Fatherhood and Stranger Things

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As I finished the second season of Stranger Things on Netflix, I began processing the season as a whole. So many things set this season apart from the first season. There were more characters (probably too many more), more adversaries, more stakes and (for better or worse) more locations. As the show expanded its scope to keep the story moving, some of what made season 1 great was minimized slightly. Still, one thing that stood out to me as a man and as a father was the theme of fatherhood. It might not be the first theme that comes to mind when you think about Stranger Things, but it’s definitely a big one. The question of what makes a good father is all over the place and I started to realize that the juxtaposition of Biological Fathers vs. Father Figures was quite profound and it extended back to the first season as well. Let’s take a look at the characters and the idea of fatherhood throughout Stranger Things.

Spoilers for both seasons of Stranger Things follow!


Biological Fathers

When you start to take stock of the biological fathers in Stranger Things, you realize that almost all of them are very distant and uncaring if they are present at all.

Ted Wheeler

Ted is Mike and Nancy’s dad. He’s still married to their mom, Karen, but he’s portrayed an oblivious buffoon to all the drama and tragedy that’s affecting his family. The extent of his wading into the family affairs is to chide “Language!” when Nancy swears in frustration at the dinner table. As the family literally unravels around him, Karen sarcastically says she hopes he’s enjoying the chicken. Ted’s response?

Ted is an example of a man who’s disengaged from his family and the fact that cosmic horror is infiltrating his children and home doesn’t spur him to action. He’s only concerned with his work and his newspaper. In season two, both of his older children are gone for what seems like days and no care is given. Also in season two, there’s a scene in the final episode (that’s played for some laughs) where Karen is taking a romantic bath alone with a paperback romance novel when the doorbell rings. Ted is asleep in his easy chair and doesn’t hear it or Karen’s pleas for him to get it. She ends up coming down in a robe to find Billy with his shirt unbuttoned asking after his sister. He flirts with her and she demurely entertains it as her husband snoozes in the den. Though it’s a slightly goofy scene, it’s really another portrayal of how Ted’s laziness is a huge threat to their marriage and family.

Lonnie Byers

Lonnie is Will and Jonathan’s dad, Joyce’s ex-husband. Before the events of season 1, Joyce and Lonnie got divorced and Lonnie moved to Indianapolis. When Will goes missing, Joyce and Hopper figure he might be with Lonnie, but all their phone calls are ignored. Jonathan goes to Indianapolis to see if Will is there and Lonnie shows little care for his missing son. He eventually shows up in Hawkins when there is the possibility that money could be paid out for Will’s “death” by falling in the quarry. Lonnie is selfish, uncaring, cold and absent from his family’s life.

Neil Hargrove

Neil is Billy’s biological dad, seen in one episode of season 2. Neil is married to Max’s mom, creating a blended family that’s new to Hawkins. When we first meet Billy and Max, they are on their own with Billy in charge of Max. When the parents finally return from a trip, Neil and his wife realize that Max is not home and Billy doesn’t know or care where she is. Neil is furious with Billy and hits him, demanding he take responsibility for Max and locate her. It becomes clear that Billy’s violent and wild tendencies are a direct result of his father’s verbal and physical abuse. The few minutes that Neil is on the screen are intense and sad as we see a domineering and violent father who has created a toxic relationship with his son that is spilling out into the rest of their family and beyond.  When Billy is a “substitute father” for Max early in season 2, he reflects all these things to her and cultivates the same fear-based relationship that exists between him and his father.

So the biological fathers don’t have much screen time overall in the series. When they are part of the story, they’re depicting traits that a common flaws of fatherhood in the real world – laziness, self-absorption, neglect, abandonment and violence.


Father Figures

What about the non-biological father figures? In almost every case, the father figures of Stranger Things are much more positive characters, embodying good fatherhood traits and displaying great character.

But there’s one huge exception that we’ll look at first.

Dr. Martin Brenner

The main human villain of season 1 is Dr. Brenner. He’s the architect of the study that essentially kidnapped and abused Eleven for years. Over the course of her captivity and study, he encourages her to call him “Papa”, which she does throughout the series. He casts himself as a protector for her even as he spearheads her abuse. He doesn’t truly care about her, he cares about furthering his own agenda. He uses her. It’s another common complaint that parents in general often “use” their children for their own selfish motives in various ways. This is just a grossly exaggerated example of what that kind of perversion of fatherhood looks like.

Mr Clarke

Scott Clarke is a minor recurring character, but one who influences Mike, Will, Dustin and Lucas immensely. He’s the nerdy science teacher who is basically a hero to the boys when we first meet them. He’s funny and approachable. He clearly appeals to the more nerdy personalities of these boys and has encouraged them in their interests and learning. He sparks their imaginations with his science lessons and radio equipment. When the boys need help understanding “The Upside Down”, they go to Mr. Clarke, who illustrates the theories of other dimensions to them – patiently entertaining what he believes to be a flight of fancy. He’s intelligent, resourceful, caring and friendly – traits of a great father.

Steve Harrington

In season 1, Steve is a guy that most fans of the show didn’t want Nancy to date. She was supposed to be with Jonathan, right? Steve even smashed Jonathan’s camera. Still, he grew into a part of the team and someone we rooted for. In season two, Steve grew even more. After breaking up with Nancy and getting bullied by Billy, he was a sad sack until Dustin needed his help. None of his friends were around and Dustin needed someone to contain the creature with him. Soon, Steve and Dustin were a charming and unlikely pairing that had great chemistry. Dustin lives with his mom and his dad is out of the picture. Through their interactions, Dustin begins to look up to Steve and ask him for advice. Steve eventually opens up a bit and shares with Dustin, counseling him on the finer points of wooing girls and getting his hair to look cool. He helps the kids with their big plan and takes some literal punches defending them from Billy. In the end, it’s Steve dropping Dustin off at the dance with a final pep-talk and encouragement. Steve proves to be a worthy father figure to Dustin in a myriad of ways.

Bob Newby

Bob is a new character for season 2 and is dating Joyce Byers. He’s a clerk at Radio Shack and is a vanilla goofball with a heart of gold. It’s obvious right away that he adores Joyce and is really serious about being part of the Byers family (even though he doesn’t know all the details of their ordeal from the previous year). Jonathan and Will aren’t too sure about him at first, but Bob continually reaches out to them. Soon, Will is again oppressed by the Upside Down monsters and Bob is right there with Joyce trying to help deal with it. In the end, Bob is stuck in the Hawkins Lab building with them as the monsters run wild, killing dozens. To get out, someone with technical skill needs to reach the control room and unlock the doors. Hopper volunteers, but Bob is the one with the tech skills. He frees everyone from the building and almost escapes himself when the monsters catch him and devour him. Bob is tender, loving, selfless and ultimately sacrificial for those he loves. He does a great job of embodying the traits of a good father and husband though he was technically neither.

Chief Jim Hopper

Hopper is one of the central characters of the show. His back story tells us that he was once married and had a daughter. His daughter tragically died of cancer as a child, which led to a divorce with his wife. This broken man returns to his childhood town and lives an unhealthy life of drinking, smoking and one-night stands. That’s where we find him in season 1 as Will’s disappearance forces him to sober up. His paternal instincts clearly drive him here as he throws himself into the case and the lives of these children. He fights for them, protects them and sacrifices for them throughout the whole series. When season 2 rolls around, we find that Hopper and Eleven have formed a makeshift family. He’s caring for her as a father cares for a daughter. They laugh and play together, but also butt heads when he puts her safety as a top priority even when she is stronger than he is. In the end of the season, it’s the two of them against the evil monster and we conclude with Hopper holding a birth certificate for Jane Hopper. He is her legal father and also fills the father figure role to many of the boys in the cast.


The “Daddy Issues” trope can often be overplayed in Hollywood, yet the reason it’s used so often is that it is effective. We are hardwired, created to want to know our fathers. While the role of mothers is of utmost importance as well and shouldn’t be minimized, it’s clear that children need good male role models in their lives and often suffer greatly without them.

In Stranger Things, we’re presented with many examples and invited to parse out the character traits of these men and wrestle with their roles. There are many men who embody the traits of bad fathers and many who do the opposite. The reality is that all of us fathers are prone to all of these traits at different times and in different measures. There are no perfect fathers.

But there is a perfect Father. God the Father is the perfect embodiment of all these good fatherly traits. He’s patient, approachable, intelligent, caring, defending, helpful, gives good counsel, tender, fights for us, sacrifices for us and laughs with us. He’s also never selfish, abusive, absent, uncaring, disengaged, lazy or cruel. He created us, he loves us, he gave his only Son up to death for us and he pursues us when we’re lost.

When we’re confronted with good and bad examples of father archetypes and “daddy issues” in movies and TV shows, we can how those examples up against the Bible’s descriptions of our Heavenly Father. We can rejoice at the good examples and say “Our Father in heaven is like that with his children, only way more so!” And we can mourn at the bad examples, saying “I know there are fathers like that, sometimes it’s even me, but I’m so glad that God is never, ever like that with his children.”

