kuwait.

There’s more to this lesson than learning all the various skills and aptitudes required to feed a military installation, of course. Everything in boot camp is subtext. Hell Week’s lesson was endurance. Not just physical endurance — anyone can learn to hike for 8 hours a day. But the mental endurance required to do a job, and do it well enough that thousands of other people literally placing their life in your hands would be safe — for uncounted hours, for as long as it took to get the job done.

This is a major shifting point in boot camp. When you come out of Hell Week, you’re more than just recruits. The Marine Corps threw one of their biggest challenges at us, and we caught it. Caught it, picked it up, and carried its fat, heavy, awful ass for a week. Coming out of Hell Week we knew: we’d proven we could do anything.

This week, 25 years later, I’m facing a 3-day work week (thanks, Thanksgiving!) — but still need to clock 40 hours of work. Yay 13-hour work days. Yay waking up so early there’s a good chance you’ll run into someone coming home from Last Call. But I’ll do it, and I know I can do it, because I’ve done it before. That sort of lesson never leaves you.





How Adolf Hitler Helped Create Great European Fast Food



Today I learned that Adolf Hitler is at least partly responsible for my second most favorite food in Seattle. My first favorite is Buca Di Bepo. Mmmmm. But who can afford to spend $100 every night on spaghetti, amiright?!?

So, let me explain. No. That would take too long. Let me sum up.

You’ve heard of shawarma, right? Tony Stark’s favorite post-workout meal. It’s basically kebab meat in pita bread. That sort of thing is popular world-wide and has been for centuries. Anthony Bourdain’s autobiography mentions how he tried some in the Ottoman Empire during the 1800s — except they called it döner.


Anthony-Bourdain-courtesy-of-the-Travel-Channel-[1]He would often prep and serve the meat for the Sultan himself. 

Anyway, that’s where **GODWIN’S RULE ALERT** Hitler comes in. After World War II, Germany was faced with an unprecedented worker shortage. Most of the men of construction age had been killed or fled the country for being of the wrong ethnicity. So the country opened up its borders and initiated guest worker programs for folks from other countries to come take the jobs that no German, frankly (French pun intended) was alive to do.

A vast number of these workers came from Turkey, and the Turks — after renaming poor Constaninople — brought with them, the Doner. You know how immigration works. You go to a country, you work hard there, and sometimes (a lot of times) you decide to stay. Today, more than a million and a half people of Turkish descent live in Germany, and continue to eat their Doners — or Turkish Pizzas as they’re sometimes called. Except in Germany they’re called Türkische Pizza.

One thing led to another, and Germans, what with their fondess for all things that are “breads and meats with spice” adopted the doner as their favorite quickie meal. The doner is the Burrito Supreme of Germany, and in 2010, it was revealed that Germans eat about 400 tons of kebab meat every day, most of it served in doners.

That’s where I come in. Having just moved to Seattle I’ve been investigating fun new food locales, and I discovered Seattle Doner Kebab, conveniently located right at the front door of my office building. Literally they couldn’t be closer unless they were sitting on my lap right now, shoveling meat into my mouth.

downloadWhich I would not say no to. Ladies?

The food is bountiful. Flatbread? They need to call it fatbread. Or flatloaf, or something. there’s just so much of it. The spices and flavors are amazing. The doner is fantastic, and my new second-most-favorite food in all of Seattle.

It makes me wonder. With as many foreign workers and existing migrants President Obama has opened the door for… how soon before we start to have ethnic foods that a part of the American tradition? What would they call such a thing? Mexical food? Spanish-American Cuisine?


doner_1[1]Heil Doner!

The Motivating Mark of Humiliation

I had a friend who used to be amazed that I could start almost any anecdote with “Back when I was a…” and then interject a career path as far flung from my current one as you could think of… over and over again. It doesn’t really speak well for my ongoing search for career satisfaction, but it sure helps add flavor to my anecdotes. That said…

Back when I was an insurance salesman, I had one of the best bad bosses ever. RJ looked a little like Mick Foley after a hard round in the steel cage, minus the blood. His shirts were ill-fitting, he smelled of chronic cigarette abuse, and he gave not one fuck to anyone not deserving a fuck, most especially the slacker agents he had working under him. As far as RJ was concerned, the sad sacks working his desks were just hoping to skip from paycheck to paycheck on the merits of our company’s reputation, and not actually do any selling.

foleyGreat job on the Simmons account, Clary. GET BACK TO WORK!

