Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: My Highs And Lows

2011 was a real roller coaster of a year, for me personally.  Here is a (very) partial list of the high points and low points from this second year from the twenty-teens:

The Highs:
• My daughter graduated from high school
• My daughter left home in August for college at the University of Pittsburgh
• I began reviewing toys as a guest reviewer for the Action Figure Times website
• Dr. Jim Haines and I wrote a new hymn for the Unitarian-Universalist hymnbook
• I delivered what I still consider to be the finest Easter message an atheist can give to our congregation
• I celebrated 27 years of marriage to the same wonderful woman
• I attended my 40th high school reunion, and it was like we all never separated

The Lows:
• My daughter left home in August for college at the University of Pittsburgh (see Highs, above)
• My health began a more precipitous decline than in previous years
• I didn't get around to adapting my short story "Bill the Stubbornest Pelican" to a children's musical
• My godfather Ben Torre passed away
• At the reunion, the list of classmates who had died was shockingly long

As you can see, partial list or not, the highs outnumbered the lows for once, for which I am very grateful.  I hope your highs outnumbered your lows in 2011, and will continue to do so in 2012.

Happy New Year.

(And a note about the first paragraph:  Yes, 2011 is the second year of the 20-teens.  2010 was the first.  The first decade -- the first ten years of this century -- are properly 2000-2009, because 2000 is the first year of the new century and not the last year of the old.  Hey, I didn't make the rules.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sad News

Today I learned that my godfather has died.  In Italian, your godfather is called your "compara" -- the word from which the epithet "goombah" comes.  ("Godmother" is "comara.")  We haven't seen each other for years, but we have always been in touch.  Some years better than others, to be sure, but we never missed Christmas greetings, if nothing else.  Usually we managed to do better, remembering birthdays and anniversaries, and always including a letter updating the latest information.  The occasional phone call was also in the cards from time to time.  It was nice.

As a kid, I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church.  My church congregation was Italian; I was one of the few kids whose name did NOT end in a vowel.  I was given a pass into this community because my mom was Italian, and her family had been going to that church for two generations.  My mom's childhood best friend became my godmother.  Her husband, who became one of my father's best friends, was my godfather.  All of them had gone to high school together in New Jersey, and when my mother finally gave birth to her first child -- me -- after several miscarriages and a stillborn son, she asked her friend Paula if she would be my godmother.

I can't speak to the role of the godparent in general culture, I can only speak for mine.  It's a serious responsibility.  Godparents promise to see to the child's spiritual upbringing and, if necessary, their physical upbringing as well, in the event of the death of the parents.  Serious oaths are sworn and taken at the child's christening and baptism.  I know my mother took it very, very seriously; certainly more than just an honor or a show of appreciation to a friend.  She knew she could count on my godmother to raise me as she herself would have, if anything ever happened to her.  As a child I definitely considered my godparents to be my "other" mother and father.  Heck, my first dog was a puppy from a litter of my godmother's dog.

At my confirmation -- the Catholic version of a Bar Mitzvah, or coming of age -- my godparents were just as proud as my biological parents.  They helped throw a huge party for me, which turned into a major family reunion the likes of which we never had before or since.  My grandmother was one of 17 children and my grandfather one of 19 children; I met cousins, second cousins, and third cousins plus aunts and great-aunts and uncles and great uncles that I didn't even know existed.  They came from all over the country.  And all I can remember is how beautiful my two sets of parents looked and how proud they were.

Thank you, Compara Ben, for promising to raise me if I needed it.  It is a debt that I can never repay.  Comara Paula, I hope you will always consider me your other son.  I hope you are able to find some peace and joy this Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

All I Want For Christmas

I seem to be getting my Christmas early!  All I want is my daughter home safely (which, Universe willing, happens tonight) and to see my kid sister for the first time in entirely too long (which, Universe willing, happens tomorrow.)

Everything else is just icing on the cake.

We are traveling this Christmas, which is not my favorite thing to do.  I like Christmas best when it's just the three of us, at home, opening our presents and eating bagels in our pajamas until it's time for lunch.  I like when we are completely relaxed and not worrying about the comforts of guests, even when those guests are close family.  I like having Thanksgiving dinner all over again for Christmas, instead of a ham or a roast.  I just like the way the house feels and smells when it's warm inside and cold outside; how we all try not to draw the short straw which means getting dressed early and walking the dog; how my wife makes the coffee with cinnamon and cloves to go with our bagels and salmon and cream cheese.

No fussing, no trying too hard to show the company a good time, just coming downstairs on Christmas to a lit tree and full stockings.

Heaven.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Oh Holy What??

I live in Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania is ostensibly a Blue State, but this is a trick.  PA goes Blue largely because of the large, liberal, Democratic populations of the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.  But in between, where I live, the people vote Red, Red, Red.  Central Pennsylvania is, in many ways, an extension of the Bible Belt.  People are conservative, Republican and Christian.  Churches are mostly Protestant, and old school, including large Mennonite and Amish communities.  Needless to say, Christmas is huge and very in-your-face.  Every neighborhood has at least one church with a creche or Nativity Scene, many of them populated at times not by statuary or painted figures, but by human beings posing in costume.

Home decorating is de rigeur.


We have families here who begin decorating right after Labor Day.  There is a family in my neighborhood that has lights of some sort on every square foot of their home and yard, including giant electric wreaths and bows on their roofs.  I presume this is to let passing aircraft -- or UFOs -- know that they are celebrating the spirit of the season.

But one thing my wife and I agree on is that it isn't really Christmas for us until we see a house that has a light-up Nativity scene in their front yard which has the Three Kings beaming (literally!) down at the baby Jesus along with Frosty the Snowman who is apparently serving as their squire or guide.  Santa is there as well, keeping watch over the flocks by night along with the shepherds and camels.  It's a hoot.

Don't get me wrong.  Yes, I am an atheist, but I am not disparaging Christmas.  I believe that human beings have a need hard-wired into our DNA to celebrate this time of year, when the day has reached its shortest in terms of daylight and begins to grow longer again.  Whether it's Saturnalia, or Christmas, or Solstice, or Yule, I believe that we have to acknowledge the turning of the year and recognize that we all have hope for the return of sun and warmth.  If we can do so and also celebrate the birth of a hero in the bargain, so much the better.  So I have wreaths on the windows and a tree in the living room.  There are stockings hung over the fireplace, and I will even sing in my Unitarian Church on Christmas Eve.

No matter what you may believe, I hope you find something to enjoy this winter holiday season.  Enjoy the lights -- they're pretty!  And if something as silly as Frosty the Snowman keeping watch with Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar makes you smile, go with it.  Let your heart melt a little and remind yourself that when all is said and done, this time of year isn't about arguing over whether or not to say, "Happy Holidays" instead of the less-PC "Merry Christmas."  It's about reconnecting with family and with the values that makes us human.  It's about remembering that we are supposed to treat others the way we ourselves want to be treated, not just now, but always.


Friday, December 2, 2011

The Christmas Witch


My mother was Italian, and I was raised in what was for all intents and purposes an Italian home.  One of the oldest ornaments on our Christmas tree was a figure of a little old witch lady riding on a broom, an ornament which my great-grandmother brought to this country.  I remember asking my mother why we were hanging a Halloween decoration on our Christmas tree.  My mother told me that in Italy there was no male figure who delivered Christmas gifts to good girls and boys.  There was no Santa Claus or Father Christmas or Grandfather Winter.  Italian children get their presents from an old woman, a grandmother witch, a strega.  Her name is La Befana.  The story goes that the three Kings stopped at La Befana’s house on their way to Bethlehem. After dining with her, they invited her to come with them in their search for the Christ child. She said no, since she needed to wash and clean her home.  After a while she changed her mind, and gathered up some items from her home to give to the Baby Jesus. Sadly she was never able to find the three Kings, or the baby Christ child. She’s been searching ever since, flying on her broom. So every Epiphany, the Twelfth Night of Christmas, children all over Italy find their stockings filled with sweet curly candy if they've been very good, or a dark piece of charcoal if they have been bad.  I thought of this, and the poem that follows, as I spent this afternoon setting up our own Christmas tree.  Somewhere on it will be a little Befana.


