The Banality of Excellence (or, the Case against La La Land)

(Warning: mild plot details contained within. No plotbreaking here.)

The 89th annual Academy Awards are on Sunday night, and for all intents and purposes, the race for Best Picture is of the two-horse variety. La La Land and Moonlight, two films so different that they might as well exist in different universes. So how can you begin to judge the two?

La La Land is a fine film. That is not a derogatory, especially in an industry where 85% of products are seemingly created in laboratories, polished to an egregious shine, and shot straight into the parts of our brains that are easiest to amuse. To be a “fine film” is to be one of three dozen films in a year that put thought, effort, and artistry into their creation, and it deserves its kudos for that.

And there is, beyond all else, a lot of thought put into La La Land. From the opening sequence, Damien Chazelle’s profound love for music, movies, musicals, movie music, and movie musicals shines. It hearkens back to a simpler Hollywood in both subject and genre, when small stories could be told on the back of lead chemistry with little interruption, and I think it’s a noble effort to look backward to something many may have forgot. The story is serviceable, the cinematography and choreography are stunning, and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have a natural compatibility that would be impossible to manufacture in a test tube. I would recommend it to anyone of any age, any creed. It is the definition of a crowd-pleaser.

But to say that La La Land is a tremendous feat of filmmaking, an achievement worthy of 14 Oscar nominations, tied for the most in history, is misguided at best and an act of erasure at worst.

I was raised on movie musicals. I could not tell you how many times I have seen Singin’ in the Rain or The Pajama Game or Damn Yankees or Guys and Dolls; they were staples of my childhood in much the same way as Disney movies. I'm thankful that my parents introduced me to them. So while musicals are magical, something that Chazelle is able to breathlessly convey, they are not novel.

While La La Land touches the boundaries of what has been done before in the genre, every plot point, every development and little twist, and even the leitmotifs are familiar ground. We have seen one lead refuse to give the other the time of day, seen them slowly fall in love despite themselves, seen them drift apart due to poor timing and differing ambitions. And while the movie employs leaps in technology from the golden age of movie musicals, particularly in lighting, continuous shots, and sound-capturing technique, these are not leaps so profound as to reinvent the wheel. It hits the same beats that were hit in 1959 with just a dash more flair. And that’s fine.

The problems with La La Land are not limited to its relative safety. One area where it did have the ability to push the boundaries of the musical genre, at least in film, was in its casting and its depiction of race. Not surprising of their time, you would be hard-pressed to find a person of color in those musicals of yore, so there was a real chance to make some progress and create a world that looks more like our own. But here, in a musical ostensibly about jazz, a musical genre rooted entirely in blackness, there is one black character, and that character solely exists as a mild antagonist to the dreams of White Jazz Savior Ryan Gosling. (The phrase “save jazz” is used, albeit in jest.)

Beyond that, black people are props. Literally. They play in bands that Gosling joins to show off his acquired piano chops (which are truly impressive), they sit in the audience and watch him play, they dance with him on a boardwalk during a solo, and that’s it. When Gosling explains to Stone the magic of jazz while they watch a black ensemble play, pointing at them like constellations far removed from their little world, I rubbed my temples with frustration. The movie eschews any potential growth, instead doubling down on the predictability of its narrative and the conventions of its genre. And while that doesn’t make La La Land bad (it’s quite good), it certainly doesn’t lift it into the realm of high art.

This is where there would be a smooth segue into contrasting La La Land with the other Best Picture favorite, Moonlight, but there’s very little point in it. It would be a Venn diagram where the intersecting middle is occupied by the line “films released in 2016.” And in truth, Moonlight isn’t really even a movie. It is a series of portraits by a master of the form, mood music for an ugly cry. Moonlight is a film with no continuous plot and maybe 5 characters, yet manages to affect viewers in ways that conventional films like La La Land can only aspire to.

What you feel when you watch Moonlight are emotions coming from a place previously untapped by cinema. There have always been coming-of-age films, most recently the remarkably bland Boyhood, but few have grappled with compounding identities so beautifully. Moonlight addresses so many identities (adolescence, masculinity, blackness, homosexuality) and their intersections (black adolescence and masculinity, being a gay black man in the world) with grace. This is a monumental feat of emotional weightlifting, yet director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney not only shoulder that weight, they effortlessly pass it into us.

Chiron's confusion, embarrassment, discomfort, anger, hesitance, sorrow, reads on every single lingering shot of his face (and oh, are there lingering shots). And by chunking the movie into three noncontiguous acts, we get to see how those emotions are expressed throughout Chiron's life without following him around. A child doesn’t know how to process and hides within himself, a teenager is sullen and angry in equal parts, and an adult represses his pain by mimicking the strength he saw in his younger days.

And no, there is nothing new in Moonlight from a cinematic standpoint. The camerawork is apt but ordinary; the lighting is effective but familiar. But I’ve never sat in a theater and felt like I did. By the midway point of the final act, I began to fully comprehend what I was seeing: the perfect balancing of a lifetime of pain and doubt and sorrow on the edge of a knife. And in the end, there was no real reason for the movie to play out the way it did. There was no inciting incident, no magical closure, no neat ending. And that is life. Nothing is tidy.

So come Sunday, we have two movies that succeed along entirely different lines. In La La Land, we have a good love story, one that joys and moves along familiar lines. It is a fun and interesting technical feast, and it achieves its all-but-stated goal of reviving the barely-breathing movie musical. But what you see in 2016 is what you saw in 1959, from the plotting to the setting to the casting. To proclaim it a masterpiece is to forget 70+ years of movie history and to ignore many warts.

