Film Review: La La Land (2016)

Dir: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
Runtime: 2h 8m
Music: Pasek and Paul (lyrics) Justin Hurwitz (score)

WARNING: This review contains potential SPOILERS for general plot details. MAJOR SPOILERS (likely pertaining to the ending of the film) will be forewarned in BOLD and under a “Read More.”

1Sheet_Master.qxdOne of my local movie theaters runs a promotion called Tightwad Tuesdays, so when the Damien Chazelle helmed musical/romance film La La Land finally arrived in my area, I snagged tickets a week in advance. It’s a sweet deal ($6 tickets, cheaper popcorn) but often, when I indulge in Tuesday screening, it’s not unbearably crowded. In fact, when my mom and I went to see Cinderella one Tuesday afternoon in 2015, we were the only two people in the theater. Usually, it’s not that slow, but I had never seen it packed.

This past Tuesday, my mom and I arrived at the theater about fifteen minutes early for our 1:15 showing, got our popcorn (and our annual popcorn bucket, complete with Matt Damon’s face to promote The Great Wall), and when we got into the theater, it was already at half-capacity. By the time the previews started, almost every seat was taken, save the front two neck-breaking rows of seats where no one sits anyway. Granted, I was the youngest person there by a significant margin, but I suppose the positive reception to the film had managed to saturate my sleepy little Pennsylvania town.

I have been wanting to see this film since I saw the first trailer and the buzz began to spread earlier in the year. Anticipation heightened my expectations, and I was not disappointed. I was charmed from the first notes of the opening number, and stayed captivated throughout; this film is truly deserving of its Golden Globes sweep.

La La Land is primarily focused on the romance between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist with dreams of “saving jazz” and opening his own club, and Mia (Emma Stone), a barista and aspiring actress who endures several failed auditions in her efforts to kick-start a career. As their romance unfolds over the course of a year, they attempt to navigate the obstacles and challenges of life in “La La Land” and strive to make their dreams come true.

The opening act of the film is an homage to classic Hollywood musicals, with infectiously-catchy songs like “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd,” but while one foot is tapping jauntily to the beat, the other remains planted in “reality.” The film does a fair job of lending itself to nostalgia (in a relatively self-aware manner) but still manages to divert from well-worn paths to break new ground. For example, the charming song and tap-dance number “A Lovely Night,” reminiscent of classic films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), is a whimsical scene, playing on the “two leads bicker while denying obvious chemistry” trope, but the number is interrupted by the chime of an iPhone. If that’s not a modern, relatable mood-killer, I don’t know what is.

The first arc the film portrays the rush of a new, passionate romance, while still managing to poke a bit of fun at itself, but it’s almost too much like a fantasy. I mean, no one breaks into spontaneous dance numbers while gazing out across the city skyline, and while literally dancing among the stars is a dream come true for the romantic soul in all of us (and my favorite sequence in the film), it’s not physically possible. It’s an idealization; a culmination of “Hollywood” romance.

The second act is where reality sets in, and the film hits a different, more grounded note. There are fewer musical numbers, save the now Golden Globe winning “City of Stars” and John Legend’s “Start a Fire,” as Seb and Mia start to face professional and personal challenges. The mood of the film shifts from the playful tone of new romance to something a bit more real, and though some of the magic fades, it is a reflection of life, of a relationship that has left the honeymoon stage and is now encountering obstacles as both characters try to achieve their respective dreams.

Together, both the vibrant opening act of the film and pragmatic second half manage to strike a balance between expectations/reality, and though the tone of the narrative evolves to suit the course of their relationship, it doesn’t disrupt the plot or flow of the film overall. Without revealing too much of the specific events of the film, I’ll say that La La Land hits a lot of high notes; I enjoyed the lighthearted, humorous moments, the romance, the instrumental interludes, and the emotional scenes.