Where else have you seen depictions of fathers that made you think about the nature of our heavenly Father? 

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RAISING WOLVES

How a rollercoaster year for the Timberwolves led to the dawn of a new era of hope


The last time I sat down to write about my beloved Timberwolves, it was spring 2014 and our best player was Kevin Love. We had just hired back Flip Saunders as the leader of a new era of basketball operations and it seemed like things were finally looking up for the long-beleaguered franchise. Since then, everything (and I do mean everything) has changed. It has been an absolute rollercoaster ride with some amazing thrills and some crushing depths of pain. As the franchise emerges from the tunnel, it seems poised now to finally (finally) become interesting and relevant again in the NBA. It’s a story that will make for a fantastic 30 for 30 documentary someday. But it’s not over yet. The best is yet to come.


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Flip Saunders

In the spring of 2014, things were changing for the Timberwolves. Kevin Love was our superstar player, but he was showing signs of dissatisfaction with the direction of the franchise and with his contract. Around this time, a much-needed front office change brought back the Timberwolves prodigal song Flip Saunders as team president and de facto coach as well. Saunders had been fired years ago after the most successful team in franchise history started to crumble with age and a hard reset seemed inevitable. Saunders had bounced to Detroit and then DC and experienced some decent success in both venues. Now, he was being tasked with casting a vision for the future of Minnesota professional men’s basketball. First on the agenda, figure out what to do about Kevin Love. Soothe and keep him? Or cut bait and try to trade him for future stars?

Then the NBA provided a catalyst to get things moving. LeBron James decided to leave this team in Miami and return to Cleveland! It was a long-rumored move that people still couldn’t quite believe would happen. But LeBron, for whatever reason, decided Miami had run its course and he wanted to win a title for his hometown. LeBron returned to a Cleveland franchise that had up and coming Kyrie Irving and the #1 pick in the 2014 draft! But would LeBron want to wait for these young players to ascend or would he rather flip those future assets into a more immediate return?

In the June draft, the Cavs kept their #1 pick and drafted Andrew Wiggins out of Kansas. They signed him to his rookie deal in July and it seemed like maybe LeBron was going to war with the young guns. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, used their 13th overall pick on raw SG prospect Zach LaVine.

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Kevin Love and Andrew Wiggins

Still, behind the scenes in Minnesota, Flip Saunders was resolute. He wanted to trade Kevin Love, but not for just any deal. Saunders was already eyeing Wiggins and waiting for LeBron ask for Kevin Love. In August, the Cavs and Wolves discussions began. And in late August, the deal was struck. Wiggins and Anthony Bennett were shipped to the Wolves and Kevin Love got his wish to abandon the Wolves and hitch his wagon to the best player in the league (or so we thought in August of 2014). The Cavs became the new super-team in the NBA and odds-on-favorite to win the 14-15 title. The Wolves gained a highly promising player and some salary cap flexibility. And Flip’s patience paid off in a very big way.

The 2014-2015 Wolves season was another disappointment as far as wins go, finishing a paltry 16-66 (their 2nd worst season of all time). Still, the young players were given plenty of playing time by Flip Saunders and Wiggins (rookie of the year) and LaVine (winner of the dunk contest) in particular showed some real talent. And, midway through the year, Flip Saunder made a deal to bring back the best player in Wolves history: Kevin Garnett. It was fun for fans, but certainly didn’t add any wins. Still, it seemed that KG wasn’t acquired to win games, he was acquired to shows the youngsters how it’s done in the NBA.

This set up the Wolves for a very good lottery draft pick in the next draft. But the Wolves have never had the #1 pick in the draft, nor have they improved on their projected draft position. Ever.

Meanwhile, the LeBron and Kevin Love led Cavs cruised in the Eastern Conference and made it to the NBA finals, where they faced the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors beat up the Cavs with their amazingly efficient offense and three-point shooting and won the title behind the newly unstoppable Steph Curry (MVP that year). LeBron’s quest to bring a title to Cleveland wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. And Kevin Love had a bad Finals as Timberwolves fans grimly smiled. Did the Cavs actually get fleeced in the trade?


On draft lottery night 2015, something incredible happened. The Wolves won the #1 in the 2015 NBA draft! It was another sign that things in Minnesota were changing. There was plenty of discussion over which player the Wolves would select. It seemed the two choices for Saunders were Karl-Anthony Towns or Jalil Okafor. In the end, Saunders selected Towns, who most analysts agreed was the correct choice. With a young core of Towns, Wiggins, LaVine and Ricky Rubio at point guard, Flip Saunders had assembled a great young roster to play with. Many wondered if he would step down from coaching at this point and hire someone else, but Saunders saw himself as the best option for these kids and decided to continue coaching them.

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Karl-Anthony Towns

In August of 2015, just 2 months before the season was to begin, everything changed. Flip Saunders announced that he’d been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and was undergoing treatment. He was upbeat about it and continued working and guesting on radio shows as his treatments continued. He said this was the more treatable form of this cancer and he intended to keep working as long as he could. That point came far too quickly as complications from treatment forced Saunders into the hospital in September. It wasn’t clear at the time how serious the complications were, but soon after his hospitalization, the normally communicative Saunders camp went very quiet. Wolves owner Glen Taylor announced that assistant coach Sam Mitchell (a successful head coach in Toronto at one time) would coach in Saunders place. Then, on October 25th, just days before the regular season would begin, Flip Saunders passed away.

It was a huge shock to the Timberwolves, the NBA and the Twin Cities community. I was listening to the Vikings game on the radio as I drove home from church that Sunday and they broke in with the announcement of his passing. I was crushed. Flip Saunders was a great, great person and a huge part of Timberwolves history. Wolves players were understandably shocked and saddened by the passing. The team would sport FLIP patches on their jerseys for the duration of the season and wear special warmup uniforms honoring their late coach. Many players across the league mourned, saying that Saunders was the one that believed in them first and gave them their big shot in the NBA.

I thought back to all the memories I had of him stalking the sidelines in the late 90’s and early 00’s with his goofy haircut and bagged eyes, shouting and pointing to KG and Sam Cassell. He loved basketball and he loved Minnesota. He always wanted to be in Minnesota, which is rare when it comes to sports figures. And I wondered what this meant for the future of the franchise. Saunders was the architect of the current, promising squad. What would happen now?

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Flip Saunders 1955-2015


Sam Mitchell did his absolute best trying to coach up the team, but there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction amongst the older players on the team. Mitchell showed signs of being overly cautious with Towns, resting him at the end of games where he clearly could have made a difference. Was he trying to make Town earn it? Maybe, but Towns was quickly establishing himself as maybe the best player on the team (and clear-cut Rookie of the Year). In fact, his measurables were putting him some very rare air with the likes of Shaq and Duncan. As the season went on, the losses kept piling up but the buzz kept growing. Then, late in the season, the Wolves put together some very, very good basketball and even beat the almost unbeatable Starkiller Base of the Golden State Warriors late in the season! The Warriors finished with the best regular season record in league history and are actually better than the team that beat LeBron and company in the Finals last year! The Wolves finished with a record of 29-53, again setting them up for a decent lottery pick in this year’s draft.

However, the day after the regular season ended, Glen Taylor quickly announced that Sam Mitchell would not be retained. And neither would current General Manager Milt Newton. Taylor was assessing the team and what he saw was probably the most talented young roster in the league. He wanted to pair that young roster with a top-tier coach to accelerate their window of opportunity and try to make the playoffs in the 2016-17 season. And, amazingly, because of the talented roster, there were a number of high-profile coaching candidates that were very interested in the job.

The number one candidate on the list was former Chicago Bulls coach (and former Wolves assistant coach in 1989) Tom Thibodeau. Many teams had had their sights set on “Coach Thibs” since he was fired from Chicago a year ago. His no-nonsense attitude, defensive genius and ability to coach up mediocre players into valuable starters made him the best coach currently on the market. And the scuttlebutt indicated he wanted the Wolves job, but that he wanted complete control of the team. He wanted to be the coach and the president of basketball operations, the same arrangement the Wolves had with Flip Saunders. Taylor was game and the deal was completed in record time. Less than a week after the season was over, the Wolves had hired Tom Thibodeau. The move was heralded around the league as a home run hire and NBC Sports said of the Timberwolves:

“They just became maybe the most interesting team in the NBA.”


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Vintage Tom Thibodeau

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Timberwolves Head Coach Tom Thibodeau

So, now more than ever, it seems the Timberwolves are poised for a whole new era. This team is replete with young, athletic talent. They have one and maybe two future all stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. That have a flashy and talented scorer in Zach LaVine. They have a fairly crafty but offensively stunted point guard in Ricky Rubio. They have some potential glue guys like Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng and others. They have the godfather, Kevin Garnett, still in the fold to mentor and player-coach if needed. And now they have a strong figurehead in Tom Thibodeau.

As a longtime fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves, I’ve stuck by them through the first round exits of the early KG days. I’ve cheered them on as KG, Cassell and Spreewell led the team to the Western Conference Finals in 2004. I’ve supported them through these last TWELVE playoff-less seasons as they’ve endured hardship after fiasco after hardship. Now, it really does appear that clouds are clearly away and this team is poised to actually make the playoffs THIS SEASON.

