My Favorite Things of 2014

For the last few years, Lindsey has thrown a New Year’s Eve party for all of our friends. In true Lindsey form, this is always quite the shindig and she puts countless hours into making it a great experience for all. As part of the event, everyone is asked to bring something, a movie, a CD, a gift card, etc. that represents their favorite thing of 2014 and at the end of the evening, each item is auctioned off. Last year I used this event as inspiration for a post on my 13 favorite things on 2013 (not including anything directly related to Cooper) and I thought it only fitting that I turn that post into an annual thing.

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I won’t lie to you, dear readers. 2014 was not an easy year. Cooper’s health problems, several unexpected big expenditures that left us continually playing catch-up, work issues, my stupid shoulder injury, etc. all conspired to make 2014 feel like a consistent uphill grind. And yet, looking back over the 2014 in preparation for this post reminded me of the year’s many triumphs. Lindsey and I celebrated five years of marriage, we got to share some awesome adventures with our friends and family, and I watched my son grow into an actual little boy, which is one of the coolest (ongoing) experiences of my life. So, not so bad after all. And then, of course, 2014 also brought with it the following little joys.

Guardians of the Galaxy As always, I will soon devote an entire week to movie coverage and delve into my top 10 lists like every other professional, semi-professional, and wanna-be professional movie critic is doing right now. It’s safe to say, however, that Guardians of the Galaxy will be featured prominently. Very rarely in the last decade or so have I had as much fun with a movie as I did with this one and yet its quality is, for me, just as good as its pure entertainment value.

“This is Where I Leave You” (the book) As always, I intended to read far more books than I actually got through this year and I imagine the same thing will probably happen in 2015. But the one book I read in 2014 that really got me was “This is Where I Leave You.” The film adaptation was a frustrating affair but the novel got so much right about the pains of divorce and the human experience in general that I found myself completely unprepared for all the weeping that transpired. And yet, it is a glorious read.

Relevant Medias I’m hesitant if not downright wary of most Christian media. I get very frustrated very quickly with the books and the music and the various publications and, fairly or not, I tend to shy away from it as a result. But in 2014, I started REALLY paying attention to what Relevant is doing and I’ve been thoroughly impressed. From the magazine to the weekly podcast to the free, downloadable playlists they make available to subscribers, Relevant is producing a consistently strong product and kind of doing Christian media the way I would do Christian media were I in charge of my own Christian media company. (How’s that for a sentence?)

Jack White, “Lazaretto” There’s a scene at the end of The Dark Knight in which the cops chase a falsely-condemned Batman as Commissioner Gordon laments that he is, “not the hero we deserve but the hero we need.” I feel like that’s Jack White. He could be the savior of pop music, this generation’s Nirvana, if the masses would just embrace him fully. Instead, music critics attack his grandiose showmanship and his gimmicks while younger would-be listeners continue to overlook him. “Lazaretto” is a BRILLIANT album that plays magnificently as a whole but just as well when cut up and taken one song at a time. Never stop, Jack.

Vinyl It wasn’t the most original choice I could’ve made, given the ridiculous number of hipsters who have embraced the vinyl movement before me, but in 2014, I stopped buying CDs entirely and went full vinyl. Here’s what I love about vinyl: besides the fact that analog sounds more authentic if not actually better, it’s a medium that demands attention to an entire album rather than just a catchy single. It was a great year to go vinyl, too, thanks to great new albums from a bunch of my favorite bands and performers, like Ryan Adams, The Foo Fighters, The War on Drugs, and the aforementioned Jack White.

Cable TV Dramas Overall, 2014 wasn’t a particularly great year for TV. Too many of the new shows failed to catch hold and too many of my favorite returning shows took a dip in quality. But there were a few bright spots that not only delivered on quality but also got people talking, the most underrated part of the TV watching experience. Nothing quite came close to the watercooler importance of Breaking Bad last year but Fargo and True Detective burst out of their respective gates with brilliance and flair while Mad Men regained much of its former glory and The Americans took a decisive step forward.

AMC Palace It’s been a long time since I’ve had a favorite theater but in 2014, the AMC Palace in Downtown Fort Worth was renovated and suddenly it became our go-to movie destination. Nice new seats, a cool but non-distracting environment, and maybe best of all, reserved seating so you can arrive one minute before showtime and not wait in line…that’s the good stuff right there. Plus they have refrigerated Junior Mints, which nearly made this list on their own merits.

Dirk Climbs the Charts Look, my love for the great Dirk Nowitzki probably needs no further elaboration. Sometimes I wake up at night filled with regret over my failure to name my son Dirk; that’s how deep this love goes. It was very fulfilling, then, to watch Dirk climb the career scoring charts this year, going from number 14 to number 8 in the span of a few months and passing a number of NBA legends along the way. He’s just the best, you guys. Also he contributed to the best viral video of the year.

Mad About Movies Podcast Rise to Semi-Fame In 2013, two friends and I started the Mad About Movies podcast and what a blast we had. In 2014, though, things really took off when we were twice featured on the front page of iTunes and saw our little project climb the charts on the way to becoming the number two movie podcast in the land. It’s been such a cool ride and the fun we have each week when discussing film is, I think, quite evident in each finished episode. If you’re not already subscribed, I hope you’ll hop on board in 2015.

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens Trailer I was hanging out with Cooper the morning this thing hit the Internet and we watched it together about a dozen times. Rationally, I know that he will watch literally any video or picture I might choose to show him on my phone because he’s obsessed with electronics right now. But perhaps irrationally, I just know he’s turning into a little Star Wars nerd just like his dad and knowing that we will get to see new Star Wars movies together warms my heart (and maybe made me cry, like, a lot).

Keurig Just like last year, when I joined the ranks of iPad users about seven years late, this year another “brand new” technology made its way into my home and changed my life. The Keurig is pretty stinking great, you guys. Why didn’t any of you tell me what I was missing out on?! Thanks to this delightful little machine, my coffee intake has gone through the roof and I’m not sleeping very well but hey, it’s totally worth it to not have to re-teach myself how to make a pot of coffee six times a year.