THE BALLAD OF BEFANA by Phyllis McGinley

Befana the Housewife, scrubbing her pane,
Saw three old sages ride down the lane,
Saw three gray travelers pass her door --
Gaspar, Balthazar, Melchior.
"Where journey you, sirs?" she asked of them.
Balthazar answered, "To Bethlehem,
For we have news of a marvelous thing.
Born in a stable is Christ the King."

"Give him my welcome!"
Then Gaspar smiled, 
"Come with us, mistress, to greet the Child."
"Oh, happily, happily would I fare,
Were my dusting through and I'd polished the stair."

Old Melchior leaned on his saddle horn,
"Then send but a gift to the small newborn."
"Oh, gladly, gladly I'd send him one,
Were the hearthstone swept and my weaving done.
As soon as ever I've baked my bread,
I'll fetch Him a pillow for His head,
And a coverlet, too," Befana said.
"When the rooms are aired and the linen dry,
I'll look at the Babe."

But the Three rode by.

She worked for a day and a night and a day,
Then, gifts in her hands, took up her way.
But she never could find where the Christ Child lay.
And still she wanders at Christmastide,
Houseless, whose house was all her pride.
Whose heart was tardy, whose gifts were late;
Wanders and knocks at every gate,
Crying, "Good people, the bells begin!
Put off your toiling and let love in!"



Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!


All I know is, he'd damned well better be getting some turkey after this.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Kermit the Frog

This is one of those stories that I have told to almost nobody.  And yet it's something that I would hate to leave untold.  I really like the idea that it will float around as long as there's an Internet.

In the summer of 1969, when I was 14 years old, I lived in central New Jersey, in Somerset County.  My summer job was always with the county parks commission.  It mostly consisted of cutting grass and picking up trash, usually at one big park near Doris Duke's family estate called (conveniently enough) Duke Island Park.  It was pretty unexciting.  But every summer the county hosted one of the biggest and most spectacular county fairs in the state, rivaling, in fact, the actual state fair held later in the season near Trenton.  It was on a par with the York Fair in York, Pennsylvania, today, with nationally known singing stars, stock car races, and equestrian events along with the usual cakes, pies, quilts and 4-H animals.  It was, in short, a big deal.  Part of my job was to work at the fair directing cars to an appropriate parking spot in the middle of a big (unmarked!) grassy field.  Once my shift was over, I was free to wander the fair all I wanted.

Later that year, PBS and the Children's Television Workshop would debut a new children's show.  You may have heard of it.  It's called Sesame Street.

WNET-TV in New York City -- Channel 13 (which will always be synonymous with public television to anybody of my generation who grew up in New Jersey) -- came to the Somerset County Fair and sponsored a showcase show with some of the cast of Sesame Street.  Gordon was there, along with David and Bob and Maria.  And so were the Muppets.

Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch were there as was their puppeteer, Carroll Spinney.  Frank Oz was there to do Bert and Grover.  Elmo did not as yet exist.  But Ernie did.  And so did Kermit the Frog.

The Sesame Street show ran a couple of times each evening.  The rest of the time, the raised platform just sat there idle.  One evening after I was finished parking cars I found myself leaning against the base of the platform.  It was a convenient place to set my drink down so I could eat my funnel cake or corn dog or whatever it was I was munching.

I heard a voice say, "Kind of a long day today, huh?" and I looked around to see who was talking to me.  It was Kermit the Frog.

Of course, I didn't know who or what Kermit was.  I hadn't seen the show and had no interest in anything public television was doing for preschoolers.  Hell, most of the time we teenagers thought having to watch public television was punishment.  And nobody outside of local Detroit TV knew who Kermit the Frog was.

I'm sure I just stood there open-mouthed for a ridiculously long time.  Finally, Kermit said, "I said, 'Kind of a long day today, huh?'" and I said something dopey like, "Yeah, it sure was."

Part of Jim Henson's brilliance, in my opinion, was in how quickly he was able to get you to accept his little felt creations as real people.  Within a few minutes, I was chatting away with Kermit.  He made me laugh, I made him laugh; we had a fine old time.  I wish I could remember every word we said to each other, because it was truly one of the best conversations I've ever had in my life.  Finally Kermit said, "Well, this is great but I need to go get ready for the next show," and I reluctantly said good-bye.

I never saw Jim Henson.  I never had occasion to meet him ever again.  That fall, Sesame Street hit the airwaves and children's television has never been the same since.  Years later I saw the original Kermit puppet in Detroit, the one Jim Henson had made from the green lining of a raincoat and a couple of ping-pong balls.  And I couldn't help myself, I teared up.  Because once, when I was very young, I became friends with Kermit the Frog, and it was something I hope I never, ever forget.




Tuesday, November 8, 2011

1,000 Cuts

Sorry for the cryptic post last time.  As my long-time readers know, I have a particularly nasty form of something called peripheral neuropathy.  Something is causing the myelin sheaths of my sensory nerves to deteriorate, similar to the way the motor nerves degenerate in ALS.  So far, for the most part, only my sensory nerves are affected.  As they provide less and less information to my brain, it makes up for the absence by manufacturing its own information.  This usually takes the form of cold, but is very variable.  There are days of intense heat, pure pain (for lack of a better description), the feeling that you get when you stand barefoot on gravel (only all over my arms and legs), crawling bugs, electricity, and lately something new:  I feel like I am standing in a wind of tiny pieces of broken glass.  Like the proverbial death of a thousand cuts, only without the death.

I have had a tremendously difficult time coping with this latest.  I used to think the obstructive pain of an attack of Crohn's Disease was the greatest pain I could imagine.  Then I got shingles.  I thought that was the worst thing my body could throw at me.  Then this started.

I don't really have much of an opportunity to vent in other ways, gang, so you're stuck with me writing this.  I did not know I could tolerate this level of pain, for this long.  My doctors are at a loss for much help, even the brilliant docs at the ALS clinic at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center.  (And they really are brilliant.  Bless them all, Universe; bless them all each and every day.)  Distraction is the best course of action during the day.  If I can fill my mind with other things, I can actually almost forget about the pain as it becomes part of the background noise of my body.  Nights are bad.  When you're lying alone in the dark, and the only distractions are the sounds of my wife and dog breathing quietly, it can be quite debilitating.  I take pain medication, but it's starting to bump my blood pressure up to unpleasantly high levels, so that "out" may not be a consideration for too much longer.

I wish I could give you some answers.  I wish I had something to share that would give a smile or wipe a tear for all the others who suffer similar afflictions.  I don't.  There are no answers for me, not yet, at least. My rheumatologist is ever optimistic and is always sharing his hopes for the Next Big Thing that's in the pipeline that might help with autoimmune nerve degeneration, and I appreciate that from him.  He also feels that I am not enough of an addictive personality and so can be trusted with painkillers.  I can't wait to hear what he offers next now that this door may be closing.

All I can do is carry on.  It's precious little.  It's hard not to feel sorry for myself, hard not to want it to be over, hard not to resent the simplest things like walking the dog when walking means feeling like walking on razor blades instead of concrete.  But so far any other, more extreme alternative is out of the question.  If there should come a time when my motor nerves are also affected by the same degeneration, that question may have to be revisited.  But for now, I'll burn that bridge when I come to it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Monday, October 31, 2011

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Really? That's the worst you've got??