And in Moonlight, you have a movie that does none of that. It tells nothing from A to B, resolves none of the issues it addresses, and leaps through time. But it is perhaps the most affecting drama of the decade, one that places you in the care of a story that squeezes your heart with each prolonged look, each cut, each music cue. For its near two-hour runtime, you assume an emotional burden unlike any film before it.

So in the end, the only question to ask is this: What deserves to be remembered? A good story, or a masterful painting?

Heavenly Meadows

(Note: This was originally going to be the third story that I shared, but after reviewing "The Goods" again, I wanted to start on a lighter note. That story is uncomfortably dark. Next week, I'll be publishing a non-fiction piece I wrote for a literary journalism class. Now please, enjoy!)

His grandfather’s funeral had been going on for an hour now, and Jefferson was getting restless. The stench of the violets Jefferson’s parents bought for the occasion clashed with the stale air in the funeral parlor, creating a sad potpourri. Jefferson wore his favorite suit: grey linen with a red tie, passed down by the recently deceased. Jefferson’s parents didn’t approve, but he knew Grampa Roderick would have loved it. Grampa had never been much for convention. That’s why it didn’t shock Jefferson when Grampa had asked his grandson to bring him back to life.

To Grampa, being boring was a cardinal sin.

Jefferson sat through the parade of relatives in silence, listening to their tearful eulogies. Grampa’s casket sat on the middle of the stage, a mahogany monstrosity adorned with gold leaf. Jefferson’s parents had spared no expense for a man who didn’t care if something was free or priceless.

“Roderick treated me like the son he never had,” Jefferson’s father said. Grampa had hated his son-in-law. Dad was calm, practical, steadfast, while Grampa was spontaneous, emotional, adventurous. He wasn’t a bad man; by most metrics, he was a very good one. He was just . . . boring. To Grampa, being boring was a cardinal sin. To take his only daughter away was the final straw.

Jefferson looked at his mother across the aisle. Mom was sitting up straight, eyes firmly on her father’s casket. Tears were running down her face in an endless stream, but she didn’t make a sound. Jefferson marveled at his mother’s strength. He wanted to tell his mother what he was going to do, but Grampa had expressly forbade it. He always did love a good surprise.

Finally, the organist-slash-mortician keyed the rusty pipe organ behind the stage. The pipes squealed to life, blasting the attendees with a fine coat of dust that smelled of roach spray.

Before his family and distant relatives could get out of their seats, Jefferson speed walked to the back of the room, pushing hard on the swinging door. Outside the service was a table of chintzy party foods; Jefferson polished off a handful of yellow toothpicks impaling mozzarella balls and basil leaves. He heard his mother calling his name. He hated to leave her in the lurch, but the quicker he got out of the funeral service, the quicker he could sneak back in.

Sharon was waiting in the parking lot when Jefferson burst through the door. He still had a couple cheese balls in his mouth, the toothpicks sticking out of his mouth. He looked like the cat who ate the canary, if the canary was plastic and sharp. He waved at her and smiled, toothpicks falling out of his mouth as he did.

Sharon rolled her eyes with a grin. Being Jefferson’s girlfriend wasn’t easy; he tended to get lost in his thoughts and wander through life without thinking about necessities like groceries or paying his bills on time. But he was kind and generous, and on their first date he’d chased a catcaller halfway down the block before taking her for cheesecake. A man after her heart, even if he didn’t really know the path.

“How’s it looking, Jeff?” Sharon asked him as he walked to the car. Jefferson liked it when she called him “Jeff,” but not when anybody else did. It was too familiar, too close. The only other person who ever got away with it was Grampa.

“Well, the reception just started. The food didn’t look half bad.” Jefferson leaned in and gave her a peck on the cheek.

“No, about your grandfather.”

“Oh, right, him. Well, his casket looked really heavy. Don’t think we’re getting out the front door with that thing. Is there a back door?”

“Yeah, by the crematorium. Not big enough for a casket, though; you’ll have to carry him.” Sharon hadn’t gone to the service for a number of reasons. Brent wasn’t her biggest fan; she was too sarcastic, wore a lot of black, and didn’t like small talk. Plus she had to case the joint for the easiest way to get Roderick’s body out.

“Hmm. So I guess we go in through the front, grab Grampa, bring him out the back, throw him in the car and take off?”

“You really think it’s going to be that easy?”

All of the relatives had moved to the reception room adjacent to the parlor, where they were busy guzzling down free food and sharing their sympathies. No one noticed Jefferson and Sharon sneaking in the front door, grabbing a few more mozzarella balls, shutting the door to the reception and slipping into the parlor.

“Violets?” Sharon’s nose crinkled.

“I know, right?”

Roderick’s casket was just as it had been left, the centerpiece of a hostless party. Sharon waited at the back holding the doors closed with both hands. Jefferson grunted as he used his body weight to flip open the top half of the lid and look down at his grandfather’s face.

“Huh. He looks . . . old.”

“He was 84.”

“But he never looked old.” Jefferson couldn’t reconcile the face in the coffin with the face that had shown him so many wonderful things. This face was stiff and pale. Jefferson could see the faint outlines of liver spots, covered up sloppily by the mortician. Worst of all, he wasn’t smiling. Jefferson couldn’t remember a time when Roderick wasn’t smiling. His usual wrinkles were sanded completely flat, and his lips were painted an unnatural shade of their natural reddish pink.