To be fair, this was true of some people. Most of us, though, worked as hard as we could to make minimum quota (16 policies a week) for fantastic commissions (IF you made quota. Otherwise it was minimum wage for the week). We worked hard for the money, but we also worked hard to avoid the Pineapple.

Before I explain what the pineapple was, let me flash forward 20 years, to the mystical future world of 2014. It’s a different era. People are sensitive toward each other’s feelings. People are more concerned with the well-being of their fellow workers and managers most definitely don’t say mean things about their employees. They certainly don’t ever ridicule an employee who’s done poorly. To do so looks bad, and looks are far more important than actually solving problems through decisive leadership and (gasp!) targeted bullying.

Earlier this year I recommended that — in order to turn a company around that was suffering from massive creative and performance stagnation — we publicly mark employees who’d failed to meet their expected development targets for the week. The company was spinning its wheels and could not get projects done on time, ever, mostly because of an powerful sense of inertia caused by certain employees stonewalling in every way possible.  My recommendation was that we give them something like The Pineapple, but in a good-natured, happy way, so as to not upset the “Good Energy” we all had from working happily, and without conflict.

b72d0139632ace99d8e879dddbec2ace[1]It looked exactly like this, except it was stuffed (like a Teddy Bear)
so RJ could HURL IT FULL FORCE in his wroth


If you didn’t make quota at our agency (a very popular, very well-known high-risk auto insurer in the Los Angeles area), you didn’t make good money. Motivator number one. If you didn’t work late every night until you made quota for the week, RJ would hound your ass every minute of the next day to make sure you did. Motivator number two. If you were 90 seconds late to work (“Doors open at 8:59, you better be on the phones by 9:01, cupcakes!”) you got your ears chewed off and fed to rabid dogs. Motivator number three.

But the Golden Pineapple of Shame was reserved for the worst of the worst. The lowest of the low, the most wretched and villainous of the wretched hive of scum and villainry that was our office. The Golden Pineapple of Shame went to the employee who made a mistake. And if you got the Pineapple, it was yours for the rest of the week or (if you were lucky) someone else messed up worse.

RJ would deliver the Pineapple like a big league closer delivering the last pitch of the game. High, over the plate, and 120 miles an hour. That’s how mine got delivered. “DAN!” he shouted (I, uh, went by Dan when I worked here, for reasons that are, quite possibly, another blog post). “THIS ONE IS YOURS!” You could see the heads of the other agents ducking and know exactly what was coming. The Golden Pineapple of Shame.

See, I had misquoted a guy on his insurance, and not just any guy, but a radio host — on the same radio station as the not-yet-famous Ryan Seacrest. He was a pretty big deal, and if he got mad that he’d been quoted one rate… only to find out after he’d left that the rate was actually substantially higher (it was)… well, that was a huge hit for the company. Pineapple earned.

The secret of the Pineapple was this: the mistake by itself was pretty bad. Most people would go “Crap. I can’t do that again.” Others might not take it so personally. “It’s just a job,” they’d say. “Whatevs.”

But if you had that pineapple on your desk, every day reminding you of your failure. Reminding you of how you utterly screwed up so badly the boss needed to make an example out of you? That stays with you. That haunts your dreams, and if you can help it… you NEVER make that mistake again.

Motivator number four. Bam.

I believe our society is missing its Golden Pineapples of Shame. People are content to go about their business and be mediocre. There’s no shame in doing lousy work, or being a poor citizen, or letting your neighborhood fall apart while you play Xbox and complain about your health care benefits. There’s no one smacking you in the head with a stuffed pineapple, shaming you into doing a better job, taking pride in your work, and focusing on NOT making mistakes.

I learned a lot from those crazy Scientologists. I heard they ran into some problems a few years after I left, but I bet RJ is still there, quietly seething because he’s not allowed to shame his employees into better work. Think you know which insurance company I used to work for? Give you a hint: “I can’t take that bet.”





7 Things I Learned Reading the Hobbit (Part 2)

(This is page 2. For Page 1, CLICK HERE)

We’re continuing our study of the 7 things I learned reading the Hobbit.  We went through the easy ones first. Those are lessons that are pretty self-evident. The next three are tougher, and I think most of us have trouble — if not in learning them, then in remembering them when it matters.