As far as music goes, the songs are a significant part of what makes the film so magical; it’s easily my favorite score of the year and my personal front-runner for the Oscar. I, like Mia, didn’t even really like jazz all that much going into the film, but I came out of the theater with the tunes whirling around in my head, and I had to suppress the urge to dance on my way to the car. Here it is, a few days later, and I’m still humming the theme. Highlights for me were “City of Stars,” “A Lovely Night,” and the instrumental pieces, “Planetarium” and “Epilogue.” Hurwitz’s score flirts heavily with an old-school sound, complete with Disney-esque trills and chimes that made me half-expect Bambi to come prancing onscreen, but it adds a modern, jazzy undercurrent that makes it less saccharine. The lyrics of each song, written by Pasek and Paul, are also worth re-examining upon completion of the film; some lines take on new significance after viewing the final sequences.

I also appreciate that Gosling and Stone, while not “powerhouse” vocalists, sound like real people signing instead of trained professionals – though Stone totally killed it in “Audition.” It made them seem more genuine, and I thought both of their performances (in song and dance, especially with those extremely long takes) were stellar – the acclaim they’ve been getting is well-deserved. As far as the characters go, I thought both Mia and Seb were well-developed and written; their personalities complemented one another, and their chemistry throughout the film is palpable. Mia learns to appreciate new things through Seb’s influence, and vice versa, and they grow and change in a believable way as the film unfolds. There are so many iterations of “struggling musician” and “barista/actress” out there, it could have easily tumbled into a mess of cliches, yet Gosling and Stone each brought a fresh perspective to their roles. The film is their film, and they are the true beating heart of it all, but the supporting cast (J.K. Simmons, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, etc) are great, despite limited screen time.

Visually, the film is stunning, with amazing costumes, set design, and effects – as I mentioned, the “Planetarium” sequence is my favorite part and I might go see the film again just to see it on the big screen one more time. The cinematography is great, with the exception of a few panning shots that came across blurry, like a carousel going too fast. The use of long, uninterrupted takes for the song and dance numbers was superb. Color is used in a way that reflects the passing of the seasons and the emotional tone of the film, and it also helped enhance the dreamlike quality of many sequences.

All in all, La La Land is a well-written film that is beautiful to look at, but it’s much more than a pretty blend of color and song; all of the components – acting, music, pacing, plot – function collectively to create an engrossing story about love and life in the “City of Stars”, which, although it might partially rely on nostalgia and ideas we’ve seen onscreen thousands of times before, also puts a new spin on classic themes. It is an ode to “those who dream,” and a reminder that there might be “someone in the crowd” who can completely change your life. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go put the soundtrack on repeat for the next several days.

Overall rating: 9/10


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Writing Techniques: Character Names

Minor/minimal spoilers ahead.

Like a lot of authors/writers, I prefer to give my characters unique names – and I often choose names with particular meanings. This is not the case for all names I choose, as some are just selected by random, but most of the names I pick have a specific meaning and purpose.

My main technique is to browse name websites. I have three sites that I use the most frequently, and they are:

The last one is the one I use the most, but the other two sites are also incredibly helpful. Usually, I’ll try to filter through names by their meanings or by their origin, depending on which character I’m deciding a name for. Sometimes I just want a name that starts with a particular letter, or consists of only a particular amount of letters, and I narrow them down from there. It can be a tedious process, but it’s better to put the work in than to settle.

My other method is using Google Translate and This can often be far more involved, but for this technique, I look up different words in various languages and either morph them into something that sounds like a name, or I fuse two/multiple words together. I’m currently working on a fantasy project and this method works for that kind of story, but might not work for a more “realistic” setting and purpose. For example, if you were creating a name for a character and wanted the name to mean “strong” and “fire,” you can take the Japanese word for “strong,” which is tsuyoi, and the Maltese word for “fire,” which is nar, and you get Tsunar. I prefer using this method to craft surnames as opposed to first names, and I also google the names I come up with just to make sure I haven’t accidentally “created” a swear word or offensive term, or inadvertently stolen an already well-known name.