The Wild are in the playoffs now (about to be dismissed). The Twins are rising. The Vikings are possible contenders and I’ll always be excited for them. But right now, I absolutely cannot wait for Timberwolves season.

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Karl-Anthony Towns // Zach LaVine // Andrew Wiggins

Tales of the Tape – Part 2 – Video

tape never lies

I actually remember when our family bought our first VCR. I’m not sure what year it was, but it was circa 1986 I believe. It was a fairly large, front-loading model. JVC brand maybe? Anyway, my dad bought it was Best Buy in Rochester, MN. At the time, the local Best Buy actually had a video rental side business attached to the main store! So that became our go-to rental outlet for the first few years of VCR ownership.

At the time he bought the machine, my dad bought a VHS tape to go with it. And that tape, was Return of the Jedi! That tape and weather slipcase stayed around our house for probably 15 years (and it might still be in there somewhere). We watched that things so many times as kids that I have almost the entire movie memorized. When I recently watched it again with my kids, it all came flooding back to me.

But we were also an avid renting family. Best Buy closed their rental store eventually and we moved on to another store that I remember being called “Rave” at some point (but that went through various names over the years). This was the store that advertised an art contest when The Little Mermaid was released on VHS. My two art-inclined younger brothers entered and my mom convinced me to give it a shot too (even though I have never been a good visual artist). Of course, my art somehow won 3rd place in the contest. 1st place won the video tape of The Little Mermaid. I think 2nd place was the movie poster of the film. But third place was 5 free candy bars of my choice from their movie snack selection! I chose 5 Nestle Crunch bars.


Our VHS collection grew over the years as we acquired many Disney animated films and others as well. We added The Empire Strikes Back at some point – via garage sale, I believe. Our shelves were filling up. Since we didn’t have cable and were only able to pull in our one local station with rabbit ears (Rochester’s NBC affiliate KTTC), our entertainment options were pretty limited to VHS tapes.

That also meant that I quickly became the expert “heads cleaner” guy in our family. If you know what I’m talking about, then you also remember that horrible task of cleaning the heads on a VCR by using a special tape that you applied drops of cleaner fluid to and let run in the machine. It was the updated method of what my dad did manually with Q-tips to our audio cassette players.  It was tedious for sure, but it had to be done to improve the quality of the viewing. Still, it was secondary to the most hated VCR action: tracking. Pushing the up and down tracking buttons and hoping that they actually did something was a daily occurrence at our house as it was in every house that had a VCR and used it as much as we used ours.

At least twice, some friends from church who did have cable got a free preview of The Disney Channel and just taped everything and gave us the tapes. It was a little bizarre, like a grab bag of random Disney shows and weird low-budget movies. However, many of these became indelible parts of childhood for my brothers and me. One movie that was part of these tapes was “Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood”, later retitled “The River Pirates”, a coming of age story about a boy in the Louisana bayou that had been mashed up with The Goonies. Here’s the trailer to give you a taste of it’s terrible greatness:

And actually, the full movie is on YouTube too!


Maybe it was those Disney “mix tapes” that started us down the path of recording TV shows for later rewatching. I soon started checking the weekend paper for the week’s TV listings to identify if there were any movies being shown that we would like. If so, I made a note of it and made sure I had a tape ready to go on that night. If I was particularly on the ball, I would pause the tape on commercial breaks to edit out the ads. Most of the time, however, the commercial were left in to be fast forwarded through on rewatch. Of course, we were often lazy on rewatch and would sit through the commercials as well. And that meant that we memorized many early 90’s commercials. To this day, I can still hear the excited voice repeating that NBC’s “Dear John” was moving to Wednesday nights! One Sunday Night Movie that we watched on a loop for awhile featured tons of these commercials AND Corey Feldman. It was called EXILE and was actually a back-door pilot that never got picked up to series. It was pretty good though!

Around this time, being the nerd that I was, I figured out how to use the timer feature on our VCR so I didn’t have to worry that I’d forget to record the movie or show I wanted to watch. I could set the VCR to begin recording a certain channel at a certain time and then cue up the tape to the right spot to put the recording. It worked like a charm most of the time! This was also around the time that I discovered that blank VHS tapes could be recorded in 3 speeds: standard play (SP), Long Play (LP) and Extended Play (EP). A standard tape could hold about 2 hours in SP mode, but up to 6 or even 8 hours in EP mode. Of course, recording in EP mode meant a significant loss of quality. Still, if you wanted to save money on blank tapes and fit lots of shows and movies onto the tape, it was a no-brainer to us EP mode!

Armed with my knowledge of VCR operation, I soon began a somewhat crazy ongoing project. In the early to mid 90’s, I was a huge Star Trek fan. I was constantly checking out original series episode tapes from the public library and began buying a few too. Soon I became interested in the current Star Trek series – The Next Generation. However, it was aired in syndication and VHS tapes of episodes were hard to come by at rental stores. I would watch it at my grandparents house when I was there and that was about it. Soon I heard that Deep Space Nine was premiering too! Two Star Trek shows I couldn’t watch!

Then I made a discovery. KIMT, a CBS affiliate out of Mason City, Iowa, was airing both series on Saturday nights after the 10 o’clock news. And we could pick up that station at our house, but only if the TV and rabbit ears were on our dining room table. Thus began a long-running ceremony where, on Saturday nights, I would lug our 13 inch TV and VCR upstairs from the basement, place it on our dining room table, adjust the antenna until the reception was acceptable, reprogram the VCR clock (because I had unplugged the machine) and set a timer to record the two episodes in EP mode on a blank tape. I started building a library of barely watchable episodes of TNG and DS9, 6-8 to a tape, with scrawled titles on the label stickers. The worst was during the NCAA basketball tournament because the games were long and pushed back the newscast and everything that came after it too. My timer was powerless to predict these changes and I would end up with chopped episodes. It seems unfair that I can now watch any episode from those series on Netflix in HD at the push of a button.


Another aspect of the VCR was it’s ability to dub the mini tapes that our family camcorder used onto the more user-friendly VHS format. We had a number of home movies from our camcorder on our shelves growing up and these got plenty of replay over the years as well (yes, to the point of memorization).

Fast forward to my first year at college. I heard through the grapevine that some friends who worked at summer camp with me were making a movie that they would show everyone at our staff reunion in the winter. They were apparently shooting some scenes at my college – Northwestern College (now Northwestern University of St. Paul). For some reason, I hatched a plot with another camp co-worker to produce a “rival film” to also show at the reunion, but ours would be primarily shot at Bethel College (now Bethel University). We schemed up a weird story, bought props and costumes and shot the whole thing on two weekends with the help of a 3rd co-worker who came down for one of those weekends.

Now, once we had all the footage, it needed editing. I had no computer with enough power to edit a movie. I knew I had to do it the old fashioned way. I had to dub the scenes to VHS and re-order and cut them as I dubbed to cobble together a complete film. It was tricky and took almost an entire day of work. At some point, I had a revelation. I was dubbing audio and video from the camera to the VCR using RCA cables. If I wanted to, I pull the audio cable and dub in a different audio track along with the video from the camera. For me, that meant I could add music to a few scenes, as long as I didn’t mind not having the camera audio in the scene at all. It worked and I added a few musical elements to a few scenes. The finished product was a very, very weird movie with all sorts of stuff that I can’t believe we did. We showed it to our friends at the camp staff reunion and it was quite the experience.

What was the film about and what did it look and sound like? Well…. see for yourself.

I ended up make two more “movies” with friends from camp, but alas – those see to be lost to the ether.

I get a little nostalgic about these old, analog things. Those were simpler times, you know? Actually no, they were a lot more complicated. But still, I have many, many fond memories of the era of tape. Things that, I’m afraid, my boys will never quite understand.

Tales of the Tape – Part 1 – Audio

tape never lies

“Can you rewind?”

“I taped it.”

Roll the clip.”

These are just some of the phrases that are still kicking around the cultural vernacular that have to do with a largely extinct technology: tape. I’m talking specifically about audio cassettes and VHS cassettes – magnetic tape. It’s enjoyable, now, to look back on the days of these technologies and find them cute and antiquated. But their served their purposes well and were actually a very cool medium.

I had a lot of personal experience with audio and video cassettes as a young lad and I was inspired to write down some of the goofy memories I have of working with magnetic tape cassettes. So here goes.


My mother has been involved with the children’s programs at my childhood church for 30ish years. When it was time to learn new songs for the Christmas Program, she would often make cassette tapes for the kids to take home and listen to. She would use one of our boom boxes with a mic and record in her bedroom with the door closed. One year in 1983, she made a special “Christmas Tape” of me and my infant brother to send to our grandparents as a Christmas present. I’m 2 and can be heard reciting nursery rhymes and singing songs learned at church. A copy of the tape survived and I have digitized it now for posterity. You can listen here.