“Fuck, I can’t wait ‘til you’re alive again.”

Luckily for the two of them, Grampa had lost some weight since dying. Jefferson grabbed his grandfather underneath the shoulders and, with fair ease, lifted him clear of the casket.

‘Just like old times, huh, Grampa?’

“I got him, let’s go.”

“Jeff, you’re dragging his legs.”

Jefferson grabbed his grandfather behind the knees and shoulders and carried him off the stage. Sharon abandoned her post.

“Okay, where do we go now?”

“I . . . think it’s this way?”

“You think? Sharon . . . ”

“What, I couldn’t see inside the building! I think it was on this side.” Sharon pointed to the two wooden doors on her left. Beads of sweat formed on Jefferson’s forehead as he hefted Grampa up and headed to the door. Sharon elbowed it open before yelping and shutting it.

“Holy shit, Jeff. We can’t go that way.”

“What? Why?”

“It smells like the worst gym class ever.”

“It can’t be that bad.” Jefferson kicked the door open and inhaled. Bad move. It smelled like someone had left a pile of dirty boxers in the corner for two decades, sealed the room off hermetically, then placed a fan right in front of the door. “Jesus fucking—” Jefferson choked on “Christ,” his shoulders heaving up and down as he coughed. Grampa’s body bounced up and down like a puppet on a string.

“What are we gonna do?”

“We have to go this way, Sharon. Dad could be out front.”

“Shit.” Sharon grabbed a violet out of a vase, snapped the stem in half and put the rest of the flower between her teeth. Jefferson stared at her. “What?” She asked through the flower.

“You hate violets.”

“It’s better than ‘Eau de Mortuary,’ isn’t it?”

“Ohhhhh. Good point.” Sharon did the same to another flower and shoved it in Jefferson’s mouth. The petals tickled his nose, but the overwhelming scent at least partially stifled the death smell. They walked in together, making sure the doors swung shut silently behind them.

Down the stinky hallway, Sharon spotted the side exit.“There it is. I’ll go get the car.” She grimaced and trotted down the hall. As she stepped into the sun and inhaled deeply, spitting out the violet, the door slowly closed behind her, leaving Jefferson and his Grampa alone together.

"Just like old times, huh, Grampa?”

The last time Jefferson had been alone with his Grampa was two months earlier. Jefferson had just received his MFA in art from NYU, and he’d come home for a couple weeks before heading back into the city to begin his new life as a starving artist. Time to celebrate.

Since he was a kid, Jefferson always had talent with a brush. His mother had almost put him into a school for the gifted. Dad saw how his son struggled with more practical things like arithmetic and spelling and decided that public school would do just fine. He was less than pleased when Jefferson chose his career path; Mom became his biggest supporter.

Grampa Roderick didn’t care either way. He was happy that Jefferson was happy.

Roderick pulled up to the house in the same car he’d had for the last thirty years: a tan VW Buggy. It wasn’t tan by choice; it bore the battle scars of a life lived to the fullest. It had mudraced back in the eighties, been in more accidents than Grampa could remember. No shade of paint could compete with the beauty of its rusting husk. He’d replaced every part of the car more than once, which made Jefferson wonder if it could even be called the same car.

Grampa laid into the horn. Jefferson burst out the door and wrapped his grandfather up in a bear hug. Mom grabbed the porch rail, a tear in her eye; Dad stood stoically with his arm over her shoulders. A Norman Rockwell brought to life.

Twenty minutes later, Grampa and Jefferson snuck out of the back door and jumped into Grampa’s sand-colored death trap.

‘They do some kind of proprietary mumbo jumbo and you’re alive again, no health problems. Just like that.’

“Honestly, kid, how the hell do you listen to that?” Dad had talked about stock options for the last ten minutes. Grampa and Jefferson looked at each other knowingly and excused themselves to the bathroom exactly two minutes apart. Dad droned on as the two made their escape.

“You get used to it. It turns into kinda like a low hum, and you learn to nod and go ‘huh’ at appropriate times.”


“So what have you been doing lately, Grampa? Get into any trouble, seduce any of the ladies on the shuffleboard courts?”

“Watch it, kid. It’s the unassumin’ ones that are the real freaks.” Grampa laughed, throwing his head back to reveal a mouth full of pearly white teeth. Towards the back were a series of metal caps Jefferson had never noticed before. “Nah, I haven’t been doin’ much, kid. Runnin’ in the morning, swimmin’ and basketball in the afternoons. Pickin’ up my checks when they come in. I’ve been readin’ a lot, too. Haven’t read Dashiell Hammett in decades. Been thinkin’ maybe I should crank one of those dime novels out.”

“You definitely should! Just repurpose that story you told me about Roxanne and that sailor from Barbados, and you’ve got a novel.” Jefferson smiled at Grampa, but Grampa didn’t smile back. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know, Jeff. I’m just . . . I’m gettin’ old. I’ve been thinkin’ a lot about it. I might look like a prime specimen, but I’m gettin’ up there.”

“Don’t talk like that, Grampa.”

“I’m not sayin’ it’s gonna happen anytime soon, kid. I’m just sayin’.”

The pair sat in silence for a minute or so.

“You know, Jeff, I heard about a procedure that they’re trying on people. It’s this, I don’t know, this thing that keeps you from dyin’.”


“I don’t know how it works, but it’s this experimental thing they’re doing upstate. They do some kind of proprietary mumbo jumbo and you’re alive again, no health problems. Just like that.”