In regards to the characters in I’m With You, there is only one name I wish I had changed prior to publication, and that is Ciarán. I wouldn’t actually change his name though; just the spelling. I would have gone with Kiran or Kieran, only because it’s easier to pronounce – I actually had to google the proper pronunciation of Ciarán when I decided on it, which should have been an indication that switching it might be wise. But regardless, I chose the name because it means “little dark one,” and Ciarán has dark hair – and it initially caught my eye after I saw the actor Ciarán Hinds in a movie. Simple enough.

Remiel is a modification of the name “Ramiel,” who is one of the seven archangels. I am admittedly not well educated in religious terminology, but some translations have the name meaning “thunder of God,” and I’ve also seen “mercy of God.” Ramiel is apparently described as both an angel of “hope” and is associated with another “divine” characteristic (don’t want to reveal too much), which I thought were fitting to Remiel’s character.

Ramus means “branch” and can also refer to a “portion of bone.” I came up with this name YEARS before the book was even written. He (and many of the other characters in I’m With You) were created back when IWY was a significantly different story, but when the plot changed to become what it is today, his name stuck. Because he is a character that provides support to many other characters, I thought “branch” was a solid meaning. Plus I liked the sound of it, and I wanted “Ram” as a nickname. He narrowly avoided being renamed “Ramsay,” but I didn’t think it suited him.

Valkyrie’s name is obviously chosen from the war goddesses featured in Norse mythology, and though it is traditionally a feminine name/term, I thought it fit him well. It is also derived from a word that means “chooser of the slain,” and though I often toyed with changing his name to something else, I could never come up with one that I felt happy with. I’m glad I kept it in the end.

Camilla’s name means “acolyte” or something similar, but can also mean “noble.” Her character underwent some changes in personality/demeanor as the plot of IWY shifted, and as such, her name doesn’t fit quite as well as I typically prefer, but I liked the name enough to keep it for her regardless. The Basshunter song “Camilla” might have played a part in this, as well, because I was a big fan of the song back when IWY was in early planning stages.

Kaz’s name (somewhat ironically) means “peacemaker.” To avoid potential spoilers, I won’t go into detail, but there is a specific reason for this choice which should be clear to those who have read the novel. Also, it’s a little tongue in cheek due to the fact that “making peace” is certainly not his priority when he makes his first appearance.

Mitzi is the name of a dog my mom owned during her childhood. I just like the name, to be honest. There was no deeper meaning, but the name apparently can mean either “Wished-for-child,” or “bitter/rebellion,” which is a pretty significant contrast, and thus fitting for Mitzi’s personality, so I suppose it worked out well.

Kia’s name is actually a play on the term K.I.A, which means Killed in Action, and it also means “season’s beginning” or “hill.” Kia and Kaz were originally intended to be twins (and both were meant to be villains) way back in the preliminary stages of planning, so that is why both of their names start with “K” and are the same amount of letters. Berach means “pointed” or “sharp,” which was meant to indicate that despite the fact that he’s big and silent and more likely to follow orders than to make his own plans, his skills are not to be underestimated. Dahlia is, of course, a reference to the flower. Markone is just an invented name, as far as I know – it might be a real name, but I did not intend for it to have  a specific meaning. Maverick, however, means “noncomformist” and “independent,” which certainly suited his character, even though he is mainly referred to by his surname.

As for the secondary characters, Dianna’s name is a reference to Roman goddess Diana, and it means “heavenly” or “divine.” If you’ve read the novel, I hope you will understand my choice there. Ernest means “serious; determined,” and Neima means “strong” or “pleasant.” Eliron means “My God is song.” Zoran means “dawn” or “daybreak” and Lunette is a reference to the moon, as their names are intended to complement one another. Cinderflynn’s name is probably the most unusual, and one of the exceptions to my self-imposed “names should have meanings” rule. I hate to shatter this grandiose illusion, but “Cinderflynn” is a combination of “Cinder,” as in Cinderella, and “Flynn,” which is a reference to… Kevin Flynn from Tron. What can I say? I love Tron.