As I grew, we listened to tapes all the time. One favorite was the series of kids programs called “Little Thinker”. Most of these have been lost to the ether, but they were somewhat educational episodes where a narrator would talk about a topic and dramatize an adventure. Periodically, she would tell you to pause the tape to draw a picture of what we were learning about. Then press play again when finished. It was a pretty great concept for the time.

Of course, one of the universal memories people have of cassette tapes is their propensity to unspool into a massive tangle of tape and needing to use a pencil or something to wind the tape back in. Then you had to hope that the crinkled tape could still function and play properly. We dealt with this numerous times at our house. There were also the time that the tape would get cut somehow and my dad would carefully cut a slip of scotch tape and apply it to both sides of the magnetic tape. It certainly didn’t work well, but it did work in many cases.

Later, our family moved up to the wonderful world of Adventures in Odyssey. For years, my fandom was enormous. We listened to the episodes on car trips and as we lay in bed at night falling asleep. I nearly memorized many episodes. I definitely memorized which episodes were in each box set that we purchased. And which position in the clamshell box each tape went and which episode was side A and which was side B. It came in handy when I had to select an episode in the dark of my room. I could literally do it with my eyes closed. It became something of a party trick of mine. We wore those tapes out with how much we listened to them. New episodes aired on our local Christian radio station (KFSI) and I occasionally taped the episode and listened back later.

As for music, my tastes were very vanilla to begin. I have shared in the past that I had a fondness Steve Green. I had a great many of his albums on cassette, lined up in release date order on a shelf in my room. Only later did I purchase a cassette of the first album by Jars of Clay and start my journey deeper into musical knowledge.


I usually listened to my cassettes on a large boom box with detachable speakers. I don’t quite remember how I came to own such a beast. I do, however, remember my first portable cassette player. Every year I was tasked with raking the leaves in the fall in our sizable backyard. It was a large, usually 2-day job to rake and bag everything up. My dad usually paid me about $20 to do this chore. One year, he proposed that instead of money, I would receive a Sanyo portable cassette player (not a Sony Walkman, but who cared?). I was thrilled to receive it upon the completion of my task. I used that thing all the time. On long family car trips, I could listen to any Adventures in Odyssey episode I wanted. I could play any Steve Green album I wanted. And soon, I was actually listening to books on tape. I purchased some Frank Peretti books on tape first and later bought some recordings of Star Trek novels. More on my Star Trek fandom later. When we took a family trip to the East Coast in 1995, I went through many books. I broke my leg on that trip and, consequently, had to stay in the car while my family did a boat ride by Niagara Falls. I sat, locked in the car outside the police station, and listened to audio books.

Soon we had all kinds of cassette players around our house. Boom boxes, stereo tuners and portables. My dad used to periodically spend a half hour cleaning the contacts on our most-used players. He would hunker down with the player, a bottle of rubbing alcohol and some Q-Tips. He would dip the Q-Tips in the rubbing alcohol, open the door of the player and hit play. As the spools turned, he would let the Q-tip wipe the metal contacts to remove dust and stuff. It was quite the process.

The movement away from cassettes to CDs was slow for our family. I started getting CDs as gifts before I had a player to put them in. Even after we purchased an AIWA 3-disc changer at Best Buy, cassettes were still the preferred format for many months (the stereo had dual cassette decks too, of course). Sure, CDs had better sound quality and you could easily skip to a song, but some of the newer cassettes had a feature that would stop fast forwarding on track breaks too (this is still wonderous to me). But soon I bought my own portable CD player with skip protection (which was very important) and the switch was officially flipped.

Still, cassettes have a certain charm to them. Today, there is a strong resurgence in vinyl sales, but I’m guessing there will be no large-scale cassette revival any time soon. While charming, the format was never really well-liked. But my memories are fond and they will stick with me for many years.

Introducing Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones

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The Kids

Considering that I’ve already decided that my boys are too young to see the PG-13 Episode III, this is the final film of the series they will see for awhile. This is also the film that many consider to be the actual worst Star Wars film. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve only seen this one twice myself – once in the theater and once on DVD. So I’m unclear as to what to expect, actually. But the boys are, as always, excited for another trip to the galaxy far, far away.

As I read the opening crawl, there’s more political backstory that is relevant to the events here, but over the heads of these young boys. In Episode I, the Republic was facing the problem of a trade federation that was exerting its will on the planet Naboo (which was actually a scheme orchestrated by the Naboo senator to seize the chancellorship). In Episode II, a few star systems have broken away from the Republic and are causing trouble. The crawl states that the Jedi Knights are too few to maintain order in this fractured state and the Senate is considering ordering the creation of a proper military army to assist them. Queen Amidala from the last movie is now Senator Amidala and is traveling to the Senate to argue against the creation of an army.

As the Senator is arriving, she narrowly escapes an assassination attempt on the landing platform! A body double is killed instead. Again, the boys are very confused by all this secret identity stuff. They’re convinced the queen is dead and they have a hard time with the fact that the Queen from before isn’t a queen anymore, she’s a senator. And they don’t know what a senator is anyway.  So confusing.

After this attempt on Senator Amidala’s life, the Chancellor asks the Jedis Kenobi and Skywalker to act as security guards to protect her. This is where we finally learn that 10 years have passed since Episode I. Anakin is an angst-ridden teenager studying under Obi-Wan. He’s hot-tempered and prideful and creepily obsessed with Amidala. Soon another attempt is made on her life and the Jedis chase down the would-be assassin in a wild action scene with lots of flying around and jumping off shuttles. The boys are on the edge of their seats for this. It’s the first real Jedi action they’ve seen in the movie. The assassin is about to talk when she herself is assassinated by someone else who rockets away. A mysterious poison dart is recovered.

Now that we know things are serious and Amidala is in danger, the Jedi council tasks Obi-Wan with tracking down the other assassin while Anakin is to escort Amidala into hiding back on Naboo. Jar Jar Binks takes Amidala’s place as senator (because… I don’t know).

From there, the film splits into two narratives: Kenobi’s mission to find the assassin and uncover a conspiracy versus Anakin and Padme awkwardly falling in love while tripping their way through terrible dialog.

The Kenobi parts are pretty good as he discovers that someone has already ordered an army for the Republic made up of clones. The order came in 10 years ago (just after Episode I, remember?) from a Jedi named Sifo-Dyas. Kenobi knows that Sifo-Dyas had been killed before that time. He finds out that the model for the clones is a bounty hunter named Jango Fett – who is the rocket assassin he’s been tracking! Kenobi has a very cool fight scene on a rainy launchpad against Jango and his young clone son (the future Boba Fett) who get away as Obi-Wan throws a tracker on their ship. The boys are intrigued by the clones and think Kenobi is very cool in his big fight scene. And the mystery of the clone order is interesting.

Meanwhile, Anakin and Padme are falling for each other and complaining about sand and arguing about how effective politicians are in keeping the peace. Blah. The boys are so bored by this and, frankly, so am I. But then, Anakin gets a sense that his mother is in danger back on Tatooine. He and Padme disobey their orders and secretly fly to Tatooine to find her. He learns that his mother was sold to a farmer who set her free and married her, but she was recently kidnaped by Sand People. Anakin goes off to rescue her and finds her bound in a camp of Sand People. She dies in his arms and he goes ballistic and slaughters all the Sand People. I remembered this scene, but I thought it was in Episode III. The boys are upset by the image of Anakin’s mother with cuts on her face tied up in the dark hovel. My 4-year-old says “I don’t want to see this part” and starts playing with blocks until the scene is over. I appreciate his self-censorship. This is a scary part.

After that Sand People incident, Anakin confesses to Padme that he killed women and children as revenge for his mother’s death. They don’t have time to process it all though, because they get word from Obi-Wan that he’s tracked the bounty hunter to Geonosis. Obi-Wan has seen a mysterious figure named Count Dooku overseeing the construction of  a new droid army for the Separatists. And Nute Gunray from Episode I is the one who ordered Amidala killed and he’s part of the Separatist leadership. Anakin retransmits Obi-Wan’s message to the Jedi council and then he and Amidala set out to rescue him. C-3PO comes along from Tatooine. The boys love 3PO and are glad to see him again. Plus, he’s silly.

On Geonosis, Obi-Wan has been captured and Count Dooku (a former Jedi) reveals he has turned to the Dark Side and tells him that he should join their movement and that a Sith Lord is in control of the Senate. When Anakin and Padme arrive, they wind up in the droid assembly line and fight through it but are ultimately captured. Plus, C-3PO’s head gets put on a battle droid and his body gets a battle droid head. The boys loved the goofiness of that. And the factory fight scene is pretty cool too, especially when R2D2 reveals he has had secret jets in his legs and could fly this whole time. What?!

Now our 3 main heroes are reunited in an arena where they will be killed by three giant beasts while Count Dooku and his cronies watch. It’s reminiscent the Jabba scenes from Return of the Jedi. Of course, our heroes escape their chains and fight the beasts only to have the droid army surround them. Then the Jedis show up along with the clone army and the war is on! This is the first mass Jedi fight scene and it’s a pretty cool thing to see tons of lightsabers chopping up battle droids. The boys shout out all the different lightsaber colors they see and bounce around during the whole battle. Also, 3PO’s head gets reattached to his body as he spouts dumb puns. Again, the boys love it.