5. Doing the Right Thing Is More Important than Being Loyal

image002[1]Thorin Makes His Peace

To Thorin Oakenshield, almost until his final day, Bilbo Baggins committed an act of treason that was unpardonable. In an effort to stop a war, Bilbo actually did the one thing he’d been hired to do as a burglar: He stole something valuable. But instead of giving it to Thorin, who both greatly desired it and was paying for said burglary, he gave it to the leaders of the armies arrayed against the dwarves of Erebor. No greater treachery could have existed for Thorin, who was feeling the great rush of greed and goldlust that his fathers had experienced being in possession, once again, of the Lonely Mountain.

If Bilbo had remained loyal, and gone along with his friend, it’s very possible they all would have been slaughtered in battle. Even so, his actions didn’t prevent the war. It could be questioned whether or not he even did the right thing, unless you remember his motives. At the end of the day, Bilbo wanted peace. He wanted Thorin to come to his senses, and he wanted both sides to remember that there was more important, better things both sides could be doing other than slaying each other.

Doing the right thing is never the easiest route. Going against your friends when they want you to do the not-best thing is excruciatingly tough. Too many times I’ve gone along with the crowd, wondering if I should maybe take a stand and go a different direction. Bilbo knew this was the right thing. This is a hard, hard lesson to learn. When it came to the very end, Thorin did learn it, though at a very great cost.

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6. You Take Care of the Spiders, Dragons Will Take Care of Themselves

The biggest obstacle to success Bilbo Baggins could ever have imagined would have to be the enormous dragon sitting on the horde he’d been hired to burgle. Yet along the way he ran into countless other challenges that helped him prepare for “the big one.” He cut his teeth on trolls. He survived Gollum and the goblins of the Misty Mountains. He singlehandedly saved the dwarves from the spiders of Mirkwood, and he developed an escape plan from the wood elves of the Greenwood. By the time he got to Smaug, he was able to easily surmise his entire experience through a laundry list of lofty titles that showed in more ways than one: Bilbo had paid his dues.

And then a funny thing happened. When the dragon decided to kill everyone bothering him (something dragons usually end up deciding), neither Bilbo nor the dwarves had a direct hand at all in defeating him. Oh, Bilbo noticed a key flaw, and managed to relay that information to the people who needed it, but he never once had to face the dragon in mortal combat.

Life is very much like that.  Coaches tell you: how you practice is how you will perform. Motivational speakers will tell you that if you take care of the little things, the big things will work themselves out. Being a hero very often doesn’t mean stepping in front of a bullet, or saving a runaway train. Sometimes the most heroic thing you can do is go in and do your job every day the best way you can, and be an example of positivity and hope and encouragement for the friends and family around you. Sometimes just offering a friendly smile, or a hand out to someone who’s down can change a person’s world. The quiet, small moments in your life may lead to the victory over a major challenge you run into later.

Bilbo never once fought Smaug. But he fought the spiders, and he learned what he needed to know against a lot of tiny foes how to better handle and conquer the big one when he finally opposed the dragon face to face.

7.  We’re All In this Together

Well, all the choices Thorin Oakenshield made led to a lot of people arraying against him. He pissed off the elves by escaping from their prison cells. He pissed off the men of Lake Town by waking up a crotchety dragon and sending him to destroy their town. He had his cousin’s army join him, but things looked pretty grim what with three pretty unhappy armies all getting ready to destroy themselves after what should have been a joyous occasion.

Instead, something else happened. Turns out, Thorin had pissed off the goblins of the Misty Mountains. Big time. And they brought an army bigger than the other three combined. As Martin Lawrence would say…

bad_boys_2-martin_lawrence-will_smith[1]Shit just got real.

We as Americans forget this lesson and have to relearn it whenever some jerk blows up a building or guns down kids or other forces suddenly array against us. When push comes to shove we’re all on the same team. When adversity rises against us, we collectively rise together, and overcome. Dwarves, elves, men and eagles together united for the first time to stop a common enemy. Through combat against a common foe, a peace was achieved.

