The Quest: Deus Ex Machina, an Epilogue

Deus ex machina is a literary device that introduces God or the gods into the plot to solve all of the problems at the story’s conclusion. It’s considered bad practice and the easy way out. It translates from Latin to mean “God in/from the machine.” It’s extreme form of divine intervention in storytelling. If deus ex machina is used in whatever story you are reading/watching/listening to, you feel a bit cheated in the end that your characters didn’t have to earn their happy ending or work to triumph over evil.

The thing is that it is indeed God who put the quest for story in us. His intention is for this quest to find our story to lead us to THE story/the Gospel story/HIS story. His plan isn’t for us to merely find our own story in a world full of story. He designed us to connect to THE story and thus connect with Him and the community of Christians around us—the Church. He changes everything. He intervenes in the human story and saves us all from a tragic end—if we let him.

It’s hard to give up authorship of your story. We all want to control the quest. What’s somewhat annoying in all of this is that God is timeless. He’s in the past, present and future all at the same time. He knows the end before the beginning even started. As we’re on the quest for story, it’s hard to wait for the next chapter knowing He already knows it. Yet, if we learn to wait, I think we’re in for a far greater story than we could ever pen ourselves.

This doesn’t mean our individual ways of connecting to story are void. God created each of us to be who we are. He created me to connect to story through TV, movies, books and even hockey. We just have to remember the greater story that we’re a part of. I realize not everyone who reads this is a Christian. To you, I say there’s a story you haven’t found yet. Somewhere inside of you, you know it. Don’t settle for anything less than the greatest story of all. There’s plenty of us who know that story, so just ask. I’d bet most of us are more than happy to share it with you.

Do you know THE story? Do you share THE story? Will you let Him write your story?

The Quest: Story That Burns Like An Olympic Flame, But With Four Arms

Chapter 4

People swear I’m part Canadian. I took six years of French and I love hockey. I thank Disney for that one. I don’t know what I thought was so inexplicably cool about The Mighty Ducks. Maybe it was the Flying V—an impressive feat on screen, but maybe not the most practical hockey play. Maybe it was the coolness of Emilio Estevez. I don’t know. Whatever the source, I’ve been hooked for 17 years, hockey pun intended.

A bit of background for those of you that aren’t hockey fans. The Mighty Ducks movie came out in October, 1992. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim hit the ice as an expansion team owned by Disney in October, 1993. The Minnesota North Stars moved to Texas to become the Dallas Stars the same season. Now imagine a 9 year old kid who lives in West Texas hours from the nearest ice rink. Logically, which team would he pick to like? Would he pick a team that he had heard of or one that was from a city several hours away. Yup. I’m a Ducks fan.

I had several Mighty Ducks shirts as a kid. I loved all three Mighty Ducks movies. A even had my own duck call. Of course, being a kid from a part of the United States not traditionally called hockey country, the opportunities to actually see hockey on TV were few and far between. It wasn’t until high school that I was able to see my first hockey game. By some mishap of hockey organization briefly known as the WPHL, Abilene was host to an actual professional hockey team for 3 seasons (1998-2001). I didn’t get to go to many games, but I loved the few that I was lucky enough to be at.

During my 4 years in Austin, I took the opportunity to go to a few Ice Bats/Longhorns back-to-back games. The Ice Bats were never very good, but it was still fun too watch. I also had a Canadian friend who shared my affinity for hockey. Unfortunately I couldn’t afford to learn to play hockey during my years at The University. I guess that happens if you don’t have a job during college.

Once I moved to San Antonio and had a stable job, I quickly signed up for learn to skate lessons. Had any of you been there, it would have been a fairly entertaining sight to behold. Many people were surprised that I would take on such a task. I’m sure most believe my chances of actually learning to play hockey were pretty slim. I proved them wrong. Assuming “they” exist. In January, 2008 I started in the Instructional Hockey League—a fancy name for a weekly learn to play class. After three months, I was talked into signing up for the rec league. Retrospectively, I’m not sure I was really ready for that, but I have been playing on the Men O’ War ever since. Yes, I’m on the military team. It’s comical, I know.

Along with my access to an actual ice rink came my first apartment wired for digital cable. You better believe I got the NHL Center Ice package that fall. During the 2008-2009 season, I saw 4 Ducks games live (3 in Anaheim, 1 in Dallas) and watched 74 on TV. It was nice to watch the Ducks play an entire season and not just during the playoffs on NBC. Though, I did at least see them win the 2007 Stanley Cup.

