All That Remains of the Day

My best and brightest moments each day are when I’m soaking up the daylight with my family. So with that in mind, let me tell you what my 37-minute-long 6:00 evening commute feels like in the waning, light-draining days of October.

It feels like I’m breathlessly racing the sunset, hands tightly gripping the steering wheel, using the passing lane as a strategic ally, gunning it with white knuckles through every yellow stoplight, wincing with furrowed brow at every red one, inwardly cursing slow drivers in front of me, helplessly watching the sun drop toward the horizon, trying not to think about where that sun will be at the same time next week or *gulp* next month, hoping that by playing the angles and taking calculated risks (with the help of my traffic app) I can preserve every precious available second of daylight, all so that I can whisk my wide-eyed kids outside for a fleeting but fantastically fortifying 9-minute walk in the dusky woods, the pastel glow of the sky rapidly fading above us, before darkness quietly and unsympathetically blankets the world.

Or, you know, something like that.


The time crunch is tricky, and the struggle is real. For instance, on Monday I left work at 6:01, the sun officially set at 6:20, and I arrived home at 6:37. You might think that wouldn’t give me any daylight to work with, but you’d be pleasantly mistaken. I took Greyson and Violet outside immediately — thanks to the ever-wonderful Danielle having them bundled up and ready to go — and stayed out until dinner was ready at 6:50, a full 30 minutes after the sun had technically disappeared from view. Residual daylight is a wonderful thing, and highly underappreciated by those who assume that if it looks dark outside, then it’s too dark to go outside.

(There is a strange optical illusion at play here. Dusk looks like nighttime when viewed through a window. But if you walk outside, you’ll often be shocked at how much you can still see. Eyes are the windows to the soul, but windows, as it turns out, are not always to be trusted as the eyes of the house.)

It takes a lot of intentional effort to preserve every precious one of my 7-9 minutes of residual daylight (on my 6:00 workdays) this time of year. But man oh man do my boy and girl make it well worth the effort.

One night this week, Greyson pointed up at the sky and said gleefully, “The sky has some pink and some peach and a little purple and maybe some blue!” This is roughly what I say to him each time we see the sunset, so it warms my autumnally cooling heart to hear him mimic my words, and my sense of wonder. Especially since the sky wasn’t actually all that colorful on this particular night, given the lateness of the hour. Maybe he was just describing the colors that are ever-present in his vividly hued imagination. He must be a rose-colored (or in this case a pink-and-peach-and-purple-colored) optimist like all Wingert boys tend to be.

As for Violet, when she’s not quietly observing the world she points with her tiny index finger at things above and around her in nature and says “Ba!” or “Ma!” Which I think reveals a deeply reflective nature that will invariably blossom into wonderful traits and artistic abilities we can’t even currently envision or fathom.

Walking through the woods across from our house, Greyson’s little hand in mine while I hold Violet snugly in the crook of my other arm, is one of my preeminent joys in life. The longer family jaunts through the countryside that all 4 of us take when I get off work at 5:00 are even better. (And wow am I grateful that I married a fellow lover of nature walks.) But when I have minimal daylight to work with, and I’m outside with one or both of the kids to myself, I love making those minutes count.

It’s amazing how much you can pack into a 9-minute conversation when there are no indoor distractions. I review the day with them (“What did you read about today, Greyson?”), do my best to set the stage for the day to come, and try to convey an awe for the wonders of the natural world. Through the wide eyes and keen ears of my kids, I always see and hear much more in nature than I would have on my own. But even beyond anything we say or see or hear, the physical bond of just being connected at the hand (Greyson) or at the chest (Violet) is a sensory gift beyond compare.

So I will continue seizing these autumnal “remains of the day” as long as I possibly can. Because these evening moments in nature with my family are what makes an otherwise ordinary, possibly forgettable weekday remain firmly embedded in my memory.

I don’t live to work; I work to live. My family is my life. My job could never be my life. So most everything that precedes these nature moments each weekday is prologue. But our evening walk?

That’s the symphony.


Wh-Ottawa-nderful Place

Every family has its happy place. For many, it’s Disney World. For some, there’s nothing better than a Caribbean cruise. Others prefer visiting national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. I have a friend who is never happier than when he takes his kids to Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

My family’s happy place? Ottawa, capital of the ever-charming nation of Canada.

This is a somewhat odd choice for us in that (1) Danielle and I aren’t city people at all, even a little, (2) I am a deep admirer of national parks and want to bequeath to our kids a John Muir-level wilderness admiration via our vacation destinations, and (3) a capital is the hub of a country’s politics, and I prefer to get as far away from politics as possible on vacation.