It’s important to remember this, when we’re arguing with our in-laws about politics. It’s important to remember it when your son or daughter “comes out.” At the end of the day, we’re all just folk. At the end of the story, we need to all be on the same side. Remember that, and you may find you’ve learned the most important lesson of them all.

Well… There you go. The 7 lessons I found while reading The Hobbit. Did I miss any? Did I get these wrong? Tweet me @Gawainthestout and tell me how wrong I am. Leave me some comments below. Or, just bitch about it on your Facebook wall. I’m easy. Thanks for reading.


This was page 2 of the article. For Page 1, CLICK HERE.


7 Things I Learned Reading the Hobbit


(This originally appeared in HH2B)

I have been reading Tolkien for as long as I’ve been able to. That is to say, that when, in 4th grade I became capable of reading and understanding the Hobbit, I did. And I have been reading the Hobbit (and the Lord of the Rings) annually ever since. It’s fair to say that the lessons taught in the Hobbit were as formative to me as a human being as those taught from my Sunday School’s Bibles or Slater Elementary’s textbooks. “What lessons?” I hear you ask.  “It’s just a silly story. It’s not a parable or fable.”

How wrong you are.

J.R.R. Tolkien offers us seven vital lessons for life in the pages of the Hobbit for anyone with the wisdom to learn them. If you’ve never read the stories, or you’ve never delved deep enough into its secrets, I’m here to share them with you now. I think you may realize you knew many of these already. But a few may surprise you — #7 surprised me!

Let’s start with the obvious:

1. Adventures Are Hard Work



It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something… There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for. Sam, The Two Towers (film)

What story do you think Sam meant here, when he was making this soliloquy? The most famous story in Hobbit history had been that of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo: the adventure to Lonely Mountain and the fall of the dragon Smaug. But as much as Bilbo liked to embellish and sweeten the tale every time he told it, the truth is more grounded in reality: Adventures are hard. They’re dangerous. They are work. Tolkien went so far to emphasize this that he literally made this adventure Bilbo’s job. He wasn’t on some noble quest. He wasn’t chosen by the gods. He wasn’t born destined for a kingship. He got offered employment, and he took it.

From there on out, whether because his life depended on it — or because his job depended on it, Bilbo did everything he had to do to make sure the adventure was successful.

Our lives are exactly the same. We may have plans for a long, happy, entirely uneventful life, but sometimes fate does intervene. Sometimes an adventure presents itself. You have to always look at these opportunities for what they are: an employment opportunity from the heavens. Treat it like a job, treat it like your life depends on it, and you will get far, far more out of your adventure than you might have otherwise.

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2. You Need Far Less than You Think You Do


Src: Flickr
All adventures start at your front door

 From the moment he set foot on the trail, Bilbo bemoaned the things he left behind. From his handkerchief, to his pantry, to warm sofas in front of a blazing fire, Tolkien points out time and time again that Bilbo spent much of his time remembering all the things he had left behind, hoping against hope that he’d be back to them again one day.  All his creature comforts, even the things you’d take for granted, like a soft bed and quiet mornings reading the mail. Things he thought he’d need, things he’d always thought he needed.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to Lonely Mountain: he ended up not needing a single one of them.

Think about it. He had his chances. In Rivendell, at Beorn’s home, in Lake Town. There were many opportunities along the way to pick up a new handkerchief, or any of the things he thought he’d needed. As it turns out, all he needed was his wits, his wisdom, and things he picked up along the way.

We get so caught up in having the newest phone, the hottest tablet, the coolest car… We forget that we don’t actually need any of them to succeed — even in today’s gadgety world. Pay attention, and look around, and solutions will present themselves that don’t require you to amass a horde of goods that you don’t truly need. And this leads us directly into our third lesson.


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3. Cherished Possessions Can Come From Anywhere

wpid-20120107202352-11[1]When goblins are near, it dreams of blue turtles.

In the troll horde, Thorin and company uncovered a cache of ancient weapons. Thorin and Gandalf each took swords with them that ended up being famous talismans of good and served them well (Gandalf later slew a Balrog with his, much more fitting than slumming in Goblin Town with it). Bilbo, though, being much smaller than dwarves or humans, found a small dagger, which was neither famous nor named. It earned a name from him soon afterward. The blade Sting became a cherished heirloom of the Baggins family, and when Frodo went on his own great adventure, Bilbo gave it to him, knowing how important it could end up being in the future.

