The Scariest Adventure

Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

For my whole life, December’s been my favorite month of the year. I don’t know what it is, but everyone just seems so happy this time of year when friends and family get together, taking a good chunk of time off from work, and celebrate Christmas. We have four December birthdays in my extended family altogether, so for us it feels like we never run out of reasons to celebrate. But in the last two years, I’ve had to learn that even December, the month of Jesus’ birthday, can’t go by without any sorrow or anguish. Last year, I saw the anguish of several parents who lost their children—most, if not all, under ten years old—to a school shooting. And today, I among other students received news that Gary Schmidt, a professor in the English department at Calvin and a novelist that I admire, lost his wife suddenly on Christmas Eve.

It feels weird to be celebrating Christmas and birthdays when in the back of your mind you think about something like death. I can’t help but think about Professor Schmidt and his six children, and how words couldn’t describe how they must be feeling right now. Death is a touchy subject, and honestly I have no idea of what I would say or write to Professor Schmidt and his family if I could. I’m still stuck on the mindset of ‘sudden death,’ and how scary that is.

It got me thinking to a while ago, when my brother wrote about his work at a retirement home. He described how he didn’t want to be confused or feeble towards the end of his life. According to what he wrote, he’s afraid of the possibility of dying from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. And since those causes of death came on both sides of our family—once with my great-grandfather, once with my grandfather—that possibility seems pretty high in our case. I see where he’s coming from, so I understand why he’d consider that the scariest way to die.

But he’s wrong.

Sudden death is the scariest way to die—not just for a person, but for any person’s family members, too.

There’s a line in Peter Pan where Peter says that “to die would be an awfully big adventure.” I don’t think that quote could only apply to what comes after death; I think it could also be said for the ways in which we die. This is the second time in six months where I’ve known about someone who died unexpectedly shortly after being diagnosed with cancer—the first instance being last summer with another Calvin English professor. And yet, since I was little, I’ve heard of people who died suddenly with no cause or explanation for why it happened. I’ve heard of miscarriages or babies who died right before they were born, even though the mothers took extra care of themselves and their children during the pregnancies.

Years ago, I remember a night where I just couldn’t sleep because I was afraid that my mom would be found dead the next morning. It was such a strong feeling that came out of nowhere—heck, she wasn’t even sick or injured to begin with—and I was legitimately terrified. I’m glad to say that she’s still alive and we celebrated her birthday just last week, but it’s moments like these where I can’t help but think of what might happen to me and my brother if either or both of our parents were suddenly gone. I also have moments where I can’t help but wonder what would happen to me if I died suddenly overnight. There’s still so much that I want to do that I’m also scared of the fact that I might not get a chance to do what I feel called to do as a writer (read my ‘Reflections on Depression’ blog post if you want more details on that.)

I guess, like any occasion concerning the death of a loved one, Professor Schmidt’s wife’s passing serves as a reminder that we have no idea of how much time we have left. Do you want to make your mark on the world? Is there anything you want to do before you die? Okay. So what’s holding you back? Take your leaps of faith while you can, because there might not be another opportunity. Unless you want to go somewhere and you need money or other resources to get there—as a college student studying to become a writer, I totally understand—there’s no excuse for putting anything off. This may be the only shot you get to do what you want to do and be who you want to be. We only get one life on this tiny little planet, so we might as well make the most of it.

Professor Schmidt, if you’re reading this right now, I think I speak for a fair number of my fellow students and other members of the Calvin English department when I say that you and your family are in our thoughts and prayers. I also speak for all of us on the New England Saints trip when I say that we’ll miss you this January.

Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso leaving you with this song by Tim Urban called “Tears for Hallelujah”:


Saving Mr. Banks: The Good, the Bad, and the Heart of Mary Poppins

Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

Earlier today, I went to see Saving Mr. Banks with my family, and I decided to do something a little bit different with this blog post and write a review on it for two reasons.

The first reason I wanted to review the movie is because it’s based on the true story of P.L. Travers giving Walt Disney the rights to make a movie adaptation of her book series, Mary Poppins. I’m usually suspicious of movies based on real life events because you never really know how much of it is true and how much of it isn’t. If you’ve seen movies like Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor or James Cameron’s Titanic (or even the two animated rip-offs of Titanic), then you’ll probably know what I mean. And in many cases, I’m still a little suspicious of how much of the movie is true and how much of it isn’t.