“Would I lie to you, kid? Have I ever lied to you?” Grampa looked right through Jefferson; his silver eyes made Jefferson feel sick to his stomach.

“Of course not. Okay, so they bring you back to life. What about it?”

“I want that to happen to me.” Grampa looked out the window of his tiny car. The starlight caught his eyes perfectly.

“You what?”

“Jeff, I have money. A lot of it. I’ve been livin’ like a hermit since the eighties, ever since Virginia died.” His eyes started to water. “Never borrowed a dime. I put in my time and I saved everything. Even without money, I’ve done a lot of livin’. But there’s still so much I want to do. I haven’t been to Europe or Africa or anywhere off this goddamn continent. I want to see icebergs, I want to run through the streets of Paris.” He brushed a tear off his cheek.

“Kid, I want you to promise me. When I die, take me to that place. I’ll give you everything I’ve got, just get me there. I’ve got a lot more livin’ to do after I die.” He cracked a wide grin.

Jeff swallowed. “Okay, Grampa. You got it.”

“Aren’t you nervous at all?” Sharon toyed with the lock on the passenger side. They’d gotten to the car without incident; Jefferson sent his mother a text saying he couldn’t bear to be there anymore. At least he didn’t lie.

“No. Why, should I be?”

“Jeff, you just stole your grandfather’s corpse, threw him in a rental car, and now you’re going 80 in a 55.”

“Oh. Oh, right. Thanks, babe.” Jefferson eased off the gas. Grampa’s body, which had been propped up in a sitting position in the back seat, was now slumped to the side.

“And now you’re crossing state lines. Pretty sure you need at least a permit for that.”

“Huh?” Jefferson hadn’t considered that. The logistics of the dead didn’t really make any sense to him. I mean, the guy in the coffin’s already dead, who cares how he gets wherever he’s going or what paperwork you have to fill out?

“Do you even know how this whole thing works? Like, how they turn back the clock on Roderick?”

“No, I don’t.” Jefferson had done as much research on AfterCorps as he could after Grampa told him about it. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much research that could be done. Just a phone number and a static website. He called them up and asked after the procedure, but all he got was what sounded like an overeager intern and some basic instructions: make a deposit, call them when Grampa died, and come to the office with his body within a week of his death. “Your grandfather sounds like a great case for us!” The voice said a little too enthusiastically.

Jefferson tried to tell his Grampa that he didn’t feel comfortable with all this, but he was met with a tsking. “It’s more fun when you don’t know the end of the story beforehand,” he told Jefferson before his weathered face broke out into one of his trademark toothy grins.

“Well shit, Jeff, what the fuck are we doing here? I mean I love you, but this is fucking crazy.” Sharon folded her arms across her chest.

‘Jeff, you just stole your grandfather’s corpse, threw him in a rental car, and now you’re going 80 in a 55.’

“And I love you too, Share, but if you don’t believe in what I’m doing, why did you sign up for this?” She bristled at that. Sharon did not like it when anyone called her “Share.” When he’d done it for the first time two years into their relationship, she’d smacked him in the back of the head with an open palm. The only reason she didn’t do it now is because he was driving.

“Because I know how important Roderick was to you and I was trying to be supportive. I just wish I knew why you were so hellbent on doing it. And don’t tell me ‘it’s what he wanted.’ You want this twice as bad.”

Jefferson sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“When I was seven, Grampa came to visit. He was like 66 or 67 then, but he was so full of life. He took me out hiking out in the woods and we camped out there, just the two of us. We went fishing and ate s’mores and looked at the stars and he told me creepy ghost stories and he laughed after every one of them to let me know they weren’t real. It was the best day of my life. I want one more day like that.

“After my dad married my mom, he never came to visit unless it was to spend time with me. My mom loved him too, but they never talked because of my dad. You know how he died, right?”

“Stroke, I think.”

“Yeah. I never got to say goodbye. Neither did my mom. So yeah, he wanted be alive forever, sure. But I need to tell him how much he meant to me. My mom needs to tell him. And deep down, I think my dad needs it too. When I was growing up Dad was always working, like 75 hours a week. I barely ever saw him. I think he thought I hated him, but I didn’t. I would talk to Grampa about all the problems with Dad and he let me get it all out. He’s the only reason me and Dad can still talk, and Dad knows it.”

“That’s sweet, Jeff.”

“And stupid, but yeah.”

“What about your parents?”

“The casket’s closed now, they’ll just bury it. They don’t need to know. Grampa can tell them himself when he’s back.” Jefferson smiled at the thought: He and Grampa walking in the front door of their house, his mother dropping whatever dish she was drying, Dad sitting at the table with his jaw on the floor. He couldn’t wait.

“Okay, so you’re smuggling a corpse out of state to perform a procedure you know nothing about so you can bring it back to life.”

“Yeah, that’s about right.”

“Sounds like a B-level horror movie.”

“I know. Grampa would love it.”

AfterCorps didn’t look anything like what Jefferson expected it to. Jefferson envisioned a fancy modern building with people in labcoats walking through transparent hallways inside. Instead, it looked like a retirement home. The brown brick walls gave off a comforting if stale vibe, and the wooden sign over the door was unassuming. Jefferson half-expected to run over a set of dentures as he parked in the gravel lot next to the building.

With Sharon’s help, Jefferson lifted Grampa’s body out of the back; his makeup had smeared and run in the sunlight.

“Hey Sharon, should we, like, wipe his face down or something?”

‘This opportunity is once-in-a-lifetime, you wouldn’t want to enter into it apprehensively.’