Recently a website called Stamps.com started running a television ad wherein numerous very busy business-type people talk about how convenient it is to do all their snail mail postage online.  One guy says, "There's nothing worse than waiting in line at the post office."

Really?  NOTHING?


I can think of lots of things that are worse than waiting in line at the post office.  I'm sure all of us can.  Living in constant pain,  Dying by fire.  Losing a child.  Dying of ovarian cancer at a young age.  Loving someone who is dying of ovarian cancer at a young age.  You get the idea.

I think the reason I am so very offended by this ad is that, for me, it symbolizes the fatuous, frivolous, me-centric, over-inflated-sense-of-personal-entitlement society we are becoming.  Of course there's "nothing worse than waiting in line at the post office" for these people.  They're the same folks who tailgate you when you're already doing the speed limit on a wet road, or who pass illegally on the highway.  Their errands and schedules are simply more important than yours.  Because they are simply more important than you.

It also seems to me to be similar to the Tea Party hypocrites who are all set to kill government entitlements...until they themselves are entitled to them.  I am thinking of one female Fox News commentator who moaned and groaned about family leave and how it takes money out of corporate pockets...until she got pregnant and took advantage of family leave herself.  When someone made a joke about her "vacation" she vigorously defended the same Family Leave Act that she had derided only a year or so before.  It's the same thing with the Tea Party.  They want to hand out school vouchers and kill daycare programs and all other kinds of beneficial government spending -- programs that have been proven in the long-term to actually save money -- until and unless it affects their kids and their schools and their programs.  And the people who would most be affected negatively by their idiocy are their greatest proponents.

I don't get it.

If you can work a calculator, you can figure out pretty quickly that Cain's "9-9-9" or Perry's 20% Flat Tax proposals are BAD IDEAS that will cost the ever-diminishing middle class more money than they are paying now, thereby further eroding the financial backbone of this country.  Occupy Wall Street has one thing right, at least:  we are well on our way to becoming a society of wealthy overlords and peasants, with precious little in between, largely because of the greed and misinformation pumped out by the wealthiest of us and by the corporations who have their interests, not mine, at their core.

Something to really think about when you're in line at the post office.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

This is why our pets hate Hallowe'en


I don't care how much of a Star Wars fan you are, I promise you:  Your whippet does not want to dress up like an AT-AT for the Holiday.  Just don't do it.

Enough said.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ugh

Dreadful week.  My wife has shingles and I got my flu shot; this year's version is a little more troublesome than most years.  My arm is sore, I feel like crap, and I'm running a low-grade fever.

So here's a funny picture.


See you next time.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Dreams and Nightmares

That's what the past week has been for me, a strange combination of dreams and nightmares.  One of the dreams come true is that I was invited to write toy reviews -- of Green Lantern toys no less! -- by a leading action figure website.  (More on this if and when they actually decide to use my stuff.)  I've spent the past week learning how to use our camera for close-up stills, setting up a little photo studio in our dining room, and snapping pictures of the box of toys that was sent to me.  It's been great fun for me, and really is something I have dreamed of doing for a long, long time.  I'm just thrilled to have been asked at this point; actually seeing the reviews on-line will be the icing on the cake.  (And if they decide against using my stuff, you can bet it'll show up here.)

On the other hand, one of the nightmares has been the personal tragedy that has enfolded a dear, dear friend.  The nightmare is not only in their circumstances, but in my complete inability to even begin to get my head around how I can possibly be of any help.  I won't go into the details.  I will only say that it seems I am able to do nothing except to care and sympathize and love ... and it doesn't seem to be nearly enough.

As to a far lesser matter, we have determined -- we think! -- at long last where the trickle of water is coming from in our basement every time we have a hard rain.  The ash pit under our fireplace seems to be leaking ground water when the ground water levels get to be high enough.  The water has been filling this pit under our fireplace like a cistern, and seeping into the basement along the join where wall meets floor. The water vapor from this underground pool has actually seeped up around the fireplace and severely damaged the drywall surrounding the fireplace.  It's all going to have to be replaced.  The fix is going to cost us just a couple of dollars shy of $6,000.00, and that's just for the excavation, repair, and resealing of the foundation.  The drywall will be still more.  And with a daughter in college, this is money we really don't have.  It will wipe out our emergency savings and then some, and if another hurricane comes along and does damage to my roof or my windows, for example, we will be in serious, serious trouble.

So that's the past week.  A little good, a lot of bad, and all of it what life is, I guess.  I shouldn't moan about the basement, I know -- I'm blessed to have an income, and to have a roof over my head (even if is a leaky one) when so many of us live from paycheck to paycheck and don't have a home at all.  Or if they did, they would find a fix like this completely beyond their means.

The dream and nightmare both, of home ownership at least.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Walking Dead Season 2

Starting October 19th on AMC, The Walking Dead  returns for more seriously scary stuff.  You can see some "webisodes" that serve as both flashback and prequel here.  They primarily describe the fate of the Bicycle Zombie from the Pilot episode.  The link to episode 1 (of six) is below.  You can go get the rest of them from here.

Be warned.  This is gruesome, scary stuff.  It's horror.  Pure and unrefined horror.  It's not safe for work, and it's not safe for kids.  But it is really, really well done.

Once again:  VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED!!  Strongly.

You were warned.

Now enjoy.




Episode 2:  http://www.amctv.com/the-walking-dead/videos/the-walking-dead-webisodes-2-family-matters

Episode 3:  http://www.amctv.com/the-walking-dead/videos/the-walking-dead-webisodes-3-domestic-violence

Episode 4:  http://www.amctv.com/the-walking-dead/videos/the-walking-dead-webisodes-4-neighborly-advice

Episode 5:  http://www.amctv.com/the-walking-dead/videos/the-walking-dead-webisodes-5-step-mother

Episode 6:  http://www.amctv.com/the-walking-dead/videos/the-walking-dead-webisodes-6-everything-dies

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hogsmeade Alley

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida.  I promised more reflections about the Hogsmeade experience, so here goes:

When you first enter the World, it is through gates reminiscent of a medieval walled city.  The first thing you see is the Hogwarts Express train, complete with a conductor, sitting at the platform of Hogsmeade Station.



From there you enter the village of Hogsmeade proper.  Now I realize that they probably had to make the lane of shops and such "Hogsmeade" for the simple reason of continuity for us purists.  In other words, if you want to have Hogwarts Castle, the nearest settlement, magical or muggle, is the village of Hogsmeade.  But what Harry Potter fans really want to visit, in their secret heart of hearts, is the London shopping district of Diagon Alley.  And that is what Hogsmeade village really is.

Sure, the shops all have the Hogsmeade names -- the joke shop is Zonko's, the sweet shop is Honeyduke's, the pub is the Three Broomsticks -- but the layout and the feel is pure Diagon Alley.  And it's great.



If I had a complaint, it would be that the shops should be bigger on the inside.  Too often the choice was made to combine interiors.  For example, on the outside, Zonko's and Honeyduke's appear to be separate establishments, but inside, it's one large interior space, with one side devoted to the pranks and jokes (sneakoscopes, extendable ears, etc.) and the other to treats (fizzing whizbees, every flavor beans, chocolate frogs, and so forth.)  A similar arrangement is made with Ollivander's (a direct transplant from Diagon Alley; we fans know that there is no Ollivander's "branch office" in Hogsmeade, but we don't care!) and the Owl Post are also combined into one interior space which can be very, very cramped.  It should have been bigger.

And as long as I'm complaining -- why was the decision made to show Hogsmeade in the winter?  In central Florida?  Seriously??!?  I mean, the artificial snow decorating the rooftops is very well done, but there are no holiday or other seasonal decorations...and it's FLORIDA!  It's always going to be warm at best -- are we supposed to believe that it's some sort of Weather Charm gone horribly awry?  It's just silly.

