Archive for October, 2011

BASF Birthday Parties

October 25, 2011

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.” – Mark Twain

This quote ran through my mind at my going-away party as one of my colleagues compared me to the old BASF motto, “We don’t make the products you buy.  We make the products you buy better.”  I believe that line of thinking is a crucial part of doing just about anything worthwhile.  There is considerable freedom in the understanding that to be creative is not necessarily to be original, it’s to take what’s there and give things new and curious combinations.

I think the “new and curious combinations” is especially important when it comes to activities that have a conflict partnership model, as good ole’ “I’m going to beat you up” activities are, to be frank, easier.  For example, one of the most popular birthday parties in my area for boys (and I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts for yours too) is the Laser Tag party.  Boys running around trying to shoot each other with guns?  No end to the fun, right?  Yep, and simple and replicable, the variations are situational—a person shot one time may be the person doing the shooting the next.

When Gus was reading these, we also found that they've been re-edited over the years to remove some "50s sensibilities"

When my big guy turned 10, I had thought he’d be ready to end our imagination play parties for something a little more standard, a few friends at a baseball game, a trip to the movies with his pals, or perhaps even…Laser Tag.  I was actually a little surprised when he said he wanted another at home slumber party, and wanted a “mystery party” of some sort.  He and his friends were reading Hardy Boys books, and he needed to be restrained from playing junior detective (aka jumping to conclusions and accusations based on very flimsy evidence) at school when a few miscreants decided to start vandalizing lockers.

To be honest, I was really, really tired at that point, and I was fresh out of “ideas.”  The thought of trying to design a mystery party from scratch seemed daunting.  Then an idea dawned on me, what about one of those “whodunit?” murder mystery parties, where each person becomes a character and one of them is the murderer?  But what if no one wanted to be a murderer?  What about setting it up that they were trying to uncover clues to catch a serial killer?  Cool, eh?  With a little urging from my wife, I thought the better of doing a murder mystery for 4th graders.  Seemed a little extreme.  But if not murder, then what might intrigue these young Sherlock Holmes?

Their singular obsession with the “locker thief” at school gave me the first idea—they’d need to catch a thief.  But nothing was coming to mind on how you would put together a party based around thievery.  I wracked my brain trying to think of anything “mysterious” that could be adapted.  Then it came to me—the good ole’ Scavenger Hunt!

So I had the topic—catching a thief (an activity that required teamwork) and I had the medium—a scavenger hunt (an activity that required teamwork).  All I needed was to twist the kaleidoscope just right so the pieces would create an interesting new picture.

Enter the “Decade Thief” – a serial burglar who steals only things that have to do with the number 10.  His or her larceny included such crimes as stealing the “X” right off of the face of Big Ben, and inexplicably finding a way to remove the entire 10th story of the Empire State Building.  Dressing in my best FBI agent wear, I told Gus and his pals that my day job was working day and night to bring this thief to justice, but this criminal mastermind had evaded me at every turn.

The generator is a little clunky, but makes for great images

Using a fun little Ransom Note font generator (I used a different one, but this one is really good as it pulls images from Flickr), I created a Decade Thief email address and sent out this little diddy to each person that explains our villain’s motivation (I removed a few items for privacy, but you’ll get the idea):

I am the Decade Thief, the greatest criminal of all time,
or at least the last 10 years

I only steal things that have to do with the number 10,
and I am ready to strike again!

But evildoing is no fun without confounding
those who would catch me.

So I am daring you to be one of 10 kids to meet
on this 10th Birthday weekend before
I rob the 5 Guys–TWICE!

Unraveling my mystery may take all night,
so if you are game, bring your sleeping bag
and all your courage.

You may show this to your parents for RSVPs,

Crackberry junkies have their uses

As the email might suggest, I took a slightly new wrinkle on the scavenger hunt from my Museum of Mystery party a few years back, and added email as the delivery device for clues.  To give it a real time feel, I set up all the clues in draft emails, and simply had my wife, who is connected to her Blackberry in Borg-like fashion anyway, email the next clue to my son’s personal email account every time they got one right.  She was always in earshot, so either by email or by voice, she knew whether they got the answer right, and quickly zipped out the next clue to us.  Incorporating email or social media into the party definitely helps put a new, realistic twist on the old theme, and helps a lot in terms of helping something like a scavenger hunt move forward in real time.