Apple Christmas Commercial Apple has upped their game in the advertising department of late, what with last year’s Christmas commercial and the Dead Poets Society-inspired spot, but this tiny emotional roller coaster took the proverbial cake. I’d like to think even the most cynical humans found themselves in a slightly dusty room upon seeing this for the first time and it doesn’t hurt that Jack White’s restored record machine from the 50’s makes a cameo.

Nature Box Early in 2014, this service called Nature Box started advertising heavily within a lot of the podcasts I listen to and I guess the ads worked because at some point I somewhat sheepishly paid for a membership and man, is it awesome! Once a month a box containing five healthy snacks arrives at my doorstep and sometimes those snacks even make it through the first week before I’ve consumed them all. Even Lucy the Beagle (who you will notice is NOT on my Favorite Things list) likes Nature Box!

Baptism By far, the coolest (non-Cooper related) moment for me came when one the kiddos from my program asked if I would baptize him during church this spring. I’ve had the opportunity to work with thousands of kids over the last seven years and have had a ton of significant experiences with many of them. But having the privilege of spending this moment with my young friend was truly something special for me.

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Hopefully I will learn how to spell privilege in 2015, Brian

And just for kicks, here are the links to my favorite things I wrote in 2014: In Defense of NoahThings My Son Has Put In His MouthA New Sense of RenewFather's Day 2.0The First Five YearsA Letter to My College Bound FriendsWalk This Way

Vacation Journal: Disney World Part 2

(Note: I had originally planned on breaking this post down into two segments but Cooper was not cooperating tonight and I couldn't get it finished. I'll have the final piece on Saturday. You can find Part 1 here.) DAY THREE

10:00 am - Today is our most ambitiously planned: Magic Kingdom in the morning, Hollywood for lunch, Epcot for dinner. Let's do this!

10:25 am - Lindsey has a curse wherein she says something like, "There's no traffic!" and then we hit major traffic. She just said, "There's no one here!”

10:26 am - …And immediately our bus has been bombarded by people.

10:45 am - Two women next to me are wearing the same shirt except one says "Mommy" and the other says "Mommy's Favorite." The second woman is 40 years old.

11:12 am - Stepped foot off the bus and already this is a mistake. There are 100 billion people at Magic Kingdom this morning. The plan is in shambles.

11:16 am - We have lunch reservations in another park at 12:50 and we haven't even made it through the bag check yet. We are forced to bail.

11:17 am - Worst part about Disney: not all locations have buses to every other location. So you have to find other means of transportation.

11:25 am - So we are taking the world's slowest ferry across a lake so that we can then take a bus from the Transportation Center to Hollywood.

11:40 am - The Transportation Center looks like it was originally designed in the 70s as a Greyhound Bus depot. It's bad.

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12:03 pm - Rock N Roller Coaster has one of the best beginnings of any roller coaster ever. After that...meh. But it's worth it for the jump start.

12:21 pm - Now it's on to Muppet Vision 3D. You have to do this ride if you're here because, you know, Muppets but it REALLY needs an upgrade.

12:50 pm - Sitting down for lunch in the Sci-Fi Drive In. Food is only okay but the ambiance is great and you get to sit quietly in the dark so that's a plus.

1:35 pm - On the downside, the quiet dark has left me in desperate need of a nap. Ambitious plans to the wayside, I must retire for the afternoon.

4:10 pm - Nap accomplished. Someone hang a banner.

5:15 pm - Our first FastPass of the day brought us through the Toy Story Midway Mania. If you've not experienced this ride, your life is meaningless.

5:16 pm - Okay, maybe not meaningless. But man. The design for this ride is impeccable. This is why people come to Disney World.

5:37 pm - The wait was short at Star Tours so I figured why not? We got a different video than the first time and now I wonder how many options there are.

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5:38 pm - A little Googling reveals the answer: 54!!! 54 different video options! I'll see you guys in a couple of days, I have 52 more rides to take.

5:55 pm - We're not into souvenirs AT ALL but this Vinylmation thing Disney started a while back is pretty sweet. I bought two from the Star Wars line.

5:56 pm - Alright, so I bought three. Lay off!

6:02 pm - Dropped by the Osborne Family Dancing Lights just in time for the beginning. Easily the coolest light show I've ever seen.

6:20 pm - We've got dinner plans later this evening but it's been at least 3 hours since we ate and that's illegal in Disney World so we ran into Pizza Planet.

6:31 pm - How it's possible that Pizza Planet DOES NOT have a crane machine filled with those little green alien squeakers is beyond me.

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6:51 pm - Our final FastPass of the day has brought us back to the Tower of Terror for a night time ride. Seriously, guys, I love this ride.

6:58 pm - If you're a tall, pale, gangly kid and you apply to work at Disney World, chances are you'll end us as a bellhop at Tower of Terror. Creepers. Like Oren from Parks and Rec.

6:59 pm - When we get to the actual entrance to the ride, the group behind us divides: the women all get on board and the guys all bail. Booooooo.

7:09 pm - From Tower of Terror, we hustle to get to Epcot but this is another time where the parks don't connect by bus. Now in line for a dang boat.

7:14 pm - Discussing Tower of Terror, the guy behind me tells wife "Guys can feel themselves falling better because their (junk) jumps into their throats.” I’ll leave this one alone.

7:28 pm - The kid behind us in line has been quacking at the ducks for 20 minutes. If you strangle a kid, you get kicked out of Disney World, right?

7:42 pm - Now (Junk) in the Throat Guy has started quacking. I might be going insane.

8:05 pm - The boat deposits us at Epcot's back entrance. Of course this is the one night we're eating close to the front entrance.

8:30 pm - Tonight we're dining in the Coral Reef restaurant, continuing my streak of eating seafood at every dinner. This is the height of luxury!