A hobbit of quite some means, who’d never lacked for money or possessions, found one of his more prized possessions in a garbage heap. His most precious possession was found in the dark, at the roots of the Misty Mountains, alone, with only the sound of dripping water and a creature named Gollum nearby. Little did Bilbo — or anybody! — realize how important, how valuable that ring would be. But the lesson was learned. Don’t overlook the things around you. Don’t neglect to look around for what you might find nearby. You never know if that little thing that appeals to your instinct now might someday be the difference between success and failure, or life and death.

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4. There Is Always Something Else Going On

gandalfvisit1[2]Want to go on an adventure with me? And by “with” me, I mean,
I’ll show up after all the heavy lifting’s done to take credit.

When someone cuts you off on the freeway, do you immediately think “Why did that guy do that to me? What did I ever do to him?” How in the world could that guy be so rude and aggressive to you? Did you piss him off? The most likely answer is “He probably didn’t even see you.”

In The Hobbit, the dwarves often find themselves without the services of their wizard, and very often at times when they seem to need him most. The reason for this is deceptively simple: Middle Earth is an enormous place, and things are happening all around the little company of dwarves that have nothing at all to do with them. Why doesn’t Tolkien go into detail about what happened at Dol Goldur? Because it’s not central to the story of Bilbo (a lesson Peter Jackson maybe could have learned). Everyone around you has their own motivations for doing things. They may not all be the same motivations as you, but they might be similar. Gandalf traveled with the dwarves because he had business in the east, and because like the dwarves, he wanted to see Smaug defeated, albeit for entirely different reasons than them.

The men of Laketown had their own reasons for defeating the dragon, too, but their motivations were, as well, significantly different, and much more urgent at the time they chose to act on their desire.

At every turn, Bilbo ran into people who had their own lives, their own stories, their own adventures. When they intersected, their goals and results weren’t always similar, but the lesson Bilbo took from this — and we should too — is that we should not expect that the world is revolving entirely around us alone. Each person has their own goals and desires. We need to find the places where our motivations intersect, and work together to help each other meet our goals. In this way, both sides win, and the world becomes a better place. Thorin learned this lesson only a little too late in his life, too.


There’s more to learn!. See the rest of the 7 Lessons I Learned Reading the Hobbit here.


Secret Test Footage (Not Really) Leaked From The Hobbit: The Final Showdown

My spies have infiltrated Wingnut Studios and stolen photos of a key battle scene in this winter’s upcoming epic conclusionary movie: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Or More Armies. If you’re not familiar, there will be a big-ass fight called “The Battle of Five Armies.” I won’t give anything away here so you won’t be spoiled if you haven’t read the books. But you can guess that there will be at least five armies and some of those armies will include elves and those big nasty wargs.

Quick, before they force these images off the air: a exclusive!

I am the mighty elf! Hear my barbaric yawp!

Oh noes! A fierce warg!

Die, foul beast!

The warg leaps!

Who will win this epic duel?!

The Day I Introduced Sean Astin to Samwise Gamgee

This post originally appeared in HH2B. It has been migrated here as part of the HH2B revamp.

Peter Jackson's Icon Signature
In February 2002, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyen and Sean Astin made a stop at Bretano’s in Los Angeles, making the rounds and doing book signings and publicity events for the Lord of the Rings. My friend Robert and I skipped out of work and made our way down there, waiting in line for quite some time waiting to meet them.

The highlight for me was that I had picked a book that was a little different than the posters and copies of LOTR that most people brought. I had the instructions to the Games Workshop Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game (the Fellowship of the Ring edition had just been released). Sean was first at the table, and I flipped the book right to his page: the character description and stats for Samwise Gamgee, a hero of the free peoples.

Sean and Peter endorse Sam's Stats
Sean looked surprised and interested. “Wow, what is this?” He asked. “I haven’t seen this before. This is cool!” I explained very briefly, but the line was long and the security guards foreboding, so we had no more time than that, and I moved on to Peter, who signed that page too. I laughed and nervously asked if he’d sign the cover too, which he did. Fran and Philippa were gracious and friendly too, and signed the inside cover, perhaps grumbling, because certainly in spite all the writing they had done for the films, this book had exactly zero words they themselves had written.

