Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Muppets (Spoiler Free, I Promise)

I grew up with a certain degree of nonsensical in my life, and I love it.

(This may be the key to the modern condition: we've ceased to expect a rational narrative to our art, our politics, our lives; at the same time, Enlightenment ideals deny any non-rational exploration of the world. The nonsensical is then reduced to the fringes of discourse: humor, children's stories, "modern" art.)

Sometimes, we don't recognize the thing we've been missing until we find it. That's how I felt throughout The Muppets. All the other sources of humor, of joy, of unexpected celebration were just filler as we waited for this. I won't get into the details of the plot for the sake of spoilers, and frankly, I think the details of the plot are secondary to the emotion and the flavor of the movie.

This was a movie with a taste. The last movie that left me feeling like this was Lilo & Stitch, ten years ago. Go see it. I'm going to see it again.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Things I Learned This Thanksgiving

Apparently, that beautiful and crispy bird is backside up. At least the breast meat was nice and juicy! File that one under: things to improve upon that turned out ok.

Carol's folks brought the turkey, Mom brought chocolate and apple pies, Carol baked a pumpkin pie, and Ed and Kristen brought wine.
It was fantastic getting everyone together. We played Pandemic and Rummikub, watched some football, had an adventure climbing onto the roof to re-orient the antenna, and we went to see The Muppets.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Things to be Thankful For-ish...

When your relatives force you to look at photos on their phones, be thankful they no longer have access to a slide projector. When your aunt expounds on politics, rejoice inwardly that she does not hold elected office. Instead of focusing on the dry, tasteless turkey on your plate, be grateful the six-hour roasting process killed any toxic bacteria. 
 But I'm in charge of the turkey...

I'm looking forward to trying my sausage and apple stuffing, and Carol's making mashed potatoes with blue cheese.

I'll have to take some pictures before we carve it all up...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Things I Did Not Know I Need

Things I did not know I need, but look forward to enjoying, now that I have them:

A couch and a chair in my living room.
Friends at work to go to lunch with.
Traveling dinner parties.
Another glass of wine.
A good book to chew on.
Board games after dinner.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Happy Friday!

By the end of the day I'll have a couch and a coffee table and a living room chair, plus 4 kitchen chairs for our currently chair-less table.

Happy Friday, indeed!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Doctor Who: The Doctor Dances (Probably with Spoilers)

I think I may have succeeded in entrapping Carol within the world of Doctor Who.

One of those shows that friends here and there have always told me I'd love, but that I'd never gotten around to watching, I finally started the revival of the British classic this past fall. As a fan of the self-sustaining mythology (see: Swarming Life), I'm hooked.

Carol just started season 1 of the restart, and a couple days ago we watched one of my favorite episodes (actually a 2-parter) The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances.

I feel pretty safe writing about these episodes, since they first aired in 2005, but I feel it's necessary to reiterate: the post below this point is likely to contain spoilers.

Basic plot: The Doctor and Rose follow a piece of space junk (possibly a ship) through time, landing in the middle of the London Blitz. They encounter a creature with phenomenal power in the form of a lost little boy in a gas mask, who transforms everyone he touches into a version of himself.

It's a tense episode crowded with teeming shadows and narrow escapes (which, I think, is when Doctor Who is at its best: when the fear of the unknown becomes palpable). The episode introduces a major character in Jack Harkness, and it contains my favorite moment through 5 and half seasons of Doctor Who:

"Come on. Give me a day like this. Give me this one."

The clip doesn't really do the moment justice (I'll admit I get a little dewy-eyed when I watch the episode) because you need to have seen the Ninth Doctor struggle with elements of PTSD and survivor's guilt, his rage when he meets a Dalek, and his almost self-destructive mania in trying to save the world in several earlier episodes. Pile those previous episodes atop the tension of The Empty Child, and "Just this once; everybody lives" becomes a brilliantly realized moment of catharsis.