But with those nitpicks out of the way...Hogsmeade is pretty great.  And the food is good, too.  There are a few carts dealing in snack foods and Butterbeer, but the real place to eat is the Three Broomsticks Pub.  A beautiful job was done in creating this place.  There is a proper bar at one end, complete with animatronic boar's head over the taps, and a dining area at the other.  Food includes things like shepherd's pie and fish & chips, butterbeer, pumpkin juice and pumpkin fizzes.  Our meals were tasty and amazingly not overpriced (I'm thinking of you, Disney churro!)

If you pay attention, you are likely to see a variety of magickal folks wandering the streets, and not just picking up trash in costume.  A troop of girls from Beauxbatons Academy may go by, followed by their staff-wielding Eastern European male counterparts.  Clearly the villagers are behind Dumbledore's muggle initiative one hundred percent.

So if you're a fan...go.  It's well worth the pilgrimage.  Take the Ollivander's tour -- maybe your kid will be picked for a wand trial.  Snoop into every shop window; you never know what you're going to see.



Luckily the Mandrake Root is a juvenile, and it shouldn't knock you out.  Finish the Forbidden Journey ride and then come back down the hill to shop at Dervish & Banges'/Flourish & Blott's (yes, another combined interior) so that you don't have so much stuff to store in the lockers (hey, those high-end Quidditch robes take up a lot of space.)  But do go.  I haven't had this much fun at an amusement park since I went to California Disneyland and rode the Indiana Jones ride -- still a paragon of what amusment park rides should be -- and I honestly believe that anybody else, even if they only have a passing interest in the movies, will have that much fun as well.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Not the literary creation, of course, but the amusement park at Universal Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida!

As with most health care professions, my wife is required to complete a certain number of continuing education hours each year in order to maintain her certification as a physician.  The American Academy of Family Physicians helps with this by holding an annual Scientific Assembly, at which attendees can earn 20 or more credit hours at seminars that run for twelve hours a day over a four day period.

Obviously, after an intensive period of study and information absorption, a break is needed.  Each year the Assembly is held in a different city, and each year the Assembly tries have that "break" in the form of a celebration which takes advantage of the best that city has to offer.  In Boston, it was a concert by the Boston Pops held exclusively for the attendees and their families.  In San Antonio, it was a cookout at the Alamo.

In Orlando, the Assembly rented Universal Islands of Adventure for the evening.

No outsiders, just a few thousand family doctors and their families.  No long lines, and the entire park all to ourselves.  Wonderful.

My wife and I made a beeline for that part of the park known as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  (Us, and most everybody else!)  Megan and I had the opportunity to "do" Universal a couple of years ago at my dad's 80th birthday, so we felt we could skip the other areas--Comic Strip Land, Dr. Seuss Village, Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent and Marvel Island.

We are both Harry Potter nerds.  We wanted Hogwarts.

The first thing we saw upon entering the gates of Hogsmeade Village was the train station with the Hogwarts Express steaming away at the platform.  The conductor cheerfully greeted all of us Muggles as we entered the town.

Hogsmeade itself is delightful.  A mix of what we all imagine Hogsmeade to be with a healthy dose of Diagon Alley thrown in.  Zonko's Joke Shop and Honeyduke's Sweets are the first shops you pass on your way up the High Street, followed by Flourish and Blott's, Dervish and Banges', and the Three Broomsticks Pub.  On your right will be Ollivander's Wand Shop and the Owl Post, and at the end of the lane is Hogwarts Castle.



The first thing we did was to get ourselves a couple of Butterbeers from the Butterbeer wagon.  They were, alas, not only nonalcoholic but very disappointing.  For all the world it tasted like creme soda topped with a caramel-infused whipped cream.  Butterbeer is available in both a frozen slushy version and a "draft" version; at $21.00 for two we thought it terribly overpriced in spite of the souvenir plastic glasses.  Butterbeer is normally available for far less at the Three Broomsticks, so if you go, wait until you get inside the pub.  We fell prey to our newbie ultrafan nature.

Pumpkin Juice and Pumpkin Fizzes are also available.  Very sweet and quite delicious.  I much preferred my Pumpkin Fizz to my Butterbeer.

After browsing the shop windows, we headed for Hogwarts.  I understand that when the park is open to the world at large, the wait for the Forbidden Journey ride can be hours long.  For us that night it was only about twenty minutes, and it was barely long enough to appreciate the level of detail that goes into waiting for the ride.  You start off through the Hogwarts grounds and enter the greenhouse and Herbology.  There are alway props to look at, and everything is perfectly duplicated from the films.

From the greenhouse you finally enter the castle, where you are asked to get rid of all bags and loose items in a free locker adjacent to Filch's Confiscated Goods (the inevitable end-of-ride gift shop) and continue on into the castle.  You will see just about everything you ever wanted to -- the witch statue that hides the secret passage to Honeydukes, living paintings, the Griffin statue that guards the entrance to Dumbledore's office, and so on.  If the ride is too scary for you, or if you don't meet the physical requirements (you have to be 48" tall and guests of a certain largeness cannot be accommodated on the ride -- I barely made it at 6'5" and 285 lbs.) you can still wander the castle.

You wind through Dumbledore's office and are greeted by a film of Michael Gambon explaining his new initiative of Muggle/Magical interaction at Hogwarts.  It's great.  You also get a short film from Harry, Ron and Hermione in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom.  Again, you will see EVERYTHING you wanted to see -- Sorting Hat, Dragon skeleton, spine-shaped candles, everything. When you get to the Gryffindor Common Room (and get to see Dawn French's Fat Lady living painting -- DO NOT MISS THIS!) you are finally getting close to the actual ride.



You will enter the Room of Requirement, be seated on a bench with three other people, and Hermione will charm the bench so that it flies.  From then on you are in the hands of one of those flying rides that use movie screens and physical motion to induce the illusion of movement.  Sort of a cross between Disney's Haunted Mansion and Universal's Simpsons ride, if that helps.

I won't spoil the plot other than to tell you that it involves Quidditch and Hagrid, but it's great.  Lots of jerking around -- they are right to make you locker your loose items! -- and some genuinely scary moments for littler ones, but well worth the time invested.  I'm told the ride lasts about five minutes, but it felt like it lasted far, far longer.

If you are a Harry Potter fan, or even if you merely enjoyed the movies, I heartily recommend this experience.  Again, I have no reference to compare what the wait times might be like on a normal visit to the park, but my wife and I had a wonderful, wonderful time.

More on the other parts of Hogsmeade soon!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On Vacation

I haven't posted in a while for the simple reason that my wife has taken me with her to this year's conference of the American Academy of Family Practice Physicians. It is the first vacation we have taken with just the two of us in almost twenty years and we made the choice to turn it into a second honeymoon of sorts. We came down a few days early to sit in the sun together and have somebody else do the cooking and cleaning up for a little while. I have to admit to feeling a little nervous. As new empty nesters, would we still connect the way we used to? Would there still be things to talk about once the kids and work were taken out of the equation? Turns out, I needn't have worried. We spent some lovely and lively days together, and even the evenings (now that the conference has started) have been fun. Tonight we went down to a place called Pirate Cove and played 18 holes of mini-golf. There we were, two fogeys in our fifties, acting like the high school kids we once were together. Mini-golf, for goodness' sake. For what it's worth, I cleaned her clocks. And she had two -- two! -- holes-in-one! Just goes to show, I guess, that you're never too old to have a first date again.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Baltimore Comic-Con

This year was the first year in a while that I missed going to the Baltimore Comic-Con.  It was held the same weekend we had to pack Olivia up and off to school.  Here's a piece I wrote last year, following what turned out to be my and Olivia's last trip to Baltimore for a while:

"Unlike its more famous cousin, the San Diego Comic-Con (which has largely been taken over by Hollywood) the Baltimore Comic-Con really is an old-school, by-God comics convention.  No movies or television programs are previewed, and the only "stars" in attendance are stars in the field of comic art.  Stars like Ramona Fradon, one of the first women professionals in comics who at the age of 84 is still drawing.  Her work on Metamorpho, the Element Man for DC Comics in the 1960's has made her a fan-favorite artist.  Stars like Jim Starlin, whose stories about the mad god Thanos have provided a major framework for stories in the Marvel Comics universe.   And stars like Sergio Aragones, who has been drawing those brilliant little gag comics in the borders of the pages of Mad Magazine for decades.