9:25 pm - Epcot is open late tonight for resort guests so post-dinner we're trying to hit some of the big rides, like Soarin'. 10 minute wait. Bingo!

9:38 pm - Sign outside Soarin': "Those who have a feat of heights or are prone to motion sickness should not ride." Again, this ride is called Soarin'.

10:23 pm - Exiting Journey Into Imagination with Figment and all I can think is, LSD must do wonders for this ride.

10:27 pm - We're capping our night off with the Captain EO 3D journey starring Michael Jackson. It's extremely dated and cheesy but it's still great.

10:33 pm - Seeing Captain EO is like Christmas with your great grandma. Every year that it's still here is a treat. It could end any day. YOLO.

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11:09 pm - On the bus back to the resort, there is a mom wearing a Nickleback concert t-shirt. No need to worry, I've already alerted CPS.

11:22 pm - The only standard bottled water in Disney is Dasani and since it is low on the bottled water spectrum, that means paying extra for SmartWater.

11:26 pm - Since you asked, the bottled water spectrum goes: 1. Ozarka 2. Aquafina 3. Fiji 4. Dasani 5. Nestle 600. Deja Blue This is not up for debate

Vacation Journal: Oklahoma

Last week, Lindsey and I celebrated our four year wedding anniversary. And by celebrate, I mean we sent each other text messages and ate Rosa’s because, you know, baby. We got married on July 3rd which sounds like a great idea until the subsequent years roll around and you realize that it’s almost impossible to celebrate anything on the week of Independence Day. Hotels are booked and way more expensive than they should be, the roads are jammed with alcoholics, and there’s always a host of other parties, gatherings, etc. that you have to attend that take precedence over your anniversary. As such, we haven’t really done much on this occasion since the first year, content instead to share our big day with America’s big day. And by “big day”, of course I mean the anniversary of the debut of Independence Day in 1996. This year, however, given the birth of our vampire/ghost baby, we decided we needed a weekend away to recoup and not wash bottles 20 times a day and thus, a trip was planned. bophotography-8633

I booked a cabin in Broken Bow, Oklahoma and we headed up on Friday afternoon with the intention of doing nothing but eating, sleeping, and hanging out without fear of waking the King of the Grumbles. It seemed like a great plan until we realized that we had voluntarily come to a lake town in the Middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma during the biggest touristy weekend of the year. 10 minutes into our first meal on the first day of our trip, Lindsey looked at me and whispered, “You have got to write a blog about this trip” and before the sentence was even out of her mouth, I replied, “I’m already taking notes.” Here, now, is a diary account of our weekend.

DAY ONE We hit the road at approximately 2:30 pm, which is approximately four hours after I intended to leave, naturally. It was not until this point that I realized we would be driving out 30 through Dallas and Rockwall instead of up 35 through Denton and Winstar Country. The moment of departure is a stupid time to look at a map for the first time but I just assume that everything in Oklahoma that is worth seeing is either near or through Oklahoma City. I probably would not have booked this cabin if I’d known we had to go out that way. I drove Eastbound-30 approximately 750 times during my college days because I foolishly went to school in Arkansas and honestly, if I never see that part of 30 again, I’ll be just fine. Alas, it was too late to back out and we headed out, directly into a traffic jam over Lake Ray Hubbard because, again, it’s the busiest weekend of the year and literally every human was either on the way to a lake or already at a lake.

On long drives, we usually listen to an audiobook. It’s a tradition unlike any other. This time around, we selected comedian Jim Gaffigan’s book, Dad is Fat. If you’re unfamiliar with Mr. Gaffigan, he’s the very pale comedian who does the “Hot Pocket” bit and he’s hilarious. He’s also an idiot because he has five children and having just had our first kid, I feel confident in saying anyone who has five kids is either drunk a lot or dumb. (To any of my readers who may have five or more kids, please know that I’m just joking and that also I think maybe you have some sort of biological disorder that doesn’t allow you to feel fatigue or pain, like a Bond villain.) The book is a collection of essays on parenting and general life advice and it’s great except that I started writing a very similar book last month and now there’s no point because Gaffigan beat me to it. Brian Gill: Always Two Steps Behind.

About halfway through our drive, I got a text alerting me that Dwight Howard had decided to not sign with the Mavericks and so the rest of the drive is a blank to me due to the rage stroke I suffered.

We arrived at our isolated cabin in the woods where (probably) no one has ever died in horror-movie fashion and it was better than advertised. We had a full kitchen, a giant Jacuzzi tub, satellite TV, a hammock and hot tub on the deck. Perfect! On the downside, there was no bathroom door and even more importantly, no shower. So if you’re keeping track at home, we have room for the world’s biggest bathtub but not a shower. Alright then. Also, the appliances were the exact same ones we have at home so I think that means we need to buy new ones. In addition, the décor in this cabin basically broke down into two categories: Paintings of flowers and stuff with scriptures on it. I counted 15 different items in this tiny cabin that had a scripture on it. I’m guessing this is not a prime vacation spot for atheists.

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After getting all of our stuff in the cabin, I unpacked the Blu-Ray player I brought so that we could watch some movies over our weekend away. Because nothing says, “Happy Anniversary” like Django Unchained. At this point I realized I left the Blu-Ray player’s remote at home and apparently it is the only Blu-Ray player in the world that does not have any pushable buttons on the actual player itself so it is useless. Fortunately, there was a DVD player but half of the movies I brought are on Blu-Ray so I basically packed an entire bag full of worthless items for this trip. Brian Gill: Great Ideas, Iffy Execution Since 1983.