You may ask “what does this have to do with story?” Other than being evidence of my ADHD, hockey is an example of the story one sees in sports. I’ll say this. I’m not one of those guys that is a sports fan and will watch anything involving competition. I enjoy high school football and UT football. Most of the time, I don’t just watch hockey. There are exceptions exceptions for things like the Stanley Cup playoffs, the All Star game and the Winter Classic. Most of the time, I watch Ducks hockey. Even sports have a story. Throughout a season with the Ducks, I see triumph and loss. I see players come and go. I have favorite players. I have teams that I like less than others. Each win is one step closer to the playoffs. I care about the outcome of the team. I spend money on merchandise. I spend 6-12 hours a week watching games. I invest myself in their story.

Okay, a more timely example for those of you that aren’t hockey fans: The Olympics. The Olympics are a global event that is a story that everyone can be a part of. NBC does a great job of tapping into the human nature of story. Michael Phelps was the big story during the Beijing games in 2008. This year NBC has built up several stories. The American characters that they have us connecting with are gold medalists such as Shaun White, Hannah Kearney and Lindsey Vonn and silver medalist Apolo Ohno. We even started with the big story of Canada never having earned a gold medal on home turf. The Olympics provide a story that’s accessible to so many. There’s an event for everyone. We’re united under one cause: victory for the USA.

My question is this: how do you take the stories you’re passionate about, the ones that burn inside of you, and make them accessible to the rest of the world?

Read the final post in The Quest.

The Quest: Vampires, Dragons and Greek Gods

Chapter 3

On to one of the oldest forms of story—the written word. By far, the best gadgety purchase of 2009 for me was my Amazon Kindle. I convinced myself that I didn’t need one. I have an iPhone. There’s a Kindle app. I was good to go. After a week of my thumb feeling really tired from swiping pages every 8 seconds when reading on the little screen, I decided I might benefit from the 6-inch eInk wonder.

Convinced that I would read more if I had something electronic. I set out to read the first two books in the Twilight Saga before New Moon hit the silver screen. Well, I had the release date wrong, so I had to read the first book in paperback. The Kindle arrived after a brief shipping delay and I finished New Moon the weekend of the release—a week before Thanksgiving. Since then, I have read all four books in the Twilight series, Eragon, Eldest and Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. So that’s vampires, dragons & greek gods all in 15 or so weeks in the equivalent of 4,459 pages in a hardcover book.

As you may have noticed—or maybe not—each of those books has been fairly popular and have been made as feature films. Some have faired better than others. Twilight was sort of like the book. New Moon was much better. Eragon was pretty far from the book and didn’t do well in the box office. The Lightning Thief was about 40% like the book but was a really entertaining movie. I’m now a big fan of reading the book first. Other than being frustrated by the changes in characters and plot, I feel like I understand character motivation much more. As I said in the previous post, I really do think that movies come short on character. Books give you even more than television. I understand that you only have two or three hours for a movie, but seriously, you can’t change the plot entirely or merge a love interest with a nemesis—both of which I’ve seen in these movies.

I haven’t been much of a reader until recently. About the only thing I read since high school was the Harry Potter series, which I loved. I didn’t even do much of the required reading in college. The benefit to the Kindle is that there is an iPhone app and I can read my books if I don’t have the Kindle with me. It’s about convenience. We live in an age where people rarely stop to read a story. They prefer other methods. Television and feature films prevail. While I love both, I think we’re loosing something. Stories are reduced to basic characters and basic plot. While TV does more to develop these, both fall short compared to a novel.

I understand all of this sounds blasphemous coming from someone schooled in film, but I want more than the surface story. I want to understand characters, get their motivation and have no question about why they do what they do. That’s what makes a good character. They seem like real people instead of a facsimile. Though the dictionary defines a fax as an “exact” copy, anyone who has used a fax machine lately—all three of you—knows that there’s no comparison.

How do you tell your story? Do you tell your story with it’s true depth and not just what’s on the surface?

Read the next post in The Quest.