And that covers most of it! If you have difficulty coming up with names for your characters and are looking for a new strategy, you could give one of these methods a try… it might work for you, too.

Destroyer of Technology

Over the years, I have earned a title.

This particular title is not quite as impressive as Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, of the blood of old Valyria, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons… etc, etc. No, my title is significantly shorter, and it does not denote any particular achievement or accomplishment. Rather, it declares me as a harbinger of doom.

I am the Destroyer of Technology.

For the record, I love technology. I’m not one of those folks who keeps up with all the latest trends or anything, and I don’t rush to pre-order every time a new version of the iPhone comes out (still rocking my LG G3) but I do have a deep respect for the latest trends, even if I don’t follow them all. I love my gadgets and electronics… but sometimes, I have an odd way of expressing my appreciation.

When I obtain a new electronic device or some form of technology, there is a fairly decent chance that I will somehow destroy it. Accidentally, of course. Some minor incidents include kicking a printer during a bout of frustration and breaking it beyond repair (it was a crap $50 printer from Circuit City, don’t know why I was surprised that it didn’t work well) and tripping over my power cord, breaking it, and knocking my laptop off my desk in the process. However, these were not the most damaging incidents.

My legacy began with my first iPod. It was a nano. The old version, which only came in black and white. My sister and I each got one as a gift and I cherished that thing. I took it everywhere. So, inevitably, I left it in my pocket one day and accidentally put it through the washing machine and about half of a dryer cycle. Needless to say, it was ruined for good and I was devastated.

Now, typically, one would think that after leaving a valuable electronic device in a pocket and subjecting it to a rinse cycle, I would have learned to always check my pockets before doing a load of laundry. But no, no… my first iPod was not the last to suffer so.

A couple of years later, I left my cell phone (Razr, anyone?) in the pocket of a sweatshirt and it ended up going through the washer, which killed it. To my credit, my mom is the one who put it through the laundry, however, I am the one who left the phone in my pocket and put the sweatshirt in the hamper, so I certainly shoulder the brunt of the blame.

I eventually procured a second iPod while in college. It was my running buddy; a companion that provided musical motivation for those early jogging sessions on brisk New England mornings. How did my workout companion meet his untimely end? You guessed it; death by washing machine. But this time, I managed to realize it before it got put into the dryer, so it wasn’t roasted as well as drowned. Regardless, it was rendered unusable and I was bereft of portable music once more.

Shortly after this, I went to the Apple Store and bought a new nano, determined to keep it alive for longer than 2 years. That might not seem like an impressive goal to meet but for me, it seemed pretty reasonable. I treated this iPod very well, and was vigilant about checking my pockets before each load of laundry.

One day in December, about a year or so after I bought it, I went to the gym, jammed out to my tunes while strolling on the treadmill, then came home, only to realize that my iPod was not in my pocket. Naturally, I thought I left it at the gym, but it wasn’t there the next day, nor was it in the lost and found. It wasn’t in my car, or anywhere I had been in the interim. It had seemingly vanished into thin air. I thought maybe I forgot that I had put it in my bag, but it wasn’t in my purse, or my wallet, or anywhere else I might have absently dropped it and forgotten about.

For ten days, I searched. And my search was fruitless. During this time, there was a period or torrential rainfall, a day of snow, and generally damp, cold, and miserable conditions. I bet you can see where this is going.

On a lark, I decided to check my front yard, just in case my iPod fell out of my pocket on my trek from my car to the front door. LO AND BEHOLD, beneath a brown, soggy, withered leaf, nestled between the sidewalk and the wet grass, was my beautiful pink iPod nano. It had been out in the wind and the snow and the rain for TEN DAYS. I was not – ABSOLUTELY NOT – going to lose another one. No way. Not like this.