But the capital of Canada is a city for people who are not city people. And magisterial dwellings and delightful museums aside, Ottawa is no Washington, D.C.

What initially drew us to Ottawa was more pragmatic than anything else. Last year we planned to take a 4th of July trip, but we wanted to avoid holiday crowds and holiday lodging prices — not to mention holiday explosives that wake up sleep-resistant little boys. So we decided to leave the United States on Independence Day, an act which I’m pretty sure can get you charged with treason in certain corners of the country (or at least get you pilloried on certain corners of the internet).

I studied some maps and quickly learned that there are areas in Canada that are easier for us to get to than Maine and half of Vermont. Who knew? So I found a quaint B&B in the Ontario countryside outside of Ottawa, and what followed was one of the most pleasant, low-key, refreshing vacations we’ve ever taken. (Not to mention the first 4th of July in a decade where we didn’t have either our wee child’s or our wee dog’s sleep threatened by the sound of cheap Chinese explosives sporadically detonating outside our house until the wee hours of the night.)

We loved our “Ottawadyssey” so much that 15 months later, the very next time we planned a just-the-4-of-us vacation, we booked a return trip — this time during autumn, and this time right in the city itself. And that 4-day visit exceeded all of our high hopes. Canada, in my experience, has a way of doing that.

So why do we love Ottawa? Let me count the ways.

  • There are no garish billboards on any of the highways we’ve traversed in Ontario. In fact, there are no billboards at all. None. Just a clean view of the lush Canadian landscape. And in Ottawa, a clean view of the city skyline. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is.
  • Speaking of billboards, you know those blue signs on U.S. interstates telling you which gas stations and fast-food joints can be found at each exit? Well, Canada has blue signs along their interstates too. But none of them advertise junk food or chain restaurants. Instead, they list informative and/or delightful points of interest, such as a glassblower and an art studio along with these other actual charming places:

~ Hall’s Apple Market & Maize Quest

~ Stanley’s Olde Maple Lane Farm

~ Mrs. McGonigal’s Fine Mustards

While I’m driving down the interstate, I’d much rather be informed of Mrs. McGonigal’s locally sourced mustards than Mr. McDonald’s mass-produced meats. In fact, I’d take Canada’s food signage over ours in a (non-artery-clogging) heartbeat.

  • Canada is clean! Squeaky clean. Startlingly clean. Everything we saw, from the city to the suburbs to the countryside, was well taken care of.
  • The people of Canada all seem happy and balanced. That’s not uniformly true, of course. Suffering and discontent exists everywhere. But it’s noticeable to me, and even striking, how much less furrowed the average Canadian’s brow seems to be than that of the average American in 2019. I was struck during both of our visits by how easy it was to strike up a pleasant conversation with strangers, including those who had no vested business interest in being friendly to us. There is a natural charm in Canada that is disarming.
  • On a side note, you know what’s also disarming? The fact that far more people are dis-armed. Canada may be a bit chillier than the U.S., but maybe it’s because Canadians don’t pack nearly as much heat.
  • Ottawa is one of the only million-person cities I’ve ever visited that didn’t immediately make me feel agitated by the crowds and disoriented by the traffic. It’s an easy city to navigate, and I only heard one driver (one!) honk his horn in the 7 total days we spent there. You don’t realize quite how much you appreciate civility until you’re suddenly surrounded by it and realize that’s a feeling you haven’t had in a while.
  • Herbivorous dining spots are easy to find, and we found both the workers and the patrons of these restaurants to be quite amiable. We ate dinner at Grow Your Roots Café during both Ottawa visits, and each time a different set of young-ish, genial strangers came over to our table and chatted warmly with us and our kids. And I have to say, it kind of made us want to be their neighbors.
  • The museums are magnificent! The parks are pristine! Rideau River is radiant! Is that enough? Do you still need one more?

In conclusion (and because I just can’t help myself), I’d just like to say that if I was working in the Canadian Department of Tourism, I would suggest this as an official slogan for Canada’s capital city.

Ottawa: You Oughtta Wa-nder Up Here for a Visit

I’m sure glad we did! Now we know that Canada is our home — and our happy place — away from the happy place that is our home.



Why I Won’t Watch ‘Joker’ (Even Though I Find It Just As Alluring As Everyone Else)

Bunny: “Uli doesn’t care about anything. He’s a nihilist.”

The Dude: “Ah, that must be exhausting.”