It's a fantastic moment, my favorite of the series so far (I'm mid-way through Season 6), and one of the few times that the series truly tugs my heart strings in the way I want to connect with art.

Being Baffled as Route to Hope

I attended a fantastic talk last night (one that will likely lead to another post or two later this week), and I wanted to share one of the central joys of the evening: the discovery of a new meaning to a familiar word.

I love words, both the sounds and the layers of meaning they inhabit.

So today's word is baffle.

I was only familiar with baffle as a verb describing challenges and confusion:
1. to perplex; bewilder; puzzle
2. to frustrate (plans, efforts, etc.)
3. Archaic to cheat or trick
But baffle in fact has another set of connotations in an engineering context:
4. to check, restrain, or regulate (the flow of a fluid or the emission of sound or light)
5. to provide with a baffle
This gives a whole new flavor to "baffled by fate;" life constantly redirects our best laid plans. In the spirit of optimism and my own little quest to maintain the modes of joy in my life, I'll try to remember this word the next time I'm perplexed, frustrated or feel cheated by the many people and obligations around me.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Yankees and the Best Interest of Baseball

Let me start by saying I love Dave Cameron's work. For me, he's in the second tier of great baseball writers currently working (the first tier is a club of one: Joe Poz). I'm really, really picky about whose work I read regularly, but Cameron is one of the few I come back to again and again.

All of this is a way of saying I'm not trying to pick a fight when I think the premise for his most recent anti-Yankee article is surprisingly nuance-less.

To sum up his key points: the Yankees exist in a different monetary universe than the other 29 clubs by virtue of their domination of the largest media market in the country, and this is bad for baseball because "when one organization can simply put aside cost as a significant factor in their evaluation of whether or not they should acquire a player, they’re simply not bound by the same factors as the other franchises."

I'd agree with the final conclusion: even if it's ok for teams to exist in separate payroll strata because of their popularity/ home territory, it's not ok for the top strata to belong exclusively to a single organization.

The Yankees' primary advantage comes from two compounded areas: the population of New York City with it's influence on attendance, and the profitability of the Yankee owned goliath the YES Network. The first factor, population, is close to intractable. The second issue is simply (if inexactly) controllable.

My steps to introducing balance to MLB (notice, I didn't say restoring balance; there's a false narrative floating around that at some mythical past time, the playing field was leveler. In fact, for long stretches of baseball history, the Yankees dominated more easily because there was no revenue sharing, no media deals to create alternatives to box office revenue, and no luxury tax [distinct from revenue sharing] to support small market teams; this reality helped create the Yankee "golden age" including the sale of Babe Ruth and Red Ruffing from Boston, the bonus babies of the '47-'65, and the Kansas City A's pipeline that fed to Yankee Stadium).

1) Make all teams open up their books.
Be transparent. The only reason to keep this information secret is that the books are crooked (I expect that for most teams they are; I suspect that few owners, if any, have ever lost money on their team).

2) Tax revenue instead of payroll.
At the moment, most of MLB's taxes are payroll dependent. This is basically an attempt to force all teams into the "window of opportunity" cycle that small market teams exist in.

3) Tax different revenue streams at different rates.
If the problem is that the Yankees can pour the money from their tv deal back into the team (I don't really think it's a problem per se, but I'll allow that it may be a problem that the Yankees can do this on a scale that the Seattle Mariners can not. For instance, Box Office sales above $X may be taxed at 10% while TV revenue above $X may be taxed at 25% and above $2X be taxed at 35%.

4) Incentivize success.
You want to know why the Yankees spend so much to win? Because it makes them the most money. Want to know why the Pittsburgh Pirates spend so little? Because it makes them the most money.
Create tax credits for successful franchises, and improvement benchmarks for struggling franchises. Don't let the owner of a small or mid-market franchise pocket millions season after season. I'd create a profit ceiling, a level of shareholder profit above which revenue sharing funds are withdrawn. So if I'm the Pirates (who reportedly turned 8 figure profits in '07 and '08), and I'm writing all these checks to shareholders, then I'm obviously not pouring this money back into the team. So I don't need it, and it can go instead to a team trying to win.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Goodness Grows: The Yummiest Thing in My Life Right Now

Since I was in Pittsburgh last week, I drove up to Youngstown to see my best friend Adam and to sample some of the food at Goodness Grows' Harvest of Hope.