Fran and Phillipa's signatures
In LA you get chances to brush up against celebrities all the time (case in point, those of us in line saw Jodi Foster taking her daughter to the bookstore that day). Sometimes those moments turn out to be pretty damned cool.

I’m sure Sean’s forgotten this by now. As he may or may not remember shouting out that there’s still some good in this world and it’s worth fighting for at the TheOneRing.Net’s Two Towers Oscar Party a year later (the second time I met him). He’s a pretty cool dude, at least in this humble fan’s opinion. It’s why I created Spamwise Hamgee in LOTRO to begin with, and how the seeds of this comic began. He brought the character of Sam to life in ways far superior to the bumbling buffoon of the Rankin Bass cartoon. I have no qualms whatsoever in saying that if I were prone to man-crushes, I’d probably put Sean Astin on that list.

Thanks for signing that book, Sean. You’re a class act. :)

Oh, and if you’re interested in seeing what he’s up to, check out his twitter feed. He tweets through @SeanAstin

Big Picture

The Gospel, According to Sam


(This post was originally published on HH2B).
75dfb2c008a0801f5f7f7010.L1I mentioned last month that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is like the Bible to me, and I read it annually. It’s not the only book I read on a regular basis, but it was the first I consciously decided to do so with. When I look back, I see that I treat the Lord of the Rings like scripture not necessarily because of the good message of hope it brings (because it does) but because it was literally presented to me as such.

We moved to Fresno as I was entering 4th grade. (Does anyone else do this? Does anyone else remember their childhood not by year, but by grade?) My parents had a religious experience and were preparing to go into ministry. Because of this, we went to the Fresno Bible Book store. A lot. I was entering 4th grade, as I said, and although I’d really enjoyed reading as a child — well, you know, a younger child — I became a voracious reader in 4th grade. I read every biography Slater Elementary’s library had — Disney, Einstein, Eisenhower, Grant, Lee, Tubman. I read Morte D’Arthur, Three Musketeers — well, “Young Adult Classic” abridged versions, to be sure, but the heart and soul of those books were there. I wanted more.

Fashion Fair had a B. Dalton, and whenever we went there (which wasn’t very often, except to go to Gottschalks, which just wasn’t as kid-friendly as you might think, for a store that catered to grandmothers and housewives trying to look San Francisco chic) I’d get something like Beverly Cleary’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing or some such. But the best place to go, for me, was the Fresno Bible Book Store. It was like a K-Mart of religious books, music, household decorations and various Christian bric-a-brac. And my mother, knowing my love of reading and hoping she could use that to help guide me to Christ, or whatever, made a pact with me: As long as my grades were up, and I had finished the last one I’d read, I could get a new book every time we went.

I started with the most obvious: CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. It is said that CS Lewis is the third most-quoted Christian, with #1 and #2 being Jesus and St. Paul. I don’t doubt it.

Anyway, I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and learned about deep magic from before the dawn of time. That the Witch was of a race of men God created and then destroyed, sometime between Day 5 and 6 of creation (there are some who believe the giant Goliath, of David and Goliath was of the same race, and the story of Noah describes there being more than one sentient race on the planet at the time of the flood). I read Prince Caspian, which taught that all men are sons of Adam, and have as much right to access the throne of God as any others, despite any calls to divine heritage or special privilege. I read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and learned that the kingdom of heaven is open for anyone who searches for it, but only when they’re ready, and their time here is done can they enter. I read The Silver Chair and learned about the erotic power hypnosis can have (maybe another topic on another day lol)… every single book Lewis wrote gave lessons in spirituality and understanding God that were neither “preachy” nor — to be honest — entirely “Christian”  by the rules of Christianity set down by the local preachers in town (in The Last Battle, Lewis flatly says that a man who’s never had the chance to become a Christian, who nevertheless lived a life holy and pleasing to God would still be allowed into heaven, something no Bible-thumping zealot today would ever accept).

OH! And I read them IN ORDER. The RIGHT Order. Lion first, then Caspian, then Dawn Treader, Silver Chair, Horse and Boy, Magician’s Nephew, then The Last Battle. I can’t believe the gall publishers have today, making the Magician’s Nephew first, just because it’s a “prequel” to Lion. I call Shenanigans!