The Quest: Why I Don’t Watch TV At Your House If Your TV Is Too Small

Chapter 2

I am a TV addict. I have a tape somewhere of my second birthday. My parents came in to my bedroom toting a video camera. I think it was one of those over the shoulder numbers that used beta. So they wake me up in my crib with my fluffy red fro. I open my eyes, still filled with sleep, and they say “Happy Birthday.” I stare at them blankly. Cut to the living room. Camera is directed at the hallway. I come wandering out with my mom and head towards the front door. Then I turn and stop at the console television and say “TV! TV! TV!” motioning for them to turn it on. I sit down entirely too close and watch Maya The Bee.

Even at the ripe age of two, it was obvious that I was a fan of television. That fandom has grown over the years. The majority of the shows I have found myself enjoying—well, still do—are dramas. I think it’s mostly because dramas are rich with both episodic plot and serial (season-long) plot. The characters are deeper than what you find in comedies. I am big on character. When I connect to a character, I’m hooked on the show.

Example: ER. Lucy was my favorite character. I remembered her from one of my mom’s favorite shows Life Goes On. During season six, they decided her character wasn’t working and killed her off. I never watched another episode of the show again. You don’t kill off my characters.

Counter example: The OC. I am a big fan of The OC (both the series and the California county). It was quite popular in film school. So popular in fact, I thought it was one of those trendy shows on HBO. As it turned out, it was on Fox so my new roommate and I caught up on the first half of the season at the beginning of the spring semester. I liked Ryan, Seth and Summer very much. Marissa was never my favorite character. At the end of season three, they killed off her character. That didn’t stop be from watching the show.

I think my Grams has it right. Even as a child, I remember her calling the soap operas she enjoyed her “stories.” That’s what they are. They are stories, just like anything else. As a result, I rarely start watching a TV show after it’s been on the air a while. I want to start at the beginning. That’s a lot easier to do now, even midseason. The iTunes store and half seasons on DVD have made catching up pretty easy to do. I learned in film school how hard you have to work to get something on the screen. Every moment is intentional. You don’t start watching a movie halfway through, the same applies to a season of television.

The thing I like most about TV is how long you have to build character and plot. Movies are just a snapshot of a story. I love movies, but they are different than TV. Bigger budgets often make them prettier, but a super amazing story is more and more rare these days. Now there are some elements that movies have going for them, don’t get me wrong. The music is usually better. The effects are always better and the acting is usually better. The story often suffers as a formulaic Hollywood plot. But if you get the right mix together, I’m wowed. Avatar is a great example. It’s a great cinematic feat. As a whole, I totally find movies entertaining, but they are easily forgotten.

TV resonates more with me. I’m fully aware that’s not true for many people, maybe even most people. As my friend Jon put it once in high school, I’m “one weird duck”—which was fitting since my favorite hockey team has always been the Ducks (more on that in chapter four). As strange as it sounds, I have a pretty personal relationship with my television. It’s why I don’t have a roommate right now. When I come home, I want to watch my TV shows. I don’t want to share my TV with anyone. I have two DVRs for the nights when I have three shows that air simultaneously. Before the advent of the TiVo, I used these for every day of the week. I don’t want to miss a minute in the lives of the fictional people that appear in my living room at my command on a big, enormous 42-inch screen. Did anyone catch the Little Shop reference there? I didn’t think so.

Anywho, I’ll close with this. As Shawn once put it on Boy Meets World, “television is the true mirror of our lives.” At least, it feels that way to me sometimes.

What ways to do you find yourself connecting to story in your day-to-day life?

Read the next post in The Quest.

The Quest: How I Got Here

Chapter 1

I’ll see if I can make this relatively short. I was born in the West Texas minor city of Abilene. It’s not too big, but not too small. My parents had their hands full with their two kids. Most of that was on my part. Hey, it’s not my fault I have ADHD. I couldn’t sit still. I asked a million questions and wouldn’t shut up. Many would say not much has changed. Thankfully, my Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Pemberton, realized that I just needed to be challenged academically and had me tested for the gifted/talented program despite my affinity for eating the homemade peppermint play dough at “centers time.”

At the ripe age of five, I was labeled gifted. That meant I got the G/T certified teachers—code for “trained to deal with Matthew.” While the other kids did busy work, I got to do special projects like hand making puppets out of brown paper bags and performing my own show for the class based on the book Miss Nelson Is Missing. A great literary work, you should check it out, seriously.