Horrified, I snatched it up, took it into my bathroom, set my hair-dryer on low, and put my iPod under it for about five minutes, praying that it would live. I believe I was chanting, “LIVE, LIVE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, LIVE” over and over. And, to my utmost relief, when I went to plug my iPod into my laptop, the screen lit up.

And it worked.


So, how did I celebrate this joyous occasion? By screaming for joy and jumping up and down, of course. And I renamed my iPod Lazarus, because I thought it was hilarious.

Good ol’ Lazarus worked for about eight months, but I guess he caught some kind of delayed pneumonia from his ten day ordeal in the elements, because he stopped functioning over the summer and I recently replaced him with a $20 mp3 player I got on Amazon because I think I have proven numerous times over the years that I can’t, and shouldn’t, have nice things.

The moral of the story?

Check your pockets before you do your laundry, and always be mindful of your valuables and belongings. Not only have I slaughtered innocent electronics over the years, but also several chapsticks, (one which ruined the clothes in the laundry, as well) money, and poor defenseless hair-ties. Treat your things with caution and care, or else, you could end up with a title like mine… the Destroyer of Technology.


Worth 1000 Words #3: Sweet Sixteen

Call me a killjoy, but I am not a birthday person. As in, I dislike my own birthday. I enjoy celebrating the birthdays of friends and family as they see fit, and will happily go along with whatever shenanigans are planned as long as they are legal, but I prefer to keep mine on the down low, so I haven’t had a traditional “birthday party” since I was a kid. Dinner and a movie with some family or friends and I’m solid for another year. I don’t like a big to-do about things.

My sixteenth birthday was a little different.

The “sweet sixteen” is often seen as a milestone birthday (at least in American culture) and a lot of teens throw a big bash in celebration. Some are luxurious, exorbitantly expensive affairs, as shown in that old MTV show My Super Sweet Sixteen that aired while I was growing up, which featured whiny brats who get Hummers or BMWs as a birthday gift and then have the audacity to complain about the color, while other sweet sixteens tend to be more subtle and subdued.

My sixteenth birthday was the latter sort of event. To the extreme. Also, it was very, very indicative of the area where I grew up.

When I turned sixteen — which was over eight years ago, a nice, cringe-inducing realization I just had — I was going through a bit of a difficult time. After having reconstructive knee surgery the previous October and enduring a long rehabilitation process, I’d just learned, fairly early in the track season, that I was never going to be able to come back from my initial injury at the same level I used to be, effectively ending my athletic career for good. That, and I was a typical moody teenager, dealing with the daily problems that moody teenagers face, which are pretty insignificant in hindsight. So all in all, a pretty angsty time in awkward-Allie’s teenage life.

On the day of my sixteenth birthday, I left the athletic trainer’s office after an extra rehab session, and, since I didn’t have to go to track practice any more, I waited for my sister to come pick me up and take me home. I don’t think we had any other plans for the evening birthday celebration-wise, considering it was a school night and birthday festivities were probably being delayed until the weekend. But when my sister pulled up and I got in the passenger seat, she informed me that we were not going home, we were going somewhere else. I asked where, and she said it was a surprise — which, if you know my sister, set off warning bells in my head.

And then she drove me to a local dairy farm.

Please ignore my terrible hair. As I’ve said, it was a difficult time in more ways than one…

Now, in rural PA, dairy farms and farms in general aren’t what I’d call rare. But they aren’t really a place to go, if you know what I mean. There aren’t crazy parties or hangout sessions at the local dairy farm — those are reserved for the local 24-hour convenience store/gas stations, which are the place to be during summer vacation. The last time I’d been to a dairy farm was when I was in kindergarten, about five or six years old, and my class took a tour of one as a field trip. During the trip, my entire hand ended up in a cow’s mouth, which wasn’t a pleasant experience to say the least. I might have cried, but I think I buried the details of that memory very, very deep in my subconscious.