“Why, what’s wrong with his face?”

“He looks like a melted crayon.”

“Just let them take care of it.”

With Jefferson holding behind Grampa’s shoulders and Sharon gently gripping his ankles, the couple carefully carried the corpse towards the front door. Before they could get to the front, a short, fat, balding man walked out of the front door. He wore a brown sweater with large horn-rimmed glasses. He waddled up to them with a clipboard in hand.

“Good afternoon, and welcome to AfterCorps! My name is Dr. Vidal, and I’m the founder of AfterCorps.” Jefferson recognized his voice as the one on the phone. Far from the pimply-faced intern he expected. “Do you have an appointment today, sir?”

“Us?” Jefferson didn’t think he looked like a sir. Must have been the grey suit. Grampa always was dapper in his eccentric way. “Uh, yeah, we do. For my Grampa.” He shrugged Grampa’s shoulders as if to say “right here.”

“Ah, yes.” Vidal peered over his glasses at the body in Jefferson’s arms. “Let’s go to my office before we discuss the procedure and get things moving.” Two orderlies, dressed in matching brown sweaters, appeared with a wheelchair. “You can leave him with us. Our staff will take excellent care of your grandfather, I assure you.”

Sharon raised one eyebrow at Jefferson. It was the same look she had given him before meeting her parents for the first time, before her father insisted on showing Jefferson his collection of Hummel figurines. It meant “do you really know what you’ve gotten yourself into?”

Jefferson gathered his grandfather up and lowered him into the wheelchair while Sharon took the clipboard. The orderlies wheeled him into the building.

Vidal beckoned them forward. “I believe we spoke on the phone earlier in the week, did we not? Mr. Zermeno, isn’t it?”

Jefferson flinched. He hated his last name. “Yes, that’s right.”

Are the two of you excited?” Vidal’s eyes lit up.

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” Jefferson said.

“As well you should be. This opportunity is once-in-a-lifetime, you wouldn’t want to enter into it apprehensively.”

The hallways of AfterCorps were all but empty. Jefferson spotted the occasional orderly moving an empty wheelchair from place to place, leaving wheel indentations in the mottled red carpeting, but they were few and far in between. All in those same ugly sweaters. Vidal excitedly chirped the entire way.

“Here at AfterCorps, we like to say that we care as much about your loved ones as you do. Death shouldn’t be the end of life, there’s so much more that you should be able to share with the people you love!” Vidal’s fat head bobbed up and down in front of them like a buoy. “We do everything we can to ensure that their experience with us is as positive as possible.”

“And what is that experience, exactly?” Sharon, who had been reluctantly tight-lipped since they’d pulled into the parking lot, couldn’t hold back anymore. “We couldn’t find any information about what actually happens here–”

‘Social security only applies to the living.’

“But we’re very grateful for the opportunity to find out!” Jefferson grabbed Sharon’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.

Vidal turned to them. “We can’t talk about the procedure in public areas like this. There are medicorporate spies everywhere these days.”

“Seriously?” Sharon said. “We’ve seen like three people here.”

“Technology advances in strange and sometimes undetectable ways, miss.” Before Sharon could tell him off, Vidal spun on his heel and resumed his walk. She stared daggers into his back.

“Before we get to my office, I’d like to verify your information. First, Mr. Zermeno, can you tell me your grandfather’s full name and date of birth?”

“Roderick Graham. Uh . . . ” Jefferson pulled out his wallet and removed an index card. “March 14th, 1931. His social security number is—”

“That will be fine, social security only applies to the living. How long has it been since your grandfather passed?”

“Three days.”

“And if I may ask, how did you pay for the seven hundred fifty thousand dollar deposit?”

Sharon gasped at that number. Jefferson hadn’t told her how expensive the procedure was. She didn’t even know Roderick had that kind of money. Jefferson didn’t dare look at her.

“Grampa lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the suburbs basically his entire life. He saved up a lot and he left it all to me and told me to use it for this when he died.”

“Wow.” Vidal looked back at Jefferson with admiration. “What a remarkable man. To leave his fortune to you and only ask to be with you again, that’s a wonderful thought.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Jefferson squirmed a bit.

“Well, once we get to my office, we’ll get started right away. No need to prolong your grandfather’s death!”

Vidal’s office looked like how sugar-free oatmeal tasted. The walls were a thick cream color, and textbooks on neuropsychology lined the shelves. Vidal’s large black desk looked like it had been cut out of an IKEA catalog. Its modern nature was in stark contrast to the old-timey building the room resided in. A large white curtain divided the office in two; the three of them sat on its left side. Jefferson could see the silhouette of an examination chair through the curtain.

Vidal sat down in his office chair; Jefferson and Sharon sat down across from him. The backs of the chairs forced the pair to lean forward awkwardly.

Vidal looked at the two of them, expecting some sort of applause from him studio audience.

“Now that we’re all settled in here, what questions do you have about the procedure?”

Sharon jumped in. “What the fuck is the procedure?”

“Excellent question, despite the unsavory language.” Sharon glowered. “The procedure is something that we like to call a ‘neural restoration.’ I won’t go into the technical workings of the procedure, it’s very complex and requires a great deal of background knowledge and biological experience to fully comprehend, but in essence, we revive your grandfather!”

Vidal looked at the two of them with his mouth slightly open, expecting some sort of applause from his studio audience. Jefferson and Sharon looked at him blankly.

After an eternity, Jefferson politely coughed. “Okay, that sounds good. So you bring him back to life, and what? No health problems?”