We started with this email:

So you and your friends
Think you’re so smart?
I am the one
Who made stealing an art!

I give you ’till 10
To try and find me
10 clues I will give you
To try and stop my crime spree

Ponder my clue
Then email me back
I’ll let you know
If you’re on the right track

Here’s clue #1
Are you ready to go
It’s time to begin
My dastardly show!

On a peg I hang
But no coat am I
I am a symbol
Of days gone by

Of the Duke, Campy,
And a man named Jackie
I want the name of the team
Not the city

PS.  Feeling stumped?
There are rules for that, too
No answers can adults give
But they CAN give clues

Two from Detective Dad
Three Gus’ Mom Clues
Then one phone call each
For your parents’ views.

Actually my Dad's boyhood cap!

(The answer was Dodgers, an old Brooklyn Dodgers hat hanging from a peg in our family room)

I also played with the 10 theme by not only having 10 clues, but 10 tasks they needed to complete in order to earn the next clue.  And indeed, they needed to find out what their task was in “Amazing Race” fashion by figuring out another clue.  Here was the follow-up to clue #1:

You got that one right
But now for a twist,
Your “Blue” clue is waiting
Where a bird sits

(A bird built its nest right over one of our front porch lights)

They then found a note attached to the bottom of a Smurf that was lying in the nest that said:

10 clues, that’s too easy!
So 10 tasks you must do
First, find 8 of his friends,
Plus two enemies, too

(that’s 10!)

They’re all in the front yard,
So you’d better hurry,
Tell Detective Dad
To email me a pic that’s not blurry!

Talk about recycling an old idea! Hey, it worked for Neil Patrick Harris

And so they ran around the yard uncovering eight old Smurfs I had around, as well as Gargamel and Azrael.  I then used my Droid phone to snap a picture of their find and email it to the ole D.T.  Lather rinse, repeat with more brain-teasers and body twisting activities.  Break after the first time for diner provided by…5 Guys (as a thank you for protecting them, of course).

Again borrowing from my Museum of Mystery party, when they finally gathered all the clues, they had to find one last sheet of paper that had blank lines to fill in each clue, with one blank line in each clue a different color.  They quickly figured out that if they took the letter from each that was a different color, it would spell something else out.  And it did – “LOOK IN SHED.”  It was pitch black at that point, and they crept with flashlights outside toward our run down and creepy looking back shed.  Inside was a masked thief holding a birthday cake (which was stolen earlier in the party).  And the thief was…wait for it…my wife!

Ten guesses as to what number they are...

One of Gus’ friends was over a few days ago, now months after the party, and while he was playing he found the mask my wife used, and put it on and said “Hey, I’m the Decade Thief!” so even after a full summer of fun, this party seems to have kept some impression with the gang, so I’m happy it went well even with the young “Tween” crowd starting to get a little “too cool for all this kind of stuff.  Indeed, most of them noted that they “pretty much new it was Ms. Nathanson” from about midway, “but it was pretty fun so they kept going.”  Well, not “BEST…PARTY…EVER!” but pretty high praise for this elder crowd.

I think I would have really gotten them had my original idea panned out, as the Decade Thief reveal was supposed to be a much bigger deal.  Originally I had asked Gus’ Music Teacher, who is, by elementary school standards, The Most Interesting Man in the World, if he could spare 10 minutes and be our thief, as I thought the “special guest appearance” from someone they LOVE but would never expect to be there would really put the icing on the proverbial birthday cake.

Unfortunately because of the summer date of my fella’s birthday, he was already traveling and I missed out on that (though I have a feeling that he was actually afraid of being locked in a basement and eaten given how odd my request was).  I wanted to note that, however, as I fully believe that if you can pull off something like that as a clincher for a “whodunit” party, be it your kid’s teacher, coach, or someone both your child and the majority of her/his friends know willing to play this role, I think it would add a HUGE amount to the impression of the party, as everyone loves the shocking twist when it comes to a mystery.  In all, though, one successful tribute to idea recycling.

Next, another twist on the kaleidoscope brings a video game to life.

The Recommendation: The 99

October 12, 2011

Seminal, but not exactly a guide to conflict partnership

I must admit, it’s been a while since I’ve read comic books.  As much as my love of the Super Hero genre has permeated both my development as a person, and my aspirations as a writer, my comic-reading really reached its zenith in high school with “The Dark Knight Returns” and has ebbed ever since.