Dooku is getting away, however, and Obi-Wan and Anakin give chase and fight him in his lair. Kenobi gets knocked down and Anakin’s hand gets severed! The boys are surprised and shaken by this, but not too much since they’ve now seen their fair share of severed hands in this series. That’s when Yoda appears and the boys instantly realize that Yoda is finally going to fight! They’re SO excited and seeing the little Jedi flip and fly around with his lightsaber is straight up perfect. But Dooku topples a pillar towards Obi-Wan and Anakin, which makes Yoda stop fighting in order to save them. Dooku escapes and reports back to his master, Dark Sidious, that the war has begun as planned.

Back at the Jedi council, Kenobi tells everyone what Dooku said about a Sith Lord controlling the Senate. They are skeptical (surprise surprise), but acknowledge that the Dark Side is strengthening and their ability sense things has been diminished. They agree to keep a close watch the Senate. Meanwhile, Chancellor Palpatine looks on as legions of clone troopers arrive as the republic’s new army. The boys ask for maybe the dozenth time if the clones are good guys or bad guys and I tell them they are good guys… for now.

Oh, and then Anakin and Padme secretly get married back on Naboo and he has a robot hand. THE END!

So overall, the boys liked this movie a lot. They loved the cool fight scenes and especially the big Jedis and Clones vs. Battle Droids brawl. The highlight was definitely Yoda busting out his lightsaber and taking on Count Dooku.

In the end, I had to tell them again that they can’t see Episode III yet and they seem okay with that. My 5.5-year-old says that he already knows what’s going to happen in that one anyway: Anakin will become Darth Vader. Smart kid! I told them that we can re-watch these 5 movies though and that they’re making more movies that they might be able to see. It’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan!

My Re-Watch

Going in, I remember that many people say that Episode I is not as bad as we remember it and Episode II is worse than we remember it. Well, at least on this viewing, I felt the opposite. I felt like Episode I had too much goof and kiddie stuff.  Episode II, on the other hand, had lots of great elements that just weren’t fleshed out enough. For instance, all the Obi-Wan stuff here is pretty much gold. His mission to Kamino to track the bounty hunter is cool and I wanted more! Plus, the Jedi battle scene is also very cool and has a few shots that are downright gorgeous.

Granted, there’s still the problem of all the lovey-dovey dialog. Those scenes are so painful they make me angry. Hayden Christensen is rough.

On this watch I, again, understood the plot of the Sith a little better than before. So filling in the gaps, Palpatine got chancellorship in the last movie, but lost his apprentice in the process. So he quickly coerced former-Jedi Count Dooku to the Dark Side and dubbed him Darth Tyrannus. His first mission was to impersonate recently deceased Jedi Syfo-Dyas and secretly order an army of clones. Then, he was to spark the Separatist movement and oversee the creation of a battle droid army too! All this was to create a need for an army to fight the droids and then conveniently find that an army already existed. Looking into the next film, we’ll learn that the clone army was actually created to eventually exterminate the Jedi and eliminate the Sith’s main opposition, clearing the way for the Empire. Villains always seem to have the most circuitous plans, don’t they?

So yeah, I liked a lot of what this film had to offer and that’s not something I expected. With some tweaks and edits, this could have been a really good movie. In fact, there are a couple of really good YouTube videos that work out some of the kinks to propose a more streamlined and refined set of stories. Check them out below.

So that’s all, folks! I’m really enjoyed sharing these movies with my young boys! I’m glad that they enjoyed them and that they’re already showing themselves to be my sons by quoting lines from them and talking through confusing plot points with me ad nauseam. And we’ve spent lots of time over these last few weeks playing with my old action figures and their newer lightsaber toys. What more can a nerd dad ask for?

Introducing Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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The Kids

It’s the moment I’ve been dreading: the switch of the gears from the glory of the original trilogy to the infamy of the prequels. Everything changes now. Gone are the practical effects and iconic lines, replaced by cartoonish CGI and hackneyed dialogue to go along with poor acting from the most important actors. But maybe I’ve got it all wrong! I haven’t seen these movies in years, so maybe my memory is clouded and the films have aged better than expected! I’m about to find out.

This movie begins perfectly with the iconic logo and opening crawl setting the stage. From there, however, things get complicated. As I read the crawl to the boys out loud, I realize how uninteresting it really is. I mean, the opening line is this:

Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.

Wow, tell me more about these taxation issues and how they can be resolved through diplomacy!  The boys certainly don’t register much of this stuff. All they care about is the last line, which promises that two Jedi have been dispatched to the planet of Naboo to settle a trade dispute through negotiation.

Then we meet a young Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn. The trade federation guys are weird and the conflict is confusing, but it doesn’t matter because soon the Jedis are fighting their way off the ship through squads of battle droids as the evil aliens interject dumb lines from the bridge of the ship. The boys love the lightsaber work and the mayhem. After the battles, the trade federation reveals that they are working with the future Emperor and he has a secret apprentice named Darth Maul. Scary.

Soon our new heroes are on the planet below and trying to find the Queen of Naboo to check in with her about these alarming developments. But they’re on the wrong side of the planet and in the middle of the droid invasion army. Thankfully (ha ha), they find a local named Jar Jar Binks who tells them he can help. Yes, Binks is as horrible and annoying as I remember him being. And of course, my 4-year-old in particular thinks he’s quite funny.

Binks takes the Jedi to his underwater city to meet his leaders (even though he’s been banished for being… clumsy. Ugh.). They give them a sub and say they must navigate through the planet core to get to the capital city. They take Jar Jar and make it through a scary Disneyland ride-style tunnel to the city. The boys are pretty happy with the scary monsters in the deep that are always trying to eat the sub.

We meet the young queen of Naboo and there’s some talking about the invasion. The Jedis say they must take the queen to the senate to plead her people’s case. So they blast their way off the planet in her royal ship only to get hit and make an emergency landing on Tatooine. The boys are bewildered with the story, but the space battle and the discovery of R2D2 on the queen’s ship are fun.

On the familiar desert world of Tatooine, we finally meet the young boy Anakin Skywalker who is a slave to a junk seller alien (who is immune to Jedi mind tricks somehow). We also meet an incomplete version of C3PO, which the boys like.

Qui-Gon needs parts for their ship and, with Anakin’s help, strikes some bizarre deal with the junk seller to win the parts if Anakin wins a pod race. These negotiations are way over the boys head and I’m constantly boiling down the dialog into cliff notes for them. Anakin has to win this race so the good guys can fix their ship. Also, Anakin can go with them if he wins and become a Jedi. Because, yes, Qui-Gon senses he’s strong with the force and confirms it with a secret blood test.

Sidebar – through all this stuff, Qui-Gon is accompanied by Jar Jar and one of the queen’s handmaids. Now, it’s clear that the handmaid is Natalie Portman, so the adults in the room are pretty sure she’s actually the queen. But the boys have no clue here. The queen always wears elaborate makeup and headdresses, but this handmaid is plainly dressed. More on that later.

So the pod race is still a fairly good action set piece. The boys love the thrills and spills action and Anakin overcomes the odds and beats the reigning champ. They also love the cameos during this scene from original trilogy favorites like jawas, sand people and Jabba the Hutt.

Anakin has won his freedom, so he kisses his mother goodbye and they leave. As they are taking off, a new villain appears: Darth Maul. He attacks Qui-Gon, but the ship escapes before the battle escalates. The first good look at Maul has the kids giddily scared. He’s a great looking bad guy.

Then we move to the capital planet of Coruscant. There are confusing meetings going on and talk of legality and voting and blah. The senator from Naboo councils the queen and we learn that his name is Palpatine (a red flag for the educated SW fan). The boys do not care a lick about that. They care that Yoda appears in the Jedi council! He’s awesome! Is he going to fight?! No, he’s going to deliver confusing expository lines about Sith and balance in the force and prophecies. The council is against Qui-Gon training Anakin, but he insists and promotes Obi-Wan to open a spot for the boy.

Anyway, the queen calls for a vote of no confidence in the current chancellor when they refuse to help her people. Senator Palpatine is in line to take the chancellor chair, but in the meantime the queen wants to help her people now. So she decides to return to the occupied Naboo and ask the underwater Gungan people to help fight back the droid army. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are tasked by the Jedi council to go too. So we’re going back to Naboo. Honestly, all this Coruscant stuff doesn’t put any blips on the boys’ radars. No action, lots of talking about confusing things. Meh.

But now we’re back on Naboo and the queen is begging for help from the Gungan leader. It’s in this scene that the handmaid Padme reveals that she’s the real queen! Now remember, the boys had a hard time recognizing Princess Leia when she just changed her hairstyle. This is a whole new level of mental hurdles for them. For the rest of the movie, they are constantly asking “Is that the queen? The REAL queen?”