We headed into Broken Bow for dinner and were presented with three non-McDonald’s options: Pier 49, a catfish place that is nowhere near a pier, Papa Pablano’s which serves Mexican food…in Oklahoma, and The Oaks Steakhouse, which looked relatively promising. Wrong. There was a sign on the wall next to a staircase leading up to what I’m assuming was an office space that read, “Upstairs is PRIVATE. Keep Out.” The lady behind the counter just stared at us when we walked in. Just stared. Finally I figured out that there was a host who was supposed to be seating us but he was nowhere to be found and after, I’m not exaggerating, 45 seconds of awkward silence, she finally pointed to a table and muttered, “Sit there.” We sat and before long the host, a teenage boy wearing a Gorillaz t-shirt and featuring the worst case of mouth breathing I’ve ever seen, shuffled up, placed menus in front of us, and stated, with a slight twinge of malice that I would say is unjustified given the setting, that our server would take our drink order.

We looked over the menu and it was exactly what I fear in such a setting. If you’re ever on a trip to a small town, you want to find the place with the smallest menu possible because there’s a better chance that they’ll actually be good at making those few things. The Oaks was the opposite of that. The menu was similar to what you’ll find at Applebee’s, a recipe for disaster. There were a hundred things on the menu and at least a dozen little notes like, “NO SHARING!” hand-written next to the price for the salad bar. Our waitress came around and took our order and for some reason, we asked to pay for an appetizer on top of what was likely to be a horrible meal and one bite of the fried zucchini was all it took to shame us for our error. There were four TVs in the place. One was off, one was playing Fox News (of course), and the other two ran a loop of commercials for the stores, shops, and attractions of the area. Because nothing says “quality meal” like a feature on the local Shoe Carnival. We ate as fast as we and got out of there, but not before the woman the counter, whom I would have SWORN was the owner/wife of the owner, informed us that, “This place is just getting too busy, I told the owner she needed to get out here and handle this crowd because I’m going home.” There were 15 other people in the restaurant.

After dinner, we headed back to the cabin to watch Fringe (again, suuuuuper romantic) and whereas Lindsey took the no-baby occasion to fall asleep by 10, I stayed up until 3:30 because A.) My body is now used to staying up that late no matter what and B.) I had to write 3,000 words on what the Mavs should do now that Dwight Howard has gone elsewhere in order to be able to sleep. Who will read this 3,000 word essay? No one, but this is how my sports brain works and also that one bite of fried zucchini may have given me hallucinations.

DAY TWO I set no alarm (greatest feeling in the world) and awoke at 9:30 with no prompting from anything or anyone else. Initially, I was disappointed that I only got 6 hours of sleep on my first night of Vacation Sleep but then I realized that I was completely rested and ready to go. The difference between 6 hours of sleep with a baby monitor and 6 hours of sleep WITHOUT a baby monitor is astounding.

We went into town to get a few grocery items, including some breakfast-y stuff, and were presented with two options: a mom-n-pop grocery store similar to a Food ‘N Stuff and a non-super Wal-Mart. A VERY non-super Wal-Mart. We flipped a coin and it came up, “Both of these options are terrible so it doesn’t really matter” and headed into Wal-Mart. It was JAM PACKED with…stuff. Take all of the stuff you find in a Super Wal-Mart, take out the produce section and a few other essentials in the food department, then pack the rest of it into a space that is approximately one-third the size of the average Super Wal-Mart and that’s what we were dealing with. All we were looking for was bacon, cheese, and biscuits. Biscuits, however, proved to be impossible to find, though the place did have a giant cart of the largest marshmallows I’ve ever seen. So there’s that.

After breakfast and a couple of hours doing nothing, we decided we’d go into Hochatown for lunch. That meant getting ready for the day which meant I needed to take a shower. Except there was no shower, just a giant Jacuzzi tub with a handheld shower head hooked up to it. Now, look, I’ve had a few awkward shower experiences in my time. In Honduras I used a pila which is basically a large reservoir of freezing cold water that you dump on yourself while standing in the middle of the bathroom. One year in college we had community showers which were made all the more uncomfortable by the presence of the hall’s RA who always seemed to be showering at the same time as me and always faced out instead of in when rinsing himself. (I’m certain this person is in jail now.) And of course there are the uncomfortable locker room experiences from middle and high school. But I would probably take them all over ever having to sit down to shower in the middle of a giant tub like that again. I don’t know what it was about this situation but it really weirded me out. Next time I rent a room, I’ll be sure to ask explicitly if said room does, in fact, come with a shower.

Upon exiting my strange bath-shower a changed man, we headed into Hochatown to try our luck on finding suitable food. Of the three options presented, the Blue Rooster looked the most respectable and so we headed in with great trepidation. My fears were almost immediately assuaged when The Black Keys greeted my ears. Usually in small towns like this you only get both kinds of music in a restaurant or shop: country and western. The Blue Rooster, though, played a steady stream of the Keys, Florence and the Machine, and selections from the Can’t Hardly Wait soundtrack, which was all in keeping with the ambiance of the place. The menu contained only a handful of items which, again, is really what you want in any restaurant but ESPECIALLY one in a small town. We ate fried shrimp and catfish and chased it with a homemade fried pie, all of it delicious. I’m always a big tipper (because I’m LOADED with cash, thanks to my job in ministry) but given our previous night’s experience, I made sure our waitress understood how much we appreciated her place of work. If ever I find my way back to the area, I will only eat at The Blue Rooster for every single meal. I’ll become a regular.

On the way back to the cabin after lunch, we made two stops. First, we pulled into a fruit stand on the side of the road. While we waited to buy more produce than any two humans can realistically hope to eat by themselves, we listened to the patron converse with another customer. Their conversation consisted mostly of the customer giving the patron a recipe for “deer meat” stew (not venison, deer meat) and then stating that, “Pretty much all I eat anymore is deer meat.” I believed her. Afterward, we swung by a souvenir shop called Janet’s Treasure Chest because we collect decks of cards from all of our various vacation spots because we are lame. This place had everything: Antiques, candy, cabin décor, candles, an entire room of junk toys that would be rejected from a pharmacy, the Statue of Liberty, and a sizeable amount of Sasquatch-related memorabilia. Because apparently there is a Sasquatch in Oklahoma? We found our deck of cards and also I bought a jar of jelly because for some reason I have an affinity for homemade jams and jellies. Brian Gill: Buying Weird Things Since 1983.