So when we pulled up to the farm, and my sister gleefully informed me, “We’re going to go pet some baby cows!” I was a little leery. Naturally, of all the things that could have happened on my sixteenth birthday, petting cows was not on my radar at all. Also, I should mention, this wasn’t some weird delinquent episode where my sister and I snuck into a dairy farm to pet cows, this was something that the farm permitted. As in, anyone could go and do this if they felt so inclined, or to satisfy some cow-petting urges, or to see where some of our local milk comes from.

So, we got out of the car, approached the cow pens, and we pet some baby cows. I was a little nervous due to my traumatic past experience with similar cows, but my sister took the lead, and, seeing as her hand did not end up in contact with a cow’s esophagus, I eventually reached a tentative hand out to a calf named Ringo. Ringo was adorable, with his soft fur and his big, sweet brown eyes. He sniffed my sleeve, as you can see in the embedded photo, and it was the start of a fledgling bovine/human friendship. After a bit, one of the employees  asked if we wanted to help feed the calves, and thus, we ended up each taking a large bottle of milk and letting the baby cows go to town. We were only there for a little while, but I had an unexpectedly enjoyable time. Def recommend and absolutely would go again.

Of all the things to do on my sixteenth birthday, I ended up petting cows at a dairy farm. I don’t think a lot of people can say that, except for people who live on dairy farms, but unorthodox as it was, it actually meant a lot to me that my sister thought to take me there, considering I don’t like to make a big deal about my birthday. No, I didn’t have a big bash with all my friends and no, I didn’t get a car, and no, I didn’t throw a tantrum because my parents didn’t pay to have my favorite popstar sing happy birthday to me. But it was an awesome sweet sixteen nonetheless, and one of my most memorable birthdays yet.

Five Little Things

Often, it’s the little things in life that can provide the most happiness. After a bad day, even a simple thing can provide a much-needed lift to a sour mood. Here are five of my “little things,” which, even though they might mean nothing to another person, have a great impact on me.

1.) Going to a movie by myself.
I used to do this pretty often in college, while I was taking film classes and I lived by myself. I had a four and a half hour break between classes during one semester, so instead of camping at the library, I would go to the theater down the street and catch an afternoon movie before heading back to campus. Obviously, I love going to the movies with friends and family, but when I go alone, it allows me to truly immerse myself, when otherwise I might whisper to my best friend how cute an actor is, or how much I like some character’s dress. Sometimes, I can only truly appreciate a film when I’m alone, free to analyze it as I see fit, without chatter or interference. Also, sometimes no one else wants to see the movie I’m going to… still don’t know why no one in my immediate circle wanted to see Paranorman, but whatever, their loss. If you’re a film fan with a preconceived notion that going to the movies alone makes you a loser, give it a try. I also go twice in one day sometimes, which is a bit painful for my butt (theater seats, man) but a good time regardless. Plus, that means double the gummy bears! And one of the local theaters has three different kinds of Skittles, including orchard skittles, which are the BEST.

2.) Staying up late to finish a good book.
I used to do this all the time in high school, regardless of my 6AM alarm, but there was a stretch of time a few years ago where I read nothing besides designated reading for my classes, and that drought continued after graduation. My burnt-out brain just couldn’t delve into a book for pleasure, and it took finally reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series over the summer of 2013 to drag me out of my funk. It doesn’t happen very often anymore, considering my alarm typically goes off at 5AM and I’m a zombie half the time anyway, but when it does, it is always, ALWAYS worth it. Losing myself in a world for a few hours, until the last page turns over and the last words appear, is such a gratifying experience, even if I have to drag myself out of bed the next day. I pretty much have to do that every day regardless, so might as well have a reason for it.