The Big Lebowski

I’m a sucker for (1) dark movies, (2) origin stories, (3) Joaquin Phoenix performances, and (4) Batman-connected movies that were not directed by Joel Schumacher. (Sorry, nipple-suited George Clooney Batman, but Gotham City deserves better. Much better.)

So it would seem to follow that Joker, a jet-black origin story starring Joaquin Phoenix which depicts the rise of one of the most haunting characters in modern cinema, would be right up my alley. And it absolutely is.

But I won’t watch it in a theater— or maybe anywhere, ever. Here are 4 reasons why.


Reason #1: A director makes a world of difference.

I’m one of those movie geeks who want to know the name of the director who directed every movie I watch, and the name of every other movie that director previously directed. I have been known to watch a movie solely because I appreciate the director’s filmography.

For instance, I will watch anything directed by Christopher Nolan (who is consistently brilliant), Alfonso Cuarón (who is consistently humane and gut-wrenching), and Alexander Payne (who is consistently near-perfect, or at least was up until the not-even-close-to-perfect Downsizing). That one blip notwithstanding, my loyalty to these directors has led to many rewarding movie experiences that I might not have had if I was ambivalent about who stood behind the camera.

So who is the director of Joker? Todd Phillips. What do we know about him? Well, he has achieved great box office success as a director of comedies, mostly R-rated, that aim to elicit laughs and sometimes shock, obliterating boundaries of good taste in the process. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Phillips over the years.

In my early 20s, I was drawn to Road Trip and Old School for both good reasons (Will Ferrell and ‘00s-era Vince Vaughn are two of my comic idols) and less-than-good reasons (I’ll leave that to your imagination). But I never kidded myself into thinking Road Trip was a genuinely well-constructed movie, and to me Old School is only half of a well-constructed movie, while the latter half falls apart like so many comedies have been known to do since the ‘80s.

Speaking of the ‘80s, next up for Todd Phillips came Starsky & Hutch [EDIT: Oops, my bad… that TV show was from the late ’70s], which I thought was both one of the most laugh-out-loud funny comedies — Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson at their comic peak — and also one of the most weirdly dark PG-13 movies I’d ever seen. I don’t remember hearing anyone else make that assessment at the time, but I stand by it. The movie felt R-rated all the way to me, and I was baffled by the typically conservative-leaning MPAA’s rendering of a toothless PG-13 verdict. Among other things, the movie made cocaine and threesomes look incredibly cool. It was a movie that 12-year-olds could easily watch, which I wouldn’t feel comfortable watching with an 18-year-old.

But Todd Phillips’ biggest claim to box-office fame was The Hangover, a movie starring no big names (at the time) that somehow grossed over $250 million and thereby altered the comedy landscape for years, leading studios to bankroll R-rated comedies with reckless abandon. Because of its unexpected smashing success, it was spun into a trilogy of movies, which from what I gather were each more shocking (and less imaginative) than the last.

I only watched the first Hangover and and found it to be fairly entertaining, but there was a casual joke about pedophilia so spectacularly wrong-headed that it led me to not even touch the cash-grab sequels that were rushed to theaters 2 and 4 years later.

So what’s the Todd Phillips takeaway? For me, he is a technically competent director of crass and intermittently funny shock comedies. He is also someone who has given no evidence at any point during his movie career that he has the faintest whiff of a conscience. Even the aforementioned Starsky & Hutch, one of only two “mainstream” PG-13 comedies he’s ever made, and the most solidly constructed and consistently funny movie in his filmography, was transgressive in a way that unsettled me. And not just for the reasons listed above. (Revisit it sometime with an open mind if you’re curious.)

On the whole, Todd Phillips comedies are filled with ugly flecks of misogyny, men behaving badly, morally adrift storylines, and — perhaps most damning of all in my estimation — casual nihilism.

So that’s my first red flag about Joker. Todd Phillips is not a director I trust.

Reason #2: The first trailer made me uneasy. The second trailer made me queasy.

That doesn’t remotely convince me to avoid a movie, mind you. In some cases, unsettling trailers are what make me want to watch a movie. But the more I read about Joker, the more I become convinced that the feeling I had watching both versions of the trailer was not moral stodginess but more of a solid hunch emanating from some reliable, self-preserving part of my soul.

I could feel the trailer rattle through my bones. It made the Dark Knight movies look faintly Pollyanna-ish by comparison. At least those superhero movies had a hero.

But Joker appeared to be a document of unchecked oblivion; an origin story for darkness itself, untainted by even the faintest speck of goodness or light. Even No Country for Old Men — another jet-black movie about a black hole of a villain — had within it a voice of reason in Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff character.