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The rest of the day consisted of watching Fringe, picking up dinner from our second best option in Hochatown, The Grateful Head Pizza Parlor (which was basically just a Mellow Mushroom knock-off), and me being stuck on the same level of Candy Crush for hours on end. Can we all agree that the creator of Candy Crush is going to hell? What sort of sadistic jerk creates a game that is THAT addicting and then DOESN’T give you unlimited lives so you are forced to just sit and wait until the game allows you the opportunity to play again? You’re one sick puppy, Candy Crush creator. At some point around two I finally gave up on Candy Crush, cried like a baby over my failures, and went to bed knowing that I would never amount to anything if I couldn’t conquer level 65.

DAY THREE Night One of Vacation Sleep was the, “I don’t have to be responsible for anyone else and that makes me happy!” night while Night Two was the, “Oh sweet goodness, I haven’t not been responsible for anyone else in two months and that makes me (*slowed down drugged voice*) sleeeepppppyyyyyy.” We had tentatively planned to be on the road by 11 but plans could not stand in the way of sleeping forever. When I did awake, I decided to forgo another awkward tub-shower and we packed up with an eye to getting home to our cuddly bundle of grumbles.

Before we could get out, though, I discovered the tip envelope. Now, we’ve stayed at a few of these private rentals before and I’ve never noticed a tip envelope nor did I have any idea we were supposed to tip in this situation. Two things came to mind. One, if there isn’t an app to tell you when to tip and what the appropriate amount to tip is, then I claim that idea and I’m going to force my friend Emily to develop it for me. Two, we paid a ridiculously healthy sum of money to stay in a place that did not have a shower and the check-out list required us to perform basically all of the cleaning tasks that are usually associated with turning a room over to the next tenant so…I’m not super keen on tipping in that situation. I left what I considered to be a fair amount and if that was too small a figure, then I’ll come back in three years when my app is fully developed and it can tell me how much I should have left.

We got on the road and decided to delay eating as long as possible so as to avoid any more exposure to Broken Bow than we’d already had. We cracked in Mount Vernon and found ourselves at the local Sonic. A word about Sonic food: It shouldn’t exist. There should be a bill passed that bans Sonic from serving any food beyond corn dogs, mozzarella sticks, and tater tots. Nothing else. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good Sonic drink or shake as much as the next guy. But I have never in my life purchased a Sonic food product (other than those listed above) without immediately regretting my decision. The Sonic experience in Mount Vernon was no different but at least I got a kick out of watching smoke come out of the carhop’s ears when she handed me two drinks and only one straw then stumbled over this issue as if she was working out an algebra problem. I said nothing and eventually she just slowly backed away as if she’d gotten away with robbing me.

Eventually we made it home, though not before encountering the dumbest traffic jam ever wherein the deputies in Sulphur Springs shut down one of the highway lanes for FIVE SOLID MILES because of a one-car accident that basically amounted to a fender bender. Well done, Sulphur Springs. We collected our baby and happily brought him home where he promptly spit up on me as if he wished to remind me that vacation was over and it was time to get back on track. Welcome home indeed.

Brian Gill: Writing Excessively Long Vacation Diaries For No Reason, Brian

Farewell Good and Faithful Servant - A Tribute to Old Dogs and Their Owners

In December of 2005 I moved back to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, fresh off of four (and a half) years of college and ready to take on the world. The plan was to A.) Find an apartment; B.) Get a job; C.) Wait six months and then get a dog. I found an apartment, got the first in a long line of menial jobs that would come nowhere near to paying off my student loans, and lasted less than six weeks before I started searching for a canine companion. I didn’t have the time to housebreak a puppy and the space wasn’t big enough for a large dog so my search criteria, a small to midsized dog that was housebroken, wasn’t on death’s door, and wouldn’t be embarrassing to walk around the neighborhood with, was fairly limiting. Through a rescue organization I found Ali, a 6 year-old Sheltie who had recently been given up for adoption. I made the drive out to meet the owner of the clinic where Ali was being housed. She informed me that he had been given up numerous times, had probably been abused at some point along the line, and that he was not considered an overly “friendly” dog. Quite the saleswoman, indeed. Before leaving to fetch Ali, she warned me that he wasn’t a cuddly sort of dog so I shouldn’t expect a warm welcome. It came as quite a shock to all of us, then, when Ali, upon entering the room, promptly jumped up in my lap and began licking my face. I took him home a couple of days later and we became fast friends.

The first few weeks weren’t easy. I was accustomed to training a puppy to behave and Ali came with a set of bad habits that normally would have been broken long before. About two weeks after I acquired him, he bit me, deep enough that I probably should have gotten a shot, the first time I had ever been bitten by a dog, which caused me to seriously rethink our arrangement. In searching through his paperwork for a number to call, I discovered the extent of his sad history. In his 6 years of life he had been given up for adoption four times and had spent time in shelters across the country, from Georgia to Michigan to Colorado. At each stop, his paperwork indicated that the previous owner couldn’t handle his bad habits (many of which were prime indicators of abuse at the hands of his first owners) and eventually sent him packing. Honestly, it was a miracle that he hadn’t just been put down. At this point I decided the proverbial buck would stop with me. Ali and I sat down (as ridiculous as this may sound) and reached an understanding: he would not bite me again, I would not turn him over to a shelter, and we would work on everything else. Over the years we worked out every bad habit he had except for his incessant need to bark, a vice which I felt he probably deserved.