The second reason was because of Mary Poppins. We all know about Julie Andrews’ performance of this character in the early 1960s, and it stuck with us as we got older. Even the Nostalgia Critic listed Mary Poppins as one of his very first childhood icons. As a result, I wasn’t sure of how Saving Mr. Banks would change my perspective on a childhood favorite. I mean, a lot of us are familiar with how the author was initially reluctant to have a film adaptation of her work, how she hated the results, and how she never allowed Disney to have anything more to do with Mary Poppins.

So with two parents, a brother, and a sister-in-law, I watched the movie. And it’s about Disney (played by Tom Hanks) trying to persuade Travers (played by Emma Thompson) to allow the company to make a movie based on her work. Is it even worth going into more detail? We all know she relents in the end, and we all know that there’s a movie based on her books. In a sense, though, I guess you could say that this movie explains what made her relent, as well as an apology to her for not respecting her wishes.

Was it 100% good? Eh…in all honesty, I’d say 85%. Most of it worked, but there were a lot of details about the movie that just didn’t sit right with me and my family. My mom thought B.J. Novak, who played Bob Sherman, wasn’t quite the right actor for the role. And I have to agree. I’m sure he’s a good guy in real life, but his acting was a little stiff in this movie. I had no idea of the kind of person Bob Sherman was in real life, and Novak didn’t really clarify anything for me. There were also a few plot holes that I didn’t think had been explained enough. For example, Travers doesn’t want her book to be a musical. But then we see scenes of her either approving or disproving of songs written for the movie. Okay, so what made her okay with it in the first place? We don’t know. It’s never explained.

The biggest concern was the historical accuracy. Even though songwriter Richard Sherman (who worked on writing the songs for Mary Poppins) was a consultant for the movie, I felt like parts of the story were over-dramatized, or slightly changed. And since half of it focused on Travers’ childhood—which made sense, because it was the biggest influence on Travers’ book series—it was hard to tell how much of it was true and how much of it wasn’t. Honestly, I can’t help but wonder how Travers would feel watching Saving Mr. Banks.

Despite the downsides of the movie, we really did enjoy it. Accurate? Probably not entirely. But it was still a good story, and we liked it. Additionally, there were a handful of witty moments. For example, towards the beginning of the film, after Travers pointed out that the word ‘responstible’ isn’t a word, we get a shot of one of the Sherman brothers hiding the score for ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.’ Freaking hilarious. I loved it. And there was also a fair share of emotional scenes—not just from a storytelling point of view, but also from a Disney fan point of view. My sister-in-law says she started tearing up in a flashback of Travers’ childhood when the family is at a fair and something happens to her father. But what got me was a scene where Disney is sitting outside after a rough day with Travers, and all of a sudden he hears Dick Sherman (played by Jason Schwartzman) working on the song ‘Feed the Birds,’ which is said to be Disney’s favorite song, as well as a song that had been played at his funeral.

Here’s what I liked the most about Saving Mr. Banks. For one, it touched on what a medium transfer is supposed to do. A movie based on a book isn’t going to follow it perfectly and still be a good movie; it just isn’t possible. Movies and books use very different tools for storytelling, so in order to work, they can’t line up perfectly. But when you make a medium based on something else, you have to at least understand the heart of the original source and explore it. Without the crux of that original source, you might as well kiss your project good-bye. Without giving too much away, according to Saving Mr. Banks, both Disney and Travers eventually understood what the heart of the story of Mary Poppins was. It wasn’t the children, Jane and Michael Banks. Heck, it wasn’t even Mary Poppins herself. It was Mr. Banks, the namesake of the movie, as well as a character who was influenced by a character in Travers’ life. I can’t touch on that more than I have for the sake of spoilers, but I will say that there was a reason they called the movie Saving Mr. Banks; you just have to get to the end in order to understand why. And the ending is one of the best. I wouldn’t change a thing about it. It’s powerful, it’s emotional, it’s almost guaranteed to make you cry, it gives you a deeper understanding and appreciation for Mary Poppins, it’s just perfect.

Overall, this movie probably wasn’t the best that I’ve seen, and I’m still left with a lot of questions. But I am glad that I got to see it, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for the DVD release. I’ll give it 8 stars out of 10 and say give it a watch. Just come armed with a box of tissues, long sleeves, and/or waterproof mascara.