But Joker gives every impression of being, and early reviews have confirmed this, a story of rampant, unmitigated darkness. And to me, the hollow nihilism that is showcased in the trailer is — to crib a term from another DC-inflected superhero/supervillain movie — kryptonite to any good narrative.

Reason #3: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”

This indelible quote is from the late, great Roger Ebert. I think about it often and have probably most often applied it to a certain other cinematic provocateur.

Quentin Tarantino is a wildly polarizing but quite popular director (at least among cinephiles) who has made films about (1) slavery, (2) World War II, and (3) a woman getting revenge for the death of her unborn child. And yet at virtually no point during Tarantino’s career has he managed to impart any lingering sense of moral resonance. He makes films that are technically virtuosic and morally vapid. Movies that shock your eyes and ears but leave your conscience numbed and your heart untouched.

Tarantino is living proof that just because a movie is about slavery or Nazis and is, well, anti-slavery and anti-Nazi (as one would assuredly hope) does not mean that the movie grapples in any meaningful way with these precipitous subjects. Tarantino’s goal is always to wow us with snarky dialogue and innovative camera work; never to be honest or vulnerable enough to grapple thoughtfully or sensitively with subjects of massive, undeniable real-world resonance.

And so, I suspect, will be the case with Todd Phillips’ take on the Joker’s derangement.

In theory, it’s not a bad idea — not in the slightest — to make a movie that explains the rise of an eventual villain, building empathy by conveying the depths of anguish that person experienced in his earlier years. In fact, this can be a constructive narrative exercise that encourages us not to view anyone as an inherent monster with no raison d’etre. Everyone is complex and worth understanding, including those we have categorized as villains.

But in order to pull off the delicate narrative balance required by such an assignment, choosing the right director is of paramount importance. And I can only think of a handful of people who would be less qualified for the job than Todd Phillips.

Not only has he exclusively directed comedies, with zero forays into pathos. But he lacks even a trace of the moral weight that would be needed in spades (along with some degree of heart) to pull off a Joker saga.

This movie may technically be “about” mental health and suffering and the cycle of violence. But every indication I see is that the way that it’s about these delicate, hair-trigger subjects could — perhaps unintentionally — turn the Joker into a hero. It appears to be all dark, gritty style without the requisite emotional substance that would be needed to stick the landing.

And if that indeed proves to be the case, as many of the critics I trust most have solemnly indicated in their early reviews, then Joker could be a powderkeg. Its release could be like throwing a grenade into our already rage-addled society.

At least that’s my darkest fear.

Reason #4: Studios bankroll what we tell them to bankroll. Spend accordingly.

Beyond all the fears of copycat violence and the dangers of normalizing nihilism, there is a pragmatic reason I won’t pay money to watch Joker in a movie theater. If this movie is a box office juggernaut, which it gives every indication of being, then it will send a bat sig… or no, let’s say a Joker signal, to movie studios everywhere.

It will tell financiers that it’s well worth their investment to greenlight tales of depravity and darkness that are even faintly connected to a superhero franchise. After all, superhero movies are the single most mainstream — and most eminently bankable — movie products of the past decade.

But before Joker, and to a lesser extent perhaps Suicide Squad, there were very few superhero movies that could be thought of as truly transgressive. Even the more violent entries in the genre tended to always have some kind of moral compass. That’s the essence of a superhero movie, after all — the villain may be super-villainous, but the heroes are super-heroic and find supremacy in the end. (Or at least they do by the end of their trilogy.)

Joker represents a new, ultra-dark direction for the superhero/villain genre. If it makes $300 million, as it could easily make based on hype alone, these kinds of movies will proliferate. And sure enough, a trailer was just released this week for Birds of Prey — another Joker-adjacent property — that rivals Todd Phillips’ Joker as one of the grittiest, grimiest superhero trailers of the decade.

So ask yourself: Is this what we want as a society? To turn the superhero genre on its head and begin to use it primarily as a conduit for our most primal rage and darkness? If so, then this weekend’s near-inevitable Joker windfall means that we’re well on our way.

But if it’s not what we want as a society, then the only way to stop the trend dead in its tracks is to not throw money at the movie studios that produce this soulless content, seemingly without care or compunction.

And for me, that means that I can’t bring myself to spend 8 bucks to see Joker in a theater. No matter how much dark, dizzying allure it absolutely holds for me. I simply don’t trust Todd Phillips or believe in his vision of unrelenting nihilism.