Vidal laughed gently. “Well, Mr. Zermeno, I don’t know what kind of side effects or problems you might expect, but there’s not much that can go wrong.”

Jefferson raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean by that?”

“Mr. Zermeno, the brain is a very resilient organ. We have found that it doesn’t deteriorate at the rate of other organs—”

“Fine, that’s all great, but what about the rest of him?”

“. . . I’m sorry, Mr. Zermeno, I’m not sure I follow.”

“Grampa wanted to come back and travel the world. He wanted to see, uh, icebergs, I think, and visit Paris, and . . . what?”

Vidal swallowed gently. He looked like he’d just swallowed a mosquito. “Oh dear.”

“What? What ‘oh dear?’”

“Well, to be honest, that’s not possible.”

Jefferson leaned forward and gripped the desk as though it were Vidal’s neck. His knuckles were a shade paler than white. “What?”

“The procedure is for your grandfather’s brain, not his body.”

Jefferson’s face turned nearly the color of his knuckles. “Wh–what?” Sharon hugged her legs close to her.

“There is no way to restore the function to your grandfather’s body, Mr. Zermeno. Quite frankly, that’s an impossible task. No, what we do here is preserve the most important part: the brain!” Vidal hopped out of his chair and walked to the curtain. “Here at AfterCorps, we recognize that life is all in here!” He tapped his temple. “With the mind, you can do anything!”

With that, Vidal pulled back the curtain with a flourish. Jefferson’s assumption that the silhouette was a chair turned out to be true. However, he didn’t account for the brain sitting in a small tank on the chair.

“Oh my God.” A hot stone dropped from Jefferson’s throat to his stomach. Sweat formed on his hairline.

The brain sat in the center of the tank, surrounded by a light blue liquid. Electrodes hung from every wrinkle and bulge in the brain, and all of them led to a machine that looked like a heart monitor. On the screen, where one would expect a heartbeat, was a horizontal line.

Before Jefferson or Sharon could comprehend what they were seeing, Vidal walked over to a keyboard and began to type, speaking as he did. “Hello, Harold, how are you doing today?”

The line on the screen flickered to life, turning into a wavelength. A whirring noise came from the machine and spooled a foot of paper out from its side. Vidal eagerly ripped the paper away from the machine and read it. “Harold says, ‘I’m doing pretty good for being a brain in a box, been thinking a lot about Judith and Melissa. Can’t wait for them to be here!’” Vidal held the paper out to Jefferson, who couldn’t grasp it with his trembling arms.

“Do you see what we’ve done? This man, Harold, was a truck driver in a horrible accident. He was dead for five days. We performed the procedure pro bono for his lovely wife and daughter, and we brought him back to life! His family comes in and they chat almost every month!” Vidal held his arms out wide with a Cheshire grin; Jefferson thought he saw a twinkle in his eyes.

“Are you . . . are you fucking joking?” Vidal’s smile slowly faded. “This? This is what you were going to do to my Grampa?” Sharon held both hands over her mouth, fighting back an unknown urge. “What the fuck is this? This isn’t life! Harold is a fucking brain in a jar! He can’t move, he can’t do anything!”

“Yes, but isn’t this great? You have your grandfather back! You’ll be able to talk for hours and hours, relive all of your favorite memories, pick his brain for advice, quite literally. We’ve reconceived what it means to be alive. We have granted Harold immortality!” He proudly tapped the tank.

Sharon ran for Vidal’s desk. Clawing underneath it, she found a wastebin and promptly threw up in it. Jefferson grabbed Vidal by the collar of his stupid brown sweater and lifted him several inches off the ground.

“Where the fuck is my grandfather?”

“He—he’s in the basement, our orderlies are preparing him for the procedure.”

“Listen to me, you little slug prick. Tell them to stop. Give me back my Grampa.”

“But, Mr. Zermeno, don’t you see the—”

Now, you rat fuck!”

“Okay, okay!” Jefferson shook him by the collar before dropping him. He scurried over to his desk, muttering to himself and carefully avoiding Sharon’s hunched-over body. He grabbed the phone and pressed a handful of numbers.

“This is Dr. Vidal. I’m with Mr. Zermeno. He’s politely”—he stared directly at Jefferson—“asked that you stop your preparations. Yes, I know, I told him all of that. He doesn’t see the merits. Just cut him loose, it’s not worth the hassle.” He hung up. “I’m truly sorry, Mr. Zermeno. I’m sorry you weren’t able to see the miracles that our organization is working, that you don’t want to be a part of it.”

“Fuck you.” Jefferson walked over to Sharon and put his arm around her shoulders as she alternated between dry heaving and sobbing.

“Very well. I will leave the two of you to collect yourselves.” Vidal scurried out of the room.

Jefferson looked to Sharon and tried to soothe her, but couldn’t. His voice got caught in his throat; his whole body was shaking. His vision began to blur as he stood up, mumbling some kind of half-apology to Sharon. He fell backward, bumping into the chair holding the brain. It sloshed slightly in its goo.

“It’s not your fault, Jeff.”

“Yes it is.” Jefferson held onto the steering wheel like the edge of a cliff. He’d been sitting outside the building for two hours now, trying to collect himself. The radio was playing something inoffensive and unremarkable.

‘If Roderick were alive, he would be laughing his ass off right now.’

“Jeff . . . ” Sharon had recovered from her vomiting spell.

“No, don’t try to make it better. I fucked up.” Jefferson buried his face in his hands.