So there’s a big battle between the Gungan army and the droid army which features Jar Jar getting clumsy and causing trouble that actually helps win the battle. Typical juvenile slapstick stuff. In actuality, Anakin accidentally launches a star fighter and ends up blowing up the droid control ship in orbit.

Meanwhile, the Jedis are attacked by Darth Maul and Qui-Gon ends up getting killed. Obi-Wan almost joins him, but manages to cut Maul in half instead. Qui-Gons last words to Obi-Wan are “train the boy”.  Strangely, Qui-Gon doesn’t disappear like Obi-Wan and Yoda do in the original trilogy and the boys immediately call it out. Why doesn’t he disappear? Good question, kids. Good question.

And then we have an awards ceremony for the Gungan ruler and we see Anakin dressed as Obi-Wan’s padawan! We see that Palpatine is the new chancellor! We also hear the Jedi council mention that the Sith have returned and there are always two – a master and apprentice, but they don’t know which one Maul was. Then, to telegraph it a bit more, the camera pans to Palpatine. The end.

So the boys liked it a lot. They loved the action scenes. They liked that Anakin was a kid and driving pod racers and flying space fighters. They liked the callbacks to familiar characters. But I’m afraid the overall story arc mostly went over their heads. They boiled it down to something like “bad guys want to take over this planet and the good guys don’t want them to”.  And it was interesting how aware they were that Anakin was going to become Darth Vader. When the Jedi council advised against training Anakin, my 5.5-year-old said they were right – he shouldn’t become a Jedi because he’ll become a bad guy.

My Re-Watch

Again, I haven’t seen this movie in years. I hoped it wasn’t as bad as I remembered it being. I was wrong. It’s quite bad. Coming off the original trilogy just a week before, the shift in look and feel is jarring. Everything feels cartoonish. The actors are pasted into almost every scene.

Beyond the look, all the dialog feels so flat and empty. Many of these actors are great, but their acting chops can’t save them from the bad script they are forced to recite (and it all feels like recitation). Sure, Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan is the bright spot in this trilogy, but he’s hardly in this first film.

The story itself is convoluted at best. At it’s core, this is the full plot: the Senator from Naboo is secretly a Sith Lord and he wants to take over the galaxy. His plan is to become Chancellor of the Senate first and then make himself Emperor. To become Chancellor, he works with the Trade Federation to get them to invade his own planet. The young queen of Naboo is naive and easily coerced and when she perceives inaction from the senate, she is convinced to call for a no-confidence vote in the current chancellor. It succeeds and Senator Palpatine becomes chancellor. While all that’s happening, the Jedis find a boy strong in the force. Weird, right?

And there are definitely inconsistencies. We know that the midichlorian talk is terrible and doesn’t make much sense. But, like the boys, I’m still bothered by the fact that Qui-Gon doesn’t disappear and become a force ghost like other Jedi masters we’ve seen. Did George Lucas even go back and watch his own original trilogy before writing these?

Oh yeah, and Jar Jar Binks is still the worst.

Here’s hoping that re-casting Anakin with an older, more accomplished actor helps in the next film. Sadly, we already know that no casting choice can help a fatally flawed script. Bring on the Clones. I guess.

Introducing Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

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The Kids

So here we are, the conclusion of the original trilogy and the boys are excited. Again, before we start I recap where the characters currently are and what’s happening. Han Solo is frozen and headed to Jabba the Hutt, Lando and Chewie are going to rescue him and Luke and Leia are going to help if they need to.

The opening crawl reveals that the rescue is indeed underway, but the bigger news is that the Empire is building a second Death Star!

And sure enough, the film opens with a shot of the under construction battle station as Vader arrives to browbeat the crew there for not working fast enough. Vader also tells them that the Emperor himself is coming to the Death Star to oversee its completion. This is the first time we will see the Emperor in person in the movies and the boys are very worried about this fact. After two films, Darth Vader is still scary, but the Emperor seems even scarier because he’s been the unseen puppet master who controls Vader.

Okay, now we get to Tatooine, where Jabba’s palace is. C3PO and R2D2 are, once again, traversing the desert, but this time they’re heading to Jabba’s place. Once inside, they bring a message from Luke Skywalker asking that Jabba release Han or suffer the consequences. Oh, and also Luke says Jabba can have the two droids as a gift!

The boys are thrilled / grossed-out (as boys often are) by Jabba the Hutt. It’s complicated that his lines are subtitled because I have to read out everything he’s saying and it jumbles the message a bit. But they get it.

Soon, a mysterious bounty hunter arrives with Chewbacca in tow and sells him to Jabba too. The boys are dismayed by this turn of events and immediately don’t like this new bounty hunter. Of course, we soon find out that it’s actually Leia in disguise and she secretly unfreezes Han. But Jabba is watching and quickly imprisons both of them. The moment the curtain is drawn back to reveal Jabba and his minions, the boys are taken aback. Our heroes can’t catch a break with this baddie!

Finally, Luke himself arrives at Jabba’s place to threaten him. When Luke falls through the trap door and is forced to fight the Rancor, the boys are literally on their feet. That scene always stuck in my mind as a kid and they, likewise, were gripped by the action as Luke defeats the monster. Then Luke’s bound and everyone heads out to the Sarlaac pit.

The boys have no idea what to make of the Sarlaac. My 4-year-old insists that that’s not a scary monster, it’s just a hole in the ground. I have to explain a few times that it eats people. So Luke’s elaborate plan is finally revealed as he gets his lightsaber and our heroes fight their way out of the there and escape. That fight scene is big and quick cut and the boys are dizzy by the end. They instantly ask for confirmation that Jabba the Hutt is dead after Leia strangles him.

Then Luke takes a detour to visit Yoda and complete his training. Unfortunately, Yoda is on his deathbed and no further training happens. Also, some exposition takes place here as Yoda confirms that Vader is Luke’s father Anakin. He also implies that there is another Skywalker. That thread isn’t left loose for long as Obi-Wan appears and fills in the blanks while justifying his earlier lie that Luke’s father was dead. The boys are rightly perturbed that Obi-Wan lied and can’t quite grasp the “certain point of view” argument he makes. Anyway, Luke realizes that Leia is his sister and that the final step on his journey is to confront Vader and try to turn him back to good. Kenobi is skeptical and Luke leaves.

While all this is going on, the Emperor has appeared at the Death Star and outlines his plan to Vader that Luke will come to him and then they will turn him to the dark side. He has allowed the rebels to know their location and believe them vulnerable so he can stomp them out for good with a hidden fleet of ships and the Death Stars operational weapon. The boys are intimidated by the Emperor, but I don’t think the tactical talk is sinking in much here.

No matter, the rebels rendezvous all together and make their battle plan. A small team will take down the Death Star’s shield generator on the moon below and the fleet will destroy the battle station and the Emperor with it.

So now it’s Act III and we’re on Endor. This is where the boys really get into it. The speeder bike scenes are amazing and they love the chases and effects. But yes, it’s the Ewoks appearance that really makes them giddy. The love the goofiness of the creatures and their mumbled language. They love that the Ewoks think 3PO is a god. It’s all good.

I’m starting to wonder if the boys have some kind of face-blindness though. It’s funny because any time a character changes outfits or hairstyles, they can’t recognize them. The obvious one is Leia, whose hair changes frequently. When she appears with her long hair down in the Ewok village, they immediately ask who that is. Same for when Han appears with his camouflage duster coat on Endor – who is that guy? My guess is that in the cartoons they usually watch, the characters have an established look and it very rarely changes during the course of many episodes. So this wardrobe rotation within a movie is a little new to them.

Along the same lines, my 5.5-year-old is color blind and has trouble distinguishing green and red. So when Luke ignited his new green lightsaber, he asked what color it was. In fact, when Luke and Vader fight, he said that their weapons actually looked like almost the same color to him. An interesting wrinkle in the central conflict of that duel being that Luke may in fact become like his father!

Oh, and Luke tells Leia that she’s his sister, leaves and then Leia and Han have a confusing lover’s quarrel that the boys could really do without.

Anyway, all the Ewok stuff happens and then it’s time to destroy the shield generator, but it’s all a trap! That’s when the big Ewok vs. Empire battle happens and the boys are in heaven! The little Ewoks comically battling the highly-trained stormtroopers and winning is right up these kids’ alley!

During all this, Luke gives himself up to the Empire and is brought to the Emperor for the Dark Side Pitch Meeting. Soon he’s fighting with Vader and we really start to wonder if he might actually let his anger and hate turn him to the dark side! The boys seem open to the idea that it could actually happen, especially when Luke angrily attacks Vader and cuts his hand off. But then Luke gives up the fight and the Emperor begins torturing him with force lightning. This is a jarring scene as we see our hero writhing on the ground and the boys are officially worried.

And that’s when Darth Vader grabs the Emperor and tosses him down the pit. There was still good in him after all! As the rebel fleet is turning the tide and about to destroy the Death Star, Luke and Darth are trying to escape and Luke takes the mask off his father. We finally get a look at Anakin and it isn’t pretty. The boys have many questions about why he had the mask and why he was all cut up under there, which I tell them is something we may learn in a different movie. The truth is, they can’t watch Episode III for quite a few years I think.