It was an interesting night; a half dozen local chefs and restaurateurs made bite sized samples for a crowd that packed the church where the event was held. Stuffed turkey, jerk chicken, beef brisket, a squash soup- all locally grown/ raised.

I'm not the world's biggest localist, but I love good eats. I think it's fantastic that I got to eat some home made capicola (and later, a chocolate ball with bacon on top).

The question I have after spending the night with so much local grown food in Ohio: if I get that delicious pork delivered to the Eastern Shore (and I've their business card, so I can and I will), do I still say it's "local?"

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

V for Vendetta (Possibly with Spoilers)

How awful is it that I have to type "vendetta" into the googlemachine before I will believe I've spelled it correctly?

Awkward segue (another word I can't spell): V for Vendetta is a good movie. I saw it once, years ago (probably when I lived in Scranton), and I remember being disliking it. I had read the book first, and while I didn't love the book, my memory tells me that the movie is a shadow of the book.

But I watched it again last weekend (on the fifth of November) with friends and fudge and pumpkin roll, and I found it to be pretty enjoyable.

I picked up on some details I hadn't noticed before/ forgotten, like everyone dead being part of the end mob, and I also empathized more with the powerlessness of the masses necessitating the use of violence.

To connect to a half-thought I'd had in a post earlier this week, I think we can measure our own growth as people in the transformation of our reaction to re-viewing a work of art. I'm pretty firmly anti-violence, but I'm at a point in my life where I can imagine the need for NON-nonviolent resistance to government. This surprises me.

That said, I still object to the essential premise of V for Vendetta: that people are sheep, easily cowed, who will choose secure misery over freedom (in all it's messy, dangerous fun). I can't imagine that people who ever debase themselves to such a level that they yield complete control back to (effectively) a pharaoh (another word I apparently can't spell). I think people will always be interested in rising up against hegemony.

That's what I see in Occupy Wall Street, in the Arab Spring, in this summer's London riots, and other places around the world. The idea of democracy is a funny thing: the feeling that I possess a crucial, consensual stake in the world around me; the belief that I have the right and the responsibility to make my voice heard even if, or especially if, I am in the minority.

I see history as the progression of communication: the development of language, then the development of means to convey that language around the world. With word goes thought, and the human word is "I." I matter, I have a voice, I deserve to be heard. I see all of history pointing to the expansion of power in include more people, not an ebb and flow of power among the elite who may alternatively protect and enslave the rabble. I think Alan Moore (plus Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, and other giants of the graphic novel world) miss the power of communication as a (nearly) irreversible force.

Hello Pittsburgh

Hello Pittsburgh!

My wandering feet (and work) have brought me to the Pennsylvania peninsula. The drive out was fun; flew through Baltimore at 5 a.m., stopped for breakfast at a diner a few miles off 375 just outside Pittsburgh, then got turned around 3 times and had to cross and re-cross the river to find my hotel.

Adventure awaits.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

First Friday and The Water Children

First Friday did as First Friday does, so of course, I've needed the entire weekend plus Monday to recover from the hijinx.

One different, and enjoyable thing about this past First Friday was taking the trip up to campus to see the senior thesis production of The Water Children. (NYTimes review from the original production here, playwright's notes here).

I love live theater. Most art measures the audience; a movie, a photograph, a book always functions the same way. This makes it a returnable experience in that we can watch a movie once a year (more on that in a day or two), and measure our new observations and reactions as changes in us. Theater (and for me, to a lesser extent, live music) measures the work and the performers.

I haven't seen a drama in years, probably not since I lived in North Carolina.