"I had the honor and privilege of meeting these folks and many others at the Baltimore Comic-Con.  Like I said, Baltimore Comic-Con is all about the comics, much as San Diego was, back when it started years ago and before it became "the" place to debut anything related to science fiction, video games, or action entertainment.


"It really was a treat to get my geek on and see so many of the people whose work in comics (or if I want to get hifalutin', "sequential art") has given me so much pleasure over the years.  The list includes Bernie Wrightson (probably the finest horror artist of the modern generation), Jimmy Gownley (his Amelia Rules! is rewriting the book on comics for young people), Ian Sattler (story editor at DC Comics), Jim Shooter (his revival of the old Gold Key Comics characters like Magnus, Robot Fighter and Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom is just brilliant, making these characters from the 1960's relevant again a full half century later) and many, many more.


"To an individual, these are the nicest, most approachable, kindest people who can claim celebrity status in their field.  I can think of no other setting in which one can just walk up to someone and begin a conversation based on our shared love for the medium of comics and our appreciation for their work.  It was a rare treat.


"To be sure, there were dealers and hucksters and shameless self-promoters; wanna-bes and has-beens along with the cream of the comics industry.  But even these folks were just as polite and pleasant as one could possibly hope.  My daughter spent four hours in the company of artist/writer Howard Chaykin and inker/writer Klaus Janson and learned more about artistic storytelling and page layout in that time than most people get in an entire semester of classes.  They critiqued her comics work, and were brutally honest and yet completely fair.  She loved every second.  Howard Chaykin in particular was a real treat for her.  She draws manga-style comics, and Howard is pretty much the polar opposite in style, but after he frankly and honestly critiqued both her work and his own limitations regarding that style, he pointed out to the audience that it took "real balls" to come forward in public and let strangers see and criticize one's work.  He was a real class act.


"And while she was in her class, I got to use the dealer's floor as a kind of hands-on museum, seeing some of the comics that I knew when I was a kid all up close and personal again.  I can't begin to describe the pleasurable nostalgia I felt seeing for the first time the second issue ever of Green Lantern ...  and holding the first appearance of Spider-Man (Amazing Fantasy #15!) in my hands.  Yes, it was old and clearly well-read, but still in great shape over 50 years later, and I can think of no other venue in which I would be allowed to handle it.  I even got to see a copy of the very first comic book that I ever read, Green Lantern #4.  Back in the day, I picked it up for a dime at Carlino's Drug Store (yes, I'm that old; comics were still a dime when I started reading them) and ever since, I have loved and collected both comic books in general and the character of Green Lantern in particular.


"Oh, yeah.  We had a great time."

Monday, August 29, 2011

First Day of School. First Day of Forever.

So today marks one week since I took my only child, all grown up, to college at the University of Pittsburgh.  After a week of orientation, she started classes today, where she will be taking writing, Japanese, psychology and biology, among other things, on her way to a degree in bioengineering.  Needless to say, I am very proud.  Needless to say, I miss her like crazy.  There is a hole in my heart the exact size and shape of her smile.

We've texted a few times.  I guess that's the way it's done these days.  I understand that her first day went well and that she likes her teaches so far.  She still is having a little trouble finding her way around, but that is certainly to be expected.  Seven days in a strange city does not make one an expert, and I hope she cuts herself some slack on that.

I did share with her some fatherly advice over the weekend.  I gave her five tips, some from me, some borrowed, that I think will add immeasurably to her chances of success.  They are, in no particular order:

1. Find whatever passes for a student handbook and learn the important dates.  Learn the last day for adding, dropping or switching to pass/fail.

2. At some point during the first couple of weeks of classes, find out your teachers' office hours and drop in to introduce yourself.  Only a suck-up waits until three days before midterms to do that.

3. Learn the etiquette of each professor's classroom.  Approach the class the way you would visiting a church.  Some ministers don't mind if you knit during the sermon but others take offense.  Each instructor will have different ideas about what is respectful behavior and you should learn what those ideas are for each and every class.

4. Take good notes and review them every day.  Rewrite them if possible.  The more you do that, the better the knowledge becomes fixed in your mind.

5. Get involved with the community and get connected.  Join a club, go to church, support a cause.  It doesn't matter whether you save the environment or join the College Anime Funnybook Chowder and Marching Society.  Find like-minded people and get involved with them.

And that's it.  Well, there is one epilogue of sorts:  Whatever happened in high school doesn't mean SQUAT now.  You have a completely clean slate and you have complete control over the identity you are beginning to create for yourself.  Enjoy it, experiment with it, and make it a good one.

Livi, if you read this, remember that your mom and I will always love you, and support you, and be very, very proud of you.

And I miss you like stink!!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

There. Safe.

Olivia is there.  She's safe and settled in her room at the dorm.

I miss her like stink.

I had this essay on missing her and cooking for one less person and so forth, all ready to go, and I came home to find that this blog had been hacked and hijacked by some a-hole in the Ukraine.

I have no idea what he did to my site before Google gave it back to me, but if you were here and were offended or victimized, I sure am sorry.  I have learned to change my passwords more often, for sure.

And I hope for something very special for my Ukrainian friends.

Monday, August 22, 2011

"Tomorrow. Tomorrow. I Hate Ya. Tomorrow."

"You're only a day a-wayyy!"  [Apologies to the musical "Annie."]  But tomorrow I drive my no-longer-so-little girl to Pittsburgh so she can begin her university career.  And I gotta tell ya, it's killin' me.

Like I said on my Facebook page, I am of two minds.  On the one hand, I realize that it's time to push her out of the nest.  I am not entitled to keep her wonderfulness to myself.  It's her turn to go out into the world and get her education and make her difference.  And I am sure that she will.  While I am by no means the perfect parent, nor she the perfect daughter, I am awfully proud of the woman Olivia turned out to be.  She is a very caring person, and truly has a beautiful soul.  She can engage with just about anybody, of any generation.  Why I have not been beating away young suitors with a large stick is a mystery I will never be able to fathom.

And on the other hand, I so wish I could just keep her around for a while longer.

I will miss marching for gay rights with her as much as I will miss watching "Doctor Who" with her.  I will miss our guilty pleasure dinners together on the nights that my wife has to work.  (My wife has a dairy allergy, so all of our other meals are made cow-free.  Only when Olivia and I are alone together can we indulge in pizza or mac and cheese, or cook with cream.)

I am so glad that we got to perform together at our annual church talent show.  (Little sidebar -- I'm sure that when I use the phrase "church talent show," you have a mental image of something very amateurish and silly that might make it onto "America's Funniest Videos."  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We have a brilliantly talented congregation that includes many musicians, singers, and performers of all stripes.  Our singers could easily make a living in the performing arts.  Once a year we turn our church space into a cabaret -- complete with stage lighting and sound -- to raise scholarship money, and believe me when I say that it's a very hot ticket indeed.  Getting to sing a parody song I had written with Olivia at the "Kaleidoscope" show -- and getting generous applause from that bunch -- was truly a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.)