We conclude the film and the trilogy with a big party in the Ewok village (because why not?). The boys love the helmet drums that the Ewoks are playing of course. Everyone seems to be okay and happy again. Luke has burned his father’s body (or just the suit?) and joins the celebration. And he sees Obi-Wan, Yoda AND Anakin (not Hayden Christenson either!) as force ghosts looking happy in the afterlife.

And that’s the end! The boys loved it and I asked them which of the 3 movies was their favorite. They quickly replied that this one was. That could be just the afterglow effect, but I do think that the action scenes in this one resonated the most with them. Plus kids love Ewoks.

We had a short conversation about the fact that Darth Vader did have some good in him all this time and wasn’t so bad that he couldn’t be saved from the dark side. There’s good opportunity to talk about the Gospel in that character arc, for sure.

Next up, we’ll take a few steps down in quality and a trip 50 years back in time to watch Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And I’m quite worried that that film will quickly supplant Jedi as their favorite in the series.

My Re-Watch

This is probably the film that I watched most as a kid. In fact, the day my dad bought our first VHS player he also bought Return of the Jedi on VHS to watch on it. That was somewhere around 1987 or so I think. So we wore that tape out over the years. I have many sections of the film memorized.

There were some aspects and nuance that jumped out to me this time though.

One thing I noticed maybe for the first time was a line in the scene when Han and Leia are trying to hotwire the door to the shield generator and Leia gets shot. Stormtroopers quickly approach and tell Han to get his hands up. Leia signals with her blaster and then Han says, “I love you”, to which she replies, “I know”. It’s a callback to the famous line from Empire where they have the reverse interaction! Pretty cool way to highlight the perfection of that line again.

I also noticed more of the underlying Dark Side / Sith workings this time. In Empire, as Darth Vader is asking Luke to join him on the dark side, he says they could overthrow the Emperor and rule together. Vader had plans to move up to the Emperor chair and have Luke be his Vader! Now in Jedi, the Emperor actually has plans to get himself a younger protege and get rid of Vader! He tells Luke to strike Vader down and complete his journey to the dark side through the killing. We will learn in the prequel trilogy that with the Sith there are always two. So this is some cool foreshadowing and shows how evil and self-serving the dark side makes you – even against your own.

And of course, Han’s look of confusion and horror when Leia tells him that she and Luke are siblings is so priceless. It’s pretty clear in my mind that George Lucas made a lot of these twists up as he went along and just had to own them. I love this video treatment of the scene.

So there it is! We’re through the classic trilogy and we’ve loved almost every minute of it! Here’s hoping that the prequels are actually better than I remember them being!

Introducing Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

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The Kids

Before starting this movie, I reminded the boys of what happened in A New Hope – that the good guys won, the Death Star was destroyed and Darth Vader had escaped. Then I teased them a bit and told them that in this movie, the bad guys might actually win. With that possibility in their ears, we began the movie.

Again, I read the opening crawl to them and explained that the Rebels had moved to a new secret base on an ice planet and that the Empire is, again, trying to find them. The crawl also tells us that Vader is looking more specifically for Luke Skywalker – the pilot he sensed was strong in the force and who destroyed the Death Star.

Then we descend onto the ice planet Hoth and the boys are somewhat mystified by seeing Luke and Han riding Tauntauns. “What are those? Are they horses?” And then Luke is attacked by a super-scary Wampa and we and thrown into the first conflict of the film. Soon we see a bloodied Luke hanging in the Wampa’s cave and the boys are very concerned. But when Luke uses the force to get his lightsaber and kill the beast, they are elated.

They don’t seem to grasp the urgency of finding Luke in the cold barrens before he freezes though. They also could have done without the sexual tensions in the scenes between Han and Leia. Han was roguish in the first film, but here he starts out very adversarial and angry/rude towards Leia. For altruistic young people, he doesn’t seem like a good guy here.

When Luke has the first real vision of Kenobi’s ghost, the boys are in ecstatic. Not because Kenobi is back, but because he says one word: Yoda. These guys already know and love Yoda!

Anyway, Han saves Luke by cutting open his tauntaun, which the boys giddily squirm over. Then Luke recovers and we move into the big Hoth battle scene. The boys think the AT-AT walkers are supremely cool (which they are). They’re a bit confused by the fact that that snow-speeder ships have two guys inside – one pilot and one gunner. When Luke’s gunner Hobbie gets killed, they ask about 5 times who that was and if Luke got shot. They’re also somewhat confused by the evacuation logistics of the Rebel base, which is what Han and Leia are working on.

So Han, Leia, Chewie and C3PO escape in the Falcon and Luke and R2D2 get in his X-Wing. They’re all supposed to go straight to the rendezvous, but things get complicated immediately. The light-speed-less Falcon is pursued by Star Destroyers and Luke heads for Dagobah like Kenobi told him to.

The boys loved the Falcon in the asteroid field stuff, especially when the giant space worm tries to bite it. Then the Falcon tricks the Empire and heads for Cloud City for help from Lando.

Meanwhile, Luke finds Dagobah and Yoda pretends he isn’t really Yoda. The boys as SO confused by Yoda’s initial ruse. So many questions and things like “But…. HE IS Yoda!!!”. He’s funny though and they love his goofiness as he tries to frustrate Luke.

Then there’s the cave scene, which is confusing to almost everyone who sees it. Both boys are convinced that Vader is really there and that Luke kills him. I have to explain that it’s a dream of some kind that might be trying to tell him… something. Anyway, soon after, Luke ends up leaving even as Yoda and Kenobi basically plead with him not to.

Then it’s the third act and we’re in Cloud City. Han and Leia have been double-crossed by Lando and C3PO gets blown up. The boys are not liking this turn of events, especially when I explain to them that this is all a trap so Vader can get Luke. Han is frozen and I have to assure them multiple times that he is alive in there. But the bigger point is that Vader plans to freeze Luke too when he gets there.

Okay, so now Luke and Vader finally  have their big confrontation and this fight is scary. The boys are definitely feeling the dread as Luke is clearly outmatched here. Then the big moment – Luke gets his hand cut off by Vader. Both boys are so wiggly during the fight scene that they don’t actually seem to see the quick cut of Luke getting maimed. I have to tell them what happened. They catch a glimpse of the shortened arm in the later falling scene.

As Darth Vader is going through his pitch to Luke to join the dark side and then tells him the truth that he is his father, I’m fielding many questions. “If he wants him to join his side, why is he fighting him?” “Isn’t Luke’s dad dead?” “Didn’t Obi-Wan say Vader killed Luke’s dad?” All valid questions, actually. But I reiterate what we know about Vader – he operates only on anger and hatred. We see that he routinely kills his own people if they don’t do what he says. That’s what’s going on here. And it was a teachable moment to talk about how letting anger take over in your heart leads to doing bad things.

So Luke chooses to fall rather than join the dark side and is hanging from an antennae below the city, when he summons Leia and she and Lando, who have escaped in the Falcon. They swing back and pick him up. My 5.5 year old quickly draws some lines and concludes that Leia can use the force! Nice work, kid!

Han has been taken by the bounty hunter (who my 4 year old insists on calling “the bouncy hunter” to be funny) to Jabba the Hutt and Luke and Leia conclude the movie saying they will help Lando rescue him. Oh, and Luke gets a new robotic hand. That was easy.

Overall, this movie proved to be a little more complicated plot-wise for the boys to follow compared to the first one. It’s basically Act I – Hoth, Act II – Running Away / Dagobah and Act III – Cloud City Dual. But the subtext of all of those things gets a bit lost.

The boys did like that we got to know Vader a bit more. We saw him briefly without his helmet, revealing that he’s very scarred. We saw a  projection of the Emperor and heard that he’s interested in Luke too. We also saw lots of Imperial officers look at Vader with a lot of dread. He’s a scary, scary guy.

Once it was done, I asked the boys who won – the good guys or the bad guys? They, rightfully, said that neither side really won here. The bad guys got Han and chopped off Luke’s hand, but everyone is still alive and fighting for the rebellion and each other.

My Re-Watch

My stray observations:

It was very clear to me that much of the plot in this film was influenced by real-life, studio stuff. Mark Hamill had gotten some facial scars after filming the first movie. So they wrote a scene for the beginning of the movie where he gets cut on the face by a monster. Harrison Ford wasn’t sure he wanted to do a 3rd movie after this, so they literally put his character in limbo until they could sort out contract stuff.

It’s also obvious that they’re telegraphing Leia being Luke’s sister with Yoda’s line about there being another hope besides Luke. And yet they still have Leia give Luke a full mouth kiss on Hoth.

The tauntauns are pretty amazingly rendered. They look great. And, of course, so do the AT-AT walkers. Practical special effects can work so well.

I enjoyed noting the Imperial officer stuff more than I had before. You’ve got Vader killing officers and promoting their underlings a few times throughout the movie. I also noted, maybe for the first time, that an officer on the Star Destroyer advocates for the use of AT-AT walkers and then shows up as the walker commander too. And that same actor (Julian Glover) later on plays the foe in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade!