I could not and would not, however, break him of his quirks, of which there were MANY. No dog that I have ever been around had as much personality as Ali. He was kind of an old man: he knew what he wanted and when he wanted it and he really wouldn’t stand for insubordination. He had to have his nose in everything and most of the time he preferred to weigh in on anyone and anything that made its way into his domain. He was genuinely opinionated and he expressed these thoughts in no uncertain terms through sneezing, haughty looks, and, if push came to shove, defiant urination right in the middle of the entry way where everyone would have to see it. His favorite things included bacon, riding in the car, and more bacon. And if you left the bacon in the trash so he had to dig through that to get it, even better. He wouldn’t sleep in a dog bed, preferring instead to drag himself on his elbows, commando style, underneath my bed to sleep. When he was really excited and/or angry he would go into a spin, around and around, barking all the time to show you just how excited and/or angry you had made him. And he always had to have the last word. Once when picking him up from the groomer I had to wait in line for a few minutes and in the back, Ali and what I’m assuming was a much bigger dog, were in a standoff. The other dog would deliver five or six resounding barks, which would be followed by a second of silence before Ali would chime in with a quick yap that would send the other dog back into his own bark. He did this over and over, refusing to back down and simultaneously playing the other dog for a fool.

This is the part of the sappy story where the writer says something to the effect of, “I thought I was saving him but really he was saving me.” Of all his many quirks and behaviors, Ali’s greatest strength was his unending love for his owner. He waited patiently and consistently by the door for me to come home and most of the time when I was home he followed me everywhere I went, my constant shadow. He never wanted to be picked up or held but he always wanted to be underfoot, close enough that he could quickly fall in line if I so desired to move to another room or, best of all, take him in the car. This attachment came almost instantly and only became stronger through the years.

This bond was cemented, however, in the second half of 2007 when my ex-wife and I separated and subsequently got divorced. At the time I felt absolutely alone in the world, unable or unwilling to talk to my friends or family about what was going on. And in these moments, Ali served as a confidant and a true comfort. Never before and never since was he a dog who wanted to be held but in those months he suddenly became a lap dog. Time and time again, when things were at their worst, Ali would climb into my lap and sit and look at me patiently while I just talked and prayed. At a time in my life when I felt alone and unloved (boy this is a manly paragraph, isn’t it?), Ali was a constant reminder of God and the good things in life. The night I moved out, I left with two changes of clothes, a laptop, and a dog who sat in my lap for the entirety of our ride to my parent’s house, a comfort I will be eternally thankful for. Things got better, of course; I moved on, made new friends, got a great job, and met the love of my life who, thankfully, put up with the smelly, defiant dog that came along with me.

In his later years, Ali picked up a myriad of medical conditions. He had a heart murmur that also affected his lungs. He had the worst case of gingivitis anyone has ever seen, so bad in fact that I plan to petition the American Dental Association to change the name of the disease to Alivitis. I think that’s only fair. Yet because of his heart issue, he could not be put under and therefore could not have his teeth cleaned. The joke around our house was that his mouth smelled worse than his butt and really it wasn’t as much “joke” as it was “fact.” He was overweight and his fat accumulated in one large lump on his left side. In essence, he had a gigantic beer gut…on his shoulder, a feature he used as a pillow whenever possible. In early 2011 he had a series of seizures, prompting our vet to tell me he wouldn’t make it through the year. He defiantly fought his way through the year and even seemed to get stronger and spryer despite the diagnosis. Earlier this year he was bitten by a spider, a malady I was sure would do him in. And yet, a trip to the vet and a new antibiotic brought him right out of his funk and he returned to his former glory, though with a sad little bald spot on his side. He also seemed genuinely angry when I mentioned the bald spot and would go into a barking frenzy if it was brought up in front of company. If a dog can be self-aware, Ali personified such a trait to his dying day.

Watching a beloved pet age can be one of life’s greater gut punches. As Ali slowed down, I found myself torn between wanting him to hold out as long as he could and secretly hoping he would quietly die in his sleep so I wouldn’t have to put him down. That’s a weird dynamic that I hope I never have to experience with a parent, spouse, or child. Just a few weeks ago he came very close to death’s door before our vet gave him another medicine (his third daily pill which was just a DELITE to force down his throat) that brought about a resurgence. Still, however, Lindsey and I knew the writing was on the wall and I like to think Ali did, too. We spent a lot of time with him over his last few weeks, taking him on numerous car rides and feeding him unhealthy amounts of treats to ensure that his last days were good ones. He thanked us by demonstrating a new quirk wherein he routinely climbed atop the fire place hearth and slept there, posed like the House Gargoyle. It made our new home feel very regal. In the end, though, his issues got the best of him and after a Thanksgiving Day celebration during which he gorged himself on dropped ham and goodness knows what else, Ali stopped eating and exhibited extremely labored breathing. His final days were spent meekly moving between lying in the grass and lying on his bed with a look on his face that suggested his fight was done. The vet told us his kidneys had failed and, after allowing me a few more moments to blubber over him in a manner truly unbefitting of a House Gargoyle of his post, administered the shot that let him slip into that good night.

There have been a lot of tears shed in the Gill household today. It was one of those days where you really realize that you are, in fact, a grown up. I’ve never had to put a dog down before because there was always an adult around to do that stuff in my place. Well, now I’m that adult. And sometimes it sucks to be an adult. Which begs the question, why do we do this to ourselves? I can’t always prevent the potential heartache that will come from being a son, a brother, a husband, or, with baby on the way, a father; that’s just part of what comes along with life. But I have an unconditional choice whether or not I want to put myself through this particular brand of agony, a fate I and every animal lover like me can prevent by simply not owning a pet. Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we continually take on and invest in a life that will last for, at best, 15 years or so?

I’ve been presented with that question many times in the past by people who don’t own pets and don’t understand the appeal and on a day like today I found myself engaging in that same line of thinking. In a month or two (or maybe six) I’ll most likely find another dog to adopt, knowing that in a few more years I’ll be right back in this same position. But why, a small voice in the back of my mind asks me as I consider the possibility (really, the likelihood) of putting myself through this again. Because I have found that the best things in life cause us to emote, to feel something. Whether sports, movies, music, pets, whatever, the best things elicit a response that truly makes us human. And dogs can most certainly be counted amongst the “best things.”