I will miss her voice.  I will miss how she smells.  I will miss watching her draw.  I will miss seeing her be passionate about her causes, whether they be gay rights, environmental responsibility, or atheism.  But most of all I will miss our conversations, no matter how serious or silly.  And boy, can they be silly!

I hope she has an absolutely brilliant experience this freshman year, as she takes her first tentative steps into the adult world.  But I am going to miss seeing her in the back seat.

Guess I'd better enjoy it while it lasts as we drive to the 'Burgh tomorrow morning.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Thank You, Doctor Who

If you've known me for any length of time, you know that, for better or worse, I am largely defined by my illnesses, both physical and psychological.  Crohn's Disease and my other autoimmune illnesses limit what I can do physically, and depression often limits me psychologically and emotionally.  The physical and the psychological are certainly inextricably linked, but after 45 years I have come to largely understand what is going on with my various physical illnesses.  I know when I can leave the house, I know that the first thing I need to know about a new place is the location of the bathroom, and so forth.  I recognize that I am going to spend most of each day in pain to varying degrees.  It may be abdominal pain to rival appendicitis.  It may be neuropathic pain which has no basis in reality apart from feeling quite real to me.  It may involve painful joints from arthritis, or it may be some combination of everything.  With a migraine for the cherry on top.  But pain is always there, and it never, never, never goes away.

My point is that I can almost guarantee you that the level of my depression will directly correlate with the amount of pain I am in.

I try not to let it dominate my life.  I try to keep it from my family, and for the most part I am, I think, successful.  They know I have pain, don't misunderstand me, but I like to think that I'm able to keep the actual level of pain to myself.  I'm probably delusional; they probably know exactly how badly I am hurting.  But it's easier on me if I don't "know" that.

When I am one straw away from the camel's back breaking, when I am sorely tempted to just go upstairs and take that entire bottle of pain medication so that I can just be DONE with it...I put on a DVD of "Doctor Who."

Yes.  "Doctor Who."  The long-running British children's science fiction programme for which there should be a countdown clock somewhere off to your right, right now.

People think that science fiction often has no heart.  Or no relevance.  My parents used to make fun of "Star Trek," wondering why on Earth I was wasting my time watching grown adults run around in their pajamas.  I could explain the appeal until I was blue in the face, and they would never, ever get it.  I often run into the same thing with "Doctor Who."  Yet I can honestly tell you that the Doctor keeps me alive.

I defy anyone to watch the episode about Vincent Van Gogh and not be moved at the end, when Vincent comes forward in time and hears the curator, played by Bill Nighy, explain how he is not only the greatest artist who ever lived but also one of the greatest human beings.

I defy anyone to watch "Don't Blink" and not be astounded at the quality of the writing, and the acting, and the casting (Carey Mulligan!  Carey freakin' MULLIGAN!  And did I mention Bill Nighy?)

And I defy anyone to watch Neil Gaiman's episode, "The Doctor's Wife," and not be touched when the Doctor's "wife" says, "Hello."

I can't tell you how much I look forward to this silly little British show.  How much I count on being moved by it to remind me of what it means to be human.  How much I count on it to give me hope.  Thank you, Russell Davies and Steven Moffatt and Matt Smith and Karen Gillan and Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.  Thank you for saving me, and for giving me something to look forward to when the last thing in this universe I want to do is go forward.

Is "Doctor Who" solely responsible for me not joining the choir invisible?  Of course not.  I know, most days at least, what it would do to my family and friends.  They certainly keep me going when the going is hard.  As does my writing, including what I write here, and as does music.  I am sure that getting to sing with friends has played a huge part in my sticking around.  But "Doctor Who" is certainly a lovely little bonus.  And when I'm all alone, and things are pretty rotten and desperate, there's always that Blu-Ray of "Vincent."

Try it sometime.


Monday, August 8, 2011

PENN & TELLER!!!

The reason I haven't had a new post in almost two weeks is that I've been away.  My wife and daughter and I went out to Nevada for my mother-in-law's 85th birthday.  We stayed for the first time at a hotel on the Vegas "Strip" (albeit one without a casino) and had some wonderful meals and a lot of time with Mom.  I especially appreciated the connection being re-made between Mom and my daughter Olivia.

But for me, the highlight of the trip was the night we went to see Penn & Teller.

If you don't know who they are...shame on you.

The show was fantastic.  Jazz pianist Mike Jones entertained the audience with live music during the pre-show, accompanied on string bass by Penn Jillette.  (Is there NOTHING this man can't do??)  While the piano played, the audience was invited up onto the stage to sign an envelope and examine a wooden box.  Hardly anyone even noticed that Penn was playing bass incognito.  When I was a few feet away from him, he caught my eye, and it was clear that he knew that I knew it was him.  He gave me a little nod as if to say thanks for not blowing his cover, and didn't miss a note.

The entertainment was a great mixture of classic stuff from their TV and Broadway appearances as well as new illusions.  I think my favorite moment was when Teller -- silently as usual -- invited a woman up from the audience, and sat her with a goldfish bowl on her lap.  He rolled up his sleeves and proceeded to fill the fishbowl with coins produced seemingly from nowhere.  Then a stage hand brought out a large aquarium filled with water.  Teller scooped up the quarters and as he threw them into the larger tank, they somehow became living goldfish.  At least sixty of them.  How one palms a living goldfish and keeps it alive is a mystery I hope I never fathom, but it was a delight to see.

The show included some debunking of psychic readings, including some absolutely astounding results from Penn as he divined passages from random books that were passed out through the audience, and ended with their classic "magic bullet" routine.

All I can say is, if you find yourself in Las Vegas, go to the Rio NOW and book yourself some tickets.  And for heaven's sake, spring for the orchestra section; you just HAVE to be as close to these guys as you can! 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pre-Pitt Visit

We visited Pittsburgh for a mandatory session required for all incoming freshpeople this past weekend, during the great heat wave of 2011.  Last summer we made our campus "do I want to come here?" visit during similar conditions.  We seem unable to visit Pittsburgh when the temperature is less than 100 degress F.  I was actually glad we had spent the extra money to stay in a Holiday Inn that is literally right on campus.  My daughter Olivia stayed in the dorms and got a bit of a taste of what that will be like.  She enjoyed her roommate and they were apparently visited by a couple of boys who "just wanted to talk, honest!"  (HA!  Shotgun, please.)  She was scheduled into her Fall Semester classes, which include Biology 2 and its appropriate lab (thank you, AP exam!), social psychology, an advanced English composition course (again, thanks AP exam), and, since she is in a Learning Community appropriately named "Konnichiwa," she is taking Japanese 1.

Olivia met with her advisor and got along well with him.  She is signed up for a bank account that links to her student ID (which she also received) and thanks to Dad's credit card, her books will be set aside and paid for by the first day of classes thanks to a program that the Pitt Book Store conned, er, talked me into joining.  It will save her waiting in line to buy her books.  I remember the insane lines at the University of Virginia bookstore when I was an undergraduate, and having her books pre-purchased will be a considerable convenience.  Of course, I also remember having to collect punch cards in order to reserve my seat in a class in order to build my U.Va. schedule  Technology just shy of sacrificing a goat....

We still have lots to do and to prepare, but it looks like we will make it.  Moving in to a 14th floor dorm room on the same day that 7,000 other families are doing the same should be...interesting.  In a Chinese curse sort of way. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Humanity

I am amazed at the wide disparity that exists between the everyday obscenities that can hide in the human heart and the remarkable act of selflessness that surfaces sometimes.  I'm thinking of the true American hero who was interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show this week, Sergeant First Class Leroy A. Petry.  Sgt. Petry was wounded in Afghanistan when he helped lead an assault on a compound in Paktry.  After being shot through both legs, he continued to lead his inexperienced men to safety and lost his right hand when he picked up an armed "pineapple" grenade and threw it away from his men, only to have it explode just as he released it.  This action, while costing him his hand, did serve to save his men by directing the force of the explosion away from them.  After tying on his own tourniquet, Sgt. Petry continued to fight until relieved.