Prior to third grade, a larger number of kids are tested for G/T because at this point G/T kids are entered into the ALPS program. Each of Abilene’s 25 elementary schools were assigned one day a week on which the G/T kids traveled to a special site for most of the day where they participate in creative enrichment and what not. I really do think that without the ALPS program I wouldn’t be nearly as creative as I am today.

The summer after fourth grade, I went to my first camp with the Northwest Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. It was the most important event of my life. This is where my connection to story really began. It was a pretty typical format for a Christian summer camp. Small group times, afternoon activities, worship—VBS on steroids. I think it was Wednesday afternoon when they did movie time. The movie was the 1979 animated version of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. Sadly the 2005 version was still 10 years away. For those of you that don’t know what it’s about, check out Wikipedia. The allegory of Aslan’s sacrifice led me to salvation that day. Though I had been raised in the Church, I didn’t really get Jesus’ sacrifice. C.S. Lewis’ tale—no matter how poorly brought to the TV that day—was all I needed to put two and two together. Thus began the significance of story in my life.

Despite the lack of quality in the aforementioned animated film, I was a child of the 90s Disney classics. The Little Mermaid (technically ’89), Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Hercules, Mulan… I really liked animation. I couldn’t draw, but I knew somehow I would figure out how to be an animator. Once we got our first home PC with Windows 95 and Office 95. I took it upon myself to reanimate Beauty and The Beast with PowerPoint. It was pretty impressive if I do say so myself. I concluded that computers were my solution to not being able to draw well.

Fast forward to high school. As I progressed through various computer classes, I realized that computer animation was based more on code. That didn’t sound too creative. Thus my lifelong dream of being an animator seemed less and less appealing.

My junior year of high school brought the exciting world of Pre-AP World History. I was lucky enough to get Mrs. Wilson. She had the reputation of making history entertaining, and that she did. She came up with all sorts of crazy projects and pop culture tie-ins to help us actually remember what we learned. These creative endeavors into history ended up taking up more of the semester than she had intended. So as the end of my junior year approached, we were only finishing up 1890. We had three weeks of school and the entire 20th century left to cover. Her solution: divide and conquer. We split up into eight groups (the 90s were deemed recent enough to not be covered). Each group was assigned a decade from the 10s to the 80s. Mrs. Wilson felt the best way to show what we learned was to create a video.

I did my research and convinced my parents to buy a Pinnacle video editing card and software. In my directorial debut, we made a silent film about the 1920s. We got a 100 on the project, of course. I also helped out my good buddy Jon on their project on the 70s entitled “Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll”. Cliché maybe, so let’s just say there was some sniffing of powdered sugar involved. It was quite amusing. I got an extra 5 points for that. Anyhow, I realized that film could be a great replacement for animation.

My senior year, I was appointed as a Student Council officer. Among the various projects I was a part of, I was tasked to assist the Senior Class officers with freshman orientation. Our idea evolved into a live stage parody of Dawson’s Creek with me as director. It had a musical number from Moulin Rouge and video opening credits very close to the real thing. Though I never took theatre in high school, this project allowed me the opportunity to collaborate with our theatre director, Mr. Freeman. Once the project was over, he asked about my college plans. I admitted that I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to go, but I had decided on film production. USC and NYU topped the list, but I hadn’t decided on any Texas schools. He suggested I check into the film program at UT. As many of you know, that’s where I ended up.

I loved film school, but as graduation approached, I knew I didn’t want to do the typical Hollywood thing. I was highly involved with the Wesley (United Methodist Campus Ministry) at UT. Through the Wesley I ended up making connections that landed me an internship at a local church. That led to meeting my good friend Matt at a mission camp which led to him thinking of me when a Media Ministry Director job opened up at his church. I took that job and moved to the suburbs of San Antonio once I graduated.

After a year at that church part-time and six months part-time at Apple, the opportunity for my current job opened up. I’ve been here three years now. The storytelling aspect of my vocation has diminished a bit over the years. I realize things change, but I can’t help but wonder. Where’s the story in my life? So now I turn to contemplating what it looks like to grow my inner storyteller outside of my vocation. I know God has some great things planned for my future. I’m still ADHD and sure don’t like waiting, but I think that’s what I’m supposed to be doing right now. I’m happy with my life, but part of me is always a bit restless—waiting for the next chapter in the story.

The quest is ongoing. I continue to search out the ways in which I find myself connecting to story. What’s your story?

Read the next post in The Quest.