“You thought you were doing the right thing. You thought you were doing what he wanted. You didn’t know it would have been . . . like that.”

“It wasn’t real to me before this. He’s gone. Grampa’s gone and he’s never coming back.” Silent tears fell from Jefferson’s eyes. “And I never got to say goodbye. I abandoned my parents at the funeral for this stupid idea . . . fuck, how could I have been so stupid?”

“You’re not stupid, Jeff. You just . . . you made a mistake. We all do.”

“What if he still would have wanted this, though? I mean, yeah, he wanted to travel the world, but maybe he could have done it in a tote bag filled with gel and some weird fucking camera. So part of me is saying ‘yeah, just go do it.’ Then maybe I could say goodbye . . . ”

“Roderick ran a marathon less than two years ago. He did the Polar Plunge every winter. He spent nearly as many nights sleeping under the stars as he did sleeping in a bed. And you think he would have wanted to be a fucking potato battery?”

Jefferson laughed for the first time in a while, but it felt hollow.

“Look, I only knew Roderick for a little while, but I know this is the last thing he would have wanted. This would’ve been his personal hell. You should be thankful you spared him that. You know what else I know?”


“If Roderick were alive, he would be laughing his ass off right now. Tell me I’m wrong.”

A smile broke across Jefferson’s face. “You’re not.” Sharon smiled too as she leaned in and kissed him.

A quick rap came on the driver’s window. Vidal stood outside the car looking impatient. Jefferson composed himself and got out of the car. “What do you want?”

“Okay, Mr. Zermeno, you’ve signed all the release paperwork. We’ve canceled the preparations and brought your grandfather back into the lobby. Luckily, we hadn’t gotten any further than marking where the lobotomy would need to begin.” Jefferson balled his hands into fists. “Unfortunately, your initial deposit for the procedure is non-refundable—”

“I don’t give a fuck.” Jefferson folded his arms. Sharon could have sworn that, somewhere in his blue eyes, she saw flecks of glistening silver. There was more of Roderick in him than he even realized.

“Yes. Well. Please retrieve your grandfather. Thank you for coming to AfterCorps. We hope you find the peace you’re looking for.” With that, Vidal turned and quickly walked back to the front door. Jefferson opened the car door and got back inside.

“So. What now?” Said Sharon.

“Well, they buried the casket already. Should I tell them?”

“Probably. It’s their family, too.”


“Do what Roderick would have done. Tell them a story.”

Jefferson beamed at her. “I love you.”

“I know. I love you too. Now let’s go get your grandfather. It’s time to bring your family back together.”

UFC 189: Mendes vs. McGregor Preview

Nothing feels quite like a big UFC fight week. Every year around the Fourth of July, the world’s largest mixed martial arts organization rolls out its premier fighters on one stacked card as a showcase of what it can be at its best.

Unfortunately, for much of the time outside this one week, cards mean relatively little. The UFC doesn’t make cards – it makes two or three important fights a month, then throws a bunch of guys (and gals) with potential underneath them to prop it up. Often, those beneath the main or co-main event don’t even have potential, they’re just bodies. If you’ve ever seen a Royston Wee fight, you’d know why this pandemic of watered-down fight cards fatigues even the hardest of hardcore fans.

But we’re not here to talk about the negatives, like lamentably small fighter pay or the recent dissolution of independent sponsorships or chronic injuries or draconian wellness policies. We’re talking UFC 189, the biggest fight card of the year.

In the main event, Irish loudmouth Conor McGregor finally plunges into the deep end of his division against perennial #2 featherweight Chad Mendes. The two face off for the interim UFC featherweight championship, with Mendes replacing reigning divisional king Jose Aldo after the champ suffered a possible broken rib in training.

Let’s break down this stellar bout.

Main Event
Interim UFC Featherweight Championship
Conor McGregor (17-2, #3 FW) vs. Chad Mendes (17-2, #1 FW)

This contest, like the original main event of Aldo vs. McGregor, has been some time in the making. McGregor has long belittled Mendes, a Team Alpha Male standout, for his short stature and perceived limited skillset. When Aldo was first rumored to suffer an injury in training, the UFC announced that should he be unable to compete, longtime second fiddle Mendes would be his replacement. Sure enough, last week Aldo announced he would not be able to compete, and the hype machine rolled on.

What makes the proud Irishman Conor McGregor so special are not his fists and feet, but his mouth. In just a handful of fights, “The Notorious One” has risen from complete obscurity to the toast of the town thanks to his outspoken demeanor, his almost obsessive devotion to movement, and a fanbase that laps up every insult and pseudo-mystical remark.

Despite his 5-fight winning streak in the UFC, it’s still hard to know what Conor McGregor will bring to the table on Saturday night. Part of this is due to the UFC’s favorable matchmaking. In those five fights, McGregor stopped unranked fighters Marcus Brimage and Diego Brandão, soundly pummeled future top 5 featherweight Max Holloway despite a torn ACL, and knocked out top 10 fighters Dennis Siver and Dustin Poirier.

It would be an understatement to say McGregor is a striking specialist. McGregor relies almost solely on his hypnotizing movement and unorthodox techniques to dispatch his opponents. In almost every fight, McGregor takes the center of the octagon and begins throwing wild spinning heel kicks or hook kicks to the head. All of this throws his opponents off balance, leaving them open to vicious combinations of straight lefts, lead hooks, thunderous body punches and vicious uppercuts. Combined with shuffle kicks to the knees in a tae kwon do presentation, McGregor overwhelms his opponents mentally before breaking them down physically.