That said, I am a huge fan of the genre, and the explosion of both mature themed graphic novels and of more hybrid kids-themed “graphic books” like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series that both my 10 and 7-year-olds are devouring show the efficacy of combining art with word to draw “children of all ages” to subjects from the perils of middle-school to the horrors of the Holocaust.

After my hiatus from comics for quite some time, I read my first issue this morning, intrigued by a Washington Post article on a series called The 99.  Created by Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti who received a graduate degree from Columbia University decided that the way to battle the intolerance and ignorance on all sides exacerbated by the events of 9/11 and its residual effects (see Iraq, Afghanistan) was to combine education with entertainment.  His concept, a group of young heroes infused with powers based on the 99 virtues of Islam.

I had to say I was curious, as the mix of religion and children’s entertainment brought to mind visions of Davey and Goliath, and yes, The Chronicles of Narnia, both of which feel far more propagandist and moralizing – preaching a particular point of view rather than opening the reader or viewer to a diversity of viewpoints.  I must say after reading the first issue (a free .pdf download from the website), I could have not been more wrong.

While the origins of The 99 is based in the distant history of the Arab World and Islamic Caliphates, it in no way feels religious.  Indeed, the book focuses the origins of this tale on the great learning of the Arab World, in this case the Abbasid dynasty brought down by  Hulagu Khan in the 13th Century.  The MacGuffin is the creation of 99 stones containing the full knowledge of the Abbasid dynasty, transfused by alchemy from the books in their great library before it was sacked and destroyed.  So right off the bat, it uses a blend of fact and fantasy place the Arab and Muslim people as a historical champion of the pursuit of knowledge, a great way to both set knowledge itself as infused with power, and controvert perceptions of the Muslim religion and culture as reactionary.

When these “Noor Stones” are shown to have magical properties that can be absorbed by humans, our antagonist, a smart and serious young man Rughal becomes obsessed with proving that all this power can live inside a human host.  He attempts to bring the power of all the stones inside of him, with disastrous results.  He is apparently incinerated, and the stones split up all over the world so as not to have their power possessed by one man.

We leap forward to today, and find a boy in Saudi Arabia who develops Hulk-like powers after accidentally having shards of a Noor Stone embedded in his skin following a landmine incident.  A pitched battle happens as he is attacked by government forces after accidentally blowing down a building after sneezing.  Again a fantastic “shoot first, think later” incident drawn extremely well, but giving a valuable lesson about not judging from appearances.

The boy is found by the “Professor X” of the story Dr. Ramzi, who is determined to find the stones and harness them for good, while we find out that somehow, Rughal has survived and is after the stones to do just the opposite.  With that, the game’s afoot.

President Obama gave The 99 a shout-out at a recent speech, and Al-Mutawa has developed an animated series based on the comic that just premiered at the New York Film Festival.  After seeing the strong artwork of the comic book, I was a little disappointed to see them go the CGI-route for the series, as if you don’t have a Pixar-level budget, CGI animation tends to be far to clunky and sterile for my tastes.  I was also a little sad to see that, at least in the early stages, Rughal is a simple “power-over” baddie that thinks that this is a dog-eat-dog world where you are either master or slave. As I’ve noted before, you need more than that for a compelling villain. But the essence of the story seems to have survived, and if indeed that’s the case, the 99 would be a welcome addition to the pantheon of children’s animated entertainment.

Now, you should be able to find The 99 already in America on The Hub network, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications.  However, as the Post Article notes, detractors have attempted to decry these efforts.  One interesting point was made by right-wing blogger Pamela Geller, who takes exception to the fact that one of the female heroes wears a full burqua.  It’s an interesting point, but ignores the fact that other female heroes do not wear headdresses at all—showing the diversity of opinion within Islam.

Indeed, I remember being in Istanbul with my wife on our “pre-baby” trip, and our guide pointed toward two girls, apparently sisters walking down the street talking wit each other.  One was in a mini-skirt and heels, the other in a wrap with a full head-scarf.  He said, smiling, “Now that is Turkey.  That is Islam as it was meant to be.”  It is just such a diversity that The 99 is attempting to demonstrate.  So while Geller calls The 99 propaganda, it is actually her reflexive reaction to one part of what is a large and interesting tapestry that smacks far more of a “my way, right or wrong” than does the content of The 99.