The Bible Book store, full of Bibles, treatises on theology, daily devotionals, and hymnals, had one row dedicated to fantasy. I plowed through the Chronicles of Narnia, and moved on to John White’s The Tower of Geburah and The Iron Sceptre. These books were clearly written in the bent of  Lewis’ work, but my little mind absorbed them like water, not even caring that the protagonists lived in Canada instead of England, and their magical land did not have an all-powerful lion as its deity.

Simba… Remember who you.. Oh wait. I’m in Narnia. Peter! Be the King!

Next on the list was The Hobbit.

Then Lord of the Rings, which, by this time, either 4th or 5th grade, was far, far above my grade and probably reading level, but the words soaked into me, became a part of me. I was as likely to shout “Elbereth Githoniel!” in the schoolyard as another child would be to cry “Stupid Poopyhead!” I was getting these books from a reliable purveyor of theology, and I read them as devoutly as any penitent reads his memory verses. I stayed up late at night, flashlight under the pillow, reliving the battle of Helm’s Deep over and over and over again, Gimli and Legolas fighting and counting orc corpses as they went. Understanding that Sam was very small, and not even the hero, but he did what he had to do to save his master — and even assaulted an entire castle of orcs to save Frodo single-handedly. It was mind-blowing. It was eye-opening. It was gospel. 

Gospel is a word that originally mean “Good news.” The Gospel of St. Mark, Matthew, Luke and John are the recollections of four men about the good news that Jesus had come to save mankind. Matthew, Luke, and John’s are first-hand accounts and recollections. Mark’s is the transcription of St. Peter’s experiences, told to the young boy, Mark, late in his life.  To me, The Lord of the Rings was the Gospel According to Sam. We learned that there was great, great evil in the world, and that it had been thwarted in the past, when great heroes and mighty lords existed to do such things, but that evil was back, and growing stronger, even as the forces who might have stopped it before were growing weaker and weaker.

The Good News was that in all of Middle Earth, there was one, small, lonely hobbit who had fallen into the right place and the right time to shift the fate of the entire world. He was a simple hobbit, but he had courage. He had a good heart. He had an uncle with some experience in world-changing adventures. And he had a friend who would not let him down. The Good News was that with these four things, anything could be done. The Lord of the Rings is about friendship. The friendship of two kings, uniting to defeat a common enemy. The friendship of two Hobbits lost in Fangorn with nothing but a centuries-old tree shepherd to talk to. The friendship of a dwarf and elf that was so strong that when that elf left Middle Earth forever, his friend the dwarf chose to go with him.  The friendship of a master and servant, who literally went to the ends of the earth to save it.

Fantasy became my religion on the shelves of the Bible Book Store. Those books taught me about faith, loyalty, discipline, friendship, good, evil, love, hate, despair, failure, and forgiveness. The genre has changed a lot since then — I seriously doubt George Martin’s books are there (I’ll tell the story about how I got a certain fantasy series taken off the shelf there someday), but when I was a child, these were the things that fueled my spirit.

They still are.

A Bucket of Balls and a Roll of Quarters

(This is a repost from HH2B as I convert that site to a comics-only page.)

28465_460329557714_6433176_n1          The confident grin of a 8-year-old playa

When we arrived in Fresno in 4th grade, my parents were convinced that this would (might?) be the last move. To that end, they tried to get me involved in sports to better involve me in the community and make friends and whatnot.  This ended up trying to get me active in sports. For someone whose best friend was a stuffed animal, whose only memory of playing games outside at school involved being beaten up in some way (I’ll talk about that someday lol), and who’d probably never even seen sports before (I sure don’t remember ever having had), it was a challenging proposition to say the least.

First, we tried soccer, I think because we’d just missed Little League season. I played for the Slater Stingers or some such, because I think our team’s mascot was a feral bee with anger issues. I played fullback. If you’re unfamiliar with soccer (or what the Europeans like to call Football, or what the Latin Americans have condensed to just Futbol, or what the Australians call “What we let sissies and paraplegics play if they can’t handle rugby”) then know that a fullback is a defender. They stand between the enemy team and the goalie and (hopefully) make his job easier by blocking their approach to the goal.