Then I compare that level of behavior to that of, say, the idiots who see you trying to merge your car into traffic and speed up to prevent you from doing so.  Or who cut in front of you at the checkout line.  Or who engage in any number of idiotic, unnecessary and uncharitable behaviors on any given day.  Not to mention the greater, grosser evils of murder and abuse and other criminal activity.

We are capable of greatness.  It's why I love science fiction, particularly things like Star Trek or Green Lantern, things which automatically assume that there is hope for human beings, that we have a future where we finally set aside our differences in the pursuit of greatness.  Selfless acts like those of Sgt. Petry give me hope for us as a species.

Then, of course, I go to the grocery store and see a fight over fresh corn.

It does give one pause.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Ageing Gracefully (Ha!)

Coming up on my 58th birthday later in the week.  This is how I look at it:  at 57 I can round my age down to 55.  After the birthday, I will be mentally rounding UP to 60.  I'm 60.  I can read all the comic books and play with all the robot toys I like, but I'm still pushing 60 in a handcart.  60.  Yikes.

How am I celebrating?  Not too much.  I already got the phone call yesterday from my gastroenterologist's office reminding me that I'm due for a colonoscopy in September.  (Happy birthday!!)  They will be sending the necessary instructions and prescriptions via snail mail, but the bottom line is that one night in September I will be essentially tied to the toilet while chugging a gallon of lollipop-flavored horse sweat.  Oy.  (I was actually going to type "Oh joy!  Oh rapture!" just now, but my hands beat me to "Oy."  A Freudian slip of the fingers??)

So there's that.  And yes, I realize fully the importance of regular examinations, particularly as a sufferer from Crohn's Disease, which means, among other things, that my risk of colon cancer is approximately a hundred times greater than that of the general population.  So if you're over 50, see your doctor and set up an exam.  Colon cancer is a lousy death.  Doesn't mean I'm looking forward to anything but the exam being over for another two years, though.

I'm sure my family will do something lovely for me, and we're planning to dine out on the semi-big day, but for some reason I can't get that colonoscopy out of my head today.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Best of 2011 (So Far)

Now that 2011 is half over, I was thinking about what pop-culture-type things really got me excited this year.  And here they are, in no particular order:

• The new season of Doctor Who on BBC America

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

Green Lantern, the movie

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

• "Brightest Day" in DC Comics

Thor, the movie

Outcasts on BBC America

• The Chieftains, live in concert in York, PA

• Steve Martin's "Atheists Don't Have No Songs" (and singing it with Jim Haines and Phil Hoskins-Helm!)  (and nailing that F at the end!)

Bridesmaids, the movie

• "Hands," the new single from The Ting Tings

Bones on FOX

The Lord of the Rings extended trilogy on blu-ray.  Heavens, it's just lovely.

Call of Duty: Black Ops on the Wii

I'm sure I've forgotten some things, but...that's why the Edit function exists.  ;)


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Heading Out

Heading out for a few days to relax (I hope!) at a lake in the Poconos.  We are bringing the dog, which should be an experience.  The dog is recovering from yet another lumpectomy surgery; we should hear the biopsy results next week.  I wish him well.  I do.  I've seen too many people and pets die from cancer, and although I resent the hell out of being saddled with this animal, I do not wish him pain or suffering.

I am hoping to just sit under the trees and read and rest while he chases the chipmunks in his little Elizabethan Collar of Shame.  Watching my wife and daughter relax waterside will also be a great pleasure.  I hope these few days will recharge my batteries and give me some new things to think about, and perhaps even to share.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Green Lantern--My Review

I really wanted to wait a couple of days to digest this movie before trying to say something about it that hasn't been said, but there have been so many reviews, in so many places, that are just all over the map, that I fear that I have little new to contribute.  But I'll try my best.  So here goes:

Right off the top, I will tell you that I would give this movie a solid B.  Is it perfect?  No.  But it is great fun, and I do honestly believe that it was given short shrift by too many reviewers.  I wonder if many of them simply felt that it was time for a bad review after so many pleasant surprises this summer, with great films including Super 8, X-Men: First Class, and Thor.

As for Green Lantern:  One of my peeves with films in general today is the reliance on stables of writers, and multiple focus groups, and revision after revision after revision of a script.  I think film by committee is always going to be subpar.  One reason why Super 8 works so well is that it is the vision of one individual, J.J. Abrams.  This doesn't always translate into success; the mess that was Sucker Punch is proof enough of that.  But when a movie really, really works, it is almost always the vision of one or two individuals.  Green Lantern is a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.  Words and scenes that work brilliantly on the comics page did not translate well into live action.  Green Lantern was, in my opinion, overwritten.  It tried too hard to blend the updating of the character (as done recently in the comics pages by Geoff Johns) with a more classic 1960's take on the character, and some cribbing from the Iron Man origin portion in the bargain.  So in trying to be too much it wound up being too little.

I also hate movies that make changes for the sake of making changes, as though this somehow translates into someone's personal artistic vision.  There is nothing wrong with the original costume for the character (the Hal Jordan version, not the Alan Scott) and there is nothing wrong with the original design of the Lantern power battery.  While putting Wolverine in yellow spandex would have been a disaster, I feel like a Green Lantern costume closer to the original would have been more successful.  Also, there was no need to change the origin story to the extent that they did -- they should have had Hal brought to Abin Sur's crash by the ring while he was in a flight simulator.  The idea of the simulator training machine actually taking flight is a fantastic one, and it was thrown away.  I also feel that adding all the doubt into Hal's character was a misstep; the ring chooses Hal because he is capable of overcoming great fear.  And I believe it was a mistake to change Hector Hammond's origin so drastically.  He could still have been connected to Parallax in some way -- his burgeoning telepathic power would have been enough to do it -- and he could still have been mutated by a combination of meteors, as in the original comics, albeit meteors that came down with Abin Sur's craft.  Or even meteors that BROUGHT down Abin Sur's craft.  Parallax could have been responsible.  I also saw no need to change Parallax's origin.  It is NOT a renegade Guardian; it is the universe's living embodiment of Fear.  Willpower has one as well, called Ion.  Finally, the design of Parallax itself was a disaster.  Parallax should look more like a cross between a hungry locust and the Alien from Alien, not a cloud of smoke with tentacles.  Something more like this design:




But now the good news:  Although the script was talky, and there was not enough time spent on the alien Lanterns, in space, or on planet Oa, what there was of those things was just brilliant.  Mark Strong's portrayal of Sinestro was absolutely spot on, and bodes well for a sequel, if there is one.  I thought the CGI special effects were extremely well done, and gave a good sense of how the Ring works.  I thought that Ryan Reynolds' version of Hal Jordan was great, when he wasn't fighting the clunkier parts of the script.  He did a fantastic job of portraying an average guy who is called upon to step up and, not only be all that he can be, but also find his own hidden depths to be even more.  Blake Lively's Carol Ferris was terrific, and she had great on-screen chemistry with Reynolds.  Geoffrey Rush gave phenomenal voice talent to Tomar Re, an alien Lantern who is entirely computer-generated, and really made him come alive for me.  It was how I always imagined Tomar Re would be.  And Peter Sarsgaard was fantastic, just child-molester-creepy fantastic, as villain Hector Hammond.

The movie was a lot of fun.  It was a good, solid summer popcorn movie.  I thought so, and so did both the adults and the kids in the audience.  Those who stayed for the credits cheered at the little Easter Egg button at the end.  The folks with whom I did brief impromptu interviews all said they liked the movie and would recommend it to their friends, and many planned on seeing it again.  I know I plan to as well.