With Yoda, for some reason I felt more than ever before that he was voiced by Fozzie Bear.

My wife brought up the issue of how did Darth Vader figure out that Luke is his son anyway? And it’s a good question, one that isn’t actually addressed very fully in the film. I assume that it’s a revelation he arrived at through the force itself. Or he just put 2 and 2 together that a young, force-strong pilot exists and maybe his kids didn’t actually die 20 years ago. I know this is explained more in the comics and books and stuff, but the movie lets it hang a bit.

Bring on Return of the Jedi! The boys are very excited to finally meet Jabba the Hutt (who’s been talked about since the beginning of A New Hope) and see the Ewoks! I’m thinking more about the Emperor scenes and how they will react to seeing Luke come close to turning to the dark side!

Introducing Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope

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The Kids

My wife and I sat down to watch the first Star Wars film with our boys on a Saturday morning. We had already decided that we will be watching the films in the morning or afternoons – i.e. not right before bedtime. That was in the hopes of warding off any potential bad dreams related to the scarier elements of the films.

Neither of my boys is reading much yet, so I read the “A long time ago…” line and the entire opening crawl to them as they came up. Now, this opening crawl introduces the general state of affairs in this galaxy and talks about Princess Leia as it sets the scene for what’s to come. The boys really didn’t get any of this as I read it, so I summed it up for them as the ships appeared: the bad guys are chasing the princess. Done.

Now the boys knew C3PO and R2D2 pretty well already, so they latched on to those characters rather quickly. They were worried on their behalf as they tried to sneak around their ship and finally blasted out in an escape pod and landed in the desert. Their plight was clearly important to the boys the Jawas picked them up and eventually brought them to Luke.

Again, Luke Skywalker is a character that they were already familiar with, but they were a bit confused about meeting him here – in a desert farm with his Uncle and Aunt. Wasn’t he supposed to be the hero? It struck me that this character arc of Luke’s in Episode IV is pretty great and something that young people identify with on a fairly basic level. He has a boring life and wants to go to space. Pure and simple.

The Sandpeople show up. Oh, the Sandpeople. Still as scary as ever when they attack Luke! Yowza! Then Kenobi appears and Luke is handed a lightsaber. Now the boys are all in on Luke and the Jedi mythology. They really like Kenobi too, especially when they see his power on display in the Mos Eisley with the stormtroopers and in the cantina defending Luke.

The scene when Luke finds his farm burned and his Aunt and Uncle’s skeletons in the wreckage, the boys are shocked. They couldn’t quite make out the skeletal remains in the quick shot of them, which is for the best probably. Again, many questions. Who did that? Why? Why do they want the droids?

When Han Solo shows up, I tell the boys he’s a smuggler. This is a term that they’re somewhat familiar with from reading some Hardy Boys books with me. They know smugglers are “bad guys”, so they ask if Han is a bad guy and I tell them that he kind of is, yeah.  I tell them that he works with bad guys and all he cares about is money. All true at this point in the story.

As all that Tatooine stuff is going on, we visit Leia and Vader on the Death Star and see that creepy interrogation scene and Alderaan destroyed. The boys are really starting to see how evil Vader, Tarkin and the Empire are. When Vader force-chokes an Empire general at the strategy table, they are very confused. “Why would Darth Vader attack a fellow bad-guy?”, they ask. I explain that he’s such a bad guy that he will hurt anyone, even his own people, to get his way. This comes up again more profoundly in Episode V.

Anyway, as our heroes work to rescue the princess and escape the Death Star in Act II, the boys are thrilled with the firefights and the scary garbage compactor monster that attacks Luke.

Then the fight scene between Kenobi and Vader comes on. It’s our first lightsaber battle scene in the movies. The boys have a soft grasp on the fact that Vader used to be a “good guy” and that Kenobi was his teacher, so they feel a bit of that weight during the fight. Then when Kenobi is struck down – they are totally shocked. This is the big twist of the film and they can hardly believe that Vader won that fight. They’re also (rightly) confused about the fact that Kenobi’s body disappears and Luke hear’s his voice in his head. I tell them that it’s kind of like Luke is remembering Kenobi and the force is helping him.

From the Death Star escape, we move to Act III and the rebel attack. First Han and Chewie leave with their dough, which cements his status as a smuggler for the boys. Finally, it’s time for the big spaceship fight! The boys are loving it, but there are just too many rebel ships and pilots that they can’t keep track of who’s who and what’s going on. Every time a ship blows up, they ask if that was Luke’s ship. When I say “no”, they ask whose it was. Eventually, as you may know, it’s just Luke and Wedge left on the X-Wing attack and Wedge has to bail out of the trench.  Vader puts Luke in his sights and seemingly destroys R2D2. Tragedy for the boys. They implore me to tell them if R2 is going to be alright. Then Luke hears Kenobi in his head again and uses the Force to hit his target as the Millenium Falcon blows Vader out of the trench. Han and Chewie are back! They aren’t pseudo-bad-guys after all! Then as Luke lands as a hero, we see R2D2 as a charred husk and it’s unclear if he’s fixable. Again, the boys don’t care about much else at this point but R2’s recovery.

Thankfully, we go right to the medal ceremony scene and see an alive and polished R2! Hooray!

And that’s the end. The boys loved it. They had lots of questions throughout. Many of their questions were about who’s who of the different scenes. They had a lot of trouble remembering if the Rebels were good guys or bad guys and who the Empire was, but that will come as they see more.  They loved the ships and the weapons, mostly because they had seen them before as toys. As the credits rolled, they were eager to watch the next film!

My Re-Watch

This was my first time seeing the movie in probably 10 years. A few stray observations I made:

I was much more attuned to the political backstory going on, especially because those threads were explored (too much) in the Prequel trilogy. A seemingly throw-away line from Grand Moff Tarkin, “The Emperor has dissolved the Senate permanently” carries some weight for what’s going on in this galaxy.

I gained a lot of appreciate for the structure of the story of this film. It’s such a classic adventure story. A little setup and a central conflict, a young hero is introduced and quickly finds himself with an invitation to adventure, he saves the princess, ascends to the hero role more fully and saves the entire galaxy. It has a clear beginning (Tatooine), middle (Death Star) and end (Final Battle).

One thing I’ve read as an adult that stood out to me here is the dearth of female characters in the film. Really, the only ones are Leia and Aunt Beru (who is quickly killed).

So in my mind, it’s still an amazing film and is the perfect launching pad for the franchise as a whole!

Next up… things get a lot tougher for our ragtag band of heroes in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back!

Introducing Star Wars – Preamble

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There comes a time in every child’s life when they are finally old enough to watch the Star Wars movies. Ever since my two boys were born, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the day when they would be ready to watch the classic films that were an indelible part of my own childhood. The question, as a parent, is when to introduce the films. If you show them the films too early, they won’t get it and actually may be traumatized by the scarier elements. On the other hand, wait too long and risk having certain plot twists spoiled by friends or other media.

For me, I feared both of those extremes in equal measure. Last year, my older son was 4 when a friend at the park told him that Darth Vader was really Luke’s dad.  Now my son had not yet seen the movies, but he knew the characters from playing with action figures and reading some library books that explored them a bit. But this was a plot twist that I had been zealously trying to keep from him to preserve the revelation of the film. When his friend spilled those beans, there was no cleaning them up again. Star Wars has become such a cultural touchstone that it’s very hard to avoid such things. The boys have a book that talks about the first movie and actually calls Leia Luke’s sister for crying out loud! I had to censor the content every time I read it. So, I decided that for my 34th birthday I wanted to watch Star Wars with my boys for the very first time.


Of course, the question everyone always ask is “Which movie will you start with?” I think there’s only one correct answer: Episode IV: A New Hope. While many think that Episode I has aged better than we would have guessed and it’s certainly geared more towards young children, it simply isn’t the gateway into the Star Wars universe in my mind. I wanted my boys to experience the franchise the way I did – starting at the very beginning with the 1977 original film.

Along with the choice to watch Episode IV first, I wanted them to see the original, unaltered version of the film – not the Special Edition, updated version. Luckily, I purchased a DVD set of the films years back that actually includes a bonus disc containing the unedited versions of the movies! Sure, they are actually just transfers from the Laserdisc versions and are not re-mastered or anything, but they are the real deal. Han shoots first, Jabba doesn’t appear until Jedi, things don’t look cartoonish, etc. Maybe someday Disney will see their way clear to release crisp remasters of the original cuts, but until that happens I’ll be watching these copies.

So the plan is to watch IV, V and VI followed by I and II. Episode III is the only PG-13 entry in the series (so far) and I can’t let my 4 and 5.5 year old boys see the volcano scene until they’re a few years older.

I’m very excited to share these films with my boys and I’m also very excited to watch them again myself! It’s been far, far too long. I will be documenting how the boys respond to the films and also my own thoughts as I re-watch the movies for the first time in years.

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These kids are going to watch the Star Wars movies for the first time!