So today I say farewell to the world’s best-worst dog, Ali. Or, if you prefer his formal title, Alister McCalister. You were a good and faithful servant, a tribute to your breed, and you have most certainly earned your reward. May your Heaven be filled with the scent of bacon and may there never be a car you can’t ride in. Rest in peace, little buddy.

Sweat the Small Stuff or Why "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is Just the Worst

Last year, in conjunction with the massive youth sports league I run through my church, I started a small mentoring program that provides me with an opportunity to work individually with a few of the kids who come through the doors. We go to movies, eat at CiCi's (only the finest foods, of course), and talk about life and stuff. I've got a core group of 5th-7th graders that take part in these events on a regular basis and over the last few months, we've developed quite a rapport. One of the topics we always discuss, in addition to sports, spirituality, and YouTube videos we all dig (“Guy on a Buffalo” is quickly gaining steam in popularity), is movies. These kids are genuinely interested in what I’ve seen lately, what my favorite movies are, and what my opinion is on just about every film they’ve ever heard of. This is due in no small part to this blog and the fact that they haven’t quite figured out yet that virtually everyone has a blog or has had one at some point or another. Unlike the masses of hypothetical Internet readers, they actually care about my opinions, which is both empowering and sobering at the same time. If there was a market for film criticism aimed at 12 year olds I would be to that field what Dave Grohl is to the Foo Fighters.

This relationship, however, presents two problems.

1.) I always have to be aware of my audience. The Shawshank Redemption is unquestionably the greatest movie of all-time (no, I said it’s unquestionable so there’s really no need to debate this) but it’s not exactly a family friendly movie that I can encourage a group of impressionable boys to seek out on Video on Demand. I mean, obviously I told them to go watch The Hangover but Shawshank is a little out of their range at this point.
2.) It can be hard to know when to burst their bubbles and when to swallow down my hardened opinion and let them learn their own lessons over time.

Most of the time when one of them expresses a ridiculous opinion or makes a totally indefensible statement, I let it slide. At most, I might poke a little fun in the direction of whoever made the statement and say, “At your high school graduation, I’m going to remind everyone that you once said The Tooth Fairy was your favorite movie.” (This is an actual statement from one of these kids. Don’t judge him too harshly.) Sometimes, however, I feel it is my duty as both a would-be film critic and someone they look up to (not to mention a decent human being in general) to provide a little guidance and hopefully keep them from making a horrible life choice, like holding the opinion that Cars 2 is the best Pixar movie.

One of these situations presented itself tonight.

On our way home from a baseball game, my truck jam-packed with five teens/pre-teens and my friend Jason, the movie topic was inevitably broached. First we discussed Batman as Jason and I explained the concept of multiple franchises within one universe. (To sum up: Adam West Batman, Michael Keaton/Tim Burton Batman, and Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Batman are all Batman but the differences are vast.) I was afraid this might have blown their minds but instead it led to a discussion of other films which have seen a revamp, reboot, or years-later sequels/prequels. Then one of the kids brought up the Indiana Jones series and hinted that The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was his favorite from the franchise. At this point, I very nearly ran my truck into a traffic barrier.

I couldn’t let that one slide. It’s one thing to love Tooth Fairy or to sing along with Miley Cyrus songs at a baseball game. These are the trappings of youth, the errors of younger souls that will be corrected later in life when they discover witty rhetoric, the films of Christopher Nolan, and the Beastie Boys. But it somehow felt important that I convey to these kids that it was not okay to hold any affection whatsoever for Crystal Skull, let alone to think it better than the original trilogy.

My friend and I both reacted immediately with similar statements to the effect of, “That movie is so bad that we have to pretend it doesn’t exist in order to keep from getting angry about it on a daily basis” (in not so many words). The collective response was, “What’s so bad about that movie?” My friend and I struggled with how to answer, partly because we didn’t want to make any of the kids feel bad for liking a terrible movie (and hey, they probably haven’t even seen Raiders of the Lost Ark so how can they properly judge Crystal Skull?) and partly because the verbiage needed to truly describe the wretchedness of that movie would be both inappropriate for kids and probably over their heads, anyway. My friend and I both struggled for words until I made the following analogy:

“Imagine that you’re 8 years old and you have a favorite toy that you absolutely love. And you play with that toy every day and take it with you everywhere you go. And then imagine that one day, your brother forcibly takes that toy from you, breaks it over his knee, throws it on the ground, and then spits on it while laughing maniacally. And then when you ask your brother why he did that, he responds by telling you that the toy is better broken, that it’s supposed to be broken, and that you didn’t really appreciate the toy before the way he does now. And then, while you sit and cry because your brother broke your toy, your brother then proceeds to walk around your room breaking the rest of your toys. That’s why Crystal Skull is that bad. Because they took a film franchise we all loved and broke it forever.”

I could lie and tell you that all of the kids fully grasped what I said and we all took a pact to never again speak of Crystal Skull. In truth, I’m not sure they all completely understood what I mean. But if even one of them now has the correct opinion that Crystal Skull is an abomination, then I feel like I’ve made the world a slightly better place. And really, isn’t that what working with kids is all about? Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, or a coach, the idea is to impart a bit of important knowledge to the kids in a way that they won’t forget, to make them better, smarter, and more well-rounded individuals and if the world is improved in the process then that’s all the better.

Basically what I’m saying is, when working with kids, you should sweat the small stuff, that it’s important to remember the little things and the way the little things build upon each other. Getting that group of kids to understand that Crystal Skull is a crime against humanity or that KE$HA is the worst thing to happen to music since hairspray in the ‘80s may not be the equivalent of teaching them the core concepts of algebra or revealing to them the vast mysteries of the universe, but those small, seemingly insignificant bits of knowledge may very well be the foundations for greater things as these kids mature and become the people they’re intended to be. Keep up the good work, parents, employees, and volunteers and make sure you tell your kids just how bad Crystal Skullreally is. Because really, the 6.4 rating it has on IMDB is just embarrassing.