There are two fundamental unknowns about McGregor: his takedown defense and his jiu jitsu. In the list of fighters he’s beaten above, not one possess elite wrestling skills. Simply put, he hasn’t been challenged on the mat in his UFC career. His two losses have come by submission, but both came within his first six fights. Since then, he has looked unstoppable, but what will happen when he is taken down by an elite featherweight? What will happen when he has to fight from his back, when he has to recover guard, when he needs to get to his feet? No one, not even McGregor, could give you a straight answer.

In stark contrast, two-time title challenger Chad Mendes is a known commodity to both fans and analysts. Thus far in his UFC career, “Money” has been stuck with the label of “second best.” He dominates everyone in the featherweight division not named Jose Aldo. A former All-American at Cal Poly, Mendes came into MMA relying heavily on his wrestling to win him fights. It was a successful strategy, winning him a shot at the title, but against Jose Aldo’s stout takedown defense, it proved fruitless.

Following that first loss, Mendes returned to the drawing board and came back with a highly improved boxing game. He knocked out his next four opponents, including the notoriously durable Clay Guida, before dominating Nik Lentz in a bout where Mendes fought a nasty stomach bug. In his second fight against Aldo, Mendes’ standup fully came into focus, dropping the champion in the first round with a left hook. Ultimately, Aldo outworked him on the feet for a decision victory, but Mendes proved he could hang with the best of the best on his feet.

Mendes is anything but one-dimensional now. An elite grappler with stiffening power and good leg kicks, he is a complete martial artist. In his last bout, a stoppage win against Ricardo Lamas, Mendes showed both his crushing power, sending Lamas tumbling all over the octagon, and his veteran savvy, choosing position over flailing power shots before forcing the referee’s hand.

Mendes does his best work when he can establish both his powerful hands and his dominant wrestling. With both weapons firmly planted in the opponent’s mind, it opens them up to a variety of attacks. He can fake like he’s looking for a shot, then come with his powerful hooks. He can feint with low kicks, then shoot for a single. With the solid chin and durability he showed in the second Aldo fight, Mendes is a fighter with no weakness, save for the champion’s laser-focused power counterstrikes.


This fight will come down to two things: distance management and wrestling. Much is made of Conor McGregor’s size advantage. He is a huge featherweight, while Mendes is short and stocky for the weight class; as such, he will have a three inch height advantage and a staggering 8-inch reach advantage. However, if he doesn’t use his lengthy arms and legs to keep Mendes on the outside, he will get hit by the smaller man. Given Mendes’ power, one small slip could cost McGregor in more ways than one.

The second determining factor will rest on the shoulders of Mendes. Given McGregor’s creative arsenal and unpredictable angles, Mendes will most likely have to get the fight to the floor. He has all the tools to do so, but McGregor’s takedown defense has yet to be tested. He can’t rush in with his head down, but if Mendes can’t corral McGregor in the open, he’ll have to rely on his hands to match McGregor’s, something no one has had success with.

In picking a winner for this fight, we can’t apply theory to unknowns. One can only judge what one has seen, and in this case, we have seen much more of Mendes. He has taken down elite wrestlers in Guida and Lentz, and fought much stiffer competition in his career. McGregor has all the potential in the world, but until we see it, that’s all it is. Dennis Siver was able to plant McGregor for the briefest of moments; if Siver can manage that feat, one imagines Mendes can at least do that.

Expect McGregor to establish his pace early, forcing Mendes to explode from the outside. Eventually, Mendes will drag McGregor to the ground; while he may not hold McGregor there. That threat will open McGregor up to Mendes’ hands. While McGregor has the power and the finishing instinct to stop anybody, Mendes’ durability and experience will win him that battle. It seems more likely that Mendes will wear McGregor down in the clinch and on the ground en route to a late stoppage or a clear decision victory, setting up another rematch with a healthy Jose Aldo.

Co-Main Event
UFC Welterweight Championship
Robbie Lawler (25-10-1, champion) vs. Rory MacDonald (18-2, #2 WW)

And now, a few words on the welterweight championship fight between Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald. The two fought in 2013, with Lawler winning a split decision thanks to his hooks and excellent trapping of Rory’s stifling jab. Both men have gone on to greater success; Lawler took a narrow decision from Johny Hendricks to summit his decade-long journey from also-ran to champion, and MacDonald knocked out Tarec Saffiedine in convincing fashion to secure his title opportunity.

Despite the time since their last bout, there is no reason to believe the result will be any different. While MacDonald has undoubtedly tightened up his striking and top control, so too has Lawler sharpened his takedown defense and underrated kicking game. The two have improved, but neither has improved dramatically more than the other. Expect MacDonald to work his jab and put combinations and takedown attempts behind them. This will work initially, but as MacDonald tires, Lawler will find his second gear, landing solid low kicks and staying off the ground. Ultimately, Lawler’s hooks will triumph over MacDonald’s jabs and front kicks, scoring him a close but clear decision win.

UFC 189 Quick Picks

Chad Mendes vs. Conor McGregor
Robbie Lawler (c) vs. Rory MacDonald
Dennis Bermudez vs. Jeremy Stephens
Gunnar Nelson vs. Brandon Thatch
Brad Pickett vs. Thomas Almeida

Matt Brown vs. Tim Means
Mike Swick vs. Alex Garcia
Cathal Pendred vs. John Howard

Cody Garbrandt vs. Henry Briones
Neil Seery vs. Louis Smolka
Yosdenis Cedeno vs. Cody Pfister