The Water Children's central topic is grief and guilt, focused through a lens of abortion. This abortion topic loads the debate in a certain direction. For me, abortion is a Catch-22: I've never been at a point in my life where I've wanted to have/ felt I could support a child, so at the logical level, if a girlfriend had become pregnant, how could we have kept the child?; at the same time, my personal beliefs are built around the concept of "Where there's life, there's hope," so a properly lived life demands accepting the unexpected, coping and overcoming.

I spend a lot of my free time lost in the back corners of my mind, pondering those what ifs. It's a part of why I write and what I write about: the fictionalization of life. At different points I have given a lot of myself to regret over missed opportunities and unexplored forks in the road.

That feeling, it seems to me, is what The Water Children mined most effectively. The main character's unborn child follows her through every scene (whether the child is unborn past tense or unborn future tense, or some hybrid of the two, is for the audience to decide). I've had that own feeling for most of my life: if I had spoken up, or not; if I had gone out this night, or hadn't.

It's this haunting feeling that I'm left with as my dominant impression of The Water Children, beyond the show's success and weak spots (there were a few of each for both the actors [tempo, characterization and subtext] and the script [credulity and emotional content]). Maybe it's just my reaction to a very fun night, the kind of night when the laughter just pools around you, but The Water Children made me more acutely aware of it. It made me appreciate the night a little more.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Happy Friday!

First Friday shenanigans. I can't wait.

Friends Are Awesome

I've been meaning to post this all week, and just haven't had time.

Lamb Burgers are awesome (see picture). Lamb Dogs, slightly less awesome, but still high on the delicious scale.

Dinosaur Barbecue sauces are highly awesome.

LambFest 2011, and the weekend of board games and hilarity that come with LambFest, is the highest level of awesome.

Next project: Chuck Fluxx. Yes, that means plagarizing the game Fluxx to give it a Chuck theme to play with my awesome friends. Take that consumer media! I will take your ideas and subvert them for my own amusement without paying you a nickel!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Chekhov's Gun and Perks of Being a Wallflower

One night last week I read the first 200 pages of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and the next night I finished it. I liked it a lot; it was an easy, engaging read. I thought it was heavy-handed with some of the scenes of drug use and homosexuality, maybe being released on an MTV imprint the author, Stephen Chbosky, felt pressure to push that envelope as far as it could go (or maybe the publishers for the MTV imprint found a work that suited them; the book is also all over the place with cultural references to movies, music and books).

But my impetus throughout the novel was to solve the opening mystery.

The novel opens with the main character, Charlie, writing:
"Dear Friend: I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have."

At that point, the mystery solver in me is hooked. Who is Dear Friend? Who is she? What person (interesting androgyny, "that person"), what party, when, and why not sleep with him/her?

These questions, it seems to me, are unanswered.

I am not, I think, a militant adherent to the theory of Chekhov's Gun, in which the playwright famously suggests: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." But in my post last night about things I love about Chuck, I touched on the idea of the importance of a self-sustaining world. The best works are self sustaining. Perks... shows us a gun (Dear Friend), and we spend the rest of the novel waiting for it to be fired (to see the party, hear the girl talk about her friend, see Charlie make the decision to write). In the best books (Huck Finn, Lolita, American Pastoral), the narrators' omissions are as telling as their claims; "the gun" can be fired by silence if the author is talented enough.

Perks..., then, is sloppy by comparison. It wastes a fantastic literary moment, a big reveal that could be layered or buried, could have shown us more of Charlie's life, or connected Charlie's world with the wide, scary world of someday. Instead, "Dear Friend" is just a literary device, a crutch that allows the work to exist epistolarily.

I want to say that this one fault doesn't undo the magic of the novel... I want to say that the novel's many shocks and twists make it a page turner, because they do and it is... but, in the end, all of the book's payoff depends on our seeing the world only through Charlie's eyes, and there's no reason for us to enjoy that view except that a character we can never meet suggests that a person we can never meet can "listen and understand" in a scene we can never see.