3.) A great song comes on the radio after a long day.
Not too long ago, I had a rough day and was driving home on a back road when “Eye of the Tiger” (otherwise known as the “Rocky song”) by Survivor came on the radio. Naturally, I rolled the windows down and started scream-singing along, which is the only thing to do when that song starts playing. The same goes for “Come on Eileen” by  Dexy’s Midnight Runners, which I serenaded my fellow commuters with the other day, despite the fact that my singing voice sounds like a dying rhino. Just one song can instantly lift my mood. And if Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” comes on at any point while I’m in the car, fellow drivers better watch out.

4.) When my name is spelled right on coffee cups.
Both my pen name and my real name suffer from frequent misspellings–not because they are difficult to spell, but because there are various versions. I never bother spelling it out for the barista because it’s not hard to pronounce (I do get “Alice” a lot, though, usually due to a failure to enunciate), but it’s always a gamble as to whether or not they’re going to use the correct spelling. And when it’s spelled wrong, it doesn’t bother me, because it’s pretty close most of the time. But it is weirdly vindicating to get the cup with my white chocolate mocha in it and see my name spelled correctly. Like, it’s not a massive deal in the grand scheme of things (as in, it is practically the epitome of “the little things”) but it is very satisfying.

5.) Fleece-lined leggings.
By far, this is the most trivial item on my list. But you cannot possibly comprehend the power these leggings have. During the autumn/winter months, when I’m just hanging out at home, writing or cleaning or whatever, I am almost always wearing these leggings, because they are the most comfortable article of clothing I own. It got to the point where I bought a second pair of the exact same leggings just so I could wear them even more. They are the perfect combination of warm/comfort, and I got them for only $3 on sale! Probably the greatest purchase I’ve ever made, not gonna lie.


Perennial Jackass

When I was ten, all I wanted was to be an angel.

I ended up making an ass of myself, so to speak.

During my childhood, I was in the church Christmas Pageant every year. Due to my age, I was often relegated to the role of a farm animal. And because my kangaroo headdress from an old Halloween costume resembled donkey ears, I got stuck as the donkey for a couple of years. I mean, it’s supposed to be a very noble donkey and all, having escorted Mary around while she was carrying Jesus, but the idea wasn’t exactly appealing to me. I sure did get a lot of “Awwwww” and “How precious!” comments from parents and elderly churchgoers as I toddled up the aisle with a bell around my neck, leading the teenage girl playing Mary.

However, once I reached a double-digit age, I was determined to earn my wings. The winter of my fourth grade year, I wanted to be an angel – I wanted to trade the donkey ears for feathers and a halo, and join the heavenly host at last!

As soon as the lists were posted, I signed up to be an angel. I certainly wasn’t the only one; every girl (and a boy or two) in my age bracket wanted to don a robe and wings. And, because fate is a fickle mistress, there was a significantly higher number of kids signed up to be angels as opposed to lowly farm animals.

And, unfortunately, there weren’t enough angel costumes to go around. So it was decided, by the all-powerful volunteer Sunday school teachers, that the youngest angels would have to surrender their brand new tinsel-and-pipe-cleaner halos for cow horns or a sheep headdress…. or, in my case, the donkey ears that I knew all too well.

Needless to say, I was devastated. I had waited years to be an angel, only to have my wings torn from me at the last minute. I could have kicked and screamed and demanded to be an angel, but (mercifully) ten-year-old me had more sense than that. But seriously, no child wants to be a perennial jackass. I had been recast after landing my dream role, and, to a kid, that’s a pretty big deal and a huge blow.

I briefly considered quitting the pageant altogether, but, in the end, I did not allow myself to wallow for long. I ultimately decided to suck it up and just resign myself to donkey-dom for another year. I mean… if I didn’t escort Mary to the manger, how was Jesus going to be born? Not to brag or anything, but the donkey is a pretty pivotal role.