NOTE: Thank you, dear reader(s), for allowing a brief break from our regularly scheduled, surprisingly mediocre film coverage. We'll get back to the standard stuff that no one reads tomorrow.

What I Remember About 9/11

There have been thousands of 9/11 tributes written and published over the last few days. If truth be told I don't feel equipped to write a poignant piece of remembrance or to sum up the feelings of a nation on such an infamous and historic anniversary. That's not my thing, really. I write stupid movie reviews and occasionally sports rants and stretching beyond that isn't my strength. But to let a day like this slip by without at least writing something...well, that's not my thing, either. Today I simply offer you a few personal memories about 9/11/01 and invite you to do the same.

I remember where I was when I heard. I was a freshman in college at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. My roommate and I were both running late for chapel and as we were heading down the stairs of our dorm, another student said something in passing about "the plane crash." We both went back to our room and saw the first newsflashes.

I remember chapel being a mess. No one knew what was going on or how to act. For possibly the first time in my life I wanted to watch the news and keep up with what was happening but Harding in its infinite wisdom decided it was more important to continue on with chapel and the day's classes. I am still a bit angry by this institutional choice to try to make that day as normal as possible. Because it wasn't normal and we shouldn't have pretended it was.

I remember wanting to watch the news for the first time ever. I can't remember the exact time line but by the time I got out of my first class (which was a complete disaster; the professor cried through the whole class, making Art Appreciation an even bigger waste of time than normal), I'm pretty sure we knew it was a terrorist attack and both of the towers had fallen. I generally hate the news and don't really keep up with world events but on that day I couldn't think of anything else. I skipped class for the rest of the day (along with EVERYONE ELSE) in order to keep up.

I remember the scene in the school's student center. It wasn't completely silent but it was pretty close. Huge groups settled in around the televisions and by the time the lunch hours rolled around, the place was packed. Eventually my roommate and I headed back to our dorm to watch the news in a smaller group.

I remember President Bush's speech. I've never given a rip about politics and I do not exercise my right to vote not because of some belief or principle but because of general apathy. Even still, the speech that Bush delivered was incredible. He was calm and collected but he was firm and compassionate, the symbol of strength that all of us, regardless of political believe, needed to see. I cried a little.

I remember not knowing what in the world to do or how to act. No one trains you for you should react to a terrorist attack. How long do you have to be sad and when is it acceptable to start going back to normal? That's where a lot of the rest of this list comes in.

I remember Conan O'Brien's first show. A lot of people remember David Letterman's first show back after 9/11 but I've always been a loyal Conan guy. At that time, I did two things every weekday without fail: I took a nap and I watched Conan. During his run at NBC, Conan had a number of episodes that showed what a truly professional, thoughtful, and caring person he really is (the Black Out ep, his final ep on the Tonight Show, etc.) but no moment was more significant than his opening monologue on September 18. He gave an incredible speech while at the same time staying true to who he was which made it so much more impactful. He wasn't putting on a show but rather speaking from the heart. And at the end he told us it was okay to laugh a little despite the terrible events of the past week. I cried some but then I laughed. It was a turning point for a lot of people in my generation.

I remember football coming back. The NFL took the week of 9/11 off, obviously, but they came back the following weekend to play a game. A great deal was made about "showing the terrorists that they can't disrupt our lives" and if that works for you, fine. But for me, football coming back was a further step in the process of recovery and more importantly, it was an incredible and moving distraction. We needed sport more than ever before in my lifetime.

I remember Saturday Night Live. I wasn't the faithful SNL watcher then that I am now but that episode was a much watch. At the beginning Paul Simon played his famous song "The Boxer" surrounded by some of New York City's finest and after it, Lorne Michaels turned to Rudy Giuliani and simply asked, "Can we be funny?" to which Rudy replied, "Why start now?" Quite honestly, the episode was, in fact, not funny but it didn't matter. Much like what Conan did on his show, Lorne and his crew made it clear that while we would always remember what happened, it was alright to begin the process of moving on.

I remember the video for Ryan Adams' "New York New York." I had barely heard of Ryan Adams at that time but when his video came on vh1 late one night while I was studying, I was glued to the screen. Shot only days before 9/11, it is one of the last pieces of film to feature the Twin Towers before their destruction. One of my favorite songs from an artist who's become on of my favorites, "New York New York" was a touching tribute.

I remember President Bush's first pitch in the World Series. Like every one else who isn't from New York and has a lick of sense, I hate the Yankees and I actively rooted against the Yanks in the 2001 World Series. But when President Bush stepped out before Game 3 of the series to throw out the opening pitch...total goosebumps. And then he NAILED the pitch. Say what you will about W but to throw a strike under that kind of pressure with a massive bullet proof vest strapped to his chest...that's impressive.

I remember chapel a few days after the attacks. I'll be honest when I say I really disliked chapel for the majority of my time at Harding. I had a lot of issues with what took place and the number of times I wanted to scratch my eyes out FAR outnumbered the times I actually had a meaningful experience. But a few days after the attacks, our service was led by a guy who was in the Reserves and whose unit had been called up to go to Afghanistan. He would ship out within a few days. I do not remember his name nor what he said but I remember the gist of his presentation was a call to hold dear the freedoms we have in this country and to know that those freedoms are worth fighting for. And he, too, told us to return to normalcy as best we could. It was important to hear that message from Conan and to see it displayed by the NFL and MLB but it was equally important to hear it from a service man, a guy who would very soon be manning the front lines of battle and had more right than others to demand that we continue our solemn behaviors. That was a key for me and I believe many others.

Thanks for allowing me a departure from the generic movie reviews and news that you occasionally browse through when you have nothing better to do. I promise we'll get back to our regularly scheduled, mediocre programming tomorrow.