Money talks. It screams, in fact. So I refuse to simply pay for what makes me curious or even what enthralls me. And I refuse to sign up for this particular future, either for cinema or for humanity writ large.

I’ll pay for what I believe in. And I’ll sign up for a future where hope and meaning aren’t a tossed-off afterthought. Life is not a sick joke.

But this has all the appearances of being a pretty sick Joker.

One Happy Camper

The faintly damp scent of tent nylon mixed with the bracing crispness of night air conjure up a sensation like no other. Especially when the earthy aroma of campfire is added to the mix. Very few olfactory delights on earth can compare with that potent combination.

More than 35 years of camping memories have firmly established for me that sleeping outdoors is one of life’s grandest pleasures. There is a kind of built-in mythology to camping that imparts a sense of harmony with all things — with nature, with animals, with our ancestors, with our selves. Camping makes me feel connected to the earth. It makes me feel like a kid again. And it makes my soul feel wide awake, even as my body is drifting off to sleep.

But it’s totally fine with me if Greyson just digs sleeping next to his papa in a room with a cool skylight and a soundtrack of crickets and katydids. There’s no need for him to get all philosophical about it.

Over the past two weekends, I’ve gone backyard camping 3 times with my 3-year-old nature boy. Each time I told him where we were going to sleep that night, I’m not sure which of the 2 of us was more giddy. I couldn’t wait to hear the ziiiii-iiiii-iiiiip of the C-shaped tent door and crawl onto the nylon floor to burrow into our sleeping bags and blankets. And Greyson couldn’t wait to climb “up the mountain” (our septic mound) to our home away from home. About 50 feet away from home, to be exact.


Before we settled into the tent each night, I showed Greyson the starry sky, unimpeded by city lights since we live deep in the countryside. I asked him, “How many stars are there?” On the first night, Greyson said “Dere’s a million!” On the second night, our aspiring astronomer aimed for a more precise estimate. With his tiny finger silhouetted against the night sky, he started counting the stars in a solemn whisper: “One, two, three, four…” Greyson wrapped up his count at 22 stars, which in my book constitutes a pretty noble attempt.

After that, we crawled into the tent and zipped ourselves in. And with Greyson in my lap, I read my little bookworm 3 or 4 books by the light of a headlamp and then sang “Baby Beluga” (his favorite non-Rich Mullins song), with him chiming in whenever I forgot a line. Finally, with the tent now dark and stars visible through the mesh skylight, Greyson asked his nightly question: “What could we dream about?” I regaled him with as much animal-based dream fodder as I could conjure up.

Greyson was beside himself the whole time. The first night, it took him a full hour and a half to fall asleep because he was so giddy about the whole experience.

I could totally relate.

It’s gratifying to know that I’m doing what I can to impart the enjoyment (and eventually, the memory) of camping to Greyson’s burgeoning sense of himself and the world. Next year Violet and Danielle can join the fun, and I’ll add pre-bedtime campfires to the itinerary.

I would be thrilled if our kids grew to think of camping as part of their identity. A passion that captures something vital about their true selves, once they begin to be cognizant of such a thing. My older brothers and I can all attest to how meaningful it is to have joyous family camping memories embedded among our warmest recollections of childhood. My parents made it a priority to take us on long weekend getaways in their cozy pop-up camper. And I intend to do the same (although a family-sized tent might be more within our budget).

To this day, the aroma of campfire conjures up worlds for me. It evokes the feeling of a campground as a wooded kingdom to be explored, a kingdom in which my family owned one special parcel of land. I remember running my Matchbox cars along the gnarled roots of the trees on our campsite. I remember roasting S’mores — along with one of those same Matchbox cars each night — over a crackling campfire. (It would appear that my parents were okay with their boys harboring just a touch of pyromania.) I remember my dad regaling us boys with fantastical tales of adventure while we were, quite unsuccessfully, trying to fall asleep with the musty, smoke-tinged scent of canvas all around us.

I remember all of these things with warmth in my glowing heart, like a campfire that never goes out. And I love knowing that my own kids will someday have their own set of camping recollections to remember with warmth and to carry into their adult years. If I’m very lucky, these memories will help encapsulate for them a personal worldview that is as big as the forest and as clear as the night air and as evocative as the crackling embers of those very campfires.

But for now, I’ll just savor the sheer delight of lying next to my 3-year-old son in a tent, singing a duet about beluga whales and giving him whimsical fodder for his animal-filled dreams, as we gaze up through the skylight at somewhere between 22 and a million stars.