Geller’s overly-simplistic “us-or-them” view of this has led to enough controversy to keep The Hub from putting it on the air.  I think it is extremely important that those who want to see a real diversity in children’s entertainment make their voices heard as well.  I sent a message to Discovery Communications via Twitter, and you can also go to their blog and let them know that you want to see this kind of option available to our kids.

For now, you can download copies of the comic books online for only $2.00 an issue.  I’m going to see whether my fellas are willing to give this a try tonight.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Ponyo: Can a Movie Entertain Kids Without a Bad Guy?

October 6, 2011

Can a story about a 5-year-old and a goldfish entertain boys that seem-genetically pre-disposed to ramming into each other with pots on their heads?  Well, I can’t say I’ve made scientific study of the thing, but I do have a little empirical evidence.

Our subject audience are three very “boy” boys—4, 7, and 10 respectively.  The story—Ponyo.

My sister and brother-in-law suggested Ponyo to me after seeing it with their four-year-old nephew – currently in the midst of a simultaneous DC Superhero and Star Wars phase at the moment, thrashing the forces of evil (or being the forces of evil, as he sometimes prefers) with Bat-A-Rang and Light Saber alike.  When she recommended it, I asked her what it was about, and she said that it was hard to explain, but it was just cool and I should watch it with the boys.

What piqued my curiosity is she then said that it is a story with no “bad guy” whatsoever. Indeed, Darth Batman even asked during this movie “Who is the bad guy?”  and she had to answer “No one.  They just have different points of view.”

While that certainly brought out the conflict partnership nerd in me, I had to say I was skeptical that my bigger boys would like something with no bad guy.  While half-hour children’s shows can get away with a plot driven by learning lessons or clearing up misunderstandings, I felt that a full length feature for kids would have some issues driving a story arc without something for the protagonists to play against.  When I fired up Netflix, I saw that it was streaming, and here’s the synopsis that I found:

This Japanese anime feature from famed filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki follows the adventures of a 5-year-old boy, Sosuke, and his burgeoning friendship with Ponyo, a goldfish princess who desperately wants to become human. After running away from and then being recaptured by her strict father, Ponyo — with some help from Sosuke — becomes more determined than ever to make her dreams come true. But will her wishes throw the entire earth off balance?

Can’t say this made me feel more secure that this was a must-see.  I personally dig Miyazaki, but a few years back we tried our big guy on Spirited Away, which I thought was wonderful and he simply said “that was weird.”  This seemed to be both weird and mundane a boy, a goldfish, and…a potential global calamity.  And the whole “strict father” thing sounded like a very real, and very mundane “bad guy.”  With some coaxing of both myself and the kids, I fired it up.

We’ve watched it three times since.

This movie works so well on a number of levels.  First, it beautifully mixes the completely fantastic with the prescient and real.  Ponyo, a very magical goldfish with the face of a human lives in a completely unreal undersea world with her father Fujimoto.  But above ground is a very real, very polluted seaside city where Sosuke lives, based on Tomonoura, a real town in Setonaikai National Park in Japan, where Miyazaki stayed in 2005.  In many ways the environmental calamity that Ponyo and Soskue’s relationship create by throwing nature out-of-balance is now hauntingly reminiscent of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan’s east coast earlier this year.  This makes for a very engaging mix.

The animation itself is also the best of what Japanese Anime has to offer.  Lush, strange, unearthly, and wondrous, with a tactile and dreamlike quality that most other modern animation, most particularly computer-generated animation, simply cannot capture.  When Fujimoto makes the sea itself come to life in order to track down the wayward Ponyo, the effect is engrossing and slightly disquieting—in simpler terms, it’s way cool.

And while usually the English voices for Japanese films tend to have that staccato quality that makes one think of Kung-Fu Theatre, the stellar cast of voices including the likes of Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, and Cloris Leachman does a wonderful job telling the story in a way that makes it feel universal, not translated.

Ooh, and is there paint drying in it, too?

But, really, a love story about a boy and his goldfish?  For boys who usually can only decide between whether they are going to play baseball or destroy each other with blasters?  Indeed yes, and my sister was right, there really is no bad guy.