Regardless of my heartbreak, I dutifully fulfilled my role as the noble donkey. I went on to be a magnificent mule companion, tagging along with Mary as she tried to find room at the inn (spoiler alert: there was no room at the inn.) I received many an “Aw, how precious!” that year.

And you know what? It wasn’t the end of the world. I didn’t get what I wanted, but I still got to participate. Though my dreams had been grounded before they could fully take off, I rolled with the hand I was dealt. I did not know if I would ever have a chance to ascend into angel-dom, but I wore the donkey ears proudly.

The next year, I still did not get to be an angel. In fact I aged out of the pageant without ever getting a halo. The next year, I was granted a new opportunity. I got to be the narrator, one of the most coveted roles, and typically reserved for an older child or teen. Sure, the role basically sparked a lifelong, crippling fear of public speaking, but that’s not the point. At the time, it was a proud moment for me, and I was happy to accept the role because it made all those years of being a donkey worth it

The point is, you don’t always get what you want. Sometimes, you never do. But that doesn’t mean something better won’t come along; all you have to do is keep going, put in your best effort to everything you so, and hold the faith. That way, you won’t be doomed to be a perennial jackass for eternity.


The Faulty Vending Machine of Life

When I was in college, I had several of my English classes in a building known as Emerson Hall, so I spent a lot of time there. Occasionally, I would get thirsty over the course of the day and would need to buy a water bottle from the vending machine. However, I quickly learned that one of the vending machines was not a normal beverage dispenser. It was actually possessed by demons. Oddly generous demons, that is.

One day, I went down and ordered a water bottle. I put in $1.25, got a water bottle, and started to walk away… and then I heard the rumble of the machine kick up, and it spat out another bottle. I scooped it out, thinking that I’d scored a duplicate by mistake… but then it happened again. And again. And again.

All in all, I ended up with 13 waters. One of my professors strolled by, saw my predicament, and muttered, “They really need to fix that thing,” before disappearing into a classroom. I ended up leaving a few of the bottles on top of the vending machine, but crammed the rest into my bag and handed most of them out to classmates.

Over time, many students discovered that, if you order one drink from the vending machine, it will sometimes spit out every single drink in that category all at once. A friend of mine got saddled with 11 Cokes at one point, another with 20+ Sprites. If you didn’t get lucky and hit the machine right after it was filled, it would typically run out after a couple of days, then not get refilled for a week or so.

It was a luck of the draw situation; a gamble. One person could approach, put in their $1.25, and get one drink. Then, the next person could stroll up, pop in their $1.25, and get 14 Dr. Peppers. Is it fair? No. It was all random; up to the fickle hands of fate and fortune.

That’s life, though.

Life is a faulty vending machine. Sometimes, you walk up and the drink you yearned for has been snatched away, and you’re stuck with sub-par alternate options. Sometimes, you put in the same amount of effort, or even more, than someone else, and they reap the rewards while you settle for scraps. Does life always work this way? No, sometimes it works in the opposite manner. Sometimes, it isn’t something that can be prevented – it’s just the way things are. Sometimes, you end up folding while someone else gets a flush, and the only deciding factor was chance.

But does that mean you stop putting in the effort? No, of course not.

Even faulty vending machines have their moments of functionality. They are full of prizes; of wonders and marvels. Sometimes, it won’t take your money. Other times, your packet of peanut M&M’s gets jammed and you can’t free it, even after trying to knock it loose with some Swedish Fish or a shoulder-slam into the machine. And every now and then, it will give you the wrong item instead of the one you wanted, and you have to make do with a danish instead of cookies. Does that mean you give up? No; you keep on trying. The peanut M&M’s will be yours, someday, no matter how elusive they seem.

Maybe life isn’t fair, sometimes, and it doesn’t always work out how you want it to, no matter how hard you try. But it’s always worth it to take a chance, and put in the effort, even if there are some mishaps along the way. With enough patience, you can also end up with 13 water bottles for $1.25. Because life may be faulty, but it is worth the effort.