The reason why I played fullback is because I had absolutely no soccer skills, and hated running. But I was a body, and I could accidentally trip attackers like nobody’s business. And since I looked so inept doing so, I never got carded, because it really looked like I was going for the ball, even though on the inside, my purpose in life was “destroy the enemy ball carrier at any cost.” It’s a wonder I didn’t get arrested, so badly did I try tripping these kids. Maybe refs at the 4th grade level don’t really look at the intent of the trip too hard. I don’t know.

But yeah. It was the running that got me there. God I hated running. Every day, the coach would make us run laps around Slater Elementary. Maybe it was around the entire school. I don’t know. Slater has an enormous play yard. You could fit three modern schools on Slater’s campus, and still have room for the preschool jungle gym. Coach would make us run, and I’d be in the back, sweating, lagging, essentially dying. Every single lap, I’d ask the coach a question: “How old do I have to be to have a heart attack?” “How old do I have to be to have an aneurysm?”  “How old do I have to be to get leprosy?” Every lap, for an entire season, a different malady. “Heat stroke?” “Epilepsy?” “Tourrettes?” “Malaria?” I wasn’t sure, but I was certain he was torturing us just to meet his sadistic needs. If The Princess Bride had existed, I imagine that with each lap, he could have answered “I just ran 1 year out of your body. How do you feel?”

When the season was over, it was over for good. I never played soccer again. I regretted that decision more times that you will ever believe, because the first true love on my life (who I hung myself in front of once, but that’s another story too) loved soccer, and went on to play it quite vigorously in high school. Nevetheless, I couldn’t imagine having to do another year of this torturous stuff, and besides, I’d run out of fatal mishaps to ask my coach about. It was time to move on.

307471_10150445305537715_292065480_n1She was a stone-cold fox in 6th grade, too. The girl behind her? She pinched me with sharpened talons so hard I still have the scar.

And move on we did, to Little League. My dad, intent on my success like no dad I’ve ever known (honestly, he’s the best dad I’ve ever had), became the coach of the Pirates. We had cool yellow and black uniforms, with white pants, and stirrups. Stirrups! How old-school was that? Well, this was like, 1977. I guess we weren’t “old school” then… Just “school.” Anyway, we had some GREAT players on our team. There was this guy, Louis, who was our first baseman. He’d hit the ball when it was pitched at him. He’d catch the ball when it was hit at him. He was great.

Me? Not so much.

I had trouble concentrating, sometimes, out there in left field. True story, I let the ball roll by me once, too zoned into my own little world to notice there was a baseball game going on very near to me. My father hit me in the head with a baseball once. Not because he wanted to, but during pop-up practice he hit it right to me, and I wasn’t paying any attention at all.  But that’s ok. I was a great hitter. Right? RIGHT?

CAMELOh shut up, Mother Nature. WTF do you know?


Yep. I was, I think, the worst hitter in the history of Fresno Little League. For the two years I played baseball, I had a lifetime batting average of 0.000. For those following along at home, that’s zero. I never once got a hit. Ever. The few times I made it on base, it was either because I got hit by a pitch, or walked.  I mean, I tried. I tried. We’d take a bucket of balls out to Lions Park over behind Slater and practice hitting pitches. We’d get a roll of quarters and go to Blackbeards for a day — not riding the water slides, not playing miniature golf — just to blast balls in the batting cage. I could hit a ball. If I tried really hard, I could do it.

But come gametime, when that ball came, WHIFF. Sometimes it was just too fast, it seemed. Sometimes it was just too slippery, it seemed. Sometimes I was threatened by its presence and I closed my eyes and swung unseeingly. Whiff, whiff, whiff. You’re out!

I played baseball for two years. I gave it the old college try. At the end of the day, though, sports and I agreed to end our relationship amicably. Today, I am a mere voyeur, watching my Dodgers rise up from the obscurity they’ve been slumming in for so many years, and I am loving it. But I’m also at a crucial crossroads. My son is in 4th grade. He wants to try sports. He tried soccer and didn’t like it, because he didn’t like running.

Maybe my dad knew I wasn’t the athletic type. Maybe he just wanted to give me every chance to succeed; to do things he’d wanted to do but never had the chance to. Maybe in his quest to become my hero, he built in me the desire to be a hero for my kid too. I kinda feel like finding a bucket of balls and a roll of quarters, and letting the chips fall where they may.

Batter up!

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