So there you have it.  If you had any doubts or reservations, put them aside and go check out Green Lantern.  I honestly believe you will be pleasantly surprised.  I think the action scenes are epic enough that you should see it at least once in the theater, even if you skip the 3-D, instead of waiting for the DVD to come from NetFlix.  So this weekend, skip Cars 2 -- you know it's going to be around until Labor Day! -- and give Green Lantern a look!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011

OPENING TODAY, POOZERS!

Yep, today's the day!  Green Lantern opens nationwide, in select cities in 3-D!  Look for my detailed review soon, but let me just say this:  there have been a couple of really unfavorable reviews, especially from Peter Travers at Rolling Stone and less so, from Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly.  All I can say is this:  in Travers' case, he clearly wiki'd just enough Green Lantern history to show how ignorant he is of the character and his history.  Gleiberman went in expecting a very different movie than a superhero origin film aimed at younger audiences, apparently.  I don't know why he was expecting the nuances he was, but he was surely disappointed.  I place the film on a par with the first Iron Man film.  Yes, it has its flaws.  Yes, I wish there was more time in space, on Oa, and with the alien Green Lanterns.  But Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively have great on-screen chemistry.  Ryan Reynolds' characterization and portrayal of an average joe who is called upon to rise to be his best and more is SPOT ON.  Peter Sarsgaard is a great villain -- creepy without chewing the scenery.  It's a good summer popcorn flick.  It's not Citizen Kane, but it was never meant to me.  It's based on a funnybook, people!!

I think you'll have a great time!


Thursday, June 16, 2011

TOMORROW!!!

Yes, Green Lantern opens TOMORROW!  I can't wait; initial reactions from sneak preview screenings are very positive indeed!  Critics are comparing it to Iron Man 1, which I consider to be the finest superhero movie made so far.

So today we have two posters!  First off, Kilowog!  Kilowog is an alien who serves the Green Lantern Corps as their drill sergeant.  He trains new recruits in the use of the ring and has a reputation of being extremely tough on the rookies, which he calls, "poozers."




And then there's the villain of the piece, Hector Hammond.  In the comics, Hammond was an unscrupulous scientist who was Hal Jordan's rival for the affections of Carol Ferris.  Hammond discovered a form of radiation in some meteorites that had the unique property of accelerating evolution. He accidentally over-exposed himself to it and developed a huge head and brain at the expense of a withered body.  He has fantastic mental powers but is forced to live motionless, trapped in a useless husk of a body.  It'll be interesting to see how the movie portrays him:




Did I mention that the movie opens TOMORROW!?!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

TWO MORE DAYS!

Sinestro was considered to be one of the greatest Green Lanterns ever, who patrolled Space Sector 1417.  In the comics, he goes renegade after becoming a dictator on his home planet.  He figures out how to use the Yellow power of Fear with the help of the Weaponers and founds the rival Sinestro Corps!


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

IN THREE MORE DAYS!

Tomar Re is the Green Lantern next door:  he patrols sector 2813, and Earth is part of sector 2814!


Monday, June 13, 2011

Almost Summer

And the dust is settling from graduation, finally.  Olivia's MacBook came just in time to be her graduation present from Mom and Dad, and my sister came in from Philadelphia for dinner and the ceremony, which was just absolutely great.  We really had a nice evening.

Now the thank-you's have been written, and the laptop has become the toy du jour as software is loaded, tested, discarded, reloaded, and so forth.  (iTunes was a bear; it took a couple of hours to transfer all the music!)  Still, it's nice to settle into a little rhythm with my girl for one last summer before she goes away.

Do I want to be all alone after she leaves in August, with just the dog for company?  Heck, no.

But it is what it is, and there's nothing I can do about it.  I can't keep her here, and wouldn't if I could.  She needs to get out into the world and make her mark.  And I fully expect it to be an amazing mark indeed.

I guess I'm just so used to being a stay-at-home dad that I'm not sure what I'm going to do.  And I don't feel like I have the freedom to explore my new situation as long as I'm stuck with the dog.

I am already so, so over the dog.  He appears to worship the water I walk on, but I have only the slightest of sympathies towards him.  I think I will always resent his presence and what it does to limit me at a time when I most need to be free to explore myself.  My vision of a retirement spent on my laptop at Borders, sipping a vente and reading the London Times, has gone up in smoke.  There'll be no hanging out with the guys at the comic store all day on Wednesdays.  No shooting pool at the community center.  No spending the day in the woods or driving to Baltimore or Philly or DC to catch an exhibit that's caught my interest.  No, no matter where I go or what I do, I have to be home within two hours so that the dog has a chance to be walked...and doesn't therefore pee on the furniture or puke on the cream colored carpet.  (He NEVER messes on the tile or laminate floor, only on the carpet.  Go figure.  Another trait with which to endear himself to me.)

I am so angry about this I don't know where to even begin to process it.  And my wife is no help.  I love her deeply, but the transition to electronic medical records at her office has her working at least 70 hours a week.  This is not going to change any time soon.  While I feel terrible about her workload, I also can count on little or no help from her with regard to pet care.  I'm already splitting it with Olivia, and it will all fall to me once she goes to school.

Of course she loves the little thing.  I can't recall the last time she had to clean up vomit or whizz, or shampoo the carpets; she gets the affection and I get the (literally) dirty work.

Well, like I said, it is what it is.  Maybe fate will step in with something in my favor.

But I doubt it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Proud Dad

I am extremely proud of my daughter today.  So much so that I feel the need to abandon Green Lantern this post and talk some more about her!  :)

This morning at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg we recognized our graduating seniors, of which she's one.  The young people each gave a brief talk about how they plan to bridge the gap from students in Religious Growth and Learning classes to young adults.  Here is what Olivia had to say:


"Good morning!  My name is Olivia Hayes, and I’ve been going to church here for thirteen years.  I will be graduating from Central Dauphin High School, and will attend the University of Pittsburgh this coming fall.  I intend to study the fields of genetics and bioengineering.

"This church means more to me than I can express in words.  It’s welcoming, it doesn’t force any specific belief set on you, and it’s all about peace and love.  I am so grateful that I was able to follow my own spiritual path, change around my beliefs, and just be myself when I’m here.  I will greet the real, adult world with a free mind and open arms.  I will accept the things I cannot change, and change the things I cannot accept.

"My college choice was greatly influenced by whether or not there would be a Unitarian church nearby.  I plan to continue to see the world in different ways.  I will try to accept people as they are and, even if I can’t bring myself to love them.  And I want to keep searching for myself, too.  That’s what Unitarian Universalism means to me.  As begin I cross this bridge into the adult world, I will have this church to back me up."

That would be enough in and of itself to make me burst with pride.  But then the director of our young adult education announced that this year, for the first time, the church felt the need to acknowledge one teen (a "superstar") who had excelled in the areas of leadership, of making multi-generational connections, of community service, of taking social action, of contributing to worship at our church, and of participation above and beyond the norm in learning classes.  As soon as she announced that the winner had been a Unisinger (our church choir) I knew it had to be Olivia.  Over the years Olivia has marched in protest for Gay Marriage Equality every year since she was eleven; she raised--literally--a ton of food for the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, she raised $2,000.00 from the congregation to help pay for the middle-schoolers' trip to Boston; she is a member of our women's group Queenspirit; she sings and plays in the church orchestra; she is a staunch supporter and defender of our church's sex education program; she has served as a Lay Liturgist; and she has performed every year in Kaleidoscope, in order to help raise funds for the church's music scholarship.

I know I'm going on and on here, reciting the litany of her accomplishments like any proud dad would do, but I can't help it.  If I have nothing else to be proud of in my entire life, I can be proud of how Olivia has turned into the most amazing young woman it's my privilege to know.