That’s not to say there’s no conflict. There are themes of man vs. nature, freedom vs. captivity, the comfort of safety vs. the risk of free choice.  But all these conflicts come from people (or creatures) that all come at these choices from a distinct, yet never incorrect point of view.  Indeed, Fujomoto’s concern for Ponyo’s choice to become human is not only based on being a protective father, but on the scathing and pretty accurate criticism of humanity and its lost touch with nature.  In the end, everyone must learn to trust in each other, and truly listen to each other, in order to return the earth to balance and everyone to safety.

I think that had an one element been off in this, the animation, the voices, or the story, Ponyo would have gotten the proverbial boot about 20 minutes in, as it is really unlike most anything we usually watch or read in the house.  But everything in this works, and I think it is both wonderful entertainment, and an opportunity to talk to kids about how conflict isn’t automatically about “right” and “wrong” but about good people who see events in different ways.

While Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are still at the top of the boys’ play list, the fact that they still turn back to Ponyo every now-and-again is demonstration enough in itself of the quality of storytelling in this movie.  You don’t just have to take my word for it either, as Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 91% rating, with 80% of audience members liking it.


So while it may take a little convincing, or a little better spin then “Hey, want to watch a movie about a Pre-K kid and a goldfish fall in love?” Ponyo is worth the effort, even if the only thing that comes out of it is getting a chance to answer the question “Who’s the bad guy?”

“Okay then, life. So what’s next?”

October 3, 2011

They liked me, they really liked me!

That was my first post on Facebook after I left my job.  It’s a strange feeling having left my gainful employment voluntarily after over eight years.  I really enjoyed the people I worked with at UCS, and the work I was doing, trying to help our country transition to cleaner, more efficient cars, was certainly important.  Much to my surprise, I was actually liked and valued for my contributions.  So what in the world am I doing here on a Monday afternoon writing this blog?

Maybe it’s simply a case of male menopause being entertained by my wonderful wife.  I’m hoping that it’s a little more than that.  My thoughts about taking this dive into the unknown started about the time that I started this blog, and started to really enjoy delving back into the idea of conflict partnership that changed my life and way of thinking, but bringing a Dad’s perspective to it.

Indeed, I liked it so much, that I took a page out of a past book to try and do more of it.  A few years back, I took 6 months at 4 days a week at work in order to spend Fridays finishing the screenplay to The Adventures of MightyDove.   I was extremely disciplined, and actually accomplished my goal.  And that was a screenplay!  How hard could it be to do the same thing for a little blog?

Maybe it was not having a discrete goal.  Maybe it was coaching two baseball teams rather than one.  Maybe it was the advent of Facebook and Netflix streaming putting too many bright and shiny objects in front of this easily distract–Squirrel!–ed individual.  But my second attempt to bring my personal passion for finding creative outlets for expressing and learning alternatives to violence just was not working the way I had hoped.

Then, once I started to get more involved in the Social Studies issue at my boys’ school, and really wanted to find a way, and the time to devote to that more, I knew that I was at a point where something had to give.  The straw that floated down from the back of my brain and broke the camel was that pang of remorse that after I finished MightyDove, I never devoted the time needed to give it a fighting chance to see the light of day.

Those friends and colleagues in the film industry who were kind enough to take a look at my script were straight with me in their criticism, but were generally praising of the idea and execution.  A big-wig for Paramount didn’t mince words—he said that the idea was an interesting one, but for the most part unless you’re working for Pixar a movie like this was coming from adaptations of successful books.

Ah, a book, you say…

So with the support of the most amazing spouse a man could ask for, I stepped off the ledge and am hoping MightyDove isn’t the only one with wings.  I’m still coaching two teams (made somewhat simpler by the near-constant rain this September).  I have accepted a position as my boys’ school representative to the county Advisory Council on Instruction, reviewing curriculum proposals from departmental committees (I have also applied to be on the Social Studies committee—we’ll see where that goes).  I’m back to my blog, and I get to walk my kids to school and pick them up early.

War and Peace it ain't, but here's hoping...

And, yes, I am adapting my own screenplay into a book—doing things “bass ackwards” as an old friend put it – something very familiar to a goof like me.

I realize that I’ve been given a gift—one I am not sure I deserve, but I will strive to take advantage of this and see if in following my passion, in pursuing my art as a parent and “idea guy”, whether I can give something back of value to a world that has been so amazingly good to me.

Okay, time to flap wildly.  I’ll keep you posted.

But next—can you make a good movie with no bad guy whatsoever?  I’ll tell you about one I saw with the fellas that really surprised me.